Reviews and News:
The history of modern Britain through its census records: “Using the census records as the basis for a history of Britain is clearly an excellent idea for a book. Even so, Roger Hutchinson has carried it out particularly well. The ten-yearly snapshots allow him to identify the precise timing not only of the most profound social changes (between 1821 and 1831, the expansion of Britain’s cities was ‘breathtaking’), but also of the more minor ones (between 1851 and 1861, the number of professional photographers increased nearly 60-fold). Happily, too, he manages to do this without the result ever becoming merely a blizzard of statistics. Admittedly, if you have ever wondered how many Brits made artificial flowers for a living in 1851, then here’s where you’ll find out. (Spoiler alert: it was 3,510.) Yet Hutchinson’s sharp eye for the telling detail, his deft use of individual stories to illustrate the wider trends and his willingness to throw in any vaguely related facts that he (rightly) thinks we might find interesting make this a book to read with much pleasure, rather than simply to consult.”
The Brueghel business: “Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about. For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan ‘Velvet’ Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer.”
Late style: Why so many artists do their most interesting work in their final years.
First Amtrak, now Mall of America. America’s largest mall has announced a writer-in-residence competition that “will give a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words.” For some reason, my on-the-fly impressions of malls always come out Ecclesiastes, so I won’t be applying. Still, that $400 food court gift card is pretty tempting.
The origin and influence of Rorschach’s ink blots.
In Harper’s, Nat Segnit takes aim at writing manuals. Is it always right to be concise?
Essay of the Day:
In National Geographic, Mark M. Synnott writes about Dark Star, a cave in Uzbekistan’s Boysuntov mountain range that could be the largest in the world:
“The Russians spotted an entrance to the cave in 1984, but British cavers were the first to reach it and began exploring the system in 1990; they named it after a satirical American sci-fi movie from the 1970s. In the decades since, Dark Star, along with neighboring Festivalnaya (the two systems may someday be found to be connected), has drawn hard-core cavers from around the world.
“The allure of this huge system is similar to that which big mountains hold for climbers—with one difference: We know that Mount Everest is Earth’s highest peak, but the potential for conquering new and enormous subterranean voids is almost limitless. More is known about the terrain of Mars than about what lies hidden beneath the Earth’s surface. Krubera Cave in the republic of Georgia is currently the deepest known cave, at 7,208 feet. But Dark Star, with so many areas still to survey, is a prime candidate to take over the title.
“To date, eight expeditions have identified nearly 11 miles of Dark Star’s passageways, the deepest lying about 3,000 feet below the surface. But the system hasn’t been fully mapped, partly because of its remote location in a politically unstable region and partly because its vastness requires advanced technical abilities and a lot of equipment. Many expeditions have simply run out of rope. I can immediately see why. Just a thousand feet from our entry point, Larisa and I had already negotiated nearly a dozen roped sections.
“She and I had been paired at base camp: her assignment, to guide the ‘Amerikanski’ (I’m sure I heard them calling me that) to Gothic camp, more than a mile inside the mountain. I would spend two nights recording the team’s progress in mapping new parts of the cave and collecting scientific data.”
Read the rest.
Image: Frank Lloyd Wright’s unbuilt chapel
Poem: Malcolm Guite, “Two Poems”
Philip Freeman, Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes (Oxford, March 1): “Most people have heard of the Celts--the elusive, ancient tribal people who resided in present-day England, Ireland, Scotland and France. Paradoxically characterized as both barbaric and innocent, the Celts appeal to the modern world as a symbol of a bygone era, a world destroyed by the ambition of empire and the spread of Christianity throughout Western Europe. Despite the pervasive cultural and literary influence of the Celts, shockingly little is known of their way of life and beliefs, because very few records of their stories exist. In this book, for the first time, Philip Freeman brings together the best stories of Celtic mythology. Everyone today knows about the gods and heroes of the ancient Greeks, such as Zeus, Hera, and Hercules, but how many people have heard of the Gaulish god Lugus or the magical Welsh queen Rhiannon or the great Irish warrior Cú Chulainn? We still thrill to the story of the Trojan War, but the epic battles of the Irish Táin Bó Cuailgne are known only to a few. And yet those who have read the stories of Celtic myth and legend-among them writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis-have been deeply moved and influenced by these amazing tales, for there is nothing in the world quite like them. In these stories a mysterious and invisible realm of gods and spirits exists alongside and sometimes crosses over into our own human world; fierce women warriors battle with kings and heroes, and even the rules of time and space can be suspended. Captured in vivid prose these shadowy figures-gods, goddesses, and heroes-come to life for the modern reader.”