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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Parks’

The Existing State of Things, and Other News

November 11, 2015 | by

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound, 1845.

  • 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.”

Man Versus Machine, Part 1,000,000,001, and Other News

June 9, 2015 | by


In 1959, the Mark 1 Translating Device produced its first automated Russian-to-English translation. The Mark 1 was demonstrated for the public at the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

  • With machine translation growing ever more sophisticated, we may as well revive the old is-translation-an-art-or-a-science question—and ask if machine translation imperils human translation. “What mostly annoys human translators isn’t the arrogance of machines but their appropriation of the work of forgotten or anonymous humans. Machine translation necessarily supervenes on previous human effort; otherwise there wouldn’t be the parallel corpora that the machines need to do their work … In a sense, [Google’s] machines aren’t actually translating; they’re just speeding along tracks set down by others. This is the original sin of machine translation: the field would be nowhere without the human translators they seek, however modestly, to supersede.”
  • When we read, we often recognize—The Death of the Author be damned—a personality behind the page, even when we don’t want to; our opinion of this shadowy presence is compartmentalized from the rest of the reading experience. “Even when I know nothing about a novelist’s life I find, on reading his or her book, that I am developing an awareness of the writer that is quite distinct from my response to the work … I might be attracted to both work and author, but in different ways … Literary genius is the ability to draw readers into one’s own world of feeling, with all its nuance and complexity, and to force them to position themselves in relation to you.”
  • In 1910, Apsley Cherry-Garrard accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his doomed Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica. The latter froze to death; the former returned and did what every survivor must: he wrote a book about the experience, The Worst Journey in the World. Now Jason Novak, who has drawings in our new Summer issue, has made some illustrations to accompany one of the book’s bleaker passages. “If the worst, or best, happens, and death comes for you in the snow, he comes disguised as sleep, and you greet him rather as a welcome friend than as a gruesome foe.”
  • Today in privilege: a young, straight, white, male poet bemoans his status as a young, straight, white, male, and another young, straight, white, male says, Hey, man, it’s okay to write as a young, straight, white male, because, like, “Every human has a unique perspective.”
  • John Aubrey and John Soane: two men, two singular approaches to paper. “After his death in 1837, Soane’s elaborate will instructed his executors and trustees to open a series of containers revealing the family secrets at preordained intervals. The last of them, his bathtub, was opened in 1896: the contents included papers which revealed further grim episodes in Soane’s family battles and a set of false teeth.”

Letter from Dhallywood, and Other News

April 28, 2015 | by


From “Love Me or Kill Me,” via Slate.

  • It must be said: in this, his bicentennial year, Trollope is trending—and not just because, as we mentioned yesterday, one of his books is soon to become a TV show. “The quality of irony that we value today is omnipresent in Trollope—and that is the habit of turning objects and values upside down, of seeing big and little inverted. Trollope’s people are all doing things that are small: getting on committees, making sermons, writing to newspapers, finding misplaced checks.”
  • More than that: Trollope has saved lives. Lives. “To this day [I] credit him with saving me from a nervous breakdown. Reading English at university I’d forgotten what it was to read for pleasure … When I stumbled upon his work, I was looking for a way to understand the world, particularly 1980s London. The ideals—some might say delusions—of the counterculture were being replaced by an enthusiasm for money, efficiency and snobbery, especially among my generation. The people and problems Trollope described seemed then, as now, astonishingly contemporary.”
  • Sarker Protick’s series of photographs, “Love Me or Kill Me,” captures film sets at the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation, where the movies are “exercises in extremes, made quickly and with small budgets to appeal to the widest possible audience.”
  • An interview with Tim Parks on reading, translating, and difficult writers: “An American author actually doesn’t have to think about anything. He can just write and think for years for Americans—and in fact, everybody’s becoming Americans … But if you’re in Holland, Norway, Sweden, even Italy, to a degree, then apart from the fact that you’ve grown up with the idea that lots of books came from other places and so there’s no reason my book shouldn’t go to other places—and apart from the fact that the number of people buying books in your country is much smaller—your chances of surviving on a book that’s totally in Italy is very small. There’s just a tendency to look outward more.”
  • Write a House, the extra-extra-extended residency program in which writers are awarded a house, forever, in Detroit, is accepting its next round of applicants. An inside tip from the last winner: “If you’re considering applying and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I want to, but it’s in Detroit’—don’t apply. If you don’t want to live in Detroit, or Detroit’s reputation scares you, don’t apply to win a house in Detroit. It’s pretty simple. If you’re not prepared to embrace Detroit for everything it is, you’re going to have a hard time being here.”

Staff Picks: Self-regard, Strokes of Color, Stchoopidity

April 10, 2015 | by


Friedel Dzubas, Procession, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 9' 6" x 24' 6".

