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Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

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From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

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Trick Lighting

October 21, 2014 | by

Photo: Walt Stoneburner

I ran into the guy while I was taking a walk through what is now called the Columbia Waterfront District—but then, this was nearly ten years ago.

“Excuse me, do you live around here?” he said. I thought he wanted directions, but it turned out he was a location scout for a small indie film. Did I have a railroad apartment, he wondered, in an older building? I did. And would I be willing to let them shoot there for a few hours?

They came to check it out a few days later. For some reason, their approval seemed important; I scoured the place and had fresh coffee brewing (realtor-style) when they came in. This time it was a director—a middle-aged man—and a few assistants. They conferred a great deal about angles and light and what they’d have to do to make the place work before giving their qualified approval. A shooting time was set.

I had grown to hate that apartment. It had looked nice when we moved in a year before, and had felt like a fresh start. But then had come the months of unpacked boxes and unhung pictures and the day I had a burst of enthusiasm and tried to arrange everything myself. And then the anger at my slapdash methods and the walls of crooked frames, my tears. My boyfriend hated his job and, I think, me. I would walk through the door and find him sitting in the dark. We almost never had people over. And the row of small, windowless rooms, which had initially felt cozy, now looked dark and dreary. Our landlady, who it seemed was in violation of about every housing code, had long since fled the state, so any maintenance—of peeling paint or faulty wiring—was out of the question. I was glad to be forced to clean, to open ourselves up to scrutiny. Read More »

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Rote Learning

October 20, 2014 | by

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A postcard of the Bleecker Street IRT stop, 1905.

“I’ve never seen the point of New York,” someone said to me last week, in a foreign city, upon learning that it was my hometown.

I must confess to being nonplussed by this. I hadn’t fielded such an idiotic remark since middle school. Back then, I would have responded in kind with some nonsense—“Well, since it’s not pyramid-shaped, neither have I,” or something about John Stuart Mill, if I knew about him—but now this did not come so easily. Most of us have long since learned that there’s not much sport in breaking the fine-print clauses of the social contract.

And most of us learn the hard way. My most shameful memory is of creeping around a tree, perhaps in second grade, at Reynolds Field, and hissing, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” at a mystified five-year-old. I knew instantly that I had not conjured the mystery and allure I’d been going for; that I was, in fact, an ass. I have never admitted that before. I wonder if that kid remembers it. I really hope not.

But now I am a grown-up. So I quoted to him one of the few things I know by heart:

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

I finished. We stared at each other blankly.

“That was E.B. White,” I said.

“I meant it rhetorically,” he said.

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Globalization

October 17, 2014 | by

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A German cab in 1971. Photo: Eugen Nosko

You expect to feel humbled when you travel. Strange public transit, alien customs—add a language you don’t speak and it’s an immediately chastening experience. When the residents are so inured to your national arrogance and laziness that they don’t even visibly resent conducting transactions in English, it is more galling still. It’s sort of like being a baby—helpless, barely verbal, sleep deprived—except you can’t throw a tantrum. On the contrary, you are often expected to conduct business.

All this I expected. I was even impressed and charmed, on my first visit to Berlin, to find people eager to discuss Spinoza in restaurants and quote Schiller on the plane. Here is what (or who) I did not expect: my cab driver to the airport. It’s not that I was shocked by his exquisite English, his verbatim recitations of Kleist, or his strangely in-depth knowledge of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I wondered about the Finnish literature they featured … Well, I try to keep up with such things.”) Here is what was deeply intimidating: he had actually read Patrick Modiano. And not just La Place de l’Étoile! “But not all thirty,” he said.

On the plane, I was seated between the aforementioned Schiller scholar and a teenage girl. I watched Maleficent and devoted considerable thought to the derivation of the term fruits of the forest, as used to describe that one mix of luridly red berries occasionally found atop old-looking tarts and cheesecakes. The teenager appeared to be writing diligently in a journal; I felt abashed anew. Then I glanced down at the page and, from her rounded, teenage-girl handwriting, I could see that it was a list of German words: a food diary. Before I looked away, I clearly saw a sentence beginning “Mein chicken nuggets.”

