Robert Hass’s new poems: “part haiku, part road trip” – and a chance to meet him in Berkeley next Wednesday, Jan. 22!

January 16th, 2020

Keep your eye on him–you’ll get a chance on Wednesday

Robert Hass has a new collection out, a rare cause for celebration (his last was in 2010). “Hass personalizes everything, warms everything up. He’s an open book; but he’s also someone whom readers should, in every sense of the phrase, keep their eye on,” writes Dan Chiasson in “Robert Hass’s Inner History of the Decade,” in the current issue of The New Yorker

He writes:

Hass’s work is a fifty-year standoff between concentration and dispersal: part haiku, part road trip. Hass, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate in the nineties, and for decades has taught English at the University of California, Berkeley, has published his volumes rather slowly, beginning in 1973. When his new poems turn up, they often embed, almost as an alibi, behind-the-scenes footage of how and where they were written, including outtakes and bloopers. They are shapes made in time, over time, like the mellow hikes and meandering conversations that they sometimes describe. Summer Snow, with its patient count of tanagers, warblers, aspens, and gentian, its year-after-year audit of the dead, its tallies of everything from our country’s drone strikes to his friends’ strokes, is Hass’s inner history of the decade. It arrives right on time.

“Nature Notes in the Morning,” an early poem in “Summer Snow,” distills Hass’s method: first, some short, almost neutral captions (“East sides of the trees / Are limned with light”), followed by jotted ideas and judgments (“Just distribution theory: / Light”), along with memories and associations (“What do I know from yesterday?”). The effort is precise, not random, like a chef adjusting his seasonings. The word “notes” has a double meaning, and, as often happens in a Hass poem, a tune starts to form out of scattered impressions. To render “the way light looked on plums,” Hass tells us, the eighteenth-century Japanese artist Itō Jakuchū “smuggled Prussian blues from Europe.” The poem starts to conflate its own colors with the names of painters’ dyes (“Last streaks of sunset: alizarin”) and crests with an anecdote about “the old art historian” who told Hass to pick up a brush and paint “small rectangular daubs so that they shimmer”—or else to “shut up about Cézanne.” Accuracy in painting, which may depend on whether your country has an embargo on the source of the perfect blue, seems to chasten Hass’s comparatively too easy art.

Read the rest of the article here.

Now here’s a cool thing: You have a chance to meet and talk with the poet himself, should you happen to be, by chance or design, in Berkeley next Wednesday for a lunchtime talk at Heyday Books. The talk begins at noon, and, like all Heyday talks, takes place at 1808 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. The catch: you must RSVP by Monday, Jan. 20 – drop a note to:  “emmerich (at) heydaybooks (dot) com.”  Tell him I sent you. (Bonus prize: you get to meet my humble self! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.)

Roger Scruton: “You are accused by the mob, examined by the mob, and condemned by the mob.”

January 14th, 2020

“By joining the mob, you make yourself safe.” (Photo: Pete Helme)

Sir Roger Vernon Scruton died on Sunday. I knew nothing, really, about the British philosopher of politics and culture, but on his death, his name began appearing in my Facebook newsfeed.

The most intriguing reference was from my friend George Dunn, who posted Scruton’s review of Douglas Murray’s recent book  called The Madness of Crowds, “which addresses scapegoating and crowd derangement within our current political environment. As one might expect, Murray invokes René Girard along the way. Scruton summarizes the unseemly state of affairs to which Murray’s book is a response in language redolent of Girardian insights.”

He cites this passage from Scruton’s essay: “You are accused by the mob, examined by the mob and condemned by the mob, and if you have brought this on yourself, then you have only yourself to blame. For the mob is by nature innocent: it washes its own conscience in a flow of collective indignation, and by joining it you make yourself safe.”

George continues: “Murray’s proposed antidote to this madness is also quite Girardian—a rediscovery of the power of forgiveness. But Scruton wonders whether we are still capable of this gesture in an era when religious faith has receded into the cultural twilight: ‘Can we adopt the posture of forgiveness that Murray is so keen to advocate, without turning to the supreme example that was once given to us?'”

“We might be reminded of what Girard has said about political correctness as a faux super-Christianity, which mimics the Christian concern for victims, while turning it into an instrument for gaining political, social, or spiritual power. When the concern for victims becomes an ideology of ‘victimism’ divorced from such traditional virtues as charity, forgiveness, and humility, Girard believes it becomes something diabolical.”

