Archive for May, 2010

War of words

Monday, May 31st, 2010
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Peter Stansky reviews Max Hasting’s Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review here.  Churchill was a man of war, and of a war fought in good measure by words.  As Stansky explains:

Through his determination and more particularly through his speeches of extraordinary eloquence, Churchill was largely responsible for the British determination not to give in. Through his language he almost created what in many ways was the unwarranted assumption that they would not lose the war. It was Britain’s “finest hour.” Hitler did not achieve air superiority, without which he would not invade. It was highly possible that if Churchill had not spoken and acted, Britain would have caved in. For that achievement, which ultimately would lead to victory, the world owes him an immense debt.

“When the war was ending, he tried desperately to protect the Poles from Russian dominance and even contemplated, in Operation Unthinkable, the possibility of turning against Russia militarily” — well, tried, but no cigar.  As Yoda said, “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.’”  The Allied leaders had a pretty good idea who did the Katyń murders, yet forked over Hungary, Romania, “Yugoslavia,” and others to the Soviet maw.  For half of Europe, there was no triumph.

Interestingly, Stansky points out that in the 1930s Churchill “was something of an outsider, distrusted, wrongly, because of his harping on the need for rearmament and, rightly, for his vehement opposition to any concession toward self-government for India.” He began to lose favor with the invasion of Russia — in fact, his moment of greatness lasted from May 1940 to June 1941.  Surprising how the whole mixed-bag of a life can come together, needle sharp, in a single point of time.  Enough so to get himself hailed, by Hastings, as “the greatest Englishman and one of the greatest human beings of the twentieth century, indeed of all time.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times Book Review ain’t what it used to be.  Perhaps it never was.  Dwight Garner seems a little over his head with Jack Rakove‘s Revolutionaries here. To wit:  “He [Pulitzer prizewinning Rakove, that is] sounds like an interesting man, the kind who sometimes gets his boots muddy. He has been an expert witness in Indian land claims litigation. What’s ‘new’ about Revolutionaries? Well, you have to squint to grasp the subtleties, which will mean more to scholars than to an educated general reader.”  Nicholas D. Kristof writing on Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s Nomad, in an article patronizingly entitled “Gadfly,” is out to sea here.  To wit:  “If the rapid transformation of a Somali girl into an outspoken black, female, immigrant member of Parliament seems extraordinary, it was just the beginning. Soon her critique of Islam was leading to death threats, her citizenship was threatened by Dutch officials and she moved to a new refuge in the United States. Even now, she needs bodyguards. That’s partly because she is by nature a provocateur, the type of person who rolls out verbal hand grenades by reflex.”  Perhaps it also had something to do with the murder of her colleague friend Theo van Gogh, who was gunned down on the streets of Amsterdam with an open letter to Hirsh Ali stabbed to his chest, launching her fatwa ordeal — a relevant detail not mentioned by Kristof; without the incident she would probably have been happy to remain an offbeat figure in Dutch politics.  Historian Andrew Roberts writing at The Daily Beast here, called her “one of the bravest women of her time, who displays a quiet, personal, committed courage that Kristof shrugs off…”  Alas, this one is falling again in the chasm of right-wing, left-wing politics, ignoring the human rights issues that should trump them both — Paul Berman weighs in on the topic here.

Making Waves

Saturday, May 29th, 2010
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Camarillo, Edelstein, Wampole, the Harrisons

Glass Wave, the “cerebral rock” group that links great classics to modern music, is continuing to make waves with its new CD.  An article appeared in the San Jose Mercury here:

A rakish band of Stanford professors and their cronies is rocking out through tune after tune in a university rehearsal space on a hot spring afternoon. No, this is not your typical rock band — its founding guitarist-songwriters are professors of literature, scholars of Dante and the French Enlightenment. …

As the band huddles to discuss its recording project (available on iTunes and from Amazon with samplings available at www.glasswave-band.com), electric bassist Tom HarrisonRobert [Harrison]‘s 54-year-old brother and a professor of literature and film at UCLA — says, “The literary arts are in decline. People don’t read anymore. So this is a tribute to the culture we teach. It’s an ideological statement.”

“I’d say it’s a salvage operation,” says brother Robert.

“Or a cultural transmission,” Tom adds.

And also in the Palo Alto Weekly here:

The band took the name “Glass Wave” from Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” It echoes the sea-and-water theme that permeates the album, which begins with the wordless “Balena,” and includes the actual sounds of a humpback whale. The album concludes with “Moby Dick,” which tells Melville’s whale tale from the perspective of the great white.

