• February 20, 2016

    Umberto Eco

    Umberto Eco

    Umberto Eco has died at the age of 84. The author, best known for his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, once described his library to the Paris Review, revealing the habit of mind that made him a genius: “I own a total of about fifty thousand books. But as a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. Books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science.” Eco had a favorite branch of lunatic science—list making, the subject of his 2009 book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. This encyclopedic tour of Western civilization was also an investigation into how we try to tame the universe (and our own spiraling thoughts), and face our mortality, as Eco put it: “How, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. . . . We like lists because we don’t want to die.” He was deeply interested in language, telling Minna Proctor in a 2002 Bookforum interview: “I wrote a book about the search for the perfect language. I examined all the attempts throughout history to create perfect languages. My paternoster is a combination of real paternosters in several universal languages from the last three or four centuries, including Esperanto, plus, if I remember correctly, a piece from Gulliver’s Travels.” It makes sense, then, that he was also a fierce defender of free speech in Italy: “Imagine a United States where Bush owns the New York Times, theWashington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CBS, ABC, plus Hollywood, too. Wouldn’t this monopolistic concentration concern American citizens? You’re upset by the mere fact that Bill Gates runs Windows and Internet Explorer. Well, that’s our situation.” For more wise words from Eco, listen to his 2005 interview on Bookworm, and watch this charming video, “Advice to the Young,” filmed last year: “Don’t pretend immediately to receive the Nobel Prize.”  

  • February 19, 2016

    Jill Soloway

    Jill Soloway

    Transparent creator Jill Soloway is adapting Chris Kraus’s novel I Love Dick for television. Amazon has ordered a pilot episode of the show, which is being billed as a comedy, but if the industry press is any guide, Hollywood’s idea of what the book actually is remains fuzzy (“sex-comedy,” “pyscho-sexual novel,” “Rashomon-style”). We’re intrigued to see how the Emmy Award–winning Soloway handles the source material, which is mainly made up of letters (and faxes!) between the protagonist, her husband, and the all-powerful character “Dick,” or, as Deadline Hollywood describes him, the “off-putting but charismatic professor.”

    Facebook has announced that it will open up its Instant Articles publishing platform to all writers, and will share the ad revenue that a freelancer’s post makes with the author.  

    After the Pope declared that Donald Trump was not a Christian, the presidential candidate quickly responded, in a statement, that “for a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” The New Yorker was apparently not impressed with Trump’s answer, and the magazine unleashed one of their most formidable weapons against the Donald: They turned a copy editor loose on his statement.

    Maria Bustillos visits the New Directions offices and chats with the publisher Barbara Epler, who reveals part of her pitch to prospective authors: “I can totally guarantee you that we will get lots of reviews, because I will chew on people until they review it. I’ll just personally chew on people.”

    Ben Ratliff, whose book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways of Listening in An Age of Musical Plenty proposes a clever, genre-averse strategy for music appreciation online, recently sat down with critic Alex Ross to discuss musical taste and listening habits in the age of Pandora and Spotify.  

  • February 18, 2016

    Choire Sicha, who is on hiatus from his site, The Awl, has taken a job with Vox media as the director of partner platforms.

    Meanwhile, one of those platforms is getting significantly smaller: Yahoo is killing off seven of its “content verticals” (i.e. digital magazines), leaving just four remaining. Visitors to the site will still find “news,” “sports,” “finance,” and “lifestyle,” but subjects like “parenting” and “health” have failed to make the cut.

    Álvaro Enrigue

    Álvaro Enrigue

    Apple is refusing to create a key for the FBI to unlock iPhones. This may be a principled decision, but it’s also a marketing move

    The Goodman theater in Chicago has staged an ambitious five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666. In a Times review, Charles Isherwood admires the spirit and enterprise of the stage version but writes that it ultimately falls short: “As is always the case when a doorstop novel is heaved onto the stage, the inevitable shortcuts drain Bolaño’s tale of its shimmering, mysterious layers, so that we seem to be watching a literal-minded sketch of events, not entering into them.” (To be fair, Isherwood doesn’t seem to care for the novel much either.)
    Tonight in New York, there are literary events galore, all well-worth attending: At McNally Jackson, Hannah Tennant-Moore will perform with Sara Majka and Brigid Hughes; at the Community Bookstore, Álvaro Enrigue will read from his forthcoming novel, Sudden Death; at CUNY, Paul Krugman will discuss inequality with Mayor Bill de Blasio; and at BookCourt, chef Deuki Hong and author Matt Rodbard will talk about their cookbook, Koreatown.  

