Archive for September, 2010

A Swedish award for a Swede? Ladbrokes has spoken…

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
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79-year-old perennial Nordic bridesmaid

Tomas Tranströmer is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Ladbrokes has spoken, putting his chances at 5 to 1.  However, Bill Coyle at the Contemporary Poetry Review states the problem this way:

Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since.

Reuters observes that “Poetry dominates the bookmakers’ list” and that “American writers set to be overlooked again” — unless, of course, you consider perennial American Nobel bridesmaid Joyce Carol Oates, ranked #12, or perennial groomsman Philip Roth, at #15.  Thomas Pynchon is #16.  Note that none of the Americans are poets.  At least not primarily.

Does Bjørg-the-Cyborg pick the winners?

“Tomas Transtromer must surely be in pole position,” said David Williams of Ladbrokes. “He’s long been mentioned for the prize and we feel his work finally deserves this recognition.”  Probably an indication he won’t get it.  (You can read a few of his poems at The Owls website here.)

There’s an obscure Paraguayan playright — Nestor Amarilla — rumored to be shortlisted.  No one’s ever heard of her, which would be in keeping with recent prizewinners.  Do I sense another wicked Ted Gioia parody coming?  Read his “Shocking Revelation: Nobel Lit Prize Has Been Picked by a Robot since 1994!“  (His slightly more sober “Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe” here.

The man in the #2 favorite spot leaves me with divided feelings — it would be nice to see Polish poet Adam Zagajewski bag the prize — but the award has a way of turning lives upside down. (Read An Invisible Rope for some firsthand stories about what it did to Czesław Miłosz in 1980.)  I remember Zagajewski kindly serving as my sherpa in literary Kraków — and, well, I’m selfish.  Which is to say, I would miss his friendship.

I reviewed his book for the San Francisco Chronicle (and no, I didn’t write the headline) — I’m chuffed that it inspired Kay Ryan to write to the newspaper:  “It was a thrill to read Cynthia Haven’s brilliant review the poet Adam Zagajewski’s book of essays, A Defense of Ardor, in this past Sunday’s Book Review. Almost never do I come across something about poetry that has the sting and bite of poetry in it.  Zagajewski comes straight through Haven’s elegant and deeply informed prose.  More of these brainy reviews please; more Cynthia Haven, please.”  I hope they published it.  I honestly can’t recall.  Oscar Villalon sent it to me.  God knows one gets enough slaps and punches.

I also profiled Adam for the Poetry Foundation magazine here – an article that still gets a lot of hits.

I remember meeting Adam for tea in Krakow’s main square, and being thrilled by the squadrons of pigeons.  Adam assured me loftily that they were very stupid creatures.  And, as a newcomer to his town, he showed me the Jagiellonian University,  as the light was fading…

"Only others save us..."

When I asked him about the future of poetry and poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites he said this (which didn’t make it into the final cut of the Poetry Foundation article):  “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

I keep this on my desk:

Only others save us,
even though solitude tastes like
opium. The others are not hell,
if you see them early, with their
foreheads pure, cleansed by dreams.

– Adam Zagajewski, “In the Beauty Created by Others”

Good news in a hard world: “Borderland” exceeded fundraising goals (by a hair)!

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
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And now, the good news:  Borderland exceeded its fundraising goals, by $20!  Keeping track of the progress on my Apple, hour by hour, was a hair-raising process last night.  This morning brought a great finale to the story of Comics with a cause: “Borderland” warns kids about human trafficking:  $8020 from 157 backers will allow Dan Archer and Olga Trusova to distribute the comic — seven true stories by human trafficking survivors — in Eastern Europe.  Dan, a founder of Archcomix.com and a 2010 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, and Olga, a Fulbright Fellow from Stanford University, are understandably jubilant.

Heaven knows I don’t get excited about much along these lines — but these two are bristling with energy and drive, and their project is a much-needed one.  As explained a few days ago, they’ve made me into a convert.
This message from Olga:

“We are very grateful to everyone who contributed on Kickstarter! This makes it possible for us to print and distribute the comic in the U.S. and to also reach a wider audience with an interactive iPhone app in order to raise awareness about human trafficking in the West. The Ukrainian version of the book will also be distributed to 136 schools in Ukraine by the International Organization for Migration. Additionally, we are talking with the U.S. Embassy in Kiev about having an exhibit to showcase Borderland as a preventative educational material for youth.

