Ever since the days of Jane Austen, pop culture consumers have been drawn to stories about female protagonists who find “happily ever after” in marriage and motherhood. (See: the media spectacles surrounding Kate Middleton’s fairytale wedding and now fairytale baby; the storylines of best-selling novels like Helen Fielding’s Austen-inspired Bridget Jones novels and the works of Jennifer Weiner; films and TV shows like 2011’s Friends With Kids and even HBO’s Sex and the City—a series originally deemed celebratory of single women.)
The “marriage plot” has, thankfully, been scrutinized and questioned by some of the aforementioned works—and was perhaps most specifically critiqued by Jeffrey Eugenides’s best-selling 2011 novel The Marriage Plot. Nevertheless, selective omission has successfully kept this perfect, neatly two-dimensional story—of the heterosexual single woman finding happiness by becoming single no longer, welcoming a child, and creating a family—intact.
Which is why Jenny Offill’s new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published a tidy 15 years after the release of her highly praised debut novel Last Things, is so audacious.
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The boy sits cross-legged on the floor, pajama-fresh and waist-deep in torn wrapping paper. Above his head, on the tree, a weak galaxy of Christmas lights; to his right, the ruddy, old-timey radiations of a blazing hearth. But his face is otherwise illumined: out of the flat object he holds in his hands there rises a weird, disinterred glow, as if from some vault of alien bones. He gazes into it. It gazes into him. His lower lip hangs, blue-cold and glossy; his eyes have the luster of enchantment. Watching from the doorway—because there are always watchers in the picture, proxies for the artist—are his parents. Mom looks gratified; Dad looks worried. Title of painting: The iPad He’s Been Asking For.
What would Norman Rockwell be painting now, if he were with us and in his sad-eyed, penetrative prime? Gay weddings and hockey fights; piquant scenes at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through window; the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act, with particular attention to the round-faced child at the president’s elbow. Rockwell was as American as the Grateful Dead. He painted America, nothing but, and the fascination of his story—newly told by Deborah Solomon in American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell—lies in the genius by which this rather strange, marginal-feeling man contrived to represent the inner life of a mass audience. So complete was the transference, indeed, that the name Norman Rockwell remains to this day synonymous with the vanished health of the republic: youthful vim, family values, “a simpler time”—the kinds of thing that make Glenn Beck burst into tears.
The secret, clearly, is that Rockwell’s productions, his tableaux of American innocence, are not simple at all. If they were, we would have forgotten them by now.
Read more. [Image: Kevin Christy]
The British photographers were stationed on the front lines of the Somme, ready to capture the “Big Push” as it unfolded. Starting at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, line after line of British soldiers weighed down by 70‑plus pounds of equipment trudged straight into German machine-gun fire. Later that hot day, which would become the costliest day in the history of the British military and one of the deadliest single days of combat in any war, the wounded lay stranded in no-man’s-land. The lucky ones found shelter in shell holes; the rest were left exposed and baking in the sun. They could not be rescued yet, and so an anonymous official photographer attached to the Royal Engineers did what he could to record the scene. The picture he took, though, tells almost nothing without a caption. The landscape is flat and featureless. The dead and wounded look like dots. “Like a million bloody rugs,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of the Somme carnage. In fact, you can’t make out blood. You can’t even tell you’re looking at bodies.
Starting in the American Civil War, photographers could claim to have provided the iconic representations of war. Reproduced on stereographic cards and exhibited at Mathew Brady’s gallery in New York, Alexander Gardner’s pictures of dead soldiers strewn about the Antietam battlefield shocked the divided nation, and remain the searing record of destruction. Robert Capa’s falling soldier (possibly a staged picture) came to define the Spanish Civil War, as Joe Rosenthal’s picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima did, for Americans, the Second World War. Nick Ut’s photo of the crying, naked girl burned by napalm conveyed the horrors of Vietnam, it is often said, in a way that words could not. But in this litany, the First World War is the notable exception.
Read more. [Image: John Warwick Brooke/British Imperial War Museums]
In 2003, thanks to Michael Lewis and his best seller Moneyball, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, became a star. The previous year, Beane had turned his back on his scouts and had instead entrusted player-acquisition decisions to mathematical models developed by a young, Harvard-trained statistical wizard on his staff. What happened next has become baseball lore. The A’s, a small-market team with a paltry budget, ripped off the longest winning streak in American League history and rolled up 103 wins for the season. Only the mighty Yankees, who had spent three times as much on player salaries, won as many games. The team’s success, in turn, launched a revolution. In the years that followed, team after team began to use detailed predictive models to assess players’ potential and monetary value, and the early adopters, by and large, gained a measurable competitive edge over their more hidebound peers.
