Say It with Shoes, and Other News


On the Shelf

A mark of distinction, and maybe also love.

  • If you’re having trouble focusing, and meditation hasn’t helped, and Adderall hasn’t helped, and whispering “focus, focus, focusssss…” to yourself hasn’t helped, you might try standing in the nude before a group of strangers. It worked for Tom McCarthy, who enjoyed its literary benefits above all else: “Every morning, I’d turn up, strip off, and stand on a small podium while they drew me. If it was a sculpture class, the podium would turn, like a lazy Susan, as the students’ clay figures rotated atop their easels … Nothing I’ve ever done, before or since, has afforded me such a state of concentration—intense, extended, charged. I would run whole passages of text—Baudelaire, Rilke, Ponge, whomever I’d been reading, even my own small works in progress—through my head, forward, backward, taking apart each image, amplifying each meter and sub-rhythm in the loaded silence. I probably learned more about literature in the six months I spent on the podium than in the three previous years of study.”
  • Advice for young lovers: treat your amour to a fine, sturdy pair of brogues. Nothing says “I love you” like English footwear. When Marina Warner’s mother moved to England, she’d never left Italy before, and her husband-to-be knew what must be done. Warner writes, “My forty-two-year-old father took her—perhaps as a present for her twenty-third birthday—to be fitted for a pair of shoes at Peal & Co, a family firm famous for its clientele: Humphrey Bogart! Marlene Dietrich! Fred Astaire! The Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson! Each customer was measured, and the findings entered in a series of ledgers known as the ‘Feet Books’; the bespoke shoemakers then modeled wooden lasts to be used to make the shoes; these effigies were labeled with the client’s personal number—my mother’s was 289643—to be kept in the firm’s store for use when the next pair was ordered. The Peal dynasty of cobblers—which stretched back at least to 1791 or even, some claimed, to 1565, and showed at both the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain a century later—only stopped making shoes in 1965.” 

  • Sarah Gerard wanted to live without violence, so she became a vegan—a choice that served to enable her eating disorders and complicate her approach to food: “My definition of ‘better’ continues to shift. Today, I try to be healthier, kinder—but this wasn’t always the case. Or rather, my idea of what constitutes health once included, for example, a three-hundred-calorie-a-day diet. Being kinder has not always included being kinder to myself, even as it included being kind to animals. At times, being kind to animals has only applied to animals I knew personally. And being kind to myself has at different times meant eating an entire pint of ice cream or eating a kale salad.”
  • We in America love to blame the French for deconstructionism—passing the buck is a surefire way to assuage guilt. But look in the mirror, America. Deconstructionism is your own postmodern monster. Gregory Jones-Katz writes, “Viewing deconstruction as a foreign mode of interpretation obscures the fertile soil in which it took root and flourished in the United States. Central to the story of deconstruction, but often neglected, are the various American contexts that cultivated and disseminated deconstructive undertakings. Even though the image—to some, the bogeyman—of the European theorist persists, the truth is that deconstructive literary theory was largely an indigenous creation. This change of perspective throws new light on the scapegoating of French Theory for the decline of the humanities. As it turns out, what began as a rarified method of reading literature practiced in seminar rooms and lecture halls has permeated many arenas of American life, including quite a few far beyond the academy.”