This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract: Read More
This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract:
On Qualities of Places with Respect to Different Things such as Knowledge, Work, Gems, Clothes, Furs, Carpets, Steeds, Poisonous Animals, Sweets, Fruits, Aromatics, Physical Features and Manners, Diseases, and Meteorological Phenomena
As for intellectual and professional qualities, one talks about the sages of Greece, the doctors of Jundaysābūr, the jewelers of Harrān, the weavers of Yemen, and the scribes of al-Sawād (in Iraq).
With jewels, one talks of the turquoise of Nishapur, the rubies of Sarandīb (Sri Lanka), the pearls of Oman, the emeralds of Egypt, the carnelian of Yemen, the onyx of Zafār, the garnets of Balkh, and the coral of Ifrīqiya. Read More
- Are you the proprietor or manager of a commuter-rail system, an office, a truck stop, or a faculty lounge? Have you found that your employees and/or customers are dissatisfied with your current vending-machine offerings? Would you like to be on the cutting edge of dispensation technology, allowing your workers to nourish not just their bodies but their minds at the touch of a button? If you said yes to any of the above, or even if you agreeably shrugged, consider investing in these short-story vending machines by Short Édition. They’re a hit in Grenoble. “The free stories are available at the touch of a button, printing out on rolls of paper like a till receipt. Readers are able to choose one minute, three minutes or five minutes of fiction … Users are not able to choose what type of story—romantic, fantastical or comic—they would like to read.”
- By 1966, teen music magazines had phenomenal names—Disc and Music Echo, Record Mirror, Fabulous 208, Rave, Mirabelle, Boyfriend, Jackie—and, better still, they really had their fingers on the pulse: in their pages, teens could find frank, thoughtful discussions of culture and politics. “These magazines collectively sold over a million copies every week. They both reflected and shaped the messages broadcast by pop musicians to teens … Most of the writers were young—some of them even in their teens—and were, or had recently been part of the culture that they reported on … In general these magazines constituted a thorough investigation of the teenage mindset, its hopes, its obsessions, its fears and aspirations. Because, in 1966, pop was for youth: coverage in mainstream newspapers and monthlies was comparatively rare … It was the arena of the time, but not burdened with self-consciousness or filtered through an excess of opinion and ego.”
- While we’re in the sixties: William Blake, though he’d died more than a century earlier, was a countercultural icon because of his sexual permissiveness. Leo Damrosch’s new biography, Eternity’s Sunrise, complicates that legacy: “Blake was frequently invoked as a representative of liberation and ‘positive’ sexuality. The great chorus was: ‘Everything that lives is holy.’ But in fact Blake ‘was always aware that sex can be a means of exerting control.’ He was increasingly ‘tormented’ by the subject and drew naked bodies that were ‘unerotic, and at times positively repellent,’ a term of revulsion Damrosch later repeats … Here he takes on board the new feminist criticism of Blake, citing the scholar Helen Bruder: Blake was ‘by turns a searching critic of patriarchy but also a hectoring misogynist.’ ”
- On the long, tortured history between literature and the weather: “Our earliest stories about the weather concerned beginnings and endings. What emerged from the cold and darkness of the void will return to it; waters that receded at the origin of the world will rise at its end. It is easy, in grim climatological times, to be drawn to the far pole of these visions … But apocalyptic stories are ultimately escapist fantasies, even if no one escapes. End-times narratives offer the terrible resolution of ultimate destruction. Partial destruction, displacement, hunger, want, weakness, loss, need—these are more difficult stories.”
- Moon Hoon, an architect based in Seoul, pours plenty of whimsy into his designs—he’s responsible for Wind House, a home boasting a large, golden tower shaped like a duck’s head—but in his doodles he really goes for broke. Hoon “creates fantastical, stunningly detailed images whose wild creativity bring to mind, among other things, 1960s Radical Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Transformers … Just the other day, he says, his creativity was triggered by a tray of delivery food that looked like a hat. Other sources of inspiration have included cars, planes, warships, Japanese animation, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and watching movies backwards.”
