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March 26, 2014

The Eternal Duel: A History of Commas

Commas are a touchy subject, having divided writers of the English language into two distinct camps for many years.

On one side of the battlefield are those in favor the Oxford or “serial” comma, which is endorsed by Oxford University Press and the Chicago Manual of Style. In the other corner of the ring are the Associated Press and New York Times, ever skeptical of any unnecessary punctuation.

NPR’s Linda Holmes has a succinct way of describing the root cause of the comma wars:

For those of you who enjoy the outdoors and would no more sort commas into classes than you would organize peanut butter jars in order of viscosity, the serial comma — or “Oxford comma” — is the final comma that comes in a sentence like this: ‘I met a realtor, a DJ, a surfer, and a pharmaceutical salesperson.’ (In this sentence, I am on The Bachelorette.)

Just to reiterate the obvious, some believe the final comma should be included, while others argue that it must be left out.

Incidentally, Holmes makes a decent point— when did anyone start taking commas so seriously? Although it sheds little light on the sheer amount of animosity tied up in this debate, here’s a brief timeline of the comma’s history so far:

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More News Is Being Written By Robots Than You Think

More News Is Being Written By Robots Than You Think

More News Is Being Written By Robots Than You Think

By: Jason Dorrier.

It’s easy to praise robots and automation when it isn’t your ass on the line. I’ve done it lots. But I may have to eat my own Cheerios soon enough.

Software is writing news stories with increasing frequency. In a recent example, an LA Times writer-bot wrote and posted a snippet about an earthquake three minutes after the event. The LA Times claims they were first to publish anything on the quake, and outside the USGS, they probably were.

The LA Times example isn’t special because it’s the first algorithm to write a story on a major news site. With the help of Chicago startup and robot writing firm, Narrative Science, algorithms have basically been passing the Turing test online for the last few years.

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Weighing Whitman

Walt Whitman    (1819 - 1892)

Walt Whitman
(1819 – 1892)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1892 Walt Whitman died. The high and controversial emotions which surrounded Whitman in life attended his death: in the same issue that carried his obituary, the New York Times declared that he could not be called “a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art,” while one funeral speech declared that “He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.”

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March 25, 2014

The Junkie Genius

Call Me Burroughs By Barry Miles

Call Me Burroughs
By Barry Miles

A new biography reveals a William S. Burroughs both ghastlier and more impressive than many previously thought.

By James Parker.

How do you write a masterpiece? It’s inside you, you know it’s inside you: How do you get it out? Well, if you’re William S. Burroughs, malingering and malefacting through the mid-20th century, you follow a procedure that resembles something from the nonsense kitchen of the poet Edward Lear, one of his recipes for Gosky Patties or Crumbobblious Cutlets. The instructions, roughly speaking, are these: flit around disreputably between Tangier, Copenhagen, Paris, and London, with coat-hanger shoulders and a love-starved face; irradiate yourself with drugs; consort with boy prostitutes and petty thieves; when you write, spew, expelling without stint the untreated matter, comical and terrible, of your low-life dream life (plot, character, structure—the hell with all that); enlist a couple of your loopiest friends to help you organize the resulting mess; do this for years, drifting chemical years, an endless process, until a publisher of erotica and the avant-garde tells you he wants a viable manuscript in two weeks, at which point you and your friends go into furious sleepless sweatshop mode.

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Howl Heard in Court

Allen Ginsberg    (1926 - 1997)

Allen Ginsberg
(1926 – 1997)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1957, U.S. Customs agents seized 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on the grounds of obscenity. Ginsberg and his lawyers were not hopeful when they learned that the trial judge was a Sunday school teacher who had recently sentenced five shoplifters to a screening of The Ten Commandments, but the ruling was unequivocally for the poem.

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March 17, 2014

Fielding & Cibber.

Henry Fielding    (1707 - 1754)

 

By Steve King.

On this day in 1740, writing as Captain Hercules Vinegar, Henry Fielding summoned poet laureate Colley Cibber (portrait) to court, charged with the murder of the English language. Fielding was a lawyer (soon, a Justice of the Peace) and a notorious wag; Cibber was a joke to many, not least for his rewrite of Shakespeare’s Richard III: the murder charge would have been popular.

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March 14, 2014

The 42 Best Lines from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series.

 

 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Jeff O’Neal.

In his best-known work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams explained the supreme utility of the towel in intergalactic travel:

“…it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very, very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Adams’ artistic sensibility is both specific and elusive. He can go from distraught to delighted in the space of a modifier. He combines Gary Larson’s irony, Bill Watterson’s wistful idealism, Oscar Wilde’s keen social observation, and Dorothy Parker’s mischievousness. But set in space. In short, he is a genre all to himself.

So, to remind fans of his great gifts and to introduce newcomers to his unmistakable voice, here are the 42 best lines from his Hitchhiker series, in no particular order:

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Folio Prize: George Saunders wins with short story collection

Tenth of December - George Saunders

Tenth of December – George Saunders

American writer George Saunders has won the inaugural Folio Prize for his “darkly playful” short story collection, Tenth of December.

The new prize, open to English-language writers from around the world, pre-empts the Man Booker Prize, which this year expands to a global level.

Saunders picked up his £40,000 cheque at a ceremony in central London on Monday night.

The eight-strong shortlist had been dominated by American authors.

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Grapes of Wrath Marches On.

John Steinbeck    (1902 - 1968)

John Steinbeck
(1902 – 1968)

By Steve King.

On this day in 1939, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published. Although Steinbeck believed that he had succeeded in his “very grave attempt to do a first-rate piece of work,” he was so convinced that his “revolutionary” book would be unpopular and unread that he tried to dissuade his publisher from having a large first printing.

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March 10, 2014

Catton, Tartt and Atwood on Baileys Women’s Prize longlist.

 

GoldfinchBy Sarah Shaffi.

Six debut novelists will compete against writers at the “top of their form” on the longlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction [full longlist below].

Former Women’s Prize winners Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, 2007) and Suzanne Berne (A Crime in the Neighbourhood, 1999) are nominated, while other major names include Donna Tartt, Margaret Atwood and 2013 Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton.

 

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