It’s Banned Books Week: Listen to Allen Ginsberg Read His Famously Banned Poem, “Howl,” in San Francisco, 1956

Howl Cover

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 Perse­po­lisMar­jane 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.”

We’ve fea­tured var­i­ous read­ings of “Howl” in the past, and if you’ve some­how missed hear­ing those, nev­er heard the poem read at all, or nev­er read the poem your­self, then con­sid­er dur­ing this Banned Books Week tak­ing the time to read it and hear it read—by the poet him­self. You can hear the first record­ed read­ing by Gins­berg, in 1956 at Port­land’s Reed Col­lege. You can hear anoth­er impas­sioned Gins­berg read­ing from 1959. And above, hear Gins­berg read the poem in 1956, in San Fran­cis­co, where it was first pub­lished and where it stood tri­al.

You can also hear Gins­berg fan James Franco—who played the poet in a film called Howlread the poem over a visu­al­ly strik­ing ani­ma­tion of its vivid imagery. And if Gins­berg isn’t your thing, con­sid­er check­ing out the ALA’s list of chal­lenged or banned books for 2014–2015. (I could cer­tain­ly rec­om­mend Perse­po­lis.) While pro­hibit­ing books from the class­room may seem a far cry from gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship, Banned Books Week reminds us that many peo­ple still find cer­tain kinds of books deeply threat­en­ing, and should push us to ask why that is.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

High School Teacher Reads Allen Ginsberg’s Explic­it Poem “Please Mas­ter” and Los­es His Job

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Famous­ly Cen­sored Beat Poem, Howl (1959)

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

Find great poems in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

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

Aubrey Beardsley’s Macabre Illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Stories (1894)


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.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illus­trat­ed by Aubrey Beard­s­ley in a Strik­ing Mod­ern Aes­thet­ic (1894)

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

5 Hours of Edgar Allan Poe Sto­ries Read by Vin­cent Price & Basil Rath­bone

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Hear Ray Bradbury’s Beloved Sci-Fi Stories as Classic Radio Dramas


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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

X Minus One: More Clas­sic 1950s Sci-Fi Radio from Asi­mov, Hein­lein, Brad­bury & Dick

Dimen­sion X: The 1950s Sci­Fi Radio Show That Dra­ma­tized Sto­ries by Asi­mov, Brad­bury, Von­negut & More

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Hear Radio Dra­mas of Isaac Asimov’s Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy & 7 Clas­sic Asi­mov Sto­ries

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

Why You Can Never Tune a Piano

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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Nikola Tesla’s Predictions for the 21st Century: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wireless, The Demise of Coffee, The Rule of Eugenics (1926/35)

nikola tesla

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.”

Matt Novak at the Smith­son­ian has ana­lyzed many of Tes­la’s claims, inter­pret­ing his pre­dic­tions about “hygiene and phys­i­cal cul­ture” as a fore­shad­ow­ing of the EPA and dis­cussing Tes­la’s work in robot­ics (“Today,” Tes­la pro­claimed, “the robot is an accept­ed fact”). The Lib­er­ty arti­cle was not the first time Tes­la had made large-scale, pub­lic pre­dic­tions about the cen­tu­ry to come and beyond. In 1926, Tes­la gave an inter­view to Col­lier’s mag­a­zine in which he more or less accu­rate­ly fore­saw smart­phones and wire­less tele­pho­ny and com­put­ing:

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.

via Smith­son­ian/Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Elec­tric Pho­to of Niko­la Tes­la, 1899

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Mark Twain Plays With Elec­tric­i­ty in Niko­la Tesla’s Lab (Pho­to, 1894)

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Jour­nal Pub­lish­es 28 Pre­dic­tions for the Year 2000

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

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

An Animated Tom Waits Talks About Laughing at Funerals & the Moles Under Stonehenge (1988)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Tom Waits, Play­ing the Down-and-Out Barfly, Appears in Clas­sic 1978 TV Per­for­mance

Tom Waits Reads Two Charles Bukows­ki Poems, “The Laugh­ing Heart” and “Nir­vana”