Half of the jubilant team

In terms of fundraising, Dan and I have reached out to our respective communities of educators, journalists, artists, designers, NGOs, activists, students, etc. and it’s been great to see so many people come forth to support the project. Kickstarter placed us in the “Featured” section of the website, which also brought its core audience to learn about Borderland. Overall, we utilized a lot of social media tools and in-person events in our outreach campaign, and have especially seen an increase in support in the beginning and at the end of the pledge drive.”

See more about their story in yesterday’s post.

Comics for a Cause: “Borderland” warns kids about human trafficking

Sunday, September 26th, 2010
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ONLY A FEW HOURS LEFT!  This project will only be funded if at least $8,000 is pledged by Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1:45 p.m. EDT — which means 10:45 a.m. PST!!!  Under the kickstarter aegis, they must raise all the money to meet their pledge, or else all the money is returned to donors.  Please donate by clicking here.

Yes, yes, I know.  We’re talking about comics.  Graphic novels.  I considered myself a tough sell when I walked into Stanford’s Institute of Design to hear two kids talk about saving the world through the pages of comic books.  But they sold me … figuratively speaking.

She collected the stories from Eastern Europe

Olga Trusova is a Fulbright Fellow from Stanford University.  The Ukrainian designer and educator spent a year collecting stories told by victims of human trafficking in Eastern Europe. Dan Archer, a comics-journalist from California, a founder of Archcomix.com and a 2010/11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, currently co-teaches the acclaimed  graphic novel project at Stanford. He turned Olga’s stories into pictures.  (Video is hereBorderland preview site is here.)

I had arrived late from the Mexican festivities nearby, after Olga had already finished her intro.  Dan was talking about this “visually seductive form with a tarnished history.”

He took pen to Bristol board

“It’s a great way of packaging a lot of information … in a form that can capitalize on the energy.”

Dan praised the work of pioneering Joe Sacco, creator of the 1996 American Book Award-winning graphic novel Palestine, and his graphic novel on the Bosnian War, Safe Area Goražde. Then he and Olga talked about thumbnails and storyboarding.

They were both appealing. They were both persuasive.  Dan described the discovery of “how I could tell stories in small bite-size chunks.”

Olga’s reportage ensured that this was  “not just seven stories of strangers,” she said.

“The stories are really harrowing,” says Dan. “Reliving these things, and negotiating how much to show — was the most challenging part of the project.”

Not showing is far more powerful,” he concluded. “The readers have to insert their own agency between the panels to make the story come alive for themselves.”

“There’s a lot of potential for artists who want to create comics for social change,” says Olga.

OK, here’s the proviso (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?):  There is nothing here that is not described more immortally in the story of Jean Valjean.

Sacco: Role model

Sontag spoke here about reading as the education of the emotions:

“Reading should be an education of the heart …   Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too. … I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

That said, Dan and Olga have made it clear that they want to reach kids who won’t be reading Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, or Charles Dickens anyway.  They want to spread a message to kids who have been victims in Eastern Europe: “You are not alone.” So you’re not compromising any literary principles — this is a different gig altogether.

Now here’s the kicker:  The next two days are critical.  This project will only be funded if at least $8,000 is pledged by Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1:45 p.m. EDT — which means 10:45 a.m. PST!!!  Under the kickstarter aegis, they must raise all the money to meet their pledge, or else all the money is returned to donors.  See here for details.

Look at it this way:  a mere 10 bucks will get you a pdf and a hard copy of the comic.  50 bucks will get you the iphone app version.  If you’re too much of an old fogey to get into this … well, you have kids, don’t you?  Go ahead.  I did.  More about donating here.

Mexico, war, genocide, and Richard Rhodes

Friday, September 24th, 2010
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Yesterday, the opening of the Mexico bicentennial exhibition — a true fiesta, with tamales, top-notch horchata, chips and guacamole, and other munchies I didn’t have time to sample, along with a man named William Faulkner playing Mexican tunes on a harp.  I have a personal debt to Mexico, and came to pay my respects — but my conversations tended to turn instead to my article about Norman Naimark and the need to broaden our definition of genocide to include Joseph Stalin‘s millions of murdered people.

