Thursday, June 7, 2012

A 21st Century News Story

So the gay porn actor is suspected of murdering his lover, chewing on said paramour’s flesh and sending the body parts to Canadian political leaders.  AP has the 21C angle: “He was watching Internet news reports about himself when arrested.” More at

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oldest Hatred: Diane Rehm caller edition

October 21 transcript of NPR/Diane Rehm show:
And that's what Alex in Salisbury, Md. wants to talk about. Good morning. You're on the air.
Good morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
I am kinda curious how your panel feels about that. I mean 1,000 Palestinians were released to get one Israeli soldier back. And I personally think that it sort of speaks to the way that the Israeli state looks at the Palestinians as less important than they are. And I think it borders on being racist. I'm curious what your panel thinks.
I prefer To The Point, because the host does not take phone calls. And it bears remembering that some NPR listeners/callers crawl out of the same sewer as some dittoheads and right-wing talk radio chaff…

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Remembrance and Forgetting

One great life disappointment is my utter inability to recall more than a small fraction of what I read. My friend Molly offers the consoling thought that every bit of data leaves its imprint. Her theory is that when I read another history of Prussia, I'll more quickly understand when the author refers to Philipp zu Eulenburg and when to Fritz Count zu Eulenburg.

Others say the reader retains a work's gestalt even if a week later he thinks AIG and Standard & Poors negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty to saddle taxpayers with bad mortgage debt.

The novelist James Collins concludes that the only hope is careful study of Tables of Contents and Indices, and aggressive use of marginalia. I fear he is right, but then how to allocate one's time between new materials and notes from the old?

Sigh. I hope to place my Kindle clippings file with Knopf...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Salami Tactics

"When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game."
--Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah, quoted Lebanon Daily Star

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Superman Comes to the Superbookstore

Today's Times reports that as Hugo Chavez recovers from cancer surgery, he is reading Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. I expect the Venezuelan dictator views himself as a Superman, but question whether he's reading the book.

Maybe not the best choice
Political leaders frequently advertise their reading habits. Ronald Reagan savored the Western novels of Louis L'Amour and awarded L'Amour the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Reagan was elected twice to the Presidency. Al Gore broadcast his love for Stendhal's The Red and the Black and was advised by Naomi Wolf to wear "earth tones." George W. Bush and his adviser Karl Rove engaged in a public reading contest that seems mostly to have earned them both public ridicule.

Reading habits may be a window into the soul but thanks to social media tools they also are are a means of advertising our constructed personae. Does anyone doubt that an army of earnest Mt. Holyoke juniors is busy polishing Barack Obama's Virtual Bookshelf? I for one can't wait for Michelle Bachmann's Goodreads page.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Political Rhetoric

The student of politics must recognize a genuine statement of principle when he encounters one. Distinguishing retail political speech—the rhetorical red meat flung at supporters—from a core belief on which a leader will not compromise is the essence of political analysis. The consequences of misjudging can be profound.

Meant What He Said
Some candidates are easily understood. Congressman Ron Paul is purely a candidate of principle, and accordingly one with a near-zero chance of victory. Some voters will agree with his libertarian views and others not, but few will doubt that this is a man who means what he says, and who, upon attaining office, will not compromise his beliefs. In the U.S. context, Paul appears shiny-eyed, and a bit dotty, and is tolerated to the extent that he has no chance of attaining national office.

Mitt Romney is a a slightly harder case, a candidate of deeply held views about the U.S. economy, how it works, and what must be done to strengthen it. A President Romney would spend the full measure of his political capital furthering his economic vision. But observers of the candidate’s tone, rhetorical enthusiasm, and even body language quickly grasp that he considers “social” and many other issues peripheral. Whatever Romney’s stated views on these subjects, his policies will “evolve” as political needs dictate. Indeed, Romney’s “authenticity” problem derives precisely from this transparency. The fate of his candidacy rests on whether Republican voters for whom non-economic issues are a matter of principle will accept a leader for whom they so palpably are not.

Barack Obama is a harder case. In their public statements, the President’s conservative critics treat Obama as a man of principle (imposing socialism on unsuspecting Americans; kowtowing to the nation’s enemies) who acts upon his convictions. Obama critics on the political left instead see a trimmer, a man devoid of political principle and unwilling to fight for matters of vital importance. And of course the President's critics may themselves be principled, self-serving, or somewhere in between.

