“This site is dedicated to literature, arts, and culture. Electoral politics are usually beyond our remit. On a morning like this, when America has chosen a bigot and a xenophobe as its next president, my job feels pointless. But I don’t want to add to the chorus of despair, because I do believe there’s a role for art at a time like this, and I don’t say that lightly—words like these don’t come easily to me. I would rather make fun of things, and I’m struggling against an inborn fatalism. (My iPhone just reminded me to water my plants, and I thought, why bother?) The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.”
The idiom “never judge a book by its cover” warns against evaluating something purely by the way it looks. And yet book covers are designed to give readers an idea of the content, to make them want to pick up a book and read it. Good book covers are designed to be judged.
And humans are quite good at it. It’s relatively straightforward to pick out a cookery book or a biography or a travel guide just by looking at the cover.
And that raises an interesting question: can machines judge books by their covers, too?
Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Brian Kenji Iwana and Seiichi Uchida at Kyushu University in Japan. These guys have trained a deep neural network to study book covers and determine the category of book they come from.
Ironically, some of the most frequently challenged books are the very books that young readers say are especially important and meaningful to them. Unfortunately, their views are rarely heard in the over-heated debates that often accompany book challenges. Instead, the adults – parents, school administrators, and school board members – make decisions about what kids should read without always appreciating how books with “controversial” content help young people learn and mature.
The lack of critics of color is becoming increasingly frustrating for writers like Porochista Khakpour, a critic and the author of The Last Illusion. “Most book critics are white, and very often white and male,” Khakpour says. “Often those white males are not themselves very well-versed in issues of race, ethnicity, xenophobia, cultural appropriation etc. They are simply trained in reading books by white men, for white men, about white men.”
Literary criticism, like the art it seeks to evaluate, must strive for a wide and varied perspective so that the literature it evaluates is similarly wide and varied. Then there’s the reality that it’s much harder to recognize a problem you’ve never experienced. This level of attentiveness often corresponds to a critic’s identity.
Most of the yellow cabs racing through Tunis are decorated with air fresheners, glittery pendulums, and framed baby pictures. Sometimes you’ll find a complimentary box of tissues. But taxi driver Ahmed Mzoughi, 49, has taken a more cerebral approach to his vehicle’s decor. Scattered on the seats and lining the dashboard are slim volumes of poetry, fat novels, and psychology books. Stuck on a side door is a decal that says, “Attention: This Taxi Contains a Book.”
So that’s a wrap of some bookish articles that interested me in the past few weeks. Quartz in particular tends to produce some good literature about, erm, literature. And while I didn’t have the fortitude to quote from the article, the Bad Sex in Fiction nominees for 2016 are out and here to terrorise us all. (Although I really didn’t find Gayle Forman’s contribution that bad at all.)
As always, let me know what you thought about these. Have a good week ahead, everyone.