Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
Reuters' "Oddly Enough" column ventures this week into the realm of literary history and intrigue: The mystery of Schiller's skull. When he died of tuberculosis in his forties, Friedrich Schiller, the eighteenth-century German Romantic poet, playwright, and philosopher, was buried in a mass grave. Several decades later, the mass grave was dug up and Schiller’s skull identified by comparison with his death mask and its size, and placed in a more distinguished tomb in the city of Weimar. In 1911, the mass grave was turned up again and another skull found that was claimed to be the real memento mori. This second skull was also placed in Schiller's tomb.Now, DNA researchers attempting to tell the true skull from the false by comparison with DNA samples taken from Schiller’s relatives, have discovered that neither is a match.In one of Lucian of Samosata's second century Dialogues of the Dead, Diogenes tells Pollux that in death, "man and man are as like as two peas... when it comes to bare skull and no beauty."So it would seem.
The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, "the Greatest Living British Writer." As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, "Now, there's a question! It's such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!" Indeed. If you've got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn't decide - how does one pick in polls like this? - so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks - he reveals that he's been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker's Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it's a fascinating window into one writer's mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the "Sankebetsu brown bear incident".... Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
In the Washington Post, Meghan O'Rourke reviews one of the more talked about literary biographies in recent memory, Mockingbird by Charles Shields. In fact, I'm surprised that it took so long for the first serious biography of Harper Lee to emerge, since she is a figure that has long inspired curiosity among readers. One of the big questions the biography tries to answer is why she has never written another novel. The Post characterizes Shields' conclusion thusly: Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too "overwhelmed" by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts... For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well -- and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.That certainly rings true to me.The biography has also prompted critics to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, as Thomas Mallon did in the New Yorker back in May. He took the opportunity to present a somewhat contrarian view of Mockingbird, essentially calling the widely read novel over-rated.In the New York Times Garrison Keillor used his review to celebrate Lee and to pardon her sin of not giving us more books to read.Ahead of her is a deluge of success, a potful of money and some sort of vindication in the eyes of Monroeville. Truman will disintegrate and die at 59 and she will persist. The lady looks around at a room full of books, closes the door, and drives off with her sister to an early supper at Dave's Catfish Cabin, a plate of fish and hush puppies and a glass of tea. Everybody at Dave's knows who she is and nobody asks her made-up questions about writing or fame or how she explains the long run her novel has enjoyed. She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose. And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her.Though she has been labelled a one-hit wonder, Shields' biography, and the discussion it has prompted, prove that she has inspired much more fascination than that label would imply.
Amazon has locked down a rare piece of Harry Potter ephemera far a tidy sum.We're incredibly excited to announce that Amazon has purchased J.K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard at an auction held by Sotheby's in London. The book of five wizarding fairy tales, referenced in the last book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is one of only seven handmade copies in existence. The purchase price was £1,950,000 [$3.93 million], and Ms. Rowling is donating the proceeds to The Children's Voice campaign, a charity she co-founded to help improve the lives of institutionalized children across Europe.The Tales of Beedle the Bard is extensively illustrated and handwritten by the bard herself--all 157 pages of it. It's bound in brown Moroccan leather and embellished with five hand-chased hallmarked sterling silver ornaments and mounted moonstones.Since this is a particularly difficult volume to get one's hands on, and since there are likely many curious Potter fans out there, Amazon has offered up a special review of the book, along with images from its pages. (Thanks, Laurie)Update: Yes, it turns out this happened in December. So: old news, but new to me, and perhaps to you too.
For some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I've been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I'm at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, "This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen..." The ugly truth, however, is that I've never seen the show.My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can't answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness... I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.Then, Wallace Shawn - a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawn - landed a recurring role as Blair's mother's boyfriend. "The life of an actor can be very enviable," Shawn told the New York Times this week. "If the phone rings and somebody says, 'I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads... I think that's fantastic."That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl's centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker's role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW's role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I'm tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.
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They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week's issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with "sulphur salt," an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou's book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup... The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government's one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn't seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China's moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle... the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times... in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can't trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we're still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they're unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it's hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou's account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus