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kottke.org posts about books

“How the Fridge Changed Flavor”

In an adaptation from her forthcoming book, Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves, Nicola Twilley shares how refrigeration changed the food we eat and even how it tastes (you tomato and strawberry lovers know what I’m talking about):

The opportunity to consume frosty drinks and desserts opened up an entirely new vocabulary of sensation. Some found the cold shocking at first. “Lord! How I have seen the people splutter when they’ve tasted them for the first time,” a London ice-cream vender recalled in 1851. One customer — “a young Irish fellow” — took a spoonful, stood statue still, and then “roared out, ‘Jasus! I am kilt. The coald shivers is on to me.’” The earliest recorded description of brain freeze seems to have been published by Patrick Brydone, a Scotsman travelling in Sicily in the seventeen-seventies. The victim was a British naval officer who took a big bite of ice cream at a formal dinner. “At first he only looked grave, and blew up his cheeks to give it more room,” Brydone wrote. “The violence of the cold soon getting the better of his patience, he began to tumble it about from side to side in his mouth, his eyes rushing out of water.” Shortly thereafter, he spat it out “with a horrid oath” and, in his outrage, had to be restrained from beating the nearest servant.

And I wasn’t aware of this:

Leaving aside its suggestion that one serve “Molded Lamb with Fruit,” Kelvinator wasn’t wrong to claim that refrigeration could make leftovers taste better. After all, chemical reactions continue in the cold, albeit slowly, and some of them improve flavor. Several years ago, Cook’s Illustrated investigated this process by serving fresh bowls of beef chili, in addition to French onion, creamy tomato, and black-bean soups, alongside portions that had been made two days earlier. Testers preferred the fridge-aged versions, describing them as “sweeter,” “more robust-tasting,” and “well-rounded.”

Twilley also recently shared a preview on the podcast she co-hosts, Gastropod: The Birth of Cool: How Refrigeration Changed Everything. Frostbite is out on June 25 and is available for preorder on Amazon or Bookshop.

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1982 DC Comics Style Guide

color palettes of DC superheroes

Wonder Woman from three different angles

Batman from three different angles

Standards Manual is gearing up for a new release: a reproduction of the DC Comics Style Guide from 1982.

Reproduced from a rare original copy, the book features over 165 highly-detailed scans of the legendary art by José Luis García-López, with an introduction by Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics.

First issued in 1982, the Style Guide aimed to assist licensees in delivering a consistent look for DC’s Super Heroes. The reissue is based on the original copy held by Standards Manual, containing an amalgam of pages added by the owners of the original from ‘82 to ‘85.

Comics nerds, get in there.

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Intermezzo by Sally Rooney

the cover of Sally Rooney's Intermezzo, featuring a yellow and brown chessboard and chess pieces whose shadows are people

Oh, there’s a new Sally Rooney novel coming out just a few days before my birthday? Now you all know what to get meeeee. It’s called Intermezzo and here’s the synopsis:

Aside from the fact that they are brothers, Peter and Ivan Koubek seem to have little in common.

Peter is a Dublin lawyer in his thirties — successful, competent, and apparently unassailable. But in the wake of their father’s death, he’s medicating himself to sleep and struggling to manage his relationships with two very different women — his enduring first love, Sylvia, and Naomi, a college student for whom life is one long joke.

Ivan is a twenty-two-year-old competitive chess player. He has always seen himself as socially awkward, a loner, the antithesis of his glib elder brother. Now, in the early weeks of his bereavement, Ivan meets Margaret, an older woman emerging from her own turbulent past, and their lives become rapidly and intensely intertwined.

For two grieving brothers and the people they love, this is a new interlude — a period of desire, despair, and possibility; a chance to find out how much one life might hold inside itself without breaking.

According to her UK publisher, here are the novel’s opening lines:

Didn’t seem fair on the young lad. That suit at the funeral. With the braces on his teeth, the supreme discomfort of the adolescent.

Already hooked. You can preorder Intermezzo at Amazon or Bookshop.

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Drawing Media, an Interview With Rex Parker

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Edith here. For the latest installment of my newish illustrated column, I spoke with Rex Parker, a.k.a. Michael Sharp, of the beloved crossword puzzle blog Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle. (I started following relatively recently but now read it daily, leaving it perpetually open on my phone.) Sharp also teaches English Literature at Binghamton University, runs a vintage paperback blog called Pop Sensation, and tweets about The Lamps of Film Noir at The Lamps of Film Noir.

