Kalamazoo by  Josephine Livingstone

Every year, three thousand people gather in Kalamazoo for the sake of the years 400 to 1400 (approximately) of the Common Era. The International Congress on Medieval Studies, held annually at Western Michigan University, is the largest gathering of medievalists on earth. They come from all over the world to participate in panels like “Attack and Counterattack: The Embattled Frontiers of Medieval Iberia,” “Waste Studies: Excrement in the Middle Ages,” “Historical, Ethnical and Religious Roots of the Thraco-Geto-Dacians and Their Successors: Romanians and Vlaho-Romanians” and “J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism (I & II).” They are literary critics, historians, experts in numismatics and linguistic datasets, and nuns. There are over five hundred sessions: meetings and drinks parties and bookstalls; groups of monks dressed in black; bespectacled, serious, young men; elderly ladies in capped sleeves. Here is a ragtag bunch of human beings all on the same pilgrimage, playing a part in a story that they can’t read, because they’re in it.

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Some Things Are Worth Forgetting by Rebecca Onion

In his new book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, journalist David Rieff questions the idea that remembering the past is an inherently virtuous practice that will help us solve present-day problems. It’s a philosophical argument that he pursues across the globe, invoking examples drawn from the histories of the United States, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Bosnia, Israel, and Ireland, among others. “What if,” Rieff asks, “a decent measure of communal forgetting is actually the sine qua non of a peaceful and decent society, while remembering is the politically, socially, and morally risky pursuit?”

This brief but powerful volume follows Rieff’s many previous books, on the war in Bosnia, humanitarianism, the global food system, war crimes, and the death of his mother, Susan Sontag. We spoke by phone about the advantages of strategic forgetfulness, the difference between history and collective memory, and the current debate over renaming statues and buildings on college campuses. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Aging in the Key of Humor by Timothy Egan

His back hurts. His memory is slipping. He can’t cook, but then he never could. Igloo-making is no longer one of his diversions. The wit is sharp, quick as ever, but now he’s prone to … what’s the word? Oh, and he has Parkinson’s disease.

Michael Kinsley is aging so you don’t have to. The editor in him, the one who held the reins at The New Republic, Harper’s and Slate, and grasped for a few hours the chance to helm The New Yorker, would refine that. Here’s how he puts it, in his guidance to the 74 million baby boomers entering the years of living less dangerously:

“But when it comes to the ultimate boomer game, competitive longevity, I’m on the sidelines doing color commentary.” His chronic disease, which gives him many of the symptoms of old age but which he believes is no more likely to bring him to an early death than slipping on a bar of soap, has presented him with “an interesting foretaste of our shared future.”

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Do Overused Words Lose Their Meaning? By Jonathon Sturgeon

Three articles have appeared in the last week wondering about the meaningless of certain words. After Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for fiction, Merriam-Webster ran a “Trend Watch” notification about a spike in the use of the word “Kafkaesque,” a literary word used to describe Kang’s novel. In a sidebar, the dictionary offers that “[s]ome argue that ‘Kafkaesque’ is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning,” before instructing “[it] describes anything of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially if there’s a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Note the dictionary’s preference for the word “describes” over “means.” Even Merriam-Webster hesitates in its role as an arbiter of meaning.

“Merriam-Webster is not wrong,” Alison Flood of the Guardian wrote yesterday, though the dictionary went out of its way not to offer a prescription — its “Trend Watch” could neither be right nor wrong. She goes on to list a number of words similar to “Kafkaesque”: literary words — “Orwellian” and “Byronic” — that purportedly lose their meaning with overuse. But after Flood invokes a sense of malpractice in the way these words are used (“Perhaps almost as abused as Kafkaesque is Orwellian”) [my emphasis], she walks it back. “But back to The Vegetarian, and how Kafkaesque it is, whatever that actually means to us.” Whatever that actually means to us. An age-old anxiety is being played out here. Do words mean what the dictionary says they mean, or do they gain meaning through the way we use them? Any person without an agenda knows the answer is “both.”


Virtual memory: the race to save the information age by Richard Ovenden

As tributes poured in after the death of Prince last month, a member of the Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball team spoke on US television about her visit to the musician’s Paisley Park studios. She recalled how the players, driven out by limo at his invitation to celebrate their victory in a crucial match, had been asked on arrival to leave cameras and phones outside. The party was amazing but, she regretted, “all we have are our memories”.

For millions of people, technological devices have become essential tools in keeping memories alive — to the point where it can feel as though events without an impression in silicon have somehow not been fully experienced. In under three decades, the web has expanded to contain more than a billion sites. Every day about 300m digital photographs, more than 100 terabytes’ worth, are uploaded to Facebook. An estimated 204m emails are sent every minute and, with 5bn mobile devices in existence, the generation of new content looks set to continue its rapid growth.



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