Posts Tagged ‘Frank Wilson’

Were the 1950s really that bad?

Friday, November 21st, 2014
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eisenhowerThe 1950s have taken a bum rap for years. You remember the 1950s: women were locked in their houses and forced to bake apple crumble and change diapers while men took their hats and briefcases to the office. Everyone was repressed, and unable to express their Innermost Selves. No one had any fun at all.

People forget how close the West came to losing it all. Had Hitler avoided a few military blunders, we might all be speaking German right now. Believe it or not, many men and women were happy to beat their swords into ploughshares and devote themselves to the virtues of peace. Being a riveter, though doubtless empowering, was not that much of a career enhancer. For kids, especially, it wasn’t a half-bad era. You had a pretty good chance of growing up in an intact home with the same parents, and children could walk to school safely and attend classes without gunfire. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost were still alive and writing poems, and the Partisan Review was in its prime. Was it that much worse than the 1930s, the 1910s?

Two recent reviews over at Books Inq seem to reinforce my sense that the era has been much maligned. The book at hand is Paul Johnson‘s Eisenhower: A Life  – a biography that’s 134 pages long, including the index. The Times Literary Supplement review said of Johnson: “His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together.”

My colleague Frank Wilson reviewed the book here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success – five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

“Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson’s book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

“A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly ‘a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike’s fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent. …’

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep

Maybe not such a loser, after all.

“Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. ‘He seems to have found it convenient and useful,’ Johnson writes, ‘for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself.’

“So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: ‘Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why.’ Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above. … One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower’s eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.”

Another one here by reviewer John Derbyshire, who seems to have suffered a sort of crush on the biographer once:

“In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower. He wrote:

Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.

bruce-cole

The real Bruce Cole

“The goal of political leadership is to secure for one’s country, so far as circumstances will allow, the things that most ordinary citizens wish for: prosperity and peace.

“On that score, Ike did superbly well. America’s 1950s prosperity glows golden in the memory of us who witnessed it, if only from afar. Peace? Paul Johnson draws a withering comparison between Ike’s masterly 1958 deployment to Lebanon—’the only American military operation abroad that Ike initiated in the whole of his eight years at the White House’—and the Bay of Pigs misadventure of the vain, shallow John F. Kennedy in the following administration.

“Discounting as best I can my partiality to P.J.’s prose, I’m convinced:  This was our best modern President.”

Postscript on 11/24:  Another country heard from! Not everyone agrees with the resurrection of Ike – below, Nevada blogger Bruce Cole elaborates on the comments he made Saturday. (Coincidentally, a Bruce Cole is a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission – this is not the same guy.) Colleague Bruce, who blogs over at A Citizen Paying Attention, disagrees with the reviews about Ike – but he concurs about the silliness of lumping cultural trends into decades – and don’t get me going on how much of the 1960s happened in the 1970s. Here’s the important part: he tells me he shares my enthusiasm for Czesław Miłosz.

Cynthia has been kind enough to ask me to elaborate a little on my hasty early Saturday morning comments about Eisenhower and the 1950s (two subjects, though they overlap).

dwight-eisenhower

Maybe not so hot after all.

First, I mentioned John Lukacs‘ review of several books about Ike. The review ran in Harper’s in 2002 and was collected in the anthology of his writings, which I cited. He makes several points about the (again, two) subjects of Cynthia’s original post. Many of the characteristics of the 1960s (or things we associate so easily with that decade, or things we bemoan as happening since the Good Old Days) began in the 50s: the decline in our manufacturing and our savings, the deterioration of our cities, the net outflow of gold from the United States, the increasing problems of our public education system, the demotion of jazz as our most popular music, the “sexual revolution,” etc. The point is not that these were the fruits of Eisenhower’s presidency. Rather, they remind us not to indulge in a false nostalgia about an arbitrary set of years (a nostalgia whose mirror image is, of course, the 50s as staid, awful, and repressive).

