Substack Reads: Beatrix Potter’s notes, the blessing and curse of European food, and how poetry works
Hello and welcome to another edition of Substack Reads!
As Substack Notes launched this week, the space was soon bursting at the seams with recommendations for fresh writing and new discoveries.
You’ll notice nearly all of this week’s selections were shared in restacked and quoted notes, from readers and writers alike. Be sure to tag Substack Reads in your note recommending your favorite reads this week, or leave a comment below. We’re eager to see what you find.
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Beatrix Potter’s mushrooms
Mushrooms fascinated writer Beatrix Potter for their beauty and mysterious form of reproduction, which she broke scientific ground in. Jillian Hess uncovers more discoveries from the writer’s notebook in her Substack on note-taking
—in , recommended by Charlene Storey in Substack Notes
In June of 1896, Potter visited her mentor, George Massee, at Kew Gardens, where he showed her mushrooms grown under glass. He boasted that one of them “had spores three inches long.” Potter then jokes that they are both turning into mushrooms:
I opine that he has passed several stages of development into a fungus himself—I am occasionally conscious of a similar transformation.
Potter’s biographer, Linda Lear, explains that the young naturalist “never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities.” She enjoyed the challenge mushrooms posed artistically and scientifically.
In April of 1897, Potter submitted a paper on fungi—“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”—to the Linnean Society. Because the society prohibited women from presenting their work, her mentor, Massee, read it instead.
The Linnean Society rejected Potter’s paper, which was, perhaps, a stroke of good fortune. Had they accepted it, Potter might not have turned her energies to illustrated stories. And she might never have invented her enchanting characters—Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Nutkin, among others.
When family read your sex scenes
Carmen Maria Machado answers a reader question on how to get over the anxiety of knowing those you’re close to will read your sex scenes
I have been horny as long as I have been alive. When my parents bought our first computer, in 1996, I was very enamored with Microsoft Word, which allowed me to write—I don’t know if I’d call it erotica, exactly? I would write sexy sentences. But only using words I knew, like nipple. Then I would worry that my parents would find it—it was a family computer, after all—and since I didn’t know how to delete files, I would open the document and delete my sexy sentences and write some innocuous sentences instead and re-save it. And more than once I woke up in the middle of the night to go and double-check that the document still contained the innocuous sentences and not the sexy sentences.
Anyway. As a teen, I started a Livejournal. I kept it on and off for almost a decade, and in there spent a lot of time writing about my own horniness, the sex I thought about having, the sex I wanted to be having, the very teeny-tiny steps I was taking towards that sex. (I was a late bloomer.) When I eventually kissed someone, I wrote about that. When I lost my virginity, I wrote about that, too. (Badly.)
But somehow, in this moment, the sex didn’t translate to fiction. My short stories—the ones I wrote in college, the ones I wrote and edited for my MFA applications—were bodily. The characters did have sex. But it was a fact mentioned in passing, or in snapshots. The stories were not horny. They did not have sex scenes. People were not fucking. Can you imagine?
The blessing and curse of European food
Recipe developer and food writer Jordon King looks at the relationship between European countries, their global food reputations, and religious history
—in , recommended by Nicola Lamb in Substack Notes
“In London, you can choose where in the world you want to go for dinner, and get the tube there”. At this point Robert told me a story about being somewhere on the coast in Spain, talking with a distinguished older Spanish gentleman about food. He’d told him gleefully about how in London we have sushi, ramen, kebab, pizza, steak, tacos and noodles and that on any given day he could eat whatever he wanted, and a good version of it too. The Spanish man smiled, spread his arms and replied, “That’s great, but we don’t need that, because we have this”.
I can imagine the same conversation Robert had in Spain taking place in lots of places. Paris, Rome, Chengdu, Bangkok, Beirut. Somehow, I can’t imagine it taking place anywhere in the UK, even my beloved London. And so now we arrive at the question that has been kicking around in my head ever since. Why not? Why are France, Italy and Spain so famous for their cuisine but the UK, Germany and Switzerland not? Perhaps it’s a question of setting. In my mind, Robert and the gentleman are wearing loose-fitting linen suits, sipping cold vermouth and looking out over the Bay of Biscay as a cool breeze blows in off the water. When I picture the same conversation in London, I’m on a grotty corner of Soho that smells like old ham, watching the back of a bus disappear around the corner. But weather, despite being Britain’s favourite topic, doesn’t satisfy as an answer. Croatia runs parallel to Italy along the Adriatic Sea, it looks the same, it has a long sunny coastline, they grow the same things. Have you ever eaten Croatian food?
