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On the Shelf

Your Book’s Central Nervous System, and Other News

March 13, 2015 | by

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Barbara Wildenboer. Image via This Is Colossal

  • Can a writer’s original inspiration survive success? Imagine you are Karl Ove Knausgaard at this point in his career … Why not enjoy success? Why not accept that you are a genius, if people insistently tell you that you are? One way or another, from this point on it will be hard to achieve the same concentration, the same innocence, when you return to the empty page and the next stage in a life story that is now radically transformed.”
  • Today in dubious superlatives: Was 1925 really “the greatest year” in the history of literature? The BBC has declared it so. They searched “for a cluster of landmark books” and then asked if said books “continue to enthrall readers and explore our human dilemmas and joys in memorable ways”; 1925, with its Hemingway and its Fitzgerald and its Dos Passos and its Dreiser, came away the victor. But make no mistake: seeking the greatest year in literature is a fool’s errand, just as searching for the greatest minute in history would be.
  • Sam Simon, who died this month, is responsible for much of the greatness of golden-age Simpsons episodes, though his collaborations with Matt Groening weren’t always smooth: “It was Simon’s insight that animation allowed The Simpsons to sprawl across a vast canvas, illustrating new locations and inventing characters through the multifold voice talents of the cast. The Springfield the Simpsons inhabit is a mini-world on to itself, with its own rich mythology and history.”
  • The science behind “wordnesia,” a “common brain glitch” in which you can’t spell the simplest words and common language has a sheen of unfamiliarity to it: “Russell Epstein, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania … posits that these experiences may be linked to concepts described by psychologist William James … [who] contended that our conscious experiences are made up of components he referred to as the nucleus and the fringe.”
  • On the criticism of Bernard Williams: “Williams says that philosophers have typically been motivated by two things: curiosity, and the desire to be helpful.  He unhesitatingly gives priority to the former motive … Above all, philosophy offers reflective analysis of our concepts, and, through these and a study of their history, insight into who ‘we’ are.  If philosophy is to contribute anything distinctive, however, all this must be carried out with clarity and rigor, and the aim of ‘getting it right’ must ‘be in place.’ ”
  • Barbara Wildenboer’s sculptures meld the sprawl of a nervous system to the spines of books.

What You Can Build, What You Should Build, and Other News

March 12, 2015 | by

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Diplomatic Club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1980. Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

  • Frei Otto, the German architect whose tensile, tent-like constructions were marvels of structural engineering, has died at eighty-nine. He designed his bubbles, webs, and wings to use as few materials as possible; they challenged conventions of durability and permanence. “Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he once asked. “We can build houses which are two or three kilometers high and we can design halls spanning several kilometers and covering a whole city—but we have to ask, What does it really make? What does society really need?”
  • Tim Youd’s project to retype all of Lucky Jim, mentioned here yesterday, is an act of intellectual lunacy lifted straight from the pages of Borges—in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges tells of a man who aspires to rewrite all of Cervantes’s masterpiece line-by-line by inhabiting the depths of its author’s soul: “The initial method that he imagined was relatively simple. Get to know Spanish well, recover his Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or against the Turk, forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure … but dismissed it as too easy.”
  • “A well-traveled branch of futuristic fiction explores worlds in which artificial creatures—the robots—live among us, sometimes even indistinguishable from us … Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. You may think it’s a stretch to call this a ‘world,’ but in many ways it has become a toy universe, populated by millions, most of whom resemble humans and may even, in their day jobs, be. But increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human.” James Gleick on the gradual, mediocre rise of Twitter bots, which have introduced a kind of artificial intelligence that almost no one is in awe of: “this is how the future really happens, so ordinary that we scarcely notice.”
  • On academe’s willful ignorance of African literature: “As long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach. It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.”
  • On December 4, 1891, America had what’s believed to be its first suicide bombing. Its target was Russell Sage, a financier who “reportedly had more ready cash at his disposal than any other person in the U.S. What nobody yet understood—except for the unfortunate occupants of the financier’s wrecked office—was that a crazed man had just targeted Sage for attack. Even though Sage survived it, the assault had an effect that the assailant never intended: a remarkable redistribution of the vast riches of one of the most notorious robber barons of the Gilded Age.”

Home Is Where the TV Is, and Other News

March 11, 2015 | by

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It’s okay—you belong!

