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Posts Tagged ‘research’

A Chunk of Van Gogh’s Ear, and Other News

July 14, 2016 | by

A 1930 letter from Dr. Félix Rey shows Van Gogh’s mutilated ear. Photo: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, via the New York Times.

  • Today in longstanding debates about deceased painters’ body parts: Van Gogh scholars continue to argue about the fate of his left ear. Nina Siegal speaks to those on both sides: “Did he simply slice off a little chunk of his ear, or did he lop off the entire ear? … A note written by Félix Rey, a doctor who treated Van Gogh at the Arles hospital, contains a drawing of the mangled ear showing that the artist indeed cut off the whole thing … [Biographers Stephen] Naifeh and [Gregory] White argue that witnesses who saw Van Gogh after Dr. Rey, including his brother Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the artist Paul Signac and Van Gogh’s doctor in Auvers-sur-Oise, Dr. Paul Gachet, said that the entire ear was not missing. They all ‘saw a portion of the mutilated ear remaining—so much, in fact, that, when Vincent was seen from face-on, the damage could go unnoticed,’ they wrote.”
  • Why did Google delete Dennis Cooper’s blog? Tobias Carroll investigates—but this is Google we’re talking about, so there is no such thing as “knowledge”: “Over the years, Dennis Cooper’s blog has become a go-to spot for those who appreciate challenging, bold, experimental literature. Cooper has frequently championed books on indie presses and literary work in small journals, using his own influence to point readers in the direction of other work that they might enjoy. (Many writers I know have been thrilled to have been included in lists of highlights from Cooper’s recent reading.) Over time, the site has gradually become a place where devotees of avant-garde fiction can learn more about what’s new in that particular corner of literature … There remains no indication of whether Cooper’s account has been entirely deleted or whether some form of recovery is possible—or, for that matter, of why Google felt the need to delete Cooper’s e-mail account and blog to begin with.”
  • Now that Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is back in print, it gets another shot at a much-deserved wider readership. Christian Lorentzen talked to DeWitt about it, and about her grievances with the publishing industry:At the core of The Last Samurai is the notion that most people don’t meet their potential because the culture teaches them to assume there are things they just can’t do. The central example is Ludo reading Homer in the original Greek. ‘The Greek alphabet looks more daunting than it really is,’ DeWitt said. ‘I could get anybody reading the Greek script in an hour. I thought that this could be something that I could reveal in the book. People might read the novel and think, Gosh, if somebody had introduced this to me I could have done it. And so now I can have a grievance against our education system, just like the author of this book.’ ”

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

Still in the Grip of Kitsch, and Other News

December 17, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jean-Noël Lafargue

  • The origins of Times New Roman, the trustiest typeface of the PC era: “Times New Roman began as a challenge, when esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So The Times asked him to create something better. Morison enlisted the help of draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency—maximizing the amount of type that would fit on a line and thus on a page—and readability.”
  • A history of kitsch and its enduring power: “Kitsch is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this—it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this—how nice I am and how lovable.’ ”
  • Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity. “The fuckin’ in ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding’ is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.”
  • A new book purports to bust the stereotypes behind archaeology: “the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy … the unemployment rate in the field [is] at about fifty per cent.” (This piece, to its great credit, mentions Indiana Jones zero times.)
  • The best defense for research: “It’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.”

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The Kids Are All Right, and Other News

September 11, 2014 | by

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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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Clitics

May 8, 2014 | by

Life in the linguistics lab.

mouth

Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant. Read More »

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Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis

December 24, 2013 | by

-1Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.

I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.

More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:

“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”

After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library? Read More »

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