Readers Predict in 1936 Which Novelists Would Still Be Widely Read in the Year 2000


Few know as much about our incompetence at predicting our own future as Matt Novak, author of the site Paleofuture, “a blog that looks into the future that never was.” Not long ago, I interviewed him on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture; ever since, I’ve invariably found out that all the smartest dissections of just how little we understand about our future somehow involve him. And not just those — also the smartest dissections of how little we’ve always understood about our future. Take, for example, the year 1936, when, in Novak’s words, “a quarterly magazine for book collectors called The Colophon polled its readers to pick the ten authors whose works would be considered classics in the year 2000.” They named the following:

At first glance, this list might not look so embarrassing. Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis remains oft-referenced, if much more so for Babbitt (iPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats – Read Online Now), his 1922 indictment of a business-blinkered America, than for It Can’t Happen Here, his bestselling Hitler satire from the year before the poll. Most Americans passing through high school English still bump into Willa Cather, Robert Frost (four of whose volumes you can find in our collection Free eBooks), and perhaps Eugene O’Neill (likewise) and Theodore Dreiser (especially through Sister CarrieiPad/iPhone – Kindle + Other Formats – Read Online Now) as well.

Some of us may also remember Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body from our school days, but it would take a well-read soul indeed to nod in agreement with such selections as New England historian James Truslow Adams and now little-read (though once Sinclair- and Dreiser-acclaimed) fantasist James Branch Cabell. The well-remembered George Santayana still looks like a judgment call to me, but what of absent famous names like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, or maybe James Joyce? The Colophon‘s editors included Hemingway on their own list, but which writers do you think stand as the Fitzgeralds and Faulkners of today — or, more to the point, of the year 2078? Care to put your guess on record? Feel free to make your predictions in the comments section below.

via @ElectricLit/Smithsonian

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Hear Allen Ginsberg Teach “Literary History of the Beats”: Audio Lectures from His 1977 & 1981 Naropa Courses


It’s not often one gets the opportunity to take a course on a major literary movement taught by a founding member of that movement. Imagine sitting in on lectures on Romantic poetry taught by John Keats or William Wordsworth? It may be the case, however, that the Romantic poets would have a hard time of it in the cutthroat world of professionalized academic poetry, a world Allen Ginsberg helped create in 1974 with the founding of his Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, almost twenty years after he brought hip modern poetry to the masses with the wildly popular City Lights paperback edition of Howl and Other Poems. (Here you can listen to the first recording of Ginsberg reading that famous poem.)

Dismissed by the modernist old guard as “vacuous self-promoters” in their time, the Beats’ legend often portrays them as paragons of artistic integrity. There’s no reason they couldn’t be both in some sense. The anti-authoritarian pranks and poses gained them notoriety for matters of style, and their dedication to radicalizing American literature provided the substance. As the Academy of American Poets writes, “there is a clear work ethic that reverberates in their lives and in their writing, and in the eyes of many readers and critics, the Beats fostered a sustained, authentic, and compelling attack on post-World War II American Culture,” rejecting both “the stultifying materialism and conformism of the cold war era” and “the highly wrought and controlled aesthetic of modernist stalwarts.”

Thanks to the archives at Naropa, we can hear Ginsberg himself lecture on both the style and substance of Beat literary culture in a series of lectures he delivered in 1977 for his summer course called “Literary History of the Beats.” We’ve previously featured the extensive “specialized reading list” Ginsberg handed students for that class, which he titled “Celestial Homework.” In the first series of lectures—divided in 18 parts in the archive—hear him discuss the list. The Naropa archive describes the first lecture as diving “right into the 40′s lives of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, and others living in NYC at that time. From consuming Benzadrine inhalers to the discovery of the void, Ginsberg’s account and analyses are entertaining and lively as well as insightful.” Hear part one of that talk at the top of the post, and part two just above.

Ginsberg focuses on the 40s as the period of Beat origins in his 1977 class. Another section of the course—taught in 1981—covers the 50s, with topics such as “Burroughs’ recommended reading lists,” “Burroughs on drugs and society,” and “the founding of the study of semantics.” Hear the first lecture in that series just above.

Literary History of the Beats will be added to our collection, 1000 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Image above was taken by Marcelo Noah.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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The First Color Photos From World War I, on the German Front

Hildebrand 1

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Most of us know this — or at least if we don’t know the exact date, we know it happened in 1914, 100 years ago. We also know that the spark of the killing ignited the international geopolitical tinderbox just waiting to flame into the First World War. Yet as military historians often remind us, no one event can really start a conflict of that unprecedented scale any more than one event can stop it. The second half of the year 1914 saw a series of interrelated crises, responses, counter-crises, and counter responses that, these hundred years on, few of us could cite off the top of our heads.

ww i color photos 3

We can compensate for the century between us and the Great War by reading up on it, of course. Of the countless volumes available, I personally recommend Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. But nothing brings home the detailed reality of this ever-more-distant “huge murderous public folly,” in the words of J.B. Priestly, like looking at color photos from the front.

