- Our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on David Foster Wallace’s tennis writing: “David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him … He wrote about it in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. Wallace himself drew attention, consciously or not, to both his love for the game and its relevance to how he saw the world … For me, the cumulative effect of Wallace’s tennis-themed nonfiction is a bit like being presented with a mirror, one of those segmented mirrors they build and position in space, only this one is pointed at a writer’s mind. The game he writes about is one that, like language, emphasizes the closed system, makes a fetish of it (‘Out!’). He seems both to exult and to be trapped in its rules, its cruelties. He loves the game but yearns to transcend it.”
- Everyone likes to shit on Microsoft Word now, but Dylan Hicks, reviewing Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, reminds us that the genesis of word processors was an exciting time to be a writer—and that word processing offered a glimpse of perfection: “Culling from specialized publications, mainstream journalism, and author interviews, Kirschenbaum recaptures the excitement and optimism writers often felt in the face of this magical new technology. To many, word processing seemed to promise a new possibility for aesthetic perfection. ‘Perfect’ was the leading marketing keyword, found in ad copy and in product names such as WordPerfect, Letter Perfect, and Perfect Writer, and more than a few novelists greeted the mantra as something more than hype. If, in one traditional view, literary perfection was either illusory or the province of poems and other short works, now, it seemed, even a long novel could be refined to an apotheosis of unalterable integrity. The modularity of word-processed text made major structural reorganization a matter of a few clicks (well, you’d probably need to switch back and forth between several floppy disks). You could tinker endlessly with sentences: transposing phrases, deleting a comma, replacing an adjective, restoring the comma. You could search out and decimate pet words and phrases. Hannah Sullivan, a scholar quoted by Kirschenbaum, wrote in 2013 that, with word processing, “the cost of revision” had ‘fallen almost to zero.’ Kirschenbaum quotes a 1988 interview with Anne Rice in which she held that, with word processing, ‘there’s really no excuse for not writing the perfect book.’ ”
- The main problem with using enormous mirrors to communicate with extraterrestrials is that it’s too expensive. Yes, it sounds like a surefire way to make contact—you just rig up a heliotrope and beam a lot of light to the moon, where all aliens live—but when Victorian-era inventors tried to make good on this idea, they realized that mirrors aren’t cheap. Sarah Laskow explains: “In 1874, Charles Cros, a French inventor with a flair for poetry (or, perhaps, a poet with a flair for invention), floated the idea of focusing electric light on Mars or Venus using parabolic mirrors. The next year, in 1875, Edvard Engelbert Neovius came up with a scheme involving 22,500 electric lamps. Then, an astronomer writing under the name A. Mercier proposed putting a series of reflectors on the Eiffel Tower, which would capture light at sunset and redirect it towards Mars … In 1909, William Pickering, the American astronomer who … proposed the existence of a Planet O, gave some idea why. He calculated that a system of mirrors that could reach across the distance from Earth to Mars would cost about $10 million to construct.”
- Eileen Myles on living in Marfa: “I went to Marfa on a Lannan residency in March of 2015 & fell in love with the place. I had been hearing about Marfa forever and grumpily thinking why can’t I get invited there though most of my friends who had been there are visual artists but I wanted in. I think I even told the Lannan people about my deep frustration as I was accepting the invitation. Everyone loves Marfa though some people love to laugh at it because it’s the most delightful combination of rough and twee. Things are falling down but there’s always someone there to catch it for a year and put a sign on it and make it cool. It sees itself and yet the land is always hovering … But driving that stretch which is bordered by mountains is my real vista. I like to listen to music and drive along that road and sometimes the train passes. That’s heaven to me.”
- It’s Friday, people. Get out there and befriend a pelican. The dean of a Czech medical school did it, so you can, too: “Vladimír Komárek, the dean of the Second Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in Prague, met his college’s adopted pelican and immediately had a bond with it … In an interview posted on the university’s website, the dean said the faculty had adopted a pelican at Prague Zoo, but he had never personally visited it … He scooped up his new feathered friend in his arms and posed for the cameras. Many commenters lightheartedly suggested that the duo shared the same haircut, and said this was why they appeared to get on so well. The bird seemed calm in his arms, despite the fact he was a human stranger.”
One pleasure of living where I do is the giveaway table, where tenants leave unwanted CDs, cassettes, salt-and-pepper shakers, et cetera, and especially books. These tend to be romance novels or thrillers, but the other week someone left the second edition of August Kleinzahler’s Cutty, One Rock—a book I’d given away many times and had eventually forgotten to replace. My wife let me read the title essay aloud, even though I kept slipping into my version of a New Jersey accent (bad, bad). Then, maybe three days later, on the same table, I found a copy of B. S. Johnson’s 1964 novel Albert Angelo. It was crazy—I’d been meaning to read B. S. Johnson for years. If I had come across any of his novels in a bookstore, I’d have bought them. This one’s about a beleaguered substitute teacher in a London slum, a subgenre (the bitter teacher novel) I especially enjoy. Obviously these books—the old favorite and the object of curiosity—have been two clicks away, but serendipity beats intention every time. —Lorin Stein Read More
- In which Elif Batuman, visiting Turkey, puts on a head scarf and begins to rethink some things: “What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking … Now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? … Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”
- Infinite Jest turned twenty yesterday, and Tom Bissell has given it an astute new appraisal: “In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a … human being.’ And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines … Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words—Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality.”
