Alissa Wilkinson

Alissa Wilkinson founded The Curator in 2008 and was its editor for two years. She now teaches writing and humanities a The King's College and edits Fieldnotes. She has an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and will graduate from Seattle Pacific University with an MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Paste, The Other Journal, Q Ideas, The Gospel Coalition, WORLD, Relevant, and other magazines. Alissa lives in Brooklyn with her husband Tom in a tiny apartment stuffed with books and photography equipment. She loves sci-fi, scotch, empty notebooks, cheap ramen noodles, and getting lost on purpose in unfamiliar cities.

The Times, They Are A-Changin’

In April 2008, one early Wednesday morning after a lively IAM discussion group, I sat at a café table in Tribeca with Kevin, and we hatched a crazy plan: a web-based culture magazine, aggressively omnivorous, which would merrily ignore the established periodical wisdom of “timeliness” and simply go after culture in an exuberant, wide-ranging celebration of the best things humans make and do. Most culture publications spend a lot of time bellyaching or berating, or focusing on the established and well-known; we’d be here to expose readers to the good and think carefully about the dubious.

About four months later, on August 29, 2008, The Curator launched, supported by International Arts Movement. We soon attracted a devoted readership and a wide range of contributors as we covered everything from video games to sports to visual art to tea.

Many magazines have a carefully cultivated voice and audience; The Curator has thrived on cultivating individual voices. Some editors assign articles; The Curator‘s offerings are almost exclusively driven by the delight and interest of its contributors.

Along the way we’ve met challenges and started paying a tiny pittance to our contributors. We’ve gone through a redesign, lost and added staff. I spent two years turning out the weekly edition – we haven’t missed a week! – and have been delighted to see readership spike, with tens of thousands of unique visitors each month.

Earlier this year I was offered a full-time position teaching writing at a tiny private college with big dreams in the Empire State Building. It soon became clear that this was the right place for me, and I knew I’d have to move on.

When I was thinking about the possible next editor for the magazine, I knew a few things were important. This editor had to be a talented lover of words. The person should be a cultural omnivore with an insatiable curiosity about the world – not just what’s in the mainstream, but not exclusively holding to esoteric tastes. And ideally, the editor would be in a cultural center outside New York City.

My friend Natalie Race rose to the top of the list immediately. I had the great pleasure of hanging out with Natalie when she spent a year interning with IAM in New York. She is a woman of great taste and intelligence, and is constantly exposing me to new bands and books I’ve never heard of. She recently moved back to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she’s helping to launch the dynamic New City Arts Initiative (along with other friends, former IAM interns, and Curator contributors). And she was crazy enough to come on board with this fledgling, upstart publication.

I’m glad to call Natalie my friend, and even more excited that she’s here to take the magazine through its next phase of growth. But she won’t be doing it alone: the very talented and capable Meaghan Ritchey will be continuing as managing editor, and Jenni Simmons – one of our original staff writers – will continue as assistant editor.

A more capable editorial team I could not imagine, and so I know I leave the publication in good hands. I’ll still be around, popping in and out, but I’m excited to see where this little, crazy dream – hatched over a lukewarm cup of coffee on an early morning – will go.

photo by:

Readers: We Need Your Hometown

Glowing Bar City Street Night Lights
Image by via Flickr

Nearly two years ago, The Curator published its first issue with an audacious goal: to uncover and celebrate great culture, and to grapple with the zeitgeist. Nearly a hundred editions later, we’re still doing that every week.

One area we’ve addressed is cities and neighborhoods – how people live in them, how we get around in them, how they develop, how residents can make a difference. We’ve talked about “agriburbia” and the boutique city conundrum. We’ve celebrated pizza in Atlanta, an after-school program in Chicago, and a park in Manhattan. We’ve had not one, but two odes to Houston, a photo tour of Inverkip, Scotland, a guide to London, and a recent tour of a Toronto neighborhood. We’ve even contemplated how to leave the city.

Clearly, our writers are passionate about places. And while some people probably settle into an area by default, we’d like to think our readers are savvier – that they live in their town, city, neighborhood, suburb, or rural area because they love it, or have come to love it.

And now, we want you to share that love with us.

