- Today in farts: there’s a new movie called Swiss Army Man, and it’s full of ‘em. Don’t write it off as stupid. Don’t pretend you’re not seduced by the fusillade of flatulence. There is life in those farts, Annie Julia Wyman writes: “The idea for Swiss Army Man began with a fart joke: a man trapped on a desert island feeds a corpse beans so that he can ride it back to civilization. But a fart joke—like every increment of comedy, however large or small—is a simple encapsulation of Swiss Army Man’s optimism and of the beneficence, the real miracle, which is art … Movies of this kind are highly wrought, spiritually advanced, super-durable versions of the space inhabited by children and old people, by beginners and artists and students, by those of us who are still learning and always will be: that is, by everyone, if they can let the farts in.”
- The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
- When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
- When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
- For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
- Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”
These images are from the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminist History’s exhibition, on display through Saturday, October 24, at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers’ Rare Gallery, in New York. The show takes its title from a powerful passage in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own about the female novelists of the nineteenth century:
What genius, what integrity it must have required … in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges, to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable … It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can’t buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
The Dobkin Family Collection, amassed over twenty-five years by the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, spans five hundred years and comprises thousands of letters, papers, posters, and ephemera pertaining to women’s advancements in all walks of life. It’s intended to help research and writing on the history of feminism. Among the items on display at “No Gate” are Simone de Beauvoir’s working manuscript for The Second Sex; a lighthouse logbook signed by a young Virginia Woolf, who was apparently later moved to write To the Lighthouse by her experience there; Margaret Sanger’s manuscript notebook for Family Limitation; and a letter from Amelia Earhart on Cosmopolitan letterhead naming her as their aviation editor. Read More
If you enter the New York Historical Society by its Seventy-Seventh Street side entrance, you’ll see before you a smallish chest: a time capsule, the plaque explains, created in 1914 by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association. It was supposed to have been opened in 1974, but everyone forgot about it, so the powers that be decided to wait until this year, the 400th anniversary of the New Netherland charter. In October, they opened it, and the results proved so generally underwhelming and dry—some newspapers, some charters, a few catalogs—that the New York Historical Society was inspired to make a better one.
To ensure that Capsule 2114 would be more hep and happenin’, the society asked high school students to contribute items. These include smartphones, e-readers, a Lady Gaga concert ticket, and a T-shirt that reads, SOME DUDES MARRY DUDES, GET OVER IT.
The problem with any contemporary time capsule is that so much of what’s truly reflective of our culture is ephemeral, and in the literal sense. For instance, any real memorial to the second decade of this century would need to include Someecards. Described by Wired as “the Hallmark of the web,” this wildly popular company combines old-time stock images with cheeky, deadpan captions to create commentary for basically any event in modern life. Belated birthday? Cynical Valentine? Pregnancy scare? Someecards has had you covered for the past five years. As the founder told Wired, “We like to play off the minutiae of life and call attention to it in a funny way. When you’re being honest, stuff comes out that people usually don’t talk about because it’s dark, dirty, or inappropriate.” Read More
I throw myself on your mercy, readers.
For some years now, I have been searching fruitlessly for a long-lost book, and I’m hoping someone out there can help me remember the title. The problem is, I have very little to go on: I know it is a paperback career romance from the late fifties or early sixties. I believe it follows the career of an event planner, or maybe an interior decorator. But it is not—I repeat, not—1964’s Weddings by Gwen, in which wedding planner Gwen Wright gets in over her head with a rich family, a dud boyfriend named Steve, and a cockamamie blackmail plot; nor is it One Perfect Rose, from the same year, in which Prill Sage redecorates a Victorian mansion. (Out of scholarly obligation, I reread both, just to make sure.)
Part of the difficulty is that there is a certain, well, formula to the bulk of these career-romance titles. The Julian Messner series—Nancy Runs the Bookmobile; Lady Lawyer; Lee Devins: Copywriter—are sober, conscientious, and informative. Young woman moves to the city, learns about career in mind-numbing detail, has a dull beau, finds satisfaction in work. In the case of the more entertaining but less educational Valentine and Avalon titles—think Dreams to Shatter (pottery) or A Measure of Love (department-store modeling)—the careers are mere backdrops to lurid and implausible romances, skeletons in closets, and Nancy Drew–style investigations. Read More
Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.
I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.
More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:
“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”
After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library? Read More