Category Archives: Books

I do not think Hemingway would do listicles, do you?

Hemingway

At first, I was pleased to see that Ernest Hemingway was following me on Twitter. It made me feel good, in the way that thing that are clean and true make a man feel when he is a man.

But then I perused the feed, and felt less good.

There were things that were true and right, such as:

But then there were the things that ruined it. You know the kind of things I mean. Things such as:

I do not believe the real Hemingway, the true Hemingway, would post such things. Do you?

Patrick O’Brian’s depiction of the Yazidi, a.k.a. Dasni

Y’all know, from my frequent mentions, that I am a Patrick O’Brian fanatic, reading his novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin over and over again. You know, the ones set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The best historical novels ever written.

Something that is much in the news the last couple of weeks rang a bell, so I went back and found the relevant passage in The Letter of Marque, the 12th novel in the series, and one of my favorites.

Here it is. It depicts a brief conversation between Maturin, a Catholic, and his good friend Nathaniel Martin, an Anglican clergyman:

Dasni1

Dasni2

 

I checked, and my hunch was right: The Dasni are the very Yazidi people whom we are trying, with our air strikes in Iraq, to protect from ISIS. Wikipedia, under its Yazidi entry, cites this description:

Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680–683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Iraq, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

So you see, my obsessive study of these novels is actually educational.

O’Brian was obsessive about detail, and took a certain delight in depicting interesting, little-known religious practices. You see a reference above to the Sethians, of whom I had never heard. They play a significant role in two or three of the novels, making up a significant portion of the crew of Surprise during her time as a private man of war.

But as obsessive as he was about detail in depicting real-life naval battles, such as Cochrane’s victory in the Speedy over the Gamo, or Broke’s in the Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in 1813, he would sometimes invent entirely fictional places. For instance, the Sethians (a real, though obscure, gnostic sect — the apocryphal Gospel of Judas is considered a Sethian document) who serve under Aubrey are from the fictional town of Shelmerston.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the Dasni are for real.

Who’s actually going to see all of these Hobbit movies?

Hobbit

I just saw a trailer for the third Hobbit movie, titled “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” (Here’s a link; I didn’t find the embed code right away, and wasn’t interested enough to keep looking.)

And I had to wonder, not for the first time: Who is paying to go see all three of these things?

I watched the first one — after it became available on Netflix. It was… about like the beginning of the book, only dragged way out.

Haven’t seen the second. But what I’m wondering is, where is Peter Jackson getting all the material? From that one slim little book?

It’s been many years since I read the book, and here’s what I remember: The Hobbit gets pulled into an adventure against his inclinations, and it involves dwarves and orcs and trolls and some giant spiders. He and the dwarves are on a quest to get something back from a dragon. The eventually do that, and go home. The one significance of the narrative to the imaginary history of Middle Earth is that Bilbo runs into Gollum, and obtains the One Ring, thereby setting the stage for the trilogy.

I don’t remember anything about a Battle of Five Armies. That sounds more like something out of Return of the King. It was a small story, an intimate story. Not a spectacle involving a CGI cast of thousands.

Basically, this just seems ridiculous. The three “Lord of the Rings” movies made sense. There were, after all, three books. But this was one book, one little adventure story, and I don’t see how it sustains three long films.

I like Tolkien. I’m not one of the fervent fans, but I like his stories. I’ve been a Martin Freeman fan since the original “The Office.”

But come on, people. What’s next — The Silmarillion, stretched into nine movies?

How could Huck Finn not top any list of Great American Novels?

Thomas Hart Benton's depiction of Huck and Jim

Thomas Hart Benton’s depiction of Huck and Jim

A piece in The Washington Post this morning on the new book about living next door to Harper Lee mentions the status of To Kill A Mockingbird as a, if not the, Great American Novel — and casually links to a list.

The list isn’t explained. I don’t know who compiled it, or what the criteria may have been.

But of course I’m drawn in. The list extends to 358 books (which requires straining the definition of “great”), but let’s just examine the top ten:

  1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  5. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  6. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  9. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
  10. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

OK, first, it’s just not right for Steinbeck to get three out of the 10. Especially since — confession time — I’ve never read the first two. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those novels I’ve meant to read for most of my life, and I will (my wife finds it utterly incredible I still haven’t). East of Eden, not so much.

And, to confess further, despite having started it again to great fanfare, I’ve still never finished Moby Dick. It just seems to start to drag after they go to sea. (Yeah, I know that’s pretty early in the book.) Which is weird, because that’s when seafaring tales generally get good.

I think all the other works are deserving of the top ten, although I might move up some of my faves from the second ten (On the Road, The Sun Also Rises, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fahrenheit 451).

But my main beef is this: How could any list of the Greatest American Novels not start with Huckleberry Finn? Hemingway famously said, ““All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” And I agree, except that I would delete the word, “modern.” It’s superfluous. All American literature, period.

It’s THE American novel. It’s episodic, picaresque structure is quintessentially American. Huck Finn, the freest character in literature, untainted by the history or culture of the Old World, couldn’t be more American. Huck can be anyone he wants to be, and slides in and out of identities throughout. And the central conflict in the novel is about the deepest, most profound issue of our history — in the sense that it has a central theme. Remember the author’s warning:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Which is a very American sort of warning — notice in no uncertain terms that pretension will not be tolerated.

Even the novel’s weaknesses are very American. Such as the uneven tone — starting out with farcical comedy that is an extension of Tom Sawyer, moving to tragedy with the Graingerfords and other incidents, the slapstick and menace of the Duke and the Dauphin, and ending with the broad comedy of Tom’s insistence on throwing flourishes from literature into Jim’s escape from the Phelps farm – itself a deadly serious matter, which nearly leads to Tom’s death, and does result in Jim’s recapture (as a result of his own selflessness).