Hildebrand 2

That color photography exists of anything in mid-1910s Europe, much less as momentous and disastrous a period as World War I, still surprises some people. We owe these shots to the efforts of German photographer Hans Hildebrand, as well as to his country’s already-established appreciation for the art and adeptness in engineering its tools. “In 1914, Germany was the world technical leader in photography and had the best grasp of its propaganda value,” writes R.G. Grant in World War I: The Definitive Visual History. “Some 50 photographers were embedded with its forces, compared with 35 for the French. The British military authorities lagged behind. It was not until 1916 that a British photographer was allowed on the Western Front.” But among his countrymen, only Hildebrand took pictures in color.

S. 237: Schützengraben im Oberelsass. (Foto: Hans Hildenbrand)

The overwhelming majority of photos taken during World War I were black and white,” writes Spiegel Online, where you can browse a gallery of eighteen of his photos, “lending the conflict a stark aesthetic which dominates our visual memory of the war.” Hildebrand’s images thus stand out with their almost unreal-looking vividness, a result achieved not simply by his use of color film, but by his relatively long experience with a still fairly new medium. He’d already founded a color film society in his native Stuttgart three years before the Archduke’s assassination, and had tried his hand at autochrome printing as early as 1909.

S. 241: Schützengraben im Oberelsass.(Foto: Hans Hildenbrand)

Though not himself a dyed-in-the-wool propagandist, he did need to pose the soldiers for these photos, due to the lack of a film sensitive enough to capture actual action. Still, they give us a clearer idea of the situation than do most contemporary images. Hardly a glorification, Hildebrand’s work seems to speak to what those of us now, one hundred years in the future, would come to see in World War I: its misery, its oppressive sense of futility, and the haunting destruction it left behind.

Hildebrand 3

via Dangerous Minds

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Let’s Learn Japanese: Two Classic Video Series to Get You Started in the Language

Say the name “Yan-san” to anyone who’s studied Japanese in the last thirty years, and you’ll probably get a reaction of delighted recognition. It means that, inside or outside the classroom, they studied with Let’s Learn Japanese, a series of educational videos produced by the Japan Foundation. The first “season,” if you like, came out in 1984, the time of an enormous Asian economic bubble that made the world’s future look Japanese, sending the language straight to the top of every international business-minded student’s to-do-list. (Sound familiar, current strugglers with Mandarin?) Its hero, a young man of deliberately ambiguous nationality named Yan — the Japanese all address him with the everyday honorific -san — turns up in Japan for a few years of life in Tokyo and works at an architecture firm, helped along by his host family the Katos, his eagerly team-playing co-workers (one of whom introduces himself, in English, with the phase, “We are friends — okay?“), and a variety of helpful citizens and professionals all across the Land of the Rising Sun.

This may sound like dull stuff — the stuff of run-of-the-mill language-learning videos — but Let’s Learn Japanese raised the bar for this sort of thing, in terms of not just production value and teaching effectiveness but sheer rewatchability. In addition to Yan-san’s life among the Japanese people, Let’s Learn Japanese also offers instructional segments led by Mary Althaus, still a professor at Tokyo’s Tsuda College, and imaginative illustrative skits performed by the indefatigable trio of Mine, Kaihō, and Sugihara. In the more advanced Season 2, released over a decade later in 1995, they’ve become the eerily similar Kodama, Andō, and Koyanagi, and Yan-san has become a graduate student with girlfriend troubles. Having watched all 52 episodes several times through, I can vouch for both its entertainment value and its effectiveness. (It also spurred me to start volunteering at the Japan Foundation, Los Angeles.) So can the foreigners who give a hero’s welcome to star Nick Muhrin (who, last I heard, still lives in Japan) when they run into him. I know I’ve learned enough to buy Yan-san a drink.

You can find more useful Japanese-learning materials to supplement all this in our archive of free language lessons. It includes resources ranging from the Foreign Service Institute’s digitized textbooks and tapes to podcasts like the life abroad-oriented Japanesepod101 [iTunes Free - Feed] and the anime-geared Japancast [iTunes Free - Feed]. 皆さんがんばって!

