Non-Fiction

Wolf Book Postponed in Us as Virago Holds Firm

16 June 2019

From The Bookseller:

Publication of Naomi Wolf’s latest book has been postponed in the US following “new questions” about its contents but UK publisher Virago is standing by its publication.

Wolf was initially alerted to errors in Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love during an appearance on BBC Radio 3 last month.

Historian Dr Matthew Sweet pointed out she had misunderstood the legal term “death recorded” to mean executions when it actually meant judges abstained from pronouncing a death sentence. Sweet also claimed she was wrong about the reason for the sentences. The error called into question her claim that “several dozen” men had been executed for homosexual sex in the UK.

After initially standing by the book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told the New York Times on Thursday (13th June) it was delaying the release. A spokesman told the paper: “As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to Outrages, new questions have arisen that require more time to explore. We are postponing publication and requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions.”

. . . .

A Virago spokeswoman said: “Though the book received excellent reviews it also attracted criticism. As a result, Houghton Mifflin have decided to postpone their June publication ahead of their books going on sale while they explore the questions that have arisen. Virago will be making any necessary corrections to future reprints.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

From The Guardian:

Naomi Wolf’s US publisher has postponed the release of her new book and is recalling copies from booksellers, saying that new questions have arisen over the book’s content.

Outrages, which argues that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 led to a turn against consensual sex between men and an increase in executions for sodomy, was published in the UK on 20 May. Wolf has already acknowledged that the book contains two errors, after an on-air challenge on BBC Radio 3 during which the writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet told her that she had misunderstood the term “death recorded” in historical records as signifying an execution. In fact it denotes the opposite, Sweet pointed out, highlighting that a teenager she said had been “actually executed for sodomy” in 1859 was paroled two years after being convicted. Wolf said last month that she had thanked Sweet for highlighting the mistakes, and was correcting future editions.

. . . .

Wolf said on Friday morning that she strongly objected to the decision to postpone and recall, and that she would “do all I can to bring Outrages to American readers”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From The New York Times:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is postponing the publication of Naomi Wolf’s forthcoming book “Outrages” after questions have been raised about the accuracy of her research.

The book, which explores how 19th-century British laws gave the government new ways to punish and criminalize same-sex relationships, was expected to go on sale in the United States on June 18, with an announced first print run of 35,000 copies.

The publisher initially stood by Ms. Wolf last month after an embarrassing on-air correction to her interpretation of historical records occurred during an interview with the BBC. Now, the company is taking the extreme step of recalling copies from retailers.

. . . .

The blowback against Ms. Wolf was swift after the BBC Radio host, Matthew Sweet, revealed a critical error in her book that undermined her thesis. During the interview, Wolf told him that she found “several dozen executions” of men accused of having sexual relations with other men.

“I don’t think you’re right about this,” he said.

Mr. Sweet said that Ms. Wolf had misunderstood the legal term “death recorded” as an execution, when in fact it meant that a death sentence was not carried out.

“It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon,” Mr. Sweet said. “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”

Ms. Wolf said she would look into the records in question and correct future editions, noting that the issue Mr. Sweet raised was “a really important thing to investigate.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt initially called the mistaken number of executions an “unfortunate error” but said, “we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds.”

It wasn’t the first time Ms. Wolf has been questioned over the accuracy of her research and analysis. Known for books such as “The Beauty Myth” and “Vagina: A New Biography,” she has been called out in the past for vastly overstating the number of women who die from anorexia and for making dubious claims about female biology.

But the errors in “Outrages” appear to be more grave, given that Ms. Wolf’s publisher is taking the costly step of recalling finished copies, a rare measure that is usually only undertaken for books that contain fatal factual flaws or other more serious transgressions. In 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled books by the journalist Jonah Lehrer after evidence surfaced that he had fabricated quotes and plagiarized.

. . . .

Publishers often rely on authors to verify material in their books, and if fact checkers are used, it is typically at the author’s discretion and expense.

Recently, questions have arisen about the accuracy of books by other major nonfiction authors, including Jared Diamond and Michael Wolff, who was called out in an interview for errors in his new book about the Trump administration, “Siege: Trump Under Fire.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG was reminded about the old saying attributed to a newspaper editor, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Books That Every Engineering Manager Should Read

13 June 2019

From freeCodeCamp:

It’s a rare occasion that companies provide leadership training before you become a manager. A few days or weeks after what was probably one of the happiest days in your recent memory, the day you were offered a position outside of the individual contributor track, you find yourself with a million questions. You feel that you were tricked into signing something without reading the fine print.

That feeling you’re experiencing isn’t new, it’s just that you’ve all but forgotten it. It’s not knowing what you’re supposed to do. It’s being clueless. Because if you think years of writing software trained you to become a manager, research states the contrary. But it’s not the end of the world. Even though your company most likely doesn’t understand the need for formal management training, there is a plethora of information available to you that will make your job easier, and maybe even enjoyable.

When I became a manager I did what I typically do when faced with a challenge I know almost nothing about: I started reading. I’ve read a lot of books, some were good, a few of them were amazing. All of them shaped the way I do my job, and so I thought I would share them for other aspiring or active managers out there.

