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kottke.org posts about books

The Best Books of 2019 (So Far)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

It started in mid-April, barely 3 and 1/2 months into the year. To hit expectant readers before Memorial Day with suggestions for beach reads, summer reads, roadtrip reads, and just plain read reads, publications started rounding up the best books released in 2019:

Best books of 2019 so far (The Guardian)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Vulture)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Real Simple)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Glamour)
The Best Books of 2019 to Add to Your Reading List (Marie Claire)
The Best Books of 2019 (So Far) (Esquire)

I love that almost everyone uses the same title — it’s economical and the “(So Far)” is a wink that, yes, it’s a more than a little absurd to be talking about the best books of the year in freaking April. Of course, I couldn’t resist using it too.

But never mind the meta crap, what books are actually on these lists? Here are some that caught my eye or featured on one or more of these lists.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. This one is going to be on all the year-end lists, so it’s almost required reading at this point.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon. “This contemporary story mirrors the ancient legend of Antiochus, whose love for the daughter of his dead wife was discovered by the adventurer Appolinus of Tyre. The tale appeared in many forms through the ages; Apollinus becoming the swashbuckling Pericles in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.”

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. “Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories — equal parts wholesome and uncanny; from the tantalizing witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can — beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.”

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. A retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women in the story. In the same vein as Circe and Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey, both of which I loved.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. I wrote about Cirado Perez’s book back in February. “In her new book, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez argues that the data that scientists, economists, public policy makers, and healthcare providers rely on is skewed, unfairly and dangerously, towards men.”

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. “A gripping novel about the whirlwind rise of an iconic 1970s rock group and their beautiful lead singer, revealing the mystery behind their infamous breakup.”

Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. “Giridharadas asks hard questions: Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes?”

The History of the Bible by John Barton. “In our culture, the Bible is monolithic: It is a collection of books that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the earliest days of the Christian church. The idea of the Bible as “Holy Scripture,” a non-negotiable authority straight from God, has prevailed in Western society for some time. And while it provides a firm foundation for centuries of Christian teaching, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of this fascinating text.”

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. “Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community’s own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life.”

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian. A collection of stories from the author that broke the internet with Cat Person. Included in the collection is The Good Guy, also very much worth a read.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. Reichl’s memoir about her time at Gourmet magazine. “This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat.”

How to Draw Animals

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2019

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Robert Lambry

Les Animaux Tels Qu’ils Sont is a 1930s book by Robert Lambry that contain instructions for drawing all kinds of animals, from elephants and snakes to birds and horses. Each drawing starts with basic forms — circles, rectangles, etc. — which Lambry builds into simple line drawings of each animal. I love the dogs drawn with parallel lines.

Salvador Dali’s Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2019

Salvador Dali / Alice Wonderland

In 1969, surrealist Salvador Dali provided a set of 12 illustrations for an edition of Alice in Wonderland, a seemingly perfect match of artist to subject matter. It was released in a limited edition and copies are now a coveted collector’s item — here’s a signed copy on eBay for $10,000. Luckily, Princeton Architectural Press put out a 150th anniversary edition a few years ago that’s more manageable (Amazon).

See also a couple of Dali’s other books: a wine guide and a cookbook.

Conduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

The New Yorker has published an excerpt of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ forthcoming novel, The Water Dancer. In Conduction, we meet Hiram Walker, a slave who has escaped his bondage in Virginia and traveled to Philadelphia to work on the Underground Railroad.

I followed the river as it bent inward then curved back out. Its banks were crowded with workshops, small factories, and drydocks. The oppressive scent of the city eased some against the cool river breeze. Now I came upon a promenade, a large green field dissected by walkways lined with benches. I took a seat. It was about nine in the morning, Friday. The day was clear and blue. The promenade was filled with Philadelphians of all colors and kinds. Gentlemen in boaters escorted ladies. A circle of schoolchildren sat in the grass hanging on the words of their tutor. A man rode past on a bicycle, laughing. It occurred to me that this was the freest I had ever been in my life. And I knew that I could leave right then, right there, that I could abandon the Underground, and disappear into this city, float away on the poisonous air.

The Water Dancer is out in September.

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

Mirror Light Cover

Hear ye, hear ye! The third book in Hilary Mantel’s excellent Thomas Cromwell trilogy has been announced. The Mirror & the Light picks up where the previous book left off, with (spoilers!) the execution of Anne Boleyn, and covers the final years of Cromwell’s life.

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

I loved both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and am really looking forward this one coming out next March. Preorder now!

My Recent Media Diet, The “It’s Not Life or Death, It’s Just Tacos” Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2019

I keep track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two months. I never wrote a proper report on my trip to Mexico City, so I put some of the highlights in here. I’m in the middle of several things right now. On TV, I’m watching Our Planet, In Search of Greatness, Street Food, Chernobyl, The Clinton Affair, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, and This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy. I don’t normally watch 19 different things at one time, but life’s felt a little scattered lately. For books, I’m listening to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond on audiobook and I’m making good progress on Robert Caro’s Working (highly recommended).

