- Data analysts have descended on the corpus of Agatha Christie—to celebrate the 125th anniversary of her birth, they’ve crunched some numbers and honed a formula “that they claim will enable the reader to identify the killer before the likes of Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple have managed the feat,” thus taking the fun out of what had been formerly known as “reading.” The formula examines factors like setting, gender of culprit, number of culprit mentions per chapter, and sentiment of culprit mentions; in some cases its findings are surprising. “They found that if the victim was strangled, the killer was more likely to be male … if the setting was a country house—not uncommon for a Christie novel—there was a 75% chance the killer would be female. Female culprits were usually discovered thanks to a domestic item, while males were normally found out through information or logic.”
- At Stanford, meanwhile, new software called ePADD will change the way researchers process e-mail collections. Archivists who’d been “grappling with more than 150,000 e-mails in the archive of poet and author Robert Creeley” used ePADD to separate the wheat from the chaff: e-mails “accumulate like dust … A mountain of ‘See you at eight o’clock.’ Every now and then, there must be significant ones but the sheer volume is very great.”
- An old lecture by Shirley Jackson looks at two of a writer’s most necessary tools—memory and delusion: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. I am, this morning, endeavoring to persuade you to join me in my deluded world; it is a happy, irrational, rich world, full of fairies and ghosts and free electricity and dragons, and a world beyond all others fun to walk around in. All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing.”
- This is your periodic reminder that it’s okay, or even laudable, to pursue “difficult” fiction: “Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity … If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult … Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.”
- Marie Darrieussecq’s first book, Pig Tales, published in 1996, is “narrated by an unnamed young white woman who aspires to a higher class, but in turn, is becoming a pig. As her body undergoes this great metamorphosis, she attracts increasing acts of sexual violence … The narrator, who works at Perfumes Plus as a perfume seller and prostitute, doesn’t seem to know that she is abused, let alone deceived about her pay.” But in all its grotesquerie, the book’s formalism offers an effective way of depicting violence against women: “Darrieussecq, in Pig Tales, rigorously insists on visibility—form is light. Her formal rigor, her careful and caring arrangement, her tactic, bares her comment. I want all writers, if they want to take the female body out of their tool kit, and hurt it, to work hard. Mostly, so hard they don’t bother.”
I first came across “The Dishonest Mailmen” my sophomore year of college, when, having become so enamored of Robert Creeley’s oft-anthologized poem “I Know a Man,” I decided to buy a new edition of his collected poems—an indulgence, for someone without an income who was supposed to be reading Milton. (For the record, I carry around a lot of guilt about shrugging off Milton.)
I read “The Dishonest Mailmen” and identified with it immediately for reasons I didn’t understand, and indeed for reasons that specifically elude understanding. In its fifty-some words, it conjured equal measures of anger, tenderness, and apathy, an intoxicating combination … “for a student,” I almost wrote, but what I mean is for anyone. Still, there’s something in that couplet—“I see the flames, etc. / But do not care, etc.”—that remains to me the most profound evocation of a heart-heavy nihilism that seems to afflict people exclusively in their late teens. Mainly, let’s be honest, it afflicts white guys studying literature in their late teens, who don’t know what to do with themselves or how to talk to people or how to live unselfishly, and who are able to voice this not-knowing with increasing, brooding eloquence, and who are thus infuriating to themselves and others. Read More
The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both a misnomer and an anomaly. It has long dedicated itself to the task of promoting the reading and writing of poetry and has, for eighty-five years, served as a niche for poets the world over. While its reputation has bloomed over the years, thanks largely to word-of-mouth praise, it has never fared well financially, partly due to competition from larger stores and the Internet, partly because poetry has never been popular with the masses, and partly because its founder seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that his store not be turned into a business.
Located on Plympton Street in Harvard Square, the Grolier occupies just 404 square feet of space and is dwarfed by the neighboring Harvard Book Store. A white square sign with meticulous black lettering juts out near the top of the store entrance. The font size decreases from top to bottom, much like on an eye exam chart, and one can just make out, at the very top, a finely done illustration of three cats (or is it the same cat?) dozing, grooming, and turning their backs on the viewer.
Upon ascending a small flight of steps, one is greeted by the sight of an abundance of colorful spines—approximately fifteen thousand—neatly arranged against nearly every flat surface of the shop. These volumes are neatly balkanized into several categories, including anthologies, used, African-American, early English, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, Latin, classical Greek, Japanese, Korean, East European, Spanish, and Catalan.
Above the towering shelves are approximately seventy black and white photos (many courtesy of the photographer Elsa Dorfman) of poets and other members of the literati for whom the Grolier has served as a meeting place for well over half a century. Among the Grolier’s most illustrious visitors, most of whom are smiling or gazing sagely and serenely ahead in the photos, are T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Marianne Moore, James Tate, Donald Hall, and Helen Vendler.
Off to one side at the front of the store sits a lean shelf of chapbooks and a donation jar; a small note says that the chapbooks have been generously donated by the author and that monetary contributions to the shop would be greatly appreciated. Directly across this bookcase is the cash register, propped up on a desk and flanked by sundry items, including bookmarks, promotional literature, pamphlets, business cards, and commemorative pens. On the wall right adjacent to the register hangs a certificate from Boston Magazine honoring the Grolier as the best poetry store of 1994. Read More