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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

The Commuter’s Lament Goes On, and Other News

January 29, 2016 | by

From “A Commuter’s Lament.”

  • When the book and even the e-book have exhausted their charms, turn instead to the blook, an ersatz kind of book that offers many of the same bookish qualities without all that fatiguing text. Mindell Dubansky, the preservation librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has about six hundred blooks, “made from stone, wax, straw, wood, soap, plastic, glass and other materials … There is, for example, a 1950s intruder alarm called the Informer, which was activated by a sensor behind two rather noticeable holes cut in the spine … an album of early 19th-century Grand Tour souvenir medallions and a tastefully bound women’s vanity set labeled, a bit perplexingly, Vol. XVII.”
  • The past few years have seen booksellers and publishers embracing guerrilla marketing tactics—spreading the gospel of literature on subway cars, vending machines, and Chipotle bags, among others. But is the outcome a more literate culture or just more advertising? “Literature has what’s referred to in the marketing business as ‘high stopping power,’ meaning it’s able to effectively capture people’s attention … While projects like Coffee Sleeve Conversation, Ticket Books, and Poems While You Wait have idealistic intentions, they reflect literature’s power as a marketing tool, even when it comes to products you wouldn’t find in a bookstore … Marketers have learned that by pairing their products with art and literature, customers tend to see them in a better light, a tactic called priming.”
  • Relatedly: Of all the public poems New Yorkers have seen over the years, Norman B. Colp’s “Commuter’s Lament” remains the bleakest. Installed in the Times Square subway station, it asks, “Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home. / Do it again.” The poem has been up since 1991; it’s based on “the Burma-Shave roadside ad campaigns plastered across the country for some forty years. Starting in the 1920s, the brushless shaving cream brand started advertising with signs strung along American highways.”
  • Robert Greene was one of the first people to refer to Shakespeare, in writing, as a playwright. As Ed Simon tells us, though, the reference was far from flattering: “Greene’s chief target was ‘an upstart Crow,’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ … simply a ‘Johannes factotum,’ that is, a ‘Johnny Do-It-All’ … He has appropriated the ‘mighty-line’ of Marlowe’s unrhymed iambic pentameter with blustery confidence (though he is a mere technician). He has a ‘tiger’s heart, wrapped in a player’s hyde,’ unable to fully escape the stigma of first playing on the stage before he would write for it.”
  • You heard it here first—or, well, okay, second: the next volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle may or may not feature a scene in which our hero drunkenly vomits in Björk’s toilet. I won’t offer further spoilers except to say that the phrase “spewed up a magnificent yellow and orange cascade” comes into play.

First Folios on the Loose, and Other News

January 6, 2016 | by

Folger Library.

