Champagne Is for Chumps, and Other News


On the Shelf

“It looks like sparkling urine, but I promise it tastes good.”


  • Champagne has become so synonymous with luxury that you’d think it was produced in an elaborate, secret ritual involving bolts of crushed velvet and diamond-tipped drill bits and the blood of rosy-cheeked virgins from spa towns in the Swiss Alps. But it’s just wine, Tim Crane reminds us: “It is worth reflecting on how extraordinary the champagne phenomenon is. The wine­makers and merchants of Champagne—the Champenois—have somehow managed to persuade people who would not dream of spending £15 on a bottle of wine to spend more than twice that for champagne—especially at Christmas, weddings and other celebrations … More depressing than supermarket champagne (for the oenophiles, at least) is the champagne houses’ attempt to secure more luxury status for their cuvées, greedily hiking up the price of an already expensive product, when it is not obvious that the quality justifies it. This is one way in which the champagne business balances precariously between courting the vulgarity of the super-rich, and desiring to make genuinely exquisite, age-worthy wines of the standard of those made a few miles away in Burgundy.”
  • Fiona Pitt-Kethley had a booming career in the eighties, writing travel books and the especially successful Literary Companion to Sex. Now she struggles to get agents to return her calls. Her story of the publishing industry should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who thinks the business is essentially fair-minded: “I started to apply for an agent and after being turned down by several did the cheeky thing of advertising for one. Giles Gordon of Sheil Land was amused enough to take me on. Under his wing my income improved greatly … A few years later, Giles decided to move to Edinburgh … For a while I was with his assistant, Robert Kirby, who was pleasant enough but never had the same kind of enthusiasm for my work. When I made a minor criticism of his inability to sell my project on the red light districts of the world he showed a desire to shed me and we went our separate ways. At this stage I was still relatively well-known and I assumed I would be able to acquire another agent. I still bumped into Giles occasionally at literary parties but he said he thought I would be better with a London-based agent. Soon after this, he died in an accident falling downstairs. This is why I sometimes sum the whole story up as ‘I had an agent but he died.’ ”

  • Looking at the instantly iconic photos of the Ankara assassination, Jerry Saltz sees the formal qualities of history paintings: “The scene could be a modern-day martyrdom by the most theatrical painter of them all, Caravaggio; the prelude to David’s Oath of the Horatii; or one of Robert Longo’s large black-and-white Falling Men drawings of figures in dramatic arrested motion—human beings seemingly cut out from the world, thrust onto this pictorial stage … The gallery lighting balances and color-corrects everything, theatricalizes it all the more, making the action that much more striking. Look close and notice the key factor: This picture is taken from eye level. The photographer isn’t running away, hiding, in another room or in a crouch. Whether cravenly or by instinct, the photographer immediately reacted, moved into the action from almost straight on and framed the picture perfectly. He or she values frontality, clarity, structure, density, form. This is far from an accidental image. This is a radically self-determined picture, instantly polemical, powerfully formal.”
  • Cahokia was a medieval city right here in the United States—a once prosperous society that’s failed, for some reason, to live on in the imagination as other failed civilizations have. Annalee Newitz went to see what’s still there: “At the city’s apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as thirty thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below.”
  • In New York, on the Lower East Side, there remains one bookbinder, plying his ancient trade with his specialized tools. Dwyer Murphy paid him a visit: “There are no windows and yet it’s a cheerful place, primarily because of Henry, but also because of the instruments he uses—the oversewing machine with its web of thread, the presses that are tightened by wheel crank, the hand guillotine and the foot guillotine. Some are wickedly efficient, others possessed of a Rube Goldberg charm. Grease is needed to keep these machines in working order, and there’s a sweetness in the air, from the lubricant oils, the leather polish and Elmer’s glue, all of it underlined by the nutty scent of paper recently cut.”