The climate event that helped create Frankenstein and the bicycle.
Last year marked the two hundredth anniversary of the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, among the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Next year, 2017, will be the two hundredth anniversary of Baron Karl Drais’s “running machine,” the precursor to the modern bicycle. Strange as it may seem, these three events are all intimately related; they’re all tied together by the great shift in climate that made 1816 the “year without a summer.” Read More
How the book designers of the fifties and sixties tackled alien invasions.
It’s impossible to know what sort of cover design will make a book fly off the shelves. Through timidity, this often leads to a certain monotony in covers, especially when they’re genre specific—“If it worked before, it’ll have to work again, eventually.” At times the uniformity is comical: it’s hard for book people of a certain age not to remember, say, the gothic romance subgenre without bringing to mind the same cover that was on every one by the end of the sixties—a woman, at night, dashing (often in a white nightgown) from a darkened mansion in sinister woods. Familiarity bred contentment; every reader knew what to expect when they saw the lady running.
Flying saucers as a phrase entered the modern English vocabulary at the end of June 1947, immediately after the initial sightings by Kenneth Arnold in Washington State—which, as it happened, turned out to be the first of thousands of such sightings. The subject was becoming more popular by the week, and publishing houses such as Henry Holt, Fawcett, and Citadel were quick to recognize the need for books on it. But what kind of a cover should go on a book about flying saucers? At the outset, there was no consensus as to what the saucers even actually looked like: they were described as blinking lights, purple blobs, flying wings, boomerangs, shiny metal balls, floating kerosene lamps, pie plates, hubcaps from an old Terraplane; in photos, during the first ten years, the most popular model resembled either the top of a chicken incubator, or part of the casing of a 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Read More
- After he published the Tractatus, Wittgenstein traded philosophy for gardening, and developed a fixation on home design that may have led him back into philosophy’s embrace: “To details like the door-handles, in particular, Wittgenstein accorded what [the biographer Ray] Monk calls ‘an almost fanatical exactitude,’ driving locksmiths and engineers to tears as they sought to meet his seemingly impossible standards … Monk argues, more than once, that this design project brought Wittgenstein ‘back’ to philosophy … But I doubt that the return to philosophy was prompted by social connections, which were always a mixed bag for the antisocial Wittgenstein. I prefer to believe that the prompt was in the handle. For when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers … Words did not, he had come to believe, primarily provide a picture of life (the word “snake” representing, or sounding like, an actual snake); they were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools.”
- Jacob Harris was scoping out some nineteenth-century newspaper ads (don’t judge; this is how some of us get our kicks) when he stumbled upon an ad for the Brooklyn Furniture Company composed entirely of typography—a direct predecessor of the ASCII art that would come more than a century later. “The face resembles modern ASCII art, but it was published at a time—March 20, 1881—that seemed impossibly early,” he writes: “In many newspapers, these early examples of text art vanished not long after they arrived … Apart from the two advertisements I had found, the style apparently never caught on in the Times. But why not? To answer that, I looked more at the Eagle where I found the earliest ads—and where they survived for several decades longer than everywhere else. They are there in 1881, when one bold advertiser filled an entire page with ASCII text. They are there in 1888, when the Eagle advertised its election night almanac in the familiar large letters. They are there all the way up to July 3, 1892, a day the same Brooklyn Furniture Company again ran a half-page ad with their address in large ASCII letters. And, then, on July 5th, they were completely gone, replaced by modern layouts and fancy typography. Those upgrades likely explain, at least in part, what happened. ASCII art flourishes most when technology is limited; you don’t need Print Shop anymore when you can do digital layout on your computer and have an inkjet printer.”
- “The gift and curse of American hyperbole, truthful and otherwise, has lately been distilled in a single omnipresent word. In 2016, everything is ‘everything.’ That’s what the Internet is telling us, at least. Or yelling at us, in capital letters, with blaring hashtags attached. ‘@Beyonce’s #MetGala dress is EVERYTHING,’ Self magazine proclaimed recently on Twitter … Internet one-upsmanship is a definitively 21st-century art form, but ‘everything’ carries a hint of yesteryear—a whiff of the hot air that once swirled through medicine-show tents and carnival grounds … The Internet has a way of placing all of us—you, me, the online peddler of counterfeit Viagra, the editor of The Paris Review—in the undignified position of those touts who haunt the sidewalks outside bad restaurants in tourist-trap neighborhoods, thrusting menus in the faces of passers-by.”
