Sentences

Sentences — May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

No, by The Last Post, I’m not suggesting, over this first weekend of May, that you curl up with Ford Madox Ford’s novel of that name; rather, I mean to say that this particular post will be my last in this space. One year ago, with the very generous welcome of this old and excellent magazine, I began compiling these notes on reading and writing. The ambition was simple: to take some of the sorts of things I tend to exchange with writer friends via email and place them, regularly, before the public. My expectations were low: I did not …

Sentences — April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

“What is the hardest task in the world?” The question is Emerson’s, in his essay, “Intellect.” His answer? To think. I would put myself in the attitude to look in the eye an abstract truth, and I cannot. I blench and withdraw on this side and on that. I seem to know what he meant, who said, No man can see God face to face and live. For example, a man explores the basis of civil government. Let him intend his mind without respite, without rest, in one direction. His best heed long time avails him nothing. Yet thoughts are …

Sentences — April 27, 2009, 5:07 pm

It’s Very Childlike

What is literary criticism for? The question came up years ago as the subject of a London Review of Books 25th anniversary forum that included Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode, Zadie Smith and James Wood. “The ‘What is it for?’ question is interesting, it’s very childlike, isn’t it?” Eagleton said. “You know: What are people for? What is the moon for? —we’re all card-carrying functionalists.” Nonetheless, the question is useful, if not for obtaining its answer, than for segregating our expectations about the form. My early sense of the medium was as a question answering form: input a novel, output a …

Sentences — April 24, 2009, 2:30 pm

Weekend Read: «Cliquez ici pour visualiser le séquence!»

I’ve been unabashedly ludditic this week, arguing for (or, at least, expressing a love of) the handmade book. Just to reassure you that I’m every bit the modern guy, I should also confess to having spent an inordinate amount of my e-lunch-hours this week in virtual France. If you haven’t heard, a six-year project has come to fruition in which the 4,500 manuscript pages of Madame Bovary, archived at the University of Rouen, have been loosed on the Web. As the Independent reported: The project was launched six years ago as a tool for literary scholars. The municipal library in …

Sentences — April 23, 2009, 4:53 pm

Currents from the Moor

If the illustrated book for adults can, when the illustrations are undertaken by a hand less sophisticated than those of the author, produce an effect on the reader of distrust of the whole, the handmade book is one which aspires to, and regularly manages to, exalt the ideal of the book. Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book–for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost …

Sentences — April 21, 2009, 3:04 pm

Woefully Too Small

Writers labor to make the visual world visible in fiction. There are many ways to do it. Here’s how William Makepeace Thackeray, age 33, made us see the world, in an incidental moment in Barry Lyndon: On Sunday, no sooner was my mother gone to church, than I summoned Phil the valet, and insisted upon his producing my best suit, in which I arrayed myself (although I found that I had shot up so in my illness that the old dress was wofully too small for me), and, with my notable copy of verses in my hand, ran down towards …

Sentences — April 17, 2009, 3:25 pm

Weekend Read: “Sure as the stars return again”

A friend called the other day from a bench in New York’s Hudson Valley to report that the weather was, at last, perfect for reading outside. As his first book of spring, he’d chosen Walt Whitman’s 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. It took a few days for his good weather to reach where we are, but today has been, at last, an outdoor reading day. Not least of the pleasures of reading outside is one of the most prosaic: the light’s really good. No pettifoggery with lampshades or lightbulbs required. Yes, as I say, prosaic stuff, whereas Whitman’s 1855 …

Sentences — April 15, 2009, 3:40 pm

Our Idleness, Pride, and Folly

TAX An impost; a tribute imposed; an excise; a tallage. Charge; censure. To TAX To load with imposts. To charge; to censure; to accuse. —A Dictionary of the English Language, 1766, by Samuel Johnson To TAX To law, impose or assess upon citizens a certain sum of money or amount of property, to be paid to the public treasury, or to the treasury of a corporation or company, to defray the expenses of the government or corporation, &c. We are more heavily taxed by our idleness, pride and folly, than we are taxed by government. To load with a burden …

Sentences — April 13, 2009, 5:35 pm

Lodged Within the Heart

A great sense of occasion is present when a friend publishes a book, but there’s a particular pulse of pleasure I’m getting from the arrival of Erik Reece’s An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. Erik has published two fine essays with this magazine, the second of which, “Jesus Without the Miracles”, I got to read in manuscript on a packed and rainy miserable ride on a commuter train some years ago. Against my better impulses as a civically-minded human, I did dial my cellphone that afternoon while squeezed between other unhappy commuters, and did tell …

Sentences — April 10, 2009, 7:05 pm

Weekend Read: Frederick Seidel, “A Poet of Great Innocence”

Every day in America, on public radio stations across the land, a short program airs called “The Writer’s Almanac.” Hosted by the writer, musician and impresario Garrison Keillor, the show’s five minutes begin and end with a ceremonious progression of melancholic piano chords. Between these bookending strains, in his lulling baritone, Keillor catalogues the high-points of the date in literary history: which writer was born, what book appeared, who passed away. And then, before bidding us adieu (“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”), Keillor reads a poem. Though the authors he includes vary in age and gender, …

