According to Ruth Graham in Slate, Banned Books Week is a “crock,” an unnecessary public indulgence since “there is basically no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015.” And though the awareness-raising week’s sponsor, the American Library Association, has shifted its focus to book censorship in classrooms, most of the challenges posed to books in schools are silly and easily dismissed. Yet, some other cases, like that of Persepolis—Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir of her Iranian childhood during the revolution—are not. The book was pulled from Chicago Public School classrooms (but not from libraries) in 2013.
Even now, teachers who wish to use the book in classes must complete “supplemental training.” The ostensibly objectionable content in the book is no more graphic than that in most history textbooks, and it’s easy to make the case that Persepolis and other challenged memoirs and novels that offer perspectives from other countries, cultures, or political points of view have inherent educational value. One might be tempted to think that school officials pulled the book for other reasons. Perhaps we need Banned Books Week after all.
Another, perhaps fuzzier, case of a “banned” book—or poem—from this year involves a high school teacher’s firing over his classroom reading of Allen Ginsberg’s pornographic poem “Please Master.” The case of “Please Master” should put us in mind of a once banned book written by Ginsberg: epic Beat jeremiad “Howl.” When the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, attempted to import British copies of the poem in 1957, the books were seized by customs, then he and his business partner were arrested and put on trial for obscenity. After writers and academics testified to the poem’s cultural value, the judge vindicated Ferlinghetti, and “Howl.”
But the trial demonstrated at the time that the government reserved the right to seize books, stop their publication and sale, and keep material from the reading public if it so chose. As with this year’s dust-up over “Please Master,” the agents who confiscated “Howl” supposedly objected to the sexual content of Ginsberg’s poem (and likely the homosexual content especially). But that reasoning could also have been cover for other objections to the poem’s political content. “Howl,” after all, was very subversive in its day, and in a way served as a kind of manifesto against the status quo. It had a “cataclysmic impact,” writes Fred Kaplan, “not just on the literary world but on the broader society and culture.”
Earlier this month, we featured Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play Salome as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in 1894. Though Beardsley’s short life and career would end a scant four years later at the age of 25, the illustrator still had more than enough time to develop a clear and bold, yet elaborate and even decadent style, still immediately recognizable and deeply influential today.
He also managed to visualize an impressively wide range of material, one that includes — in the very same year — the transgressively witty writing of Oscar Wilde as well as the groundbreakingly macabre writings of Edgar Allan Poe.
“Aubrey Beardsley’s four Poe illustrations were commissioned by Herbert S. Stone and Company, Chicago, in 1894 as embellishment for a multi-volume collection of the author’s works,” writes artist and designer John Coulthart. “The Black Cat (above) is justifiably the most reproduced of these.” The Literary Archive blog argues that “what Beardsley’s illustrations do tell us of is that Poe’s stories are not static, but living works that each new generation gets to experience in [its] own way,” and that they “give us a glimpse into a slight decadence and gothic-ness still preferred in horror at the time (a giant orangutan envelopes the girl in his arms—King Kong anyone?)”
They also remind us that “our taste for creepiness, for hearing tales about the darker side of human life, hasn’t changed appreciably in over 150 years.” If the American author and the English illustrator would seem to make for odd literary and artistic bedfellows, well, therein lies the appeal: when one strong creative sensibility comes up against another, things can well go off in the kind of richly bizarre directions you see hinted at in the images here.
If you’d like to own a piece of this odd chapter in the history of illustrated texts, keep your eye on Sotheby’s — you’ll only have to come up with between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds.
Image by Alan Light released under Creative Commons license.
When he passed away in 2012, science fiction master Ray Bradbury left us with a number of instantly quotable lines. There are aphorisms like “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” There are more humorous, but no less memorable lines he delivers in his advice to writers, such as, “writing is not a serious business… I want you to envy me my joy.” A seemingly endless source of wisdom and enthusiasm, Bradbury’s creative forces seemed in no danger of waning in his later years as he gave impassioned talks and interviews well into his 70s and 80 and his work received renewed appreciation. As one writer declared in 2001, “Ray Bradbury is on fire!”
Of course Bradbury’s been hot since the fifties. That headline alludes to his classic 1953 novel of futuristic book-burning, Fahrenheit 451, which you’ve likely read if you’ve read any Bradbury at all. Or perhaps you’re familiar with Bradbury’s non-sci-fi novel of childhood lost, Dandelion Wine? Both are excellent books well-deserving of the awards and praise heaped upon them. But if they’re all you know of Ray Bradbury, you’re seriously missing out.
Bradbury began his career as a writer of short sci-fi and horror stories that excel in their richness of language and careful plotting. So imaginative is his work that it warranted adaptation into a star-studded television series, The Ray Bradbury Theater. And before that vehicle brought Bradbury’s brilliance into people’s homes, many of those same stories appeared in radio plays produced by shows like NBC’s Dimension X and X Minus One.