- In which Edward Docx attends the 2016 British Esperanto Conference: “There are few times in your life that you can be certain that you are doing what nobody else in the world is doing—or has ever done—or will likely do again. This was one of them. I was sitting at a table of six, with a Catalan, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Londoner and a Slovakian, while they munched and guzzled their way through their kareos and had what I can only describe as the most kinetic, exciting and involving conversation in Esperanto that Spice City (of Stanley Street, Liverpool) is ever going to witness. The animation. The jokes. The asides. The soliloquys. The antanaclasis. Oh, if only I had known what they were talking about I could have … I could have told you. But I was converted. The whole idea and application of Esperanto was so obviously amazing, so demonstrably persuasive, so self-evidently practical that I forget all over again about English; English; English.”
- The Internet is a fine place to find good writing. But it’s the best place to find moronic writing—just try. It’s such an effective moronic-writing delivery system that print media got jealous: “There are too many people filling every possible orifice of the Internet with their idiot opinions and comical prejudices and poorly constructed arguments … But: Have you seen what’s not on the Internet? You would think, what with the supposed influence of those who man the precincts offline, away from the free-for-all of our type-and-post world, that there would be safety in the smooth, heavy paper and creamy finish of print … And yet: THEY ARE NOT ALL THAT MUCH BETTER … It turns out most people don’t have anything very interesting to say and they’re actually a lot worse at saying it than we previously anticipated. Also, what no one expected is that shit flows upward, splattering the finer precincts we once looked to for wisdom with the same awful patina of chatty, ‘relatable’ garbage whose ultimate goal is to be passed around without anyone mentioning how gross your palms feel once you hand it off. We were warned and we didn’t listen and now we’re all paying the price.”
In 1999, Edwin Frank founded New York Review Books to reintroduce out-of-print works—many in first translations from around the world—to the reading public. “From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” Frank told the New York Times last year. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.” In the last seventeen years, you’ve likely picked up a New York Review Book—maybe because you were taken with its arresting design, or because you recognized a work you didn’t know by a major author: Walt Whitman’s unexpurgated Drum-Taps, say, or unpublished stories by Chekhov, or new versions of Aeschylus and Balzac, Dante and Euripides, or essay collections by Sartre, Lionel Trilling, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm.
Since its inception, the series has won dozens of awards for its translations; the New York Times chose Magda Szabó’s The Door as one of the ten best books of 2015. New York Review Books have met not just with critical plaudits but commercial success, which naturally leads the curious reader to wonder: Who is Edwin Frank, anyway? We met in his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn to discuss his process: how he finds the books he publishes and what provokes his interest. Frank has a soft-spoken manner and a reader’s excellent dispatch of vocabulary, but he clearly enjoys regular punctuations of loud laughter, provoked by his knowing, bone-dry sense of humor.
You’ve published two books of poetry. Has your background as a poet affected your tastes as an editor?
Well you could say that reading and writing poetry saved me from ever being a professional reader or writer. I had a Stegner Fellowship after college, but the main thing I took away from it was a permanent aversion to the world of writing programs, and poetry is also a pretty effective inoculation against commercial publishing. And I was always sure that I wanted to have nothing to do with the academic study of literature. Then again, poetry did in some sense lead me to publishing—a kind of gateway drug—since in the nineties my friend Andy McCord and I started a small press, Alef Books, in which we published Joseph Lease, Ilya Kutik, Melissa Monroe, Michael Ruby. But that was a labor of love. In fact I came to editing very late, in my midthirties, which is unusual in publishing, a business people mostly go into right after college. It was a lucky break. I needed a job and I thought that having put out a handful of books of poems would make me of interest to publishers, which of course was dead wrong.