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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

In Praise of Minor Literature

July 8, 2016 | by

houseboats

Houseboats by the Thames.

Some of the writers and books I hold in the highest esteem were discovered en passant: buried in the archives of a little-read blog; mentioned in a thirty-year-old essay devoted to more prominent writers; planted near the end of a long list on Wikipedia. (Idleness and obsession are the impetus for most of my discoveries.) Most of these books are rare tastes, not even well known for not being well known. They are not likely to come up at dinner parties, and they are not part of any canon or curriculum. I don’t get any credit for having read them. They are what some people call minor. 

What does it mean to be minor? It’s not the same thing as being obscure. Leon Forrest’s oeuvre is a megalith, but there seem to be about six of us who have read him. Nor is a minor writer a bad writer. Guy Davenport proposed that Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, and Michael Gilbert were all “impeccable stylists” but also, next to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, and Proust, incontrovertibly minor. Davenport, a self-described minor prose stylist who was great enough to be genuinely self-effacing, said that “the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying.” When judged by this standard, he suggested, even Borges and Poe were minor, since “a Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.” Read More »

We’re All on Location, and Other News

June 29, 2016 | by

From the set of Intolerance.

  • D. W. Griffith’s film Intolerance is a hundred years old. Its lavish sets—replete with plaster elephants, ornate ten-story walls, and all manner of Babylonian spectacle—testify to a creepy brand of movie magic that has long since leaped from the screen: “Intolerance is where fake movie architecture began its complicated dance with the real thing, affecting how audiences perceive the past, reconfigure their present, and anticipate the future … Even though it’s largely vanished from movies, the attraction of a reality that is recognizably phony and yet honest-to-gosh exists has hardly vanished from our culture … Increasingly, shopping malls, hotels, and the like do their best to emulate the same effect. We’re all on location, baby, even when we’re just shopping or hunting for a bite to eat. Intolerance anticipated many things, and one of them was Disneyland. In turn, Disneyland anticipated a lot of the modern environment we live in—not just at the multiplex or while on vacation, but full time.”
  • The journalist Suki Kim went undercover as a teacher in North Korea and wrote a book about what she witnessed there—but her publishers decided to call it a memoir, thus exposing one of the industry’s many fault lines. She writes, “As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?

My Autobibliography

June 10, 2016 | by

Building a library in Saint Lucia.

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This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today, meet Matthew St. Ville Hunte. 

The first book I consciously acquired for what became my library was V.S. Naipaul’s The Writer and the World. I purchased it at a Nigel R. Khan Bookstore in the departure lounge of Trinidad’s Piarco Airport. This was 2004; I was flying home to Saint Lucia after I spent a summer working for an Afrocentric radical while finishing my junior year in college. At the time, I was drifting into a literary life, thanks mainly to the lack of a serious commitment to anything else. I set myself a program: I would read not just for pleasure or to acquaint myself with the best of what had come before me but to find out where I could fit in as a writer. Naipaul—jaded, deracinated, and irredeemably West Indian—seemed like a natural model. Read More »

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Summer

June 10, 2016 | by

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Summer issue to write about what they’re reading. 

It’s coming. The Mister Softee Jingle will clang down on you like a recurring nightmare, then distort itself around the bend like a lost memory of something crucial you’ll die trying to reclaim. This is summer—and I can think of no better way to get yourself in the mood than by reading Ritual and Bit, Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, which is steeped in nostalgia and foreboding. The cinematic, otherworldly play of images—“bit[s] of dream you almost had hold of”— will leave you achey, haunted, indiscriminately homesick. It’s like sleepaway camp all over again. Or, if we’re doing similes, then Ostrom’s poetry is like an exfoliating scrub for souls. Your tender self is stripped of its winterized, anesthetized hull, and everything is suddenly more dicey and exquisite. Or (final simile), in Ostrom’s words, “it will be like watching a church service through a keyhole”—stolen, mystifying glimpses of a choreographed sequence that feels timeless and charged. Here is the religion you (I) wanted, all stained glass and incense smoke, spooky-sublime chanting and devil-may-care suspension of disbelief; no Sunday sermons or starched shirts: “Cattywompus, pray for us.” —Danielle Blau (“I Am the Perennial Head of This One-person Subcutaneous Wrecking Crew”)

