A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

The novel as weapon

All’s fair in love and war, and in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the weapons is literature. After Helen Lawrence marries for what she thinks is love, she learns, to her chagrin, that her husband, Arthur Huntingdon, has bad habits—drinking, gambling, and womanizing—and finds life insufferably dull without them. Will he desert her for the big bad city of London, or will he learn to be contented with a quiet life at home? Briefly he tries to amuse himself by telling stories of his old love affairs, but Helen reproves and silences him. Their domesticity would be bliss if only he could content himself with her sort of fun: the reading of nice books.

He’s unable to. “He never reads anything but newspapers and sporting magazines,” Helen reports. “When he sees me occupied with a book, he won’t let me rest till I close it.”

But because this is a Brontë novel, and not a Sunday school treatise, books aren’t entirely benign. During the couple’s first quarrel—in recollecting a married woman who once romanced him, Arthur is insufficiently moralistic, and Helen becomes upset—Helen gives him the silent treatment, and literature becomes a tool that enhances her power not to pay attention to him.

This is a neat reversal of the conventional slur on novels in the period, which was that they vitiated women’s minds by filling them with fantasies and distracting them from duty. Arthur is revealed to be weak precisely because he can’t or won’t read novels. “From dinner till bed time, I read,” Helen reports, of the progress of their combat. “Meanwhile, poor Arthur was sadly at a loss for something to amuse him or to occupy his time.” Because it’s rainy, he can’t take his horse out for a ride, and he is reduced to fidgeting indoors—”watching the clouds, cursing the rain, alternately petting, and teazing, and abusing his dogs, sometimes lounging on the sofa with a book that he could not force himself to read, and very often fixedly gazing at me, when he thought I did not perceive it.” Helen, on the other hand, “managed to preserve an undisturbed, though grave serenity throughout the day.” #Winning.

After dinner, Arthur drinks “an unusual quantity of wine,” and the weaponizing of books becomes explicit:

I returned to my reading; and he endeavoured to occupy himself in the same manner; but, in a little while, after several portentous yawns, he pronounced his book to be “cursed trash,” and threw it on to the table. Then followed eight or ten minutes of silence, during the greater part of which, I believe, he was staring at me. At last his patience was tired out.

“What is that book, Helen?” he exclaimed. I told him.

“Is it interesting?”

“Yes, very.”

“Humph!”

At this point Helen discovers that literature offers a further tactical advantage over one’s spouse:

I went on reading—or pretending to read, at least—I cannot say there was much communciation between my eyes and my brain; for, while the former ran over the pages, the latter was earnestly wondering when Arthur would speak next, and what he would say, and what I should answer.

Even when you’re losing, a book can make you look like you still have the upper hand.

Asymmetric gardening

For years, I have had a pot of chocolate mint and a little terracotta trough of basil in the windowsill. For almost as long, the mint and the basil have had flies. (The adjacent geranium, for some reason, is immune.) I don’t exactly know what kind of flies they are. They’re smaller than fruit flies. Gray. Dusty-looking. They don’t bite, or they don’t bite me, anyway. They’re not skilled in evasive maneuvers. If you clap in the vicinity of one, you usually annihilate it. Sometimes I’ve even managed to grab one out of the air one-handed.

I haven’t figured out their life cycle exactly, but in one instar or another, they spin disorganized, misty webs over the plants’ leaves, which turn brown, in a sickly, mottled way, and then fall off. The flies, therefore, must go. I am too squeamish, however, to use pesticides inside the apartment on herbs that I am in the habit of eating. Snipping off the damaged leaves helps, but not much and not for long. The furthest I have gone in the chemical direction is insecticidal soap, whose labels proclaim its all-natural, organic nonthreateningness. Indeed, its mildness seems proven by its inefficacy. A thorough dousing with insecticidal soap seems to clear the herbs for a few days, but the flies always return. Perhaps there’s a reservoir of flies hiding elsewhere in the house—maybe in that bark that the orchid lives on, for example—or maybe the flies are only vulnerable to the insecticidal soap at one or two of their life-stages. In the latter case, if I were able to remember to spray the herbs at regular intervals all the way through a life cycle, I would succeed in eradicating them. It’s an idea, anyway, and so from time to time I have given myself strict instructions to suds down the herbs every other day even if I see no signs of the flies, and to continue with this schedule for, say, two full weeks. But I never make it to two full weeks, or however long a generation of flies lasts. After the second or third iteration of spraying, I forget. Or I run out of insecticidal soap. And the flies come back.

