On the Shelf
July 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In postwar America, magazines like Esquire and Playboy helped to shape our concept of the bachelor: an unfettered man, a man in complete control of his life, a man who helped to preserve conventional masculinity even as he fretted over his appearance and his home decor. Bachelorhood became the paragon of manly existence—even though most of Esquire’s readers were married. “Because Esquire relied on corporate advertising to continue existing, overthrowing corporate hierarchy and stratification didn’t factor into their discussions of masculine rejuvenation … women were presented as an obstacle to men’s success at entertaining, which reinforced the theory that women were ultimately responsible for men’s inability to control their lives.”
- People love to hate the Middle Ages—such benighted centuries, those were, full of blood and swine and religious drudgery! Well, people are fools: the medieval era was every bit as culturally rich as any other. They gave us “castles, cathedrals, Italian and Flemish and Byzantine art, printing, plainsong, and parliaments, not to mention universities. Yet the black propaganda of Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and Mark Twain remains suspended in the air like soot in the old factory towns, while intellectuals crow over the birth of ‘modernity’ like fancied fighting cocks.”
- James Salter had been corresponding with Sally Gall for more than a year, working toward an extended interview—the final edits were en route to him when he died a few weeks ago, and now the transcript has a new resonance. “Style is really more than a particular voice or way of writing,” Salter says. “It presents an entire subjectivity. In a sense, it determines what can be written … Style is the writer.”
- One of America’s earliest literary hits was Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s 1840 chronicle of his transformative stint as a sailor onboard the Pilgrim. The memoir left a deep mark on Melville, who called it “unmatchable”; today it’s remembered as “a model of reportage, rife with the nautical jargon of a specialist and an anthropologist’s descriptive mastery of life aboard ship and in the Pilgrim’s then-exotic ports of call.”
- What’s the role of handwriting in the age of the touch screen? “Handwriting is profoundly bodily. Like an exaggerated, intensified version of the sweeps and swipes we use on a tablet, writing by pen can make muscles ache. Write while crying and one’s hand becomes shaky, write with excitement and watch the swirls and loops of one’s arcs become wild—an inky neurochemical expression that type just can’t replicate or capture.”
July 10, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Your extensive library is all vanity: Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady warns against associating our books with status and considering them a marker of “the supposed growth of our intellect advertised in terms of shelf space.” Do you collect books, or do you actually read them?
- What happened to midrange film dramas? Maybe they just got better and look more like big pictures. Example: that “art film” aesthetic we like so much (hand-held camera work, low and bad lighting) is tied more to compromises made by directors with low budgets than to artistic choice, and yet these bad techniques are often misused as a markers of “artistic authenticity.” Film history has seen a number of these gambles and trade-offs, but not all have stuck: “there’s no connection between the short-term appeal of a movie and its artistic importance. Some aesthetic landmarks are profitable, some aren’t.”
- The comic-book publisher Drawn & Quarterly celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, and everyone is excited because they’ve been doing the Lord’s work: “The D+Q backlist is rich in volumes that have been at the forefront of making comics an accepted literary and visual form—works by such prominent cartoonists as Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Yoshihiro Tatsumi.”
- Before you do your literary duty and read Go Set a Watchman, consider naming your child after your literary hero. If the trends tell us anything, we may be destined for a generation of Atticuses: “Harper, which nationwide ranked 887th for newborn girls in 2004, actually ranked 11th in 2014. Atticus rose from 937th in 2004 to rank 370th in popularity for male babies in 2014.”
- Touché! A specific set of literature is steeped in pistol-wielding duels. Whether it be the soufflet, the acknowledgement of the offense, the rencontre, the violent encounter, or listening to the dying opponent’s final words, John Leigh’s Touché catalogues and analyzes the duels of literary history. Through this chronicle of absurd formality, Leigh looks at everything, from “Casanova’s account of his duel with a Polish nobleman, to comic duels in Dickens and to two of Maupassant’s short stories.”
July 9, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Admire the tenacity of lit mags yet question their utility? The poet Stephen Burt argues that a new journal simply needs a raison d’être: it should seek to fill a “gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes.”
- What can the Greek tragedies tell us about the current Mediterranean refugee crises? Aeschylus’s 470 B.C. play, The Suppliants, concerns the fifty daughters of the Egyptian king Danaus, who flee Africa and seek asylum in Greece. Fitting then that a new production of the play is being reimagined in modern-day Sicily, where “African refugees beg at traffic lights,” and is being staged in the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily.
- What can the inmates at a Missouri prison tell us about the evolution of language? In compiling a lexicon of facility-specific slang, they found that a viking is a “prisoner with poor hygiene,” a kite is “an informal message sent by a prisoner,” and a pumpkin is, you guessed it, “a term used for new arrivals” (but not for the reason you might expect). After all, “a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time,” says English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the prison.
- Jerry Seinfeld thinks that political correctness is killing comedy; he doesn’t perform at college campuses because “they’re so PC.” it wasn’t always that way: American college humor is historically steeped in offensiveness. Take National Lampoon, an offshoot of the The Harvard Lampoon and precursor to Saturday Night Live, for example, where “getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor.”