Now, about Ike. Eisenhower (who, as a general in 1945, telegraphed Marshall Zhukov assuring him that the Americans wouldn’t reach Berlin before the Russians) came into office with talk about rolling back Communism, as opposed to the “cowardly containment” (Nixon’s words) of Truman. I am hard put to see where this ever happened. We did watch as Hungary (having been covertly encouraged by us) got tromped on in 1956. Lukacs has written often, and persuasively, about the chances in the years just prior to this when the West could have taken advantage of relative Soviet weakness to negotiate some kind of genuine rolling back of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe (Churchill, no softy, kept urging this course on Eisenhower). Even then, they removed themselves from Austria, forsook a naval base in Finland, recognized West Germany, etc.

All of that is as may be. Ike did not keep the “military-industrial complex under control.” The defense budget tripled throughout the fifties. Our military presence expanded all over the globe, including places where there was little or no Soviet threat. He fortunately did not intervene in Indo-China in 1954, but then there was little chance the US would. The Lebanon incursion in 1958 was an absurdity. The Korean truce of 1953 established what had been the status quo for about two years (nothing wrong with that, but it was no great accomplishment). Finally, there is that Bay of Pigs thing – all pre-packaged by Ike and the CIA for his successor, complete with “intelligence” assurances that a popular uprising against Castro would take place. So, “vain, shallow” JFK followed suit. Hmm, is there any reason to believe Richard Nixon would have fared better? No.

Eisenhower5

He’s happy with the reviews, anyway.

Then there is McCarthy. Ike did not work McCarthy’s destruction, but kept silent while various Senators in both parties prepared censure in the Senate. It also should never be forgotten how Ike kept silent while McCarthy repeatedly slandered Ike’s patron, General Marshall.

Much of the above I owe to Lukacs’ analysis (which I again urge everyone to read) with a few embellishments of my own and no apologies from me at that score! Let me add something, though, on our two, inter-related subjects.

The origins of Eisenhower’s rehabilitation go back, in no small measure, to an article Murray Kempton wrote in the 1960s (!) for Esquire with a title something like “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” (Kempton was a great journalist, but when he went off the beam, look out!) The arguments were repeated by Garry Wills a few years later in an otherwise perceptive book, Nixon Agonistes. I think this was, in part, the reaction to “Camelot,” which spawned, of course, a multitude of anti-Camelots. We have a difficult time taking our presidents plain, anyway, and the contrast of the two in terms of age and “glamour” with LBJ following them, and Vietnam thrown into the mix, made it well-nigh impossible.

That leads me to the other subject (which actually I am more interested in). I, too, despise, “decade-talk.” Of course, the 50s were not simply the Age of Conformity and Repression. But notice how the nostalgia some people express for that time merely turns that idea inside out. I think this is the nub of the matter. So many of our debates occur between people who agree on terms and wouldn’t know a tertium quid if it hit them full in the face. That is why our “culture wars” have such staying power. Beyond the real issues, it is easy to sign up for a Line, a set of attitudes, a collection of loves and hates. Which, finally, is why the “bad” 50s will never go away as a cliché – but it is hardly alone in that.

Jacques Barzun: “I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012
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He avoided the political fray. (Photo: Harper Collins)

Jacques Barzun died two weeks ago, on October 25, at age 104.  I’m only starting to think about it.  The New York Times described him as “the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence…”

“Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.” He published his “most ambitious and encyclopedic work” at 92.

Barzun largely created the field of cultural history, which his biographer Michael Murray describes as “an all-inclusive synthesis: not only kings, battles, laws, and statistics, but also habits, beliefs, influences, and tendencies, in art and literature, manners, morals, science, and religion, and the social setting in which these were found.”

Murray’s comments about Barzun arouse my envy.  He writes: “it is hard not to be dazzled by a man who, during a four-week period in 1953, read and reviewed André Malraux’s Voices of Silence and The Letters of Franz Liszt, edited the galley proofs of his book God’s Country and Mine, adapted them into articles for the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, gave speeches on campus and at a Partisan Review banquet, reworked four lectures for publication, and offered a broadcast on WNYC. All this, mind you, apart from his teaching and dissertation duties.”  Ah well, as Barzun himself wrote in The House of Intellect (1959): “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.”