- In the interest of evenhandedness, please note that the novel has earned, on Amazon, a large share of one-star reviews, and these disappointed readers deserve their say, too. “If you’re trying to make sense of a bunch of mumbo-jumbo then by all means place this one in your shopping basket,” one happy customer wrote. “He is a literary bully,” another reader said. And: “Didn’t know it was 1000 pages. Too hard to hold. Bought one for my son and he felt the same way.”
- Paper: it’s good for writing, yes, but—did you ever think of this?—it’s also good for decorating. The new Anthology of Decorated Papers compiles some fine examples of all the things people have done with paper besides writing on it, which is, when push comes to shove, boring. “Much of the collection of over 3,500 papers focuses on book endpapers and other publishing ephemera. There are also wrappers, backs of playing cards, currency paper, wallpaper, musical instrument covers, and other examples of the medium, mostly dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.”
- I like to say that magazines are dying because it makes me look smart and chicly pessimistic. And I have to imagine my forebears felt the same way. People have been saying that magazines are dead more or less since they were born. Evan Ratliff writes, “We are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893 … When Vanity Fair came (in 1913) and went (in 1936), it was only a hint of the carnage that the era of radio would bring. We lost the titanic trio of Scribner’s, Forum, and Liberty—you remember them, of course—not to mention Living Age. When the Delineator went from over two million subscribers in 1929 to suddenly ceasing publication in 1937, the writing was on the wall.”
Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.
White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.
I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.
We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?
Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”
These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen. Read More
- Today in audiobooks: recordings of erotic novels are selling like love muffins. And why not? What better way to spice up a long drive or a boring Saturday night than with a good story and some professionally stylized heavy breathing? But according to two popular vocal talents, Jennifer Mack and Soozi Cheyenne, the work can be taxing: “The explosion of sex-infused books (much of it self-published) and the popularity of MP3 downloads have combined to produce a vast universe of fictional aural sex. The books range from fantasy romance with rose petals on the bed to raunchier fare with lots of rough sex … Reading the raunchy stuff requires stamina. ‘After your fifteenth sex scene, it becomes exhausting,’ Mack said. ‘You can only do so many.’ ‘Sometimes I go, This is too early in the day for this,’ Cheyenne chimed in. ‘Sometimes the descriptions of the genitalia, like love muffin and throbbing manhood, send me into fits of giggles. So you take a break. You have a cigarette. You buy a salad.’ ”
- In the fifties, a cultural anthropologist named Bert Kaplan undertook a massive effort to capture and store people’s dreams on Microcards: “This vast catalogue of intimate details was assembled in the service and spirit of early twentieth-century social science, with its aspirations to produce a comprehensive account of the human mind, both within and across cultures … With the aid of the most advanced technologies for extraction and storage, they aimed to gather together testimonies of subjectivity from as many parts of the world as they could and largely leave to others the work of drawing conclusions about the whole. This was not a digest of confessional poetry or a narrow selection of case studies or personal histories.”
- The artist Aurel Schmidt’s new show, “The Blast Furnace of Civilization,” features ceramic geese with candles shoved down their throats (Foie Gras Candelabra), a pair of Converse sneakers outfitted with the Campbell’s Soup logo, and a Santa with the body of a yoga-toned young woman. “I am interested in the strange, mutant, man-made objects we buy, we touch, we orbit our identities around,” Schmidt says. “How they are presented to us, the way they are sold, the images of the objects online—flat and bright—or in stores, pretending to be things they are not … I am just fascinated by the process, it’s very dark but very interesting and it touches us every day—we interact with it every minute.”
- Being a crate-digging, record-collecting jazz aficionado is all well and good if you’re a guy. But if you’re not … “Record collecting, as the foremost practice through which relics of jazz history circulate and accrue value, reinforces in material culture the gender-based misrepresentations of the culture at large … Only by confining his collection within limits can the collector achieve the mastery he seeks. Logistical constraints, necessarily producing exclusions, make the collector’s mission possible … Women are pressured to inhabit male practices of appreciation, only to regularly be doubted and shamed for trying to impress men.”
- Today in trolls: hats off to jeremy1122, a Redditor who spent the better part of a year perfecting the style of a prolix, snobby David Foster Wallace fan, leaving a spoor of pretension and lit-bro entitlement wherever he went. “David Foster Wallace, I think, wrote sex scenes better than any other author,” jeremy1122 wrote once. “Everything in Infinite Jest tends toward infinity, like a great cosmic orgasm, and in the end, reading the text itself is the real sex. A coital bond between Wallace’s mind and ours.”
Last Halloween we recommended some things that scared us. But there are many such things—we’re easily frightened—so this year we’re doing it again. Stay spooky.
In college, I took a seminar about female Surrealist artists—Remedios Varo, Unica Zürn, Claude Cahun, and Dorothea Tanning, et al. Many of these women’s life stories were harrowing, and their artwork, which often mines frightening psychological territory, is dark, humorous, visionary, and uncanny. It still creeps me out. Dorothea Tanning’s paintings, for instance, are full of tattered clothing and deserted hallways. They’re haunted by somnambulant young girls and oddly sentient sunflowers. Her painting Guardian Angels scares me whenever I look at it: strange, ragged, winged creatures that look like vicious, plucked chickens swirl and tear at each other, rippling with some obscene energy. Later in life, Tanning made forays into sculpture, fashioning soft, upholstered structures that ooze across the boundary between furniture and human figure. My favorite work of Tanning’s is The Birthday, a self-portrait in which she has painted herself stepping through an open door into a corridor that’s full of other doorways. A monster—sort of like one of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz—huddles, couchant, at her feet, and her expression is otherworldly. Is she letting this beast in or sending him across another threshold? —Hannah LeClair Read More