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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Banned Books

November 17, 2014 | by

Once Upon a Potty

An illustration from Once Upon a Potty.

Once Upon a Potty was written in 1975 by the Israeli author and illustrator Alona Frankel to help her son toilet train. (Its Hebrew title is Sir Ha-Sirim, literally “Potty of Potties.”) Since it was translated into English in 1980, it’s never gone out of print, and now it’s regarded as a picture-book classic, a helpful resource for the parents of young children. 

It was banned in my house. My mother disliked the use of euphemisms she deemed babyish—wee-wee, potty, “a hole to woo-woo from”—and illustrations she found “creepy” and “disgusting.” I can still recall first hearing what would become one of her most oft-repeated phrases: “I don't care for that at all.” She sniffed at households that owned the book and curled her lip when we saw it on store shelves. 

As a result, Once Upon a Potty took on the luster of the taboo. Like a nineteenth-century schoolboy with a French postcard, I would read it—or, anyway, look at it—furtively whenever I was unobserved: at other toddlers’ houses, in the children’s room of the library, at the local Y where I did tumbling. Particularly shocking to me was the final illustration: the triumphant coil of tempera feces in a puddle of yellow urine. And the accompanying text! Exuberantly babyish, frankly scatological, my mother's nightmare incarnate. “Bye-bye wee-wee,” it reads as the excrement disappears down the toilet. “Bye-bye woo-woo.” Read More »

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Brecht’s Breath, and Other News

November 3, 2014 | by

Bertolt Brecht

Better closed than open, that mouth. Brecht in 1954. Photo: German Federal Archives

  • On Brecht and hygiene: “He was physically repellent. He seldom washed and he smelled. He didn’t brush his teeth, and, consequently, many of his teeth decayed and fell out … Not surprisingly, he suffered halitosis—or rather, others suffered it. Brecht probably thought that, since imitation is the highest form of flattery, he was expressing his solidarity with the proletariat by being dirty. This, however, is insult rather than flattery … Brecht’s dirtiness was a form of condescension, the product of a lack of real interest in what poor people actually wanted.”
  • Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m a man of great wealth and taste. That’s why I’ve got this ten-thousand-dollar Rolling Stones art book sitting prominently, resplendently on my coffee table.
  • Lionel Shriver on the bitch goddess: “I’ve had to revisit a whole era of my own life, during which I imagined I was miserable. I was living in Belfast, and my career was on the rocks. Over this period, I lost my American publisher, and two novels thereafter were released exclusively in the UK. Reviews were agreeable, but sales meager … This is going to sound a stretch, but: those twelve years in the literary wilderness as a nobody, with a horribly high likelihood of getting nobodier? I think I was happy.”
  • Quick and easy advice for reading poetry (and making it, you know, fun): “Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value. They are rooms that take up such little room.”
  • The cinema: Should we give a fuck? “We all know that movies make a lot of money for a few people, provide a living for many, and help most of us pass the time—which is fine, as far as it goes. But beyond that, why should anyone care?”

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Why This Grown-up Reads YA

October 24, 2014 | by

spectrum

When I was a senior in high school, I took a class on Freud in which we read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published not so many years earlier in 1982. Gilligan traced the history of the way in which a female mode of thinking, especially about moral dilemmas, had been diminished and misunderstood by psychologists—not just by Freud, but by others like Lawrence Kohlberg, well-known for his theories of moral development. In answer to an ethical question—Should a man steal drugs for his sick wife?—Kohlberg had found girls to be less developmentally mature than boys, as the girls were unable to respond with a simple no. But Gilligan, a clinical psychologist and researcher, suggested an alternate way of looking at how girls reason, morally or otherwise, that had to do with a much more nuanced understanding about the network of the connections girls felt between themselves and others. As Gilligan describes it, girls saw “in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time.”

The effect In a Different Voice had on me was shattering in the best way: I felt that someone had finally recognized and articulated my predicament as a teenage girl. An old, black-and-white way of thinking—the kind I was at that moment trying to shoehorn myself into at my boarding school, which had only recently become coed—was being put to question. The gender ratio at my school was kept to one-third girls, two-thirds boys, so the girls wouldn’t “overwhelm” the boys, or so I was told. Urinals stood sentinel in our bathrooms, as if waiting until the whole thing went back to the boys. We even wore boy’s clothes—preferably our fathers’ or boyfriends’. It was mens sana in corpore sano all the way, but it was the boys’ corpora everyone was trying to emulate. Read More »

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Another Bartleby, and Other News

October 23, 2014 | by

Black_Country_–_Borinage

Constantin Meunier, Pays noire (Black Country—Borinage), ca. 1893, oil on canvas.

