- Writers should always have a backup plan. A good one is to consider a career in the Central Intelligence Agency, which is what Jennifer duBois did around the time she was applying to M.F.A. programs. You ask: But couldn’t she do both? “When it comes to writing for publication, the CIA’s terms are stark: once you have been under their employ, everything you write for the rest of your life will be subject to their review and redaction … The CIA emphasizes that these redactions apply only to matters of national security—that a potential novelist would not, for example, be forfeiting her artistic autonomy for a lifetime, which is a question I think I actually asked—and, for what it’s worth, I believe this. But then, how could we ever know? Who would ever tell us?”
- Do you have three bucks? Do you have five minutes? Friend, congratulations: you’re about to become a best-selling author. Brent Underwood tells you how: “I didn’t feel like writing a book so I instead just took a photo of my foot. I called the book Putting My Foot Down and included one page with, you guessed it, a photo of my foot … I decided my foot was worthy of the ‘Transpersonal’ category under psychology books and ‘Freemasonry & Secret Societies’ category under social sciences books … Burst onto the scene with three copies sold in the first few hours. Look at that hockey stick growth!”
- When fingerprinting came on the scene in the late nineteenth century, it was regarded as a forensics godsend—and tellingly, it coincided with the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and detective fiction. But Francis Galton, who wrote the first influential book on fingerprints, was interested in them for a different kind of fiction: “He definitively declared that ‘no peculiar pattern …characterizes persons of any of the above races.’ And yet, despite his admission that ‘hard fact had made hope no longer justifiable,’ a closer look at Galton’s writings reveals that racial typologies were never far from his thoughts. The conflicted speculation, conjecture, and hesitation in Galton’s racial rhetoric in Finger Prints can be understood as a deliberate strategy, one which allowed him to perpetuate a strong racial and imperial research program even when his scientific data undermined it.”
- Just a friendly reminder that good times are ahead: the Oscars are happening. A whole bunch of movies will be celebrated, and most of them are highly forgettable, but in interesting ways. Luckily A. S. Hamrah knows these ways, and has written them down. On The Martian: “Ridley Scott’s backlot Mars offers a parable for New Yorkers considering the move to LA … You’ll conduct your social life via text and Skype, make trips to the desert in your electric car. You’ll continue to shave every day on the off chance you get a meeting.” On The Revenant: “Iñárritu has finally solved the problem of how to film a realistic bear fight. The next cinematic problem he should tackle is screenwriting.” On Steve Jobs: “They should have given Steve Jobs away for free without anyone asking for it, like that U2 album. That way people (users) might have watched it by accident.”
- In 1955, the saxophonist Wardell Gray died in bizarre circumstances, found miles outside of Vegas with a broken neck, his body having clearly been moved. For Aaron Gilbreath, his story reminds of “the small pantheon of jazz fiction. Writers looking to turn real life into dramatic narrative need look no further than the real history of American music. Racism, resistance, creativity, invention, the power to shape global culture while enduring systematic repression, violence, drug use, and the countless personalities with memorable names set against the sprawling canvas of post-WWII New York City, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles–it’s all there.”
In November 1929, the thirty-one-year-old Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was the world’s most notorious film director. Four years earlier, Battleship Potemkin, his euphorically reviewed, highly influential tour de force about mutiny on the eponymous naval vessel, had brought him both acclaim and infamy. Infected with wanderlust, Eisenstein won permission from Stalin to leave Russia on a short research trip. He took off in August 1929, with twenty-five dollars in his pocket. He returned home, reluctantly, just under three years later.During the ensuing whirlwind—to Berlin, Paris, London, then on to Hollywood—Eisenstein met with the world’s leading intellectuals, actors, and avant-garde artists: James Joyce, Jean Cocteau and Robert Desnos in France, George Bancroft in Germany, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in the United States. His grand tour often gets overshadowed by his disastrous film collaboration in Mexico with the novelist Upton Sinclair—framed in Peter Greenaway’s 2015 movie Eisenstein in Guanajuato—but British culture was a significant and often neglected long-term source of interest.
- In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
- Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
- While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
- How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”
Becoming the world’s only accidental architect.
