Posts from June 2015
June 9th, 2015
I don’t often give my second-tier periodical reading the attention it deserves here on Stevereads, which is a little unfair considering how much reading enjoyment it so regularly gives me. It’s true that my main fare comes from mighty banquets like the TLS or the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or the Atlantic or The National Geographic, but there’s plenty of other magazine reading to be done, and it’s the second-tier journals that fill in those gaps. Basically, I’ll go wherever there are book reviews, no matter how repulsive the journal itself may be.
And when it comes to repulsive, the quasi-respectable journals don’t get much more odious than the Weekly Standard, the cover story of which this week is something called “Obama’s Reformation,” a story about various “religious freedom” exemptions to US anti-discrimination laws that naturally portrays the religious groups in question as victims of authoritarian governmental overreach. The piece is written by Adam White, who’s identified as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is exactly what you’d guess it is from its name, a ‘think tank’ New York cabal that would have to become more progressive before it could even be called crypto-fascist.
And the crypto-fascism if anything increases before it levels out, in this particular issue of the Weekly Standard, with somebody named Gary Schmitt turning in an excellent review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, full of lively descriptions such as this quick bit about the odd couple nature of Sky’s relationship with General Odierno in Iraq:
A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and a bald, six-foot-six massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam – with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy – she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead in such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.
The review might have been good, but Schmitt himself? He’s “Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” It’s not often that you don’t even need to Google something to know everything important about it, but this is surely one of those times.
That’s the besetting problem with magazines like the Weekly Standard, and it’s the reason why mentally reasonable readers tend to give them a wide berth: the writers for such magazines, even the book reviewers, are duty-bound to import an ideological slant into their pieces – in this case, the standard American ultra-right wing nutjob “conservative” ideology that’s currently embodied by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, craven little megalomaniacs who constitute the warped version of the Republican Party today. In the Weekly Standard, this ideology takes the usual form of a wistful, semi-angry regret on the writer’s part that we’ve all allowed those shrill feminists and homo-sexuals to drive society’s agendas so far from the Lost Golden Age “we” all remember as being so much better, so much more sensible than the crazy way things are today.
This kind of nonsense is bad enough in lead stories like that piece of crap about “religious freedom” under fire, where even an unwary reader goes in expecting that the whole thing will be a code-worded screed designed to attack all inroads made by social equality into the time-honored preserves of wealthy white people in entrenched positions of power (gays wanting to marry? Women wanting equal pay? Minorities wanting protection from summary execution by the police? Aw, c’mon – remember how things USED to be? Why do we all have to CARE about this stuff?). But it’s worse when it crops up in book reviews, which are supposed to be about the books under review.
Take Charlotte Allen’s review of Medieval History by Kevin Madigan, in which there’s this little tidbit:
Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, as [sic] least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic” – that is, strictly sequential – accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters.
Ah yes, those “contemporary” historians pandering to the PC learning disabilities of their pill-popping, lawyered-up never-went-to-Choate students by serving up bite-sized “diachronic” topics instead of normal meat-and-potatoes sequential history (remember how things USED to be?). I seem to recall that Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – in all its diachronic glory – was written back in 1860, and was preceded and followed by countless other such works, but maybe Burckhardt & co. likewise had lazy, Commie students to accommodate.
And sometimes, this ideological mission creep can go from oily to genuinely offensive, as in the case of Edwin Yoder’s review of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which ends, incredibly, with this:
Constitutionally speaking, John Wilkes Booth’s act had the effect of largely confining the postwar examination of Lincoln’s official stewardship of the Constitution to scholarly literature. Only there, and only in scattered instances, was there any searching evaluation of Lincoln’s huge expansion of presidential powers. Lincoln the agile lawyer adroitly rationalized quite extraordinary executive measures as essential exercises of war powers, identifying what Booth viewed as “tyrannical” as mere normal precedent. Succeeding wartime presidents have not been slow to follow. This was, perhaps, the crowning irony of Booth’s heinous and destructive crime.
