Friday, December 5, 2014


I'm traveling for the next few weeks, so the blog will be on hiatus. But it'll definitely be back in January, and maybe a few scattered posts before then. Be well until then!

Sticky Note Cartoon: Three Ages

Monday, December 1, 2014

Combatting Evil Stupidities

Last week—last terrible, terrible week—it felt like the stupidest, least important thing anyone could have been doing was writing a blog on trivia and the arts. But what could one say, really, in a situation where no one's words were helping: not the President's, who was powerless; not the protestors who for all their right passion and outrage couldn't overturn a verdict; and certainly not the final words of nine jurors in Missouri. "All I have is a voice," Auden wrote once. But voices don't bring back the dead, prosecute the unarraigned, or reform a law enforcement system. One wants to "signal boost." Still, re-posting something on Facebook seems a hollow gesture in the face of injustice, at least to this millennial. Maybe I should have anyway. When all gestures are equivalent in weightlessness, maybe each one matters equally.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Strange deaths of some French composers

Odilon Redon: "À Edgar Poe" (1882)
The Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (collaborator with Molière, court composer of Louis XIV, the Sun King) died of gangrene. In those days—the late 17th century—before the development of the modern symphony orchestra, large ensembles kept time not under a conductor's baton, but rather by having someone stamp out the beat with a large staff to the side. Lully had been doing exactly this when he struck his foot so hard it apparently bled, got infected, and killed him. (Lully had declined to have it amputated.) He was 54.

For a long time, it was believed that Charles-Valentin Alkan (a composer and piano virtuoso of the same generation as Chopin and Liszt) died when he accidentally brought a bookcase down on himself as he reached for a Talmud on the very top shelf. However, this seems to be apocryphal: apparently it may have been an umbrella stand, not a bookcase, that was found on top of his body. He was 75.

Ernest Chausson—student of Franck, friend of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon—died when his bicycle collided with a brick wall at the bottom of a hill. There is not much more to say about the matter. He was 44.

All three are worth listening to, but it's Chausson's premature death that strikes me as the worst loss for music. Here's his arresting, yearning Poème, op. 25, for violin and piano:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Commonplace book: Mermaids singing

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Nymphs Bathing. Oil on canvas.
57 x 82 ½ in. c. 1878. Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
The trope of mermaids—well, something like mermaids—is an old one, going back in some form all the way to Homer. But it's hard to judge what is and isn't a mermaid. Are the Sirens mermaids? Certainly they have some kind of relationship with mermaids. Are the friendly Nereids mermaids? Are Sirens like Nereids? It's a confusing issue. What does seem clear is that, by the 20th century, to invoke mermaids seems to draw on a wide range of myths and legends, so that when Eliot invokes the "mermaids singing," it calls to mind a range of topoi far beyond the Donne poem that Wimsatt and Beardsley cite in their famous essay. Indeed, given what they're trying to argue, picking on the mermaid line in "Prufrock" may have been the worst possible evidence.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Song for the Century

Ypres, Flanders, Belgium.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they speak
To an apathetic grave;
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
—W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939" 
I don't know why Remembrance Day has affected me so much more this year than the past two years I've lived in Britain, or the many Veterans' Days before in the U.S. The omnipresent poppies have something to do with it, and with the difference between the two countries. In America, it's only the most mindful who really observe the day—the veterans, their families, the pious, patriotic, and civically engaged. In Britain, the poppies (such publicly crimson tokens) are everywhere: on lapels, on vehicles, in shops. There is a way to show remembrance together—not necessarily or merely of the nation, but of war itself. America has no such way. The closest you could come would be a flag pin, which says something different.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Some November 7ths

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Madame de Staël en Corinne.
1809. Oil on canvas, 140 x 118 cm. Musée d'Art et
d'Histoire, Geneva .(Wikipedia.)
Today, November 7th—an ordinary day, like any other—I thought it would be fun to look back at a few other "ordinary" November 7ths as seen through the letters and diaries of a few famous writers. Read on for Samuel Pepys's art-buying habits; a glimpse of Madame de Staël's passionate love affairs; Dorothy Wordsworth tending her sick brother William; and Virginia Woolf plotting the early stages of The Waves...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Audio Interview Special!: Noam Hassenfeld of Three Thousand Rivers

Brooklyn band Three Thousand Rivers: (left to right) Warren
Loegering (bass), Jack Cashion (saxophone), Noam Hassenfeld
(guitar, vocals), Nick Demirjian (drums), Joshua Lutz (guitar)

Today we have a new kind of thing for Loose Signatures: audio! Listen to my interview with Noam Hassenfeld, singer/songwriter of the awesome up-and-coming Brooklyn band Three Thousand Rivers, on their new EP, Like a What?—with painstaking audio editing by, well, me.

