From the archives: Literature

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Suggested reading, jet-lagged edition

Monday, 29 March 2010 — 9:45pm | Assorted links, Film, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I haven’t read the Internet in almost two weeks, thanks to my various globetrotting commitments. But never fear—these selections from early March are here.

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. SPACE.com has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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Suggested reading, goddam phony edition

Monday, 1 February 2010 — 11:32pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Music, Video games

In a way, the media frenzy over the death of J.D. Salinger can be understood as a kind of cathartic relief—i.e. now that he’s croaked, we can finally talk about him without feeling like we’re intruding on something. It has, at least, made for some very good reading about one of literature’s most enigmatic figures. Rather than collect the obituaries myself—I haven’t had time to read them all—I’ll link to the links at Bookninja here and here.

Serious aficionados should take a look at this 1957 letter by Salinger explaining why he saw The Catcher in the Rye as unfilmable. Really dedicated junkies of all things Salinger may even go as far as perusing Joyce Maynard’s 1972 article, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”, which led her to drop out of Yale and live with the author for a year. (I personally find it nigh on unreadable, but it’s evidence that the cliché anxiety about settling down with 2.2 kids has been around for nearly four decades at least.)

And now for something completely different:

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Suggested reading, sophomoric edition

Monday, 25 January 2010 — 4:30pm | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Literature, Science

Here’s your grab bag for the week:

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Suggested reading, cork-popping edition

Monday, 18 January 2010 — 9:24pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Mathematics, Music, Science

I read too much and write too little. This has made it difficult to keep this space current and engaging, something that I sought to remedy with a weekly book review until other commitments started getting in the way. The book feature will return as soon as I can manage it and for as long as I can help it; but until then and going forward, I will content myself with regularly sharing some links to pieces that may fascinate the sort of people who come here in the first place, as they certainly fascinated me.

Up to this point I have typically refrained from aggregating news and commentary from elsewhere without any reply of my own, but I would rather pass on insightful reading material free of comment than never have it reach you at all. At the very least I hope to introduce some of you to the many excellent blogs and journals I follow.

Some recent highlights:

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Cognizing the film about film

Friday, 15 January 2010 — 10:35am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Science

There is a lot of rubbish being written about Avatar, and I freely admit to letting my own contribution stew in my draft box while I correct its pungent odour with the appropriate spice. But for the time being, I want to draw attention to one particular response to the film. Jonah Lehrer writes about the neuroscientific basis for cinematic immersion, and concludes:

What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we’re inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.)

When I think of films that act as “a metaphor for the act of movie-watching”, the director that instantly comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock. And it so happens that the Hitchcock film most commonly read in this way also has a protagonist laid up in a wheelchair.

Psychoanalytic criticism has long thrived as a route into Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not least because he was familiar with psychoanalysis and popularized it in his 1945 film Spellbound, but also because his characters were marked with disorders, obsessions, and pathological instabilities of personal identity. You can see it in his choice of literary adaptations, chiefly Rebecca, where the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is consumed by the lingering household presence of the first; and in later films like Vertigo, where Madeleine (Kim Novak) “becomes” her suicidal great-grandmother through gazing at a painting in the museum (or so it would seem). It is Rear Window, however, that openly sets up its hero, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) as a passive voyeur behind a fourth wall that encloses an exterior apartment complex, where he sees fragments of his own life and relationship reflected back at him.

None of these interpretations are terribly hard to arrive at by yourself, but if you really want to get fancy, step back one level further and look for films where people watch Hitchcock. (We’re all familiar with the typical shot of a character sitting in a cinema, backlit by the beams of the projector, but pay attention to their faces and how they react to the film embedded en abyme.) The most recent example off the top of my head is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, where Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gazes at Joan Fontaine in Suspicion as if looking into a mirror.

Of more interest from a sci-fi perspective—which will hopefully lead us back to Avatar—is how Terry Gilliam cues the final act of Twelve Monkeys with a scene from Vertigo, right when Madeleine Stowe takes after Kim Novak in turning her character blonde. A decade and a half after its release, Twelve Monkeys holds up today as one of the finest original pieces of sci-fi cinema (with all respect to its inspiration, La jetée), and it seems oddly prescient today in the face of James Cameron’s more conventional showpiece about a guy dumped into a tank to infiltrate and warn a society in which he is ultimately subsumed.

How, then, does Avatar differ from all these films? If the dissolution of identity is so key to its appeal, as Lehrer suggests, then why is it such an anomalous mainstream success?

The easy answer is that the kind of cortical stimulation Lehrer talks about comes equally from the overwhelming visuals of Cameron’s film, especially if you experience it in 3D. But that dodges the very questions of story and theme that Lehrer wants to raise. The thematic answer, as I see it, is that Avatar plays it safe: completely unlike the films of Hitchcock, Lee, and Gilliam, it never dares to convey the madness of a dissolved identity or bother its audience to consider the schizophrenia of immersing itself in film. On Pandora, a world where USB ponytails plug into any living thing, bodily escape is free of risk. The film doesn’t spit us out and force us to look at ourselves; it does the opposite instead, encouraging us to enjoy what Lehrer calls “a pretty nice cognitive vacation.”

Continued »

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