Posts Tagged ‘taste’
November 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Bodleian Library has recovered a lost poem by Shelley—the ambitiously named “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,” written when he was just eighteen. It’s 172 lines of pure political invective, and its themes, as one professor said, “remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.” It’s true. Certain lines (e.g., “cold advisers of yet colder kings … who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang, / Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang, / Yourselves secure”) resonate quite well on this, the morning after the GOP debate.
- We’ve all wondered, in our lives as readers, how our cohort could be so fantastically wrong about some author or another—why such fantastical lapses of taste are celebrated far and wide. And so it falls to Tim Parks to ask the question on everyone’s mind: How could you like that book? “I live under the constant impression that other people, other readers, are allowing themselves to be hoodwinked. They are falling for charms they shouldn’t fall for. Or imagining charms that aren’t there. They should be making it a little harder for their authors … What might really be worth addressing here is the whole issue of incomprehension: mutual and apparently insuperable incomprehension between well-meaning and intelligent people, all brought up in the same cultural tradition, more or less. It’s curious, for example, that the pious rhetoric gusting around literature always promotes the writing and reading habit as a powerful communication tool, an instrument for breaking down barriers, promoting understanding—and yet it is exactly over my reaction to books that I tend to discover how completely out of synch with others I am … Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences?”
- Here, I brought you these rhetorical questions about the cloud, that most porous of metaphors for digital space: “How did we come to place our faith in a symbol that is so ephemeral—all vapor and crystal? … What kind of thinking does the cloud, so porous and diffuse, enable? Does our participation in the cloud require us to surrender a bit of our privacy? Can it help explain the rise of the meme and our increasingly lax attitude toward notions of authorship and origins, the way something on the Internet begins to seem ubiquitous and ambient, as if it had always just been there?”
- Michael Bierut is responsible for a lot of the high-profile signage you see around New York—his new book How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World testifies to his reach as a designer and his expectations for design. His designs all emerge from his notebooks: “ ‘I get very protective about them, like children, pets, lucky charms and security blankets,’ he says. One spread shows sketches of the deconstructed Saks Fifth Avenue logo for the department store’s shopping bags from a decade ago. He remembers one of the designers in his firm screaming after blowing it up into fragments. Bierut ran over immediately to look, and compared it to a Franz Kline or a Barnett Newman piece. ‘I remember at that moment saying, Wait, this could be it, sixty-four squares—each one of them was like a beautiful abstract painting.’ ”
- At the start of the twentieth century, Arnold Genthe, a German immigrant, took photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. They’re some of the only remaining photos of the neighborhood from that period; most were swallowed in the earthquake of 1906. “Genthe was fascinated by Chinatown and took hundreds of photographs of the area and its inhabitants. He used a small camera and sometimes captured his subjects covertly. He later cropped some of his images to remove western references.” “Some day the whole city will burn up,” a friend told him. “There’ll never be another Chinatown like this one, and you have its only picture record.”
August 31, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
What a golden age this is for trolls. Never has it been easier, with the proper combination of disdain, ignorance, and calculated condescension, to work hundreds of thousands of strangers into an indignant lather. If you don’t mind the occasional death threat, the polemic has never been a more attractive mode. It’s pungent.
I have to believe the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones feels the same way—his article today, “Get real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius,” is too arrant a piece of provocation to be unintentional. Its thrust is that the late Pratchett, whose final Discworld novel has just been published, is part of a “middlebrow cult of the popular” distracting readers from more ambitious, capital-L Literary fare. That’s a contentious argument in and of itself—but Jones’s true troll masterstroke lay in his admission that he’s read hardly a sentence of Pratchett’s work. The author “is so low on my list of books to read before I die,” Jones writes,
that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary … life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read.
Some of that feels deliberately bush-league—that “million years” bit gives too much of the game away; clearly this is a piece of rhetoric designed not to be reasoned with but balked at—but beneath the hauteur is a useful point, one that much of literary culture, in its glad-handing, is at pains to admit. There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself. Read More »
August 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Since David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Infinite Jest has undergone a dramatic change in its cultural significance: once merely the mark of a curious reader, it’s become a totem for bros, who see in its massive size and brainy reputation a chance to show off their own massive size and brainy reputations—and who have no intention of really grappling with it. “How did poor David Foster Wallace go from dissecting the pretensions and shortcomings of mid-century men of letters to holding a central place in the pretensions of their heirs? … [Jest’s] irrefutable bigness is a dare … For these men, Wallace stands as a challenge to be confronted, just as the paperback brick of Infinite Jest stands as a challenge to the guy hauling it on the G train.”
