How Jim Jarmusch Gets Creative Ideas from William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies

As the nameless assassin protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control makes his way through Spain, he meets several different, similarly mysterious figures, each time at a different café. Each time he orders two espressos — not a double espresso, but two espressos in separate cups. Each time his contact arrives and asks, in Spanish, whether he speaks Spanish, to which he responds that he doesn’t. Each conversation that follows ends with an exchange of matchboxes, and each one the assassin receives contains a slip of paper with a coded message, which he eats after reading, containing directions to his next destination.

All these elements remain the same while everything else changes, a structure that showcases Jarmusch’s interest in theme and variation as clearly as anything he’s ever made. “Some call it repetition,” he says in the page above from fashion and culture biannual Another Man, “but I like to think of the repetition of the same action or dialogue in a film as a variation. The accumulation of variations is important to me too.” But to enrich the repetition and variations, he also makes use of randomness, “the idea of finding things as you go along and finding links between things you weren’t even looking to link.”

Jarmusch credits this way of thinking to William S. Burroughs (author, incidentally, of an essay called “The Limits of Control”), and specifically the “cut-up” technique, which Burroughs and the artist Brion Gysin came up with, literally cutting up texts in order to then “mix words and phrases and chapters together in a random way.” He’s also found a source of randomness in the Oblique Strategies, the deck of cards published in the 1970s by artist and music producer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt. “You just pick one card and it might say something like, ‘Listen from another room.’ One of my favorite cards says, ‘Emphasize repetitions.'” That last comes as no surprise, and he surely also appreciates the one that says, “Repetition is a form of change.”

Those who know both the Oblique Strategies and Jarmusch’s filmography — from his breakout indie hit Stranger Than Paradise to recent work like Paterson, the story of a bus-driving poet in William Carlos Williams’ hometown — could think of many that apply to his signature cinematic style: “Disconnect from desire,” “Emphasize the flaws,” “Use ‘unqualified’ people,” “Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities” (or indeed “Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics”). His next project, which will feature regular collaborators Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton as well as such newcomers to the Jarmusch fold as former teen pop idol Selena Gomez, should offer another satisfying set of variations on his usual themes. And given that it’s about zombies, it will no doubt come with a strong dose of randomness as well.

via Dark Shark

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How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Japanese Musicians Turn Obsolete Machines Into Musical Instruments: Cathode Ray Tube TVs, Overhead Projectors, Reel-to-Reel Tape Machines & More

In the 1940s and 50s, experimental composers like Halim El-Dabh, Pierre Schaeffer, and Pierre Henry began making experimental compositions that Schaeffer would call musique concrete. They used tape recorders, phonographs, microphones and other analog electro-acoustic devices to create music, as Henry put it, from “non-musical sounds.” These techniques became mainstays of more familiar audio art, such as the radio and television sound designs of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. With the advent of synthesizers, electronic music overtook these sound experiments, just as other new technologies replaced the playback and recording devices used to make them.

A Japanese group called Open Reel Ensemble recalls this legacy of musique concrete, deploying reel-to-reel tape machines, cathode ray tube TVs, overhead projectors, and other analog technology to make 21st century music with “non-musical sounds.” Headed by programmer-turned-composer Ei Wada, the group embraces a very different compositional philosophy than the experimental electro-acoustic composers of the past, who worked in reaction to European classical music, opposing “concrete” sounds to abstract musical ideas. Wada, on the other hand, was first inspired by hearing a gamelan ensemble at a performance in Indonesia as a very small child.

Given a collection of 70s reel-to-reel recorders by a family friend, he attempted to re-create the polyphony of those traditional Javanese gong ensembles. He has, writes Motherboard, “been on a quest to reproduce otherworldly sounds with tech that nobody wants.” But he freely combines these outdated machines with contemporary mixers, amplifiers, light shows, beats, and tempos. Formed with friends Haruka Yoshida and Masaru Yoshida, Wada’s Open Reel Ensemble might be compared to both the avant-garde experiments of composers like John Cage and the popular experiments of hip hop turntablists, both of whom used analog technology in innovative, unconventional ways.

