The new medium would spread half-truths, propaganda and lies. It would encourage self-absorption and solipsism, thereby fragmenting communities. It would allow any amateur to become an author and degrade public discourse.
Sound familiar? Such were the anxieties that the invention of printing unleashed on the world as 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century authorities worried and argued about how print would transform politics, culture and literature. The ‘printing revolution’ was by no means universally welcomed as the democratiser of knowledge or initiator of modern thought.
It was the worldness that mattered; that dual sense of completeness and infinite extension. But for worldness, nothing quite compared to the gleaming row of books that occupied half our bookshelf: the 22-volume set of World Book Encyclopedia. This was the 1970s. Before the Internet. I lived in Perth, Western Australia, which felt far away from everywhere and everything. I knew the whole world wasn’t really contained in those 22 volumes from A to Z, but I loved the idea that it could be.
Why love the encyclopedic? What is the joy and madness of this desire to encapsulate what is most important to be known? From Pliny and Diderot to Wikipedia, encyclopedias have served myriad functions, but, as with Tolkien or Le Guin, or the people behind World of Warcraft, they constitute a world-making activity as much as a window onto a world out there.
The thing is, French food didn’t become synonymous with fine dining because it was inherently more delicious. It was in large part because the training system that created French cooks was far more rigorous, standardized, and effective than any other in the West. The real legacy of la gastronomie française around the world is not a collection of recipes or an abstract culinary ethos of respecting technique and terroir, but a highly militarized system of training chefs and managing kitchens. Even though kids may not learn cooking at their mother’s apron strings anymore, reports of the death of French cooking have been grossly exaggerated precisely because that training system hasn’t gone anywhere. It has simply begun — grudgingly, haltingly, and inexorably — to evolve.
I know this largely because I tried it myself: In the summer of 2017, as research for a novel, I went to France to train, or stage, for a short period of time in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The stage system’s genius, I found, was its simplicity. It forged chefs who could take the heat, and it broke those who couldn’t. To get through a stage (pronounced “stodge”), your desire to work in a kitchen had to be absolute because it was all you had. If you came out the other side, you were accepted.
Me? I broke after one week.
Once they get past the metal detectors, ticket holders are herded like sheep in a long, coiling line. They shuffle up escalators until they reach the Mona Lisa’s skylit new digs: the Medici Gallery, named after a striking series of wall-to-wall paintings by Rubens also on display there.
Not that anybody notices the Rubens works. As if in an airport check-in area, dozens of visitors rowdily wait their turn in another snaking line. Armed with smartphones, selfie sticks and cameras, they then rush into the final stretch — the Mona Lisa viewing pen. They have roughly one minute there before the guards shoo them away.
Completing the desk-bev triumvirate is where the magic happens. A third beverage is your wild card, a chance for a little bit of random pleasure in a period of the day that is otherwise not your own. One of the reasons people go so wild for random snacks in the workplace is that popcorn or cookies allow a moment of disengagement from work that feels autonomous. Since water and coffee are the only drinks many workplaces provide, tracking down a third can be an excuse to leave the office for a moment, even if it’s just to run to the nearby corner store. Small, regular pleasures have real psychological value in any part of life. During the workday, acquiring a mango seltzer or green juice can return some humanity to the cubicle farm.
Part of being a parent to a 4-year-old is surrendering yourself to the routines and rituals that govern your child’s day. For my son, Max, that means always letting him be the one who gets to push the elevator button in the morning, and keeping the chicken nuggets from ever making contact with the mac and cheese on his dinner plate. And when he wants some recreational screen time, it means allowing him to see the only thing he’s wanted to watch for the past several months: “Yellow Submarine.”
I can’t quite remember how this 1968 animated musical movie inspired by the Beatles became Max’s go-to viewing material. I don’t know how it overtook TV offerings like “PAW Patrol” or “Thomas & Friends,” so unerringly calibrated for contemporary tots, in his imagination. But now, twice a day, he and I sit on our couch and watch hand-drawn versions of the Fab Four set off in their comically elaborate watercraft, sing their beloved songs and rescue Pepperland from the music-hating Blue Meanies.
The unsettling haze between fact and fantasy in “Inland” is not just a literary effect of Obreht’s gorgeous prose; it’s an uncanny representation of the indeterminate nature of life in this place of brutal geography. Ferrying water from the Colorado River, Lurie realizes that he has “gone the way of unbearable old men,” telling stories of an improbable, lost country. “Who would speak of these things when we were gone?” he asks his loyal camel. “I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking from our canteen might see how it had been.”
Sip slowly, make it last.
On page one of The Mosquito: A Human History Of Our Deadliest Predator, Winegard declares: "We are at war with the mosquito." Some 436 pages later, after exploring the role the insect has played in shaping our world, the author makes a chilling declaration: "We are still at war with the mosquito." Yes, it's somber, but this book illuminates what we're dealing with — and suggests what we might do differently to keep our most lethal predator under control.