Mark Twain, America’s second greatest comic ever in my estimation (after George Carlin), died of a heart attack 104 years ago. He lived a life writ large, won fame and lost fortunes, and, most importantly, reminded us what we could be if we chose to live as one, traveling as he did from Confederate sympathizer to a place of enlightenment. I think of Twain what I thought of Pete Seeger and Odetta when they died: You can’t really replace such people because they have the history and promise of the nation coursing through their veins. He was eulogized in the April 22. 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the opening sections excerpted below follow him from birth to his emergence as a “stand-up” and his shift to author of books.
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If you put a gun to my head and asked what I thought was the best novel ever written in English, I would think you were crazy. Why are you pointing a gun at my head?!? Why not just ask me without the threat of murder?!? Do you want me to call the police?!?
After you were disarmed and arrested, I would think about the question again and just as likely choose Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s tale of monstrous love, as anything else. The language is impeccable, amazingly weighty and nimble all at once, and the book overall both profoundly funny and sad.
Art is one thing, however, but life another. The book’s main inspiration may have been von Lichberg or it may have been a very real horror, a 1940s NYC child abduction perpetrated by a felon in a fedora named Frank La Salle. (Or perhaps it was a combination of the two.) Via Longreads, a passage from “The Real Lolita,” an historical inquiry by Sarah Weinman published at the Penguin Random House blog:
“Nabokov said he conjured up the germ of the novel—a cultured European gentleman’s pedophilic passion for a 12-year-old girl resulting in a madcap, satiric cross-country excursion—’late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia.’ At that point it was a short story set in Europe, written in his first language, Russian. Not pleased with the story, however, he destroyed it. By 1949, Nabokov had emigrated to America, the neuralgia raged anew, and the story shifted shape and nagged at him further, now as a longer tale, written in English, the cross-country excursion transplanted to America.
Lolita is a nested series of tricks. Humbert Humbert, the confessing pervert, tries so hard to obfuscate his monstrosities that he seems unaware when he truly gives himself away, despite alleging the treatise is a full accounting of his crimes. Nabokov, however, gives the reader a number of clues to the literary disconnect, the most important being the parenthetical. It works brilliantly early on in Lolita, when Humbert describes the death of his mother—’My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three’—or when he sights Dolores Haze in the company of her own mother, Charlotte, for the first time: ‘And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnaped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side.’ The unbracketed narrative is what Humbert wants us to see; the asides reveal what is really inside his mind.
Late in Lolita, one of these digressions gives away the critical inspiration. Humbert, once more in Lolita’s hometown after five years away, sees Mrs. Chatfield, the ‘stout, short woman in pearl-gray,’ in his hotel lobby, eager to pounce upon him with a ‘fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity.’ But before she can, the parenthetical appears like a pop-up thought balloon for the bewildered Humbert: ‘Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?'”
Nabokov discusses Lolita in the 1950s:
In a piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books about Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, a meditation on meritocracy run amok, Guy Patrick Cunningham compares tomorrow’s potentially technologically divided society, a sci-fi-ish dystopia few people would find acceptable, to life in the Middle Ages. An excerpt:
“Though Cowen doesn’t see it, the future he lays out seems rife with obvious, intrinsic structural inequalities that will make it very hard for anyone born outside the elite to actually show enough ‘merit’ to rise into it. And when he breezily asserts, ‘The more that the high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them, sometimes for high wages, and sometimes for low wages,’ and that, ‘making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future […] Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved,’ it becomes hard not to see this as a new form of aristocracy — one where people born with certain advantages are able to leverage them even further than today’s wealthy. Certainly, a smart, capable aristocracy, one theoretically open to talented outsiders, but an aristocracy all the same.
Cowen is careful to note that this system ‘is not necessarily a good and just way for an economy to run,’ but he certainly sees it as a given. Interestingly, he is also keen to emphasize the autonomy of the individual in the hyper-meritocracy. This isn’t itself surprising. But Cowen’s efforts to square the system he anticipates with humanistic ideas about individual agency fall flat. When he defends the possibility of building third-world style slums in the United States, he insists, ‘No one is being forced to live in these places […] I might prefer to live there if my income was low enough.’ Cowen essentially defines choice down to the absence of force. But this is meaningless — after all, no one chooses to live in a slum, unless the alternative is homelessness. Choice only matters when there are real alternatives to pick from. When Cowen compares a hyper-meritocratic society to the Middle Ages, he does so merely to point out that it is possible for a deeply unequal society to remain stable over a long period of time. But the comparison brings to mind another thought instead — that the values that underlie hyper-meritocracy are as un-humanist as those of the Medieval period.”
In posting a piece of Norman Mailer’s 1956 letter to the Democrats, urging party members to draft Ernest Hemingway for their Presidential ticket, I made passing reference to Jack Henry Abbott, the longtime convict and fledgling writer Mailer helped spring in 1981 to disastrous results. Abbott later died in prison, a suicide, in 2002. From his Los Angeles Times obituary, penned by Myrna Oliver:
“In 1977, when Abbott learned that Mailer was writing the book The Executioner’s Song about death row inmate Gary Gilmore, he wrote the author, offering to advise him on how imprisonment affects men.
Mailer, later calling Abbott’s letters ‘as good as any convict’s prose that I had read since Eldridge Cleaver,’ maintained a prolific correspondence with the inmate from 1978 to 1981.
In 1980, he had excerpts printed in the New York Review of Books, prodding Random House to suggest the book, which was published in 1981.
Mailer further went to bat for Abbott with the parole board, and in June 1981 succeeded in getting him released to a halfway house in New York’s Bowery.
The author bought him a $500 suit and a pair of good shoes, hired him as his $150-a-week researcher and introduced him to other influential people, including the late author Jerzy Kosinski.
Abbott the jailhouse writer quickly became a celebrity, interviewed on Good Morning America and other programs and featured in People magazine.
Within six weeks of his release from prison, glowing in the attention from his just-published book, he went to New York’s Binibon 24-hour restaurant with a girl on each arm, and got into an argument with the actor-waiter Richard Adan over using an employees’ restroom. Taking the fight outside, Abbott stabbed the waiter to death and fled.
The Sunday New York Times had just hit the street with a review of In the Belly of the Beast, describing the book as ‘awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous; its impact is indelible, and as an articulation of penal nightmare it is completely compelling.’
The fugitive Abbott was captured two months after the stabbing, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years to life. He was next due for a parole hearing in June 2003.
His book was adapted into an edgy play of the same title first by Adrian Hall at Trinity Square Playhouse in Rhode Island and then re-adapted by director Robert Woodruff for the Taper Forum in 1984. The Los Angeles production was based not only on Abbott’s letters but on transcripts from his manslaughter trial.