Some of the group’s work is a kind of experimental dance music, as you can see in the live performance further up; some is more ambient sound art, as in Wada’s solo ventilation fan performance above, with implicit commentary on Japan’s economy and the disposable nature of consumer technology. “All these tech objects are a symbol of Japan’s economic growth,” says Wada. “but they also get thrown away in great numbers. It’s good to not just say bye to things that are thrown away but to instill old things with new meaning, and celebrate their unique points.”

The detourning of technology that would otherwise end up as landfill requires some ingenuity, given the increasing rarity of such instruments. In the performance above, we see Wada play with invented devices his group calls in English the “Exhaust Fancillator” and in Japanese a kankisenthizer, a neologism formed from the word for ventilation fan. “We used laser cutters and 3D printers to design the ventilation fans,” he says. This willingness to improvise, invent, and repurpose whatever works makes for some fascinating experiments that are as much performance art as sound composition.

In the Wada performance above from 2010, he uses old tube TVs as drums, hitting the screens to trigger both sound and light effects and bringing to mind not only the sound art of the early 20th century, but also the 1980s video installations of Nam June Paik, fully immersive experiences that foreground their technological artifice even as they produce an inexplicable kind of magic.

via This is Colossal 

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

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

What turns people into science-fiction fans? Many enter through the gateway of Star Trek, an early 1960s television series “set on the worlds visited by a giant Spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and on the ship itself. Its crew is on a mission to explore new worlds and ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before.'” Though “not particularly successful in the ratings,” Star Trek nevertheless “attracted a hard core of devoted fans, ‘Trekkies,’ who made up in passionate enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers.” Perhaps creator Gene Roddenberry’s signature “blend of the mildly fantastic with the reassuringly familiar, and his use of an on the whole very likeable cast, attracted viewers precisely because its exoticism was manageable and unthreatening.”

Those quotes come from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a free online resource featuring more than 17,500 entries explaining all things sci-fi, whether new or old, mainstream or obscure. Some of its pages deal with works of doubted status as science fiction at all: Star Wars, for example, “an entertaining pastiche that draws upon comic strips, old movie serials, Westerns, James Bond stories, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Errol Flynn swashbucklers and movies about World War Two” whose “gratifyingly spectacular – at the time – special effects and martial music hypnotized the audience into uncritical acceptance of the basically absurd, deliberately Pulp-magazine-style conflict between Good and Evil.”

That sort of thing is a long way indeed from the work of, say, a science-fiction grandmaster like Isaac Asimov, who wrote prolifically in “the clear unerring voice of a man speaking reason, uttering tales about how to solve the true world.” Some readers of Open Culture might well have found their way into science fiction through Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which despite its “many narrative flaws” remains “one of the most important sf movies made,” having showed “almost for the first time – though fans had spent years hoping – how visually sophisticated sf in film form can be.”

Blade Runner‘s entry includes, of course, a reference to the script’s basis on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, “a figure who helps define by contrast those identified in this Encyclopedia as Mainstream Writers of SF: writers, that is, whose comprehension of the significant literatures of the last century has sometimes seemed less than full. An author like Thomas Pynchon, who is not described in this encyclopedia as mainstream, will understand what he owes Dick; a mainstream author like Margaret Atwood has worked to make it clear that she does not.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, “the most ambitious sf film of the 1960s and perhaps ever,” has also done its part to propagate a sci-fi way of looking at the world, exploring as it does “the idea of human deficiency in the twenty-first century.” Kubrick developed it in collaboration with novelist Arthur C. Clarke, another of the genre’s titans, indeed “the very personification of sf. Never a ‘literary’ author, he nonetheless always wrote with lucidity and candour, often with grace, sometimes with a cold, sharp evocativeness that produced some of the most memorable images in sf.”

Other entries tell of writers not so closely associated with traditional science fiction but highly regarded and enduringly influential in the wider world of speculative literature: Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, with his “‘sense of ecstatic enclosedness in the Word Incarnate’ that may be uniquely intense in world literature,” or J.G. Ballard, “revered (and detested) for the corrosively inescapable vision of the late twentieth-century world, which his stories seemed not so much to reflect in a distorting mirror as (alarmingly) to reflect, for the first time, without defensive evasions.”

