Posts Tagged ‘the Internet’
December 28, 2015 | by Jesse Browner
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
A sentence goes viral—why?
I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.
I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.
The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:
Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared. Read More >>
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.”
November 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
- When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
- When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
- For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
- Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”
October 15, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in persistence, doubt, the slow burn, and eventual triumph: Marlon James, who won the Booker earlier this week for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, saw seventy-eight different houses reject his first novel. (Can you beat that record? Let’s talk.) “ ‘I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much … I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.’ He said he retrieved the text by searching in the e-mail outbox of an old iMac computer.” James is the first Jamaican writer to win the Booker.
- Behold, the awesome generative power of the image search, which has given rise to millions of mood boards and a lust for an intimate connection to pictures: “As the longing for emotional connection spreads from how we want our clothes or living room to feel to how we want our minivan or constitutional democracy to feel, the mood business continues to expand … fueled, in large part, by the sheer overabundance of available images. It’s hard to remember that a couple of decades ago, finding pictures of things involved countless, tedious hours of random page flipping. Now a few seconds of furious keystroking produces endless examples … As vast files of metadata and personal search histories are ferreted away in some server farm in god-knows-where, we crave the kind of anodyne, gauzy experiences that at least promise something warmer and more human.”
- But even as the Internet helps us find too many things, it loses them. A thirty-four-part series of investigative journalism from 2007—nominated for the Pulitzer, even—disappeared from The Rocky Mountain News’s Web site, where it had been exclusively published. “If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize–nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can … today’s web is more at-risk than the iterations that preceded it. The serving environments are now more complex, and the volume of data involved is astonishing … Saving something on the web, just as Kevin Vaughan learned from what happened to his work, means not just preserving websites but maintaining the environments in which they first appeared—the same environments that often fail, even when they’re being actively maintained.”
- Richard Spruce, a nineteenth-century biologist, was obsessed not with spruces or even conifers at large, but with mosses, liverworts, bryophytes: the true underdogs of the plant world. Most scientists of his kind found them boring, but mosses had an active life in other quarters of the Victorian imagination: “Bryophytes had a way of working themselves into art and literature as signifiers of privacy and secrecy … Moss in particular served to create some botanical, aesthetic sense of a setting that allowed for illicit sexual encounters and for primal yearnings … Moss provided a soft bed for sexual romps that had to take place outside of stuffy Victorian homes. Serving, perhaps predictably, as a slang term for pubic hair, moss was understood to be consistently moist and jewel-like, glittering like emerald colonies under light … Hidden moss grottoes conjured up an image of something semi-religious, some secret refuge from the trials of urban—and overwhelming imperial tropical—life.”
- Hilton Als on Truman Capote’s early stories, and their approach to queerness, blackness, and the social politics of their day: “As an artist, Truman Capote treated truth as a metaphor he could hide behind, the better to expose himself in a world not exactly congenial to a Southern-born queen with a high voice who once said to a disapproving truck driver: ‘What are you looking at? I wouldn’t kiss you for a dollar’ … It’s interesting to think about him maybe taking in news reports from the time, like that story about those four black girls in Alabama, one of his home states, blown to bits in a church by racism and maleficence, and maybe wondering how, as the author of 1958’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he could have written of Holly Golightly, the book’s star, asking for a cigarette and then saying: ‘I don’t mean you, O.J. You’re such a slob. You always nigger-lip.’ ”
October 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If you were conducting a kind of Hemingway Grand Tour, traveling the world in search of all things Papa, I’d tell you to get a better hobby—but if you insisted, I would tell you to make sure you visit northern Michigan, the site of Hemingway’s sometimes neglected formative years. “Havana, Key West, Ketchum, Paris, Pamplona—these locales tend to conjure vintage Papa: a kerchiefed, bloated, rum-drunk Nobel laureate. Petoskey? Not so much. The gatekeepers of Hemingway’s legend have largely ignored the place … But if you want to understand the writer, you have to start here. Michigan-era Hemingway is threshold Hemingway—young and raw, before the fame and subcutaneous padding and sixteen-daiquiri lunches. It’s where he experimented in delinquency, learned to cast a fly rod, stepped unmoored into the wilderness and first tinkered with a prose style that would one day make him famous.”