Sorry, that was a confusing sentence. But you see what I mean. The novel was no more constrained by a particular tone than life itself. Very free, very American. And certainly great.

OK, off the top of my head, my own list:

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  3. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  5. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  8. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  9. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
  10. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Some runner-ups:

  • The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  • Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
  • City Boy, by Herman Wouk
  • The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth
  • The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
  • God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

Better stop there, as my quality was slipping a bit at the end there (Heinlein is fun, but is it literature?).

I’ll come back and explain those choices a bit another day. Gotta run now…

Barton Swaim on Sanford and the public apology meme

Two recent posts — this one about Mark Sanford and this one about a public apology — remind me that a couple of weeks back, I meant to mention this book review in the WSJ, written by Columbia’s own Barton Swaim.

Yeah, I know — you click on the link and can’t read the review. I have the same problem, ever since my subscription ran out and the WSJ has refused to offer me terms anywhere near as reasonable as those they offered me in the past. (By contrast, I recently took advantage of an awesome, one-day deal offered by The Washington Post — $29 for a year of total access across all platforms, including the most important, my iPad. I’ve been enjoying it. The WSJ, unfortunately, wants almost that much per month.)

Anyway, it’s a review of Sorry About That by Edwin L. Battistella. It’s about public apologies, and I started reading the review with Mark Sanford in mind. Because I’ve heard more such apologies from him than from anyone. (While I’ve seen nothing that looks like actual contrition, no indication that there is anything that he did that he is truly sorry for.)

So I was startled when I got to this paragraph:

Apologizers’ attempts to avoid naming their offense, says Mr. Battistella, often make their apologies sound inauthentic and self-exculpatory. Instead of repeating or even paraphrasing the unwise remarks that prompted the apology, they will refer to “a careless, off-handed remark” or “insensitive words”; embezzling funds becomes a “mistake,” adultery a “poor decision I deeply regret.” I have a vivid memory of my former boss, Mark Sanford, in the days after his adulterous affair was revealed to the public. (Mr. Battistella devotes a brief section of his book to the governor of South Carolina, as he then was.) He would often refer to the affair in a grammatically bizarre way: “that which has caused the stir that it has.”…

Voldemort was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Sanford’s long-lasting lapse was “The-Sin-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

You know what? Bemused, jaded-wounding observations like Barton’s cause me to have the following thought: I’m not sure that anyone who worked for Mark Sanford as governor forgives him to the extent that he, Mark Sanford, believes he should be forgiven.

OK, well, just how graphic IS it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to the foofooraw over “gay-themed” books at the College of Charleston and USC Upstate, but something I saw at the top of this morning’s story did give me pause:

The College of Charleston assigned students to read “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir about the author’s struggle with family and sexual orientation. The University of South Carolina Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” about being gay in the South…

Hold on — graphic? How graphic? I hadn’t seen the word, “graphic” before.

At this point, I supposed I could channel Woody Allen in “Sleeper” and offer to go off and study the material in detail and give you a full report later. But let’s just discuss it in the abstract first.

In this story, critics of the reading lists are couching their objections in terms of objecting to “pornography” at public institutions. Which seems to me a legitimate objection, if you’re one of the people expected to appropriate money for it. That is, if it is pornography. Having not yet conducted that in-depth study, I can’t say.

But if it is, I wonder — with all the fantastic literature that most undergraduates will never get around to reading in their entire lives, why does the curriculum need to have anything in it that a news story would matter-of-factly describe as “graphic.” It’s not like these kids don’t have access to porn websites. In what way is graphic material of any sort providing them with knowledge they can’t get without paying college tuition?

I tried to think of anything that I was assigned to read in school that was “graphic,” back in the licentious early ’70s, the days of “Deep Throat” and Plato’s Retreat.

The best I could come up with was Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I vaguely recall one dispiriting passage describing an adulterous liaison engaged in by Harry Angstrom. I don’t think anyone would call it “graphic.” It probably wouldn’t earn an “R” rating today (although the sequel, Rabbit Redux, which I read after college, certainly would have). It wasn’t nearly as prurient as God’s Little Acre, say.Caldwell172-GodsLittleAcre-frontCover

We read it because Updike was supposedly one of the great fiction writers of his generation. In that same class, we also read Crime and Punishment. Needless to say, the latter made a much deeper impression on me. I found Updike mostly… depressing.

I don’t feel deprived for not having studied anything “graphic” in school.

Thoughts about this? I mean, set aside the “gay-themed” bit that makes headlines. Let’s say we’re talking pure hetero. Is there any need for public institutions to use “graphic” reading material outside of a public health class?

My own gut reaction is to say “no,” although I supposed I could also without straining myself mount an argument that Erskine Caldwell‘s books are at least culturally relevant to South Carolina.

Such a discussion won’t lead to a resolution of this particular controversy, but I find the question intriguing…

Revisiting an intriguing proposition: Hillary Clinton as LBJ (rather than MLK or JFK)

194467_135028753233137_123816441021035_185820_2517547_o - editted

I was interested to read, in today’s excerpt of Jim Clyburn’s book in The State, the congressman’s account of his disagreement with the Clintons just before the 2008 SC presidential primary:

That charge went back to an earlier disagreement we had about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s suggesting that, while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had done an excellent job promoting the issues of civil and voting rights for black people, it took a sensitive president such as Lyndon Baines Johnson to have the resolution of those issues enacted into law. In a New York Times article referencing an interview Mrs. Clinton had with Fox News on Monday, Jan. 5, 2008, she was quoted as saying “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The article went on to say that Mrs. Clinton thought her experience should mean more to voters than uplifting words by Mr. Obama. “It took a president to get it done,” Mrs. Clinton said.

