Quote of the Day: The Six Great Paintings

'Soir Bleu' by Edward Hopper (1914)

‘Soir Bleu’ by Edward Hopper (1914)

“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”

—The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Think about what six paintings you wouldn’t mind looking at forever.

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

Reader’s Corner: Abraham Lincoln in His Day

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg -- he's the one in the tall black hat.

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg — he’s the one in the tall black hat.

Given the lionization and demonization that certain political figures attain after their death, it’s hard to remember that in their time, very few leaders are seen in such black-and-white terms. In England, Neville Chamberlain was not universally reviled, and Winston Churchill had enough detractors that he was quickly escorted from office after the war ended.

lincolnalife1In America, our most sainted president after George Washington is likely Abraham Lincoln. There is good reason for this, of course, but it’s always healthy to keep in mind that in his time there were more than a few who thought the man little more than an idiot.

Mark Bowden’s recent piece on Lincoln in the Atlantic points this out. Quoting heavily from Michael Burlingame’s 2008 biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Bowden highlights the criticism that Lincoln received while in office, the likes of which makes modern-day cable-news shouters seem tame by comparison:

His ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed…. No matter what Lincoln did, it was never enough for one political faction, and too much for another. Yes, his sure-footed leadership during this country’s most-difficult days was accompanied by a fair amount of praise, but also by a steady stream of abuse—in editorials, speeches, journals, and private letters—from those on his own side, those dedicated to the very causes he so ably championed. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” … Other Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. He was called a coward, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan.

This doesn’t prove that today’s climate of commentary has advanced any from the mid-19th century; far from it. But Bowden’s article is worth thinking of when trying to assess exactly how a sitting president will be judged by history. This applies to Barack Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, and possibly even back to Reagan and Carter; their true reckoning may still need decades of perspective and multiple historical tomes to truly emerge. Remember what Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) supposedly said when asked about the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to tell.”

Bowden again:

Imagine all those critical voices from the 19th century as talking heads on cable television. Imagine the snap judgments, the slurs and put-downs that beset Lincoln magnified a million times over on social media. How many of us, in that din, would hear him clearly? His story illustrates that even greatness—let alone humbler qualities like skill, decency, good judgment, and courage—rarely goes unpunished.

 

Writer’s Room: Getting Hunter to Work

greatsharkhuntMost writers know the drill: Get an assignment, turn it in roughly on time and in generally the shape that it was desired. If not: kill fee, if you’re lucky. This is how it works.

Unless you were Hunter S. Thompson. In 1970, Hunter convinced the long-defunct Scanlan’s Monthly that “somebody” needed to cover the Kentucky Derby, dammit. S0 off he went to the races, with an expense account and a vision.  In Michael McCambridge’s excellent piece for Grantland on the epochal article that resulted, he provides a few illustrative details of what was required for Scanlan’s afterward for editor Warren Hinckle to actually get any workable copy out of Hunter. To wit:

… [according to Hinckle] within a couple of days (“as soon as he could walk”), Thompson flew to Manhattan, “where we locked him down for five days in a room in the Royalton Hotel, just up 44th Street from the Scanlan’s office in an abandoned ballroom above an Irish bar a block from Times Square.”

The story didn’t come easily. “I would lie in the bathtub at this weird hotel,” said Thompson. “I had a suite with everything I wanted — except I couldn’t leave…. They were sending copy boys and copy girls and people down every hour to see what I had done, and the pressure began to silently build like a dog whistle kind of scream. You couldn’t hear it but it was everywhere.”

… [Scanlan's copy boy Harvey Cohen] kept Thompson “supplied with cigarettes, Heinekens and Chivas. When production slowed, Harvey would seize the time and rip pages out of Hunter’s notebook” and relay them to the Scanlan’s office, where they were read by managing editor Donald Goddard, and then sent by fax to Hinckle in San Francisco.

We should all be so lucky.

Reader’s Corner: Literary Death Match

literarydeathmatch2

Ever thought the following, “Hmmm, books are awesome, but I just wish it could be a little bit more like The X-Factor“? Too bad, sucker: Simon Cowell doesn’t read!

That being said, there might be hope for your televisual/literary mashup dreams to come true soon. Adrian Todd Zuniga is the founder and host of an amazing-sounding series of events called Literary Death Match, where authors are pitted against each other in a highly snarky competition featuring judges like Moby, Susan Orlean, and Jonathan Lethem.

literary death match1Now The Daily Beast‘s Melissa Goldstein reports that Literary Death Match has filmed a couple of pilot episodes for a potential TV show:

…Lethem may have been the L.L. Bean sweater–wearing Adam Levine to Zuniga’s Carson Daly, and there may have been a boxing ring, but the script was a long way from The Voice. Following a recitation by the evening’s first challenger, Silverlake-based comedy writer and novelist DC Pierson read a piece titled “To All the Aliens Who Got Stranded on Earth But Never Found a Kid to Take Care of Them.” Lethem pronounced it to be “like Allen Ginsberg in its velocity,” and suggested that “if there was an intergalactic Ellis Island, you would be its Emma Lazarus.”

