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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


The first flight of the Wright Brothers spanned 120 feet, or less than the length of Chicago O'Hare's terminal K. Their longest flight on the 17th of December one hundred years ago, which spanned 852 feet in 59 seconds, wouldn't have cleared O'Hare's tarmac. Were they to try it today, they would barely merit the attention of O'Hare's control tower, if not for the jarring sight of those double-decker, muslin fabric wings stretched over a spruce frame, in the midst of a flock of slender silver jets. One wonders what the Wright Brothers would make of O'Hare, the destination of the journey they started on that North Carolina beach.

O'Hare registered a record 922,787 takeoffs and landings in 2002, restoring its status as the busiest airport in the country (and this after a sharp drop in air travel following September 11, 2001). As of this past October, the airport had hosted 50 million passengers so far this year, or nearly ten times the population of the Chicago metropolitan area. Its dimensions, in turn, seem ten times larger than other places people regularly inhabit. Unlike cars and garages, and trains and depots, airports are designed on a scale that makes humans seem tinier than usual—from the interminable terminals and their endless waiting rooms with padded chairs to the vast tarmac, that land of a thousand driveways, to the ultimate act of rising into the air and regarding the toylike buildings and roads below. Although Hugh Grant reminds us in the opening scenes of Love Actually that airports host constant heartfelt reunions, the gigantism is starkly impersonal—even the tram that shuttles passengers between terminals at O'Hare pulls up and disembarks automatically, without a driver.

When the Wright Brothers first starting running experiments in the Outer Banks of North Carolina—enticed, says the New York Times , by "the treeless expanse and remoteness of the place"—it marked a dissolution between transportation and a sense of place. Trains disgorged passengers in bustling city centers, cars tread each foot of road into town, but airplanes send us into the ether, a dreamlike trek removed from recognizable surroundings—and from gravity itself. Airports, too, are utopian, in the sense of the root word outopos, or "no place," with their generic atmosphere, remote locations, and invariable surroundings of hotels and highways that make them all seem indistinguishable. When a friend reports he is coming to Chicago, then clarifies that he is coming via O'Hare (whose code is ORD for Orchard Field, as the place was known before being named for war hero Buddy O'Hare) and staying in a nearby hotel, my heart sinks and I think, "That's not really Chicago."

The most remarkable irony of flight one hundred years after the Wright Brothers is how mundane we have made it seem. "We will be cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet," a flight attendant rattled off before my last flight, without a trace of amazement. What was the Wrights' wondrous mechanical and poetic achievement in 1903, which caused "silent shock" in observers at the time, as Albert Louis Zambone notes in the November/December issue of B&C, is now a chore to travelers. One frequent flyer told Wired two years ago how he identifies his kind: "The pallid complexion, red watery eyes, deeply furrowed brow, the look of hunger for home, for edible food and a sleepable bed." Cullen Murphy, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, defined the concept of purgatory as "unpleasantness for transients, the afterlife's O'Hare." I fly only once or twice a year, and when I do, I am transfixed by the celestial grandeur outside the window, an evident penetration of heaven's lobby. And I wonder, how is it that racing through the clouds in a massive machine—an astounding possibility furnished by the Wright Brothers—has come to be considered such a tedious task?



From the BBC:

A group of shepherds from Lesotho are making an impact in the musical world with their creation of 'Junk funk'—songs performed on instruments made from rubbish. With recycled material including disused oil cans, car tires, twigs and a kitchen sink, the band has managed to put together two fiddles, a bass guitar of sorts—and a drum. The band members are shepherds from Malealea village on Lesotho's Maluti Mountains. They are self-taught musicians, reminiscent of what East Africans call jua kali—informal artisans who earn their living by working in the open under the hot sun. The seven have now formed Sotho Sounds, composing music and making instruments in between looking after animals. South African Risenga Makondo became the group's producer and with the help of Womad Foundation put out their debut CD, Sotho Sounds Malealea, in July. Full story

From the Washington Post:

LOS ANGELES — Oblivious to the cars whizzing by a few feet from him on a downtown freeway, Kuva Zakheim cleaned a cement wall, picking away at years of grit and grime that mar one of this city's humble art treasures: a public mural. As he peeled away layers of gang writing with the precision of a surgeon, the flesh tones of a man's cheek slowly started to appear. The mural, titled "7th Street Altarpiece," was coming back to life. Zakheim is at the forefront of a campaign by city and state officials to resurrect the public art that lines the freeway walls and overpasses around Los Angeles, and preserve a colorful urban museum that never closes its doors. Murals are everywhere here. … More than 1,500 works of art whisper the city's darkest secrets and trumpet its proudest accomplishments. But many of these pieces of the city's soul have been forgotten, left to suffer the decades-long effects of pollution and sunlight, and the late-night whims of graffiti artists, called "taggers." Full story


On the occasion of Stephen King's lifetime achievement medal at the National Book Awards, National Public Radio's Terry Gross re-aired her interviews with King, including his comments on why he enjoyed horror stories as a child.

