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On the Shelf: Podcast Inspired Reading

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UNDER THE INFLUENCE: How Colors Make Us Buy
Host Terry O’Reilly, an award-winning copywriter who has worked with leading advertising agencies and the co-founder of a creative audio production company, explores the shift marketing has taken “from a century of overt one-way messaging to a new world order of two-way dialogue”. Think marketing plus science plus history plus storytelling and you’ll have an idea of what Under the Influence is like.

The show’s most recent topics have included movie marketing, ads that have worked “too well,” and something called “hyper-marketing,” which I hadn’t heard of until the episode aired. This past week, Terry looked into color theory. Follow the usual format, the episode uses anecdotes from companies to explain why they use the colors they use, how they came to use those colors, and the successes and failures that followed.

As usual, the entire show eye-opening but what really caught my attention was this: “White has a feeling of lightness, and is the reason why most planes are painted this colour. It soothes the concern we all secretly harbour that a machine that size can’t possibly become airborne.” Blew my mind … and got me thinking about a book I’ve been meaning to read for years.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
“Discover the tantalizing true stories behind your favorite colors. For example: Cleopatra used saffron—a source of the color yellow—for seduction. Extracted from an Afghan mine, the blue “ultramarine” paint used by Michelangelo was so expensive he couldn’t afford to buy it himself. Since ancient times, carmine red—still found in lipsticks and Cherry Coke today—has come from the blood of insects.”

Terry discusses Pantone colors and the role they play in a company’s brand recognition–not entirely surprising. Tiffany’s was one of the examples. Pantone is not a new subject to the program, Terry had mentioned them a few episodes ago, right around the time they picked their color of the year (Tangerine), which, apparently influences the year’s fashion. Obviously, Pantone has more authority than many of us know and it might just do us well to pay attention.

Pantone: The Twentieth Century in Color by By Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker
Pantone, the worldwide color authority, invites you on a rich visual tour of 100 transformative years. From the Pale Gold (15-0927 TPX) and Almost Mauve (12-2103 TPX) of the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris to the Rust (18-1248 TPX) and Midnight Navy (19-4110 TPX) of the countdown to the Millennium, the 20th century brimmed with color. Longtime Pantone collaborators and color gurus Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker identify more than 200 touchstone works of art, products, decor, and fashion, and carefully match them with 80 different official PANTONE color palettes to reveal the trends, radical shifts, and resurgences of various hues.

TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE: Henry David Thoreau
For the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s death, To the Best of Our Knowledge looks at the man, the myth, and the lasting influence of the Thoreau persona.

“Henry David Thoreau died 150 years ago, and he’s still a great American icon.  But have you ever wondered exactly why?  Thoreau wasn’t exactly the model environmentalist he’s often made out to be.  And his account of living at Walden Pond is partly fictionalized; he spent nine years writing and revising it.  We examine Thoreau’s legacy and why he still inspires us.”

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau 1837-1861
I must admit, I’ve never read Walden in full. If anything, I’ve read 20 pages and that’s not even certain. I’m sure I’ll try it again one day but right now his journals sound more appealing.

“Henry David Thoreau’s Journal was his life’s work: the daily practice of writing that accompanied his daily walks, the workshop where he developed his books and essays, and a project in its own right—one of the most intensive explorations ever made of the everyday environment, the revolving seasons, and the changing self. It is a treasure trove of some of the finest prose in English and, for those acquainted with it, its prismatic pages exercise a hypnotic fascination.”

One guest on the Thoreau episode was author Terry Tempest Williams. A nature writer and environmental acitvist, Williams talks about reading Thoreau’s work.

When Women were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother’s journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?”

“Terry Tempest Williams has been called “a citizen writer,” a writer who speaks and speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life. A naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she has consistently shown us how environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice.” [via author’s website]

BULLSEYE WITH JESSE THORN: An Interview with Tom Bissell
Tom Bissell is a journalist, video game critic and author whose latest book, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, is a series of pieces attempting to capture all angles of the creative process. This one has been in my sights since it came out last month.