“Originally published in physical form in 1979,” writes Lithub’s MH Rowe, “the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction won a Hugo award for best nonfiction book in 1980. A second edition followed in 1993, with a CD-ROM supplement a few years later. The encyclopedia won another Hugo in 1994, and a decade later began its migration online, where it launched in 2011 as a precursor to its current digital form” — albeit a far cry from a crowdsourced, objectivity-oriented resource like Wikipedia. “Making no effort to avoid the partisanship that’s a hallmark of being a fan, the SFE possesses the kind of purity you can only get from corrupt endeavors. It’s by turns cranky, self-doubting, and ultra-confident, but it couldn’t be more deeply engaged with the genre of science fiction.” And if anything characterizes science-fiction fandom more than deep engagement, even the genre’s most powerful imaginations haven’t dreamed of it.

via Lithub

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Conserve the Sound, an Online Museum Preserves the Sounds of Past Technologies–from Typewriters, Electric Shavers and Cassette Recorders, to Cameras & Classic Nintendo

The unmistakable zip and whirr of a rotary phone, the ungodly squeal of dial-up modems, the satisfying thunk of a cartridge in a classic Nintendo console, a VCR rewinding, the click-clack sound of a Walkman’s buttons…. I date myself in saying that these sounds immediately send me back to various moments in my childhood with Proustian immersion. The sense of smell is most closely linked to memory, but hearing cannot be far behind given how sound embeds itself in time, and most especially the sounds of technologies, which are by nature fated for obsolescence. A museum-quality aura surrounds the Walkman and the first iPods. These are triumphs of consumer design, but only one of them makes distinctive mechanical noises.

As analog recedes, it can seem that noisy tech in general becomes more and more dated. It is hard to hear the rubbing of thumbs and fingers across screens and touchpads. Voice commands make buttons and switches redundant. How much tech from now will one day feature in Conserve the Sound, the “online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds”?

Its collection gives the impression of a bygone age, quaint in its dozens of examples of mechanical ingenuity. The visual juxtaposition of handheld film cameras, typewriters, car window handles, electric shavers, boom boxes, stopwatches, and so on has the effect of making these things seem all of a piece, assorted artifacts in a great hall of wonders called “the Sound the 20th Century.”

At the top of the site’s “Sound” page, timeline navigation allows users to visit every decade from the 1910s to the 2000s, a category that contains only two objects. Other displays are more plentiful, and colorful. The 1960s, for example showcases the incredibly sexy red Schreibmaschine Olivetti Dora further up. It sounds as sleek and sophisticated as it looks. The virtual display case of the 30s holds the sounds of a twin-engine propeller plane and a handful of beautiful moving and still cameras, like the Fotokamera Purma Special above. It also features the humble and enduring library stamp, a sound I pine for as I slide books under the self-checkout laser scanner at my local branch.

Given just the few images here, you can already see that Conserve the Sound is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears, each object lovingly photographed against an austere white background. In order for the full nostalgic effect to work, however, you need to visit these pages and hit “play.” It even magically works with objects from before our times, given how prominently their sounds feature in film and audio recordings that define the periods. You’ve likely also noticed how many of these products are of European origin, and many of them, like the robotic head of the Kassettenrekorder Weltron Model 2004, are perhaps unfamiliar to many consumers from elsewhere in the world.

Conserve the Sound is a European project, funded by the Film & Medienstiftung NRW in Germany, thus its selection skews toward European-made products. But the sound of a fan or an adding machine in Germany is the sound of a fan or adding machine in Chile, China, Kenya, or Nebraska. See a trailer for the project at the top of the post, and below, one of the many interviews in which German public figures, scholars, librarians, technicians, and students answer questions about their mnemonic associations with technological sound. In this interview, radio presenter Bianca Hauda describes one of her favorite old sounds from a favorite old machine, a 1970s portable cassette recorder.

via WFMU

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

NASA Captures the World on Fire

“The world is on fire. Or so it appears in this image from NASA’s Worldview. The red points overlaid on the image designate those areas that by using thermal bands detect actively burning fires.”

The image and caption above come from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. On a related page, they go into some more detail, explaining why good parts of Africa, Chile, Brazil and North America are aflame this summer. Droughts, extreme temperatures, agricultural practices–they’re all part of a worrying picture. View NASA’s picture in a larger format here.