Rex, have you read (watched, listened to, or otherwise experienced) anything good recently?
Sure. Lots of stuff. My best friend and I decided to read all of Proust this year. We’re way behind already, but I have read Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes, and it’s exquisite. And hilarious. I did not expect Proust to be hilarious.

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What’s something you’ve read or seen that changed your life, even in a small way?
I was buying something at my college bookstore in ’90 or ’91 and there was this amazing point-of-purchase display for a a new line of crime fiction from Vintage called “Black Lizard.” The display was a cardboard standee with this set of amazing-looking novels housed inside, covers facing out — black-and-white stills (evoking midcentury B movies) with bright slashes of color across them that featured the authors and titles. I’d never heard of any of them, but there were blurbs from people like Stanley Kubrick on them. They were so beautiful, so striking … they struck some chord in me that I didn’t know was there. I would later recognized this chord as “Noir.” I bought two of those books on the spot: Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. I read them both immediately, in two gulps, faster than I’d ever read anything (I’m a slow reader).

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Five years later, the Robert Polito biography of Jim Thompson, Savage Art, came out and was a big splash. *That* book changed my life — it featured a photo spread of all Thompson’s paperback originals, the 25-cent pocket books with lurid covers and taglines. I was mesmerized. I knew I couldn’t afford Thompson originals, but at some point, I thought, “Well, there must be lots of other paperbacks out there from this same era, with this same look, that I *can* afford.” And I marched right into downtown Ann Arbor, to the first used bookstore I came to, and started my vintage paperback collection right then and there (a collection that’s at about 3,000 books at the moment). The first one ever bought was called Louisville Saturday, which I wrote about here.

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Do you subscribe to anything you don’t read?
Of course. Mostly Substacks I *want* to read but just don’t seem to get around to. Maybe this summer? (Maybe not.)

Read anything you don’t subscribe to? Like, are there paywalls you’re always skirting?
I don’t skirt paywalls. As someone who relies on his own readers for a good part of his income, I believe in paying for the media you consume.

Do you have a favorite newsletter?
Vince Keenan, former editor-in-chief of Noir City, has a noir-themed newsletter I like.

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Scott Hines’s Action Cookbook Newsletter is fun. Those are both newsletters with regular cocktail content, which keeps me coming back.

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Have you ever lied about reading or watching something? Or felt tempted to lie about it?
The great thing about getting old is that I do not give a fuck about whether anyone thinks I’m well read or up on current shows. So no, no lying, as a rule.

Are there any cultural moments you currently think about unusually often? A song lyric, a moment from a TV show, or anything like that?
There are thousands. I don’t know how to pick one. If I can call the first decade of “The Simpsons” one cultural moment, yes. That show rewired my brain. It was the best thing on the air by light years. I still can’t believe it was real, let alone (somehow) still on the air thirty+ years later. So much about the way I write, think, teach, etc, comes from being immersed in that show for years and years. Not just direct quotes, but my whole sense of humor, my sense of timing. So many great, great, funny writers and performers were at the core of that show, from Conan to Albert Brooks to Phil fucking Hartman. And it was a show that didn’t treat women horribly. You could feel the affection that show had for Marge, and especially Lisa, who is an icon. My personal hero. That first decade was truly miraculous to me. The only thing that compares in live-action shows, for me, is “Freaks & Geeks,” which lasted just one glorious season. Again, I can’t believe something so perfect ever even made it to air.

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What were you really into when you were 12?
Sadness. Donkey Kong. And The Motels — I listened to the album “All Four One” over and over and over and over. Martha Davis was my first celebrity crush. No, second. Olivia Newton-John was first.

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Is there a book/movie/whatever you’d like to experience again for the first time?
Not really. Maybe The Long Goodbye, which is my favorite novel, but I actually enjoy rereading it every year. I enjoy knowing it so well. I enjoy meeting sentences and paragraphs again like they’re old friends. You can’t get that on a first reading, obviously.

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Is there something you wish your phone could do that it doesn’t?
Go away.