It was an argument I had heard before while growing up in the South, even from white leaders who supported civil rights reform. It took black leaders to identify problems, but it took white leaders to solve them, they said. I had accepted that argument for a long time; but in 2008 it seemed long outdated, and it was frankly disappointing to hear it from a presidential candidate. When the reporter called to ask my reaction, I did not hold back…

Actually, Clinton is misrepresenting what Hillary Clinton had said. I don’t think he’s doing so intentionally. I believe he truly remembers it that way, in those black-and-white terms.

But then-Sen. Clinton didn’t really put it in terms of black leader vs. white leader. Basically, she put both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy in one category — that of the inspirational figure — and Lyndon Baines Johnson in the contrasting role of the less-inspirational leader who nevertheless follows through and gets things done.

I found her proposition intriguing at the time. She was posing the question, What do you want — inspiration or results? I wrote a column about it at the time, which ran on Jan. 20, 2008, just six days before Barack Obama won the SC primary.

Now that we’ve had several years in which to evaluate the kinds of results that Mr. Obama has produced as president, and as we look forward to a 2016 election in which the Democratic nomination is Mrs. Clinton’s for the taking, I think it’s interesting to revisit that column. So here it is:

By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
BARACK OBAMA and Hillary Clinton decided last week to put their spat over MLK, JFK and LBJ behind them. That’s nice for them, but the rest of us shouldn’t drop the subject so quickly.
Intentionally or not, the statement that started all the trouble points to the main difference between the two front-runners.
And that difference has nothing to do with race.
Now you’re thinking, “Only a Clueless White Guy could say that had nothing to do with race,” and you’d have a point. When it comes to judging whether a statement or an issue is about race, there is a profound and tragic cognitive divide between black and white in this country.
But hear me out. It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”
She wasn’t insulting black Americans — intentionally — any more than she was trying to dis Irish Catholics.
To bring what I’m saying into focus, set aside Dr. King for the moment — we’ll honor him tomorrow. The very real contrast between the two Democratic front-runners shows in the other comparison she offered.
She was saying that, given a choice between John F. Kennedy and his successor, she was more like the latter. This was stark honesty — who on Earth would cast herself that way who didn’t believe it was true? — and it was instructive.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Master of the Senate when he sought the Democratic nomination in 1960. If he wanted the Senate to do something, it generally happened, however many heads had to be cracked.
LBJ was not made for the television era that was dawning. With features like a hound dog (and one of the most enduring images of him remains the one in which he is holding an actual hound dog up by its ears), and a lugubrious Texas drawl, he preferred to git ’er done behind the scenes, and no one did it better.
Sen. Johnson lost the nomination to that inexperienced young pup Jack Kennedy, but brought himself to accept the No. 2 spot. After an assassin put him into the Oval Office, he managed to win election overwhelmingly in 1964, when the Republicans gave him the gift of Barry Goldwater. But Vietnam brought him down hard. He gave up even trying to get his party’s nomination in 1968.
But he was a masterful lawmaker. And he did indeed push the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law, knowing as he did so that he was sacrificing his party’s hold on the South.
He brought into being a stunning array of social programs — Medicare, federal aid to education, urban renewal, and the War on Poverty.
So, on the one hand, not a popular guy — wouldn’t want to be him. On the other hand, President Kennedy never approached his level of achievement during his tragically short tenure.
You might say that if Sen. Obama is to be compared to President Kennedy — and he is, his call to public service enchanting young voters, and drawing the endorsement of JFK’s closest adviser, Ted Sorensen — Sen. Clinton flatters herself in a different way by invoking President Johnson.
They are different kinds of smart, offering a choice between the kid you’d want on your debating team and the one you’d want helping you do your homework.
Sen. Obama offers himself as a refreshing antidote to the vicious partisanship of the Bush and Clinton dynasties. That sounds wonderful. But Sen. Clinton has, somewhat less dramatically, formed practical coalitions with Republican colleagues to address issues of mutual concern — such as with Lindsey Graham on military health care.
Sen. Clinton, whose effort to follow up the Great Society with a comprehensive health care solution fell flat in the last decade, has yet to live up to the Johnson standard of achievement. For that matter, Sen. Obama has yet to bring Camelot back into being.
As The Washington Post’s David Broder pointed out, in their debate in Las Vegas last week, the pair offered very different concepts of the proper role of the president. Sen. Obama said it wasn’t about seeing that “the paperwork is being shuffled effectively,” but rather about setting goals, uniting people to pursue them, building public support — in other words, about inspiration.
Sen. Clinton talked about managing the bureaucracy and demanding accountability.
Sen. Obama offers a leader, while Sen. Clinton offers a manager. It would be nice to have both. But six days from now, South Carolinians will have to choose one or the other.

Hillary

Tonight on ‘Fresh Air,’ Brigid talks about her new book

Remember a couple of months back, when I told you about the new book by my friend and colleague Brigid Schulte?