Even the most canny political operators sometimes make their core values and intentions plain. In an extraordinary 1862 encounter of two future political titans, Benjamin Disraeli recorded the words of the visiting future Prussian- and German leader Otto Von Bismarck:

I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to reorganize the army, with or without, the help of the Lantag [legislature]… As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership.

Disraeli judged Bismarck correctly. “Take care of that man,” he told the Austrian envoy, “He means what he says.”
A man of principle?

Seventy years later, too few understood that Adolf Hitler meant what he said.

A more recent case: on 11 May of this year, Hamas MP and cleric Yunis Al-Astal offered these remarks: “In just a few years, all the Zionists and the settlers will realize that their arrival in Palestine was for the purpose of the great massacre, by means of which Allah wants to relieve humanity of their evil.”

Intuiting ‘when they really mean it’ can be a matter of life-and-death.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Buy "My" Book!

Some entrepreneur (not me) is selling the non-copyrighted book I wrote at work...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

eBooks Don't Narrow Your Mind - A Response to Nicole Krauss

The novelist Nicole Krauss thinks eBooks narrow your mind. Better, she argues in the pages of The New Republic, to patronize the independent bookseller, “a curator… who selects, edits and presents a collection that reflects his tastes.” There, patrons “explore a highly selective and thoughtful collection of the world.” “A bookstore search,” Krauss concludes, “inspires serendipity and surprise.”

I think Nicole Krauss didn’t grow up in Parsippany, New Jersey. To put it politely, we didn’t have the bookstore she describes. We had three QuickCheks and precisely zero booksellers. (A Barnes & Noble appeared much later. Krauss would hold it in contempt.). We had Willowbrook Mall, ten miles away. A NJ Transit bus brought those too young to drive and those too old to drive to Bamberger’s front door in a hair over 75 minutes.

At the mall, one found either Waldenbooks or B. Dalton’s. There one might peruse a modest selection of periodicals, most of which featured buxom young ladies draped on, over, near, or along motorbikes of fearsome size and power. In terms of actual books, well, the experience inspired neither serendipity nor surprise.

I’ve visited beautifully curated indie bookstores of the kind Krauss describes, including most recently this gem on the North Carolina Outer Banks. But I also recall how the help at Shakespeare & Co. at 81st and Broadway was, to put it gently, snobbish, and how even there most of the time the book one wanted wasn’t on the shelf.

The reality of how one encounters, selects, and even discusses eBooks need not resemble Krauss’s caricature. Krauss likens the eBook marketplace to the Internet writ large, “an unfathomable multitude… [that will] almost always deliver to the user the bits that feed her already-held interests and confirm her already-held beliefs.”

The future of reading?
Krauss’s point here is that if one buys Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be, Amazon will suggest you might want to try something from Glenn Beck but not Jon Stewart. As a result, you, the poor, unguided reader, will be doomed to a life philosophy informed by The Christmas Sweater.

Tosh! The eBook marketplace puts more tools in the hands of more readers to discover more good books. Readers of intellectual curiosity will use these tools to search out and engage with challenging texts. Readers who lack that curiosity will not, whether online or at Left Bank Books. 

Krauss ignores several aspects of how print and e-marketplace can work together. Periodicals like The New York Review of Books, Book Forum, and yes, The New Republic feature page after page of book review essays and advertisements for serious new releases. (Check my blog roll for TNR’s daily book review service). Within a minute, one can purchase—or sample the first chapter for free!—nearly any new release, including scholarly university-press tomes. No bus required. No “we can special order it for you in 1-3 weeks.” No snide, underemployed NYU grad informing you that Slavoj Žižek is an important thinker.
Amazon and to a lesser extent other eBook retailers offer surprisingly robust online discussions of the books they sell. In my experience the quality can be decent, comparing favorably to the conspiratorial worldview of the slightly dotty near-centenarian who offered me a liverwurst sandwich on the Willowbrook bus so very long ago. I invite you to read my Amazon reviews of books about Alger Hiss and the Weimar Republic.

More on Krauss’s essay in a future post.

PS‒ I can’t link to Krauss’s text because TNR keeps its print content behind a paywall. But I note in passing that you can’t buy The New Republic at B. Dalton but can subscribe on your Kindle.

Facebook Matchup I

Superbowl MVP trounces Latin literary giant, 10:1.