July 10th, 2012
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(Re)Joyce!

For The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes on the life, brilliance, and eccentricities of that most-famed Irish export, James Joyce.

Joyce didn’t use actual people and places because he was settling scores, or because he was writing disguised autobiography, or because he lacked invention. The relation between his world and his fiction is much stranger than that. In November, 1921, he wrote to his aunt Josephine, in Dublin, to ask if she could tell him whether it was possible “for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt.” He had seen it done, he told her, but by someone with an athletic build; he wanted to make sure that an ordinary man could do it. He needed the information because he was editing the “Ithaca” chapter of “Ulysses,” in which Leopold Bloom, who has forgotten his latchkey, enters his house, at 7 Eccles Street, by this method. He had made up Bloom. Why couldn’t he just make up the height of the railings?

In 1932, two young Americans, Dwight Macdonald and George Morris, recent Yale graduates with an interest in modern literature and art, were in Paris, where they bought a copy of “Ulysses,” still outlawed in the United States, at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company. They got into a conversation with the owner, Sylvia Beach, the woman who had published “Ulysses,” and she arranged for them to meet Joyce. They showed up at Joyce’s apartment and plied him eagerly with questions about his work. He was unresponsive. “It was like trying to open a safe without the combination,” Macdonald later said. Finally, one of them made a remark about people not knowing what to do with their lives. Joyce suddenly perked up. He gestured toward the window. “There are people who go walkin’ up and down the street,” he said, “and they don’t know what they want.”

Read the full article here.

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June 6th, 2012
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Remembering Ray
I still vividly remember when I first picked up The Martian Chronicles in my junior high library; I can picture where it sat on a shelf by the window and the special way the sun cascaded through the blinds on that early spring day. I remember ruffling through the lackluster “to be discarded” box a few weeks later and happening upon two treasures: R Is For Rocket and S Is For Space. Bradbury wasn’t my introduction to science fiction, but he was by far the most enchanting. For six decades, his work has mesmerized and inspired us. Today, we say goodbye. In this engaging interview with The Paris Review, Bradbury discusses his career, inspirations, and process.

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did. 

Read the full interview here.
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Remembering Ray

I still vividly remember when I first picked up The Martian Chronicles in my junior high library; I can picture where it sat on a shelf by the window and the special way the sun cascaded through the blinds on that early spring day. I remember ruffling through the lackluster “to be discarded” box a few weeks later and happening upon two treasures: R Is For Rocket and S Is For Space. Bradbury wasn’t my introduction to science fiction, but he was by far the most enchanting. For six decades, his work has mesmerized and inspired us. Today, we say goodbye. In this engaging interview with The Paris Review, Bradbury discusses his career, inspirations, and process.

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did. 

Read the full interview here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

April 23rd, 2012
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Politics and the English Language
In 1946, George Orwell published this essay attacking the neglect of serious thought in favor of recycled cliches in political and social discourse while also illustrating the connection between a declining language and a declining state of political affairs. I think you’ll agree that little has changed in the sixty-six years since.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

Read the full essay here.
// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

Politics and the English Language

In 1946, George Orwell published this essay attacking the neglect of serious thought in favor of recycled cliches in political and social discourse while also illustrating the connection between a declining language and a declining state of political affairs. I think you’ll agree that little has changed in the sixty-six years since.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

Read the full essay here.

// Follow Read This, Not That on Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter //

April 13th, 2012
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What’s Become of the Philosophical Novel?
Author Jennie Erdal writes for the Financial Times on the importance of philosophy to fiction as well as the contemporary relationship between the novel and philosophical thought.

[The philosophical novel] is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.
Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?

Read the full article here.

What’s Become of the Philosophical Novel?

Author Jennie Erdal writes for the Financial Times on the importance of philosophy to fiction as well as the contemporary relationship between the novel and philosophical thought.

[The philosophical novel] is an established genre, and along with its close cousin, the novel of ideas, occupies a unique position in the literary canon. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes it as “that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a particular philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, sometimes aesthetic”. In 19th-century Russia the novel was often a kind of thought experiment, showing a character trying to live an abstract idea, which over the course of the narrative proves to be no match for the rigours of real life.

Today things seem less clear cut. What is the modern equivalent of the philosophical novel? How, if we happened upon one, might we recognise it? Assuming it is not enough for there to be a passing reference to Wittgenstein or Kant, or for pages to be sprinkled with words like “epistemological” and “ontological”, what does it look like?

Read the full article here.

December 30th, 2011
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When Books Mean Nothing
Nell Boeschenstein considers why, when recovering from her double mastectomy, books failed to interest and fulfill her as they long had in this poignant piece for The Morning News.