I liked the total surrender of emotional control. … I'd been raised in a family where emotional control was a really important thing. You weren't supposed to show you were afraid. You weren't supposed to show that you were in pain or frightened … Emotional control was sort of a requirement. And for me the terror was what really appealed to something that I think is probably just inside people … I loved it and I loved giving up that control. …

Basically all I'm doing is saying things that other people are afraid to say. The job's not much different than being a comedy writer. You say, What is the one thing that nobody wants to talk about, that everybody will sort of raise their hands in horror? What can I say that will be the literary equivalent of taking a fork and scraping it across a blackboard or making someone bite in on a lemon?


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• One of the surest ways to deaden most any kind of bliss is to over-analyze and over-explain. If you wanted to make a rapturous, transcendent spiritual experience seem more methodical and mundane, one thing to do would be to hook up electrodes to your scalp, print out a map of your brain activity, and take other measurements of your biochemistry to get some data on what was happening. That's what Montreal neuroscientists are doing with the Carmelite nuns. The nuns, who live reclusive lives in a local convent and occasionally experience unio mystica—a profound physical sensation of the presence of God—agreed to participate in the experiments as a way to deepen their understanding of God. But a piece on the experiments in the Canadian Globe and Mail, as careful and in-depth as it is (unlike much religion writing in the mainstream media), will leave believers wondering what exactly is to be gained from so-called neurotheology. How, and how far, can science illumine our spiritual knowledge—both what we know spiritually, and what we know about our spirituality? How can neuroscience deepen faith, and how can it overwhelm it? Without opting for naivete, can we say that this is the type of inquiry that may result in much data but little wisdom? Full story

Related: Newsweek's May 2001 cover story on neurotheology

• When Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer during her husband's presidency, it was an allusion to an ancient political habit of utilizing astrologers as political advisers, and a reminder that astrology has never fully faded away. As recently as the 1600s, says the Boston Globe, astrologers were respected thinkers and analysts in Western society. But when Kepler—"the astrologer who killed astrology," as one astronomer calls him—gained ground with his geocentric and coldly mechanical model of the universe, astrology began to fall out of favor. The Globe recounts astrology's history and examines how it has survived to this day—not only in those daily newspaper columns but, to some extent, in stock market analysis—and how astrology relates to questions of free will. Full story

• There are few reliable predictions about what will happen next at Guantanamo Bay. The posters in the exercise yards at Guantanamo Bay bear children's faces and the printed plea, "Dad, how can I grow up without you?" As much as the lure of freedom and reunion with family is meant to encourage detainees' cooperation, leaving their current state of limbo is a prospect neither Guantanamo's 660 inmates nor their captors are certain how to pursue. The detainees are forbidden to talk to lawyers, and 32 have attempted suicide in the last year and a half. They are there to keep the U.S. safe from terrorism, but it is unclear how many of them pose any danger; the U.S. government acknowledges some of them were actually kidnapped by Afghan warlords and sold to the U.S. for our bounty for terrorists. Now the Supreme Court is looking into their legal status. Time's Nancy Gibbs goes to Guantanamo to see the situation for herself. Full story

Related: What we can learn about our occupation of Iraq from our post-World War II occupation of Germany, from Foreign Affairs
  • One complaint about Guantanamo detention is that it is unconstitutional. The nice thing about decrying something as unconstitutional is that you invoke a sacred sense of civic righteousness and more than two centuries of history. Europe lacks that luxury. Not only will the European Union's eventual constitution be so fresh as to lack prestige, but as the London Guardian explains, the still-embryonic constitution is already embroiled in a intercontinental battle. Italy has threatened not to relinquish its temporary presidency of the EU, while Britain has threatened not to consider the new constitution "essential." Poland and Spain are also unhappy. The Guardian breaks down the battle. Full story/AP update
  • "There are no second-rate genres, only second-rate practitioners," said Joyce Carol Oates, according to the online cultural review Butterflies and Wheels. "If that is indeed the case," says Christopher Orlet in B&W, "it is either today's writers who are second-rate or something unfortunate has happened to the essay to precipitate its decline. Or both." Orlet agrees with the common diagnosis of contemporary essays as "thin, watery things written by self-absorbed sentimentalists," but his own essay is rather flaccid as it proceeds it take on critics of literary snobbery, and as Orlet avoids making prescriptions of its own. It would have helped to address questions such as these: in an era of prolific publishing, cannot essays and short stories spare us the indulgence of an writer whose full-length book would improve little upon the condensed original? And is the "personal essay"—in addition to being self-centered—at least a noble effort to ground a potentially abstract idea? Full essay
  • Miscellaneous: The Boston Globe on the hype about environmentally friendly architecture - The New York Times on reforming "farmer welfare" and Slate's organic farming diary—CBS' 60 Minutes on Abercrombie and Fitch's "looks discrimination" - The Atlantic's Cullen Murphy on our plunging standards
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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