Thursday, April 30, 2009
This is the question the Guardian asks.
From the piece...
The birds are back in woods behind my house. Wrens, nuthatches, tree-creepers; from first light their bright calls spill into my sleep. After a winter watching a monoculture of jackdaws floating over the lake like delicately made marionettes, the inhabitants of An Atlas of Breeding Birds in Cumbria have begun to spill into the peripheries of my poems.
What is that draws poets to birds? And why have so many turned to them at critical points in their own writing? The collective nouns we all remember from childhood speak of language's innate fascination with all things avian: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls. And it's no coincidence we afford them the most poetic collective nouns: right from the birth of literature birds have been present.
In "The Seafarer", the Anglo-Saxon poem of spiritual longing and exile, birds become astringent emblems of solitude as earthly pleasures are traded for the "the gannet's noise and the voice of the curlew" while the laughter of men is replaced by "the singing gull". And once discovered it's hard to shake the haunting, spiritually exact, idea in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica that our passage through life is like a sparrow flying through the mead-hall on a winter night: from darkness through the bright light and out again into the unknown dark. Later, Chaucer's rhyme royal dream-vision, The Parliament of Foules, sees the bickering birds provide the perfect form for a discussion of love and the imperatives of the natural world.
They ignored Vietnam, 9/11 and Iraq but Archie, Blondie and Co. sure are worried about the economy! Macleans writes about the economy and our daily comic strips.
From the story...
It’s the most surprising turn of events in comics since Charlie Brown hit a game-winning home run: the recession has become a major issue in strips that never dealt with major issues before. Dagwood Bumstead in Blondie has been working the same generic white collar job since the ’40s, but his boss, Mr. Dithers, just told him that “at the rate the economy is going this company might be out of business by next year.” Hi and Lois is a 55-year-old strip about a round-nosed suburban family where the wife is usually in the kitchen, the kids say cute things, and nobody knows what the dad does for a living. But a recent strip had Hi Flagston coming home and telling Lois that “there were a lot more layoffs at work today” and that he might lose his job, whatever that is. The cover of a recent Archie comics digest has Veronica telling Betty: “We’re not just shopping, we’re helping to stimulate the economy!” The army strip Beetle Bailey managed to ignore Vietnam, Iraq and all the wars in between, and yet it showed the General standing in front of an earnings chart asking for advice on “the grim picture.” If you want to know how the recession is affecting us, don’t look to political strips like Doonesbury; look at The Wizard of Id, where the King bailed out the failed “carriage industry” but refused any money to help a small businessman. The crisis is so big that no comic-strip character can pretend it doesn’t exist. Well, maybe Ziggy.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The San Francisco Chronicle writes about San Francisco's Schumolowitz Collection, at the SF Public Library's main branch. It is the world's largest collection of wit and humor books.
From the story...
You may never feel the urge to read "The Facetiae of Poggio," often referred to as the first joke book. But if you ever did need to peruse this volume, originally printed in 1451, you'd head to the world's largest collection of humor. And that happens to be on the top floor of the San Francisco Public Library's main branch.
The Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor comprises 21,000 books, 230 periodical titles and 29,000 audio and video recordings, spanning four centuries and 35 languages.
The collection ranges from contemporary humorists like Amy Sedaris and Dave Barry, to cartoons, proverbs, fairy tales, insult handbooks, folklore stories and current European satire periodicals like Private Eye, Eulenspiegel and Le Canard enchaîné.
And, for a chuckle this fine day, the humorous Jim Gaffigan:
Stuart Jeffries (!), at the Guardian (!!), writes about our expanding usage (!) of the exclamation point!
From the story!
exclamation marks - those forms of punctuation derided by the funless and fastidious - are making a comeback, thanks to an internet renaissance that is bleeding over into every form of written communication. Once it was bad form to end a paragraph with an exclamation mark. Now it's borderline obligatory. Once it was enough to put a sign on your door: "Back in five minutes." Now, without the flourish of an exclamation mark, that sign lacks verve or at least zeitgeisty voguishness. Go figure!
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
A compendium of groovy vintage paperback book covers of sci-fi classics, like Day of the Triffids (pictured above; illustration by John Griffiths)...which reminds me of this, the best movie ever made (?!?!):
From their website...
Public Collectors consists of informal agreements where collectors allow the contents of their collection to be published and permit those who are curious to directly experience the objects in person. Participants must be willing to type up an inventory of their collection, provide a means of contact and share their collection with the public. Collectors can be based in any geographic location.
