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Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

Briggflatts, Bibliophagy, and Other News

June 22, 2016 | by

"You'll eat your words," God said, and lo, Ezekiel did. (Source

“You’ll eat your words,” God told Ezekiel, and lo, Biblical literalism was born. Image via Gallica.

  • If your daily commute this past year was anything like mine, then your daily commute was nothing like Basil Bunting’s in 1965. That was the year Bunting composed Briggflatts, his magnum opus, while riding the train to and from his day job as a newspaper subeditor. Bunting started the poem not long after Tom Pickard showed up at his door and told him, “I heard you were the greatest living poet.” (At the time, Bunting had not published anything in thirteen years; he later said he wrote Briggflatts “to show the boy how it was done.”) The result, first published fifty years ago, in Poetry, was, as August Kleinzahler has it, “a very particular Northumbrian British flowering of all that Pound and Eliot had earlier achieved in their modernist project, while at the same time more emotionally freighted, more ‘human’ than The Cantos or The Waste Land.” 
  • Ask my sixteen-month-old whether books ought to be devoured or digested and he’ll be quick to demonstrate, locking jaws on his favorite compendium of fire-truck photos, that he’s a “both and” kind of guy. In the eighteenth century, it seems, the question was merely metaphorical: “Educational manuals, essays and advice books pitted ‘digestion’ against ‘devouring’ in order to slow down the increasingly fast-paced reading habits of their modern world, realigning reading with the process of character formation. ‘Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food … for want of digesting it by proper Reflections,’ cautioned Isaac Watts in The Improvement of the Mind (1741). This distinction allowed writers to position ‘digestive’ reading as an ethical ideal, while condemning ‘devouring’ as unthoughtful and hedonistic.”
  • I stopped watching Game of Thrones when I realized that the show existed only to supply grist for Sarah Larson’s ecstatic mill. Why watch the rough draft when you can go straight to the finished objet? This week’s episode pushed her to peak form: “A snow begins to fall, and Sansa, fittingly, gets the last word with Ramsay, who’s tied up in a dungeon, with the vibe of Hannibal Lecter. ‘Hello, Sansa,’ he whispers. She gives him a good cold speech and then reminds him that he hasn’t fed his dogs. Ah, the old bark-and-chew. Never have I been so happy to see someone’s face pounded in, then eaten off by his own dogs. Sansa watches calmly, then smiles. You’ve come a long way, baby. Or she’s become a monster, and so have I.”
  • In March, the New York Times held a three-day conference in Qatar, which featured Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, and Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the newspaper’s publisher and chairman. The conference addressed such themes as “What is the civic responsibility of the collector in the digital age?” and “How can true, untrammelled, artistic creativity be harnessed in the service of social and economic wellbeing?” It did not, apparently, worry much about what “true, untrammelled, artistic creativity” might mean in a country that imprisoned a poet, Mohammed al-Ajami, for writing poems that criticized Qatar’s autocratic emir: “The inflammatory issues of the region’s present—censorship, labor rights, dynastic succession—are left unaddressed in the Times’s plenary sessions. Rather, the proceedings circulate around the placid lexicon of TED Talks, platitudes of futurism veering into the apolitical and commercial. But in Qatar, you cannot separate politics from art, in large part because the emir’s family is the patron of the arts.” 