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
In Magic Hours, award-winning essayist Tom Bissell explores the highs and lows of the creative process. He takes us from the set of The Big Bang Theory to the first novel of Ernest Hemingway to the final work of David Foster Wallace; from the films of Werner Herzog to the film of Tommy Wiseau to the editorial meeting in which Paula Fox’s work was relaunched into the world. Originally published in magazines such as The Believer, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, these essays represent ten years of Bissell’s best writing on every aspect of creation—be it Iraq War documentaries or video-game character voices—and will provoke as much thought as they do laughter.

What are sitcoms for exactly? Can art be both bad and genius? Why do some books survive and others vanish? Bissell’s exploration of these questions make for gripping, unforgettable reading.

You can read an interview with Tom at The Rumpus.

THE GUARDIAN BOOKS PODCAST: Literature which disrupts reality
This episode of the Guardian Books Podcast features author Jeet Thayil and Etgar Keret. A growing household name among young, literary Americans (not at the exclusion of others), Keret is known for his surrealistic short stories. However, Thayil, lesser-known outside of his home in India and better known there as a poet, has just written his debut novel. Narcopolis takes from reality but doesn’t stay there.

“Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. . . . Narcopolis tracks the descent of Mumbai’s drug users from the sybaritic excesses of opium in the 1970s, to the harsh reality of contemporary addiction to heroin and crack.”

Read Etgar Keret’s short story Unzipping, excerpted from his latest, Suddenly, A Knock on the Door.

RADIOLAB: Crossroads
As someone who was turned onto blues at an early age, this Radiolab short about Robert Johnson was fascinating.

For years and years, Jad’s [Abumrad] been fascinated by the myth of what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling–and musicians who’d laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight, and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.

Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson by Tom Graves
The result of careful research, this stylish biography of infamous blues musician Robert Johnson reveals the real story behind the mythical talent that made him a musical legend. According to some, Robert Johnson learned guitar by trading his soul away to the Devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi. When he died at age 27 of a mysterious poisoning, many superstitious fans came to believe that the Devil had returned to take his due. This diligent study of Johnson’s life debunks these myths, while emphasizing the effect that Johnson, said to be the greatest blues musician who ever lived, has had on modern musicians and fans of the blues.

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald
The life of blues legend Robert Johnson becomes the centerpiece for this innovative look at what many consider to be America’s deepest and most influential music genre. Pivotal are the questions surrounding why Johnson was ignored by the core black audience of his time yet now celebrated as the greatest figure in blues history.

Trying to separate myth from reality, biographer Elijah Wald studies the blues from the inside — not only examining recordings but also the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, as well as examining original research. What emerges is a new appreciation for the blues and the movement of its artists from the shadows of the 1930s Mississippi Delta to the mainstream venues frequented by today’s loyal blues fans.

NERDIST WITH CHRIS HARDWICK: John Lithgow
Without any hyperbole, John Lithgow is a brilliant actor. Drama, comedy, television, theater, he nails it. The Nerdist podcast has really hit its stride. The past dozen or so episodes have been truly incredible and this interview with John Lithgow has surpassed all that have come before it. As Lithgow says at the end of the interview, Chris Hardwick is a fantastic host. Both shine in this one.

Drama: An Actor’s Education by John Lithgow
In this riveting and surprising personal history, John Lithgow shares a backstage view of his own struggle, crisis, and discovery, revealing the early life and career that took place out of the public eye and before he became a nationally known star.

Above all, Lithgow’s memoir is a tribute to his most important influence: his father, Arthur Lithgow, who, as an actor, director, producer, and great lover of Shakespeare, brought theater to John’s boyhood. From bedtime stories to Arthur’s illustrious productions, performance and storytelling were constant and cherished parts of family life. Drama tells of the Lithgows’ countless moves between Arthur’s gigs—John attended eight secondary schools before flourishing onstage at Harvard—and details with poignancy and sharp recollection the moments that introduced a budding young actor to the undeniable power of theater.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
John and Chris both raved about Steve Martin’s memoir. Anyone interested in the craft of comedy should read this one.

