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Posts Tagged ‘language’

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

They Call It “Photography,” and Other News

June 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Adolphe Braun

  • In the seventies, Barbara Williamson founded the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, “a nudist community that promoted personal freedom through open marriage and group-sex parties.” She became known as “the most liberated woman in America,” but in 1975 the foundation closed for good and Williamson, leery of the Reaganism to come, dropped off the map. Now Alex Mar has paid her a visit and found that she’s raising big cats: “Barbara asks me to choose from the boxes of tea in the open cupboard—‘Lemon ginger? Green? Chamomile?’—as the lynx has rounded the corner from the living room and is now trailing me from one counter to the next. She is making a sound that’s unmistakable, even to someone who has never before spent time with an exotic cat. A deep, low, insistent growl … Barbara shoos the lynx away, but the animal does not listen.”
  • I love book reviews, but sometimes they’re just so long—so subtle! Some parts of the book are good, some parts are bad, some parts kind of depend, blah, blah … It’s like, why don’t you just give the book a fucking letter grade and be done with it, so I can pursue my reading life with the standards of a Consumer Reports subscriber? Fortunately, Book Marks is here, the new “Rotten Tomatoes of Books” that assigns every book a grade. The only problem: every book passes with flying colors. Alex Shephard writes, “Nearly all of the more than 100 books graded by Book Marks seem to be worth reading, which renders it somewhat useless as a recommendation resource … If it is doing exactly what it was designed to do—reflecting the current state of literary criticism—then the real problem is that literary criticism, like America’s universities, is suffering from severe grade inflation.”
  • In London, a new show, “Seizing the Light: Photography in the Age of Invention,” gathers some of the earliest examples of photography from the nineteenth century, when “pioneers began to document the world around them with unprecedented accuracy … [Prince Albert] and Queen Victoria, who had a darkroom in Windsor Castle, were early photography enthusiasts … As well as portraits of Pope Pius IX and Franz Liszt, Adolphe Braun made Alpine and Alsatian landscapes, and specialized in carbon print reproductions.”

A Female President for the Nineties, and Other News

June 6, 2016 | by

Photo: Peter Lindbergh/DKNY

  • We’re closer than ever to electing a woman president—a political outcome that seemed fantastical even in 1992, when Donna Karan made an almost farcically outlandish ad campaign called “In Women We Trust” depicting a woman in high office: “Karan’s ads make the presidency look like it was art-directed by Lana Del Rey—all slo-mo and high contrast, shallow focus and delicate, practiced ennui. In Madame President’s ticker-tape parade, her crisp oxford blows open to reveal a presidential décolletage supported by what looks like a black lace bustier. She juggles childcare duties with required reading in a tube top. Our suspiciously youthful commander-in-chief commands the respect of her old, male associates in double-breasted pinstripes and a skirt slit up to there, hair always blown back, nary a part nor pore in sight. It’s a dream within a dream: A woman makes it to the top of the political food chain with her composure, mood lighting, and sensual wardrobe intact.”
  • Indonesia is enormous, beautiful, heterogeneous, populous … but no one is bringing its literature into English, Louise Doughty writes: “There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarize them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honor at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner ‘17,000 islands of imagination,’ a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation … As yet, little of its literature has been translated into English … According to Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesia’s most well-known public intellectual and founder of Tempo magazine, which was banned for a while under the Suharto regime, ‘Asian writing is noticeable only when it comes from the site of calamity. Normally, a prolonged war, preferably one involving the U.S., or a genocide, or a tsunami, brings it to the focus of the world media, and the literary market comes next.’ ”

More Public-spirited Pigs, and Other News

May 27, 2016 | by

Eliot (not pictured) disapproves.

  • As an editor at Faber & Faber, T. S. Eliot had the chance to publish Animal Farm. He declined. And he had sound porcine reasons for doing so, according to a newly digitized letter he wrote Orwell in 1944: “The positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing … After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”
  • Memorial Day has only been around for about 150 years, meaning it’s not terribly old as far as memorials go. Consider instead the Bayeux Tapestry, which likely dates to the 1070s. Alison Kinney writes, “It’s a seventy-by one-half-meter length of linen panels worked in crewel, its madder-, mignonette-, and woad-dyed yarns still as vivid, after a thousand years, as the tints of the Art Nouveau comic strip Little Nemo … The medievalist Valerie Allen writes about the Bayeux Embroidery’s ‘dynamic things grounded in space and time,’ ‘from kitchen utensils to war gear … Objects acquire a kind of agency by exerting their inherent “virtue,” wearing down conventional distinctions between human and non-human to the point that a hand, a sword and a relic can all share in the same phenomenal luminosity.’ The Embroidery itself is just such a luminous agent: a war memorial—a Normandy Beach war memorial, no less. In this place occupied by hundreds of memorials, planned and incidental, fleeting and obdurate, from funerary sculpture to the bunkers that, after seventy years of coastal weather, still bear flamethrowers’ char marks, memorials develop unpredictable, unaccountable vibrancies that can shape the conflicts, even the topography, of later battles. That is, if they can first escape violence, neglect, and ordinary wear and tear.”
  • Because your day needed the phrase intravaginal hardware for the pregnant body in it, here is Sasha Archibald on a thrilling development in consumer electronics: “A company in Spain recently released a new product, the Babypod. The device entails a small roundish speaker … The idea is to insert the speaker inside one’s vagina, like a tampon, and connect the auxiliary jack to an iPhone, from which the mother-DJ selects a playlist. The music is piped in directly where it can be heard best … Women have presumably always enjoyed the utility of an interior pocket, though no one has written this history. The nineteenth-century spirit medium Eva C. had a trick of producing ectoplasm from her vagina, and police report finding jewels and drugs, money and handguns, stolen phones and credit cards. In these cases, the vagina is treated as a secret lockbox—a hiding place no one will think to look, the corporeal equivalent of a buried treasure chest. The Babypod inhabits the woman in a totally different fashion. The very purpose of the device is to announce itself and broadcast sound. It makes the vagina speak. The Vagina Monologues didn’t need to get more literal, but they have.”
  • While we’re in the vicinity of the genitals: “When reporters are forced to write about sportsmen kicking each other in the nuts, what do they write? This week has provided some answers … In ninety-six articles, totaling a little more than fifty thousand words, groin was used 148 times across headlines, body and photo captions. Of course, in sports, groin injuries can mean something very different from your basic knee to the crotch. So at best, this creates unnecessary ambiguity in order to demur from coarser language. The next most frequently used was some form of below the belt with seventeen appearances, followed by nuts with fifteen, low blow with fourteen, a few variations of private parts totaling twelve, between the legs with ten, and balls with nine.”

