Poe’s Only Best Seller, and Other News


On the Shelf

An illustration from Wyatt’s Conchology. This and other beautiful illustrations were omitted from Poe’s much cheaper abridged edition.

  • Edgar Allan Poe had only one best seller in his lifetime. It wasn’t The Raven and Other Poems. Nor was it The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, his only novel. It was The Conchologist’s First Book: Or, a System of Testaceous Malacology, Arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools, in Which the Animals, According to Cuvier, Are Given with the Shells, A Great Number of New Species Added, And the Whole Brought Up, as Accurately as Possible, to the Present Condition of the Science. The first edition sold out in two months. And Poe wasn’t even its original author; the book was an abridgment of Thomas Wyatt’s Manual of Conchology. “Poe re-ordered the plates, arranging the organisms from simplest to most complex, and contributed a new preface and introduction. Though the book was intended ‘expressly for the use of Schools,’ the author appears to have done little calibration of his writing style for a young audience. Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes: ‘Poe’s boring, pedantic and hair-splitting Preface was absolutely guaranteed to torment and discourage even the most passionately interested schoolboy.’ ”
  • Sōtatsu, a seventeenth-century Japanese artist, found fame for his screens, the most popular of which depicted roiling waves and rocks. (NB: I’ve refrained, with some difficulty, from deploying a “making waves” joke here, but the link you’re about to follow has no qualms about wave jokes.) Sōtatsu’s name faded from memory, but now he’s due for a comeback, courtesy of the Smithsonian: “The six-fold screen at the center of the exhibit, Waves at Matsushima, with its shimmering gold and silver tones, is believed to have been created about 1620 … Likely originally commissioned for a temple by a wealthy sea captain, Waves at Matsushima only became wider known after a pair of exhibitions in the early twentieth century.”
  • What does Rodin’s Thinker teach us about violence? “In the original 1880 sculpture, the thinker actually appears kneeling before the Gates of Hell … Sat before the gates, the thinker appears to be turning away from the intolerable scene behind. This, we could argue, is a tendency unfortunately all too common when thinking about violence today … In the original commission the thinker is actually called ‘the poet.’ This, I want to argue, is deeply significant for rethinking the future of the political. The Thinker was initially conceived as a tortured body, yet as a freethinking human, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry. We continue to be taught that politics is a social science and that its true command is in the power of analytical reason. Such has been the hallmark of centuries of reasoned, rationalized, and calculated violence, which has made the intolerable appear arbitrary and normal. Countering this demands a rethinking of the political itself in more poetic terms.”
  • It’s settled! Here’s what you should buy Dad this Christmas. “I had cufflinks made out of World War II history books ripped out of his favorite old baseball stadium. Headphones made out of whiskey stone drillbits. It tracks your fitness barbecues. Dads love it. Wireless meat suitcase. A watch made out of more expensive watches. Steve McQueen is here, and he named a star after you. I want to give you something, but your hands weren’t made to accept anything.”
  • You’ve seen Michael Mann’s Heat, right? Al Pacino? Robert de Niro? Val Kilmer? Come on! Heat! It’s got that famous scene in it, you know, where de Niro and Pacino meet for a cup of coffee even though they’re mortal enemies? Anyway, it came out twenty years ago, and now Michael Mann has some critical information about that scene: it’s based in life. “Heat began really with a friend of mine named Charlie Adamson, who killed the real Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963; he’d been telling me about how interesting this guy was. Charlie had great admiration for Neil as a thief, because he was very professional, very disciplined, and very, very smart … Charlie was dropping off his dry-cleaning at a little shopping center in Chicago on Lincoln Avenue, and he saw McCauley, who he had already been surveilling, getting out of his car to go in for a cup of coffee … Adamson says, ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.’ They went in, sat down and had coffee at the Belden Deli, which is no longer there. They had kind of a version of that same dialogue scene that I wrote and put in the movie, but it was very personal—the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think.”