Things tagged lit:

The borrowers: why Finland's cities are havens for library lovers

Tash Reith-Banks in The Gaurdian:

“Finland is a country of readers,” declared the country’s UK ambassador Päivi Luostarinen recently, and it’s hard to argue with her. In 2016 the UN named Finland the world’s most literate nation, and Finns are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of public libraries – the country’s 5.5m million people borrow close to 68m books a year.


It’s also not hard to see why Finland’s city libraries are so heavily used: 84% of the country’s population is urban, and given the often harsh climate, libraries are not simply places to study, read or borrow books – they are vital places for socialising. In fact, Antti Nousjoki, one of Oodi’s architects, has described the new library as “an indoor town square” – a far cry from the stereotypical view of libraries as stale and silent spaces.

Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?

Mark Binelli in The New York Times:

Goroke, Victoria, a former stagecoach stop in southeastern Australia, pop. 200, is not the sort of place you would expect to host a daylong academic symposium. About five hours from Melbourne by car, the town has the feel of an evacuation nearly complete. Empty storefronts line the main street; the local pub closed two years ago. Drive a few minutes outside Goroke, and the only signs of life arrive at dusk, when the kangaroos emerge from the brush to stare down passers-by from the edge of the road. But last December, about 40 scholars, critics, editors and general readers made the journey for a series of lectures on the work of Gerald Murnane. The author, who has lived in Goroke for the last decade, prefers not to travel, and he had suggested the scholars convene at the local golf club, where he plays a weekly game and also regularly tends bar.

A strong case could be made for Murnane, who recently turned 79, as the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of. Even in his home country, he remains a cult figure; in 1999, when he won the Patrick White Award for underrecognized Australian writers, all his books were out of print. Yet his work has been praised by J.M. Coetzee and Shirley Hazzard, as well as young American writers like Ben Lerner and Joshua Cohen. Teju Cole has described Murnane as “a genius” and a “worthy heir to Beckett.” Last year, Ladbrokes placed his odds at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature at 50 to 1 — better than Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie and Elena Ferrante.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

Scott Alexander reviews:

Medieval Icelandic crime victims would sell the right to pursue a perpetrator to the highest bidder. 18th century English justice replaced fines with criminals bribing prosecutors to drop cases. Somali judges compete on the free market; those who give bad verdicts get a reputation that drives away future customers.

“Anarcho-capitalism” evokes a dystopian cyberpunk future. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’ve always been anarcho-capitalist. Maybe a state-run legal system isn’t a fact of nature, but a historical oddity as contingent as collectivized farming or nationalized railroads. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, by anarcho-capitalist/legal scholar/medieval history buff David Friedman, successfully combines the author’s three special interests into a whirlwind tour of exotic law.

Finding X in Espresso: Adventures in Computational Lexicology

Vitaliy Kaurov at Wolfram:

When Does a Word Become a Word? “A shot of expresso, please.” “You mean ‘espresso,’ don’t you?” A baffled customer, a smug barista—media is abuzz with one version or another of this story. But the real question is not whether “expresso” is a correct spelling, but rather how spellings evolve and enter dictionaries. Lexicographers do not directly decide that; the data does. Long and frequent usage may qualify a word for endorsement. Moreover, I believe the emergent proliferation of computational approaches can help to form an even deeper insight into the language. The tale of expresso is a thriller from a computational perspective.

Adventures in Computational Lexicology indeed.

The Tiger's Wife

If you go to Galina now, people will tell you different things about Luka’s disappearance. In one version of the story, the village woodcutter, waking from a dream in which his wife has forgotten to put the pie in the oven and served it to him raw, looks through the window and sees Luka wandering down the road in his nightgown, a white scarf tying his chin to the rest of his head so that the mouth will not fall open in death, his red butcher’s apron slung over one shoulder. In that version, Luka’s face is as loose as a puppet’s, and there is a bright light in his eyes, the light of a journey beginning. The woodcutter stands with the window curtains flung open, his legs stiff with fear and lack of sleep, and he watches the butcher’s slow advance through the snowdrifts that are running across the dead man’s bare feet. Others will tell you about the baker’s eldest daughter, who, getting up early to warm the ovens, opens the window to let the winter air in to cool her and sees a grounded hawk sitting like something ancient on the fallen snow of her garden. The hawk’s shoulders are dark with blood, and when it hears her open the window it turns and looks at her with yellow eyes. She asks the hawk, “Is all well with you, brother—or not?” and the hawk replies, “Not,” and vanishes.