One Times reviewer, when the play opened, wrote: ‘The dramatization is a gut-wrenching indictment of far more than our penal system….It gives us Abbott, unadorned, in his own words, which is enough. He’s a devilishly articulate analyst of the system that has him by the throat. His perceptions are both astonishing and on the mark.’
In 1990, after a bizarre civil trial in which Abbott represented himself, a jury awarded Adan’s widow more than $7.5 million in damages for the wrongful death.
‘I’ve become a writer,’ Abbott told jurors during the 1990 civil trial, inquiring of each if he had read his book. ‘As good as any other writer in this country, or even in Europe. This was something told to me, and I was encouraged to write. It was told to me by some of the top publishers and editors in this country.’
But those once-fawning supporters changed their minds after Abbott stabbed a man, abusing the freedom they had helped him win. Mailer’s friend Scott Meredith said, ‘Norman and I are stunned and distressed. I guess there’s some residual regret on everyone’s part.’
Kosinski was so remorseful that many said the episode contributed to his subsequent suicide. ‘Both Mailer and I believe in the purgatory power of art,’ he mourned. ‘We pretended he [Abbott] had always been a writer. It was a fraud. It was like the ’60s, when we embraced the Black Panthers in that moment of radical chic without understanding their experience.
‘I blame myself again for becoming part of radical chic,’ he said. ‘I went to welcome a writer, to celebrate his intellectual birth. But I should have been welcoming a just-freed prisoner, a man from another planet.'”
Norman Mailer, no stranger to politics himself, sincerely wanted the Democrats to draft Ernest Hemingway, who liked to fucking fish, as their nominee for President in 1956, encouraging such a move in an open letter to the party in the Village Voice. Not quite as bad an idea as liberating Jack Henry Abbott, but not his best one, either. An excerpt from Mailer’s original article republished at the Penguin Random House Medium site:
“YES, IT MAY SEEM a trifle fantastic at the first approach, but the man I think the Democrats ought to draft for their presidential candidate in 1956 is Ernest Hemingway.
I have had this thought in mind for some months, and have tried to consider its merits and demerits more than once. You see, I am far from a worshipper of Hemingway, but after a good many years of forever putting him down in my mind, I came to decide that like him or not, he was one of the two counterposed aesthetic forces in the American novel today — the other being Faulkner of course — and so his mark on history is probably assured.
Now, what I think of Hemingway as a writer would be of interest to very few people, but I underline that I am not a religious devotee of his work in order to emphasize that I have thought about him as a presidential candidate without passion or self-involvement (or at least so I believe it to be). As for his merits and even more important his possibilities for victory, I will try to discuss them quickly in the limits of this column.
To begin with, the Democratic Party has the poorest of chances against Eisenhower, and whether it be Stevenson, Kefauver, or some other political half- worthy, the candidate’s personality would suffer from his unfortunate resemblance to a prosperous undertaker. There is no getting around it — the American people tend to vote for the candidate who gives off the impression of having experienced some pleasure in his life, and Eisenhower, whatever his passive vicissitudes, looks like he has had a good time now and again. I would submit that this is one of the few healthy aspects of our unhealthy country — it is indeed folk wisdom.
A man who has had good times has invariably also suffered (as opposed to the unfortunate number of people who have avoided pain at the expense of avoiding pleasure as well), and the mixture of pain and pleasure in a man’s experiences is likely to give him the proportion, the common sense, and the charm a president needs.
Hemingway, I would guess, possesses exactly that kind of charm, possesses it in greater degree than Eisenhower, and so he would have some outside chance to win.”
In a New York Times opinion piece, Margaret Atwood looks at the specter of robotics, that helpful and scary thing, offering that it’s not our tin others that may eventually doom humanity but the growing need for a cheap energy source to power these systems we’re increasingly basing our civilization on. An excerpt:
“Thereby hangs many a popular tale; for although we’ve pined for them and designed them, we’ve never felt down-to-earth regular-folks comfy with humanoid robots. There’s nothing that spooks us more, say those who study such things, than beings that appear to be human but aren’t quite. As long as they look like the Tin Woodman and have funnels on their heads, we can handle them; but if they look almost like us — if they look, for instance, like the ‘replicants’ in the film Blade Runner; or like the plastic-faced, sexually compliant fake Stepford Wives; or like the enemy robot-folk in the Terminator series, human enough until their skins burn off — that’s another matter.
The worry seems to be that perfected robots, instead of being proud to serve their creators, will rebel, resisting their subservient status and eliminating or enslaving us. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the makers of golems, we can work wonders, but we fear that we can’t control the results. The robots in R.U.R. ultimately triumph, and this meme has been elaborated upon in story after story, both written and filmed, in the decades since.
A clever variant was supplied by John Wyndham in his 1954 story ‘Compassion Circuit,’ in which empathetic robots, designed to react in a caring way to human suffering, cut off a sick woman’s head and attach it to a robot body. At the time Wyndham was writing, this plot line was viewed with some horror, but today we would probably say, ‘Awesome idea!’ We’re already accustomed to the prospect of our future cyborgization, because — as Marshall McLuhan noted with respect to media — what we project changes us, what we farm also farms us, and thus what we roboticize may, in the future, roboticize us.
Maybe. Up to a point. If we let it.”
Tags: Margaret Atwood
Anthony Burgess, with Dick Cavett in 1971, thinking racial strife in London had been solved and discussing Shakespeare.
Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies is sort of a dry read with a few colorful flourishes, but its ideas have front-burnered the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence, causing Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and other heady thinkers to warn of the perils of AI, “the last invention we will ever need to make,” in Bostrom-ian terms. The philosopher joined a very skeptical Russ Roberts for an EconTalk conversation about future machines so smart they have no use for us. Beyond playing the devil’s advocate, the host is perplexed by the idea of superintelligence can make the leap beyond our control, that it can become “God.” But I don’t think machines need be either human or sacred to slip from our grasp in the long-term future, to have “preferences” based not on emotion or intellect but just the result of deep learning that was inartfully programmed by humans in the first place. One exchange:
So, let me raise, say, a thought that–I’m interested if anyone else has raised this with you in talking about the book. This is a strange thought, I suspect, but I want your reaction to it. The way you talk about superintelligence reminds me a lot about how medieval theologians talked about God. It’s unbounded. It can do anything. Except maybe created a rock so heavy it can’t move it. Has anyone ever made that observation to you, and what’s your reaction to that?
I think you might be the first, at least that I can remember.
Well, so there are a couple of analogies, and a couple of differences as well. One difference is we imagine that a superintelligence here will be bounded by the laws of physics, and which can be important when we are thinking about how we are thinking about how it might interact with other superintelligences that might exist out there in the vast universe. Another important difference is that we would get design this entity. So, if you imagine a pre-existing superintelligence that is out there and that has created the world and that has full control over the world, there might be a different set of options available across humans in deciding how we relate to that. But in this case, there are additional options on the table in that we actually have to figure out how to design it. We get to choose how to build it.
