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Photo by Isaac Remsen

Check Your Shelf: An Interview with Lushlife

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Photo by Isaac Remsen

It takes the rarest of rappers to appeal to both sides of the brain, the poetic and the concrete, but when literacy and street credibility meet, it’s a beautiful thing. Philadelphia’s Lushlife weds boom-bap and literary allusions to dizzying effect, referencing everything from Graffiti Rock to Herb and Dorothy Vogel with equal ease. His brilliant Plateau Vision LP (2012) continues to make me a smarter human being. For some insight on what sparked his intellectual curiosity, we got up with Lush Vida, then got out of his way!

Mental Floss: During our first conversation, you stated, “Everything I ever learned, I learned from rap songs.”

Lushlife: It sounds pithy and hyperbolic, but it’s true. As a young rap-obsessive, my teenage brain was like a sponge. So, when Nas spit, “Begin like a violin / End like Leviathan” on his landmark 1994 album, Illmatic, [the] twelve-year-old me headed straight for the encyclopedia to learn that the Leviathan is an Old Testament sea monster, prominently referenced in literature, most notably in Moby Dick. That’s always been part of the fun of hip-hop: understanding and interpreting the references hidden in dense verses through repeated listens. A lot of the time, these references are so codified that it may take years to uncover them. Take the masked, indie-rap god-head, MF Doom who dropped this choice rhyme:

They came to ask him for at least some new tracks
But only got confronted by the beast with two backs

I had this record [2005’s Mouse and the Mask] for at least two years before I decided to Google, “the beast with two backs.” Turns out, it’s a lascivious turn-of-phrase used by Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. I never actually made it through any Shakespeare in high school, but I’ve listened to like 10,000 hours of MF Doom.

MF: Since Shakespeare didn’t turn you on, which non-rap writer had the most profound effect on your approach and style as an emcee?

LL: I know it sounds a little highfalutin, but one of my key references is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I read his opium-inspired, fever-dream-of-a-poem, Kubla Khan, in high school, and it was a revelation. 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Just that first stanza, I remember thinking, “I’m not sure what he’s on about, but it sure sounds cool.” Instantly, I made the parallel to the surreal and densely beautiful rhymes of guys like De La Soul, Camp Lo, and a then-nascent Aesop Rock. Ultimately, my work as Lushlife is as indebted to Coleridge as it is to hip-hop classicists like Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La. But, in the way that art cyclically inspires art, I’m always spinning rhymes through new reference points. Spoiler alert: my upcoming album will include a song inspired entirely by Allen Ginsberg’s epic beat-generation poem, Howl.

MF: What’s the best book you’ve read as of late?

LL: I recently finished A Study of History by the British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. It’s an ambitious (and maybe a little bat-shit) 12-volume tome that traces the rise and fall of nineteen world civilizations since antiquity, and attempts to draw some interesting conclusions about the fate of Western civilization. In a way, reading A Study of History gave me the same visceral vibe that rap does: think vast, far-reaching, and rhapsodic. I felt so connected to this book that I spent close-to-a-year weaving Toynbee’s work (and the super-interesting Toynbee Tile meta-street-art conspiracy that it inspired) into a 10-minute, orchestral rap opus, called Toynbee Suite.

MF: Aside from your music, where else should we be listening?

LL: A certain coterie of younger rap dudes have taken it upon themselves to throw their literary nods into overdrive. A blinding example is "You Have to Ride the Wave," a collaboration between Heems and his compatriots. Not only does the song start with a lengthy sound byte of celebrated south Asian author Arundhati Roy (in conversation with Howard Zinn, no less), but the three rappers go on to spit fire verses, citing Dostoevsky, Daniel Goines, and Philip K. Dick among others. Try that on for size, rock’n’roll!

Lushlife is putting the finishing touches on the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2012 LP, Plateau Vision. Look for it to drop soon. To check out more of his incredible music, be sure to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or hear his work here.

***Ed note: This interview has been condensed and edited.*** 

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.

[h/t Newsweek]


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