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Please tell me something silly that you love.
My cats. They have such weird habits. Like, Alfie hates when you make the bed. He will not let you. Clean sheets are his enemy. No one knows why. Both cats have figured out that if you sit at the bottom of the stairs, you can look in the mirror on the closet door there and see the sliding glass door in the kitchen that opens onto the back deck (and vice versa). Sometimes I find the cats in these completely different parts of the house, one in the kitchen, the other at the bottom of the stairs, just staring at each other in that mirror. I’m like “buddy, you can just go in the next room and see Ida in person,” but no. Mirror staring. Cats are ridiculous, which is why they’re great.

mscats1.jpg

Thanks, Rex! Rex’s crossword blog can be found here. And past Drawing Media installments can be found here.

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Okay, I Did Reread ‘My Favorite Thing Is Monsters’ Part One

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Maybe I can piggyback this on the Hot Frank Summer we’re all about to have/are currently having (I’m doing it!), but I did reread Emil Ferris’s fantastic graphic novel in advance of Part Two coming out TODAY, and it only gets better on a second reading. Plus there’s a Frankenstein tie-in, too, so…

There are also cool new features on Ferris in Vulture and WaPo, as well as some sweet Part Two micro teasers on Desert Island Comics’ Instagram.

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Last Week’s Reads: Scrabble, Emoji, Quilts

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Hey, I took the week off last week! But I missed it here and am glad to be back. Here are a few things I enjoyed while I was gone:

1. Emily Gould’s ranking of 15 recent children’s books written by celebrities, in The Cut. For instance, No. 15 (lowest):

Finally, it’s here, the book everyone has been clamoring for: woke retellings of Aesop’s fables, by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman! In Portman’s version of “The Three Little Pigs,” the first two pigs unwisely build their houses out of fast-food leftovers and plastic drinking straws. The wolf blows their houses down to warn them that only sustainable, environmentally friendly building practices are acceptable.

Lol.

2. This little half factoid, teased on the Iowa Quilt Museum’s Instagram: “The Double Wedding Ring is one of the most unfinished patterns in American history.” But why? Broken engagements? Is the design too ambitious? I can confirm that it was difficult even to draw.

3. The Most Misunderstood Emojis of 2024, in Axios. The revolving hearts don’t make the list, but maybe we cracked the code on those. 💞

4. “As was the case with alcohol, my first and last thoughts of the day are usually Scrabble related.” Brad Phillips’ essay in the Paris Review about swapping one addiction for another. “Editing this essay today, on six different occasions I’ve stopped to open ISC.RO [and play Scrabble]. Each time, I’ve played more games than I’d intended.” Also: “A common obsession is a powerful unifier, one that renders all other biographical information meaningless.”

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Slow Publishing With Arion Press

San Francisco’s Arion Press still uses decades-old machines to make beautiful books by hand. They’re one of the few remaining presses in the world that do everything from start to finish — they even cast their own type.

Arion dwells in an almost extinct corner of the book world: Call it Slow Publishing. It produces only three books a year, each a unique art object reproduced in editions of less than 300. Art is so important, in fact, that the illustrators-art-world luminaries-drive the title selection process.

“We learned that the projects went a lot more smoothly when we said to the artist, ‘What do you want to do?’” Blythe said.

Anthony Bourdain visited Arion in 2015 for a online series called Raw Craft — it’s a great look at how and why they produce books this way:

Business Insider’s Still Standing series recently profiled Arion as well:

(thx, stephen)

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Future 2024 Bestsellers

book covers for Long Island Compromise, Frostbite, and Hip-Hop Is History

Kirkus’s list of 20 Books That Should Be Bestsellers reminds me that Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new book, Long Island Compromise, is due out this summer, so yay to that. Yay also to pal Nicola Twilley for making the list with her book Frostbite. And there’s a new-to-me title on there that I’m intrigued by: Hip-Hop Is History by Questlove (with Ben Greenman).

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Hot Frank Summer Starts Now!

cover of Frankenstein

Hey folks. I’ve posted a couple of times about Hot Frank Summer, the group read of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831 edition) that some folks are doing on Bluesky. Well, it kicks off today. To participate, all you need to do is follow the reading schedule. If you don’t have a copy of the book yet, check out this free ebook version by Standard Ebooks — they even have a web version you can read on your phone or tablet (or Vision Pro, I guess?).

If you’d also like to discuss the book (and/or follow along with others discussing the book), there’s this feed on Bluesky. I found this little tidbit on the feed:

Frankenstein takes place in the mid-1790s and Moby Dick may take place as early as 1830, so it’s possible Captain Walton sailed with a young Ahab.