Now here’s the reason I’m going over all this.  Like many Americans, I found this year’s elections a dispiriting process.  I find the slagging matches between sides depressing, the gloating and the defensive justifications wearying, and the whole reduction of complicated thoughts and reactions into political labels outdated and simplistic.  So Frank Wilson of Books Inq sent me this quote from Barzun:

“In short, the market – like the state, like any institution – has its limitations, as severe as the state’s. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.

“I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up.”

Common sense, as Voltaire observed, is not so common.

Christopher

Postscript on 11/9:  What fun!  The recipient of the letter quoted above has come forward in the comment section below.  Christopher Faille, an author and a contributor to Forbes,  has lots more on his website, Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed – more excerpts from their correspondence here, and a consideration of Barzun’s affinities with William James is here.  “I’m trying to do some curatorial work, getting my letters from this great man into proper order with a commentary giving context. I believe Columbia University archives are the proper ultimate destination for the material,” he writes. Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher!

 

Brodsky, Miłosz, Wilson, and me on “a big problem”

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
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A few stable points

Over at When Falls the Coliseum, columnist Frank Wilson‘s latest column, “We Need Techniques, Not Rules,” riffs on a few lines from my introduction to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

I wrote:

When I interviewed him at his legendary Grizzly Peak home a decade ago, I asked him about “être” and “devenir.” He dodged the question: “My goodness. A big problem,” he said.

After some hesitation, however, he elaborated.: “We are in a flux, of change. We live in the world of devenir. We look at the world of être with nostalgia. The world of essences is the world of the Middle Ages, of Thomas Aquinas. In my opinion, it is deadly to be completely dissolved in movement, in becoming. You have to have some basis in being.”

“In general, the whole philosophy of the present moment is post-Nietzsche, the complete undoing of essences, of eternal truths. Postmodernism consists in denying any attempt at truth.”

Frank’s take on this is somewhat different than my own – read his thoughts here.

For my money, “être” is simply what we are, apart from fashions and superficial imitations. What T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world” can be a cop-out from the obligations imposed on us by choices, by the past and future. I like the simplicity and lack of wriggle room in Miłosz’s hallmarks:  ”être” is characterized by a respect for a hierarchy that exists outside of time, and hearkens to a few stable points in history.  Miłosz used, for example, Joseph Brodsky‘s annual Christmas poem as the poet’s fixity, loyalty, and “respect for some stable points.”  (I reviewed the posthumous volume of Nativity Poems here.) 

Miłosz’s whole oeuvre is, from one angle, about precisely that, about “être.”

True confessions:  Miłosz referred to “être” and “devenir.” But I could very well have used the alternate term he used, and perhaps used more frequently, esse, a word that retains all its Thomist resonances. The editor in me got persnickety about pairing French with Latin, but I wonder if he would have preferred the Latin term.

Oh well.  Time to demur.  As I wrote: “Then he retreated to his initial reservations: ‘In truth, I am afraid of discussing this subject. The subject needs extreme precision. In conversation, it’s not possible.’” Miłosz would have responded, of course, with a poem.

(My 2000 interview with the Nobel laureate was published in the Georgia Review here.)

Postscript on 9/14:  Hey!  A nice review in Choice here.  Excerpt:

The umbilicus of recollections delivers the poet to posterity. This collection is a must for everyone aspiring to know Miłosz and his work. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

Newspapers, advertisers, and book reviews – cont.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
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A few days ago, I posted about “The future of book reviewing and one cranky man.”

I wrote about the absurdity of newspapers expecting book review sections to be supported by advertising from the strapped book industry:  “Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.”

In the comments section, medievalist Jeff Sypeck asked:

Is there a reason newspaper executives have behaved as if the ads in a book-review section could only be for books and publishers and similar literary/cultural products? Is it a lack of demographic info about book buyers for the ad sales people to tout? The unwillingness of, say, tire manufacturers to advertise alongside reviews of novels? A belief that the book section ought to be free of commercialism? Mere tradition or habit?

Good question.

Frank Wilson at Books Inq. explained the simple demographics of newspaper advertising succinctly: “the point is that a book section would attract more readers to a newspaper – even a lot of people who watch baseball read – and the more readers you have, the more advertisers you get.”