Hoover librarian Lora Soroka, who is Ukrainian (land of the Holdomor) and archivist Linda Bernard were particularly pleased that someone was finally nailing Stalin for genocide — the article is featured on Hoover’s home page.  Frankly, I’m surprised there are two opinions about that.  My article on Naimark’s new book, Stalin’s Genocides, left out so many aspects of our discussion. (We spoke on a sunny day on an outdoor patio, overlooking the Bay, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where it seemed almost indecently incongruous to be discussing crimes against humanity.)

Naimark said, “Intent is very important in genocide.” In the case of the American Indians, more often than not “the intent was to steal land in any way possible” — which makes it an instance of ethnic cleansing, rather than genocide.  And yet, individuals within that context acted with “the intent to wipe out a tribe.”  Hence, that history is one of ethnic cleansing marked by incidents of genocide, he said.  Evidently, the lines of international law are blurry.

One question I would like to see explored more powerfully is the link between technology and genocide.  Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.

But technology has magnified our ability to commit genocide — technology enables imitation, which brings us directly into René Girard‘s territory, and also into Hannah Arendt‘s.  She observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem that once an unprecedented crime occurs, it is likely to repeat itself:  “If genocide is an actual possibility of the future, then no people on earth … can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and the protection of international law.”

Replication occurs through the medium of modern communication, which also enables the event itself.  Could the Rwandan massacres have occurred without national broadcasters egging the murderers on, announcing the victims’ locations and tracking them as they tried to flee?  It would be impossible to murder a million people in 90 days without coordination, moving the murderers and murdered to locations where they can be effective shot or gassed en masse.

The less glamorous side of revolution: Mexican girl, probably an orphan, on a postcard. (From Stanford collection)

That brings us back to the Mexican celebration.  Andrew Herkovic was barking at me (we were all barking in the din of the gathering) about the work of Richard Rhodes, who wrote 2003′s Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust.  His research discovered how murdering people the traditional way, one by one, proved traumatic for the murderers.  The Nazis escalated cautiously, improving mass murder methods; and finally,  “conditioning” the troops, to avoid “disabling trauma.”

The Jerusalem Post notes that Rhodes’s book “graphically and chillingly details the work of the special killing battalions of Himmler’s SS. . . Extremely well-written. . . [A] fine work of gruesome history.”  But I wonder, by detailing the crimes, do we risk their repetition?  By speaking about the unspeakable, do we ensure that it becomes a blueprint?

Coincidentally, Andrew had Rhodes’s cell phone number — he scribbled it down for me.  I’ll try phoning him today.  My reason:  Rhodes will be here for a November 11 talk during our Ethics and War program.  As war becomes more and more total … what do “ethics” mean in war?

A phone call with Julia Hartwig

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
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In Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I’m an old-fashioned girl.  I still consider an international call a big deal.  I don’t make them frequently, and it always surprises me when you punch a handful of digits and someone like Julia Hartwig picks up the other end of the line in Warsaw.

I hadn’t spoken to Julia Hartwig since my fellowship summer in Poland, and am currently working on a piece about the Polish poet for World Literature Today — that is, I will be when I finish the indexing and proofreading for An Invisible Rope.  In Poland, Adam Zagajewski had encouraged me to meet her — somehow the name had led me to think her a young American woman, the few times I ran across any reference to her at all.  So I was surprised to find an the octogenarian “grande dame” of Polish poetry.

Truth is, Hartwig is too little known in the U.S., though her second book, It Will Return, was published by Northwestern University Press this year.  Her first book in English, Knopf’s In Praise of the Unfinished, received accolades where it was reviewed, but it wasn’t reviewed widely.

She’s received a number of honors, but never the NIKE Award, Poland’s leading literary award, for which she’s been nominated thrice.  She’s up again this year.  Let’s hope the 89-year-old poet takes home the award next  month.

On the phone, I remembered the brusque and throaty voice.  Although she lived in the U.S. for a number of years, her English can seem tentative and uncertain.

I said there was a chance I would be back next year in Warsaw — that unreal, half-fabricated city. I can’t quite remember the words she said, but I had a feeling that she would hold me to that most tentative promise.

Meanwhile, a poem:

Return to My Childhood Home

Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was.
Speak to me, Lord of the child. Speak, innocent terror!
To understand nothing. Each time in a different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Postscript:  We got a nice mention from SCOPE Magazine blog here. The magazine launches in January, but the blog is here, right now.  Check it out.

