Books in General

Robert Pirsig dies at 88

25 April 2017

From the Los Angeles Times:

In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.

The 122nd gently warned Pirsig, a former rhetoric professor who had a job writing technical manuals, not to expect more than his $3,000 advance.

“The book is not, as I think you now realize from your correspondence with other publishers, a marketing man’s dream,” the editor at William Morrow wrote in a congratulatory note before its 1974 publication.

He was wrong. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages. A reviewer for the New Yorker likened its author to Herman Melville. Its popularity made Pirsig “probably the most widely read philosopher alive,” a British journalist wrote in 2006.

Pirsig, a perfectionist who published only one major work after “Zen” but inspired college classes, academic conferences and a legion of “Pirsig pilgrims” who retrace the anguished, cross-country motorcycle trip at the heart of his novel, died Monday at his home in South Berwick, Maine, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 88 and had been in failing health.

“Zen” and Pirsig’s less successful 1991 novel, “Lila,” are not easy reads. In both, he develops what he calls the “Metaphysics of Quality,” a philosophy that attempts to unite and transcend the mysticism of the East and the reason of the West.

“Zen” is the account of a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig, his 11-year-old son Chris and two friends made from Minneapolis through the West. A fifth traveler was sensed but unseen: Phaedrus, Pirsig’s alter ego, brilliant, uncompromising and obsessed with the search for truth. Like the real-life Pirsig, the ghost-like Phaedrus had an IQ of 170, entered a university at 15 and, as a young man, was committed to mental hospitals where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

“He was dead,” Pirsig’s narrator writes in “Zen.” “Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain.”

Link to the rest at the Los Angeles Times and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

The Deep Space of Digital Reading

24 April 2017

From Nautilus:

In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

. . . .

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.

. . . .

The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.

Link to the rest at Nautilus and thanks to Dave for the tip.

These Books Were Once Considered “Classics” But Are Now Largely Forgotten

23 April 2017

From Bustle:

The forgotten book that, rediscovered, takes its place among venerated classics is an age-old trend; “Don’t call it a comeback,” quoth LL Cool J. But if one end of the spectrum exists, the other must as well, right? What books were considered “classics” but are now largely ignored?

In a recent thread on the r/books subreddit, user -methane- asked, “What are some novels that were once considered classics that have been largely forgotten?” Redditors began flocking with suggestions of books fallen by the wayside. And folks, I was unfamiliar with, like, almost half of them.

“You always hear about authors who died neglected and unknown, only to be revived later in history,” wrote -methane-. “Melville’s Moby-Dick is a famous example of this. Surely the opposite of this has taken place, as well.” The redditor also asked for any theories regarding the decline in popularity for certain novels. What causes a fall from grace? Is it gradual, or is there an identifiable turning point? Among the redditors arose an additional discussion as well: Where is the line between “classic” and “bestseller”? After a substantial amount of time has passed, is there any line at all? No real conclusion was reached, but it will certainly be present in the back of my mind the next time I note that a book is a New York Times bestseller, for example.

. . . .

 ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Though Of Human Bondage is considered, by some, to be the Catcher in the Rye for adults (specifically, British adults), it currently sells on Amazon for under $2.00. Published in 1915 and believed to be largely autobiographical, Of Human Bondage follows orphan Philip on a bildungsroman through Europe.

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ by Booth Tarkington

Booth Tarkington sounds like a 4-year-old’s imaginary astronaut friend, but he is, in fact, only one of three writers to win the Pulitzer in Fiction twice (William Faulker and John Updike join him). The Magnificent Ambersons, which won the Pulitzer in 1919, follows the decline of the superrich Ambersons in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

. . . .

 ‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins

One would think, in creating what is believed to be the first modern English detective novel, you would solidify your place among the literary greats; that seemingly is not the case for Wilkie Collins, whose 1868 epistolary novel The Moonstone pioneered a new genre. Though he was well-loved in the Victorian era, Collins was overshadowed by BFF Charles Dickens following his death in 1889.

Link to the rest at Bustle

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

23 April 2017

From History Extra:

1) How do we know when he was born?

It seems that England’s greatest poet first appeared on the world’s stage on the feast day of England’s patron saint: St George’s Day, Sunday 23 April 1564.

The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon records Shakespeare’s baptism on 26 April. According to the Book of Common Prayer, babies had to be baptised either on the next saint’s day after their birth or on the following Sunday. In baby Shakespeare’s case, the next saint’s day was St Mark’s Day, the stolen patron saint of Venice, just two days after his birth. However, Elizabethan folk superstition considered this day to be unlucky, so Shakespeare was baptised after morning or evening prayer on the following day.

