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What Is an Essay, Anyway? and Other News

October 8, 2014 | by

Montaigne-Dumonstier

A portrait of Michel de Montaigne, whom you can blame in part, maybe, for all these “essays.”

  • Essays—essais, essayes—what are they, how are they, where did they come from, why can’t we seem to settle on the meaning of them, is Montaigne to blame for all this, or Francis Bacon or maybe King James, and what’s the meaning of all this “attempting” anyhow … John Jeremiah Sullivan aspires (don’t make me say essays) to find out.
  • Horace Engdahl, who helps to judge the Nobel Prize in Literature, laments the “professionalization” of writing in the West: “I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions … Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
  • Relatedly: “A growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers … And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.”
  • Zadie Smith on a certain famous populous island: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue. There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day.”
  • “An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.”

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Agatha Christie’s Diamond Cache, and Other News

October 7, 2014 | by

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Diamonds recovered from a compartment in a trunk owned by Agatha Christie.

  • Encouraging news for all who let their modifiers dangle: “A stickler insists that we never let a participle dangle, that you can’t say, ‘Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me’ … But if you look either at the history of great writing and language as it’s been used by its exemplary stylists, you find that they use dangling modifiers all the time. And if you look at the grammar of English you find that there is no rule that prohibits a dangling modifier … it was pretty much pulled out of thin air by one usage guide a century ago and copied into every one since.”
  • These are some ways we’ve received our mail: from pigeons, balloons, boule de moulins (“hollow zinc spheres the size of a man’s head and covered with fins … the idea was to place them in the river and let them float along the current … the service was canceled after just eleven days”), pneumatic rail, rockets, cats.
  • “Fincher appears to be more pessimistic about love than Kubrick was. Eyes Wide Shut, a post-Freudian work, takes sexual desire very seriously as a realm where the revelation of inner monsters makes it possible to live with them, with ourselves, and with each other. Gone Girl takes identity very seriously; it subordinates sex to power and love to pride, and suggests that the revelation of monstrosities brings knowledge without wisdom, adds pain to pain, covers masks with masks, and shows screens behind screens.”
  • When you’re stressed, you could drink and smoke or squeeze a rubber ball or get a spa treatment or indulge in some petty larceny—or you could just sit down and write a letter to yourself, which is apparently the way to do it.
  • An Agatha Christie fan has discovered the writer’s lost diamonds in a sealed metal strongbox bolted to the bottom of a trunk. “I had read Agatha Christie’s biography,” the fan said, “so I knew exactly what I was looking at.”

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Make Your Dream City a Reality, and Other News

October 6, 2014 | by

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A seventeenth-century map of Palmanova, Italy, a medieval star fort.

  • Wyatt Mason profiles Marilynne Robinson: “Somebody who had read Lila asked me, ‘Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?’ I said: ‘It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.’ ”
  • How do outlandish ideas in architecture become reality? “The cities we live in need not have been as they are. In fact, they aren’t as they are. There’s a strange desperate hope in realizing how much of life is fiction.”
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novels—her latest, The Big Green Tent, appears in the U.S. next year—challenge the Russian state, taking on subjects that make many readers uncomfortable. “A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate—the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling.”
  • The e-book is an unstable medium: in a given edition, publishers are always swapping out advertisements, modifying content, rescinding access, or upgrading technology. So how do libraries preserve e-books? “Everyone knows that if we don’t do something now, we’ll be in big trouble later.”
  • Manufacturing stardom, then and now: “Trying to create a coherent image is always going to be the same, no matter if the star is from the 1930s or 2010s … Beyonce is producing an image using Tumblr and Instagram, which obviously stars in the thirties didn’t have, but she’s still trying to create a very specific understanding of the type of woman that she is. She’s trying to also make it seem like there isn’t a publicity campaign and that she’s not doing that, which was also done in the 1930s.”

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From the Land of Pleasant Living, and Other News

October 3, 2014 | by

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A Baltimore icon slips into Russian hands.

