Search Results for: London Review of Books

He, She, One, They, Ho, Hus, Hum, Ita

Longreads Pick

Amia Srinivasan on language and pronouns: “Language is a public system of meaning. No individual can unilaterally decide what a word means, or whether any given word, according to standard usage, truly describes them. And yet the definitions of words – as any lexicographer will tell you – depend on patterns of actual human usage, which can and do shift over time.”

Published: Jul 2, 2020
Length: 29 minutes (7,429 words)

The Function and Language of Ancient Sexual Texts

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about a medieval classroom’s curriculum or what it might have been like to attend. Apparently they could be a lot more racy than you’d think. Chaucer’s story Reeve’s Tale, is about rape, for example. Poems about deflowered nuns and lascivious men whose sexual appetites earned comparisons to animals were read to children and adults. In a fascinating and fresh review-essay for the London Review of Books, Irina Dumitrescu looks at ancient depications of sexuality, and the idea of obscenity, through Carissa Harris’ book Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “In her meticulously argued new book,” Dumitrescu writes, “Carissa Harris shows that obscenity was used to convey vastly different lessons about sex and ethics in medieval literature. Focusing on sexual language in Middle English and Middle Scots, her study explores the way texts deployed for (heterosexual) erotic education often combined ‘the irresistible pull of arousal and titillation and the revulsive push of shame and disgust’.”

For much of the 20th century, academics argued that the concept of obscenity was born along with the printing press and state censorship of erotic material. One can understand where this idea came from: even a fleeting encounter with medieval art is likely to turn up lurid depictions of sex organs and bodily orifices. Take the naked man crouching at the bottom of the Bayeux Tapestry, his genitalia on full display. (In 2018, George Garnett achieved brief internet fame by counting the 93 phalluses, human and equine, shown on the tapestry, and documenting their states of tumescence.) Medieval manuscript pages often have a stately central text surrounded by rollicking activity. Nuns harvest penises from trees in the lower margins of a manuscript of the Roman de la rose, and a naked man presents his behind to be pierced by a monkey’s lance beneath the prayers of the Rutland Psalter. Pilgrim badges, popular medieval souvenirs made of cheap metal alloys, depict vulvas dressed as pilgrims, winged penises and female smiths forging phalluses. Erotic imagery is carved into stone corbels and on the undersides of wooden choir seats in medieval churches.

But none of this should be taken as proof that there was no concept of obscenity in the Middle Ages. The notion that some things are lewd or filthy is distinct from the desire to regulate them by political means. The influential seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville used the adjective ‘obscenus’ to describe the love of prostitutes and those parts of the body that excite people to shameful acts. In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux railed against heretics doing ‘heinous and obscene’ things in private, comparing them to the stinking behinds of foxes. In the Roman de la rose, the Lover upbraids the allegorical figure of Reason for using the word coilles (‘balls’). He argues that this isn’t dignified in the mouth of a courteous girl (an unwitting double entendre), but Reason defends her usage. God made the generative organs and women enjoy the pleasures these afford, whatever word is used to describe them. Not all medieval copyists of the Roman de la rose agreed with this argument: a number of versions leave out this passage. People in the Middle Ages certainly understood certain things to be filthy or shameful, but such topics could also inspire prayerful reflection or be used to explain the error of a poor line of verse.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, Patricia Lockwood, Rachel E. Gross, Ann Babe, and Theresa Okokon.

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1. How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit the Pandemic

Jane Mayer | The New Yorker | July 13, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,530 words)

“The secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the president’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

2. Insane after Coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood | London Review of Books | July 8, 2020 | 14 minutes (3,546 words)

Patricia Lockwood recounts her maddening experiences with COVID-19: “I had developed a low-grade fever. My head ached, my neck, my back. My eyes ached in their orbits and streamed tears whenever I tried to read or watch television. My mouth tasted like a foreign penny.”

3. How Koalas With an STD Could Help Humanity

Rachel E. Gross | The New York Times | July 13, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,360 words)

The adorable eucalyptus-eaters are on the front lines of research for a chlamydia vaccine.

4. Tune In, Drop Out

Ann Babe | Rest of World | July 14, 2020 | 13 minutes (3,350 words)

In South Korea, the cultural and familial pressure to conform is massive, and for many, crushing. Meet the individualist loners, the honjok, who are carving out a new way — and changing the Korean economy.