René Girard on “victimism” divorced from charity

In the article, Scruton writes, “The archive of your crimes is stored in cyberspace, and however much you may have confessed to them and sworn to change, they will pursue you for the rest of your life, just as long as someone has an interest in drawing attention to them. And when the mob turns on you, it is with a pitiless intensity that bears no relation to the objective seriousness of your fault. A word out of place, a hasty judgment, a slip of the tongue — whatever the fault might be, it is sufficient, once picked upon, to put you beyond the pale of human sympathy.”

Another passage:

The crimes for which we are judged are existential crimes: through speaking in the wrong way you display one of the phobias or isms that show you to be beyond acceptable humanity. You are a homophobe, an Islamophobe, a white supremacist or a racist, and no argument can refute these accusations once they have been made.

Book under review

You might, in your private life, have worked for the integration and acceptance of your local Muslim community, or for a wider understanding of the roots of Islamic philosophy. This will be irrelevant when it comes to rebutting a charge of Islamophobia, just as your record in promoting minorities in the workplace will do nothing to clear you of the charge of racism, once the crucial words are out.

For your accusers are not interested in your deeds; they are interested in you, and in the crucial fact about you, which is whether or not you are “one of us”. Your faults cannot be overcome by voluntary action, since they adhere to the kind of thing that you are. And you reveal what you are in the words that define you.

Read the entire article here. Scruton concludes: “My own solution — which is to ignore social media and to address, in my writings, only the interest in the true and the false, rather than in the permitted and the offensive — confines me within a circle that is considerably narrower than the Twittersphere. But here and there in this circle, there are people who do not merely see the point of truthful discourse, but who are also eager to engage with it. And I cling to the view that that is enough, as it was for the Irish monks who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They may have thought they were losing, but they won in the end.”

“There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want.” A reflection on conspicuous consumption.

January 9th, 2020

Preach it, Mr. Monbiot! (Photo: Creative Commons)

It’s always bugged me: the recycling fascists among my friends are the very people who go to the Bali for their winter break, posting photos on Facebook of what they’ve consumed in restaurants, hotels, and bars along the way.

Well, it’s always fun to tell other people what to do. But it shouldn’t be confused with virtue. Environmental activist George Monbiot published a variation of the theme over the holiday season, when the memory of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s was still fresh. His article, Pathological consumption has become so normalised that we scarcely notice it,”  is on his website (it was earlier in The Guardian) is hilarious and true.

An excerpt:

There’s nothing they need, nothing they don’t own already, nothing they even want. So you buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map.

They seem amusing on the first day of Christmas, daft on the second, embarrassing on the third. By the twelfth they’re in landfill. For thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.

Researching her film The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolesence (becoming unfashionable).

How about living a little more modestly? Not for the sake of being more politically correct, but for its own merits, recognizing we could live on a fraction of what we do and walk more lightly on the earth. I’m not a Marie Kondo fan – in the end, throwing out stuff is just another kind of conspicuous consumption. and things need not spark “joy” to be worth saving – some spark grief, contrition, conscience, remembrance. If I were to get rid of everything that doesn’t spark joy, I would have to trash my bills, my cellphone, buckets of legal records, the bathroom plunger, jumper cables, and a few people I know.

Monbiot continues:

But many of the products we buy, especially for Christmas, cannot become obsolescent. The term implies a loss of utility, but they had no utility in the first place. An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog: no one is expected to use them, or even look at them, after Christmas Day. They are designed to elicit thanks, perhaps a snigger or two, and then be thrown away.

The fatuity of the products is matched by the profundity of the impacts. Rare materials, complex electronics, the energy needed for manufacture and transport are extracted and refined and combined into compounds of utter pointlessness. When you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries, manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production. We are screwing the planet to make solar-powered bath thermometers and desktop crazy golfers.

People in eastern Congo are massacred to facilitate smart phone upgrades of ever diminishing marginal utility. Forests are felled to make “personalised heart-shaped wooden cheese board sets”. Rivers are poisoned to manufacture talking fish. This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.

