On the Shelf
January 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Inspired by Rimbaud—“who essentially believed a poet had to descend into the depths of all that was bad and report back”—an MIT visual arts and film professor held up a bank in Chinatown. “I stood outside the bank talking into the camera for quite a while … going over the different reasons to do it and not to do it.”
- In the mid-nineteenth century, on the other hand, women were scarcely allowed to visit the post office, which was “frequently made rendezvous for interdirected communication and illicit pleasures.”
- But today, in the age of big data, everyone is welcome in museums—especially if you bring your smartphone. “From the minute you enter the building—before, if you bought tickets online—you are also contributing personal information to the museum’s newly minted ‘engagement’ department. Don’t be surprised if, while you linger in front of a Caravaggio, a coupon for a cappuccino in the museum café pops up on your phone … When data mining turns a museum into a frequent-flier program, the result is commerce, not culture.”
- In 1966, a British magazine illustrator went on the set of 2001 and drew what he saw. “Kubrick [wanted] illustrated production stills of what happened on his set, rather than having a photographer take noisy and distracting photographs. The illustrations … would then be sent out in press kits to publications and other media outlets that could promote the film.” None of his images were published at the time, but now you can see them here.
- Don’t just judge a book by its cover—judge it by two. Compare U.S. and UK editions of last year’s books.
January 12, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On Robin Robertson, who writes poems “that are truly, mesmerizingly carnal. I know women and men who have sought out online recordings just to hear him recite, in a low Scottish burr, his twelve-line ode to an artichoke. Whether Robertson is writing about sex, violence or the sea—three subjects he keeps coming back to—he remains a poet of the body, with a fondness for consonant-dense, guttural words that carry an almost physical presence on the page.”
- An LED sign in downtown Los Angeles was hacked in the name of literacy. Indie booksellers are reporting a noticeable uptick in sales.
- “In my judgment, there are between twenty and thirty editors and publishers in New York who—along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps—have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both.”
- Joe Sacco on Charlie Hebdo: “Satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?”
- Have a look at the formidable geometry in these eighteenth-century forts, which represent “the classic century of military engineering.” “Engineers wanted to create overlapping planes of fire, so that defenders could cover every angle of approach from the walls of the forts.”
January 9, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Michel Houellebecq has announced that he’s stopped promoting his new novel in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
- A history of Nabokov in adaptation: “Filmmakers have mined all of Nabokov’s movie-friendly novels … But the adaptation I’m still waiting for is Pale Fire, which pretty much everyone agrees is unfilmable.”
- Who among us hasn’t thought long and hard about “what might have tickled the funny bones of folks suffering under Stalinism”? The Suicide, a 1928 play by Nikolai Erdman, was apparently so funny that Soviet authorities forbade it from being staged until 1982, ten years after its author had died. Now the play has been adapted for contemporary Western audiences, but “this bleakly comic portrait of desperate lives in Soviet Russia feels wheezy and labored, ultimately about as much fun as a winter holiday in Siberia. (Grim footnote: Mr. Erdman was exiled there after being arrested on political grounds in 1933.)”
- On John Waters, who has a new show at Marianne Boesky Gallery: “He is the only funny conceptual artist I can think of. He is—like the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo—a rude satirist who sends up the absurdities of American culture, in particular our obsession with fame and eternal youth.”
- “Bitcoin may well be the world’s worst-performing currency. In 2014 it lost more than half of its value against the dollar, beating even Ukraine’s hryvnia and the Russian rouble. But measured by the number of new books it has inspired, bitcoin is top of the pile. Nearly 200 titles about the crypto-currency came out last year, according to Amazon. Another dozen will hit the shelves in the coming months.”
January 8, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- An English translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission will be published in America, though no date has been set. (Houellebecq and the controversial novel are on the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo.)
- Have a question for Haruki Murakami? (NB: “Dear Mr. Murakami, I, too, enjoy jazz and cats” is not a question.) Go ahead and ask him. He’s answering queries from fans on a new site called Mr. Murakami’s Place, though as of this writing the site remains—maybe fittingly—impossible to find.
- Our definite article is endangered. Linguists have crunched the numbers, and over the course of the twentieth century, our use of the plummeted. If you treasure the the as I do, join the campaign to employ the the as often as the circumstances allow. (We started by putting it in the title of our magazine.)
- The key to an authentic sci-fi novel: show your work. Andy Weir’s The Martian, once a self-published e-book, has found a wide readership because of its attention to technical specifics: “An astronaut gets left behind on Mars in a near-future NASA mission, and has to survive until help comes. This he does through physics and chemistry, algebra and pipe fitting, botany and celestial navigation, all described in meticulous detail, some of it even simulated with software that Weir wrote himself.”
- The descent of the English department—why do outsiders so commonly regard it as “a bastion of muddled thinking”? Some say “academics ‘must make their peace with the fact that viewed from the outside their work does not look like work,’ but this misses how academics are perceived by those sensible enough to dwell outside their ranks: The problem is precisely that their work looks too much like work—onerous, meticulous, pointless, jargon-soaked work without application either to literature or to living.”
January 7, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has started a book club—it’s perfect for philistines. “Zuckerberg launched the project by announcing, with what sounds almost like surprise, that books are ‘intellectually fulfilling’ and ‘allow you to fully explore a topic … in a deeper way than most media today’ … Imagine a world in which there’d been 700 years of the internet, before, in the nineties, somebody invented books. It would surely seem a miracle that, instead of trawling through acres of semi-reliable information, you could have a guaranteed, portable and inexpensive source of knowledge from someone who knows both how to write and what they’re talking about.”
- Joan Didion is, at eighty years old, still writing, and still modeling. She’s the new face for the Spring 2015 line of the French fashion label Céline. And she looks positively thrilled to be there.
- Why have we reserved the adjective difficult for works of high art? If difficult means “hard to read, hard to get through, hard to finish,” then Fifty Shades of Grey is every bit as difficult as The Recognitions. “Difficulty is various and subjective … opacity and frustration aren’t necessarily errors or failures on the part of the reader.”
- A crop of recent novels express a curious nostalgia for the seventies: “Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity … The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed.”
- Say the apocalypse were to arrive and a world-sundering hellfire rained down upon us. CNN is ready. When Ted Turner founded the company thirty-four years ago, he stipulated that the network’s last functioning employee had to air a certain video before ceasing broadcast at the end of the world. This is it.
January 6, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Everyone says television has entered a new golden age, so it follows that books based on television have entered a new golden age, too. In other words, why write a novel when you can write a novelization? “For publishers, tie-in books have become cash cows that offer instant brand recognition and access to huge fan bases for vastly larger media … ‘Sometimes I meet writers who are like, “Why are you doing this?” but I would be betraying who I am if I said I’m never going to do this again because it’s beneath me as an artist … I combat the idea that these can’t be good novels.’ ”
- Breaking: some hooligan has made off with the bronze plaque that hangs on Mark Twain’s grave marker in Elmira, New York. Authorities have ensured that it’s not on eBay.
- Our literary critics have become less egotistical over the decades—have they also lost the touch? “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”
- And Vanity Fair has done something of an about-face, too, if you look at its history. “That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies,” but the early iteration of the magazine, edited by Frank Crowninshield, “sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing.”
- Rediscovered credos on typography from a 1964 issue of Print magazine: “Is the typographer a prophet or a propagator of a new faith? Typography should be allowed individuality … [but] the aim of typography must not be expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill … Typography is a servant and nothing more.”