From the latter program, at the top, we bring you Mars is Heaven!, a disturbing 1948 tale of interstellar deception. “When the first space rocket lands on Mars,” begins the announcer, “what will we find? Only the ruins of a dead, deserted planet, or will there be life?” Pertinent questions indeed. Bradbury speculated for decades about the meaning of Mars. “The Martian Chronicles,” adapted above by Dimension X, used a story about colonization of the planet as an allegory for humanity’s avarice and folly. Hear many more Dimension X radio plays from The Martian Chronicles collection here, and also the story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.”
The year after 1950’s The Martian Chronicles came 1951’s The Illustrated Man, a collection of shorts that included the tragic, lost-in-space tale “Kaleidoscope,” dramatized above by Mind Webs, a series from Madison, Wisconsin that ran from the 70s through the mid-90s. Though produced well after the golden age of radio drama, the series nonetheless managed to perfectly capture the engrossing sound of that specialized form—with ominous music, and a baritone-voiced narrator with some serious voice-acting chops.
While regional productions like Mind Webs have kept the radio drama fires burning in the U.S., the BBC has continued to produce high-quality radio adaptations on a larger scale. In 1991, they took on eight stories from another fifties Bradbury collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun. The two hour production dramatized the title story and the tales “Hail and Farewell,” “The Flying Machine,” “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” “A Sound of Thunder,” “The Murderer,” “The April Witch,” and “The Foghorn.” You can hear them just above. Or stream and download the complete audio at the Internet Archive.
Grab a cup of coffee, put on your thinking cap, and start working through this newly-released video from Minute Physics, which explains why guitars, violins and other instruments can be tuned to a tee. But when it comes to pianos, it’s an entirely differently story, a mathematical impossibility. Pianos are slightly but necessarily out of tune.
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The fate of the visionary is to be forever outside of his or her time. Such was the life of Nikola Tesla, who dreamed the future while his opportunistic rival Thomas Edison seized the moment. Even now the name Tesla conjures seemingly wildly impractical ventures, too advanced, too expensive, or far too elegant in design for mass production and consumption. No one better than David Bowie, the pop artist of possibility, could embody Tesla’s air of magisterial high seriousness on the screen. And few were better suited than Tesla himself, perhaps, to extrapolate from his time to ours and see the technological future clearly.
Of course, this image of Tesla as a lone, heroic, and even somewhat tragic figure who fell victim to Edison’s designs is a bit of a romantic exaggeration. As even the editor of a 1935 feature interview piece in the now-defunct Liberty magazine wrote, Tesla and Edison may have been rivals in the “battle between alternating and direct current…. Otherwise the two men were merely opposites. Edison had a genius for practical inventions immediately applicable. Tesla, whose inventions were far ahead of the time, aroused antagonisms which delayed the fruition of his ideas for years.” One can in some respects see why Tesla “aroused antagonisms.” He may have been a genius, but he was not a people person, and some of his views, though maybe characteristic of the times, are downright unsettling.
In the lengthy Liberty essay, “as told to George Sylvester Viereck” (a poet and Nazi sympathizer who also interviewed Hitler), Tesla himself makes the pronouncement, “It seems that I have always been ahead of my time.” He then goes on to enumerate some of the ways he has been proven right, and confidently lists the characteristics of the future as he sees it. No one likes a know-it-all, but Tesla refused to compromise or ingratiate himself, though he suffered for it professionally. And he was, in many cases, right. Many of his 1935 predictions in Liberty are still too far off to measure, and some of them will seem outlandish, or criminal, to us today. But some still seem plausible, and a few advisable if we are to make it another 100 years as a species. Tesla’s predictions include the following, which he introduces with the disclaimer that “forecasting is perilous. No man can look very far into the future.”
“Buddhism and Christianity… will be the religion of the human race in the twenty-first century.”
“The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established.” Tesla went on to comment, “no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.”
“Hygiene, physical culture will be recognized branches of education and government. The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2025 than the Secretary of War.” Along with personal hygiene, Tesla included “pollution” as a social ill in need of regulation.
“I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue. Alcohol, however, will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.”
“There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India.” (Tesla did not foresee the anti-gluten mania of the 21st century.)
“Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power.” Along with this optimistic prediction, Tesla foresaw that “the struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.”
Tesla goes on to predict the elimination of war, “by making every nation, weak or strong, able to defend itself,” after which war chests would be diverted to funding education and research. He then describes—in rather fantastical-sounding terms—an apparatus that “projects particles” and transmits energy, enabling not only a revolution in defense technology, but “undreamed of results in television.” Tesla diagnoses his time as one in which “we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age.” The solution, he asserts—along with most futurists, then and now—“does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.” As an example of such mastery, Tesla describes the future of “automatons” taking over human labor and the creation of “a thinking machine.”
When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.