This Guy Wanted to Sell You Some Furniture, and Other News

May 25, 2016 | by

An 1881 ad for the Brooklyn Furniture Company.

  • Jacob Harris was scoping out some nineteenth-century newspaper ads (don’t judge; this is how some of us get our kicks) when he stumbled upon an ad for the Brooklyn Furniture Company composed entirely of typography—a direct predecessor of the ASCII art that would come more than a century later. “The face resembles modern ASCII art, but it was published at a time—March 20, 1881—that seemed impossibly early,” he writes: “In many newspapers, these early examples of text art vanished not long after they arrived … Apart from the two advertisements I had found, the style apparently never caught on in the Times. But why not? To answer that, I looked more at the Eagle where I found the earliest ads—and where they survived for several decades longer than everywhere else. They are there in 1881, when one bold advertiser filled an entire page with ASCII text. They are there in 1888, when the Eagle advertised its election night almanac in the familiar large letters. They are there all the way up to July 3, 1892, a day the same Brooklyn Furniture Company again ran a half-page ad with their address in large ASCII letters. And, then, on July 5th, they were completely gone, replaced by modern layouts and fancy typography. Those upgrades likely explain, at least in part, what happened. ASCII art flourishes most when technology is limited; you don’t need Print Shop anymore when you can do digital layout on your computer and have an inkjet printer.”
  • In which Edward Docx attends the 2016 British Esperanto Conference: “There are few times in your life that you can be certain that you are doing what nobody else in the world is doing—or has ever done—or will likely do again. This was one of them. I was sitting at a table of six, with a Catalan, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Londoner and a Slovakian, while they munched and guzzled their way through their kareos and had what I can only describe as the most kinetic, exciting and involving conversation in Esperanto that Spice City (of Stanley Street, Liverpool) is ever going to witness. The animation. The jokes. The asides. The soliloquys. The antanaclasis. Oh, if only I had known what they were talking about I could have … I could have told you. But I was converted. The whole idea and application of Esperanto was so obviously amazing, so demonstrably persuasive, so self-evidently practical that I forget all over again about English; English; English.”
  • The Internet is a fine place to find good writing. But it’s the best place to find moronic writing—just try. It’s such an effective moronic-writing delivery system that print media got jealous: “There are too many people filling every possible orifice of the Internet with their idiot opinions and comical prejudices and poorly constructed arguments … But: Have you seen what’s not on the Internet? You would think, what with the supposed influence of those who man the precincts offline, away from the free-for-all of our type-and-post world, that there would be safety in the smooth, heavy paper and creamy finish of print … And yet: THEY ARE NOT ALL THAT MUCH BETTER … It turns out most people don’t have anything very interesting to say and they’re actually a lot worse at saying it than we previously anticipated. Also, what no one expected is that shit flows upward, splattering the finer precincts we once looked to for wisdom with the same awful patina of chatty, ‘relatable’ garbage whose ultimate goal is to be passed around without anyone mentioning how gross your palms feel once you hand it off. We were warned and we didn’t listen and now we’re all paying the price.”

The Nostalgia of Constipation, and Other News

May 23, 2016 | by

From a vintage Dulcolax ad.

  • On the streets of English, adverbs are the knockoff Rolex salesmen lurking in the shadows, always ready to sell you something shiny and fake. Christian Lorentzen urges you to stay away: “The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs—also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of moreover, accordingly, consequently, and likewise are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying indeed is tantamount to saying, ‘I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.’ Next time you come across the word meanwhile, ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase of course but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. Nevertheless, nonetheless, and the atrocious however are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word but. But you can never have too many helpings of but, and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.”
  • Today in bowel movements: they’re never as good as they used to be. As Maggie Koerth-Baker writes, “Since at least the Renaissance, Western cultures have fretted about their own bowels while looking back to an imagined past where mankind pooped in peace and harmony. According to James Whorton, professor emeritus of medical history and ethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, modern life has long been considered the ultimate cause of constipation. Take, for instance, a bit of doggerel poetry from mid-1600s England: ‘And for to make us emulate, / The good old Father doth relate / The vigour of our Ancestors, / Whose shiting far exceeded ours’ … More than just nostalgia, though, the belief that modern lifestyles caused constipation was viewed as a medical emergency, on the scale of what we think of the obesity epidemic today.”