While they’re not about to give up their day jobs to cash in as rock stars, and they laugh at the idea of making money from the album, the scholars in the band were musicians before they were academics. The Harrison brothers, who are the sons of an American father and an Italian mother, spent their high-school years in Rome. With their blond hair and American looks, they made “decent money” pretending to be touring rock musicians who had just flown in from the States. But if they inadvertently lapsed into fluent Italian at the end of a concert, they had problems getting paid.

Failing that, read my own story, here — or listen to Rush Rehm interview Glass Wave here.

Postscript: Paul Berman on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa”

Friday, May 28th, 2010
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I came late to the table on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so it was fascinating to read Paul Berman’s 50-page defense of the woman he calls “the best-known feminist intellectual ever to come out of Africa” in The Flight of the Intellectuals, published last month.  He recounts the charges that she is “strident,” “disdainful,” and “aggressive” — what?  Is this the same warm and effervescent woman I saw speaking Tuesday night?

Berman’s words:

“The campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented … A sustained attack in the intellectual world on a persecuted liberal dissident from Africa, a campaign in the press that has managed to push the question of women’s rights systematically to the side, a campaign that has veered more than once into personal cruelty, a soft vendetta, but a visible one, presided over by the normally cautious and sincerely liberal editors of one distinguished and admired journal after another, applauded and faithfully imitated by a variety of other writers and journalists, such that, in some circles, the sustained attack has come to be accepted as a conventional wisdom — no, this could not have happened in the past, except on the extreme right…

How did this happen?  The equanimity on the part of some well-known Western intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism …”

He also quotes Pascal Bruckner: “A culture of courage is perhaps what is most lacking among today’s directors of conscience.”

Perhaps a culture of interest, too.  Hirsi Ali’s Bay Area appearances went completely unnoticed by the media. No press coverage that I can find, other than this lone blogger.  (Haven’t given up yet.  I’ll keep looking.)

“Their honor is between my legs”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010
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“You all know me — but I don’t know you!” she almost squealed.  She might have won over the crowd in that moment on Tuesday night, had she not already held them in the palm of her hand.  Hard, in that instant, to see her as a  fierce, unflagging critic of radical Islam and the target of a fatwa.

The Palo Alto audience had just been asked how many had read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel.  Almost all the hands in the sold-out Cubberley Community Theatre shot up instantly.

I kept mine down. Two weeks ago I had posted the Guardian profile of the author on my Facebook page; I’d only heard the name a few times before.  The joy of blog reporting:  suddenly I found myself sitting within 15 feet of her.

“I love San Francisco!  I love the food, I love the people!” she cooed appealingly.

Let’s face it, it helps to be beautiful (Timothy Garton Ash was trashed for saying so), as well as incorrigibly likable:  The willowy Somalian with the unforgettable face was wearing a fashionable gray sweater and black slacks with trendy wedge-heeled sandals.  And Garton Ash was right to a point: beauty and appeal distorts our consideration of a woman who,  in this case, needs to be taken very seriously on her own terms.

“I wanted to write papers full of footnotes and statistics.  Nobody was interested,” she recalled.  People wanted to know instead how she made the break from her past; they wanted to know, in particular, about the family she described in Infidel. How is her mother? “I don’t know. She’s in Kenya.  Get lost!”… “I’d say shut up about my mother.  I’ve just written a paper!”

“They’re interested in experiences.  Most people in the United States and Europe have not had those experiences.”  So she shared her story instead.

And wow, what a backstory:  She survived genital mutilation, escaped an arranged marriage with a much-older man, became an MP in Holland, and collaborated with Theo van Gogh on his film, Submission, about the treatment of women in Islam.  Since his assassination (a letter addressed to her was pinned to his chest when he was stabbed), she has been accompanied by bodyguards to protect her from a fatwa.  She is the author of a New York Times bestseller, with a second memoir just published.  She has been championed by Paul Berman; she has debated Timothy Garton Ash.

When her moderator, Susanne Pari, author of 1997′s The Fortune Catcher, soft-balled her a question about “the patriarchy,” Hirsi Ali balked.  “I don’t know if you can call it a patriarchy,” she said, since the women “not only participate in it, but impose it.”  Her grandmother had insisted on Hirsi Ali’s genital mutilation; in honor killings and punishments, “the first stage is a sister, mother, mother-in-law. ‘She dropped her headscarf,’ ‘She’s wearing makeup,’ ‘She’s seeing so-and-so.’”