From The Tiger’s Wife By Téa Obreht.

Citizen Khan

Behind a Muslim community in northern Wyoming lies one enterprising man—and countless tamales.

Kathryn Schulz (of “The Really Big One”) knocks another one out of the park.


John Hersey in the August 1946 The New Yorker:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

As always, use the link below to avoid the paywall if that is an issue for you.

Roughly 100 Fantastic Magazine Articles from 2014

The Really Big One

Fantastic science writing, don’t miss this.

Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker:

In the end, the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people, devastated northeast Japan, triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, and cost an estimated two hundred and twenty billion dollars. The shaking earlier in the week turned out to be the foreshocks of the largest earthquake in the nation’s recorded history. But for Chris Goldfinger, a paleoseismologist at Oregon State University and one of the world’s leading experts on a little-known fault line, the main quake was itself a kind of foreshock: a preview of another earthquake still to come.

The Audience Has an Audience: Kevin Slavin & Kenyatta Cheese

Kevin Slavin and Kenyatta Cheese argue that people have “a fundamental feeling of wanting to be in sync with each other.”

Larry McMurtry’s Book Auction in Texas

John Williams in the NYT:

ARCHER CITY, Tex. — Larry McMurtry, the famed author of “Lonesome Dove” and dozens of other books, was walking slowly along State Highway 79 on Friday morning toward this town’s only major intersection. Down the block, more than 150 collectors and dealers were queuing up to bid on 300,000 used books — about two-thirds of the stock of Booked Up, the four-building literary mecca that Mr. McMurtry started here in 1988.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm

Adam Mansbach in The New Yorker:

Dear Novelist,

So you’d be honored if I blurbed your book? Me too! I can hardly wait to dive right in. However, due to the overwhelming number of requests I receive, I have instituted a new, comprehensive pricing system. Before proceeding, please consult this chart for reference.

Suicide on the Tube

Eben Harrell in Time:

At the station before Queensway, Lancaster Gate, he had broken from protocol to announce to the pranksters holding up the doors not the scripted "Mind the closing doors" but the more personal "please stop doing that or you will injure yourselves and end up in hospital." The statement had a slight, "I-know-better" air, but it was also improvised, and showed concern for passengers' well-being. I remembered this minor act of kindness as our driver addressed us on the intercom to announce the evacuation. He kept repeating: "This train is not going anywhere for some time. We have a man under the train, so the train is not going anywhere for some time." It became a sort of mantra: "I repeat: this train is not going anywhere for some time."

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

"Bruce Schneier and the King of the Crabs"


SB: This one’s called, “Bruce Schneier and the King of the Crabs.” It mostly must have really happened, too – it’s how we lost Barbados, or Bermuda, or some island down there anyway.

GP: I don’t believe we have that one on file. But it would probably be Barbados, because that’s still a restricted zone. I don’t know why. I thought it was nuclear, though.

SB: Well, may well be I can shed some light on that. I personally don’t think this actually happened to Bruce Schneier, but that’s the way it was told to me, and it’s still worth telling. Story goes, ol’ Bruce Schneier was vacationing on Barbados with his dog once. And they’d go out walking on the beach, as men and dogs often do.

Via Schneier on Security.

Why I had to lie to my dying mother

The Observer:

American writer Susan Sontag was terrified of death. She beat cancer in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, but third time around she wasn't so lucky. In a tender account of her final illness, her son David Rieff recalls how he colluded with his mother's fantasy that she wasn't dying - and what this ultimately cost him after she had gone.