As much as I may want (or have wanted) it to be so, books haven’t been a sufficient comfort or diversion as I prepared to lose my boobs, then lost them, and began trying to adjust to their absence from my body. If I pick a book up, I’ll read a few pages before setting it aside because the end just seems too far away, the time and attention it requires, too exhausting. I don’t have the energy or patience for any of it. In the months before surgery, my attention span was shot through by relentless bullets of anxiety, the salve for which—it soon became clear—was not being left alone with my own head, a pile of paper, and a bunch of words written by some stranger; since the surgery, my attention span seems to have vanished under a haze of painkillers, muscle relaxers, and exhaustion.
Instead of reading, I’ve stared at screens—television, computer, iPhone—until the whites of my eyes have gone red. And I’ve watched some very good television while doing so. I recommend The Killing and Party Down; The Good Wife isn’t bad because Josh Charles is dreamy and it’s pretty nice that TCM does not allow commercials to interrupt To Catch a Thief. I will say, too, that I seem to be able to watch and rewatch every episode of Parks and Recreation and not grow exasperated that they aren’t pumping out entire seasons on a daily basis. The business (or anti-business) of Occupy Wall Street unfolded on the news each night like a miniseries with a plot but no characters.


I also watch YouTube clips. These are usually concert videos because this means I’m multitasking: I can stare at a moving picture on a screen while also listening to a favorite song. Songs seem to divert and relax me these days, in ways that books cannot. For months too, I’ve gravitated in particular toward Emmylou Harris (with the Hot Band or Nash Ramblers), circa the late ’70s and early ’80s. I may not be able to read, but I can click through these clips past my bedtime. One of my favorite Emmylou songs is her version of “As Long as I Live” that she sings with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Roy Acuff, but I cannot recommend either of the YouTube videos with a straight face.

Read the full article here.

When Books Mean Nothing

Nell Boeschenstein considers why, when recovering from her double mastectomy, books failed to interest and fulfill her as they long had in this poignant piece for The Morning News.

As much as I may want (or have wanted) it to be so, books haven’t been a sufficient comfort or diversion as I prepared to lose my boobs, then lost them, and began trying to adjust to their absence from my body. If I pick a book up, I’ll read a few pages before setting it aside because the end just seems too far away, the time and attention it requires, too exhausting. I don’t have the energy or patience for any of it. In the months before surgery, my attention span was shot through by relentless bullets of anxiety, the salve for which—it soon became clear—was not being left alone with my own head, a pile of paper, and a bunch of words written by some stranger; since the surgery, my attention span seems to have vanished under a haze of painkillers, muscle relaxers, and exhaustion.

Instead of reading, I’ve stared at screens—television, computer, iPhone—until the whites of my eyes have gone red. And I’ve watched some very good television while doing so. I recommend The Killing and Party Down; The Good Wife isn’t bad because Josh Charles is dreamy and it’s pretty nice that TCM does not allow commercials to interrupt To Catch a Thief. I will say, too, that I seem to be able to watch and rewatch every episode of Parks and Recreation and not grow exasperated that they aren’t pumping out entire seasons on a daily basis. The business (or anti-business) of Occupy Wall Street unfolded on the news each night like a miniseries with a plot but no characters.

I also watch YouTube clips. These are usually concert videos because this means I’m multitasking: I can stare at a moving picture on a screen while also listening to a favorite song. Songs seem to divert and relax me these days, in ways that books cannot. For months too, I’ve gravitated in particular toward Emmylou Harris (with the Hot Band or Nash Ramblers), circa the late ’70s and early ’80s. I may not be able to read, but I can click through these clips past my bedtime. One of my favorite Emmylou songs is her version of “As Long as I Live” that she sings with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Roy Acuff, but I cannot recommend either of the YouTube videos with a straight face.

Read the full article here.

December 27th, 2011
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Why the Classics Aren’t Dying

There’s a crisis brewing around the Classics - the ancient Greek and Latin texts that inform so much of Western culture. But the same crisis has been brewing for centuries, so should we be concerned? Are we tuning out our cultural ancestry? Does it matter if we do? Writing for the New York Review of Books, Mary Beard argues that the Classics aren’t likely to go anywhere and that the perpetual frenzy concerning their decline is a crucial part of our understanding of and relationship with the texts and our culture.

The truth is that the classics are by definition in decline; even in what we now call the “Renaissance,” the humanists were not celebrating the “rebirth” of the classics; rather like Harrison’s “trackers,” they were for the most part engaged in a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the fleeting and fragile traces of the classics from oblivion. There has been no generation since at least the second century AD that has imagined that it was fostering the classical tradition better than its predecessors. But there is of course an up-side here. The sense of imminent loss, the perennial fear that we might just be on the verge of losing the classics entirely, is one very important thing that gives them—whether in professional study or creative reengagement—the energy and edginess that I think they still have.

To put this as crisply as I can, the study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan). The classics (as writers of the second centuryAD had already spotted) are a series of “Dialogues with the Dead.” But the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago. This is an idea nicely captured in another article in The Fortnightly Review, this time a skit that appeared in 1888, a sketch set in the underworld, in which a trio of notable classical scholars (the long-dead Bentley and Porson, plus their recently deceased Danish colleague Madvig) have a free and frank discussion with Euripides and Shakespeare. This little satire also reminds us that the only actual speakers in this dialogue are us; it is we who ventriloquize, who animate what the ancients have to say: in fact, here the classical scholars complain what a terrible time they are having in Hades, because they are constantly being told off by the ancient shades who complain that the classicists have got them wrong.

Read the full article here.

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