In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

I’ll read this next. Or maybe this. No wait. What about that?

A few posts ago I crowed about the next five books I plan on reading.

Scratch that. 

Things change. Switcheroos occur. Some books work, some don’t. I close and tuck away the latter and embrace and finish the former. There’s been some tucking away going on. 

I announced on the blog that after completing the superb Siamese twins biography “Inseparable” I would take on my Amsterdam holiday Kurt Vonnegut’s darkly comic wartime novel “Mother Night.” All of that happened. 

Except: I didn’t cotton to the Vonnegut book as I was certain I would. Quite early on I found it uninviting, atonal and dry. I shut it. And became desperate. I was still in the States and my sole vacation book was failing me. 

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Discouraged yet determined, I marched to an airport bookshop, poked and peeked at a dozen acclaimed books, until I hit the staff picks display, which spotlighted Ann Patchett’s heavily praised novel “Commonwealth.” I’m not used to paying full price for paperbacks, but I popped the almost $20, grimacing and banking on the best — even while recalling that I couldn’t get into Patchett’s previous blockbuster “Bel Canto” the two times I tried.

“Commonwealth” is strong. On the whole trip, though, I read only 47 pages of it — my laptop is a serious distraction. I enjoyed the book’s humor, descriptive muscle and palpable humanity, and I planned on gladly finishing it back home.

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Then this happened: Waiting for me at home was Rachel Kushner’s new, ecstatically reviewed “The Mars Room,” which was on my list of five books to read next. It was, of all things, a library book, with a two-week checkout limit. I pounced. “Commonwealth” would have to wait.  

I just wrapped “The Mars Room,” a very good if never truly great page-turner set largely in a sordid women’s prison, much like “Orange Is the New Black,” with grim and funny detours streaking the story, including a few to the San Francisco strip club of the title. Kushner is good with grit, limning harrowing and humorous situations with a kind of streamlined tough-gal strut. And the final pages seize you hard. 

Before the Amsterdam trip, I borrowed two other titles on my list of five, Zadie Smith’s “NW” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World,” neither of which I got around to thanks to the pleasingly time-consuming “Inseparable.” They remain fast on my reading list. 

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And yet: Dropping off “The Mars Room,” instead of getting the Smith or Moshfegh books, I got distracted and picked up two more books on my extended wishlist, Curtis Sittenfeld’s comic coming-of-age novel “Prep” and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winner “Salvage the Bones.” 

I get sidetracked in a snap when I’m around piles of books, my head on a pivot, eyes flashing, hands flipping pages, picking up and putting down volumes. So much to read, so many diversions, so many anxious postponements.

Of the two books I grabbed, I chose first to plunge into the poverty-stricken, pre-Katrina, Mississippi-set “Salvage the Bones.” So far, it is rapturously evocative, the prose raw and earthy and exquisite, the narrative quivering and propulsive.

Here is Ward’s description of a pit bull giving birth to puppies:

“Skeetah grabs the puppy’s rear, and his hand covers the entire torso. He pulls. (The mother) growls, and the puppy slides clear. He is pink. When Skeetah lays him on the mat and wipes him off, he is white with tiny black spots like watermelon seeds spit across his fur. His tongue protrudes through the tiny slit that is his mouth, and he looks like a flat cartoon dog. He is dead.”

If “Bones” eventually chokes — that’s far-fetched — I’ll do what I am wont to do: put it down and move on to the next title. But what will that be? “Prep” or

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Even with two books before me, I said screw it and ordered Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “Spring,” a slim new memoir arriving in the States bubble-wrapped in effusive plaudits. The book is “poignant and beautiful,” a critic says. “Even if you think you won’t like Knausgaard, try this one and you’ll get why some of us have gone crazy for him.” (I’ve read five of his books and have gone crazy for him.)

“Prep” or “Spring” — I’m betting on the latter. Or will yet another title crash my consciousness and hijack the show? Likely.

