Staff Picks: Whither the Library, Mafia Men


This Week’s Reading

Like many editors and critics, I depend on the New York Public Library because it has the books I need when I need them—whether it’s an obscure edition of Les Fleurs du Mal or a monograph on Mary Lamb—and because it is one of the few places in New York where anyone can work in peace and quiet, and with free help from experts in their fields. Now there are plans to overhaul this unique institution and tear out seven floors of stacks. Scott Sherman and Caleb Crain make me wonder why.  —Lorin Stein

“The Mafia is the consciousness of one’s own being, the exaggerated concept of one’s individual strength, the only arbiter of every conflict of interests or ideas.” So wrote Giuseppe Pitrè, a nineteenth-century scholar of Italian folklore, and so opens Cosa Nostra: An Illustrated History of the Mafia, which landed on my desk this week. It’s strewn with more bars, cops, and bloody corpses than the best crime movie. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

The Keith Haring show just opened at the Brooklyn Museum, and though I haven’t made it out there yet, I’ve been following the museum’s Tumblr blog featuring selections from Haring’s journals. They’re putting up a page each day, and most so far are from the early seventies, when he was a teenager, but some of the site’s earliest posts show Haring playing around with ciphers and visual repetitions—hints of what is to come. —Nicole Rudick

Ron Padgett and John Ashbery discuss the life and work of Frank O’Hara in this recent conversation at Harvard. The bittersweet reminiscences include O’Hara’s introduction to Larry Rivers at a party. To hear Ashbery tell it, it wasn’t long till they were canoodling behind a window drape. —Josh Anderson

I was recently blown away by Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s famous account of a day in the life of a British Consul suffering from latest-of-late, DT-stage alcoholism. The Consul, one Geoffery Firmin, has reached that fatal apex of the disease in which reality splinters into an inscrutable funhouse, and the quotidian becomes demonic. The vivid depiction makes a sad kind of sense, for in many ways it was a porthole into the late Lowry’s own troubled mind. (Although it must be noted that Volcano’s tragic star is also totally hilarious.) Even if you haven’t read Lowry’s work, you can watch the entire 1972 Oscar-nominated documentary about his life here for free. It is truly fascinating. —Allison Bulger

Researching Elaine May recently, I stumbled on an old video of May and Mike Nichols’s skits. Familial loathing was never so funny!J. A.

My favorite elegy of the week is by Michael Robbins, from his forthcoming first collection, Alien vs. Predator:

To Anthony Madrid

Vita brevis, brother. If you die first,
keep your sniveling relations far hence.
You got village girls pregnant with a glance.
Heck, you almost got me pregnant once.

I’ll never forget your first words to me:
Where’s the instructions for this thing?
I said, It’s a pillow. Your epitaph will read,

Don’t pull the bell rope if you wake
in your Silver Sapphire casket.
That thing cost a fortune. I hate to dig.
Just go to sleep, recite some Beckett.

Well, the psyche lusts to be wet,
as the kids say. Madrid, it’s not cricket!
I’ll look after your woman, fear not.
Are you quite sure you’re not dead yet?