Althouse | category: books



an endless succession of beans and nuts.

"'Sybil' is part of a long American parade of books about psychologically distressed women, preceded in the 1960s by 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden' and 'The Bell Jar'..."

"... followed in the 1990s — the cloak coming off — by the confessionals 'Girl, Interrupted' and 'Prozac Nation.' It haunted teenage girls (and surely some boys) from their bedroom shelves, with its distinctive covers of a face divided as if the shards of a broken mirror, or fractured into jigsaw-puzzle pieces.... The book is a historical curiosity and a cautionary tale of mass cultural delusion that makes one wonder what current voguish diagnoses — witness the 'TikTok tics' — might warrant closer interrogation...."

It was a remarkable story — and at this moment of Women’s Lib and changing gender roles, an oddly relatable one: somehow of a piece with 'The Exorcist,' released the same year, and that bonkers Enjoli perfume commercial with a spokesmodel bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan and never letting you forget you were a man.... 

Yes, the 70s were bonkers. Easy enough to see in retrospect. The trick — as Jacobs clearly says — is knowing what's bonkers in your own time.  

I remember the "Sybil" craze of the 70s. I didn't read the book but I saw the TV movie. It allowed nice people to consume a sexual torture story and to believe that they cared quite seriously about mental health (and to marvel at the acting skill of Sally Field (as we once marveled at Joanne Woodward in "The 3 Faces of Eve")).

"Toxic masculinity. Fragile masculinity. Like most pop-sociological truisms that gain traction on social media, these are great buzzwords but they fail to grapple..."

"... with nuance.... 'The Male Gazed,' by the queer Colombian writer and film critic Manuel Betancourt, is a smart, refreshing essay collection.... Take one of the collection’s most compelling essays, 'Wrestling Heartthrobs,' which shows the author 'wrestling' with his attraction to the high school jock archetype, especially Mario Lopez’s singlet-clad character, A.C. Slater, in 'Saved by the Bell.' 'The image of the wrestler, even one as charming and unassuming as that of Slater, can’t help but conjure up both aggression and eroticism; the male body so revealed is both a come-on and a threat,' Betancourt writes. 'It is manhood distilled.'... Betancourt later dons a singlet himself, literally stepping into his high school fantasies so he can harness their carnal powers to appeal to other men and to become, if only on an aesthetic level, one of those jocks who excited him. His outfit is a celebration and a self-flagellation all in one."

Grappling with nuance.

ADDED: This made me think of the famous nude wrestling scene in the 1969 movie "Women in Love."

"[S]he interrogates her love of the flowered Czech dishes she inherited and then realized bear some resemblance to ones that belonged to Hitler’s companion, Eva Braun."

Writes Lily Meyer in "A Better Way of Buying—And Wanting—Things/A new book argues that we should honor our material desires rather than feeling ashamed of them" by  (The Atlantic)(reviewing the book "The Ugly History of Beautiful Things" by Katy Kelleher).
This discovery comes from her research on porcelain, which has already led to the discovery that some Jews incarcerated at Dachau had to work at a factory called Porzellan Manufaktur Allach.... One Allach statuette, the Fencer, depicts a white “muscled youth, shirtless, leaning on his épée”; a line from the first Allach catalog read, “White porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul.” 
Kelleher considers forcing herself to reject porcelain. Getting rid of her inherited Czech plates, which now remind her of “Braun’s disgusting dish,” could feel good. But it would be “false and futile—wasteful too.” She chooses instead to look squarely at the story behind the plates she uses, recalling as she sets her table that her home and life are “woven into the fabric of the world and its terrible history.”...

"The journalist’s need to humanize everything in sight can be useful, even revelatory, but it can also obscure."

"[Zappos' 'founder' Tony] Hsieh, in the end, was a rich guy who, early in his career, used his Harvard connections and some seed money to buy a series of lotto tickets in the tech boom, and then used his expanding wealth and influence to spread a bunch of marketing, in the form of pseudo-psychology, into the world. He slept with his employees and terrorized his closest friends. His descent into addiction and his untimely death were certainly tragic, but I couldn’t find much to admire about Hsieh in 'Wonder Boy,' nor did I understand why I was reading dozens of meticulously reported, almost snuff-film-like pages about his journey into ketamine addiction and mania.... [We never learn] how and why so much of the press and the public got suckered in by Hsieh’s generation of tech evangelists."

Is there a "journalist’s need to humanize everything in sight"? I hadn't noticed. Once you decide to write a whole book about someone, you're committed to "humanizing" that one human being, I suppose. There's always the question: Why write a book about this person?

