Barthes in China

Adrian Versteegh “It will be necessary to start off with the major fact,” writes Roland Barthes in Travels in China, “the absolute uniformity of clothes.” That this should count as a “major fact”—partway through a journal that opens with a gripe about freshly stained trousers—ought to provide some sense of what the French semiotician is … Continue reading

Psychiatry’s Crisis

Andrew Scull ABOUT 40 YEARS AGO, American psychiatry faced an escalating crisis of legitimacy. All sorts of evidence suggested that, when confronted with a particular patient, psychiatrists could not reliably agree as to what, if anything, was wrong. To be sure, the diagnostic process in all areas of medicine is far more murky and prone … Continue reading

Make Love

Sara Wheeler This stimulating book examines the ways in which legal systems have attempted to regulate sexual activity over millennia, from the ‘slow impalement of unfaithful wives’ in Mesopotamia to the ‘sterilisation of masturbators’ in the United States. ‘I have mapped out the story of Western civilisation’, Eric Berkowitz boldly claims in his introduction, ‘from … Continue reading

Ten Most Difficult Books

Emily Colette Wilkinson & Garth Risk Hallberg Back in 2009, The Millions started its "Difficult Books" series–devoted to identifying the hardest and most frustrating books ever written, as well as what made them so hard and frustrating. The two curators, Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg, have selected the most difficult of the most … Continue reading

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Kevin Dutton In this engrossing journey into the lives of psychopaths and their infamously crafty behaviors, the renowned psychologist Kevin Dutton reveals that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in … Continue reading

Karl Marx

Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. Capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. Capitalism has been the first … Continue reading

Some Years Before 1963

Norma Clarke A woman born in 1600 grew up being told she was the most lustful of God’s creatures. Come 1800 and the message was reversed: she was ‘naturally’ delicate and pure. No longer having lusts of her own to manage, her role was to control the ‘natural’ lust of men and thus preserve civilisation. … Continue reading

Comes the Comer

LEON WIESELTIER A history of Jewish literacy remains to be written. It will be a colorful and complicated work, as befits the variegated linguistic history of the Jews, and for American Jewish readers of our day, I mean the honest ones, it will be a disturbing work. Whereas the Jews have always used many languages, … Continue reading

The Big Lesson of a Little Prince

Maria Konnikova  My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; I could wish my days to be … Continue reading

Seeing Is Unbelieving

PHILIP KITCHER How then could Leon Wieseltier select THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Norton, $25.95), by Alex Rosenberg, as the “worst book” of 2011? Although the award is almost certainly misplaced, what inspired it is readily understood. The book expands the campaign of militant modern atheism, the offensive launched against religion … Continue reading

Wikipedia Didn’t Kill Britannica

Windows Did Tim Carmody First edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Photo: Courtesy Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. The encyclopedia in the living room wasn’t a reference tool so much as aspirational furniture, a sign to visitors but mostly ourselves that our living room wasn’t dedicated in its entirety to that pagan idol television. That we were consecrated … Continue reading

Why Finish Books?

Tim Parks “Sir—” remarked Samuel Johnson with droll incredulity to someone too eager to know whether he had finished a certain book—“Sir, do you read books through?” Well, do we? Right through to the end? And if we do, are we the suckers Johnson supposed one must be to make a habit of finishing books? … Continue reading

Gogol* Explains the Post-Soviet World

(*And Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.) The case for (re)reading Russia’s greatest literary classics. THOMAS DE WAAL Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these … Continue reading

Which e-book reader should you buy?

With ultra-affordable e-ink readers, mid-priced color tablets like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, and even the more expensive iPad all vying for your e-book dollar, what’s the best choice for you? It depends. John P. Falcone Shopping for an e-book reader? At first glance, the task seems daunting–there are more choices than ever before. … Continue reading

Judging Books by Their Covers

C. Max Magee … we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the … Continue reading

Christian Jihad

Patrick Allitt Is it true that the Bible teaches peace and the Koran war? Only if you approach the books selectively, taking the gentlest of Jesus’ teachings and setting them against the harshest of Muhammad’s. Philip Jenkins’s challenging new book Laying Down the Sword shows that the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but … Continue reading

Poverty as Destiny

Isaac Chotiner … a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over … Continue reading

What the Dickens

Sales of Charles Dickens’s books in his lifetime ON THE death of Charles Dickens in 1870 the Times lamented, “The loss of such a man is an event which makes ordinary expressions of regret seem cold and conventional”. It was the prodigious popularity of his work that went furthest to explaining the effect his death … Continue reading

The Tenth Man

The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place By Marc Tracy|December 19 By the time Christopher Hitchens died last week at the age of 62, the arc of his intellectual career was so notorious, ingrained, and agreed-upon that the many, … Continue reading