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

The Oracle of Shepperton

Basically, it’s the story of Thomas’s doomed attempt to interview Ballard. He takes a taxi to Shepperton, and before he knows it is in a parallel dimension, being driven by a gruff hoodlum with clear contempt for his passenger.

Via cityofsound.

In the Garden with the Guru

Bob Rodgers essay in Literary Review of Canada:

A six-foot-high hedge separated me from the garden next door but not from its voices. It was my first Sunday morning in the house I sublet on Wells Hill Avenue by Casa Loma in Toronto. I couldn’t make out what was being said but one of the voices sounded familiar. I moved closer and parted the hedge just enough for a covert glimpse of my new neighbours. A middle-aged man was lying on his back in a hammock with a book held up vertically above his head as he read aloud. Next to him a young man sat in a deck chair with a book on his lap. The young man said: “Vico’s cycles.” The older man said: “Vicious Circles.” “Viscous cyclones,“ said the young man. I was awestruck. My God, I thought, I must be the only person in the world at this moment listening to what looks like a tag team reading Finnegans Wake. Later I learned I had been witness to a regular occurrence. Eric McLuhan and his father, Marshall, were reading at each other.

Via Arts & Letters Daily - ideas, criticism, debate.

'Kiosk' by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling's Kiosk:

THE FABRIKATOR WAS UGLY, noisy, a fire hazard, and it smelled. Borislav got it for the kids in the neighborhood.

One snowy morning, in his work gloves, long coat, and fur hat, he loudly power-sawed through the wall of his kiosk. He duct-taped and stapled the fabrikator into place.

The neighborhood kids caught on instantly. His new venture was a big hit.

The fabrikator made little plastic toys from 3-D computer models. After a week, the fab's dirt-cheap toys literally turned into dirt. The fabbed toys just crumbled away, into a waxy, non-toxic substance that the smaller kids tended to chew.

Borislav had naturally figured that the brief lifetime of these toys might discourage the kids from buying them. This just wasn't so. This wasn't a bug: this was a feature. Every day after school, an eager gang of kids clustered around Borislav's green kiosk. They slapped down their tinny pocket change with mittened hands. Then they exulted, quarreled, and sometimes even punched each other over the shining fab-cards.

The happy kid would stick the fab-card (adorned with some glossily fraudulent pic of the toy) into the fabrikator's slot. After a hot, deeply exciting moment of hissing, spraying, and stinking, the fab would burp up a freshly minted dinosaur, baby doll, or toy fireman.

Foot traffic always brought foot traffic. The grownups slowed as they crunched the snowy street. They cast an eye at the many temptations ranked behind Borislav's windows. Then they would impulse-buy. A football scarf, maybe. A pack of tissues for a sneezy nose.

Once again he was ahead of the game: the only kiosk in town with a fabrikator....

Bit rough the first page or two, but gets better.

JG Ballard reminisces on his boyhood years

Excerpt from Miracles of Life by JG Ballard at Times Online

I looked down from my room on the 17th floor of the Hilton and could see at a glance that there were two Shanghais – the skyscraper city newer than yesterday and at street level the old Shanghai that I had cycled around as a boy.

Via cityofsound.


Simon Garfield in The Observer

I dropped into Quinto, the second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Granta was about to celebrate its 100th edition, and I wanted some early copies - those classic ones with writing by Richard Ford, John Berger, Martin Amis and Angela Carter. The man at the counter wasn't impressed. 'What's Granta?'

I could have given him the usual: about how it was a river in Cambridge, or the upper part of one, and its name spawned a student magazine that began in 1889 and was revived in the late 1970s. I could have said that this magazine became home to some of the best writing in the English language, and was edited for half its life by a man, Bill Buford, described to me as 'a crazy, inspiring, absolutely absurd lunatic'. But instead I said: 'It's a literary magazine, but it looks like a book.'

Via Arts & Letters Daily.