Quick: despite the ridiculous sop of that “heinous and destructive,” do you think Yoder is for or against Booth shooting Lincoln in the head?
Expansion of executive powers … in the wrap-up to a piece on John Wilkes Booth. It would be funny if it weren’t so revolting.
But lest I give the wrong impression, there’s quite a bit of legitimately wonderful stuff in these second-tier journals! It’s not all code-worded crypto-fascism! Take the last issue of the Boston Review, for instance. It has a very good review by Meghan O’Gieblyn of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed;
The ritual takedown of a scapegoat may gratify, however fleetingly, an impulse for justice, but it often benefits the very institution supposedly under attack. We perpetuate the system when we limit our outrage to a single person. That is not to say systemic problems are immune to public activism, but even minor change requires persistent and sometimes tedious work.
And the last issue of the venerable American Scholar has a wonderful (too short!) review by Graeme Wood of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder:
One of the pleasures of her book is that it demonstrates how Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, rather than copying reality, showed that it contained within it more than one could have supposed – inner space, both psychological and biological. To see the world in a milkmaid’s averted gaze, or in a splash of pond scum, takes genius of a high order …
It might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep me coming back.
June 1st, 2015
Reading the cover story of the latest Harper’s, David Bromwich’s magisterial, damning assessment of the Obama presidency, certainly did no wonders for my lunch-time digestion. Just the first paragraph reads like a cold halibut across the face:
Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed – there must be millions of us – will feel that this president deserves the kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor mostly likely will also be worse.
I read Bromwich’s long piece with mounting admiration at his rhetorical ability and almost not one single scintilla of agreement at his conclusions, and the combination ended up being so depressing that I turned with great relief to the “Spring Books” issue of The Nation – and was very nearly depressed all over again. I opened the “Spring Books” issue and encountered … well, hardly a big lineup of books any normal readership would be likely to read this Spring – or any other Spring. There’s a review by Aaron Thier of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a William Deresiewicz review of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, a dual review of Moira Weigel of Keywords by Raymond Williams and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti … you see what I mean: not exactly anybody’s idea of ‘it’ books, although the pieces themselves, typically for The Nation, were first-rate.
But my spirits not only perked up but soared when I got to Corey Robinson’s long essay in the same issue! It’s even less a “Spring Books” piece than the others – it discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, and Becoming Eichmann by David Cesarini, for Pete’s sake – but what it lacks in edge-of-summer topicality it more than makes up for with edge-of-your-seat brilliance.
Robinson looks at the literary firestorm that was sparked into existence by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, including multiple excoriations by some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, and the discussion is invigorating throughout – in fact, I wanted the piece to keep going, and I knew I was in good hands right from the beginning of the piece:
Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fe. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?
The fact that the Penny Press regularly provides me with such gems is the reason I keep the whole anachronistic machinery of magazine subscriptions wheezing and clanking along. Bravo, Corey Robinson!
May 14th, 2015
Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:
Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.
That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:
Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.
And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:
British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.
And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:
At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.
There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.
If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.
Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:
Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.
Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fans and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …
It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:
Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.
The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.
Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.
May 5th, 2015
There was never any real doubt that I would return to The New Republic even in what Penny Press historians will refer to as the Post-Chotiner Period. After all, the magazine still has an ample Books section, and even though that section is now run by a couple of guys who did themselves no PR favors during the melodramatic “Whither TNR?” Transition Period a few months ago, the institution itself still has (relatively) deep pockets and will therefore still attract some noteworthy freelance work. How could it be otherwise, smart writers being what they are? Like what I suspect was the majority of the magazine’s long-time readers, I stood back for a few months, waited for the dust to settle, and then warily returned to the scene, as it were, of the crime.
I bought the May issue for the headline takedown of Cornell West about which I’d already heard some intriguing things. And I wasn’t disappointed: Michael Eric Dyson’s piece is very good, and all the more powerful for being so personal. Likewise the first-rate investigation of “click farms,” shady outfits where social media users can pay for clicks and ‘likes.’ I hadn’t known anything about such places, but I suspect I’ve experienced their handiwork, since my paltry number of followers on Twitter, while adamantly refusing to reach 300, fluctuates in the upper 290s with such week-to-week regularity that I long ago suspected some sort of low-wattage fraud had to be involved (I’m annoying, yes, but I’m amazingly consistently annoying).