Book fiends I know are afflicted with this disease of ravenousness, of greedy insatiability, of jonesing for the next fix. Books as lifeblood. Beats baking. Beats sports.

The saga continues, so much pulped wood before me, no end in sight. It’s an embarrassment of riches — words, language, poetry, morality, mortality, love and loss. And, as that, it’s a crazy blessing.

Just a typical day out in Austin, Texas

A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …

AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.

The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.

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In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.

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Timothy “Speed” Levitch

I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.

Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.

Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.

As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”

Then Speed sped off.

Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.

The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”

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Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.

I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.

Far in the distance, a chopper revs and groans.

Passing on to a new passport

So my passport is about to expire — August 18, to be exact — and I’ve spent the last 40 minutes or so applying for a spanking new one, filled with precisely 28 crisp blank pages watermarked with stirring visions of Americana, from the Statue of Liberty to orbiting spacecraft; from an Alaskan grizzly eating a fresh, flopping salmon (true!) to the noble, jut-jawed mugs of Mt. Rushmore. It’s like a little picture book to remind you of home while you’re happily clomping around and spending money in someone else’s fine nation. 

To get this desperately necessary booklet (I travel, therefore I am), I have to send thoroughly filled out PDF forms, a check for $110, a new mug shot (I’m camera shy, so that’s delightful) and my old passport to whatever U.S. department of whatever. Then, in several weeks, I’ll have a crease-free dark blue book that will allow me to get the hell out of here to somewhere new, exotic and magnificently dangerous. Or maybe just to Paris. 

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I will miss my current passport. For one, my photo isn’t ghoulish. I look young, boyish, and remarkably tan. And I’m proud of the stamps from other countries I’ve collected in the course of its 10-year life: Lebanon, Syria, Russia, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Spain, Canada (well, Canada), England, and more. I will stick a Post-It note on this passport with the earnest message: Please return this! When I did that last time, they returned it, but punched a bunch of holes in it to invalidate it. Fair enough. Old passports make fond keepsakes.

It’s crazy and not a little depressing that it’s already time to renew my passport. Ten years is a stretch. But I’ve given this pocket pal a good workout, gripping it to far-flung places, some of which I never imagined I’d ever go. I don’t look the same, but only once has a customs agent done a double-take when checking my photo. “That was a long time ago,” I assured her. She smiled. I sighed.

The last time I renewed a passport and got the one I have now, the one about to expire, I did it a couple years before its expiration. That’s because I was traveling to Lebanon and Syria (before the current war) and my passport contained a stamp from Israel, where I had been years earlier. Both Lebanon and Syria bar entry if your book has an Israel stamp for obvious, if arguable, political reasons. So I had to get a whole new passport. What with paying for a Syrian visa to boot, those pre-trip costs were onerous.

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She’s still in good shape.

This time I’m cutting it close. In some countries your passport must be valid for more than three months before the expiration date. When I went to Amsterdam a few weeks ago the airline attendant looked at my passport date, did some quick math in her head, and paused before letting me check-in.

I’ll have none of that. Time is of the essence if I want to travel anytime soon, though I have no plans. I’m off to get a new passport photo, which for me is like getting a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable, possibly traumatizing event. If the recent picture on my Russian visa is any indication, the new photo will be monstrous, even gargoylian.

I have no idea where I’m going next with the new passport. I don’t travel in summer -— too hot, too crowded, too pricey — so I can relax and blithely research the next adventure. Then, by fall, I’ll be off, ready to deflower the new booklet with its first kiss, the loud, mechanical thomp of the customs agent’s stamper.

The rational heresy of Sam Harris

“The problem with religion, because it’s been sheltered from criticism, is that it allows people to believe en masse what only idiots or lunatics could believe in isolation.”

“While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.”

Sam Harris, philosopher, author (“The End of Faith”)

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Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

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Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

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Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

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Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

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Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

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Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

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The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.