  • Remembering John Berryman, whose centenary is later this month: “Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels.”
  • “As well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not … John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel … But how does a book enter the conversation today?”
  • A good problem to have: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”
  • An 1894 map by the New York Tenement-House Committee divides the city by nationality. But you won’t find Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadian New Yorkers on the map, because they were, according to its creator, “in small numbers and perhaps less foreign than the others.”
  • The Orioles are in the playoffs, which means Baltimoreans are swilling profligate amounts of Natty Boh, the greatest bad beer in the world and one of the city’s most cherished brands—it dates back to 1885. (At least one Baltimorean would drink a can right now, even though it’s nine-thirty A.M. and he’s in New York.) The only problem? “National Bohemian hasn’t been locally owned since the nineteen-seventies, and it hasn’t been brewed in Maryland in more than a decade … Last month, it was announced that the brand’s owner, Pabst, is being purchased by the Russian beverage company Oasis.” Say it ain’t Boh.

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Oh, Shit, There Are Robots in the Library, and Other News

October 2, 2014 | by

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Nancy and Vincent: Friends or foes? Only time will tell. Photo: Picasa/Aldebaran

  • Soon to appear at the library in Westport, Connecticut: robots, two of them. “Vincent” and “Nancy” “have blinking eyes and an unnerving way of looking quizzically in the direction of whoever is speaking. They walk, dance, and can talk in nineteen different languages … [they] can recognize faces and detect where sound is coming from.” Ostensibly, the pair will help patrons find books and will serve as the centerpiece of a new robotics workshop. But whether these unfeeling golems are here to help or to serve as ruthless, lethal agents of the state remains to be seen. Anyone with late fees is advised to proceed with extreme caution.
  • Speaking of things you’re powerless to stop, however much you may wish to: Crime and Punishment, the Musical. (“I wouldn’t call it a rock-opera as such,” its director said.)
  • Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs “is not an easy read. It was written late in Victor Hugo’s career when he was living in exile on Guernsey, and his contemporaries dismissed it as an inferior work.” And yet it seems to have plenty going for it in the plot department: it’s “the story of a young man who is kidnapped, mutilated and sold to travelling entertainers, yet who retains his integrity and his dignity through the love of his adoptive ‘family,’ the eccentric philosopher Ursus, his pet wolf Homo, and the beautiful blind girl, Dea.” Sold.
  • Merritt Tierce, who was interviewed here last month, used to work at an upscale Dallas steak house, as does the protagonist in her debut novel. On two occasions, Tierce served Rush Limbaugh, who “left her $2,000 tips on modest-size checks, once with twenty $100 bills. ‘That was like blood money to me,’ says Tierce, who does not share Limbaugh’s social views.” So she gave it all to an abortion-rights group.
  • The trend of the “passport professor”: Why are so many Ph.D.s leaving America? (Why aren’t they? you might say.)

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Instagram Meets the Death Wish, and Other News

October 1, 2014 | by

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Richard Prince’s show, “New Portraits.” Photo: the Gagosian Gallery

  • Richard Prince’s latest show: his Instagram feed, ink-jet-printed on canvas. “Is it art? Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art … Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.”
  • You can probably guess where Louise Erdrich, who’s just won the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, comes down on the controversial logo of a certain NFL franchise: “It’s more than a stereotype, it’s an insult … It’s more of the same disregard for basic human dignity.”
  • Nell Zink sees the sights at the World Science Fiction Convention: “In one room, old folks discussing how society might function if rulers were programmed to be wise (Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels); in the next, young people defiantly setting the conditions under which they will watch TV.”
  • One way (perhaps not the best way) to liven up your history of classical philosophy: fill it with puns. “Once Adamson has spotted a pun in the distance, he will hunt it down and pry it from whatever linguistic comforts it may have once enjoyed … We can never prepare ourselves for ‘like a giraffe, Parmenides seems to be sticking his neck out too far.’ ”
  • “The rooms that hold the Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas are vast and dimly lit. The dioramas themselves shine like stages in a darkened theater … That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York, I think.”

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