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. Hard to summarize but there’s certainly something interesting on almost every page. (A-)

Fleabag. Bitingly funny and poignant, a real gem. (A+)

Skyscraper. Die Hard + the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia + #sponcon for Big Duct Tape. I love a good disaster movie. (B+)

Mexico City. Great food, vegetation everywhere, beautiful architecture, culturally fascinating, super walkable/bikeable/scooterable. I am definitely visiting here again as soon as I can. (A)

Puyol Taco Omakase. Delicious & fun & a great experience, but I’m not sure the food was obviously so much better than some of the best street food I had in Mexico City. I had this same experience in Bangkok years ago…street food is tough to beat when there’s a thriving culture of markets, carts, and stalls. (B+)

The National Museum of Anthropology. One of my new favorite museums in the world. The only thing possibly more impressive than the collection is the architecture of the building. (A+)

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacán. I had high hopes for this archeological site and I was still blown away by it. (A+)

AirPods. This is my favorite gadget in years, the first real VR/AR device that feels seamless (and not like a Segway for your face). The freedom of wireless headphones feels similar to when I first used a laptop, wifi, and dockless bike share. (A+)

Homecoming. So many things to love about this, but one of my favorites is the shots of the audience watching Beyoncé and the rare moments when she watches them back: “I see you.” And also the way they put a cohesive show together while showcasing individual talents and styles. (A-)

Homecoming: The Live Album. Come on, a marching band playing Beyoncé hits? That this works so well is a small miracle. (A-)

Avengers: Endgame. I liked but didn’t love it. It was like the ST:TNG finale and the Six Feet Under finale mashed together and not done as well. It also seemed too predictable. (B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now that the Thanos narrative arc is complete, this is an underrated installment. (B+)

Casa Luis Barragán. This was like being in someone’s creative mind. The layering of the garden reminded me of Disney’s use of the multiplane camera in the forest scene in Bambi. (B+)

Gelatin Sincronizada Gelitin (NSFW). I was skeptical of this art performance at first — a bunch of half-naked people painting on a moving canvas using paintbrushes coming out of their butts — but it ended up being a really cool thing to experience. (B+)

Game of Thrones. I’m not quite as critical of the final season as everyone else seems to be. Still, it seems like since the show left the cozy confines of George RR Martin’s books, it has struggled at times. (B+)

Wandering Earth. Based on the short story by Liu Cixin (author of the Three Body Problem trilogy), this disaster movie is a little uneven at the start but finishes strong. (B)

Halt and Catch Fire Vol 2. The music was one of the many great things about this show. (A-)

Running from COPS. A podcast about how media and law enforcement in America intersect to great and terrible effect. (B+)

Eating bugs. I tasted crickets, grasshoppers, and grubs at the market: mostly just salty. I had beef tartare and guacamole with grasshoppers on it. They added a nice crunch to the guac. Wouldn’t exactly go out of the way for them, but they weren’t bad. (B)

Panaderia Rosetta. Did I have one of the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had here? Yes. Yes, I did. Also extremely delicious: everything else I tried. (A-)

Against the Rules. A podcast from Michael Lewis about what’s happening to the concept of fairness in America. The episode about Salvator Mundi, the supposed Leonardo masterpiece, is particularly interesting. (A-)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. I have a new appreciation of how much Tolkien did in creating his books: writing, map making, world building, art, constructing languages. (B+)

Frida Kahlo’s Blue House. A striking house with a lush courtyard, but the highlight was seeing Kahlo’s work area much the way she left it when she died. (B+)

Street Food Essentials by Club Tengo Hambre. Mexico City is a huge place with so much to do that I wanted to hit the ground running right away, so I booked this street food tour. Definitely a good idea. We sampled so many different kinds of tacos & gorditas & quesadillas that I lost count. Highlights: huitlacoche quesadillas, al pastor tacos, fresh Oaxaca cheese at the Mercado de San Juan, and the blue corn masa used to make tlacoyos at one of our last stops — probably the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten. (A-)

The Matrix. This came out 20 years ago. I watched it with my 11-yo son the other day and he thought the special effects “held up pretty well”. (A)

Electric scooters. I used the Lime dockless electric scooters for the first time when I was in Mexico City and I loved experience. Easier than a bike and a fun & fast way to get around the city. Cons: the combo of the speed & small wheels can be dangerous and cities generally don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate them yet. (B+)

Paprika. Inventive and visually dazzling. Purportedly an influence on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. (B+)

Oh and just because, here’s a photo I took recently in my backyard that makes it seem like I live in Narnia or The Shire:

Ollie Shed

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2019

This wonderful site presents animations of 507 mechanical movements first published in a book by Henry T. Brown in 1868, the full title of which is:

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements: Embracing All Those Which Are Most Important in Dynamics, Hydraulics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Steam Engines, Mill and Other Gearing, Presses, Horology, and Miscellaneous Machinery; and Including Many Movements Never Before Published and Several of Which Have Only Recently Come Into Use

The site is a work-in-progress…not all of the movements have been animated yet. This short video shows movement #123:

You can buy a paperback version of the original book or browse/download the entire thing at the Internet Archive.

See also this great explanation of differential gears and especially Ralph Steiner’s 1930 short film Mechanical Principles, in which we see many of the mechanisms from Brown’s book actually working:

Warning: if you start Steiner’s film, you’ll probably end up watching the whole thing…it’s mesmerizing, particularly when the gears come in around ~2:30.

The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2019

I am here for any metaphor linking the internet and Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy. Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler writes that netizens are retreating from the public square of the internet, resulting in many private & isolated worlds that don’t communicate with each other, a la the dark forest condition in Liu’s books.

Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.

Explore Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus Online

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2019

Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus

An 1119-page collection of papers known as the Codex Atlanticus has been completely digitized and put online to explore. The codex showcases Leonardo’s impressive range of interests and abilities, from flying machines to anatomy to weaponry to astronomy to engineering.

Several more of Leonardo’s notebooks have been put online as well…I’ve listed all of them in this post about the Codex Forster. (via open culture)

One-Word Book Titles

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Merriam-Webster asked 11 authors how they came up with their single-word book titles. Here’s A.S. Byatt talking about Possession:

The book began with a word — the title — Possession. Earlier novels have begun with characters, or themes, but Possession began when I was watching the great Canadian Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, working in the British Museum and thought — “she cannot have had a thought that was not his thought for the last 30 or 40 years.” And then I thought — “and what I know about him is mediated through her - she edited all his notebooks, checked the sources of the quotations, etc.”

