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Column: The Reading File

Education of a writer

Thirty-five years ago, Jannika Hurwitt did an extensive interview for the Paris Review with Nadine Gordimer, the South African Nobel laureate in literature who died this week. Read the full interview at Here is an excerpt.



When I was 11 — I don't know how my mother did this — she took me out of school completely. For a year I had no education at all. But I read tremendously. And I retreated into myself, I became very introspective. She changed my whole character. Then she arranged for me to go to a tutor for three hours a day. She took me there at 10 in the morning and picked me up at 1. It was such incredible loneliness — it's a terrible thing to do to a child. There I was, all on my own, doing my work; a glass of milk was brought to me by this woman — she was very nice, but I had no contact with other children. I spent my whole life, from 11 to 16, with older people, with people of my mother's generation. She carted me around to tea parties — I simply lived her life. When she and my father went out at night to dinner she took me along. … I got to the stage where I could really hardly talk to other children. I was a little old woman.

Sweet and sour music

In the Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about the "brilliance of creative pairs," using John Lennon and Paul McCartney as prime examples. Read "The Power of Two" in full at Here's an excerpt.


The work John initiated tended to be sour and weary, whereas Paul's tended to the bright and naive. The magic came from interaction. Consider the home demo for Help! — an emotionally raw, aggressively confessional song John wrote while in the throes of the sort of depression that he said made him want "to jump out the window, you know." The original had a slow, plain piano tune, and feels like the moan of the blues. When Paul heard it, he suggested a countermelody, a lighthearted harmony to be sung behind the principal lyric — and this fundamentally changed its nature. It's not incidental that in the lyrics John pleaded for "somebody … not just anybody." He knew he was at risk of floating away, and Paul helped put his feet back on the ground. And John knocked Paul off his, snorting at his bromides (as with Paul's original "She was just 17 / Never been a beauty queen") and batting against his sweet, optimistic lyrics, as in the song Getting Better. "I was sitting there doing 'Getting better all the time,' " Paul remembered, "and John just said, in his laconic way, 'It couldn't get no worse.' And I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John."


Beware 'bicycle face'

At Joseph Stromberg writes about "the 19th-century health scare that told women to worry about 'bicycle face.' " Read about the "dangers" of bicycle face in full at Here's an excerpt.


In 1890s Europe and the United States, bicycles were seen by many as an instrument of feminism: They gave many women a measure of increased mobility, began to redefine Victorian ideas about femininity and were eagerly taken up by many women active in the suffrage movement. Bikes helped stoke dress reform movements, which aimed to reduce Victorian restrictions on clothes and undergarments so that women could wear clothes that allowed them to engage in physical activities. All this triggered a backlash from many (male) doctors and onlookers, who cited all sorts of reasons to dissuade women from riding bikes. In general, they argued, bicycling was an excessively taxing activity, unsuitable for women — it would not only lead to bicycle face, but exhaustion, insomnia, palpitations, headaches and depression.


A tarnished golden age

In Politico Magazine, Nobel economist Joseph E. Stiglitz writes about "The Myth of America's Golden Age." Read his essay in full at Here's an excerpt.


I hadn't realized when I was growing up in Gary, Ind., an industrial town on the southern shore of Lake Michigan plagued by discrimination, poverty and bouts of high unemployment, that I was living in the golden era of capitalism. It was a company town, named after the chairman of the board of U.S. Steel. It had the world's largest integrated steel mill and a progressive school system designed to turn Gary into a melting pot fed by migrants from all over Europe. But by the time I was born in 1943, cracks in the pot were already appearing. To break strikes — to ensure that workers did not fully share in the productivity gains being driven by modern technology — the steel companies brought African-American workers up from the South who lived in impoverished, separate neighborhoods. Smokestacks poured poisons into the air. Layoffs left many families living hand to mouth. Even as a kid, it seemed clear to me that the free market as we knew it was hardly a formula for sustaining a prosperous, happy and healthy society.

Column: The Reading File 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:41pm]
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