In the next several months, we’d like to run articles by readers about what makes their place worth living in. What places do you frequent – and why? Is your local cheesemonger awesome? Does the park down the street reflect the values of your community in a fascinating way? Where’s your favorite place to while away a rainy afternoon?

Write about 600 words (you can get longer, but don’t go past 1200 words). Include links and pictures, if you’d like. And send it all to

Ira Glass on the Wrong Stuff

From Slate: A terrific interview with This American Life‘s Ira Glass on storytelling, creativity, and being wrong.

But there’s a really fascinating instance of what you’re talking about in Chuck Klosterman’s new book [Eating the Dinosaur]. I feel like this is a really weird example to bring up, but he interviews me and Errol Morris about interviewing. It’s a really funny chapter because I give all of these totally Pollyanna answers—I mean, things I really believe, but I’m like [here he goes into an earnest falsetto, like a very sincere Chipmunk] “I just think that people open up because they sense that somebody’s really interested. It’s just a natural human thing.” And Errol is like “I DOUBT WHETHER WE KNOW OURSELVES, AND THE ACT OF BEING INTERVIEWED IS AN ACT OF ASSERTING A SELF WHICH WE HOPE IS TRUE.” Seriously, every answer is like this. I’m like, “I just think it’s really swell being interviewed!” And he’s like “THERE IS NO SELF.”


But anyway, afterward, they contacted Errol and me to ask if we would say our quotes into a microphone for the book on tape. Errol said “Sure,” and then when he saw one of the quotes, he said, “No, I meant the opposite of this. I may have said these words, but I actually meant the opposite.” This happened at the very last minute and it was really hard to figure out what to do, because it was a really beautiful quote, and then there’s Errol saying that it’s wrong, that he doesn’t stand by. And then Klosterman has to write around that, and it’s all in the chapter and it’s fascinating. But I don’t know why I’m wasting your time on this.

Rebuilding Indies

From the New York Times: A Rebuilding Phase for Independent Cinema.

For more than a decade, the indie film movement centered in New York flourished, at times almost eclipsing the output of the mainstream Hollywood studios in terms of impact and accolades. But the financial collapse and the credit crisis had a deep impact on all of the movie world, which has responded with fewer expensive releases and safer bets.

And that new austerity has decimated the indie film business, ending with the collapse or downsizing of distributors like New Line Cinema, Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures, ThinkFilm and Miramax, all in the last few years.

“The world is different now,” Richard Abramowitz, a new-wave film distributor, said last week. While he expressed regard for the Weinsteins, he said of the possible Miramax purchase, “I don’t see it as the kind of game-changer it might have been a few years ago. And I’ll probably get chased down the street for saying that.”

Bad Writing and Bad Thinking

From the Chronicle of Higher Education: Bad Writing and Bad Thinking.

They were a lively group of students, and we chatted for an hour, discussing topics we were all interested in. They asked smart questions.

When we were wrapping up, I asked them a question: “What is your relationship to reading and writing?” At that moment, they morphed from T-shirt-clad physical specimens and became generic graduate students, indistinguishable from all-in-black, cigarette-smoking studiers of literary theory and bearded-and-geeky future scientists. It’s all we do, they wailed, and it’s hard.

What’s hard?

The journal articles he makes us read (they said, directing accusing fingers at my colleague) are dense and boring. We’re getting good information, but it can be painful. And, they said, we have to learn to write like that.

No, I said, you don’t.

How do you measure success – in the theatre?

From The Guardian: How do you measure theatre success?

A group of the UK theatre world’s leading industry bodies – The Society of London Theatre, Theatrical Management Association and Independent Theatre Council – have recently come up with what they believe is a completely new way of measuring the effectiveness (or otherwise) of a theatre production.

Instead of relying on box office figures, social monitoring or critics’ reviews, the group have designed a system which aims to assess the quality of a show based on an audience’s emotional response.

It takes the form of a questionnaire handed out to audiences after a production, which asks questions along the lines of whether they felt challenged, moved or engaged by the show and whether they noticed time passing during it. The answers are then brought together to give an overall measurement of the audience’s response, in the form of a graph. Broadly speaking, the larger the area covered on the graph, the more successful the show has been.

