Commentary Magazine


Topic: reading

So Why Read (Fiction) Anymore?

Yesterday, in his blog Works and Days at PJ Media, the classical historian Victor Davis Hanson asked why anyone should read anymore. He rehearsed several good reasons (reading is mental exercise, it renews the language that social media zaps into an “instant bland hot cereal,” it reverses the intellectual regress that seems to accompany technological progress) before arriving at what strikes me as the soundest reason of all. “[S]peaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization,” Hanson concluded, “but also the keys to self-mastery. . . .” He hurried on to talk about upholding the standards of culture, saying no more about self-mastery. In passing, though, Hanson put his finger on the reason for what Ben Jonson, four centuries ago, called a “mul­ti­plicity of read­ing.” It “maketh a full man,” Jonson said.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that reading leads not to self-mastery, but to self-affirmation. Some such view stands behind the nonprofit labors of Reading Is Fundamental, the children’s literacy organization:

Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

What follows from this view is that “nonwhite readers” need to “find their mirrors.” They cannot hope to glimpse themselves and their circumstances in “white” books. Thus the call for “diversity” in literature — different groups require different “mirrors” for self-affirmation.

But what if this is exactly backwards? Hanson thinks so: “In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia,” he observes, “Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond.” Cicero is unlikely, however, to convince those who believe that young readers will only feel “part of the larger human experience” if their own smaller experience is affirmed first.

What if both arguments are wrong? What if both the reader hoping for a common bond and the reader in search of self-affirmation are making the same mistake? The mistake, as the poet and literary scholar J. V. Cunningham said caustically, is for a reader to think that he “can appropriate [a book] as his own.” Cunningham’s ambition as a poet was to disappoint the reader in this expectation:

He wanted him to know that this was his poem, not yours; these were his circumstances, not yours; and these were the structures of thought by which he had penetrated them.

Every written text belongs to its author, not to you. This proposition, I realize, is sadly anachronistic. It sounds like an admonition to thrift and chastity. It paddles against the current of the times. Michel Foucault has taught us, after all, that the author is an impediment to freedom — that he is not really a person at all (who is owed respect), but merely a “certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. . . .” Remove the author, Roland Barthes urges, and you remove all limitations upon the text.

The truth is otherwise. Remove the author and all you do is to remove every restraint upon Narcissistic Reading Disorder. To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? Hanson gives a marvelous account of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer we both admired despite his various contradictions and occasional cruelties: “[H]e achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore,” Hanson says. But surely Hitchens’s appeal is more immediate than that. With Hitchens, the challenge is constant. He never lets you get away with a lazy reflection, because he never let himself get away with a lazy reflection. He demands that you think about things his way, and if you find that unpleasant — well, what do you think?

Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist thinker and novelist, explains in an interview:

The ethical has to do with human behavior; it’s not necessarily related to good and evil. When I read Madame Bovary I ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? Would I trust Leon, who tells me that he loves me? . . . If I were Ringo in Stagecoach, would I have escaped with Dallas upon reaching the city, or would I have set out to take revenge on my enemies? This is what ethics is about. . . . Every work of fiction is a story of human conduct, and the reader would have to be a monster in order not to see the deeds which the work presents as possible acts of his own.

If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.

Yesterday, in his blog Works and Days at PJ Media, the classical historian Victor Davis Hanson asked why anyone should read anymore. He rehearsed several good reasons (reading is mental exercise, it renews the language that social media zaps into an “instant bland hot cereal,” it reverses the intellectual regress that seems to accompany technological progress) before arriving at what strikes me as the soundest reason of all. “[S]peaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization,” Hanson concluded, “but also the keys to self-mastery. . . .” He hurried on to talk about upholding the standards of culture, saying no more about self-mastery. In passing, though, Hanson put his finger on the reason for what Ben Jonson, four centuries ago, called a “mul­ti­plicity of read­ing.” It “maketh a full man,” Jonson said.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that reading leads not to self-mastery, but to self-affirmation. Some such view stands behind the nonprofit labors of Reading Is Fundamental, the children’s literacy organization:

Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

What follows from this view is that “nonwhite readers” need to “find their mirrors.” They cannot hope to glimpse themselves and their circumstances in “white” books. Thus the call for “diversity” in literature — different groups require different “mirrors” for self-affirmation.

But what if this is exactly backwards? Hanson thinks so: “In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia,” he observes, “Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond.” Cicero is unlikely, however, to convince those who believe that young readers will only feel “part of the larger human experience” if their own smaller experience is affirmed first.

What if both arguments are wrong? What if both the reader hoping for a common bond and the reader in search of self-affirmation are making the same mistake? The mistake, as the poet and literary scholar J. V. Cunningham said caustically, is for a reader to think that he “can appropriate [a book] as his own.” Cunningham’s ambition as a poet was to disappoint the reader in this expectation:

He wanted him to know that this was his poem, not yours; these were his circumstances, not yours; and these were the structures of thought by which he had penetrated them.

Every written text belongs to its author, not to you. This proposition, I realize, is sadly anachronistic. It sounds like an admonition to thrift and chastity. It paddles against the current of the times. Michel Foucault has taught us, after all, that the author is an impediment to freedom — that he is not really a person at all (who is owed respect), but merely a “certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. . . .” Remove the author, Roland Barthes urges, and you remove all limitations upon the text.

The truth is otherwise. Remove the author and all you do is to remove every restraint upon Narcissistic Reading Disorder. To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? Hanson gives a marvelous account of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer we both admired despite his various contradictions and occasional cruelties: “[H]e achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore,” Hanson says. But surely Hitchens’s appeal is more immediate than that. With Hitchens, the challenge is constant. He never lets you get away with a lazy reflection, because he never let himself get away with a lazy reflection. He demands that you think about things his way, and if you find that unpleasant — well, what do you think?

Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist thinker and novelist, explains in an interview:

The ethical has to do with human behavior; it’s not necessarily related to good and evil. When I read Madame Bovary I ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? Would I trust Leon, who tells me that he loves me? . . . If I were Ringo in Stagecoach, would I have escaped with Dallas upon reaching the city, or would I have set out to take revenge on my enemies? This is what ethics is about. . . . Every work of fiction is a story of human conduct, and the reader would have to be a monster in order not to see the deeds which the work presents as possible acts of his own.

If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.

Read Less

Everyone Read “Harry Potter”

After taking in Joseph Bottum and me on the decline of the public novel, the journalist Kate Jones tweeted her disagreement. She cited J. K. Rowling’s series of seven Harry Potter novels as counter-evidence.

Coincidentally enough, Richard Davies of the the used-book site AbeBooks reported earlier today on a study of the book-buying habits of Harry Potter readers. As Davies put it, Rowling’s readers made “rather eclectic” choices for their next book after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series. Their top choice was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, followed by Portia de Rossi’s anorexia memoir Unbearable Lightness, and Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Or, in other words, there was no pattern.

The second commentator on Davies’s story got it about right:

This wide variation supports a different angle from the original intention. It isn’t about what Harry Potter readers subsequently read, but that ALL (or at least most) readers read Harry Potter. They simply went back to the things they were reading before/during Potter.

This certainly seems to corroborate Jones’s claim that the Harry Potter books were the “public novels” of the decade from 1997 to 2007.

But without descending into the snobbery of Pauline Kael’s wondering how Richard Nixon could possibly have been elected president since nobody she knew had voted for him, I wonder if the near-universal readership for Harry Potter (everyone but me, apparently) doesn’t prove, in fact, the decline of the public novel.

Instead of the socially conscious “message” novels of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — Strange Fruit, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Wall, The Caine Mutiny, Andersonville, Atlas Shrugged, Advise and Consent, To Kill a Mockingbird — the novels that “ALL (or at least most) readers read” from 1997 to 2007 were not public novels at all, but a retreat from the public square into a children’s supernatural fantasy of sorcery and wizards.

Harry Potter certainly seemed to bring nearly everybody together in a congregation of enthusiastic readership, but whether the novels provide (in Bottum’s phrase) “deep explanations of the human condition” is more doubtful.

After taking in Joseph Bottum and me on the decline of the public novel, the journalist Kate Jones tweeted her disagreement. She cited J. K. Rowling’s series of seven Harry Potter novels as counter-evidence.

Coincidentally enough, Richard Davies of the the used-book site AbeBooks reported earlier today on a study of the book-buying habits of Harry Potter readers. As Davies put it, Rowling’s readers made “rather eclectic” choices for their next book after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series. Their top choice was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, followed by Portia de Rossi’s anorexia memoir Unbearable Lightness, and Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Or, in other words, there was no pattern.

