Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.
A nice rememberance of Hunter S. Thompson by his friend Paul Theroux in The Guardian.William T. Vollmann’s substantial look at Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Phillip Short in the NY Times.Deborah Solomon sits down for a long chat with Jonathan Safran Foer which reveals this: “he received a $500,000 advance for his first novel and a $1 million advance for his second, meaning that he is probably the highest-earning literary novelist under 30.”
Several years ago, before I even thought of moving to Los Angeles, my mother, on a whim, bought an Ed Ruscha book for me. I grew up in an art friendly house with frequent trips to galleries and museums, and in college I took a modern art history class and spent a day going to art galleries whenever I went to New York, yet I had barely ever heard of Ruscha. Nonetheless, I found his paintings intriguing. They have always seemed like disembodied signs coming from some void. Then I moved to Los Angeles and saw how this town is like a graveyard for signs and billboards and advertising and words. In certain neighborhoods, there are decaying signs everywhere you look. Some are still in use; others sit forlornly atop buildings advertising some long lost place. I think there is enough room in Los Angeles to not have to go the trouble of taking these signs down and replacing them. In this vast and flat landscape you can just put up a new sign and leave the old one up for decoration. Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) celebrates and pays homage to this living graveyard of a city, and from what I understand, his reputation has blossomed of late as he has shed the limiting mantle of West Coast Artist. A new book, the first ever monograph of his work, has come out recently. It is a beautiful book and it represents an elevation of the stature of this deserving artist. Here are 13 pages of art by Ed Ruscha.I love reading about the behind the scenes machinations of politics and government. There are so many events of global significance that are swayed or even caused by the actions and words of the two or three most powerful men in the world at any time. The idea that most of our recent Presidents have taped their behind-closed-doors conversations is almost too good to be true for anyone interested in the inner workings of American power politics, and a collection of these tapes has come out. The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President is a nine CD and book set that includes the taped conversations of every president from FDR to Reagan (excluding Carter). It chronicles some of he country’s worst moments (Nixon’s “Smoking Gun” tapes) and some of our best (Truman hashing out the Marshall Plan). The ninth CD is a companion documentary produced by American Radio Works. There are many amazing and readable books about history out there, but it’s not every day that you come across such compelling and significant source material.
In early 2002, the mogul for whom I worked began reimagining his prize property, The Atlantic Monthly. For a few weeks, I and other David Bradley employees at The Advisory Board Company received emails asking how The Atlantic might be improved. Would expanded political coverage make us more likely to subscribe? How about an expanded travel section? And: Could we recommend a witty British essayist to round out the list of contributors? (I’m pleased to say I botched this last question, and so can claim no credit for Christopher Hitchens.)Indeed, for a while, I wanted nothing to do with The Atlantic at all. Though the changes inaugurated that year improved the circulation numbers, they seemed to me to damage The Atlantic’s brand. The palpable rightward lurch; the proliferation of infographics, polls, and lifestyle coverage for the country-club set; and especially the breathless editorial hooks – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Was Rumsfeld Right?” “Is Feminism Bad for Women?” – had made this intellectual institution everything it once wasn’t. While reading an article pegged to season five of The Wire, I could practically hear cut-and-paste mouseclicks turning good reporting into vacuous bloviating. (The Wire’s chief offense? It’s fiction!)It was around this point that I began to toy with an essay called, “Is The Atlantic Monthly the Death of Journalism?”The most telling weakness of The Atlantic circa 2005 – 2007, I would have argued, was the way that it had assimilated in print form a quality conventional wisdom assigns to online writing: i.e., an instinct to manufacture controversy, at the expense of common sense. This pseudo-blogginess was on vivid display in the magazine’s letters section, wherein master sophists such as Caitlin Flanagan hectored any reader who dared to point out the tendentiousness of their logic.Even as the editorial standards of the print magazine slipped, however, a stealthy inversion was happening on the magazine’s blogs, whose readership numbers soon eclipsed newsstand sales. Marc Ambinder sought some middle ground in our contentious political discourse. James Fallows and Clive Crook, freed from their editorial overlords, offered thoughtful feuilletons. And even as Ross Douthat and I got into a mini-contretemps about presidential fiction, I came to admire the high standards of logos and ethos he brought to that mire of pathos, the Internet.Now, with a new design and a new slogan, the print and online arms of The Atlantic have perhaps reached some happy accommodation. The current print issue reveals the virtues of editorial patience; Hannah Rosin’s piece on transgender juveniles, in particular, is a model of probity. By far the most interesting aspect of the redesign, however, can be found on the web. The new version of www.theatlantic.com sports a svelte and user-friendly index of the magazine’s blog offerings (a.k.a. “Voices”). Moreover, the central panel of the homepage features a rotating selection of current content, making no distinction between print and online provenance. It’s a credit to The Atlantic’s intrepid bloggers – and a nod to the possibilities of the blog as a medium – that readers won’t miss the distinction.
AbeBooks, home of what is likely the most extensive commercial book database on earth, announced today that its online inventory now “exceeds 100 million” books. That’s books for sale right now, folks, not the number of books it has ever sold. The 100 millionth book added was A Checklist of the Vertebrate Animals of Kansas by George D. Potts and Thomas T. Collins. CEO Hannes Blum bought the milestone book. While Amazon and others get lots of press here and elsewhere, AbeBooks is really a remarkable site as it allows one to search through the inventories of “over 13,500 independent booksellers.” Sure it’s not as musty as your neighborhood used book shop, but think of all the treasures to be discovered.In commemoration of the 100 millionth book, the Guardian’s Comment is Free site prints an appreciation of AbeBooks, which “turned a cottage business into an international industry, and created millions of grateful readers.” From the Frankfurt Book Fair, meanwhile, comes news that AbeBooks continues to evolve. The site is using 40%-owned book cataloging site LibraryThing to develop a sophisticated recommendation engine. Unlike Amazon’s recommendation engine, which picks books based on what you buy, LibraryThing makes recommendations based on what you own.