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Wonderful things from the Times book review section, #1

The novelist Richard Powers had an article this weekend about dictating, rather than writing, literary works. There's sparkly trivia in it, which I'll share in a bit, but first I have a question: Powers is arguing that when it comes to writing things down, "you'd be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow." As a reporter, though, I've often found that people are surprised at how clumsy their off-the-cuff speech is and, on reading their own quotes in an article, often want to write in something more mellifluous instead. That seems to go directly against what Powers is saying. Thoughts, anyone? Are people more eloquent or less when they speak, as opposed to when they write? And where does the old advice to "write like you talk" come in?

Anyway, on to the trivia:

For most of history, most reading was done out loud. Augustine remarks with surprise that Bishop Ambrose could read without moving his tongue. Our passage into silent text came late and slow, and poets have resisted it all the way. From Homer to hip-hop, the hum is what counts. Blind Milton chanted "Paradise Lost" to his daughters. Of his 159-line "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth said, "I began it upon leaving Tintern ... and concluded ... after a ramble of four or five days. ... Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol." Wallace Stevens used to compose while walking to work, then dictate the results to his secretary, before proceeding to his official correspondence as vice president of the Hartford insurance company. ...

Even novelists, working in a form so very written, have needed to write by voice. Stendhal dictated "The Charterhouse of Parma" in seven weeks. An impoverished Dostoyevsky had just six weeks to deliver the manuscript of "The Gambler" or face complete ruin. He hired a stenographer, knocked the book out in four weeks, then married the girl. ...

Once, while dictating "Finnegans Wake" to Beckett, Joyce is said to have answered a knock on the door; Beckett dutifully jotted down his "Come in." Surprised by the transcript, a delighted Joyce let it ride.

Legend claims that the astoundingly prolific William Vollmann once tried speech recognition software while suffering from repetitive stress injury. He sat down to write his folks. "Dear Mom and Dad" came out as the much more Vollmannesque "The man is dead."

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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holidays
Custom-Design the Ugly Christmas Sweater of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)
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For those of you aspiring to be the worst dressed person at your family's holiday dinner, UglyChristmasSweater.com sells—you guessed it—ugly Christmas sweaters to seasonal revelers possessing a sense of irony. But the Michigan-based online retailer has elevated kitsch to new heights by offering a create-your-own-sweater tool on its website.

Simply visit the site's homepage, and click on the Sweater Customizer link. There, you'll be provided with a basic sweater template, which you can decorate with festive snowflakes, reindeer, and other designs in five different colors. If you're feeling really creative, you can even upload photos, logos, hand-drawn pictures, and/or text. After you approve and purchase a mock-up of the final design, you can purchase the final result (prices start at under $70). But you'd better act quickly: due to high demand, orders will take about two weeks plus shipping time to arrive.

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