Poster exposes "A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels"

A detail from a poster, sold by Pop Chart Lab for $29, which diagrams the opening lines of 25 famous novels using the Reed-Kellogg system for breaking down the grammatical construction of sentences. [via Wired] Read the rest

Waiting for Sluggo: Beckett and Bushmiller's correspondence

UPDATE: I was had! This piece by writer AS Hamrah and illustrator R. Sikoryak was a brilliant hoax that first appeared in 1999 in the excellent Hermenaut magazine. Forgive me while I continue to believe that it's all true.

Unlikely pen pals: Nobel Prize-winning novelist/playwright/poet Samuel Beckett and artist Ernie Bushmiller, creator of one of my favorite comics of all time, Nancy. In 1952, Beckett struck up a correspondence with the cartoonist that was recently uncovered while Bushmiller's estate was prepped for auction. The American Reader published some excerpts and analysis. The conversation starts with Bushmiller's panel, seen above, riffing on some gag ideas for Nancy that Beckett sent him in a letter that is unfortunately lost: Read the rest

Dune endures, but why isn't it a phenomenon?

At The New Yorker, Jon Michaud looks at why Frank Herbert's space opera, Dune, endures despite failing to ender the public consciousness the way Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have.

There are no “Dune” conventions. Catchphrases from the book have not entered the language. Nevertheless ... With daily reminders of the intensifying effects of global warming, the spectre of a worldwide water shortage, and continued political upheaval in the oil-rich Middle East, it is possible that “Dune” is even more relevant now than when it was first published. If you haven’t read it lately, it’s worth a return visit. If you’ve never read it, you should find time to.

A good article, which points out how the first novel's brilliance has been obscured by a distinctly second-rate franchise. A more salient reason Dune didn't penetrate massivedom, though, is simply that the movie wasn't good enough and it bombed. To seal the pop culture deal—and popular culture isn't quite the same thing as mere success or awareness—the screen is all-important. It's the moment of translation, the emergence of a story from the cocoon of literature to the glare of popular culture in all its splendor and squalor. A brilliantly-imagined but confused movie by David Lynch made Dune too weird, and a SyFy TV series made it too cheap. This puts it where Lord of the Rings was before Peter Jackson: pregnant with cinematic possibility, but misshapen by prior efforts.

But hey, it could be worse! You could be into Earthsea, which has had two movies made of it, each terrible in entirely different ways except one: both replaced the protagonist of color with a white dude. Read the rest

Kafka and d'Annunzio, and the mysteries to be revealed in their former homes

There is something perverse and voyeuristic about visiting the private homes of famous people. Yet, as time goes by, I find the grand fame of public figures less interesting than their personal doings. I once visited the house where Kafka died, near Vienna. The barrenness of that sanatorium was so like the bareness and modesty of his existence, as opposed to Kafka's phantasmagoric, paranoiacally complex writing.

Next to Kafka's humble bed was a small door where one would have to bend one's head to enter: on a white sheet of paper, attached with clear tape, was written: "Kafka WC." Not being British, I had no idea what those mysterious letters meant.

Read the rest

Gaming is home to a potent new form of storytelling

John Walker argues, irrefutably, that games are a great place to tell stories: "There are some who have argued that games just aren’t the right medium for telling stories. ... But this argument is entirely flawed, failing to understand that gaming is home to a completely new form of storytelling, and one that is perhaps more potent and powerful than any other." [Rock Paper Shotgun] Read the rest

Help transcribe ancient Egyptian texts

You don't need to know an ancient language to help scientists read ancient literature. Researchers are looking for volunteers for a crowdsource project aimed at transcribing (and, later, translating) the words written on a series of crumbling papyrus scrolls, found in a trash heap at the site of what was once Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Read the rest

What's the creepiest passage in literature?

At The Atlantic, Joe Fassler votes for an infamous passage from Cormac McCarthy's The Road:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

The key, he adds: "What is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined." Read the rest

Do readers judge female characters more harshly?

Oh yes, writes Maria Konnikova in The Atlantic: "Work by social psychologists like Susan Fiske and Mina Cikara has repeatedly demonstrated that women are perceived and evaluated on different criteria than men. ... "Now, even fictional females are feeling the sting." Read the rest

Forget scarlet fever: What really blinded Mary Ingalls

Anybody who has spent much time with children's literature knows that scarlet fever blinded Mary Ingalls.

But scarlet fever doesn't cause blindness.

Mary really did become blind, though, in real life as well as in the books, so what was the real culprit? A paper published this week in the journal Pediatrics speculates that it could have been viral meningoencephalitis — inflammation in the brain and in the membranes that surround the central nervous system.

There are several possible causes. In Europe and Asia, ticks can spread a virus that causes meningoencephalitis. West Nile virus can cause it, as well. So can the mumps. And so can herpes simplex type 1 — the oral herpes virus that is present in the vast majority of people.

Which means that this story not only has ties to the other Little House history pieces we've run here at Boing Boing — the meteorology of the Long Winter, and the crazy connection between the Ingalls' and a family of serial killers — it's also, possibly, another example of a heroine from children's fiction who had herpes.

The full paper, sadly, is behind a paywall. But The New York Times' Motherlode blog has a nice summary of it.

Image: Wikipedia editor Lrcg2012, via CC

Read the rest

Great Moments in Pedantry: James and the Giant Peach needs moar seagulls

Children's literature is about the wonder of discovering new worlds, the power of imagination, and the all the little triumphs and defeats that make up a life.

It's also an excellent place to find hypothetical questions that test the laws of physics.