Public Collectors is founded upon the concern that there are many types of cultural artifacts that public libraries, museums and other institutions and archives either do not collect or do not make freely accessible. Public Collectors asks individuals that have had the luxury to amass, organize, and inventory these materials to help reverse this lack by making their collections public.
Some collections so far online include a collection of adult comics from Mexico and a groovy collection of Bibles stolen from hotel rooms.
How unusual! Each month or so, there is a release a new issue of I Left This Here For You To Read. It is a magazine that is left in public places (such as on park benches, on buses, in airports and dentists' offices...) for anyone to take--free of charge. So far, they've distributed their magazine in about 35 cities in the US and Canada. They only print about 50 copies of each issue, and don't reprint any past issues.
Monday, April 27, 2009
There is a great story coming out of New Jersey where the family Anderson Pidcock, a Civil War soldier who was killed in action in 1864, has been presented with his pocket Bible. For a video of the story, go here.
What does it hold? Barrelhouse has an interview with Reb Livingston about it.
From the story...
I think print will continue to exist for a while, in various forms. I see two main routes, the book as artifact route, beautiful, but expensive to produce books and more print-on-demand titles, which already has become indistinguishable to traditionally printed books for most readers. I love both.
People my age and older will likely be partial to printed books. People in their 50’s and older seem incredibly attached to newspapers and other print media. Yes, people do adjust to change, some more enthusiastically than others. But I really believe the biggest changes have yet to be discovered and I think that’ll be done by poets much younger than me. Poets who didn’t grow up with newspapers and magazines in their households. Poets who don’t need the case for distribution and reaching a wide audience explained to them. Poets who will have no comprehension of the concept that a “printed” poem is more “legitimate” than a poem published online. Poets without print envy. These poets are still children. So I suspect what I have to look forward to is everything that I know about poetry and publishing being completely antiquated in about 20 years, possibly sooner.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
On the University of Barcelona website, via Philobiblos, is a wide-ranging (and fun to browse through) collection of printers' devices.
From the introduction to the site:
The database Printers' Devices of the Ancient Book Section of the Library of the University of Barcelona, was launched in October of 1998.
The working methodology used is directly tied to the cataloguing process of ancient books, approaching the printers in parallel to the elaboration of the bibliographic records. In this way, the printers’ authority records incorporated to the catalogue, are made available to the public thorough the database Printers' Devices, together with the corresponding image or images.
Given this approach to the input process, the criteria of inclusion of the different entries are neither chronological nor geographical. And so, the database covers from the XVI to the XVIII century, and geographically from all around Europe but mostly from Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Low Countries, reflecting the collection’s own personality.
Pictured above: Giovanni Antonio degli Antoni's printer's device, circa 1575.
Libraries are community treasure chests, loaded with a wealth of information available to everyone equally, and the key to that treasure chest is the library card. I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.
- Former First Lady Laura Bush
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Amazon's Kindle is getting a lot of buzz these days.
First up, the Wall Street Journal, that says e-books will change the way we read and write.
From the essay...
The latest such moment came courtesy of the Kindle, Amazon.com Inc.'s e-book reader. A few weeks after I bought the device, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, dutifully working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel. After a few taps on the Kindle, I was browsing the Amazon store, and within a minute or two I'd bought and downloaded Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty." By the time the check arrived, I'd finished the first chapter.
I knew then that the book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways. It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.
There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution.
Next up, the New Yorker, who says "Uh, not so fast Wall Street Journal!"
From their piece:
In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, Steven Berlin Johnson airs some wildly optimistic opinions about the social potential of e-books. He claims that, once everyone is reading online, individuals will no longer have to struggle with a text alone:
You’ll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage’s true meaning.
Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity—a direct exchange between author and reader—to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.
Really? Project Gutenberg, which has been digitizing works since 1971, contains thousands of books—all free (that's another issue) to copy, paste, e-mail, and reference at any hour, and, yet it hasn’t produced a worldwide conversation that explains the greatness of “Middlemarch” any better than a good English professor or an enthusiastic friend can.
Who is right and who is wrong in all this Kindle who-ha? Probably both. Those who like the Kindle will use the Kindle. Those that like books, actual books of paper and glue, will continue to read actual books. Just so long as people enjoying reading, what difference does it really make? Whatever way makes it easier for people to read, whatever makes it more enjoyable for them, whatever makes reading more a part of someone's life, big whoop. You can quote me. "Big whoop."
Friday, April 24, 2009
There's a renaissance afoot in regards to obituary writing. The Smart Set takes a look at their resurgent popularity.
From the story...