Boys are victimized, too:  they are taught that “the male individual is not to be soft but be hard … his honor is between my legs.”

When asked about recent U.S. compromises on female mutilation, Hirsi Ali refused to take the bait, preferring to go to root causes:  “It all comes back to honor” and  “the conviction that the girl has to be a virgin on her wedding night.”

She decried the Western focus on “poverty, poverty, poverty — let’s get rid of the poverty.”  Poverty, she said, “is only the outcome of these convictions.”

“It lets men off the hook.”  She favors a paradigm shift in the culture, allowing women to “own their sexuality,” and encouraging men to “want a fellow human being in a relationship.”

Pari brought up the case of Faisal Shahzad, an apparently assimilated Muslim who turned to jihad with the attempted Times Square bombing — but Hirsi interrupted her comments about the possible cause being his job loss.

“I have a problem with that,” she said.  If we even “remotely entertain” the notion that “foreclosure and health care and normal adversity is an excuse to take away the life of another,” then “we are really going down,” she said.

“He has a freaking MBA!” she exploded.  “I know people who can’t read!”  Hirsi Ali denied that “the only therapy is to get an SUV and fill it with explosives.” Nor did she excuse Nidal Malik Hasan, who “gets to be a major in a voluntary army.”

“Why don’t we take these people at their word?  Why don’t we examine their convictions?”

Pari noted that, in her Iran-American childhood, there was only one mosque in the nation, in Washington D.C., and now there are thousands (“1150,” corrected Hirsi Ali). She took Hirsi Ali, a fellow atheist, to task for Infidel’s conclusion that the love and tolerance exhibited in much of Christianity might be a force to subdue Islam. “I was very naughty!” Hirsi Ali admitted with a chuckle.

Parsi said the author’s idea “was disturbing to me, frankly…What were you thinking?”

“The superficial answer is, if every Muslim became Christian, I would live without bodyguards,” Hirsi Ali replied.

“This is a really hard interview,” admitted Pari.

I, for one, would have liked a paper as much as the stories, if not more.  As a mother (and a daughter) reading some of the tales, I saw enough stock issues  of parent-child estrangement in the book  to wonder how much was culture clash and how much was the intergenerational conflict that takes place everywhere.

Leafing through her newest book, Nomad, I liked as much the bits of the book that were blistering polemic against misogyny — in short, a paper.  She exhorts wet-noodle Western feminists who “manifest an almost neurotic fear of offending a minority group’s culture,” where a dread of offending  overcomes compassion and justice:

There are 13.5 million women in Saudi Arabia.  Imagine what it’s like to be a woman there: you are essentially under permanent house arrest.

There are 34 million women in Iran.  Imagine being a woman there: you may be married legally when you are nine; on the order of a judge, you may be lashed 99 times with a whip for committing adultery; then, on the order of a second judge, you may be sentenced five months later to death by stoning.  This is what happened to Zoreh and Azar Kabiri-niat in Shahryar, Iran, in 2007; after being flogged for “illicit relations” they were then tried again and found guilty of “committing adultery while married.” The punishment they were to receive for adultery was death by stoning. Their sentence was recently confirmed, on appeal.

There are 82.5 million women in Pakistan.  Imagine being a girl there: you grow up knowing that if you dishonor your family, if you refuse to marry the man chosen for you, or if someone thinks you have a boyfriend, you are likely to be beaten, ostracized, and killed, probably by your father or brother, who has the support of your entire immediate family.  You’re also liable to be jailed  …

Virginity is the obsession, the neurosis, of Islam.

As I began to feel my reservations during the conversation, I continued to hear the audience groan, moan, and applaud their approval.  It was love fest.  The crowd was one.

It was, in short, a friendly mob.  I was grateful for my moments of alienation; they kept me from falling into the crowd emotion.  As Auden wrote:

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

Only because of that can we say
all men are our brothers …

I wonder if Hirsi Ali will keep her intellectual independence, or whether her nonconformity is in part a byproduct of repeated dislocation.  Many forces are trying to coopt or own her.  In her writing, she longs for acceptance and a place of belonging after so much rejection.  Will applause wear away this brilliant woman’s provocative edginesss?

Pari opens last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle review of Hirsi Ali’s new book with: “For the very few of us who have chosen atheism over Islam, the world is a dangerous place. Radical clerics call for our death and encourage our murder. It is the time of our Inquisition, and the urgent issue is how to extinguish these threats so that we, and others, may safely believe what we wish.”