Daily Opening of a Book

From The Millions: Every Day I Open a Book.

Whatever the desire, I read so much that eventually my parents forced me to go outside and play, and they talked to each other—and I overheard—of taking me to a child specialist to see if there was anything wrong with me.  And still I devoured books, increasing the real estate inside me where I could find a place of my own, where my heroes always managed to slip away from disaster.

What to do about graduate school?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: A Letter from a Graduate Student in the Humanities.

Benton goes on to criticize both professors who offer such encouragement to their would-be graduate students, and graduate students themselves for their “angry and incoherent” responses to his critique. While I understand that he and his ilk may be trying to help, I’m still confused about how they mean to do so—particularly with regard to those of us who did not benefit from their wisdom before embarking on our grad-school enterprise—since they largely fail to offer any meaningful solutions, or the ones they do are cavalier (for example, calls for graduate unions that garner little commitment from tenured faculty members).

Such pundits need to do what we TA’s tell our composition students to do: Offer potential solutions for the problem at hand. Writing the same meandering, pointless first draft of an argument does not constitute a valid contribution to the work of finding solutions. While our profession regularly excoriates the news media for overblown rhetoric, we seem to be better at articles that induce panic about our prospects than about, for example, jobs outside academe for which we might be suited. Just because we may not all get jobs at research institutions doesn’t mean we can’t contribute, and make a reasonable income to boot.

Ballet Stars Now Tweet

From the New York Times: Ballet Stars Now Twitter as Well as Flutter.

“Hi, I’m Devin and I’m an MRI-aholic.”

“Once again I took 2 days off this week. My body is wrecked. At the chiropractor now getting fixed.”

“What you didn’t know- fell in my dress reh. Fri, tweaked my foot, and couldn’t finish! Thurs was the first time I did the whole ballet!”

“Don’t let me be fat.”

Tweets — like these by the New York City Ballet dancers Devin Alberda, Ashley Bouder, Kathryn Morgan and Mr. Alberda again — are starting to change the public face of ballet. They may never amass the number of followers of, say, the prolific tweeter Ashton Kutcher, but Twitter is making ballet dancers human. (A simple Google search of a name plus Twitter is generally all that is needed to find them.)

How to start an art revolution

From the Boston Globe: How to start an art revolution.

The wishful thinking and the practical solutions both tend to focus on New York, the center of the American art world, whose high-rent lifestyle and fast-paced market can be as deflating as they are seductive. Artists talk optimistically of changing the city, and they talk about fleeing to some cheaper, more isolated place — upstate, maybe, or back to their hometowns. And they often wonder, sometimes out loud, if there isn’t another option — somewhere that offers a similar richness of community and culture, at a safer distance from a demanding and capricious market.

It might sound strange to say it, but Boston could very well become that place.

Notes on a Scandal

From New Statesman: Notes on a Scandal.

Clark made it possible for a chap in a pub to appreciate Francis Bacon, and Reich-Ranicki for a hausfrau to persuade her neighbour in the butcher’s queue that Günter Grass was a more important writer than Hermann Hesse. Kenneth Tynan and Pauline Kael added repertoire tips and quality control to their remit. Their successors attempt to mediate between a bewildered public and the debate about conceptual art. The role of the critic is in constant evolution, a work in progress, a creative necessity.

Yet, in 2010, the critic is an endangered species, almost a write-off. The onslaught of the internet on newspaper economics has ravaged arts journalism. Across the United States, from Miami to Seattle, newspapers have slashed budgets and sacked critics, leaving the New York Times, which is similarly under siege, wielding an unhealthy near-hegemony.

Reading in a Digital Age

From The American Scholar: Sven Birkerts on Reading in a Digital Age.

I ask my students about their reading habits, and though I’m not surprised to find that few read newspapers or print magazines, many check in with online news sources, aggregate sites, incessantly. They are seldom away from their screens for long, but that’s true of us, their parents, as well.

But how do we start to measure effects—of this and everything else? The outer look of things stays much the same, which is to say that the outer look of things has not caught up with the often intangible transformations. Newspapers are still sold and delivered; bookstores still pile their sale tables high. It is easy for the critic to be accused of alarmism. And yet . . .