Well, she’s going to be talking about it this evening at 7 on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

That’s all. Just wanted to give a heads-up, particularly to any of y’all who remember Brigid from when she worked for The State, before her long stint at The Washington Post, where she still works when she’s not writing books…

Remembering teachers for what they did to (I mean, for) you

Had to reTweet this item from The Onion today:

Unemployed, Miserable Man Still Remembers Teacher Who First Made Him Fall In Love With Writing

AUBURN, CA—Explaining that she introduced him to the literature that made him the man he is today, 41-year-old Casey Sheard, an unemployed and fundamentally miserable person, confirmed to reporters Tuesday that he still fondly remembers the high school teacher who first inspired him to fall in love with writing. “Mrs. Merriman was the one who put a copy of The Sound And The Fury in my hands when I was 16 years old, and it totally changed my life,” said Sheard, who has reportedly been unable to hold down any semblance of well-paid, full-time employment, constantly struggles to stay financially afloat, has thus far failed to make a living off of writing as a career, and has frequently spiraled into long periods of severe depression and unhappiness….

A couple of other word guys liked that. Mike Fitts just added, “Yep.”

Robert Gates, the quintessential national security professional, judges ex-boss Obama harshly

Coming from the source it comes from, this is pretty devastating:

In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”Gates cropped

Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”…

The source is someone for whom I’ve always had the utmost respect, as I’ve written in the past. Other political appointees come and go, but Gates has always seemed to me the real-life version of what the fictional George Smiley was in John le Carre’s world:

Mr. Gates is a Smileyesque professional. He was the only Director of Central Intelligence ever to have come up through the ranks. He had spent two decades in the Agency, from 1969 through 1989, with a several-year hiatus at the National Security Council. He received the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal (twice) and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal (three times).
I trust professionals, particularly those who have devoted themselves to national service. Not in every case, of course — there are idiots and scoundrels in every walk of life — but if all other things are equal, give me the pro from Dover over someone’s golf buddy every time…

You know the real-life “golf-buddies” and campaign contributors and hangers-on. The fictional counterparts to them, in the le Carre world, would be Saul Enderby and, to a lesser degree, Oliver Lacon.

It’s one thing for Republicans and other professional detractors to attack the president’s national security seriousness. For Robert Gates to do it is quite another thing.

So, how did Brigid Schulte find the time to write a BOOK?

Congrats to my long-ago colleague Brigid Schulte, who just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly for her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:

51FQv8OfA7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_On her quest to turn her “time confetti” into “time serenity,” journalist Schulte finds that, while it’s worse for women and hits working mothers the hardest, what she calls the “Overwhelm” cuts across gender, income, and nationality to contaminate time, shrink brains, impair productivity, and reduce happiness. Investigating the “great speed-up” of modern life, Schulte surveys the “time cages” of the American workplace, the “stalled gender revolution” in the home, and the documented necessity for play, and discovers that the “aimless whirl” of American life runs on a conspiracy of “invisible forces”: outdated notions of the Ideal Worker; the cult of motherhood; antiquated national family policies; and the “high status of busyness.” The result is our communal “time sickness.” Schulte takes a purely practical and secular approach to a question that philosophers and spiritual teachers have debated for centuries—how to find meaningful work, connection, and joy—but her research is thorough and her conclusions fascinating, her personal narrative is charmingly honest, and the stakes are high: the “good life” pays off in “sustainable living, healthy populations, happy families, good business, [and] sound economies.” While the final insights stretch thin, Schulte unearths the attitudes and “powerful cultural expectations” responsible for our hectic lives, documents European alternatives to the work/family balance, and handily summarizes her solutions in an appendix. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Mar.)

imrs

Brigid Schulte

Brigid was the reporter I hired as Lee Bandy’s successor in The State‘s Washington Bureau. My memories of her sort of illustrate the theme of her book. First, there’s the way we met. I went to Washington in January 1993 — there was snow on the ground of the Mall around the booths set up for the first Clinton inauguration, which was to occur a few days later. I had set up interviews with a number of candidates, using an empty office in the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau as my base. But Brigid was out of town, and wasn’t getting back until almost exactly the moment my returning flight left.

So we met in the airport, as she was coming and I was going. I was sufficiently impressed to bring her down to Columbia for further interviews. We ended up hiring her. About a year later, she got drafted by the KR national staff, and not long after that moved on to The Washington Post.

Another quick anecdote: She was covering the round of BRAC hearings that led to the closing of Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. The climax of the process occurred on a Sunday afternoon. I happened to have the desk duty that day, and Brigid was having to wait for it all to happen, then write the story and somehow catch a train on which she was to depart with her then-new husband on vacation. This was before cellphones. She filed the story (on a Radio Shack TRS-80, I guess) at a time when it seemed physically impossible for her still to catch the train. Of course, I wasn’t going to let her go until I had the story.

Then there was the matter of calling in to answer my questions after I had read it. She did so, literally breathless and a bit dazed, from a phone on the train — which in those days was a technological marvel. “I’m on the train!” she shouted. “I’m on the phone, on the train! I’m calling you from the train! I made it!” That’s wonderful, I said. Now, here are my questions…

Of course, life has become even more hectic since that time. I mean, she didn’t even have kids back then.

So, I have to wonder: How did she find time to write a book? I always wonder that — I marvel that anyone finds time in a lifetime to do that — but I particularly wonder, given that she knows so well how insane modern life is. Well enough to write a book about it.

But she was always well-organized. She used to carry two notebooks — one for the live stories that day, another for enterprise stuff she was working on for later. I suppose that, while working on this book, she carried a third. Or the electronic equivalent of a third…

Edward Snowden, displaying his utter lack of perspective, declares lack of privacy today is worse than Orwellian

Through an “alternative Christmas message” broadcast on British television (“alternative” as in, a message other than the Queen’s official one) and a Washington Post interview, Edward Snowden reveals his immaturity, paranoia, irrationality and utter lack of perspective.