In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Emmy and Grammy Award winner, author of the acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martin has always been awriter. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written.

What have you listened to lately that added to your reading pile? Be sure to include the book, too.

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Written by Gabrielle

May 10, 2012 at 7:04 am

Who to Read: Daniel Mendelsohn on Classical Literature

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Last year culture critic and essayist Daniel Mendelsohn, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, participated in a talk on practice. As a trained classicist you wouldn’t expect him to critique Mad Men or praise Battlestar Galactica. But he does, and he does so from a wholly unique point of view.

Whether he’s reviewing a Greek play or a popular television show, Mendelsohn says that what makes writing an essay interesting is when he’s conflicted. While some writers keep themselves out of their criticism, Mendelsohn unabashedly injects himself into the response. “It’s not always about the thing, it’s also about you”. The friction that drives him begins with a battle inside his head; mixed feelings prove fruitful.

Most people will agree with Mendelsohn when he says it’s a great time to be a television critic, that “We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before.”

To him, The Wire, OZ, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos are evidence. He continues, “as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.”

It’s in this realm that Mendelsohn is the thinking pop culture junkie’s dream, applying his classical training to the seemingly brainless media we tune out to at the end of a long day. Reading his criticism reassures us that there’s an education in that hour before bed.

Mendelsohn says his classical training gives him certain tools: “classicists look at everything . . . they connect the dots. . . . After all,” he continues, “Greek tragedy was popular culture in its time.”

In a recent interview with The Browser, Mendelsohn argues that classics are the ultimate source: “Our kinds of plots, concerns, genres – all of them begin with the Greeks and the Romans. So anyone who has an interest in the history of literature in general would do well to study the classics.” I’d add that anyone aspiring to write smart criticism would be wise to study them as well.

Regarding what they hold for us now, Mendelsohn says, “Good literature always illuminates human nature and human action.” Then, echoing his father, he continues, “as long as people are the same, the classics are always relevant.”

There have been a few reissues and adaptations of the classics lately. Mendelsohn offers an insightful and informed take: “the Greeks were already playing with them, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m all for adaptation – it’s part of the classical heritage.”

After you read How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection of essays on modern novels, film, and what the classics can tell us about war, here are some classics he suggests:

The Iliad by Homer
“As I get older, I increasingly think The Iliad is one of the first works to wrestle with the existential problem: If you’re going to die, what do you want the space between now and when you’re going to die look like? Does it matter? Does anyone care? On what value system do you base your actions? That’s what The Iliad is really about – a guy confronted by the possibility that the entire structure of his values is not being honoured. So why fight? And that is a question about war that never goes away, either as an individual or a nation.” Of Homer he says, “if you look carefully at Homer, everything that happens is also a function of the personality of the characters.”

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s the one that naturally we all think of, and it’s the ultimate recasting of the classic – in a very self-conscious way.” UPDATE: As Daniel kindly mentions below, his thoughts on James Joyce’s Ulysses is can be read at Slate.

The Infinites by John Banville
“It’s an adaptation of a play called Amphitryon . . . Banville takes the plot of this ancient play – about how Zeus seduces in disguise the wife of Amphitryon, a woman called Alcmene, and begets Heracles from her, his divine child – and updates this to the present. The hero is a famous mathematician called Adam Godley (a significant name, obviously) who has come up with an equation to connect all the parallel worlds that could exist in the Einsteinian universe.”

Three plays by Euripides
“I’m a great advocate for three plays by Euripides that to my mind are never sufficiently adapted. They are what we call Euripides’s romances – the Ion, the Iphigenia in Tauris and the Helen. These plays remind you almost of the Shakespearean romances. People are left on a desert island or a strange shore, their mates are far away trying to find them and are also eventually shipwrecked, there are misrecognitions and mistaken identities, and eventually it all comes together in a happy ending.”

::[Links]::
Pre-order Daniel’s forthcoming essay collection, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (Aug. 2012)
Daniel Mendelsohn’s archive at The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men at The New York Review of Books 
On Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad (New Yorker podcast)

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