5. Me Llamo Theresa

Theresa Okokon | Hippocampus Magazine | July 7, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,403 words)

“Mrs. Wilson would have cocked her head to the side, furrowed her brow a bit as she pursed her lips like she had tasted something sour. She removed her eyes from my proud gaze to look instead at my mother. Is there anything else we can call her? Mrs. Wilson asked. Does she have a real name? An American name we can call her?

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Lustig, Ed Yong, Leslie Jamison, Rosa Lyster, and Geoff Edgers.

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1. What I Learned When My Husband Got Sick with Coronavirus

Jessica Lustig | The New York Times Magazine | March 24, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,227 words)

“You shouldn’t stay here,” he says, but he gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says.

2. How the Pandemic Will End

Ed Yong | The Atlantic | March 25, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,549 words)

“The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.”

3. Since I Became Symptomatic

Leslie Jamison | New York Review of Books | March 26, 2020 | 6 minutes (1500 words)

A month after filing for divorce, single mom Leslie Jamison contracted COVID-19. She wrote this meditation on single parenthood, loneliness, longing, and frustration while sheltering in place — and sweating out the virus — with her 2-year-old daughter.

4. Where Water Used to Be

Rosa Lyster | London Review of Books | March 25, 2020 | 11 minutes (2,810 words)

A look at another crisis the world is facing: water scarcity. Rosa Lyster examines the water-stressed cities of Cape Town and Mexico City — cities grappling with issues related to climate change, infrastructure, and inequality.

5. Sinéad O’Connor is Still in One Piece

Geoff Edgers | The Washington Post | March 18, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,857 words)

“She tore up a picture of the pope. Then her life came apart. These days, she just wants to make music.”

“The Internet Is Inside Us”: Patricia Lockwood on the Portal, Twitter, and Her New Novel

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Reading poet, essayist, and novelist Patricia Lockwood on our internet lives is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and losing your mind. Lockwood’s musings and observations on what it’s like to be extremely online in our digital and social media age are incomparable. Her essays and lectures — like “The Communal Mind” from 2019 and her coronavirus diary from last summer — are hilarious, absurd, pure, and human. In a conversation with Gabriella Paiella at GQ, Lockwood talks about her debut novel No One Is Talking About This, the strange experience of following current events on Twitter, and how the internet is “no longer an externality” — it’s inside us.

Your London Review of Books talk “The Communal Mind” is excerpted from your book. Do you remember the turning point when you started to think of the internet as a “communal mind” and, as you put it then, “a place we can never leave”?

It did start to feel like we were locked in there. I think, honestly, it probably was 2012. It had to take a political turn. It became the place where we were imbibing the news. The point in which it turned from a communal free space of play to a place where we were getting our information was probably the difference.

We were starting out with a very bare bones, text-based version. There weren’t images. You couldn’t embed video. Ultimately, I think what changed it was the quote tweet, because that meant that as soon as you went into the portal, you were experiencing an argument first thing. You didn’t even know what these people were talking about, and immediately you were faced with the discourse. That to me was the full evolution into hell as we are experiencing it now.

I do think it’s healthy to be pulling away from Twitter at this time. But in times like this, you’re like, “Okay, I’m jumping into the portal, and I’m seeing what’s happening because it is a million eyes.” It’s the only way you can experience all sides of it. The absurd sides and the tragic sides. It’s not like it was this completely hilarious event, obviously. It’s not like it was entirely tragic either. And the portal has really evolved into a place that we can experience all those sides—the only place that you can do that.

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When the Climate Change Story Becomes Your Life Story

AP Photo/The Mail Tribune, Jim Craven

In 2018, writer McKenzie Funk and his family moved from Seattle to tiny Ashland, Oregon. Famed for its beautiful location, navigable size, and annual Shakespeare Festival, Ashland’s “economy relies,” Funk writes, “above everything else, on its quality of life.” Funk quickly learns that Ashland is becoming known for another thing: horrific seasonal air quality caused by forest fires. Tasked with reviewing a few books on climate change for the London Review of Books, Funk quickly finds himself living in the very catastrophe he was reading about, as he tries to understand this new world order.

