Archive for the ‘The Way We Lived Then’ category
…was a documentary:
And hell, you think that’s bad, check this out:
Holiday brain sploosh has already begun chez Levenson (first relatives show up in minutes), so killer rabbits somehow seem…
BTW: there are a bunch more medieval psychoses on display at Tom Kane’s site, who, it seems, has come up with a socially useful application of writer’s procrastination syndrome. My awareness of all this comes via @PZMyers, who got it from @SirWilliamD.
And with the honors thus done, you may consider this a “how weird will your holiday get” post. Add your own notions in the comments.
Images: Axe-rabbit comes from the Gorleston Psalter, England, 14th century.
Rabbit murderers lurk in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300
Go read this piece by Maryn McKenna — who is, in my never humble opinion, one of the handful of very best reporters on matters of infectious disease, global health, and really scary stuff.
I was born in 1958, fifteen years into the era of clinically-available antibiotics. I was my mother’s third child. Had we shifted that timeline back a few years, that would have meant that there would have been a measure of luck in mom simply making it to and not through her third lying in. As Maryn writes, before antiobiotics, five out of 1,000 births ended with the death of the mother. No worries by the time I popped my head out into the maternity floor at Alta Bates.
But this a must read not because of any remembrance of the pre-antibiotic era, but because Maryn plausibly analyzes a post-antibiotic future.
Here’s a sample:
Doctors routinely perform procedures that carry an extraordinary infection risk unless antibiotics are used. Chief among them: any treatment that requires the construction of portals into the bloodstream and gives bacteria a direct route to the heart or brain. That rules out intensive-care medicine, with its ventilators, catheters, and ports—but also something as prosaic as kidney dialysis, which mechanically filters the blood.
Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics
Dr. Donald Fry, a member of the American College of Surgeons who finished medical school in 1972, says: “In my professional life, it has been breathtaking to watch what can be done with synthetic prosthetic materials: joints, vessels, heart valves. But in these operations, infection is a catastrophe.” British health economists with similar concerns recently calculated the costs of antibiotic resistance. To examine how it would affect surgery, they picked hip replacements, a common procedure in once-athletic Baby Boomers. They estimated that without antibiotics, one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die.
As Maryn reports, the problem is tangled and complex — but there are clear actions that could be taken and aren’t, most obviously ending the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, which consumes something like 80% of the total produced. But don’t waste time here: go read the whole thing. Get scared; get mad; call your congressfolk.
Image: Josse Lieferinxe, St. Sebastian prays for plague victims, 1497-99.
Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama. See two Jim Fallows posts for starters. It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels: that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.
But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.
That is: the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.
Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855. That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:
Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861. The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did. As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.
The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.
The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.
And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s. The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.
Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.
We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice. The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861. And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.
This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865. Still, it connects. And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.
That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome. It’s sufficient.
But there is actually one more thing. Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln. In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.
For the dome is a glorious lie. It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like. It’s not. The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye. I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall. When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.
(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)
The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks. The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.
The meaning — or at least a meaning?
You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts: an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy: already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North – were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain. And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor. Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.
Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now. And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.
Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation. No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well. The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart. And so on.
Symbols as they age change: they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other. The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.
The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time. It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.
*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.
Maybe it really is too late.
Classical empires lasted centuries: the Han Dynasty held sway for 400 years, barring that brief unpleasantness with Wang Mang. The Romans had a similar run, depending on how you choose to bracket the rise and fall. The Mongols were a little less permanent, but for all their brutal kin-slaughter approach to succession, they still managed to dominate Eurasia for a century and a half. That empire on which the sun never set rose twice, in the eighteenth century, with British imperial ambition centered on North America, and then again in South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa from the latter half of the 1700s onwards, for quite a run.
The American Imperium? Well if you count the continental expansion from Plymouth Rock and the Chesapeake west to San Francisco and the northwest rain belt — that’ll stick around for a while, I’m sure. But our 100 years as the global power? I’ve got no good feelings there.
That may not be so terrible. Empires are not what you’d call friendly institutions. But what depresses me even from within the comfort of my luxe corner of Faux America is the way the Wormtongues of our modern media village are working so hard to persuade us just to give up, to accept a world in which Mitt Romney is plausibly a President.
Others here and amongst our friends have written about just about everything that’s caught my horror-and-despair sensor in just the last 24 hours. Brooks’ call for the running dogs of liberalism to take their turn growing turnips in the camps. A breast cancer advocacy group choosing to kill women (welcome back ABL!) rather than suffer the taint of some of their dollars rubbing shoulders with other dollars that might pay for an abortion. Theocrats with bully pulpits screaming victimhood unless the rest of us keep giving them tax breaks to discriminate.* I’m exhausted by the very existence of Mitt Romney, and the fact that his whole candidacy is premised on the relentless repetition of the whatever distortion of the fabric of reality seems to play best at the moment.