  • February 17, 2016

    Dana Spiotta. Photo by Jessica Marx

    Dana Spiotta, photo by Jessica Marx

    The New York Times magazine has a profile of the novelist Dana Spiotta, whose new book Innocents and Others, is out next month. At one point, Spiotta recalls some early advice she got from Gordon Lish, which she does appear to have taken on board in her work: ‘‘Whatever you’re trying to hide is what you need to write from. . . . Whatever you’re trying to hide is what makes you an interesting writer.’’

    As the South Carolina primary approaches, it’s well worth reading Christian Lorentzen’s report from New Hampshire, if you haven’t already: “We woke before dawn and drove through the snow to Manchester, where we saw Carly Fiorina complain to supporters in a basement about her exclusion from the next night’s GOP debate due to insufficient poll numbers. She went on for some time about holding national referendums via smartphone, an idea that I (a flip-phone user) find anti-democratic.”

    And Stephen King has also recently weighed in on the race.

    Isaac Chotiner interviewed Jill Abramson about her firing from the New York Times as executive editor in 2014. (Along the way, she notes how few in-depth pieces have been written about Donald Trump, considering the amount of overall coverage, and recommends this one from the Washington Post.)

    Meanwhile, the Times is being sued for gender discrimination by another former employee, Arielle Davies.

    A man named Matt Steel has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his new edition of Thoreau’s Walden, which adapts the language to increase its “accessibility”: “Having gone through a period of career burnout, followed by radical lifestyle change, I could see that Thoreau’s ideas around simplicity, consumerism, and busy-ness had an uncanny relevance to the challenges we face today. I shared my enthusiasm for the book with anyone willing to listen. But I kept having to couch my recommendations: ‘This is an incredible book, but the 19th-century language is hard to digest at times. But stick with it, and you’ll be glad you did!’ This situation bothered me.”

  • February 16, 2016

    The New Yorker’s vast tome on the inner workings of the website TMZ is worth reading, if only for its portrait of a celebrity-gossip rag as a last bastion of old-school investigative reporting: Nicholas Schmidle writes that founder Harvey Levin “has trained many employees in the art of court reporting. Ben Presnell, who worked at ‘Celebrity Justice’ and, later, at TMZ, told me he spent most of his days at the Los Angeles County Municipal Courthouse, searching for new filings and trying to charm clerks into giving him information. Currently, TMZ has three reporters stationed full-time at the courthouse; the Los Angeles Times has one court reporter.” (Less salubrious methods, of course, are also documented in the piece.)

    Louise Mensch

    Louise Mensch

    Right-wing media can only get livelier now that novelist and former UK Conservative MP Louise Mensch, a Twitter stalwart, is launching a new website, Heat Street, for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Understand, it will not be for the faint of heart: A spokesperson is quoted as promising “a spirit of free speech and no ‘safe spaces.’”

    Much to the chagrin of the British press, Daniel Craig, who has already expressed a certain weariness about the idea of continuing to play James Bond, is now set to star in a TV adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

    And John Micklethwait, former editor of The Economist and now editor in chief of Bloomberg, confides in the New York Times about the delicate complexities his job has involved in recent weeks, as Michael Bloomberg has flirted with a presidential run: It seems Micklethwait has been made to feel like “a character in a Graham Greene novel.”

    The Guardian has an obituary of Michael Sheringham, the great scholar of French literature who died earlier this year.

