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.
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
We at The Millions have been anticipating Roberto Bolaño’s magnum opus, 2666, for months now. While I’m not convinced that a book review is capable of capturing the beauty and profound oddity of this novel, my best effort is currently featured at More Intelligent Life.Bonus link (from the archives): “Why Bolaño Matters“
A while back I discussed the minor furor over proposed changes at the New York Times Book Review, including charges of dumbing down and sensationalism. Now the helm has been handed over to a new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, a widely published journalist and the author of a well received biography of Whitaker Chambers. It remains to be seen if the New York Times Book Review will change significantly. On another, much more visible front, the Jayson Blair affair has reemerged due to the release of the book in which he tells his side of the story, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times. It is hard to imagine that anyone will take seriously a book by someone whose claim to fame is his astounding lack of credibility. In fact, the venomous pans are already rolling in (Dallas Star Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe. Even the Brits get into the act.) My favorite, though, is this headline from the Christian Science Monitor: “Jayson Blair: ‘I lied.’ Reader: ‘No kidding.’” I’m rather happy to see the level of outrage that Blair’s book is generating. Meanwhile some are reporting that the Times stands to benefit if Blair’s book does well (LINK). I’m not sure if that story has legs, though.
Even a New Yorker obsessive like me was surprised to find just how many notable works of fiction and non-fiction made their first appearance in the venerable magazine. Emdashes and her readers have gone to the effort of collecting a list of many such works. It’s worth a look as a potential reading list and also just for the “wow factor.” Don’t forget to check the comments.
There are dozens collections of New Yorker cartoons available, and all of the will serve you well enough if you need a fix of that particular and unique brand of humor. A new collection, however, promises something a little different, the rejected cartoons: “Some were too racy, rude or rowdy. Some are too politically incorrect or too weird. A few are probably too dumb.” Those are the words of Matthew Diffee, New Yorker cartoonist and editor of the The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker. In a brief piece about the book in the LA Times Diffee writes: So most of our stuff gets rejected; and sure, some of the rejected cartoons are pretty bad and deserve to be hidden forever. But there are always a few gems that are missed, and believe me, we remember them. So I decided to collect the best rejects from a number of my friends and colleagues – all regular New Yorker cartoonists, but all of whom, like me, have nine out of 10 of their submissions rejected.I might have to check this one out.
Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, Strong Motion, was about a mysterious outbreak of earthquakes in Massachusetts. The novel’s heroine, seismologist Reneé Seitcheck, discovers that these earthquakes are the byproduct of industrial drilling. The responsible party is a petrochemical firm whose agents attempt to assassinate Seitcheck after she proves that the company’s practice of injecting toxic waste into the ground is the cause of the bizarre quakes.
Something oddly similar might be happening in Oklahoma (which, like Massachusetts, is not your traditional hotbed of seismic activity). This past Saturday, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck the tiny town of Sparks in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in the state’s history, and another example of the sharp increase in seismic activity Oklahoma has experienced in recent years. Up through 2009, Oklahoma had averaged about fifty earthquakes a year. The total number of quakes reported in 2010? 1,047.
This swift and dramatic change in Oklahoma’s vulnerability to earthquakes has some people wondering if the practice of hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — might be the culprit. Fracking is the process of injecting highly-pressurized fluids into the earth to break up shale and rock and release otherwise inaccessible sources of natural gas. The waste fluid is then shot back underground at sites called “injection wells.” There are 181 active injection wells in Lincoln County Oklahoma.
Energy companies deny that fracking causes earthquakes, and seismologist Austin Holland at the Oklahoma Geological Survey told the Associated Press there’s no reason — at this point — to blame these quakes on anything other than normal seismic activity.
However, Mr. Holland has studied this question before, and his findings were quite a bit more troubling — even if his way of putting them was transparently cautious. In a paper entitled “Examination of Possibly Induced Seismicity from Hydraulic Fracturing in the Eola Field, Garvin County, Oklahoma” (available here), Mr. Holland said:
The strong spatial and temporal correlations to the hydraulic-fracturing in Picket Unit B Well 4-18 [located in Garvin County Oklahoma] certainly suggest that the earthquakes observed in the Eola Field [also in Garvin County Oklahoma] could have possibly been triggered by this activity.
In that same paper, Mr. Holland admitted an important proximity in time between fracking and episodes of unusual seismicity, noted that the epicenters of the Garvin County earthquakes were within five kilometers of the injection wells, and that the earthquakes occurred at, or near, the associated injection depths. Mr. Holland’s conclusion, however, was basically, “Still — we can’t say for sure that fracking causes earthquakes.”
More troubling by far, though, is Mr. Holland’s weird epilogue, in which he agrees that studying the relationship between fracking and earthquakes might have one useful outcome: “It may also be possible to identify what criteria may affect the likelihood of anthropogenically induced earthquakes and provide oil and gas operators the ability to minimize any adverse effects[.]”
Perhaps I got lost in Mr. Holland’s grammar, but aren’t the earthquakes the adverse effects we’re talking about here? If a scientist has shown that fracking causes earthquakes, hasn’t he or she already demonstrated the adverse effects of fracking — namely, that it causes earthquakes? What minimization could he be talking about? Can you stop an earthquake once you’ve started it? Can it be hampered? Can it be softened? Or are we to understand that oil companies will pay to reinforce homes and repair damaged properties, foot medical costs, and make right any wrongful deaths? Because they obviously aren’t going to stop fracking — even if they believe it causes earthquakes.
We know this to be true, because at least one energy company wholeheartedly agrees that fracking causes earthquakes — and they’ve decided to keep doing it anyway. Cuadrilla Resources, a British company, has admitted it’s “highly probable” their fracking operation caused a series of small tremors in Lancashire, England (read the press release here). Cuadrilla hopes to get right back to fracking, though, after implementation of an “early detection system” that will serve to minimize the seismic impact of their operations.
I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would discover that my actions had caused an earthquake. But I think if I did, my next move would probably be to stop doing whatever it was I was doing — not to figure out a way to live with the earthquakes. Because if energy companies actually believe that fracking causes earthquakes — and if they continue to frack — where does it end? If a company learned that fracking was responsible for international terrorism, would they stop? If they learned that fracking caused blindness in little orphan baby girls, would they care? If the sudden and contemporaneous deaths of all first-born male children within a hundred-mile radius of the Lincoln County injection sites was conclusively linked to fracking, would the drilling companies even slow down? And if not, would anyone in power stand up to stop them?
In Strong Motion, Franzen uses the language of earthquakes to describe forceful love. “Strong motion” is, in fact, a geological term for the powerful turbulence that occurs near the epicenter of a quake. It’s a good metaphor, with deep roots. Love is a force of biological authority, after all, and we humans are just bits of dust and dirt and stone that have managed over millions of years to stand up, to think, to mate and bear children, and to find ways to protect what we love.
I live in Oklahoma, with my wife and two sons. Monday night we felt another earthquake. I was lying on our bed, holding my youngest boy — he’ll turn two years old next month — when the shaking began.
On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background.
“Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked.
“Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.”
Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world.
But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way.
Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt — and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post.
In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup.
This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff.
Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.”
“What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks.
“I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.”
“Oh, no?” Nixon says.
“He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him.
Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s.
Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.)
But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man.
Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.