Someone needs to write that little crossover prequel.

Anyway, you can also use this comment thread as a place to discuss the book. I’m not sure how well it will work, but we can give it a try? I’d suggest not discussing anything ahead of the day’s reading, but other than that, let ‘er rip!

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The Demon of Unrest by Erik Larson

Demon Of Unrest

Oh man, I screwed up big-time you guys and owe you an apology. The great Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City, The Splendid and the Vile, In the Garden of Beasts) came out with a new book two weeks ago and I somehow missed it! I almost shrieked when I saw it on the bookstore front table yesterday.

Anyway, the book is called The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War (bookshop.org). Here’s the synopsis:

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the fluky victor in a tight race for president. The country was bitterly at odds; Southern extremists were moving ever closer to destroying the Union, with one state after another seceding and Lincoln powerless to stop them. Slavery fueled the conflict, but somehow the passions of North and South came to focus on a lonely federal fortress in Charleston Harbor: Fort Sumter.

Master storyteller Erik Larson offers a gripping account of the chaotic months between Lincoln’s election and the Confederacy’s shelling of Sumter — a period marked by tragic errors and miscommunications, enflamed egos and craven ambitions, personal tragedies and betrayals. Lincoln himself wrote that the trials of these five months were “so great that, could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them.”

With a movie out in theaters called Civil War and southern states once again agitating for “”“state’s rights”“” (I really can’t put enough exaggerated air-quotes around that phrase) in order to control bodily freedoms, The Demon of Unrest is really timely; Larson himself connects the events of the book with January 6th in a reader’s note:

I was well into my research on the saga of Fort Sumter and the advent of the American Civil War when the events of January 6, 2021, took place. As I watched the Capitol assault unfold on camera, I had the eerie feeling that present and past had merged. It is unsettling that in 1861 two of the greatest moments of national dread centered on the certification of the Electoral College vote and the presidential inauguration.

I was appalled by the attack, but also riveted. I realized that the anxiety, anger, and astonishment that I felt would certainly have been experienced in 1860-1861 by vast numbers of Americans. With this in mind, I set out to try to capture the real suspense of those long-ago months when the country lurched toward catastrophe, propelled by hubris, duplicity, false honor, and an unsatisfiable craving on the part of certain key actors for personal attention and affirmation. Many voices at the time of Sumter warned of civil war, but few had an inkling of what that might truly mean, and certainly none would have believed that any such war could take the lives of 750,000 Americans.

History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme. So anyway, I’m 60+ pages in and can already recommend it — you can get The Demon of Unrest at Amazon or bookshop.org.

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The Gentle Librarian

Boox Palma

As someone who reads almost exclusively on an ereader (a Kindle Paperwhite), I have been intrigued by Craig Mod’s recent evangelism of the BOOX Palma, a pocket-sized e-ink device that he’s been using as an ereader. In the latest issue of his Roden newsletter, he explains why he likes it so much:

Once you hold a Palma, you realize that for most situations it’s an ideal reading container. On the train? In line? In the waiting room at the doctor’s office? I’ve carried my Palma with me every day for the past three or so months with the goal of reaching for it rather than my iPhone. I call it the Gentle Librarian. Soft screen, clean interface, no SIM card and so mostly no internet (it loads up with new articles while at home on Wi-Fi; I can always tether to my phone to update or add something new to read on the go), a refresh rate that is plausible enough on which to watch movies (!! hypnotizing, actually, like watching a magic trick, like what Victorians may have imagined “computer screens” to look like) but not really responsive enough to seduce you into installing social media apps. There’s a lot of friction in this little bugger, and it turns out a bit of friction is a good friend of the kind of reading we love.

Hmm. Hmm! Like Mod, I’m frustrated with Amazon’s lack of vision and activity on the ereader front and lament the time I spend on my Casino Rectangle / Dingdong Casino of Hell. Maybe I’ll try the Palma out…

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The Light Eaters and Plant Intelligence

Zoë Schlanger’s new book (out today) sounds really interesting: The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth (Bookshop.org).

It takes tremendous biological creativity to be a plant. To survive and thrive while rooted in a single spot, plants have adapted ingenious methods of survival. In recent years, scientists have learned about their ability to communicate, recognize their kin and behave socially, hear sounds, morph their bodies to blend into their surroundings, store useful memories that inform their life cycle, and trick animals into behaving to their benefit, to name just a few remarkable talents.

