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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Theory and Practice

March 25, 2015 | by

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Walter Gramatté, Trinker (detail), 1922.

Let’s say you’ve had a long day, have a rare evening to yourself, and decide to treat yourself to dinner out. You sit at a restaurant bar with a good book, a glass of wine, your own company. You choose your meal, start to disappear into a story, and then—bam—it’s spoiled by the intrusion of a chatty neighbor. You give your book a regretful, longing look and resign yourself to the opposite of pleasure. 

There are few moments more purely happy than those dedicated to uninterrupted reading, and few more galling than those in which that peace is shattered, abruptly, by a stranger. Read More »

Poetry Costumes

March 12, 2015 | by

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Photo: Jorge Lewinski

In the 1960s, Stevie Smith had a resurgence in popularity. The counterculture had a penchant for taking up older eccentrics—Dr. Bronner, for instance—and when the youth came calling, Smith was ready. After years of relative obscurity, the poet could finally take her place in the limelight. And did she ever.

Smith is a poet worthy of consideration, as Diane Mehta makes clear in these pages. But I’m talking less now about her tricky work than her performance. As the Poetry Archive summarizes it: “In the 1960s Smith built a popular reputation as a performer of her own work, playing up her eccentricity and ceremonially half-singing some of her poems in a quavering voice. She also made a number of broadcasts and recordings, her skillful and extensive use of personae lending itself particularly well to reading aloud.” Wrote the Financial Times of a 1969 performance at Festival Hall: “The small faun-shifted figure who darted on to the platform to open the second half was Stevie Smith, and she is a star.” Performance poetry—led by the New York School and later taken up by writers like Michael Horovitz and Beckett—had become popular in the UK, and this was clearly Smith’s medium. Writes Laura Severin in her essay “Becoming and Unbecoming: Stevie Smith as Performer,” Read More »

Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by

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Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Operation Keep Faulkner Sober, and Other News

March 3, 2015 | by

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William Faulkner, in 1954, in a portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

  • After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he was a hot commodity abroad—he traveled to many foreign lands to bang the drum for the U. S. of A., which would’ve been fine, had he not been such a lush. The State Department circulated a memo called “Guidelines for Handling Mr. William Faulkner on His Trips Abroad,” designed to help agents curb Faulkner’s drinking. Their advice ranged from the obvious (monitor his liquor cabinet) to the subtle: “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up.”
  • Twenty-five years late, a novelist has at last completed and delivered her tenth-grade term paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her (perhaps convenient) conclusion: it’s about shame. “Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less … Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes.”
  • Why are there so many more aspiring writers than aspiring readers? “I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.”
  • Paul Beatty has an enviable gift: he “can turn a sacred cow into hamburger with just one sentence.” His new novel The Sellout takes on race in America, sparing “no person or piety”: “The only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement,” he writes, “is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.”
  • René Magritte, comedian: “It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes … relying upon a simple (almost mathematical) function, like reversal or negation.”

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Reading’s Journey from Chore to Passion, and Other News

February 4, 2015 | by

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Gaston de la Touche, L’ennui, 1893.

  • We begin with the decline and fall of the English major: Have our nation’s youth really found something better to do? “If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral,” one professor said, “we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in fifteen.” Another theorized that “many students who would prefer to declare humanities majors might be challenged or advised to declare a ‘practical major.’ ”
  • But even those of us who threw caution to the wind and majored in English have not done such a hot job of pursuing literature in other languages. “About 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry.”
  • Still, shouldn’t we congratulate ourselves for living in an era when reading is regarded as a joy, a passion, rather than as a necessary, bland consequence of rhetorical culture? “For a long time, people didn’t love literature. They read with their heads, not their hearts (or at least they thought they did), and they were unnerved by the idea of readers becoming emotionally attached to books and writers. It was only over time—over the century roughly between 1750 and 1850—that reading became a ‘private and passional’ activity, as opposed to a ‘rational, civic-minded’ one.”
  • Today, by contrast, we’re so in love with literature that one can earn seven hundred dollars a week simply by writing poems on the subway. And they don’t have to be good poems, either. (“Faint sweeps / Of sea breeze / In the light stream of / Water … ”)
  • Most of us prefer to write in private—others of us have no choice. Anna Lyndsey has a rare illness that makes her skin burn whenever she’s exposed to light, even the light of an iPhone. She lives in darkness. She gets her news from the radio. She writes. “She found that, with practice, she could write in her head—marshal thoughts into sentences, arrange sentences into paragraphs—before writing longhand in a notebook. It was liberating, not being able to see her words on the page. Darkness, it seems, is also a cure for self-consciousness.”

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The Not-so-open Road

January 20, 2015 | by

Hoarding books across the country.

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Photo: Frank Kovalchek, via Flickr

Fourteen years ago, my mom bought herself a Volkswagen Jetta, and this Christmas she passed it on to me. My girlfriend Sheena and I did what anyone would: we packed our bags and set a course for Iowa.

What I mean is that we took an old-fashioned road trip, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, and Iowa City was our first port of call. If Sheena and I had set out in the summer we might have shot straight west into South Dakota and beyond, but in winter our rusting station wagon seemed about as likely to make it through the Rockies as to successfully invade Russia. Instead, we drove south through Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma, in search of warmer climes and easier roads. People sometimes complain that the Midwest is too flat, but that quality has its consolations. Mountains, like high heels, are attractive but impractical—especially in the snow. Read More »

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