  • February 15, 2016

    Justice Antonin Scalia’s death inspired quick, informative, and eloquent responses from Supreme Court scholar Ian Millhiser (austhor of Injustices), who looks at how Scalia’s absence could affect the Court’s docket; Jonathan Chait, who argues that Scalia’s death will change “everything”; and Dave Holmes, who writes, in response to Scalia’s aggressively antigay stances: “It is a curious feeling when a man who devoted a significant chunk of his career to your oppression dies.” Some of those paying homage to Scalia—the man who provided the title “Irreparable Harm” to Renata Adler’s analysis of Bush v. Gore—have done so perhaps a bit too quickly: On Twitter, former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann calls him “Anthony Scalia,” and likens Scalia’s written dissents to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

    Speaking of Shakespeare, the Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson has been cast as King Lear, “considered one of the crowning roles in any actor’s career,” in a new production of the play.

    Ada Calhoun

    Ada Calhoun

    Ada Calhoun is the author the 2015 book St. Marks Is Dead, a history of the fabled East Village throughway. This week at the New Yorker, she writes about the demise of another historical part of St. Marks Place—St. Mark’s Bookshop. The bookstore has been struggling for years (in 2014, it moved to its fourth and latest location in attempt to survive in the increasingly high-rent neighborhood), and last week it seemed to be on the verge of permanent closure (the store owes more than $60,000 in back rent, for starters). Calhoun, a longtime customer, pays tribute to the bookstore, “a polished jewel in the scuzzy crown of the East Village,” a place where “smart if sometimes snooty clerks could talk your ear off about Roland Barthes” and where “the zine collection was impeccably curated.” But she also points out that the store “has also seemed frustratingly unwilling to seek out new streams of revenue. The former employees I’ve spoken to have mentioned various innovations that were floated over the years by friends of the store: offering deeper discounts, as the thriving Strand does; investing in advertising, or opening an in-store café like McNally Jackson.”

    Laynie Browne offers a heartfelt tribute to the recently deceased poet C. D. Wright.

    Rolling Stone is looking for new ways to reach a larger audience and generate revenue: The magazine is reportedly developing a docu-series with the Showtime network. “The magazine, like its rivals, is in the process of trying to ramp up its digital and live events business under heir apparent Gus Wenner,” WWD reports.  “But insiders said that drumming up new advertisers for Rolling Stone has been a challenge in light of recent controversies,” such as its discredited article on rape at the University of Virginia and Sean Penn’s extended report on his meeting with El Chapo.

    “Ferrante fever” has caused in a surge in tourism in Naples, as The Guardian reports in an article about Elena Ferrante’s popularity (which has also resulted in a new television series based on her Neapolitan novels).

  • February 12, 2016

    MTV News is relaunching with some big-name new hires from both old- and new-media, including Grantland’s former editorial director Dan Fierman, longtime Spin author Charles Aaron, Pitchfork Review editor Jessica Hopper, political author Ana Marie Cox, and the New Republic’s Jamil Smith (among others).

    The UK newspaper The Independent will publish its last print edition next month.

    Gawker’s executive editor John Cook has given his writers the go-ahead to make political donations (and to write about the candidates they give to) as long as they disclose their gift. In a memo to Gawker staff, Cook says:  “Writing about political candidates to whom one has donated money or time is often described, inaccurately, as a ‘conflict of interest.’ It’s really more a confluence of interest—as long as you make no claims to objectivity, there is no reason to believe that the fact of a political donation could somehow compromise the authenticity of the views you are expressing.” At the Washington Post, Erik Wemple disagrees with Cook’s position, writing that “the discipline of a donation ban is a painless way to ensure that coverage is as fair and flexible as possible.”   

    Darryl Pinckney

    Darryl Pinckney

    The forthcoming book, Is That Kafka: 99 Finds, is a volume of Kafka ephemera collected by Reiner Stach in the course of assembling his three-volume biography. An excerpt at The Nation finds Kafka contemplating his desk, in a passage that any writer can relate to: ”Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it. There’s so much lying around here, it creates disorder without regularity, and with none of that agreeableness of disorderly things that otherwise makes every disorder bearable.”

    On Saturday at the Brooklyn Public Library, frequent New York Review of Books contributor Darryl Pinckney will discuss his new novel, Black Deutschland.

