BBC Culture

Amazon and the genius of Jeff Bezos

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The week’s best arts and culture reads – including an overview of Amazon, an essay on Orwell and why Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece.

Marrying libraries
Anne Fadiman | Book Keeping | 11 February 2014
Beautiful short essay about love and books. “After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation. It was unclear, however, how we were to find a meeting point between his English-garden approach and my French-garden one. At least in the short run, I prevailed, on the theory that he could find his books if they were arranged like mine but I could never find mine if they were arranged like his.” 

Cheap words
George Packer | New Yorker | 10 February 2014
Big think-piece about the history of Amazon, the genius of Jeff Bezos, and the fate of books. Amazon has led revolutions of scale and technology in bookselling and publishing. But its basic innovation has been one of sensibility. Unlike other publishers and booksellers, Amazon truly doesn’t care whether a book is any good or not. “Jeff is trying to create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand.”        

George Orwell’s schooldays
Sam Leith | Guardian | 8 February 2014
Orwell’s essay on his prep-school days, Such, Such Were the Joys, is “sodden with self-pity”. The tales of squalor and violence are straight out of Dickens. Indeed, they are hard to credit − perhaps because Orwell made them up, for literary or political purposes.         “Did Orwell fabricate a miserable childhood? Or – in the trowelling on of improbably damning detail – was there a more general literary project in hand?”

Proto-Fascist megalomaniac prince who shaped modern Italy
Jonathan Galassi | The New Republic | 8 February 2014
Gabriele D’Annunzio, writer and libertine, is remembered today, if at all, as “the very personification of Italian decadence, a creature of unembarrassed and unbridled appetite”. His radical political posturing enthralled Marinetti’s futurists and prepared the way for Mussolini’s Fascists. Hemingway called him “a jerk”. Lucy Hughes Hallett’s new biography argues that he was, for all his faults, a “major poet”.

Sit on the floor
Nico Muhly | 8 February 2014
Composer tells what it’s like to have a new opera produced at the Met. “My role was avuncular rather than paternal. I sat there, but tried to look a little bit distracted so as not to feel like a vengeful harpy, obsessing over the score. I made encouraging grunts and muffled noises, and tried, as best I could, to promote a calm and productive team spirit. I’d go and get coffee for anybody who wanted it.”   

Why Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece
Dorian Lynskey | New Statesman | 7 February 2014
The Coen brothers’ film is “fabulous, complex, divisive”. Oscar Isaac’s performance as Davis is perfectly judged: “If he were any less talented we wouldn’t want him to succeed. If he were any better we wouldn’t understand why he was failing.” Davis is “clearly profoundly depressed”. He’s “not demanding to be a star; he just wants to eat and sleep”. Critics complain of “tonal monotony”, but this film “looks how depression feels”. 

Red holidays of genius
Christine Baumgarthuber | New Inquiry | 4 February 2014
Italian futurists saw food as a “weapon in the fight against tradition”. It could change the body, so why not the mind? In March 1931 they opened the Tavern of the Holy Palate in Bologna, devoted to futurist cooking. On the menu, Chicken Fiat: “A good-sized chicken is boiled, then roasted. After its removal from the oven, a large cavity must be dug in the bird’s shoulder and filled with ball bearings”.    

Maurice Cowling, Tory nihilist
Matthew Walther | American Conservative | 30 January 2014
Entertaining profile of “bilious, foul-mouthed, poker-playing” British historian Maurice Cowling, advocate of “reactionary bloodiness”, who encouraged his students to be “vile” in argument. He lived “amid empty whiskey bottles, Mills & Boon erotica, and pages torn from obscure volumes of ecclesiastical history”. He insisted that “the only people who understood his work were those who were offended by it.”

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