- Today in long-lost manuscripts commissioned by prominent escape artists: an expansive essay by Lovecraft called “The Cancer of Superstition” (sounds nuanced, doesn’t it?) was found among the memorabilia from a defunct magic shop. Apparently Harry Houdini conceived the project, which was, as its title suggests, a screed against every aspect of the superstitious: “Houdini had asked Lovecraft in 1926 to ghostwrite the treatise exploring superstition, but the magician’s death later that year halted the project, as his wife did not wish to pursue it … The document explores everything from worship of the dead to werewolves and cannibalism, theorising that superstition is an ‘inborn inclination’ that ‘persists only through mental indolence of those who reject modern science’ … ‘Most of us are heathens in the innermost recesses of our hearts,’ it concludes.” Christopher Hitchens would be proud.
- In which Anakana Schofield enters the job market only to find that it’s been overrun with hyperbole and the bloated, dead, “aspirational” language of advertising: “I can’t save lives or fix broken pipes: I need a job with the potential for staring into space or reading Pinget on the side—a car park attendant seemed ideal. I found an advert online and immediately entered a car park of excessive adjectives. The parking lot attendant they were looking for needed to ‘Be a trail blazer … Be Bold, Open-minded & Entrepreneurial.’ I was puzzled. How does one ‘blaze a trail’ handing out change and scanning parking stubs and visa cards through a drafty hut window? … I left that car park with the new understanding that the language of recruitment has gone up several octaves but since I negotiate language for a living, I was undeterred. The next advert included the promising phrase ‘a front line ambassador’ … ”
- America doesn’t need vacuous words like bold and open-minded. America needs y’all. “It sounds elegant, warm, and inviting. It offers both economy and an end to second-person ambiguity. Teach it in schools across the country. Mouth it to babies. Put it on end-of-grade tests … The possibilities are endless, and a simple substitution could actually solve a real problem in modern English that will only grow as we continue to examine how gender works in language. It could provide a better and gender-neutral word. It could relieve “you” of the impossible task of ostensibly functioning in so many roles, and maybe even along the way ease some of the regional and racial stigmatization of language and slang.”
- Talking to Zadie Smith, Darryl Pinckney looks at the effect of memoirs like Margo Jefferson’s Negroland on the conventional narrative of black achievement: “I think one of the things Margo Jefferson’s marvelous memoir does is remind us that classed aspiration was at one time a radical act or a radical mode for black people, because white people didn’t want you to leave the plantation. They didn’t want your barbershop to succeed. They didn’t want you to go to college. They didn’t want you to have Latin in college because they violated what DuBois called ‘personal whiteness.’ It wasn’t until the late fifties with the E. Franklin Frazier book Black Bourgeoisie that all this was demonized, that black middle class. DuBois also raked everyone over the coals for wanting to play golf instead of wanting to be in the NAACP. And then in the sixties, middle-class life became an optic of scorn anyway. So blacks were doubly scorned, for ‘trying to be white,’ which was a deep insult because these people had found a way to be black, and that wasn’t respected at all.”
- Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 novel Cré na Cille was widely regarded as an Irish Gaelic masterpiece—so why are we only now seeing an English translation? “For almost seventy years, Ó Cadhain’s greatest work remained inaccessible to nearly all Irish readers, because it was written in Irish Gaelic, a language vanishingly few of them speak, and it had never been translated into English … Sáirséal agus Dill, Ó Cadhain’s publisher, took concrete steps toward putting out a translation. In the early nineteen-sixties, a contract was sent to a young woman who’d submitted a sample translation as part of an open contest. (A letter from the woman’s mother eventually came back: her daughter wouldn’t be able to finish the translation, she wrote, as she’d just entered a convent.) Sáirséal agus Dill next tried to entice the poet Thomas Kinsella to translate the book; though he was honored they’d considered him, Kinsella wrote in a 1963 letter, he was ‘sure it would be a very difficult job, especially since we’re talking about Cré na Cille. It’s not an exaggeration to say it would take years.’ ”
The Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Charleston is housed in an old Methodist church, a grandly columned Greek Revival building with a rusty front gate and a pipe organ still intact in the back. It’s home to a revolving series of manuscripts culled from the private collection of real-estate magnates David and Marsh Karpeles, a couple with very eclectic and expensive taste in papers: in any given season the glass cases wedged around the pews and pulpit contain anything from pages of Roget’s original thesaurus to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s sketched map of the Antarctic. The February afternoon I visited, a gregarious man with a low-country accent and a flair for displaying pamphlets announced the winter exhibit with pride: “The letters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, an odd pair if ever there was one.”
The dozen or so letters and scraps of free-written scrawl were from Conan Doyle and Houdini’s brief but spectacular relationship, one that was founded on and destroyed by a shared interest in the possibility of contacting people in the afterlife. It began, as friendships often do, with a book exchange. Read More