lukegilman.com : High on the Hog Blog
Purveyor of Idle Observation

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Please note: I'm no longer updating this particular blog, but keep it around for archival purposes. Visit me at the current blog at www.lukegilman.com

My Kind of Bookstore

bookstore-selexyz-dominicanen
via BoingBoing

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Derek Walcott, Forty Acres

After Elizabeth Alexander’s epically forgettable Praise Song for the Day, I was happy to see Derek Walcott, easily my favorite living poet, read Forty Acres.

Forty Acres

Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving —
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked
cotton
forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch, is
a tense
court of bespectacled owls and, on the field’s
receding rim —
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.
The small plough continues on this lined page
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado’s
black vengeance,
and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as dawn’s sure
light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.

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University of Houston-Victoria an Unlikely Hot Spot for Experimental Fiction and the Humanities

From Inside Higher Education, Unlikely Haven for Humanities Publishing, the University of Houston-Victoria and Jeffrey R. Di Leo, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences are profiled for an outsize presence in the literary world.

The University of Houston-Victoria is an unlikely hot spot for experimental fiction and the humanities. But this 3,200-student institution has, in just a few years, become host to a constellation of small but prestigious scholarly endeavors that needed new homes – including an independent press for “artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction,” and the 8,000-circulation American Book Review.

Houston’s literary reputation is an unfortunate secret outside of certain circles and has been fueled by an unusual confluence of academic support at public universities and real literary exploration, from Donald Barthelme‘s days at the University of Houston Creative Writing program (ranked #2 nationally, to the extent that says anything at all) and now Di Leo’s work at UHV.

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Daily Lit: Read books by email (or RSS)

The motivation of Daily Lit is both elegant and simple:

Because if you are like us, you spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books.

A sampling of current offerings:

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A Library to Drool Over

‘casa kike’ by gianni botsford architects

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Malcolm Gladwell on the Value of the Adversity in Personal Success and of the Outsider in Institutional Growth

Malcolm Gladwell is a master explainer, a keen observer and a facile pen who has introduced a generation of American readers to cutting-edge thinking on split-second decision-making, epidemic processes, and social trends. See his excellent work in The Tipping Point and Blink as well as his regular contributions to The New Yorker.

His latest work, out in in less than two weeks, is Outliers: The Story of Success. A preview is available in the New Yorker, The Uses of Adversity: Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage?

The rags-to-riches story—that staple of American biography—has over the years been given two very different interpretations. The nineteenth-century version stressed the value of compensating for disadvantage. If you wanted to end up on top, the thinking went, it was better to start at the bottom, because it was there that you learned the discipline and motivation essential for success.

Gladwell charts the path of Sidney Weinberg from assistant janitor to CEO of Goldman Sachs and the treatment of Weinberg’s narrative arc in Charles D. Ellis’s book The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs.

Today, that interpretation has been reversed. Success is seen as a matter of capitalizing on socioeconomic advantage, not compensating for disadvantage. The mechanisms of social mobility—scholarships, affirmative action, housing vouchers, Head Start—all involve attempts to convert the poor from chronic outsiders to insiders, to rescue them from what is assumed to be a hopeless state. Nowadays, we don’t learn from poverty, we escape from poverty, and a book like Ellis’s history of Goldman Sachs is an almost perfect case study of how we have come to believe social mobility operates.

Interestingly, as Gladwell notes, while we at least nominally celebrate those who “overcome the odds” we refuse to acknowledge the potential for positive value in the experience – “The man who boasts of walking seven miles to school, barefoot, every morning, happily drives his own grandchildren ten blocks in an S.U.V.” – one wonders if we deprive our children – in so carefully shielding them from risk failure we might also prevent them from discovering their potential.

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Library in the New Age and the Pedigree of Information

Robert Darnton’s piece in the New York Review of Books, The Library in the New Age, is a fascinating look, seasoned by experience, of the life of information. This was not the main thrust, but it’s my favorite part –

I used to be a newspaper reporter myself. I got my basic training as a college kid covering police headquarters in Newark in 1959. Although I had worked on school newspapers, I did not know what news was—that is, what events would make a story and what combination of words would make it into print after passing muster with the night city editor. When events reached headquarters, they normally took the form of “squeal sheets” or typed reports of calls received at the central switchboard. Squeal sheets concerned everything from stray dogs to murders, and they accumulated at a rate of a dozen every half hour. My job was to collect them from a lieutenant on the second floor, go through them for anything that might be news, and announce the potential news to the veteran reporters from a dozen papers playing poker in the press room on the ground floor. The poker game acted as a filter for the news. One of the reporters would say if something I selected would be worth checking out. I did the checking, usually by phone calls to key offices like the homicide squad. If the information was good enough, I would tell the poker game, whose members would phone it in to their city desks. But it had to be really good—that is, what ordinary people would consider bad—to warrant interrupting the never-ending game. Poker was everyone’s main interest—everyone but me: I could not afford to play (cards cost a dollar ante, a lot of money in those days), and I needed to develop a nose for news.

