- Prince died yesterday, at age fifty-seven, at his home, Paisley Park, in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The nation mourns: Minnesota Public Radio has dedicated its waves exclusively to the artist; purple rain adorns next week’s New Yorker cover; San Francisco lit its City Hall with the royal hue; and MTV, which hasn’t played a music video in years, aired nothing but the late musician’s work and the movie Purple Rain yesterday. Said the New York Times of the musician, “His music was a cornucopia of ideas: triumphantly, brilliantly kaleidoscopic.”
- As it turns out, Soviet production novels—that humorless subgenre of yore—followed a pretty basic pattern: “an outsider arrives at a factory or construction site and has to figure out how to solve a morale problem or increase productivity: Ivan Alexandrovich has to supervise the building of a hydroelectric plant or Sofia Alexandrovna has to increase production at the textile mill. They are, along with Elizabethan masques and vice-presidential autobiographies, one of the most arid literary genres ever devised.”
- Any young person working in publishing today ought to know a little about the history of fonts. If you, like me, feel your knowledge is lacking, I offer you a not-so-brief history of roman fonts. “The Carolingian or Caroline minuscule joined forces with antique Roman square capitals at the very beginning of the fifteenth century—a conjunction willed by the great Florentine humanists; their forms first wrought in metal by two German immigrants at Subiaco and Rome, honed by a Frenchman, and consummated at the hands of Griffo of Bologna and Aldus the Venetian. A thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the romans returned and reconquered.”
- Today is the four-hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’s death. Before he wrote Don Quixote, Cervantes was kidnapped by pirates and imprisoned in the Algiers for five years, a life-defining moment that influenced his writing: “I would argue that Cervantes’s explicit interest in the question of madness emerges from the borderline situations he endured as a captive, from the encounter with death that transformed him into a survivor. [It] converts him into a pioneer in the exploration of the psyche three centuries before Freud.”
- You know who else passed away this week four hundred years ago? Shakespeare, that’s who. To celebrate the Bard, NPR spoke with Shakespeare scholars, dramaturges, and Victorian food experts and produced a series of delightful essays on his relation to food. Linguistic and gastronomical insights abound: As Anne Bramley writes, “When Hamlet huffs about the ‘funeral baked meats’ served at his mother’s wedding banquet, he is chastising her for her quick remarriage, implying that she was serving leftovers from his father’s recent funeral. But funeral baked meats were in fact a real food, and they weren’t as macabre as their name implied—though they were cooked in a ‘coffin.’ The same word was used for ‘a coffer to keep dead people or to keep meat in,’ explains Ken Albala, director of food studies at the University of the Pacific.”
- The origins of Times New Roman, the trustiest typeface of the PC era: “Times New Roman began as a challenge, when esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So The Times asked him to create something better. Morison enlisted the help of draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency—maximizing the amount of type that would fit on a line and thus on a page—and readability.”
- A history of kitsch and its enduring power: “Kitsch is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this—it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this—how nice I am and how lovable.’ ”
- Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity. “The fuckin’ in ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding’ is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.”
- A new book purports to bust the stereotypes behind archaeology: “the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy … the unemployment rate in the field [is] at about fifty per cent.” (This piece, to its great credit, mentions Indiana Jones zero times.)
- The best defense for research: “It’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.”
There’s a post over at Print Magazine about Frank Romano’s new book, History of the Linotype Company, which chronicles the rise and decline of the Linotype, a “glorious contraption” that was not so very long ago the industry standard for printing newspapers, magazines, catalogs, you name it. I’d be lying if I said I knew how it worked—to look at it is to imagine it taking your hand off—but fortunately there’s Wikipedia, which explains:
The linotype machine operator enters text on a ninety-character keyboard. The machine assembles matrices, which are molds for the letter forms, in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece, called a slug, of type metal in a process known as “hot metal” typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the type magazine from which they came, to be reused later. This allows much faster typesetting and composition than original hand composition in which operators place down one pre-cast metal letter, punctuation mark or space at a time.
The machine was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant who set up shop in Brooklyn. At the height of its powers, it was used in eighty-six countries and in 850 languages. And the public domain is teeming with miscellany from the Mergenthaler Company, which produced an endless succession of handbooks, manuals, brochures, and pamphlets, among them Linotype’s Shining Lines, a sort of trade magazine with impeccably designed cover art:
- Allan Ahlberg, a British author who’s written more than 150 children’s books, declined a lifetime-achievement award (and a nice cash prize) because Amazon sponsors it.
- In the silent-film era, a movie’s typeface was a crucial part of its identity. Now, a type designer in Minneapolis has tried to re-create the font from The Good Bad Man, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle from 1916. “In 1916 the titles would have been painted or drawn on a smooth surface and then photographed with the motion-picture camera. There were no optical printers in those days, so the titles would literally have been shot by someone hand cranking a motion-picture camera.”
- In Athens, the Caryatid statues (five maidens “among the great divas of ancient Greece”) have emerged from a three-year cleaning with “their original ivory glow.”
- “Movies, if they’re very good, aren’t a conversation; they’re an exaltation, a shuddering of one’s being, something deeply personal yet awesomely vast. That’s what criticism exists to capture. And it’s exactly what’s hard to talk about, what’s embarrassingly rhapsodic, what runs the risk of seeming odd, pretentious, or gaseous at a time of exacting intellectual discourse.”
- A friendly reminder: your brain is on the brink of chaos.
- Gabriel García Márquez was in the hospital last week, but now he’s out and on the mend, albeit in “delicate” condition. We wish him a speedy recovery.
- Poor Comic Sans, the common man’s font, the bane of designers and typographers everywhere, has gotten a facelift: say hello to Comic Neue.
- A news station in Texas has, with its “reporting,” stoked the flames of the legend of the chupacabra. “Jackie and Bubba believed they’d stumbled upon a Latin American vampire beast that guzzles the blood of livestock. They decided to take it as a pet.”
- Are English departments in jeopardy? Some professors think so. “Literary studies is being ‘devalued and dismissed’ as a result of English departments’ being ‘reconceived as being primarily in the business of teaching expository writing.’ Furthermore, he wrote, there’s an insidious rush ‘to make literary studies an outpost of “digital scholarship.”’”
- A new photo exhibit by John Goodman (no, not that John Goodman): “Together at last. Boxers and ballerinas. Those two great seemingly Yin-Yang forces of the physical—the soft, fluid Terpsichore and the aggressive Herakles …”
- “Few couples have had as complicated and even posthumous a relationship as Friderike Burger and Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer who was and continues to be one of the most widely translated German-language authors in the world.”
- The eternal question, really: What would happen if fonts were superheroes?
- The other eternal question: What would happen if great authors were Olympics commentators?
- Vote for the best YA novel ever written.
- A field guide to the American blurb. An endangered species?
- The Man Booker long list is announced.
- Oh no! Citing rising operating costs, the Bowery Poetry Club joins the list of closing literary landmarks.