For corroborative evidence that Shakespeare was born on 23 April we can look to his monument on the north chancel wall of Holy Trinity Church. This tells us that he died on 23 April 1616, aged 53 – that is at the beginning of his 53rd year. Hence the assumption that he was born and died on the same date.

Shakespeare’s baptismal entry tells us that he is “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare”: William, the son of John Shakespeare. Only one person of that name lived in the town.

. . . .

2) Where did young Shakespeare learn to read and write?

From the ages of 8 to 15, William Shakespeare would have found himself at Stratford-upon-Avon’s grammar school, which had been established under Edward VI to offer a free education to all of the town’s boys.

Founded in 1553 and based on Humanist ideals, Tudor grammar schools were a key element of the government’s stated aim of ensuring that “good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our kingdom, as wherein the best government and administration of affairs consists”.

These were establishments that took education very seriously indeed. Shakespeare would have gone to school six days a week throughout the year, starting at 6am in the summer and 7am in winter, and staying until dusk (though there were half days on Thursdays and Saturdays). The major Christian festivals provided the few annual holidays.

There was little respite, even in the playground, where the boys were expected to talk to each other in Latin. The emphasis of the whole educational enterprise, in light of the teachings of the 16th-century Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), was on the development of eloquence in speech and writing. A key textbook was William Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar (1540), through which Shakespeare became familiar with a vast range of rhetorical devices.

The curriculum was highly demanding. The pupils studied Terence, Virgil, Tully, Sallust, Palingenius, Mantuanus, Cicero, Susenbrotus, Erasmus, Quintilian, Horace, Juvenal and Ovid in their original Latin. The latter’s Metamorphoses seems to have been Shakespeare’s favourite book from his school days, and he alluded to it many times in his work. The only writing in Greek to feature on the syllabus was the New Testament. Shakespeare’s grammar-school education is writ large across the whole body of his work. Above all, it taught him eloquence. As an education it was rigorous but limited and did not, for example, include numeracy.

Link to the rest at History Extra and thanks to Lucy for the tip.

An Hour Renting Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom Where She Wrote Her Entire Life’s Work

22 April 2017

From Pictorial:

“Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room”

You can visit the café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling supposedly sat penning Harry Potter, tour Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, still crawling with cats, or see William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, a Mississippi home flanked by cedar trees. But few writers have written their entire life’s work—nearly 1,800 poems, in Emily Dickinson’s case—in just one room.

For one hundred dollars an hour, you can rent the second-floor bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts where Dickinson spent a huge portion of her life. The Dickinson Homestead on Main Street was purchased by the Parke family in 1916, and sold to the Trustees of Amherst College in 1965 (it quickly became open for public tours). After twentieth-century wallpaper and floorboards from Dickinson’s room were removed, clues to the original floor coverings and interior design during the Dickinsons’ occupancy were discovered.

In 2003, Amherst College acquired “The Evergreens,” a dwelling directly next-door to Emily’s house, once inhabited by her brother Austin. The buildings were merged to create the Emily Dickinson Museum. In further attempts at historical accuracy, the two-year restoration of Dickinson’s specific room was completed in 2015. Although the Museum has been visited by thousands every year—eager to peer inside the eminent poet’s room on the guided tour—this is the first time her chamber has actually been rentable.

Link to the rest at Jezebel

Creativity Makes You Seem More Attractive

21 April 2017

From The Atlantic:

Dos Equis’s most Interesting Man in the World ran a marathon just because it was on his way, is both left- and right-handed, and is fluent in all the world’s languages, including three that he alone speaks. The character was, until recently, played by a 70-something, little-known actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, whose earlier claim to fame was selling waterless car-wash products. And yet he—or at least his persona—was undeniably enticing.

According to a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the appeal of average-looking Interesting Men, both real and fictional, might be all in their interestingness.

. . . .

[Study participants were shown photos of an attractive or less-attractive female face or an attractive or less-attractive male face]

Each image was paired with a short story based on the painting The Lovers by René Magritte. The stories were written such that they were either creative—“even if you are in a relationship with someone, perhaps you don’t know how this person really is”—or unoriginal—“It seems they have white cloth/pillowcases over their heads to blind them from their environment.” The participants were told the people in the photos wrote the stories, and then asked to judge how attractive they were.

Though the subjects always thought the physically more handsome men were more attractive, the more creative men seemed more attractive than the uncreative ones. But creativity did nothing to enhance the women’s attractiveness in the subjects’ eyes.

Next, a new group of study participants were shown similar photos alongside descriptions of things to do with a car tire—some of which were creative (making a Loch Ness Monster sculpture) and some of which weren’t (using it as a seat.) With the explanation that the people in the photos came up with the tire uses, participants were told to rate their attractiveness.

Again, creativity made the average-looking men, but not women, appear more seductive. The results showed creativity was more of a boon to the men with less-attractive faces.

