- In the years before John Updike died, a man began to steal a lot of his garbage—thousands of pieces, actually, including “photographs, discarded drafts of stories, canceled checks, White House invitations, Christmas cards, love letters, floppy disks, a Mickey Mouse flip book, and a pair of brown tasseled loafers.” Taken as a whole, the collection amounts to a kind of secret history, a trash biography. (“My life is, in a sense, trash,” Updike said in his Art of Fiction interview.)
- “How does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t … Think of all the times we start a book that we think we should be reading—because everyone else is reading it, because it’s won a prize, because our book group has chosen it, despite our misgivings. And think of all the times we refuse to abandon a book we are not enjoying—because we are peculiarly puritanical about literature—thus creating an antagonism and a reluctance that must damage our relationship with reading.”
- This year’s Venice Biennale, an architecture show, “reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to ‘make something modern’ changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it.”
- In which the keening of a single blue whale teaches us something about loneliness.
- What kind of worker is a writer? On Tillie Olsen, who wrote in dribs and drabs while holding down menial jobs and raising four children: “Writing, Olsen reminded her readers, takes time, education, energy, and resources, and these things are unevenly distributed. She encouraged us to attend to unorthodox writing produced in unfavorable circumstances—letters, diaries, scrapbooks like her own—and, in doing so, to question what counts as literature.”
- “In 1919 John Middleton Murry was appointed editor of the London literary magazine The Athenaeum. Shortly afterward, in a rare case of felicitous nepotism, he hired his wife Katherine Mansfield to be its fiction reviewer … from her very first column she’s frank about the terrible ephemerality of most fiction, and the trap both reviewers and readers can fall into by hitching themselves to a brand new novel’s rapidly dying star … Mansfield openly wonders why anyone should bother with new novels at all.”
- Eugene Goostman, a computer program masquerading as a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, has become the first artificial intelligence to pass the Turing Test: in five-minute text conversations, it fooled more than 30 percent of humans into thinking it was a person.
- Why did a beluga whale named Noc try to emulate human speech? “He sounds, on first hearing, at least, less like a person talking than a delirious drunk humming an atonal tune through a tissue-covered comb … But the science behind Noc’s mimicry and its apparent motives reveals something far more urgent and haunting: the spectral outpourings of a young white whale calling to us across both time and the vast linguistic divide between humans and the other animals.”
- And while we’re discussing animals, “What kind of a person looks upon the world’s largest land animal—a beast that mourns its dead and lives to retirement age and can distinguish the voice of its enemies—and instead of saying ‘Wow!’ says something like ‘Where’s my gun?’” Wells Tower reports from one of the last elephant hunts in Botswana.
- The most transgressive song of 1909: “If we listen closely to ‘I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife—But Oh! You Kid!’ we may hear a surprising lesson: that the culture-quaking shocks, the salaciousness and transgression we associate with blues and jazz and rock and hip-hop, first arrived in American pop many years earlier.”
Currently on display in halls of the American Museum of Natural History are the complete skeletal remains of two sperm whales, a male and a female. They are the centerpieces of a much-advertised exhibit on whales that opened in March and will remain on view until January of next year.
I don’t know precisely what I hoped to encounter when I visited the exhibit earlier this month, but I knew it had something to do with Moby-Dick. I came with the high and ill-defined expectations of a pilgrimage, harboring vague notions that I might eye a peeking corner of the mystery embodied by Melville’s White Whale; I thought, deep in some inarticulate recess of my mind, that I might have the chance to live a dozen pages out of one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hoped I might come to better know it. I thought that I might see the whale.
The two sperm whale skeletons are suspended by metal wire from the ceiling of the museum’s fourth floor exhibition space. The male is slightly over fifty-eight feet long, the female much smaller. Seeing them was a shock; reduced to their bare frames they might as well be entirely different animals, so little do they answer to the sperm whale in its skin. They hang in undulating poses over a dais of shiny black plastic, appearing like a pair of monstrous wraiths cresting the surface of forsaken waters. Melville provides a warning of this physical dissonance in Moby-Dick—“For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.”—but that is poor preparation for just how alienating these skeletons can be. There is an unsettling ambiguity in their aspect, like the meeting of bird and snake. While pictures of the whale alive show a creature of curves, sleek fins, and a protuberant forehead, under the roof of the American Museum of Natural History and bereft of their flesh, these whales are assemblies of acute angles. Their peeked skulls, barbed with teeth, taper at the jaws to sharp beaks; looking up at the spiked vertebrae, you see a cutting ridge running along the spine that resolves itself decisively into the pointed tip of the tail. They are almost entirely devoid of the galumphing roundness that makes the living whale seem monumental, endearing, curiously childlike.
More surprising than their shape is their size. Reviewing the exhibit for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was struck by their “immensity” and “commanding power.” He spoke of the show’s more diminutive attractions cowering in the “shadow of the chambers and curves of whalebone filling the high-ceilinged gallery.” “They loom,” he said, “over the video kiosks, wall panels and specimens, as if daring anything to come close.” That was not my experience at all. The exhibit has many attractions: video animations dramatizing the evolutionary history of whales; scrimshaw and ancient harpoons; Maori art and ambergris; an old ledger recording the events of a whaling voyage and an open copy of Moby-Dick, both under glass; a life-sized model of a Blue Whale’s heart, in and around which children climb like scavengers over deep-sea carrion. There is no want of diversion. Still, in the midst of all this edifying activity, I couldn’t help but think that the two sperm whale skeletons—even that belonging to the male, supposedly longer than a school bus—looked small. Read More