The second commentator on Davies’s story got it about right:

This wide variation supports a different angle from the original intention. It isn’t about what Harry Potter readers subsequently read, but that ALL (or at least most) readers read Harry Potter. They simply went back to the things they were reading before/during Potter.

This certainly seems to corroborate Jones’s claim that the Harry Potter books were the “public novels” of the decade from 1997 to 2007.

But without descending into the snobbery of Pauline Kael’s wondering how Richard Nixon could possibly have been elected president since nobody she knew had voted for him, I wonder if the near-universal readership for Harry Potter (everyone but me, apparently) doesn’t prove, in fact, the decline of the public novel.

Instead of the socially conscious “message” novels of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — Strange Fruit, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Wall, The Caine Mutiny, Andersonville, Atlas Shrugged, Advise and Consent, To Kill a Mockingbird — the novels that “ALL (or at least most) readers read” from 1997 to 2007 were not public novels at all, but a retreat from the public square into a children’s supernatural fantasy of sorcery and wizards.

Harry Potter certainly seemed to bring nearly everybody together in a congregation of enthusiastic readership, but whether the novels provide (in Bottum’s phrase) “deep explanations of the human condition” is more doubtful.

Read Less

The Duty of Harsh Criticism

“[O]ur first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism,” Rebecca West wrote in the New Republic in 1914. “There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (h/t: Real Clear Books).

Change “England” to America and “the police” to parents (when the “piping note of appreciation” changes to indignant bullying), and you’ve got an excellent summary of the current state of criticism in this country.

What is the source of this flinching amiability? In West’s day it sprang from a “faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.”

These days it comes from a lukewarm suspicion of the intellect, a pseudo-democratic feeling that no one is really any more qualified than anyone else to pronounce verdicts on literature, and a heartfelt relativism which believes, to the tips of its fingers, that every judgment is a personal preference anyway. In an age when reading is (supposedly) in decline, it is widely held to be wrong to discourage anyone from sitting down with a book. The important thing is to read. What is read matters less.

Except that it does matter. A lot. The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. (That’s primarily why they are bad.) Take the execution of Troy Davis, for example. The conventional wisdom on the left is that Davis was “murdered” by the state (see here and here and here). The idea can be traced back to Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood, which if not inventing it gave it a wide distribution.

After the prosecution’s summation to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” (Capote himself, in all likelihood) criticizes the prosecutor for his brutality. Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:

     “He was just telling the truth. . . . The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

Thus the real meaning of Capote’s title, which refers not to the murder of the Clutter family but instead to the execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith five-and-a-half years later. Those who seek justice, Capote says, are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

The idea that Troy Davis was “murdered” by the state is difficult to refute because of the popularity, nearly the canonical status, of Capote’s book. If more critics had abused the book upon its original publication in 1966, if more of them had followed the lead of William Phillips, who argued in COMMENTARY that the book was a failure because Capote had failed to show how Hickock and Smith were acting out the “moral logic” of the ideas that had invaded their lives, then perhaps the central theme of In Cold Blood might not have become established like a first principle in much of American culture.

Most critics were less afraid of shirking their duty than of earning a reputation for harshness. Little has changed. A book like Amy Waldman’s 9/11 novel The Submission is praised as “nervy and absorbing” — Amazon recommends it as a Best Book of the Month, calling it “airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable” — but its message that the bitter American struggle over symbols masks a deep national dysfunction is either ignored or reduced to platitude (“public memorials [are] an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives,” or in other words, the true meaning of human experience lies in suffering).

When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought. Not that their dereliction of duty will win them any friends. People are even more uncomfortable around critics than they are around undertakers. They might as well be harsh.

“[O]ur first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism,” Rebecca West wrote in the New Republic in 1914. “There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (h/t: Real Clear Books).

Change “England” to America and “the police” to parents (when the “piping note of appreciation” changes to indignant bullying), and you’ve got an excellent summary of the current state of criticism in this country.

What is the source of this flinching amiability? In West’s day it sprang from a “faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.”

These days it comes from a lukewarm suspicion of the intellect, a pseudo-democratic feeling that no one is really any more qualified than anyone else to pronounce verdicts on literature, and a heartfelt relativism which believes, to the tips of its fingers, that every judgment is a personal preference anyway. In an age when reading is (supposedly) in decline, it is widely held to be wrong to discourage anyone from sitting down with a book. The important thing is to read. What is read matters less.

Except that it does matter. A lot. The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. (That’s primarily why they are bad.) Take the execution of Troy Davis, for example. The conventional wisdom on the left is that Davis was “murdered” by the state (see here and here and here). The idea can be traced back to Truman Capote’s famous In Cold Blood, which if not inventing it gave it a wide distribution.

After the prosecution’s summation to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” (Capote himself, in all likelihood) criticizes the prosecutor for his brutality. Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:

     “He was just telling the truth. . . . The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

Thus the real meaning of Capote’s title, which refers not to the murder of the Clutter family but instead to the execution of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith five-and-a-half years later. Those who seek justice, Capote says, are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

The idea that Troy Davis was “murdered” by the state is difficult to refute because of the popularity, nearly the canonical status, of Capote’s book. If more critics had abused the book upon its original publication in 1966, if more of them had followed the lead of William Phillips, who argued in COMMENTARY that the book was a failure because Capote had failed to show how Hickock and Smith were acting out the “moral logic” of the ideas that had invaded their lives, then perhaps the central theme of In Cold Blood might not have become established like a first principle in much of American culture.

Most critics were less afraid of shirking their duty than of earning a reputation for harshness. Little has changed. A book like Amy Waldman’s 9/11 novel The Submission is praised as “nervy and absorbing” — Amazon recommends it as a Best Book of the Month, calling it “airtight, multi-viewed, highly readable” — but its message that the bitter American struggle over symbols masks a deep national dysfunction is either ignored or reduced to platitude (“public memorials [are] an adjunct to the real and personal suffering that lingers, invisibly and unconsoled, in individual lives,” or in other words, the true meaning of human experience lies in suffering).

When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought. Not that their dereliction of duty will win them any friends. People are even more uncomfortable around critics than they are around undertakers. They might as well be harsh.

Read Less

Children and the Future of the Book

Over at the Atlantic’s technology blog, Edward Tenner asks whether children will save printed books. A historian of technology (whose 1996 book Why Things Bite Back ought to be required reading for the uncritical cheerleaders of technological progress), Tenner points out that, despite the “consensus of many e-book enthusiasts and elegiac traditionalists alike” that the codex is doomed, responsible thought about the future requires “alternative scenarios.”

And one possibility is that a younger generation will reject the prized possessions, the revolutionary amazements, of an older generation. Your father could not believe the convenience of his Remington Lektronic shaver and your mother raved about her Touch-o-Matic electric can opener; you shave with a safety razor and crank your cans open. Tenner suggests that a “pro-book rebellion” is possible, though not inevitable. The success of Mad Men has cleared the closets of wide neckties.

Indeed, heeding the Baseball Crank’s warning that knowledge is not settled, one possibility is as good as another at this point. Many of the features that Kindle and iPad devotees brag about (what Ed Driscoll hails, for example, as “being able to read a book anywhere, and carry the digital equivalent of a massive stack of them onto an airplane”) may not seem all that remarkable or important in a few years.

Electronic reading devices are new devices for old readers. Younger readers do not come to books with the same personal history. In fact, their own history with books might lead them to prefer paper and binding. I’ve suggested as much before (here and here). Children first encounter books as physical things. Board books, lift-the-flap books, touch-and-feel books, pop-up books — their first books are three-dimensional objects that encourage children to explore them in all three dimensions. When they acquire their own books, the books they have selected for themselves, children are proud of them. They like to display them on their shelves and carry them everywhere. They may even begin to develop a love for good paper and fine binding.

I’m not saying that printed books will triumph in the end. I’m no better than anyone else at predicting the future. What I am suggesting is that older readers, excited about their Kindles and iPads, have become strangers to their first experience with books and reading. The newfangled devices are exciting because they appear to solve longstanding problems — the problems of older readers, who have spent a lifetime with books. Younger readers, who do not share that excitement and are not yet estranged from their own literary history, may not prefer ebooks to printed books after all.
____________________

Many thanks to Daniel Bloom for getting this whole discussion started.

Over at the Atlantic’s technology blog, Edward Tenner asks whether children will save printed books. A historian of technology (whose 1996 book Why Things Bite Back ought to be required reading for the uncritical cheerleaders of technological progress), Tenner points out that, despite the “consensus of many e-book enthusiasts and elegiac traditionalists alike” that the codex is doomed, responsible thought about the future requires “alternative scenarios.”

And one possibility is that a younger generation will reject the prized possessions, the revolutionary amazements, of an older generation. Your father could not believe the convenience of his Remington Lektronic shaver and your mother raved about her Touch-o-Matic electric can opener; you shave with a safety razor and crank your cans open. Tenner suggests that a “pro-book rebellion” is possible, though not inevitable. The success of Mad Men has cleared the closets of wide neckties.