When institutions fail, communities take back control
If people are left to “suckle at the teat of dystopia,” community resilience and organization can help societies rebuild. Rachel Donald interviews Immy Kaur on how she transformed Birmingham, England’s public spaces, which started with a blog post and asking question
The LLama effect
How an accidental leak sparked a series of open source alternatives to ChatGPT
The friction between open source and API-based distribution is one of the most interesting battles looming in the generative AI ecosystem. In the text-to-image domain, the release of Stable Diffusion clearly signaled that open source was a viable distribution mechanism for foundational models. However, the same cannot be said in the large language model (LLM) space, in which the biggest breakthroughs are coming from models like GPT-4, Claude, and Cohere, which are only available via APIs. The open source alternatives to these models haven’t shown the same level of performance, specifically in their ability to follow human instructions. However, an unexpected research breakthrough and a leaked release are starting to change that.
A few weeks ago, Meta AI announced Llama, an LLM designed to advance research in the space. Llama was released in different versions, including 7B, 13B, 33B, and 65B parameters, and despite being notoriously smaller than alternative models, was able to match the performance of GPT-3 across many tasks. Llama was not initially open-sourced, but a week after its release, the model was leaked on 4chan, sparking thousands of downloads.
The day I knew I was cured
In her serialized memoir, author Sarah Fay remembers the day she knew she’d hit a new milestone in recovery, and why “cured” is the right word for it
Years ago, I entered that PHP every morning at about this time. I sat with the other patients in a frigidly cold room. The air conditioner alternately jittered and hummed. All day, we’d learn cognitive and dialectical skills to “manage our mental illnesses.” The word “recovery” was never mentioned.
I’d sit outside during our lunch break and eat my tuna sandwich, staring at the TV studio across the street. Cars would enter and exit the gated parking lot. I’d imagine the anchorwoman and -man seated at the news desk—hair perfect, makeup TV-ready under bright lights.
Now, I was in an Uber, and the driver was making a left, not a right. At the gate, he pressed a buzzer and, when asked, told them my name. The gate opened.
How poetry works
Canadian writer Wayne Grady digs into the way poetic minds tip into the creative
—in , recommended by Margaret Atwood in Notes
This is National Poetry Month, and so I’ve been reading the works of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, two of the foremost American poets of their generation, and lifelong friends. I’ve long been fascinated by Lowell’s poem “The Scream,” which he said he “derived from” a short story by Bishop that was published in 1953 in the New Yorker. In his 1964 book For the Union Dead, Lowell acknowledges again that his poem “owes everything to Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful, calm story ‘In the Village.’”
Bishop’s story isn’t all that calm. It takes place in Great Village, Nova Scotia, where Bishop lived with her grandparents from the age of six until she was eight, from 1915 to 1918. Her father had died when she was eight months old, and her mother was in and out of asylums and finally confined to an insane asylum in Boston in 1916. In her story, a silent scream hangs over the village, an image eerily reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” which Munch painted in 1893, shortly after his sister was admitted to an insane asylum in Oslo. Bishop’s story fairly vibrates with the suppressed terror of a young girl caught in an adult world she cannot possibly comprehend.
Congratulations to the following writers celebrating publication:
Writershares his morning ritual and a poem:
is offering writing tips on Notes:
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Substack Reads is a weekly roundup of writing, ideas, art, and audio from the world of Substack. Posts are recommended by staff and readers, and curated and edited from Substack’s U.K. outpost by Hannah Ray.
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What an incredible honor to be featured among so many brilliant writers! Thank you, Substack, for supporting little newsletters like mine!
Another great round-up, love seeing Jillian Hess featured, consistently great writing and research in her Substack “Noted” -- Congratulations, Jillian!