Telsa also made some odd predictions about fuel-less passenger flying machines “free from any limitations of the present airplanes and dirigibles” and spouted more of the scary stuff about eugenics that had come to obsess him late in life. Additionally, Tesla saw changing gender relations as the precursor of a coming matriarchy. This was not a development he characterized in positive terms. For Tesla, feminism would “end in a new sex order, with the female as superior.” (As Novak notes, Tesla’s misgivings about feminism have made him a hero to the so-called “men’s rights” movement.) While he fully granted that women could and would match and surpass men in every field, he warned that “the acquisition of new fields of endeavor by women, their gradual usurpation of leadership, will dull and finally dissipate feminine sensibilities, will choke the maternal instinct, so that marriage and motherhood may become abhorrent and human civilization draw closer and closer to the perfect civilization of the bee.”
It seems to me that a “bee civilization” would appeal to a eugenicist, except, I suppose, Tesla feared becoming a drone. Although he saw the development as inevitable, he still sounds to me like any number of current politicians who argue that society should continue to suppress and discriminate against women for their own good and the good of “civilization.” Tesla may be an outsider hero for geek culture everywhere, but his social attitudes give me the creeps. While I’ve personally always liked the vision of a world in which robots do most the work and we spend most of our money on education, when it comes to the elimination of war, I’m less sanguine about particle rays and more sympathetic to the words of Ivor Cutler.
Popular music has a rich tradition of literary songwriters, including—to name but a few—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, and even Alan Parsons, who released not one, but two concept albums based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. And then there’s the inimitable Tom Waits, who doesn’t just work in a literary vein, but is a succession of pulpy characters, each one with the ability to light up a stage. Waits proved as much in 1988 when he toured his album Big Time, as alter-ego Frank O’Brien, a character he described as “a combination of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, playing accordion—but without the wisdom they possessed.” The Big Time tour, writes Dangerous Minds, was “like entering a sideshow tent in Tom Wait’s brain.”
In a review of the concert film of the same name, also released that year, the New York Times described Waits as a “gang of overlapping personas, a bunch of derelict philosopher-kings who rasp out romantic metaphors between wisecracks,” inhabiting “a seedy urban world of pawnshops and tattoos, of cigarette butts and polyester and triple-X movies.” It’s hard to know, listening to Waits in the interview above from the year of Big Time the album, tour, and film, how many of his personae emerge from the woodshed and how many spring from grizzled voices in that sideshow brain, which must sound like a cacophony of old-time waltzes and scurrilous ragtimes; boozy big-band numbers carousing in louche cabarets; pianos drunkenly falling down stairs. Waits can tell stories beautiful and terrible, in talking blues, broken ballads, and sprechgesang, rivaling the best compositions of the Delta, the beats, and sailors and hoboes.
Or he can tell stories—as he does above—about moles, building under Stonehenge “the most elaborate system of mole catacombs,” being rewarded for “having the courage to tunnel under great rivers,” staging executions. Then he shifts the scene to New York, and a Mercedes pulls up in a puddle of blood. “I think you just write,” says Waits, “and you don’t try to make sense of it. You just put it down the way you got it.” Waits gets it in vivid, surrealist images, one bizarre and sordid detail after another. To hear him speak is to hear him compose. You can read the transcript of the short interview, recorded in London by Chris Roberts, but the effect of Waits-the-performer is entirely lost. Better to hear his cracked inflection, his driest of comic timing, and watch the excellent animation of PBS’s Blank on Blank team, who have previously brought us amusing cartoon accompaniments for interviews with B.B. King, Ray Charles, the Beastie Boys, and even Fidel Castro. Tom Waits, I think, has given them their best material yet.
These days, if you like a piece of music, you might well say that you’re “feeling it” — or you might have said it a decade or two ago, anyway. But deaf music-lovers (who, as one may not immediately assume, exist) do literally that, feeling the actual vibrations of the sound with not their ears, but the rest of their bodies. Not only could the deaf and blind Helen Keller, a pioneer in so many ways, enjoy music, she could do it over the radio and articulate the experience vividly. We know that thanks to a 1924 piece of correspondence posted at Letters of Note.
“On the evening of February 1st, 1924, the New York Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York,” writes the site’s author Shaun Usher. “Thankfully for those who couldn’t attend, the performance was broadcast live on the radio. A couple of days later, the orchestra received a stunning letter of thanks from the unlikeliest of sources: Helen Keller.” The first ecstatic paragraph of her missive, which you can read whole at the original post, runs as follows:
I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
Keller ends the letter by emphasizing her desire to “thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world,” and since she first enjoyed the symphony on the radio, it makes sense, in a way, that we should enjoy her letter on the radio. Not long after Letters of Note made its post, NPR picked up on the story, and Weekend Edition‘s Scott Simon read an excerpt over a musical backdrop, which you can hear above. And if we have any deaf readers who listen to, say, NPR in Keller’s manner, let me say how curious I’d be to hear the details of that experience as well.
And deaf, hearing, or otherwise, you’ll find much more of this sort of thing in Letters of Note’s immaculately designed new print collectionMore Letters of Note, about which you can find all the details here. It goes on sale on October 1.
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