I Was a Teenage Illiterate

From the New York Times: I Was a Teenage Illiterate.

At the age of 26, when I returned to New York after an inglorious stab at graduate work in medieval history on the frozen steppes of Chicago, I had a horrifying realization: I was illiterate. At least, I was as close to illiterate as a person with over 20 years of education could possibly be. In my stunted career as a scholar, I’d read promissory notes, papal bulls and guidelines for Inquisitorial interrogation. Dante, too. Boccaccio. . . . But after 1400? Nihil. I felt very, very stupid among my new sophisticated New York friends. I seemed very, very stupid, too. Actually, let’s face it, I was stupid, and it was deeply mortifying, as so many things were in those days. But I have since come to realize that my abject ignorance was really a gift: to be a literarily inclined illiterate at age 26 is one of the most glorious fates that can befall mortal girl.

The Adults Aren’t Alright

From The New Republic: The Adults Aren’t Alright.

I’m sorry, but from where I sit, it ain’t the young’uns having notable trouble setting barriers and using technology with any level of discretion, reserve, or common sense. Rather, every time you turn around, an ostensible grown-up has done something monumentally stupid like sexting his mistress, sending filthy instant messages to strapping young House pages, or tweeting about his congressional delegation’s classified landing in Iraq. And how about that moron in North Carolina who googled the many and varied ways to kill a person in the days before killing his wife? Now there’s a guy in need of a lesson on the dangers of interconnectivity. This is not to say that younger users don’t do plenty of stupid stuff as well. But, as often as not, it’s the older generations that clearly can’t be trusted to navigate even basic media and networking tools.

Artists and Their Day Jobs

From The Guardian: Don’t Give Up the Day Job (a UK perspective).

How does the average artist make a living? If you’re Damien Hirst, of course, you need only flog a couple of sharks in formaldehyde; if you’re Tracey Emin, an unmade bed will do. If you’re an actor, a well-publicised turn as Hamlet and near-omnipresence in the Christmas TV schedules, a la David Tennant, would keep the accountant happy.

But none of these scenarios will ring true for the average artist – who is more likely to be stacking supermarket shelves, waiting tables or writing advertising copy by day, and acting, dancing or sculpting by night.

Why Orwell Endures

From the New York Times: Why Orwell Endures.

And yet for all his fame and stature, Orwell remains elusive. For one thing, he is impossible to categorize. He was a great something — but a great what? Scarcely a great novelist: the prewar novels are good but not very good, and even “Animal Farm” and “1984” aren’t great in the sense of “Madame Bovary.” To call him a great journalist, as many have done, means overlooking plenty of mundane (and inaccurate) political commentary. It’s when he turns to such unlikely matters as boys’ comics and vulgar postcards, as well as to his central subject of politics and language, that he enters the realm of deathless literature.

Human Trafficking – and Kijiji

A very important blog post about Craigslist and human trafficking from occasional Curator contributor Laura Bramon Good.

I am in Ghana on behalf of a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that partners with Ghanaian anti-trafficking leaders to rescue these children. One of my Ghanaian colleagues is sitting at the helm of the red dugout boat, calling to the boatman who guides our craft through the clutter of Kwadjokrom’s shore-docked fishing boats. The boats are shaped like thin moons, each end tipped up, and their wooden flanks are painted with David and Goliath, the Good Shepherd, and the Rainbow and the Dove. We are on our way from Kijiji to a fishing island, where a fisherman has promised to give up a little boy he keeps.

Yet as we push out, my thoughts are of Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, black map dots that rise in my mind with the rhythm of a dull heartbeat. I have no reason to think of those cities while I am here in Ghana, except that they mark for me the trafficking route of a friend, and I have seen Kijiji.

Love your local bookstore

From Front Porch Republic: Local Bookstores and the Writers Who Love Them.