When a building is burning, firefighters usually try to extinguish every last flame. It’s a fight to the death, over in a matter of hours. When thousands or tens of thousands of acres of forest are burning, the major goal is containment, a kind of negotiated peace with a force greater than man. Wildland firefighters try to halt a blaze’s progress, encircling it with natural or manmade firebreaks. They work to keep the flames away from people and property, hoping to hang on until environmental conditions – humidity, wind speed and direction – change and the autumn rains finally arrive. Many wildfires are left to smoulder, and to smoke, for weeks or months on end, causing little newsworthy damage. Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen. But the climate disaster facing millions of other residents of the American West is more insidious. In a town like Ashland, the smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burn diminution of the way life here used to be.

On the afternoon the boys and I arrived the town and the Rogue Valley where it sits were surrounded by nine separate wildfires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States: 321 on the Air Quality Index. The AQI scale is colour-coded – green-yellow-orange-red-purple-maroon – to denote health risk, and we were well into maroon, or ‘hazardous’. Outside, the air was totally still and the temperature had hit 100°F. It looked like dusk in the middle of the day. Inside, the boys’ upstairs room was like a furnace, but we couldn’t open the skylights for fear of letting the smoke in. We rushed out to buy an air-conditioning unit. At the hardware store down the road, we got the last child-size smoke masks on the shelves, the ones rated N95 for the particulate matter the internet said we really needed to keep out of their lungs. Prepping for the unknown, we ordered a dozen more masks from China on Amazon.

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The Communal Mind

Longreads Pick
Published: Feb 13, 2019
Length: 27 minutes (6,896 words)

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Ijeoma Oluo, Patricia Lockwood, Michael Shaw, Mairead Small Staid, and Adriana Gallardo.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week staff. "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014." WikiJournal of Medicine.

This week, we’re sharing stories from Tiffany Stanley, Raj Telhan, Alex Pareene, Nico Muhly, and Chris Heath.

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Andrew O’Hagan on The Grenfell Tower Fire, One Year Later

Grenfell Tower on June 17th, 2017. David Mirzoeff/PA Wire URN:36546841

In an epic seven-part piece at The London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan writes on the harrowing Grenfell Tower fire that took place in London, England on June 14th, 2017. Telling dozens of individual stories of survivors and victims of the catastrophe, his essay posits that shoddy renovations and a poorly managed fire response that urged residents to “stay put” and wait for rescue — a policy only rescinded until it was too late for residents on the upper floors to evacuate — cost 72 people their lives.

Near to 12.15 a.m., a fire began in the kitchen of Flat 16 on the fourth floor. The flat was rented by an Ethiopian cab driver called Behaulu Kebede, a father of one. Some immediate neighbours heard a bang, but the rest knew nothing until, about twenty minutes later, Mr Kebede appeared in the hall in his stockinged feet, saying there was a fire in his flat. He thought it had started at the back of his fridge. He called the police before going to the door of his next-door neighbour, Maryam Adam, who was three months pregnant. ‘It was exactly 12.50 a.m.,’ she said, ‘because I was sleeping and it woke me up.’ She looked at the clock as she made her way onto the landing and looked towards Kebede’s open door. She could see into his kitchen and she thought at the time that the fire wasn’t very big.

Flames from the fridge had engulfed the kitchen and were quickly licking out of Kebede’s open window, setting fire to the insulation in the cavity beween the building and its new cladding. It wasn’t obvious at first that this had happened: when the firefighters arrived, a group of eight, they came up to Flat 16 and put out the fire in the kitchen. They didn’t notice that the flames going out of the window had allowed the fire to enter the cavity. The barriers that were supposed to seal the gaps between panels in the event of a fire were too small, or were badly fitted, which allowed the cavity to act as a chimney and draw the flames upwards.

And then, just as the firefighters from North Kensington were leaving the scene, having doused the kitchen fire, the control at Stratford started receiving further emergency calls. ‘There’s a fire in my sitting room on the tenth floor!’ ‘My bedroom window is covered in flames. I’m on the eighth floor.’

‘That’s impossible,’ the operators were saying to each other. ‘The fire on the fourth floor was just put out by firefighters!’ One fire chief told me the problem was that the people in Stratford couldn’t see what was happening and so were confused when suddenly dozens of calls were coming in at the same time. The operators told the callers to stay put in their flats. A senior operations officer eventually got a picture from social media up on his mobile phone and showed it to his superior officer.

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