This originally aired on the Breakfast Show of Oxide Radio, Oxford University's student radio station, which I now host/present most Saturday mornings during Oxford terms from 10 a.m. to 12 noon GMT, and you can listen to online (and only online) at

Also, you can check out Like a What? in full on iTunes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud—and see the band's website, I highly recommend that you start listening to TTR with their song "A Still, Small Voice" (and defy you not to keep coming back for more). Listen to the interview through SoundCloud below:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

It depends on the meaning of "sandwich"

Victoria sponge: technically a sandwich? A defense.
I'm a member of an email thread where recently someone posted the rather Oxford exam-like question, "Is a wrap a sandwich? Discuss." Initial reaction was firmly on the No side. "No. A sandwich needs bread," wrote one respondent. "A sandwich requires bread, which means a wrap made with a tortilla is NOT a sandwich," wrote another. "I'm defining a sandwich as bread containing filling that is exposed at least on one length-wise side. A wrap cut open length-wise does not have structural integrity. So no, a wrap is not a sandwich," wrote a third. These all seemed to me so incorrect that I had to reply. What follows is my response:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Swift's wit and Johnson's precision

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell on High Street.
From the Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard.

I've been posting a lot about classics stuff lately, which I suppose is a hazard of the fact that it's most of what I come across these days. But it's humbling to consider the command of Latin and Greek that people used to have, as a couple of literary anecdotes from the 18th century show.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Nobel Prize in History?

When history was literature: the young Mommsen. (
A little over a week ago, the French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the 111th writer to be so honored. The vast majority of past honorands have been poets, novelists, playwrights—people who have produced what most of us think of when we hear the word "literature": imaginative, artistic writing of the kind that you would encounter in a high school English class.

But today I would like to draw to your attention the second-ever winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, who was neither poet nor novelist nor playwright but rather a historian: the great German classicist Theodor Mommsen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Juxtapositions: Season of mists

Edward Steichen. "Experiment in Three-Color Photography."
Camera Work 15 (1906).
Im Herbst
Klaus Groth; my translation (German here)
set for choir by Johannes Brahms, op. 104, no. 5, 1888—listen here

Monday, October 6, 2014

Daydream Syllabus #2: Modernism and the Classical Heritage

Odilon Redon. Le cyclope. 1914? Rijksmuseum
Kröller-Müller. Wikipedia. 
Modernism, with Pound's rallying cry of "Make it new," is often seen a moment of final decline of classicism in Western art: classical learning diminishes, and artists stop using antiquity as a touchstone, interested instead in shattering traditions. But this view is wrong. In this course, we'll look at a range of relationships between ancient and Modernist art, though, and literature—from the manifest to the latent, the certain to the contested—and ask how artists and thinkers used, absorbed, interpreted, and misinterpreted the classical heritage for their own purposes.

Week 1: The Structure of the Psyche
Freud: Das Ich und das Es (The Ego and the Id), trans. James Strachey (1923)
Plato: Republic 4, trans. C.D.C. Reeve

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Invention of Color

There's a postcard on my wall—a reproduction from an exhibit at the Neue Galerie in New York City of a photograph by the Austro-German photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944), who was one of the crucial early inventors of the technology for taking color photographs. It's of a box of paints—he is basically showing off what his new experiment can do:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why textual scholarship matters

Rodin, Orphée et Eurydice (1893). The Met.
Textual editing is to literary and historical studies what mathematics is to physics and statistics is to the social sciences: it's a major part of the hardwiring that makes the whole enterprise work. It can also be incredibly unglamorous. You have to sit for a long time with old manuscripts, comparing them line by line, noting the discrepancies, and then use a formidable amount of brainpower to try to work out which version is most likely to be correct. In the Renaissance, these skills became important as we tried to figure out how to reconcile the different copies of Greek and Roman writing that had been made by monks through the long centuries since antiquity—many with wild differences, many hard to read, some with large holes in the middle.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The new letters of old Claudius

Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius. (From the Guardian.)
English (like French, German, Czech, and Polish) is written in more or less the same alphabet used by the ancient Romans, albeit with a few tweaks: the Romans, for instance, had no letter J, nor W. But it could have been very different if the Emperor Claudius had had his way with the Latin language.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rite of Summer: finding it at the movies

Hiroshi Sugimoto, from Theaters (1978)
Not every movie I see in a summer brings to mind the ones I watched in those summer vacations from high school; nor is it necessarily a mark of quality when a movie does. But I feel a thrill of recognition when I come across them—the movies that, for one reason or another, drag to the surface of my memory not just the movies I watched in those summers, but the entire experience that went along with them: the drives up to the theater in Kalamazoo in the cars of friends; the dark blue glow of twilight at show time; the sense of the sticky Midwestern air growing cooler between when you entered and left. And more often than not, at least the notion of milkshakes and burgers at diners afterward—food rarely wanted, or rather, wanted mainly because it was food shared, part of the whole ceremony that was teenage moviegoing the way I was inducted into it.

Those days are only five or six years gone for me, but are far enough away now that I can miss them. And I am grateful when the best of them comes flooding back and I suddenly have a flicker of what it was all like, a sense that this emotion—an elated and deliberate youthfulness—has not yet vanished from my life altogether. There is no telling what movies will resurrect it. The most forthright attempts at nostalgia-mongering can come off as manipulative and maudlin—so I felt at the end of the night about The Way Way Back—and yet Super 8’s self-conscious evocations of youth and carelessness expertly pulled my every emotional lever. Superhero blockbusters are not guaranteed to summon the feeling: going to see Frances Ha somehow succeeded where the new X-Men movie failed. And yet the last Star Trek movie riddled me giddy with memories of adolescence. So did seeing Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen—alone, no less, with popcorn and wine in a little art-house place in Amherst—so it’s neither novelty nor company that matters, though both those things may help. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Proust on blind spots

Édouard Manet: Nana (1877). Kunsthalle Hamburg.
1.54 m x 1.15 m.
Proust on our defects (défauts), our friends, ourselves
from A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur
pp. 308-311, Folio classique edition (Gallimard, 1988)
Translation mine

In humankind, the frequency of the virtues identical to all is no more wondrous than the multiplicity of the defects particular to each. Without a doubt, it isn’t good sense that is “the most widespread thing in the world”; it’s goodness. In the most distant, out-of-the-way corners, we marvel at seeing it flourish on its own—like he who has never seen a poppy in a secluded valley, just like those everywhere else, and never knew that the wind sometimes makes its lone red escort shiver. Even if that goodness, paralyzed by interest, isn’t put into practice, it nevertheless exists; and each time some fickle egotist stops it from doing so (for example, during the reading of a novel or a newspaper) it blossoms, turns aside—even in the heart of he who is an assassin in life, but remains tender as a lover of literary magazines toward the weak, toward the just and the persecuted.

But the variety of defects is no less admirable than the similarity of the virtues. The most perfect person has some defect that shocks or enrages. One has a beautiful intelligence, sees everything from an elevated point of view, never speaks ill of anyone—but forgets in her pocket the most important letters that she herself asked you to entrust to her, and then makes you miss a major meeting, without making any apologies, with a smile, because she puts a sense of pride on never knowing the time. Another has so much refinement, so much gentleness, such delicate comportment, that he never tells you on your own that the things which can make you happy, but you feel that he is silent about, that he buries in his heart, where they turn sour, are all of different kinds; and the pleasure that he has in seeing you is so dear to him that he would sooner exhaust you with fatigue than leave you. A third has more sincerity, but pushes it to the point of being keen that you know, when you have excused yourself because of your state of health from having gone to see him, that you were seen going to the theater and that people found you in good shape, or that he couldn’t entirely benefit from the step that you have taken for him, that moreover three others have already proposed to him to take, and for which he is only slightly obliged to you. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Juxtapositions: Lucretius and Frost

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 1.250-64 (ca. 56 BC?)
(translation mine)

Finally, the rains perish, as soon as Father Sky
has hurled them into the womb of Mother Earth.
And the bright fruits rise, and the branches strengthen
on the trees, and themselves grow and are freighted with young.
Thus is nourished our own species and those of the beasts.
Thus do we see the joyous cities flower with boys
and the leafy woods singing with new birds on all sides.
Thus the cattle weary with fat set their happy bodies
down in the pasture, and wet white milk
swings in their swollen udders. Thus the new calf,
frisky on shaky joints, plays in the soft grass,
its new mind energized with raw milk.
So nothing whatsoever really passes away
when Nature refashions something from something else,
and suffers nothing to exist except with the help of something else’s death.

