More Novels Starring Coins, Please, and Other News


On the Shelf

Only this watermarked stock photo of a walking one-euro coin truly captures the thrill of novels with currency at their centers.

  • I find novels starring people—or any animate creatures, really—to be unthinkably dull. For this reason I do most of my reading in the mid to late eighteenth century, when novels with inanimate objects at their centers enjoyed a brief but memorable time in the literary limelight. The most famous one was told from the perspective of a coin: “Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea thrilled contemporary readers with ‘Views of several striking Scenes,’ an insider’s account of the scandalous doings of the ‘most Noted Persons in every Rank of Life,’ and tales from the gold mines of Peru, the streets of London, the canals of Amsterdam, the ports of the Caribbean, and the front lines of the Great War … It was a tipping point for what are frequently referred to as ‘it-narratives.’ It-narratives, also called ‘novels of circulation’ or ‘object narratives,’ are novels or stories that take an inanimate object or an animal as its narrator … With a market proven, writers for hire began churning them out with variable quality. By 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review complained, ‘This mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or—any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.’ ”
  • In which Nabokov, talking to us from 1926, attempts to make sense of his exile: “There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders—and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as idea, tendency, influence, period, and era. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences, and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium—the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.”
  • Today in dramatic acts of digital preservation: if ever the Daily shuts down, we hope to survive in a kind of bardic oral tradition, having former readers pass down our stories one at a time through the generations, at great length and with little regard for accuracy. The website, which I’d never heard of before about ten minutes ago, is taking fewer chances. Instead of vanishing into the mists of time, they’re keeping their users’ contributions “in a nickel-plate ‘book’ designed to be readable for the next 10,000 years … Everything on the site—roughly two million words and fourteen thousand photos—will be etched in microscopic size onto a series of nickel plates. Everything will be readable with an optical microscope.” (One of the site’s founders notes that the plates are “fire resistant” and “deal well with saltwater.”)
  • Philosophy departments are among the most Eurocentric in all of academe—which is fine, as long as they practice truth in advertising. Write to your congressman: “Any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’ … We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gita as they do the Republic, that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980–1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926–2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’sthat Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Kwasi Wiredu (1931– ), Lame Deer (1903–1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.”