  • To celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Library is sending Shakespeare’s First Folio to all fifty states. Good news for his fans, yes, but maybe for enterprising book thieves, too? “The Folger has eighty-two First Folios—the largest collection in the world. It’s located several stairways down, in a rare manuscript vault. To reach them, you first have to get through a fire door ... (if a fire did threaten these priceless objects, it would be extinguished not with water—never water near priceless paper—but with a system that removes oxygen from the room). A massive safe door comes next—so heavy it takes two burly guards to open it, and then yet another door, which triggers a bell to alert librarians that someone has entered. After that, there's yet another door and an elevator waaaay down to a vault that nearly spans the length of a city block…” No word on how many armed guards and armored trucks will accompany the Folios on their cross-country tour.
  • Carlo Gesualdo died about four hundred years ago, too—but contemporary celebrations of his work tend to be overshadowed by a grisly episode from his biography: namely the allegation that he killed his spouse. “The idea of an aristocrat murdering his wife in flagrante has proved irresistible, and only very secondarily do people ask how such behavior may have been turned to creative ends. And when they do listen to the music, they very quickly find exactly what they expect: tortured, dissonant, disjointed (no pun intended) writing which obviously shows a psychopath at work … From the start the marriage was not a success, and soon there were stories of Carlo maltreating his wife. Within three months he was journeying back to Naples without her, and once back in his castle he descended into a kind of madness, which eventually extended to a court case. The records survive and give a flavor of what was under discussion: ‘Menstrual blood is a kind of poison which, if imbibed and not treated immediately, will eventually lead to a person’s death.’ ”
  • Do you have one of the thousand hand-numbered copies of Theodore Roethke’s debut collection, Open House? It came out in 1941, and the Roethke House, in Saginaw, Michigan, is conducting a census to track down all the copies. One of them may be in the clutches of the Auden estate; he gave the book a glowing review: “Many people have the experience of feeling physically soiled and humiliated by life; some quickly put it out of their minds, others gloat narcissistically on its unimportant details; but both to remember and to transform the humiliation into something beautiful, as Mr. Roethke does, is rare. Every one of the lyrics in this book, whether serious or light, shares the same kind of ordered sensibility: Open House is completely successful.”
  • When do we become adults, really? At what point can one say with certainty that one has sloughed off the last vestiges of youth? Wordsworth said the child is father of the man, which … doesn’t answer the question at all, actually. But others have tried to, even if the answer will never really come: “Steven Mintz writes that adulthood has been devalued in culture in some ways. ‘Adults, we are repeatedly told, lead anxious lives of quiet desperation,’ he writes. ‘The classic post-World War II novels of adulthood by Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, and John Updike, among others, are tales of shattered dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, broken marriages, workplace alienation, and family estrangement.’ He compares those to nineteenth-century bildungsromans, coming-of-age novels, in which people wanted to become adults. Maybe an ambivalence over whether someone feels like an adult is partially an ambivalence over whether they even want to be an adult.”
  • There’s another thing blurring the line between childhood and adulthood: kids and grown-ups both cuss. As a kid, Mark Edmundson swore with impunity, perhaps even with grace, and he wonders why adults are so often shocked by their foul-mouthed offspring: “When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity … What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits? … A shrill cry of ‘shit!’ from your five-year-old suggests that even with all the preparation you had and all the thought and all the love you invested, you didn’t manage to get it right this time.”

Fat Hamlet, and Other News

September 22, 2015 | by

Picture this guy, but fatter. Pedro Américo, Hamlet’s Vision, 1893.

  • If you’re like me, you spend most of your free time imagining what Hamlet might look like: the pallid cheeks, the heavy eyelids, the ruminating brow, the svelte silhouette, the dejected posture … But what if he was fat? What if the hero of the greatest tragedy of all time was a portly slob? His own mother believes he is—“He’s fat and scant of breath,” she says to Claudius—and an inspection of Shakespeare’s fat usage provides some troubling evidence.
  • Women read more crime fiction than men, supposedly because they “savor the victim role.” But Vera Caspary, a midcentury crime novelist, did just the opposite: “On the page, Caspary had almost supernatural powers of bemusement; she turned her sorrows into triumphs. She liked to joke about her attractiveness to ‘macaroni salesmen.’ Her husband, whom she met when she was forty, was a movie producer, but she earned more than he did, and he resented it. She tried to ignore his resentment, and corrected people at parties who called her Mrs. Goldsmith.”
  • My grandfather’s favorite place to walk was the mall, and in this he was not alone—shopping centers are apparently “the second most popular venue for walking in the country, just behind neighborhoods.” Mall walkers, or Mall Stars, tend to be older, and they’re admirably immune to the commercial aspects of the space, especially when they walk early in the morning: “Since nothing’s open you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to buy,” one mall walker said. “Plus, all the stores sell clothes for young people.” The Mall of America boasts some 250 Mall Stars. There is something to live for.
  • Fiction in England “flourished for centuries before that of any of its neighbors”; even so, one of its earliest practitioners, Geoffrey of Monmouth, couldn’t bring himself to admit he was making shit up. His History of the Kings of England was full of invented royalty, but “Geoffrey considered himself a historian, and presented himself as such … Even at the time there were people who thought he was taking the mickey; one commentator, Gerald of Wales, remarked that demons would flee when the gospels were read, but flock round to listen to Geoffrey’s fibs (there was, for instance, no ‘Emperor Leo’). Nevertheless, his work was hugely popular, and more than two hundred manuscripts survive.”
  • Now that the scandal surrounding Michael Derrick Hudson and Sherman Alexie has died down, let’s revisit another ruse, from 2012: that time when a guy said he was John Ashbery just because his e-mail address was johnashberypoetry@gmail.com, and a prominent lit mag believed him.

