I have designed my own epitaph:


de EASTON PIERS in Agro Wilton

Arm: Regalis Societatis Socius

Infra situs est


Anno 1626–

 John Aubrey

John Aubrey was born in 1626 at Wiltshire County, England and died 1697 with nothing to his name but his considerable debts and a poorly-received anthology of hermetic philosophy. He never married, had no children, and held no titles or estates. He was educated at Oxford, but never earned a shilling or had a real job in his entire life. In the confined world of 17th century English aristocracy, he had a reputation as an incorrigible gossip, an eccentric bookworm, an impractical dreamer, and a genius of cadging money and booze from his friends.

Aubrey left nothing to the world—nothing, except for his collected papers and notes.

Continue reading “Aubrey!”

Mendace Veritas

munchausenThe Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a magnificent little book in every sense. Joanne Turnbull’s translation is excellent, reproducing Krzhizhanovsky’s loopy, punning Russian into loopy, punning English modeled on Chesterton and Poe (an inveterate Anglophile, K. himself was hugely influenced by these two). Her very readable endnotes, made in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov, open up the text’s labyrinth of references to readers who can’t tell Omsk from Tomsk, besides being a neat little catalog of early Soviet ephemera in its own right (did you know the Bolsheviks bankrolled a hypnotist for a while?). The physical book is beautifully produced and set, although anybody who’s ever leafed through a book published by The New York Review of Books Classics could guess as much. Continue reading “Mendace Veritas”

There is No Literature Cure: Books, the U.S. Presidential Election, and Other Wastes of Time

First Drafts

This writer has never quite bought into that old American idiom, “stranger than fiction.” The idea that fiction is the yardstick by which our weirdness is measured doesn’t give enough credit to reality: does any fictional invention  baffle as much as quantum mechanics or the Voynich Manuscript? To be more blunt, reality tends to surprise us when fiction–even the really good stuff–has to follow rules and combine its constituent parts in a way that produces pleasing harmonies. I say this by way of introduction to a strange moment in history where reality is not stranger than fiction, but as strange as fiction; that is to say: a bit too on the nose. Continue reading “There is No Literature Cure: Books, the U.S. Presidential Election, and Other Wastes of Time”

Notes on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reading, and the Visual Imagination

Notes on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reading, and the Visual Imagination


I love it when a hunch pays off. I’ve seen The Grand Budapest Hotel many times in the last three years, and have never lacked for things to say about it (principally: it’s a modern classic that deserves attention, respect, and love). But it was only on a recent viewing where I had a thought, as I often do. I made a note of it, as I often do, and then went back to watching the movie. And when I was flipping through old reviews of the movie, as I often do, I saw my odd thought—or something like it—under somebody else’s byline. Writing for Roger Ebert’s old site, Glenn Kenny says:

An odd thought occurred to me a few hours after I saw writer/director Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” for the first time. It was that Anderson would be the ideal director for a film of “Lolita,” or a mini-series of “Ada.” Now I know that “Lolita” has been filmed, twice, but the fundamental problem with each version has nothing to do with ability to depict or handle risky content but with a fundamental misapprehension that Nabokov’s famous novel took place in the “real world.” For all the authentic horror and tragedy of its story, it does not. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art,” Humbert Humbert, the book’s monstrous protagonist/narrator, writes at the end of “Lolita.” Nabokov created Humbert so Humbert might create his own world (with a combination of detail both geographically verifiable and stealthily fanciful), a refuge from his own wrongdoing.

Alright, not precisely the same thought, but Kenny and I were on the same track: we were thinking about narrative and realism while watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Kenny was thinking about Nabokov; I was thinking about the shape of Mexico. More on that in a minute. Continue reading “Notes on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Reading, and the Visual Imagination”

Trees (Part II)

Trees (Part II)

This is the second part of my essay “Trees.” The first part can be found here.

Kiidk’yaas—the Ancient Tree, in Haida—was a spruce tree in Haida Gwai, British Columbia,with a rare genetic mutation that tinted its needles yellow. The tree was felled in 1997 by the logger Grant Hadwin as an act of protest against Canada’s timber industry, although his unusual method of complaint found no sympathizers. His trial was scheduled on the island of Haida Gwai; distrusting of public transit, Hadwin decided to take his own kayak from the port of Prince Rupert and paddle himself to court. Haida Gwai was 60 miles to the west; he was last seen paddling 25 miles north of Prince Rupert, heading towards Alaska; his kayak was found another 50 miles north, although there was no sign of Hadwin, whose fate remains unknown. A guitar dedicated to Canadian history was made using pieces of wood from Kiidk’yaas, Pierre Trudeau’s favorite canoe paddle, a ballet costume owned by Karen Kain, and Paul Henderson’s hockey stick.

Continue reading “Trees (Part II)”



For at least a century, L’Arbre du Ténéré—the Tree of the Desert—was the most isolated tree in the world, separated from the nearest tree by two hundred miles of desert. The Tuaregs of the area considered it sacred; merchants circled their caravans around it for good luck on the route from Agadez to Bilma; when a well was dug nearby, the roots of the tree were there at the bottom, more than one hundred feet below ground. The most isolated tree in the world died in 1973, when it was struck by a drunk driver.

Continue reading “Trees”

What Americans Know

What Americans Know

Americans know much about science. Four in ten adult Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, which a similar number of Americans believe was between six and ten thousand years ago (anatomically modern humans have existed for at least 50,000 years; the Earth is 4,500,000,000 years old, and the universe is about 13,700,000,000 years old). 44% of Americans are “very certain” that Adam and Eve were real people; 41% believe that humans did not evolve from other life forms; one in five are “absolutely certain” that the Bible is an inerrant record of scientific and historical fact. Nearly half the adult population of the United States does not know that an electron is smaller than an atom; more than half believe that viruses can be killed by antibiotics. One third of Americans are not worried about climate change; 57% do not believe that it will affect them or their way of life; 31% doubt that the catastrophic rise in global temperature since the Industrial Revolution is not caused by human activity; one in ten believe that climate change will never happen (against previous polls, Gallup notes approvingly, these numbers are the highest they have ever been among Americans). One in four Americans is not aware that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Continue reading “What Americans Know”