The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘subway’

Reading’s Journey from Chore to Passion, and Other News

February 4, 2015 | by

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Gaston de la Touche, L’ennui, 1893.

  • We begin with the decline and fall of the English major: Have our nation’s youth really found something better to do? “If our spring 2015 numbers follow the pattern of our recent death spiral,” one professor said, “we will have lost in four years twice as many majors as we gained in fifteen.” Another theorized that “many students who would prefer to declare humanities majors might be challenged or advised to declare a ‘practical major.’ ”
  • But even those of us who threw caution to the wind and majored in English have not done such a hot job of pursuing literature in other languages. “About 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry.”
  • Still, shouldn’t we congratulate ourselves for living in an era when reading is regarded as a joy, a passion, rather than as a necessary, bland consequence of rhetorical culture? “For a long time, people didn’t love literature. They read with their heads, not their hearts (or at least they thought they did), and they were unnerved by the idea of readers becoming emotionally attached to books and writers. It was only over time—over the century roughly between 1750 and 1850—that reading became a ‘private and passional’ activity, as opposed to a ‘rational, civic-minded’ one.”
  • Today, by contrast, we’re so in love with literature that one can earn seven hundred dollars a week simply by writing poems on the subway. And they don’t have to be good poems, either. (“Faint sweeps / Of sea breeze / In the light stream of / Water … ”)
  • Most of us prefer to write in private—others of us have no choice. Anna Lyndsey has a rare illness that makes her skin burn whenever she’s exposed to light, even the light of an iPhone. She lives in darkness. She gets her news from the radio. She writes. “She found that, with practice, she could write in her head—marshal thoughts into sentences, arrange sentences into paragraphs—before writing longhand in a notebook. It was liberating, not being able to see her words on the page. Darkness, it seems, is also a cure for self-consciousness.”

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Ship of Fools

October 30, 2014 | by

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools (detail), ca. 1494-1510, oil on oak panel.

There is something profoundly lonely about sitting in a movie theater, watching something you know to be bad, while people around you enjoy it. I had such an experience recently: the movie had been rhapsodically reviewed, was as full and red a tomato as I’d ever seen on the Internet, had been enthusiastically recommended by people whose tastes I trust. I bought my ticket with high hopes. We want every movie to be fantastic, to change our lives or at least our day. And how rarely we have reason for such hopes! Nevertheless, it was with such an unusually optimistic outlook that I settled into my seat and cracked open my box of Junior Mints.

My first doubts crept in quickly. A joke was cracked; it wasn’t funny. Chill, I told myself. Go with it. It’ll get better. The dialogue was forced and unnatural. Everyone around me was laughing. There’s that moment in a movie when you can’t pretend anymore: when the unassailable realization sets in that, simply put, you’re not in safe hands. Maybe it’s a stupid twist or bad line; more often, it’s just the cumulative stupidity outweighing anything redeeming. You can’t trust the filmmakers anymore, and as a result, you can no longer relax. Besides everything else, it’s exhausting. This movie got worse and worse: clichéd, pretentious, clumsy, vain. I was cringing; the women next to me were laughing heartily. At the end of the movie, much of the audience rose for a spontaneous standing ovation.

It did not occur to me for a moment that I was mistaken. No: they were wrong. The movie was bad. Is this sort of certainty merely arrogance or some sort of madness? Either way, it’s not fun. I’m much too old to derive any satisfaction from poking holes in other people’s pleasure. At $14.50, there are cheaper ways to feel lonely. Read More »

For the 1 Train Dead

August 28, 2014 | by

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Robert Lowell at home.

New Yorkers like to affect jadedness in the face of celebrity; we yawn, we stare fixedly in the other direction, we scorn star-struck tourists  And yet today, I had a celeb sighting so exciting I reacted like a middle-schooler at a taping of Total Request Live.

I had just entered a pleasantly empty subway car, only to discover the cause of its emptiness—a broken AC—too late. I was cursing my luck and considering an illegal dash between cars when I saw him. There, across the aisle, and under a Poetry in Motion poster, was Robert Lowell. To the life: the patrician features, the distinctive nose, eyes that had known suffering and pain as well as realms of genius invisible to the normal run of mortals. He was not a man in the first blush of youth; this was “Day by Day”–era Lowell. He was wearing a rumpled linen jacket and tie. Of course he was.

All thoughts of changing cars having fled, I took a seat directly opposite and stared. There was no question about it: this was Robert Lowell. Maybe a ghost. At the very least a relative. He could certainly have made a good living as a Lowell impersonator, traveling the world and reciting confessional poetry with a Brahman inflection. Well, a living, anyway.

I waited for my chance. I didn’t want to strike too soon, but on the other hand I couldn’t live without knowing. Best-case scenario, he’d break into “Life Studies.”

I timed it carefully. When we were one stop away from my point of departure, I planted myself in front of him. “Excuse me, sir?” I said, my voice quavering. He looked up. His eyes were very, very sad. “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Robert Lowell?”