And then I thought, “I could write a novel called Possession about the relationship between a dead poet and a living scholar.” And the word possession would have all sorts of senses — daemonism, ownership, obsession……

And Jeffrey Eugenides on Middlesex:

A good title tells you what the book’s about. It reminds you, when you lose heart, why you started writing it in the first place. I saw an interview with Francis Ford Coppola once where he said that he likes to boil down his films into one word. For The Godfather, the word was “succession.” Whenever Coppola decided something, even a small thing like a costume detail, he reminded himself of his theme in order to make everything cohere, from the storyline right down to the gangsters’ hats.

With two of my novels, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, I knew the titles before I even started writing. I wasn’t so lucky with Middlesex. For years I had a terrible working title for that book, so bad I won’t even mention it here.

(via @john_overholt)

Meet Aerospace Engineer Judith Love Cohen

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Judith Love Cohen was, at various times in her fascinating life, an engineer who worked on the Pioneer, Apollo, and Hubble missions, an author & publisher of books about women in STEM and environmentalism in the 90s, a ballet dancer with the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, an advocate for better treatment of women in the workplace, and actor Jack Black’s mother. From an obituary written by her son Neil Siegel after her death in 2016:

My mother usually considered her work on the Apollo program to be the highlight of her career. When disaster struck the Apollo 13 mission, it was the Abort-Guidance System that brought the astronauts home safely. Judy was there when the Apollo 13 astronauts paid a “thank you” [visit] to the TRW facility in Redondo Beach.

She finished her engineering career running the systems engineering for the science ground facility of the Hubble Space Telescope.

During her engineering career, she was a vigorous and tireless advocate of better treatment for women in the workplace. Many things that today we consider routine — the posting of job openings inside of a company so that anyone could apply, formal job descriptions for every position, and so forth - were her creations. She had a profound impact on equality in the workforce.

Here’s Cohen pictured with an early Pioneer spacecraft in 1959:

June Love Cohen

Frustrated with the lack of female role models for girls interested in science, math, and technology, she retired from engineering to write and publish a series of books. From a 1999 LA Times profile:

The 11-book series features female professionals such as a paleontologist, Egyptologist and marine biologist. Cohen’s first book in 1991, “You Can Be a Woman Engineer,” traces her arc from a girl who had never heard of female engineers to a woman who led a team of engineers on the design for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“You only think about things when you see people doing it. Most girls know now they can be lawyers” from TV shows like “Ally McBeal” and female lawyers in the news, Cohen said. “They know that they can work in an emergency room — they’ve seen ‘ER.’ But I don’t recall that anyone has seen scientists on a large scale, except for a few paleontologists in ‘Jurassic Park.’”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, physicist Barbara Wilson, 50, said she never knew of any female scientists while growing up in the Midwest. At age 10, she started reading science fiction books for inspiration, but none of them featured women. In school, counselors dismissed the idea of her becoming a scientist, saying she should consider jobs that “women are more likely to be good at.” Books like Cohen’s would have provided the validation she sought, said Wilson, JPL’s chief technologist.

“It was really difficult psychologically and emotionally to be better than all the boys in math and science,” she said. “[The books] really would have helped encourage my feeling good about myself, that this was the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t see role models. I didn’t get encouragement other than at home.”

It’s difficult to imagine a better role model than Cohen…she obviously loved engineering and her work. When her son Jack Black was born, she barely hit the pause button:

Her fourth child, Jack, was born a few years later. She actually went to her office on the day that Jack was born. When it was time to go to the hospital, she took with her a computer printout of the problem she was working on. Later that day, she called her boss and told him that she had solved the problem. And… oh, yes, the baby was born, too.

If anyone from the NY Times is reading, I think Cohen would make a good subject for the Overlooked series. (via history cool kids)

The Persistent Myth of the Empty American Frontier

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

The author and popular historian David McCullough has a new book out called The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. I don’t really know where to start with that title (heroic? ideal?) but in her Slate review, Rebecca Onion says that McCullough’s brand of Manifest Destiny-laden American history furthers “the lie that the ‘frontier’ was an empty Eden waiting for American expansion”.

This poem embodies another “pioneer attitude” — the idea that the land was prehistoric, suspended in stasis, before the arrival of white people, and needed to be properly brought into production by the kind of work only “stalwart” settlers could do. This idea, repeated over centuries, aided Manifest Destiny, even as Native settlements like the Miami town of Kekionga boasted cornfields, gardens, and cattle herds. McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes — and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.

Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin agrees in a NY Times book review:

And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

The Design Manual of the 1972 Munich Olympics

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

For the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, a team led by Otl Aicher designed the iconic identity for the event. The guidelines for the visual design were laid out in a manual produced in 1969, which contained the design systems governing how everything from signage and merchandise to tickets and even landscaping were to be produced.

Olympics 1972 Design

Now, a lovingly produced reprint of that manual is available for purchase on Kickstarter.

The visual modules — the typeface, the colors, the grid systems and the application methods — were the basis of all printed matter, merchandising products, signage, wayfinding systems, urban planning and landscaping.

“The freedom of play” was about ensuring “maximum variation” via “strict discipline and adherence to rules”, explained Otl Aicher in 1975.

(via steven heller)

An Animated Version of The Giving Tree Narrated by Shel Silverstein

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2019

From 1973, this is an animated short film version of the classic children’s book The Giving Tree, narrated by author Shel Silverstein. As Wikipedia notes, there are conflicting ideas about the book’s meaning:

This book has been described as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature”; the controversy stems from whether the relationship between the main characters (a boy and the titular tree) should be interpreted as positive (i.e., the tree gives the boy selfless love) or negative (i.e., the boy and the tree have an abusive relationship).