Indeed, heeding the Baseball Crank’s warning that knowledge is not settled, one possibility is as good as another at this point. Many of the features that Kindle and iPad devotees brag about (what Ed Driscoll hails, for example, as “being able to read a book anywhere, and carry the digital equivalent of a massive stack of them onto an airplane”) may not seem all that remarkable or important in a few years.

Electronic reading devices are new devices for old readers. Younger readers do not come to books with the same personal history. In fact, their own history with books might lead them to prefer paper and binding. I’ve suggested as much before (here and here). Children first encounter books as physical things. Board books, lift-the-flap books, touch-and-feel books, pop-up books — their first books are three-dimensional objects that encourage children to explore them in all three dimensions. When they acquire their own books, the books they have selected for themselves, children are proud of them. They like to display them on their shelves and carry them everywhere. They may even begin to develop a love for good paper and fine binding.

I’m not saying that printed books will triumph in the end. I’m no better than anyone else at predicting the future. What I am suggesting is that older readers, excited about their Kindles and iPads, have become strangers to their first experience with books and reading. The newfangled devices are exciting because they appear to solve longstanding problems — the problems of older readers, who have spent a lifetime with books. Younger readers, who do not share that excitement and are not yet estranged from their own literary history, may not prefer ebooks to printed books after all.
____________________

Many thanks to Daniel Bloom for getting this whole discussion started.

Read Less

“One Novel a Decade Isn’t Going to Cut It”

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

Not if American novelists hope to regain a prominent place in the culture, concludes Dwight Garner in the magazine section of Sunday’s New York Times. He singles out Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen for special reproof. Eugenides’s last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, was published nine years ago. (The Marriage Plot, his third novel in 18 years, will be released in three weeks.) Franzen has been equally deliberate, taking nine years to finish this third novel and then another nine to finish last year’s Freedom.

Garner is convinced that something “meaningful” is going on here, even if his prose style is not up to the task of saying what the thing might be:

[T]hese long spans between books may indicate a desalinating tidal change in the place novelists occupy in our culture. Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.

This much is sure: Garner would be well-advised not to write a novel of his own. From what I can make out between the strained grunts of pseudo-profundity, novelists need to publish more often to keep their names before the public. What they lack is market presence. A whole generation of writers, Garner moans, is relatively absent from the culture. Maybe they should hire Sidney Falco.

Garner has muddled together two separate observations. On the one hand, some novelists are slower and less prolific than others. Yet their rate of production has little or nothing to do with their “place in the culture” (whatever that means exactly). W. Somerset Maugham (b. 1874) and E. M. Forster (b. 1876) were contemporaries. Maugham published 20 novels at the rate of a new one every two-and-a-half years. Forster started quickly, publishing four novels in five years. But he took a decade to write his masterpiece — A Passage to India — and then did not publish another novel in his lifetime (he died in 1970). Even Maugham, though, worked for seven years on his best book (Of Human Bondage). In the long view of literary history, Forster is easily the more important, the more “meaningful,” English novelist. And not even Maugham’s most dedicated readers have longed for more books like The Bishop’s Apron or The Hour before Dawn. Good books, not more books — that’s the message of literary history.

On the other hand, the novel has obviously declined in cultural significance. No one would deny that. The empty-headed distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” which continues to be thrown around as if it referred to anything more than an inability to read intelligently, is testament to the novel’s decline. As much as I disliked Freedom, Franzen’s ambition to write a “big social novel,” to undertake the “job of social instruction,” is admirable. Novelists may not be “color commentators” (my God, what stupid language!), but they are part of the American discussion, the constant back-and-forth over American ideals and values, and they should write as if they are.

If what Garner calls their “lagging output” is not the reason for their cultural decline, then, what is? The answer is not so difficult. “Our important writers” — the writers who are known as “literary,” the writers who are “serious” about literature — belong to a coherent and homogeneous social class. They receive a common education in English departments and writers’ workshops, where they inherit a common set of assumptions and principles. They are employed in a common profession, which nurtures a common lifestyle. Their entire approach to human experience is literary (this is the sense in which they deserve to be known as “literary writers”), because they know little else than literature. Their politics are shallow and predictable, because their political views are public displays of self-identification with their class. They have not the first idea what non-writers and non-academics do with themselves all day. The only conceivable human problems are the problems of literary intellectuals.

There are exceptions. Earlier this year Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl and Lee Martin’s Break the Skin plunged into the lives of people far removed from literary society, whose problems are matters of life and death. Neither book, however, received much attention. No surprise, really. Readers have come to expect a certain uniformity of tastes and social habits, a certain language of class fellowship and commonality, from fiction that is known as “literary.” And even good books by good writers suffer by association.

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The Battle between eBook and Print Is Not Yet Over

An excellent longish piece in the Guardian this morning by the novelist Lloyd Shepherd argues that the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. As opposed to the armchair philosophizing that most of us who debate this subject are prone to — I include myself in the indictment — Shepherd marshals empirical evidence to back up his claim.

Shepherd points out, for example, that while it is may be true that Barnes & Noble “sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined,” those numbers are for online sales only. Although it is still losing money, Barnes & Noble reported that book sales in all formats has increased by twenty percent so far this year. And while Amazon now says that it peddles more Kindle-ready texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the sales of printed books are still increasing (the italics are Shepherd’s).

The conventional wisdom is that the price discrepancy between new hardback releases and digital editions at least partly explains why the ebook business is booming. (That’s the reason my wife bought me a Kindle — to cut the family’s book-buying expenses. She was not amused when I quoted Erasmus to the effect that, after buying the books I want, only then do I spend money on food and clothing.) Shepherd wonders if there is not another explanation. After all, most people are content to wait another year for a new book’s paperback release. Is it possible that the relatively less expensive digital version (less expensive than the hardback, at any rate) merely speeds up the process? That the convenience of downloading a book you want to read now is fueling the rise of ebooks?

In other words, the format — text shimmering on the screen of an electronic device versus handheld codex — may have less to do with what is happening than ebook enthusiasts like to think. Look, I am not in the business of predicting the future. My guess is that digital texts in their current format will not fully replace the paper-and-binding books. If even college students, the very population that should be most accustomed to electronic devices, prefer their textbooks in print by three to one, then the codex is not going to disappear any time soon.

What will happen, I imagine, is the emergence of a three-dimensional electronic text, or the invention of devices that make it possible to print one’s own books from source codes that have been downloaded from the internet. The means will evolve, I would bet, to integrate the convenience of etexts with the conceptual advantages of the codex. In any case, the battle between the ebook and the codex is not over. It has barely gotten started.

An excellent longish piece in the Guardian this morning by the novelist Lloyd Shepherd argues that the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. As opposed to the armchair philosophizing that most of us who debate this subject are prone to — I include myself in the indictment — Shepherd marshals empirical evidence to back up his claim.

Shepherd points out, for example, that while it is may be true that Barnes & Noble “sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined,” those numbers are for online sales only. Although it is still losing money, Barnes & Noble reported that book sales in all formats has increased by twenty percent so far this year. And while Amazon now says that it peddles more Kindle-ready texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the sales of printed books are still increasing (the italics are Shepherd’s).

The conventional wisdom is that the price discrepancy between new hardback releases and digital editions at least partly explains why the ebook business is booming. (That’s the reason my wife bought me a Kindle — to cut the family’s book-buying expenses. She was not amused when I quoted Erasmus to the effect that, after buying the books I want, only then do I spend money on food and clothing.) Shepherd wonders if there is not another explanation. After all, most people are content to wait another year for a new book’s paperback release. Is it possible that the relatively less expensive digital version (less expensive than the hardback, at any rate) merely speeds up the process? That the convenience of downloading a book you want to read now is fueling the rise of ebooks?

In other words, the format — text shimmering on the screen of an electronic device versus handheld codex — may have less to do with what is happening than ebook enthusiasts like to think. Look, I am not in the business of predicting the future. My guess is that digital texts in their current format will not fully replace the paper-and-binding books. If even college students, the very population that should be most accustomed to electronic devices, prefer their textbooks in print by three to one, then the codex is not going to disappear any time soon.

What will happen, I imagine, is the emergence of a three-dimensional electronic text, or the invention of devices that make it possible to print one’s own books from source codes that have been downloaded from the internet. The means will evolve, I would bet, to integrate the convenience of etexts with the conceptual advantages of the codex. In any case, the battle between the ebook and the codex is not over. It has barely gotten started.

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What Does It Mean to Be “Well-Read”?