The Pasture (1915)
Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring; 
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away 
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may): 
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too. 

I'm going out to fetch the little calf 
That's standing by the mother. It's so young, 
It totters when she licks it with her tongue. 
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Juxtapositions: Lǐ Bái and Baudelaire

Gustave Caillebotte, "Rue de Paris, temps de pluie" (1877)

On the Road, To a Beautiful Woman (mid-8th century)
Lǐ Bái
Translated by François Cheng, Donald Riggs, and Jerome Seaton

White horse, haughty, treads on flowers.
My pendant whip, brushed her Five-cloud carriage.
She smiled, and raised a pearled curtain.
Pointed out the bright red hall, "My home," she said.

To a Passing Woman (1857)
Charles Baudelaire

The deafening street around me was howling.
Long, thin, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed—lifting, balancing
The scallop and the hem with a sumptuous hand,

Lithe and noble, with the leg of a statue.
Me—I was drinking (on edge like a madman)
In her eye (livid sky where the hurricane sprouts)
The sweetness that rivets and the pleasure that kills.

A bolt... then the night!—Fugitive beauty
Whose glance made me suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more than in eternity?

Elsewhere, quite far from here! too late! never, maybe!
For I ignore where you flee, you don't know where I go,
Oh you whom I had loved—oh you who knew it!



À une passante (1857)
Charles Baudelaire

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d'une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l'ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un éclair... puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
— Charles Baudelaire

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Daydream Syllabus #1: "American Fiction and the American Suburbs"

English 94z: American Fiction and the American Suburbs
Spring 2014

After the end of the Second World War, the suburbs became both an inescapable topos in American life and an inescapable trope in American fiction. In this course, we will examine the relationship of American fiction from the second half of the twentieth century to the suburbs and the suburban experience. Did the suburbs ever really signify “the American dream”—and how, just as rapidly, did they become its nightmare? Does suburban fiction necessarily exclude non-white Americans? Why has suburban fiction been the favored playground of several generations of white male writers, from Cheever to Franzen? Where does the prose style of these works fit into the trajectory of late realism? And has the centrality of the suburbs in American fiction been, at long last, played out?

Week 1: Toward a Prehistory of the Suburban Mentality
Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway, pp. 1-78 (1925)
Georg Simmel: “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903)
Georges Perec: “Approaches to What?” in Ben Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader (1973)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Commonplace book: "Love and Freindship"

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

Love and Freindship
—Jane Austen, title of a juvenile draft of what would become Pride and Prejudice

Is not there a something wanted, Miss Price, in our language—a something between compliments and—and love—to suit the sort of friendly acquaintance we have had together?
—the conniving Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park 2.11 (Norton edition, page 197)

... they talked there, Maisie noted, as if they were only rather superficial friends; a special effect that she had often wondered at before in the midst of what she supposed to be intimacies.
—Henry James, What Maisie Knew, chapter 20

Monday, February 17, 2014

A humble pontification on some old Tibetan books

I normally try to avoid merely reposting recent news items on this blog—mostly keeping in line with my stated wish to be something other than a news aggregator.

But when I saw this weekend's story in the New York Times on the construction of a library in southwest China for thousands of Tibetan texts, I had to share it. The E. Gene Smith Library at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu houses the collection of the eponymous E. Gene Smith, a private collector and non-academic scholar who over the course of five decades, oversaw the collection, preservation, and republication of a wealth of Tibetan texts, many of which only existed in one known copy.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pretension and Politics; or, The Way We Pretend Now

The most beautiful words in the English language.

On one glorious day in late May at the end of my junior year of college, I remember stepping out onto a grassy lawn with a friend and quoting with relish a remark I had once hear attributed to Henry James: "Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." This friend gave me an "Are you serious?" look and said, with a note of affably ludic derision, "Spencer, that is the most pretentious thing I think I've ever heard."

