In London, the coffeehouse offered the threat not of male homosexuality but rather of a different kind of dangerous male-on-male behavior, namely "wasting time." Coffee itself was often thought to be disgusting — a few of the names used by detractors were "syrup of soot," "a foreign fart," "a sister of the common sewer," "resembling the river Styx," "Pluto's diet-drink," "horsepond liquor" — but even for those who thought coffee led to medical problems, especially impotence, it was not as threatening as the spaces where it was drunk. Some perceived the coffeehouse as pure waste, a corrupting influence on London society, while others celebrated it with a strange enthusiasm.– Writing in Cafés: A Personal History by food historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft.
The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps is filling in gaps by starting a new podcast feed [iTunes link] dedicated to the history of philosophic traditions other than the one that started with the Ancient Greeks. The first tradition covered will be Indian philosophy, but the series will move on to Africa and China, and perhaps elsewhere as well. The primary author of the India episodes is Prof. Jonardon Ganeri but Prof. Peter Adamson will co-write, present each episode, and probably come up with illustrative examples involving giraffes, Buster Keaton, and his non-existent trapeze-artist sister. [Adamson's main History of Philosophy podcast previously and subsequently]
Cotton Mather's career is defined by two episodes of mass panic. In 1721 he found himself the target of public anger in Boston when he advocated for small pox inoculation after inoculating his own children on the advice of his West African slave, Onesimus. Three decades earlier, in 1692, he was one of the instigators and defenders of the Salem Witch Trials. For more on the latter, visit the comprehensive Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive (previously).
The British Movietone archive of nearly fifty thousand newsreel films is now on YouTube. Movietone started making newsreels in 1929 and stopped fifty years later. You can find clips about nearly any subject, women's rights, space exploration, and sports. The archive has a number of playlists, including one where archivist Jenny Hammerton presents clips she finds interesting. But, I hear you say, do they have cute cat videos? Yes. Also, a parachuting dog and jokes about Hitler. Also now availabe, the Associated Press Archive of more than 170 thousand video clips. The Guardian has a list of interesting clips from both archives.
The Stonehill Jewish Song Collection is a website by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance containing songs sung by Jewish refugees in Hotel Marseilles in New York in 1948. All songs include the original lyrics and translations into English. Not all the songs have been digitized and translated already, but there is a variety of themes already, with more on the way soon. The songs were collected and recorded by Ben Stonehill who went to the refugees and asked them to sing anything they like.
The two sides in the Cold War, finding each other irresistible, ended up in a contrapuntal relationship where, as George Urban put it, ‘they marched in negative step, but in step all the same.’ They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags? Never mind the dragnet surveillance, the burglaries, the smearing of reputations, the bugging of public telephone boxes, cafés, hotels, banks, trade unions, private homes, all this legitimised by the thesis that everyone is a potential subversive until proven otherwise – the problem is that the defenders of the realm took on the symptoms of the disease they were meant to cure.– In the essay Stuck on the Flypaper historian and journalist Frances Stonor Saunders goes through the recently released MI5 file on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm [previously] to explain how the British secret service surveilled and interfered with the lives of British citizens during World War II and the early part of the Cold War.
The Risala of Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a tenth century travel narrative of an emissary of the Caliph to the Iltäbär of the Volga Bulgars. He described his encounters with many peoples on his journey, but the Risala is most famous for his account of the Rus and their funeral rites, who probably were Norse people who had settled along the Volga. If these were indeed the Norse, ibn Fadlan gives one of the most detailed contemporary descriptions of the Norse before they started writing down their own stories some centuries later. He was not the only Muslim to have encounters with the Norse, as Judith Gabriel explains in Among the Norse Tribes. Another 10th Century description of the Norse was by the Jewish al-Tartushi from Al-Andalus. Michael Crichton used the Risala as the basis for his novel Eaters of the Dead, which later was made into the movie The 13th Warrior. Both book and film left something to be desired in terms of historical accuracy.