If only I’d quit while I was ahead! If only I’d stopped after Cornel West and the compu-bots! But nooooo! By that point I was engaged with the issue – so I read William Giraldi’s piece on why the world will always need printed books.
The simple description itself should have warned me off. Articles about the joys of physical books tend to fall into one of two categories: self-congratulation or semi-brainless knee-jerk conservatism. Aw, who am I kidding? Articles about the joys of physical books always, always cover both categories.
Giraldi’s little essay here is no exception on either count. The two things you’re supposed to take away from reading it are: printed books are cooler than e-books ever could be, and William Giraldi is the coolest collector of printed books on Planet Earth.
He hits all the usual notes for this kind of clap-trap. He talks about how many books he owns; he talks about how early in life he caught the book-collecting bug; he quotes from all the usual suspects when it comes to sound bites for his piece, from Leigh Hunt to E. M. Forster to, of course, Borges; and he reduces the whole alleged superiority of printed books to two things: their aura and their odor.
The odor part is the single most annoying refrain printed-book snobs always harp on whenever the subject comes up: the smell of the paper. In my bookselling career, I heard it so often that I ended up wanting to bop all of these budding Hannibal Lecters in the kisser. Giraldi goes at it with a vengeance:
The physicality of the book, the sensuality of it – the book as a body that permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence – that is what many of us seek in the book as object.
I’d call the cops if somebody started sticking his face inside my books, and it’s all so ridiculous anyway, all these professed book-lovers going around sniffing pages and lapsing into weak-kneed euphoria.
When Giraldi shifts from odor to aura, things get even worse, in part because he references a better writer than himself, pointing out a piece in which Sven Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” the “expectant tranquility” of sitting looking at his library, the sense of “futurity” he gets, etc. How woeful that a former Brattle Bookshop acolyte should ever have written such codswallop as to assert that looking at his books is a kind of reading, and how lamentable that somebody like Giraldi should then praise such an idiotic idea: “Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity,” he writes, “those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.”
“I’m sorry,” he goes on, “but your Nook has no presence.”
So this fierce defender of printed books is mainly praising not reading them or studying them but simply having them, on display for others to see. Lovely. What clearly bothers him most about the idea of reading on a Nook is that this element of external display is absent – it’s just you and the books.
“You scroll and swipe and click your way through your life,” Giraldi insufferably scolds, “scanning screens for information and interruption, screens that force you into a want of rapidity.” (That fumbling fake-antiquing of “in a want of rapidity” – here simply an incorrect way of saying “into a wanting for rapidity” – is typical of windbag essays of this kind, where every junior G-grade book poser tries to sound like William Hazlitt; Giraldi also uses “mounts” instead of “mountains” and “wilderness grot” for “wilderness grotto”), but a printed book encourages you to “be alone with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination.”
None of this kind of hooey is ever true. The pretentious ninnies who swoon over the odor of printed pages neither noticed nor cared about such a thing before e-books showed up. And this one’s important: people who rhapsodize about reading in silence and solitude share one thing in common: they don’t currently read at all. They might dabble and sample, but this gauze-tinted scenario they describe, where they retreat to some wilderness grot with a beautiful leatherbound tome and soak it up in blissful silence and solitude? It’s pure hogwash. It never happens. They never do it. Indeed, it’s been my suspicion for years that they can’t do it anymore.
It’s true you can’t swan and swoon in front of admirers when you’re reading on an e-reader. You can’t make wistful, faux-woeful comments to less literate onlookers (Giraldi describes an encounter with a neighborhood cop that would make a less foppish writer cringe in embarrassment) about how much they add to your life, even though you know you’ll never read them all, etc.