This provokes some questions about exactly what we mean when we use the word "pretentious." In one sense, we use the word to describe anything that seems pompous or otherwise highfalutin, in which case (I admit with reluctance) it's possible that taking a sunny afternoon as an occasion to quote Henry James counts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cool thing #2: Emily Dickinson's hair

This is the image of Emily Dickinson that we're used to seeing—the only extant verified photograph (a daguerrotype, really) taken while she lived:

But this picture was taken when she was sixteen. (How many of you would want to be remembered by your junior-year school photo?) And as we know from a silhouette taken when she was fourteen, her hair was not always so tied back:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A year of words

"After you finish all the posts,  Spencer, you can have some cake..."
It's February 2014, and that means it's Loose Signatures's one-year birthday! Yes, the blog has been around for a full year, launching last spring with posts on Egyptian crocodile god Sobek and the friendship between Igor Sikorsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. What started off as no more than a project to give some odds and ends written for various websites and publications a single home has really taken on a life of its own—and while there have been breaks from time to time, and the posts might grow slightly less thoughtful while I'm in class, I'm very grateful to everyone who has been reading along over the past year.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I don't remember that part...

All I can imagine is Cary Grant debonairly saying in that Mid-Atlantic accent, "Mrs. Rahbinson, you're trying to seduce me..." And maybe also Simon and Garfunkel singing "An Affair to Remember." 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Blood, Sweat, Tears, and HP

Most men and not a few women from my generation probably inadvertently dedicated to memory these words at some point in their youth:

I want to be the very best,
Like no one ever was. 
To catch them is my real test, 
To train them is my cause. 

These lines—obviously alluding metrically to the influence of one Emily Dickinson—are from the original Pokémon theme song, and I am worried that someday I will be old and demented and remember nothing but this, which I will repeat endlessly in my corner of the nursing home. (Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin tell us that song-memory is the last thing to go.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The hair of the Celts

Astérix and Obélix.
Today's trivia: the ancient Celts of the first century B.C. had a combination bleaching/spiking treatment for their hair: quicklime. We know this thanks to the testimony of the Sicilian historian Diodorus, whose Universal History describes them this way:
The Gauls are tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so, but they also make it their practice by artificial means to increase the distinguishing color which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in lime-water, and they pull it back from the forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck, with the result that their appearance is like that of Satyrs and Pans, since the treatment of their hair makes it so heavy and coarse that it differs in no respect from the mane of horses.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The flight of the bumblebee

Later flowers for the bees. (From Wikimedia.)
I normally try to do something a bit more original here on this "trivia blog" than simply repost cool stuff from Wikipedia. That said, this was too cool not to share. In fact, it may be the coolest thing I've ever learned from reading Wikipedia:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's so secular about secular stagnation?

Larry Summers. (Wesley Mann, CNN)
Secular stagnation has been in the news a lot lately, ever since Larry Summers made a remark at the International Monetary Fund's Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fischer dropping the two words:
I wonder if a set of older and much more radical ideas—ideas that, I have to say, were pretty firmly rejected in 14.462, Stan—a set of older ideas that went under the phrase secular stagnation, are not profoundly important in understanding Japan’s experience in the 1990s, and may not be without relevance to America’s experience today.
(To clarify, "Stan" is the eponymous MIT economics professor Stanley Fischer; the construction of the conference's title leaves unclear whether the IMF holds a conference in his honor every year, or only this year. 14.462 was the advanced macroeconomics class he taught, whose alumni include Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Kenneth Rogoff.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Juxtapositions: Mallarmé and Ferry

Cat Bay on Lake Superior near Eagle Harbor, Michigan.

Summer Sadness (1864)*
Stéphane Mallarmé (translation mine)

The sun on the sand, ah sleeping wrestless,
In the gold of your hair warms a wash so listless,
And while on your hostile cheek incense sears,
It mixes a love potion in with your tears.

About this white flare the changeless quietness
Has made you say, aggrieved—oh my cowardly kiss—
"We shall never be a single mummy here
Beneath the glad palms and desert frontier!"

But your tresses are a lukewarm river,
Where our soul obsession drowns without a shiver
And finds that Nothingness that you know not.

I shall taste the teary mascara near your eyes,
To see if it knows how to give the heart that you make beat
The senselessness of the stones and of the sky.

