• print • Feb/Mar 2010

    Floating Signifiers

    In the late 1870s, the advent of the telephone created a curious social question: What was the proper way to greet someone at the beginning of a call? The first telephones were always “on” and connected pairwise to each other, so you didn’t need to dial a number to attract the attention of the person on the other end; you just picked up the handset and shouted something into it. But what? Alexander Graham Bell argued that “Ahoy!” was best, since it had traditionally been used for hailing ships. But Thomas Edison, who was creating a competing telephone system for Western Union, proposed a

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2010

    Off the Wall

    As a major serving in the British military during World War II, Jon Naar witnessed a way of life reduced to rubble. In the winter of 1973, as a fifty-something photojournalist living and working in New York, Naar once again saw a devastated landscape. But here the names of the young and dispossessed—often no more than a handle and maybe a number corresponding to the street the kid lived on, like Junior 161 or Stay High 149—were being spray-painted everywhere: bus shelters, handball courts, ice-cream trucks, subway trains, bridges, even trees. This was evidence of a citywide referendum on the

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2010

    The Shock of the Real

    In aphorism 462 of David Shields’s tenth book, the invigorating Reality Hunger, he observes, “All writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.” I’ll take that dare.

    The book was intended as an ars poetica for artists—from essayists to filmmakers to comedians to rappers—who infuse “reality” (Shields’s quotes, not mine; this is the kind of book that constantly questions accepted ideas) into their work. The book is also clearly the record of a man trying to figure out why he does what he does, where he’s coming from, and where

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  • print • Feb/Mar 2010

    Letter Heads

    Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters is not the history of letter writing its subtitle seems to promise. Instead, it is an amiable, very readable collection of brief essays about dozens of correspondents, almost all of whom were not just “people” but professional writers. Mark Twain and Colette, Bruno Schulz and Virginia Woolf, William Burroughs and H. L. Mencken: These are not individuals you would want at the same dinner party, but they would all grudgingly admit to belonging to the same guild. Even most of the statesmen Mallon discusses—Lincoln, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt,

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    Trump Cards

    Aptly, we may begin with the title. The dust jacket has it as The Original of Laura: A novel in fragments, while the title page varies this to The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun). However, the author himself, at the top of the first of the 138 file cards on which the novel—let us call it a novel, for now—is composed, calls the book merely The Original of Laura. The subtitle A novel in fragments is easily accepted as an editor’s addendum, since the book is published posthumously, but where did (Dying Is Fun) come from? Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd tells us that The Original of Laura: Dying Is

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    Altar Ego

    One of my high school summer jobs involved washing test tubes and pretending to be an apprentice research assistant in a biochemistry lab at a hospital in Manhattan. My coworkers, the actual researchers, had followed their boss, the senior scientist, from a midwestern university. All women, all blond, they seemed to share some arcane knowledge beyond the scientific and to be bound by some common thread beyond their professional and collegial connection.

    One outward manifestation of this mysterious bond was that each wore a heavy ring engraved with a dollar sign. They patiently explained to me

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    Enter the Dragon

    On October 1 in Beijing, teams of weather-modification specialists stood at the ready as advanced military hardware, elaborately decorated floats, and ranks of gun-toting women in silvery boots paraded down Chang’an Avenue to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. It was another immense spectacle at the dawn of a predicted Chinese century, following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in advance of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

    The scene was described and criticized in the American press as a celebration of six decades of Communist rule—sixty years of dictatorship by

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    Back in Black

    African Americans, during slavery and after, have been among the most passionate and steadfast proponents of American democracy. Frederick Douglass, a former slave-turned-abolitionist and internationally recognized orator, was one of the nineteenth century’s most renowned self-made men; he was also among the age’s most effective advocates for holding the nation accountable to the promise of its democratic rhetoric, for all its citizens.

    William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the preeminent black scholar of the twentieth century, followed the trail blazed by Douglass, predicting that the “color-line”

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    East Village People

    Every art has its day, and so maybe does every city and every neighborhood. Lower Manhattan—Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village, and the Lower East Side—saw an explosion of poetry and painting, music and dance, over much of the past century. But from the early ’60s to the ’90s, the performing arts flourished. They flourished in myriad genres, music especially, and devotees of one aspect of the scene—whether conceptual performance art, minimalist composition, experimental dance and theater, punk rock, or disco—were sometimes only dimly aware of the others. Yet everyone who was there knew

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2010

    Seek Memory

    What is it about the memoir that forces it, in spite of its many wonderful achievements, always to stand in the docket? Was it ever thus, or is it our age that feels especially defensive, apologetic, and guilt-ridden about the practice of the genre? We can only begin reckoning with such questions by placing the memoir in historical perspective, which is exactly what Ben Yagoda has done with his timely, useful, and informative study, Memoir: A History.

    Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, has written in the past a fine biography, Will Rogers (1993), and About Town: The

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