Up to a point. Because you raise the specter of us losing control of it. To me, it creates–inevitably, by the way, much of this is science fiction, movie material; there’s all kinds of interesting speculations in your book, some of which would make wonderful movies and some of which maybe less so. But to me it sounds like you are trying to question–you are raising the question of whether this power that we are going to unleash might be a power that would not care about us. And it would be the equivalent of saying, of putting a god in charge of the universe who is not benevolent. And you are suggesting that in the creation of this power, we should try to steer it in a positive direction.
Yeah. So in the first type of scenario which I mentioned, where you have a singleton forming because the first superintelligence is so powerful, then, yes, I think a lot will depend on what that superintelligence would want. And, the generic [?] there, I think it’s not so much that you would get a superintelligence that’s hostile or evil or hates humans. It’s just that it would have some goal that is indifferent to humans. The standard example being that of a paper clip maximizer. Imagine an artificial agent whose utility function is, say, linear in the number of paper clips it produces over time. But it is superintelligent, extremely clever at figuring out how to mobilize resources to achieve this goal. And then you start to think through, how would such an agent go about maximizing the number of paper clips that will be produced? And you realize that it will have an instrumental reason to get rid of humans in as much as maybe humans would maybe try to shut it off. And it can predict that there will be much fewer paper clips in the future if it’s no longer around to build them. So that would already create the society effect, an incentive for it to eliminate humans. Also, human bodies consist of atoms. And a lot of juicy[?] atoms that could be used to build some really nice paper clips. And so again, a society effect–it might have reasons to transform our bodies and the ecosphere into things that would be more optimal from the point of view of paper clip production. Presumably, space probe launchers that are used to send out probes into space that could then transform the accessible parts of the universe into paper clip factories or something like that. If one starts to think through possible goals that an artificial intelligence can have, it seems that almost all of those goals if consistently maximally realized would lead to a world where there would be no human beings and indeed perhaps nothing that we humans would accord value to. And it only looks like a very small subset of all goals, a very special subset, would be ones that, if realized, would have anything that we would regard as having value. So, the big challenge in engineering an artificial motivation system would be to try to reach into this large space of possible goals and take out ones that would actually sufficiently match our human goals, that we could somehow endorse the pursuit of these goals by a superintelligence.”
Putin the profligate, who’s led Russia in frittering away two vital decades, when the country could have remade and modernized itself with Soviet Era oil money before the supply dwindled and prices collapsed, is well chronicled. Putin the plunderer, the plutocrat, the Kremlin kleptocrat, has also been profiled, but not nearly as often, as retribution for bringing such trespasses to light is heavy. From Rajan Menon’s New York Times book review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha:
“He may cop to being an authoritarian (he boasts of building a strong state), a nationalist (he wears a cross, preaches patriotism and praises the Orthodox Church) and an empire builder (he brags about retaking Crimea and is unapologetic about seeking a sphere of influence). But the accusation that he’s a common crook, or even an uncommon one, is different — and a charge he doesn’t treat lightly. That’s why Russian reporters avoid it, especially as political controls have tightened, and why Dawisha’s original publisher, Cambridge University Press, declined to print the book on the advice of its lawyers worried about the possibility of legal action.
The true tragedy is that corruption, state-sponsored, energy-driven and totaling hundreds of billions annually, has mortgaged Russia’s future. Freedom has withered. Money for the investments urgently needed to make Russia innovative and prosperous has been diverted to enrich a few.
Alas, that’s what kleptocracies do.”
Via the wonderful Browser, I came across a very fine online piece by Christopher Bonanos of New York about the Strand, the only bookstore in NYC I still go to, the only one that doesn’t depress me. It’s as vibrant as ever, anachronism though it is. Amusingly, I purchased Bonanos’ own book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, at the Strand last year. (Second floor, photography section.) An excerpt about the perils the brick-and-mortar bookseller must circumvent to continue thriving:
“Are there existential threats to the Strand? There are. E-books, which require no retail space, have cut into best-seller sales. The Strand has pushed back with remaindered hardcovers, placed by the front door under a sign reading LOWER-PRICED THAN E-BOOKS.
There’s also the Strand’s relationship with its unionized employees, who were organized by the UAW back in the ’70s. They just signed a new contract this past month. Mostly, the labor-management situation seems equable; still, every few years, when contract time comes, someone writes a news story about strife. ‘The union demands something up here,’ says Fred [Bass], gesturing, ‘and we’re down here … There’s always going to be conflict.’ In general, the union is quite aware that the Strand is not Google, and the Basses are perfectly aware that relative harmony benefits the business. In October, a pro-union staffer named Greg Farrell published a graphic-novel-style book critical of both management and the union’s representatives. Oddly, he still works at the store. More oddly, the Strand sells the book.
Internet used-book sales, too, would seem to be a long-term concern. When you visit Amazon or AbeBooks (which is owned by Amazon) and search for an out-of-print title, your results are usually listed from cheapest to most expensive. The first ‘store’ on the list often turns out to be a barn full of books in rural Minnesota or Vermont. Some are charity stores, selling donated books—no acquisition costs at all. They certainly aren’t paying Manhattan overhead. Yet here, too, the Strand is holding on, owing mostly to that churning turnover and the quality of its stock. That barn isn’t going to have many of last year’s $75 art books for $40, and the Strand always does. Plus there are the only–in–New York surprises that come through the store’s front door. Opening a box can reveal a Warhol monograph that will sell for more than $1,000, or an editor’s library full of warm inscriptions from authors.
If that’s the future, could the Strand wind up virtual? Surely operating out of one of those barns would be cheaper. ‘Not with our formula,’ says Bass firmly. ‘We need the store. This business requires a lot of cash flow to operate,’ and much of it comes in with the tourists. That funds the book-buying, which supplies the next cycle of inventory.”
In his excellent book about exoplanets, Five Billion Years of Solitude, Lee Billings speaks with astronomer Frank Drake about the scientist’s attempts at sending messages, via radio signals, to other technological civilizations out there, something he’s been working on since 1960, thinking this sort of contact more likely than an interstellar meet and greet. In one passage, Drake explains why he believes it likely humans will die along with the sun. An excerpt:
“Some techno-prophets spoke worshipfully or fearfully of computers becoming sentient and gaining godlike powers. Others speculated that someday humans would break free of their carbon-based chains by uploading their minds into silicon substrates, where they could, in some manner, live forever. All seemed to agree that if humans themselves weren’t destined to inherit the Earth, they would certainly author whatever ultimately would. A few even conjured up the bygone Space Age dreams of Drake’s youth, envisioning a new golden era of prosperity and exploration in which humans would travel with their intelligent machines throughout the solar system, and perhaps someday to other stars.
‘Yeah, I’ve heard all that stuff,’ Drake replied. ‘It would be nice if we made it to Mars. But I don’t hold with the hypothesis that we’ll all slowly become or be replaced by computers. And of all the things we might someday do, I don’t think we’ll ever colonize other stars.’
I asked why not.
‘I don’t think computers can have fun,’ he said. I think joy is a quality not available to computers. But what do I know?’ He laughed. ‘Interstellar travel, on the other hand, I’ve worked on that quite a bit. Putting a hundred humans around a nearby star costs about a million times as much as putting them in orbit in your own system. You’d have to be pretty rich to pull that off.
‘Let’s say you have two colonies ten light-years apart–that’s probably the typical distance between habitable planets, I’d guess. The fact is, you can’t really go faster than about a tenth of light-speed. At speeds higher than that, if you hit anything of any substance whatsoever, the amount of energy released approaches that of a nuclear bomb. So you’re limited to about ten percent, a speed we can’t currently come anywhere close to, and that means your looking at journey times of at least a hundred years. The distances, times, and speeds are daunting, but the most daunting thing of all is the cost. Take something the size of a Boeing 737 plane, which is about the smallest that might make a reasonable crewed expedition, and send it at a tenth the speed of light to a nearby star, okay? Now just work out the kinetic energy that’s in it. It turns out to be about equal to two hundred years of the total electric power production in today’s United States. And that’s assuming a one-way trip, where you don’t even slow down and enter orbit on the other end. The inherent difficulty of interstellar travel is one of the big reasons why looking for things like radio signals is so appealing.’
‘So you think we’re stuck in the solar sytem,’ I said, thinking of distant days when the swollen red sun would sterilize Earth. ‘This is it?’
‘Yeah, I think so,’ Drake somberly replied. ‘You have to admit, though, that it’s pretty good while it lasts.'”
No more than 20 percent of Americans traveled on a plane before 1965, prices far too steep for most until the industry was deregulated. So how did they scratch that post-war itch, the need to take to the road, to be elsewhere, ex-pats in their own nation, to go to the heart of the country instead of waiting for cheap representations of it to come to them, carnivals and fairs and preachers. Some really took to the road, and the Hell’s Angels and other motorcycle gangs were formed from the wanderlust of WWII vets. But for the more-moderate explorers, the trailer was the portable home. In 1953, James Jones wrote for Holiday magazine about traveling thousands of miles in a trailer, perhaps not going from here to eternity, but not an insubstantial length. The opening:
“THE FIRST TIME you tow a house trailer you keep jerking the wheel to compensate for that crazy sway in the back end. It takes a long time to get enough used to it to ignore it. The first haul I ever made with mine—a trip that, although I didn’t know it then, turned out to be the first leg of a junket that would take me clear across the country and back and consume a year and a half—was to Memphis, Tennessee, from my home in Illinois. That’s about 400 miles, and it took me four days to make it. A year and a half later, on my way home from California, I hauled from Tucson, Arizona, to El Paso in one day. I had left a green-eared neophyte, and I was coming back a veteran. There is no pride in the world more rabid than that of a confirmed and dedicated trailerite. The next winter I took my trailer to Florida in four days, just about 1,200 miles.
In between those trips was a year and a half spent living a couple of months in one town after another, one state after another, one trailer park after another, all the way from Memphis to the West Coast, and always in my own home.
On your way somewhere, you roll into a strange town in the evening just at dusk. You know you can’t make the next town before dark, so you find a park. You talk to the man and pay him, park your trailer, connect up your water, sewer and electric lines, step inside and turn on the lights—and discover with a kind of weird surprise that you are home. The same identical home you closed, locked and left this morning. You take the radio and books off the couch (where you have to keep them, traveling) and set them back up on their shelves and look around. No matter how many times you repeat this experience, you never get over that weird surprise at finding everything here, just as you left it. You’re ready to cook your own supper with your own food on your own stove. All around you are people in other trailers, both transients and permanents, doing the same thing. You can’t help but feel a kinship with them. After supper, you can unhitch your car and go downtown to see a show, at home in a strange town you maybe never saw before. And the next time you pass that way, it won’t be a strange town any more.
With a trailer there’s no house-hunting when you move, no high rent stickups. A year ago the average trailer park charged five dollars a week for space. A dollar a day for overnight is standard.
Curiously enough, a lot of people who own trailers don’t have cars and cannot drive. When they move, they hire someone to haul the trailer for them. Many of them don’t even move. Some people live for years on the same lot in the same park and if they ever do move to a new town, they sell the trailer and leave it there like a house and buy a new one when they get where they’re going.
I learned all this at the park in Memphis, where I got my first such hauling job. Mr. Leahy, the rotund but hardheaded little Irishman who owned the park, knew I didn’t have much money and, knowing I was a writer, I think he worried about my ability to come in out of the rain. He put me onto the job of hauling a lady’s trailer up to Blytheville, Arkansas, for her, about seventy-five miles, for twenty-five dollars. That was my start as a professional hauler, and I picked up a good bit at it during the next year and a half.
The lady from Blytheville, it seemed, didn’t get along with her husband. They fought all the time, and he—a crack master mechanic—would periodically go on a great drunk when marriage proved too much for him. She always retaliated by hiring someone to haul the trailer up home to Blytheville where her mother lived. She didn’t go home to mother’s; she took home to mother’s, a much more effective maneuver. The husband would come back to an empty lot and no place to sleep and have to rent a tourist cottage from Mr. Leahy. He would stand this extra expense and lonely freedom about a week, then his pride would vanish and he would go up to Blytheville and get his wife, who was waiting for him fearfully, afraid he wouldn’t come, and they would have to hire someone to bring the trailer back. Mr. Leahy always saved their trailer space for them. Ten days after I hauled her up, I made another twenty-five dollars by going up and hauling them both back. They spent the trip in the back seat of the Jeep with their arms around each other. I left Memphis soon after that so I missed the next trip.
Trailer parks differ across the country.“
Tags: James Jones
The first two paragraphs from Bee Wilson’s London Review of Books piece about the new autobiography by Vivienne Westwood, the designer who made punk a big thing but lost interest when she realized her tattered tees were a fashion statement but not a political one:
“Some time in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking. She went to America and dressed the New York Dolls. Together, she and McLaren assembled the Sex Pistols, whom they got to know thanks to SEX, the clothes shop they (McLaren and Westwood) ran on the King’s Road. There is fierce disagreement as to whether Westwood or John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, thought up the title ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – he says it was him; she says it was her – but there is no doubt that she had a powerful influence on the way punks, including Lydon, dressed. She was the first to design T-shirts covered in punk ‘bricolage’, ranging from studs and chains to chicken bones to nipple zips, and she was the one who put a safety pin through the queen’s mouth on a T-shirt. By 1977, teenagers all over the country were copying the look she had started: the spiky hair, the studs, the clothes daubed with antisocial messages. It wasn’t what Westwood had wanted, though. She was hoping for revolution. ‘When I turned round, on the barricades,’ she says in Vivienne Westwood, an autobiography written with Ian Kelly (rather than the usual ghostwritten celebrity tosh), ‘there was no one there. That was how it felt. They were just still pogoing. So I lost interest.’