I heard about it from NPR’s Fresh Air — check out this completely metal behavior:

Schlanger notes that some tomato plants, when being eaten by caterpillars, fill their leaves with a chemical that makes them so unappetizing that the caterpillars start eating each other instead. Corn plants have been known to sample the saliva of predator caterpillars — and then use that information to emit a chemical to attract a parasitic wasp that will attack the caterpillar.

Schlanger acknowledges that our understanding of plants is still developing — as are the definitions of “intelligence” and “consciousness.” “Science is there [for] observation and to experiment, but it can’t answer questions about this ineffable, squishy concept of intelligence and consciousness,” she says.

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The Shardlake Series

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In honor of novelist C.J. Sansom’s passing, I wanted to recommend his marvelous Matthew Shardlake historical crime thrillers, for anyone who isn’t already familiar. I definitely learned and remembered more about Thomas Cromwell-era England from Dissolution than I did from any textbooks (not that I’ve read any of those in a while, but still). It was all very visceral in a damp-stone-monastery, heavy cloaks, burning candles, teeth-being-pulled-in-the-Tower-of-London kind of way. Also his novels are just super fun, and the Matthew Shardlake character — a sort of proto-detective lawyer — is especially memorable.

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Writ Small: A Newsletter Recommending Kids’ Media

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My daughter is home sick from daycare, and I’m letting her watch my phone unlimitedly. She’s absorbed in it but made an exception to look up and point at the above picture, from an entry in Chadwick Matlin’s newsletter Writ Small, about the book Today, by Julie Morstad. The newsletter highlights kids’ media — “think Bluey, but stuff that isn’t Bluey” — and so far the worst part is that I want to buy everything it recommends.

I also learned a lot from this installment on a song from the 2021 My Little Pony movie. (thx, Gillian!)

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I Just Wasn’t Very Good

I’ve been thinking about something I posted last week — in an excerpt from his new book The Work of Art, former New York magazine editor Adam Moss described the art he makes as bad: “When I left my job, I began to paint more seriously,” he wrote. “That was the beginning of my torment: I just wasn’t very good.” Or as he put it to The New Yorker: “I kind of just wasn’t any good.” Or to Vanity Fair: “I really wanted to be a good painter. What a fucking idiot I was.” Or on NPR, “I really wanted to be good, and it made the act of making art so frustrating for me.”

The book is mostly about how other artists make their work, but I’m currently more interested in what Moss has to say about himself and his art.

Later in the VF and NPR interviews, Moss says that the main lesson he learned from making the book is that with art, it’s the journey not the destination — or, “the making, not the made” (“It’s the most banal observation”) — but of course I still went looking for his paintings online. I want to see them! I didn’t find anything (per the VF article, he hasn’t shared anything publicly yet), but to Moss I say: Show them! Maybe it doesn’t matter if they’re not good. Maybe the worse, the better.

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Adam Moss and the Creative Process

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When I quit my magazine job, I decided to try my hand as an artist. … I got frustrated easily and gave up easily, never knowing when to persevere or surrender. …

My curiosity is earthbound: Where do [artists] begin, and what do they do next, and when do they know they are finished? And more crucially: What do they do when they lose faith? Do they lose faith?

In an adaptation from his new book, The Work of Art: How Something Comes From Nothing, former New York magazine editor Adam Moss shares his interviews with Kara Walker, Louise Glück, and Cheryl Pope, about their respective creative processes [Vulture]. My favorite part is the intro, though, where he talks about his own process (“that was the beginning of my torment”).

I’m hoping the answer to the “persevere or surrender” question is in there very explicitly, by the way!

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Fiction-Inspired Travel?

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Has a novel ever made you desperate to travel somewhere? I’m reading The Historian, and I’m now dying to visit Eastern Europe. I want to see the Danube, visit Istanbul, and spend weeks in Dubrovnik. And, okay, maybe visit the monastery on an island in the middle of Lake Snagov! (Map of the Danube via wikivoyage.) Anyone else?

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This Woman Deconstructs 100-Year-Old Books To Restore Them

Sophia Bogle is an expert at restoring old books and I was riveted by this video of her taking viewers through the deconstruction and restoration process, including a tour of her workshop and some of the tools she uses (e.g. a repair knife she designed herself to resemble a fingertip).

