Man Is Not Cat Food
In the last decade, human vanity has taken a major hit. Traits once thought to be uniquely, even definingly human have turned up in the repertoire of animal behaviors: tool use, for example, is widespread among non-human primates, at least if a stick counts as a tool. We share moral qualities, such as a capacity for altruism with dolphins, elephants and others; our ability to undertake cooperative ventures, such as hunting, can also be found among lions, chimpanzees and sharks.
Published: June 6, 2011
Length: 16 minutes (4200 words)
The Room and the Elephant
Every so often something will break through the stimulus shield I hold up whenever I go online, which I do far too often these days, we all do, and for various reasons, one being, I’m sure, that the existence of the medium has created an unremitting low-intensity neural disquiet that we feel only the medium can allay — even though it cannot, never has. But it is an attribute of the Internet to activate in me, and maybe in all its users, a persistent sense of deferred expectancy, as if that thing that I might be looking for, that I couldn’t name but would know if I saw, were at every moment a finger tap away.
Published: June 7, 2011
Length: 25 minutes (6265 words)
Ball of Fire
I’d never heard of him. Found his book, The Ghastly One, on sale at Skylight Books; a whole volume on Andy Milligan, the Staten Island schlockmeister usually referred to as the more prolific, “worse” Ed Wood. I knew enough about Milligan’s awfulness to be intrigued and found Jimmy McDonough’s paperback unforgettable, moving, and brilliantly put together. I sought out his other three books and they were all funny, compulsively readable, staggeringly well researched and ragingly well written.
Published: June 24, 2011
Length: 19 minutes (4792 words)
The Ceiling Worker
Ben Katchor is the Joseph Mitchell of contemporary comics. Mitchell, along with his close friend A.J. Liebling, was a pivotal early New Yorker reporter who famously made a speciality of describing the peripheral rascals, layabouts, and oddballs of the Big Apple, ranging from the denizens of McSorley’s saloon to Joe Gould, the often homeless bohemian who claimed to be working on an “Oral History of the Contemporary World.”
Length: 6 minutes (1661 words)
Any consideration of Zone — the first novel by Frenchman Mathias Énard to be translated into English — must contend with one central fact. The novel is, as its jacket copy promises, composed of a single sentence stretched across 517 pages. This scheme means a lot and little to the novel. Énard’s formatting of his story is deceptively simple (he generally exchanges periods for commas), which makes the book highly readable, but this gargantuan sentence also charges the book with a peculiar rhythm: manic, propulsive, intentionally repetitive, an endless string of staccato drumbeats.
Published: June 30, 2011
Length: 10 minutes (2611 words)
The Ghost of Wrath
This is part one of Mike Davis’s serialized biography of Harrison Gray Otis, the first of nine episodes. Future installments will include Otis’s interlude as “emperor of the Pribilofs,” his military atrocities in the Philippines, his bitter legal battles with the Theosophists, the Otis-Chandler empire in the Mexicali Valley, the Times bombing in 1910, the notorious discovery of fellatio in Long Beach, and Otis’s quixotic plan for world government.
Published: July 15, 2011
Length: 17 minutes (4418 words)
Autumn of the Empire
In the early days of the crisis everything was written on the waters, shifting moment to moment. Most eloquent was the mercurial renaming of 2008’s investor panic. Toward what did we flee? The word “safety” was swiftly deemed too suggestive of danger; the subsequent “liquidity” sounded a bit technical; by general agreement, we settled on the lullaby of “quality.” Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality: If you spot in this something of the epic, you are not mistaken. Indeed, this sequence is a fine thumbnail of The Aeneid, as our hero flees the burning city of Troy, scuds across the seas, and eventually arrives at Rome. Option-ARMs and the man I sing.
Length: 22 minutes (5628 words)
Sons and Fathers
The American superhero phenomenon was made possible by young sons shamed by immigrant fathers, fathers who couldn’t speak English, worked unheroic yet dangerous jobs, and kept their heads down while bootleggers and white slavers fought for streets in a wide-open city. Those kids helped their European-born or former-sharecropper fathers read Dick Tracy at the end of the day: newsprint was their cultural currency. Little boys burned for a response to the criminal impunity they witnessed all around them, and from the early thirties they found it in Dick Tracy, in radio’s Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet, in Superman, and then, in 1939, in Batman.
Published: July 19, 2011
Length: 8 minutes (2200 words)
Mapping the Bay Area
Affection for place runs like a red thread through Rebecca Solnit’s work. Solnit is a writer without portfolio who has already produced histories, bestiaries, catalogs, travelogues, and field guides; her formal ambition is tempered only by her interest in exploration, in introducing herself and her readers to unknown territories. In her latest work, a gorgeously produced collection of maps and essays called Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she turns to another locality-determined genre, adding “cartographer” to her CV.
Published: July 28, 2011
Length: 11 minutes (2837 words)
Exile on Fleet Street
Rupert Murdoch’s strange, covert reign over British public life did not begin all at once. It came about gradually, by accretion, and started with his purchase in 1969 of a dusty old tabloid called The News of the World. In the same year, the BBC — keen to understand the man who some said would transform British media — dispatched one of its cherished sons to interview Murdoch. David Dimbleby — then a 30-year-old reporter, today the august host of the BBC’s flagship political debate program — set about Murdoch with the clipped vowels and polished cunning that will be familiar to viewers of Question Time.
Length: 17 minutes (4417 words)
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