But after listening to Ayaan, I’m not sure this isn’t Pari’s opinion, rather than the author’s.

They both seemed to endorse religion to the extent that people don’t believe or practice it.  But religions and beliefs have always evoked the most passionate side of man’s nature and engagement – and so has as much chance of turning man into a devil as an angel.  As another Enlightenment, or perhaps slightly pre-Enlightenment figure,  Blaise Pascal, wrote:  L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête.

Perhaps the volatility, the unpredictability, of man’s passionate possibilities helped drive both women to the blinkered god of rationality.  They embraced instead what Hirsi Ali terms “Enlightenment” values — ah, but the Enlightenment had a few passions of its own.  A good reading of the excesses of the Revolution should cure whatever nostalgia anyone has for the Enlightenment, and for what happens to man when he imagines he is relying on nothing but his or her own sweet reason.

There are other cures as well.  Christopher Hitchens is coming to town next month…

“Ghidul copilăriei retrocedate”

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010
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If you happen to be in Transylvania this weekend, you might check out Ghidul copilăriei retrocedate (Guide to a recovered childhood), which is having its world premiere at the National Theatre in Sibiu on May 31.

Andrei Codrescu

I just had lunch with Florentina Mocanu today at the Stanford Bookstore, and she is on her way to Romania in the next day or so for that very purpose.  She has good reason to go: she’s one of the playrights, along with Gavriil Pinte (who is also directing) and Andrei Codrescu, known to most Americans as a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered since 1983.  Florentina is a graduate of Theatre Arts University in Târgu Mureş. At Stanford, she translated and directed Mr. Leonida by I.L. Caragiale and Ionesco’s Frenzy for Two or More.  I met her earlier this year while writing about her mentor, director Carl Weber, a protegee of Bertolt Brecht and a veteran of his Berliner Ensemble — also a veteran of WWII, where he was a teenage German POW in England.

Florentina

Florentina Mocanu

Ghidul copilăriei retrocedate was a far-flung collaboration:  Florentina lives in San Francisco, Piute is writing from Bucharest, and Codrescu is based in New Orleans.  The play is coming together for its debut in Codrescu’s beloved home town, Sibiu.

The play includes the poetry of Codrescu’s youth and explores the nature of memory as it shifts over the decades in a lifetime.  Wonder how he squares that theme with a New Year NPR broadcast, in which he recalls an earlier job in his literary career, writing fortune cookies for $5 a shot. The last fortune he got said: “You will know the future in time.” Now that it is the future, he offers this insight: “Time will make truth irrelevant.”

“Time is truth and there is no truth in time,” he said.

In any case, Sibiu won’t be a bad place to cool your heels:  It was designated European Capital of Culture for the year 2007, with Luxembourg. It is ranked as “Europe’s 8th most most idyllic place to live” by Forbes.  And if you can’t make it, check out the youtube preview (above, in Romanian), featuring several actors in the production — and at least get a few glimpses of faraway Sibiu.

Idyllic Sibiu

Congratulations, Señor Díaz

Monday, May 24th, 2010
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Díaz, flanked by Packer and Barry (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

I fell in love with Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao while writing about the author’s appearance two years ago with ZZ Packer and Lynda Barry.  I didn’t mean to read half the book while writing a short article, but I was desperate to find out what he meant by the book’s “Dr. Manhattan structure—the exploded book.”

The author has retained a warm spot in my heart.  So I was pleased to hear he will serve on the Pulitzer Board (the Associated Press notes that the Pulitzer awards “the most prestigious prizes in journalism” — I guess AP forgot that they award prestigious prizes in poetry and fiction as well).

Díaz grew up in Parlin, N.J., and describes his childhood as ”working poor, welfare, Section 8, living next to a landfill.”  He described the appointment as a “wonderful honor” and said, “The Pulitzer Prize absolutely fundamentally changed my life and career as an artist.”

Co-chairman of the board David Kennedy, a Pulitzer historian himself, said the board is excited to have Díaz, and described him as a fresh new voice in the Pulitzer decision-making.  He is, apparently, the first Latino on the board.  Díaz’s reaction:

”How come I am not surprised?” said Diaz, who emphasized that he was only the second Latino in Pulitzer history to have received the prize in fiction. ”I guess that I’m standing in for hundreds of other qualified writers, artists who should have been in that position before me. That’s always what I think about when people tell you, oh, you’re the first. Man, that’s not really the way it should have been.”