That’s the story as most of us know it. But it is incomplete. What would seem at first glance to be nothing but a memorable tale about baseball may turn out to be the opening chapter of a much larger story about jobs. Predictive statistical analysis, harnessed to big data, appears poised to alter the way millions of people are hired and assessed.
Yes, unavoidably, big data. As a piece of business jargon, and even more so as an invocation of coming disruption, the term has quickly grown tiresome. But there is no denying the vast increase in the range and depth of information that’s routinely captured about how we behave, and the new kinds of analysis that this enables. By one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007. Ordinary people at work and at home generate much of this data, by sending e-mails, browsing the Internet, using social media, working on crowd-sourced projects, and more—and in doing so they have unwittingly helped launch a grand new societal project. “We are in the midst of a great infrastructure project that in some ways rivals those of the past, from Roman aqueducts to the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie,” write Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in their recent book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. “The project is datafication. Like those other infrastructural advances, it will bring about fundamental changes to society.”
Read more. [Image: Peter Yang]
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, are almost undoubtedly the most enduring figures in the history of detective fiction. Even though the original book series first surfaced in 1887, popular TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic (BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary) are doing much to rekindle an interest in Doyle’s mystery-solving duo, while other mediums—from the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to the Ian Edginton and Davide Fabbri comic series Victorian Undead (which pits Holmes and Dr. Watson against a whole bevy of supernatural creatures)—are doing their part to insure that the Great Detective and his Boswell can be found in every nook and cranny of popular culture.
Despite the fact that Holmes and Dr. Watson are fictional characters, though, their cultural influence can even be discerned in the history of the world outside of the printed page. Ever since the end of the Victorian age, real detectives and police officials have often been held to the standards of fiction and have even seen their exploits re-cast as updated versions of one of Doyle’s many gaslight era tales. One American law-enforcement figure, in particular, bore the burden of living up to Holmes’s legacy: William J. Burns, an Irish-American sleuth who bore more than a passing resemblance to Doyle himself.
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Happy 76th Birthday, Hunter S. Thompson!
The journalist and gonzo innovator died in 2005. In honor of his birthday, here is a collection of stories from The Atlantic’s archives.
- He Was a Crook (June 1994) - On the passing of Richard Nixon, Thompson looked back on the man who became his arch-nemesis:
"Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing—a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time."
- Writing on the Wall (August 1997) - Matthew Hahn sat down with Thompson to interview him about politics, Bill Clinton, Nixon and his style of journalism. He ended up getting that, plus whiskey and orders to read aloud some of Thompson’s work:
"Aw, man. I drank this like some sort of sacrament for—I mean, constantly—for I think fifteen years. No wonder people looked at me funny. No offense. This is what I drank, and I insisted on it and I drank it constantly and I liked it. Jesus."
- Hunter S. Thompson Applies for a Job (October 2010) - Most people try to present themselves with tact and courtesy in a job application. In 1958, Thompson wrote to the Vancouver Sun in a letter that did the opposite:
”As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity.”
- The Hunter S. Thompson You Don’t Know (July 2011) - Although Thompson is remembered as a larger-than-life personality, Hampton Stevens argues that it’s his writing that should hold the fame.
[Image: Michael Ochs/Getty Images Archives]
One winter day in 1869, Mark Twain took the stairs to the second floor of a building near Boston Common and introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. The meeting would change both Twain and the magazine, and begin a friendship between editor and author that would become one of America’s most important literary collaborations.
The pieces collected in our new ebook, The Mark Twain Collection, are the fruits of that partnership. Twain wrote for The Atlantic from 1874 to 1880, publishing essays, recollections, short stories, and even the memoir Old Times on the Mississippi which appeared in seven installments beginning in 1875 and was later released as the book Life on the Mississippi.
We’re thrilled to announce this new ebook series, which will spotlight some of the most-celebrated writers who have appeared in The Atlantic since the magazine’s founding in 1857. These exclusive collections will feature the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Muir, among others who’ve been delighting readers for generations.