  • “On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book. He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: ‘Ita macula’—this stain—‘I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.’ ”
  • On George Whitman, the eccentric founder of Shakespeare and Company: “He could be welcoming. He could be gruff. He could be charismatic. He could be aloof … This was, after all, a man who on occasion expressed himself by throwing books at people, sometimes affectionately, sometimes less so—a love-hate gesture, or so it sounds, not unlike Ignatz Mouse hurling bricks at an eternally besotted Krazy Kat.”
  • Novelists, here is your picaresque, contemporary Bartleby: an Italian coal miner who shirked work for thirty-five years and is now collecting his pension. “I invented everything—amnesia, pains, hemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb … Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work—being a miner was not the job for me.”
  • Let’s trade fossil casts: “In the first part of the twentieth century, casts of fossil specimens were key to paleo sciences. Because actual fossils were too valuable and rare to ship to international researchers, casts of fossils circulated in their stead … Paleoanthropologists would offer to trade casts of ‘their’ fossils to other researchers in different areas of the world, who had different looking specimens—the casts became a social currency.”
  • In praise of reading plays: “A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head, a mental effort that matters more in reading a play than in reading any other kind of literature.”

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Design for Living

September 25, 2014 | by

designedbystaceyAt the age of fifteen, I embarked upon a get-rich-quick scheme that I incidentally felt was a really valuable public service. I planned to make audio recordings of the various midcentury career romances I’d collected, and then to somehow duplicate them, sell them to a clamoring public, and make my fortune. Of legal issues, recording technology, and demand, I knew nothing. But I was armed with my dad’s tape recorder, a dream, and a copy of Designed by Stacey.

I’ve written about Marcia Miller’s 1967 masterpiece before, for Jezebel, and I stand by my endorsement of it:

What it lacks in accurate depiction of the fashion industry, it more than makes up for with wild plot twists, vague anti-Semitism, and amazing sixties clothes. Indeed, I would go so far as to call DbS the gateway drug of career romances: lite on career, heavy on bizarre, and one hell of a page-turner.

My fifteen-year-old self knew it would be catnip to the buying public. Our story and my tape begin with Stacey Harrison’s triumphant return to San Francisco—and her newly married, successful architect father, Con—after studying design in Paris. We are immediately treated to a description of our heroine’s “slim height, the smooth and shining chestnut hair, swept high on her head above large, dark-lashed gray eyes … the tawny skin with pale gold freckles across the bridge of the tipped nose, and the well-shaped mouth parting over even white teeth.” Read More »

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The Kids Are All Right, and Other News

September 11, 2014 | by

John_is_not_really_dull_-_he_may_only_need_his_eyes_examined_LCCN98513999

New research suggests that this American youth and those like him have not entirely gone to seed.

  • Young Americans at the library: do they even, like, get it, what with all their young-person gizmos and e-gadgets? They do, kind of. Among the findings of a new Pew survey: “Despite their embrace of technology, 62% of Americans under age thirty agree there is ‘a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the Internet,’ compared with 53% of older Americans who believe that … 88% of Americans under thirty read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those ages thirty and older.” But: “36% of Millennials say they know little or nothing about the local library’s services, compared with 29% of those thirty and older.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, America’s book publishers took an audacious gamble … over the next four years, publishers gave away 122,951,031 copies of their most valuable titles … By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares. More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.”
  • Fact: Tolstoy was, in 1910, captured on film. (Alas, by the time the talkie was invented, he was no longer among the living.)
  • The history of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, the once-thriving advice column from Ladies’ Home Journal: “For a modern reader of the column’s 1950s and sixties archives, it’s hard not to be horrified by the complete and utter awfulness of many of the husbands … more shocking still are the counselor’s responses. No matter how bad it got, the counselor always managed to find a way to blame the woman for the couple’s problems.”
  • Before the Man Booker Prize shortlist, with only two of its six authors hailing from the U.S., was announced, defeatist British novelists feared the list would be overrun with Americans. “Why did they assume their American counterparts were better? Or if they thought Americans were just different, why did they assume judges would prefer the game the Americans were playing? Saul Bellow is dead. John Updike is dead. David Foster Wallace is dead, and Philip Roth has made announcing his retirement a full-time job.”

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