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Final Chapter

October 16, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Kleist from Die Gartenlaube, 1858.

On November 21, 1811, the writer Heinrich von Kleist shot his beloved, the terminally ill Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on the banks of Kleiner Wannsee. The innkeeper who housed them the night before described the couple, thirty-four and thirty-one, as cheerful and voluble; Kleist wrote in a final letter to his sister that he viewed death with “inexpressible serenity.” Although controversial, troubled, and financially unsuccessful in his day, he went on to achieve a monumental posthumous reputation and is today regarded as one of the finest writers—playwright, philosopher, and novelist—in the German canon.

Vogel was herself an accomplished intellectual. Theirs is one of the most famous suicide pacts in history, but the details are hazy—some accounts say the suicide was her idea, others that she wasn’t even his first choice, a theory espoused by the recent film Amour Fou. The exact location of the bodies is unknown.

Because of the nature of their deaths, Kleist and Vogel were denied church burial and were instead interred where they fell, by the lake. An immediate tourist attraction for romantic rubberneckers, the gravesite fell into disrepair for most of the nineteenth century. It was freshened up when Kleist was claimed by late-century nationalists and was commemorated with a large, Nazi-style stone for the 1936 Olympic Games. (The Nazis claimed Kleist as theirs, too, but they had to redo the stone when they discovered they’d accidentally inscribed it with a quote by the Jewish poet Max Ring.)

In 2011, the site was given the grand bicentennial treatment: paths were laid through the nearby woodlands, the area was landscaped, and both Kleist and Vogel were given fresh markers; hers is new, his is the old stone turned 180 degrees and inscribed, once again with the Ring quote: “He lived, sang and suffered / in gloomy and difficult times / he sought death here / and found immortality.” 

The site is easy to visit; it’s on what’s now the southernmost edge of Berlin, a short walk from the S-Bahn Station through the woods. And when the sun shines off the lake and filters through the yellowing branches, it’s heart-catchingly beautiful.

I don’t know any Kleist by heart—one wishes to be the sort of person with reams of quotations at her fingertips in such moments, and I, instead, had to look up what I wanted on my phone. I was thinking of Kleist’s well-known essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” collected in the fabulous On Dolls. These are its closing lines:

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

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Epicurean Materialism

October 15, 2014 | by

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Photo: Clemcal, via Flickr

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.
―Baruch Spinoza

A little after nine, on the western outskirts of Berlin, we tried to find a bite. The first restaurant was filled with merry revelers and contained a video of a brightly burning log, but we were informed that a party was in progress, which went some way toward explaining the five dirndls, two pairs of lederhosen, and single loden jacket on the premises. That left us with a single option: the train-station restaurant.

The train-station restaurant appeared to be closed but was in fact merely deserted. A visibly drunk waiter gave us our choice of any table in the two massive dining rooms. Both were funereal, brightly lit by a series of 1980s chandeliers and enlivened by sepulchral muzak. The menu was strange and dubiously cross-cultural; we ordered dumplings. The drunk waiter conferred with a man in chef’s whites in the corner while they stared at us.

Some minutes later, the chef himself approached our table. They were out of everything but turkey dumplings, he said. Would we like turkey dumplings? The answer was obviously no, but we smiled and said, Of course, and sure enough, the turkey dumplings appeared. Aware of potential scrutiny, we feigned great enthusiasm. The drunk waiter, who had started hiccuping cartoonishly, wove by a couple of times. To our immense relief, a small group of Japanese tourists wandered in and sat on the other side of the dining room.

It was at about this time that the chef reappeared at our table. He was carrying a plastic bag and smiling mysteriously. From the bag, he removed a book. He put it down on the table with an air of revelation. We looked at it. It was a German copy of Spinoza’s Ethics. Read More »

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