But reader, I gasped when she signed her work…I don’t think I could do that! (via boing boing)

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Y’all Like Books?

I love books a bunch, mostly contemporary fiction and sometimes non-fiction, and I thought it would be fun if we had a comments thread about books you like or don’t like or want to read? Maybe you’ll get a suggestion for something you’d like to read.

Here are some books I’ve loved the last few years:

  • Harlem Shuffle and Crooks Manifesto by Colson Whitehead
  • Heaven and Earth Grocery and Deacon King Kong and The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton
  • Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Sellout by Dan Ozzi
  • Gone to the Wolves by John Wray

This year I’ve really liked:

  • North Woods by Daniel Mason
  • Wellness by Nathan Hill
  • Biography of X by Catherine Lacey (I actually can’t decide if I liked this or if I just want to talk to people about it. I hated all the characters.)
  • The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue
  • Running the Light by Sam Tallent

Favorites of all time!!

  • Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt and
  • Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. (The long awaited TV adaptation of GiM with Ewan McGregor starts today on Showtime.)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Also, what do you think about a Kottke.org book club? Let’s do a bookclub, right? I’m not really sure how it would work except for probably we’d all read the same book at around the same time and then probably we’d all gather somewhere on this website and talk about the book, probably in a comments thread, though it remains to be seen. Comment down below if y’all are interested and Jason’s gonna come back from vacation and I’ll say, “Surprise, buddy, now youse got a book club!” and then we’ll go from there.
(And by “there” I mean we’ll figure out a book and time and method for discussion and then we’ll tell you about it.)

What have you been reading?

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The Majesty of Cold Mountain

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Okay, the NY Times writer Ruth Graham recently tweeted this, and it’s so wonderful that I’m going to copy part of it word for word — the tweet is a photograph of the following letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review section (not online):

TO THE EDITOR:

Way back in 1997, when Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” was released, I was given a copy as a present. When I flipped it over, I was struck by a blurb that seemed excessive, bordering on parody. One Rick Bass said of the novel that it “is so magnificent — in every conceivable aspect, and others perviously unimagined — that it has occurred to me that the shadow of this book, and the joy I received in reading it, will fall over every other book I ever read.” It felt so hyperbolic that it put me off trusting blurbs on dust jackets forever.

So imagine my surprise when I opened the Feb. 4 By the Book feature to see Rick Bass answer the question “What books are on your night stand?” And he replied, “‘Cold Mountain (‘re-re-re-read).”” He has restored my faith in the humble, oft-dismissed blurb in one fell swoop. It was that important to him! Lesson learned.

Christopher Vyce
Cambridge, Mass.

As Ruth put it: “Pure and total delight! A perfect letter!” Here’s Bass’s By the Book interview, by the way. I haven’t read Cold Mountain, but I’m not sure if this makes me want to or not. I’d almost rather leave it as this legendary.

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The Enablers

This is quite a paragraph from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review (titled The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers (subhead: “The Nazi leader didn’t seize power; he was given it.”)) of Timothy Ryback’s new book, Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power:

Ryback details, week by week, day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, how a country with a functional, if flawed, democratic machinery handed absolute power over to someone who could never claim a majority in an actual election and whom the entire conservative political class regarded as a chaotic clown with a violent following. Ryback shows how major players thought they could find some ulterior advantage in managing him. Each was sure that, after the passing of a brief storm cloud, so obviously overloaded that it had to expend itself, they would emerge in possession of power. The corporate bosses thought that, if you looked past the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you had someone who would protect your money. Communist ideologues thought that, if you peered deeply enough into the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you could spy the pattern of a popular revolution. The decent right thought that he was too obviously deranged to remain in power long, and the decent left, tempered by earlier fights against different enemies, thought that, if they forcibly stuck to the rule of law, then the law would somehow by itself entrap a lawless leader. In a now familiar paradox, the rational forces stuck to magical thinking, while the irrational ones were more logical, parsing the brute equations of power. And so the storm never passed. In a way, it still has not.

I got this via Clayton Cubitt, who says “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”


Don’t Be the Best. Be the Only.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Kevin Kelly’s Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier for the last few months and keep coming back to one of his tidbits of advice:

Don’t be the best. Be the only.

