Paperweights had never struck me as markers of stability. But a month later, when I was laid off from the legacy media company where I worked for a print magazine, I surveyed my desk, picked up a stack of our branded notepads and a handle of whiskey and thought, At least I don’t have to lug no paperweight.
Then Saturday came without Saturday’s feel. In a vintage shop, I drifted from taxidermy pheasants to a shelf staged with dusted curio, and there was a Murano blown-glass paperweight. At its center, the softball-size bubble had a clear tubular ring, inside of which was a clear finial shape from which streaks of red sprayed in arches at 360 degrees. The thing was maybe five pounds? My fiancé found me cradling it to my heart. “You’re going to bring that home, aren’t you,” he said, meaning: Did my foolhardy troth to paper in the age of new media know no bounds? The paperweight seemed to englobe our opposed perspectives: he thought it looked like a nasty vortex; I thought it looked like a wine fountain.
“Feathers are about seduction,” Charles-Donatien told me. “They are meant to attract. And we are happy to know that the male birds are always the most beautiful.” Charles-Donatien’s parents are from Martinique, but he was born in France. He has an almost posh Parisian accent, but his English, like the Creole that he spoke on the streets as a boy, has kept its island lilt. He turned forty-five last week and frets about his weight, but to a less professional eye he still looks pretty lean. He exercises a few days a week, sometimes suspended from a hammock in an aerial-yoga class, and mitigates the occasional Nutella binge with abstemious greens and grains. His head is shaved, his features round and boyish, with half-moon brows—a merry mask of a face, as of some impish spirit. When I asked Robert Barnowske, a former vice-president of apparel design at Vera Wang, what he first thought when he met Charles-Donatien, he laughed: “Who is this hot guy showing me feathers?”
Charles-Donatien had come to the shop that morning, as he often does, to hunt for material. The world is full of birds, but the loveliest ones are off limits to plumassiers, protected by international conventions against the trade in exotics. Even antique feathers can be used only in the occasional, one-of-a-kind piece, and then only if the client agrees never to take it out of the country. All other feathers now come from farmed animals—goose, duck, chicken, turkey, pheasant, and ostrich. They’re by-products of the food industry, cut and dyed to resemble more colorful birds. A plumassier is like a goldsmith who can afford to work only in bronze, or a jeweller who makes do with rhinestones. No dye can match the in-lit glow of a scarlet ibis, from the carotenoid pigments in the shellfish it eats, or the refracted colors of a peacock’s tail. So Charles-Donatien haunts the flea markets and taxidermy shops of Paris, eyes peeled for a flash of feathers.
It is not difficult to change your syntax. It is difficult to remember that you always have the option of changing your syntax. If you have always written in a certain way, you may forget that other kinds of syntax are available. In fact, we can often recognize who wrote a particular passage because we are familiar with the author’s syntax. I’m not suggesting that you change your syntax for the sake of originality, only that you remember, every time you write a sentence, to think about alternatives. The syntax you use can surprise your reader, forestall boredom, make a new music, and move your reader.
Sometimes when I tell people that I study airports, they’ll say, “That must be a real niche!” But the truth is that airports are such a general, dispersed topic that it really isn’t a niche at all. Nearly everyone has something to say about airports or air travel—even if it is just a story of a recent bad trip or a bizarre seatmate. We’re all sort of specialists when it comes to flight—or we’re invited to be, anyway. And as the opening clip from Home Alone 2 suggests, airports communicate in such a common visual, dramatic, and comic language that just a brief scene staged in an airport can conjure a cluster of affects, sensations, and reversals. We interpret these things on the fly, as it were, and don’t even realize we’re doing it. It is for these reasons, among others, that I teach a class called Interpreting Airports: everyone comes in with way more background knowledge than they even knew they had.
One time I mentioned to a bookseller that I was an author, and she asked what I wrote: “Fiction? Novels?” I said, no, I write about airports. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and remarked, “Oh, that must be boring.” But even here in this strange response lies a kind of operative knowledge about what these spaces are, how they function, and what they feel like. The secret life of airports is a secret that many of us know, even if we don’t know we know it.
There is a tendency to see President Donald Trump as a radical break from the past.
But conservative techno-futurist Newt Gingrich sees Trump as ushering in a revolution — with a subsequent utopian space-age.Gingrich has envisioned such a breakthrough, and hopes Trump will be an agent of it, for decades. Gingrich’s vision is one stop on a straight line that goes through his friend and legendary science-fiction novelist Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to Trump.
Pournelle — who died earlier this month — first rose to prominence as part of an influential group of right-wing science-fiction writers in the 1970s and 1980s that also included Larry Niven, David Drake, Janet Morris, and S. M. Stirling. All envisioned the best of a militarized humanity breaking away from the evils of bureaucracy and bleeding-hearts and aggressively colonizing and conquering space, exploiting its military and financial potential. Unlike most conservatives, all were less concerned with preserving the past for its own sake than for planning for the future—their preferred future.
In the end, The Secret Books, having surveyed the miserable history of 20th-century prejudice and violence, puts its battered faith in the enchanting powers of art. If history forgets or represses certain stories, Theroux implies, then it may be the task of the artist to redeem and revive them. The novel itself becomes a solution to the problems it explores, a means, limited but real, of righting wrongs, and of making stories better known. After all, who would have remembered Nicolas Notovitch and his strange and complex history if The Secret Books had never been written?
Why We Sleep by the neuroscientist Matthew Walker – my ill-chosen small-hours reading material – is filled with startling information about the effects of suboptimal shut-eye levels. It’s not a book you should even be thinking about in bed, let alone reading. If it weren’t too unsettling to permit sleep in the first place, it would be the stuff of nightmares. The marginalia in my review copy, scrawled in the wavering hand of a man receiving dark intimations of his own terrible fate – “OMFG”; “This is extremely bad!” – might seem less appropriate to an affably written popular science book than to some kind of arcane Lovecraftian grimoire.