Tarnishing the Golden Ratio, and Other News

June 5, 2015 | by


Igor Kochmala distorts celebrity faces with the golden ratio. Photo via Wired

  • Two centuries ago, book critics were a reliably truculent bunch, their knives always sharpened, their authority indisputable—what happened to journals like Blackwood’s, which had what Karl Miller later called “squabash, bam, and balaam”? “Parody, personality, and headlong jollity summed up the Blackwood's manifesto, while imitation, masquerade, and double bluff lay at the heart of its personality. The contributors, who hid behind noms de plume, imitated both one another and themselves, and passed themselves off as sometimes real and sometimes fictitious characters.”
  • When you’re next inclined to wring your hands over the state of mass media, don’t—it’s always been full of down-market sensationalism, and it’s always appealed to our inner morons. Yes, even the New York Times: “Here’s a story from July 7, 1884 that has all the Facebook-ready hyperbole and anthropomorphism of ‘15 Llamas Who Just Do Not Give A Damn’: ‘THE PARROT’S LITTLE JOKE.; HE HIDES HIMSELF FROM HIS MISTRESS AND THROWS HER INTO A FIT OF ANGUISH.’ ”
  • The Bloomsbury Group has inspired new novels, a ballet, a TV series, exhibitions, and—lest we forget—an economics prize; it sometimes seems the group’s reputation has never been higher. “But it is not long since the most recent round of Bloomsbury-bashing, a century-old sport often said to have started when the painter Wyndham Lewis fell out spectacularly with Roger Fry, over (of all things) a commission to create a display for the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home show … By the 1950s, Bloomsbury’s unfashionableness was a fact. Writings by the survivors took on an aggrieved and defensive tone: literary critic and broadcaster Desmond MacCarthy dismissed the term Bloomsbury as a ‘regional adjective’; Clive Bell claimed they had never been more than a group of friends; Vanessa suggested Bloomsbury was finished before the first world war.”
  • Ah, sweet 1.618, the golden ratio, that ancient proportion of aesthetic bliss, that geometric path to pulchritude—there are those among us who hold it up as the sine qua non of artistic appeal. And yet if you rearrange celebrities’ faces according the ratio, you wind up in the realm of sheer disfigured horror.
  • Sam Lipsyte on time travel as a chance to right the world’s wrongs: “the do-gooder package tour, the warn-Pompeii-kill-Hitler itinerary. It’s a dicey proposition, messing with the past. But wouldn’t my intrusions cancel each other out if I brought a teen Hitler to Pompeii just before Vesuvius blew? ‘I’ll leave you here,’ I’d say. ‘The new arts academy is just over that ridge!’ ”

Printing Wikipedia, and Other News

April 3, 2014 | by


“Printers,” from the Trousset encyclopedia, Paris, 1886–1891.



A Brief History of the Snowball Fight

February 13, 2014 | by

snowball fight

Venceslao Boemo, January, c. 1400.

My colleague Stephen sent along this clipping earlier today, from an 1855 issue of the New York Times.


Nor is this the only recorded instance of snowball-related violence.

January 29, 1863: Confederate troops stationed in the Rappahannock Valley in Northern Virginia begin exchanging friendly snowball fire. This escalates to a nine-thousand-rebel brawl.


This is what happens when you put rocks in your snowballs.

January 12, 1893: Some rambunctious Princeton sophomores engage in a rock-laced snowball fight. This is the result.

The Great Depression: Snowballs (aka snowcones) are known as “hard times sundaes.”

August 17, 1945: Animal Farm is published.

Summer, 1958: My dad (or rather, the boy who will, decades later, become my dad) and his friends decide it will be the coolest thing ever if they freeze snowballs during the winter so they can have a snowball fight in July. First snowball—now pure ice—results in eight-year-old Joel Bernstein taken to the hospital for stitches.

January 7, 2013: A German teacher, hurt in a snowball fight with students, sues the school board and succeeds in getting it classified a work injury.

February 13, 2014: A brother and sister, maybe five and three, are having a snowball fight under my window. She repeatedly screams, “WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE ROAD? TO GO TO THE BATHROOM!” He throws a snowball at her face; she falls down, crying.


Move Over, Big Town

January 15, 2014 | by


More calculated than you’d think. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Last night, a circa-1877 water main burst on Fifth Avenue near East Thirteenth Street, resulting in substantial flooding and, one imagines, a grueling night for any number of MTA workers. Reports the New York Times on the City Room blog,

Basements were flooded when it cracked, but there were no injuries, said Michael Parrella, a Fire Department spokesman.

Fifth Avenue remains closed between 14th and 12th Streets. The break opened up a big hole in Fifth Avenue that repair crews were working on.

Buildings along Fifth Avenue from 14th to 12th Streets were without water this morning, the Department of Environmental Protection said.

A reader reported that buildings on 10th Street also remained without water.