In a short clip from a longer interview, Kelly explains what he means by this:

You want to be doing something where it’s hard to explain to your mother what it is that you do. So it’s like, “What is it? Well, it’s not quite radio. I don’t know. It’s like talking.” And so that’s where you want to be. You want to be the only. You want to — and that’s a very high bar because it requires a tremendous amount of self-knowledge and awareness to get to that point, to really understand what it is that you do better than anybody else in the world. And for most of us, it takes all our lives to figure that out.

And we also, by the way, need family, friends, colleagues, customers, clients, everyone around us to help us understand what it is that we do better than anybody else because we can’t really get there by yourself. You can’t do thinkism, you can’t figure your way there, you have to try and live it out. And that’s why most people’s remarkable lives are full of detours and dead ends and right turns because it’s a very high bar. But if you can get there — you don’t need a resume, there’s no competition. And it’s easy for you because you’re doing it. You’re not looking over your shoulder, you’re just right there. So don’t aim to be the best. Be the only.

Although it works in many situations, my interpretation of this aphorism is from the point of view of a creative person. There’s a point in your work/career/journey when you reach an escape velocity of sorts from your peers and the world around you. What you offer to others is just different enough that you become your own category of one: nothing but you will do. Not better, different. I don’t know if I’m there yet in my creative trajectory, but it’s been a worthy goal to pursue — it takes you inside yourself (in a healthy way) and away from “comparison is the thief of joy” territory.

Kelly states in the foreword of his book that much of his advice was gleaned from elsewhere so I decided to track down where this one might have come from. Legendary concert promoter Bill Graham used a similar phrase in a banner describing the Grateful Dead at a 1991 concert for the band:

They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.

Grateful Dead: not the best, but the only. That sounds about right.

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The Neo-Luddite Movement

For the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Brian Merchant’s history of the Luddite movement, Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. In it, Merchant argues the Luddites were at their core a labor movement against capitalism and compares them to contemporary movements against big tech and media companies. Merchant writes in the Atlantic:

The first Luddites were artisans and cloth workers in England who, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, protested the way factory owners used machinery to undercut their status and wages. Contrary to popular belief, they did not dislike technology; most were skilled technicians.

At the time, some entrepreneurs had started to deploy automated machines that unskilled workers — many of them children — could use to churn out cheap, low-quality goods. And while the price of garments fell and the industrial economy boomed, hundreds of thousands of working people fell into poverty. When petitioning Parliament and appealing to the industrialists for minimum wages and basic protections failed, many organized under the banner of a Robin Hood-like figure, Ned Ludd, and took up hammers to smash the industrialists’ machines. They became the Luddites.

He goes on to compare their actions to tech publication writers’ strikes, the SAG-AFTRA & WGA strikes, the Authors Guild lawsuit against AI companies, and a group of masked activists “coning” self-driving cars. All this reminds me of Ted Chiang’s quote about AI:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

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The Public Art of the NYC Transit System

NYC subway mosaic pattern of beautiful pink and white blossoms

NYC subway mosaic pattern by Nick Cave featuring dancing figures

From The Monacelli Press, Contemporary Art Underground: MTA Arts & Design New York is a forthcoming book about the art projects the MTA has completed in the last decade in the NYC transit system.

Of special interest is the discussion of fabricating and transposing the artist’s rendering or model into mosaic, glass, or metal, the materials that can survive in the transit environment.

Nancy Blum’s piece at the 28th Street station (top, above) is my favorite piece in the entire subway system; I love it so much. (via colossal)

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How Jane Austen Changed Fiction Forever

Right from the start of her first book, Sense and Sensibility, Austen used an innovative narration technique called free indirect speech:

To understand why Austen’s narration is so distinct, the method and style of narration in which she wrote must be understood. Austen wrote in a little-known and not-often-used method of third-person narration called free indirect speech. Free Indirect Speech (FIS) is a distinct kind of third-person narration which seamlessly slips in and out of a character’s consciousness while still being presented by the third-person narrator.

In the video above, Evan Puschak explains, with examples, what free indirect speech is and why it was so revolutionary & influential when wielded by Austen.

Also, I didn’t know that Twain was such an Austen hater:

She also sparked dislike in such an extreme that Mark Twain once famously wrote that, when reading Pride & Prejudice, he wanted to dig up Austen and beat her with her own shin bone.

Team Austen over here.