Not a reader anyway

Literary people read lots of things besides great literature and book reviews – they’re more likely to read newspapers in general.  As Jeff has pointed out before, that’s a much better bet than trying to get stoners to read.  Said Frank:

Newspapers flap their wings hoping to attract young readers by reviewing pop music, but those (theoretical) young reader don’t care what newspapers think about what they’re listening to. I certainly didn’t care that the local pop music reviewers thought little of Elvis when I was in high school. I also wouldn’t have cared if they’d thought the world of him.

But the experience of listening to music is fundamentally different from the experience of reading. Readers want to know what others have to say about what they have read. It’s an extension of the reading experience. Reading about the music you have heard is not an extension of the listening experience.

Maybe if more newspaper executives did some reading of their own, they would understand.

More comments followed. Jeff again:

Your last point reminds me of how for more than 15 years, the Washington Post has been trying to lure young people with reviews of video games and hip-hop concerts, apparently misunderstanding how many outlets are already devoted to discussing those subjects with greater affection and thoroughness. Time has shown them to be unlikely and unsuccessful ways to lure new readers to old media.

More comments at Books, Inq. here.
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The most beautiful words in the English language. And the nominations are…

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
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For Frank in Philly.

“I’ve always been fond of lavender,” said Frank Wilson of Books Inq.  That was his nomination for the most beautiful word in the English language.  (Earlier nominations here.)

Others chimed in on my Facebook page:

Agustín Maes voted for murmur, also, florid.

Artur Sebastian Rosman was full of ideas:  noctilucent, donut, iris.  Donut? Doesn’t he mean doughnuts, at least?  (Artur, get something to eat.)  He also favored  “TSE words like chthonic.”  TSE is T.S. Eliot – of haruspicate fame (which always sounds like a man clearing his throat, not prophesying). “Filiation is also a lovely word,” Artur added.

“My favorite word of all time and by far the liveliest in any language is…. vivificantem.“  Well, as he noticed, that’s not really English; it’s Latin.  So it shouldn’t count.

Marianne Bacon quarreled with Deshoda, the blog that started the contest:  “I think that list on Deshoda (whatever that is) is a bit silly. How about Chestertonian words, or Jack Lewis words- like woodsmoke, or pipe, or fireplace, or snow, or Christmas, or pudding, or child. Or elf, or lamppost, or courage.”  But the contest isn’t for words with pleasant context or associations, but beautiful sounds.   “OK, inglenook.”  I thought, at first she meant the wine – but no, inglenook is “a chimney corner, is a small recess that adjoins a fireplace.”

Jim Erwin wrote: “prestidigitation and Terpsichore are good examples of fingerpoia and feetpoia.”  Wait a minute, he made those last two up.

Daniel Rifenburgh made half a nomination – Sussurus

From Edward Haven yielded to my entreaties: “I’ve started to like Giraffe, but I have to agree nothing compares to authenticity.”  A son after my own heart.

What?

Erën Goknar is “SO glad you mentioned the much-maligned [Edgar Allan] Poe and his bells!”

Finally, Sarang in my comments section offered “a little stream-of-consciousness: myrtle [in my fancy a portmanteau of myrrh, squirt, and turtle], scavenger, flounder, interred, fever, recalcitrant, splay, stray, splatter, vespers, pageant, expunge, effulgent, excrescence, gun, cleave, hew.”

Jeff Sypeck favored shorter-is-better:

My first impulse is to go with big, fun-to-say words like tatterdemalion, but I don’t think many of our little Anglo-Saxon words get enough credit for euphony: Read. Comb. Sleep. Yore. Soft little words can be beautiful, too!

Postscript on 7/15: A few more suggestions –

Joe Loya: Efficacious; ventriloquy; or supple. I love the way they look, sound, and their flexibility in application.

Another one from Artur Sebastian Rosman: Reconciliation is overused and under-practiced, but what a beautiful word.

And a few late nominees from Patrick Kurp incarnadine, philtrum, wan, atrorubent, flange .

