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Articles of Note

The Logic of Wonderland

lewis carrollAs another Alice in Wonderland film hits the theatres Lewis Carroll is garnering new attention. This week sees the release of Jenny Woolf's The Mystery of Lewis Carroll. According to Seth Lerer in this month's Slate review..."Toward the end of his life, in 1896, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (also known as Lewis Carroll) published a survey of his professional work as an Oxford mathematician. Symbolic Logic set out to clarify the confusion he saw at work among the academic logicians of his day. Logic emerges, in this volume, as something of a game: rule-governed, yet arbitrary. It is not the dry purview of the pedant, but the imaginative landscape of a creative mind. Indeed, the book concludes, logicians often think of things like the cupola of a proposition "almost as if it were a living, conscious entity, capable of declaring for itself what it chose to mean." But Dodgson warns that we should not simply "submit" to the "sovereign will and pleasure" of these terms. Instead, "any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word of phrase he intends to use." Read the review here.

A Generation's Silent Hero

jd salingerAs Robert Fulford writes in this week's National Post," Forty-five years after his last appearance in print, the most secretive and most eccentric of the world's important writers, J.D. Salinger, died yesterday at the age of 91, in the town of Cornish, N.H., where he lived in isolation for more than half his long life. Perhaps he left behind an explanation of his peculiar decision to cease submitting his work to The New Yorker or any other publication after 1965. Perhaps, as his many passionate admirers dare to hope, he left behind something much more valuable, a cache of work he had steadily accumulated in solitary self-confinement over all those decades, to be released after his death." Read the full article here.

The one hundred most important books of 2009

mcnallyIt is that time of year and the enevitable Best of Lists appear like so many winter crocuses. The GBL thought the biggest and longest list would be the farest to place here. Our choice will come next week.

The ever expanding literary universe resists generalizing, but one heartening development has been the resurgence of the short story — and of the short-story writer. Twelve collections made the NYT fiction list, and four biographies of short-story masters are on the nonfiction list. Read the full article here.

On the importance Rilke

rilkeThough Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved. Sonnets to Orpheus, Duino Elegies, his one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and perhaps most of all Letters to a Young Poet are touchstone works. Individual poems are famous: "Archaic Torso of Apollo," with its last line, "You must change your life"; "The Panther," pulsating with the energies of the caged cat. Rilke has even become something of a talisman in popular culture." Read the full article here.

Why do we still read Dickens?

dickensEarlier this year BBC1's lush new production of Little Dorrit was nominated for five Bafta awards in the UK, and 11 Emmys in the US. Newspapers and magazines have run stories on his relevance to the current global economic crisis. There is documentary about to be released about his world. And with the Christmas only three months away, it seems that there is no getting away from Dickens any time soon.

Why do we still so eagerly read this Victorian writer? We need to read Dickens's novels because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are. Read the full article here.

The Dark Ages of 1973

wheenIt is easy now to laugh at the events of the early 1970s, to see them as a lovably brown-and-beige backdrop for hit TV series like the BBC's Life on Mars, or even to see them as the last gasp of authentic politics before Thatcherism turned us all into gluttonous, apathetic consumer junkies. But what this deliciously enjoyable book reminds us is that in many ways they were genuinely, undeniably awful. This was an age, Wheen reminds us, in which The Spectator could run the cover shout, 'A military coup in Britain? Dominic Sandbrook reviews Frances Wheen's new exploration of the dark days of early 1970s Britain Strange Days Indeed here.

Science, terror and the Romantic poets

humphry davyThe early 19th Century saw an explosion of scientific discoveries in Britain and scientists such as Herschel and Davy were household names. Explorers too were heralded as heroes and their discoveries waited upon by an expectant public. Alongside these famous scientists and voyagers, poets suddenly gained a prominance and the likes of Blake, Byron and Keats became the literary stars of their era. And while much has been made of the Romatics' fear of and opposition to the industrial and scientific age, they actually had more in common with their scientist counterparts. Read Adam Kirsh's review of Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder here.

200th Anniversary of the death of Paine marked around the world

paineUnique among radicals, the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine will be marked in England, in France and in the United States. This is a measure of the impact of Paine’s ideas both in his own country and in parts of the world that became the centre of revolutionary political change at the end of the 18th century. Paine was perhaps fortunate to live in such invigorating times and to be able to think about them so constructively. Yet what is remarkable is that his message has been capable of speaking with immediacy to each successive generation, providing radical inspiration and comfort in troubled times. Read more here.

Britain falling apart

nupeThe Thatcher revolution that consumed British politics and society in the 1980s has been examined repeatedly in fiction over the last 30 years. These novels did not, on the whole, start to be written until the late 1980s or early 90s. What did the watershed of 1979 look like to novelists at the time, unburdened with hindsight?

Phillip Hensher looks at the literary landscape of 1970s Britain. Read more here.

New biography of John Cheever revealing

cheeverSome writers went on the road; others went to Paris or fought in a war. John Cheever (1912–1982) went to Westchester, New York, where he cultivated his own exclusive patch of the Northeast Corridor. His outward appearance—a bit rumpled, collar frayed, every inch the squire of suburbia—oozed wasp gentility. But this image, carefully fixed by Cheever himself, began dissolving with the publication of Falconer (1977), a prison novel of shocking force and lurid sexuality that awed many of his admirers and hinted at some kind of personal liberation. Read more here.

Myths about Darwin's great idea

darwinThere are two myths about evolution that persist today: that there is a prescient directionality to evolution and that survival depends entirely on cutthroat competitive fitness. It is of course the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and there are plenty of articles on the subject of perhaps the greatest scientist of the last 200 years. Scientific American looks at some of the myths that persist today surrounding Darwin's ideas and says contrary to the first myth, natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is “selecting” organisms for survival in the benign sense of pigeon breeders selecting for desirable traits in show breeds or for extinction in the malignant sense of Nazis selecting prisoners at death camps. Natural selection is nonprescient—it cannot look forward to anticipate what changes are going to be needed for survival. Read more here.

Literary world poorer after John Updike dies at 76

UpdikePaul Theroux in the New Yorker remembers John Updike "First of all, his generosity, his wide reading, his scrupulous description, and the joy that was obvious in his writing—he was someone who was both supremely confident and yet had humility. Trained as a painter, Updike kept that unblinking eye his whole life. He was American literature’s great noticer, and his work was always a reminder of the texture, the detail of life: of flesh, of the drape of clothes, of a way of speaking, a quality of light. Two works, neglected by the obituarists, stay in my mind: a lovely essay on the experiences of being barefoot on Martha’s Vineyard, and the utterly persuasive Africa of his novel “The Coup.” He helped us see. I regard him as a master, appreciative in ways that enlarged his vision and made his writing sing." Read more authors remembering Updike here.

The Great Dictators of the Great Books

adlerMortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins thought they could preserve democracy by prescribing a heavy dose of culture for the common man. According to Matthew Price in his review of a new  history of the Great Books, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity. Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. Read more here.