WWI soldiers expressed emotion by not swearing

From Bee Wilson’s review of The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard:

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest. For a short period, the mystery of these letters became a national news story that generated four separate trials and, as Hilliard writes, ‘demanded more from the police and the lawyers than most murders’.

This is a book about morality and class, about the uses and abuses of literacy and about the tremendous dislocations in British society after the First World War, which extended far beyond those who had suffered the direct trauma of battle. Hilliard uses these poison pen letters – written in language that was as eccentric as it was obscene – to ‘catch the accents of the past’. The Littlehampton Libels is about a battle between two women who were members of only the second generation in Britain to benefit from compulsory elementary education, women for whom the written word was a new and exhilarating weapon.

Hilliard asks what it was like to live in a society where ‘nice’ women had to pretend that they were ignorant of all profanity. Melissa Mohr claims in her excellent book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) that the British started to swear more during and after the First World War, because strong language – like strong drink – is a way to alleviate despair. In 1930, John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of British songs and slang from the war. They claimed that soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning ‘that a noun is coming’. In a normal situation, swear words are used for emphasis, but Brophy and Partridge found that obscenity was so over-used among the military in the Great War that if a soldier wanted to express emotion he wouldn’t swear. ‘Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’

 

What to read on a subway commute

Adam Sternbergh on subway novels:

So I want thrilling plots, yes — but also thrilling language. I want sentences I’ll stop to read twice. This is why standard throwaway airport thrillers don’t migrate well beneath ground. The writing may be “muscular” and “spare,” but if it’s not also “inventive” and “excellent” there’s a good chance the book will wind up abandoned on a platform bench. With a long day behind me and a wearying commute ahead of me, I don’t want to settle for distraction; I want to look forward to reading my book with the palpitating excitement of a second date with someone I’ve already fallen for. I want to miss my stop. Ideally, I’ll miss a few.

 

3 ways to get at your Kindle highlights

I’m reading more on my Kindle these days. This is for many reasons, not least of which is that it is difficult to manoeuvre both a hefty hardback and a ballooning baby at the same time. I can just about handle the Kindle instead.

I wasn’t always an inveterate note-taker—notably during my school days when it would have helped enormously—but I’m trying to get into the habit. Previously, when reading my Kindle, for too long I was passively highlighting passages of books I read, unlikely to come back to them, or if I did, unlikely to understand why I highlighted it or what that ? meant—disagreement? lack of understanding? a once-pertinent question for the author?

As it happens, Alan Jacobs wrote about this in the excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

The more heavily you annotate a text—the more questions you ask and comments you venture—the more often you disrupt the continuity of reading.

Writing out the whole of your question is better than just flinging a question mark onto the page, because doing the former takes more time—it gets you out of the flow of mere passive reception—and because it forces you to articulate the precise nature of your vexation. A mere question mark could indicate confusion, disagreement, a feeling of lacking information—any one of a dozen things. When you write out your question you render the discomfort exactly.

So by reading actively—that is, highlighting and marking up and taking extra notes and asking questions—you disrupt the continuity of reading more often, the more thought goes into it, and the more likely you are to digest and remember what you have read. So I’m doing it more often.


Still, we can’t all remember everything, no matter how actively we read.

Here are 3 tools you can use to export and resurface your Kindle notes and highlights. They all work by accessing your kindle.amazon.com page. In increasing order of power and complexity:

1. Bookcision

The bookmarklet yields a single page of cleanly styled highlights, which can then be copied to one’s clipboard and pasted into a local text repository (OneNote, Evernote, DevonThink, etc.)

Chrome users will additionally be offered the ability to dowload the highlights in plain text, JSON, or XML formats.

2. Readwise

A browser extension that syncs your highlights and sends you a regular email resurfacing them. I use and like this a lot! (They’ve launched a web app version which they are currently pushing.)

3. Clippings.io

A Chrome extension that powers a more feature-rich version of something like Bookcision. Notes and highlights are synced to the ‘app’, where you can perform some additional organisation such as tagging. You can export individual or multiple highlights, adhering to different referencing styles.

There’s a tiny monthly charge, but I’m pleased about this—I’d always rather pay for things I find useful, as there’s then less chance they’ll disappear overnight.


I use Clippings.io to transfer my highlights and notes to my archiving/information storage app of choice and get an every-other-day email from Readwise. Using both services I have an easily searchable database of highlights, the ability to see contextual links between my highlights and other documents (a feature of DEVONthink), and get serendipitous reminders of them in my email inbox.

In fact, simply publishing some these highlights with some extra context, questions, elaboration etc would form the basis of an intriguing blog, if you don’t have one already…

Whenever I go into the kitchen to do something quick—let the dog out into the garden, make a cup of tea, empty the dishwasher—I open this book onto a random page and read for a few minutes. While not a recipe book per se, it’s by far my favourite book about food. 📚

Teaching grownups how to eat

The key to lasting dietary change, according to Wilson, is “a hedonic shift” in attitudes toward food—a reorienting of our palates that would render broccoli at least as delicious as cookies. “When our preferences are in order,” she argues, “nutrition should take care of itself.” Better yet, the trick to learning to love cruciferous greens turns out to be relatively simple: repeated, positive exposure to broccoli and its cousins. To prove how malleable our palates can be, Wilson marshals an array of case studies and experiments that have examined the human ability to shape and reshape food preferences.

Source: Teaching Grownups How to Eat | The New Yorker

Bee Wilson’s last book was terrific. ‘First Bite’ sounds just as intriguing; not just because my son will start to eat proper food in the next few months, and I can’t wait to see how he reacts to the food we eat, but also because we have a huge societal problem on our hands and (re-)learning about food, its origins and impact should be high up any forward-thinking government’s todo list.

