We’re over here now.
A new study suggests that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”
Great news. Although if you change “write” to “read” in the Louise Erdrich quote that serves as the title of this post, you’d have our attitude pretty well summed up.
-Norm De Plume
Fellow Stacked blogger Mel Nezzo rightly suggested we post a link to the following Niehoff Lecturer Bi-Fecta: Robert Pinsky (Niehoff Lecture XIII) on the humor of Seamus Heaney (Niehoff Lecture XXV).
Great find, Mel.
-Norm De Plume
The other great lady of cooking died over the weekend at the age of 89. Between them, Marcella and Julia Child improved the daily lives of Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century as much as air conditioning. Or craft beer in the twenty-first. Which might not be with us at all except for these ladies’ attention to ingredients and passion for authenticity and exactitude.
Marcella was said to be a bit prickly in her insistence on her way of doing things. (One wonders what her Niehoff lecture would have been like.) Many of her instructions have a slightly hectoring tone. Her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book (1973), has a recipe for “Cold Sauteed Trout in Orange Marinade” (this was not the Italian cooking encountered in red-checkered tablecloth restaurants of the seventies). After the trout is sauteed, it is marinated for a day or two in a mix of orange juice, lemon juice and vermouth. The recipe gives precise directions to prepare the trout for its herbal citrus bath: “With a well-sharpened knife, make two or three skin-deep diagonal cuts on both sides of the fish. Be careful not to tear the skin, and avoid cutting into the flesh.” I still remember, decades later, trying not to mangle the skin or the flesh so as not to displease Marcella.
She insisted on authenticity. As the obituaries noted, she often reproved American for the overuse of garlic in their overzealous versions of italian cooking. So it came as something of a surprise to learn from the very good New York Times obituary, that when she married Victor Hazan and reluctantly moved to New York City in 1955, she did not know how to cook. She taught herself, relying on her husband’s copy of an Ada Boni Italian cookbook and the memory of what she had eaten. Only then did she become the oracle of what was true and original to Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. Not unlike Julia Child who became the voice of true French cooking. Or St. Paul, who fell off his horse, stopped persecuting Christians and wrote the cookbook for Christianity. Marcella’s description of what happened to her is a matter of inspiration. “Cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed; it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. No matter how it happened, we are the better for it.
The Non-Blogger had read and approved of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother and we had liked So Much For That enough to have blogged about it at some point, so we grabbed that but then we saw Dissident Gardens which we had read about and heard Jonathan Lethem talking about possibly on the v. useful Fresh Air, so we grabbed that and blitzed through both of them over the weekend just as in the old days when we read for dollars and were a lean mean reading machine. Both good. Both about families that plague. Shriver’s particularly interesting since it was indeed about a brother, something we have in spades. Neither book pretentious. Neither book precious. Neither book experimental. Time well spent.
‘In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise’
It is a quaint and curious custom to visit the graves of the lofty dead. One did not know this musician or that poet, the honored guest did not choose the stone or the setting, and yet one is there, hoping the dead will yet speak.
Wystan Hugh Auden died on September 29, 1973, at the age of 66. Mercantile members may experience a frisson of apprehension to learn that Auden died in his sleep after giving a poetry reading to the Austrian Society of Literature in Vienna. He and his companion Chester Kallman had just closed up the summer house Auden bought in 1950, an hour west of Vienna in the village of Kirchstetten. Auden wanted to be buried there and asked for a traditional Austrian funeral mass. One can imagine Auden in Britain, or Berlin, or New York, where he famously moved in 1939. Perhaps less so in a small mittel-european hamlet, but he returned every summer and was much appreciated by his neighbors. When Auden turned 60, he received a birthday delegation at his front door consisting of the mayor, village dignitaries and two children in Austrian country dress reciting what sounds like German doggerel. Auden is charmed and courtly.
One might profit on this graveside visit to read any of Auden’s very great poems. One might appropriately turn to the elegy he wrote on the death of another great poet, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the last lines of which appear above and on the memorial in Westminster Abbey. (Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, wrote an excellent essay on it in his book Later Auden.) But on this anniversary I will listen to Auden reading his ballad “As I walked out one evening.” The poet speaks directly to us, forty years after his death.
Who says you cannot conquer Time?
As longtime Stacked readers know, on Fridays we can rarely be bothered to post anything more thoughtful than a link to something vaguely book-related. Today is no exception. So without any further ado, I hereby post the following vaguely book-related link to an excellent American Scholar piece about our cultural propensity for making up new words.
Seriously, though, it’s a great read.
Reminds me of the time I thought I’d invented the word “advertorial,” I suppose as some sort of Lovecraftian attempt to bring to light the unspeakable terrors that dwell in the darkest corners of our collective subconscious. Imagine my horror when I learned that this word was already in common usage in certain sectors of the publishing industry. It was a chilling moment indeed.
-Norm De Plume
Colum McCann, National Book Award winner and best-selling novelist, charmed and inspired the audience at the Mercantile Library’s 2013 Modern Novel lecture. His remarks were full of the warmth, wit and storytelling prowess that are — cultural stereotype alert — so commonly associated with his Irish homeland. It was hard to say if the eyes of the speaker or those of the audience held brighter twinkles as McCann shared tales of his Dublin upbringing, his formative 12,000-mile bicycle trip around the US and his particular skill (and pleasure) in writing female characters.
