Stories We Can’t See

Tim Parks

Convent of San Nicolò, Treviso/Scala/Art Resource

What do we see when we read? First the page, of course, and the words printed on it. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Meantime, characters and places are given to us in discontinuous fragments—this kind of nose, that kind of hair, a scar, a limp, a grimace.

Tikrit: Iraq’s Abandoned City

Zaid Al-Ali

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

By the time Iraqi forces backed by US warplanes finally retook Tikrit from ISIS on April 3, the city was a hollow shell of its former self, and almost all of its population of about 200,000 was displaced. In the weeks since the liberation, many are seeking answers to some vital questions: How did ISIS take over the city so quickly in the first place? And what does Tikrit’s experience reveal about the way ISIS rules?

The Portrait of Miss Bart

Michael Gorra

Waddesdon Manor/National Trust

In the tableaux vivants scene of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s posture announces that she is herself as a work of art. She stands on display, showing what she has, and the moment at which she is most herself is also the one in which she most becomes a thing, an object consumed by those eyes, and consumed perhaps in other ways as well. For art is often sold. Lily has here turned herself into a commodity, and poses as if she’s up for auction. The scene works to literalize the idea of the marriage market.

Gay Marriage: Unthinkable or Inevitable?

David Cole

Scala/Art Resource

Twenty-five years ago, same-sex marriage was for all practical purposes unthinkable. Today, it seems close to inevitable. This remarkable shift highlights the particular difficulty of the marriage equality case that came before the Supreme Court on Tuesday—but also points to the right result. The Court has only two choices: to vindicate the demands of equality and liberty, or to validate discrimination.

Goya Takes Flight

Jenny Uglow

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille

I was faintly apprehensive when I clambered up the curving staircase of the Courtauld Gallery to see “Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album.” But as soon as I was face to face with his powerful, irreverent sketches, I was both horrified and entranced. The small dancing figures linger in my eye. Once seen, never forgotten.

The Epic of a Genocide

James Reidel


In his 1934 bestseller, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Franz Werfel took what might have been a footnote to World War I—the deportation and mass murder of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority—and wrote an epic that anticipated the ominous events unfolding in Germany. Those who read it could see the Young Turks of the novel as the Nazis of real life and the Armenians as Europe’s Jews.

Seeing Istanbul Again

Maureen Freely

Ara Güler/Magnum Photos

Little by little, I translated myself out of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul and back into my own. Word by word, I conjured up Istanbul circa 1962. And when I had succeeded in putting myself back there, it turned out not to be the paradise I remembered: the gold was laced with jealousy, confusion, and terror.

The Guts of Spring

Christopher Benfey

Städel Museum, Frankfurt

In Roman times, the haruspex was a priest who practiced divination by inspecting animal entrails. The ritual sacrifice of animals, except under carefully regulated conditions (sport-hunting, the slaughter of livestock, the euthanizing of pets) is now strictly prohibited. And yet…

Too Many Books?

Tim Parks

Erich Lessing/Art Resource

In 1742, responding to what he already saw as a deafening chorus of incompetent poets, Alexander Pope spoke of “snows of paper” providing space for the ever more widespread publication of the “uncreating word.” Two and half centuries later, the Internet and the e-book have also given us access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels from this very space into which I am writing. Is it possible our experience of literature might be crucially influenced by the mere availability of the materials necessary for its production? If the Internet hadn’t opened up endless oceans of space on which to write, would we take our books more seriously?