First up: A letter from Jane Austen to her sister goes under the hammer: “Letters from Austen seldom come up for auction, because Cassandra and other members of the novelist’s family destroyed the majority of them in the 1840s. Of the estimated 3,000 missives written by Austen, only around 161 survive, of which around 95 are to Cassandra. The letter, dated 16 September 1813 and written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, runs to four pages. Dealing with everything from a trip to the dentist with her nieces to her mother’s health (Austen is hopeful she is ‘no longer in need of leeches’), it is ‘a gem’, according to Kathryn Sutherland, an Austen scholar and trustee of Jane Austen’s House Museum.”
Matthew Walther reviews Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.
What is the oldest restaurant in the world? “A tiny trattoria in Rome that specialises in tripe and boasts Caravaggio, Goethe and Keith Richards among its past customers has laid claim to being the world’s oldest restaurant and hopes to knock a Spanish rival out of the record books.”
A complex portrait of Lord Byron: “His club foot, he thought, made him damaged goods; he blamed this disfigurement on his mother, who wore a corset throughout her pregnancy and refused to remove it when she went into labour. He also had a tendency to obesity, for which his plump mother was likewise held accountable. His remedy was a succession of absurd, obsessive diets, including one that confined him to hard biscuits and soda water, supplemented by tobacco as an appetite suppressant. Byron’s aversion to ‘animal food’, meaning meat, dramatised his alienation from England, since John Bull proverbially gorged on roast beef. ‘To be carnivorous,’ Peattie says, ‘was to be patriotic’ . . . But Byron’s abstinent regime so weakened him that his death in the Greek marshes was as much due to starvation as to the quackery of his doctor, who diagnosed epilepsy and siphoned off half the blood in his body.”
Men and the sea: “The Boundless Sea is a work of immense scholarship, a forensic tribute to human enterprise. Did you know that Greco-Roman navigators ventured as far as Malaya? That standards of living in Roman Carthage and Alexandria were ‘perhaps higher than at any time before the 18th century’? That south of Yemen, on the island of Socotra, there is a cave beloved of seafarers who, between the 1st century BC and the 6th century AD, left inscriptions in languages including Sanskrit, Greek, Indian, Persian, Ethiopic and South Arabian, allowing us to trace some of their networks? ‘A historian ignores the smaller, apparently insignificant places at his or her peril,’ Abulafia notes.”
A 200-year history of bicycles in New York: “New York has maintained a shaky relationship with its bicyclists since 1819. Back then, people tired of walking or hoofing it around town adopted a European import, the velocipede—a primitive “wheeled contraption” with no pedals. New Yorkers—mostly men—rode these early bicycles through Vauxhall Gardens, City Hall Park, and Bowling Green, but not for long. Just three months after the velocipede made its appearance, city fathers—who happily put up with ‘carts, carriages, pedestrians, and hogs’—banned the device, imposing a $5 fine on violators. From the beginning, the bicycle was considered a ‘whimsical invention,’ an unrealistic mode of transportation. It took nearly a half century for the bicycle, much modified, to reappear. Following the Civil War, cycling became trendy again, fulfilling a growing population’s need for transportation and recreation. Dozens of bicycling schools opened citywide for untrained adults. In newly built Central Park, 2,786 bicycles were spotted in one spring month. It didn’t take long before there were ‘enough’ cyclists to ‘warrant some public infrastructure.’ Cyclists—not car owners—first lobbied for smooth surfaces, whether concrete or wood, over cobblestone. Yet as cyclists—including, now, some women—traversed the streets for work and leisure, city officials again viewed them as a problem. In 1873, Brooklyn’s common council banned bikes from streets during busy afternoon hours; cyclists could only ‘exercise’ before 1 p.m.”
Essay of the Day:
In Spiked, Alex Cameron argues that street art is a crime and should be punished not celebrated:
“Street art is an individual act that speaks of a chronic lack of consideration for anyone else. Its creators think they know best. They decide what, when and where. The people who live there, and must live with it, don’t have a say. There is no ‘demand’ for street art from ordinary people, and there is no consensual or participatory impulse on the part of the artist. It is only one person’s view of what should be and what is good for ordinary people. It is the act of an entitled, middle-class narcissist.”
Photo: Lake Lucerne
Poem: Jim Harrison, “The Current Poor”
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