- In times of internal strife and quandary, it’s seldom a good idea to turn to the precepts of dead white men. But during her midlife crisis, Alison Gopnik found solace in the ideas of David Hume, which remain progressive even today: for Hume, “the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact … Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.”
- From the renowned creators of camera obscura and camera lucida, it’s Camera Restricta, which “will force you to actually spend time admiring a picturesque landscape rather than worrying about composing the best shot.” Basically, it’s a camera that can tell if other people have already photographed the thing you’re trying to photograph, thus saving you a lot of time and preventing any kind of White Noise–esque Most Photographed Barn in America phenomenon.
- On Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, an Indonesian novel now available in English, which is playful and agreeably profane even as it tackles the darkest chapters of its nation’s history, such as 1965’s anti-communist purge: “The narrator’s voice ranges from merciless and brusque to tender and doleful. One of the men is terrorized by the ghosts of slaughtered Communists, who make him ‘think that he was making love to his wife’ when, in fact, ‘he was fucking the toilet hole.’ Scenes of brutality—of rape, incest, bestiality—are undercut by macabre humor. Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, is in love with Kliwon, her childhood sweetheart, but she is forced to marry the Japanese soldier Shodancho, twenty years her senior, who drugs and rapes her. Alamanda buys an impenetrable ‘anti-terror garment’ that transforms her underwear into a literal iron fortress.”
- Most of us have accepted that this “Internet” isn’t just a passing trend; it’s time, then, to put some serious thought into how to curb the trolls, whose power is on the rise. “With enough effort, expertise, and good faith, a comments section can showcase the worthwhile, efface the worthless, and downrank the dubious. But in mass media and mega-platforms—where most of the action is—comments sections are all too often cybercesspools of trashing and trolling, obsessive annotators, and regressive instigators … The original sin of Internet culture was the exploitation of user-generated content to enrich a lucky few at the top of dominant platforms. Spreading that wealth … would be a good first step toward taming trolls and shaming sock-puppeteers.”
September 15, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Internet is awash in devastating, graphic personal essays—young writers are encouraged, maybe more than ever, to monetize and sensationalize their grisliest experiences. So … now what? “The Internet’s confessional impulse has been fully codified. Every site seems to have a first-person vertical … But for all the different house styles these pieces accommodate, it’s striking how many of them read like reverse-engineered headlines, buzzy premises fleshed out with the gritty details of firsthand experience … This is a key problem with the new first-person economy: the way it incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
- The Joan Didion that people adore these days is the Didion of The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, not the Didion of Democracy—but that novel is remarkable, too, and to read it is to enter a fecund and too often neglected phase of her career: “There’s something in Democracy that you’ll find little of in Didion’s nonfiction: It’s the book in which she does the most thinking about a formative subject in her life, the Vietnam War, yet it’s a book that rarely enters into current discussions of her work … A more useful understanding would recognize the later nonfiction as an extension and amplification of the early nonfiction’s achievements. It would also see the novels as vital continuations of the same project, workings out of problems in style and sense painted on blank canvases. Such an understanding would turn Democracy from a bookshelf ornament to a central work about Vietnam, the other historical hinge in Didion’s career.”
- Roland Barthes wrote well about TV, and professional wrestling in particular—meaning he was also, thirty-five years ahead of time, writing well about Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. “The key to generating passion, Barthes notes, is to position yourself to deliver justice against evil forces by whatever means necessary … But why can’t voters see that what Trump offers is just an act? As Barthes illustrates, that’s asking the wrong question. ‘It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater.’”
- Today in fact-checking: the most error-prone movie of the year thus far is Jurassic World, which boasts an impressive nineteen continuity blunders, plot holes, and factual mistakes. “Errors in Jurassic World reportedly include a mobile phone that appears to magically fix itself … and the ability to start up an abandoned Jeep that has been parked, fully exposed to the elements, on a tropical island for twenty years … The all-time record is held by 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with a whopping 561 mistakes.”
- The typographer Adrian Frutiger, who designed the font for London’s street signs, has died at eighty-seven. “I learned to understand that beauty and readability—and up to a certain point, banality—are close bedfellows,” Frutiger said. “The best typeface is the one that impinges least on the reader’s consciousness, becoming the sole tool that communicates the meaning of the writer to the understanding of the reader.”