T.S. Eliot on knowledge

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.

The Perfect Critic (1920). Via Alan Jacobs’ How To Think

What you should read, depending on the season

One should read the classics in winter, because then one’s mind is more concentrated; read history in the summer, because one has more time; read the ancient philosophers in autumn, because they have such charming ideas; and read the collected works of later authors in spring, because then Nature is coming back to life.

Source: What you should read, depending on the season

This, by Chang Ch’ao in the 17th century and via Austin Kleon, has been on my mind recently. I don’t subscribe to the principle anywhere near as rigidly as this, but I do see patterns in the types of books I read across a given year.

Also, increasingly: non-fiction during the day, fiction once the sun’s gone down.

The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English

Not only is she the first woman, but she’s making some fairly radical changes to the established translations:

“Treat me,” I interrupted, “as if I don’t know Greek,” as, in fact, I do not.

“The prefix poly,” Wilson said, laughing, “means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.”

Source: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English – The New York Times

See also two ‘Troy Story’ videos we made that re-tell the Iliad and the Odyssey in a couple of minutes each:

 

On dreaming

Ordinarily she didn’t tend to dream much. Even if she did, she usually had forgotten most of the dream by the time she woke up. Sometimes faint scraps of her dream would get caught on the wall of her consciousness, but she couldn’t retrace these fragments back to any coherent narrative. All that remained were small, random images. She slept deeply, and the dreams she did have came from a very deep place. Like fish that live at the bottom of the ocean, most of her dreams weren’t able to float to the surface. Even if they did, the difference in water pressure would force a change in their appearance.

—Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

It’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.

The Millions : An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

I need reminding of this sort of thing once in a while. I’ve read quite broadly and deeply this year, but I could with unfollowing a few people on Twitter and subscribing from a handful of RSS feeds.

Notes on a case of Nicholas Gurewitch

In December 2014 I backed a Kickstarter project by one of my favourite artists, Nick Gurewitch, creator of the Perry Bible Fellowship:

The project is called Notes on a Case of Melancholia, Or: A Little Death.

This is book about Death’s despair regarding his kid- an affectionate “Little Death” who simply doesn’t have what it takes to carry on the family business.

Dr. Edgar O. Wye is a psychoanalyst who takes Death on as a patient. The book’s rhyming narration will be taken from his case notes.

The book will run about 42-50 pages long, and will be completely illustrated. Graphic novel “frames” will be used on occasion, but this will really be more of a picture book – deliberately similar to the short books of Edward Gorey, but with a character-driven plot. Though it has a pretty high body count, it is in essence a family story.

It’s running slightly late. (About 18 months.) This is mostly due to the painstaking subtractive work required to produce each page: they are created by painting a board with black ink then ‘drawn’ by scratching millions of tiny lines with a scalpel.

Nick and his project were the subjects of a short documentary:

Nick’s just found out that his publisher has folded. It’s not too late to support the project to ensure it appears in a (somewhat) timely manner.

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.

Ballet Slipper, Spice Route, Jurassic Gold, and Sea Turtle

1: What it’s like to run the Twitter handle “@message”

It’s an increasingly important part of any publication on the web, and it’s always changing and moving. Doing it successfully takes more than being good at Twitter, being good at talking to people, coming up with headlines or snappy descriptions, paying attention to traffic and timing, being willing to experiment and learn from it. It’s also depressingly easy to screw up and send the wrong tweet from the wrong account, which I managed to do more than once. Social media is a full-time job, and anyone who does it well has my admiration and respect.

2: Movie lists

Analysing the sentiment and volume of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb ratings to find lists of the best recent, best unknown, most underestimated, and most overrated movies. Lots to dig through.

3: Rain is sizzling bacon, cars are lions roaring: the art of sound in movies

Skip Lievsay is one of the most talented men in Hollywood. He has created audioscapes for Martin Scorsese and is the only sound man the Coen brothers go to. But the key to this work is more than clever effects: it is understanding the human mind.

4: A blankness full of meaning

The app, OMBY, is a game that you win by unscrambling Moby-Dick, a few words at a time. The complete text of the book has been broken into 10,395 consecutive morsels of about twenty words each, but with each morsel missing a few words, and the missing words’ letters mixed up like Scrabble tiles. Rearrange the alphabetic chaos of those tiles to form the missing words, and swipe forward to the next puzzle. Now do that 10,394 more times, in order, all the way through the book […] What I love about this is the occasion it provides to engage Moby-Dick on the level of the word, which might be Moby-Dick’s weirdest and most delicious level.

5: How pantone is still turning color into money

Some 210 new colors came into the world last week. Ballet Slipper, Spice Route, Jurassic Gold, and Sea Turtle, among others. These shades always existed in nature, but now they are official—dramatic names and all. One can buy them from Pantone, a small company in Carlstadt, N.J., that literally snatches its products out of the air.

6: The secret history of “Y’all”: The murky origins of a legendary Southern slang word

Many discussions of the word connect it to the history of second-person pronouns in English. Old English had singular and plural forms of “you,” and these eventually morphed into the formal “you” and informal “thou” pronouns you find in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. But “y’all” isn’t a descendant of these, and there’s still debate about its origins.

7: Bar chart baselines start at zero

There are visualization rules and there are visualization suggestions. Most are suggestions. The ones that are rules exist because of how our brains process visual information. There’s just no getting around it.

I already covered the small handful of rules that pertain mostly to traditional statistical graphics. The first one—to always start your bar charts with a zero baseline—unexpectedly drew some disagreement, and I am unexpectedly compelled to go into more depth.

It’s true that every rule has its exception. It’s just that with this particular rule, I haven’t seen a worthwhile reason to bend it yet.