Silverstein’s narration does little to resolve the complexity of the story, although as someone who has never read The Giving Tree1, I was left feeling not so great about the relationship depicted in the story. (via open culture)

  1. I know! Silverstein was not part of my childhood — perhaps his stuff was too weird for my parents? — so I’ve only gotten to know his work through Where the Sidewalk Ends, which I’ve read to my kids.

Barack Obama’s Spring 2019 Book Recommendations

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2019

Moment Of Lift

In a recent Facebook post, President Obama 1 shared a few books that he’s been reading recently. At the tippy top is Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

When you lift up women, you lift up everybody — families, communities, entire countries. That’s not just the right approach; it’s backed up by research and countless real-world examples. In her book, Melinda tells the stories of the inspiring people she’s met through her work all over the world, digs into the data, and powerfully illustrates issues that need our attention — from child marriage to gender inequity in the workplace. I’ve called Melinda an impatient optimist and that’s what she delivers here — the urgency to tackle these problems and the unwavering belief that solving them is indeed possible.

From a short excerpt of the book:

In my travels, I’ve learned about hundreds of millions of women who want to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, but they can’t. They have no access to contraceptives. And there are many other rights and privileges that women and girls are denied: The right to decide whether and when and whom to marry. The right to go to school. Earn an income. Work outside the home. Walk outside the home. Spend their own money. Shape their budget. Start a business. Get a loan. Own property. Divorce a husband. See a doctor. Run for office. Ride a bike. Drive a car. Go to college. Study computers. Find investors. All these rights are denied to women in some parts of the world. Sometimes these rights are denied under law, but even when they’re allowed by law, they’re still often denied by cultural bias against women.

Two of the top ten solutions on Paul Hawken’s list for slowing the effects of climate change are “educating girls” and “family planning”, which taken together would have a greater impact on reversing climate change than any other thing on the list.

Obama also recommends Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a book I’ve been curious about ever since it was published. Friends have recommended it and the cover always catches my eye in the bookstore even though I’m never specifically looking for it. I don’t even know why I’ve been resisting it…just ordered it!

  1. President Obama. That two-word phrase still fills me with so many conflicting emotions that I can’t even process it. I imagine it’s the same way for a lot of other people (on both sides of the political spectrum).

Monk Hacks: Dealing With Distraction in Late Antiquity

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019

memory-theater.png

For monks, concentration wasn’t just a practical necessity, but a spiritual discipline. Consequently, they spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of distraction and how to fight it.

Sometimes [monks] accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment - let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat.

Actually, I can think of several other things John Cassian would have done if he had seen a smartphone, but let’s not get off track. Sure. He’d have figured out we’d have some problems.

Here’s a paradox: monks and nuns weren’t all about that austerity, at least cognitively. Instead, they’d go full tilt into embracing the wild, distracting powers of the mind, but trying to harness them for useful purposes.

Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them. Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate. But if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better - strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.

My favorite book about this is Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory; it’s more about the Renaissance than the height of the monastic period, but focuses on the history and artistry of these various mnemonic devices, while doubling as a kind of cultural history of the mind.

The Books Shakespeare Read

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019

metamorphoses.jpg

Five Books is a pretty cool website I’d never heard of before; it’s a recommendations website, anchored by interviews with experts who pick a certain number (guess how many!) of books to recommend. Most are sorted by topic, so you get the best books about X; this interview, with Shakespeare expert Robert S Miola, examines five books that influenced Shakespeare, especially (but not only) as source material.

What I like especially is how Miola deftly deals with the whole problem of influence in an era when what it even meant to read or own a book was very different from our own age.

One thing we’re coming to appreciate is how print culture existed side by side with a vibrant and flourishing manuscript culture. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, were passed around in manuscript, from what we can gather, as were most of John Donne’s poems. Many have pointed to the importance of print because at that time, schools had texts that people could study. And, more importantly, individuals could collect libraries.

This leads to one of the great mysteries: where did Shakespeare find these books? Whose libraries did he raid? John Florio was known to have a big library, as did Ben Jonson, who famously wrote a poem about its burning. And there were collectors, too. Yet we still haven’t discerned from the available clues where Shakespeare got access to his books…

When you get a passage in Shakespeare—or any Elizabethan—you can’t really assume that the author knows the whole text. He or she might just have 12 lines from Virgil. The reading practice was that knowing lines might help you in another situation in your life. Scholars get upset because they can’t be sure that someone really knows Virgil; the lines might have been taken out of context from Virgil’s Georgics on beekeeping or gardening, for any reason whatsoever.

That’s one way to look at it. But the other is to say that they believed in Virgil so much that they took him as a guide for daily life. And that is the way they saw it. It takes an imaginative leap to understand just how much they valued books, and just how much they read.

The discussion of what Shakespeare took from Ovid, not just in terms of content for stories, but stylistically, is great:

Ovid is like Shakespeare as a poet; both possess extremely rapid wit and move magically and unpredictably on the surface of the text, from image to image and metaphor to metaphor. They defy expectation. Reading them is always surprising. Here, you have a great contrast with Virgil. I think Shakespeare read and liked Virgil, but Virgil is stately, imperial, and marvellously well-wrought, whereas Ovid is quick, shifting, and interested in surface and glitter.

Another nugget gleaned from this interview right away: only two of Shakespeare’s plays are thought to be more or less original in their plots — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Everything else was borrowed, in whole or part, from classical, historical, or contemporary sources.

