Posts Tagged ‘Books Inq.’

First the Book Haven — then the world. The Huck Finn “n-word” ignites the nation.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

A classic: "a book which people praise and don't read."

Well, well, well.  We don’t like to brag … not much, anyway … but the whole world seems to have picked up on the Huck Finn and the n-word story, which started here a few day ago, thanks to a reader tip.  (If you find a story prior to our Dec. 31 post, let us know. We’re curious.)  Another case of the power of the blog, even a relatively obscure one.  We’re not Huffington Post, after all.

We started it, Books Inq picked it up Jan. 2, Bookshelves of Doom carried it later in the same day … then Publisher’s Weekly ran a story yesterday, the Entertainment Weekly published an article here, which was deluged with over 1,000 comments.

Unsurprisingly, EW writes:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Actually, we used the word “Bowdlerization,” and think people are smart enough to know the origins of the word and the 19th century editor Thomas Bowdler who made Shakespeare “respectable” for the fainting couch crowd.

EW continues:

The original product is changed for the benefit of those who, for one reason or another, are not mature enough to handle it, but as long as it doesn’t affect the original, is there a problem?

Frank Wilson at Books Inq exploded at that one in a post titled “Dumb Reaction“:   “Well, the point is that it does affect the original. Something else from Wittgenstein: ‘One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all others in its own nasty way.'”

CNN picked up the EW story — and from there, the world.  From CNN:

Quote of the day: “What’s next? We take out the sexual innuendo from Shakespeare? Or make Lenny Small “normal”? How about cut all the violence out of Clockwork Orange? ” –AA

A pretty close paraphrase of what we said.

A couple more comments:

jujube said, “So it’s a children’s edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ Adults can and should still read the original. I don’t get the outrage.”

Bobby said, “So we take the ‘n’ word out of Huck Finn, but all of these rappers and hip hop stars still say it every other word, and that’s fine?”

Publishers Weekly actually went so far as to write the n-word, which occurs in Twain’s book 219 times.  It also noted that Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” This one may be different.  Its article also notes that the new edition dispenses with the “in-word” — that is to say, “Injun.”

Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said [NewSouth cofounder Suzanne] La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

We posted a reply from NewSouth this morning as a postscript on our original post.

By the way, Garrison Keillor wrote a reaction to the newly published Autobiography of Mark Twain in the New York Times a few weeks ago here: “Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain…”  Spoiler:  He didn’t like it much.

Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Thank you, George.

Last month, I jeered at the cliché “soaring rhetoric” (already on the wane by the time I whacked at it), challenged the liberals’ rebranding of themselves as “progressives,” and, to be an equal opportunity offender, in the comments section I questioned the right-wing highjacking of the meaningless, self-congratulatory term “values.”

It seems timely to launch the second installment of the Orwell Watch, in honor of George Orwell‘s immortal essay, “Politics and the English Language” — especially after Books Inq. alerted me to a blog post datelined from the odd little burg of Yeovil, a few miles from my own ancestral village outside Glastonbury.

While Orwell’s rule “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” should, like everything else, be used in moderation (in this sentence, for example), it’s a pretty good yardstick to measure the intent to obfuscate.  In this squalid murder case, reported by Theodore Dalyrimple, the prosecutor has pretty effectively distorted a straightforward narrative.  The prosecutor’s through-a-glass-darkly verbiage attempts to describe the murder of 38-year-old Glynn Rowlands, over some stolen gold.

For simplicity (Dalyrimple’s phrasing is rather ornate), the prosecutor’s words from the Western Gazette are italicized below.  The journalist’s queries are indented.

Ben [one of his co-accused] started tying up his [the victim’s] arms and legs. Steve [another of the co-accused] picked up a brick and let it go in his face.

Let it go in his face? Do bricks, then, fly spontaneously into people’s faces like poltergeists, unless diverted from their course? Why did the young man not write that Steve threw, or smashed, the brick into the man’s face?

Glynn Rowlands had fallen into an ugly dispute with [the accused].

By the force of what social (or antisocial) gravity does one “fall into” ugly disputes? Of course, it is possible that the accused picked a quarrel with the victim completely at random: some people behave like that, though it is unlikely in this case, and in fact the prosecutor did not believe it. But an ugly dispute? One does not fall into ugly disputes as into cunningly-disguised elephant-traps.

Retribution was required.

But required by whom or by what? By the laws of the universe? Clearly the prosecutor meant by the accused; but then why not say “The accused sought retribution”?

He was to tell good friends who went to see him in hospital the reality of how gold was missing…

How gold was missing? Did it go missing spontaneously, of its own accord and volition? … Or did someone take the gold? If so, why not say so? Why the passive construction? Since the prosecutor soon went on to say that Rowlands “returned nothing”, he clearly believed that Rowlands had stolen the gold. Why did he not say “Rowlands confessed to stealing the gold”?

It was to get worse …

What was to get worse? The situation, that presumably acted like a demiurge independent of how the participants in it acted? What the prosecutor meant was that the accused allegedly behaved more and more threateningly towards the victim until they actually killed him.