Across the study’s three trials, just one showed any attractiveness benefit of creativity in women.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

For the record, Mrs. PG is quite creative and PG finds her very attractive.

My invisible career: how can we preserve our digital stories?

19 April 2017

From The Bookseller:

Imagine you had a message for the future that you wanted to preserve for 5,000 years. Something important that had to survive generations, wars and any number of environmental catastrophes. A message perhaps like: “There was mixed weather this Easter”.  How would ensure that this message would last?

Floppy discs, CDs, tape are horribly obsolete already. Emailing it is unlikely to last more than a couple of years, not least because some companies automatically delete emails after 60 days. So that’s out. Maybe print it out onto paper? This might last a few decades depending on the chemicals in the printer and the quality of the paper – remember how faxes faded after minutes in the sun? Actually, the best way to preserve a message would be to revert to engraving into a hard material. Without a diamond-engraving factory, perhaps the best material would be stone. So after a bit of chiseling, the message is now etched deep in the hardest stone possible.

. . . .

Fast forward 5,000 years from now, and a passing Martian explorer trips on an exposed piece of stone, and finds the message. The alien deciphers it and scratches his head, thinking: “There must have been a nice temperate climate in Northern Chile populated by English speakers.” The message has been kept but the context renders it useless.

While 5,000 years is a supreme challenge, the rate at which digital technology is being superseded means that this problem exists well within a lifetime. Indeed I have recently been wondering how to keep working copies of the many interactive projects I have produced over the years: The laserdiscs that were in the Wellcome Trust lobby, the CDi interactive story, the floppy disc and CD-ROM Macromedia projects for Penguin. Even the Guardian website relaunches in the late nineties whose aesthetic impact is still felt today. As I look back on these projects, most of them are now offline with no record even on the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, and the CD-ROMs simply do not work, even if I could find a computer with a CD drive in the first place.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Why You Should Read Books You Hate

18 April 2017

From The New York Times:

Here’s a reading challenge: Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.

Sound like hell? You’re off to a good start.

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

At a time when people are siloed into narrow sources of information according to their particular tinted worldview — those they follow on Twitter, the evening shoutfest they choose, AM talk radio or NPR — it’s no surprise most of us also read books we’re inclined to favor. Reading is a pleasure and a time-consuming one. Why bother reading something you dislike?

But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?

. . . .

I’ve hated my way through many books, thinking, I will read you no matter how hard you make it. But as I go on, I often find that loathing is mixed with other emotions — fear, perverse attraction, even complicated strains of sympathy. This is, in part, what makes negative book reviews so compelling.

One of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever written was for this newspaper as a freelancer. The book I’d been assigned was a parenting book. I wanted to like the book. I agreed with much of the book. But the authors were too credulous of certain research, and in ways that served their thesis. As I put it in the review, the authors’ “penchant for describing psychological studies and research projects as if they were chemistry experiments, with phrases like ‘the test of scientific analysis’ and ‘the science of peer relations,’ conjure up the image of Thomas Dolby repeatedly exhorting ‘Science!’ ”

It came across as manipulative, and I felt betrayed both personally (I had written a parenting book and bristled at seeing the genre compromised) and on behalf of readers who might not have the background to parse the data. New parents are a susceptible lot — I know because I used to be one.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Columbia Room Has a Cocktail Literally Made With Old Books

17 April 2017

From the Washingtonian:

Columbia Room has played around with plenty of unusual ingredients, like fig leaf milk and potato water, in its cocktails. But “In Search of Time Past”—the third drink on its current tasting menu—is the most Portlandia yet.

That’s because it includes a tincture made of old books. Literally. Really literally.

Owner Derek Brown got the idea after visiting El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, where he encountered candied page fragments on the avant-garde tasting menu.

“He was morbidly fascinated by it,” says head bartender JP Fetherston. So, the team began working on a cocktail that would replicate the sensation of opening an old book or walking into an old library.

. . . .

To make the literary tincture, the bar staff collected a number of 100-year-old books. “I was trying to avoid getting anything too iconic. It probably would have been interesting to do Proust,” Fetherston says, but he felt conflicted about destroying a great piece of literature.

Link to the rest at the Washingtonian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Old Books – Book Candle

17 April 2017

From Frostbeard Studio via Etsy:

We love the smell of old books! But not the rotten, mildewy kind – the sweet, papery sort. This soft, comforting scent makes you want to curl up in your favorite reading chair and leaf through stacks of worn, well-loved stories. Vanilla overtones transform into a lovely, complex aroma when melted.

. . . .

Scents: Paper, Dust, Vanilla and a hint of Fresh Grass

. . . .

Link to the rest at Etsy where you can also find Trashy Romance Novel and Sexy Librarian scents and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

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