René Girard, meet Terry Jones, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and the gang

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
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Avoiding crowds (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A brief conversation with Martha and René Girard brought forth the startling fact that René had made an unaccustomed appearance in Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog over the weekend.  The subject was, of all things, would-be Koran-burner Terry Jones.

Quietly nestled among his posts on the sex lives and habits of other people is  “What Qu’ran Burning and Crucifixion Have in Common.” Sullivan cites an article by Eric Reitan:

[A]t least one theologian—S. Mark Heim—has taken up Girardian themes to argue that the crucifixion is best understood as a potent repudiation of sacrificial scapegoating… If Heim is right about this, then Jones and Phelps and their respective congregations are symbolically enacting the very thing that the passion stories central to Christianity were intended to repudiate. Where they are called to see the crucified Christ in those who are being symbolically burned at the stake, they instead see a righteous sacrifice to God. Where they are called to identify with the victim of sacrificial scapegoating, they become the practitioners.

Reitan’s article adds:

Some, such as Christopher Hitchens, would see such sacrificial scapegoating as a natural extension of Christian theology—which, after all, has at its heart the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, which Hitchens finds an appalling extension of the idea that wrongs can be righted by sacrificing an innocent scapegoat to God.  But the crucifixion, like book burning, is a complex symbol.

Of course, what Reitan calls Heim’s idea is not Heim’s idea at all.  René Girard himself has written  — for example, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – that  “the Gospels are aware of what they are doing. They not only tell the truth about victims unjustly condemned, but they know they are telling it, and they know that in speaking the truth they are taking again the path of the Hebrew Bible.”

But more and more I find myself coming back to the René’s writings about the role of the mob, which seems very apropos  to the discussion at hand:

In a society that has fallen prey to anarchy, the voracious appetite for persecution feeds on victims indiscriminately, as long as they are weak and vulnerable.  The least pretext is enough.  No one really cares about the guilt or innocence of the victim.  These two words, without cause, marvelously describe the behavior of human packs.

W.H. Auden wrote put it this way:

… the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd is the only thing all men can do.Only because of that can we sayall men are our brothers …

Auden understood

With the inevitable consequences:

All if challenged would reply– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I. –

Reitan seems to be haunted by the same theme.  He writes that “the nation has, through extensive media attention, conferred on this tiny congregation an enormous power it otherwise wouldn’t have—a power to make their symbolic violence do more actual harm than it otherwise might have done, to make their vicarious scapegoating less vicarious, and so to more effectively reach their intended targets.”

He concludes:

The media rushes to the next dramatic spectacle because to do so will attract ratings. And why does it attract ratings? A congregation of 50 can hardly be blamed for that. All of us in our own ways play the roles of betrayer, deserter, and denier. And while we should not condone the Dove Center’s desire to burn Muslims in effigy—nor should we fail to repudiate it when it becomes a public spectacle—it is important that our response not re-enact on another symbolic level the very pattern of sacrificial scapegoating that we repudiate.

In others words, societies of hundreds of millions of people have many subsets, niches, and off-the-beaten-track pockets.  The scapegoat-maker in one subset becomes the scapegoat of another.  As Girard writes, “Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.”

On both sides of a discussion, too.

Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and “the enemies of chaos”

Monday, September 20th, 2010
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Fadiman, Oates, Kidder ... demonstrating a high tolerance for noise (Photo: Rachel Altmaier)

Goodness, what a sourpuss I sounded yesterday!  Chalk it up to my low threshold for cacophony. The article on yesterday’s event with Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates is online here.

Highlights included New Yorker gossip from Fadiman about the genesis of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down:

In the late 1980s, she had prepared a list of four proposals for her New Yorker editor when an old college friend from Merced called to tell her the story of “the tragic conflicts between Hmong patients and their doctors.”

“I thought I’d add that one as number five,” she said. The editor picked it.

Her work took her into a human catastrophe involving an epileptic Hmong girl. Well-meaning Western medical professionals and a loving family with longstanding tribal traditions clashed about the meaning of her condition and what a cure might be.

“Each side underestimated the other. It made me wonder whether we all underestimate each other most of the time.”

Her New Yorker editor left, and the new editor wanted more of a celebrity focus in the magazine’s features.