The Beautiful Ones, a Forthcoming Memoir From Prince

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2019

The Beautiful Ones

Before his death in 2016, Prince had begun work on a memoir about his wonderfully creative life. The Beautiful Ones, due out in October 2019, will incorporate the 50 hand-written pages the artist had completed before he died, along with other writings, personal photos, and handwritten lyric sheets.

The Beautiful Ones is the story of how Prince became Prince — a first-person account of a kid absorbing the world around him and then creating a persona, an artistic vision, and a life, before the hits and fame that would come to define him. The book is told in four parts. The first is composed of the memoir he was writing before his tragic death, pages that brings us into Prince’s childhood world through his own lyrical prose. The second part takes us into Prince’s early years as a musician, before his first album released, through a scrapbook of Prince’s writing and photos. The third section shows us Prince’s evolution through candid images that take us up to the cusp of his greatest achievement, which we see in the book’s fourth section: his original handwritten treatment for Purple Rain — the final stage in Prince’s self-creation, as he retells the autobiography we’ve seen in the first three parts as a heroic journey.

The book is being produced in partnership with his estate, which is also behind the forthcoming Netflix documentary series about Prince directed by Ava DuVernay.

The project has the full cooperation of the late artist’s estate, which is providing with interviews, archival footage, photos and archive access. The multiple-part documentary will cover the artist’s entire life.

The book and documentary sound similar…I wonder if they’ll share a title?

The Secret Pigeon Service

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2019

This short piece in the London Review of Books about pigeons is fascinating. I learned many new things about pigeons and now hold them in higher esteem than I did previously.

Pigeons are more intelligent than we give them credit for, one of the few animals — along with great apes, dolphins and elephants — able to pass the mirror self-recognition test. If you mark a pigeon’s wing and let it look in a mirror it will try to remove the mark, realising that what it sees is a reflected image of its own body. Pigeons can recognise video footage of themselves shown with a five-second delay (three-year-old children find it difficult to comprehend a two-second delay). They are able to recognise individuals from photographs, and a neuroscientist at Keio University in Japan has trained them to distinguish between the paintings of Matisse and Picasso. ‘Modesty,’ Marianne Moore wrote, ‘cannot dull the lustre of the pigeon.’

Pigeons move through a human world. They stay close to the land, often flying at street level, below the height of the rooftops. Recent studies have suggested that they navigate using human structures as well as natural ones: they follow roads and canals, and have been observed going round roundabouts before taking the appropriate exit. They can fly extremely fast — up to 110 miles per hour — and with a following wind can cover 700 miles in a single uninterrupted flight (pigeons don’t like to fly at night but can be trained to do so). There are faster birds — peregrine falcons, the pigeon’s main predator, can reach 200 miles per hour on the stoop — but none can fly horizontally, under its own power, as quickly as a pigeon.

This bit, about the role of pigeons in developing the telecommunications networks of today, is terrific:

During the 19th and early 20th centuries they became important auxiliaries to the technological networks that were springing up across the world. Reuter’s News Agency was established in 1850 with a flock of 45 pigeons, which were used to cover a gap in the telegraph network between Brussels and Aachen, giving Paul Reuter a monopoly over all telegraph traffic between Belgium and Germany. The five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild used pigeons to stay in touch as they travelled around Europe consolidating their father’s banking dynasty. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, pigeons were taken out of the city by balloon and returned carrying thousands of letters stored on microfilm and sewn into their tail feathers.

Pigeon Secret Service

The bulk of the piece is a review of Gordon Corera’s book, Operation Columba - The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe, which is about a British campaign that used carrier pigeons to gather intelligence from German occupied territories during WWII.

Between 1941 and 1944, British intelligence dropped sixteen thousand homing pigeons in an arc across Nazi-occupied Europe, from Bordeaux, France to Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of a spy operation code-named Columba. Returning to MI14, the secret government branch in charge of the “Special Pigeon Service,” the birds carried messages that offered a glimpse of life under the Germans in rural France, Holland, and Belgium. Written on tiny pieces of rice paper tucked into canisters and tied to the birds’ legs, these messages were sometimes comic, often tragic, and occasionally invaluable-reporting details of German troop movements and fortifications, new Nazi weapons, radar systems, and even the deployment of the feared V-1 and V-2 rockets used to terrorize London.

Rebuilding the Notre Dame with Strong Trees and Laser Scans

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2019

According to an expert, France doesn’t have any of the large, old trees necessary to replace the burned wooden beams in the roof of the Notre Dame.

Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told France Info radio that the wooden roof that went up in flames was built with beams more than 800 years ago from primal forests.

He says the cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire because “we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories about future planning (possibly apocryphal). As told by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn, the story goes:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that calibre nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Hopefully the trees needed for rebuilding Notre Dame can be sourced elsewhere. Just as important, a more modern form of future planning was recently undertaken that should help greatly with the rebuild. In 2010, two men photographed and laser-scanned every inch of the Notre Dame, creating an incredibly detailed 3-D map of the building.

3D Notre Dame

Now, with the building having sustained untold but very substantial damage, the data that Tallon and Blaer created could be an invaluable aid to whoever is charged with rebuilding the structure. Ochsendorf described the data as “essential for capturing [the structure] as built geometry.” (He added, however, that the cathedral, no matter what happens now, “is irreplaceable, of course.”)

Tallon and Blaer’s laser data consist of 1 billion data points, structured as “point clouds,” which software can render into images of the three-dimensional space. Stitch them together, inside and out, map the photographs onto the precise 3-D models, and you have a full digital re-creation of incredible detail and resolution.