Sometimes, more is less

Christopher Hitchens’s autobiography is at its best when it echoes his essays. Unfortunately, the rest of the time it’s largely pointless and self-indulgent Alexander Linklater In 1988, Christopher Hitchens wrote a characteristically scintillating essay for the American magazine, Grand Street, which was, uncharacteristically, about himself. Though his public arguments have always been driven by a … Continue reading

The Internet Defends Independent Bookstores

L. V. Anderson Earlier this week, Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote an essay championing Amazon over local bookstores. Bookstores, according to Manjoo, are “frustrating,” “difficult to use,” and “economically inefficient.” Amazon, on the other hand, has “ignite[d] a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.” The backlash against Manjoo’s piece was … Continue reading

Amazon Doesn’t Care About Your Local Bookstore

Tim Carmody Here are two surprising holiday shopping season success stories. They’re even more surprising because they seem to directly contradict each other. First, Amazon, which has historically kept its sales figures for Kindle e-readers tightly under wraps, announced that it’s sold more than a million Kindle devices each week for the past three weeks. … Continue reading

Torn Between My Books and My Kindle

Holly Robinson My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday. (Forgive him, O Indie booksellers. He is an engineer who knows not what he does.) At first I protested. As a writer, avid reader, and patron of indie bookstores with cats curled on floral armchairs, what did I want with this devilish contraption? "Give … Continue reading

Buying books on Amazon is better

Farhad Manjoo Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it. Last week, the company offered people cash in exchange for going into retail stores and scanning items using the company’s Price Check smartphone app. If you scanned a product and then purchased it from Amazon … Continue reading

Francis Galton’s novel about eugenics

Michael Marshall How do you publish a novel arguing that the unfit, weak or mentally infirm should not be allowed to breed, and only those deemed “high quality” be given the privilege of having children? Well, you don’t. Francis Galton tried to in the first decade of the 20th century, but he died in 1911 … Continue reading

Muscle Monarch

Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow was thought to possess the perfect male body. Like Oscar Wilde, he is essential to understanding modern manhood David Waller On the evening of Tuesday October 29, 1889, at around 10 o’clock, a young man wearing a monocle and evening suit jumped onto the stage of the Royal Aquarium Music Hall … Continue reading

The Dragon’s Egg

High fantasy for young adults. Adam Gopnik At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, … Continue reading

I SPY

John le Carré and the rise of George Smiley. Anthony Lane The opening sentence of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a 1974 novel by John le Carré, runs as follows: “The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.” The tone is instant … Continue reading

Grief and Solemnity

COLIN DICKEY on the American way of death. At the scene of his mother’s funeral, Elvis Presley — invincible sex symbol, cocksure performer, the man who changed the world and music forever — was reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mama’s boy. “Mama, I’d give up every dime I own and go back to digging ditches, … Continue reading

Dumbing Down Darwin

Robert Frank’s effort to explain the lessons of evolution without offending libertarian sensibilities James K. Galbraith In today’s economics department the libertarian holds a place comparable to that of Maoists among antiwar protestors back in the 1970s: a fringe group, yet admired (by some) for dedication and clarity—the purs et durs, in the French phrase. … Continue reading

The Anthropologists’ Afghanistan

ALEXANDER STAR Ten years after the Taliban’s leaders fled their country in apparent defeat, the war in Afghanistan has become what one observer calls “a perpetually escalating stalemate.” As in Iraq, the United States military has responded to bad news with counterinsurgency: eliminate troublemakers in the dark of night, with the most lethal arts, and … Continue reading

America’s Superman

Nietzsche has appealed to Americans on the right and left for over a century. They have looked past his dark reputation to remake the German philosopher in their own image Adam Kirsch Many American politicians could find support for their ideas in Nietzsche. A Tea Party Republican might choose Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “The state is … Continue reading

Nudge thyself

Economists have more to learn from the natural sciences if they are to claim a realistic model of human behaviour Stephen Cave You’ve come to a canteen for lunch: at one end of the counter, you see juicy fat burgers sizzling on a grill and, at the other end, healthy-looking salads. After a little hesitation, … Continue reading

Mothers and …

Melvin Konner Hrdy discovered, among other things, that dominant males in a group are challenged from time to time by roving adventurers who can mate only by defeating them. If defeated, the former leaders slink away, often wounded, while their successors attack and kill all infants under six months old. This brings their mothers back … Continue reading

DEATH OF THE AUTHOR

Andrew Hussey One of the most important facts about Michel Houellebecq – usually overlooked in favour of his nihilism, alleged racism and other attention-seeking provocations – is that he is a first-rate prose stylist. This is not quite enough, however, to make him a good novelist. Even some of his best novels (Atomised and Platform, … Continue reading

Why We Can’t Tell Good Wine From Bad

David McRaney The Misconception: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavors only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception. The Truth: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations. You scan the aisles in the liquor store looking for a good wine. It’s a little … Continue reading

The Effect Effect

Daniel Kahneman and the language of popular psychology. Daniel Engber In 1969, the psychologist Robert Zajonc published an article about a curious study. He’d posted a silly-sounding word—either kardirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, or iktitaf—on the front page of some student newspapers in Michigan every day for several weeks. Then he sent questionnaires to the papers’ … Continue reading

Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?

