John Ruskin

The English are known for their propensity to collect eccentric things—tea cozies, snuffboxes, colonies. So it didn’t surprise me to learn that a British writer, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, was responsible for The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, a bewitching little book that has become the latest quirky hit.

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The Look of Time

I was telling my friend I was planning to write about how we see time. This was on my mind because of some pictures I saw in The New York Times of the remains of an eighteenth-century wooden ship that had been unearthed by construction workers at the World Trade Center site 30 feet below ground.

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There she was for the whole world to see and hear: a young woman sobbing uncontrollably, completely vulnerable, screaming at her interlocutor on a cell phone, broadcasting the most intimate particulars of her private life on a crowded street in Greenwich Village on a bright Friday afternoon.

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On Weather

The weather during mid-summer in Manhattan is frequently unpleasant, particularly the viscosity of the air--the feeling that one is breathing and moving through water at least as much as air. Perhaps that is why today, as I was walking to the subway and feeling oppressed by the dull, cloudy light and the general muddiness of the atmosphere, I began to think, as a kind of consolation, of the glorious weather in September, when summer is ending and autumn has not yet taken its place.

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Utopian Designs

The decorative arts have always been art history's attractive orphans. While many people have a great affection for certain textiles or ceramics, the scholarly world embraces such objects only fitfully, as if they were really somebody else's responsibility. And much of the attention that is given to the decorative arts—in the shelter magazines, in the auction catalogues, and in specialized studies of rococo hardware or medieval ceramic tiles—has an edge about it, a feverishness that can suggest overcompensation and even overkill.

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The other day, as I was walking to the grocery store, I strategically moved toward the far edge of the sidewalk to put distance between myself and a pile of large, black trash bags haphazardly stacked against the side of a building. This sight is common in downtown Manhattan, as was the rustling I heard among the bags, which nevertheless made me start. Rats or mice, I thought, as I instinctively crossed the street to avoid them, but it was still light out, too early, it seemed to me, for these nocturnal creatures to be rummaging for food.

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Walking down the streets of Soho these days, one rarely sees the light of day or feels the warmth of the sun, which is no small thing now that the low, yet constant, light of autumn has given way to the even lower and more fleeting light of winter. The cause of this unnatural darkness is scaffolding. On some streets in my neighborhood, so many buildings are being restored that the scaffolding forms a continuous overhang--a sort of ugly, makeshift arcade--stretching almost an entire block.

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John Ruskin: The Later Years by Tim Hilton (Yale University Press, 656 pp., $35) In the second volume of John Ruskin's three-volume study The Stones of Venice, which appeared in 1853, there is a chapter titled "The Nature of Gothic." It opens conventionally enough, with Ruskin promising to describe the "characteristic or moral elements" of the Gothic; but readers who were familiar with Ruskin's earlier works, Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and who had been dazzled by his word-pictures of works of art and scenes of nature, could not possibly have expected a straightforwar

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings edited by J.D. McClatchy (The Library of America, 854 pp., $35)   With the publication of F.O. Matthiessen's hugely influential American Renaissance in 1941, the modern-day pantheon of nineteenth-century American writers was established: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. The only other writer to be admitted into this select company has been Emily Dickinson, a recluse who published only seven poems in her own time and was virtually unknown.

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American Gothic

How the eclectic hodgepodge saved Modernism.

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