He concludes: “Bake them a cake, write them a poem, give them a kiss, tell them a joke, but for god’s sake stop trashing the planet to tell someone you care. All it shows is that you don’t.” Read the whole thing here.

Werner Herzog: “Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading.”

January 5th, 2020

“I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.” (All photos by L.A. Cicero)

You’ve listened to the podcast, you’ve seen the movie. Now you can read all of Robert Pogue Harrison‘s landmark interview with Werner Herzog, on the subject of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrineover at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

A few excerpts:

ROBERT POGUE HARRISON: In your conversation with Paul Cronin in 2014, you say, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the internet or watch too much television lose it. […] Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.” Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

WERNER HERZOG: In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. I see three, four films a year, maybe sometimes a little bit more during a festival, but I do read.

“No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.”

And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.

Is that right?

It’s very, very clear. There’s no doubt whatsoever in me.

Why is that?

When you make a film, you have cameras and production money and actors, a lab or a post-production editing. Many, many layers of very vulnerable elements. When you write, you just write and there’s nothing else. It’s a completely direct form of expressing something.


There seems to be an interest, on your part, in people who have this nostalgia to reconnect with the earth. Is that correct?

No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.

I grew up in the very secluded in the mountains of Bavaria, with no real technology around. Of course, I was connected to the mountains. And then, more than anything else, traveling on foot. I would walk 1,000 kilometers for very existentially important reasons. I would travel on foot, not with a backpack — not with my household, a tent, and a sleeping bag on my back. I have understood, first, that it’s a solitude that is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t done it. And second, a dictum: the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.

“That’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness.”

You see a connection with the German poet Hölderlin, whom I really love more than anyone else. He traveled on foot and actually became insane. He traveled from Bordeaux to Tübingen or Frankfurt and arrived stark mad. He had a premonition of insanity coming at him, creeping up on him. He describes it in some of his poems in a very secretive form. Very, very tragic man. He understood the outer fringes of our language. He understood the essence of being solitary, of solitude.

I keep saying to the Rogue Film School students that The Peregrine is a book that is the absolute must-read piece of literature, because that’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness. He or she or it should see the world with an incredible amount of human pathos and enthusiasm and rapture.

He sees with ecstasy. He has such rapture, such enthusiasm, such passion. That’s the way a filmmaker should see the real world and people and everything around us — with an enormous amount of passion. But that’s not all. Anyone can have this passion, but he writes in a language, with a caliber of prose, that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad’s short stories. That’s why I find this a very, very decisive book for anyone who wants to make films. By the way, for anyone who is becoming a writer, you will have to read it, learn it. Learn the whole book by heart.


Let me make a case for facts. A quote from Henry David Thoreau, in one passage from Walden where he says, “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

I crave many other things beyond reality. It’s a very impoverished life if we go only for that. Even a good steak is a form of ecstasy sometimes. You shouldn’t dismiss that the primitive things of real, everyday life can acquire different quality.

And facts and ecstasy go together.

No, they do not marry.

They do not?

Truth gives you an illumination and transports you into a state where you step outside of your own existence in an ecstasy. You can, for example, find it in the writings of late medieval mystics — that kind of ecstasy. That’s the beauty of this book.

Read the whole thing here.

Happy New Year’s to all – from the Book Haven!

January 1st, 2020

William Jay Smith was the first Native American poet laureate – and we’re still waiting for the Library of Congress to acknowledge it.

December 29th, 2019

The late Choctaw poet William Jay Smith: why is he being disrespected?

Last July, the Book Haven questioned the announcement that Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate. But the blogpost was soon forgotten in the general acclamation on Harjo’s appointment.

The problem is the truth: William Jay Smith, a poet of note, claimed Choctaw heritage, and wrote about his Native American heritage, including long poem on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t seem right, however worthy Harjo is as a successor to the poet laureate title, for her predecessor’s eminent reputation be thrown into the dustbin so that we could falsely claim yet another “first.” (Apparently, there was a time when even the Library of Congress acknowledged and honored Smith’s heritage, as we pointed out with some screenshots in our own post. But the Library of Congress changed its mind. Why? They won’t tell us.)

