I Got You This Dead Bird, and Other News


On the Shelf


  • Americans just hate it when you sleep on the job. I learned this the hard way when I installed a Murphy bed in my last office. Boy, was the management steamed! I thought their issue was that I was spending too much time alone—not being a team player and such—so I invited my colleagues to watch me sleep, or even to join me in the Murphy bed if they were so inclined. (It was a queen.) But that only made them fire me! Imagine the joy, then, with which I greeted Bryant Rousseau’s reporting from Japan, where napping in public is not just allowed, but celebrated: “The word for it is inemuri. It is often translated as ‘sleeping on duty,’ but Dr. Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as ‘sleeping while present’ … Sleeping in social situations can even enhance your reputation. Dr. Steger recalled a group dinner at a restaurant where the male guest of a female colleague fell asleep at the table. The other guests complimented his ‘gentlemanly behavior’—that he chose to stay present and sleep, rather than excuse himself.”
  • Not dissimilarly, I went through a phrase where the only Christmas gifts I could think to give were dead birds. Not birds of prey or anything gauche like that—just cute, deceased little songbirds, sometimes on dry ice, wrapped in little parcels of tissue and tied with twine. Well, people weren’t having it. My best friend spit in my face. Even my mom asked if I kept the receipt. I was born in the wrong time, I guess, because in Victorian England, people just loved dead birds for the holidays. Allison Meier writes, “The image of a dead bird in the snow is similar to the popular ‘Babe in the Woods’ motif of children who are in their mortal sleep in the forest, and may have likewise been a call to empathy for the less fortunate. John Grossman, author of Christmas Curiosities, told Tea Tree Library that the cards were ‘bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas’ … Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly noted that the birds are often robins and wrens, and that ‘killing a wren or robin was once a good-luck ritual performed in late December.’”

  • It’s oddly fitting that Marshall McLuhan, who staked his career on a prescient, almost shamanistic understanding of the power of media, rose to fame by using one of the most sophisticated tools the media has ever invented: the publicity campaign. “Like most celebrity ascensions, McLuhan’s was the product of a conscious publicity campaign … [His] break came in early 1965, when a pair of San Francisco prospectors—one, Gerald Feigen, a physician, the other, Howard Gossage, an ad-agency executive—‘discovered’ McLuhan … Together they plotted a full-fledged publicity rollout, starting with cocktail parties in New York City with media and publishing figures. The pair staged a weeklong ‘McLuhan Festival’ that summer, with nightly parties and a rotating cast of ad executives, newspaper editors, mayoral aides, and business leaders in attendance … McLuhan’s second, posthumous run of celebrity, which picked up in the 1990s, suggests a kind of sleeper effect, whereby the fame penalty recedes. Soon enough McLuhan’s slogans resurfaced as ad copy, and academic journals published, with exegetical care, special issues on his works. McLuhan conferences were organized, an off-Broadway show (The Medium) was staged in 1994, and knowing allusions reappeared in popular culture, including an early Sopranos Ted Turner, Time’s 1991 man of the year, articulated what became the new line both inside and outside the academy: ‘McLuhan was wrong only temporarily.’ ”
  • Stuart Kelly argues that prestige television—specifically Westworld—has a better understanding of contemporary conceptions of selfhood than the novel ever could: “Literature is one of our first attempts at simulating reality, and its characters offer necessarily simplified versions of the messy business of being a human. Philosophers, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have all called into question these notions that we cherish—will, self, choice, desire, recollection—but the novel has failed to keep up with these insights … Lifelikeness is a cardinal virtue of the novel, according to the great critic James Wood. But what if the ‘hosts,’ by imitating humanity, become human-esque? Or better than humans? … [Westworld] imagines consciousness as virus, glitch as evolution … That’s why Westworld seems to be the best example of what I’ll call ‘the post-human novel.’ ”