Reaching for inspiration, Haskel based his first program on the prevailing trend in the video game market: sporty, ping-pong type games popularized by the [Magnavox] Odyssey and Atari's Pong arcade machine. The games made a big impact on Haskel, who vividly recalls the first time he saw the Odyssey in action during a visit to a department store. "I was going to see the furniture department, and there was a little kid playing Odyssey," recalls Haskel. "I sat down and played with him for probably an hour. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I couldn't get that out of my mind."—The Untold Story of the Invention of the Game Cartridge by Benj Edwards of Vintage Computing and Gaming, who started researching the subject after interviewing one of the people involved, Jerry Lawson, in 2009.
Alkebu-lan 1260 AH (higher resolution) is an alternative history map of Africa in AD 1844, taking as its point of departure from our timeline an even deadlier medieval Black Death, killing almost all Europeans. It is made by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon, who explains some of his sources and thinking in this Prezi presentation. Cyon's thinking about alternative history is partly inspired by playing the computer game Civilization, and he has made a mod where you can play the medieval kingdom of Kongo
It's said that even a century and a half after Montaigne's death, when the marquis d'Argenson subtitled a book with that word, Essays, he was shouted down for impertinence. Not a context in which many people would find themselves tempted to self-identify as "essayists." When the French do finally start using the word, in the early nineteenth century, it's solely in reference to English writers who've taken up the banner, and more specifically to those who write for magazines and newspapers. "The authors of periodical essays," wrote a French critic in 1834, "or as they're commonly known, essayists, represent in English letters a class every bit as distinct as the Novellieri in Italy." A curiosity, then: the essay is French, but essayists are English. What can it mean?—The Ill-defined Plot is an essay about the history of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
The story of Dr Zhivago’s publication is, like the novel itself, a cat’s cradle, an eternal zigzag of plotlines, coincidences, inconsistencies and maddening disappearances. The book was always destined to become a ‘succès de scandale’, in Berlin’s words, but the machinations and competing energies that went into seeing it into print, on the one hand, and trying to stop it going to print, on the other, make it the perfect synecdoche for that feint, counterfeint round of pugilism we call the Cold War.—The Writer and the Valet by Frances Stonor Saunders tells the story of Isaiah Berlin's part in publishing Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago while Michael Scammell details the CIA's role.
Shakespeare's Restless World is a BBC radio series (podcast link) where the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, explores England during the lifetime of William Shakespeare as represented by twenty objects, much in the way of his earlier A History of the World in a 100 Objects (previously). The focus is on Shakespeare's plays and how they were understood by his contemporaries. The series was also published as a book.
Íslandskort is a digital collection of historical maps of Iceland put online in high quality pdf-files and jpegs by the National Library of Iceland. Here are a few of my favorites: 1, 2, 3. You can either browse a timeline of all the maps or browse categories such as first maps of Iceland, Iceland on sea charts in the 17th and 18th centuries and other maps, which includes maps of Frisland (1, 2), a phantom island that bedeviled cartographers for centuries.
Harry Shearer reenacts the moments preceding Nixon's resignation speech as captured by a running television camera. If it seems weird and stylized, the actual footage seems even weirder. The reenactment is part of a television series, Nixon's the One, created by comedian Shearer and Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler. Andrea DenHoed writes about the TV show and the strange scene before the speech in The New Yorker.
Philby's boss was Sir Stewart Menzies, who, we are told, "rode to hounds, mixed with royalty, never missed a day at Ascot, drank a great deal, and kept his secrets buttoned up behind a small, fierce mustache. He preferred women to men and horses to both." Menzies was an amateur at a time when his adversaries were professionals. Philby's fellow Soviet spy Donald Maclean was a mess. But since he was a mess with the right accent and background he easily found a home in the British spy service. At one point, Macintyre says, Maclean "got drunk, smashed up the Cairo flat of two secretaries at the U.S. embassy, ripped up their underwear, and hurled a large mirror off the wall, breaking a large bath in two. He was sent home, placed under the care of a Harley Street psychiatrist, and then, amazingly, after a short period of treatment, promoted to head the American desk at the Foreign Office."Kim Philby, the Soviet spy who infiltrated MI6, is the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker. Gladwell argues that Philby's story is not about spying but "the hazards of mistrust." He is interviewed on a New Yorker podcast about his article. Gladwell's article is also a review of Ben Macintyre's book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. Gladwell reviewed Macintyre's previous book, Operation Mincemeat and argued that spy agencies might be more trouble than they're worth.
