- The Swedish Academy keeps its lists of potential Nobel winners confidential for fifty years—meaning that, at last, we can see who coulda been a contender for the 1965 prize in literature. That year it went to the Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, of And Quiet Flows the Don. Among the writers in contention, though, were Nabokov and Borges, neither of whom would ever make the cut. According to his maid, Borges was “tortured” by the annual spectacle surrounding the prize: “On the day of the announcement journalists would queue outside his door. This would happen year after year. The news each time that he had not won would make him very sad.”
- In 1894, communes dedicated to the teachings of Tolstoy began to spring up in England; two of them still exist today, vowing to keep the flames of pacifism, anarchism, and clean Christian living. Kelsey Osgood paid one a visit: “Another community resident, Jo, wearing knee-high Wellingtons and a flashlight on her head, showed me the outhouses and taught me how to sprinkle wood shavings into the bucket to compost the bodily waste. (The shavings were from pine trees that they grow on their land and sell at Christmas.) I thought of how Tolstoy asked a young Desmond MacCarthy, the Eton and Cambridge-educated literary critic and journalist, to empty his own chamber pot while visiting Tolstoy’s grand house at Yasnaya Polyana, because the Count thought it degrading to ask the servants to do it.
- A friendly reminder: mice are people, too, often somewhat literally. Maud Newton has humanized mice on the mind: “According to New Scientist, the researchers put human brain cells into mice by injecting ‘immature glial cells’ from human fetuses into baby mice, where they ‘developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell,’ and became invasive … It’s impossible to know how many kinds of humanized rodents exist, in part because, if you’re a researcher, you can have the mice tailor-humanized just for you. One company claims to provide at least seventy-five hundred strains … So far, whatever discussion exists in the scientific community about how humanized mice themselves might be affected by, for example, having human brain cells, seems to focus on the ways we’ve succeeded in making the mice more like us.”
- The New York Public Library’s special collections department has released some 180,000 images into the public domain. You want postcards? They got postcards. You want maps? They got maps. You want rare images of “Town Ball” and “Old Cat,” two stick-and-ball games that were precursors to baseball? You got rare images of “Town Ball” and “Old Cat,” two stick-and-ball games that were precursors to baseball. “It’s not just a data dump,” said Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America. “It’s a next step that I would like to see more institutions take.”
- If you’ve ever arrived in New York through the Lincoln Tunnel, you’ve probably espied the big red sign for the New Yorker, a hotel whose iconic name has nothing to do with the magazine. This was “the hotel of the traveling salesmen, pilots and aircrew on short layovers, tourists and GIs being shipped to the European Front … If the Waldorf-Astoria were a well-dressed woman in an elegantly feathered hat, the New Yorker would be a salesman in a crumpled suit, drinking a whiskey and soda.” But what goes on there? What went on there? Early photos tell of a glut of Art Deco glamour—and a secret tunnel leading to Penn Station.
A large rat crossed my path last night on Fifty-seventh Street. It came out from under a wooden fence at a vacant lot near Bendel’s, paused for traffic, and then streaked across to the uptown sidewalk, sat awhile in the dark, and vanished. It was my second rat this week. The first was in a Greek restaurant where there are lap-height sills under all the windows. The rat ran along the sills, straight toward, then past me.
“See that?” Will said, sipping from his beer glass.
”Large mouse,” I said.
—Renata Adler, Speedboat
Last night, with everyone feeling the exhaustion that comes from following the news and doing nothing, I ventured out to the grocery store. I thought I might be “coming down with something” and had decided to get a grapefruit. This particular grocery store is more expensive, but it’s very close by and open at all hours.
It was pretty busy. There were probably seven other people on line. And suddenly a little boy shouted, “There’s a mouse!” and legitimate pandemonium broke out. What we saw was not, in fact, a mouse—it was a rat. A very large Norwegian rat, scurrying around the decrepit produce section. Several people shrieked, and seemed to mean it. Others were shouting; there was sporadic running. Read More
- Last night there was a modest ceremony for a little-known prize called the National Book Award. Congratulations to its winners this year: Evan Osnos in nonfiction, for The Age of Ambition; Phil Klay in fiction, for his collection Redeployment; Louise Glück in poetry, for Faithful and Virtuous Night; and Jacqueline Woodson in young people’s literature, for Brown Girl Dreaming. The Daily interviewed Klay earlier this year, and The Paris Review published five of Glück’s poems in our Winter 2007 issue—read one here.
- While we’re at it, why won’t the National Book Foundation bring back its award for translation, which was eliminated in the eighties? “The prize was a model of award-as-activism … Its administrators leveraged the National Book Awards’s clout in service of a category of literature that desperately needed popular attention and validation.”
- Mike Nichols has died at eighty-three. (Not to diminish his incredible accomplishments as a director, but NB: his “Mother and Son” skit with Elaine May is still funny more than half a century later.)
- A new game, Ether One, brings us closer to the experience of dementia: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories … The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.”
- “How does one write a mouse-washing scene? There aren’t a lot of examples in literature, and in any event I didn’t want my mouse-washing scene to be contaminated by the work of other fiction writers.”
Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe was a prominent nineteenth-century chemist—a pioneer in photography and the first to obtain the element vanadium in its pure form. He was also, incidentally, Beatrix Potter’s uncle. In 1906, he wrote,
I also wrote a First Step in Chemistry which has had a large sale. With reference to this little book, I here insert a reproduction of a coloured drawing by my niece, Miss Beatrix Potter, as original as it is humorous, which was presented to me by the artist on publication of the work.
Although by 1906 Potter was already the successful author of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and The Tailor of Gloucester, she would’ve been a girl when First Step in Chemistry was published. The image, however, is interesting not merely because of its accomplished style—the precocious Potter received childhood art lessons—but because it recalls her interest in science. While she’s well known now as a conservationist and animal artist, her early scientific interests were broad: she studied archeology and entomology and made a serious study of mycology. Indeed, in 1897 she had a male friend submit her paper “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricinea” to the Linnean Society.
Roscoe supported her in these endeavors: using his university connections, he arranged meetings for Beatrix with prominent botanists and officials at Kew Gardens. The congratulatory picture is a testament to their affectionate relationship. Nevertheless, the image, while fantastic, is peculiar: the mice seem to have taken over the lab by night to conduct risky cheese-toasting experiments with terrifyingly large Bunsen burners. And while the bespectacled lead mouse seems scholarly enough, behind him, the scene is anarchic: the effect is more that of Ratatouille than of a well-organized laboratory. And let’s face it, the resulting treat is less than tempting. The mice are sort of like scientific Tailors of Gloucester—albeit less organized, and less altruistic.