Forgotten first

Poet and translator A.M. Juster took the matter farther, and he’s written about the experience this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

He briefly wondered if he had made a mistake in writing of Smith as a Choctaw poet:

… I checked two reliable sources known for their fact checking, the Poetry Foundation and The New York Times, which both identified Smith as Native American. I became even calmer when I discovered, with some help from friends at Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop and discussion group, that the Library of Congress had itself identified Smith as “of European and Choctaw ancestry.”

I felt an obligation to notify the Library promptly, which I did. The first contact person had never heard of Smith and transferred me to another person who had not heard of Smith. That person took my name and number, but did not call back.

I too read some of the social media talk and the Eratosphere posts, and was dismayed by the tendency to dismiss or downplay Smith’s heritage, posthumously. After all, he died in 2015 and can hardly defend himself.

Juster got no answers.

Juster wrote a letter to the Library of Congress, asking: 1) had it decided that Smith is not a Native American; 2) if so, what was the standard for this decision, the evidence that supported it, and who made the decision; 3) was this decision made before the Harjo announcement or afterwards? And finally, he asked: 4) is the Library of Congress aware that its website has described Smith as being “of European and Choctaw ancestry” for 15 years?

In the LARB, he writes:

Almost surely the communications department believed that it could tough its way out of the mess it created based on the fact that so many Americans believe — falsely, but in good faith — that they have Native American heritage. Such issues are often resolvable, though, and I decided to try to resolve the question of William Jay Smith’s heritage by hiring an expert in Native American genealogy, Dr. William T. Cross.

Dr. Cross’s research confirmed that everything William Jay Smith claimed about his Choctaw heritage was correct. Rebecca Moshulatubbee King was the oldest daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee and married Samuel Jake Williams. One of their seven daughters, Catherine Permilia Williams, married Samuel Roswell Campster in 1850, and then gave birth to George Washington Campster in 1863. In 1913 George Washington Campster’s daughter, Georgia Ella Campster, married William Jay Smith Sr., the father of our Poet Laureate.

Harjo (Photo: Creative Commons)

Standards for tribal nation membership vary, but the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma simply requires lineal descent for membership, so William Jay Smith would have been fully eligible for membership if he had applied. There can be no doubt about Smith’s good faith in claiming that he was part Choctaw; at that time the benefits of such a claim would not offset the prejudices that it would generate. Nonetheless, the future Poet Laureate enthusiastically embraced his Choctaw heritage at an early age; it filtered into his poetry at least as early as the 1950s, when in “A Trip Across America” he repeated these lines:

Riding the powerful polished rails
Over abandoned Indian trails…

More than four decades later, he would do much more.

In the article, Juster wisely suggests that Harjo organize a conference to honor Smith’s legacy (and, we might add, by doing so honor her own). So what have we heard from the Library of Congress? Crickets.

Kind of disgraceful if you ask me.

What? “La Pastorela” has moved from the San Juan Bautista Mission? Relax. It’s terrific.

December 25th, 2019

Perhaps the most exciting show in the Bay Area  this season took place not in the famed City, but about 60 miles south of it, in the remote little burg of San Juan Bautista. I say that not because I have been a regular aficionado of the local theater scene this busy year, but because this year’s La Pastorela was one of the best shows I’ve seen ever.

I had my misgivings. I had been invited to make the trek to the annual Christmas show by a stepson and his wife, with their 10-year-old in tow. The effort is the seasonal offering of the town’s El Teatro Campesino, founded by the legendary Luís Valdez and born in the grape boycotts and agitprop of the 1960s.

The Christmas show (which alternates with La Virgen del Tepeyac) has graced the great San Juan Bautista mission, founded in 1797 (and best known as the setting of Hitchcock’s Vertigo) … until now.

As Valdez explains, “We began performing La Pastorela in the streets of San Juan Bautista in 1977. The cold winter nights had always put our audience and actors through an ordeal, but the steady rain of December 1980 finally washed us out completely.” Miraculously, it seemed to them, the Old Basilica welcomed them, allowing the shepherds to come inside. After nearly half a century, that arrangement came to an end.

I looked at the website a week ago and realized there had been a switcheroo: as of this year, the show will be performed in a nearby playhouse on Fourth Street. I briefly wondered if we could get a refund. After all, the big draw was seeing a centuries-old play in the centuries-old mission, with its heavy dark-wood pews, stucco walls, and  saints-in-niches. I had my doubts: the playhouse is less than half the size, a theater in the round (or rather polygon) with effects amplified by several screens.