The BBC will be covering World War One in great detail over the next four years. They've already started, with podcasts, interactive guides, online courses, programs new and old plus much, much more. Perhaps it's best to start at the beginning, with Professor Margaret MacMillan's Countdown to World War One (podcast link) or the account of her fellow historian Christopher Clark, Month of Madness. Of course, how the war started is still contested by historians, as recounted in The Great War of Words. The latter two are also part of the main WWI podcast. Or you can dive into the Music and Culture section, go through an A-Z guide or look at comics drawn by modern cartoonists.
On Sept. 13, 1848, at around 4:30 p.m., the time of day when the mind might start wandering, a railroad foreman named Phineas Gage filled a drill hole with gunpowder and turned his head to check on his men. It was the last normal moment of his life. Other victims in the annals of medicine are almost always referred to by initials or pseudonyms. Not Gage: His is the most famous name in neuroscience. How ironic, then, that we know so little else about the man—and that much of what we think we know, especially about his life unraveling after his accident, is probably bunk.—Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient by Sam Kean.
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a remarkable 14th Century book which tells the autobiographical story of Sir John Mandeville's travels from England to Jerusalem and beyond to Asia. The only problem is that the book "had been a household word in eleven languages and for five centuries before it was ascertained that Sir John never lived, that his travels never took place, and that his personal experiences, long the test of others' veracity, were compiled out of every possible authority, going back to Pliny, if not further." The book was very popular for many centuries and was illustrated many times. For more about the book there is the introduction to a recent scholarly Middle English version and an illuminating podcast interview [iTunes link] with Professor Anthony Bale, the translator of a new version of the "defective" version of the book, which was the best known version for centuries. The interview goes into the many errors and fantasias of Mandeville but also puts the work in the context of its time and place.
[Paul] De Man may have been a scoundrel who found a career teaching a certain method of reading, but that method of reading does not turn people into scoundrels. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the people who studied with de Man wouldn’t run a red light—forget about altering a transcript or voluntarily collaborating with Nazis. If there is an ethical takeaway from what de Man taught, it would be self-doubt.In The New Yorker Louis Menand attempts to find common ground between Paul De Man's methods of literary criticism and his sordid life in a long review of Evelyn Barish's The Double Life of Paul de Man. The biography has been criticized by Peter Brooks, De Man's former student, and was reviewed unfavorably by Susan Rubin Suleiman in The New York Times.
In 2002 Henry Louis Gates jr. published The Bondwoman's Narrative. It was the first publication of a novel written in the 1850s by a former slave who wrote under the name Hannah Crafts. The original manuscript has been digitized by Yale's Beinecke Library. The book caused a splash at the time, sold well and was reviewed widely, including an essay by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books. The identity of Hannah Crafts was uncertain, which cast a slight shadow on its provenance, but Prof. Gregg Hecimovich discovered the writer's true identity. Her name was Hannah Bond and after escaping slavery she became a teacher in New Jersey. Journalist Paul Berman further fills in the story of Colonel Wheeler, the slaveowner whose family was depicted in The Bondwoman's Narrative. Wheeler was the US ambassador to Nicaragua in the 1850s and played a major part in the administration of General Walker, the American who became a short-lived dictator of Nicaragua and tried to set it up as a slave state.
Revolutions is a new weekly podcast by Mike Duncan, who is best known for the History of Rome podcast, though he also writes comics. There are two episodes so far of Revolutions, a short introduction to the series and one on Charles Stuart, king of England.
That Homer used the epithet "wine-dark" to describe the sea in the Iliad and Odyssey so puzzled 19th Century English Prime Minister William Gladstone that he thought the Ancient Greeks must have been colorblind. Since then many other solutions have been proposed. Scientists have argued that Ancient Greek wine was blue and some scholars have put forward the case that Homer was describing the sea at sunset. Radiolab devoted a segment to the exploration of this issue, saying that Gladstone was partly right. Another interpretation is that the Ancient Greeks focused on different aspects of color from us. Classicist William Harris' short essay about purple in Homer and Iliad translator Caroline Alexander's longer essay The Wine-like Sea make the case for this interpretation.
