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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Don’t Read This Book

March 17, 2015 | by

elasticwebbing

Avoid.

When I saw the cover of Clifford A. Richmond’s The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing (1946) making the rounds on Tumblr, I knew at once I had to have it. I don’t know why, in retrospect. I paid seventeen dollars for a used copy. I have made a mistake.

I imagined—based solely on the presence of Romance in the title, and that handsome gilt typeface—that Richmond would be a lively historian, an eccentric, an obsessive, dedicated to teasing out the poesy in elastic webs. This thing will practically excerpt itself, I thought. Imagine the untapped, Internet-breaking power of this man’s elastic rhapsodies! Imagine the hilarity trapped beneath his industrious self-seriousness! Read More »

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Jane Austen: Teen Historian, and Other News

January 30, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Henry VII by Cassandra Austen, Jane’s sister.

  • In 1791, a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen wrote The History of England, a satirical pamphlet “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring watercolor illustrations by her sister, Cassandra.
  • Out of print and in demand: What are the most sought-after books no longer being published? Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) leads the list—there’s also “an enthusiast’s guide to building bamboo fly-rods” and Madonna’s Sex.
  • Tom Stoppard’s new play is opening at the National Theatre in London. Tickets are very hard to come by—it might be easier just to write your own Tom Stoppard play. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Remember, “what you’re aiming for is intellectual sparring that manages to be tragic and comic at the same time, while alluding to a universal emotional truth and revealing a vast, in-depth knowledge of the literary canon. Basically like the way you think you talk to your oldest friend when you’re both drunk. Do not shy away from paradox and metatextuality!”
  • Or maybe you’d rather try your hand at some fiction from Africa. In 2006’s How to Write About Africa, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised, “Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title … be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention ... Africa is doomed.” But in the years since he made those pronouncements, “writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled … This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak … This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.”
  • One man’s intrepid journey into the craft of hand-making lace: “I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no.”

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Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

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A. Rötting, In the Morning, 1840.

Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.

But what’s so wide about it?

To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.
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Panties Inferno: An Interview with Peter Larkin

January 15, 2015 | by

Making a pop-up book about burlesque.

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Peter Larkin

My mother Racelle, a painter, met the production designer Peter Larkin in the midsixties when she went to work for him as a scenic artist. After my parents divorced, Peter and Racelle became an item, eventually marrying. Peter had a long, Tony Award–winning Broadway career and then moved into film, designing pictures like Tootsie and Get Shorty. He’s a brilliant illustrator, as well—Ralph Allen, who’d conceived the musical Sugar Babies, collaborated with Peter on his book The Best Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turns out, is one of Peter’s great obsessions. Over the past twenty years, he’s created a mass of drawings, mock-ups, and maquettes for Panties Inferno, a pop-up book on the subject. Now eighty-eight, he continues to refine the work, though publishers have told him the book is too expensive to manufacture and publish—something about the glue points. But his pop-ups and drawings are wonderful, a testament to his comprehensive knowledge of the old burlesque scene. I called him to talk about his process and the basis of his fascination with burlesque as well as its history, which he feels has been mischaracterized since burlesque began to die out in the late fifties and early sixties.

Where does burlesque begin, for you?

The word burla is some kind of antique Italian. It means “joke,” and the first burlesque was imitations of what went on uptown. It was a family affair. People brought their lunches and stuff. Florenz Ziegfeld had The Ziegfeld Follies, which probably cost a lot of money—that show had nude ladies in tableaux, but they were forbidden to move. The curtain opened on Aladdin’s cave, say, or an artist’s studio, and all the ladies were still.

But in the early twentieth century, forward-thinking people like the Minsky brothers, of Minsky’s Burlesque, made it so that for a lot less money you could go and see the women moving. It changed tremendously through the years. These acts started out with a preponderance of acts and comics and maybe one or two strippers, and as it went on, more and more time was given over to strippers. The comics were furious. They started to use bluer material, to get even. Read More »

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Are You Okay?

January 9, 2015 | by

okay

Illustration: Mohamed Ibrahim

As the hostage situation in Paris unfolds, the correspondents on CNN keep using the word okay. Are the hostages okay, how many are okay, et cetera. Okay means “alive,” of course. It’s a strange euphemism.

We have all heard the theories: OK is of Choctaw derivation, or possibly West African. Some linguists attribute it to the “comical misspellings” craze of the 1830s, while others cite Martin Van Buren’s Old Kinderhook campaign, or attempts to lampoon Andrew Jackson as an illiterate who couldn’t manage “all correct.”  

What is pretty generally agreed is that the first published usage dates from 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Describing an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the paper reports: Read More »

The Quick and Easy Way to Become a Pig, and Other News

December 5, 2014 | by

1888

“Between Two Evils,” from Puck magazine, 1888.

  • “The kinds of books we’ve decided to ‘note’ have changed over time, and so have the books that loom largest in our imaginations or that we urge on our friends, even if similar books have been around all along. In other words, it may be the readers who have changed as much as (if not more than) the titles made available to us.” A history of the New York Times Notable Book list …
  • … and a history of humankind’s antipathy for drunkards—specifically their drunk, decaying bodies. “To [Edward] Bury, the most comparable creature to the drunkard was the swine, as drunkards seemed to take great pleasure in wallowing in their own vomit, dung, and the dirt. Drunkards even came to resemble swine by crawling about, after losing control over their ability to walk; though, while beasts are serviceable in this manner, Bury remarked, ‘the Drunkard [is] good for nothing but to spend and consume.’ ”
  • There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a ‘youth relaxation complex,’ which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man’s name.”
  • Want a way of predicting if a new word will become a fixture of the language or simply fade away? Use the FUDGE system (Frequency of use; Unobtrusiveness; Diversity of users and uses; Generation of other forms and meanings; Endurance of the concept).
  • Pantone’s color of the year is Marsala, “a reddish-brown shade that’s not quite as bright as Adobe clay but not as deep as brick … slightly more pink than your basic brown.”

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