“I saw this happening, and I had two thoughts,” Blaer told me of watching the cathedral engulfed in flames. “One thought was that I was kind of relieved that he didn’t actually have to see this happen. But on the other hand, he knew it so well and had so much information about how it’s constructed, he would have been so helpful in terms of rebuilding it.”

(thx, meg)

Update: According to this piece in Le Monde (as best as I can discern in Google Translate), French forests have both the quality and quantity of wood available to provide new beams for Notre Dame. (via @ramdyne)

The Little Book of Fixers

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2019

Jan Chipchase’s Studio D has recently released their latest booklet, The Little Book of Fixers.

Fixers and guides are core to the way we operate — to complement the skills and address the weaknesses of international teams tasked with documenting and decoding cultures across the globe. Fixers and guides are crucial for knowing the best neighbourhood for the team to be situated, recruiting suitable participants, identifying nascent behaviours and critically discussing the trajectories that put the data into a broader societal perspective. Working with fixers enables research projects to go beyond the veneer of a culture, to truly understand the forces shaping society.

The Little Book of Fixers

I continue to find the output of Studio D and Chipchase fascinating — see 61 Glimpses of the Future for example. Hiring fixers is not something most of us will ever need to do, but creatively and respectfully choosing guides when interacting and intersecting with cultures different from our own is always going to be relevant.

You can order The Little Book of Fixers directly from Studio D or via Amazon (which I’m assuming is written in English and not “Middle English” as Amazon says).

The Rise of Selective Empathy

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

Over the past 20 years, the kind of empathy practiced by many Americans has shifted from a universal empathy — putting yourself into the shoes of someone you don’t know and might even dislike — to a more selective empathy that only works with people “on your team”.

Researchers who study empathy have noticed that it’s actually really hard to do what we were striving for in my generation: empathize with people who are different than you are, much less people you don’t like. But if researchers set up a conflict, people get into automatic empathy overdrive, with their own team. This new research has scrambled notions of how empathy works as a force in the world. For example, we often think of terrorists as shockingly blind to the suffering of innocents. But Breithaupt and other researchers think of them as classic examples of people afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.”

Breithaupt called his new book The Dark Sides of Empathy, because there’s a point at which empathy doesn’t even look like the kind of universal empathy I was taught in school. There is a natural way that empathy gets triggered in the brain — your pain centers light up when you see another person suffering. But out in the world it starts to look more like tribalism, a way to keep reinforcing your own point of view and blocking out any others.

Here’s the description of Breithaupt’s book:

Many consider empathy to be the basis of moral action. However, the ability to empathize with others is also a prerequisite for deliberate acts of humiliation and cruelty. In The Dark Sides of Empathy, Fritz Breithaupt contends that people often commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of over-identification and a desire to increase empathy. Even well-meaning compassion can have many unintended consequences, such as intensifying conflicts or exploiting others.

(via tmn)

The Devil and the Explicit Lyrics Sticker

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

In the first episode of season two of Earworm, Estelle Caswell explains where the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker found on many of your favorite music albums came from. The story involves heavy metal, Prince, the rise of the religious right, the Satanic panic, Tipper Gore, and lots of amazing hair.

The very public discussion around the advisory label involved the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by the wives of Washington politicians, and a few musicians including Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver.

While the PMRC’s involvement was allegedly sparked by some raunchy lyrics from Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain, the debate over rock lyrics had been infiltrating American culture and politics for a decade. The driving force behind that debate was the rise of heavy metal, a genre that saw explosive popularity with the launch of MTV in 1981, and the growing influence of the religious right, who saw rock music as a powerful threat to Christianity.

One of the main sources for the video is Eric Nuzum’s book, Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.

The Historical Precedents for the Excessive Violence in Game of Thrones

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2019

Game of Thrones made its return to HBO last night and, surprise, someone died! According to this compilation video, over 174,000 people have died on the show in seven seasons. The sheer numbers and the fact that some of the deaths have been, shall we say, a little creative (even for a fantasy show) sometimes interfered with my ability to fully suspend my disbelief when watching. Take Khal Drogo killing Viserys Targaryen by pouring molten gold on his head in the first season:

That’s a pretty outlandish death, an over-the-top display of sadism for the benefit of a TV audience. Right? Well, I’ve been reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World and I’ve discovered that Game of Thrones hews close to historical precedent when it comes to inventive murder.

According to some sources, after the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured in battle in the 3rd century, he was subjected to something much worse than a simple death at the hands of the Persian Emperor, Shapur I:

The Emperor Valerian was humiliated after being taken prisoner and held in “the abject form of slavery”: used as a human footstool for the Persian ruler “by bending his back to raise the king as he was about to mount his horse,” his body was eventually flayed “and his skin, stripped from the flesh, was dyed with vermilion, and placed in the temple of the gods of the barbarians, that the remembrance of a victory so signal might be perpetuated and that this spectacle might always be exhibited for our ambassadors.” He was stuffed so all could see the folly and shame of Rome.

Around the end of the 10th century, a leader of the Rus’ was ritually executed by Pecheneg steppe nomads:

The capture of the prince was gleefully celebrated, and his skull was lined with gold and kept as a victory trophy, to be used to celebrate ceremonial toasts.

In 1182, rising tension between the Byzantine Empire and the rising Italian city-states like Venice resulted in attacks against citizens of the city-states who were living in Constantinople:

Many were killed, including the representative of the Latin church, whose head was dragged through the city’s streets behind a dog.

The Mongols, under Genghis Khan and subsequent rulers, used brutality as a tool to shock and awe local populations into peaceful submission, making examples of those who resisted their advances:

Nīshāpūr was one of the locations that suffered total devastation. Every living being — from women, children and the elderly to livestock and domestic animals — was butchered as the order was given that not even dogs or cats should be left alive. All the corpses were piled up in a series of enormous pyramids as gruesome warnings of the consequences of standing up to the Mongols.