Congratulations, Señor Díaz.

Rakove and “Revolutionaries” at Kepler’s tonight!

Monday, May 24th, 2010
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Jack Rakove‘s new book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, also got a review at the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday — it’s here.

“Rakove shows us how these legendary figures were a bundle of results as well as forceful agents of history. They were made by the Revolution, he keeps reminding his readers, not just the makers of it. Too often, books about these men, taken together or presented individually, render them larger than life, and abstract them out of the dense social, cultural and political matrix that defined their opportunities and their challenges. Rakove manages to demystify the leaders of the Revolutionary era even while clarifying the terms on which they continue to deserve our admiration.  …

What makes this conclusion so important is its defiance of a common pathology in our thinking about our national origins. We too often treat the Founding Fathers as having set us upon a highly specific political course that it is our mission to follow as closely as possible, no matter how much the times change. Rather, we need to think our way through our own dilemmas, within the broad and flexible constitutional framework we owe to Rakove’s revolutionaries. We must not expect Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson to do our thinking for us. That we should do for ourselves.”

However, you can bypass persuasive endorsements altogether and see for yourself:  Rakove will be appearing tonight at Kepler’s — and presumably providing citations from his own book.  (There’s also an Amazon Q&A here.)

That’s at 7.30 p.m. tonight.

“Each step we take is a separate flare into darkness…”

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010
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odysseyMy review of Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey in the San Francisco Chronicle today here.  (I’ve interviewed the poet here, and written about her on the Book Haven here.)

From my review:

“Nevertheless, all the distracting and engaging dramatis personae serve only as a scrim for the fey intelligence behind them: the narrator who teases us in a literary hide-and-seek, Onegin-like, from behind the mask of her protagonist. What remains is a voice vibrant, lively and clear as a bell – not looking inward so much as in wonder at the world around her. And, pressed from her lines, a rare vintage of wisdom.”

As always when writing a review, there are little snippets of the book — in this case, it’s a novel in verse — that never quite make it into the final review.  (Given the strict and ever-shortening word limit nowadays, this should hardly come as a surprise.)  So here are three excerpts I would have liked to included:

gwyneth

Gwyneth Lewis

“When love’s so weary it hopes for nothing
it’s at its strongest, though it feels no power.
It pushes, persists and starts its streaming.
Clay relaxes to the touch of moisture,
it gathers force, pushes sand grains over

and, on its way, is fed by everything
It touches, now it’s flowing over,
It surges and begins to sing
words of mercy in the throats of gutters,
thoughts translated into sudden flowers.”

“Peace, Love and Death. Of these three
Peace is the least, the greatest one is Death.
When someone chooses it willingly,
Death includes the others.  It’s the roughest path,
but the kindest.”

“Neither of us will get out of here
alive unless I can re-order time
to a second body of words and rhymes.”

A haunted room at Berkeley — 10 years later

Thursday, May 20th, 2010
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The lavish Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

The lavish Morrison Reading Room in Berkeley

I wondered if the room was as lavish as I remembered it.  The last time I had been in this reader’s paradise was almost exactly a decade ago, in February 2000.  The occasion was Czesław Miłosz‘s poetry reading, and I was scheduled to interview him within a few days of the event.  I described it this way in California Monthly this way:

As seats fill up in the wood-paneled Morrison Reading Room of Doe Library, students climb to the mezzanine level, draping themselves between the balustrades like pensive, latter-day gargoyles. Below, journalists and photographers buzz like flies among the crowd, which chatters incessantly. The mood feels more like a gala theater premiere than a noon poetry reading.

In the commotion, no one seems to notice as the star of the day, Czeslaw Milosz, Berkeley’s only Nobel laureate in the humanities, enters. He’s dressed as quietly as his entrance, wearing a dark corduroy jacket with a maroon tie and puckered pocket square. His oxblood satchel contains his poems, computer-printed in oversized type to be easy on the eyes of the 89-year-old Polish poet. He moves slowly and decisively, with a cane. Milosz’s face is softer, paler, rounder than it appears in the photos that have made his face a literary icon, though the trademark bushy eyebrows still give him a slightly forbidding look.

Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott

No one then knew it would be his last reading in Berkeley.  Within a few months, he was back in Kraków.  While he had been dividing his time between Berkeley and Kraków for some years, health problems had finally stranded him — not unhappily — in Poland for good.

