The mind of John McPhee

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and United States senator who was the subject of McPhee’s first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” was one of the organizers. “You can’t celebrate somebody who doesn’t want to be celebrated,” he told me.

The Mind of John McPhee – The New York Times

To my knowledge, I’ve never read anything by John McPhee, but I expect that will change soon. This is a wonderful profile of exactly my sort of person: McPhee seems obsessively curious about the fine detail of everything in addition to being very process-driven in his work.

A plea for The Replicant Edit – Snakes and Ladders

Alan Jacobs:

I do not believe that there are any exceptions to the rule that big-budget Hollywood action movies today — within which I include many SF and all superhero movies — possess the following traits:

  • They’re at least 30 minutes too long;
  • Most of that excessive length results from the decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many;
  • The decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many stems, in turn, from the catastrophically erroneous belief that raising the stakes — putting a city or (better) a country or (better still) a planet or (even more better) the universe or (best of all) ALL THE UNIVERSES THERE EVER WERE OR EVER COULD BE at risk — will increase viewers’ emotional investment in the story;
  • In order to turn the screw of tension ever tighter, some characters will be made to behave in ways wildly inconsistent with what they appear to be throughout most of the movie, while other characters will be pressed towards the absolute extremes of heroism or wickedness.

A plea for The Replicant Edit – Snakes and Ladders

Impossible to disagree. I’m yet to see the new Bladerunner film, to which the rest of the short post is concerned, but Jacobs confirms these traits still apply.

Domino’s Instagram Is Gross

The Domino’s feed is not appetizing by any objective measure. But if you look at it long enough, over enough time, the cadence of grotesqueness begins to sink in. The studio lighting and Photoshop-enhanced pepperoni of Papa John’s and Pizza Hut start to look like the culinary equivalent of a French manicure and a spray tan. Fake.

Instead of employing professional photographers, Domino’s relies on its digital marketing team to update the social media feeds. The cinema verité approach began in 2012, when Domino’s launched the Show Us Your Pizza Campaign, and shared the (often ugly) food photos taken by its customers. After that, the aesthetic just stuck. And today, the pizzas Domino’s photographs are all real, either pulled from a test kitchen oven, or delivered by an employee, no food stylist required. And, clearly, there’s no sweating the need for natural light or perfect post-processing by Domino’s employees who will sometimes even take photographs in their own suburban homes. Domino’s is a living embodiment of a #nofilter brand.

Domino’s Instagram Is Gross. That’s By Design

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.

Terror and territory

The relationship between terror and territory is a crucial one in other ways, too. Think of the recent mass killings that have been carried out by young men — and they are nearly all men — in places like Brussels, Paris, Orlando and Berlin. Even before the blood has dried, there will be speculation about the perpetrator’s nationality. If he holds a passport from a predominantly Muslim nation or was born in such a nation, then the act is usually declared a terrorist act, no matter how weak his religiosity or his links to terrorist networks. The man may drink and have girlfriends, but he will be branded a terrorist. His motives will be assumed to be public and thus political. If, however, he is from Western Europe — like the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who killed 150 in 2015 by downing his plane in the French Alps — then the motive is usually assumed to be private and we will hear about his psychology rather than his politics. If it is terror, then we can see all kinds of exceptional measures brought into force, from detention without trial to the bombing of Islamic State in Syria, as carried out by France after the Paris attacks. If it is “simply” a mass killing, then nothing much happens at all. One of the key differences is the passport. 

—Why Territory? by Ian Kinke, Weapons of Reason issue 4