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Posts Tagged ‘literature

“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes”*…

 

McDonalds

 

One of Northern Europe’s arguably most distinctive exports is “slow TV”: real-time recordings of train journeys, ferry crossings or the migration of reindeer, which regularly draw record audiences.

Among perhaps the most successful — and least exciting — examples of that genre is the live stream of a McDonald’s cheeseburger with fries. At its peak, it drew 2 million viewers a month. The only element on the screen that moves, however, is the time display.

The burger looks the same way, hour after hour.

As of this week, it has looked like that for 10 years.

Purchased hours before the corporation pulled out of the country in 2009, in the wake of Iceland’s devastating financial crisis, the last surviving McDonald’s burger has become much more than a burger. To some, it stands for the greed and excessive capitalism that “created an economic collapse that was so bad that even McDonald’s had to close down,” said Hjörtur Smárason, 43, who purchased the fateful burger in 2009. To others, the eerily fresh look of the 10-year-old meal has served as a warning against the excessive consumption of fast food…

A symbol for our times: “The cautionary political tale of Iceland’s last McDonald’s burger that simply won’t rot, even after 10 years.”

* Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

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As we muse of the messages in our meals, we might send gloriously-written birthday greetings to today’s epigramist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; he was born on this date in 1922.  In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction, with further collections being published after his death. He is probably best known for his darkly-satirical, best-selling 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut called George Orwell his favorite writer, and admitted that he tried to emulate Orwell– “I like his concern for the poor, I like his socialism, I like his simplicity”– though early in his career Vonnegut decided to model his style after Henry David Thoreau, who wrote as if from the perspective of a child.  And of course, Vonnegut’s life and work are resonant with Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

Author Josip Novakovich marveled that “The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.”  The Los Angeles Times suggested that Vonnegut will “rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and the premier novelist of the counterculture“; The New York Times agreed, calling Vonnegut the “counterculture’s novelist.”

220px-Kurt_Vonnegut_1972 source

 

 

 

 

Written by LW

November 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“You just don’t get any perspective if you are looking at a map on a small screen… and the batteries on handheld devices run out, especially in very cold environments”*…

 

Stanford Map

 

Home to the world’s largest collection of maps, travel books and globes, its customers include governments and armed forces from around the world… Based in Covent Garden, in the centre of London, family-owned Stanfords is a 166-year-old British institution. Opening its doors in 1853, it harks back to the great expeditions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Its famous customers from that time included David Livingstone, who explored much of Africa, and Ernest Shackleton, who led expeditions to Antarctica. Even fictional character Sherlock Holmes was a fan.

Vivien Godfrey, 58, has been chief executive and chairman of Stanfords since March 2018, but her connection to the business has been a lifelong one. Her family have been majority owners since 1946, and she is now the third generation to lead the company. She describes Stanfords as having “been part of my entire life”.

However, when she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in geography in 1983, her father wouldn’t let her join the family firm…

Stanford's 2

The story of one of London’s treasures, and the woman who leads it: “The map store boss who took the long route.”

[TotH to friend KE]

* Vivien Godfrey, on the benefits of printed maps

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As we carefully re-fold, we might spare a thought for a cartographer of a different sort, James Grover Thurber; he died on this date in 1961.  A cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, children’s book author, and all-round wit, he was probably best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine (like “The Catbird Seat” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”)– though his Broadway comedy The Male Animal (written in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent), was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.

Q. No one has been able to tell us what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction. – Mrs EUGENIA BLACK

A. I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct.

The Thurber Carnival (1945)

220px-James_Thurber_NYWTS source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”*…

 

librarian

A “Pack Horse Librarian” returning for a new supply of books

 

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time…

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. “Libraries” were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week…

A New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in the most remote areas: “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.”

* Stephen King, On Writing

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As we check it out, we might send shocking birthday greetings to the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854.  In his adolescence and early adulthood (he wrote his final work when he was 21), and with his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s   – Paul Valéry

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“There is a city beneath the streets”*…

 

Avtovo

Avtovo station, St. Petersburg

 

Anyone who knows a bit about Soviet state socialism knows about the Moscow Metro and its system of underground palaces; these awesome, opulent spaces have been a fixture of travel guides since the 1930s, and now they’re equally prevalent on Instagram accounts. Much less known is that these marble-clad portals in the centre of the capital are just the most visible elements of a gigantic Metro-building project that would gradually expand into more than a dozen different systems across several Republics — Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan. After Moscow came St Petersburg, Kyiv, Tbilisi, Baku, Kharkiv, Tashkent, Yerevan, Minsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Dnipro. “Metro-Trams” with palatial underground halls were built in Krivyi Rih and Volgograd; and a miniature “Cave Metro” was built for the tourist site of New Athos, Abkhazia.

