David Foster Wallace Creates Lists of His Favorite Words: “Maugre,” “Tarantism,” “Ruck,” “Primapara” & More

WallaceLexicon1

Everyone I know has a list of least-favorite words. For various reasons, “moist” always seems to make the top three. But perhaps it takes a writer—someone who savors the sounds, textures, and histories of peculiar words—to compile a list of their most-favorites. A few I’ve placed in keepsake boxes over the years—little corrugated minerals that remind me of what words can do: “palaver,” “obdurate,” “crevasse,” “superfecund”….

I could go on, but it’s certainly not my list you've come for. You’re reading, I suspect, because you well know the consummate care and attention David Foster Wallace lavished on his prose—his reputation as a smith of endless creativity who, Alex Ross wrote in a series of McSweeney’s tributes, spent his time “keenly observing, forging acronyms, reanimating lifeless OED entries, and creating sentences that make us spit out our beer.”

Ross’s mention of the Oxford English Dictionary, that venerable repository of the vast breadth and depth of written English (sadly kept behind a paywall), helps us appreciate Wallace’s list, which features such archaic adverbs as “maugre” (“in spite of, notwithstanding”) and obscure adjectives as “lacinate” (“fringed”). Who has read, much less written, the Anglo-Saxon “ruck” (“a multitude of people mixed together”)? And while the equally rock-hard, monosyllabic “wrack” is familiar, I have not before encountered the lovely “primapara” (“woman who’s pregnant for the first time”).

WallaceList2

Another page of Wallace’s list (above—click images to enlarge) includes such treasures as “tarantism,” a “disorder where you have an uncontrollable need to dance,” and “sciolism,” a “pretentious air of scholarship; superficial knowledgability.” While it is true that Wallace has been accused of the latter, I do not think this is a competent judgment. Instead, I would describe him with another of my favorite words—“amateur”—not at all, of course, in the sense of an unpaid or unskilled beginner, but rather, as it meant in French, a "devoted lover" of the English language.

These pages come to us from Lists of Note (and the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin), who writes that they are “just two pages from the hundreds of word lists he amassed over the years.” Perhaps one day we’ll see a published edition of David Foster Wallace’s favorite words. For the nonce, head on over to Lists of Note to see this minim of his lexicon transcribed.

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

Sir Ian McKellen Puts on a Dazzling One-Man Shakespeare Show

Long before he played Gandalf or Magneto, Sir Ian McKellen was known as one of the finest stage actors in England. A stand out in the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Ian played the lead in its 1974 staging of Doctor Faustus and its 1977 staging of Macbeth. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1979 almost entirely because of his stage work.


If you want a sense of just how good Sir Ian is, watch his one-man show Acting Shakespeare. You can see it in its entirety above.

Developed on the road in the late ‘70s, the show is part a scholarly history of the Bard, part an autobiographical yarn and part a greatest hits of Shakespeare’s speeches. And Sir Ian is absolutely dazzling. At one point, he gives a spot on impersonation of Sir John Gielgud. At another he performs a scene from Romeo and Juliet playing both Romeo and Juliet. He shifts effortlessly from giving a soliloquy by Hamlet to delivering a witty anecdote about life on the stage with sense of timing of a veteran stand-up comedian.

Acting Shakespeare is a 95-minute long sustained display of acting bravura. It’s pretty entertaining too. Seriously, check it out.

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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 @jonccrow.

The President of Northwestern University Predicts Online Learning … in 1934!

1934 predictions

One of our most popular posts this year centered around a prescient set of predictions that Isaac Asimov made for 2014, way back in 1964. Asimov, however, wasn’t the only one whose vision of the future seems to have been realized.

The web site Paleofuture features a 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics magazine, where Northwestern University president Walter Dill Scott made some farsighted pronouncements of his own. Scott believed that the physical college campus would no longer need to be a lynchpin for education, and that students could learn by way of radio and pictures. Fax machines and televisions would allow students to access lecture materials worldwide, and ensure that researchers could conduct their research remotely. He also figured that we’d all end up commuting by planes. Everyday Science and Mechanics wrote:

The university of twenty-five years from now will be a different looking place, says President Scott of Northwestern. Instead of concentrating faculty and students around a campus, they will "commute" by air, and the university will be surrounded by airports and hangars. The course will be carried on, to a large extent, by radio and pictures. Facsimile broadcasting and television will enlarge greatly the range of a library; and research may be carried on by scholars at great distances.

Airports and hangars aside, Scott’s conjectures hit pretty close to home. While fax machines and radio may have been supplanted by the Internet, the essence of our educational advancements is the same: university students can often listen to lectures and complete assignments online, spending only a few short face-to-face hours in the classroom. Other times, classes may be wholly available online, and students may never step foot on campus altogether. Scholars, too, can trawl through databases like JSTOR and PsycINFO without getting out of bed, conducting research as they travel.