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via Atlas Obscura

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M.I.T. Computer Program Alarmingly Predicts in 1973 That Civilization Will End by 2040

In 1704, Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world sometime around (or after, “but not before”) the year 2060, using a strange series of mathematical calculations. Rather than study what he called the “book of nature,” he took as his source the supposed prophecies of the book of Revelation. While such predictions have always been central to Christianity, it is startling for modern people to look back and see the famed astronomer and physicist indulging them. For Newton, however, as Matthew Stanley writes at Science, “laying the foundation of modern physics and astronomy was a bit of a sideshow. He believed that his truly important work was deciphering ancient scriptures and uncovering the nature of the Christian religion.”

Over three hundred years later, we still have plenty of religious doomsayers predicting the end of the world with Bible codes. But in recent times, their ranks have seemingly been joined by scientists whose only professed aim is interpreting data from climate research and sustainability estimates given population growth and dwindling resources. The scientific predictions do not draw on ancient texts or theology, nor involve final battles between good and evil. Though there may be plagues and other horrible reckonings, these are predictably causal outcomes of over-production and consumption rather than divine wrath. Yet by some strange fluke, the science has arrived at the same apocalyptic date as Newton, plus or minus a decade or two.

The “end of the world” in these scenarios means the end of modern life as we know it: the collapse of industrialized societies, large-scale agricultural production, supply chains, stable climates, nation states…. Since the late sixties, an elite society of wealthy industrialists and scientists known as the Club of Rome (a frequent player in many conspiracy theories) has foreseen these disasters in the early 21st century. One of the sources of their vision is a computer program developed at MIT by computing pioneer and systems theorist Jay Forrester, whose model of global sustainability, one of the first of its kind, predicted civilizational collapse in 2040. “What the computer envisioned in the 1970s has by and large been coming true,” claims Paul Ratner at Big Think.

Those predictions include population growth and pollution levels, “worsening quality of life,” and “dwindling natural resources.” In the video at the top, see Australia’s ABC explain the computer’s calculations, “an electronic guided tour of our global behavior since 1900, and where that behavior will lead us,” says the presenter. The graph spans the years 1900 to 2060. “Quality of life” begins to sharply decline after 1940, and by 2020, the model predicts, the metric contracts to turn-of-the-century levels, meeting the sharp increase of the “Zed Curve” that charts pollution levels. (ABC revisited this reporting in 1999 with Club of Rome member Keith Suter.)

You can probably guess the rest—or you can read all about it in the 1972 Club of Rome-published report Limits to Growth, which drew wide popular attention to Jay Forrester’s books Urban Dynamics (1969) and World Dynamics (1971). Forrester, a figure of Newtonian stature in the worlds of computer science and management and systems theory—though not, like Newton, a Biblical prophecy enthusiast—more or less endorsed his conclusions to the end of his life in 2016. In one of his last interviews, at the age of 98, he told the MIT Technology Review, “I think the books stand all right.” But he also cautioned against acting without systematic thinking in the face of the globally interrelated issues the Club of Rome ominously calls “the problematic”:

Time after time … you’ll find people are reacting to a problem, they think they know what to do, and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is making a problem. This is a vicious [cycle], because as things get worse, there is more incentive to do things, and it gets worse and worse.

Where this vague warning is supposed to leave us is uncertain. If the current course is dire, “unsystematic” solutions may be worse? This theory also seems to leave powerfully vested human agents (like Exxon’s executives) wholly unaccountable for the coming collapse. Limits to Growth—scoffed at and disparagingly called “neo-Malthusian” by a host of libertarian critics—stands on far surer evidentiary footing than Newton’s weird predictions, and its climate forecasts, notes Christian Parenti, “were alarmingly prescient.” But for all this doom and gloom it’s worth bearing in mind that models of the future are not, in fact, the future. There are hard times ahead, but no theory, no matter how sophisticated, can account for every variable.

via Big Think

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

V.S. Naipaul Creates a List of 7 Rules for Beginning Writers

Photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, via Wikimedia Commons

As even his harshest critics admitted, V.S. Naipaul knew how to write. The death earlier this month of the author of A House for Mr Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival got readers thinking again about the nature of his art. A Trinidad-born Indian who went to England on a government scholarship to Oxford, he eventually achieved a literary mastery of the English language that few of his peers in England — or anyone else there, for that matter — could hope to match.

