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A City of Phone Lines, and Other News

September 3, 2014 | by

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Soon after the advent of the telephone, Stockholm’s Telefontornet covered the city in thousands of wires. Photo via Colossal

  • A previously unpublished chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—once “deemed too wild, subversive and insufficiently moral for the tender minds of British children”—is now available for your delectation. It features a jaunt into Wonka’s Vanilla Fudge Room, where many wonders and precariously situated heavy machinery await. (Not an OSHA-compliant workplace, that chocolate factory.)
  • Get Carter, Ted Lewis’s 1970 crime novel, has just been reissued: “As far as classic hard-boiled fiction, Get Carter is sui generis, the place where British noir begins … there is no attempt to soften or sugarcoat … It is also, as the best noir always is, highly moral, although its morality is individual and distinct. What is important to us?, the book ponders. What do we need—are we willing—to sacrifice?”
  • In praise of brevity in fiction: “shorter novels can often be a distillation of everything an author does best—which, in some cases, can spare you quite a lot of their more exacting or punishing work.”
  • “In the late 19th century, shortly after the patent of the telephone, the race was on to connect everyone to the phone grid … In Stockholm, Sweden, the central telephone exchange was the Telefontornet, a giant tower designed around 1890 that connected some 5,000 lines which sprawled in every direction across the city. Just by looking at historical photos it’s easy to recognize the absurdity and danger of the whole endeavor … Everything that could possibly go wrong did.”
  • Revisiting “latitudes of acceptance,” a social judgment theory from the sixties: “We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you’re drunk, or when you’ve had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas.”

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Raiding Updike’s Garbage Cans, and Other News

September 2, 2014 | by

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Paul Moran took these address labels, among many other discarded items, from Updike’s trash. Image via the Atlantic

  • In the years before John Updike died, a man began to steal a lot of his garbage—thousands of pieces, actually, including “photographs, discarded drafts of stories, canceled checks, White House invitations, Christmas cards, love letters, floppy disks, a Mickey Mouse flip book, and a pair of brown tasseled loafers.” Taken as a whole, the collection amounts to a kind of secret history, a trash biography. (“My life is, in a sense, trash,” Updike said in his Art of Fiction interview.)
  • How does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t … Think of all the times we start a book that we think we should be reading—because everyone else is reading it, because it’s won a prize, because our book group has chosen it, despite our misgivings. And think of all the times we refuse to abandon a book we are not enjoying—because we are peculiarly puritanical about literature—thus creating an antagonism and a reluctance that must damage our relationship with reading.”
  • This year’s Venice Biennale, an architecture show, “reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to ‘make something modern’ changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it.”
  • In which the keening of a single blue whale teaches us something about loneliness.
  • What kind of worker is a writer? On Tillie Olsen, who wrote in dribs and drabs while holding down menial jobs and raising four children: “Writing, Olsen reminded her readers, takes time, education, energy, and resources, and these things are unevenly distributed. She encouraged us to attend to unorthodox writing produced in unfavorable circumstances—letters, diaries, scrapbooks like her own—and, in doing so, to question what counts as literature.”

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Telling It Like It Is in Times Square, and Other News

August 29, 2014 | by

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Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987/2014. Photo: Ka-Man Tse for Times Square Arts

  • Coming this fall: a host of new books about football. But do they hold up against the venerable backlist of football literature?
  • Today in trepidatious grammatical hairsplitting: whoever versus whomever, and all the complications thereof.
  • On syllabus bloat: “Today’s college syllabus is longer than many of the assignments it allegedly lists … The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a ‘customer experience’ wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned.”
  • Every night between 11:57 and midnight, the slogan “This Is Not America” has appeared on a high-definition LED in Times Square—a message from the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, who debuted the work in a decidedly more analog form back in 1987.
  • Science shows that listening to your favorite songs, regardless of their genre, will generate “strikingly similar brain activity patterns” of a sort that can encourage creativity.

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He Killed the Hedgehog, and Other News

August 28, 2014 | by

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Philip Larkin. “His letters to girlfriends were full of little drawings, showing them as cute squirrels or bunnies or honey bears.”

  • Philip Larkin: Not always a tremendous admirer of people, but an ardent lover of animals. “His secretary Betty Mackereth remembers how, ‘He just stood at the window of his office, looking out, and said: “I mowed the lawn last night; and I killed the hedgehog.” And tears rolled down his face.’ ”
  • James Meyer, who was for thirty years an assistant of Jasper Johns, has pled guilty to stealing at least twenty-two of Johns’s works—an estimated $6.5 million value. 
  • We live in a world where not one but two new apps promise to re-create “the experience of a manual typewriter, but with the ease and speed of an iPad.”
  • Against Against: “In recent years, there has been an ‘Against [X]’ epidemic: against young-adult literature, against interpretation, against method, against theory, against epistemology, against happiness, against transparency, against ambience, against heterosexuality, against love, against exercise, et cetera. The form announces a polemic—probably a cranky one, and very likely an unfair one. But an essay with such a title has inoculated itself against the criticism of being too polemical or tendentious—after all, did you read the title? Caveat lector!”
  • In Pittsburgh, a nonprofit called City of Asylum provides free housing and a stipend “for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries.”

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The Ultimate Example of Everything, and Other News

August 27, 2014 | by

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John Ashbery at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the New Museum’s current show, “Here and Elsewhere”: “So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East … For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life—at least as it is experienced via a computer screen—regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
  • Ben Lerner at the Met: “What interests me about fiction … is in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”
  • Things that—according to the students and faculty of the first Ashbery Home School, a new writing conference in Hudson, New York—John Ashbery is “the ultimate example of”: “surrealism, realism, hyperrealism, distance, proximity, translation, tradition, the grotesque, the beautiful, the blind, the all-seeing, the old, the young, the queer, the hetero, the hedgehog, the fox, the human, the alien, the bric-a-brac in the cupboard, the masterpiece on the wall, painting, cinema, architecture, life.” (NB the author of this list describes it as “incomplete and incompetent.”)
  • A brief history of the problem of sorting, classifying, and otherwise categorizing things: “It is tempting to think making categories is a straightforward scientific enterprise, and that debates will be clearly settled once we’ve amassed enough data. But the history of science shows this not to be the case … The nature of scientific categories is not merely an empirical issue; it’s also a philosophical one, and one affected by self-interest and social forces.”
  • Today, in posthumous gifts: more than three thousand of Doris Lessing’s books are to be donated to a public library in Zimbabwe, where she lived for twenty-five years.

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Horseback Balloonist, and Other News

August 26, 2014 | by

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What one did for fun in the eighteenth century. Image via Retronaut

  • Blootered, plonked, fuddled, muckibus: what we talk about when we talk about getting wasted.
  • An interview with Rachel Cusk, whose new novel, Outline, is serialized in The Paris Review: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
  • James Wood on James Kelman: “Kelman’s language is immediately exciting; like a musician, he uses repetition and rhythm to build structures out of short flights and circular meanderings. The working-class Glaswegian author knows exactly how his words will scathe delicate skins; he has a fine sense of attack.”
  • In the UK, literature in translation is enjoying a surge in popularity. “There used to be a feeling translations were ‘good for you’ and not enjoyable … like vegetables … But actually they’re wonderful books.”
  • “Pierre Testu-Brissy was a pioneering French balloonist who achieved fame for making many flights astride animals, particularly horses.”

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