In fact, today almost anyone can have access to university knowledge. Feel like taking a Technology Entrepreneurship class offered by Stanford, or learn about Walt Whitman, courtesy of The University of Iowa? Nothing simpler! Massive Open Online courses (MOOCs) are proliferating, and you can download audio & video lectures from top tier universities. Visit our collection of 825 Free Online Courses to see what we mean.

In the end, it’s a good thing Scott was right. Otherwise, there’d be no Open Culture.

via Paleofuture

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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New York’s Famous Chelsea Hotel and Its Creative Residents Revisited in a 1981 Documentary

Last year, we featured a clip of Nico singing "Chelsea Girls" at the Hotel Chelsea, the much-mythologized Manhattan institution that, at one time or another, housed a range of cultural figures including Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Iggy Pop, Gaby Hoffmann, Sid Vicious, and Arthur Miller. "The Chelsea in the Sixties seemed to combine two atmospheres," writes Miller in a 1978 essay on his time there. "A scary optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family. That at least was the myth one nursed in one's mind, but like all myths it did not altogether stand inspection." That era more than arguably marked the Chelsea's social and cultural heyday.

A few years later, in 1981, BBC's arts documentary series Arena made its way to New York to investigate the history and then-current state of this veritable counterculture incubator. The film spends time with current Chelsea residents, former Chelsea residents, and Chelsea habitués notable, creative, and otherwise — the notably creative Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, and Quentin Crisp all make appearances. It also talks to the hotel's staff and follows a tour guide as he leads a curious group through its storied corridors. "With all my misgivings about the Chelsea," Miller reflects, "I can never enter it without a certain quickening of my heartbeat. There is an indescribably homelike atmosphere which at the same time lacks a certain credibility. It is some kind of fictional place, I used to think. As in dreams things are out front that are concealed in other hotels."

For more, you might want to spend time with "An Oral History of the Chelsea Hotel: Where the Walls Still Talk," which appeared in Vanity Fair last October.

Find the documentary above listed in our collection of 625 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.

via Dangerous Minds

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

Student Asks Noam Chomsky for Dating Advice

Noam Chomsky is a pretty unlikely celebrity. As a preeminent anarchist theorist, his political writing is full of passionate intensity, but in his numerous public appearances, he conforms much more to images associated with his day job as a preeminent academic and linguist. He’s very soft-spoken—I’ve never heard him raise his voice above the register of polite coffee-shop conversation—and frumpy in that elder scholar kind of way: uncombed gray hair, an endless supply of sweaters and corduroy jackets…

So, yes, it’s amusing when, in the short clip above, a young Chomsky fan asks the 85-year-old “father of modern linguistics” for advice on how to talk to women. Chomsky’s nonplussed response is honest and heartfelt. He has nothing to offer in this regard, he says: “I got out of that business 70 years ago.” If it seems like Chomsky’s math is a little off—he was married in 1949—consider that he and his wife Carol met when they were both just five years old.

Theirs was a quietly charming romance. Chomsky, who has always possessed an extraordinary ability to keep his personal, political, and professional lives separate, did not speak much of their marriage until after Carol’s death in 2008. In the excerpt above from a Big Think interview shortly after, Chomsky tells a story of group of peasants in Southern Columbia who planted a forest in his wife’s memory. He’s also asked to define love. This time, he has a much more interesting response than his reply to the would-be pick up artist above: “I just know it's—has an unbreakable grip, but I can't tell you what it is.  It's just life's empty without it.”

via Critical Theory

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

Stanley Kubrick’s Annotated Copy of Stephen King’s The Shining

kubrick shining cover

The web site Overlook Hotel has posted pictures of Stanley Kubrick’s personal copy of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, which is normally kept at the Stanley Kubrick Archive, but has been making the rounds in a traveling exhibition. The book is filled with highlighted passages and largely illegible notes in the margin---tantalizing clues to Kubrick’s intentions for the movie.

kubrick shining text 1

The site features a picture of the book’s careworn cover along with two spreads from the book’s interior ---pages 8-9, where Jack Torrance is being interviewed by hotel manager Mr. Ullman, and pages 86-87 where hotel cook Dick Hallorann talks to Jack’s son Danny about the telepathic ability called “shining.” (Click on the images to enlarge.)


Much of the marginalia is maddeningly hard to decipher. One of the notes I could make out reads:

Maybe just like their [sic] are people who can shine, maybe there are places that are special. Maybe it has to do with what happened in them or where they were built.

Kubrick is clearly working to translate King’s book into film. Other notes, however, seem wholly unrelated to the movie.

Any problems with the kitchen – you phone me

When The Shining came out, it was greeted with tepid and nonplussed reviews. Since then, the film’s reputation has grown, and now it’s considered a horror masterpiece.

kubrick shining text 2

At first viewing, The Shining overwhelms the viewer with pungent images that etch themselves in the mind---those creepy twins, that rotting senior citizen in the bathtub, that deluge of blood from the elevator. Yet after the fifth or seventh viewing, the film reveals itself to be far weirder than your average horror flick. For instance, why is Jack Nicholson reading a Playgirl magazine while waiting in the lobby? What’s the deal with that guy in the bear suit at the end of the movie? Why is Danny wearing an Apollo 11 sweater?