Coming (please, maybe?) to a Bravo-ish channel near you in the (never) future.

(hat-tip: The Roundup)

Department of Lexicography: Tolkien Edition

tolkien1Several years before hobbits were a gleam in J. R. R. Tolkien’s eye, he was deeply involved in another massive literary undertaking: The Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien worked on the OED staff from 1919 to 1920, concentrating primarily on words in the “W” section. (The image of the tweedy young scholar beavering away at his obscure assignments at the dawn of the Jazz Age calls to mind an Oxbridge version of Ball of Fire; only sans Barbara Stanwyck.)

According to Peter Gilliver of the OED, Tolkien was put on to certain words — like walnutwalrus, and wampum — particularly because of their difficult etymologies:

Other words, such as waistcoatwake (noun), wan, and want, posed rather different challenges. Teasing out fine distinctions of meaning is a key part of a lexicographer’s job, as is the selection of words to convey precisely the connotations, as well as the simple meaning, of a word: Tolkien evidently took great pains over both. He relished the task of distinguishing the different garments denoted at different times by waistcoat (as he later grew to relish the garment itself) … His biggest challenge, however, must surely have been want, one of the commonest of all verbs, which eventually required nearly thirty separately defined senses and subsenses.

tolkien2Many years later, an editor at the OED who had been a student of Tolkien’s wrote asking for his opinion on the definition of a new word gaining popularity: hobbit. Tolkien happily obliged. Mithril and orc are now also ensconced in the dictionary as well.

Reader’s Corner: George Orwell and ‘The Thinginess of Life’

As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).

But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:

What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.

In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.

 

 

 

Dept. of Endgames

Good enough that Colson Whitehead is covering the Olympics (somewhat post-facto) for Grantland. (His conversations with the W.G. Sebald app beat most of what NBC had to say.)

But even better that once his first piece actually takes him to London itself, Whitehead’s thoughts immediately turn towards the apocalypse:

…I started scoring events in terms of what they’d offer in a human-annihilation-type scenario. Offensewise, archery skills seemed like an obvious asset at first. But the archers’ high-tech bows wouldn’t survive a day of jumping off roofs, tromping through sewers, and escaping cannibal hordes. The bows were items of cruel but fragile beauty, with their carbon limbs and polyethylene strings, their V-bar extenders and side-rod stabilizer doohickeys. Great for the marksman’s art, but no good in a volume-kill scenario. You’d be better off with a simple machete. The qualifying heats made it clear that swimming is a good life skill or whatever, but only marathon-distance swimming was going to help you make it to the island after a squabble over rations or sex resulted in your tiny escape vessel overturning. Triathlon, I decided, with its endurance super-combo of swimming, biking, and running, solved multiple problem areas. I made a note to see it in person.

Whitehead published his own take on the zombie apocalypse last year, Zone One. Not so much archery in it, sadly enough—he left that to Suzanne Collins.

Quote of the Day: Martin Amis

 

Martin Amis, barbed-pen satirist of the modern era and boon companion of the late Christopher Hitchens (with whom he shared a sharp impatience with lazy thinking), has taken it on the chin from the press and the literati in his home country of England for years now. Hard to say why, perhaps it was that habit of speaking his mind. But in any case, when Amis decamped from London to Brooklyn to set up home there with his (American) wife, the sniping started all over again.

In The New Republic, Amis — whose newest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, comes out August 21 — has a few things to say on the cult of the author and the attribution of false statements:

Backed up by lavish misquotes together with satirical impersonations … the impression given was that I was leaving because of a vicious hatred of my native land and because I could no longer bear the well-aimed barbs of patriotic journalists.

“I wish I weren’t English”: Of all the fake tags affixed to my name, this is the one I greet with the deepest moan of inanition. I suggest that the remark—and its equivalent in any language or any alphabet—is unutterable by anyone whose IQ reaches double figures. “I wish I weren’t North Korean” might make a bit of sense, assuming the existence of a North Korean sufficiently well-informed and intrepid to give voice to it. Otherwise and elsewhere, the sentiment is inconceivably null. And to say it of England—the country of Dickens, George Eliot, Blake, Milton, and, yes, William Shakespeare—isn’t even perverse. It is merely whimsical.

 

Quote of the Day: Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

The ever-confident novelist, playwright, polemicist, occasional candidate, and all around man of letters Gore Vidal died on Tuesday. Among many, many, many other quotable statements, the following is attributed to him:

There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.