- The owner of the most famous wheelbarrow in literature finally gets his due. Williams Carlos Williams was inspired in 1938 by the image of Thaddeus Marshall’s humble gardening implement left out in the rain, next to a flock of white chickens, and wrote the sixteen-word poem “Red Wheelbarrow.”
- Wikipedia? It’s been done. Diderot spent more than twenty years writing and editing his Encyclopédie, a French translation of one of the first English-language encyclopedias. Diderot, however, transformed the original by conceiving of his “as a fully interactive text,” complete with footnotes and appendices that serve the era’s “version of hyperlinks, cross-listings, which take the reader to other ‘sites’ in the encyclopedia.”
- Experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow utilized the player piano for his musical studies because “he was drawn to the technical possibilities of the machine, which can play faster and with greater precision than the most virtuosic pianist.” He applied congruent ratios to separate tempos and hand-punched cards while creating his unplayable, weirdly enjoyable tunes.
- Robert Louis Stevenson may have been an egomaniac and brilliant fantasist, but he was also quite ill throughout his life. While visiting him in Samoa, where he would be buried at forty-four, historian Henry Adams said of Stevenson, “Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless.”
- All hail the Devil’s Bible, a thirteeth-century, wood-bound anomaly that is more than three feet long and comprises 620 pages. Officially named the Codex Gigas, it’s fabled to have been written by a banished monk, who resolved “to write the world’s biggest book in one night. To do so, he naturally required the help of the Devil.” Their deal? “All the monk had to do was paint a full-page portrait of Beelzebub in the Codex and hand over his mortal soul.”
The second in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here.
There is very little that’s puzzling about Philip Larkin’s two-penny upright “This Be the Verse” (1971):
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can.
And don’t have any kids yourself.
“This Be the Verse” is arguably the best-loved English poem of the last half of the twentieth century. Funny, frank, transgressive—human—the poem has stood up admirably in pub, alley, and classroom. (Of how many humans with fancy titles can this be said?) But what about that awkward title? How did a writer as good as Larkin fuck up his forms of to be?
The title’s oddness is no empty gesture. The words “This Be the Verse” point us toward one of the sweetest, un-Larkin-esque poems in the language, Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph. When it’s published in an anthology, it usually appears as two stanzas called “Requiem,” but on Stevenson’s tomb, the epitaph is presented as a single block under his name and dates, without punctuation or title: Read More
Whether they follow an established tradition or rebel against it, whether they are authors of classics or are considered innovators, rare are the writers who were not also great readers. Proust was no exception to this rule; reading had always been his earliest and most important source of pleasure and stimulation, and it remained as such. He is distinguished from his colleagues, however, by the immense role that literature plays in his oeuvre.
Proust seemed incapable of creating a character without putting a book in his hands. Read More
This week, Lorin and I made a whirlwind trip to Houston, where we had the chance to visit the wonderful Brazos Bookstore. While browsing their well-curated cookbook selection, my eye was caught by a volume called 101 Classic Cookbooks, curated by the Fales Library. Published by Rizzoli, it is as much an art book as a recipe primer (although there are plenty of those too, from such luminaries as Julia Child and Alice Waters). Images of antique receipt books and mid-century food art make for great cultural history. —Sadie Stein
Charles Portis is that rare literary legend too few have read—me included. When I spotted a copy of his 1979 novel, The Dog of the South, on a friend’s shelf, I knew it was time to find out if the rumors are true. They are. There’s a hopped-up futility to this tale of a man in pursuit of his wife and her lover south of the border, and when Ray’s surrender is set off against small moments of truculence, it’s comic gold. One passage in particular, of Ray trying to outrace another car in a total clunker, reminds me a bit of the pie-fight scene in Gravity’s Rainbow, which was published only six years before; though the setup is far less surreal, it’s rife with absurdity:
I’ve had enough of this, I said to myself, and I was just about ready to quit when the exhaust system or the drive shaft dropped to the highway beneath the Chrysler and began to kick up sparks. Jack was down for the day. I shot over a rise and left him with a couple honks. Harvest yellow Imperial. Like new. Loaded. One owner. See to appreciate. Extra sharp. Good rubber. A real nice car. Needs some work. Call Cherokee Bail Bonds and ask for Jack. Work odd hours. Keep calling.