I can’t find an embed code for the full video, but here’s a link to it.

Here’s a sample of his “reasoning,” as he explains why he thinks we’re worse off than Winston Smith in 1984:

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” he said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

So… according to him… a cellphone, a private possession that you are in no way required to own, certainly not by the government, a thing you can throw away the moment you want to drop off the grid, is somehow worse than being watched and listened to 24 hours a day by a malevolent government that does so for the express purpose of controlling your thoughts, a government that has reshaped language itself to prevent you even from being able to form thoughts that are not to its liking.

But wait — there’s more:

Recently, we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance, watching everything we do.

No, we have learned nothing of the kind. I have seen nothing from his “revelations” (although I give him props for not congratulating himself, but using the relatively passive “we learned”) that indicates that either this government or any other is doing anything at all that comes anywhere close to “watching everything” I do.

There’s apparently a record of phone calls I have made, and everyone else has made. Not the content, but who we called and when and for how long. A record that doesn’t even begin to be the tiniest, most hesitant intrusion on my privacy unless there is something about the pattern of my calls that draws attention to them. My own privacy is protected by the sheer volume of data of which my calls form an infinitesimal part.

I have no reason to believe that this or any other government has taken the slightest interest even in this tiny corner of my life — whom I have called and when — which is a drop in the ocean of “everything” I do.

This is rich. Let’s listen to some more:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.

Really? Golly, I’d certainly like to see a little bit of evidence to back up those wild assertions. I’m even going to be charitable and ignore the number disagreement between his “a child” and his use of “they” and “themselves.” First, it would help if he had any evidence whatsoever, any reason at all to think that this hypothetical child would never know a “private moment.” I see zero reason to believe that. As for “no conception” — well, that takes us far beyond lacking the experience of even a “moment” of privacy. In fact, only in an Orwellian universe — given its careful paring of unacceptable thoughts from the language — could a child lack such a conception.

As for “an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought” — what reason do we have to believe that this child’s very thoughts would be recorded and analyzed, much less all of them? The only thoughts being shared with government, to my knowledge, are those we choose to make public through social media or other means. Or over the telephone, in which case the only way the goverment hears these thoughts is if its traffic analysis has produced probable cause for a specific subpoena to listen to a specific individual’s calls, which will never happen to far, far more than 99 percent of the population. And I say this on the basis of what Snowden himself has revealed.

Let’s delve further into the thoughts — which he is voluntarily sharing — of Edward Snowden:

And that’s a problem because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

I’m not going to respond to that, because I don’t even follow what he’s saying. I thought “who we are and who we want to be” were things that were determined by a combination of unavoidable circumstances and choices we make. Perhaps privacy plays a key role in that, but he neglects to explain how. It’s just one of those pronouncements that probably sounds profound to people who are predisposed to agree with him, and puzzles anyone else who actually thinks about it.

His big finish is a call to action:

End mass surveillance, and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.

His tone indicates he thinks this is a real zinger.

I find myself marveling. So… that’s what he thinks NSA collection and analysis of metadata is about — finding out how we feel? What has he or anyone else disclosed that even comes within the same galaxy of indicating that? Gee, I kinda thought it was oriented toward finding out whether certain communications are happening between certain individuals, with an eye to catching warning signs not of feelings, but of the likelihood of certain actions.

I mean, seriously — can anyone show me a link to a single report that would make any reasonable person think that any of these government programs are aimed at taking our emotional temperatures, or our opinions?

Wow. The more you learn about this guy, the more you see just how twisted his perception of reality is…

But thanks, Edward, for the Christmas wishes. Although I must say, I think the Queen’s made more sense. But then, she’s a grownup.

aria131222_cmyk.cxv59bj48zbrc44kksks48oo8.6uwurhykn3a1q8w88k040cs08.th

Saying goodbye to my very favorite store, Barnes & Noble on Harbison

The purists who didn't like the floor space that Toys & Games took over in recent years may be gratified to see that area as one of the first cleared out.

The purists who didn’t like the floor space that Toys & Games took over in recent years may be gratified to see that area as one of the first cleared out.

Here we are in the very last days of my very favorite store on Earth, the Barnes & Noble on Harbison.

Its last day of operation is Tuesday… Dec. 31.

The Harbison B&N is more than a store to me. Or perhaps I should say, something other than a store. I certainly made far more purchases at other stores over the years — Food Lion, Publix, Walmart and the like.

But for me, this store was the ultimate “third place.” That’s a term I knew nothing about until recently, when I was getting ready to help conduct a brand workshop for an ADCO client, and I happened to read up on the branding strategy of Starbucks, which has from the start striven to be a “place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home.”

I enjoy both of those places, but between the two, I prefer B&N. There’s only so much you can do in a Starbucks. Noise is often a factor in the coffee shops, while B&N had a more library-like feel to it, except right around the cafe portion, where the sound of the grinder could be intrusive. And then there are all the books to browse through, which to me has always been a sort of foretaste of heaven.

I loved browsing in B&N even before I started drinking coffee in 2004. (Long story behind that. From the time I turned 30 until my 50th year, caffeine drove me nuts. Then, when I was at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, I started drinking coffee to deal with the 20-hour days — there was, after all, a Starbucks on every corner. And I found that it didn’t bother me anymore. In fact, it did what it was supposed to do, keeping me from dozing off and creating a nice, creative buzz.)

But to browse through those books for a couple of hours on a Saturday, enjoying my first (and second) coffees of the day — that was awesome. And if I took along my laptop and did a little blogging while I was there, well, all the better.

