The week’s best arts and culture reads – including how the internet didn’t kill music, how smartphones changed reading and the first Western rock band to play North Korea.

Literature | Is Jonathan Franzen a ‘literary dinosaur’?

Franzen is an author who overwhelms his books. According to your taste he is either "the premier living American writer, or the last literary dinosaur". His name is, "in some quarters of the literary community, synonymous with sexism". His new novel, Purity, about a Wikileaks-like organisation called the Sunlight Project, is not going to help: “Repeatedly, men experience homicidal urges toward their mothers, wives and paramours; I counted at least six examples of the impulse, which seems rather a lot for a novel that’s not a murder mystery.” (Curtis Sittenfeld, Guardian, 1,500 words)

Language | A linguistic history of ‘trump’

When you look at the etymology and semantics of the word 'trump’, it is as though centuries of usage in many languages all converge on the present political moment. “Trump can be derived from Italian trionfi and so related to English triumph, or through High German to a cognate of the English trumpet, or through French to the verb tromper, meaning to deceive. A trump can be 'a person of outstanding excellence' (OED) – or a fraud”. (William Germano, Lingua Franca, 650 words)

History | Did Aristotle invent sex ed?

Aristotle’s Masterpiece was neither a masterpiece nor by Aristotle, but it was wildly popular from the date of its publication in 1684 and remained in print until the 1930s. It was a guide to sex and reproduction, largely plagiarised from earlier books on midwifery, interspersed with anatomical diagrams, suggestive lithographs and household remedies – “a distant ancestor of What to Expect When You’re Expecting“. (Mary Fissell, Public Domain Review, 2,300 words)

Pop music | Why the internet didn’t kill music

Art thrives in the age of the internet. Only the music industry has been radically disrupted, and even there the revenues are not lost, but differently distributed. “Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved. Against all odds, the voices of the artists seem to be louder than ever.” (Metered paywall) (Steven Johnson, The New York Times, 5,600 words)

Publishing | The True Detective of the 1940s

With their lurid covers and preposterous headlines, true crime magazines were “a significant, if not reputable, segment of the publishing industry” in America from the 1920s to the 1980s. At its peak in the 1940s True Detective was selling two million copies a month. It folded in 1996, the last of its breed, still cataloguing ever more perverse and violent crimes, while the American public moved on to other forms of titillation. (John Marr, True Crime, 1,770 words)

Rock music | Rocking out in North Korea

Laibach, the first Western rock band to play North Korea “is known more for its controversial aesthetics and performances than for its music”. The name has strong fascist associations in the band’s native Slovenia, and their early stage shows “took on the characteristics of mass totalitarian rallies”. Laibach appears to have been heavily influenced by Slovenia’s other main cultural export, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. (Amy Bryzgel, Conversation, 1,100 words)

Books | Reading by the soft glow of your phone

Smartphones are overtaking Kindles and tablets as the most popular way to read digital books. It’s partly a matter of convenience: “The best device to read on is the one you have with you”. But it’s also a function of screen size and resolution: “The average smartphone screen in 2014 was 5.1 inches – compared with a 3.9-inch average in 2011”. The use of dedicated e-readers – Kindles, Kobos and the like – is falling fast. (Jennifer Maloney, Wall Street Journal, 1,920 words)

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