The prevailing impression of Westwood that we get from the book is of a leader whose people have been a constant disappointment to her. ‘The way I thought about ‘punk’ politics,’ Westwood says now, ‘was this: at the time, we were just becoming aware of these terrible politicians torturing people – I’m thinking of Pinochet, for instance … The idea was that kids would try to put a spoke in the wheel of this terrible killing machine.’ She saw herself as someone who would ‘confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others’. But it turned out that the kids were mainly interested in buying the new rubber skirts and bondage gear from her shop and playing punk rock records. Whoever deserves the credit for the title ‘Anarchy in the UK,’ the people listening to the music were not taking the message seriously enough. Few punks got the connection – so obvious to Westwood – between wearing a distressed top featuring a swastika, the word DESTROY and defeating Pinochet. Westwood believed her clothes – which she saw and still sees as her art – were inexorably leading punks towards radical politics. When you put on a punk garment such as a real dog collar, Westwood says, ‘basically you are insulting yourself, but you’re also clearing yourself of all egotism.’ But when she turned round, they were just spitting and jumping. So she moved on.”
I can’t guarantee there will always be Broadway, but I’m sure there will always be theater. I feel the same way about books, even if brick-and-mortar stores are (sadly) in a steep decline. There will permanently be a hunger for written stories.
Of course, it takes some training to take advantage of the endless supply of volumes now available to us, and James Patterson is concerned that reading is an endangered species. He’s right to question what an Amazon monopoly on book pricing might mean, though I think the money he’s allocating to TV ads encouraging reading might be better spent on simply buying comic books for low-income families with young children. Having grown up in very modest circumstances and having learned to read on Mad magazine, I can vouch for such a plan. Based on his interview with Erin Keane of Salon, Patterson is certainly aware of the power of pleasure reading early in life. An excerpt:
What’s the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?
I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.
I think they probably think they’re doing that, but they’re not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that’s fine, but I don’t know how we’d do that on a practical level and keep stores… You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he’s got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.
Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an ‘essential good,’ like food and utilities. They’re taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?
No, I don’t think it’s a model, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it’s something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.
This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We’re gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he’ll appear in public carrying a book, he’ll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative. And then to have some of these [politicans] going on record in government sessions that they’re concerned about the state of reading in our country. And they should be.
Because, look, with our kids, and that’s a big deal with me, kids are not reading as broadly as they should and as they used to. We’re getting more and more of this kind of tunnel-vision, get on your little mission to become a doctor, lawyer, mathematician, engineer, etc., and [kids] really don’t read. My son’s at a very good prep school, and they don’t read as much as I’d like them to do, in terms of breadth of reading. You know, they don’t know who a lot of the famous authors [are]. Not that they should matter who they are, but … my own thing about kids at the top [is] that in the course of high school they’re exposed to a couple hundred really good, interesting authors, you know, ranging from Toni Morison to Cormac McCarthy to Truman Capote to Saul Bellow, etc., etc., and just be familiar with different voices and ways of looking at the world. I think that’s important in terms of really good readers.
More important, maybe, is at-risk kids, because, and this is a big deal with me, I do a lot, as much as any individual can do, but at-risk kids, if they’re not… if they don’t become competent readers—I’m not talking about readers for life, I’m talking about competent readers—how are they going to get through high school? If you’re not a competent reader. And that’s an epidemic around this country, kids who cannot read at a competent level. How you gonna do history, how you gonna do science? You just can’t. I mean, you sit there and you struggle and it takes 15 minutes to read the first page. That doesn’t work. In a lot of cases, it’s correctible.
There’s research that says that kids who grow up in a household where there are books in the house are more likely to become constant readers than those who don’t.
That’s a piece of it. That’s a piece of it. What happens in the schools is a piece of it. I just gave a talk, and I was asked to talk on this subject in front of all of the middle school principals in New York City, public schools, and they asked me to talk about the principals encouraging students to read for fun, to read extra stuff, to read outside of the Common Core, to read things, because the more they read the better they get at it. It’s really simple. I’ll go into schools and I’ll go, ‘Who plays soccer?’ ‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ ‘You better now or three years ago?’ ‘We’re better now! Yeah!’ ‘How come?’ ‘Cause we play a lot! Yeah!’ ‘Okay, same thing, dudes.’ If you read, and you can read fun stuff, you can read comic books, you can read a lot of different… there’s a lot of ways to get that exercise, get that reading muscle worked on. If you do that, you will become good readers, and school will be easier.“
Novelist William Gibson has always seemed to exist in two moments at once, ours and the one about to occur. He comes by the duality naturally, having been raised with a foot in two temporal realities. A couple of quick passages follow from a new Gibson Q&A conducted by David Kushner of Rolling Stone.
You also lost your father when you were a kid. How did that affect your development as a writer?
Well, in the first place, I think there’s simply the mechanism of trauma in early life, which as an adult having watched other people go through that now, I can understand as being profoundly destabilizing. But the other thing it did was it caused my mother to return to the small town in Virginia from which both she and my father were originally from. So my earliest childhood memories were of living in a 1950s universe of Fifties stuff, as the construction company my father worked for built infrastructure projects across the South. . .lots of Levittown-style subdivisions. After my father’s death we returned to this little place in the mountains where you look out the window and in one direction, you might see tailfins and you’d know you were in the early Sixties. In the other, you’d see a guy with a straw hat using a mule to plow a field — and it could have been like 1890 or 1915. It felt to me like being exiled in the past; I was taken away from this sort of modern world, and partially emerged in this strange old place that, perhaps because of the traumatic circumstances of my arrival, I never entirely came to feel a part of. I observed the people around me as though I was something else. I didn’t feel that I was what they were. I can see that as the beginning of the novelistic mind.
At the time you coined “cyberspace,” you’d supposedly barely spent any time on a computer. That’s hard to believe.
Oh no, I had scarcely seen one. Personal computers were not common objects at all, and I had been writing short fiction on the kind of manual portable that hipsters are starting to pay really good money for now. And then a friend of mine called from Texas and said, “My dad just gave me this machine called an Apple IIc, and, like, it automates the writing of fiction — you’ve gotta get one.” So I went down to a department store, which was the only Apple dealership in town. I bought the IIc and the printer and the bits you needed to make it work and took it all home in a box, and never looked back. It was a godsend for me because I can’t type, and having this endlessly correctable, effortlessly correctable way to write was fantastic.