Vengeance, Death, Blood, and Revenge

August 17, 2015 | by

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Act I, scene i

Titus Andronicus is a hideous play. Harold Bloom called it “a poetic atrocity”; Samuel Johnson refused to believe that Shakespeare was its author, writing that “the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre, which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience … That Shakespeare wrote any part, though Theobald declares it incontestable, I see no reason for believing.” In its five grisly acts, fourteen people die; at least one is raped; throats are cut; hands, tongues, and heads are cut off; blood spurts “as from a conduit with three issuing spouts”; bodies are thrown to beasts and into pits, dragged into forests, buried alive chest-deep and left to starve; the bones of two men are ground “to powder small” and baked, with heads, into pies, which are then fed to their mother.

In other words, it’s one of those tragedies that was just crying out for an illustrated edition. Read More »

When Nacre Was Lucre, and Other News

May 20, 2015 | by

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An undated book from the mother-of-pearl craze.

  • On the cover of a 1598 book, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, a historian claims to have found “the only demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime”; the editor of Country Life magazine is calling this “the literary discovery of the century.” The century, thankfully, is young.
  • Pause to remember the garish bookbinding trends of yesteryear: “For a few years in the nineteenth century … papier-mâché books adorned with mother-of-pearl were part of a gift book fad, wherein a decorative tome of sentimental or religious poetry was bestowed upon a loved one, often around the winter holidays. The text was usually secondary to the gaudy cover, which was decorated to the extreme.”
  • Is photography merely a matter of chance? “By the end of the nineteenth century, after Kodak has arrived … much of the role of chance migrates from the processing phase to the moment of exposure. That moment was always prone to chance—in the long exposures of early photography, a dog might wander in a street scene, or a young portrait subject might sneeze and blur the image. But with fast shutters and films, the so-called instantaneous photograph arrives, and chance takes on a new prominence in composition—to the point that even the word composition seems questionable.”
  • Everett Fox is translating the Hebrew Bible—a tricky effort, given that the original is rooted in a deeply aural tradition. “I heard it, too. Short vowels twinkled and long vowels streamed by with showy tails. Consonants held crisp and true. The overall effect was of a simultaneously dense and sprawling thing, layered and alive and capable of surprising you. Fox has dedicated his life to giving the Anglophone ear a hint of that Hebrew drama … [He] uses every poetic means at his disposal: phrase length, line break, puns.”
  • The glam SAHMs (stay-at-home moms, if you’re new to this) of the Upper East Side await wife bonuses from their husbands: “A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance—how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school—the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks.”

Jane Austen Unmentionables, and Other News

August 5, 2013 | by

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  • Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award–winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been pulled from the PS 114 sixth-grade reading list based on the following: “And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”
  • Speaking of the National Book Awards: the gotcha! stunt is as old as time. In the 1970s, a disgruntled writer submitted the manuscript of Jerzy Kosiński’s award-winning Steps (sans famous author name) to publishers and, yep, it was rejected.
  • Did Shakespeare really invent the concept of zero?
  • “Nestling in the middle of my Jane Austen goody bag is a black lace thong.” A visit to the JASNA convention, the Comic Con of Janeites. 
  • And a list of well-read TV characters begins with the dog Wishbone, from Wishbone. Happy Monday!
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