I soon learned to disregard DOAs (dead on arrival, meaning ordinary deaths) and robberies of gas stations, but it took time for me to spot something really “good,” like a holdup in a respectable store or a water main break at a central location. One day I found a squeal sheet that was so good —it combined rape and murder—that I went straight to the homicide squad instead of reporting first to the poker game. When I showed it to the lieutenant on duty, he looked at me in disgust: “Don’t you see this, kid?” he said, pointing to a B in parentheses after the names of the victim and the suspect. Only then did I notice that every name was followed by a B or a W. I did not know that crimes involving black people did not qualify as news.

Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as primary sources for knowing what really happened. I think newspapers should be read for information about how contemporaries construed events, rather than for reliable knowledge of events themselves.

In an unsettling but entirely predictable way, I’m reminded that information is more useful to think of a process than as an object, often carrying a pedigree that isn’t always indicative of quality.

The most widely diffused edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie in eighteenth-century France contained hundreds of pages that did not exist in the original edition. Its editor was a clergyman who padded the text with excerpts from a sermon by his bishop in order to win the bishop’s patronage. Voltaire considered the Encyclopedie so imperfect that he designed his last great work, Questions sur l’Encyclopedie, as a nine-volume sequel to it. In order to spice up his text and to increase its diffusion, he collaborated with pirates behind the back of his own publisher, adding passages to the pirated editions.

In fact, Voltaire toyed with his texts so much that booksellers complained. As soon as they sold one edition of a work, another would appear, featuring additions and corrections by the author. Their customers protested. Some even said that they would not buy an edition of Voltaire’s complete works —and there were many, each different from the others—until he died, an event eagerly anticipated by retailers throughout the book trade.

Well worth the read in its entirety.

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Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Atlantic’s Ben Carlson turned me on to Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night in Breathing Books, a book which itself will almost certainly make it into my library by virtue of my relentlessly optimistic perception of my own free time, only to spend its lifetime queued in my reading list.

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Jordan Crane’s gorgeous cover art for Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends

I really don’t have time to read anything besides law books anymore and my time as a graphic designer now seems a far distant memory, but I may have to pick this one up on looks alone. Yes, yes, I know, so it turns out you can in fact judge a book by its cover.

One of my favorite illustrators, Jordan Crane, has designed a beautiful and elaborate package for Michael Chabon’s new book, “Maps and Legends.” This new McSweeney’s publication lives up to the standards of high production values and design aesthetics McSweeney’s Publishing is already known for.

via Karen Horton and Boing Boing

Curiously enough, perhaps predictably, as the book deals largely with critics misunderstanding and underestimating the genre writer, Maps and Legends is excoriated in this Publishers Weekly review:

You would hardly think, reading Chabon’s new book of essays, that he won the Pulitzer Prize for a book about comics. Rather, he is bitter and defensive about his love for genre fiction such as mysteries and comic books. Serious writers, he says, cannot venture into these genres without losing credibility. No self-respecting literary genius… would ever describe him- or herself as primarily an ‘entertainer,’ Chabon writes. An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing ‘She’s a Lady’ to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underwear up onto the stage. Chabon devotes most of the essays to examining specific genres that he admires, from M.R. James’s ghost stories to Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic work, The Road. The remaining handful of essays are more memoir-focused, with Chabon explaining how he came to write many of his books. Chabon casts himself as one of the few brave souls willing to face ridicule—from whom isn’t entirely clear, though it seems to be academics—to write as he wishes. I write from the place I live: in exile, he says. It’s hard to imagine the audience for this book. Chabon seems to want to debate English professors, but surely only his fellow comic-book lovers will be interested in his tirade.

Reeeeowwwww! phfft! phfft!

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New York Review of Books, The Case for Judas

In the forthcoming New York Review of Books, Harold W. Attridge, Dean of Yale Divinity School, expounds The Case for Judas, Continued, revisiting the subject of a 2006 article in the same publication – The Betrayer’s Gospel – in light of two new works – Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity and Bart D. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed.

I’ve grown both wary and weary of the supposedly ‘revelatory’ nature of new books examining gnostic tracts, which at times differ from the conspiratorial gaspings of the Da Vinci code only by degree and subtlety. In the Half-Priced Books down the street, the Bible is outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Dead Sea Scrolls which leads me to believe that the economics of the book business has quite a lot to do with the resurgence of interest in these ‘new’ revelations. But I seem to have stepped on a soap box here…

To the contrary, Attridge is refreshingly willing to contextualize the disappearance of the Gospel of Judas. The difference between a gospel that is “lost” or “discarded” lies in the value one attributes to it. The value of the Gospel of Judas is substantially greater to the historian of ancient Christianity than to the theologian. The conflict he seeks between its pages is substantially more relevant to the believer and casual observer alike than what he attributes to Pagels and King, whose focus on martyrdom as class struggle seems to value the improvement of the human condition more than the importance of claiming their beliefs to the early Christians, then castigate early church leaders for failing to see it that way as well.

To the extent that contemporary believers engage the form their faith has taken in relation to the scripture they’ve come to accept, the Gospel of Judas informs our imagining of the alternatives and should leave us a more thorough understanding of what we believe and why.

Or you could just follow these 17 steps to becoming happier than God.

Lord, help us.

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