It doesn't matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do. But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different. It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.—Bugger: Maybe the Real State Secret Is that Spies Aren't Very Good at Their Jobs and Don't Know Very Much About the World by Adam Curtis. It's about the checkered history of the MI5.
New technology has changed scholarship. Whereas previous generations of experts have sought to reconcile the differences between quarto and Folio, current thinking highlights the difficult relationship between the various incarnations of Shakespeare's texts, something made easier by the availability of rare Shakespeare quartos in digital databases such as Early English Books Online. The scholar Eleanor Prosser thus detects "considerable evidence" for the elimination of metrical and stylistic "irregularities" in the Folio: short lines are lengthened to 10 syllables, verbs agreed with subjects, double negatives resolved. In addition, a range of unusual words are added to the text, words not used elsewhere by Shakespeare. Prosser concludes: "somewhere behind the Folio … lies a conscientious and exacting editor with literary pretensions", albeit one "more experienced in the transcription of literary than of theatrical works". But who was it?—Who edited Shakespeare? by Saul Frampton. [more inside]
Robert Penn Warren's book Who Speaks for the Negro? was a collection of interviews with various men and women involved in the Civil Rights Movement published in 1965. Vanderbilt University has made all the interviews available as audio and transcripts, taken from the original reel-to-reel recordings. Among the interviewees were Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Septima Poinsette Clark, Ralph Ellison, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. On the page for each interview there are links to related documents, such as letters, photos and contemporary news articles.
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records is a radio series on BBC written and narrated by Stuart Maconie. Each episode focuses on one particular pop song and tells the story of the song as well as what social trends it mirrored, for instance the episode on Telstar by The Tornadoes focuses on the technological progress, especially in space travel and music, and the story of songwriter and record producer Joe Meek. 25 episodes have been broadcast, including ones on Dizzee Rascal's Bonkers and 21st Century Britain, Cornershop's Brimful of Asha and the British-Asian experience , and Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'aime and sex. There are 25 more to come. There is also a blog and profiles of the songs already discussed. [Previously on MeFi]
Memory Insufficient is a free webzine edited by Zoya Street dedicated to articles about computer games and history. The first issue is called Women's Histories in Games [pdf], with a feature on female pirates. Asian Histories in Games [pdf] is the second issue, the feature being about ken, the Japanese game known as rock, paper, scissors in English. The upcoming issue will be devoted histories of gender and sexual diversity in games. [via Flash of Steel]
Living Well Is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins is a classic New Yorker profile of Gerald and Sara Murphy, central figures of the Lost Generation social circle in 1920s France. F. Scott Fitzgerald created Dick and Nicole Diver, the central couple of Tender Is the Night, by merging himself and his wife Zelda, with the Murphys. Gerald was a painter of note (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4), whose masterpiece has been lost. After seven years of painting, Murphy stopped, and never restarted, for a host of reasons, from the illness of his son to his closeted gayness. But the Murphys are probably best known for "the special quality of their life." They hosted parties and lived in a villa on the Mediterranean coast and were both painted by many artists, including Pablo Picasso. They were the subject of a recent biography and an essay collection.
The Value of Culture is a five part BBC radio series by Melvyn Bragg (which can be downloaded as a podcast) which explores the modern concept of 'culture' from its roots in mid-19th Century Britain, specifically Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (vol. 2), and exploring the discourse and uses of the concept until the present day. There are five episodes, each a little over forty minutes long, focusing in turn on Arnold and the roots of the concept of culture, Tylor and the anthropological conception of culture, C. P. Snow and the 'Two Cultures' debate, mass culture and culture studies, and then ending with a debate on the value of culture today.