But, as I say, the good folks that write this blog have been on the case — which is great, as it leaves me for now with just this little bit to add.
That would be that for all the willed and conscious bad faith that folks like Brooks sling so readily and so constantly; for all the sense that there was indeed something of an American promise, now betrayed by the figures celebrated and defended by our Village idiots; for all the three a.m. night-terrors at the thought of the world my son may inherit…for all of that, the real world of fact and reasoning can still rise up to bite the bozos in the ass.
Recall that Brooks called Murray’s book an account of “the most important trends in American society.”
And yet, strangely, that society for Murray, and hence for Brooks, includes only White Americans. Which vision, if you are trying to study trends of significance for the next few decades, poses just a wee difficulty. As I’m sure readers of this blog know, the numbers about these matters ain’t what they used to be, demographically speaking.
Via the US Census Bureau, we find that right now, the White non-Hispanic fraction of the US population comes in at roughly two thirds of the total. You’d think that number counts as a datum in an important trend given that the proportion was around 88% in 1900, and remained as high as 75% in 1990. Already, California is majority-minority, as are Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico — and most important, the entire nation will achieve that status sometime between 2040 and 2050. And behind those blunt numbers lies a wealth of particular ways in which different people have figured out how to make it through each day; to take pleasure in life; to cook this or that flavor that would never have made it across the border when I was my son’s age; to make cultures that we may, if we’re far luckier than we seem at present to deserve, continue to weave into what we call American culture.
All of which is to say that daily, we live in a different country. That’s more or less how I think of the current election: either we try to work with that country as it continuously rearranges itself — or we live with the delusions of folks like Brooks who want to pretend that the last 50 years didn’t happen and the next 50 won’t.
In my better moments, I can see past the bluster and the facile assertions of this or that immutable trend — and smell the fear lies behind every word. I have no idea what the United States of my dotage will be like; I do know that it will not resemble whatever fantasy tthat Brooks uses to sent himself off to sleep each night.
Which, amidst all the mounds of steaming horsesh*t that we mush navigate each day, still gives me hope. And schadenfreude.
*Why yes. I am trawling for a Moore Award. Why do you ask?
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Maximillian I, 1519
I’m ashamed to say, that until Charlie Pierce in his own, powerful essay on MLK day pointed me to it, I had never actually read Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Congress urging — almost ordering — the legislators before him to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Here’s a sample:
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.
But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.
It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.
A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.
A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.
The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.
For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future.
This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.
Pierce calls this “the greatest speech an American president has delivered in my lifetime.”
One last thought: One strand I draw from Johnson’s speech is that it is possible to have a politics that transcends the mere purchase and sale of interest; one in which words have both power and integrity.
I want that politics back.
Image: Lyndon Baines Johnson with Martin Luther King on August 6, 1965, at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
Cross posted at Balloon Juice
It is a truth universally acknowledged that sometime today, many among us in possession of a full bellies will be in need of powerful psychic analgesics to counter the effects of overdoses of loved, liked, and despised ones.*
I’ve been lucky on this score. My late, and genuinely much loved Uncle Dan and his wife, the indomitable Aunt Helen, introduced me to a key Thanksgiving tradition designed to meet this need many years ago – back around my freshman year in college (aka, just before we gave up our clay tablets and styli for some less stable word processors).
That would be the revelation that it was 5 p.m. somewhere no matter how resolutely the clock told us it was 11 a.m. wherever we happened to be.
The drink of choice there was one form or another of daiquiri, and I recall (sort of, in a not-to-testify-under-oath kind of haze) Thanksgiving started before noon with the boiled shrimp and the drinks (strawberry, peach, and lime being the favorites — and what can I say…we were young then) and the day just kind of oozed from there until we reached total turkey and red wine suspended animation.
So, in honor of that great man and in support of a practice that has served many of us, (I’d guess), here are some of the drugs of choice being considered around this household right now.
1. (As noted in a prior thread) pomegranate cosmopolitans.
I was just introduced to this drink at a dinner party at the home of a noted brain-and-cog researcher. I woke up more cog than brain after two iterations of 4 parts lemon vodka, 4 parts good (aka, not Trader Joe’s) pomegranate juice, 2 parts Cointreau, and 1 part lime juice.