In fact, you came up with the idea of cyberspace after seeing some kids playing video games in an arcade. What was it about them that inspired you?
It was their body language, this physical manifestation of some kind of intense yearning. And it seemed to me that had they been able to, they would have reached through the screen — like, reached through the glass — and directly manipulated the pixels to get the result they wanted. It was the combination of that seeing these gamers and those ads for early laptops. I made the imaginative leap that behind the screen of each personal computer, there was a notional space. And what if the notional space behind the screen of each computer was a shared notional space? And that was all it took to have the cyberspace idea. I had some vague, vague sense of what the Internet then consisted of, because I knew a few people in Seattle who worked for very, very early iterations of the Seattle digital tech scene. They talked about DARPA, they talked about the Internet. The idea that there was an Internet was less a part of what I was doing than my sense that there could be a shared notional space and that it would be extra-geographical. The space behind the screen was the same space behind the screen in Vancouver or Nairobi.•
“The next day was hotter. We climbed along the slowly rising ramp of the Middle Atlas, the great range that lies between the Rif and the Grand Atlas, a gray, glistening landscape. The shiny leaves of the scrub live-oaks, and even the exposed bedrock beneath, reflected the hot light of the overhead sun. Farther along, on the southern slope of the mountains, we passed the mangled body of a large ape that had not got out of the road fast enough—an unusual sight here, since these animals generally stay far from the highways.
All afternoon we had been speeding down the gradually descending valley between the Middle Atlas and the Grand Atlas. The sun went down ahead of us and the moon rose behind us. We drank coffee from the vacuum bottle and hoped we would get into Marrakech in time to find some food. The new Moroccan regime has brought early closing hours to a land where heretofore night was merely a continuation of day.
After the lunar brightness of the empty wasteland, the oasis was dark. The highway went for miles between high mud walls and canebrakes; the black tracery of date palms rose above them, against the brilliant night sky. Suddenly the walls and the oasis came to an end, and ahead, standing in the rubble of the desert, was a big new cinema trimmed with tubes of colored neon, the tin and straw shacks of a squatters’ colony clustering around it like the cottages of a village around the church. In Morocco the very poor live neither in the country nor in the city; they come as far as the outer walls of the town, build these these desparate-lookingbidonvilles out of whatever materials they can find, and there they stay.
Marrakech is a city of great distances, flat as a table. When the wind blows, the pink dust of the plain sweeps into the sky, obscuring the sun, and the whole city, painted with a wash made of the pink earth on which it rests, glows red in the cataclysmic light. At night, from a car window, it looks not unlike one of our Western cities: long miles of street lights stretching in straight lines across the plain. Only by day you see that most of these lights illumine nothing more than empty reaches of palm garden and desert.
Over the years, the outer fringes of the Medina have been made navigable to automobiles and horse-drawn buggies, of which there are still a great many, but it takes a brave man to drive his car into the maze of serpentine alleys full of porters, bicycles, carts, donkeys and pedestrians. Besides, the only way to see anything in the Medina is to walk. In order to be really present, you must have your feet in the dust, and be aware of the hot dusty smell of the mud walls beside your face.
The night we arrived in Marrakech, we went to a café in the heart of the Medina. On the roof under the stars they spread matting, blankets and cushions for us, and we sat there drinking mint tea, savoring the cool air that begins to stir above the city after midnight when the stored heat of the sun is finally dissipated.
Abruptly out of the silence of the street below, there came a succession of strange, explosive cries. I leaned over the edge and peered into the dim passageway three floors beneath. Among the few late strollers an impossible, phantomlike figure was dancing. It galloped, it stopped, it made great gravitation-defying leaps into the air as if the earth under its feet were helping. At each leap it yelled. No one paid any attention. As the figure came below the café, I was able to identify it as a powerfully built young man; he was almost naked. I watched him disappear into the dark. Almost immediately he returned, doing the same inspired dance, occasionally rushing savagely toward other pedestrians, but always stopping in time to avoid touching them.
He passed back and forth through the alley in this way for a quarter of an hour or so before the qahaouaji, having made the tea, climbed the ladder again to the roof where we sat. When he came I said casually: ‘What’s going on down there?’ Although in most places it would have been clear enough that a madman was loose in the streets, in Morocco there are subtle distinctions to be made. Sometimes the person turns out to be merely holy, or indisposed.
‘Ah, poor man,’ said the gahaouaji. ‘He’s a friend of mine. We were in school together. He got high marks and played good soccer.’
‘What do you think? A woman, of course.’
This had not occurred to me. ‘You mean she worked magic on him?’
‘What else? At first he was like this—’ He let his jaw drop and his mouth hang open; his eyes became fixed and vacant. ‘Then after a few weeks he tore off his clothes and began to run. And ever since, he runs like that. The woman was rich. her husband had died and she wanted Allal. But he’s of a good family and they didn’t like her. So she said in her head: No other woman is going to have him either. And she gave him what she gave him.’
‘And his family?’
‘He doesn’t know his family. He lives in the street.’
‘And the woman? What happened to her?’
‘He shrugged. ‘She’s not here any more. She moved somewhere else.’
At that moment the cries came up again.
‘But why do they let him run in the street? Can’t they do anything for him?’
‘Oh, he never hurts anybody. He’s just playful. He likes to scare people, that’s all.’
I decided to put my question. ‘Is he crazy?’
‘No, just playful.’
‘Ah, yes. I see.'”
Tags: Paul Bowles
Michael Lewis has a different kind of take on wealth disparity in the U.S. In a New Republic review of Darrell M. West’s book Billionaires, Lewis remains circumspect that ridiculously prosperous Americans can win elections or influence issues, even in a nation defined by Citizens United and growing income inequality. (I don’t know that we’ve yet arrived at the endgame on that issue.) But he still thinks superwealth may make people assholes, or at the very least, uncaring and unhappy–that apart from money, they aren’t very rich. It’s a generalization, sure, though it’s difficult to imagine that being cosseted by a fortune wouldn’t alter a person’s worldview, wouldn’t allow them to arrange their reality as they wish, minus that helpful friction the rest of us encounter when we want our own way regardless of how it effects others. At any rate, Lewis comes armed with a trove of research by social scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists. An excerpt:
“What is clear about rich people and their money—and becoming ever clearer—is how it changes them. A body of quirky but persuasive research has sought to understand the effects of wealth and privilege on human behavior—and any future book about the nature of billionaires would do well to consult it. One especially fertile source is the University of California, Berkeley, psychology department lab overseen by a professor named Dacher Keltner. In one study, Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff installed note-takers and cameras at city street intersections with four-way stop signs. The people driving expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers than drivers of cheap cars. The researchers then followed the drivers to the city’s cross walks and positioned themselves as pedestrians, waiting to cross the street. The drivers in the cheap cars all respected the pedestrians’ right of way. The drivers in the expensive cars ignored the pedestrians 46.2 percent of the time—a finding that was replicated in spirit by another team of researchers in Manhattan, who found drivers of expensive cars were far more likely to double park. In yet another study, the Berkeley researchers invited a cross section of the population into their lab and marched them through a series of tasks. Upon leaving the laboratory testing room the subjects passed a big jar of candy. The richer the person, the more likely he was to reach in and take candy from the jar—and ignore the big sign on the jar that said the candy was for the children who passed through the department.
