Oo, Those Awful Orcs, and Other News


On the Shelf


A Middle-earth Orc with a face only Edmund Wilson could hate. Illustration: Antoine Glédel, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Ursula K. Le Guin defends genre fiction: “When the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities … I love to remember Edmund Wilson, king of the realist bigots, squealing ‘Oo, those awful Orcs!’ and believing he’d made a witty and cogent critical point.”
  • The sordid history of the paperback, which democratized and scandalized: “When we look back on the mass-market-paperback phenomenon it’s hard to keep the Emily Brontës separate from the Mickey Spillanes. In the same year that Signet published I, the Jury, it also published reprints of books by James Joyce, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and Arthur Koestler. Paperback publishers made no effort to distinguish classics from kitsch.”
  • Where does zero come from? A mathematician traced the earliest-known written representation of the numeral to a seventh-century tablet in Cambodia: “It was important to recover this artifact with the earliest zero … there’s a monument to this great invention of the human mind, the ability to write something down that represents complete nothingness.”
  • A new year, a new occasion to police language. Presenting Lake Superior State University’s fortieth annual list of banished words, including curate, skill set, takeaway, and others you’d sooner cut your ears off than hear again. (It’s worth revisiting the lists from years past—in ’98, for instance, people were sick of da bomb, talk to the hand, and yadda yadda yadda.)
  • And while we’re on words: “What exactly is luxury? The concept is both slippery and divisive … The language associated with it is replete with qualifiers. It can be ‘authentic,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘aspirational’ or ‘affordable’ … The acquisition of luxury is both an attempt at transcendence and an act of appropriation, like the picking of the apple in the garden of Eden. Perhaps that was mankind’s first luxury good.”