- Carmen Balcells, who died earlier this month, was “a literary superagent with a license to kill, like James Bond.” (NB: she never murdered anyone. Some also referred to her, equally outlandishly, as “Big Mama.”) She changed Spanish-language publishing, launching the careers of Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar, among others. “The moment … has been known ever since as the ‘Latin American Literary Boom’ … For writers coming of age during and after the Boom, invoking Balcells became de rigueur, the ultimate literary credential, because it linked them to a special kind of origin story.”
- A couple centuries ago, in 1815, a real ballbuster of a storm swept through New England. Recollections of the Great September Gale, as it became known, suggest that meteorology then was in some ways a more holistic, if not more sophisticated, discipline than it is today: “Gales and tempests were related, many people thought, to phenomena like lightning, volcanism, and earthquakes … In the 1810s, the idea of an ‘electric fluid’ surrounding and suffusing the world—disturbances in which manifested themselves as earthquakes, waterspouts, hurricanes, and thunderstorms—was quite mainstream … For many New Englanders in 1815, it was intuitively obvious that everything in the sky, and most everything on the ground, was connected somehow to everything else.”
- Seventy-five years after his apparent suicide, what are we to make of Walter Benjamin—or his strange end? Supposedly he took his own life in 1940, on the Spanish border, where his visa had been refused; he feared that if he returned to France he’d be handed over to the Nazis. But “there are all sorts of unanswered questions surrounding Benjamin’s death. His traveling companions remembered him carrying a heavy briefcase containing a manuscript he described as ‘more important than I am’. No such manuscript was found after his death … There has been persistent speculation that he was actually murdered, perhaps by a Soviet agent who had infiltrated his escaping party.”
- In which William Vollmann reads a novelization of Trotsky’s assassination (The Great Prince Died) and begins to mull on grave questions of power: “Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves … ‘Then it amounts to this,’ says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. ‘Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy …’ Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.)”
- Today in recovered Babylonian epics: At last! A new version of the fifth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been unearthed, perhaps illegally, from an undisclosed location in what was once Mesopotamia. It contains a whopping twenty new lines of cuneiform, rich with such narrative revelations as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw ‘monkeys’ as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest” and “Humbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings.”
- Vincent Musetto, a New York Post editor who wrote “the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism”—HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR—has died at seventy-four. “But however lauded it became, it was not Mr. Musetto’s favorite among the many headlines he wrote for the paper. That honor, he often said, went to one composed the next year: GRANNY EXECUTED IN HER PINK PAJAMAS.”
- Let’s pause to remember the golden era of American pharmaceuticals—the turn of the twentieth century, when patent medicine was ubiquitous and any old ailment could help you score some heroin. “If it doesn’t actually cure your cold, the high dose of cocaine might trick you into thinking otherwise.”
- Yesterday marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague of London, which claimed some seventy thousand lives. The diary of Samuel Pepys provides a rich account of the events: “From the moment he saw the red crosses on that boiling June day, through September when the death rate peaked at 7,000 a week, and until January 1666 when it began to wane, Pepys chronicled the plague’s progress through narrow alleys and grand mansions. He tells of the pest-houses and pest-coaches, and how the Lord Mayor forbade citizens from going out after dark so that the sick could ‘go abroad for ayre’ and funeral corteges pass through without infecting the healthy.”
- In happier anniversaries: Clueless, everyone’s favorite “adaptation” of Emma, turns twenty this summer; a new oral history tells us how “as if!” and “way harsh” entered the lexicon.
- Who doesn’t love a good pair of sparring meteorologists? In the nineteenth century, one William Redfield had developed a momentous theory of whirling winds, and he was the toast of weathermen everywhere until some hotshot named James Espy tried to derail him. “Not only was Espy’s prose bold, it also had a pompous edge. Academic discourse was governed by the same strict code of gentlemanly civility that dominated intellectual society, from politics to religion. At times Espy seemed waspish and condescending.”
Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.
As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.
The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer. Read More