Friday, February 19, 2010

Doing Books Like Beads

American novelist Stanley Elkin in Pieces of Soap: Essays. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992—

We read, I've told my classes, to die, not entirely certain what I mean but sure it has something to do with being alone, shutting the world out, doing books like beads, a mantra, the flu. Some perfect, hermetic concentration sealed as canned goods or pharmaceuticals. It is, I think, not so much a way of forgetting ourselves as engaging the totality of our attentions, as racing car drivers or mountain climbers engage them, as surgeons and chess masters do. It's fine, precise, detailed work, the infinitely small motor management of diamond cutters and safecrackers that we do in our heads… I haven't said it here, am almost ashamed to own up, but once I open books slowly, stately, plump imaginary orchestras going off in my head like overtures, like music behind the opening credits in films, humming the title page, whistling the copyright, turning myself into producer and pit band, usher and audience…

Metamorphic Tortoises

R.V. Jones, describing a practical joke by American physicist Robert W. Wood, in "The Theory of Practical Joking—Its Relevance to Physics" in The Bulletin of the Institute of Physics (June 1957), p. 193—

R.W. Wood is said to have spent some time in a flat in Paris where he discovered that the lady in the flat below kept a tortoise in a window pen. Wood fashioned a collecting device from a broom handle, and bought a supply of tortoises of dispersed sizes. While the lady was out shopping, Wood replaced her tortoise by one slightly larger. He repeated this operation each day until the growth of the tortoise became so obvious to its owner that she consulted Wood who, having first played a subsidiary joke by sending her to consult a Professor at the Sorbonne whom he considered to be devoid of humor, advised her to write the press. When the tortoise had grown to such a size that several pressmen were taking a daily interest, Wood then reversed the process, and in a week or so the tortoise mysteriously contracted to its original dimensions.

Scientific Brainstorming

Scottish biologist, mathematician and scholar D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (author of On Growth and Form) as quoted by his daughter in Ruth D'Arcy Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, The Scholar-Naturalist. London: Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 175—

You choose some subject or other which takes your fancy, you buy a notebook and label it with the title of your theme; and you keep jotting down therein whatsoever bears upon your subject, as it comes your way, in all your reading, observation and reflection. I have had many such notebooks and some I have soon grown tired of but others have lasted and served me well… Your subject opens up wonderfully as time goes on, it tempts you into byways, it carries you far afield; if you play the game aright it never comes to an end. It grows in interest continually, for things are interesting only in so far as they relate themselves to other things; only then can you put two and two together, and see them make four or even five, and hear them tell stories about each other. Such is science itself and such is all the knowledge that interests mankind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can't Stand On An Apple

Carl Sandburg, recalling a childhood incident in his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1953, p. 191—

I had a dime and a nickel in my pocket. With the dime, the tenth part of a dollar, I bought a ticket. I went in and heard the ventriloquist and his dummy: "Will you spell a word for me, Danny?" "I'll try, what's the word?" "Constantinople." "Why do you tell me you can't stand on an apple?"

Drawing Fried Eggs

From Henry Adams, Victor Schrekengost and 20th-Century Design. Cleveland OH: Cleveland Museum of Art / University of Washington Press, 2001. p. 10—

[In the 1920s, among the drawing instructors at the Cleveland Institute of Art was Frank Wilcox, one of whose assignments] was to fry eggs in the classroom and then make drawings of them. When the students were done, he would hold up one of the drawings and ask the class what it meant. "How far did the egg run out? How high did the yoke stand? How brown were the edges?" With a hot skillet the eggs would flow out less far and have a smaller perimeter. If it was too hot the edges would burn. A fresh egg will stand up higher than a stale one. With a little practice one could look at the drawing and figure out the heat of the burner and the freshness of the egg. As Victor [Schrekengost] recalls, "He taught us to see."

Tommy, Says I, Spell Cat

From Finley Peter Donne, Mr. Dooley's Philosophy. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1906, p. 246—

"Tommy," says I, "spell cat," I says. "Go to th' divvie," says the cheerub. "Very smartly answer-ed," says Mary Ellen. "Ye shud not ask thim to spell," she says. "They don't larn that till they get to colledge," she says, "an" she says, "sometimes not even thin," she says.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Merle Armitage Meets Henry Miller

In the early 1940s, shortly after the novelist Henry Miller had moved back to the US from Paris, he concluded that a noncommercial artist in America "has a much chance for survival as a sewer rat."

Refusing to borrow or to hire out for "stultifying work," he sent out a letter inviting support from the readers of The New Republic, requesting, among other things, "old clothes, shirts, socks, etc. I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, weight 150 pounds, 15 1/2 neck, 38 chest, 32 waist, hat and shoes both size 7 to 7 1/2. Love corduroys."

The appeal worked and a number of curious mailings arrived, one of which contained a complete tuxedo. "What'll I ever do with this?" Miller asked a friend, then used it to dress up a scarecrow that sat for a generation on the picket fence in front of his Partington Ridge house in Big Sur, California. More

Friday, February 12, 2010

Perils of Taxation

From Richard Armour, Our Presidents. NY: W.W. Norton, 1964—

[William Henry] Harrison was the first president to die in office. He had been in his office for thirty days, working on new tariff laws, and probably over-taxed himself.

Oskar Kokoschka Not OK

From Rudolf Arnheim, Parables of Sun Light: Observations on Psychology, the Arts, and the Rest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, p. 346—

The initials "OK" were the signature of [Austrian expressionist artist] Oskar Kokoschka. Every time I use the two letters to mark my approval of one of my editor's changes on the galleys of my next book, I sneakily credit myself with the small creative act of impersonating one of my favorite painters.

Josef Albers: Gotten Himmel!

Rob Roy Kelly recalls Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers in R. Roger Remington, project director, Everything is a Work of Progress: The Collective Writings of Rob Roy Kelly on Graphic Design Education. Rochester NY: School of Design, Rochester Institute of Technology, 2002, p. 139—

When critiquing painting students [at Yale University], it was customary for Albers to ask the students what they were trying to do. If the student responded in terms of color, space or form, Albers engaged in meaningful discussion with the student. If the student responded in terms of feelings, or some esoteric rationale, Albers would throw up his arms and in a loud voice exclaim, "Gotten Himmel! [Good God in Heaven!] Don't show me your intestines." He would avoid that student for the next few weeks.

Dard Hunter's Hat Trick

From Dard Hunter [American Arts and Crafts-era designer and papermaker, who began his career initially as a chalk talk lecturer], My Life with Paper: An Autobiography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958, p. 24—

[In 1900, after Hunter had painstakingly prepared the apparatus for a Chautauqua chalk talk, his set-up was accidentally undone by the famous orator William Jennings Bryan, who clumsily entangled himself in the wires as he entered to stage for a lecture. When Bryan did not apologize, recalls Hunter,) I was aching for revenge…With my pocket knife I grated an entire piece of soft red chalk into the inside of Bryan's headpiece. It was a hot morning, and after the lecture Bryan placed the great broad hat on his perspiring head. The finely powdered red chalk mingled with the perspiration, and the classical face of William Jennings Bryan was literally streaked with bright-red pigment as he walked to his hotel.