Join Me in Polar Paradise, and Other News


On the Shelf

William Bradford, An Arctic Summer: Boring though the Pack in Melville Bay, 1871.


  • My fantasies of the Arctic derive from the backsides of kids’ cereal boxes: I want colonies of penguins in sleek jumpsuits navigating a labyrinth of ice luges and dancing on geysers of anthropomorphic frost. This, as Kathryn Schulz points out, is not so far off from the contemporary ideal of polar life: we want “a faraway frozen land unspoiled by humankind.” But in the nineteenth century, Schulz writes, the Arctic gripped the national imagination for just the opposite reason; explorers wanted to discover a place that was warm and hospitable to human civilization. She writes, “An ancient myth had mutated into a serious scientific hypothesis: the theory of the open polar sea. The most ardent supporters of that theory believed in a kind of Nordic El Dorado. Beyond the eightieth parallel, they held, the ocean was not merely ice-free but actually warm, leading to a kind of tropical paradise—possibly complete with a lost civilization—tucked away at the top of the planet … It is difficult, these days, to appreciate just how deeply everyday citizens of the Victorian era were absorbed in Arctic arcana, how central the otherwise remote poles came to seem. Nineteenth-century Britons sang polar-themed songs, attended polar-themed dinner parties, and flocked to re-creations of polar expeditions staged in the temperate bowers of Vauxhall. And, as Henry Morley observed, they read every polar-themed story they could find.”
  • Marshall Berman, the author of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, fused his Marxism to a freewheeling cultural criticism. A new collection of his essays, Modernism in the Streets, finds him at odds with most of the leftists of his day, Max Holleran writes: “In many of these pieces, his thoughts on freedom, alienation, and community are filtered through an exuberant appreciation of culture, from William Blake to Cyndi Lauper. To make a lasting impact, he believed, the left had to combine the wisdom of Das Kapital with an all-out attempt to recapture American culture through music, art, and poetry … Berman was a philosophy professor in the image of Allen Ginsberg rather than Lionel Trilling. He reveled in Cyndi Lauper at a time when most people in his circle were decrying the depoliticization of mainstream music. For Berman, pop animated debates over values for a large audience, even if the artists were not expressly political.”

  • Advertisers are stealing your attention, Tim Wu argues, and there’s not much you can do about it unless you’re willing to plug your ears and blind yourself: “Attention theft happens anywhere you find your time and attention taken without consent. The most egregious examples are found where, like at the gas station, we are captive audiences. In that genre are things like the new, targeted advertising screens found in hospital waiting rooms (broadcasting things like ‘The Newborn Channel’ for expecting parents); the airlines that play full-volume advertising from a screen right in front of your face; the advertising screens in office elevators; or that universally unloved invention known as ‘Taxi TV.’ These are just a few examples in what is a growing category. Combined, they threaten to make us live life in a screen-lined cocoon, yet one that leaves us more like larva than butterflies, shrunken and incapable of independent thought.”
  • Phillip Lopate used to write celebrity profiles. Then he realized he was really bad at them. Then he realized that everyone is pretty bad at them; they demand a kind of falseness: “I was expected to flatter the person, and writing is not fun for me if I have to pull punches. Just as with being commissioned to write catalogue essays for an art gallery, where you can never be honest and say that the artist’s output is uneven or going downhill, the celebrity profile is an inherently compromised form … I’m too interested in people’s flaws, their potential for evil, the gap between self-presentation and inner reality, or the many ways we fool ourselves. Such negative-sounding preoccupations are not recommended for a long and healthy career in the composing of celebrity profiles.”
  • Petra McGillen on the German novelist Theodor Fontane, who was a master of fake news well before any Macedonian teenagers or reactionary conspiracy theorists got involved: “In 1860, Fontane—struggling to make ends meet—joined the staff of the Kreuzzeitung, an ultra-conservative Berlin newspaper. The paper assigned him to cover England, and for a decade, he published story after story ‘from’ London, spellbinding his readers with ‘personal’ accounts of dramatic events, like the devastating Tooley Street fire of 1861. But during the entire decade, he never actually crossed the English Channel … His readers probably believed him because his story confirmed a lot of things they already knew from prior press coverage. Fontane was careful to use familiar imagery, stereotypical descriptions and well-known facts about London.”