“The interest in an epileptic toddler was – to put it charitably – modest.” The letter formally killing the story “managed to misspell my first and last name.”

“I could not let the story go,” she said. In the end, she found that writing 300 pages was “so much easier” than disappointing the people who had shared their anguished stories with her.

Pulitzer prizewinning Kidder was modest, self-deprecating, often seemingly at a loss for words, as he described Strength in What Remains, featuring the story of “Deogratias,” who fled the Burundi and Rwanda massacres in 1994 for the streets of New York City, where he was homeless. He eventually dropped out of Dartmouth Medical School to open a medical clinic in Burundi. Kidder said that Deogratias is now pursuing medical studies at Columbia University:

“I’m surprised in general when I come across people like this,” said Kidder. Reading the newspaper every day, he said, “Sometimes I think chaos and violence run the world.”

People like Deogratias provide him with hope: “The fact that they’re there, as enemies of chaos, I find extremely reassuring – every morning,” he said.

Describing his book, he said, “It’s a story about courage, it’s a story about the kindness of strangers, a story about war and genocide.”

“What I wanted to do is to make you experience those things again, not as truisms, but as parts of our lives,” he said. “This is what all the writers I most admire do. They make the world new. They make it new again.”

Satz, author and moderator (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The person most shortchanged by my story was Joyce Carol Oates.  Alone of the three (four, counting Debra Satz, the moderator and author of Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale (discussed here)  “The Undesirable Table” was a work of fiction, and also a short story, rather than a full-length novel.  As I was quickly putting together a story on deadline, she seemed a little the odd man out.  I’ve never much cared for her work — and can’t claim to have really given it a fair hearing — but I was moved by her discussion of her family origins that were “working class, perhaps below that.”  I was also moved by her generosity towards the other authors — at times it felt as if she were acting as the moderator:

Oates spoke of the role of writers to “bear witness,” and the need to tell the stories of those who are otherwise voiceless.

“It’s up to you to provide the language and allow their stories to be told” … She urged the audience to grab such stories like a rope: “They pull you someplace you never thought you would go.”

Here are a few quotes that didn’t make it into the article:

“I’m more drawn to tragedy, because I think it mirrors the human predicament … and there’s not that much we can do about it, ultimately.  Even if you love your family, you will lose them, one by one.”

“That is what art does, brings formal structural hope to tragic situations … you rise to an occasion of personal courage and selflessness if there’s an emergency … those are the special, selective areas that bring hope to tragic world.”

Postscript: Something else Oates said that fascinated me.  When asked how she could write something like 80 books she said she lives “conventional life of moderation, regular hours.  There’s no need even to organize my time.”  So how does she manage to do that?

Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and thousands of screaming kids

Sunday, September 19th, 2010
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The books, at least, are silent (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I’m off, or close to being off, for the annual “Three Books” event at Stanford — this year featuring Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and thousands of screaming kids in Memorial Auditorium. The din is truly frightening, as this year’s incoming freshmen try to signal their identification with their future alma mater by yelling, chanting, hooting, whistling, and stomping.

I will be quietly typing in a corner as the three authors answer questions about their books – actually two books and a pamphlet:  2009′s Strength in What Remains by Kidder; Fadiman’s 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; and Oates’ 1996 short story, “The Undesirable Table,” reprinted in pamphlet form, from her collection Will You Always Love Me?

lt’s usually an interesting show — always a noisy one.  I wonder if Oates’s eminent presence will subdue the mob a little — she’s regularly shortlisted for the Nobel (at least at Ladbroke’s).

More later…

“Dude, you have no Quran!” — Terry Jones, book reviewing, and the sin of sins

Saturday, September 18th, 2010
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I didn’t have many thoughts about the Terry Jones Koran-burning stunt (or is the politically correct spelling “Quran,” nowadays?).  It seemed another of those strange boil-overs that are a regrettable byproduct in a nation that enshrines free speech.

What I didn’t understand was why a guy with — what? — maybe 20 followers gets a huge international spotlight, and a shout-out from a U.S. President, and fiery responses from national and even international leaders.  It seems to me that people like Jones should remain in the obscurity they so richly deserve.  (Surely Bibles are burned every day — why no protests there?)