That said, the confident positivism of business schools aside, it is in the nature of any historical moment and of any aspect of it to be unpredictable.  Has a certain confluence of unanticipated circumstances made it conceivable once more that local bookstores are something other than a superannuated business model?  Retailers in general have found impressive, if not always happy, ways to adapt in the age of internet sales, while the entrepreneurs of the internet have had to discover, or reconsider, the obsolecense of so called “brick and mortar” businesses in order to make themselves profitable.  On the whole, I think these changes still amount to the destruction of small, locally owned businesses and of the kind of town centers that provide a place for culture and community to take root.  Our natural appetitiveness once again promises to undermine the conditions of our happiness — a conundrum of longstanding in regard to man’s love of God but of more recent vintage and more obvious sorrow in destroying the places where we used to live.  The series described below may provide clues to what kind of future we can hope for on these matters.

RIP, Salinger

From the New York Times: Taking a Walk through J.D. Salinger’s New York.

Hey, listen. You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?

There it is: the Holden Caulfield question. Sara Cedar Miller gets it all the time.

“Everybody’s read that book,” said Ms. Miller, the historian for the Central Park Conservancy. It went without saying that the book in question — the book with the question, on Page 60 — was “The Catcher in the Rye.”

And the answer, according to Ms. Miller, is that the ducks never go anywhere.

Farewell, slush pile

From the Wall Street Journal: The Death of the Slush Pile.

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction.


From the New York Times: Our Boredom, Ourselves.

And yet boredom is woven into the very fabric of the literary enterprise. We read, and write, in large part to avoid it. At the same time, few experiences carry more risk of active boredom than picking up a book. Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story. But a boring book, especially a boring novel, is just boring. A library is an enormous repository of information, entertainment, the best that has been thought and said. It is also probably the densest concentration of potential boredom on earth.

The Miserable Results of Our Quest for Happiness

From the Telegraph: Those who pillage rich traditions for contemporary tastes take the easy but shallow route to happiness.

This may sound paradoxical. All things being equal, it is good to be happy, and it’s certainly awful to be severely depressed. But what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment.

Touch Minds and Settle Souls

From the New York Times: Called Far and Wide to Touch Minds (a brief interview with Cornel West).

I’ve never spent a weekend in Princeton. I would like to be at home, but my calling beckons me. I’ve got places to go, from schools to community centers to prisons to churches to mosques to universities to trade unions. There’s academic lectures, political lectures, religious lectures. It’s just my regular weekly travel. The aim is to touch minds and settle souls; so you instruct as well as delight.

Great or Good?

From The Millions: Year-End Reflections on The Great and The Good.

A graduate school professor said to our class on Day One of our writing workshop: “The Great is the enemy of The Good.” I’m not sure if he was coining his own expression, or perhaps paraphrasingVoltaire’s, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764) – literally translated, “The best is the enemy of the good.” In either case, I couldn’t help, in my youth, but be a little offended; it was Day One, after all, and you’d think he might at least get to know us a little before discouraging too-high writerly aspirations.

Over the years, however, that expression has stuck with me, and its meaning has morphed into something quite different – the conflict in my mind now not one between artistic brilliance and mediocrity, but between created and creator.

Better than New Years’ Resolutions

From writer Donald Miller: Living a Good Story.

A story involves a person that wants something and is willing to overcome conflict to get it. If you plan a story this year, instead of just simple goals, your life will be more exciting, more meaningful and more memorable. And you are much more likely to stick to your goals. For instance, rather than saying I want to finish getting into shape this year, I’ve written down that I want to climb Mt. Hood with a couple friends. I have a vision of standing on top of the mountain in May, taking pictures and all that. Now my goal has a narrative context. That’s just a simple story, and I’ve planned some stories that are far more difficult but I only use that as an example. If my goal were to lose twenty pounds, I doubt I’d stick with it. But when you have friends flying up from Texas to summit the mountain with you, you’d better believe you are going to be hitting the stairs. I have to, because it I don’t, my story will be a tragedy. Again, stories give goals context.

Drawing to Find Out

From the London Review of Books: At the End of My Pencil.

For me, drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know. This is alarming even to the point of momentary panic. Only experience reassures me that this encounter with my own ignorance – with the unknown – is my chosen and particular task, and provided I can make the required effort the rewards may reach the unimaginable. It is as though there is an eye at the end of my pencil, which tries, independently of my personal general-purpose eye, to penetrate a kind of obscuring veil or thickness. To break down this thickness, this deadening opacity, to elicit some particle of clarity or insight, is what I want to do.