Luís Valdez: the father of Chicano theater

I read in the program that, with this move, El Teatro Campesino was returning to the cradle that gave them birth: a humble packing-shed playhouse, “with all the creativity, vibrancy and cariño that our 54 year old El Teatro Campesino family can provide,” according to Valdez, in “a gesture of spirit, tradition, and faith by and for our community.”

Briefly, the story of La Pastorela: a group of pilgrims are en route to visit the Baby Jesus at Belém (a.k.a. Bethlehem), but are diverted and rerouted by a group of devils, eventually finding themselves caught in a  titanic battle between good and evil, Lucifer and San Miguel.

The drama has been entirely reimagined and restaged for its new setting, under the imaginative direction of Kinan Valdez. The play packs a bigger punch in the smaller space. The singing, dancing, and fighting almost bursts through the walls. San Miguel and his angels – a spray of white feathers for wings on their shoulders to show their celestial affiliation – were outfitted in military uniforms and Che Guevara style berets to fight for the forces of heaven. At the ultimate match-up they wrestle down Lucifer with … doves. That’s right, white feather doves like the kind you see on Christmas trees, only about the size of an arm.

Lucifer and sidekick (Photo: Robert Eliason)

San Miguel has usually been cast as a woman (Linda Ronstadt for the Masterpiece Theater production years ago; Primavera Cabibi for this one). But two of roles have had sex changes: the role of Bartolo has become Bartola (Sylvia Gonzalez), the mother rather than the father of the high-spirited and accomplished Gila (Xochitl Rios-Ellis). However, the most daring change was that Lucifer has become Luzbel – Jessica Osegueda as the demonic generalissimo gives a bravura performance that rocked the theater and stole the show.

Something magical began to happen early in the performance: at the appearance of the devils,  one small child began wailing and had to be removed. More events followed. I tried to exercise charity as the tall mother in front of me was constantly leaning over to whisper to her daughter; each hissing remark blocked the stage as effectively as a curtain fall. Then I looked around, and realized that mothers throughout the theater were whispering to children – that, in fact, there was a steady undertow of whispering. The children were whispering because they were engaged, they wanted answers, the wanted to know more about what they were seeing. (The girl with our small party even wanted to join the child actors who were the mini-devils.)

This is what theater is supposed to do but so rarely does, especially for kids who haven’t been much exposed to it. Open worlds. Shift points of view. Expand possibilities. Change lives. Invite engagement. Enchant. And for the children in the theater that day, it hooks them into theater, stories, myths, melodies, Latino culture – impressing on them the foundations of our civilization. If future shows are as good, I would suggest that whole truckfuls of children be carted to future Pastorelas. This one ended far too soon. We attended the very last sold-out performance on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Stanford inventor Ge Wang goes to the movies: a review of “Cats” in 11 tweets. “It’s awful and awesome!”

December 23rd, 2019

It’s not exactly haiku, but Twitter is kind of a cyberspace equivalent. Stanford inventor Ge Wang (we’ve written about him here and here), has gone to see the new film of Andrew Lloyd Weber‘s Cats (based on T.S. Eliot‘s poems) so we won’t have to. His review in 11 tweets is more nuanced than you might expect, however. He says the experience is … well, rather like a cat.

For those who don’t know Ge Wang already (and please, it’s pronounced with a hard “g” – G’wang – not hard), the Stanford professor has created the Stanford Laptop Orchestra as well as the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra. He is the designer of the Ocarina and Magic Piano iPhone apps. He is the author of Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime (A MusiComic Manifesto), a book on design and technology, art and life, created entirely in the format of a photo comic book and published by Stanford University Press.

Now, for the review… As Shakespeare wrote, “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.”

A postscript from Ge Wang: “I never expected so many reactions — this movie is really bringing it out in people. For me I still don’t know if I am desperately trying to save people from it or lobbying people to see it. The answer, I think, is not somewhere in between, but both.”

The astonishing productivity of Roberto Bolaño: he knew that the clock was running out fast

December 20th, 2019

Ann Kjellberg‘s The Book Post is sharing some of its subscriber material as a special Christmas present for all of us. Here’s an excerpt from one, by novelist Àlvaro Enrigue, on the astonishing productivity of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) whose works are still being discovered, uncovered, with no end in sight.