More on “taking responsibility” and other hackneyed phrases

Monday, June 13th, 2011
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(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

(Image adapted from the Tumblr this isn't happiness, via ffffound)

My call to arms a few days ago (“Orwell watch #9:  ‘I take full responsibility for...’”) was picked up by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beasthere.  The passage he highlights:

I suspect the phrase “take responsibility for” is actually a journalists’ invention, and people like Weiner picked it up from the media, rather than his heartfelt intentions. As George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language,” this one could be “killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” I call out to journalists everywhere to jeer this phrase out of existence – unless it really means taking responsibility, the way I “took responsibility” for, say, raising a child, by paying for her upbringing, nursing her through illness,  attending back-to-school days, and preparing dinner every night.

Sure would be nice if we could we could drive this phrase into late-night comedy, wouldn’t it?  This expression has been due for the slaughterhouse since the IRA mayhem in the 1960s, and has made its small contribution to dulling our sense that words have meaning, and are meant to convey our feelings, thoughts, and intentions – not conceal them.

Language fails

Meanwhile, the post generated some interesting conversation over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq. I was singled out, rightly, for a little criticism from Art Durkee:  “Calling [Osama] bin Laden‘s death ‘liquidation’ is also pretty Orwellian, it seems to me. Let’s call a spade a spade: it was a retaliatory political assassination.  But then, a great deal of political euphemism is and always has been Orwellian.”

Liquidation is indeed a strange term – did he dissolve into water? “Liquidation” sounds like the final sale at a failing bookstore, anyway. A colleague corrected me when I said “murder,” arguing that murder was a legal term, calling for the prosecution of the murderer.  One is at a loss – what neutral term can one say nowadays? Osama bin Laden’s “offing”?

Art’s p.o.v.:

“I don’t think there is a neutral term. I think you have to call an assassination what it is.

I think we have to be honest when murder is murder, and not whitewash it. (The best argument, for example, that I’ve heard against the death penalty is that it means that murder is criminalized for anyone to commit except the state.) Similarly, assassination needs to be called what it is, and acknowledged as the political tool it has always been, sanctioned or otherwise.

History may show if this particular sanctioned assassination (sometimes called a ‘sanction,’ or ‘termination with extreme prejudice’) was the right and good thing to do. Lots of people are claiming that already, but they’re also ignoring what making someone into a martyr can do. It’s a tricky call, and those who set policy ought to lose sleep over it.

But that’s the whole pattern that Orwell pointed out, isn’t it: the neutralization of language into mechanical, denatured, unemotional, technical terminology that allows one to deal with humans as dehumanized. Turn people into inhuman statistics, and you can sleep at night when you talk about ‘collateral damage,’ or ‘friendly fire,’ for example. Do that kind of neutralization of language enough, and you dehumanize yourself as well, Orwell warned.”

And so did Mark Twain, in ‘The Way Prayer.’”

Thoughts?

You see? Just like I said… Nicholas Carr thinks so, too.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
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We're still stupid, he says

“I think as a society we’re choosing information overload: we’re choosing to sacrifice the more meditative and contemplative aspects of our minds.”

I wrote on just this subject a few days ago, in a post entitled “Are We ‘Outsourcing Our Brains to the Cloud?’” – then I ran across the latest from technology writer Nicholas Carr, who appears to agree, as shown in his comment above.  His latest book, The Shallows, discusses what he fears the Internet is doing to our brains.  It’s sold 50K hardbacks in the U.S. alone – that’s real books, with paper pages.

Carr, the blogger behind Rough Type and the author of the controversial Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” got his first PC back in the 1980s and was an avid net user until “a few years ago, I noticed some disturbing changes in the way my mind worked. I was losing the ability to concentrate.”  According to the AFP article:

While the Internet has enormous benefits in delivering incredible amounts of information at incredible speed, it’s also a distracting and interruption-rich environment.

Carr said it encourages quick shifts in focus – and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Carr concluded, “We take in so much information so quickly that we are in a constant state of cognitive overload.”  He added that “multitasking erodes cognitive control. We lose our ability to say that this is important, this is unimportant. All we want is new information.”  However, when we open a real book with real pages, “there’s nothing else going on except words on a page, no distractions. It helps train us to be deep thinkers.”

Over at Books Inq., my previous column generated a few comments. Frank Wilson hoped we could find a sort of middle way:  “I think the problem is real, at least potentially. I just think we may be making too much of it. I have noticed, now that I have returned to work, that my memory is sharper for some reason. I think may be we just have to make some time to do things the old-fashioned way, things like memorizing poems. The way we still make bread, though we can buy it at the store.”

