Scotland, Mirrors, Babies, Polar Bears, Oxen, Pit Bull Terriers, Giraffes, Chinese Poetry, Frederick

Hic sunt camelopardus: this historical edition of The Browser is presented for archaeological purposes; links and formatting may be broken.

Dear Friend of The Browser,
Please find in this first email of 2017 a selection of the pieces that gave me most pleasure in 2016. I have called it a “Best Of 2016” for simplicity’s sake, though of course no such ranking is really possible. I hope only that you find here one or two pieces that delight you as much as they did me. — Robert Cottrell

The Tree Farm

Cal Flyn | Granta | 1st November 2016

BEST OF 2016 Gorgeous. A journey northward from Inverness in search of the trees and forests of Scotland — the ancient, the ruined, the lost-for-ever. “They call this the Flow Country, from the Old Norse flóa, meaning flood. The Vikings would have felt quite at home here, the closest thing Britain has to subarctic tundra. One’s eye may roam for miles all around, unfettered, over empty lands where once there were trees, and then there were people, and now there is nothing” (6,300 words)

The Mirror Effect

Ian Mortimer | Lapham's Quarterly | 9th November 2016

BEST OF 2016 The invention of the glass mirror around 1300, and its spread across Europe in the following 200 years, allowed people to see themselves clearly for the first time. In 1400 mirrors were for kings. By 1500 the prosperous city merchant could afford one. “He could see his own reflection and thus knew how he appeared to the rest of the world.” One quick consequence was “a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy” (1,400 words)

Babies In Art

Rivka Galchen | Paris Review | 5th May 2016

BEST OF 2016 “I had often wondered about the distinctive tilt of Mary’s head in so many paintings and sculptures. It’s a very recognizable tilt, you see it again and again, across time and geography. After I held my young baby again and again and again and again I very clearly recognized the angle of the tilt of Mary’s head; it is the tilt of the head of babies who are just beginning to develop the strength of their neck muscles. When I hold my baby, she holds her head at that exact same angle” (480 words)

Marooned Among Polar Bears

BEST OF 2016 A Russian helicopter crashes into the Arctic ocean. The pilot fights his way out and swims to an ice floe. He has no locator beacon, no phone, and barely any water. He is freezing to death. And his problems are only just beginning: A polar bear comes into view, and lopes straight towards him. “Biologists will tell you that the bear has one of two motives: hunger or curiosity. Both are bad for the pilot since polar bears often satisfy their curiosity with their teeth” (3,800 words)

A Goring Ox

Adam Kirsch | Tablet | 19th July 2016

BEST OF 2016 Talmudic jurisprudence. “According to Exodus, an ox that kills a human being is to be stoned to death immediately; yet it is only after goring three times that the ox earns the designation ‘forewarned’. How, then, could any ox ever be forewarned, when it wouldn’t live long enough to kill three times? One answer would be that the Bible is incoherent on this point. But such an answer is unavailable to the rabbis, who are fairly free in elaborating the Bible, but never simply repudiate it”

Dogs Of Character

Bronwen Dickey | VQR | 30th March 2016

BEST OF 2016 A portrait of a dog-lover and her dogs. So far so conventional, save that the dogs are American pit bull terriers. “Diane Jessup’s carport looked like a hastily abandoned military training camp. Empty metal crates were stacked up with their doors fallen open as though something had escaped. Growling hellhounds on rusted metal signs warned trespassers in multiple languages: BEWARE! CUIDADO! ACHTUNG! And, finally: WARNING: MY PIT BULL WILL F***ING KILL YOU!” (8,500 words)

Can A Giraffe Swim?

Darren Naish | Scientific American | 23rd June 2016

BEST OF 2016 Giraffes have been seen to wade into rivers — but none has been seen to swim. Can computer modelling supply the answer which observation cannot, as to whether giraffes can swim? The lungs are huge, but the neck is long. A giraffe could easily float, but with its neck flat on the water, a very awkward posture. It could then kick its way forward, much as a horse does. It would be swimming, but badly. Small wonder if swimming is something that giraffes take great care to avoid (1,700 words)

A Magician Of Chinese Poetry

BEST OF 2016 Much of the pleasure of classical Chinese poetry is necessarily lost in translation — the internal structure of the characters, the power of the calligraphy, the harmony of the spoken tones. What remains, the meaning of the characters, is often so impressionistic that a literal translation will make no logical sense. The translator must bring his or her own poetry; which is why it can be argued that Ezra Pound was a great translator of Chinese poetry even when he knew no Chinese (3,400 words)

The Genius Of Winding Paths

Michael J. Lewis | First Things | 31st October 2016

BEST OF 2016 Already acclaimed for a trilogy of books about the economy of the slaveholding South, The Cotton Kingdom, Frederick Law Olmsted was 36 when he decided to try a profession that was new to him and new to America — landscape architecture. “Had he remained a journalist, he would have been one of the great commentators on American life. Instead, in 1857, in a decision that remains inexplicable, he applied for the position of superintendent of Central Park” (4,030 words)

Otter Ego

Mark Rowlands | Times Literary Supplement | 11th May 2016

BEST OF 2016 Impatient to know how animals feel, Charles Foster turns himself into a succession of animals. He mimics a badger by spending several weeks — with his eight-year-old son — sleeping by day in a hole in the ground in the Welsh Black Hills, and crawling by night in the surrounding forest eating worms and grasshoppers and licking slugs. Also on the to-do list: otter, fox, red deer, swift. Foster’s account of all this, Being a Beast, is “a unique and wonderful book” (1,370 words)

Video of the day: Aurora Borealis From Space

What to expect:

Ultra-high-definition footage shot by NASA from the International Space Station (5’10”)

Thought for the day

I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy
Samuel Butler

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