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My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book Two

book cover for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Book Two by Emil Ferris

Publishers Weekly gave Emil Ferris’s eagerly anticipated graphic novel My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, Book Two a starred review, calling it “a triumph.” Yay! The book is due out May 28, but there’s a (wonderful) excerpt in the New Yorker, where the whole thing is called “well worth the wait.”

I’ll probably reread Book One to prepare, in case anyone wants to join me. I loved this book. (I also drew about it in my newsletter once!)

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Join or Die

Join or Die is a documentary about the life, work, and ideas of Robert Putnam, popularizer of the concept of social capital and author of the prescient Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

How many times last year did you go to church? How many times did you go to a dinner party? How many times last year did you go to club meeting? In barely a couple of decades, half of all the civic infrastructure in America has simply vanished. It’s equivalent to say half of all the roads in America just disappeared.

(via colossal)

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‘The Examined Run’ and Virtue in Athletics

It’s a little painful to me that a woman my own age is not only a philosophy professor and mother to two small children but also a long-distance runner who writes a thoughtful and affecting online column about all of the above. She — Sabrina Little — has a new book out about virtue in athletics, and while I am dying to hate the whole thing, I found her interview with the running newsletter The Half Marathoner to be inviting enough that I ordered the book. Here’s one bit from the interview (I can’t tell if it sounds preachy out of context, but maybe I’ve just drunk too much of the Kool Aid):

I … found a special kinship between the work that I do in virtue ethics and in running. Virtues are acquired by practice. For example, we act courageously to develop courage, honestly to become honest, and so forth. In athletics, we have this same logic of ‘practice.’ We set out everyday in our sneakers to improve in certain respects — becoming faster, more courageous, more perseverant.

However, where character is concerned, if we are not intentional in our training, we may be developing the wrong things — imprudence, poor stewardship, intemperance, or impatience. These traits can impact our training, but also our lives outside of it. So, there is value in examining running as a formative practice. We should ask whether we are practicing being the kinds of people we want to be outside of the sport.

The interview reminded me that my main goal in running is to continue to be able to run. It also reminded me, of course, of “You Should Try Running, According to Me, Your Friend Who Won’t Shut Up About Running,” which is also a thoughtful and affecting read.

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Our Missed Head Start on the Climate Crisis

a timeline showing the passage of 120 years between the invention of the Watt steam engine to the discovery of the greenhouse effect and 128 years between the greenhouse discovery and today

In 1896, scientists determined that industrialization was adding CO2 to the atmosphere and quantified how much it would warm the Earth. That date is closer to the start of the Industrial Revolution than to the present day.

If you’re wondering, like I did, about that 1896 date — what about Fourier and Pouillet and Tyndall and Eunice Foote? — the Wikipedia pages on the history of the discovery of the greenhouse effect and the history of climate change science are worth a read.

The warming effect of sunlight on different gases was examined in 1856 by Eunice Newton Foote, who described her experiments using glass tubes exposed to sunlight. The warming effect of the sun was greater for compressed air than for an evacuated tube and greater for moist air than dry air. “Thirdly, the highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas.” (carbon dioxide) She continued: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its action, as well as from an increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”

Foote’s paper went largely unnoticed until it was rediscovered in the last decade. If you’re interested, the best thing I’ve read on the history of climate change is the 7th chapter of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

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“What Relationships Would You Want if You Believed They Were Possible?”

I listened to the latest episode of the Ezra Klein Show while driving last night then spent the second half of the drive thinking about it. So I guess I’d better tell you to go and listen to it. Klein interviews Rhaina Cohen, who is the author of the forthcoming book The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (out Feb 13). They talked about loneliness, the changing definition of friendship (and family) throughout history, polyamory, co-parenting, and lots more.

How do we imagine many other possibilities for parenting, for aging, for intimacy, for friendship, for romance than what we have right now? Because the idea that what we have right now is a working norm and everything else should be understood as some deviation is wrong. It is factually untrue.

It is not a norm. It is a wild experiment in the history of human existence. We have never done this before for any period of time. It’s not how we raised children. It is not how we have met each other. It is not how we have lived together.

And it’s not working for a lot of people. So this is an experiment, and we should be trying more. And what Cohen’s book is about is these experiments, is looking at things people are already doing, and, in a sense, making clear that there are more relationships happening right now in the world around you, more forms of relationship, than you could possibly imagine.

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