Walker Percy, the National Book Award winner and Paris Review interview subject, has a delightful and underappreciated piece called “Bourbon, Neat” on a topic near and dear to my heart. Percy claims that bourbon does for him what a bite of cake did for Proust and goes on to expound an aesthetic approach to bourbon in which the chief pleasure comes from, “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bit of Tennessee summertime,” words that make this Kentuckian’s breast swell with pride. More importantly, this piece provides a ready-made, literary-minded rebuttal to accusations of alcoholism. A defense, I imagine, that might prove useful to more than a few of our readers. —Graham Rogers
I recently picked up The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine, which was released in celebration of Poetry Magazine’s centennial (thanks to Sam Fox for lending it to me!). If you need to be reminded of the incomparable poems that the magazine published first in its pages (including those of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath), read excellent poetry by an author you might not have discovered yet, or simply remember why poetry is worth loving, this is the book to turn to. I recommend getting together with a few friends, taking turns opening to a poem at random, and reading out loud—knowing that you (and they) won’t be disappointed. —Emma Goldhammer
According to Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Secret of the Heather Ale,” the last Pictish king chose to have his son put to death and be killed himself rather than reveal the secrets of his favorite beverage to an invading Scottish army. You could try and re-create the ale that “Was sweeter far then honey, / Was stronger far than wine,” yourself this weekend by boiling five ounces of flowering heather tops (any color, although white is allegedly the luckiest) and boil in a gallon and a half of water. After an hour add seventeen pounds of honey and boil for a further half hour, before leaving the mixture to rest for another thirty minutes. Strain into a seven gallon wine fermenting bin and fill the bin to the top with cold water. Stir through one sachet of champagne yeast, skim off any foam that forms on the surface and decant into clean wine bottles. It should be ready after a week or two. —Charlotte Goldney
This week the loveable geeks over at A.V. Club published a tripartite list of the 1990s’ best films. It’s a neat little nostalgia trip on its own, populated by Tarantinos and Jarmuschs and Scorseses and such. But web-surfers were quick to point out that the skinny white dude aesthetic of the Club list-makers resulted in the absolute omission of black and female directors from this particular record of the nineties canon. Weirdly, this didn’t yield a firestorm: it produced a thoughtful discussion of the nature of institutional bias (think Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have Their Been No Great Women Artists” in 140-character tidbits), and the chance to reflect upon the contingency of our cultural consumption. Start at Slate if you’re interested. —Samuel Fox
Late last Tuesday night, a crowd gathered in an antique circus tent, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, to shelter from the rain, drink whiskey, and hear readings by Paris Review contributor Donald Antrim and Southern editor John Jeremiah Sullivan, both introduced by editor Lorin Stein. The program—The Paris Review Presents New American Writing at the Edinburgh Book Fair—received mixed reviews. One tweeter called it “bloomin’ superb.” A blogger asked, “Why can’t there be events like this in Edinburgh all the time?” One young festival volunteer, less enthusiastically, described it as “wordy.” What did she expect? “Last year when McSweeney’s came, the editor got up on stage and shaved his head.”
For some, head shaving is not an option. Instead, at the end of the night, the Paris Review delegates opened the floor to requests for advice, which were submitted on scraps of paper. Most were answered on the spot; others were tucked into a notebook and reviewed on the road, as editors Sullivan and Stein recuperated from the book fair triumph/fiasco.
Could you recommend a travel book about either Japan or Spain?
We are composing this response under deadline in the West Highlands—specifically, in the self-proclaimed “oldest pub in Scotland,” the Lachlann Inn, on the banks of Loch Lomond. As everyone knows, they didn’t have WiFi in 1734 (although they do appear to have had video poker). For this reason, we can’t answer your question in the kind of depth that American readers have come to expect from The Paris Review. We can only recommend, in Lorin’s case, Robert Hughes’s Barcelona and, in John’s case, Journey of a Thousand Miles, the famous series of travel haiku by Basho. (John would also like to recommend the Laura Veirs song “Rapture,” which is not strictly speaking a travelogue, but does include a tribute to “lovely Basho / his plunking ponds and toads.”)
Please recommend a good book for our book club. We are currently reading Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad and have recently read such books as So Much for That, The Dice Man, Middlesex, Half of a Yellow Sun, Oryx and Crake, and Rebecca.
—Marion & Co.
When we see the title The Dice Man, we both think of the scandal-plagued comedian of our youth, the “Dice Man,” Andrew Dice Clay—and that can’t possibly be what you have in mind. Still, we are struck by the breadth of your reading. Your question has been on our minds. Yesterday we wandered into a small used bookstore at the foot of the Castle mound and both ogled a complete 1910 Robert Louis Stevenson in twenty volumes. John proposed that we donate it to your book club; Lorin found it “too rich” for The Paris Review’s “blood.” As a backup, John recommends Ghost Light, Joseph O’Connor’s fictional re-creation of John Millington Synge’s hopeless love affair with the Abbey Theatre actress Molly Allgood. And we both recommend—in the strongest possible terms—our colleague Donald Antrim’s short novel The Verficationist, about an academic meeting gone horribly wrong amid the hustle and bustle of an International House of Pancakes.