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The Classics, Recoded

We learn a lot from playing with what already exists. Hunter S. Thompson—who himself is now one of the most frequently emulated writers of his disillusioned time—created an exercise for himself based on this notion. Early in his career, Thompson would pound out entire pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on his typewriter, word for word, straight from the book, in order to understand what it felt like to write what he considered to be a true masterpiece.

The following works weren’t undertaken for the private enrichment of their creators, but they all depend on the preservation of the words of their source material or medium, and allow no room for the creator to use their own. Unlike Igor Stravinsky, who created the score for his ballet Pulcinella [PDF] by editing the scores of other composers, the creators of these projects could make no embellishments of their own. What they did instead was translate the work from one medium to another. Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about an all-semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. Enough illustrative examples? Great, let’s get going.

1. Classics in Video Games

Classic literature and video games aren’t distant acquaintances. In 2010, a video game version of Dante’s Inferno was released for XBox and PS3. A number of Nintendo games based on literature have already been profiled here on mental_floss. “Stride & Prejudice,” however, is a little different. Yes, it’s another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is at this point must be among the most exhaustively reimagined works in the Western canon. But there are no zombies here, there are no changes to the text—in fact, there’s barely anything on the screen but the text. It’s simply an endless runner game, in which a little Elizabeth Bennet avatar runs over each sentence of the novel.

The guiding principle is that, spurred by the need to win that’s embedded in human nature, readers are compelled to finish a book that they may otherwise not feel so doggedly set on completing. Reading and playing should become a merged activity, in which the mechanical actions of playing eventually become secondary to the reading itself. The Independent’s Ryan Vogt described the experience of having to tap the screen to keep Elizabeth in motion as similar to the unconscious action of turning a page. Will there be more of these literary endless runner games to come? The creator of "Stride and Prejudice," Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, is entertaining the possibility.

2. Classics in Barcodes

Have you ever wanted to read a book by scanning a QR code? Barcodes2Books has been transforming classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, The Time Machine, and War and Peace into hundreds of scannable QR codes. The team behind Barcodes2Books is composed of archivists who are serious about preservation and accessibility. While it’s not as convenient as, say, an e-reader, there are many possibilities for this method of sharing text that have yet to be exhausted. Having the code to a book at your fingertips certainly feels like what bookish kids imagined when they pictured the future.

3. Classics in License Plates

In his book Pl8Spk, Daniel Nussbaum recreated several works of classic literature using only vanity plates licensed in the state of California. The biggest hit of the collection was his reimagining of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

ONCEPON ATIME LONG AGO IN THEBES IMKING. OEDIPUS DAKING. LVMYMRS. LVMYKIDS. THEBENS THINK OEDDY ISCOOL. NOPROBS.

OKAY MAYBE THEREZZ 1LTL1. MOTHER WHERERU? WHEREAT MYDAD? NOCALLZ NEVER. HAVENOT ACLUE. INMYMND IWNDER WHOAMI? IMUST FINDEM.

JO MYWIFE GOES, “OED DON’T USEE? WERHAPPI NOW LETITB.” IGO, “NOWAY. IAMBOSS. DONTU TELLME MYLIFE. INEED MYMOM. II WILLL FINDHER. FIND BOTHOF THEM.”

SOI START SEEKING DATRUTH ABOUT WHO IAM. ITGOEZ ULTRAAA SLOWE. THE SPHYNXS RIDDLE WAS ACINCH BUT NOTTHIZ.

SUDNLEE WEHEAR SHOCKING NEWS. WHEN IWASA TINY1 THISGR8 4SEER SED IWOOD OFF MY ROYAL OLDMAN THEN MARREE MYMAMA. SICKO RUBBISH, NESTPAS? WHOWHO COUDBE SOGONE? STIL MOMNDAD SENT MEEEEE AWAY. MEE ABABI AWAAAY.

NOWWWWW GETTHIZ. MANY MOONS GOBY. IMEET THISGUY ONATRIP. WEDOO RUMBLE. WHOKNEW? ILEFTMY POP ONE DEDMAN.

UGET DAFOTO. MAJOR TSURIS. JOJO MYHONEE, MYSQEEZ, MYLAMBY, MIAMOR, MYCUTEE, JOJOY IZZ MYMOMMY.