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Butterfly Lands on Flutist’s Face During Flute Competition: The Show Must Go On

Last Monday, Yukie Ota, a Japanese born flutist now living in Chicago, was performing in the first round of the Carl Nielsen International Flute Competition in Denmark, when a butterfly flitted across the stage and landed, rather inconveniently, on the bridge of her nose. Not missing a beat — er, a note — Ota took a quick glance at the critter, and played on, unfazed. On the merits of her performance, Ota made it to the final round of the competition held on Saturday. She eventually lost out to Sébastian Jacot, who apparently played the entire competition with a damaged flute. In other news, you can check out Vladimir Nabokov’s delightful butterfly drawings here.

via NPR H/T Mike S.

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New Album Lets You Hear Novelist Michael Chabon Singing in a Punk Band During the ’80s

the bats chabon

The bio on Michael Chabon’s website is one of the most punk rock author bios I’ve ever seen. Clearly, the task of writing it was not left to chance or some publicist.

Where other authors might limit themselves to the strictly professional, Chabon spices things up with details on his bar mitzvah, his failed first marriage, and the births of his children.

Where others’ timelines grow weighty with evidence of increasing fame, his reads more like a diary, written in the third person.

Breaking of Hank Aaron’s pure record of 755 home runs amid the now-commonplace American congeries of hypocrisy, excess, bad faith, racism and lies finally proves too much, and the wrong kind, of baseball sadness; turns his back on the game (8/07)

Penetrates to the secret nighttime heart of Disneyland (9/11)

Given his zest for personal milestones, it’s surprising he didn’t see fit to share that he was once the lead singer in a Pittsburgh punk band. It would have fit nicely between the photo in which he and novelist Jon Armstrong are garbed as strolling Renaissance Festival players and the moment he enters an Oakland crawlspace to begin work on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

He might rethink this omission, now that Mindcure Records has released the four-track demo that is his band, the Bats’ only studio recording. Also preserved on vinyl is the author’s sole live outing with the band, a 21st birthday gig at the Electric Banana, shortly before he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and disappeared into that crawlspace. The label describes his vocals as “snotty.” It’s a compliment in context.

Meanwhile in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Chabon recalled the Bats as “a fine little band, a unique assemblage of diverse strengths and quirks, anchored by one of the most rock-solid drummers ever to grace the Pittsburgh scene, and hampered only by the weakness of their goofball frontman.”

Thanks to Mindcure Records, Open Culture readers can sample the self-effacing Pulitzer Prize winner’s vintage vocal stylings, above. In the clip away, we have him singing “Jet Away.” Chabon may think he sounds “awful,” but I don’t hear any cause for shame.  You can pick up your own copy of The Bats’ album, ‘Demo 5:26:84,′ with Chabon on vocals, here.

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Ayun Halliday’s bio is also a bit outside the mold. Follow her @AyunHalliday

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Listen to the Long-Lost Freddie Mercury & Michael Jackson Duet

Some 33 years ago, Queen started work on a track called “There Must Be More to Life Than This,” which featured vocals by Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson. Written during the Hot Space sessions (circa 1981), the song was eventually abandoned and put on a shelf until Freddie Mercury released his own version on a 1985 solo album. Now, with the upcoming release of a Queen compilation called Queen Forever, you can hear the original. No longer do you have to wonder what a Mercury-Jackson duet might sound like. In fact, you only have to click play above and the suspense will be over.

I should note that the Hot Space sessions also produced perhaps our favorite rock duet ever — Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing “Under Pressure.” Don’t miss hearing their vocals on this amazing isolated track.

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via Rolling Stone

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The Guggenheim Puts 109 Free Modern Art Books Online


Back in January, 2012, we mentioned that the Guggenheim (the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed modern art museum in NYC) had put 65 art catalogues on the web, all free of charge.

We’re happy to report that, between then and now, the number of free texts has grown to 109. Published between 1937 and 1999, the art books/catalogues offer an intellectual and visual introduction to the work of Alexander Calder, Edvard Munch, Francis BaconGustav Klimt & Egon Schiele, Fernand Léger, and Kandinsky. Plus there are other texts (e.g., Masterpieces of Modern Art and Abstract Expressionists Imagists) that tackle meta movements and themes.

Anyone interested in the history of the Guggenheim will want to spend time with a collection called “The Syllabus.” It contains five books by Hilla Rebay, the museum’s first director and curator. Together, they let you take a close look at the art originally housed in the Guggenheim when the museum first opened its doors in 1939.

To read any of these 109 free art books, you will just need to follow these simple instructions. 1.) Select a text from the collection. 2.) Click the “Read Catalogue Online” button. 3.) Start reading the book in the pop-up browser, and use the controls at the very bottom of the pop-up browser to move through the book. 4.) If you have any problems accessing these texts, you can find alternate versions on

You can find many more free art books from the Getty and the Met below.

