I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
I myself prefer only to read books that have been described as “unputdownable,” but Joe Queenan has his own preferred adjective which appears to be serving him well:Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer.
I read with interest D.T. Max’s article in the recent Summer Fiction Issue of the New Yorker covering the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is, by the sound of it, one of the world’s most important literary archives. The piece mostly covered the library’s director Thomas Staley, and his impressive skill in locking down the papers of some of history’s greatest writers, but it also delved into descriptions of the papers themselves.I suppose I’d never really thought of it before reading this article, but I was surprised at the sheer mass that these collections represent. For example, Norman Mailer’s “archive – weighing twenty thousand pounds in all – came to the center in a tractor trailer.” And that’s just one of many, many archives. In all, the collection “contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair.” The Texas is also old school in the way it approaches its collection.Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.Be that as it may, the objects that Staley covets for the Texas collection may not be as plentiful in the coming years.I was fascinated, for example, by Don Delillo’s papers as described by D.T. Max in the New Yorker: Delillio’s manuscripts “were eerily immaculate – embalmed in acid-free manila folders inside blue legal-sized boxes, each about the size of an accordion folder.”Compare this to a recent article in the New York Times discussing the increasing use of technology and software in crafting fiction. The article’s centerpiece is Richard Powers, whose affinity for technology is well known. Instead of piles of paper, Powerspoured the background research into hyperlinked notebooks using Microsoft OneNote, a program more commonly used by businesses, which allows you to combine text documents, e-mail, images, spreadsheets and video and audio material into one searchable document. He then mapped out possible changing interactions between characters. “These notebook sections gradually grew into the kernels of individual dramatic scenes, which I could then work up in parallel,” Powers said. “The combination of software programs (each of which links seamlessly into the other) allowed for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up composition.”I would guess that some archivists might find it upsetting that, increasingly, modern day authors won’t leave dusty boxes of paper to sift through. Correspondence will be collected in email form, and background research will include hyperlinks and spreadsheets, images and video. This doesn’t jibe with the classic notion of doing literary research, but it will also open dazzling opportunities, as notable writers’ papers will exist in digital form from the outset, and won’t be physically limited to certain institutions. In this way we may trace the links and paths set down by writers as they crafted their work. We will be able to sift through the “dusty boxes” from our desks, wherever we are.
I’m not really one to analyze the New York Times Book Review, but I noticed that the section got a couple of mentions in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. The first points out that the section’s online version has introduced a new bestseller list, one devoted to politics. The usefulness of such lists aside, the introduction of a politics list highlights how important these books – often little more than lengthy screeds coming from the Left or Right – have become to the bottom line for the publishing industry. From the New York Times’ point of view, it’s “‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P.”Separately, E&P published a piece about the glowing review that the Times gave to The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by its own columnist Frank Rich. As E&P puts it: Ian Buruma, the well-known author, in a front-page review, offers enthusiastic praise both for the book and most of Rich’s commentary, which is extremely critical of the media for shirking its watchdog role in the runup to the Iraq war. The Times itself gets hit by its own columnist.So, to recap, the Times praises a book which is critical of the Times but is written by a Times columnist. It’s a small world, no?
Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he’s been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly – and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten’s writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I’ll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn’t Work – pass it on!
In the spring, we reported on an unusual event unfolding in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail. Each week, through 2008, someone – typically a published author or an academic – would write an essay for the Globe championing a book. Fifty books in total. They were not ranked in any order, and in reality they form a jumping-off point into a world of knowledge and literary imagination.About a third of the books championed were novels, from such usual suspects as War and Peace, Don Quixote, and Middlemarch, through Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.More interesting were the non-novels on the list. There were collected shorts from Borges, Kafka and Chekhov, and collected poems from Eliot and Yeats. There was Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Decameron, and The Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old verse from India. Lady Murasaki’s 1000-year-old The Tale of Genji pops up. Plays by Becket and Goethe were also championed.The King James Bible is there; as is the Koran. Books of philosophy by Plato and political economy by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the list.Darwin’s Origin of Species is there; so is Diderot’s Encyclopedia, Herodotus’ Histories, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Rachel Carson’s proto-environmental Silent Spring. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her 300-year-old rebel yell, is there, as are St. Augustine’s Confessions, and de Montaigne’s Essays, his 16th-century invention of a genre.Beside each essay are links to all the essays that came before it. So you should go to the 50th essay, championing Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, to get easy links to the other 49. Thank goodness for that, because there doesn’t seem to be a central web page listing all 50, and I advise against trying to search through the Globe and Mail’s Books section archives unless you want to get a blinding headache.
Again, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features one splendid fiction writer’s meditations on another brilliant fiction writer Last his time, it was Eisenberg on Nádas; this time it’s Zadie Smith considering the critical legacy of E.M. Forster, who provided the inspiration for On Beauty.As a novelist, Forster has suffered by comparison to his more conspicuously innovative contemporaries (for my money, Howards End is as much a technical achievement as that other Bloomsbury monument, Mrs. Dalloway); Smith suggests that Forster is underrated as a critic, as well.Perhaps his critical medium – BBC radio – made it easy to overlook Forster’s seriousness; perhaps his characteristic modesty did as well. Still, we can learn much from Forster, and from Smith’s appreciation of him:He could sit in his own literary corner without claiming its superiority to any other. Stubbornly he defends Joyce, though he doesn’t much like him, and Woolf, though she bemuses him, and Eliot, though he fears him […] Forster was not Valéry, but he defended Valéry’s right to be Valéry. He understood the beauty of complexity and saluted it where he saw it.
Millions readers who follow European soccer, the progress of democratic socialism, or international tax policies may be interested in Jonathan Last’s article in the Weekly Standard this week about how Gordon Brown’s recent tax hike – from 40% to 50% on the top tax bracket – is decimating the English Premier League. (And yes, I mean that Weekly Standard – the one edited by Bill Kristol, the one so many love to hate.)According to Last and others (like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger), the Premier League’s inability to keep or attract players like Cristiano Ronaldo (who left Manchester United this transfer season for Real Madrid for a record 80 million pounds), the Brazilian striker Kaka (who spurned a 100 million pound offer from Manchester City to go to Real Madrid for less), Karim Benzima, Franck Ribery, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa, and Jermaine Pennant can all be traced to England’s new 50% income tax and the falling value of the pound. That and Spain’s 2005 “Beckham Law” that allows high-earning “foreign executives” a special tax rate of only 24% rather than 43%, its usual top-bracket rate. The Spanish law is so named because David Beckham was the first foreign national to be given this status – and because the law was backdated to 2003, the year he joined Real Madrid from Manchester United.