Lake Water (2012)
David Ferry

It is a summer afternoon in October.
I am sitting on a wooden bench, looking out
At the lake through a tall screen of evergreens,
Or rather, looking out across the plane of the lake,
Seeing the light shaking upon the water
As if it were a shimmering of heat.
Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,
The same displaced out-of-season effect.
Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.
Some of the trees I can see across the lake
Have begun to change, but it is as if the air
Had entirely given itself over to summer,
With the intention of denying its own proper nature.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

U.S. punctuation airlift delivers billions of commas to UK

Commas arrive on British shores on Thursday afternoon. (Department of Defense)
SUFFOLK, ENGLAND – Despite record grammatical deficits in the United States, today the American military airlifted billions of relief commas to the shores of the United Kingdom, after becoming aware that decades of British schoolchildren have grown up with insufficient commas, at both home and at school. "Certainly, we were shocked when we realized that the British had been trying to write with roughly 50% of the American levels of commas—since at least the days of Graham Greene, if not earlier," said John Newell, Jr., White House proofreader, during an interview by telephone from Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk, England. "While investigations into the cause of the comma shortage are ongoing, it appears that the problem has persisted since the days when the Nazis bombarded the Isles with subordinate clauses. Unfortunately, the British punctuation infrastructure never fully recovered."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

That time when George Eliot almost didn't write "Middlemarch"

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken Moody, Robert Sherman. (1984)
Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Virginia Woolf—in an offhand remark that we are still quoting ad nauseam ninety years later—once wrote that George Eliot's Middlemarch "is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." This line is often hurled around without much consideration as to what it means. How many of us can say what a novel written for grown-ups is or should be like? What were the other few English novels for grown-ups? As with most aphorisms, Woolf's line is snappy, but her intentions obscure.

What I've always thought she meant—and I offer this hypothesis without much evidence adduced here—is that Middlemarch deals realistically with responsibility for both actions and their consequences, and takes seriously the ethical importance of the decisions made by ordinary people. A few Victorian novels do this, but not the vast majority of popular fiction from the nineteenth century. Most of them build worlds in which the final verdict of the novel's moral universe is never really in doubt: in some way, the just shall be rewarded and the wicked punished. This, according to Woolf, is a childish expectation—and indulging that expectation makes a novel childish. In the universe of Middlemarch, questions of what job you take or whom you marry matter because it is possible to make the wrong decision. Middlemarch is not only about trying to make the right decisions; it is about how you come to terms with having made the wrong ones.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New books in January

Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings
Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
Harvard University Press
704 pp.

Blurb: “Here, for the first time, is a thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin’s life and the sources of his work. This is by far the best biography of Benjamin that has yet appeared” (Peter Fenves, Northwestern University).

Chang-Rae Lee
On Such a Full Sea
336 pp.

From Riverhead: "In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class—descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China—find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement."

Brutus at Julius Caesar 4.3: 
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
Rachel Louise Snyder
What We've Lost Is Nothing: A Novel
21 January 2014 
Scribner, $25
320 pp.

From the novel: 
A garden-variety home invasion wouldn’t have boosted Mary’s social capital, but one element of the story had spread through the halls before the first bell even rang. During the burglary Mary Elizabeth had been home.
She fielded a flurry of questions between classes.
Mary, were you scared?
Not really.
Did you see them?
Did you hear them break the door down?
Where were you when they came in?
Dining room. Under the table.
Wasn’t it, like, during school? Didn’t you cut class?
Wink, smirk.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I learned to close-read at Hogwarts

We all need a book from the Restricted Section now and then.
Reading when you are young is different from later reading. Any one book can have a much greater impact on you, simply because you have read fewer books. And at that age, you tend to read far more obsessively: favorite books call you back repeatedly, just as much as favorite movies. (How many times did I watch the Star Wars trilogy before the age of 10? How many times did my sister watch The Parent Trap?) Heaven only knows why we are so easily transfixed by the same endlessly looping stories as children, at precisely the age when common wisdom would claim that we are most easily bored. But we return again and again to the same books as children in a way that we rarely do later in life.

For me, as for many people my age—because three years older or three years younger is too much—the Harry Potter books were the primary object of feverishly recurrent reading and rereading. I read the first three books at least twenty times each, and volumes four and five at least ten. How did I have so much time? I don't know; but neither am I sure how I could log triple-digit hours of game play on a single Pokémon cartridge. I do know that for entire school years I would sit down for breakfast before going to school, take a Harry Potter book from the shelf, and start reading wherever it fell open at random—like a latter-day sortes vergilianae. There was a quasi-religious aspect to this practice, which was ordered a bit like matins: pray for breakfast (a more pious time in my life); eat breakfast while reading about Nearly Headless Nick's death-day party; clean off plate with book still in hand; here endeth the reading. Depart in peace.