Perched high up above the Thames in downtown London every month this past year a different writer has spent four days living in a replica of the Roi des Belges, the boat Marlow travels up the Congo in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Each author would write a short text during their stay "which explores London, rivers, the work of Joseph Conrad, or even all three." They would be visited on the last day by a journalist from The Guardian who recorded them reading their essay, poem or short story. Among the poets, historians and novelists were Adonis, Jeanette Winterson, Teju Cole, Michael Ondaatje and Kamila Shamsie. These recordings, each prefaced by a short interview, are all available on the Guardian website, to stream or download. Below the cut there is a link to each recording, with a short description. [more inside]
What was Of Grammatology about? When Madeleine, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides's campus novel The Marriage Plot, asks a young theory-head this question, she is immediately set straight: 'If it was "about" anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.' That's not so far off. In all three books, Derrida's argument was that Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called 'presence'.—Not in the Mood by Adam Shatz is an essay in The London Review of Books about a new biography of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The review does a good job of explaining Derrida's theories in simple language and putting it in the context of his life, from his childhood as French Jew in Vichy-controlled Algeria to his later years as a globetrotting academic star. For a complimentary perspective on Derrida, you can do worse than starting with these thoughts on his relevance for historians and progressives.
However long it takes for a real victory to be certified—no matter what happens on Election Day, it will be too early to unfurl a "Mission Accomplished" banner—the once ragtag march of lovers has acquired an air of inevitability. Edith Eyde's prophecy is almost fulfilled: gays are more or less regular folk. All the same, many who came out during the Stonewall era are wondering what will be lost as the community sheds its pariah status. They are baffled by the latter-day cult of marriage and the military—emblems of Eisenhower's America that the Stonewall generation joyfully rejected. The gay world is confronting a question with which Jews, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups have long been familiar: the price of assimilation.—Love on the March by Alex Ross. [more inside]
"Some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living."
Musæum Clausum is a catalog of invented books, pictures and antiquities written by 17th Century Englishman Sir Thomas Browne. It is a fantastical and witty meditation on the ravages of time on literature and other works of man. The Musæum Clausum is perhaps the finest example of the invented, or invisible, library, a genre which seems to have originated with Rabelais. The genre has been of special interest to Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog (older posts), where he has written about the invisible libraries of writers such as Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman, H. P. Lovecraft and invisible libraries in video games. The natural medium for invisible libraries might be pictures, and Musæum Clausum inspired a suite of etchings by Erik Desmazieres.
In the first years of the Fifteenth Century Henry III of Castile sent Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo as his ambassador to Samarkand. His journey introduced him to giraffes and many other sights unknown to Europeans of the time. Samarkand was then the center of the largest empire in the world, that of Tamerlane the Great (a.k.a Timur), the last of the nomad conquerors. His capital began as a city of the Sogdians, which became an important center of culture and trade, as is recorded in these 7th Century wall paintings. Samarkand was refashioned by Timur and his descendants, the most famous being the astronomer Ulugh Beg, and the Timurid legacy is still visible in Samarkand. After Timur's death, his empire disintegrated, and soon fell into decline, but left enough of a mark to inspire both Christopher Marlowe and Edgar Allan Poe. The Russian Empire conquered Samarkand in 1868, and the city was documented in the early 20th Century in color photograhs by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii (this one's a favorite) and remained an out of the way place in the Soviet era.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, a German Chief Justice was asked to hear the case of a man who had recently been found guilty according to a law code enacted in the last years of Napoleon's short-lived empire. No state in Europe still used that exact set of laws, but in one small part of the continent, there was an 850 acre plot of land which no state had claimed since the final defeat of Napoleon: Neutral Moresnet, also known as Kelmis, La Calamine or Amikejo. In To Govern, or Not to Govern: Prussia, Neutral Moresnet [pdf, click 'Download This Paper'] Steven Michael Press explains how Neutral Moresnet came to be, and how the Chief Justice ruled in the case. For more information, visit the Neutral Moresnet website. For an account by a visitor, read Unvisited Places of Old Europe by American travel writer Robert Shackleton [starts on page 157]. Finally, here's a podcast lecture by journalist and historian Neal Ascherson called Memories of Amikejo [iTunes link] reflecting on Neutral Moresnet's short existence and whether it tells us something about modern Europe. [Neutral Moresnet previously on MetaFilter]