“ ‘Don’t be stchoopid. It was just a one-night stand. We’re not in love or anything!’ ” Remember when people used to talk that way? Neither do I, which is one reason I’m grateful to Ben Lerner for making me read Helen Garner’s novella The Children’s Bach, about a marital crisis in early-eighties Melbourne—at that giddy moment when sexual liberation and women’s lib were still inextricably part of the same deal. —Lorin Stein

In 1975, Friedel Dzubas made a monumental painting for the Shawmut Bank in Boston. Crossing was fifty-seven feet long and thirteen feet tall and was executed on a single canvas. It hung in the bank’s lobby for some twenty years, until the bank closed and the painting disappeared. There is no record of its sale. A study for Crossing is on view at Loretta Howard Gallery, in New York, as part of their centennial exhibition of Dzubas’s work, and it’s a lovely thing in and of itself. On a long orange rectangle, Dzubas made dozens of variously sized, wide black marks that could be a kind of writing were it not for a pair of human figures penciled in at the side of the sketch, for a rough sense of scale (the figures are, in fact, too tall in relation to the enormous painting). The German-born Dzubas once studied with Paul Klee and was the summer roommate, in 1948, of Clement Greenberg; he falls into the Color Field camp with artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. His paintings on view at the gallery are all from the seventies and are great examples of his big, loose strokes of color that seem, despite their girth, to race across the canvas with Futuristic velocity. Art, for Dzubas, was about moving outside of ourselves and experiencing something larger and being affected by that experience—a feeling, he thought, that was “almost as good as making love.” —Nicole Rudick

You’ve found me at AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: a fine place to discover new magazines, but also to witness every possible form of literose peacocking. (Panels, to give you some idea, include “Microaggressions in the Workshop,” “Melancholy and the Literary Uses of Sadness,” and “I Am We As You Are Me: Exploring Pronouns in Experimental Poetry.”) Amid the rampant self-promotion and nine-dollar gyros, I’ve dipped into Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, which offers a much-needed corrective. For the past few years, Parks has contributed regular columns on writing and reading to the New York Review of Books, carefully rebutting the notion that there’s anything ennobling about life as a writer. Taken as a collection, these pieces amount to a fortifying reassessment of literature’s place in the culture. “Perhaps in the end it’s just ridiculous,” he writes, “the high opinion we have of books, of literature. Perhaps it’s just a collective spell of self-regard, self-congratulation … we may be going to hell, but look how well we write about it.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Your Book’s Central Nervous System, and Other News

March 13, 2015 | by


Barbara Wildenboer. Image via This Is Colossal

  • Can a writer’s original inspiration survive success? Imagine you are Karl Ove Knausgaard at this point in his career … Why not enjoy success? Why not accept that you are a genius, if people insistently tell you that you are? One way or another, from this point on it will be hard to achieve the same concentration, the same innocence, when you return to the empty page and the next stage in a life story that is now radically transformed.”
  • Today in dubious superlatives: Was 1925 really “the greatest year” in the history of literature? The BBC has declared it so. They searched “for a cluster of landmark books” and then asked if said books “continue to enthrall readers and explore our human dilemmas and joys in memorable ways”; 1925, with its Hemingway and its Fitzgerald and its Dos Passos and its Dreiser, came away the victor. But make no mistake: seeking the greatest year in literature is a fool’s errand, just as searching for the greatest minute in history would be.
  • Sam Simon, who died this month, is responsible for much of the greatness of golden-age Simpsons episodes, though his collaborations with Matt Groening weren’t always smooth: “It was Simon’s insight that animation allowed The Simpsons to sprawl across a vast canvas, illustrating new locations and inventing characters through the multifold voice talents of the cast. The Springfield the Simpsons inhabit is a mini-world on to itself, with its own rich mythology and history.”
  • The science behind “wordnesia,” a “common brain glitch” in which you can’t spell the simplest words and common language has a sheen of unfamiliarity to it: “Russell Epstein, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania … posits that these experiences may be linked to concepts described by psychologist William James … [who] contended that our conscious experiences are made up of components he referred to as the nucleus and the fringe.”
  • On the criticism of Bernard Williams: “Williams says that philosophers have typically been motivated by two things: curiosity, and the desire to be helpful.  He unhesitatingly gives priority to the former motive … Above all, philosophy offers reflective analysis of our concepts, and, through these and a study of their history, insight into who ‘we’ are.  If philosophy is to contribute anything distinctive, however, all this must be carried out with clarity and rigor, and the aim of ‘getting it right’ must ‘be in place.’ ”
  • Barbara Wildenboer’s sculptures meld the sprawl of a nervous system to the spines of books.

The World Just Wasn’t Ready, and Other News

December 11, 2014 | by

webvan mark coggins

Rest in peace, WebVan. Photo: Mark Coggins, via Flickr

  • Tim Parks was dismayed to find that his students were so enthralled by “the printed word and an aura of literariness” that they’d miss obvious absurdities in what they were reading. His advice? “Always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write ‘splendid,’ but also, ‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ And even ‘bullshit.’ ”
  • On a similar note, Oxonians are obsessed with finding marginalia in their library books: on Facebook, the Oxford University Marginalia group “now has two thousand five hundred and three members, making marginalia to Oxford something like what a cappella is to Princeton. ‘The Oxford libraries are still heavily used, and the curriculum remains relatively stable, so you have so many students reading the same texts’ … ‘The books are thrashed, basically.’ ”
  • Not many people are managing to slog through literary best sellers, experts say: “A study has shown the most downloaded ebooks of the year were not necessarily ever finished by hopeful readers.” Just 44 percent of readers made it through The Goldfinch, and 28 percent got through Twelve Years a Slave.
  • Crummy computer news, part one: they’re better at flirting than we are. “Women were okay, able to judge with 62 percent accuracy when a man was flirting with them. Men were worse, accurately guessing that a woman was flirting just 56 percent of the time. The Stanford guys’ flirtation-detection system, in comparison, was able to correctly judge flirting with 71 percent accuracy.”
  • Crummy computer news, part two: all the seemingly horrendous dot-com ideas of the nineties were actually pretty decent. Remember WebVan? No? They wanted to use the Internet to deliver fresh groceries to your door—just as dozens of profitable companies are doing today.