Maybe my favorite study done by the Berkeley team rigged a game with cash prizes in favor of one of the players, and then showed how that person, as he grows richer, becomes more likely to cheat. In his forthcoming book on power, Keltner contemplates his findings:
If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn’t that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my life—the extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks.
There is plenty more like this to be found, if you look for it. A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.”
This strange 1975 photo captures Ingmar Bergman in Hollywood enjoying a tender moment with the Jaws prop shark nicknamed “Bruce.” Before that film was a big-screen game changer helmed by Steven Spielberg, it was a 1974 bestseller by Peter Benchley, and before that still it was a 1967 Holiday magazine article (“Shark!“) from the same writer. Here’s the opening of the first, journalistic version:
“ONE WARM SUMMER DAY I was standing on a beach near Tom Never’s Head on Nantucket. Children were splashing around in the gentle surf as their mothers lay gabbing by the Styrofoam ice chests and the Scotch Grills. About thirty yards from shore, a man paddled back and forth, swimming in a jerky, tiring, head-out-of-the-water fashion. I had just remarked dully that the water was unusually calm, when I noticed a black speck cruising slowly up the beach some twenty yards beyond the lone swimmer. It seemed to dip in and out of the water, staying on the surface for perhaps five seconds, then disappearing for one or two, then reappearing for five. I ran down to the water and waved my arms at the man. At first he paid no attention, and kept plodding on. Then he noticed me. I pointed out to sea, cupped my hands over my mouth, and bellowed, ‘Shark!’ He turned and saw the short, triangular fin moving almost parallel with him. Immediately he lunged for the shore in a frantic sprint. The fish, which had taken no notice of the swimmer, became curious at the sudden disturbance in the water, and I saw the fin turn inshore. It moved lazily, but not aimlessly.
By now the man had reached chest-deep water, and while he could probably have made better time by swimming, he elected to run. Running in five feet of water is something like trying to skip rope in a vat of peanut butter, and I could see his eyes bug and his face turn bright cerise as he slogged along. He didn’t look around, which was probably just as well, for the fish was no more than fifty yards behind him. At waist depth, the terrified man assumed Messianic talents. He seemed to lift out of the water, his legs churning wildly, his arms flailing. He hit the beach at a dead run and fled as far as the dunes, where he collapsed. The shark, discovering that whatever had roiled the water had disappeared, turned back and resumed his idle cruise just beyond the small breakers.
During the man’s race for land, the children had miraculously vanished from the surf, and now they were being bundled into towels by frenzied mothers. One child was bawling, ‘But I want to play!’ His mother snapped, ‘No! There’s a shark out there.’ The shark was out of sight down the beach, and for a time the ladies stood around staring at the water, evidently expecting the sea to regurgitate a mass of unspeakable horrors. Then, as if on mute cue, they all at once packed their coolers, grills, rafts, inner tubes and aluminum beach chairs and marched to their cars. The afternoon was still young, and the shark had obviously found this beach unappetizing (dining is poor for sharks closer than a half a mile off the beach at that part of the south shore of Nantucket). But to the mothers, the whole area—sand as well as water—was polluted.
Irrational behavior has always been man’s reaction to the presence of sharks.”
Harold Robbins would have bragged if nine female typists had quit in shock while working on one of his novels, but it was different story in a different era for James Joyce. Getting Ulysses past censors was an arduous task, and he might have tossed the pages aside for good if it wasn’t for the intervention of Shakespeare & Co. owner Sylvia Beach. She gambled her own money and prodded Joyce through many iterations of his work on the way to the printing press, bringing the novel to Parisians in 1922. The volume was a smash hit in France and was soon reselling for $700 a copy. An article about Beach follows from the December 24, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, timed to the belated un-banning of the book in America.
In a 1969 Holiday interview conducted by Alfred Bester, Woody Allen let it be known that he preferred Mort Sahl to Lenny Bruce and J.D. Salinger to Philip Roth. Dumb and dumber. An excerpt:
“There were a couple of paperbacks on the make-up table: Selections From Kierkegaard and Basic Teachings of Great Philosophers, the sort of thing you’d expect to see a young intellectual reading on a bus. We discussed books. ‘I don’t enjoy reading,’ Woody said. ‘It’s strictly a secondary experience. If I can do anything else, I’ll duck it. Maybe it’s because I’m a very slow reader. But it’s necessary for a writer, so I have to do it, but I don’t really enjoy it. The thing itself is boring.
‘The only thing I find interesting today is sporting events. They have everything that great theater should have; all the thunderous excitement and you don’t know the outcome. And when the outcome happens, you have to believe it because it happened. I need something crammed with excitement. I like things larger than life.’
He believes that Stendhal’s The Red and The Black is one of the great fathers of modern novels. He says that he hates Terry Southern and had to struggle through Philip Roth’s new novel. ‘I felt there were many passages that could have been done better. In the masturbation scenes Roth was reaching for wild effects; in fact, I feel that Roth was pandering to the public. His attitude was: ‘All right, I’ll give you what you want.’ Salinger didn’t do that in Catcher in the Rye. His whole book was on a much higher level.’
Woody is hipped on the subject of pandering. ‘I feel the same way about Lenny Bruce as I do about Roth. Bruce was not particularly brilliant. He pandered. He was and is idolized by the kind of people who must invent an idol for themselves. Nichols and May didn’t do that. Mort Sahl doesn’t do that; he doesn’t pander.”
The name of another prominent comic came up. I said, ‘Now there’s a no-talent for you.’
‘He’s very successful,’ Woody said quietly.
‘And that’s what amazes me; the number of no-talents who are successful.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘These days everybody’s successful, talent and no-talent.'”
In the 1968 New York Times Book Review, Dan Wakefield wrote of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, rightfully lavishing praise on what was an instant journalistic classic and one that has since stood the test of time. Didion had escaped New York for the West Coast to write most of the pieces, struck almost silent by a sort of aphasia induced by an indeterminant anxiety. She still managed to communicate. An excerpt:
“The author writes about the contemporary world– quite often the Western United States where she grew up and where she has returned after the writer’s almost obligatory boot-camp training in New York City– and though her own personality does not self-indulgently intrude itself on her subjects, it informs and illuminates them.