For instance, presupposing that one could grow a peach to the size of a house, could one also really sail that peach across an ocean? And then, presupposing that one could harness the power of 501 seagulls, would that number of seagulls be sufficient to carry said peach through the air?

These are the questions posed in "James' Giant Peach Transport Across the Atlantic", a paper published last fall in the Journal of Physics Special Topics. Read the rest

Grendel as Grinch

Ross sez, "I was reading Thomas Meyer's great new translation of Beowulf when the annual showing of The Grinch came on. The potential for a mash-up overwhelmed me, and this is the result."

Every Scylding in Heorot liked mead a lot, But Grendel the beast, roaring outside did not.

Grendel hated Scyldings, the whole Danish clan., Can I say why? I don’t think I can.

He spied on the Scyldings, he fumed and he wailed., He watched as in Heorot they drank mead and drank ale.

Grendel as Grinch Read the rest

Omnishambles is word of the year

The Oxford English Dictionary has determined that "omnishambles", referring to situations shambolic in all possible respects, is word of the year. Coined by Armando Iannucci for BBC political comedy The Thick Of It, it has since been used in Britain's real-life parliament to refer to real-life omnishambles. [BBC] Read the rest

Why Philip Roth had to explain himself in the New Yorker before his Wikipedia entry could be corrected

My latest Guardian column, "Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source," explains why it makes sense for Wikipedians to insist that Roth's claims about his novels be vetted by and published in the New Yorker before they can be included on Wikipedia:

Wikipedians not only have no way of deciding whether Philip Roth is an authority on Philip Roth, but even if they decided that he was, they have no way of knowing that the person claiming to be Philip Roth really is Philip Roth. And even if Wikipedians today decide that they believe that the PhilipRoth account belongs to the real Philip Roth, how will the Wikipdians 10 years from now know whether the editor who called himself PhilipRoth really was Philip Roth?

Wikipedia succeeds by "not doing the things that nobody ever thought of not doing". Specifically, Wikipedia does not verify the identity or credentials of any of its editors. This would be a transcendentally difficult task for a project that is open to any participant, because verifying the identity claims of random strangers sitting at distant keyboards is time-consuming and expensive. If each user has to be vetted and validated, it's not practical to admit anyone who wants to add a few words to a Wikipedia entry.

Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source Read the rest

Little House on the Prairie, serial killers, and the nature of memoir

Over the weekend, I read a couple of the posts blogger Ana Mardoll has been writing in which she deconstructs some of the weirder/more objectionable elements of the Little House books. That sent me looking for an essay I'd read several years ago on the actual history of how the Osage people were removed from southeastern Kansas ... which is given a prominent, if rather warped, role in Little House on the Prairie.

I didn't find that essay, but I did find several references to a story I had never, ever heard before. Turns out, the Ingalls family's sojourn in Kansas might have overlapped with that of a family of serial killers. At the American Indians in Children's Literature blog, Debbie Reese writes about stumbling across the story in the transcript of a speech Laura Ingalls Wilder gave in 1937. Here's an excerpt from that transcript:

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

... In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer.

Read the rest

Spoilers are actually kind of nice

UCSD psych researchers Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld have published a paper called Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories in Psychological Science, in which they systematically study the effect of spoilers on audiences' appreciation of stories. As the title suggests, they found that despite subjects' stated sensitivity to spoilers, having stories spoiled for them didn't undermine their enjoyment of stories -- in fact, it sometimes enhanced it. Ty Burr has more:

No matter how much we claim to love that uncertainty, Leavitt and Christenfeld’s study indicates that spoilers provide some psychological relief, a way of dipping our toes in the ocean of fiction before diving in. Not knowing where a compelling story is going creates anxiety, and it’s that anxiety, Leavitt believes, that fuels the secret itch to cheat. “There are emotions we don’t like feeling in real life,” he says. “We feel them watching a movie, but without the anxiety it’s not as difficult to cope with. We feel safer. I feel that’s even more the case if you know where the story’s going — there’s not the dread or the fear that could spill over a little bit into real life.”

If a work of fiction is particularly well crafted — like “The Godfather” or like one of Leavitt’s recent favorite reads, Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” — it’s possible to fool ourselves into a temporary not-knowing while revisiting it, to lose ourselves in the story all over again even as part of our brains breathes a sigh of relief at knowing where the guard rails are.

Read the rest

Crazy stuff they'll teach in Louisiana's publicly funded charter schools

Louisiana governor (and retired exorcist) Bobby Jindal has signed an aggressive charter school bill that will transfer millions in tax dollars to religious academies run by evolution-denying, homophobic, climate-change-denying Christian extremists. Mother Jones's Deanna Pan went for a dig through these schools' official texts and discovered that Louisiana's publicly funded education system will soon tell some of its luckiest students that the KKK "achieved a certain respectability" by fighting bootleggers; "the majority of slave holders treated their slaves well;" dragons might be real; "dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time," and many other fun facts.

3. "God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ."—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994...

7. The Great Depression wasn't as bad as the liberals made it sound: "Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath…Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America."—United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996...

10. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson were a couple of hacks: "[Mark] Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless…Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel."—Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001

"Several of [Emily Dickinson's] poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general.

Read the rest

Ayn Rand's Lord of the Rings

“'Yes,' said Frodo. 'I shall keep the Ring from the foolish parasities who wish to destroy it. For shockingly, many wish to destroy the Ring! They wish to keep the Ring from the rightful ownership of the rugged individualist who made it as his own.'" [Oliver Miller at Slacktory. Previously.] Read the rest

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