Over at the World Book Night blog, Julia (first name only, please) asks what it means to be “well-read.” The question is a good one, especially at a time when university English departments have dropped any requirement to study Shakespeare. (Chaucer and Milton? Don’t make me laugh.)

Julia’s answer is not a good one, however:

To me being well read is about exploration and an open mindedness that will take you beyond your comfort zone to discover new things. We all have our own reading journeys — and that’s what W[orld] B[ook] N[ight] is really about, helping people along their own particular path, encouraging people back to reading who for whatever reason have given it up and giving those who’ve never given it a go the chance to discover it. We all start at roughly the same place (Very Hungry Caterpillar for many) but then diversify enormously. . . . Sure there are some “must-see sights” along the way but if you’ve given Dickens a go and found you didn’t get on then it’s far better to shrug and try something else instead than give up reading completely, but equally it doesn’t matter how much you read if you never give anything out of the ordinary for you a go.

There is a lot to criticize in this short paragraph, but two ideas are especially popular fallacies of the moment. In reverse order: first, that reading is intransitive (“back to reading”), an activity that can be pursued without an object, like running or dinner table conversation; and second, that being well-read is somehow “about exploration and open-mindedness.”

To read nothing in particular is an impossibility. Reading in general — what I have taken to abusing as “book enthusiasm” — is no better than cooking in general. I have friends who “love to cook,” but when it comes to preparing lasagna or ratatouille, they make a hash of it. The fallacy of intransitive reading is first cousin to the conception of reading as a set of skills and techniques that can be developed through drill and instruction. E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains the fallacy:

The skill idea becomes an oversimplification as soon as students start reading for meaning. . . . The trouble is that reading for meaning is a different sort of game entirely. It is different every time, depending on what the piece of writing is about. Every text, even the most elementary, implies information that it takes for granted and doesn’t explain. Knowing such information is the decisive skill of reading.

And that’s the trouble with reading as “exploration.” To read well is to read for meaning. To become well-read is to acquire the knowledge that makes it possible to read things “out of the ordinary for you.” Enthusiastic readers who plunge into the jungle of literature without map or compass, without a knowledge of the books that have served for decades as maps and compasses, will get hopelessly lost. Nor will being “open-minded” help them much. Here’s J. V. Cunningham:

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

But he could always shrug, I suppose, and try something else than Dickens. A Handful of Dust, perhaps?

Over at the World Book Night blog, Julia (first name only, please) asks what it means to be “well-read.” The question is a good one, especially at a time when university English departments have dropped any requirement to study Shakespeare. (Chaucer and Milton? Don’t make me laugh.)

Julia’s answer is not a good one, however:

To me being well read is about exploration and an open mindedness that will take you beyond your comfort zone to discover new things. We all have our own reading journeys — and that’s what W[orld] B[ook] N[ight] is really about, helping people along their own particular path, encouraging people back to reading who for whatever reason have given it up and giving those who’ve never given it a go the chance to discover it. We all start at roughly the same place (Very Hungry Caterpillar for many) but then diversify enormously. . . . Sure there are some “must-see sights” along the way but if you’ve given Dickens a go and found you didn’t get on then it’s far better to shrug and try something else instead than give up reading completely, but equally it doesn’t matter how much you read if you never give anything out of the ordinary for you a go.

There is a lot to criticize in this short paragraph, but two ideas are especially popular fallacies of the moment. In reverse order: first, that reading is intransitive (“back to reading”), an activity that can be pursued without an object, like running or dinner table conversation; and second, that being well-read is somehow “about exploration and open-mindedness.”

To read nothing in particular is an impossibility. Reading in general — what I have taken to abusing as “book enthusiasm” — is no better than cooking in general. I have friends who “love to cook,” but when it comes to preparing lasagna or ratatouille, they make a hash of it. The fallacy of intransitive reading is first cousin to the conception of reading as a set of skills and techniques that can be developed through drill and instruction. E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains the fallacy:

The skill idea becomes an oversimplification as soon as students start reading for meaning. . . . The trouble is that reading for meaning is a different sort of game entirely. It is different every time, depending on what the piece of writing is about. Every text, even the most elementary, implies information that it takes for granted and doesn’t explain. Knowing such information is the decisive skill of reading.

And that’s the trouble with reading as “exploration.” To read well is to read for meaning. To become well-read is to acquire the knowledge that makes it possible to read things “out of the ordinary for you.” Enthusiastic readers who plunge into the jungle of literature without map or compass, without a knowledge of the books that have served for decades as maps and compasses, will get hopelessly lost. Nor will being “open-minded” help them much. Here’s J. V. Cunningham:

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

But he could always shrug, I suppose, and try something else than Dickens. A Handful of Dust, perhaps?

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Envoi

Today marks the 103rd birthday of William Maxwell, novelist (They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf) and fiction editor of the New Yorker for forty years, along with the 91st birthday of the American poet Charles Bukowski (“as the poems go into the thousands/ you realize that you’ve created very/ little”).

Today also marks the debut of Literary Commentary, the magazine’s new book blog. The coincidence may be fitting, since this blog — its interests and loyalties, its voice and point of view — will probably be found somewhere between Maxwell’s graceful kindly wisdom and Bukowski’s rough self-pitying intimacy.

To those who are already familiar with it, my nearly three-years-old Commonplace Blog is relocating here, with a new focus on the current literary scene to go along with its new venue and affiliation. To those who will be reading it for the first time, I should explain that, while this blog will be a source for book reviews and reconsiderations, Literary Commentary is intended to be something more. It represents the literary side of what John Podhoretz, its fourth editor, defined as COMMENTARY’s mission.

Literary Commentary too is an “act of faith — faith in the power of ideas, in tradition and the value of defending tradition, and faith in America and the West.” It too is an “expression of faith in the act of reading itself, in its unparalleled capacity to enlarge the perspective and knowledge of those for whom reading is an activity as central to their lives as the drawing of breath.” In particular, it places faith in the reading of literature and the power of literature, not merely to kill the time softly, but to instruct and move, to frighten and uplift, to change forever the way men and women think.

At the risk of ingratitude, in fact, I’d say that John’s faith in reading is misplaced if reading is not critical, feisty, dubious, prepared to take issue and answer back. “I think of reading as the ‘gateway drug’ to learning,” Bethanne Patrick tweeted last week, defending the Twitter event known as #FridayReads, when thousands of twitterers eagerly cough up the book they will be sitting down with that weekend. But reading is not that—not necessarily. Reading can be an undiscriminating waste of time, an enthusiastic hobby like model railroading or royal commemorative collecting that leads only to more and more of itself, unless it is accompanied by reasons and argument.

In an age of the reader review, when critical judgment is measured by a rating of stars (one to five), Literary Commentary aims to return to an older conception of reading, one that is founded upon the unfashionable belief that (as Hugh Kenner once put it) there are some books that “every civilized American should be familiar with.” But along with this belief goes the confidence that some of those books are being written even today; or at least they were written five or six minutes ago. To quote John again, COMMENTARY exists “to take inventory in and increase the storehouse of the best that has been thought and said.” Starting today, Literary Commentary joins in the magazine’s work.

Today marks the 103rd birthday of William Maxwell, novelist (They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf) and fiction editor of the New Yorker for forty years, along with the 91st birthday of the American poet Charles Bukowski (“as the poems go into the thousands/ you realize that you’ve created very/ little”).

Today also marks the debut of Literary Commentary, the magazine’s new book blog. The coincidence may be fitting, since this blog — its interests and loyalties, its voice and point of view — will probably be found somewhere between Maxwell’s graceful kindly wisdom and Bukowski’s rough self-pitying intimacy.

To those who are already familiar with it, my nearly three-years-old Commonplace Blog is relocating here, with a new focus on the current literary scene to go along with its new venue and affiliation. To those who will be reading it for the first time, I should explain that, while this blog will be a source for book reviews and reconsiderations, Literary Commentary is intended to be something more. It represents the literary side of what John Podhoretz, its fourth editor, defined as COMMENTARY’s mission.

Literary Commentary too is an “act of faith — faith in the power of ideas, in tradition and the value of defending tradition, and faith in America and the West.” It too is an “expression of faith in the act of reading itself, in its unparalleled capacity to enlarge the perspective and knowledge of those for whom reading is an activity as central to their lives as the drawing of breath.” In particular, it places faith in the reading of literature and the power of literature, not merely to kill the time softly, but to instruct and move, to frighten and uplift, to change forever the way men and women think.

At the risk of ingratitude, in fact, I’d say that John’s faith in reading is misplaced if reading is not critical, feisty, dubious, prepared to take issue and answer back. “I think of reading as the ‘gateway drug’ to learning,” Bethanne Patrick tweeted last week, defending the Twitter event known as #FridayReads, when thousands of twitterers eagerly cough up the book they will be sitting down with that weekend. But reading is not that—not necessarily. Reading can be an undiscriminating waste of time, an enthusiastic hobby like model railroading or royal commemorative collecting that leads only to more and more of itself, unless it is accompanied by reasons and argument.

