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Readers Demand More Grandparents, and Other News

February 11, 2015 | by

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Fiction: A grandparent-free zone?

  • Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
  • On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
  • This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
  • Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
  • Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …

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Read, Reread, Re-reread, Re-re-reread, and Other News

February 10, 2015 | by

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A passenger reading on a train to Houston, 1974. Photo: NARA

  • It’s one thing to be well read—quite another to be well reread. Stephen Marche has coined the term centireading, i.e., reading something a hundred times. He’s accomplished only two feats of centireading (Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves), but they effectively restored the purity of his reading experience: “The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliché. ‘To be or not to be’ is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so ‘To be or not to be’ resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.”
  • As a moneymaking device, the book is obsolete, as we all know. Of course it is—it’s very, very old. What you might not have heard yet is that Web sites are obsolete, too, and that your mere presence on this page renders you a technological dinosaur. It’s okay. I’m one, too. This man is not: “In his weird zone of the internet, he said, the concept of a large publication seemed utterly hopeless. The only thing that keeps people coming back to apps in great enough numbers over time to make real money is the presence of other people. So the only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave—with growing loyalty that can be turned into money—are communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”
  • From the makers of the flaneur, meet the crónica: “a crónica is both ‘a history that obeys the order of the times’ and ‘a journalistic piece … about current events.’ But it is more. Starting in the nineteenth century, crónica and urban life became inseparable; to the mere recording of a city life for posterity, the genre added flânerie and modern investigative reporting. Together, crónica and la ciudad (the city) inform a typology of ‘essaying’ a pie (on foot), in which walking is to thinking what seeing is to reading, and cities’ ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ becomes social and cultural criticism.”
  • In France, even illicit, politically scandalous affairs play out like fairy tales: “It was not until his press attaché phoned Valérie and informed her that François was ‘madly in love with you’ that Valérie recognized the current of passion that roiled beneath their professional rapport … They were committed to others—Ségolène and Denis—and they had more than half a dozen children between them, but how could they refuse love’s call? Over crêpes and waffles, Valérie and François confessed their feelings, which led to, she wrote, ‘a kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone. A kiss that had been held back for nearly fifteen years, in the middle of a crossroads.’”
  • William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the most daring movies of the sixties, which may be why no one saw it until 1991. Now his film is finally getting its due: “Greaves was up there with John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke in the blend of sophisticated modernism and emotional fury, of self-implication and formal innovation, of self-revelation and revelation of the heart of the times.”

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The Art of Paños, and Other News

February 9, 2015 | by

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Photo: Reno Leplat-Torti / Paños Chicanos, via Vice

  • Wackford Squeers, Peg Sliderskew, Charity Pecksniff … the names of characters in Dickens novels are outré enough to put Thomas Pynchon to shame.
  • Relatedly: naming one’s characters is arguably the fiction writer’s most critical task. “I make up names for people all the time—it’s part of writing. Very often, the name comes with the character, along with of a sense of who they are and what they do … All names are masks, as well as identifiers.”
  • For her services to literature, Hilary Mantel—with whom we’ll feature an Art of Fiction interview in our next issue—has been made a dame.
  • Early in the twentieth century, an unlikely duo developed the first mechanistic theory of the mind: Warren McCulloch, “a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before four a.m.,” and Walter Pitts, “small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face.” They asserted that the brain “uses logic encoded in neural networks to compute.”
  • Finally, without further ado: Mexican prison art. “The tradition of paño (from the Spanish ‘pañuelo,’ which means ‘handkerchief’ ) began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.”

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$190,000 Birds, and Other News

February 6, 2015 | by

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Image via AbeBooks

  • Latin, the most famous dead language, is enjoying another of its many posthumous lives: “A language can fall out of everyday use, its forms can cease to change, and yet writers will still use it to do new things. This happened to Sumerian and Hebrew—and it happened to Latin too. People all over the Mediterranean world and beyond continued to use Latin after Virgil and Cicero—and they did so in endlessly creative ways.”
  • The hazards of open endings: Why does so much literary fiction refuse to provide a real resolution? “An authorial strategy now so widespread to have almost become the norm in literary fiction was so ‘unfamiliar’ back in 1925 that Woolf suggested readers ‘need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune.’ ”
  • A 1765 book about ornithology has sold for $190,000: “Published in Florence in Italian in five volumes, it contains 600 beautiful hand-colored engraved plates of birds. Commissioned by Maria Luisa, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, the book took ten years to complete … Some consider the book to be a commentary on 18th-century Italian high society because the bird poses are almost human.”
  • Technicolor turns 100: “We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it,” an early adopter once said. But today, Technicolor has developed “this very vibrant, saturated palette ... When these films started getting more colorful, that's what audiences reacted to. They loved this artificial, fantasy, over-the-top palette. And that’s the way color shifted. It’s idealized.”
  • Running a bookstore is hard. Running an anarchist bookstore is even harder. And not because of the anarchy, it turns out—because of the antianarchy. At San Francisco’s Bound Together, “there’ve been plenty of adventures, like the time when the bookstore was threatened by Neo-Nazis in the eighties and members slept in the space nightly to protect it. There was also an attempted arson in the eighties, when someone dumped gasoline through the mail slot and tossed a lit match in to start a fire.”