The strange thing is that the information I am looking for is, of course, there all the time and as present to one’s naked eye, so to speak, as it ever will be. But to get the essentials down there on my sheet of paper so that I can recover and see again what I have just seen, that is what I have to push towards. What it amounts to is that while drawing I am watching and simultaneously recording myself looking, discovering things that on the one hand are staring me in the face and on the other I have not yet really seen. It is this effort ‘to clarify’ that makes drawing particularly useful and it is in this way that I assimilate experience and find new ground.

On the Art Market

From the Economist: Suspended Animation.

The longest bull run in a century of art-market history ended on a dramatic note with a sale of 56 works by Damien Hirst, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, at Sotheby’s in London on September 15th 2008 (see picture). All but two pieces sold, fetching more than ¬£70m, a record for a sale by a single artist. It was a last hurrah. As the auctioneer called out bids, in New York one of the oldest banks on Wall Street, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy.

The world art market had already been losing momentum for a while after rising vertiginously since 2003. At its peak in 2007 it was worth some $65 billion, reckons Clare McAndrew, founder of Arts Economics, a research firm-double the figure five years earlier. Since then it may have come down to $50 billion. But the market generates interest far beyond its size because it brings together great wealth, enormous egos, greed, passion and controversy in a way matched by few other industries.

Celebrity: Not for the Faint of Heart

From the New York Times: Tiger Woods and the Perils of Modern Celebrity.

It is fitting that the hidden costs of fame should be exacted from Mr. Woods almost precisely 50 years after the publication of a book, “Celebrity Register,” that presented a new picture of social standing in modern America, one in which talent and achievement had been subordinated to publicity. In order to record this transformation, the project’s editor-in-chief,Cleveland Amory, put a team of 20 researchers and writers to work, and four years later they fashioned a colossal volume; its 864 oversize pages were divided into two columns of names, each with a photo and a mailing address (usually a home address) – 2,240 celebrities in all, beginning with the baseball sluggerHank Aaron and ending with the ballet dancer Vera Zorina. “The word ‘Celebrity,’ in our present ‘Celebrity Society’ covers a multitude of sins,” Mr. Amory wrote in a prefatory note. “It does not mean, for example, accomplishment in the sense of true or lasting worth – rather it often means simply accomplishment in the sense of popular, or highly publicized, temporary success.” Thus, Mortimer Adler, the Great Books impresario, shared a page with Polly Adler, the Prohibition era’s most prominent madam. The entry on Senator John W. Bricker, an ultra-conservative Republican, faced a column on Harry Bridges, the left-wing San Francisco union organizer. Two short paragraphs on the TV comedian Dagmar preceded three scarcely longer ones on theDalai Lama.

Why We Repeat Ourselves

From the New York Times: Story? Unforgettable. The Audience? Often Not.

“You hear people of all ages, not just elderly people, say, ‘Stop me if I’ve told you this before,’ ” said Nigel Gopie, a postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute, in Toronto, who has a paper in the current issue of the journal on these memory lapses.

“We often have a hard time remembering who we told things to, and clearly it starts early.”

A World of Novels

From NPR: Picks for Best Foreign Fiction.

It’s good for you. That’s the pale impetus so many of us use to immerse ourselves in foreign works of art. We should watch Bergman films, and look, we’ve got some in our Netflix queue! It’s just that Speed was on cable again last night and, well … the time just slipped away!

But the inescapable truth is, sampling world culture is an essential and powerfully enriching experience – as anyone who has consumed the twisted and beautiful novels and poetry of this year’s Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller knows. The works of foreign fiction listed here are about romance, family duty, sex, travel, violence and spirituality. In other words, they are books about life. They just happen to be set in slightly unfamiliar locales. Like Pittsburgh.

Hannah Arendt and the Public Space

From City Journal: Can the Polis Live Again?

There is a close relation between the care with which a particular public space has been organized and the degree to which a feeling of community exists there. The activity of the market square is various, but its artistry makes for coherent and theatrically dramatic public space: it entices people, and so helps to gather in the civic flock. Visitors experience well-wrought civic design, Goethe says, as a work of art. Venice itself was for him the “latest and best painting of the Venetian school.”