In an age of the reader review, when critical judgment is measured by a rating of stars (one to five), Literary Commentary aims to return to an older conception of reading, one that is founded upon the unfashionable belief that (as Hugh Kenner once put it) there are some books that “every civilized American should be familiar with.” But along with this belief goes the confidence that some of those books are being written even today; or at least they were written five or six minutes ago. To quote John again, COMMENTARY exists “to take inventory in and increase the storehouse of the best that has been thought and said.” Starting today, Literary Commentary joins in the magazine’s work.

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Re-Reading the Constitution

Alana, I may be in the minority here, but I think the reading of the superseded sections of the Constitution would have been useful. We fought a Civil War, the bloodiest in our history, to secure full rights and equal protection for all persons. Our struggle for equal rights is worth recalling — and a full reading would have made clearer the progress we have made. It seems especially important now that some Republicans have decided to ignore the plain meaning of the 14th Amendment.

Just yesterday, a group of GOP state legislators gathered in Washington to discuss introducing bills in their legislatures that would grant state citizenship only to children born in the United States who had at least one parent who was a citizen or permanent resident alien. But if the GOP lawmakers had been present for the reading of the 14th Amendment, they’d know that

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. …

The language “subject to the jurisdiction of” exempts the children of diplomats (and, at the time of passage of the Amendment, Native Americans, who were considered citizens of sovereign nations within U.S. territory and weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924) — and no one else. And there certainly should be no question of whether individual states have the right to usurp the Constitution when it comes to establishing qualifications for U.S. citizenship. Selective reading of the Constitution, alas, sometimes clouds the views of conservatives as well as liberals.

Alana, I may be in the minority here, but I think the reading of the superseded sections of the Constitution would have been useful. We fought a Civil War, the bloodiest in our history, to secure full rights and equal protection for all persons. Our struggle for equal rights is worth recalling — and a full reading would have made clearer the progress we have made. It seems especially important now that some Republicans have decided to ignore the plain meaning of the 14th Amendment.

Just yesterday, a group of GOP state legislators gathered in Washington to discuss introducing bills in their legislatures that would grant state citizenship only to children born in the United States who had at least one parent who was a citizen or permanent resident alien. But if the GOP lawmakers had been present for the reading of the 14th Amendment, they’d know that

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. …

The language “subject to the jurisdiction of” exempts the children of diplomats (and, at the time of passage of the Amendment, Native Americans, who were considered citizens of sovereign nations within U.S. territory and weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924) — and no one else. And there certainly should be no question of whether individual states have the right to usurp the Constitution when it comes to establishing qualifications for U.S. citizenship. Selective reading of the Constitution, alas, sometimes clouds the views of conservatives as well as liberals.

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Challenge to the New York Times: Publish Your Internal Correspondence

Reading the New York Times’s “Note to Readers” explaining why it has decided once again to act as a journalistic enabler of WikiLeaks, I wondered why, if the Times believes that openness is so important to the operations of the U.S. government, that same logic doesn’t apply to the newspaper itself. The Times, after all, is still, despite its loss of influence in the Internet age, the leading newspaper in the U.S. and indeed the world. It still shakes governments, shapes opinions, and moves markets, even if it doesn’t do so as often or as much as it used to.

Imagine if the stentorian language employed by the Times were turned on itself. The editors write that

the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.

Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that readers of the New York Times have no right to know what is being done in their name by the editors of the New York Times? Isn’t it important for us to learn “the unvarnished story” of how the Times makes its editorial decisions — such as the decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents? Sure, we know the official explanation — it’s in the newspaper. But what happened behind the scenes? Maybe there were embarrassing squabbles that will make for juicy reading? Therefore, I humbly suggest that in the interest of the greater public good (as determined by me), Bill Keller, the editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, should release to the world all their private e-mails and memos concerning WikiLeaks. Read More

Reading the New York Times’s “Note to Readers” explaining why it has decided once again to act as a journalistic enabler of WikiLeaks, I wondered why, if the Times believes that openness is so important to the operations of the U.S. government, that same logic doesn’t apply to the newspaper itself. The Times, after all, is still, despite its loss of influence in the Internet age, the leading newspaper in the U.S. and indeed the world. It still shakes governments, shapes opinions, and moves markets, even if it doesn’t do so as often or as much as it used to.

Imagine if the stentorian language employed by the Times were turned on itself. The editors write that

the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations — and, in some cases, duplicity — of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing. As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.

Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that readers of the New York Times have no right to know what is being done in their name by the editors of the New York Times? Isn’t it important for us to learn “the unvarnished story” of how the Times makes its editorial decisions — such as the decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents? Sure, we know the official explanation — it’s in the newspaper. But what happened behind the scenes? Maybe there were embarrassing squabbles that will make for juicy reading? Therefore, I humbly suggest that in the interest of the greater public good (as determined by me), Bill Keller, the editor, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, should release to the world all their private e-mails and memos concerning WikiLeaks.

Actually, let’s make our document request broader: the Times should share with the world all its internal correspondence going back years. That would include, of course, memos that disclose the identity of anonymous sources, including sources who may have risked their lives to reveal information to Times reporters. Of course, just as it does with government documents, we would give the Times the privilege of redacting a few names and facts — at least in a few of the versions that are published on the Internet.

My suspicion — call it a hunch — is that the Times won’t accept my modest suggestion. Their position, in effect, is “secrecy for me but not for thee.” But why? Can the Times editors possibly argue with a straight face that their deliberations are more important and more privileged than the work of our soldiers and diplomats? No doubt the editors can see all the damage that releasing their own documents would do — it would have a chilling effect on internal discourse and on the willingness of sources to share information with Times reporters. But they seem blind to the fact that precisely the same damage is being done to the United States government with consequences potentially far more momentous.

The most persuasive argument the Times has made is that “most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides.” That’s true, but that doesn’t eradicate the Times’s responsibility for choosing to act as a press agent and megaphone for WikiLeaks. When in 1942 the Chicago Tribune published an article making clear that the U.S. had broken Japanese codes before the Battle of Midway, other newspapers did not rush to hype the scoop. They let it pass with virtually no notice, and the Japanese may never have become aware of the disclosure. Imagine if a similar attitude were shown today by so-called responsible media organs. How many people would really go to the WikiLeaks website to trawl through hundreds of thousands of memoranda? Some harm would undoubtedly still result from WikiLeaks’s action, but it would be far less than when mainstream media organs amplify Wikileaks’s irresponsible disclosures.

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Reading the Palin Tea Leaves

Reading the Palin tea leaves is about to become a daily obsession. Each visit and speech elicits a new round of speculation. She went to Iowa — she’s running! But she “spent little of her time with them. She did not appear at a rally, impromptu campaign stop or closed-door one-on-one meetings with party activists” — she’s not running! She’s making inroads with activists. (“‘She sure has a way of rallying the troops by pointing out that we need to get back to our roots, get out there and fight,’ said one.”) Nah, she’s not that electrifying. (“She did not carry the crowd with her through the entire 33-minute speech. When she talked about the beauty of the Tea Party movement, the party activists in the room barely responded.”) She’s hungry to run. (She says, “I want to get back to Iowa soon.”) Or, she’s decided she doesn’t need to. (“I know that you can make a big difference in America without even having a title.”)

It is both in her interest and the media’s to keep the suspense going. If she runs, the buildup and anticipation is invaluable; if she doesn’t, it still keeps her “brand” hot. The media loves a “How will it turn out?” story, and the left punditocracy is fixated on her. It is in no one’s interest to resolve the question quickly.

And her tea leaves are harder to read than most. If a traditional candidate is going to run, he’s going to do traditional things — meet with those activists, assemble a professional staff, and put together an Iowa or New Hampshire ground game (or revive ones from 2008). But Palin isn’t that sort of politician. It’s not clear she will, until the last possible moment (and maybe not even then), play the nitty-gritty insiders’ game. She, after all has 100 percent name identification and can command free media to an extent no other figure can. This doesn’t mean she can win with such an approach. But we’ve never seen a phenomenon like Palin. Maybe you can win the presidency without the rubber-chicken circuit and without organizing every straw poll in sight. We’ll find out. Or maybe not.

