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Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca Mead’

What We’re Loving: Slugs, Sluggers, Suet Pastry

August 1, 2014 | by

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Linotype operators of the Chicago Defender, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee

Have you ever been reading, say, a George Eliot novel and suddenly wondered how the dry cleaning worked? Or what everyone used for toothpaste? Or how the farm women managed to do all that mowing in corsets? If this is the sort of question that interests you, prepare to be engrossed by Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. No doubt some material will be familiar to viewers of Goodman’s BBC series, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy; having spent so much time costumed, cooking, and laboring for the camera, Goodman is terrific at describing the feel of heavy worsteds, or the craving for suet pastry, or the manual skills that she admires in Victorian men and, especially, women. Her admiration is contagious and, often, unexpectedly moving, as we see workmen tending to their gardens or little girls learning, from a magazine, how to sew by “dressing dolly.” This is cultural history even a kid could understand, and that (I suspect) even a scholar might enjoy. —Lorin Stein

Roger Angell received the baseball Hall of Fame’s award for writers last week, and I’ve been reading through Game Time, one of his many Baseball Companions. Angell had a way of getting players, especially pitchers, to talk about their craft with detail and clarity—they’re all philosophers of the game, as well as practitioners. In “Easy Lessons,” a piece about spring training in 1984, Angell talks with some older players who were winding up their careers. A thirty-seven-year-old Reggie Jackson says, “I often think about coming to the end. It’s fairly real—it’s a possibility—and I can’t say it doesn’t bother me.” Tom Seaver and Don Sutton talk pitching mechanics with a courtly, conversational style that is just like Angell’s. With the Mets permanently stuck at five games under .500, it’s a relief to revisit seasons past. —Robyn Creswell

My grandfather worked as a linotype operator, carefully managing sorts and slugs (tiny letters and spaces cast from molten lead) to bring words into type. By definition, this meant he was a comprehensive and intimate reader of countless newspapers, books, and pamphlets over the course of his career, which saw the height of mechanical typesetting and its subsequent decline at the hands of electronic automation. What began as a highly sought-after union job—one that allowed him to travel widely, working for presses in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia—had essentially dried up by the time he retired at fifty-five. So I was heartened when I saw the meticulous shots of lead-letter type and mechanical printing presses and pigs (blocks of lead from which new type is molded) in a PBS feature on Arion Press, one of the last presses dedicated to making books by hand, with hot metal typesetting on handmade pages and hand-sewn bindings. Arion is currently working on a special edition of Leaves of Grass—Whitman, a literary champion of the common man working with his hands, seems a fitting choice for this project. At Arion, you can see some of the last hand-typesetters on Earth, dedicated to an art that is all but lost. There are no big victories to be had against digitization, against the steady decline of books as treasured objects, as things to hold rather than screen sequences to be “46 percent done” with. There are only small, futile acts of defiance, and tiny letters made of lead. The full segment, which includes an interview with former poet laureate Robert Hass, airs tonight on PBS. —Chantal McStay

Though I already quoted it at length in this morning’s news roundup, I can’t endorse Rebecca Mead’s latest column for The New Yorker, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’ ” enough. The word relatable was once the province, Mead explains, of daytime talk-show hostesses—the word conjures manicured executives passing glossy focus-group results around a glass conference-room table. (“Will it play in Peoria?” Hollywood bigwigs used to ask, which amounts to the same concern.) But art and literature aren’t, or shouldn’t be, in the thrall of commerce. Why, then, do so many readers, including nominally intelligent ones like Ira Glass, insist that relatability is a valuable metric? “To demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer,” Mead writes; “the notion implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Is this all we want from our artists—affable, familiar depictions of everything we already recognize? If you’re a reader who treasures relatability above all else, I can’t relate to you at all. This may mean I should read a novel about you, but let’s continue not to be friends. —Dan Piepenbring
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New Candor

April 10, 2014 | by

Rebecca Mead, Jill Lepore, and a new direction for biography.

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A portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton, 1864.

Feminism, Paula Backscheider explains in Reflections on Biography, transformed the study of history. “The arresting power of women’s deepest feelings, their comments about their own bodies, and the stark force of their drive to work” are part of the new candor, she says. And there are new things to consider: “How do you do justice to boundary-breaking acts, such as learning to read, or, as with [George] Eliot, not marrying?”

It was thanks to feminism that the relationship between biographer and subject took on a new life—for women to tell other women’s stories, they had to find ways to reconstruct those women’s lives. Ordinary women and their domestic lives became respectable subjects. Their diaries, letters, photographs, and other records could be taken seriously as evidence. Minor details, even in non-events, nuance the undertaking.

Reading Rebecca Mead’s intimate and scholarly My Life in Middlemarch, her memoir about George Eliot’s masterpiece, got me thinking about this shift in biography. What is it that compels one woman to explore the work and personality of another, often with centuries between us—and what are we trying to say? Read More »

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WWDD?

February 12, 2014 | by

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Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw. Illustration: the Jenson Society, New York, 1910.

This afternoon at one, join our contributing editor (and, of course, daily Daily correspondent) Sadie Stein for a live Web chat with Rebecca Mead, hosted by Jezebel. The topic: What Would Dorothea Do? In honor of Mead’s engaging new book, My Life in Middlemarch, they’ll be discussing, as Sadie says, “George Eliot, Dorothea Brooke, what the novel can teach us today, plus life, love, and, yes, sex in Middlemarch.”

It promises to be a lively and enlightening discussion about a lively and enlightening novel. For my money, whenever I make eyes at someone, which, as you can imagine, is almost constantly, I still think of a line from Middlemarch: “They were looking at each other like two fond children talking confidentially of birds.”

And whenever I confront the dubiety of my future: “Even Caesar’s fortune at one time was, but a grand presentiment. We know what a masquerade all development is, and what effective shapes may be disguised in helpless embryos.—In fact, the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities.”

And whenever I encounter a physically unattractive person: “It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilette, and never see the great soul in a man’s face.”

And whenever I’m too hungover to pull up the window shade: “We must keep the germinating grain away from the light.” (I think of myself, you see, as germinating grain.)

If you haven’t read Middlemarch, you still have a few hours to catch up before the chat. In all honesty, though, you should read Middlemarch. Believe the hype. It is the best.

 

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What We’re Loving: Roller Skates, Arson, Eliot

August 9, 2013 | by

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Just this morning, I read eagerly through Sam Anderson’s profile of Gary England, Oklahoma’s “benevolent weather god,” in a preview from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. I’ve heard a lot about England—chief meteorologist for Oklahoma City’s Channel 9—over the years from my husband, a native of that lonely corner of the state where the panhandle begins (his hometown of Woodward was hit in 1947 by one of the state’s worst tornadoes). England’s a hero in that part of the country. “It’s Friday night in the big town” is how he would start his end-of-the-week broadcasts, and though I wish Anderson’s article had given us a bit more of England himself, it’s a bittersweet, if subtle, encomium to a bygone time in which weather forecasters weren’t entertainers as much as they were, well, weather forecasters. —Nicole Rudick

It sounds pretty soft, doesn’t it, a book about reading Middlemarch. Might as well write a book about loving the Beatles, or how Proust can change your life. But Rebecca Mead is tough-minded and has a reporter’s impatience with mush. In My Life in Middlemarch, she gives us several unlikely things at once—a lively reading of George Eliot’s novel, an intimate portrait of Eliot herself, and a book about the consolations of getting older. As Mead shows, this is one of Eliot’s great themes, for as Eliot told her diary, “Few women, I fear, have had such reasons as I have to think the long sad years of youth worth living for the sake of middle age.” —Lorin SteinRead More »

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