While Stephen King has had dozens of his books adapted for the screen (many are flat out terrible), of all the adaptations, this is one that King actively dislikes.

“I would do every thing different,” complained King about the movie to American Film Magazine in 1986. “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre.” King later made his own screen version of his book. By all accounts, it’s nowhere as good as Kubrick’s.

Perhaps the reason King loathed Kubrick’s adaptation so much is that the famously secretive and controlling director packed the movie with so many odd signs, like Danny’s Apollo sweater, that seem to point to a meaning beyond a tale of an alcoholic writer who descends into madness and murder. The Shining is a semiotic puzzle about …what?

Critic after critic has attempted to crack the film’s hidden meaning. Journalist Bill Blakemore argued in his essay “The Family of Man” that The Shining is actually about the genocide of the Native Americans. Historian Geoffrey Cocks suggests that the movie is about the Holocaust. And conspiracy guru Jay Weidner has argued passionately that the movie is in fact Kubrick’s coded confession for his role in staging the Apollo 11 moon landing. (On a related note, see Dark Side of the Moon: A Mockumentary on Stanley Kubrick and the Moon Landing Hoax.)

Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 juxtaposes all of these wildly divergent readings, brilliantly showing just how dense and multivalent The Shining is. You can see the trailer for the documentary above.

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Room 237: New Documentary Explores Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Those It Obsesses

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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 @jonccrow.

Read Ezra Pound’s List of 23 “Don’ts” For Writing Poetry (1913)

1922 image by Alvin Langdon Coburn, via Wikimedia Commons

Ezra Pound was a key figure in 20th century poetry. Not only did he demonstrate impressive poetic skill in his Cantos; he also proved to be a crucial early supporter of several famous contemporaries, championing the likes of Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and H.D.. Before deservedly being condemned for his fascist politics and antisemitism, Pound established himself as one of the leading literary critics of his time. David Perkins, in A History of Modern Poetry, wrote, "During a crucial decade in the history of modern literature, approximately 1912-1922, Pound was the most influential and in some ways the best critic of poetry in England or America.”

Early in the 20th century, Pound helped found the Imagist poetry movement, which abided by three key laws:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

In 1913, Pound wrote an essay entitled “A Few Don’ts.” Its rules, enumerated below, provide young poets with a much-needed reminder to reign in their egos and apply themselves assiduously to their craft.


In a nutshell, the rules state that each verse should be lean and purposeful, with no frills or filler to provide padding. They also emphasize the importance of possessing an awareness of the work of previous poets, and of using this understanding in the creation of new work.

  1. Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to explain their metres.
  2. Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.
  3. Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
  4. Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.
  5. What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow. Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as an average piano teacher spends on the art of music.
  6. Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it. Don't allow 'influence' to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of 'dove-grey' hills, or else it was 'pearl-pale', I can not remember.
  7. Use either no ornament or good ornament.
  8. Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g. Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare - if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.
  9. It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert.
  10. Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft. No time is too great to give to these matters or to any one of them, even if the artist seldom have need of them.
  11. Don't imagine that a thing will 'go' in verse just because it's too dull to go in prose.
  12. Don't be 'viewy' - leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don't be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.
  13. When Shakespeare talks of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents.
  14. Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap. The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he has discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from that point onward. He does not bank on being a charming fellow personally. He does not expect his friends to applaud the results of his freshman class work. Freshmen in poetry are unfortunately not confined to a definite and recognizable class room. They are 'all over the shop'. Is it any wonder 'the public is indifferent to poetry?'
  15. Don't chop your stuff into separate iambs. Don't make each line stop dead at the end and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause. In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.
  16. Naturally, your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning. It is improbable that, at the start, you will he able to get a rhythm-structure strong enough to affect them very much, though you may fall a victim to all sorts of false stopping due to line ends, and caesurae.
  17. The Musician can rely on pitch and the volume of the orchestra. You can not. The term harmony is misapplied in poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base.
  18. A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure, it need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all.
  19. That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginative eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the original.
  20. Consider the definiteness of Dante's presentation, as compared with Milton's rhetoric. Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unutterably dull. If you want the gist of the matter go to Sappho, Catullus, Villon, Heine when he is in the vein, Gautier when he is not too frigid; or, if you have not the tongues, seek out the leisurely Chaucer. Good prose will do you no harm, and there is good discipline to be had by trying to write it.
  21. Translation is likewise good training, if you find that your original matter 'wobbles' when you try to rewrite it. The meaning of the poem to be translated can not 'wobble'.
  22. If you are using a symmetrical form, don't put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining vacuums with slush.
  23. Don't mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word. To this clause there are possibly exceptions.

To read Pound’s complete essay, alongside several other works of his criticism, head over to Poetry Foundation.

Texts and readings by Pound can be found in our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books collections.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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