There have been two recent innovations in the technology of my warfare, however. About a month ago, the basil reached more or less the end of the line, and instead of immediately re-seeding, I was inspired to freeze the soil for a few days. (The label on a recent purchase of blue jeans had advised freezing instead of washing them, a practice that against all my instincts seems to work.) The flies declined noticeably, even though the mint and geranium remained at room temperature. Once new basil had sprouted, the blow couldn’t be repeated. Still, the small success filled me with a spurious hope, and casting about for another novel weapon system, I hit upon . . . the vacuum cleaner.

It is so pleasantly absolute. Whenever I water the herbs, a few flies rise from the soil where they’ve been hiding and hover indecisively. And now I suck them out of the universe with our Dyson’s attachment-less maw. I’m not sure the vacuum cleaner works any better than the insecticidal soap—I’ve been vacuuming the herbs for two weeks now, and there are still a few new flies every morning—but it’s much more satisfying. The flies are so decisively gone, once the Dyson has inhaled them. It’s a bit rougher on the herbs themselves, unfortunately. Now and then one of the mint’s runners or stems gets snuffled up by the Dyson and rattles around inside its tube until I tug it free. The leaves, afterward, are raggedy, and they blacken at the torn edges. From time to time, too, a clot of dirt is accidentally raptured.

My war makes no sense, economically speaking. I can get a week’s supply of basil and mint for $1.50 each at Fairway, and even at a freelance writer’s low wage, I must be spending much more in labor. Nonetheless, I continue. Murder by vacuum cleaner is more, shall we say, engaging than spritzing with insecticidal soap ever was, and I’ve kept at it for many more days than I ever managed to continue with spritzing. I find myself daydreaming about it. Last night, after I was awoken by a mosquito bite, I wondered if I should start vacuuming the bedroom for mosquitoes every evening. This morning, as I tapped the basil pot and dislodged one or two of the gray enemy into the perilous air, I imagined that someday I would have a little domestic drone that would regularly visit, Roomba-like, my houseplants, gathering in the winged unwanted.

Ideal crash

Copeland and Day's 1895 prospectus for The Black Riders by Stephen Crane, University of Virginia Library

“The Red and the Scarlet,” my review of Paul Sorrentino’s new biography Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire, appears in the 30 June 2014 issue of The New Yorker. (The image above is from a prospectus for Crane’s first collection of poetry, The Black Riders, published in 1895 by Copeland and Day and digitized by the University of Virginia Library.)

A somewhat Texan view of George Washington

William Rathbone Crain, Cuero Record, 1932

An essay written by my grandfather William Rathbone Crain, at age nine, and published in The Cuero [Texas] Record on 6 March 1932. (Click on the image to read the whole essay.)

Second thoughts

I wrote an essay for the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog about the bittersweet news that the New York Public Library has agreed to keep its stacks—but plans to leave them empty.

The end of the Central Library Plan

On the New York Times website early Wednesday afternoon, Robin Pogrebin reported that the administrators of the New York Public Library have decided to abandon the Central Library Plan, a scheme that would have dismantled the century-old bookshelves in the landmark building on 42nd Street and replaced them with a new circulating library. An hour or so later, Jason Farago reported on the news for The Guardian, and a little after that, Jennifer Maloney confirmed the story in the Wall Street Journal. Scott Sherman, who to my knowledge is the first journalist ever to report on the plan, summed up the turn of events in a post for The Nation at the end of the day.

I’m very happy the library’s leaders have changed their minds. It takes courage to do so in public, and it’s a sign of health that the organization has been able to respond to new information and to criticism. In 2012 I wrote many posts on this blog decrying the plan as a setback for scholars, but after about six months I had to excuse myself in order to regroup my energies, and I’m grateful to the reader-citizens who went on to create such coalitions as the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, Citizens Defending Libraries, and the Library Lovers League and continued to press the library to do the right thing.

Interview at Lambda Literary

At the Lambda Literary website, Karen Schechner has interviewed me about Necessary Errors.

Not really, though

Yesterday someone came to this website by searching for “Did Herman Melville eat a person?” so I took it upon myself to fix his Wikipedia entry:

wiki-melville

I’ll be reading at Greenpoint’s Word for Lambda, and talking about Hrabal at Chelsea’s 192 Books

I’ll be taking part in two events in New York in the next week or so. Please come!

On Thursday, May 1, at 6pm, I’ll be one of twenty nominees for Lambda Literary awards reading from their word at Greenpoint’s Word bookstore.

And on Tuesday, May 6 at 7pm, I’ll be talking with Stacey Knecht about her translation of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Harlequin’s Millions, which has just been published by Archipelago Books.