But you can most certainly read on an e-reader. You can most certainly lose yourself in a book on an e-reader. Inevitably in pieces like this, the qualities of printed books that are sung the loudest are non-literary qualities, but you can read books on an e-reader, just as genuinely and easily as you read printed books. Hell, you can even call up your library and just sit there looking at your e-books – but nobody else can, which is clearly the rub.
April 16th, 2015
As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:
February 19th, 2015
Nothing warms up the icy snowbound ventricles quite like a burst of outrage, and I got one of those recently when I encountered a block of pure editorial cowardice in the Penny Press. Specifically, it was in the 5 February 2015 issue of the London Review of Books (although the cover is misprinted as 2014), and perhaps predictably, the subject was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the letters column, a reader named Simon Hammond writes:
As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.
To which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, replies:
I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue …
The craven nature of such stuff is matched by its worminess; the dodge in the reprehensible first line is only deepened by the insinuating obliqueness of the last line – “there are many other things to be said about the attacks” … many things other than ‘freedom of expression,’ that is, and what might those things be? Are they in fact really plural? Can those ‘other things’ really be anything except some damn variation of “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”? Isn’t that the only construction that can be put on the weaselly line “I don’t believe I have the right to insult whomever I please”?
I read Wilmers’ disgusting response to Hammond over and over, trying and failing to see it as anything other than a preemptive plea for mercy from the same people who sent the killers to Charlie Hebdo. Why, except from cowardice, would Wilmer voluntarily, eagerly surrender a right she in fact does possess, the right to insult whomever she pleases? Not slander or libel whomever she pleases – nobody was slandered in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and you famously can’t libel the dead – but insult, which indeed is the kind of freedom-of-expression thing (without the noxious scare-quotes, as if the term is some baroque oddity she found in a dusty old book) the editor of the London Review of Books should defend.
But she directed me to Tariq Ali’s piece in the same issue, so I went and read it, which did nothing at all to calm my outrage. Ali’s piece is of course much longer than Wilmer’s cringing, posturing little paragraph, and if anything it’s more opaque, more careful in its appeasements. Ali is always a careful writer, but I’ve hardly ever seen his prodigious gifts exercised in making less worthy points:
In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory … Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march [in the wake of the shootings] revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities.
More critical … incredible. As if the thousands of people – including hundreds of writers and intellectuals just like Ali – put no critical thought into their ‘Je suis Charlie’ responses but were just wildly – hysterically – flailing. The baiting-and-switching going on here is even more revolting than the kind Wilmers uses; the opposition being set up between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and hurting the feelings of minorities is revoltingly deceitful in its use of euphemisms. “Je suis Charlie” is not an empty slogan; it’s an expression of solidarity with the idea that satire should be possible without the threat of lethal retaliation. And “hurting the feelings of minorities” is a prelude rather than a point; of course everybody’s opposed to hurting the feelings not just of minorities but of majorities. Of course hurt feelings are bad. But how were the hurt feelings of minorities expressed in this case? With a barrage of very pointed letters from Muslims and Muslim sympathizers cancelling Charlie Hebdo subscriptions? No: with a highly coordinated paramilitary attack designed to murder the Charlie Hebdo staff.
That cowards like Wilmers and Ali are so complacently willing to equate ‘insulting Muslims’ with ‘incurring Muslim violence’ – that they’re apparently willing to live in a world in which you refrain from hurting the feelings of minorities not because hurting feelings is rude but because you’re personally afraid of what will happen if you don’t – would be deplorable enough if they were just private citizens. But in a public intellectual and the editor of the London Review of Books? With the earth still turned on the graves of their slaughtered Charlie Hebdo peers? Freedom of expression had better watch out for its life, if two of its presumed defenders are half-way to Munich the instant clear battle-lines are drawn.
Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of that LRB … provided nobody’s feelings are hurt …
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 25th, 2015
Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.
Frustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.
“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?
The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.
January 13th, 2015
Naturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.
“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback publishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.
In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:
“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.”
She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.
Another of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even a random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:
We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.
And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of Norwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”
Much as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.
They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.
January 6th, 2015
Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.
Take the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).
Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.
And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in both the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.
The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:
With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.
True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.