All Hail the Refrigerator, and Other News


On the Shelf

View of Brent Birnbaum’s “Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester,” 2016, Denny Gallery, New York.

  • Writers generally hate to get on in years, because they’re soulless cowards who fear death. (I say this with authority, even at age thirty.) One good thing about getting older, though, is that you can sell your papers—you know, all that junk that records your “process.” Phillip Lopate was looking forward to cleaning house, but the process, he discovered, was more injurious than it seemed from afar: “For years I had been hearing of people selling their papers, and often these writers were, in my humble judgment, no better practitioners of the literary art than I—indeed, in some cases, inferior! How did they do it? … In due course I was approached by a bookseller who handled such transactions, which suddenly made it a concrete, attractive possibility. He contacted the New York Public Library, a logical place for my papers, given my lifelong involvement with the city of my birth, and two representatives from that estimable institution came to my house to examine the lot … In preparation for the librarians’ visit, I had laid out letters, manuscripts, and diaries on the kitchen table and in boxes all about the room. I tried to steer these two examiners, a man and woman, to what I thought might be juicy bits, but their blank emotionless faces (so like those of funders or oncologists, who don’t want to get your hopes up) gave away nothing, and after two hours of idly sifting through the records of a lifetime’s labor, they departed.” 

  • Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction because it’s based on fiction. In Texas, for instance, a court has been using a legal standard for mental retardation drawn from Of Mice and Men. It would be a stirring tribute to the verisimilitude of Steinbeck’s fiction were it not also a horrifying attempt to deprive mentally handicapped people of their rights: “Judge Cathy Cochran of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in 2004 that Lennie should be a legal touchstone. ‘Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt’ from the death penalty, she wrote. ‘But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?’ … Steinbeck’s son Thomas heard about Texas’ Lennie standard. ‘The character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability,’ Thomas Steinbeck, who died this month, said in a 2012 statement. ‘I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic.’ ”
  • Art Spiegelman has made his peace with the term graphic novel, but only on the condition that one-page comics can also qualify for graphic novelhood: “ ‘About seven years ago, I was invited to do a comics page for the op-ed section of the Washington Post,’ he recalled. ‘The editor was very excited and told me, Great—we’ve never had a graphic novel before! I pointed out that it was only a one-page comic, but the editor repeated, Right, and we never had a graphic novel before!’ As a result, Spiegelman decided it was time to embrace the term that has come to characterize ‘an ambitious comic book,’ whether the narrative is drawn on one page or three hundred. ‘Since comics is the art of compression, I started looking back on the one-pagers which either in terms of their subject matter or in terms of their resonance had stayed in my brain,’ he said.”
  • Today in stacking: a good thing to do with mini-fridges is to put them on top of one another. Brent Birnbaum did it, turning dozens of wood-paneled college artifacts into totems. Claire Voon writes, “Birnbaum scoured Craigslist to find pre-owned, old-fashioned refrigerators and drove around New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut to collect them. His installation, which features as many as five boxes standing atop each other, brings to mind Jeff Koons’s hoover sculptures and Donald Judd’s minimalist stacks. But placed tightly together, Birnbaum reliquaries more so resemble a dense copse of naked trees or a group of stark, monotone totems. The hoard also recalls a city of skyscrapers once you begin to open each of the doors: sparse decorations and dollhouse-like furnishings lie on the shelves to form miniature domiciles.”
  • Jim Dickinson’s 1972 record Dixie Fried is soon to be reissued. Dickinson played with Dylan, the Stones, Aretha Franklin, and Big Star. While the rest of us were busy never having heard of him, Alex Abramovich was driving to Memphis to make inquiries: “Every few years, I’d show up at the Zebra Ranch with barbecue and a head full of questions. Why did rock and roll happen in the 1950s, and not thirty years earlier, given that white musicians like Dock Boggs, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family had all been playing with, and learning from, black musicians in the 1920s? Jim thought about that for a moment, then said ‘Korea’—the integration of the armed forces had been a big deal—and also comic books, which had taught American children to spend their money more freely.”