Italy’s oldest musical instrument may have sounded like a lute...or a lyre: “The ceramic shell at first appeared to be one of a kind. One hypothesis was that it might have been a cheese strainer. Then, similarities were found with two other objects, found near Naples, that had been convincingly identified as sound boxes for musical instruments. When Martina Nicole Cerri, an archaeology student at Sapienza University in Rome, began to analyze the object for her doctoral thesis in 2014, she sought to determine whether it had been decorative or meant to be played.”
You know, I’m sure, that there was no Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Good, writes Robert Messenger: “The Nobel Prize in literature gilds no one’s laurels. It is a club no one should want to belong to.”
David Hajdu reviews Jason Lutes’s “expansive” Berlin: “Travel between two differing worlds has been one the core motifs of comics since the baby future-Superman rocketed from Krypton to Earth in 1938. Over the 80 years since, comics of almost every kind—from mainstream superhero titles to long-form graphic books—have been packed with alien worlds, parallel universes, and myriad dimensions and zones. Wonder Woman floats out of Greek mythology and into America. The Black Panther pops back and forth between Oakland and the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda. The same motif of traversing worlds recurs in the most overtly literary works of graphic fiction and nonfiction. In Maus, Art Spiegelman’s narrative of his father’s memories of the Holocaust, Spiegelman crosses the spheres of species in his indelible rendering of Nazis as predatory cats and Jews as mice, their prey. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s memoir of a childhood shrouded by family mysteries, her closeted father toggles back and forth from his public life in rural Pennsylvania and a secret gay life. And now, in Berlin, Jason Lutes’s sweeping, ambitious new work of historical graphic fiction, an array of characters in the Weimar Republic struggle to find their way in a cultural and political landscape changing beneath their feet.”
The Grand Duchess Maria of Russia doesn’t like Amazon’s show about her family, The Romanoffs, and quotes Rotten Tomatoes to show that she’s not the only one: “On Wednesday, the duchess’s chancellery (that is, her office) issued a news release on the show. ‘The Chancellery of Her Imperial Highness concurs with the general consensus of the critics,’ it says. It then quotes the Rotten Tomatoes website’s summary of reviews, saying the show is ‘fatally indulgent, asking for the utmost patience from audiences without a compelling incentive.’”
Terry Teachout writes in praise of Bing Crosby: “In the 41 years since he dropped dead on a golf course at the age of 74, Bing Crosby has become the forgotten giant of American popular culture. Among millennials, he is barely even a name, even though he was the most successful and influential pop singer of the first half of the 20th century. Crosby recorded 396 hit singles, 41 of which topped the charts—yet only one, his 1942 “creator recording” of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas,’ the bestselling record of all time, continues to be heard regularly. He was also the most popular movie star in the world for five consecutive years between 1944 and 1948, a record topped only by Tom Cruise—yet few of the four dozen feature films in which he starred are still shown with any frequency on TV, and most of those, like Holiday Inn (1942) and High Society (1956), are mainly remembered for the presence of such co-stars as Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra.”
Michael Dirda reviews a history of Indian magic: “Oxford University Press has done an immense disservice to John Zubrzycki’s fascinating Empire of Enchantment: The Story of Indian Magic. Apart from some print-on-demand atrocities, I’ve seldom encountered a book in which so many words have been repeated, dropped, misspelled or misused. I can only suppose that this slovenliness — ‘damming’ for ‘damning,’ sentences garbled because of a missing verb or pronoun — indicates over-reliance on a computerized auto-correct function. No competent proofreader would have allowed such an embarrassing farrago to go to press. Oxford’s delinquency is particularly annoying because Zubrzycki, an expert on South Asian history, clearly worked hard to produce what is, despite its textual irritations, a valuable and entertaining book. For thousands of years India has been a land where magic, myth and religious mysteries have tended to mix together. Seemingly miraculous powers have long been ascribed to yogis, fakirs, ascetics and jadoowallahs, or street magicians. The subcontinent is, moreover, the birthplace of that most famous, and controversial, of all illusions: the Indian Rope Trick. Many early 20th-century Western magicians even adopted Indian (or Chinese) stage names, then created shows that capitalized on the glamour of the mystic East.”
Essay of the Day:
In First Things, Joseph Epstein writes in defense of the “bookish” life:
“The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was offered the job of waiting at the village gates to greet the arrival of the Messiah. ‘The pay isn’t great,’ he was told, ‘but the work is steady.’ The same might be said about the conditions of the bookish life: low pay but steady work. By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place. I recall some years ago a politician whose name is now as lost to me as it is to history who listed reading among his hobbies, along with fly-fishing and jogging. Reading happens to be my hobby, too, along with peristalsis and respiration.
“Like the man—the fellow with the name Solomon, writing under the pen name Ecclesiastes—said, “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.
“The first question is ‘How can one tell which books qualify as good, beautiful, important?’ In an essay of 1978 called ‘On Reading Books: A Barbarian’s Cogitations,’ Alexander Gerschenkron, a Harvard economist of wide learning, set out three criteria: A good book must be interesting, memorable, and rereadable. This is as sensible as it is unhelpful. How can one know if a book is interesting until one has read it; memorable until time has or has not lodged it in one’s memory; rereadable until the decades pass and one feels the need to read it again and enjoys it all the more on doing so?
“Not much help, either, is likely to be found in various lists of the world’s best books. In 1771 a man named Robert Skipwith, later to be Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s brother-in-law, asked Jefferson to compile for him a list of indispensable books. Jefferson obliged with a list of 148 titles, mostly Greek and Roman classics, and some intensely practical treatises, among them a book on horse-hoeing husbandry. The Guardian not long ago published a list of the world’s one hundred best nonfiction books in English, and while nearly every one seemed eminently worthy, one could just as easily add another hundred books that should have been on such a list, and this does not include all the world’s splendid works of fiction, drama, and poetry, and not merely in English alone. In 1960, Clifton Fadiman, then a notable literary critic, produced a work called The Lifetime Reading Plan, a work of 378 pages, which I have chosen never to read, lest it take up the time I might devote to a better book.
“Such lists reveal a yearning for a direct route to wisdom. Brace yourself for the bad news: None is available. If one wanted to establish expertise in a restricted field—economics, say, or art history, or botany—such a list might be useful. But for the road to acquiring the body of unspecialized knowledge that sometimes goes by the name of general culture, sometimes known as the pursuit of wisdom, no map, no blueprint, no plan, no shortcut exists, nor, as I hope to make plain, could it.”
Poem: Virgil, Excerpt from Aeneid, Book III (translated by David Ferry)
Photo: Mud-rolling mud-daubers
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