Like any celebrated creator, Naipaul has long had his imitators. But instead of trying to replicate what they read in his books, they would do better to replicate how he made himself a writer. “It took a lot of work to do it,” Naipaul once told an interviewer. “In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat.’” Amitava Kumar quotes that line in an essay on his own development as a writer, influenced not just by Naipaul’s memories of starting out but Naipaul’s seven rules.

“There was a pen-and-ink portrait of Naipaul on the wall,” writes Kumar about his first day working at the Indian newspaper Tehelka. “High above someone’s computer was a sheet of paper that said ‘V. S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners.'” Tehelka reporters had asked the famed writer “if he could give them some basic suggestions for improving their language. Naipaul had come up with some rules. He had fussed over their formulation, corrected them, and then faxed back the corrections.” Kumar decided to follow the rules and found they were “a wonderful antidote to my practice of using academic jargon, and they made me conscious of my own writing habits. I was discovering language as if it were a new country.”

Naipaul’s list of rules for beginning writers runs as follows:

Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

If you’ve read other writers’ tips, especially those we’ve featured before here on Open Culture, some of Naipaul’s rules may sound familiar. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” says George Orwell. “The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses,” says Nietzsche. “The adverb is not your friend,” says Stephen King. Naipaul’s rules may strike you as overly restrictive, but bear in mind that he composed them for newspapermen looking to make improvements in their prose, and recommended following them for six months as a kind of course of treatment to rid themselves of “bad language habits.”

The seasoned writer, however, can work according to rules of his own. Naipaul once explained this in no uncertain terms to Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta. “It happens that English — the history of the language — was my subject at Oxford,” he wrote in a letter reprimanding the house for its overzealous copy editing, laboriously adherent to French-style “court rules,” of one of his manuscripts. “The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer.”

via Lithub

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Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writing with Style (1882)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The New York Public Library Puts Classic Stories on Instagram: Start with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis Soon

I’d be happy if I could think that the role of the library was sustained and even enhanced in the age of the computer. —Bill Gates

The New York Public Library excels at keeping a foot in both worlds, particularly when it comes to engaging younger readers.

Visitors from all over the world make the pilgrimage to see the real live Winnie-the-Pooh and friends in the main branch’s hopping children’s center.

And now anyone with a smartphone and an Instagram account can “check out” their digital age take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandno library card required. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Working with the design firm Mother, the library has found a way to make great page-turning use of the Instagram Stories platformmore commonly used to share blow-by-blow photographic evidence of road trips, restaurant outings, and hash-tagged weddings.

The Wonderland experience remains primarily text-based.

In other words, sorry, harried caregivers! There’s no handing your phone off to the pre-reading set this time around!

No trippy Disney teacups…

Sir John Tenniel’s classic illustrations won’t be springing to animated life. Instead, you’ll find conceptual artist Magoz’s bright minimalist dingbats of keyholes, teacups, and pocket watches in the lower right hand corner. Tap your screen in rapid succession and they function as a crowd-pleasing, all ages flip book.

Elsewhere, animation allows the text to take on clever shapes or reveal itself line by linea pleasantly theatrical, Cheshire Cat like approach to Carroll’s impudent poetry.

Remember the famous scene where the Duchess and the Cook force Alice to mind a baby who turns into a pig? Grab some friends and hunch over the phone for a communal read aloud! (It’s on page 75 of part 1)

Speak roughly to your little boy,

 And beat him when he sneezes:

 He only does it to annoy,

 Because he knows it teases


 (In which the cook and the baby joined)

 ‘Wow! wow! wow!’ 

Navigating this new media can be a bit confusing for those whose social media fluency is not quite up to speed, but it’s not hard once you get the hang of the controls.

Tapping the right side of the screen turns the page.

Tapping left goes back a page.

And keeping a thumb (or any finger, actually) on the screen will keep the page as is until you’re ready to move on. You’ll definitely want to do this on animated pages like the one cited above. Pretend you’re playing the flute and you’ll save a lot of frustration.

The library plans to introduce your phone to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis via Instagram Stories over the next couple of months. Like Alice, both works are in the public domain and share an appropriate common theme: transformation.

Use these links to go directly to part 1 and part 2 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on Instagram Stories. Both parts are currently pinned to the top of the library’s Instagram account.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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