Soviet experts were also responsible for engineering Metro systems outside the USSR — in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, Pyongyang, and Calcutta (as it then was), India’s first Metro system in the capital of Communist-governed West Bengal. Soviet Metro building was an enormous project, spanning two continents. An early slogan had it that “the whole country is building the Moscow Metro”, but between the 1960s and 80s this could have been rephrased as “the Moscow Metro is being built in the whole country”. Why, then, was this particular kind of Metro building so important?…

Decorated with chandeliers, mosaics, and Lenin busts, the Soviet Union produced the most decorative (and probably the most photographed) transport system in the world.  Find out why (and see more gorgeous photos) at “The heavens underground: the Soviet Union’s opulent metro stations, from Belarus to Uzbekistan.”

* Robert E. Sullivan Jr.

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As we go to ground, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to Denis Diderot, contributor to and the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”)– and thus towering figure in the Enlightenment; he was born on this date in 1713.  Diderot was also a novelist (e.g., Jacques le fataliste et son maître [Jacques the Fatalist and his Master])…  and no mean epigramist:

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.

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Written by LW

October 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Another Roadside Attraction”*…

 

supper club

Big Fish Supper Club, Route 2, Bena, Minnesota; 1980

 

The culture of the American road has been much celebrated — and much criticized. Lawrence Ferlinghetti saw the rise of the automobile and the construction of the interstate system (which began in the 1950s) as a new form of punishment inflicted on the populace. Driving in their cars, “strung-out citizens” were now

plagued by legionnaires
                                false windmills and demented roosters…

      on freeways fifty lanes wide
                                                        on a concrete continent
                                                                spaced with bland billboards
                                            illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The architectural critic and photographer John Margolies (1940–2016), on the other hand, saw there could also be home-made beauty in the buildings and signs locals built on the American roadside. For almost forty years, he documented the most remarkable examples he found, publishing some of his discoveries in books and consigning the rest to an archive, which has now been purchased by the Library of Congress who, in a wonderfully gracious move, have lifted all copyright restrictions on the photographs (though art works shown in some photographs may still be under copyright)…

south of the border

Billboard, near Dillon, South Carolina; 1986

More at “John Margolies’ Photographs of Roadside America.”  Browse the entire collection at the Library of Congress.

* a marvelous novel by Tom Robbins

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As we peer through the car window, we might spare a thought for Thomas Clayton Wolfe; he died (at age 38 of miliary tuberculosis) on this date in 1938.  But in his short career he wrote four lengthy novels (including Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again) as well as many short stories, dramatic works, and novellas– and earned  William Faulkner’s praise as the greatest talent of their generation.

Wolfe’s influence extends to the writings of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and of authors Ray Bradbury, Betty Smith, Philip Roth, Pat Conroy and many, many others.

250px-Thomas_Wolfe_1937_1_(cropped).jpg source

 

Written by LW

September 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Artifacts of our oldest cultures give evidence that the human race has always made things in miniature”*…

 

CBGB

1/12th scale model of CBGB, 315 Bowery

 

Drawn to the often-overlooked beauty of aging structures, [artist Randy] Hage began photographing the cast iron facades in the SoHo area of New York.  He has photographed over 450 storefronts over the past 14 years, 60% of which have since closed or been torn down. Hage’s models are not only acts of preservation but a way of calling attention to what has been lost as urban renewal and gentrification displace the storeowners and residents of these communities…

Hage then works from his photos to create exquisitely-detailed miniatures…

Hage15

scale model

See more of Hage’s marvelous work at “NYC Storefronts in Miniature,” and visit his website.

* Dorothy B. Thompson, Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora

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As we get small, we might spare a thought for miniaturist of a different sort, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne; he died on this date in 1592.  Best known during his lifetime as a statesman, Montaigne is remembered for popularizing the essay as a literary form.  His effortless merger of serious intellectual exercises with casual anecdotes and autobiography– and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts” or “Trials”)– contain what are, to this day, some of the most widely-influential essays ever written.  Montaigne had a powerful impact on writers ever after, from Descartes, Pascal, and Rousseau, through Hazlitt, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to Zweig, Hoffer, and Asimov.  Indeed, he’s believed to have been an influence on the later works of Shakespeare.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule”*…

 

nationalism

 

Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into “us” and “them” and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind’s best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second’s neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them…

Robert Sapolsky on the biology of “us and them”: “This is your brain on nationalism.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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As we muse on membership, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Ludovico Ariosto; he was born on this date in 1474.  An Italian poet, he is best remembered for his epic Orlando Furioso; a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, it describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando (the Christian knight subsequently known as Roland), and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens.

Ariosto’s epic was hugely influential on later European literature (including English poets Spencer, Shakespeare, and Byron).  And while the work had a “patriotic” (and, at least overtly, Christian) cast, Ariosto coined the term “humanism” (in Italian, umanesimo), helping pave the way for Renaissance Humanism.

180px-Vincenzo_Catena_016_detail

Ariosto, detail of votive painting Madonna with saints Joseph, John, Catherine, Louis of Toulouse and Lodovico Ariosto by Vincenzo Catena,

source

 

Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

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