2. This one entered my life — rather as Grabthar’s hammer handles its business — just this last Tuesday, when MIT’s science writing grad students held a first-ever cocktail party for their faculty (begging for comment here, which I will not supply), featuring the alcholic stylings of the award winning Louisville bartender Jeromy Edwards. Let me simply say that his cider Manhattan is way too complicated to attempt after one’s first drink, but is worth the effort if you have a designated boozemaster on hand. Here’s the recipe (which won a bourbon company’s national Manhattan competition:
2 oz. good bourbon
¾ oz. cider reduction (I’d guess on tasting that the cider was simmered down to about half its original volume.)
½ oz. Antica Vermouth
Dash Angostura bitters
Grand Marnier flambéed cherry (preferably Rainier).
Here Jeromy took about an ounce of Grand Marnier and essentially cooked the cherry in it for about thirty seconds or so, in the martini glass.
Take the first four ingredients, pour them over ice in a cocktail shaker, swirl the shaker until the mix is cooled, and then pour the lot over the Grand Marnier and the cherry. Repeat with extreme caution.
3. Finally, y’all know I think a lot about World War I, with all the sorrow engendered in those years, and so much of the woe to come seeded there as well. One minor unintended positive outcome of all that, though, was what I think of as the golden age of cocktail invention of the ‘teens and ‘twentie.
Some years ago, at the 11 Madison Park restaurant in New York, I encountered a drink from that era that is still just about my favorite mallet to the skull. As a bonus, it connects directly with its historical context.
That would be the French 75 — which honors one of the most innovative and widely used artillery pieces employed by the French army and the American Expeditionary Force as well throughout the 14-18 affair. Its liquid form debuted in 1915 at the legendary Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, where it was billed as the way to experience what it was like to be on the receiving end of a cannonade from the real thing.
It is deceptively simple, though the proportions vary slightly among the authorities. Basically, take two ounces of good gin, 1/2 to one ounce of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon powdered sugar, and chill. Pour the mixture into a flute or a narrow highball glass, top up with champagne.
Drink. Reel. Repeat. (One of the most prized characteristics of the artillery piece was its rapid rate of fire. Emulate at your own risk.)
OK — I’m done. I’d consider it a kindness if y’all would treat this as a special invitation for the F**k You Up drinks that have served you well over the years.
*Please take as read the necessary apology for yet another ruination of that greatest of all first lines.
Images: Currier and Ives, “Come! Take A Drink,” 1868
and, (again, predictably)
Éduoard Manet, “A Bar in the Folies-Bergère,” 1881-2
I’ll give the revealing link below the fold, but for now, read this and tell me which publication(s) are being described, and by which media critic.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity.
And who is taking lumps here?
The quote works as a general purpose attack, so it’s hard to say if the Washington Post’s op – ed stable is the problem, (too generally grotesque to bother linking) or the Times’ daily reinforced willingness to cloak bad writing and worse thought in the ponderous columns of the grey lady (formerly) of 43rd…or that which supports the efforts of its “Business and Economics Editor”– She-Who-Is-Always-Wrong. And so on.
There is no shortage of targets, and perhaps we should just accept the excerpt on face value as an all -comers DeLong-like “why, oh why….” I certainly wouldn’t argue with the sense of general fatigue and rage to which this passage speaks.
But who is howling?
*Never resist a chance to use “whom” in a headline. Or so my momma taught me.
**Go to about minute 3:35 for the relevant quote.
Leonard Nimoy, singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.”
Once you watch it, no amount of bleach will wipe your mind clean.
Your brain will explode.
You have been warned.
This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is“ is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us. So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.
Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right. This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.
It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:
In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …
Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all. He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us. You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list: there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….
But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.” ”Yeah — they have more money.”)
Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:
…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.
What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond? Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.
We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.
So what’s the problem? There are several: the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches: commitment.
and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.
This is just weird. I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.
I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.
And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity. It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)
All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot. You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me. And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.
I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from Gutenberg.org. It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on. And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.
The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?
Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.
And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.
And so what? If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares. There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton in its title up on Lulu. And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books. It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.
That is: we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture. Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less. It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.
Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course). But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate. We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly. And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.
Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:
Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.
Really? I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write. I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!). I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.
Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good. But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity. If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough. But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic. All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy. And what is so bad there?
Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:
But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.
Really? Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are. The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.
And as for editors: Vanish? Really? News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now. The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.
The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.
And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again? How, exactly?
Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.
Bullsh*t. Trust me. Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!). Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end. It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words. Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it. We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs. The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).
What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.
Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.
And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow. Uphill. Both ways.
When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write. That felt great too.
Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days. I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper. What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.
Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so. Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.
His loss, not mine.
*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.
**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:
*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”
Images: Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633
Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.
Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.