A biographer has got to feel pretty sensitive as he struggles with the dullness of the facts he's got to inflate to book length. This is the story of a shoe saleman! He took drugs, but drug stories are basically alike. Why read about a tech exec on drugs when there are so many episodes of "Behind the Music" to watch?

There is one extraordinary thing about Hsieh, his fiery death. I'm guessing the book puts that scene in the beginning so the reader — the creepy reader — doesn't get impatient waiting for it. Is that humanizing — waiting for a man to be consumed by flames?

"The decision to publish the Steele dossier originated with the reporter Ben Smith, then the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News...

"In Smith’s telling, the laws of Web traffic, shaped by social media and their ability to disseminate material at exponential, 'viral' rates, unseated old power structures. An old news outlet held its authority by retaining a fixed audience and standing on its record of success. A new one, such as BuzzFeed News, won largely by being linkable and first. When it came to the Steele dossier, which a number of news organizations had in hand, Smith’s concern that someone else would beat him to the link made him feel physically unwell. His site wanted the traffic. And, when the CNN anchor Jake Tapper summarized the contents on air one day, Smith knew that viewers would be Googling for the goods. He and his colleagues, snatching the keyboard back and forth, composed a brief introduction that noted the dossier’s 'specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations' then posted the document itself, in PDF form. In his book, Smith recalls meditating on 'the viral power of an object... something that readers would fixate on and pass hand to hand.'"

So Smith had a temporary grip on clickbait, but can the man write a book? I see the hardcover, released last Tuesday, is #2,216 at Amazon. But who'd buy that in hardcover? Anyone interested in Smith's musings on virality would go with the Kindle, don't you think? I know I would, because I'd want to be able to cut and paste, using my own skill for presenting something you'd find delectable. But the Kindle version is at #5,107. I'm not interested in reading Smith's insights. Who wants the deeper thoughts of someone who figured out how to ride the moment for thrills? 

So I'm sticking with The New Yorker, which operates in the middle ground between clickbait and books. Nathan Heller pulls some quotation from the book:
"[BuzzFeed News was created as] a mere repository for things I hoped would go viral on Twitter. The little scoops that insiders would share and the articles with more cultural resonance, all chewed up into Twitter-size, context-free fragments.... I told my reporters, a group of hungry kids excited at the opportunity to compete with their pompous elders, that I didn’t want a story that didn’t live on Twitter. One reporter, Zeke Miller, was simply the fastest tweeter on the draw, which was actually enough to get attention back then, copying and pasting a press release headline before anyone else."

Some commentary from Nathan Heller:

What Smith has written is a Builder Bio: a story of scrappy oddball heroes with one weird business idea who gather the gang, suffer the slings and midnight crises of entrepreneurship, and, to the chagrin of the stuffed shirts, emerge powerful and rich and mysteriously well groomed....

Smith calls Matt Drudge “almost absurdly fit" and Chris Poole — the 4chan founder —  “sweet,” “handsome,” “productive,” and “hot.” He calls Andrew Breitbart “fat and stressed,” a “pudgy fire starter,” “a frenetic, overweight fleabag of a man,” “a hyperkinetic embodiment of attention deficit disorder,” and a “hyperactive pigpen of a right-wing lunatic, whose belly hung out from underneath his ratty T-shirt.” 

Heller concludes with a dream... of what? 

[T]he will to traffic is now everywhere: on your phone, in your ears, on your screen. In dreamy moods, I sometimes fantasize about journalism dropping out of the game—not chasing traffic, not following this year’s wisdom, not offering audiences everything they could possibly want in hastiest form. Imagine producing as little as you could as best you could: it would be there Monday, when the week began, and there Friday, the tree standing after the storm. And imagine the audience’s pleasure at finding it, tall and expansive and waiting for a sunny day. In an age of traffic, such deliberateness could be radical. It could be, I think, the next big thing.

A dream of what? Of The New Yorker! 

"She has made a living as a yoga teacher, though she doesn’t really like teaching and has a penchant for skewering the pieties of her profession..."

"... in Instagram parodies filmed by her husband. She has appeared in videos as a clueless self-care influencer, sometimes wrapped in a shearling rug, hawking tinctures with names like One Per Scent and Abundance, thanking Mercedes-Benz for ferrying her to ayahuasca ceremonies, and browbeating a pair of 'students' played by naked American Girl dolls marked up with Sharpies."