It was a very effective technique:

In 1241, the Mongols struck into the heart of Europe, splitting their forces into two, with one spur attacking Poland and the other heading for the plains of Hungary. Panic spread through the entire continent, especially after a large army led by the King of Poland and the Duke of Silesia was destroyed, and the head of the latter paraded on the end of a lance, together with nine sacks filled with “the ears of the dead.”

When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, they moved through the city “like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep,”

The city’s inhabitants were dragged through the streets and alleys, like toys, “each of them becoming a plaything.” The Caliph al-Mustaʿṣim was captured, rolled up in fabric and trampled to death by horses. It was a highly symbolic moment that showed who held real power in the world.

And finally, if there was any remaining doubt that George R.R. Martin modelled the Dothraki on the Mongols and Khal Drogo on Genghis Khan, consider the death of Inalchuq, a 13th-century Persian governor:

Stories such as that of a high-ranking official who was ordered into the presence of a newly arrived Mongol warlord and had molten gold poured into his eyes and ears became widely known — as was the fact that this murder was accompanied by the announcement that this was fitting punishment for a man “whose disgraceful behaviour, barbarous acts and previous cruelties deserved the condemnation of all.”

Perhaps Game of Thrones doesn’t seem so fantastical after all…

A Catalogue of Lost 16th-Century Books

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 12, 2019

Catalog of Epitomes.jpg

Hernando Colón was the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus. He was also one of the great book collectors of 16th century Europe, having traveled extensively and assembled a library of about 15,000 volumes.

What’s left of Colón’s library has been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552. The other evidence of the library is a catalogue, with epitomes and summaries of the books in the collection. But the catalog itself, called the Libro de los Epítomes, was thought to be lost, until it was identified in an unlikely collection belonging to “Árni Magnússon, an Icelandic scholar born in 1663, who donated his books to the University of Copenhagen on his death in 1730.”

The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is “extraordinary”, and a window into a “lost world of 16th-century books”, said Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the recent biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

“It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries,” said Wilson-Lee. “The idea that this object which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project and which one always thought of with this great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved, for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”

Another choice quote from Wilson-Lee:

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato, which Wilson-Lee dubbed the “miracle of compression”.

Because Colón collected everything he could lay his hands on, the catalogue is a real record of what people were reading 500 years ago, rather than just the classics. “The important part of Hernando’s library is it’s not just Plato and Cortez, he’s summarising everything from almanacs to news pamphlets. This is really giving us a window into the entirety of early print, much of which has gone missing, and how people read it - a world that is largely lost to us,” said Wilson-Lee.

What a wonder.

Sally Rooney’s first two books are perfectly of the moment

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 10, 2019

Ignore the m-word and read Sally Rooney: How Should a Millennial Be?

As a portrait of young people today, Rooney’s books are remarkably precise—she captures meticulously the way a generation raised on social data thinks and talks. Rooney’s characters love to announce where they fall on the matrix of taste and social awareness. They read Patricia Lockwood and watch Greta Gerwig movies; they read Twitter for jokes. Decisions are made according to typologies. There’s built-in social meaning for any interest or opinion. “No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy,” says Nick, and I was reminded of friends swiping left on Tinder, rejecting dates because their favorite movies signaled unquestionable incompatibility.

The review’s later parenthetical reference to Andrew Martin’s debut novel is noteworthy. I read Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Martin’s Early Work in close succession last year and see similarities in perspective. I’d also include Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa in that grouping. All are told from a fresh standpoint, with varying degrees of lush language, and romantic turmoil only bearable among a certain age group, with a healthy dose of capital-L Literary references. None are stodgy nor dated despite some social media observations.

Book Covers for the Mueller Report

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2019

The New Yorker asked five designers to design book covers for the Mueller Report in the event that it’s eventually published. Here are my two favorites, by Michael Bierut and Na Kim:

Mueller Report Book Covers

Robert Caro on Writing and Understanding Power

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2019

Working, a memoir from master interviewer and researcher Robert Caro, is coming out next week. David Marchese, no slouch himself when it comes to interviewing people, talked with Caro for the NY Times Magazine about his career, his process, and his ongoing multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro allows that his insatiable curiosity about getting the whole story might not necessarily be a good thing at times.

I would like to have written more books. I’d like to finish this last Johnson book. But it’s the element of time — you’re always thinking no one will know if the thing you’re working on isn’t in the book. Take the Margaret Frost thing. [The introduction of “Master of the Senate” tells the story of Margaret Frost’s humiliating and failed attempts to register to vote in Eufaula, Ala., in 1957.] You say everybody knows about blacks not being able to vote in the South, so you don’t have to go into that. But I’d remembered coming across testimony from the Civil Rights Commission and I went, This is horrible. A sense of anger boils up, and it leads you to say, “What was it like if you tried to register to vote?” Don’t just say, “It’s hard.” What was it really like? You think you understand how hard life is in the South because you’ve seen movies about it. But then you learn about a guy who wanted to vote, Margaret Frost’s husband, who sees someone drive to his house and shoot out the light on the porch. He was going to call the police but then saw it was a police car driving away from his property. It was like the Jews in Nazi Germany: There was no place for these people to turn. So, do you want to write the book without showing that? The answer is no.

Has anyone ever done an interview with an expert interviewer about the experience of interviewing another expert interviewer? I would definitely read a debrief of Marchese on how to get someone like Caro, who knows all the tricks of the trade, to actually tell you something that they don’t want you to know. I’m also thinking of Errol Morris and Seymour Hersh at the end of Wormwood and how Morris can’t quite get what he wants from Hersh.