Jonah Lehrer Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and the author of the new book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” changed the way people think about thinking by asking them questions. They weren’t trick questions, either. Instead, Kahneman relied almost exclusively on straightforward surveys, in which he described various scenarios. Here’s a sample: The U.S. is … Continue reading

The Joy of Sex illustrated

Cordelia Hebblethwaite Forty years ago, a London publisher was working on a groundbreaking sex manual – a "gourmet guide" to sexual pleasure, with copious and detailed illustrations. But how could this be done tastefully and legally? Think of The Joy of Sex and chances are your mind will drift to an image of a man … Continue reading

Renaissance learning shaped Galileo’s genius

In Galileo’s Muse, Mark A. Peterson navigates the multiple streams that flowed together to form the great mathematician’s genius William R. Shea GALILEO was professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Padua, Italy, from the end of the 16th century, a time when ancient learning was being recovered. In Galileo’s Muse, Mark A. … Continue reading

Amazon’s new KF8 format

Peter Bright With its Android-powered, full-color Kindle Fire tablet just around the corner, Amazon has announced a new e-book format to take advantage of its richer features. The new file format, Kindle Format 8 (KF8), is based on HTML5, and with it, Amazon aims to bring some of the flexibility and power that HTML5 offers … Continue reading

Gandhi and South Africa

Martha C. Nussbaum At the end of March, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the printing and distribution of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. The ban was proposed by the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, and it passed unanimously, as leaders of the Congress party vied to surpass Modi’s … Continue reading

The old man and the sea

He loved to rock the boat With the black dog PAUL HENDRICKSON’S bibliography lists 76 biographical works about Ernest Hemingway, nine of them by wives, siblings and children, followed by memoirists, respected biographers and hangers on, pretenders and doctoral students. “Scholarly forests have been clear-cut in the service of explaining his so-called fetishes,” he writes. … Continue reading

Winged words

After nearly 3,000 years, does the “Iliad” really need translating again? BLOODY but beautiful, is there a greater poem than the “Iliad”? Depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Greek siege of Troy, Homer’s epic glitters with bronze spears and the blazing sun. Rich with his famous similes and repeated expressions, it … Continue reading

Masques of beauty and blackness

What a piece of work was Ben Jonson! If you lived in Elizabethan England and had just narrowly escaped the gallows after stabbing a man to death in an illegal duel, wouldn’t you want to keep your head down for a bit? Not Jonson. He converted to Catholicism. A few months after the bishops of … Continue reading

‘Couples’

WILFRID SHEED Published: April 7, 1968 A few years ago, Normal Mailer the critic publicly advised John Updike to keep his foot in the whorehouse door and forget about his damn prose style. At the time this sounded typically elfin, the kind of advice that Norman peddles by the yard or the bucket, but Updike … Continue reading

John Updike’s Homophobic Book Review

David Haglund On this week’s Culture Gabfest, in a discussion of the new movie Weekend (which all of the gabbers love), Stephen Metcalf mentions a controversial book review by John Updike. The words “controversial,” “book review,” and “John Updike” may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but actually he made them something of a habit in … Continue reading

A Tablet for the Blind?

An undergraduate in a Stanford course helped develop a Braille writer for a touchscreen. What does tablet computing offer the visually impaired? David Zax An innovative app developed at Stanford University over the summer shows how tablet computing has the potential to transform the ways the blind interact with the world. During a two-month summer … Continue reading

Look, But Don’t Touch

Michael Calore For the legions of fans still devoted to the e-ink reading experience — easier on the eyes, the batteries and the biceps — the big news to come out of Amazon’s recent high-profile product launch wasn’t its fancy new Android tablet with a backlit 7-inch screen. It was the line of new e-ink … Continue reading

Questions for Jeffrey Eugenides

The author of The Marriage Plot discusses his new novel, the character that’s not based on David Foster Wallace, and why he works in a windowless room. Jessica Grose It’s been nearly a decade since Jeffrey Eugenides released his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oprah’s Book Club-approved, mega blockbuster novel Middlesex. The writer’s highly anticipated new novel, The … Continue reading