  • February 11, 2016

    Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is to become a Broadway production, with a script by Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing, The Newsroom, and The Social Network fame. Given Sorkin’s characteristic line on both the imaginary media and imaginary American politics, Atticus Finch is likely to remain a wise, lovable father figure in this version.

    Michelle Alexander

    Michelle Alexander

    And out there in the landscape of what you might choose to call real American politics, there is reading to be done ahead of tonight’s Democratic debate, starting with Michelle Alexander’s essential piece on Hillary Clinton and race.

    There’s also a guide—for the perplexed—to Bernie lit, and a primer from Sarah Leonard on what younger American progressives want and why.

    Lisa Lucas, publisher of Guernica magazine, has been chosen as executive director of the National Book Foundation.

    A tale of two bestselling fantasy novelists, and how one accused the other (Cassandra Clare, who has had similar troubles before), of plagiarism.

    Thanks to the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, starting March 29, you can join in a discussion of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, led by Christine Smallwood.

  • February 10, 2016

    Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are to be adapted for television, and the author will apparently be “working closely” with the producers on the project, which will shoot in Italy.

    To our relief, Politwoops relaunched in the US just in time for last night’s New Hampshire primary, so we will no longer be missing out on any of the candidates’ deleted tweets (that phrase seems to cry out for a Nixon joke, but we don’t have it in us this morning).

    Meanwhile, this account from Gawker of how Hillary Clinton’s staff arranges her press coverage is quite amazing.

    Heather Havrilesky

    Heather Havrilesky

    While Bookforum remains proudly anti-Valentine, we admit to being somewhat seduced by the line-up for The Cut’s “True Romance” series this week, which so far includes Heather Havrilesky and Eileen Myles.

    Two Palestinian writers and a Syrian novelist have made the shortlist for the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which will be awarded in late April in Abu Dhabi.

    Tony Tulathimutte, whose novel Private Citizens is reviewed in the latest issue of Bookforum, has a funny and at times brilliantly deranged essay at the Believer about the possibilities of computer-generated writing. Along the way, he considers the Hemingway app, which promises to render your writing “bold and clear” by auto-recommending brutal edits: “Tallying up all the infelicities,” Tulathimutte notes, “it assigns the passage a numerical grade, representing ‘the lowest education level needed to understand your text,’ which oddly equates boldness and clarity with legibility to young children (presumably, the best score would be ‘Illiterate’).” Other highlights of the Believer piece include the idea that a bot “might produce garbage 99.99999% of the time—but in the months or years it takes a person to compose one novel, a computer might generate hundreds of millions, only one of which needs to be any good in order to match a human writer’s achievements (and all without going into debt).” And the notion that, should we perfect software that can automatically replace any trite phrases in our writing, the result could start to seem “tacky and cloying, the prose equivalent of Photoshop or Auto-Tune—the deliberate use of cliché may become an act of subversive camp, or a reassuring watermark of human authorship.”

    The Tournament of Books draws ever nearer and, among other things, we are curious about what will happen when (on March 15th) Choire Sicha is let loose on A Little Life.

  • February 9, 2016

    Tolstoy’s great-great-granddaughter has organized a public marathon reading of War and Peace across more than thirty Russian cities this week: Readers include Vladimir Urin, director of the Bolshoi ballet, and the great Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda, who made Ashes and Diamonds.

    Matt Power

    Matt Power

    Applications for the second annual Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award, the grant honoring the acclaimed journalist who died on assignment in Uganda in 2014, are due February 16th.

    The Al Jazeera America shutdown is coming earlier than expected: The website will cease being updated at the end of this month, but you can still find the work (and contact details) of an excellent group of reporters and editors at their portfolio site.

    At Jezebel, Catherine Nichols muses on Adelle Waldman’s analysis of love in fiction written by men and women. Nichols goes on to write about the ways in which characters in Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë change and adapt to one another, but she starts with a rather irresistible quotation from Douglas Adams: “It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”

    Some political scientists have set up a database of women experts on various topics, for those spoilsports out there who don’t enjoy an all-male panel.

    Tonight at BookCourt, Christopher Sorrentino will present his new novel, The Fugitives. And at the Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara will launch The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century—you can read an excerpt from it here.

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