New York’s NPR affiliate, WNYC, has posted downloadable audio of last weekend’s 75th Birthday celebration for Philip Roth. Featured speakers include Jonathan Lethem, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Hermione Lee. Alvin Pepler, unfortunately, had a prior engagement…
Just finished up the recent New Yorker double issue and a couple of items caught my eye. First, I noticed in the capsule book reviews that there is a new book by Andrea Levy out. I had no idea, and it’s a shame because a new book by Levy should be big news. Her novel Small Island was one of the best books of the last five years (I read it in 2005.) This new book is called Fruit of the Lemon and it looks once again at Jamaican immigrants in England. While Small Island focused on the World War II era, however, in Fruit of the Lemon the action occurs in the 1970s, though racial tensions between the former colonizers and formerly colonized remain a major theme. This one is going on my list.Secondly, the New Yorker’s master essayist Louis Menand digs into a book I mentioned here a few months back, The Yale Book of Quotations. The more I hear about this book the more I want it. It sounds like one of those essential reference books that is both useful and endlessly entertaining. Here’s a tidbit from Menand’s review:It is extremely interesting to know, for instance, that the phrase “Shit happens” was introduced to print by one Connie Eble, in a publication identified as “UNC-CH Slang” (presumably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), in 1983. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” a closely related reflection, dates from 1982, the year it appeared in the Washington Post. “Been there, done that” entered the public discourse in 1983, via the Union Recorder, a publication out of the University of Sydney. “Get a life”: the Washington Post, 1983. (What is it about the nineteen-eighties, anyway?) “Size doesn’t matter,” a phrase, or at least a hope, that would seem to have been around since the Pleistocene, did not see print until 1989, rather late in the history of the species, when it appeared in the Boston Globe.
Most reviews of Andrew Keen’s anti-blogger screed The Cult of the Amateur have been pretty unflattering; take for example James Marcus’ assessment in the LA Times. But apparently Kakutani is a fan, “calling it a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the ‘wisdom of the crowd.'”I haven’t, and likely won’t, read Keen’s book, and I’m skeptical of the position that freely available tools allowing anyone anywhere to express themselves to the world are a bad thing. The intermet’s (alleged) damage to highbrow culture is more than obviated by its contribution to democracy. For every 100 mindless bozos on YouTube, there’s a whistle-blower revealing injustice somewhere or a witness to history offering up a first-hand account. To me, the trade-off is plenty worth it, and even if we are going to make the blanket claim that the internet is nothing but “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment,” there is value to be found in at least some of those superficial observations.It’s hard to say where Kakutani is coming from here, but I suspect she’d back any philosophy that might staunch the flow of all those “amateurish” books she’s forced to read and then summarily dismiss in the pages of the Times. (This is in keeping with my image of Kakutani as the ultimate harried reviewer, who long ago lost the ability to enjoy books and loathes on sight every tome that crosses her desk.)
This morning, when I finished reading George Packer’s long article in this week’s New Yorker, I felt like crying. Not out of sadness so much as out of frustration. Reporting from Iraq, Packer discovers yet another in a seemingly interminable series of managerial and moral failures: the U.S. government’s failure to support the Iraqis who have risked their lives serving the occupation as interpreters and administrators. I hope to have more to say on this article, and on Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sometime soon. In the meantime, I wanted to point out an area where similarly frustrated Americans might be of service.Packer introduces us to a U.S.A.I.D. official named Yaghdan who has been exposed by extremists as an aameel – a collaborator – and threatened with beheading. His request to be moved to a post outside of Baghdad is ignored. And so he flees on his own. Having amassed years of U.S.A.I.D. work, he ends up working for a United Arab Emirates cleaning company. Yaghdad’s U.A.E. visa expires; Qatar rebuffs his request for a visa; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no personnel in the Emirates. “Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer – nearly impossible to obtain,” Packer tells us,or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,” he said.It occurred to me that there may be well-placed Americans at various firms who might be willing to tender job offers to Yaghdan or to other qualified Iraqis in Yaghdan’s position. A young American U.S.A.I.D. named Kirk Johnson has, Packer reports, compiled a list of current and former occupation staffers who have put their lives on the line for us, and now that they face death at the hands of militias, would like to live here in safety. Packer argues convincingly that this is a growing crisis, and that American leadership lacks the political will to deal with these invisible refugees. I have no way of knowing if job offers do indeed lead to visas, but perhaps some enterprising person looking for an administrative assistant will, after reading Packer’s article, want to get in touch with him or with Kirk Johnson. Perhaps the sense of helplessness might, however briefly, abate.
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.
Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, on the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech”:Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime.Link