I hoped so, too.  But so far, Carr hasn’t had much success:

Carr admitted he himself has not had great success in limiting the time he spends online. But the biggest change he made as a writer and researcher was to use the web only to track down source material.

“Then I’d make an effort to actually read those things in print. I did find that made a big difference in my ability to be attentive and a thorough reader and hopefully a deeper thinker.”

But Carr said it was not just a matter of individual choice. If friends, colleagues and employers were constantly on line, “then you feel in many ways compelled to do so even if you don’t want to, because you don’t want to damage your career or your social life”.

Are we “outsourcing our brains to the cloud?” asks Bill Keller.

Saturday, May 28th, 2011
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Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, recently let his 13-year-old daughter join Facebook – my goodness, how had he stopped her before then?  Within a few hours she had over 170 friends, “and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth,” he admits.

This launches him on a meditation of our times. The column appeared last week, but in my travels I hadn’t gotten a chance to post a few words about it – nor have I had time to read all the comments, many of which are nuanced and excellent. It’s worth a look if you missed it.

Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. put this under the heading “More Complaining,” but I’m not so sure that’s the whole story.  I’ve made the same lament, and it’s not simply a curmudgeon criticizing the kids of today – I’ve noticed my own inability to concentrate without an every-five-minute squirt of dopamine from Twitter or Facebook … and yet, and yet, how else would I have met Arthur Sebastian Rosman, had not someone suggested our introduction on Facebook? (Actually, he had translated one of the essays in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, but he was just a name at the bottom of the page, back then.) I keep up with family, friends, and colleagues on Facebook, just as I rely on various news aggregators for news, and blogs for off-the-beaten track news.  Moreover, I’ve downloaded Henry IV, Part 2 onto my new Droid.

Yet I find it harder and harder to memorize a short poem.  Heavens, I find it harder and harder to read a short poem.  I find it harder and harder to get into that slow, reflective space where I can think long thoughts.  Keller writes:

As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite Middlemarch. But [Joshua Foer’s  Moonwalking With Einstein] reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.

He concludes:

Basically, we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud. The upside is that this frees a lot of gray matter for important pursuits like FarmVille and “Real Housewives.” But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on nytimes.com, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

The irony, the irony … I found the column because of an online news aggregator, and I read it on an Apple screen.  Now I am blogging about it.

OK, Frank. Call me grumpy.

(I’ll be in a literal cloud in 12 hours, back to the U.S.A.,  after spending a lot of zlotys and a lot of time getting 20 pounds of books from my travels into the Polish mail today.)

Postscript on June 3:  By now everyone knows that Bill Keller has stepped down as executive editor.  Apparently, NYT staffers had to intervene in his hate-hate relationship with Arianna Huffington and the new social media.  Could that be part of the reason why?

Bad book reviews = great sales?

Sunday, February 27th, 2011
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The conventional wisdom in the book biz has always been that any publicity is good publicity — and a spectacular, jeered-at failure is a better option than a quiet, well-respected success reviewed only in the Journals That Count.  Even more so now, when the biggest risk is that your book will float away in the receding tsunami of seasonal offerings.

This Stanford study by two business professors confirms the conventional wisdom — to a point.  Bad reviews can dramatically boost sales for obscure and up-and-coming writers.  They don’t help the famous.

“Any publicity is not always good publicity, as the old adage goes,” Wharton’s Jonah Berger told the Stanford Daily. “But there were also cases where even negative publicity seemed to help sales, so it was interesting to think about when it helps versus hurts.”

The study,  co-authored by Berger and Stanford’s Alan Sorenson, first examined a 2001-2003 dataset of weekly national sales for 244 fiction titles reviewed by The New York Times. The size of sale spikes in the week following the release of each book review showed that positive publicity benefited all titles and the bad publicity only helped lesser-known and obscure authors.

The second part of the study looked at how bad publicity impacted well-known and obscure books over time. Subjects looked at glowing and nasty reviews for a well-known book by John Grisham and then reviews for an invented title.