So here I was again, on Friday, May 14, making the nerve-wracking rush-hour trek to Berkeley.  This time I was visiting at the invitation of poet Peter Dale Scott — a poet and former Canadian diplomat who was one of Miłosz’s very early translators and friends.  He had contributed to my forthcoming book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.  I had reason to be grateful: he had been a courtly, kindly, and reassuring presence in what was not always a kind process of herding contributors against a deadline gun.

Peter gave UC-Berkeley’s Annual Stronach Lecture.  His topic:  “Poets Who Grow Gardens in Their Heads: Some Observations on Robert Duncan, Czesław Miłosz, and Judith Stronach.”  It was splendid.  A few of his comments:

“My intimacy with Milosz reinforced a contrast I had already felt in Warsaw: of the contrast between Poland  — a scott3powerful culture with only a perilously established state – and America – a powerful state with only an incipient and perilously established culture. I may have sensed this the more strongly as a citizen of Canada, where neither state nor culture are particularly strong, and uncertainties — as poets have to be aware — surround the future of both.  …

“Thus for Milosz ironic detachment was not enough; the poet has a responsibility to teach. In the same passage he wrote how in the debased conditions of wartime Warsaw people had dreams “about a beautiful future,” and how he gave these dreams expression:  ‘Sometimes the world loses its face. It becomes too base. The task of the poet is to restore its face, because otherwise man is lost in doubt and despair. It is an indication that the world need not always be like this, it can be different.’

As he wrote much later in Berkeley, ‘what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.’” …

“In his later years Milosz returned to his theme that poets should enliven hope. Thus he criticized modern poetry, starting with Mallarmé, for its “increasing irrationality” and “disappearance of logically deducible meaning.”  In his Nobel Laureate lecture, he contrasted the irrelevancy of “autonomous” poetry with the power, even the danger, of poetry “in search of reality” milosz(or what Duncan called “the truth of things”):

‘There is, it seems, a hidden link between theories of literature as Écriture, of speech feeding on itself, and the growth of the totalitarian state. In any case, there is no reason why the state should not tolerate an activity that consists of creating “experimental” poems and prose, if these are conceived as autonomous systems of reference, enclosed within their own boundaries. Only if we assume that a poet constantly strives to liberate himself from borrowed styles in search for reality, is he dangerous. In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.’”

And yes, the wood-paneled room — with its marble busts of Dante, Goethe, some Greek or other and a Roman or two — was as lavish as I remembered it.  So was the reception afterwards, where I had a chance to chat with Chana Bloch.  (By the by, I wrote about Milosz and Robert Hass‘s joint appearance at Stanford here.)

Library of the future … on the other hand, you could smash your Kindle

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
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The San Jose Mercury discusses what may be the library of the future — as exemplified by the Stanford Physics Library.  According to the article, the new library will be only half the size of the current Engineering Library, “but saves its space for people, not things. It features soft seating, ‘brainstorm islands,’ a digital bulletin board and group event space. There are few shelves and it will feature a self-checkout system.”

There’s more:  it will have a completely electronic reference desk, with four Kindle 2 e-readers on site. An online journal search tool will scan 28 online databases, a grant directory and more than 12,000 scientific journals.

Here’s the problem with keeping books, which, in today’s library vernacular, are increasingly described as “units”:

Stanford is running out of room, restricted by an agreement with Santa Clara County that limits how much it can grow. Increasingly, the university seeks to preserve precious square footage.

Adding to its pressures is the steady flow of books. Stanford buys 100,000 volumes a year — or 273 every single day.

“Most of the libraries on campus are approaching saturation,” [Stanford's Andrew] Herkovic said. “For every book that comes in, we’ve got to find another book to send off.”citylights

Can a backlash be far behind?  City Lights Bookstore,  launched by Beat  champion Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1950s, offers a different perspective at Booknewser, in the spirit of Allan Ginsberg’s “Howl”:

This is the current City Lights Books catalog. As you can see, it depicts a kind of Kindle graveyard. “Smash your Kindle,” City Lights seems to say, “we publish books in print.”

Stanford physics librarian Stella Ota expresses mixed feelings:

“When I look back, then there is a certain sadness for me. Any change is hard. And there are moments of joy, when I see bookplates of former faculty who owned and donated the book, and sometimes made notes on the side,” Ota said.

“But looking forward, I see an opportunity to create something new.”

Let’s hope her optimism is warranted.  As for me, my own real-book library is my sanctuary, and I long for more time away from a screen. It’s hard to beat a sunny afternoon with an old friend in the form of a well-worn book.

On the other hand, I too am running out of space…