From The Paris Review: Poetry from a new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Fra Angelico, in his great frescoes of severe solitary figures, expressed the aspiration to heaven simply and beautifully in every one. But on the many, many God-breathing faces of the angels in the Last Judgment, heaven itself has its place with all its serenity and sovereignty and song. These faces are the many-colored mosaic of heaven’s power, and there is no other picture of heaven that could be as great and rich and gripping.

How social networks influence our behavior and outlook

From City Journal: You Say Potato, I’ll Say Potato.

Before Facebook, few of us asked others, explicitly, to be our friends. We didn’t monitor how many friends we had as an indication of our status or scroll through listings of friends of friends to pad our own list.

Yet the history of humanity is a history of social networking all the same, according to Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. “Our connections affect every aspect of our daily lives,” they write. “How we feel, what we know, whom we marry, whether we fall ill, how much money we make, and whether we vote all depend on the ties that bind us.” And the burgeoning field of network research is revealing that “our connections do not end with the people we know.” Social networks take on lives of their own, transmitting information, germs, and habits between people who are nearly as tangentially linked as actors in the old parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. “Friends of friends of friends can start chain reactions that eventually reach us,” the authors argue, “like waves from distant lands that wash up on our shores.”

An interview with Maya Angelou

From The Independent: An interview with Maya Angelou.

During a trip to Senegal, Maya Angelou called Samia, a friend she had made in Paris several years before, and was invited over for dinner. Passing a room where people apparently clung to the wall to avoid standing on the rug, Angelou became incensed. “I had known a woman in Egypt who would not allow her servants to walk on her rugs, saying that only she, her family and friends were going to wear out her expensive carpets. Samia plummeted in my estimation.”

Keen to challenge her host’s hauteur, she walked back and forth across the carpet. “The guests who were bunched up on the sidelines smiled at me weakly.” Soon afterwards, servants came, rolled up the rug, took it away and brought in a fresh one. Samia then came in and announced that they would be serving one of Senegal’s most popular dishes in honour of Angelou: “Yassah, for our sister from America… Shall we sit?” And as the guests went to the floor where glasses, plates, cutlery and napkins were laid out on the carpet, Angelou realised the full extent of her faux pas and was “on fire with shame”.

Zadie Smith on the rise of the essay

From The Guardian: Does the essay live up to its promise?

Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don’t know where to put them. It’s a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word “essay”, and what an essay is, exactly, these days. The noun has an unstable history, shape-shifting over the centuries in its little corner of the OED.

For Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition.” And if this looks to us like one of Johnson’s lexical eccentricities, we’re chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement (“The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays”) and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. Not until the mid 19th century does it take on its familiar, neutral ring: “a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” Which is it, though, that attracts novelists – the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?

On writing about writers

From The American Scholar: Writing About Writers.

She has never written from outlines, but she would sometimes think as much as 30 pages ahead. Not this time. “It didn’t feel like writing,” she said. “Writing to me is really hard. And I just sort of sat down and wrote this – or typed it.” She knew she wanted to come back to key scenes over and over, foregrounding different details to evoke the obsessive nature of her grief. She sensed that a crisis in her daughter’s illness would form a “movement” that would fall a certain distance into the narrative. That was it.

Typography Purists

From the New York Times: Mistakes in Typography Grate the Purists.

Seeing the clean, crisp shapes of those letters and numbers at station entrances, on the platforms and inside the trains is always a treat, at least it is until I spot the “Do not lean …” sign on the train doors. Ugh! There’s something not quite right about the “e” and the “a” in the word “lean.” Somehow they seem too small and too cramped. Once I’ve noticed them, the memory of the clean, crisp letters fades, and all I remember are the “off” ones.

That’s the problem with loving typography. It’s always a pleasure to discover a formally gorgeous, subtly expressive typeface while walking along a street or leafing through a magazine. (Among my current favorites are the very elegant letters in the new identity of the Paris fashion house, Céline, and the jolly jumble of multi-colored fonts on the back of the Rossi Ice Cream vans purring around London.) But that joy is swiftly obliterated by the sight of a typographic howler. It’s like having a heightened sense of smell. You spend much more of your time wincing at noxious stinks, than reveling in delightful aromas.

