Staff Picks: Wood on the Fire, Wood on the Flume


This Week’s Reading

Slava Korotki in his handmade boat on the Barents Sea. Photo: Evgenia Arbugaeva, via The Guardian

The banker and poet Samuel Rogers (1763–1855) spent his life at the center of political and literary London. He knew everyone (both Wordsworth and Tennyson borrowed his court suit for royal occasions), and like the Brothers Goncourt—or a Regency Renata Adler—he had a nightly habit of writing up his dinner conversations. As Christopher Ricks observes in a preface to Rogers’s Table-Talk & Recollections, Rogers loved to repeat other people’s gossip. But he loved to record their quirks and sayings, too. Of the Whig leader Charles James Fox, for example: “Very candid—Retracts instantly—continually putting wood on the fire.” “He loves children.” “Josephine a very pleasing woman.” Most interesting for me are the private literary opinions of Rogers’s powerful friends, who talk about Milton, Pope, and the classics very much in the tone of late-night Dylanologists two centuries later, and at the same passionate level of detail. —Lorin Stein

While this may be remembered as the week virtual reality went mainstream, I found myself absorbed in a more time-tested medium—a portfolio of photographs, “Weather Man,” by Evgenia Arbugaeva. Arbugaeva, who grew up in the Russian Arctic, spent several weeks visiting a remote meteorological station in Khodovarikha, one in which data on wind speed, precipitation, visibility, water levels, and the like are still measured and recorded by hand—by Vyacheslav “Slava” Korotki, the station’s resident meteorologist. Slava lives and works in isolation, in a station built in, and by all measures still reminiscent of, 1933. Says Arbugaeva (and so her photos attest): “He doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself.” —Stephen Hiltner 

Kennywood’s Log Jammer: innocent fun or senseless testament to exploitative timber practices?

I seem to mention something from Cabinet in this space whenever they publish a new issue—but to hell with it, read Adam Morris’s essay “Timber!”, from their latest. It’s about those pervasive log-flume rides (e.g. Disneyland’s Splash Mountain, Six Flags’s El Aserradero, Kennywood’s Log Jammer) and Arrow Dynamics, the company that brought them to market in the fifties. The flume ride memorializes a dismal chapter in American history: the frenzy of unsustainable logging that overtook the Sierras at the end of the nineteenth century. To reduce labor costs, loggers built elaborate flumes, often many miles long, and floated lumber down the mountainside. These were dangerous conveyances—they jammed easily, and plenty of “herders” lost their lives either maintaining them or using them for joyrides. In other words, they’re just the thing you’d want to base a water ride on. The more you think about theme parks, the more twisted they become; and how strange it is, in these climatically aware times, to imagine everyone standing in line, waiting to pack themselves into synthetic logs so they, too, can feel the thrill of an exploited natural resource. Morris’s piece is rich in cognitive dissonance: it’s a pungent study of American hubris. —Dan Piepenbring

David Ulin’s Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is an urban diary of sorts, considering landscape, community, and architecture from the vantage point of LA’s seldom-trafficked sidewalks. Looking at the bipolar tensions of retail-tainment spaces—those pedestrian walking malls so popular in the Southwest—Ulin ponders how we might make such places our own despite the Disneyfied, scripted experiences they offer. He’s interested in “how (or even whether) great civic space is created, if it can be invented whole cloth or if it needs to evolve.” LA is the youngest of our great American cities. When William Mulholland said of his city, “There it is. Take it,” he was alluding to its unwritten past, and the raw potential therein. We don’t often see LA paired with words like community or neighborhood—it’s usually held up as a kind of cultural bleach—but Ulin, an outsider to the city, is skeptical of those who dismiss it. Sidewalking is not so much an apologia as a meditation, one that seeks to understand the city on its own terms. —Jeffery Gleaves

From Hyde Park News.

Cleaning out my grandparents’ attic recently, I unearthed three generations of family newspapers: by my grandmother and her siblings, my mother and her sisters, and me and my brother. So it was with a strange tinge of recognition that I happened upon Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper, a collection of juvenilia from Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, and her brother Thoby. To be honest, none of my family’s papers have the same flashes of brilliance and wit that illuminate these, in which “laughter,” as Hermione Lee writes in the foreword, “preferably her mother Julia’s laughter, is always being tried for.” Virginia was particularly hungry for her parents’ attention and praise. A Stephen family childhood, in a household of siblings, half-siblings, parents, governesses, and servants, was full of light and shadow, “tangled and matted with emotion,” Woolf recalls. The Stephen family newspaper abruptly ceased publication about three weeks before Julia’s death in 1895, a trauma that reverberated through Virginia’s life. With its copious photographs and facsimile pages, including charming drawings by the Stephen siblings—of Leslie Stephen seated in his armchair, of a black cat arching its back—Hyde Park Gate News is entertaining for scholars and casual readers alike. —Hannah LeClair

In Changing the Subject, Sven Birkerts bemoans the influence of technology, which promises to solve the problems it creates. In a series of meandering essays, Birkerts explores the imprint of the information age and its choice media (“technoglut”) on consciousness, inwardness, and imagination. His portentous conclusion: “They’re on the fritz.” We have never been more connected, never lonelier, and never more regulated and imaginatively impassive. So many “deeper sources and possibilities of being” are thinned out by the digital age—serendipity, error, idleness, contemplation, daydreaming, and inwardness are replaced by flashy promises. As Birkerts sees it, salvation lies in making and appreciating art forms that demand unalloyed attention. “To achieve deep focus nowadays is to strike a blow against the dissipation of self,” he writes: “it is a way of strengthening one’s essential position.” —Joshua Maserow