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Writing Worth Reading

Why The Mona Lisa Stands Out

It wasn’t always considered the greatest painting of all time. Nineteenth-century critics preferred Titians and Raphaels. The Mona Lisa achieved iconic status only when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and recovered two years later. That exploit made it the most famous painting in the world; the cumulative effect of repeated exposure has persuaded us that it is also the best; it comes “wrapped in inherited opinions” (1,730 words)

The Tri-X Factor

In praise of Kodak Tri-X, the black-and-white film beloved by old-school photographers for its “grainy” and “dirty” tones. It was “flexible and forgiving”: you could muff the exposure and still get a decent shot. Devotees included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Don McCullin. When Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Anton Corbijn bought thousands of rolls of Tri-X and stuffed them in the fridge (3,830 words)

How Teams Really Work

What makes for a great sports team? “From a management perspective, the challenge is to establish two distinct but overlapping majorities: a majority of strong characters who have the ability to carry people with them, and a majority of players in form on any given day. A subtler kind of majority is also needed for long-term victory: a core of team-spirited players. The story of good teams is really the story of good senior players” (950 words)

Sleeping With The Enemy

Letters found in a Paris flea market recount a love story between a German soldier and a French secretary during the occupation of France. “Leather, cotton and wool had all but vanished. The clacking of wooden soles on Parisian cobbles was becoming the defining sound of occupation. But Johann had access to luxuries. A relationship between occupied and occupier, complicated, perilous, seductive, was starting to ensnare them all” (5,700 words)

Think Similar

On the nouning and adverbing of adjectives. It’s OK. “Advertisers love to push at the edges of taste in language. If this slogan — ‘Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should’ — from 1954, doesn’t bother you, you’re like most modern folks. But every educated Anglophone knew, when this came out, that ‘like’ couldn’t be used as a conjunction, and that this should be ‘Tastes good, as a cigarette should’” (730 words)

Stumbling Over The Past

Strange, beautiful, sad, admirable. Across Berlin and other European cities, 40,000 small brass plates embedded in front of buildings remember residents who died in the Holocaust. These are called Stolpersteine — “stumbling stones”. You might think this a government project, but it is a private initiative run by an artist, Gunter Demnig, who was born in Berlin and now lives in Cologne. You choose the subject; he makes the stone (3,182 words)

The Best Philosophy Is Hume’s Scepticism

“In theory, we have all learned Hume’s lesson, because a modest scepticism is the official philosophy of the modern sciences. In fact, we have not learned his lesson. Nobody has time to wait and see whether yesterday’s experiment will still stand several decades from now. Life is short and writers have deadlines. So scepticism is a philosophy that is not easy to live up to. But who would want a philosophy that was?” (392 words)

A Delicate Operation

Urologist specialising in prostate cancer contracts prostate cancer, opts for surgery. “Professor Dasgupta places his colleague’s gland on a piece of gauze and prods and stretches it. It is dark-reddish, grainy and meaty, and if I hadn’t just seen it functioning inside a human being I would have thought it as benign as a piece of chicken tikka” (3,786 words)

A Delicate Operation

Urologist specialising in prostate cancer contracts prostate cancer, opts for surgery. “Professor Dasgupta places his colleague’s gland on a piece of gauze and prods and stretches it. It is dark-reddish, grainy and meaty, and if I hadn’t just seen it functioning inside a human being I would have thought it as benign as a piece of chicken tikka”

Plumbing The Depths

Notes on Peak District potholing. Brief, lyrical. “The hours that followed were some of the strangest and most wonderful I have known. First came a hundred yards of wide tunnel, the stream at our feet chuckling louder as the roof slowly closed in, the surfaces of the walls elaborate with water-worn limestone: dimples, wax-drips, jellyfish orbs”

Thinking. Out. Loud

“Andrew Sullivan’s story is inherently implausible. How did an HIV-positive gay Catholic conservative from the poky English town of East Grinstead end up as one of the most powerful writers in America?”

Odessaphiles

At the Odessa Literary Museum. “Embracing the transients and flâneurs, this is, in effect, a museum of Russian literature. And, being Russian, it becomes a museum of censorship and repression, of genius and bravery, blood and lies”

Boy’s Own Broadmoor

Novelist recalls growing up in high-security psychiatric hospital, run by his father, housing some of Britain’s most violent criminals. “As a small boy you tend not to think about whether you’re having an unusual childhood”

Versions Of Stoppard

Interview. Reflections, at 75, on his life and art. “If you exclude authentic genius from the landscape, the wilder shores of Beckett for example, coherence and narrative tensions and catharsis are the business of a playwright”

Old Polymaths Never Die

On Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Were they the last great Oxbridge dons? “It is hard to think of any modern academics who will command such attention after their deaths—or leave such a treasure trove behind them”

Velvet Fist

Profile of Srdja Popovic, Serbian peaceful revolutionary. Helped to overthrow Milosevic in 2000. Started NGO that has trained pro-democracy activists in 40 countries. Source of instruction and inspiration for Arab Spring

Facebook: Like?

Super essay on how Facebook is affecting everday life. “It’s not just a technological marvel, a youth movement or a business story. After just eight years of existence, Facebook is the biggest social phenomenon since the telephone”

Alphabet Soup

Fun look at restaurant names. “There are three rules: Make sure it’s not rude, people can spell it, and it’s not in an obscure language.” Even so, Skin & Bones may be going too far. So too Duck Soup, next door to the Groucho Club

Neurons Versus Free Will

Modern diagnostic hardware such as fMRI and PET scanners offers intriguing pictures of brain activity. But these don’t tell us anything about intention, or morality, or deliberation. Brain and mind are not the same thing

In Search Of Serendipity

On the joy of finding things we are not in quest of. And why modern life doesn’t always help. The Internet is awesomely efficient but has also narrowed our horizons. Google can’t tell you what you didn’t know you wanted to know

What’s Up With Big Hair

“I ask my hairdresser, Nando, to explain the craze for hair extensions. He tells me that, for a woman who’s had thin hair all her life, they can be a dream come true—like a breast enlargement, only without the bloodshed”

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