In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
When you go to journalism school (or start out at most traditional journalism jobs), you are issued a style guide as a soldier might be issued a weapon. Quite a few places have their own in-house style guides, reflecting the vernacular peculiarities of the publication or its region. For all others, the default tends to be the AP Stylebook, a utilitarian volume compiled by the AP and meant to keep all of its reporters’ language consistent. Its influence, of course, has spread far wider.As an avid AP Stylebook owner, I read with interest last month, Editor & Publisher’s account of the changes in the latest edition of the Stylebook. In a way, the AP’s regular shuffling in and out of new words and disused ones is not unlike the exercise played to great PR effect by dictionaries every year. The sometimes silly neologisms added to dictionaries make for easy news bites. Seeing “e-mail” or “LOL” printed on those thin pages seems to inspire amusement, dread, and maybe a little bit of pride. But ultimately it feels inconsequential as we watch our vocabulary race ahead of dictionaries, and dictionaries seem to have minimal influence on how we actually communicate.An adjustment to the AP Stylebook, on the other hand, is a writ-in-stone change to what millions of people will read in publications around the world, and it will further influence the style guides at publications that use their own style guides. Certainly the AP is forced to, as the dictionaries do, catch up to trends in the spoken and written word – according to E&P, “‘WMD,’ ‘iPhone’ and ‘anti-virus’ are in, while ‘barmaid,’ ‘blue blood’ and ‘malarkey’ are out.” – but the authority of the Stylebook would seem to bury the words that are being removed and give birth to those that are added.
They eat babies in Guangzhou. This appalling side note appeared in this week’s issue of Newsweek International in an article about problems with Chinese food safety. The article profiles Chinese journalist Zhou Qing who was nominated as a finalist for the Lettre Ulysses Award for his work covering food safety issues. According to Zhou, Chinese captains of industry blithely pickle vegetables with agricultural strength insecticides to keep flies away and sprinkle preserved fish with “sulphur salt,” an industrial additive deadly in amounts as small as three grams.None of this is very surprising, after a recent shipment of poisoned Chinese toothpaste and cough syrup caused a spate of deaths in Central and South America. What is surprising, however, is the inspiration for Zhou’s book: an unusual dish he claims was served to him in a Guangdong restaurant. From the Newsweek article:[The soup was] placenta soup… The placentas come from the aborted fetuses of migrant women workers who are unmarried or out of line with the government’s one-child policy. During dinner, Zhou peeked into the back kitchen and saw the cooks scooping out fetuses.While this tidbit doesn’t seem to have earned even a blink from the jaded staff at Newsweek, I practically spit my morning coffee across the monitor.Could this really be the one child policy in action? Or is it a hoax perpetuated by an overzealous reporter? Poisoning cough syrup is one thing, but eating babies? Although stories of women eating their own placentas abound, the issues raised by the potential commodification of the placenta are profoundly troubling. China’s moral compass must be spinning like a dervish.A cynicism well honed on long exposure to fabulist reportage on Asia, immediately took me to Snopes.com, the vaunted debunker of rumors and urban legend. The Snopes team decries a similar story as nothing more than racist claptrap. But a quick trip to Google uncovers a wealth of articles, including one from Bloomberg in the International Herald Tribune (which introduces a new wrinkle… the placentas are imported from Japan) and one from the Daiyuan Times… in Chinese. Who to believe?The blood libel has been around for at least as long as the Jews, and probably well before. There are few crimes more transgressive and titillating than cannibalism, and people with an axe to grind are often quick to call their enemies out as baby eaters. A quick background check on the Daiyuan Times, for example, shows that it is owned by the Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization that has experienced ruthless oppression at the hands of the Chinese government. If you can’t trust the food from China, how can you trust the journalism?Not that the United States is much better. Even putting aside purebred fictionalists like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, we’re still left with a herd of reporters so eager for a good story, they’re unwilling to get to the bottom of it. With old hands like Judith Miller selling entire wars based completely on rumor and innuendo, it’s hard to find fault with an ambitious tyro for practicing his chops on a bowl of fetus soup.So do they eat babies in China? Newsweek, at least, is sticking with Zhou’s account. His book, What Kind of God?, is currently only available in Chinese, but the general hysteria building up around Chinese exports seems to be making room for a bestseller. Eat your heart out Upton Sinclair.See Also: The Lettre Ulysses goes on hiatus
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.
Apropos of a post earlier this month on limiting and culling overflowing book collections, Scott McLemee takes on the topic (via) in Inside Higher Ed. Leaving aside whether we are somehow seeing (in a trend that would fly in the face of publishing industry gloom-and-doomers) an explosion of ill advised impulse book buying around the world, lets have a look at the solutions recently proposed. Recall that the article mentioned in the above linked post suggested conducting “regular inspections of your library;” following “the ‘one in, one out’ rule;” spending “more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks;” using the library more, and “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule.McLemee looks at a professor, overrun by books, who has reached a breaking point. A case study of sorts:At the start, my correspondent estimated that he had 130 feet of books occupying his office. That works out to the equivalent, with ordinary bookshelves, of about 40 to 50 shelves’ worth. He said the moment of decision came when he realized that reducing the collection to “the hard core of actually useful information [without] a lot of filler” would have a fringe benefit: “I could fit a comfortable reading chair in my office.”It sounded like the first thing to go was the dream of reducing his holdings to just two or three dozen titles necessary for preparing lectures. This extreme ambition was revised to trimming down to roughly 60 feet of books. The effort would take a few days, he thought; and he hoped to finish before leaving on a trip that would take him away from the office for a week or so.Along the way the gamut of emotions are felt:There is a kind of exhilaration to it. But it requires full acceptance of the reality that there will be pain later: the remorse over titles you never retrieved from the discard pile.Not sure why I’m dwelling on this topic of late, but I suspect has to do with the fact that we’re moving again soon, and with that comes inevitable book culling, though this time the damage should be limited. Best of all, we’re finally (finally!) going to be moving somewhere where we’ll be living for more than a year, so I can unbox all the books and put them on some sort Mrs. Millions-created shelving masterpiece. Brilliant.