The Ancient Mariner of the Future, and Other News


On the Shelf

An illustration by Gustave Doré for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”


  • At the Japan Society, an exhibition of Edo-era woodblock prints captures the phenomenon of the wakashu, a kind of male adolescent whose extreme youth and beauty constituted a third gender. Claire Voon writes, “Wakashu referred specifically to males who had yet to go through the traditional Japanese coming-of-age ceremony known as genpuku. Although they did not carry the social responsibilities of adults, they were considered sexually mature. Their most discerning feature is their hairstyle: a slightly shaven crown flanked by side locks. (To signify having reached adulthood, a man would shave his entire crown, leaving a bald area with side locks intact.) This is best observed in a print on view by Hosoda Eisui of a wakashu holding an ornate shoulder drum. Hairstyles may seem, today, like a trivial way to understand gender, but they comprised an essential visual code in traditional woodblock prints. Combs and hairpins were shown to identify young women, and females, in general, had very elaborate hairdos … Interior views of brothels and private parlors, as seen in erotic prints known as shunga, illustrate how these relationships adhered to established societal attitudes: While same-sex relations between two adult men or two wakashu were not condoned, adult men and wakashu were allowed to be together due to their age difference, which bred a particular sex and gender regime.”

  • James Somers on the fizzled promise of Google Books, which only a few years ago seemed like it could be the Alexandria of our time—just, you know, with a lot more copyright lawyers: “When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an ‘international catastrophe.’ When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster … It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rights holder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself.”
  • Álvaro Enrigue on Calle Viena, a quiet residential street in Mexico that so happens to have Leon Trotsky’s grave at the end of it, hammer and sickle and all: “Although it holds Trotsky’s bones, the street of Viena is short and unremarkable, except maybe for its jacaranda trees, which bloom in late February and produce a hallucinatory purple carpet of dead flowers. It was not until I returned to visit my parents, after I moved out of Mexico long ago, that I learned the street contained meanings beyond my experience of it—that it hosted ghosts more important than that of Navarro, my high school classmate who committed suicide by overdose, just before AIDS became an illness with which you could live; or the carcass of the abandoned Cinema Coyoacán, where I received my sentimental education watching low-budget Mexican comedies and second-run Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe the best way to describe the spirit of El Carmen is through our relationship to film: our neighborhood got to watch Raiders for the Lost Ark so late, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was already running in the movie theaters of the more prestigious parts of the city.”
  • Richard Brody on Bush Mama, Haile Gerima’s 1975 film about the despair of a black neighborhood: “Gerima’s great achievement is to compose a cinematic style that’s simultaneously observational and subjective, dramatic and internalized. Dorothy is both the film’s protagonist and its central consciousness, its main character and a witness to the lives of her neighbors, all of whom are black … Gerima dramatizes systemic trouble—at the racist oppressions of the police force, the judicial system, and the penal system, as well as discrimination in employment, segregation in housing and education, and a fundamental and barely reconcilable distrust of white society on the basis of the unredressed history of slavery, Jim Crow, and its tributaries—from an intimate, inner perspective as well as from an observational one.”