- This week in the perils of the modern age: the Russian government released a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of taking a selfie. With a little help from Google Translate, we learn that “when a person is trying to take a picture of himself—he scattered attention, he lost his balance, he does not look around and did not feel in danger.” Have fun this summer. Practice safe selfies.
July 8, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- The owner of the most famous wheelbarrow in literature finally gets his due. Williams Carlos Williams was inspired in 1938 by the image of Thaddeus Marshall’s humble gardening implement left out in the rain, next to a flock of white chickens, and wrote the sixteen-word poem “Red Wheelbarrow.”
- Wikipedia? It’s been done. Diderot spent more than twenty years writing and editing his Encyclopédie, a French translation of one of the first English-language encyclopedias. Diderot, however, transformed the original by conceiving of his “as a fully interactive text,” complete with footnotes and appendices that serve the era’s “version of hyperlinks, cross-listings, which take the reader to other ‘sites’ in the encyclopedia.”
- Experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow utilized the player piano for his musical studies because “he was drawn to the technical possibilities of the machine, which can play faster and with greater precision than the most virtuosic pianist.” He applied congruent ratios to separate tempos and hand-punched cards while creating his unplayable, weirdly enjoyable tunes.
- Robert Louis Stevenson may have been an egomaniac and brilliant fantasist, but he was also quite ill throughout his life. While visiting him in Samoa, where he would be buried at forty-four, historian Henry Adams said of Stevenson, “Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless.”
- All hail the Devil’s Bible, a thirteeth-century, wood-bound anomaly that is more than three feet long and comprises 620 pages. Officially named the Codex Gigas, it’s fabled to have been written by a banished monk, who resolved “to write the world’s biggest book in one night. To do so, he naturally required the help of the Devil.” Their deal? “All the monk had to do was paint a full-page portrait of Beelzebub in the Codex and hand over his mortal soul.”
July 7, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Joan Didion is twice the man you’ll ever be, so suggests a recent article in The Millions. Her masculine superiority lies in the “glacial emotional distance” of her prose, which is better than yours. Her coolness astounds: in her essay, “On Self-Respect,” she writes that people who have it, “are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”
- Ottessa Moshfegh, winner of the 2013 Plimpton Prize, talks with Sarah Gerard about keeping a notebook: “When I’m writing to myself, I’m really trying to process something, and it usually has to do with writing out my delusion and then trying to interpret what that delusion might be in service of, and then trying to comfort myself about the anxiety that the delusion was helping me cope with.”
- Apple reversed its decision to ban historical video games that depict the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Copies of Gone with the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage weren’t being pulped during the recent public outcry against flying the Confederate flag at certain state capitols, nor were Cold Mountain or Glory taken off the iTunes store. This reminds gamers, yet again, “that games are seen not as a scholarly pursuit, that they do not merit serious consideration alongside films and books on their subject matter.”
- While we’re talking about America, it seems our literary canon isn’t fit for television. Consider the numerous Jane Austen adaptations, the massive success of Downton Abbey, and the lack of a critically acclaimed film version of any Faulkner novel. Are American novels too dark for TV, or has Hollywood locked up the rights for most major American titles? As Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, says, “The reasons that we haven’t are twofold … One is money, the second is money. And the third is money.”
- Which reminds me: culture isn’t free, but our post-Napster, digitalized-content world still operates as if it were. The trouble is, “if individual artists cannot make a living from their creative work, they will eventually throw in the towel,” and it’s important that “large corporations do not monopolize the cultural sphere.” Wrest control of culture from the ruling class. Buy a book.
July 6, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- George Plimpton, our founding editor, held the unofficial title of fireworks commissioner of New York City for some thirty years, but he hosted the hottest fireworks parties at his place in the Hamptons. When he died, in 2003, “his son, Taylor, following his father’s wishes, packed his ashes into a firework with the help of Phil Grucci and launched him into the sky.”
- What’s wrong with loving love songs? Nothing. Studying them for “subversive” moments may be disingenuous though, like “scanning a nursery for ugly babies. The interesting question about babies is what makes them so cute.” There’s nothing wrong with sentiment. Enjoy it.
- This week in stereotypes: in effort to attract a more divers readership, comic-book publishers are incorporating more gay characters and story lines—like Kevin, the gay character introduced into the Archie series in 2010. DC Comics, though, has a new gay superhero named Midnighter, who “likes to fight and is promiscuous.”
- Some things never change, which is to say art is still irrelevant. Looking at the fiscal health of the fine arts can buoy your spirits, but challenge anyone on the street to “identify the architect of the Freedom Tower or name a single winner of the Tate Prize,” and you may be disappointed. Even your last trip to the museum was probably “for the sake of sensation and spectacle.”
- Dune looks good at fifty, maybe better than it ever has: the science fiction’s concerns—human potential, environmental anxiety, revolution, and altered states of consciousness—have more geopolitical echoes than they did in 1965. “If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war,” then, “Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius.”