If you’re a fan of Barthes and of the Umberto Eco of How to Travel with a Salmon, you’ll likely enjoy this modest, minor,...

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MYTHOMANIA

TALES OF OUR TIMES, FROM APPLE TO ISIS

A deft updating of Parisian semiotics and midcentury cultural criticism for our own time.

Roland Barthes died in 1980, run down by a vehicle in what Walter Benjamin called the capital of the 19th century; having taken some of Benjamin’s ideas and run with them, Barthes was already long renowned for such centrifugal books as Writing Degree Zero and Mythologies. It is the second book that Oxford-based literary scholar Conrad (Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries, 2014, etc.) takes on in this sometimes fresh, sometimes tired look at the hidden structures and unacknowledged tendencies of our own day: why is Apple’s apple an apple, after all? Ah, there we go back to the Garden of Eden, where, Conrad cleverly opines, “the ban imposed by God had nothing to do with the wickedly tasty properties of the fruit: it was an arbitrary demonstration of divine power, like an order not to walk on the grass or feed the pigeons.” As with all cultural criticism, there’s an element of the unworldly in Conrad’s essays: of course the Apple icon on the computer has nothing to do with the biblical story, and who thought it did? There are some tired tropes at work, too, among others laments for the death of the book, which seems to be stubbornly refusing to die even as books are written about its demise. But there are many smart things about Conrad’s argument, too, as when, in a moment reminiscent of John Lennon on the popularity of God, he writes that Steve Jobs—who, it should be said, is far from his only subject here, though a prominent one—“brought about an awakening more permanent and widespread than Billy Graham’s soul-saving campaign.” True enough, even if Conrad seems to take arch delight in tweaking noses as he says so.

If you’re a fan of Barthes and of the Umberto Eco of How to Travel with a Salmon, you’ll likely enjoy this modest, minor, but entertaining rejoinder.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-500-29258-7

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

THE LIBRARY BOOK

An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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