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“A Noisy Cavalcade of Fraud,” and Other News

February 5, 2015 | by

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“Ingenious mendacity” ... How much do you have?

  • A reminder from literature: capitalism was always a disaster, even in the days when virtue and commerce were thought to go hand in hand. “The gentlemanly capitalism we were brought up to believe in was, if not wholly mythical, a sideshow in a noisy cavalcade of fraud, theft, and what Walter Bagehot called ‘ingenious mendacity’ on all sides … We should return to the pages of Dickens and Trollope to remind ourselves that there were wrong ’uns at every level and turn of nineteenth-century commerce, from crooked agents, clerks, brokers, and jobbers to ‘lords on the take, knights on the make’—and that ‘the thieves were often difficult to distinguish from the legitimate,’ to the cost of the ill-informed and gullible investor and customer.”
  • In Donetsk, Ukraine, as artillery continues to barrage the city, the show must go on. “The persistent shelling was barely audible through the thick stone walls of the Donetsk National Academic Opera … The highly regarded opera continues a regular schedule of weekend performances, as does the neighboring dramatic theater. Performers at the popular Donetsk circus, having finished their New Year’s routines, are planning a new round of shows in February. The planetarium open every weekend. Many cinemas are operating.”
  • Akhil Sharma on Chekhov the journalist: “Sakhalin Island is the greatest work of journalism from the nineteenth century … It has the pleasure of moving through a physical, distinct world and the keenness of documentary analysis.”
  • Van Gogh, method actor: He began his professional life “in the Borinage, the former industrial and mining region to the southwest of Mons … He originally intended to be a pastor, but the sickly, impoverished mining communities were often baffled by his attempts at asceticism and his clumsy efforts to fit in by wearing rags, blackening his face and sleeping on the ground.”
  • “Many of us have at least one thing we have put our name to that we have later regretted and desperately hoped might never again resurface to embarrass us, something that is far from guaranteed in an age of social-media outrage cycles … Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, ‘everything you need is in there.’ ”

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Reading’s Journey from Chore to Passion, and Other News

February 4, 2015 | by

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Gaston de la Touche, L’ennui, 1893.

  • We begin with the decline and fall of the English major: Have our nation’s youth really found something better to do? “If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral,” one professor said, “we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in fifteen.” Another theorized that “many students who would prefer to declare humanities majors might be challenged or advised to declare a ‘practical major.’ ”
  • But even those of us who threw caution to the wind and majored in English have not done such a hot job of pursuing literature in other languages. “About 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry.”
  • Still, shouldn’t we congratulate ourselves for living in an era when reading is regarded as a joy, a passion, rather than as a necessary, bland consequence of rhetorical culture? “For a long time, people didn’t love literature. They read with their heads, not their hearts (or at least they thought they did), and they were unnerved by the idea of readers becoming emotionally attached to books and writers. It was only over time—over the century roughly between 1750 and 1850—that reading became a ‘private and passional’ activity, as opposed to a ‘rational, civic-minded’ one.”
  • Today, by contrast, we’re so in love with literature that one can earn seven hundred dollars a week simply by writing poems on the subway. And they don’t have to be good poems, either. (“Faint sweeps / Of sea breeze / In the light stream of / Water … ”)
  • Most of us prefer to write in private—others of us have no choice. Anna Lyndsey has a rare illness that makes her skin burn whenever she’s exposed to light, even the light of an iPhone. She lives in darkness. She gets her news from the radio. She writes. “She found that, with practice, she could write in her head—marshal thoughts into sentences, arrange sentences into paragraphs—before writing longhand in a notebook. It was liberating, not being able to see her words on the page. Darkness, it seems, is also a cure for self-consciousness.”

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