I'm reading "From "A Daughter of a Warhol Superstar Tells Her Story at Last/After an unruly childhood in the Chelsea Hotel and online fame as a yoga parodist, Alexandra Auder writes an ode to bohemian Manhattan and her singular mother, Viva" (NYT).

We're told Viva read a draft of her daughter's memoir and took to calling it "the 'Mommie Dearest' book."Viva — AKA Janet Susan Mary Hoffmann — is still alive. She's 88. She has another daughter, the actress Gaby Hoffman. And if you haven't seen her in any Andy Warhol movies, you probably still saw her in a small role in that early Woody Allen movie "Play It Again, Sam."

She's the character who says: "Allan, I won't deny it. I'm a nymphomaniac.... I slept with everybody.... I want to have sex all the time, play all the time otherwise you're just down, and why be down? The best way to get up is sex. I'm not like my sisters. They're so inhibited, they never want to do anything. I believe in having sex as often, as freely and as intensely as possible." The joke is that when the Woody Allen character responds by making a pass at her, she reacts with "What do you take me for?" (Video.)

"While reading 'Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Gardens,' by Marc Hamer, I often found myself wondering how old its author was..."

"... in part because the arc of the book follows Hamer getting too old to work as a gardener anymore. However, I hesitated to research his age. In Chapter 10, titled 'Gardener,' Hamer mentions the discovery, in 2006, of the world’s oldest living creature, a clam. The clam, named Ming, was five hundred and seven years old. It had been found off the coast of Iceland, and died when the scientists who discovered it tried to ascertain its age."

You can buy "Spring Rain: A Life Lived in Garden" at that link, at Amazon.

And here's the Wikipedia page for the clam "named Ming." I put that in quotes because I think if a creature has been living for hundreds of years, nameless, it's awfully presumptuous to suddenly assign him a name, just because you've discovered him. It's right there with determining an age and, as part of the process, killing it.
The clam was initially named Ming by Sunday Times journalists, in reference to the Ming dynasty, during which it was born.

So there was some cultural appropriation going on too. It was from the ocean near Iceland, and not at all Chinese (if it makes any sense to say that animals belong to the political subdivisions of human society).

Later, the Icelandic researchers on the cruise which discovered the clam named it Hafrún, a woman's name which translates roughly as 'the mystery of the ocean'; taken from haf, 'ocean', and rún, 'mystery').

I approve. That's much better, and yet Wikipedia names the article "Ming (clam)." I still am delighted that there's a famous clam. Are there other famous clams?

The actual sex of the clam, however, is unknown, as its reproductive state was recorded as "spent".

How many of you identify as "spent"?!

"At bottom, IA's fair use defense rests on the notion that lawfully acquiring a copyrighted print book entitles the recipient to make an unauthorized copy..."

"... and distribute it in place of the print book, so long as it does not simultaneously lend the print book. But no case or legal principle supports that notion. Every authority points the other direction."
Wrote Judge John G. Koeltl, of the Southern District of New York, quoted in "A judge sided with publishers in a lawsuit over the Internet Archive's online library" (NPR)(full text of case here).

It's well established that if you buy a printed book, you can share that book with as many people as you want, pass it around, lend it out, give it away, re-sell it. The book is an object that is owned, like a hat or a teddy bear. But a digital copy of that book you own is not the object. It's something else. And you've made a copy and are only lending that out. You still have the book, even though you may be keeping it, inert, on a shelf.

"We tend to overstate the poverty of the style that precedes a style we admire..."

"... histories of rock and roll treat what accompanied it on the airwaves of the fifties as if the music were all 'Sing Along with Mitch' and 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,' when it was also Sinatra’s concept albums, Sarah Vaughan’s collaborations with George Treadwell, and Dave Brubeck’s million-selling recording of a jazz instrumental in five-four time. And so we remember paperback books, pre-Push Pin, as either clinically bare, as with Modern Library editions, or outlandishly lurid, as with an edition of 'Madame Bovary' featuring an Ava Gardner-style femme fatale, complete with slipping negligee....There was, in truth, much ambitious 'art' illustration in those years, including Ben Shahn’s covers for S. J. Perelman and Kauffer’s cover for Ralph Ellison’s 'Invisible Man.'"

Here are those Ben Shahn covers.

Here's that Kauffer cover.

And I think this might be the referenced "outlandishly lurid" "Madame Bovary" cover:

Or... this fits the description better (but it's a British edition):

"We tend to overstate the poverty of the style that precedes a style we admire..."

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