In her 2006 book The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson reveals a worldwide ring of rabid obituary enthusiasts—members of the Church of Obituaries, she calls them. They flip past the Sports and Business sections eager to read the day’s death roll. They “surf the dead beat” poring over blogs and newspapers searching for fascinating facts about Antoinette K-Doe, who turned a nightclub into a public shrine to her husband, or the guy who invented sea monkeys. Obituaries aren’t dirty little secrets as much as they used to be, lurking in hidden corners and ready to terrify those who cross their path. They are public, normal, interesting, fun. There’s howtowriteanobituary.com which involves everyday people in the writing process, and patrickswayzeobituary.com, a forum writing the demise of the movie star even as he lives. There’s even a glossy online magazine with the snappy name Obit.
But the real change is with the obituary writers. Once shamed to the backs of periodicals to deliver dour, Margie Zellner-style obituaries, many are now part of this new movement to “out” death by making it more accessible and “natural.” They are reconsidering the obituary not as the final judgment, but as a way death can be presented as a sum total of its stories. Everyone has stories, everyone dies, and in writing about death, death and life become more of a circle. The obituary is not the period on the sentence of existence, but a mere interpretation.
The Gates Foundation is giving $57 million to overseas libraries to improve Internet access at public libraries in Poland, Romania and Vietnam.
From the story...
"Our goal is really to use technology to make sure that we're making the world a good place for everybody regardless of where they live," said Deborah Jacobs, deputy director for the foundation's Global Libraries program.
The foundation, headed by Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and his wife, is also working with local governments and organizations to raise money for related expenses, like equipment and high-speed connections. In addition, Microsoft itself is donating millions of dollars worth of software to support the project.
The Gates foundation started more than a decade ago trying to bring Internet access to every library in the United States, and has since expanded its goal to help libraries around the world.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has a great browsable collection of government-issued comic books, with such winning titles like "Adventures of the Garbage Gremlin," "Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs," and "Mr. Civil Defense Tells About Natural Disasters!"
Good humor, by Robert Lanham, on my always favorite McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
From the piece...
LECTURE AND DISCUSSION
The Writing Is on the Wall:
Why Print/Reading Will Go the Way
of the Pictograph
Four weeks will be devoted to discussing the publishing industry and why―with the exception of wordless celebrity glossies―the print medium is, um, boring and, furthermore, totally dull.
Reading is stoopid
This fundamental truth may seem obvious to today's youth, but this wasn't always the case. Students will examine why former generations carried around heavy clumps of bound paper and why they chose to read instead of watching TV or playing Guitar Hero.
Printing words isn't good
for the environment
Students will evaluate why, as BuzzMachine founder Jeff Jarvis articulates, "Paper is where words go to die." Paper is also where rainforests go to die, which, needless to say, isn't good for the Hyla rhodopepla tree frog. Thus, while older generations wax nostalgic about curling up by the fireplace with a good book or the Sunday paper, students will be encouraged to remember The Lorax (the animated anti-logging-industry television special, not the book).
Curling up with
a good book/newspaper
Students will explore the dangers of curling up by fires with books and newspapers. That paper could catch fire should an ember unexpectedly pop out. And all that curling is not good for people's backs. Especially since most readers of books, magazines, and newspapers are elderly and are thus already more likely to suffer from back ailments.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Three Quarks Daily has an essay about pianos and books about pianos.
From the piece...
“I’d like piano lessons,” said my daughter, and, yes, of course, I said, that would be terrific. She was only six. How could she know that she was giving me permission to relapse into yet another time-wasting obsession, with the possibility of acquiring yet another library on a subject? Now, under cover of being a good parent, I could once again dive into a literature, slip off to internet chat rooms late at night, wander into stores that had been around forever but that I had never had an excuse to explore, and contemplate an expensive purchase. But mainly I like to read about that kind of thing.
“Of course,” I said, benevolently, the noble father. But I was thrilled; such interests had been largely off limits since donning the responsible hoodie of the parent. In earlier years, I had been there with photography, wooden boats, ice hockey, tube amplifiers, all pursuits offering a deep literature, and the chance to spend money. Right away, I knew full well where I was headed: Worst of all are the Internet forums, where I will undoubtedly cruise late at night, recklessly picking up useful-seeming advice from strangers hiding behind screen names. (Why does Dennis care quite so much about the grey market, one must wonder?)
Not all interests spawn literature of equal quality. The literature of the tube amplifier and the literature of hockey are as one in their paucity. Tube amplifiers are lacking an oeuvre, certainly, because, well, they just kind of sit there. The dearth of good hockey writing is a little more mysterious, but it may be a sport that knocks the lyricism out of people.