Sentences — April 8, 2009, 6:18 pm

My Book is a Painting

Readers familiar with Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, Lectures on Russian Literature, and Lectures on Don Quixote, know that Nabokov had a very vivid way of reading the texts that he taught his students. A poor but passionate illustrator, Nabokov would sketch visual details from the various works he taught. Reproductions of his sketches appear in the published version of the lectures, and thus we see his drawing of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in his metamorphosed state (whether “vermin” or “insect” or “cockroach” or Nabokov’s preferred “beetle” is another matter), a floor plan of the Samsa apartment, as well as the sort …

Sentences — April 6, 2009, 5:28 pm

Tricks of Demeanor and Speech

“How one pines for a translation of Proust by the hand of Nabokov,” wrote Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in a review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way. Hitchens’s remark seems so sensibly surefooted that you hardly notice the subtleties he merrily tramples past. Yes, it might well seem that Nabokov, who admired Proust, whose French was fluent, and whose own English prose–with its sensitivity to color, its priority on evoking sensory states, its resourceful music, and its syntactical complexity–would have seemed the ideal medium in which to reproduce Proust’s French effects. And yet, to pine for such …

Sentences — April 3, 2009, 3:32 pm

Weekend Read: “He wanted the overtones as well”

This week, I’ve posted around the uncontroversial contention that literary criticism is nothing if it isn’t reading closely, quoting abundantly, and parsing carefully. In the course of commenting on such concerns, one reader wrote to say he thought I was suggesting that Guy Davenport wasn’t a good literary critic. Although I still find myself unconvinced that I made any such suggestion, if even one reader could suppose such a thing, I feel I’m duty bound to make the following statement: Find me a better literary critic than Davenport in the past 50 years and I’ll buy you a pony. The …

Sentences — April 1, 2009, 4:52 pm

The Evil Thoughts of Man

Monday, I mentioned close reading as a practice indivisible from literary criticism. The thought was sparked by a letter I’d just received in response to an essay of mine in The New York Review of Books on Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy. To give you a little context on the reader’s letter, here’s a paragraph that he referenced from Morrison’s novel: One day… an eagle laid her eggs in a nest far above and far beyond the snakes and paws that hunted them. Her eyes are midnight black and shiny as she watches over them. At the tremble of …

Sentences — March 30, 2009, 5:16 pm

Another Sensibility

Though it’s amazing to imagine, there are some people who are against close reading in literary criticism. A friend who attended a panel on long-form book reviewing recently reported that many of the panelists, a number of them editors who oversee the publication of long review essays, preferred their reviewers to limit the practice (to be clear, close reading is an editorially encouraged feature of reviews of fiction that run in this magazine). I wasn’t privy to the debate that may have followed, but the notion that one wouldn’t spend a good percentage of one’s critical real estate on a …

Sentences — March 27, 2009, 3:41 pm

Weekend Read: “What went wrong in Germany”

Jonathan Littell’s second novel, The Kindly Ones, has gotten a good deal of attention. There has been no shortage of reviews, from which composite one can glean a picture of the book and of the author’s ambition. I should say I have read some of the novel, have not finished it–though I have had long conversations about it with someone close to me as she marches slowly through its pages. I’ll finish the book at some point, though not with the expectation that I’ll find a novel I’ll treasure (of course I welcome the possibility of being surprised). The long …

Sentences — March 25, 2009, 3:16 pm

Similar Incapacities

Above you’ll see the prettiest of gatefold title pages of one of the most useful (out of print) books I know, The Craft and Context of Translation. As the fine print boasts, the book is a symposium on the subject, put together by William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck held in 1959, and put forth in 1961 by The University of Texas Press. Only 1500 copies of this lovely and useful book were printed, and it seems that a wise publisher would reprint this volume of essays by Shattuck, Arrowsmith, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Howard and others. The benefit of this gang …

Sentences — March 23, 2009, 4:09 pm

“Grammar and Style!”

Some of my favorite passages of English prose appear in Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Written in French and translated into English by Beckett and Patrick Bowles, the novel’s language is, to my ear and mind, perfection at every turn. I prefer the English version, probably because I knew it first. When I got to the French original, I couldn’t help but think of it as subordinate to the translation. “Translation” is a funny word to think of when thinking of Beckett: he chose to write in French to escape the mastery he had in English. Why Beckett would have wanted to …

Sentences — March 20, 2009, 1:54 pm

Weekend Read: “Frenzy finds its weapons”

There is no translation of any worthwhile book that hasn’t had its sometimes vigorous detractors. Jerome, who gave us the Vulgate, was forced to flee Rome to finish his work in Bethlehem when the Roman clergy got wind of his decision to translate from Hebrew sources (and, worse still, into the everyday Latin of Romans). Tyndale, who gave us the first English Bible with wide distribution was strangled and burned at the stake for his trouble (the charge was heresy). So it goes. The Aeneid is a different sort of holy book. It has found its English voice countless times. …

Sentences — March 18, 2009, 4:33 pm

Remote in Time, or Alien in Language

I’m inhabiting a pleasant little temporal interim right now, the lucky space that opens up when a new Bob Dylan record is announced. Dylan’s readers (more upon that apparently errant word in a moment) have been very lucky lately that his records have been coming out not merely with such regularity but with such great quality. Like Roth, he’s proving to be an inspiringly enduring manufacturer, to such an extent that calling current Dylan “late Dylan” miscasts the ageless place that the last 15 years of song have been coming from. Even the casual reader (that word again) of Dylan’s …

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Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

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A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

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Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

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Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

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A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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