And yes, I did occasionally buy something. In fact, I buy most gifts there. I find it easier to imagine what sort of book someone will like than any other sort of gift, and I make a point of buying them at the actual store to show my appreciation for all the good times it affords me. Buying the gift also makes me feel less of a self-indulgent sensualist as I browse.

Anyway, I was there a couple of times over the last week or so before Christmas. The first time, I bought a book for my Dad — a biography of Omar Bradley. When I got to the counter to pay for it, the clerk asked whether I was a member. I said yes, and offered my card. It had expired (yeah, I think it was around the holidays when I renewed last year). She asked whether I wanted to renew. No, I said sadly, thinking, What would be the point?

The second time, on Christmas Eve, I found myself in Harbison with a little time on my hands, and just went in to browse once more. For nostalgia’s sake, I even put sugar in my coffee, even though I’ve been drinking it black for years. I used to use a lot of sugar back in the day, such as when I wrote this.

I was wandering through the DVD section, seeing if there were any last-minute gifts that would strike me, when one of the booksellers asked whether I needed help. I said no, but as he turned away, I asked him to wait.

I asked when the store would close. He told me — New Year’s Eve.

I asked why it was closing. He said because B&N couldn’t afford the lease, and the new tenant, Nordstrom, could.

Apologizing for intruding, I asked what he, who had worked at B&N quite a few years, was going to do. He said he might be working at the store at Richland Fashion Mall, and he urged me to come there. I said yeah, that store was OK, but it had no audio/video section. He noted pragmatically that that was the first part of the store he would expect to close, since everyone downloads music now and streams movies online.

But, feeling like an advocate trying to save a client’s life in a hopeless trial, I argued that Netflix didn’t have the high-quality, hard-to-find movies that you could buy at B&N, such as the Criterion collection of fine films. He pointed out there were other places you could get those, although no local, bricks-and-mortar location had as large a Criterion selection as B&N did.

Sigh.

I got a B&N gift card for Christmas, so I’ll probably be in their one more time before it closes for good. Maybe I’ll see you there. Maybe we can have a coffee together, with several sugars to counteract the bitterness…

This year’s One Book: Conroy’s “My Reading Life”

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year's selection.

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year’s selection.

Last night, I dropped by Richland Library for the unveiling of the chosen book for the 2014 “One Book” program.

It’s My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Everyone was pretty pumped about it, in part because the author himself will be participating in the program.conroy

I look forward to reading it myself, and joining in discussions of it. As you may recall, I moderated a discussion at the library for this past year’s selection, A.J. Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August, a book I enjoyed much more than I had thought I would.

Which I suppose is kinda the point of participating in a program that gets you to read something you might not have. It’s broadening to get pulled away, however briefly, from my obsessive re-reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (I’m currently on about my sixth trip through some of the books — I still haven’t allowed myself to read the very last two in the series).

Now, to digress…

After the announcement, I got involved in a discussion of the strong-mayor referendum with Mike Miller, Tim Conroy (the author’s brother and a longtime Columbian), and City Councilman Sam Davis. All of us, except Mr. Davis, had been deeply disappointed by the outcome. He listened patiently to us, and we listened patiently to him, but I don’t think any minds were changed.

We were joined late in the discussion by our old blog friend James D. McAllister, a writer and owner of Loose Lucy’s. He was against strong-mayor, but Kathryn would probably discount his opinion, since, like me, he doesn’t live in the de jure city.

Anyway, back to the book… maybe we should all read it and have a good discussion of it here on the blog. Whaddya think?

No, that is NOT me. That's Mike Miller with Tim Conroy.

No, that is NOT me. That’s Mike Miller with Tim Conroy, later in the evening at First Thursday on Main.

My favorite store in the universe is closing!

As y’all know, one of my very favorite leisuretime activities is to go to Barnes & Noble, get a cup of coffee, and browse. And sometimes blog — it’s one of my favorite remote locations for that.

I’ve done this in lots of Barnes & Nobles — such as in Memphis; Myrtle Beach; New York; Florence (SC); Charleston; Harrisonburg, Va.; Camp Hill, PA — but my favorite, my essential, my default, has always been the one in Harbison.

I wrote one of my favorite early blog posts, headlined, “The Caffeine Also Rises,” at a Barnes & Noble. An excerpt from that over-stimulated ramble in 2005:

This is blogging. This is the true blogging, el blogando verdadero, con afición, the kind a man wants if he is a man. The kind that Jake and Lady Brett might have done, if they’d had wi-fi hotspots in the Montparnasse.

What brings this on is that I am writing standing up, Hemingway-style, at the counter in a cafe. But there is nothing romantic about this, which the old man would appreciate. Sort of. This isn’t his kind of cafe. It’s not a cafe he could ever have dreamed of. It’s a Starbucks in the middle of a Barnes and Noble (sorry, Rhett, but I’m out of town today, and there’s noHappy Bookseller here). About the one good and true thing that can be said in favor of being in this place at this time is that there is basically no chance of running into Gertrude Steinhere. Or Alice, either.

I’m standing because there are no electrical outlets near the tables, just here at the counter. And trying to sit on one of these high stools and type kills my shoulders. No, it’s not my wound from the Great War, just middle age….

There’s nothing like writing under the influence of your first, or second, coffee of the day. Especially back then, before I had built up resistance.

But the best of all was at the B&N at Harbison. It just had the perfect feel to it. I wrote this and this and this there.

The one at Richland Fashion Mall (or whatever it’s called now) is OK in a pinch, but not the same. Maybe it’s that there’s no video and music department; I don’t know — but I’ve never been inclined to spend much time there.

