• Nighttime satellite photo of London
    June 15, 2009

    London Underground

    Like any large city, London is a place of subcultures, most of which don’t find a place in mainstream lives or in mainstream writing. Here are some books that describe various forgotten London undergrounds. Mind the gaps . . .

    Hari Kunzru is the author, most recently, of the novel My Revolutions (Dutton, 2008).

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  • A schizophrenic's room at St. Elizabeth Hospital
    May 27, 2009

    Schizophrenic Memoirs

    While there are countless autobiographies by writers who have lost their sanity, memoirs of schizophrenia are a rarer breed. In moments of florid psychosis, schizophrenics can become so self-conscious about how they use words that they lose the ability to communicate. Everyday phrases seem unfamiliar, threatening, or absurd. As the psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch wrote, “The poet is a master of language, the schizophrenic is a slave to it.” Below is a list of six memoirs by writers who reveal the limits of language by chronicling their descent into madness.

    Rachel Aviv is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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  • Illustration by Weedon Grossmith from Diary of a Nobody, 1892
    May 20, 2009

    Comic Novels

    Nabokov urged us to read with our spines, to savor the tingle that the best writing brings. I tell the students in my comic-novel seminar to read with their funny bones. (Unfortunately, my suggestion that they mark the first point at which they chuckled audibly led to a paralyzing, nearly class-wide self-consciousness.) You won’t find Lucky Jim or A Confederacy of Dunces on this syllabus, for the simple fact that, despite their virtues, they’ve never made me laugh out loud the way the following titles always do, even after multiple readings, when nothing should surprise me.

    Ed Park is a founding

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  • Macedonio Fernández
    May 13, 2009

    Beyond Bolaño

    The spread of Bolañomania last year, after the release of 2666, was amazing to witness. I never thought I’d see a complex and disturbing nine-hundred-page novel, translated from Spanish and written by an author who passed away a few years ago, show up on the New York Times best-seller list. As a lover of Latin American literature, I found it especially encouraging, because Bolaño’s books don’t include talking iguanas or mystical recipes. Bolaño finally shattered the magic-realist stereotype that has plagued Spanish writers for the past few decades. Great news for the dozens of Latin American

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  • Cover of Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin
    May 11, 2009

    Literary Losers

    Long before Amazon.com reviewers tyrannically demanded sympathetic and likable protagonists, literature was reliably populated by leading men of a less bland stripe. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would want to spend their reading hours in the company of the virtuous, the accomplished, and the capable, when failure is so much more interesting—and, sadly, altogether more common. Today, we call them antiheroes (it’s more polite), but to me, they will always be literature’s losers—tormented, feckless, sometimes lovable, sometimes not, but almost always heartbreaking.

    Host of the literary

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  • Path at Wakehurst Place Garden, England, 2004.
    May 04, 2009


    Lisa Darms is senior archivist at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.

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  • Borley Rectory
    April 11, 2009

    Supernatural Nonfiction

    Submitted for your approval, a list (in reverse chronological order) of exemplary books that treat the otherworldly—ghosts, monsters, other fantastic phenomena—as truth. That last word needs qualifying: Most of these writers belie their documentary pretenses by embellishing reality or simply by presenting legend as fact. So to enjoy books like these, you must want to believe in the improbable—and that can be perilous as well as liberating (e.g., it can lead to a vote for Bush or a vote for Obama). Supernatural nonfiction offers the reader a uniquely pleasurable mental space somewhere between

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  • Retouched photograph of Emily Dickinson, ca. 1897
    March 06, 2009

    Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson’s legendary silence has produced a discordant chorus of speculation and mythmaking. As Alfred Habegger, her best biographer, has written, Dickinson’s “reclusiveness, originality of mind, and unwillingness to print her work [have] left just the sort of informational gaps that legend thrives on.” Readers and scholars alike have endlessly revised this legend, struck by the conviction that Dickinson speaks directly to them. Adding to the noise is the decades-long effort by the poet’s heirs to control her legacy, engendering incomplete and distorted editions of her work. This tendency

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