Those who read bad reviews of well-known books were less likely to buy the book. Negative reviews of unknown books, however, did not affect whether or not the subject was likely to purchase it.

“Let’s say you’ve got bad publicity or bad press on one of your new brands,” Stanford business professor Baba Shiv said. “On one hand, it’s making your brand look familiar, which is associated with positive emotion and at the same time, it’s eliciting negative emotion towards the brand, which comes from the bad publicity.”

As mediabistro explained:

The studies depended on emotional “decay rate”– how quickly an emotion (both good or bad) fades away. Stanford business professor Baba Shiv explained: “In the case of a well-known brand, the familiarity is already there … the decay rate of negative emotion will be much slower.” (Via Sarah Weinman)

The key point was that familiarity with the authors helped everyone, and familiarity was such a strong positive that it dissipated much more slowly in consumers’ minds than the bad taste of a critic’s diss.  But the well-known books and authors already had the boost of familiarity — so the bad reviews could only hurt.

Read it here if you want to figure it out better than I have.

Of course, I wonder who is classifying a review is good or bad — most are kind of mixed, aren’t they?  And for myself, I’d much rather read a interesting failure — a profound book that failed in some key way, than a very well-reviewed lightweight book.  And name recognition is measured … how?

For another take on reviewing, read about Owl Criticism (hat tip, Frank Wilson).  Charles Baxter takes on amazon-type online reviews, accusing them of “Owl Criticism”: “With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’”

Frank’s reaction to Baxter is worth reading, too:  it’s here.

Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally!

Saturday, February 12th, 2011
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Working for peanuts

For writers, the subject of remuneration for our humble services is always a subject of endless fascination, at least for us.  So I was naturally intrigued by an interesting article in on the McSweeney’s website, written by a young colleague.

The article reminds me of what a great career I might have made by, say, becoming an airline stewardess.  Or perhaps an insurance actuary.  Or even an aromatherapist.  The upshot:  writers don’t make much money.  As the article reminds us, “never have, never will.”

The statistics it cites make me wonder:  Do the numbers mean anything?  And who collects these little suckers anyway?

The witness in the dock appears to be the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And they get their numbers … where?  Nobody talked to me.  One obvious source might be IRS reports.  But the professional identifications on the IRS forms are not supported by anyone else:  for example, are there any penalties for identifying yourself as a writer on your IRS form if 75 percent of your income in fact comes from waitressing tips?  And does the bureau’s statistics for writers include, say, advertising copywriters?  Does the category for authors include faculty members, who constitute a substantial percentage of today’s authors, yet are likely to list their profession as “professor” rather than author?  In any case “authors and writers” are not interchangeable – many writers are not authors, and vice versa (cookbook authors, for one).

According to the bureau, as of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.  That makes us less than one out of a million.  I can’t believe that.  I, personally, believe I know more than 185,276 writers.  Look at my Facebook page.

Here’s another reason why I question what the bureau’s numbers:

In May 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for authors and writers had risen to $53,900, up $3,100 from the medium income average for the past decade. In 2008, 70 percent of writers and authors were self-employed and in 2009, the upper quartile of writers earned $75,740 or more.

But technical writers might be making a whole lot more than this; a starving poet considerably less.  For every Dan Brown there’s a hundred self-published authors writing on their lunch breaks at Costco.  Again, who calls themselves a writer?  Who an author?

Moreover, many, many writers are supported by a spouse or a family income.  A low level of income may not reflect their penury, but rather that they have the freedom to write what they please on their own timing.

The Census Bureau also has  some dismaying news:  it estimates the number of writers and authors will increase by 20,000 by 2018.  With reservations, I concur with Nicolás Gómez Dávila that “literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes.”

In any case, when everyone writes, no one will make any money doing it. Tim Rutten has already panicked about the influence of the HuffPo/AOL acquisition and the effect that “the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.” As Frank Wilson writes over at Books Inc., what we really need are plumbers.  Really.

As for John Milton’s famous £5 for the first edition of Paradise Lost, I remember that there’s a story behind that.  Can’t recall what it is.  Martin Evans told me, and perhaps I will check back with him.

In any case, check out the intriguing article at McSweeney’s here.