The reader comes to admire what can only be called the character of this observer at work, looking in as well as out, noting, for instance, in a piece about a young California Maoist that is a classic portrayal of a certain kind of political zealot of either left or right:
‘As it happens I am comfortable… with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or history.’
In her portraits of people, Miss Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us actors and millionaires, doomed brides and naïve acid-trippers, left-wing ideologues and snobs of the Hawaiian aristocracy in a way that makes them neither villainous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful in the midst of their lives’ debris. Her portrayals remind me most of the line of a great poem of Robert Frost that says, speaking of us all, ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad.’
Miss Didion is the only writer I know who has captured something of the real mystique and essence of Joan Baez, a frank but elusive subject whom more than one reporter has muffed in the most hopeless manner. (I know; I am one of them.) The fragile innocence as well as the pathos of the students at Miss Baez’s Workshop for Non-Violence are caught in Miss Didion’s description of one of their sessions breaking up as the sky turns dark in the late afternoon, and how they all are ‘reluctant about gathering up their books and magazines and records, about finding their car keys and ending the day, and by the time they are ready to leave Joan Baez is eating potato salad with her fingers from a bowl in the refrigerator, and everyone stays to share it, just a little while longer where it is warm.’
The title piece is about Haight-Ashbury, and conveys the complexity and the ‘atomization’ of the hippie scene not as the latest fashionable trend, but as a serious advanced stage of society in which things are truly ‘falling apart’ as in Yeats’s poem. Compare this piece with Time magazine’s hapless cover story on the hippies last year, and you will see why ‘group journalism’ is usually inferior to a single, talented writer using the ‘method’ explained by Miss Didion: ‘When I went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around a while, and made a few friends.’
That is how the best things are always done– a fact they won’t believe when you try to explain it at a writers conference. (They think you’re keeping a secret about how it’s really done.)”
In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiles Didion:
In writing disapprovingly in the New York Review of Books of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Elizabeth Kolbert points out that the truth about climate change isn’t only inconvenient, it’s considered a deal-breaker, even by the supposedly green. An excerpt follows.
What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.
The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.
To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.
The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”
In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”
To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.•
“It is said that Jean-Paul Sartre turned white-faced with excitement when a colleague arrived hotfoot from Germany with the news that one could make philosophy out of the ashtray. In these two new books, Slavoj Žižekphilosophises in much the same spirit about sex, swearing, decaffeinated coffee, vampires, Henry Kissinger, The Sound of Music, the Muslim Brotherhood, the South Korean suicide rate and a good deal more. If there seems no end to his intellectual promiscuity, it is because he suffers from a rare affliction known as being interested in everything. In Britain, philosophers tend to divide between academics who write for each other and meaning-of-life merchants who beam their reflections at the general public. Part of Žižek’s secret is that he is both at once: a formidably erudite scholar well-versed in Kant and Heidegger who also has a consuming passion for the everyday. He is equally at home with Hegel and Hitchcock, the Fall from Eden and the fall of Mubarak. If he knows about Wagner and Schoenberg, he is also an avid consumer of vampire movies and detective fiction. A lot of his readers have learned to understand Freud or Nietzsche by viewing them through the lens of Jaws or Mary Poppins.
Academic philosophers can be obscure, whereas popularisers aim to be clear. With his urge to dismantle oppositions, Žižek has it both ways here.”
The idea that machines can write narratives is nothing new, and I suspect that broad screenplays could be produced by algorithms right now or in the near future. Popular books and reportage written with a human level of nuance by bots is a harder trick to pull off, though it probably will be possible given enough time. Not that I’m looking forward to that. From Jason Dorrier at Singularity Hub:
“The idea that computers are increasingly taking figurative pen to paper has recently attracted quite a bit of attention. Over the last few years, algorithmic news writing has begun quietly infiltrating big name journalism.
Last year a Los Angeles Times algorithm was first to break the news of a mild quake that hit LA in the early morning hours. And one of the best known algorithms, by Narrative Science, is used by a number of news outlets, including Forbes.
These robot writers are fairly limited and highly formulaic (to date). For the most part, they excel at what might be called data-centric journalism—sports, finance, weather. Basically anything that generates statistics and spreadsheets.
The bots peruse the data, looking for outliers, maximums, minimums, and averages. They take the most newsworthy of these statistics, come up with an angle and story structure—choosing from an internal database—and spit out the final text.
The result is simple but effective, and on a quick read, perfectly human.
It’s tempting to look ahead a few years and forecast a news media dominated by algorithmic writing. Narrative Science’s Kristian Hammond says computers might write Pulitzer-worthy stories by 2017 and generate 90% of the news by 2030.
He might be right. But the software will need to be more capable than it is now. In fact, computers have been similarly constructing algorithmic sentences since 1952. A machine from that era, the Ferranti Mark 1, constructed love letters from a static list of words, a very simple version of the way modern newsbots build articles from preprogrammed phrases.”
Although better education, particularly at the primary and secondary levels, would be a great thing in America, I don’t really believe that such an improvement would reverse wealth inequality in the country, as Thomas Piketty has suggested. We seem to be in a spiral with no easy answers. From the Economist:
“AMONG the most controversial of Thomas Piketty’s arguments in his bestselling analysis of inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very rich. Rising wealth inequality could presage the return of an 18th century inheritance society, in which marrying an heir is a surer route to riches than starting a company. Critics question the premise: Chris Giles, the economics editor of the Financial Times, argued earlier this year that Mr Piketty’s data were both thin and faulty. Yet a new paper suggests that, in America at least, inequality in wealth is approaching record levels.
Earlier studies of American wealth have tended to show only small increases in inequality in recent decades. A 2004 study of estate-tax data by Wojciech Kopczuk of Columbia University and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, found an almost imperceptible rise in the share of wealth held by the top 1% of families, from about 19% in 1976 to 21% in 2000. A more recent investigation of the Federal Reserve’s data on consumer finances, by Edward Wolff of New York University showed a continued but gentle increase in inequality into the 2000s. Mr Piketty’s book, which drew on this previous work, showed similarly modest rises in wealth inequality in America.
A new paper by Mr Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics reckons past estimates badly underestimated the share of wealth belonging to the very rich. It uses a richer variety of sources than prior studies, including detailed data on personal income taxes (which the authors mine for figures on capital income) and property tax, which they check against Fed data on aggregate wealth. The authors note that not every potential source of error can be accounted for; tax avoidance strategies, for instance, could cause either an overestimation of the wealth share of the rich (if they classify labour income as capital income in order to take advantage of lower rates) or an underestimation (if they intentionally seek out lower yielding investments for their tax advantages). Yet they believe their estimates represent an improvement over past attempts.
The results are enough to make Mr Piketty blush.”