Reading the Palin tea leaves is about to become a daily obsession. Each visit and speech elicits a new round of speculation. She went to Iowa — she’s running! But she “spent little of her time with them. She did not appear at a rally, impromptu campaign stop or closed-door one-on-one meetings with party activists” — she’s not running! She’s making inroads with activists. (“‘She sure has a way of rallying the troops by pointing out that we need to get back to our roots, get out there and fight,’ said one.”) Nah, she’s not that electrifying. (“She did not carry the crowd with her through the entire 33-minute speech. When she talked about the beauty of the Tea Party movement, the party activists in the room barely responded.”) She’s hungry to run. (She says, “I want to get back to Iowa soon.”) Or, she’s decided she doesn’t need to. (“I know that you can make a big difference in America without even having a title.”)

It is both in her interest and the media’s to keep the suspense going. If she runs, the buildup and anticipation is invaluable; if she doesn’t, it still keeps her “brand” hot. The media loves a “How will it turn out?” story, and the left punditocracy is fixated on her. It is in no one’s interest to resolve the question quickly.

And her tea leaves are harder to read than most. If a traditional candidate is going to run, he’s going to do traditional things — meet with those activists, assemble a professional staff, and put together an Iowa or New Hampshire ground game (or revive ones from 2008). But Palin isn’t that sort of politician. It’s not clear she will, until the last possible moment (and maybe not even then), play the nitty-gritty insiders’ game. She, after all has 100 percent name identification and can command free media to an extent no other figure can. This doesn’t mean she can win with such an approach. But we’ve never seen a phenomenon like Palin. Maybe you can win the presidency without the rubber-chicken circuit and without organizing every straw poll in sight. We’ll find out. Or maybe not.

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Two Articles Worth Reading

The indispensable Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest has a perceptive essay on the changing politics of climate change.

I’d suggest pairing it with an article in the Telegraph about a new report by the International Monetary Fund called “Navigating the Fiscal Challenges Ahead” (h/t Powerline). If you’re marooned on a desert island this weekend with time on your hands, here’s the complete report.

Both the ordinary people and the markets have woken up to the fact that many of the world’s biggest economies have, courtesy of their politicians, dug themselves into a deep hole and the next few years will have to be spent on climbing out of it or face fiscal disaster. That means no money for saving the planet from a global-warming catastrophe that fewer and fewer people believe in anyway. Al Gore will just have to cry his eyes out in his new 10,000-square-foot house (with nine bathrooms) overlooking the Pacific.

As Edmund Conway, the economics editor of the Telegraph, explains,

the idea behind the [IMF] document is to set out how much different countries around the world need to cut their deficits by in the next few years, and the bottom line is it’s going to be big and hard (ie 8.7pc of GDP in deficit cuts around the world, which works out at, gulp, about $4 trillion).

But the really interesting stuff is the detail, and what leaps out again and again is how much of a hill the U.S. has to climb. Exhibit A is the fact that under the Obama administration’s current fiscal plans, the national debt in the U.S. (on a gross basis) will climb to above 100 percent of GDP by 2015 — a far steeper increase than almost any other country.

Not the least of the problems for the United States is that the average maturity of federal securities is only 4.4 years. In Britain it’s 12.8 years and in Greece, 7.4 years. That means that half of all federal securities will need to be rolled over by mid-2014. If the market begins to lose faith in the U.S., the interest rates demanded by the market will soar and debt service will begin to crowd out other federal expenses. The IMF calculates that the United States will have to cut its structural debt by 12 percent of GDP over the next ten years to get back on track. That’s higher than any other country (Greece: 9 percent) except Japan.

No wonder the voters are in an unforgiving mood.

The indispensable Walter Russell Mead over at the American Interest has a perceptive essay on the changing politics of climate change.

I’d suggest pairing it with an article in the Telegraph about a new report by the International Monetary Fund called “Navigating the Fiscal Challenges Ahead” (h/t Powerline). If you’re marooned on a desert island this weekend with time on your hands, here’s the complete report.

Both the ordinary people and the markets have woken up to the fact that many of the world’s biggest economies have, courtesy of their politicians, dug themselves into a deep hole and the next few years will have to be spent on climbing out of it or face fiscal disaster. That means no money for saving the planet from a global-warming catastrophe that fewer and fewer people believe in anyway. Al Gore will just have to cry his eyes out in his new 10,000-square-foot house (with nine bathrooms) overlooking the Pacific.

As Edmund Conway, the economics editor of the Telegraph, explains,

the idea behind the [IMF] document is to set out how much different countries around the world need to cut their deficits by in the next few years, and the bottom line is it’s going to be big and hard (ie 8.7pc of GDP in deficit cuts around the world, which works out at, gulp, about $4 trillion).

But the really interesting stuff is the detail, and what leaps out again and again is how much of a hill the U.S. has to climb. Exhibit A is the fact that under the Obama administration’s current fiscal plans, the national debt in the U.S. (on a gross basis) will climb to above 100 percent of GDP by 2015 — a far steeper increase than almost any other country.

Not the least of the problems for the United States is that the average maturity of federal securities is only 4.4 years. In Britain it’s 12.8 years and in Greece, 7.4 years. That means that half of all federal securities will need to be rolled over by mid-2014. If the market begins to lose faith in the U.S., the interest rates demanded by the market will soar and debt service will begin to crowd out other federal expenses. The IMF calculates that the United States will have to cut its structural debt by 12 percent of GDP over the next ten years to get back on track. That’s higher than any other country (Greece: 9 percent) except Japan.

No wonder the voters are in an unforgiving mood.

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Specter’s Lesson: Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth Is an Ungrateful Abortion Lobby

Consistency on the issues has never been one of Arlen Specter’s character traits as a politician. Yet for all of his flips and flops on just about everything, not to mention his two changes in party affiliation, there is one issue on which the ultra-cynical senator has been fairly consistent: abortion. Indeed, if there is any one point of contention that defined him in his Senate career as a “liberal” Republican, it was his “pro-choice” beliefs. But despite three decades of such a stance and the fact that he has now joined the party that generally treats the backing for abortion as a litmus test, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the premiere pro-abortion lobby, is throwing Specter under the bus in the midst of his life-and-death struggle to hold on to his Senate seat.

NARAL endorsed Specter’s opponent Rep. Joe Sestak yesterday in a statement that dismissed the senator’s decades of work without so much as a backward glance. Indeed, far from treating the question of which pro-choice Democrat to back in the primary as a dilemma, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s president Nancy Keenan stuck the proverbial knife in the back of her group’s erstwhile loyalist by saying: “Many Pennsylvanians are under the impression that Arlen Specter might be a reliable pro-choice voice, but his record says otherwise. Pennsylvanians deserve a senator who considers being pro-choice a position of conviction, rather than a position of convenience.”

Ouch! Reading that, you have to sympathize a bit with Snarlin’ Arlen. You might well say that such a swipe at his character would be justified if you were talking about anything else, but it’s hard to argue that his stand on just about the only issue on which he has been consistent was merely a matter of convenience.

What’s NARAL’s motive? Is it belated payback for Specter’s roughing up of Anita Hill? Maybe. But according to its release, it’s the fact that Specter voted for Republican court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito and at one point voted, along with many Democrats, in favor of a ban on partial-birth abortion. But Specter’s record on court nominations has been anything but consistent, given his participation in the vicious attacks on Robert Bork in the 1980s, which pleased NARAL, and his vote in favor of the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor last year.

But the real answer may be elsewhere in the statement, where Keenan claims, “Joe Sestak is the candidate who is best positioned to defeat an anti-choice opponent in the November general election.” Which is to say that she has read the polls, which show that Specter’s lead over his opponent has evaporated and that Sestak may be a tougher opponent for likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey. Now that he really needs them, Specter is finding that NARAL, like every other political entity, prefers backing likely winners to helping out old friends.

But just to show that ingratitude and extremism aren’t confined to the pro-choicers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the long-shot challenge to Toomey in the Republican primary next week is also motivated by abortion. Activist Peg Luksik thinks that the former congressman isn’t sufficiently fanatic on the issue because despite his consistent pro-life record, he believes there should be exceptions to any potential ban on abortion in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. Luksik’s claim to fame is that 20 years ago, she won 46 percent of the vote in a failed attempt to deny a GOP gubernatorial nomination to Barbara Hafer, a pro-choice Republican. Since then, she twice ran as a third-party candidate for governor against Tom Ridge.

Toomey is a prohibitive favorite and doesn’t have much to worry about in the primary. But looking ahead to November, he does seem to have a firm grasp on the difference between running against Specter and running against Sestak. While claiming that either would energize the Republican base, the Inquirer quotes Toomey as summing up the contrast between the two in this way:

“If Joe Sestak wins the nomination, I do think it will be a much more substantive discussion about policy, whereas if it was Arlen Specter, it would be a series of personal, negative ads trying to smear character. That’s the way he’s always operated.”