Anyway, you get the picture. So you can imagine how dismayed I am at this:

By KRISTY EPPLEY RUPON — krupon@thestate.com

COLUMBIA, SC — Barnes and Noble on Harbison Boulevard will close at the end of the year, leaving the Irmo area without a traditional bookstore selling new books.

A manager answering the phone at the store Monday morning said she could not give details to the media. Efforts to reach a spokesperson Monday morning were not successful.

However, employees are telling customers that the store at 278-A Harbison Blvd. will close at the end of the year because its lease is not being renewed….

If I were a guy whose favorite recreation was jogging in the park, and the park got paved over, I couldn’t be more upset.

This is just wrong.

Maybe I should have bought something now and then when I was there browsing. Or maybe I shouldn’t have fallen into the habit of buying my coffee at the actual Starbucks across the parking lot before entering the store.

But surely I’m exaggerating the impact of my own behavior — right?

Is this just a meaningless little coincidence, Jeeves?

When I saw this in the WSJ this morning:

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa.—Atop a hill at the end of a road called P&G Warehouse Way sits a warehouse stocked with Pampers diapers, Bounty paper towels and other items made by Procter & Gamble Co. It also houses an ambitious experiment by Amazon.com Inc.

I initially read the boldfaced part as “P.G. Wodehouse.” Not a name I think of very often.

Then, within an hour, I was reading this, from an email from The Trinity Forum:

Happy Birthday, P.G. Wodehouse!
October 15, 1881 – February 14, 1975

Coincidence? Yes, I suppose so.

Anyway, if any of y’all want to explore the author beyond Bertie Wooster, Trinity’s offering a deal on one of Wodehouse’s books.

I’d wish him a Happy Birthday, but, since he died in 1975, I doubt he’s on Facebook…

Colonel Cathcart raises our ‘Walk for Life’ goal

danby

Col. Cathcart, Lt. Col. Korn, and Major Danby.

You remember Col. Cathcart, don’t you — from Catch-22? (And if you haven’t read Catch-22, you should.)

Here’s a reminder of who he is:

description

His main function in the plot of the book is to keep raising the number of missions that the men in his bomb group must fly before they can rotate stateside. He does this to curry favor with his superiors. He lives for “feathers in his cap” and lives in horror of “black eyes.”

This repeated raising of the number of missions is a key driver in Yossarian’s constant, growing anxiety, especially since the colonel always raises the number just before Yossarian reaches it:

cathcart

Well, it seems that Col. Cathcart has slipped out of the pages of the novel and somehow gained access to our Walk for Life team profile, and raised our goal — much as Yossarian slipped out of his tent one night and moved the bomb line on the map to above Bologna.

And I’m happy to report that I — I mean, Col. Cathcart — ran into Samuel Tenenbaum this morning, who is sort of the General Dreedle of Palmetto Health Foundation, and told him that our goal has been raised from $1,000 to $3,000. He was most pleased. I think this is quite a feather in my, I mean Col. Cathcart’s, cap.

And I’m sure, men (like Lt. Scheisskopf, I enjoy addressing you as “men” in a clipped, military voice), that you’ll be happy to keep flying missions until we exceed the new goal. Failure to do so would result in a black eye for me, your colonel, and I’m sure none of you men want that.

Some talking points on the library bond vote

I haven’t seen a lot out there about the Richland Library bond vote on the Nov. 5 ballot. So I thought I’d pass on this memo I received from folks who are pushing for a “yes”:

Dear Friends,

 

Did you know the Richland Library bond referendum will be on the November 5 ballot?  Below is some basic information.  If you would like more details or how to be involved in Vote For Our Libraries, contact us!  betty@voteforourlibraries.com  803-233-2414

Richland Library

 

Since 2007, the library has had a capital needs plan that calls for renovations and additions to all library facilities based on the changing ways we serve and advance our community.

 

Key Facts:

 

Why is the Library Requesting a Bond Referendum?

Voter approved bonds are the only way the library can obtain substantial funds for building and renovations. The goal is to update all library locations by adding and reconfiguring space, technology and resources to better fit the way customers need and use the library today. The capital needs plan was developed in 2007 and is reviewed each year. The only new buildings are Ballentine and Sandhills. Following green building guidelines and sustainable practices will mean substantial energy savings for all locations.

 

Why now?

It’s been 24 years since the last bond referendum in 1989, and most of our facilities haven’t been significantly improved or updated since then. Interest rates are at an all-time low – it costs half as much today for twice the value added in 1989.

 

What will it cost the taxpayer?

Estimates indicate the maximum impact on taxpayers to be $12-14/year for a $100,000 home. For as little as one cup of coffee each month, we can ensure access to needed resources and technology, as well as the opportunity to share information and exchange ideas.

 

Why spend money on libraries when everyone has a smartphone/tablet?

Technology has made libraries more essential to their communities – not obsolete. In fact, many people in Richland County rely on the library for access to technology, computers and the Internet. Even if you may not use the library, your friends, family and neighbors are most likely relying on its services.

What’s on Hank and Marie Schrader’s bookshelf?

Hank

Last week, I thought I had finally found an aspect of “Breaking Bad” that no one else had delved into.

I should have known better. As into the series as I am, I knew that there were people out there who apparently have no lives whatsoever, and they’re always going to be several steps ahead of me.

But here’s my post on the subject anyway…

Volumes have been written (although probably not yet actually assembled into physical volumes) about the main characters, such as this one last week wondering if Hank Schrader was turning into Walt White. Or rather, into another Heisenberg.