Perry Anderson's book length three part series on the history of India from the beginnings of its independence movement, through independence and partition into its recent history as a nation-state is the latest in a series of erudite, opinionated and wordy articles in The London Review of Books by the UCLA professor of history and sociology on the modern history of various countries, so far taking in Brazil, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus, the EU, Russia, Taiwan and France. [more inside]
The History of Byzantium is a podcast that picks up where The History of Rome left off, detailing happened to the eastern half of the Roman Empire after the last Western Emperor was dethroned. The podcaster, Robin Pierson, does a good job explaining the often, ahem, byzantine politics and thorny theology of Byzantium. So far there are five episodes, taking us from the chaotic years following the decline and fall of the West into the reign of Anastasius (491-518). [iTunes link]
You're a Monk, I'm a Monk, We're All Monks is a short video introduction to The Monks, a band founded in 1964 by five American soldiers in Germany. They put out only one album, the abrasive, noisy, minimalistic Black Monk Time in 1965, that sounded like nothing else at the time. They also dressed in all-black, shaved monkish tonsures in their hair and wore bits of rope as neckties. In 1966 they appeared on German TV shows Beat-Club and Beat, Beat, Beat, and played three songs on each, Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Choice, Monk Chant, Oh, How to Do Now, Complication, I Can't Get Over You and Cuckoo. Aaron Poehler interviewed The Monks and wrote about their history back in 1999. That same year they got back together to play at the Cavestomp festival. And here The Monks are being interviewed by a hand-puppet on public access television in Chicago. [The Monks previously on MetaFilter]
UCLA neuroscientists have reconstructed Phineas Gage's head injury and mapped out how his brain was affected by the tamping rod that went through it. You can read the full scientific article here. Phineas Gage has become one of the most famous cases in the history of science. A railroad worker who survived having an iron rod go through his brain with subsequent changes in personality. Malcolm McMillan of Deakin University, Australia, has the great Phineas Gage Information Page, which includes his story and a page on unanswered questions. [Phineas Gage previously on MeFi]
The website of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies is full of information about Irish migration to Latin America. It's divided into four sections: The Homeland, about the origins of the settlers; The Journey, about how the Irish settlers traveled to Latin America, including the infamous Dresden affair; The Settlement, about the lives of the Irish in Latin America; Faces and Places, which has biographies of a wide variety of people, Mateo Banks, family murderer, Camila O'Gorman, executed lover of a priest, William Lamport, 17th Century revolutionary and Bernardo O'Higgins, Chilean independence leader, who gets a whole subsection to himself. There is also a list of Irish placenames and much else of interest to history nerds.
"Two years before Hannah Arendt declared evil banal, Vonnegut was staking it out for stand-up treatment."
In the spring of 1945, three weeks after VE Day, Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut, Jr wrote a letter home to inform his family that he was alive. His infantry unit had been smashed by Panzer divisions in the Ardennes; his unmarked POW train attacked by the RAF; miraculously, he and a handful of fellow prisoners escaped incineration by American and British bombers. "Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden – possibly the world’s most beautiful city", Vonnegut wrote. "But not me."- Survivor: How Kurt Vonnegut created a novel, a cult following and one of the most loyal readerships in American Fiction by Thomas Meaney in The Times Literary Supplement.
The idea that the form of a product should correspond to its essence does not simply mean that products should be designed with their intended use in mind. That a knife needs to be sharp so as to cut things is a non-controversial point accepted by most designers. The notion of essence as invoked by Jobs and Ive is more interesting and significant—more intellectually ambitious—because it is linked to the ideal of purity. No matter how trivial the object, there is nothing trivial about the pursuit of perfection. On closer analysis, the testimonies of both Jobs and Ive suggest that they did see essences existing independently of the designer—a position that is hard for a modern secular mind to accept, because it is, if not religious, then, as I say, startlingly Platonic.— Form and Fortune is an essay about Steve Jobs and Apple's design philosophy by Evgeny Morozov.