EGODS WHYMEE? YMEYYME? LIFSUX. IAMBAD, IAMBADD, IMSOBAD. STOPNOW THISS HEDAKE. FLESH DUZ STINK. ITZ 2MUCH PAYNE 4ONE2C. TAKEGOD MYEYES! AIEEEEE!

I’d be interested to know who has a vanity plate that says “MYMOM.”

4. Classics in Punchcards

Punchcards date back to the turn of the 19th century, when they were used to direct the operations of textile looms. They were also used to control fairground organs and other such machines which automatically perform a set function. When early computers came around, the punchcard became the primary method of information storage and sharing. On these cards, each punched hole represents an individual piece or bit of data. From the 1930s to the 1950s, cards like these, manufactured by IBM with distinctive rectangular holes, were the building blocks of computing. Even after they stopped being essential to the function of computers, these cards still found use in different ways. According to IBM,

Beyond accounting purposes, the card had other uses in IBM. Until the early 1990s—long after IBM had ceased selling the punched cards for data processing—it was common practice for IBMers to use them for speaker notes for presentations, as they fit comfortably in the inside pocket of a suit jacket. Secretaries, too, used these cards for transcribing phone messages and typing driving directions. Even IBM executives routinely carried them around with their calendar for the day typed on them.

Today, the site Kloth.net allows users to create their own digital images of personalized punchcards. You type in the text you’d like translated into holes, and you’re given a neat little card like the one I’ve made above. Naturally, this service has been turned to the ends of literary play. The Ptak Science Books blog has a collection of punchcards created to translate the opening lines of classic books into computer code. As the Kloth.net service is free and open for use by anyone, you can get in on it too.

5. Classics in Tweets

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These days, when you’ve actually read James Joyce’s massive magnum opus Ulysses, you probably want to celebrate the achievement. At the time of the novel’s publication, however, you wouldn’t have been able to have a public festival in honor of your mutual appreciation. Joyce’s novel was met with censorship and public horror until well after 1933, when the United States Supreme Court lifted the ban on its sale and importation.

Ulysses actually had its beginnings in fragments. Ezra Pound arranged to serialize the novel as it was written, first in the English journal The Egoist and later, when printers refused to continue printing it after the first four installments, in the New York City magazine The Little Review in 1918. After the publication of the episode “Lestrygonians,” the Postal Authorities refused to distribute the journal and began to confiscate copies of it.

With backlash against subsequent installments in the magazine mounting to a trial against its founders, The Little Review eventually stopped publishing episodes of Ulysses. Without the constraints of length and censorship to consider going forward, Joyce was able to experiment with styles that are not explored in the earlier, serialized chapters of the book. Ultimately, the failure of the serialization of Ulysses led to the enrichment of the text as a whole. You can see copies of The Little Review here, at the Modernist Journals Project.

In 2011, fans of Ulysses, in effect, serialized Ulysses all over again as part of their celebration of Bloomsday (June 16), which is the day set aside by readers in honor of the character Leonard Bloom. A group of volunteers worked together to break the book, which is about 800 pages long, into smaller sections, which were in turn broken into even smaller, 140 character pieces, which were in turn tweeted in a 24-hour period known as the Bloomsday Burst. While the tweets are no longer up on Twitter, the text can be found in installments on the page created for the Herculean effort. Note that these tweets weren’t arbitrarily portioned out; they were separated into pieces based on narrative continuity and the preservation of great phrases.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine
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iStock

by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.

1. DIGITAL EYES ARE EVERYWHERE IN VINEYARDS.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!

2. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF COW SKULLS.

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. FEROCIOUS FOLIAGE IS A VINTNER’S FRIEND.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. WHAT A CANARY IS TO A COAL MINE, ROSES ARE TO A VINEYARD.

Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. VINTNERS EXPLOIT THE FOOD CHAIN.

A trio of wines
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Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. THE BIG PROBLEMS IN TASTING ROOMS ARE VERY SMALL.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. WINE NEEDS CLEANING.

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. ATOMS HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. FINE WINES GET MRIs.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. THERE’S A TRICK TO AGING YOUR WINE.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

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