Kaboom, and Other News


On the Shelf

Stanisław Notariusz, Explosion, 1922.


  • God, I fucking love profanity! Profanity: shit, yes! It sometimes seems to these jaded ears that oaths and cusses are all we have left, the only solace in this vale of fucking tears. Joan Acocella, reviewing two new books about swearing, writes, “The very sound of obscenities—forget their sense—seems to ring a bell in us, as is clear from the fact that many of them sound alike … Consonants sound sharper, more absolute, than vowels. (Compare piss with peecunt with pussy.) It may be this tough-talk quality that accounts for certain widely recognized benefits of swearwords. For example, they help us endure pain. In one widely cited experiment, subjects were instructed to plunge a hand into ice-cold water and keep it there as long as they could. Half were told that they could utter a swearword while doing this, if they wanted to; the other half were told to say some harmless word, such as wood. The swearing subjects were able to keep their hands in the water significantly longer than the pure-mouthed group.”

  • Philip Roth retired a few years ago, but he kept his e-mail account, which means he’s getting the same spam we are—and that’s a nice thought. It also means Judith Thurman was able to send him a few questions about our Great National Unraveling. Recall that Roth’s 2004 counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America, imagined Lindbergh in the Oval Office. And then read what Roth has to say about Trump: “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.”
  • Paul Beatty, at a literary festival in Jaipur, India, talked Trump, too, though his take is just the opposite from Roth’s: “This is nothing new. To me that’s the part that feels disingenuous. When people go, I don’t recognize this place. And I’m like, where have you been? That’s the part that bothers me. With the police violence—people are like, Oh I didn’t know. And it’s like people have been putting this in your face for ages and all of a sudden now … why now? … Maybe I just don’t feel accepted, so I don’t feel hurt. I’m not a patriot. It’s just my home, where I grew up, but hurt, no. I don’t have that parental relationship to the place. It’s like if my mom kicked me out of my house, I’m hurt. I don’t have that relationship to the government, to the people. I don’t.”
  • And Lewis Lapham blames the culture for devaluing the written word for more than a generation: “Trouble is that writers have been discounted in the American scheme of things over the last fifty years now. I’m old enough to remember—I’m at Yale in 1952 to 1956, and to be a writer was an important thing. There was the belief that writers could change the world. And the heroes were people like Camus, Yeats, even Auden, and Hemingway, Mailer. The notion that literature was going to come up with important answers. Solzhenitsyn—the novel as heroic … And so the writer seems to have less—Nader explained this to me once. Nader said that when he, in the sixties, published Unsafe at Any Speed, within a year, there were hearings, rules got changed, safety belts got put on cars. And this was genuinely true in the sixties. Protest the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement—civil rights legislation goes in with Johnson. It had an effect. Now, it doesn’t have an effect. We all know that we’re being governed by crooks, but we make a joke out of it.”