The piano, like wooden boats, seems to spin off more books than actual piano players, judging by the number of books that I have read on the two subjects and the number of wooden boat owners and accomplished piano players that I have met. For the amount of soaring prose generated, too, these two objects share the Empyrean. When I was obsessively reading about wooden boats, writers were always going on about how they were alive, had molded with the water, what have you. And so with the piano and its ethereal mellifluousness, et cetera.
As far as the number of literate admirers, I can think of no other musical instrument that compares to the piano.
And, for your piano fix, here's Lang Lang playing Chopin's "Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2":
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore has an essay about Mr. Poe.
From the piece...
Edgar Allan Poe once wrote an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” to explain why he wrote “The Raven” backward. The poem tells the story of a man who, “once upon a midnight dreary,” while mourning his dead love, Lenore, answers a tapping at his chamber door, to find “darkness there and nothing more.” He peers into the darkness, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” and meets a silence broken only by his whispered word, “Lenore?” He closes the door. The tapping starts again. He flings open his shutter and, “with many a flirt and flutter,” in flies a raven, “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” The bird speaks just one word: “Nevermore.” That word is the poem’s last, but it’s where Poe began. He started, he said, “at the end, where all works of art should begin,” and he “first put pen to paper” at what became the third-to-last stanza:
“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! prophet
still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us—by
that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if
within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the
angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom
the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“The Philosophy of Composition” is a lovely little essay, but, as Poe himself admitted, it’s a bit of jiggery-pokery, too. Poe didn’t actually write “The Raven” backward. The essay is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that. Nearly everything Poe wrote, including the spooky stories for which he is best remembered, has this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom.
There's an essay in The New York Times about the book trade in ancient Rome.
From the story...
“My book is thumbed by our soldiers posted overseas, and even in Britain people quote my words. What’s the point? I don’t make a penny from it.” This is not the complaint of some young American author who has suddenly discovered that his contract pays him nothing for foreign sales. These are the words of the Roman poet Martial, first-century satirist and defender of authors’ rights.
We usually assume that there is not much in common between the ancient Roman book trade and our own. Roman books, after all, were produced in a world that was not just pre-Internet but pre-Gutenberg. All reading material was laboriously copied out by hand. The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves, whose job it was to transcribe one by one as many copies of Virgil, Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy.
And it was a large market. Imperial Rome had a population of at least a million. Using a conservative estimate of literacy levels, there would have been more than 100,000 readers in the city.
Monday, April 20, 2009
They've turned 60, those well-read Harlequin Romance novels. On Video Gum you can see famous people read some of their favorite Harlequin snippets. People like Seth Rogan and the delightful Paul Rudd.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
After news of President Lincoln's assassination reached New York, in all arteries and capillaries of the city, shopkeepers designed makeshift shrines to the martyred president. An anonymous diarist walked for miles, drawing sketches of as many storefronts as he could (evidence suggests, but does not confirm, that the diarist was a man). Through his relentless activity this nameless reporter made the news a bit more comprehensible. Here are selections from the diary entries, given to us from the illustrious New York Times.
Sometimes it's what's written on books rather than in them that means most, if only to their owners. The Guardian has the story.
From the piece...
I've just moved house and, while sifting through all the books I've accumulated over the past few years, I found a copy of Sylvia Plath's Ariel I picked up from a secondhand bookstall. I had it for several weeks before I noticed the inscription: "Dear Lucy, thank you for helping me that day in the hospital. You did wonders for my self-confidence." It is signed "From Tony". And there's more in the back: "Some of us know this is somewhere", it says. "One flower each and one for luck, but I don't know which the lucky one is, so we will all have to share."
I went back to the bookstall in the hope of finding out more. Why hadn't Lucy kept it? Had she died? Perhaps she was angry with Tony for some reason. Was this a case of spurned love, or perhaps the unrequited variety? The stallholder couldn't help, so the trail ended there.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The posts in the next few days will be few and far between while I play with my kid. In the meantime... I played the trombone through college (and still pick it up from time to time to play stunning duets with my 5-year-old daughter). So I was tickled to find Douglas Yeo's swell Trombone Photo Gallery.
I was even more excited to find Handel's "Trombone Concerto in F Minor" done by the illustrious Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra!
Enjoy, and we'll blog again soon.
The Boston Globe has a story linking Henry David Thoreau's Walden and a forest fire that occurred that may have pushed Thoreau to write it.
From the story...
"Walden" established Thoreau's reputation as one of America's great literary figures, and to this day, both the book and the pond are synonymous with naturalism, environmentalism, and the austere pursuit of self-reliance.