The A, C, E, B, D, F, M, and Q trains all had to be rerouted, so needless to say the morning commute was disrupted for a lot of people and, if you read Twitter, was basically the Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened. People were inconvenienced, and the world needed to know.

Easy for me to say. Now that I am working from home, I don’t need to be on the subway by nine anymore—and believe me, I understand how crushing it can be to watch six trains stream past, knowing all the while that the first to open its doors will be packed beyond the dictates of civilization, sanitation, or fire safety. Usually in such situations there is a hapless MTA representative at the station who fields the queries of the baffled tourists and furious New Yorkers who have all been Personally Inconvenienced by any such mishap. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have both an entire preschool class and a high school field trip waiting on the platform with you.

As it happened, I did need to be on the subway early this morning. But I decided to hoof it the two miles downtown. It wasn’t, in fact, the scrum of angry commuters, or the cranky children and their poor, harassed minders, or even the prospect of the long wait that made my decision for me. It was the “Jailhouse Rock” guy.

The “Jailhouse Rock” guy is normally one of my favorite buskers. He sings only one song—“Jailhouse Rock”—and he sings it on an interminable loop, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, ad infinitum verses same as the first. He has a guitar which he strums enthusiastically and randomly with one hand, while his fret hand lies idle. I have heard people literally groan when they enter the station and realize he is our morning’s entertainment. Once a crazy woman sort of went off on him. He doesn’t care. 

Today I couldn’t do it.

But who cares? We all know what it is to feel imposed upon by musicians during a harried commute. (Likewise, it goes without saying that subway music can be revelatory and interesting. Who at Eighty-Sixth Street wasn’t moved last week by that vet in a wheelchair playing “The Weight” while half the platform joined in on the harmonies?) I’m just another person among thousands, giving money or not giving money, depending on my mood and my finances, on some level thinking of these people with their real lives as somehow a passing soundtrack to my life.

Louis C.K. has a bit about self-absorption. “I can’t believe this is happening to me, ME!” everyone thinks. Because a 127-year-old pipe burst, and hundreds of people had to wade in freezing water overnight fixing it, and others were probably scrambling to prevent everyone being electrocuted, and still others had to reorder all the subway routes, and a man who may or may not be mentally ill was singing a song I didn’t feel like hearing, I walked forty blocks. As the novelty tee would have it, COOL STORY, BABE. NOW MAKE ME A SANDWICH.

Have you seen Jailhouse Rock? Elvis plays a construction worker who accidentally kills a man in a bar brawl, gets one to ten in the state pen for manslaughter, and is taught to play guitar by his cellmate. I won’t get into the whole plot, but suffice it to say, his character encounters a lot of rejection, a lot of class snobbery, and a lot of humiliation. When he does find success, he becomes so self-absorbed that he loses everyone in his life. And “Jailhouse Rock”? It’s a pop song his character writes in a cynical attempt to make it big. The stylized cell-block dance sequence you have seen is in fact a number the Elvis character performs on a Bandstand-style TV show, rather than a lighthearted musical number from a similarly-toned film. The original title was The Hard Way.

Although box-office sales were healthy, Jailhouse Rock received mixed reviews; several critics apparently didn’t like that a film for young people featured an antihero. During filming, one of Presley’s dental caps got lodged in his lung and he had to be hospitalized. Costar Judy Tyler was killed in a car crash two weeks after the film wrapped, and Elvis was so depressed that he didn’t attend the premiere.

As they say, everyone’s a critic. The MTA reports that service has mostly resumed, with delays. No one got a tooth in his lung.

Oh, and for the first time, today, that guy wasn’t playing “Jailhouse Rock.” He was playing “Tutti Frutti.”


Novels a Waste of Time, Says Noel Gallagher, and Other News

October 22, 2013 | by


  • Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is apparently igniting fresh interest in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. “She had relationship issues, and I was in the same boat,” one hiker and Strayed fan tells the New York Times.
  • A baby boy was born in a California Barnes & Noble. Mother and child are reportedly doing well.
  • “Novels are just a waste of fucking time,” says Noel Gallagher.
  • His remarks, declares the Guardian, are “a valuable contribution to the debate around books and literature’s role in modern society.”