Steal This Coin, and Other News


On the Shelf

I bet you can pick it up all by yourself.


  • Hey, are you busy tonight? I want to run something by you: I think we should steal the world’s largest gold coin. Yes, it is 221 pounds. Yes, it is Canadian, and unfortunately known as the “Big Maple Leaf.” And yes, it was just stolen—like, two nights ago—from a museum in Berlin. But don’t you see? This makes our work even easier. The original thieves already took care of the hard part. All we have to do is find them, neutralize them, and abscond with our booty in a very large, very stable cart. Here’s Melissa Eddy with some background: “The coin is about twenty-one inches in diameter and over an inch thick. It has the head of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and a maple leaf on the other. Its face value is 1 million Canadian dollars, or about $750,000, but by gold content alone, it is worth as much as $4.5 million at current market prices. And though it weighs about as much as a refrigerator, somehow thieves apparently managed to lug it through the museum and up at least one floor to get it out of a window at the back of the building. The police are still trying to figure out exactly how they did it … Their theory for now is that the thieves dragged the coin through the museum, out the window and then along the railway track, possibly reaching a park on the opposite bank of the river near the Hackescher Markt, a public square in Berlin that is home to a number of late-night bars and cafes.” (This is where we’ll begin our quest.)
  • Dora Zhang reminds us not to confuse our love of literature with a generic, feel-good love of books—and not to allow the exploitation of literature: “If it seems natural today that we can and do love literature, a popular strain of bibliophilia predicates that love precisely on its utility—in particular its capacity to make us better people. This is evident from the moral uplift of Oprah’s Book Club to Alain de Botton’s project of rewriting the Western literary canon in the genre of self-help. His London-based School of Life organizes retreats in sumptuous country estates, promising discussions about how books can change us and individual consultations with ‘bibliotherapists’ who can make personalized recommendations. (One can only imagine the prescriptions—for greater stoicism, one dose of Hemingway; for better friendships, a splash of Montaigne; for cheerful optimism, avoid Beckett at all costs.) There’s little doubt that books can transform us. But transformation isn’t always comfortable—‘a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us,’ Kafka said. When literature is at once luxury commodity and magic pill, the change we seek from it is unlikely to be the kind that comes from being alienated, devastated, or having the ground under us whisked away.”

  • Adam Shatz, who’s just written for the Daily on new directions in avant-garde jazz, weighs in on the controversy swirling around the Whitney Biennial, where Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in an open basket has given rise to allegations of racism—and to demands the painting be taken down. Shatz writes, “Whose art is it, and who gets to make it? A prominent black curator told me years ago about a tour she had given to a group of people visiting a show of work about race in America. A black woman in the group pointed to a painting she considered degrading to black people, and compared it to one that, in her view, expressed an ennobling vision of black humanity. The first painting was by Robert Colescott, a black artist who has drawn mischievously on African-American stereotypes in his work; the second was by the white, Jewish artist Leon Golub, a left-wing figurative painter. It could be argued that one painter was exercising his cultural rights, the other mining the black body for raw material. But for at least one black viewer, the question of whether belonging confers legitimacy was not so easily settled. What is most troubling about the call to remove Schutz’s painting is not the censoriousness, but the implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”
  • Gary Indiana has some even stronger words for those who would censor Schutz. But first, his thoughts about our president and those who write about him for a living: “There is a French word, abrutissement, that describes the cretinizing effect of a phenomenon like Donald Trump—someone so appalling and offensive to one’s sense of decency that he turns his adversaries into fulminating animals. This word may also connote the mesmeric effect of such a person—what Kluge calls ‘the charisma of the drunken elephant’—on credulous, stupid individuals.”
  • Julian Barnes reads The Pen and the Brush, Anka Muhlstein’s new book about the bond between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France: “The link … was strong and largely cordial. But some writers went further—or imagined, or claimed, they did. Balzac described himself as ‘a literary painter.’ Muhlstein calls Zola a ‘writer-painter.’ Maupassant hymns the superiority of painting over fiction (though he was mainly talking about color). Proust is in Muhlstein’s eyes occasionally a kind of Cubist. Muhlstein charts the sudden irruption of the visual arts into the lives of nonelite Parisians: first, by the opening of the Louvre as a Central Museum of Arts in 1793; later, by the arrival of vast booty from Napoleon’s conquests (and the tenacious holding on to it after the empire fell). It was not just the thrilling, democratic availability of great art that excited writers; it was also that painters were ‘making it new’ as much, if not more so, than writers. So writers now looked at how painters looked.”