For a horrible moment, the lack of comprehension on his face was such that I thought he might not speak English. But then he said, “Robert who?”

There were two French tourists watching the proceedings with interest. Maybe they didn’t realize that other cars were air-conditioned.

“Robert Lowell, the poet,” I said. “It’s a compliment. He was an excellent poet! And handsome! I mean, he had his problems”—I said this in case he should look up his biography and think I had been less than forthcoming—“but who doesn’t?”

“Oh,” he said. “Thanks, I guess.”

I turned my back and stared at the doors for what felt like an eternity. It must have been a hundred degrees in there. Frankly, I thought, if that guy wasn’t Robert Lowell, and either mentally ill or supernatural, it was really weird that he was sitting in this sweltering car. Frankly, it was irrational.

If You See Something

July 28, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jaroslav Thraumb

I was midway through a very different sort of post today when something unexpected happened: I got hit in the face on the subway.

It was an accident, but no less unpleasant for that. On the subway, you expect a certain amount of violence: in the course of a rush-hour commute you’re liable to be jostled, elbowed, crowded, and trod upon. If you are short, the incidence is even higher. But even by those standards this was unusual. Indeed, even by my own day’s standards—which seem to contain more petty indignities than a Benny Hill sketch—this was unusual.

Long story short: as we were both getting up to exit the 1 train, a man hefted his backpack and, in the process, backhanded me. Because his arm was propelled by the weight of his bag, and because I was in the midst of standing up, the blow was really hard. A gasp went up from everyone who had seen. He apologized, twice, but there really wasn’t anything he could do. And because there is nothing worse than refusing an apology for something done without intention, of course I accepted it, and tried to smile and pretend it was nothing.

It has been a while since I was punched in the subway. The last time was much worse. I got on the train with a heavy paper grocery bag in each hand. No sooner had I walked through the doors when a teenager, out of nowhere, punched me in the stomach. It wasn’t that hard, but the shock was enough that I dropped my bags, a plum rolled down the car, and—I would discover later—several eggs broke. His friends cackled with glee. No one did anything.

That wasn’t even the worst part. “Hey, sorry,” said the kid, after I had sat down. Then, “Give me a kiss.”

Now, I’m sitting here with a cold pack to my aching jaw—I have one of those cartoon-drunk ice bags. I think it is going to swell, but hopefully won’t excite too much comment. If I have to, I guess I could make some awful joke about Zsa-Zsa Gabor and New York, and try to be jaunty. But the truth is, I hate having to admit I’m a victim of the city, you know?

Hunting John Wilkes Booth’s Diary, and Other News

June 11, 2014 | by

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Booth ca. 1865. His diary may be in an abandoned tunnel in Brooklyn.

  • Knausgaard responds to his newfound celebrity
  • … and the French shrug at that celebrity. “Knausgaard gives us one striking example of what looks again like a very French phenomenon … The list of French books in the same vein of meticulous self-analysis is nearly infinite … Let’s hope that Knausgaard’s unexpected success will make them rethink their hasty judgment and consider the French production with fresh eyes.”
  • Is John Wilkes Booth’s diary in a forgotten Brooklyn subway tunnel?
  • The complex, semitragic history of Entertainment Weekly and ent-fo, i.e., “entertainment information”: “The plan was highly digestible reviews intended to keep the bourgeoisie in touch … They wanted to assist ‘the aging baby boomer who still wants to be plugged in,’ using a scale (A to F) that reflected the ‘universal experience’ of school grades. If you read EW, the logic went, you were saving yourself from your own bad decisions: The magazine’s pitch for subscribers even asked potential readers to weigh the $50-dollar yearly rate against ‘the cost of a bad evening’s entertainment.’”
  • Commentators in the nineteenth century argued that chess, being so addictive, would turn our nation’s youths into bloodthirsty maniacs: “The great interest taken in this warlike game—the importance attached to a victory—and the disgrace attending defeat, are exemplified in numerous instances … It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess.”

 

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The Set

April 2, 2014 | by

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William Evans Burton, comedian. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February, 25, 1860.

The problem is the beaming. For whatever reason, I frequently boast a huge smile when in public, and as any city-dweller will tell you, this is a bad idea. I may be grinning about a doll, a muffin, a soda label. “She’s mad happy,” a teenager once remarked to another as I passed their school.

Yesterday, at the Ninety-Sixth Street subway station, I know exactly what I was smiling about. I had overheard one woman remark to another, “As soon as we get to the baby gym, all he wants to do is take off his pants and get on the trampoline.” It was all I could think about as I prepared to see my psychiatrist—specifically, I was thinking that this was utterly reasonable on the (presumed) baby’s part, and that if I ever found a gym where de-pantsing and jumping on a trampoline was SOP, maybe I would join a gym. And all of which would have been fine, if I had not been the only person grinning while everyone else avoided the eyes of the man strolling down the subway platform. Read More »