Watch Tom Waits’ Clas­sic Appear­ance on Aus­tralian TV, 1979

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

“A Glorious Hour”: Helen Keller Describes The Ecstasy of Feeling Beethoven’s Ninth Played on the Radio (1924)

Helen Keller

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 col­lec­tion More Let­ters of Note, about which you can find all the details here. It goes on sale on Octo­ber 1.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

Helen Keller Speaks About Her Great­est Regret — Nev­er Mas­ter­ing Speech

Helen Keller & Annie Sul­li­van Appear Togeth­er in Mov­ing 1930 News­reel

Leonard Bern­stein Con­ducts Beethoven’s 9th in a Clas­sic 1979 Per­for­mance

Slavoj Žižek Exam­ines the Per­verse Ide­ol­o­gy of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Human: The Movie Features Interviews with 2,020 People from 60 Countries on What It Means to Be Human

What is it that makes us human? And how best to ensure that we all get our fair say?

For direc­tor, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and envi­ron­men­tal activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the answers lay in fram­ing all of his inter­view sub­jects using the same sin­gle image lay­out. The for­mal sim­plic­i­ty and unwa­ver­ing gaze of his new doc­u­men­tary, Human, encour­age view­ers to per­ceive his 2,020 sub­jects as equals in the sto­ry­telling realm.

There’s a deep diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ences on dis­play here, arranged for max­i­mum res­o­nance.

The qui­et­ly con­tent first wife of a polyg­a­mist mar­riage is fol­lowed by a polyamorous fel­low, whose uncon­ven­tion­al lifestyle is a source of both tor­ment and joy.

There’s a death row inmate. A lady so con­fi­dent she appears with her hair in curlers.

Where on earth did he find them?

His sub­jects hail from 60 coun­tries. Arthus-Bertrand obvi­ous­ly went out of his way to be inclu­sive, result­ing in a wide spec­trum of gen­der and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions, and sub­jects with dis­abil­i­ties, one a Hiroshi­ma sur­vivor.

Tears, laugh­ter, con­flict­ing emo­tions… stu­dents of the­ater and psy­chi­a­try would do well to book­mark this page. There’s a lot one can glean from observ­ing these sub­jects’ unguard­ed faces.

The project was inspired by an impromp­tu chat with a Malian farmer. The direc­tor was impressed by the frank­ness with which this stranger spoke of his life and dreams:

I dreamed of a film in which the pow­er of words would res­onate with the beau­ty of the world. Putting the ills of human­i­ty at the heart of my work—poverty, war, immi­gra­tion, homophobia—I made cer­tain choic­es. Com­mit­ted, polit­i­cal choic­es. But the men talked to me about every­thing: their dif­fi­cul­ty in grow­ing as well as their love and hap­pi­ness. This rich­ness of the human word lies at the heart of Human. 

In Vol­ume I, above, the inter­vie­wees con­sid­er love, women, work, and pover­ty. Vol­ume II deals with war, for­give­ness, homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, fam­i­ly, and the after­life. Hap­pi­ness, edu­ca­tion, dis­abil­i­ty, immi­gra­tion, cor­rup­tion, and the mean­ing of life are the con­cerns of the third vol­ume .

The inter­view seg­ments are bro­ken up by aer­i­al sequences, rem­i­nis­cent of the images in Arthus-Bertrand’s book, The Earth from Above. It’s a good reminder of how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.

Appro­pri­ate­ly, giv­en the sub­ject mat­ter, and the director’s long­time inter­est in envi­ron­men­tal issues, the film­ing and pro­mo­tion were accom­plished in the most sus­tain­able way, with the sup­port of the Good­Plan­et Foun­da­tion and the Unit­ed Car­bon Action pro­gram. It would be love­ly for all human­i­ty if this is a fea­ture of film­mak­ing going for­ward.

The Google Cul­tur­al Insti­tute has a col­lec­tion of relat­ed mate­r­i­al, from the mak­ing of the sound­track to behind-the-scenes rem­i­nis­cences of the inter­view team.

Human will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

Richard Dawkins Explains Why There Was Nev­er a First Human Being

Biol­o­gy That Makes Us Tick: Free Stan­ford Course by Robert Sapol­sky

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her new play, Fawn­book, opens in New York City lat­er this fall. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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