The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Don’t Like the Cover? Sew Your Own, and Other News

July 21, 2015 | by

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Elizabeth Sandwich’s 1759 hand-stitched Bible cover. Image: Provenance Online Project

  • If you like asking big questions about, say, the presence of sentient life-forms elsewhere in the universe, then look to science fiction, which at its best functions philosophically: “What, then, does it really mean to be alone or not alone? If you are alone, are you by definition lonely—with the yearning that implies? What does yearning do to warp the results of an inquiry? … A circle looks at a square and sees a badly made circle. If we’re going to ask a question like ‘Are we alone?’, an awareness of our own inconsistent history, our own limitations, is important—and so too is a wider understanding of what exists all around us.”
  • Samuel Delany’s novel Hogg is chock full of rape, incest, and abjection; to read its reviews is to understand “the difficulty of ascribing value to literature that is purposely unpleasant to read.” What are we to make of it—or, more important, how are we to discuss what we mean by enjoyment and disgust? “What happens when readers feel, for instance, aroused while reading Hogg, or when they experience conflicting affective responses? … The body’s responses are nuanced and manifold, and critics require more nuanced and legible terms for understanding them, especially those that are unsettling or unrecognizable.”
  • If that’s too heavy for you, look at this eighteenth-century embroidered worsted-wool Bible cover, a handmade, one-of-a-kind object that functions to individuate in the same way that an iPhone cover does now: “This is a book that was owned by someone with something to show the world … This embroidery work, taken up by a woman in a quiet moment at home 256 years ago, serves as a reminder to us of all we put our names to, all we add of our own selves to the world, and all the ways what we read, view, and watch is wrapped in the colors of our own individual experience.”
  • Joe Gould’s The Oral History of Our Time might just be the longest book ever written—portions of it were secreted away in closets and attics, and its manuscript, all told, was more than seven feet high. In the forties, speculation about the book was rampant, but no one could find it, and its author, an old drunk, wasn’t much help. But we’re in 2015 now. We can find anything. Cue the new search for Gould’s opus, and with it a new set of frustrations.
  • In Russia, censorship takes a host of forms: in recent months, rap groups, blockbuster movies, YouTube sensations, performance artists, opera productions, metal bands, and theater festivals have all fallen afoul of the government. What do they all have in common, according to Russia? They “deny human morality”; they “contradict moral norms.”

Staff Picks: Coates, Cartels, Caesar, Cigarettes

July 17, 2015 | by

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Covers of Slash.

There are writers you know about and writers you read. Before I heard him speak, Ta-Nehisi Coates was only the former to me—he came to my school and spoke to a packed auditorium about American self-conception, idealism, and his role in dislodging us from it. This week I’ve been sprinting through his amazing new book, Between the World and Me. A mixture of personal and cultural, critical and historical, the book is written entirely to Coates’s son, a teenager today. It seems that nearly every comment on Coates is excerpting him, lauding him, or calling him James Baldwin, and these staff picks are short, so I hope to get away with simply nodding my head. Yes, rewarding and complex; yes, generous and intimate; yes, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Yes, an easy book to know about, but a better one to read. One of my clearest memories of his speech was the final question and answer. Someone—an older woman, a professor, I figured—stood up to thank him and asked something like “How do we get these young people to listen to you?” “I’m a writer,” he said. “That’s not my job.” —Jake Orbison

gamelifeAnyone who came of age in the eighties or nineties will grok Gamelife, Michael Clune’s memoir about the computer games of his childhood. But I hope others—those who dismiss gaming as merely narcotic or those who regard old games as curios—will read it, too. Clune captures not just the palm-sweating, self-flagellating thrill of early PC games but their talismanic role in the life of the mind. With their primitive, repetitious designs, these games provided a grammar for children, a way of apprehending the world—I remember feeling it myself, that scary, precarious sense of empowerment, the way reality seemed to bend to accommodate the airtight logic of Pirates! or Wolfenstein 3D. Games, Clune writes, teach us the rules for being alive “in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habit. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” His memoir is also a sharp portrait of post-Reagan America, when communism was vanquished, history was over, and the shopping center was enshrined in the national imagination. —Dan Piepenbring 

If the sophistication of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape last week from a maximum-security prison isn’t enough to convince you of the influence (and the reach) of Mexico’s drug cartels, then Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land will. The film focuses on the leaders of two vigilante groups dedicated to fighting off the cartels—one in the United States (Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley) and one in the Mexican state of Michoacán (Autodefensa, led by José Manuel Mireles). Cartel Land makes no attempts to tell a sanitized or digestible version of the truth; it’s rife with ambiguity, complicity, racism, and brutality. But from all the confusion emerges a compelling—and impressively crafted—narrative arc, one in which resistance, in all its forms, takes center stage amid unimaginable, and seemingly unconquerable, corruption. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