My Recent Media Diet, Spring 2019 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2019

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month and a half. For books, I’m currently reading Silk Roads and listening to the audiobook of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which are rhyming in interesting ways. Looking back, I haven’t listened to any significant new music in months and months. What am I missing?

Turnton kitchen scissors. Ernest Wright very kindly sent me a pair of their kitchen scissors. I’ve posted so much about their story that I can’t really be objective at this point no matter what, so I feel ok saying the craftsmanship of these scissors is flat out amazing. (A-)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Never not entertaining. (A-)

Tag. Kinda fun but the real-life story was better. (C+)

Alita: Battle Angel. The big eyes worked. (B)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Liked this even more the second time around and I love reading and watching all the making-of stuff. (A-)

Cold War. Along with Roma, Spider-Verse, The Favourite, and If Beale Street Could Talk, this was one of the most beautifully shot films of 2018. Every frame a painting, indeed. (B+)

The Grinch. I wasn’t expecting to sympathize so much with The Grinch here. The social safety net constructed by the upper middle class Whos totally failed the most vulnerable member of their society in a particularly heartless way. Those Whos kinda had it coming. (B)

Mortal Engines. Why was this panned so much? It wasn’t great but it was entertaining…this and Alita felt similar to me. (B)

Leaving Neverland. I wrote some thoughts about this here. (A)

Why Is This Happening? The Uninhabitable Earth with David Wallace-Wells. Fascinating and scary interview of David Wallace-Wells about his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth. Weirdly, I felt almost hopeful at the end of it though. (A)

Captain Marvel. I liked Brie Larson in this role very much. Looking forward to seeing more in Avengers: Endgame. (B+)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Great movie. Very few films have matched the inventiveness of its action sequences since it came out. (A)

Apollo 11. The nearest IMAX theater is more than a 3-hour drive from where I live, so I had to watch this in a tiny theater with what sounded like a single speaker located at the front of the room. This greatly diminished the intended effect of the pristine 65mm footage. (B)

Living more than a 3-hour drive from the nearest IMAX theater. (F)

The History of English Podcast. This was recommended to me by a reader because of this post. I listened to a pair of episodes about surnames: What’s In a Name? and Trade Names. Super interesting stuff. (A-)

Kohler 10282-AK-CP shower head. My shower head sucked, I replaced it with this one, and now my shower head doesn’t suck anymore. (B+)

Salt Fat Acid Heat. The Salt episode intensified my desire to go to Japan. (B+)

Aquaman. Not as good as Wonder Woman, but way better than Justice League or any of the other recent DC movies. (B)

Cooking As an Art, With Jerry Saltz. This podcast episode is pretty uneven in spots, but when Chang just lets Saltz talk, it’s a goldmine of quotable ideas. “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge.” (A-)

The Unknown Known. Late in the film, Donald Rumsfeld says to his interlocutor Errol Morris: “I think you’re probably, Errol, chasing the wrong rabbit here.” Morris got a bit unlucky here in his choice of subject — by the end of the movie, we don’t know anything more about Rumsfeld than when we started. (C+)

Chef’s Table, Enrique Olvera. Oh man, I can’t wait to go to Pujol next week. (A-)

Kindle Paperwhite. I upgraded from my old Paperwhite. I like the flat screen, that it’s lighter, and the waterproofing is going to come in handy, but the speed and screen quality are pretty much exactly the same. Are e-ink interfaces already as sharp & responsive as they are ever going to be? (A)

Bumblebee. Entertaining, but I still have a problem with the Transformers movies because the robots are so overly detailed that it’s hard to know where to look when they’re on-screen. They should be more abstract and iconic (a la Scott McCloud’s Big Triangle in Understanding Comics). (B+)

Emily Wilson on Translations and Language. Having not read multiple translations of Homer, some of this was over my head, but the rest was really interesting. (A-)

Generative.fm. Been listening to this while working more or less constantly for the past week, mostly the “Otherness” and “Meditation” tracks. (A-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

The Impossibility of Translating Homer into English

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2019

Emily Wilson, who produced this banging translation of The Odyssey and is currently at work on The Iliad, recently tweeted a list of “reasons why it’s more or less impossible to translate Homer into English in a satisfactory way”. Here are a few of those reasons:

2. There aren’t enough onomatopoeic words for very loud chaotic noises.

3. “Many”, especially when repeated over and over, sounds childish; repeating “lots of” sounds worse. There are not enough words for large numbers of people or objects, and those we have (“multitude”, “plethora”, “myriad”) are often too pompous to use repeatedly.

6. Terms for social rank imply a particular wrong social order. “King” suggests monarchy. “Chief” has several connotations, none quite right. “General”, “Marshal”, “Officer” etc. suggest an established military hierarchy. “Mr” & “Sir” suggest business suits.

Last year, Wilson shared her process behind translating the first two lines of The Odyssey.

How much of Troy did he sack? ptoliethron is the lengthened form of polis, “city” (later, city-state). Sometimes =central part of city. But sacking just part of Troy isn’t really enough… Shd. the translator make it non-dumb if possible, or not worry about that?

There’s alliteration (polla/ plangthe … ptolietron epersen, notice the “p” sounds). What, if anything, should or can a translator do, when the sound of every word in her language is different from the words of the original? And, what to do about meter? Genre? Tone?

What’s the judgment, if any? Or narrative perspective? Do we feel OK about Odysseus being defined, instantly, as a city-sacker (ptoliporthos, one of his standard epithets)? Is the narrative voice invested in one side or another? It’s very hard to say. A judgment call.

And it goes on like that for more than a dozen tweets…for just two lines!