But like many an inarticulate young lover, I thought for a time that seduction was a matter of giving the right book to the right woman. In my case it was Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: a meditation on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther that catalogues the melancholic lover’s prized ‘image repertoire’ – the scene of waiting, the feeling of being dissolved in the presence of the loved being, the attraction of suicide – and thinly veils the author’s own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris in the 1970s. This gift was always a prelude to disaster.– RB and Me: An Education is an essay by Brian G. Dillon about his relationship with the books of French philosopher Roland Barthes. It's also a lovely autobiography of an awkward boy finding his place in life. Dillon's website collects his essays, and is trove of interesting insight. Besides writing essays and fiction, Dillon is also the UK editor of Cabinet Magazine, and you can read a fair number of his articles online, including ones on Beau Brummel and the cravat, hypochondria and hydrotherapy.
The Burton Holmes Archive has information about Burton Holmes, the travel writer who became the first person to make filmic travelogues. More importantly, they also have a lot of film clips by Holmes and his associate, André de la Varre, who was also a great travelogue maker himself. Watching these clips is not quite time travel, but it is as close as we can get. Take a look at Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1926, Lake Michigan in 20s, Cairo in 1932 and the 1955 Rio de Janeiro carnival. The later films have sound and narration, but I prefer the silent ones. [Burton Holmes previously, André de la Varre previously, and the Travel Film Archive, which runs Burton Holmes site, previously]
Hanover Historical Texts Project is a collection of primary source texts from ancient times to the modern era in English translation. There is a great number of interesting texts, for instance accounts of Zeno, he of the paradoxes, the diary of Lady Sarashina, a lady-in-waiting in Heian era Japan, a letter from Count Stephen of Blois and Chartres, a crusader writing to his wife, Arthur Young's travels in France before and during the Revolution, a report by the American ambassador in St. Petersburg on March 20th, 1917, immediately after the February Revolution, and finally Petrarch's letter about his graphomania. That last one is from what is perhaps my favorite part of the website, a trove of Petrarch's Familiar Letters. But there's much more in the Hanover Historical Texts Projects besides what I've mentioned.
The Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the earliest printed books. The author, Hartmann Schedel, sets out a history of the world as understood at the time, relying heavily on the Bible. It is perhaps best known today for its wealth of images (some favorites: Creation of Birds, Map of the World, Half Horse, Stoning of St. Stephen and Apocalypse). The Beloit College website has a lot more information about the book and its context. They even have an English translation which is fully searchable.
In 2008 a letter was excavated during an archaeological dig of a Peruvian colonial town abandoned for unknown reasons around the turn of the 18th Century. On the back of that letter were recorded several numbers and their names in a dead tongue, lost in the upheaval following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Even though this may be the only remnant of an entire language, there is quite a bit that linguists can glean from these fragments. For a brief overview of the findings of research by a joint American-Peruvian research group, read here. And here is the full journal article, which places these numbers in their historical and linguistic context.
First published in 1691 in London, The Athenian Mercury was the original supplier of answers to readers' questions, a format much imitated since. Queries on love, science, religion, literature and anything else people thought to ask about, were answered by The Athenian Society, members being publisher John Dunton and three of his friends. Athenian Mercury Project is a blog where Dr. Laura Miller publishes questions and answers from the The Athenian Mercury and The Awl has an occasional series where they trawl through the archive (1, 2, 3, 4). Both of these places are good places to start, but if they aren't enough, The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries, is available on Google Books for free perusal, searching and download. Well, almost all, sadly enough volume one is nowhere to be found, but it does contain volumes two, three, four and a supplement (which includes a lengthy history of The Athenian Society). In addition to that, there is Athenian Sport, a collection of paradoxes debated by The Athenian Society. The questions asked by 17th Century Londoners should be familiar to those of us who read Ask MetaFilter.
National Characters is a long, multi-part essay about how computer games deal with the concept of nations and turns it into a game mechanic. The author, Troy Goodfellow of strategy gaming blog Flash of Steel, focuses on how the fourteen indistinguishable national factions of the original Sid Meier's Civilization have been treated by different games through the years. [more inside]
Andreas Cellarius was a scholar of the 17th Century who produced one of the most famous cosmological atlases of all time, Harmonia Macrocosmica, featuring 29 beautiful plates (large, high-quality scans), illustrating various aspects of the Universe as understood by the Western science of his time. It's impossible to pick favorites among them, but here are three examples: Phases of the Moon, Sizes of the Celestial Bodies and Stars and Constellations of the Northern Sky.