We all love war narratives, those Homeric masterpieces that deliver timeless truths—but Sam Sacks’s piece in the latest issue of Harper’s,First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction,” takes no prisoners. Sacks admits that “war is hell, but its themes make critics purr”; he bemoans the genre’s “self-involvement,” its nearly identical perspectives “of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced,” and its facile emphasis on “personal redemption.” Nearly all contemporary war fiction, he reminds us, has been “cultivated in the hothouse of creative-writing programs. No wonder so much of it looks alike.” His argument is less about war stories and more about competent fiction, the kind that’s lauded for its subject matter and honesty but amounts to simple confession. Takedowns are usually banal, and it’s easy to hit the biggest targets, but this is an important piece: “one of the jobs of literature,” Sacks writes, “is to wake us from stupor. But in matters of war, our sleep is deep, and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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We Fucked on a Volcano, and Other News

June 30, 2015 | by

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Emilie Eisenhut, Vulkanausbruch, 1827, gouache on paper.

  • “One cannot read a book,” Nabokov famously said, “one can only reread it.” That’s pleasant and all—certainly it flatters our sense of elitism, suggesting that “aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best”—but doesn’t it amount to sophistry? “No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment … Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?”
  • Today in the age of mechanical reproduction: the Smithsonian is 3-D printing prehistoric skulls. They have no intention of trying to pass off the replicas as authentic—they just want to share more of their skulls with the world, and 3-D printing them is the easiest way to do so. “Still, the proliferation of replicas does stand to diminish the value of the real thing. The museums that own the original skulls depend on income from visitors and model making, so the Smithsonian will limit production and keep the skulls’ 3-D ‘blueprints’ to itself.”
  • Great news for poets! Bots have obviated the need for your art. They are, in fact, your art. Condolences. “I was thinking of writing a poem about bots, but that’s already so ten minutes ago, and anyway, some bot has already written that poem. Does it matter? These days people are writing poems about fucking on volcanoes. ‘We fucked on a volcano.’ How does that help? … You can expand the poetic field to include ‘we fucked on a volcano’ or even ‘the whole week we fucked on a volcano,’ and you can expand it to include bots, and so what? It’s bigger now … everything is.”
  • Relatedly: conversations between bots are nearly indistinguishable from Beckett plays. Bots are dramatists, too.
    Z.: Then leave.
    Y.: How did you know?
    Z.: Just leave.
    Y.: You leave.
    Z.: No.
    Y.: Yes.
    Z.: I don’t even know how.
  • New to the Oxford English Dictionary: twerk, intersectionality, staycation, presidentiable, SCOTUS.

True Lies

June 24, 2015 | by

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Duane Hanson, Tourists II, 1988, fiberglass and mixed media, with accessories. Image via Saatchi Gallery

On those occasions when I’ve taught, I’ve been struck by something: my students don’t seem to lie about what they’ve read. If you mention a book, and they haven’t read it—or even heard of it—they’ll admit to it without embarrassment, or even self-consciousness. “Can you repeat the title?” they might ask, or, even, “That sounds really interesting!” Refreshing and laudable though this may be, I initially found it disorienting: I seem to remember that my teen and college years involved a lot of phantom reading.

Of course, it’s very possible that my sample is simply less pretentious and more self-confident than I was; those odds are good. But the total absence of fronting, of nodding knowingly, of glancing around furtively to gauge others’ reactions—this seems like an important micro-generational sea change. I had considered pretension an endearing, and enduring, trait of youth—certainly I knew plenty of other kids who went in for this sort of lying. Are people now just more open about who they are? Or does having read a lot not even signify much—is it not even worth lying about? Read More »

Life and Loves

June 4, 2015 | by

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Hugh Bolton Jones, On the Green River, 1900.

The other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s fondness for a certain line of poetry: “Hie me away to the woodland stream,” he would say whenever the brook in the nearby woods was running.

We walked that way almost every day on my visits to California—my grandfather was a great walker—but some summers it was too dry, and the brook was just a dusty furrow. Sometimes we walked around the lake at the Naval Postgraduate School, or on the beach. Always, his strides were so long you could barely keep up. Sometimes, we couldn’t, and he’d move far ahead of us, hunched, hands thrust into the pockets of his flight suit. Read More »

Recurring Characters

June 3, 2015 | by

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Maruyama Ōkyo, Peacock and Peahen, 1781.

I was settled with my papers, my coffee, and a cheese Danish at a bench on a Manhattan traffic island when someone sat down next to me. I glanced up and recognized a now-familiar face. It was the same elderly man I’d first seen in a local supermarket, berating a clerk; last week, I’d encountered him again on Amsterdam Avenue and attempted to buy him a pineapple. He was ubiquitous—or I was. I gave him a cautious nod of greeting.

“Hello,” he said, smiling warmly. “It’s a beautiful day!”

“Yes,” I agreed. He didn’t seem to recognize me. Read More »