Where Science Meets Superstition, and Other News


On the Shelf

Trustworthy enough.

  • With the National Book Awards over and done with, we can turn our attention to a more pressing matter: the annual Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. As a close follower of this prize, I can assure you that this year’s nominees have written some of the best worst sex in its illustrious history. The competition is stiff. E.g.: “Gwennie shoved him in though she was dry. He shut his eyes and thought of mangoes, split papayas, fruits tart and sweet and dripping with juice, and then it was off, and he groaned and his whole body turned sweet.” Or: “She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide, and then I split her.”
  • Wyatt Mason thinks you should read War Music, Christopher Logue’s version of the Iliad. If you’ve always found Homer boring, then Logue’s is the Iliad for you—he translated it even though he couldn’t read Greek. “His Homer sounds like no version of that ancient story you’ve ever heard … This is not Homer: it’s Logue’s Homer. Like all translations, it departs fundamentally from the language of the original. Unlike many translations, it arrives at a version that, because of its radical departures, gets us closer to the original than many more defensibly ‘faithful’ translations have ever managed … He died before he could conclude much more than half of a full account of those ancient sounds. But, oh, what he managed to leave us: a vision of Homer as intimate and alive as a breath.”
  • Look alive, people. These are the days of the winner-take-all economy, the days when only a handful of novels each year attain “must-read” status—the days of the seven-figure advance for debut novels. “The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations … Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said … Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel.”
  • Delete your weather app, turn off your GPS, and purge from your bookmarks—all you really need is The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been hailed for its accuracy since 1792. It remains, in its stubborn way, a forerunner of the Information Age: “The Old Farmer’s Almanac has long had a reputation for getting the forecast right, and doing so on an outlandish timescale. In the 1930s and 1940s, people would write to the Almanac to ask about weather conditions for specific days, months in advance. Brides wanted sunshine for their wedding days; rabbis would ask for the exact time of sunset in a certain city, so they could plan the lighting of altar candles … The Old Farmer’s Almanac didn’t have to be right all the time, it just had to be right most of the time. The perception that it was is a big part of why the Almanac has endured.”
  • Today in wishful thinking: using the power of language, you can see a positive trend in any outcome, any set of data. Suddenly, significance is everywhere. Scientists learned this lesson a long time ago, as this list of weasel words from their research papers suggests: “a margin at the edge of significance,” “a marginal trend toward significance,” “a near-significant trend,” “a clear tendency to significance,” “a barely detectable statistically significant difference” …