Consistency on the issues has never been one of Arlen Specter’s character traits as a politician. Yet for all of his flips and flops on just about everything, not to mention his two changes in party affiliation, there is one issue on which the ultra-cynical senator has been fairly consistent: abortion. Indeed, if there is any one point of contention that defined him in his Senate career as a “liberal” Republican, it was his “pro-choice” beliefs. But despite three decades of such a stance and the fact that he has now joined the party that generally treats the backing for abortion as a litmus test, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the premiere pro-abortion lobby, is throwing Specter under the bus in the midst of his life-and-death struggle to hold on to his Senate seat.

NARAL endorsed Specter’s opponent Rep. Joe Sestak yesterday in a statement that dismissed the senator’s decades of work without so much as a backward glance. Indeed, far from treating the question of which pro-choice Democrat to back in the primary as a dilemma, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s president Nancy Keenan stuck the proverbial knife in the back of her group’s erstwhile loyalist by saying: “Many Pennsylvanians are under the impression that Arlen Specter might be a reliable pro-choice voice, but his record says otherwise. Pennsylvanians deserve a senator who considers being pro-choice a position of conviction, rather than a position of convenience.”

Ouch! Reading that, you have to sympathize a bit with Snarlin’ Arlen. You might well say that such a swipe at his character would be justified if you were talking about anything else, but it’s hard to argue that his stand on just about the only issue on which he has been consistent was merely a matter of convenience.

What’s NARAL’s motive? Is it belated payback for Specter’s roughing up of Anita Hill? Maybe. But according to its release, it’s the fact that Specter voted for Republican court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito and at one point voted, along with many Democrats, in favor of a ban on partial-birth abortion. But Specter’s record on court nominations has been anything but consistent, given his participation in the vicious attacks on Robert Bork in the 1980s, which pleased NARAL, and his vote in favor of the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor last year.

But the real answer may be elsewhere in the statement, where Keenan claims, “Joe Sestak is the candidate who is best positioned to defeat an anti-choice opponent in the November general election.” Which is to say that she has read the polls, which show that Specter’s lead over his opponent has evaporated and that Sestak may be a tougher opponent for likely Republican nominee Pat Toomey. Now that he really needs them, Specter is finding that NARAL, like every other political entity, prefers backing likely winners to helping out old friends.

But just to show that ingratitude and extremism aren’t confined to the pro-choicers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the long-shot challenge to Toomey in the Republican primary next week is also motivated by abortion. Activist Peg Luksik thinks that the former congressman isn’t sufficiently fanatic on the issue because despite his consistent pro-life record, he believes there should be exceptions to any potential ban on abortion in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. Luksik’s claim to fame is that 20 years ago, she won 46 percent of the vote in a failed attempt to deny a GOP gubernatorial nomination to Barbara Hafer, a pro-choice Republican. Since then, she twice ran as a third-party candidate for governor against Tom Ridge.

Toomey is a prohibitive favorite and doesn’t have much to worry about in the primary. But looking ahead to November, he does seem to have a firm grasp on the difference between running against Specter and running against Sestak. While claiming that either would energize the Republican base, the Inquirer quotes Toomey as summing up the contrast between the two in this way:

“If Joe Sestak wins the nomination, I do think it will be a much more substantive discussion about policy, whereas if it was Arlen Specter, it would be a series of personal, negative ads trying to smear character. That’s the way he’s always operated.”

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Democratic Governors Upset with Obama

Reading the headline “Democrats worried about Obama track record,” one is tempted to say, “They should be.” Liz Sidoti and Ron Fournier write:

Democratic governors said Sunday they worry about President Barack Obama’s track record on fighting Republican political attacks and urged him to better connect with anxious voters. Some allies pleaded for a new election-year strategy focused on the economy.

“It’s got to be better thought out,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said. “It’s got to be more proactive.” And, he said, Democrats must hit back just as hard as they are hit by Republicans.

Eight months before the first midterm elections of Obama’s presidency, most Americans are frustrated with — even angered by — persistent unemployment and gridlock in Washington. Democrats fear voters will punish the party in power.

Nor do they buy Obama’s doubling-down strategy on health-care reform. (“Several Democratic colleagues agreed, and lamented that voters thought Obama focused too much on overhauling the U.S. health care system. Others fretted that Obama may appear to be out of touch with the concerns of Americans.”) Sidoti and Fournier detail a meeting between Democratic governors and Obama in which the former plead with Obama to get focused on the economy:

Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas urged Obama to focus more on the economy and limit his actions on the health care system to changes that would bring down the cost of medical treatment in the United States. … While praising the White House’s communication’s efforts, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered this advice to Obama: “Rapidly decide what we’re doing on health care and then move to jobs and the economy.” “We need a national economic strategy,” he added.

And not even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, an Obama confidant, thinks much of the Obama communications strategy or the “tit for tat” battle to blame Republicans.

What’s remarkable is not only the widespread dismay with the president but also the willingness of these Democrats to make public their concerns. That tells us that the White House isn’t listening and isn’t receptive to their pleas. Maybe Obama will be more amenable after the November election.

Reading the headline “Democrats worried about Obama track record,” one is tempted to say, “They should be.” Liz Sidoti and Ron Fournier write:

Democratic governors said Sunday they worry about President Barack Obama’s track record on fighting Republican political attacks and urged him to better connect with anxious voters. Some allies pleaded for a new election-year strategy focused on the economy.

“It’s got to be better thought out,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said. “It’s got to be more proactive.” And, he said, Democrats must hit back just as hard as they are hit by Republicans.

Eight months before the first midterm elections of Obama’s presidency, most Americans are frustrated with — even angered by — persistent unemployment and gridlock in Washington. Democrats fear voters will punish the party in power.

Nor do they buy Obama’s doubling-down strategy on health-care reform. (“Several Democratic colleagues agreed, and lamented that voters thought Obama focused too much on overhauling the U.S. health care system. Others fretted that Obama may appear to be out of touch with the concerns of Americans.”) Sidoti and Fournier detail a meeting between Democratic governors and Obama in which the former plead with Obama to get focused on the economy:

Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas urged Obama to focus more on the economy and limit his actions on the health care system to changes that would bring down the cost of medical treatment in the United States. … While praising the White House’s communication’s efforts, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered this advice to Obama: “Rapidly decide what we’re doing on health care and then move to jobs and the economy.” “We need a national economic strategy,” he added.

And not even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, an Obama confidant, thinks much of the Obama communications strategy or the “tit for tat” battle to blame Republicans.

What’s remarkable is not only the widespread dismay with the president but also the willingness of these Democrats to make public their concerns. That tells us that the White House isn’t listening and isn’t receptive to their pleas. Maybe Obama will be more amenable after the November election.

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Obama and the Virtues of Kowtowing

Reading the Washington Post‘s survey of Asia experts’ opinions on Obama’s swing through the region, I was struck by the general consensus that the trip was a failure. You would expect to hear such a view from conservatives like Misha Auslin and Dani Pletka at AEI, Michael Green at CSIS, or Victor Cha at Georgetown. But what’s striking is that this was also the view of liberals like Doug Schoen, the Democratic pollster, who writes, “President Obama was unable to secure any lasting agreements on climate change, free trade, revaluing the Chinese currency, or, most important, sanctions on Iran and North Korea…. The president’s failure to achieve any concrete results will impact his standing back at home and in his dealings with Congress over health care.”

Then there is the assessment of my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Liz Economy, another Democrat who offers an unvarnished assessment of this Democratic president’s foray abroad:

It was, optically, one of the worst U.S. presidential visits to Beijing in memory. … Lots of talk, little action — just the way the Chinese like it. Although I’d like to back the president, I’d place my own bet that being nice to the Chinese leadership isn’t going to get us very far. It never has.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the president will take some of these criticisms to heart and rethink the virtues of kowtowing before his next expedition abroad.

Reading the Washington Post‘s survey of Asia experts’ opinions on Obama’s swing through the region, I was struck by the general consensus that the trip was a failure. You would expect to hear such a view from conservatives like Misha Auslin and Dani Pletka at AEI, Michael Green at CSIS, or Victor Cha at Georgetown. But what’s striking is that this was also the view of liberals like Doug Schoen, the Democratic pollster, who writes, “President Obama was unable to secure any lasting agreements on climate change, free trade, revaluing the Chinese currency, or, most important, sanctions on Iran and North Korea…. The president’s failure to achieve any concrete results will impact his standing back at home and in his dealings with Congress over health care.”

Then there is the assessment of my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Liz Economy, another Democrat who offers an unvarnished assessment of this Democratic president’s foray abroad:

It was, optically, one of the worst U.S. presidential visits to Beijing in memory. … Lots of talk, little action — just the way the Chinese like it. Although I’d like to back the president, I’d place my own bet that being nice to the Chinese leadership isn’t going to get us very far. It never has.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the president will take some of these criticisms to heart and rethink the virtues of kowtowing before his next expedition abroad.