It begins:

Not long after the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño died unexpectedly of kidney failure in 2003—an illness only he and his close relatives and friends knew about—his editor, the legendary Catalonian publisher Jorge Herralde, made public that the author had left in his custody five finished interlinked novels as a sort of life insurance for his child. Those novels became the monumental volume, published as 2666, that cemented his international recognition as the alpha writer of Latin America—even if this recognition arrived only as a literary afterlife. As the years went by, it emerged that those were not the only works he had left unpublished. Nine posthumous books later—some still missing from English—I wonder if we are any closer to seeing Roberto Bolaño’s computer drive run dry. Considering the literary quality of The Spirit of Science Fiction, now coming to American bookstores, it seems we are still far from the moment when Bolaño’s emails and grocery lists hit the market. …

The Mexican writer Juan Villoro, who was close friends with Bolaño, has written about the delirious and very late phone calls he received when they were both living in Catalonia: Bolaño would report, to Villoro’s disbelief, on having spent the night writing another novel. Bolaño knew that his clock was counting down faster than the others’, and he wrote with the same rush and desperation with which his characters experience their youth.

Read the rest here. The Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your inbox. As a subscriber you can read the full archive at And subscribe to the Book Post here. Meanwhile, some available offerings during the holiday season:

• Joy Williams on Meister Eckhart
• John Banville on Robert Macfarlane
• Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood
• Calvin Baker on David Blight
• April Bernard on Dreyer’s English
• Geoffrey O’Brien on Marvin Gaye
• Robert Cottrell on John McPhee
• Elaine Blair on Sally Rooney
• Padgett Powell on William Trevor
• Your humble editor on Susan Sontag



Dana Gioia on the late Scott Timberg: a bitter symbol for those who have been marginalized by our “creative culture.”

December 16th, 2019

A society-assisted suicide. He leaves behind a wife and son.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a long piece on gifted cultural journalist Scott Timberg, who killed himself last week. He was 50. I wrote about it here, and my supposition was correct. He was killed by the “gig economy” he deplored in his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life.

The LARB piece ends with a range of tributes, one of them from from a close friend, Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts:

I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.

Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.

Dana Gioia: “something wrong with our culture”

In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LALos Angeles Times, and Salon.

Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate.  His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.

Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.

Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.

In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript from Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, on his Facebook page (we also quoted him in our earlier post here):

Los Angeles Review of Books has published a collection of heartfelt tributes (from me and 18 others, including my brother Dana) to our friend Scott Timberg, a brilliant arts & culture journalist who took his own life last week, leaving behind his wife Sara and 13-year-old son Ian.

I feel compelled to add a few more comments here—because Scott seemed like surrogate member of my family at times, and his passing has left such a mark on me (as it has on so many others—I note that around 600 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign for his family).

When someone you know commits suicide, the first reaction is disbelief. More than almost any other human act, suicide resists attempts to find meaning in it. Even so, in this case a kind of larger significance has been attached to Scott’s death by many who knew him well—and it started happening almost within hours of his passing. To many of us, his death seemed to have uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of the many people who have lost their bearings in the “culture business”—a group that, for Scott, included everyone from artists and arts journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the indie bookstore.

Scott had lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. As an outsider, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, smart and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.

He increasingly focused his attention on others like himself who had been squeezed and displaced in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press.

A different person with Scott’s talents would have reinvented himself in a different career or setting. But Scott loved journalism—he believed it was the highest possible profession, almost a kind of priesthood—and he loved Los Angeles too. He loved them too much perhaps. It may seem like a gross simplification to say that losing his position at the L.A. Times caused his death, but there’s some truth in that. I believe he would still be alive today if he had been able to do the work he was destined to pursue in his adopted hometown.

The narrative that has emerged in the last few days presents Scott as a martyr to the cause he chronicled in his writing. From this perspective, he is the patron saint of the suffering culture professional in the gig economy—and his own death has turned into a commentary on his life. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a tragedy that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.

More to the point, it gives some small circumference of meaning to something otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and death. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in this way. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as potent symbol for the compassion owed to those squeezed by the shift in our culture, would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it gives me some consolation.

<<< Previous Series of PostssepNext Series of Posts >>>