So what finally motivated Thoreau to leave the comforts of his family home and embark on this radical experiment? The most common explanation is that Thoreau did so at the urgings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, and other friends who were eager to see a promising young man fulfill his potential.
But there is one curious event in the life of Henry David Thoreau that has received little attention, and which may have been a formative event, influencing not only his decision to sequester himself at Walden Pond, but also the development of his environmentalist philosophy.
The Times Online has a story by Richard Morrison about the Nazi book burns. In 1933, the Nazis tried to extinguish an era of Jewish intellectualism by burning the works of more than a hundred authors. But did this act of terror actually succeed?
From the story...
By midnight on that startling evening the flames from the bonfires were leaping ten yards into the air. Thousands had gathered to watch the spectacle. Joseph Goebbels had already spoken, proclaiming the end of “the age of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism”. But still the books burnt, thousands of them. And not just here on the Opernplatz in Berlin, but in cities across Germany. By the end of the night a nation had voluntarily consigned to the flames the best works of its finest living writers.
The date - May 10, 1933 - is now as infamous in the annals of Nazi tyranny as the Night of the Long Knives the following year, or Kristallnacht in 1938. All are seen as symbolic and horrific milestones on the road to genocide. But who chose the authors whose books were to be so publicly burnt and whose reputations were instantaneously trashed? Why were some pro-Nazi writers included? And what became of the authors in the aftermath?
Until now, the answers have been sketchy at best. But a gripping new book, just out in Germany, tackles these matters with tenacity and brilliance.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
This is the question The Telegraph asks.
From the story...
It's every writer's nightmare. You've invested years of blood, sweat and, in my case, HB pencils in the British Library to construct your tale of deep passion and pent-up desire and now – at last – your central characters are edging towards the bedroom. At which point you start to suffer from writer's droop. How are you going to encapsulate the earth-moving wonder, the erotic arousal and tender protectiveness of the longed-for moment?
Imagine this and multiply it by ten when the main character of your novel, The Lady and The Poet, happens to be John Donne, perhaps the greatest erotic love poet in the English language, whose poetry glitters with clever seductiveness, carnal longing and a subversive delight in sex?
Add to the problem the helpful advice from my agent that when Donne and the young woman with whom he falls passionately in love, Ann More, finally make it to the four-poster – "it had better be good!''
This reminds me of a list I did!
SUPERHEROES THAT DIDN’T GAIN ENTRY INTO THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA
Pretty Good Man
The Daring Widget
The Human Waistcoat
The Voracious Harpist
The Plush Ottoman
Ivan, the Russian Polyp
The Human Corndog
The Lucent Cabbage
Flat Hand Mackey
Nonpareil the French Wonder
The Quixotic Barista
The Thundering Wisk
Great Whiskery Aunt
The Human Blow Hole
Professor Chin and his Doting Grad Student
The Wild Sommelier
The Squawking Podiatrist
Eighteen Dollar Man
The Pedantic Viking
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Several months back I wrote the cover story in Fine Books and Collections Magazine about photographer Jonathan Singer and his amazing tome, Botanica Magnifica.
The editor alerted me, soon after it was published, that news groups were contacting him about doing a story on Singer and his work, upon reading my story, which is really rather wonderful. That said, this past Sunday, on "CBS Sunday Morning," this piece ran, about Jonathan Singer and the creation of Botanica Magnifica:
Watch CBS Videos Online
There's a lengthy discussion on John Madera's blog about the novella and its place in the pantheon of literary endeavors, including a wide-ranging novella reading list.
From the story...
After reading Eugene Marten’s novella Waste, struck by its concentrated unity, its razor-sharp timing, its immediacy, etc., the way it zipped along like a guilty-pleasure page-turner but with Gordon Lish-approved sentences, penetrating insight, and an underlying critique of consumption and waste, I wondered which works of comparable length had a similar effect on me and why? What immediately came to mind were books that I’d read as a teenager like The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Billy Budd, The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony, Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fahrenheit 451, Heart of Darkness, The War of the Worlds, etc. While these are all arguably significant works, I wondered why, in contrast to novels, had my reading of novellas since then been so meager. This led to thoughts about how a novella is, or even whether it should be, defined. Is a novella simply a work of prose having a certain amount of words, a fiction that’s longer than a long story, or a novellette, but shorter than a novel? Or are word and page counts really just arbitrary considerations in determining how to define a work? Is this kind of categorization simply shaped by marketing forces? Is it even worthwhile to ask these questions?