- The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
- When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
- When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
- For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
- Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”
How our coins got their names.
Election Day is here again, and I know there are some single-issue voters out there who haven’t forgotten an issue of our time that Congress has repeatedly failed to act on, despite the introduction of bills HR 3761 in 1989, HR 2528 in 2001, and HR 5818 in 2006. President Obama has stated that he is in favor—the lobbyists for outnumber the lobbyists against—and yet the Price Rounding Act, the Legal Tender Modernization Act, and the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, respectively, have all failed to pass. As a nation, we have yet to abolish the penny.
A penny costs more to produce than it is worth (even after the 1982 change from a 95 percent copper composition to 97.5 percent zinc), so the U.S. loses tens of millions of dollars a year minting them; the sheer cost of lost time spent hunting for pennies, waiting in line behind someone else hunting for pennies, and disposing of pointless pennies once we have them has been estimated at as high as a billion dollars a year. No coin in U.S. history has ever been worth less than a penny is today, by a long shot: the half cent, eliminated in 1857, was worth more than a dime in today’s buying power. A penny saved may be a penny earned, but it is about two seconds of income for an average American, so who cares. Yet again, the Ben Franklin for our time turns out to be Andy Warhol: “I hate PENNIES. I wish they’d stop making them altogether. I would never save them. I don’t have the time. I like to say in stores, ‘Oh forget it, keep those pennies. It makes my French wallet too heavy.’ ”
One thing we’ll lose, when the penny eventually goes the inevitable way of the half cent and the Canadian penny (extinct as of 2012), is the last possible link between our language of money and the everyday physical world. Read More
If you are afraid of public speaking, and ever called on to do it, I suggest that you avoid reading “The Backwoods Bull in the Boston China Shop,” from the August 1961 issue of American Heritage Magazine. In this lively article, the dean of American studies, Henry Nash Smith, tells how Mark Twain—perhaps the most popular after-dinner speechmaker of his time—flubbed what was supposed to be the comic relief at an 1877 banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier. Twain made up an anecdote about three grifters passing themselves off as Whittier, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Apparently, it bombed. According to Twain’s friend and editor William Dean Howells, “Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or down at his plate. I chose my plate as the least affliction … [Twain] must have dragged his joke to the climax and left it there, but I cannot say this from any sense of the fact.” Twain was so mortified that he wrote a letter of apology to the three venerable grandees, and they were nice about it, but a week later he told Howells, “I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies—a list of humiliations which extends back to when I was seven years old and keeps persecuting me regardless of my repentancies.” Thirty years later he was still trying to decide exactly how bad the speech had been, even reading it aloud to gauge its offensiveness. I am indebted—if that’s the word—to Sadie Stein and her father for digging up this historical gem. It is the stuff of nightmares. —Lorin Stein
My decision to take up ballet at the ripe old age of thirty-one (572 in ballet years) is not without its challenges. The parts of my body that should be loose are tight, and the places that should be firm wobble; if I land one pirouette out of ten it’s a victory. I’m grateful, then, for Eliza Gaynor Minden’s The Ballet Companion, which not only visually breaks down basic steps (with a blessed glossary of all that French), but gives pointers on class etiquette and attire. Gaynor Minden also writes beautifully about the history of ballet (forget the tutu—bring on the seventeenth-century six-foot hoop skirt!), as well as provides a detailed list of ballets to see before you die. If after reading you still need a reason to pull on those leg warmers, remember: it’s never too late for a bracing dose of humility. —Rachel Abramowitz
A few years ago, two of our uncles took my sister out to a French restaurant in Manhattan. One uncle was pushing her to order the duck confit. The other uncle turned to her and said, “Don’t do it. It’s too rich. He made me do it once and I threw up. You’ll throw up, too.” The first uncle assured her, “You’ll definitely throw up, but you should still get it.” She ordered it and threw up right on schedule. We are a family of eaters, sometimes at any cost. But to A. J. Liebling, perhaps the best eater of the twentieth century, my sister’s fowl adventure would have been child’s play. I’ve spent the past week immersed in his Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a memoir of Liebling’s years in the city and, of course, the food he consumed there; he was unapologetically obsessed with eating. He was even lucky enough to have friends who could keep up with him, such as Yves Mirande, the French playwright, who, by Liebling’s account, could tuck away in one meal the contents of a New York–size kitchen. “In the restaurant of the Rue Saint-Augustin, M. Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot—and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne. ‘And while I think of it,’ I once heard him say, ‘we haven’t had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes.’” —Clare Fentress
You’ve caught me at SXSW—strange to see it without the hashtag—where I’ve spent the past few days overhearing musicians as they talk shop. (“Dude, sick whammy pedal. Is that the new one with true bypass?”) It’s quality eavesdropping, but none of it rivals the dudely conversation on offer in the “Tight Bros from Way Back When” tape, one of the gnarliest cultural documents to emerge from the late eighties. This is a forty-minute taped phone call between two bona-fide California metalheads, Kurt and Derek, that touches on a whole host of topics: police evasion, the occult, Jimmy Page, gravedigging, psychedelics, pyrotechnics, longstanding grudges (“From second grade to now I’ve fought this guy like two hundred times. And I’ve lost three of those times”), and many more. Its first twenty minutes—in which Derek explains how his car got the boot, and how he went to extralegal measures to remove it—make for some of the most memorable storytelling this side of Iron Maiden. “Imagine standing up, right? These bolt cutters were half my height, bro … I’m cruising down the street in broad daylight with these bolt cutters slung over my shoulder, like I’m carrying some skis or somethin’? … I snapped the lock on the boot. It made the gnarliest sound, dude. I summoned the power of all the gods.” The tape has been floating around musical circles for years; at the risk of sounding like Indiana Jones, it belongs in a museum, or at least a top-notch oral history archive. —Dan Piepenbring Read More