  • The artist Tim Youd is retyping Lucky Jim, word by painstaking word, in public at the University of Leicester, on an Adler Universal typewriter—the same model Kingsley Amis used. “I’ve read everything before I retype it, so the suspense is gone. The appreciation happens on a deeper level. I get to examine the structure, the style in the course of the most active form of reading … At its heart, the performance is a devotional exercise. It is an extreme, perhaps slightly absurd dedication to the author’s words.”
  • Post-Internet poetry takes for granted that the Web, as a medium, can inspire and inform a poem—it doesn’t make a show, that is, of turning the poet into a kind of DJ, “weaving together samples of preexisting language into something unique. Of course, this is nothing new. The cento—snagging lines from other poems to make your own—has been around for nearly two millennia. But what’s new is [the] use of Google as an oracle, the results from which are strained through [one’s] own subjectivity, leading to poems that are at once organic and mechanical, personal and, in a sense, objective.”
  • “More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews, and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness … And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.” Knausgaard’s travels in America continue.
  • Kristin Dombek on Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth: “Sonic Youth turned the war of sound into a war on the reproducibility of music for consumption, and the failure to create the perfect rock product into music itself … Since guys liked Sonic Youth, learning to like them had seemed like a way to borrow a little male bonding, like wearing flannel, skipping class to drop acid, or fumbling my way through a hacky sack circle.”
  • Don’t pretend you don’t care about the sociology of flatulence. “Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in ‘intentional flatulence’ ... Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: ‘The worse it stinks,’ said one, ‘the nastier they think I am.’ ”

Fell That Fairy, and Other News

March 10, 2015 | by

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Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (detail), 1855–64.

  • The Warburg Institute, which dates to 1900, is one of Britain’s most peculiar libraries; in its radically open stacks, astrological guides sidle up to astronomy textbooks and science lives with magic. “In the past several years, the Warburg’s future has been fiercely contested. It is in some senses a small and parochial struggle, right out of Trollope’s Barchester novels, and in others about something very big—about the future of private visions within public institutions, about what memory is and what we owe it, about how to tell when an original vision has become merely an eccentric one.”
  • Richard Dadd was a promising British painter who went insane in the 1840s. He made his painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in an asylum. “It is an exhaustingly complex image, with a substantial cast of characters, none of whom are doing much … If the Fairy Feller were a work intended for critical interpretation, which it probably was not, then we might talk of the suspended action with which the seed was to be split; the deferred moment of sex; the mutual isolation of the groups of figures suggesting the impossibility of generating a family or a community; and we might connect these themes to Dadd’s awareness of his own position as a long-stay patient in London’s high-security lunatic asylum.”
  • The art of the continuation novel: Why do dead authors’ estates hire contemporary writers to imitate them? “The value of characters … often exceeds the value of an author’s original texts … In recent years Sebastian Faulks has written as P.G. Wodehouse, William Boyd as Ian Fleming, Sophie Hannah as Agatha Christie, Anthony Horowitz as Arthur Conan Doyle, and more … The literary brand, today, is a managed and controlled phenomenon. A dead author’s reach on social media (managed by their estate or publisher) can be vast. The person or people who control Socrates’ Facebook page have access to nearly 1.5 million people.”
  • “Good metaphors force you to think about the things they reference in fresh ways. There aren’t very many good ones, though. They’re mostly concocted for the purpose of coercing you into changing your opinion. They annoy and distract rather than illuminate.”
  • On the Underground Man, everyone’s favorite antihero: “Certainly, the author identified strongly with his protagonist, calling him the ‘real man of the Russian majority.’ Dostoevsky rejected the idea that people act in accordance to reason or their best interests and asserted the need for them to be able to behave as they choose, without fitting into Enlightenment ideas of ‘progress.’ ”

Sublime, Subversive Sappho, and Other News

March 9, 2015 | by

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Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.

  • How does contemporary literature derive meaning in the age of big data? “The rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration, I would argue, present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix … Western literature may have more or less begun, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with a lengthy account of a signal crossing space, and of the beacon network through whose nodes the signal’s message (that of Troy’s downfall) is relayed—but now, two and a half millennia later, that network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent, so undeniably inserted or installed at every stratum of existence, that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.”
  • “KAYO IN THE LUNA PARK / FREEZE FRAME ON A DRUNK IN THE PIAZZA / THAT’S WHAT WE HAVE FOR PIGEONS / LUMBERING ON ASPHALT FACEDOWN / LEAPSICKNESS THE LAW OF LIQUIDS.” Basquiat’s notebooks “variously sound like song lyrics, slogans, mantras, fragments of scenarios, of ‘routines’ like those of William S. Burroughs.”
  • Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, said that he’s sometimes cut “unfortunate anti-Semitic things” from Shakespeare—should we censor plays like The Merchant of Venice?
  • Who was Sappho? Scholars and readers have been bickering about her for the better part of three thousand years: “about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works … Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage.”
  • Part two of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel’s essay “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights.”

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A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by

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From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”