The Literate Pigeons, and Other News


On the Shelf

He thinks he’s people!

  • I used to take such pride in my literacy. “Look at me!” I would shout, running down the street in my I’M LITERATE T-shirt. “I can read!” But now the pep is out of my step, because apparently even pigeons can learn to read: “Through gradual training, the birds moved from learning to eat from a food hopper, to recognizing shapes, to learning words … After narrowing down to the four brightest birds out eighteen, over eight months of training, the advanced-class pigeons were taught to distinguish four-letter words from nonwords. They were even able to tell the difference between correctly spelled words and those with transposed characters, like ‘very’ and ‘vrey,’ or words with different letters included to make them completely misspelled.”
  • And that means it’s only a matter of time until the pigeons will be texting, too, because that’s what everyone does now. What do you think the pigeons are gonna do, use the telephone? The phone call is dead. Don’t even bother making a friendly call, unless you’re a needy loser. Timothy Noah tells us, “The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech … Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, ‘Have I ever seen this person in the nude?’ ” 

  • When people think of the Marquis de Sade, they think of kinky sex. Which is fine, of course. But when Lucy Ives thinks of him, she thinks of office life: “The Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters … For all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations … In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.”
  • And while we’re laughing at the misfortune of others, might as well take in Michael Hofmann’s review of the new Wallace Stevens biography: “Paul Mariani’s unfortunate achievement is to take a life that was threatened by abstraction, paper and dysphoria anyway, and make it seem still more unreal, papery and dysphoric; think, by contrast, with what brilliant detail and ordinary humanity we are now able to see Stevens’s colleague in the insurance racket Franz Kafka, through the efforts of his biographers Reiner Stach and Klaus Wagenbach. But Mariani seems to have no appetite or aptitude for telling a life story. For all that Stevens tidied everything away in its own little compartment (poetry, business, home life, background, family—leaving the appearance of an unlived or half-lived life), he was as much alive as the rest of us, and, for all his quirkily compounded blend of self-indulgence and austerity, or recessiveness and persistence, it should have been possible to make a fascinating book.”