I first met Ray Bradbury while writing a feature story for the Chicago Tribune magazine in 2000, the year he turned eighty, and we quickly bonded over our shared childhood experiences (roughly fifty years apart) growing up in northern Illinois, as well as in Southern California. We had a remarkable number of things in common and a similar sense of curiosity and a joie de vivre, and we began to work together closely, as I became his authorized biographer.
For two years, from early 2010 to April 2012, Ray had an essay that he wanted to work on each time we met. It was always one of the first things he mentioned—“Can we work on my architecture essay today?”
Despite the fact that he had written about his work in the field of architecture in his book of essays, Yestermorrow, and I had surveyed his work extensively in my biography, Ray was resolved to get the entirety of his creations in the field of architecture down in one essay. He wanted me to submit it to Architectural Digest. The essay was never completed—it was never quite right, because he always had more memories or thoughts he wanted to add to it. And it was rough, having been dictated over many months. Even on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, with guests in the house, he called me into his den and asked me to record a new section. And the very last time I saw him, less than two months before he passed, he asked me again to help him finish it. There was something vital about this essay to Ray Bradbury—he wanted, I think, to prove to the world his influence on the field of architecture. Whatever the case, he very much wanted this essay published. It is presented here and in Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, in rough form, for the very first time. —Sam Weller
How did I become an architect? It was all a happy accident. I suspect it began when I was three years old, living in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1923. My grandfather influenced me by showing me architecture. He had pictures of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. I looked at these pictures through an old stereopticon, a Viewmaster, and I could see all the old, beautiful buildings.
When I was five, my grandfather influenced me yet again. And I think this caused me to go on and to eventually influence other people and to start thinking about public spaces and buildings myself. My grandfather was so important. When I was around five years old, he showed me a copy of the magazine Harper’s Weekly. It was an issue from around 1899, and it contained a story by H. G. Wells called “When the Sleeper Wakes.” The story had marvelous illustrations showing the cities of tomorrow. They were so beautiful. I fell in love with those pictures. They burned into my subconscious. Read More
- On a new biography of Tove Jansson: “She discovered lesbian love … Biographies invariably contain a section on her sexuality and this one is no exception. Its insight that the creatures in Moominland called the Hattifatteners ‘resemble a wandering flock of penises or condoms’ is a point to ponder when reading aloud at bedtime.”
- What are the most important questions to ask ourselves when we read? “What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? That’s the question I suppose I’m asking—and what is the consequent debate arising from that atmosphere?”
- The Chinese term for “effortless action” is wu wei. You’ll soon see it in self-help texts—and why not? Striving to try less hard may, in fact, be very self-helpful. “Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.”
- “A raucous, Sherlock Holmes–themed pantomime called ‘Mrs. Hudson’s Christmas Corker’ might not sound like the most highbrow play that London has to offer. But if you sample enough of the mulled wine being served in the foyer beforehand, you begin to see it differently.”
- Matisse’s cutouts are now—and not for the first time—the toast of the art world. But when he made them, he wasn’t so sure: “Matisse worried that working with cut paper was cheating—a shortcut to painting—and he kept it a secret. ‘It is necessary not to say anything about this,’ he wrote to his son Pierre, in 1931.”
- Javier Marías can think of seven reasons not to write novels, and only one reason to write them. (Fortunately, the one is pretty good.)
- A 540-year-old book—the first to be printed in English—has sold at auction for more than a million pounds. “The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye is a version of a French book written around 1463 … The story is an epic romance which portrays the heroes of Greek mythology as chivalric figures.”
- “I do own a pair of unusual books that I treasure … they are collections of poems, written by Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1948 to 1987. They originally belonged to the poet May Swenson (1913–1989), who has been a favorite of mine since I stumbled on her “Half Sun, Half Sleep” in high school … Each is heavily underlined, in both pencil and ink—an emphatic, and ugly, green ink, seemingly more suited for some censorious schoolmistress than for Swenson, a nicely calibrated nature poet. Still, I take great pleasure in her scarring underscorings and in her occasional approving check mark or cryptic annotation.”
- The Supreme Court has refused to hear an “emergency petition” from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heirs, who are seeking “indefinite copyright protection” for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
- In which the novelist Scott Cheshire, an ex–Jehovah’s Witness, visits the Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn: “I felt like throwing up, so I headed for the men’s room to pull myself together, pressed my face against the cold metal towel dispenser, and fainted.”