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Bulletin from the Land Beyond Parody

Is there such a thing as a Rubbernecking Reader — someone who slows down, in horrified fascination, at the scene of a journalistic calamity and takes a good long look? If there is, I am that man. And I am ashamed to admit that I look forward, every week, to the posts of Judith Warner, who writes the Domestic Disturbances blog on the New York Times website, even though I know what I will experience is not a moment’s edification or instruction but rather unknowing humiliation of Judith Warner by her own hand.

Nominally a resident of the Washington suburbs where all radio dials are set to NPR and a toy gun is rarer than a Bush bumpersticker, Warner actually lives in the Land Beyond Parody. Her last post, in which she gamely tries but fails to make fun of herself for her consuming obsession, is about her justifiable anger at two middle-aged married men of her acquaintance fantasizing about what kinds of women they would date if they were single. Warner is horrified to discover that they would want to date hot younger childless chicks — or perhaps one should say she is horrified to discover they would contravene the rules of post-modern Mrs. Grundy feminist correctness and admit aloud that when they allow their erotic imaginations to run free, their male ids hunger for Lake Bell rather than for, say, Judith Warner. There is no sense quoting any individual sentence written by Judith Warner because her work is most glorious in its entirety.

So, for your Rubbernecking Reading pleasure, here is Judith Warner’s “Like a Fish Needs a Donut.”

Is there such a thing as a Rubbernecking Reader — someone who slows down, in horrified fascination, at the scene of a journalistic calamity and takes a good long look? If there is, I am that man. And I am ashamed to admit that I look forward, every week, to the posts of Judith Warner, who writes the Domestic Disturbances blog on the New York Times website, even though I know what I will experience is not a moment’s edification or instruction but rather unknowing humiliation of Judith Warner by her own hand.

Nominally a resident of the Washington suburbs where all radio dials are set to NPR and a toy gun is rarer than a Bush bumpersticker, Warner actually lives in the Land Beyond Parody. Her last post, in which she gamely tries but fails to make fun of herself for her consuming obsession, is about her justifiable anger at two middle-aged married men of her acquaintance fantasizing about what kinds of women they would date if they were single. Warner is horrified to discover that they would want to date hot younger childless chicks — or perhaps one should say she is horrified to discover they would contravene the rules of post-modern Mrs. Grundy feminist correctness and admit aloud that when they allow their erotic imaginations to run free, their male ids hunger for Lake Bell rather than for, say, Judith Warner. There is no sense quoting any individual sentence written by Judith Warner because her work is most glorious in its entirety.

So, for your Rubbernecking Reading pleasure, here is Judith Warner’s “Like a Fish Needs a Donut.”

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Some Light Reading . . .

The historiography of the Holocaust has served as a ground for some of the longest and hardest-fought battles in 20th-century intllectual life. Now Eckhard Fuhr, an editor at Die Welt, brings us news of a welcome development in the discipline: the release of the first book in a planned sixteen-volume series (whose editors include the controversial historian Götz Aly) entitled The Persecution and Extermination of the European Jews by Nazi Germany 1933-1945. These books are collections of primary source texts–newspaper articles, letters, administrative records–intended to document the extent of civilian anti-semitism, the nature of individual resistance to Hitler’s regime, and the public and private attitudes of the Jews themselves. An ambitious project, which takes up the documentary effort begun by Saul Friedlaender in his monumental The Years of Extermination. It’s only available in German currently. And I doubt greatly that the series as a whole will much resemble Fuhr’s (exculpatory) final description of the first volume:

. . . [S]een from today’s horizon behaviour it is possible to identify and judge decency and malice, courage and cowardice, empathy and indifference. And all of these elements were present in the early years of the persecution of the Jews in a ratio which gave no hint of future genocide.

But it will be an important and necessary work.

The historiography of the Holocaust has served as a ground for some of the longest and hardest-fought battles in 20th-century intllectual life. Now Eckhard Fuhr, an editor at Die Welt, brings us news of a welcome development in the discipline: the release of the first book in a planned sixteen-volume series (whose editors include the controversial historian Götz Aly) entitled The Persecution and Extermination of the European Jews by Nazi Germany 1933-1945. These books are collections of primary source texts–newspaper articles, letters, administrative records–intended to document the extent of civilian anti-semitism, the nature of individual resistance to Hitler’s regime, and the public and private attitudes of the Jews themselves. An ambitious project, which takes up the documentary effort begun by Saul Friedlaender in his monumental The Years of Extermination. It’s only available in German currently. And I doubt greatly that the series as a whole will much resemble Fuhr’s (exculpatory) final description of the first volume:

. . . [S]een from today’s horizon behaviour it is possible to identify and judge decency and malice, courage and cowardice, empathy and indifference. And all of these elements were present in the early years of the persecution of the Jews in a ratio which gave no hint of future genocide.

But it will be an important and necessary work.

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What a Disgrace

I thought that the follies of academia had lost their power to outrage me. I was wrong. Reading this New York Times account, about how some scholars have come under fire from their colleagues for working with the U.S. military, enraged me.

There is nothing particularly new in the article, but it did wrap-up three current campus controversies:

At Harvard, some faculty and activists have been troubled that the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy helped revise the counterinsurgency field manual, even though the center’s aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Members of the American Psychological Association have had fervid exchanges over what role — if any — its members should have in military interrogations. And anthropologists have passionately argued over a Pentagon program that uses these social scientists in war zones.

The article did not touch upon the continuing refusal of most Ivy League schools to allow ROTC on campus, but this is another sign of the nauseating anti-military, indeed anti-American, bias that still seems to prevail at our elite universities. In this regard, Naval Institute Proceedings prints an instructive letter from Owen West, a Harvard graduate and Marine Corps reservist who has served two tours in Iraq.

In the letter, West recounts the discrimination and animus endured by him and his fellow classmates in the early 1990′s when they had to go to MIT to take their ROTC instruction. “On graduation day, neither outgoing president Derek Bok nor incoming president [Neil] Rudenstine attended our commissioning ceremony. In twenty years, Bok refused to attend even one commissioning,” he notes. Larry Summers broke with tradition by attending the commissioning ceremonies when he was president, but it was this kind of gesture that helped lead to a faculty revolt that toppled Summers. His successors, West notes, are back to their pernicious old ways: “This year, interim president Bok and incoming president Drew Faust did not attend the commissioning ceremony.”

Reading accounts like this, I have to take a deep breath before commenting, otherwise all that will come out will be a string of expletives. What a disgrace that anyone employed in an American university should think it a disgrace to work with and honor the men and women who risk their necks to protect us. It reminds me of Orwell’s disgust in 1943 with those “advocating non-resistance from behind the guns of the American fleet.” Some things, alas, never change.

I thought that the follies of academia had lost their power to outrage me. I was wrong. Reading this New York Times account, about how some scholars have come under fire from their colleagues for working with the U.S. military, enraged me.

There is nothing particularly new in the article, but it did wrap-up three current campus controversies:

At Harvard, some faculty and activists have been troubled that the university’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy helped revise the counterinsurgency field manual, even though the center’s aim was to reduce civilian casualties. Members of the American Psychological Association have had fervid exchanges over what role — if any — its members should have in military interrogations. And anthropologists have passionately argued over a Pentagon program that uses these social scientists in war zones.

The article did not touch upon the continuing refusal of most Ivy League schools to allow ROTC on campus, but this is another sign of the nauseating anti-military, indeed anti-American, bias that still seems to prevail at our elite universities. In this regard, Naval Institute Proceedings prints an instructive letter from Owen West, a Harvard graduate and Marine Corps reservist who has served two tours in Iraq.

In the letter, West recounts the discrimination and animus endured by him and his fellow classmates in the early 1990′s when they had to go to MIT to take their ROTC instruction. “On graduation day, neither outgoing president Derek Bok nor incoming president [Neil] Rudenstine attended our commissioning ceremony. In twenty years, Bok refused to attend even one commissioning,” he notes. Larry Summers broke with tradition by attending the commissioning ceremonies when he was president, but it was this kind of gesture that helped lead to a faculty revolt that toppled Summers. His successors, West notes, are back to their pernicious old ways: “This year, interim president Bok and incoming president Drew Faust did not attend the commissioning ceremony.”

Reading accounts like this, I have to take a deep breath before commenting, otherwise all that will come out will be a string of expletives. What a disgrace that anyone employed in an American university should think it a disgrace to work with and honor the men and women who risk their necks to protect us. It reminds me of Orwell’s disgust in 1943 with those “advocating non-resistance from behind the guns of the American fleet.” Some things, alas, never change.

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Weekend Reading

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

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Weekend Reading

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

Read Less