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Archive of posts filed under the Literature category.

Who was the first literary schlub?

We were talking about Ted Heller / Sam Lipsyte (also here), whose books feature a similar lovable-loser character, someone who’s basically a good person but has some larceny and lust in his heart and can’t always be relied on to do the right thing. More of a Jerry Seinfeld than a Philip Marlowe or Humphrey […]

“No one is going to force you to write badly. In the long run, you won’t even be rewarded for it. But, unfortunately, it is true that they’ll often let you get away with it.”

Basbøll says it well. Relatedly, see here. Writing is hard.

Nooooooooooooo!

When I get magazines in the mail, I put them in a pile so that later I can read them in order. I’m a few months behind on the London Review of Books so I just happened to read this article by August Kleinzahler which informs us that Donald Trump is invincible. I have no […]

“The Intellectuals and the Masses”

I just read “The Intellectuals and the Masses,” a book from 1992 by the literary critic and English professor John Carey. I really liked the book, and after finishing it I decided to get some further perspective by reading some reviews. I found two excellent reviews online, a negative review in the London Independent by […]

What are the best scientific papers ever written?

When I say “best,” I mean coolest, funnest to read, most thought-provoking, etc. Not necessarily the most path-breaking. For example, did Andrew Wiles write a paper with the proof of Fermat’s last theorem? If so, I can’t imagine this would be readable. So, sure, it’s a great accomplishment but it’s not what I’m talking about. […]

“Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel”

I read this book by Leah Garrett and I liked it a lot. Solid insights on Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer, of course, but also the now-forgotten Irwin Shaw (see here and here) and Herman Wouk. Garrett’s discussion of The Caine Mutiny was good: she takes it seriously, enough to point out its […]

“Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney to join the stars.”

I’ve been reading a couple of old books of book reviews by Anthony Burgess. Lots of great stuff. He’s a sort of Chesterton with a conscience, for example in this appreciation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: As for Tom’s forgiving Christianity—‘O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than […]

“In any case, we have a headline optimizer that A/B tests different headlines . . .”

The above line is not a joke. It’s from Buzzfeed. Really. Stephanie Lee interviewed a bunch of people, including me, for this Buzzfeed article, “Two Big Studies Say There Are Way More Coronavirus Infections Than We Think. Scientists Think They’re Wrong.” I liked the article. My favorite part is a quote (not from me) that […]

Coming in 6 months or so

I just wrote a post on George V. Higgins. Just wanted to let you know that life goes on. Also we keep bumping things to October to make room for the coronavirus posts that are running now. You can check out this list to keep track of what you’re missing.

The Fall Guy, by James Lasdun

I just finished this book. I’d write something about it, but I did a search and found this review by John Lennon from a couple of years ago. I have nothing to add.

Upholding the patriarchy, one blog post at a time

A white male writes: Your recent post reminded me: partly because of your previous posts, I spent a fair amount of the last two years reading Updike, whom I’d never read before. It was time well spent. Thank you for mentioning him in your blog from time to time. I find early Updike to be […]

Model building is Lego, not Playmobil. (toward understanding statistical workflow)

John Seabrook writes: Socrates . . . called writing “visible speech” . . . A more contemporary definition, developed by the linguist Linda Flower and the psychologist John Hayes, is “cognitive rhetoric”—thinking in words. In 1981, Flower and Hayes devised a theoretical model for the brain as it is engaged in writing, which they called […]

The New Yorker fiction podcast: how it’s great and how it could be improved

I was having some difficulty with radio reception on my bike a few years ago so I switched to prerecorded music and podcasts. This American Life is the best, but if I’m going a lot of places I can exhaust the supply of recent episodes. For awhile I was listening to Wait Wait which is […]

Computer-generated writing that looks real; real writing that looks computer-generated

You know that thing where you stare at a word for long enough, it starts to just look weird? The letters start to separate from each other, and you become hyper-aware of the arbitrariness of associating a concept with some specific combination of sounds? There’s gotta be a word for this. Anyway, I was reminded […]

The Paterno Defence: Gladwell’s Tipping Point?

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. . . . The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” — Malcolm Gladwell, 2000. Gladwell’s recent book got some negative reviews. No big deal. […]

A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia

I happened to come across this excellent Paul Dickson-like compilation from Jeff Miller, a teacher at Gulf High School in New Port Richey, Florida. I’m also reminded of Tim Krabbé’s chess records page.

David Leavitt and Meg Wolitzer

Staying at a friend’s place, I saw on the shelf Martin Bauman, a novel by David Leavitt published in 2000 that I’d never heard of. I read it and it was excellent. I’d call it “Jamesian”: I’ve never read anything by Henry James, but the style seems to fit the many descriptions of James that […]

My review of Ian Stewart’s review of my review of his book

A few months ago I was asked to review Do Dice Play God?, the latest book by mathematician and mathematics writer Ian Stewart. Here are some excerpts from my review: My favorite aspect of the book is the connections it makes in a sweeping voyage from familiar (to me) paradoxes, through modeling in human affairs, […]

Top 5 literary descriptions of poker

Yesterday I wrote about Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, which gives one of the most convincing literary descriptions of poker that I’ve ever read. (Much more so than all those books and articles where the author goes on expense account to compete at the World Series of Poker. I hope to never see that again.) […]

Pocket Kings by Ted Heller

So. I’m most of the way through Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, author of the classic Slab Rat. And I keep thinking: Ted Heller is the same as Sam Lipsyte. Do these two guys know each other? They’re both sons of famous writers (OK, Heller’s dad is more famous than Lipsyte’s, but still). They write […]