- Ian Frazier on Steaming to the North, a new book of photographs that “provides another of the poignant rear-view-mirror visions of ourselves and our environment in which Americans specialize.” The book charts the journey of “the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, a 198-foot, reinforced-hull vessel powered by both steam and sail.” The Bear patrolled the seas of Alaska circa 1886, when it was a new American territory. These photos of it were “rediscovered in the 1970s under a porch in New Hampshire.”
- Cicero may have been a master orator—but no rhetoric could rescue his lame advice for how to spend your twilight years. “He comes over as a humorless and self-satisfied bore when he writes that ‘the fruit of old age is the remembering and amassing of fine accomplishments’ … Besides being unduly platitudinous, it makes generally for unhappy reading … Apart from sitting on the sofa thinking smugly about all your great achievements, Cicero recommends taking up agriculture.”
- Last week we featured Ron Arad’s crushed cars. Now there’s a video that demonstrates how he crushes them, exactly. (Spoiler: it involves force.)
- Geoff Dyer on Raymond Williams, “a hero of the 1968 generation”: “Williams’s legacy and influence, which had once seemed assured, have gradually shrunk … it is necessary to do two things that might appear contradictory: to concede that, with the exception of Border Country, the fiction to which he devoted so much energy was dull; and to free the rest of his work from the once-modish tundra of cultural studies, let alone the pack ice of theory. Perhaps then he will be read with the same passion and adoration that still attends the discovery of John Berger.”
- On the intellectual character (or lack thereof) of conspiracy theorists: “The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the U.S. legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal … this is fundamentally a question of the way they are.”
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.
“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.
There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More