Once he had become an international figure in the media, Jones responded clumsily and inadequately to his 15 minutes of fame, as one would expect. I doubt he ever met a Muslim.  In confusion, he called off the bonfire.  In any case, 18 Afghan men died in the riots that followed — real people died protesting an event that never happened.  Life gets more and more surreal.  (There’s something to be said for the burqa and female seclusion — it kept the women from the streets on that occasion.)

Then I read this in the Wall Street JournalThis, this is truly unforgiveable:

Pastor Jones, dressed in a dark suit, said at a press conference Friday that he had never read the book he intended to burn. “I have never read the Quran,” he said. His opposition to the book, he said, was rooted in his belief that it doesn’t contain the truths of the Bible.

In short, as Jacob Isom in the video above says, “Dude, you have no Quran!”

In not reading the book he condemns, Jones joins a club that includes a growing number of big-name book critics.  For example, Ana Marie Cox of the Washington Post:

I cannot claim to have completely read Going Rogue — I had to skim the last 150 pages (or more than one-third). I only got the thing into my hands late Monday afternoon with a deadline of early evening. It’s terrible, I know, but if I didn’t read it all, neither can Sarah Palin claim to have completely written it.

It's the thought that counts (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I was speaking to a friend of the Dalai Lama’s yesterday, and he told me that the Dalai Lama hadn’t exactly penned the books under his name, either.  I wonder how many high-profile people were barely in the same room with their manuscripts before publication.  Are we now freed from having to read their books before reviewing them?  Or burning them, for that matter?  I think of all those conscientious late nights with coffee — I was determined to finish the book before I finished the review.  Am I hopelessly passé?

Nevertheless, the horror of Ms. Cox’s crime — writing a review of a book you hadn’t read — did not shame her out of appearing on MSNBC to discuss the book she hadn’t read.  No more than it kept Terry Jones from wanting to burn one.

I’ve written for the Washington Post Book World; I wonder how the editors would have reacted if I had admitted I had not read the book I was considering — and would they have published the admission?  Some reviewers get caught, of course.  A critic friend told me of a case where a music reviewer (was it for the San Francisco Chronicle?) cut out of a concert at halftime.  In reviewing the program, he didn’t realize that the program had been rearranged at the last minute, and hence he discussed pieces that were never performed.

Crime never pays.

In any case, a Facebook discussion on this topic turned up the Youtube video above.  As my friend Jim Erwin said, “A tiny spark of sensible behavior and a catchy tune.”  The guy in the video, incidentally, is a 23-year-old skateboarder who works in a pizza shop.

Enjoy.  I like happy endings.

More on Molly Norris: Writer, medievalist speaks out

Thursday, September 16th, 2010
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Before she was erased

I’m grateful that yesterday’s post on Molly Norris, the cartoonist irrevocably linked with the Facebook “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” project that she repudiated, was at least part of the inspiration for this eminently sane rumination, from a guy I never heard of before, an erstwhile cartoonist and current author, Jeff Sypeck.   (PostscriptNew York Times article just posted an hour ago here.)

An excerpt, that doesn’t quite do Sypeck’s whole piece justice (again, read the whole mini-essay here):

As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply. Speech invites consequences, and I’m open to arguments about responsible, voluntary limits. That said, I’ll always put threats and violence on the far side of that line, and I’ll never suggest that in a free society, an artist or writer was asking to be forced to erase herself from existence.

So yes, despite being a pretty inoffensive writer, I took the news about Molly Norris personally, just as I did in 2008 when I read that Sherry Jones’s publisher was firebombed. I’ve written a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion. While nothing about my take on the early Middle Ages is all that wild, what’s to stop some hateful, publicity-seeking pastor from hagriding me, or some Islamic fanatic from registering his disapproval via DaggerGram? If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?

Guy I never heard of

The book (we might as well give it a plug, as a hat tip) is 2006′s  Becoming Charlesmagne: Europe, Baghdad, and the Empires of A.D. 800 (HarperCollins).  Kirkus Reviews said:

“Debunking the myths that surround legendary figures is a tricky business, but Sypeck acknowledges the allure of the ways in which Charlemagne and his era have been romanticized …  Illuminates the shadowy corners of an era shrouded in the mists of legend.”

The author has the distinction of growing up  in a central New Jersey town known for  the nation’s only cat leash law.  Now that’s whacko.