Writers, It’s Time to Learn the Guitar, and Other News


On the Shelf

Throw everything else away. These are your tools now.

  • Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, prompting a massive spike in acoustic guitar and harmonica sales at Sam Ash Music stores around the world as writers rush to recast themselves as musicians, tearing their elbow patches off and discarding their tweed sport coats, smashing their typewriters and casting whole drawers of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils into the street, as it finally dawns on them that they’re working in an outmoded medium facing dwindling interest from the culture at large, with not even the promise of prestige or elite status to sustain them. Don DeLillo is seeking a twelve-album contract with Columbia Records. Haruki Murakami is tripling the line breaks in all his novels and reissuing them as “Collected Lyrics.” Philip Roth sits cross-legged in silk pajamas, trying to play a major scale on the harmonica for about five minutes—he gives up, masturbates. Milan Kundera promises to go electric at next year’s Newport Folk Festival. 

  • Believe it or not, there are other things happening. But you probably don’t know, because neoliberalism has glued you to a screen in isolation, your instinctive nature permanently suppressed by sociopolitical forces far beyond your control: “human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism … Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?”
  • Shirley Jackson is a popular author around Halloween—witchcraft will do that to a writer. But her latest biographer argues that Jackson should be read as more than a novelty act: “In a new, meticulously researched biography, A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin sets out to rescue Jackson from the sexists and the genre snobs who have consigned her to a dungeon of kooky, spooky middlebrow-ness. Franklin’s aim is to establish Jackson as both a major figure in the American Gothic tradition and a significant, proto-feminist chronicler of mid-twentieth-century women’s lives … Franklin argues that Jackson’s sorceress persona was mostly shtick: a fun way to tease interviewers and to sell books. Jackson was interested in witchcraft, she writes, less as a ‘practical method for influencing the world’ than as ‘a way of embracing and channeling female power at a time when women in America often had little control over their lives.’ Similarly, Jackson used supernatural elements in her work not to deliver cheap thrills but, in the manner of Poe or James, ‘to plumb the depths of the human condition,’ or, more particularly, to explore the ‘psychic damage to which women are especially prone.’ ”
  • Today in women and trees: Jochen Raiß went to a flea market in Frankfurt, where he came across a photo of a woman in a tree. Then another. Then another. Why were these women climbing? Why were they photographed in the act? In aggregate, the pictures are especially beguiling; they’re collected in a new book, Women in Trees: “The snapshots are imbued with mystery. Most lack any notes that might anchor them to a particular location, an identity, or a special occasion. For some reason, those Raiß has been able to date were often snapped between the 1920s and thirties. But what remains most intriguing is why so many of these women, largely dressed to impress, chose to hike themselves up a trunk and strike a pose—from the comfortable to the clumsy—amid leaves and branches.