At 3.17 pm on Thursday, December 3, hours before Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life…

Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life? In a fit of carelessness, perhaps, in the way that I sometimes mislay my keys because I am preoccupied by something else? Or by the spontaneous development of a head injury and multiple fractures of the ribs, as some — including Dickens — once thought that people could die by spontaneous combustion? Someone, whether the accused or others, killed Glynn Rowlands.

Does it matter?  I think it does.  As Orwell points out, fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking. Here a brutal murder by brutal people has been treated as a sort of inevitability, like leaves falling in the autumn. Human agency has been blanketed by a soft carpet of moral snow.

Legal pomposity is commonplace, and the journalist reacted to it with understandable derision.  Still, some active, Anglo-Saxon verbs — “beat,” “hit,” “stab” and “kill” — would have gone some way to describing the reality of the wretched man who was kidnapped, bound, stripped naked, brutally assaulted and left dying in a cold and muddy on a remote country lane.

Postscript on 12/10:  Of course in my perambulations around the internet, I ran across a photo of Glynn Rowlands; it seemed exploitative to use it on a blog post that is essentially about the use of language. So I settled for a generic “Lady of Justice” image instead. On reflection, however, it seems wrong and indecent not to use it.

Lightning strikes back: Book wars and Bloodlands

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Is a critic ever being entirely “fair”?  Once my thoughts splash onto the printed page, I’ve agonized about whether the words that sounded so reasonable in my head would have been said to the author’s face.  On the other hand, when I’m being generous, I wonder if I’m doing the reader a disservice.  So I sat up straight when Jesse Freedman wrote over at Books Inq. last week:

“Readers of the LRB got a significant dose of honesty earlier this month when Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, offered a scathing review Timothy Snyder‘s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. …

“I have to say, I respect Evans for his review – not only because his arguments are well grounded, but because he fights the tendency among (a fair number of) reviewers to praise pretty much everything they are handed.”

Strong words indeed from Books Inq.  Bloodlands was discussed on The Book Haven a few weeks ago, along with Norman Naimark‘s Stalin’s Genocides.

In his review, “Who Remembers the Poles?” Evans begins:

‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Adolf Hitler asked his generals in 1939, as he told them to ‘close your hearts to pity,’ ‘act brutally’ and behave ‘with the greatest harshness’ in the coming war in the East. It’s often assumed that in reminding them of the genocide of at least a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War, Hitler was referring to what he intended to do to Europe’s Jews. But he was not referring to the Jews: he was referring to the Poles. ‘I have sent my Death’s Head units to the East,’ he told the generals, ‘with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the living space that we need.’”

Yet Evans castigates Snyder for failing to draw a clear enough distinction between the Holocaust and the concurrent genocides, distracting from what was unique:

“That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”

Snyder, he said, also fails to consider Hitler’s other victims sufficiently:

“Thus the eight million foreigners working in the Reich in the latter stages of the war were not all ‘from the East’ as Snyder claims – one and a quarter million of them were French, more than half a million were Italian, and nearly half a million were Belgian or Dutch. The killing of up to 200,000 mentally handicapped and sick Germans by Nazi doctors gets a brief paragraph; the hundreds of thousands of German and Western European Jews who were murdered are dismissed in a little more than a page; sites of mass murder that lie outside Snyder’s ‘bloodlands’ and where the killings were not perpetrated by the Nazis or the Soviets are dealt with in equally perfunctory fashion. The 300,000 Serbs slaughtered by the fascist regime in Croatia, the 380,000 Jews killed on the orders of the Romanian government, and further afield still, the tens of thousands of Spanish Republican prisoners executed by the Francoists and the hundreds of thousands more confined in brutal labour camps after the end of the Civil War, or the Gypsies killed in large numbers not just by the Germans but also by the Croatians and Romanians – all of these get barely a mention or no mention at all.”

Evans concludes:

“The fundamental reason for these omissions, and for the book’s failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn’t seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about. Assuming we know nothing about any of this, he bludgeons us with facts and figures about atrocities and mass murders until we’re reeling from it all.”

Reaction was swift and terrible in the Dec. 2 LRB.  Oxford’s Norman Davies makes the striking point that we are “emotionally conditioned” to observe the suffering of Hitler’s victims, not so quick when it comes to recognizing the victim’s of our ally, Jozef Stalin. Moreover, by emphasizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust, we fail to notice larger patterns in the concurrent genocides — a point akin to Naimark‘s contention in Stalin’s Genocides.  It is a point, Davies said, Snyder is better equipped than most historians to make.

But a reader in New York, Charles Coutinho, delivers the coup de grace:  “Richard Evans’s less than entirely positive review of Timothy Snyder’s book may or may not have been influenced by Snyder’s own less than positive review of Evans’s latest book in the New York Review of Books.”

Evans admits that Coutinho “does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder’s book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted almost all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and East European history.”

Return to the first sentence of this post. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Correction:  Thanks, Dave Lull, for pointing out that it was Jesse Freedman, and not Frank Wilson, who had made the original post at Books Inq. that brought the Evans article to my attention.  For the record, I certainly did not mean to fault Jesse F.  — it was the job of the LRB editor to make sure the reviewer doesn’t have an axe to grind or a fanny to kiss when writing a review.