TV will change the world

From Foreign Policy: Why TV, not Facebook or Twitter, is going to revolutionize the world.

Indeed, television, that 1920s technology so many of us take for granted, is still coming to tens of millions with a transformative power — for the good — that the world is only now coming to understand. The potential scope of this transformation is enormous: By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one. Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.

In our collective enthusiasm for whiz-bang new social-networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, the implications of this next television age — from lower birthrates among poor women to decreased corruption to higher school enrollment rates — have largely gone overlooked despite their much more sweeping impact. And it’s not earnest educational programming that’s reshaping the world on all those TV sets. The programs that so many dismiss as junk — from song-and-dance shows to Desperate Housewives — are being eagerly consumed by poor people everywhere who are just now getting access to television for the first time. That’s a powerful force for spreading glitz and drama — but also social change.

Bringing Fresh Produce to the Corner Store

From the New York Times: Pushing Fresh Produce Instead of Cookies at the Corner Market.

Until recently, small corner grocery stores were seen by public health officials as part of theobesity problem.

The stores, predominantly family-owned, offered convenience, but the accent was on snack chips, canned goods and sugary drinks. Now, because they are often the sole source of groceries in areas with no full-size supermarket, the stores are becoming linchpins in public health campaigns.

“If you are educating people to make good choices, but those choices aren’t available nearby and they don’t have a car to drive out to the suburbs to the supermarket, or an hour to ride two buses to get there,” said Kai Siedenburg, of the Community Food Security Coalition, a group based in Portland, Ore., that promotes access to healthy food, “then it’s really hard for them to make good choices.”

Local artists are on the rise

From the Wall Street Journal: The Art World Goes Local.

At the height of the boom, art collectors scrambled to acquire works by top artists from rising markets including China, Russia, India and the Middle East. A serious approach to collecting meant trips to London, New York and Hong Kong several times a year for auctions, and mandatory stops at the art fairs in Cologne, Miami Beach, London, Shanghai and Basel, Switzerland.

Now, a full year since the recession gutted the global art market, collectors are canceling their trips. Some Westerners are now loath to dip into markets like Russian or Indian contemporary art, whose prices soared during the boom but whose long-term value is less established. Many are cutting back on expensive art-buying trips. And some collectors say they’re interested in supporting local artists, particularly at a time of economic hardship-the cultural equivalent of buying an American car instead of an import.

On Being Middlebrow

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor.

Unlike the independent highbrows and unself-conscious lowbrows, middlebrows, it seems, are so invested in “getting on in life” that they do not really like anything unless it has been approved by their betters. For Woolf and her heirs, middlebrows are inauthentic, meretricious bounders, slaves to fashion and propriety, aping a culture they cannot understand; they are the prototypes of Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC program Keeping Up Appearances, who answers her “pearl-white, slim-line, push-button telephone” with “The Bouquet residence, the lady of the house speaking.”

Of course, the only acceptable lowbrows are the ones who know their place, who have no aspirations to anything better, such as Hyacinth’s unpretentious sister, Daisy, and her unemployed husband, Onslow, the sort of bloke who attends football matches wearing a cap that holds two cans of beer.

As the Harper’s Magazine editor Russell Lynes argued in his 1949 essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” the ideal world for Woolf is a caste system in which billions of bovine proles produce the raw materials for a coterie of sensitive, highbrow ectomorphs who spring fully formed from the head of Sir Leslie Stephen. At the very least, lowbrows with upward aspirations should have the courtesy to keep themselves out of sight until they complete their passage through the awkward age of the middlebrow.

Stereotyping the Millenials

From The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Millenial Muddle: How stereotyping students became a thriving industry and a bundle of contradictions.

Figuring out young people has always been a chore, but today it’s also an industry. Colleges and corporations pay experts big bucks to help them understand the fresh-faced hordes that pack the nation’s dorms and office buildings. As in any business, there’s variety as well as competition. One speaker will describe youngsters as the brightest bunch of do-gooders in modern history. Another will call them self-involved knuckleheads. Depending on the prediction, this generation either will save the planet, one soup kitchen at a time, or crash-land on a lonely moon where nobody ever reads.