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Happy Birthday, Boz

Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.

What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less. Read more

Origin Story

The excitement generated by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech almost immediately became bigger news than the speech itself, prompting Winfrey to make a public demurral that she doesn’t “have the DNA” to run for president of the United States.

But the import of her message and the way she delivered it should not get lost within the cult-of-personality frenzy that has already spawned a hot market for Oprah 2020 merchandise.

We are all complicit in the sorry state of political speechcraft in 2018, tolerating a low bar despite Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. And this is because we only understand speeches as the tools of powerful men. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest communications problems was her inability to not give a man’s speech. She also fell into the storifying sand trap—touchy-feely anecdote with a first name, three banal sentences, and no resonance whatsoever. Read more

Unknowing

Years ago I was looking through remaindered books in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore and came across The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, by the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. The words seemed familiar, so I read the preface.

Danto titled his study of the then-current art world after something he remembered from the Muriel Spark novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s character Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Yes, that’s right, I thought.

Having always fancied using that title for a book, Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.” Read more