This was not what I had been expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting; mostly, I was filling a gap in the schedule. Mostly, I was trying not to lose my shit in the classroom that winter and embarrass myself. But here it was, this life on the page. I didn’t understand it. I could understand why my students felt more free when writing anonymously, but why did the writing itself get better, on every level? I tried this exercise a few more times in other classrooms elsewhere. Again and again, I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.
I wanted this experience, too. Lost as I was, I thought it might help me get somewhere, anywhere. However, and perhaps paradoxically, one can’t really write anonymously by oneself. Readers are required; the anonymous writer needs an audience to whom one can be unknown. I walked around with this conundrum, not particularly doing anything about it, until, at a literary event, I met Yuka Igarashi, then an editor at the online literary publication Catapult, who offered me an assignment. Instead of doing that assignment, I suggested an anonymous column. I became the Magpie, a pseudonym that came to me immediately. For the next year, I published as the Magpie every two weeks. It changed me in ways I never would have expected.
One evening in the spring of 1977, at the elegant St. Regis Hotel in New York, 40 or so intelligent, distinguished persons came together and, with drinks in hand, talked about the English language. They were especially interested in words and phrases that reflect poorly on people who use them. On this peculiar subject—of what not to say and when—several attendees were reputed to be experts. All of them, however, could claim at least some degree of authority as members of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.
It may have been the only time the usage panel—which was terminated, without ceremony, on February 1 of this year—met in person. Fortunately, Mark Singer, a writer for the New Yorker, was on the scene, and to him we are indebted for the unsigned article that appeared in the Talk of the Town section a few weeks later.
A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two. I once heard Ken Dodd say that the secret of a great comedian is that he makes the audience feel simultaneously safe and slightly on edge. He has about half a minute from coming on stage, Dodd reckoned, to establish that he is harmless. He must quickly convey calm and control, so that the audience members relax into their seats, safe in the knowledge that nothing truly awkward is about to happen. But he must also create a sense of unpredictability that makes them lean forward. A good long sentence has that same tension. It should frustrate readers just a little, and put them just faintly on edge, without ever suggesting that it has lost control of what is being said.
A sentence, once begun, demands its own completion. It throws a thought into the air and leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied until that thought has come in to land. We read a sentence with the same part of our brains that processes music. Like music, a sentence arrays its elements into an order that should seem fresh and surprising and yet shaped and controlled. It works by violating expectations and creating mild frustrations on the way to fulfillment. As it runs its course, it assuages some of the frustration and may create more. But by the end, things should have resolved themselves in a way that allows something, at least, to be said.
I was down on my knees before the chess set. Not out of deference, though I did feel a bit of that. I knelt because Irving Finkel, a board game expert and a curator at the British Museum, which displayed these chess pieces among its extensive collection, suggested that patrons view it that way. “When you look at them, kneel down or crouch in such a way that you can look through the glass straight into their faces and look them in the eye. You will see human beings across the passage of time. They have a remarkable quality. They speak to you.”
These were the Lewis Chessmen, and they composed perhaps the most important chess set in the world. They’re a centerpiece of the British Museum. Even as I knelt on the floor, staring into the eyes of a berserker warrior (most likely a rook) biting his shield, a crowd formed around me to gawk at the carved-walrus-tusk-and-whale-tooth game pieces, displayed on a chess board in a glass box in the middle of a large room. The pieces were an important piece of history, made in the middle of the 12th century, and they offered a glimpse into that time period. But was that all there was to the Lewis Chessmen? The British Museum housed many artifacts much older than these, and items that had a much more direct link to the history of the game. These chessmen hadn’t been owned by royalty or played with by famed explorers or conquerors. They had no writing on them, no messages to translate from our medieval ancestors. So why the fascination? Why did these chess pieces stand out in a museum filled with swords and jewels and ancient texts? Is it the pieces that are important, or is it the game itself that matters to us?
About a year ago, I met Boehm at a party, and when he found out I was a food writer who had moved recently from Atlanta, he congratulated me on my good fortune to have landed in Chicago. “Wow, what a nice step up for you,” he enthused. I wish I had come up with a tart rejoinder instead of a forced smile, and so, on my bike ride home, I made a mental list of Atlanta’s advantages. Then I started thinking about other cities I’d eaten in recently and how Chicago stacked up against them. It didn’t take me long to arrive at a dispiriting answer: not so well.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m one of those annoying newcomers who want to bitch about everything Chicago, from the weather to the pizza. Well … yes, I am. But I’m the right kind of annoying newcomer. For starters, I’m not from New York. Also, I’ve spent the better part of 25 years reviewing restaurants. Most important, I really like my adoptive home. And so, in the spirit of tough love, I give you, my fellow Chicagoans, the following five observations.
It’s one thing to eat chicken every day. It’s something else to have that on your permanent record, as in the geological record, the remnants of our time that archaeologists or aliens of the future will sift through to determine who we were and how we shaped our world.
But a group of scientists argue in a new essay published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science that this is exactly how our time on Earth will be marked, by leftover chicken bones. We live in the Age of the Chicken.
Todd’s travelogues represent a tiny sliver of her literary output. She wrote constantly, obsessively. She started a diary in 1866 when she was 10 and kept it for 66 years. In it, she recorded her day-to-day activities, social engagements, and life milestones. Alongside it, she kept a separate journal in which she dilated upon the events of her life and wrote with intimacy and profusion about love, sex, art, pain, and motherhood. She was a prolific letter-writer, as well, and a meticulous keeper of scrapbooks, and a poet, and she published book reviews in the Amherst Record. When you add Todd’s voluminous output to that of her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in the field of geography from Harvard, and who likewise kept every scrap of paper she ever touched, you get the 700 boxes of Todd Family Papers that have rested in the Yale University archives since they were donated by Bingham in 1964.
If you want to study the work of Mabel Loomis Todd, however, you don’t go to Yale. You go to Amherst or Harvard, the two institutions that together hold most of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts. For it is not for her own literary works that Mabel Loomis Todd is known. Instead, Todd has been remembered primarily as the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and, with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as the editor of Dickinson’s first published book of poems.
“To Float in the Space Between” doesn’t show all Hayes’s powers, but it does transform the fast-twitch shift of his poems into a slower sense of drift. Reading “To Float” after Hayes’s poems feels akin to hearing Coltrane switch from “Giant Steps” (where he sometimes changes keys twice in one measure) to something like “Flamenco Sketches” (where he often remains in one scale for bar after bar after bar). If Hayes’s poems strobe, “To Float” is more tidal. Hayes eases into the flow by using Etheridge Knight’s life and career as his alibi, introducing a book “as speculative, motley and adrift as Knight himself.”
The bedroom, says French superstar historian Michelle Perrot, is the place where everything important has already happened. From the days when early man first rolled a boulder in front of his cave and told neighbours to knock first, to hospital rooms, ladies’ boudoirs, prison cells and Proust’s cork-lined grime box, the bedroom is the place where we are most authentically, and explosively, ourselves. Perrot sets out to locate what she calls the “multiple genealogies” of the bedroom, “the melodic lines where religion and power, health and illness, body and spirit, love and sex interweave”. This sounds so dreamy and yet so thrilling – thanks in part to Lauren Elkin’s exquisite translation – that you can’t wait to push open the door and get cracking on this search for God, love, rest and death.