But how do you really get to know somebody? Well, you go to his house, and you look at what he’s got on his bookshelf. (Or, if you’re Rob Fleming in “High Fidelity,” you look at his records, and then judge him unmercifully.)

Last week (the episode before last night’s, that is), we got a look at Hank’s and Marie’s bookshelf. Jesse Pinkman walked over and idly picked up a copy of Edmund Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. I half-expected Jesse to remark on it, but he didn’t. (If he had, what would have had said, yo?)

Since Jesse said nothing about it, I froze the screen and looked at what else was there. A sampling:

  • They’re into Stephen King; I see four books by him.
  • There’s The Final Days, except it doesn’t look right. That WoodStein classic should be thicker, and have a white background rather than a maroon one. Turns out it’s actually this later book, which has the subtitle, “The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House.” Which gives us a different impression, but one more suited to what we know of Hank and Marie.
  • Western themes are amply represented — Horse Sense, The Body Language of Horses, Crazy Horse and Custer, The Indians’ Book, Black Range Tales, and so forth. We Easterners suppose Westerners spend their time thinking about such things. There’s also a DVD set of “Deadwood.”
  • Tom Clancy makes an obligatory appearance with Rainbow Six, which you would also find on my bookshelf. One of his lesser-known works, centering around John Clark rather than Jack Ryan, but the one that launched a family of first-person shooter games. Which, I like to speculate, is how Hank got into it. After all, the game was released before the book.
  • One is not surprised to find books based on, or collecting, works of Paul Harvey and Lewis Grizzard.
  • There are various business self-help books, including not one, but two copies of Who Moved My Cheese?
  • I’m intrigued by Citizen Lazlo, by Don Novello. (You know, Father Guido Sarducci.) I’m even more intrigued that Amazon says that people who viewed that also viewed Cold Mountain, which can also be found on Hank’s and Marie’s shelves. I don’t know what the connection might be.

Anything else jump out at y’all as revelatory?

I love details such as this. I’ve always thought I’d love to work in movies (or good television). I’m fascinated by the people who come up with these little obsessive details to put in the background, details that reveal character subtly, or which reflect an era accurately — when done right.

books

The joys of a real bookstore

There was a thought-provoking little piece in the WSJ today by a bookstore owner in Tennessee:

The weather in Tennessee has been unaccountably beautiful this summer, with late July temperatures in the 70s rather than the 100s. The drive from Chattanooga, where President Obama gave his jobs speech at the Amazon warehouse Tuesday, to Nashville, where I am the co-owner of Parnassus Books, is a scenic two hours.

I wish he’d come by.

Thanks to the Amazon warehouse, there are about 7,000 new jobs in Chattanooga, many of them seasonal. But to celebrate Amazon as an employer is to ignore all the jobs that have been squeezed out of the economy as independent bookstores and other small businesses have been forced to close their doors, unable to compete with the undercut pricing the online retail giant offers. And with those shuttered bookstores go a big part of our community.

In the time-honored tradition of bookstores everywhere, our store is staffed by readers—people who want to talk about the books they love. We’re not handing out algorithms based on what books other people have bought. These aren’t widgets we’re selling….

Actually, it was more of a feeling-provoking piece than thought-provoking, I suppose. And my feelings were conflicted.

First, I felt sympathy for the person trying to operate a mom-and-pop bookstore in this age. At the same time, I noticed that this person didn’t get into the business until 2011. A former editor of mine retired more than 10 years ago and started an online used book business, so it’s not like this phenomenon snuck up on this person. This is somewhat different from the character in “You’ve Got Mail” who inherited a charming little bookshop.

Second, I felt identification with someone who would rather browse books in person than buy one online. That happens to be one of my very favorite leisure-time activities, when I have leisure time. So it is that I continue to root for Barnes & Noble to hang in there with the real, live bookstore thing.

Third, I felt guilty because, well, as much as I love browsing a bookstore, I’ve always had a preference for Barnes & Noble over the charming little mom-and-pop types. Even though Rhett Jackson was a friend of mine, I seldom frequented his shop. If I went there, it was to quickly find a book and buy it. There’s something, for me, about having the vast space and great variety of B&N to wander in, while sipping a hot Starbucks coffee. (Here’s another confession: When I go to the one on Harbison, the one I frequent most, I actually go to the Starbucks over across the parking lot, rather than getting my coffee in the bookstore cafe. Partly because I can use my Starbucks card there.)

Of course, as I’ve confessed before, I usually don’t actually buy a book at the end of those browses. But when I do buy a book — as I did just this last weekend — I buy it at B&N.

Finally, I felt out-bookwormed by this woman. As you would expect from someone who sells new books, she’s very up-to-date in her reading. I seldom read a book that was written in the last 10 years, or even 50 years — there’s just too great a wealth of old stuff that I’ll never get to, I have little interest in keeping up with the best-seller lists. Since I started reading the daily book reviews in the WSJ, I have gotten a little more interested in recent books — but when I get one of them, it still tends to sit on my shelves for months or even years before I actually read it. I like to let them age a little. So much of the rest of my life has been spent keeping up with the latest, and meeting deadlines. Part of the pleasure of a book is knowing it will sit there and wait for me indefinitely, and be just as rewarding when I finally pick it up.

I use Amazon for all sorts of things. Particularly phone accessories — USB cords, earbuds — which are amazingly cheaper than in a store. Or when I’m shopping for some particular item someone wants for Christmas or birthday, and I don’t immediately find it in the first store where I look — I’ll just stand there in the store and order it over my phone.

But books I want to hold in my hand before I buy.