Buy Yourself Some Old Seeds, and Other News


On the Shelf

A vintage ad for a seed catalog.


  • All writers are spies, but some of them, not unreasonably, want to do it full-time: it’s generally more lucrative than the “authorship” game, and it gets you out of the house, often armed. Few would be totally surprised, then, to learn that Ernest Hemingway had a yen to practice espionage. Nicholas Reynolds, a military historian, alleges in his book Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy (see what he did there?) that Papa was a double agent, snooping around on behalf of the Commies and Uncle Sam: another lost soul in that vast miasma we call the twentieth century. Andrew O’Hagan writes of the new book: “Reynolds looks among the shadows and finds a Hemingway not seen before, a man out of control and out of focus, a man in bits … What is Hemingway alleged to have done as a spy? We know that, in 1937, at another hotel in Madrid, he had a drink—vodka and Spanish brandy—with that ‘representative of the diabolical Russia’, the NKVD chief Alexander Orlov. (Politics didn’t come up but they talked about their shared interest in guns.) Other evidence? That during the Second World War he set up a counterintelligence bureau in Havana. The American diplomat Robert Joyce told Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker that Hemingway was willing to pay for it himself. It is further alleged that he set up the Crook Factory, to keep an eye on enemy aliens in Cuba, and put his beloved, thirty-eight-foot fishing vessel Pilar out to sea as a scout for German U-boats. In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Hemingway wrote that he aimed to be ‘a secret agent of my government’ but when it comes to the Soviets, there’s a lot of ‘reaching out’ and alleged meetings, but facts about him actually engaging in operations are thin on the ground.”
  • The author is just a single person, and you know how single people are: writhing with subconscious prejudices, pacing this earth with ever-larger blind spots, accumulating more ignorance by the day. The most well-intentioned writers, especially of fiction for young people, have begun to concede that their work can’t be done alone if it’s to be done properly; hence the rise of the “sensitivity reader,” a kind of paid shoulder angel, poring over your manuscript to disabuse you of your tone-deafness. Katy Waldman writes, “Hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group … Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author … Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?”

  • Claire Jarvis on the harrowing anxiety that came with being a new mother: “When my son was almost four months old, I was walking down the street with him strapped to my chest. He was big—nineteen pounds—and alert. I was walking slowly, in loping, elephantine strides, trying to take as long as possible, and to walk as securely as possible. It had taken me a long time to get this confident—if that’s what you could call it—walking with him, but the thread of fear still lived in me. I was still anxious. Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t tell if I was real or not. That was how rapidly it happened, and this is what it was like. One moment, walking. The next—am I real? I have always been anxious. But I have never had an experience like this before. I have always known what side of reality I was on. But this happened, and this is what it is like: It is like I am made of cardboard, badly painted with thick tempura paint, and set out walking.”
  • In his grandparents’ dilapidated shack in Alleghany, Virginia, Christopher King remembers discovering an old record that got him into the blues, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”: “This was the record—among a few others—that taught me how to listen for the imperceptible, for the sounds that unlocked things. Played in the key of D, the piece follows the major pentatonic scale—with an open note, the low bass D, acting as a dark tonal center—yet lightly touches the minor pentatonic in the same key. The music floats freely with no beat, no rhythm, no time signature. Everything holds together and falls apart at the same instant. Moans and sighs parallel the guitar phrases, but there are no coherent vocals: only suggestions of agony. As the bottleneck wisps along the strings, repeated patterns and motifs, like the sounds of weeping and mourning, emerge from the guitar. A languid vibrato punctuates almost every phrase, and the passages themselves are repeated insistently. Every note and every space without a note is intentional; nothing is wasted.”