McCann also spoke compellingly of his sojourns to Romani camps in Europe and among New York’s subway-dwelling homeless. Yes, the stories he heard have informed his specific works (Zoli and This Side of Brightness, respectively). But they also inspired his particular belief in “radical empathy” — a way of seeing and understanding the perspective of the other. It’s a notion (more like a conviction or value to McCann) that has inspired his more recent and better-known books, like Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic. McCann said he doesn’t write for himself, since he leads a boring life on the Upper East Side; rather he takes seriously his responsibility to imagine the lives and experiences of others (both historical and fictional characters) and present them in his writing.
What’s most clear from both his prepared remarks and the thoughtful answers he gave to audience questions is his deep belief in the power of all forms and human stories. They are a way of “getting away from ourselves.” And by stories he means more than just the sprawling and significant themes of official histories (like those of the Irish peace process), but also those highly meaningful, anonymous moments (as when Senator George Mitchell changes a diaper in TransAtalntic.) ”History does not change diapers,” he said.
A few of my favorite moments and asides from the Lecture:
+ It should be compulsory for us all to do something “that does not compute” when we are young — like his long bike ride across the U.S. Of course, he worries about his reaction when his own children will want to do something just as incomputable.
+ On the day of Seamus Heaney’s death, he imagined bookshelves around the world making a “gap-toothed smile” as readers reached up to find or revisit the great poet’s books.
+ Of Frank McCourt’s stature among Irish writers: “I couldn’t write about Irish misery, because nobody could out-misery Frank’s childhood.”
+ Of experiencing the other: “The more we choose to see, the more we will see.”
+ On the rise of eReaders: “They can take away our books, but they can’t take away our stories.”
Oh the things you will learn in the Proctor and Gamble Archives. Did you know that Ivory soap originally came with a string around it, to make it easy to split in half as a dual-purpose product for kitchen and bath? That Vick’s VapoRub began as the catchy “Vick’s Croup and Pneumonia Salve”? Or that Max Factor, part of whose collection P&G acquired when they bought the cosmetician-to-the-stars’ eponymous brand, invented a kissing machine for testing lipstick? P&G’s kissing machine is broken, but a working version turned up on the cover of a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. According to Lisa Mulvany, Beauty Archivist and P&G archives tour-guide extraordinaire, Factor determined the pressure of the ideal kiss to be 10lbs, which seems high for someone sporting a mustache. The other librarians on my tour, organized by the Special Libraries Association, all women, seemed to agree.
The Procter and Gamble archives preserve and display objects representative of the health and beauty behemoth’s history of invention, marketing, and branding genius, from those first humble bars to such iconic products as Tide, Febreze, Dreft and Dawn. Everywhere you look, bold new words for products that promise, and sometimes do, change lives.
The second thing you notice when you walk in, after a stunned, Julie Andrews-esque 360 to take in the brilliant displays of colors so bright they might have been alchemically conjured by P&G’s R&D wizards, is the well put-together nature of the place. Artifacts are associated by brand, and their arrangement tells stories. As you pass from one room to the next, charts map the evolution of P&G’s brand portfolio, as well as their products, offshoots, and acquisitions.
This is more than a museum. It’s an in-house resource, because, Lisa says, great new ideas are usually great old ideas rediscovered. P&G’s smart set draws inspiration from this collection and from company history. From an archival standpoint, for a collection that serves this purpose, the connections between the objects—their evolution, cross-pollination and origins carry as much information as the objects themselves. Each connection is a story contributing to a larger story, one that plays out in the bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and shopping carts of millions of consumers word wide. That the archives are a vital part of P&G’s collective, creative thought process is evidenced by the location of an “Ideation and Brainstorm Space” on the premises. Two display rooms provide a panorama of P&G’s products, origins, and history. A surprising number of items have been bought on eBay.
From the beginning, P&G’s expertise lay in rendering fats for various products. Before Ivory, they sold soap and candles to the Union Army. And where they lacked expertise, they have been smart enough to know where to get it. In many cases the company bought operations not only for rights, but for the knowledge that came with the purchase–their move into the cosmetics market, for example, which is how a lock of Elizabeth Taylor’s hair, and samples of other stars’ coiffure, for whom Max Factor made wigs, ended up in the archive. Along the way, Procter and Gamble has gotten good at many other things, including understanding and influencing the psychology behind why and what we buy. Case in point, the company’s seminal role in the creation and production of what became known, because of its involvement, as soap operas. They even won this Emmy.
More recently, they’ve mastered the art of creating new needs before we even know we need them—no small feat, as Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, notes here. Who knew we needed canned potato chips that came perfectly stacked? P&G did. Thank you, P&G.
And while the P&G archives might offer insight into the power that brands and images exert over us, they also demonstrate, with all of those intricate logos and smiling faces (for example these creepy babies that were probably once considered adorable, unless they were trying to scare prospective customers into buying, in which case, SOLD!), just how much a part of us they have become.
The P&G archives are usually only open to P&G employees, partners, and stakeholders. Any Cincinnati history buff should figure out how to become one of these, to gain access to this trove covering a 176-year corporate history that has profoundly shaped our nation and city. -Ed Scripsi