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Pakistani Orchestra Plays Enchanting Rendition of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”

Last year, we brought you an incredible cover of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five” performed by the Pakistan-based group, the Sachal Studios Orchestra (also known as the Sachal Jazz Ensemble). You can find that song, along with two takes on “The Girl From Ipanema,” on their 2011 album Sachal Jazz. You won’t find the Sachal Orchestra’s version of “Eleanor Rigby” (above) on that album. This comes to us from Sachal’s 2013 Jazz and All That, a record Guardian critic John Fordham calls “smooth-jazzier” than its predecessor and “more improvisationally inhibited.” I must say, if that’s the case, I’ll take my jazz smooth just this once.

“Eleanor Rigby,” of course, has always been played by an orchestra, and its mixture of modes makes it a particularly good choice for the sitar soloist, who could have sat in comfortably in studio sessions for nearly every song on the Eastern-inflected Revolver. He shares the spotlight with a dynamite tablas player (watch for his solo at 1:27). It’s no wonder the Sachal players have made such an impression with their unique interpretations of standards and classics. Drawn from “virtuosos who cut their teeth in Pakistan’s once-flourishing Lollywood film industry,” their website informs us, “the Sachal Jazz Ensemble brings together some of the most accomplished classical musicians of the subcontinent.” Lollywood, Lahore’s once-thriving film industry, has still barely recovered from the repressive regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

The musicians of Sachal are refugees of a sort; rescued from poverty, these “veteran session players [had been] retired since the 1980s due to various anti-music zealotries.” During those times, writes Yaqoob Khan Bangash, television drama provided “great succor to a fatigued and demoralized society.” Musicals, however, were very much frowned on by the regime, which banned most Western-influenced productions and shuttered most of the Lahore studios. We should be glad the Sachal Studios Orchestra can now perform and tour. They recently appeared with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center in an event, Fordham writes, suggesting that “the most creative phase of Sachal Studios’ heartening story of renewal might just be beginning.”

For more on Sachal Studios, watch the introductory video, “Who We Are…,” above—shot at, where else, the studios at Abbey Road.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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Optical Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Animator Hated by Hitler, Dissed by Disney

At a time when much of animation was consumed with little anthropomorphized animals sporting white gloves, Oskar Fischinger went in a completely different direction. His work is all about dancing geometric shapes and abstract forms spinning around a flat featureless background. Think of a Mondrian or Malevich painting that moves, often in time to the music. Fischinger’s movies have a mesmerizing elegance to them. Check out his 1938 short An Optical Poem above. Circles pop, sway and dart across the screen, all in time to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. This is, of course, well before the days of digital. While it might be relatively simple to manipulate a shape in a computer, Fischinger’s technique was decidedly more low tech. Using bits of paper and fishing line, he individually photographed each frame, somehow doing it all in sync with Liszt’s composition. Think of the hours of mind-numbing work that must have entailed.

Born in 1900 near Frankfurt, Fischinger trained as a musician and an architect before discovering film. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin and started producing more and more abstract animations that ran before feature films. They proved to be popular too, at least until the National Socialists came to power. The Nazis were some of the most fanatical art critics of the 20th Century, and they hated anything non representational. The likes of Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky among others were written off as “degenerate.” (By stark contrast, the CIA reportedly loved Abstract Expressionism, but that’s a different story.) Fischinger fled Germany in 1936 for the sun and glamour of Hollywood.

The problem was that Hollywood was really not ready for Fischinger. Producers saw the obvious talent in his work, and they feared that it was too ahead of its time for broad audiences. “[Fischinger] was going in a completely different direction than any other animator at the time,” said famed graphic designer Chip Kidd in an interview with NPR. “He was really exploring abstract patterns, but with a purpose to them — pioneering what technically is the music video.”

Fischinger’s most widely seen American work was the section in Walt Disney’s Fantasia set to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Disney turned his geometric forms into mountain peaks and violin bows. Fischinger was apoplectic. “The film is not really my work,” Fischinger later reflected. “Rather, it is the most inartistic product of a factory. …One thing I definitely found out: that no true work of art can be made with that procedure used in the Disney studio.” Fischinger didn’t work with Disney again and instead retreated into the art world.

There he found admirers who were receptive to his vision. John Cage, for one, considers the German animator’s experiments to be a major influence on his own work. Cage recalls his first meeting with Fischinger in an interview with Daniel Charles in 1968.

One day I was introduced to Oscar Fischinger who made abstract films quite precisely articulated on pieces of traditional music. When I was introduced to him, he began to talk with me about the spirit, which is inside each of the objects of this world. So, he told me, all we need to do to liberate that spirit is to brush past the object, and to draw forth its sound. That’s the idea which led me to percussion.

You can find excerpts of other Fischinger films over at Vimeo.

Optical Poems will be added to our list of Animations, part of our collection: 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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