I’m reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief. Though both books do many other things, each lovingly renders a past love. For Batuman it is her ex-fiancé, Eric, “with his gentle blinking Chinese eyes, as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy,” highly alert and strategic but always sounding a bit dreamy, like a navy reserve intelligence officer with a delusive fever, which he sometimes is. For Finck it is Abraham Cahan, editor and advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan’s disembodied head, in Finck’s drawings, is either a peach or a heart. He is never quite real enough to be mistaken for a father or a boyfriend, always a bit incorporeal or out of human scale or dressed a century out of style. Eric trails Batuman to Samarkand, and Cahan trails Finck around her aimless roomy freelance days. I like feeling the lasting affection for such ghosts. —Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (“Lifeguards”)Read More »

Staff Picks: Light, Lust, LiveJournal

May 20, 2016 | by

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent [251b], ca. 1923, black-and-white photograph flush-mounted on card, mounted to board, 4 9/16" x 3 9/16".

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz began a series of moody, diminutive photographs of cloud patterns (abstracted, they resembled curls and skeins of smoke); he called it Songs of the Sky, before later changing it to Equivalents. He showed the images to his friend, the composer Ernest Bloch, who, according to Stieglitz, declared it to be music. Partly in response to his friend’s photographs, Bloch composed “Poems of the Sea.” A show at Bruce Silverstein Gallery takes its name from Stieglitz’s series and presents five pairings of art and music, including Stieglitz/Bloch. The idea is to listen to a piece of music while looking at artworks that were inspired either by that composition, that composer, or by music more generally. Though it’s not always convincing, the idea of having two mediums respond and react to and provoke one another is intriguing. I love Frederick Sommer’s ink drawings of musical notation (they’re hieroglyphs and also stacked Futurist cityscapes), but his coupling with Chris Washburne is too on the nose. The obliqueness of Lisette Model’s photographs of people’s shadows resonates well with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal Pierrot lunaire. My favorite, though, may be Aaron Siskind’s black-and-white photographs of male bodies tumbling through space set to a string-quartet arrangement of John Cage’s delicate, gorgeous Cheap Imitation: neither transcends its medium, but instead seems more acutely, more exquisitely itself. —Nicole Rudick

I spent some time this week on websafe2k16.com, an Internet project dedicated to cataloging memories of the early web. Built by three artists—Ben Sisto, Josephine Livingstone, and Joe Bernardi—the “literary/graphic” project asks writers to draw inspiration from one of the 216 web-safe color codes, such as the offending #66FF33 or the wistful #0099CC, writing personal recollections in 216 words. I scrolled through Web Safe’s rainbow grid, reading lyric memories about the conversant gargle of dial-up (Andrew Blevins, #CC6600), multiplayer computer games (Adrian Chen, #33CC00), LiveJournal (Anna Weiner, #003366), and other relics of the early web. Colors in the palette regularly inspire memories of braces and prom, group chats and forums. I wondered, reading about MySpace and MSN, what the colors of the early Internet trigger for me. Maybe Ask Jeeves, the first man in my life to whom I never could ask the right questions. Or Xanga, where I lurked on blogs written by my classmates. Or maybe Machu Picchu, an obscure nineties computer game I’ve lost nearly all memory of and haven’t ever found again. All that’s left is the name, and the bellow of nostalgia. —Caitlin Love Read More »

In-Flight Entertainment

May 20, 2016 | by

From a vintage in-flight magazine.

I’m not afraid of flying, but I’m deathly afraid of flying underprepared. I’m a light packer when it comes to clothes, but my carry-on is unwieldy and absurd. Any trip demands at least two books—one fun, one serious—and a couple of magazines—worthy and trashy—because the idea of being stranded in the air without sufficient reading material is terrifying.

The variety is crucial. Who knows, after all, what you might crave in the world of the air? You might be a different person. Read More »