I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?
Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.
I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.
After the September 11 attacks, Interior tried to build its own database to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.
That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.
People regularly disappear on America’s 640 million acres of national forests, national parks, and Bureau of Land Management property. The disappearance of an 18-year old runner in Colorado sent Outsidejournalist Jon Billman to investigate the sheriffs, trackers, amateur detectives, and mourning families who search for the people who go missing in the wild.
If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?
Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.
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I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?
So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.
In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.
For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.
Geronilla is mercurial. Mussed hair, holes in his sweatshirt, shattered iPhone. He listens to the xx on vinyl and shares his bedroom with two brothers, one of whom has enlisted in the Army. The room is lined with cameras, including a Red Epic digital, and videotapes of “Dr. Zhivago” and “Some Like it Hot.” He sleeps on a roll-up futon, edits and shoots commercials and music videos. Aside from the two other scripts he’s working on, he’s writing a thriller set in an auto shop that he estimates will cost $500,000 to make, or “maybe $100,000 can still make it look good.”
Hoston is slender and her hair falls deep south of her shoulders. Glasses perched on her nose, she likes precision; a quiet presence who on-screen can glow bright as a filament. She has a quick laugh and on most days is bigger than her doubts. On her way to a recent acting class, she worked on “not smooshing words together” when reading lines. She has a new agent and manager and head shot photos for pilot season. She’s been told to edit her demo reel down to 40 seconds. “How can I show them who I am in that time?” she agonizes.
How does an ordinary Canadian become a Rebel? During my week at sea, I began to classify Rebels according to the issues that made them angriest—the ones that had originally brought them into Levant’s orbit. Fear of Islam and a distrust of mainstream climate-change science were the most prevalent. Rebels might start out as temperate conservatives, centrists, or even leftists (Faith Goldy said that her conservatism had emerged from the ashes of a youthful hard-left zeal). But at some point, a gateway issue draws them in.
Maybe a sudden spike in a tax bill is what enrages them, or they lose their job. It could be a workplace incident in which they’re accused of exhibiting some stigmatized trait—racism, sexism, transphobia—that they don’t believe they possess. Or, watching the news, they are overcome by the horror of an Isis terrorist attack.
Those who work with food are especially prone to thinking of themselves as curators. Chefs, for example, are said to be curating things wherever you look. There are countless internet personalities who refer to themselves as “food curators.” With a little searching, you will also encounter wine curators, beer curators, coffee curators, tea curators, spice curators, and cupcake curators.
The fantasy of curation can be extended to virtually any product category. Shops are often thought to be curated. So are rugs. And furniture. Cosmetics. Landscaping. Wardrobes. Music is eminently suited for the oversight of curators. So are TED talks. In fact, “curator” appears to be the actual job title of the chief officer of the TED organization, as it is of those who oversee TEDx events. It’s also a title of a radio producer at NPR.
When she was 22 and an assistant at New York Magazine, Ariel Levy, hungry for success and action, went to a nightclub for obese women and reported her first story. New York published the resulting piece with what Levy, two decades later, claims is still the best headline she’s had: “WOMEN’S LB.” Levy worked for New York until 2008, when she was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. There, she has focused largely on gender and sexuality: she’s profiled comedian Ali Wong, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, boxer Claressa Shields, and Nora Ephron. She has traveled to Jerusalem with Mike Huckabee, to Italy to report on Silvio Berlusconi, to South Africa to report on runner Caster Semenya.
And she has traveled to Mongolia. In 2012—38 years old, married and in love, and five months pregnant—Levy got on a plane for what she felt would be her last big trip for a long time. But, while there, a pain in her abdomen grew and grew until, in the middle of dinner at a Japanese restaurant, she had to rush back to her hotel room before the food came. On the floor of her hotel bathroom, an “unholy storm” moved through her body, and she gave birth to her son. Less than twenty minutes later, he died.
Levy recounted this experience in her first piece of personal writing, the essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, tells the broader story of her gradual realization, through trauma and loss—including divorce from her wife, who struggled with alcoholism—that our options are limited by nature.
Having read your work and knowing how adventurous you are, I was surprised to read about how fearful you become before you travel. I’m the type of person who, when I feel very fearful, often heeds that and runs away. You seem to do the opposite—diving headfirst into fear. What’s that about?
That’s just how I’ve always done it. I mean, you’re absolutely right.
If you’re an only child, you only ever talk to grown-ups; it makes you a very weird kid. So when I was a kid learning how to talk to other people my own age, I do think my initial problem was that I’d be really scared, and I’d come on so strong. People were like, “Who is that aggressive, terrifying child?” I was just overcompensating for fear.
That’s definitely how I deal. I hope I’ve gotten less weird socially, but if a story scares me, if a job scares me, I’m definitely going to dive in. I just didn’t like the idea of living a terrified life, you know? I didn’t want to go down that way. Read more…