- Alexandra Kleeman, whose debut short story “Fairy Tale” appeared in our Winter 2010 issue, discusses her new novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and the altogether surreal experience of seeing ads on TV for the first time after a long break from the medium: “They’re these little pockets of weirdness … You get these characters who so fervently believe in the power of a certain product, they’re so fervently wanting to fix this one problem. You have these weird extreme emotions like jealousies and affections for things that no normal person would, so I find them really interesting and almost beautiful in that way, like surrealist films. You can feel how much money goes into commercials by how swiftly they act on your mind. And they’ve got like a hypnotic quality to the way they present their products. I can feel myself taking on a desire for that thing, or at least like feeling the desire they want me to feel, when I see a beautifully done eye, or makeup, or the softness of some cotton fabric bouncing up and down.”
- And Lydia Davis looks at the life and work of Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, and whose story “B.F. and Me” appears in our Summer issue: “We have, most of us, known at least some part of what she went through: children in trouble, or early molestation, or a rapturous love affair, struggles with addiction, a difficult illness or disability, an unexpected bond with a sibling, or a tedious job, difficult fellow workers, a demanding boss, or a deceitful friend, not to speak of awe in the presence of the natural world—Hereford cattle knee-deep in Indian paintbrush, a field of bluebonnets, a pink rocket flower growing in the alley behind a hospital. Because we have known some part of it, or something like it, we are right there with her as she takes us through it.”
- It’s time to make food a permanent part of the cultural canon: “We have traditionally regarded cuisines as pop or folk art at best—cherished but ephemeral, beginning as peasant food forged from the local landscape and naturally disappearing as people emigrated and landscapes changed … ‘There is a group of us who want to know the deep flavors of what has endured longest. Those ingredients that mattered for so long that they became “the taste” of the time, the points of reference against which all innovations were measured. For me, those ingredients constitute the canon, and the dishes of the time frame them.’ ”
- Step aside—Joyce Carol Oates is asking the big questions about inspiration and art. “Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? … Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living? … ‘Inspiration’ is an elusive term. We all want to be ‘inspired’ if the consequence is something original and worthwhile; we would even consent to be ‘haunted’—‘obsessed’—if the consequence were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls ‘Zero at the Bone’—the dead zone from which inspiration has fled.”
April 28, 2015 | by Sadie Stein
“That parrot,” he said at last. “You know something? It had me completely fooled when I first saw it through the window. I could have sworn it was alive.” “Alas, no longer.” “It’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done,” he said. “It doesn’t look in the least bit dead. Who did it?” “I did.” “You did?” “Of course,” she said. “And have you met my little Basil as well?” She nodded toward the dachshund curled up so comfortably in front of the fire. Billy looked at it. And suddenly, he realized that this animal had all the time been just as silent and motionless as the parrot. He put out a hand and touched it gently on the top of its back. The back was hard and cold, and when he pushed the hair to one side with his fingers, he could see the skin underneath, grayish black and dry and perfectly preserved. “Good gracious me,” he said. “How absolutely fascinating.” He turned away from the dog and stared with deep admiration at the little woman beside him on the sofa. “It must be most awfully difficult to do a thing like that.” “Not in the least,” she said. “I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away. Will you have another cup of tea?” “No, thank you,” Billy said. The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn’t much care for it. “You did sign the book, didn’t you?” “Oh, yes.” “That’s good. Because later on, if I happen to forget what you were called, then I could always come down here and look it up. I still do that almost every day with Mr. Mulholland and Mr. … Mr. …” “Temple,” Billy said, “Gregory Temple. Excuse my asking, but haven’t there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?” Holding her teacup high in one hand, inclining her head slightly to the left, she looked up at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile. “No, my dear,” she said. “Only you.” —Roald Dahl, “The Landlady”
We all know that cyanide tastes like almonds. If something is almond-y, and you’re somewhere sinister, well, mister, look out! You’ve been poisoned. I first learned this from the Dahl story cited above–or, more accurately, from the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on the story.
But generally, one assumes, writers only know this themselves via hearsay. They know—like the rest of us—that cyanide smells like “bitter almonds.” As one article explains it, “in murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse.” In its pure form, cyanide apparently does have an almond-like scent—and this makes sense, since the toxin is found in the wild form of the nut. Read More »
June 24, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Over the weekend, someone asked me how I’d argue for the survival of the print book. I was taken aback; it felt like being asked to defend food against Soylent Green, or sex against the exclusive domain of artificial insemination. But I considered the question carefully, and aside from the obvious arguments, here’s one way I like to think of it.
When I was younger, I used to think setting people up would be sort of like recommending a book you loved: whether or not it worked out, a friend would know you’d tried in good faith to match her tastes and interests, and not hold it against you if you’d gotten it wrong. At best, her life would be enriched; at worst, she’d still be able to recognize what you saw in the other person. In any event, once you’d made the introduction, the arrangement ceased to have anything to do with you.
Instead, I discovered that setting people up is more like recommending a movie—specifically, a comedy. And if a friend doesn’t enjoy—doesn’t get—a comedy you like, somehow both of you feel betrayed, and some small part of you thinks less of the other. And there is the horrible knowledge that the person who dislikes always has the advantage. Read More »