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Posts Tagged ‘books’

Man in Hole II: Man in Deeper Hole

March 19, 2015 | by

Assigning emotional values to words.

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Last month I wrote about Matthew Jockers’s research on the shapes of stories, which has since met with a welter of reactions within and without academe. His critics ask two questions, essentially: Is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?

A rough primer: Jockers uses a tool called “sentiment analysis” to gauge “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction”; algorithms assign every word in a novel a positive or negative emotional value, and in compiling these values he’s able to graph the shifts in a story’s narrative. A lot of negative words mean something bad is happening, a lot of positive words mean something good is happening. Ultimately, he derived six archetypal plot shapes. (To his credit and my chagrin, he’s refrained from giving them catchy names.) Here’s an example: Read More »

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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.

This Tuesday: Paul Beatty and Lorin Stein in Conversation

March 9, 2015 | by

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New Yorkers: join us tomorrow at McNally Jackson, where our editor Lorin Stein will appear in conversation with Paul Beatty. Paul’s new novel, The Sellout, is out now; the Guardian calls it “a galvanizing satire of post-racial America,” and Sam Lipsyte noted its “spectacular explosion of comic daring, cultural provocation, brilliant, hilarious prose, and genuine heart.”

The event begins at seven P.M. See you there!

Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by

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Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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A Room of One’s Own (With Someone to Make the Bed)

March 2, 2015 | by

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For the past two years, we’ve partnered with the Standard, East Village, in downtown Manhattan, to find a Writer-in-Residence—someone with a book under contract who could use three weeks in a hotel room. Last summer’s winner, the poet Ansel Elkins, from Greensboro, North Carolina, was profiled by The New Yorker during her stay. “I come down here with a book until I feel awake,” she said in the hotel restaurant, “and I watch the parade of fine-looking men in suits. You don’t get that in Greensboro.”

Today through April 8, we’re accepting applications for our next residency. No dishes, no distractions, just a quiet room in the center of everything. The residency will last the first three weeks in July; once again, applicants must have a book under contract. Applications will be judged by the editors of The Paris Review and Standard Culture. You can find all the details here. (We’ll answer your most burning question in advance: yes, the room includes free breakfast and free coffee.)

The Junket-Eater

February 26, 2015 | by

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An illustration from Junket Is Nice.

New York Review Children’s Classics has reissued so many wonderful forgotten texts: novels and picture books and nursery rhymes and even the occasional cookbook. But for my money, none is weirder than Dorothy Kunhardt’s 1933 Junket Is Nice.

The prolific Kunhardt is best known for Pat the Bunny, but long before Daddy’s scratchy face was even a twinkle in her eye, the author was animating a far more sinister beard: that of the mysterious Junket-Eater. The plot of Junket Is Nice is as follows: a fat man with a Rasputin-like red beard sits at a table consuming a massive bowl of junket (“a delicious custard and a lovely dessert”). This intrigues everyone; the people come running to view the spectacle. Between gulps, the Junket-Eater challenges the populace to guess why, precisely, he is eating this enormous bowl of junket. They put forth ever-sillier hypotheses, to which the Junket-Eater screams, “WRONG!” for all the world like a red-bearded John McLaughlin. And then a little boy stands up and tells truth to power: “JUNKET IS NICE.” For which effort he receives SOMETHING NICERead More »