I’ve curated this list based on several factors:

  • The books should cover a broad set of engineering management and leadership topics. It’s easy to find overlapping books. It is much harder to find a diversity of information when you’re very new to leadership.
  • They should be written in different eras. The software industry is constantly evolving. It doesn’t make sense to only read about what was happening in the 1980s or 90s.
  • Reading order matters a lot. Some books are more specialized than others. The information provided can be thought of as layers that stack on top of each other. If you’re inexperienced, you may start in the middle or the end, and that will basically ruin other books for you.
  • Finally, I put a hard limit of 7, just because I think this list is enough to build a foundation layer on top of which you can continue reading and maybe even doing your own research further on.

. . . .

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco & Tim Lister

This should be mandatory reading for everyone. Period. No, not just everyone in software, everyone working in a private company should read this book. It’s amazing to me how pretty much all of the problems that people deal with it on a daily basis have already been solved. In the 1980s. If you read just one book from this list, let it be this one.

. . . .

Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Cialdini

An engineering manager’s job is to ensure their team has everything it needs to succeed. This means managing the interaction between multiple groups of people towards an agreeable outcome.

If you’ve ever tried to convince a friend to move from WhatsApp to Telegram and failed, you’ve made an attempt at exerting influence. You’ll need to do that basically every day, and in my experience, this is a very hard skill to learn. It takes a lot of practice, and there’s really no sandbox mode in which you can fail and it’ll be OK. You will try to talk to someone at some point into doing something, and you will fail, and you or your team will suffer for it.

This book is the definitive guide on how to approach the problem scientifically. A lot of managers seem to think they don’t need to learn how to influence others, particularly their direct reports, as rank is the ultimate influencer. Thinking that will keep you from ever becoming a great leader, in my opinion. Yes, you will probably overrule someone at some point and it will feel terrific while you do it. But if that person ends up hating you for it, you’ve just lost their trust and you will see the consequences of that later on.

Link to the rest at freeCodeCamp

Last D-Day Veterans Make Poignant Return to Normandy

6 June 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Pvt. Jack Port thought he was fighting the war to end all wars when he stormed Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. Seventy-five years later he sees a world again in conflict.

Pvt. Port was part of the biggest amphibious invasion in history. It laid the foundations of the trans-Atlantic alliance that has underpinned decades of trade and security ties across the West.

That world order is under strain as President Trump and other world leaders gather in Normandy on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. From Mr. Trump to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaders around the world are prioritizing domestic interests over international cooperation and marginalizing bodies created to referee disputes among great powers, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization.

“I’m very disappointed, and I hate leaving the world feeling this way,” said Mr. Port, now 97 years old.

This year only a few dozen American D-Day veterans are returning to Normandy, said Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which honors American troops who died in Europe during World War II. The average age of D-Day veterans returning to Normandy this year is 96. Less than 4% of World War II veterans are still alive, and few can muster the strength to travel.

. . . .

President Trump read an excerpt from the prayer that President Franklin Roosevelt delivered by radio on June 6, 1944.

Queen Elizabeth II told the audience when she attended the 60th anniversary of D-Day, many believed it would be the last such commemoration.“But the wartime generation—my generation—is resilient,” declared the 93-year-old queen.

. . . .

Pvt. Port, then 22, had just completed 12 weeks of training camp in California, where he grew up. At home, guns weren’t allowed.

“They took me as a punk high school kid, and converted me into a combat soldier,” said Mr. Port.

He had no idea where he was headed. He had heard about Hitler but wasn’t really interested in politics.

. . . .

“At the time I was just a kid. I wanted to chase girls,” he said.

. . . .

British Sgt. John Rushton, now 95, was one of the first men to reach Sword Beach on D-Day, arriving early in the morning on a landing craft carrying tanks and ammunition. As soon as the tanks got off the landing craft, they started sinking in the sand and the tracks came off.

“That was the end of it,” said Sgt. Rushton. But the troops salvaged the ammunition and delivered it into battle. Sgt. Rushton tries to return every year to visit the grave of a British comrade who didn’t make it.

. . . .

“I didn’t want any medals, I just wanted to survive,” Mr. Hurd said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

The Washington War

4 June 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘While millions of American soldiers, sailors, and Marines fought savage battles around the globe” during World War II, James Lacey tells us, a war also raged in Washington. It was fought with intensity and with an impact as critical as outcomes on distant battlefields. Despite a surface appearance of chaos, “titanic rows almost always led to better outcomes than would have prevailed had there been a single man or apparatus dictating events.” Their central figure was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “a master manipulator who generated results via conflict and always resisted delegating ultimate authority.” In the end, Mr. Lacey argues in “The Washington War,” such conflict vindicated American democracy and sealed Roosevelt’s claim to greatness.

As president from 1933, Roosevelt had devoted most of his time and effort to the American struggle against the Depression. The military budget suffered severe cuts. Public sentiment was strongly convinced that the nation’s participation in World War I had been a costly mistake. Congress passed a series of neutrality acts that forbade certain kinds of American trade with warring nations. All indicators of public opinion registered a sense that the United States had no compelling interest on the European continent.

Speaking in Chicago, the epicenter of American isolationism, on Oct. 5, 1937, Roosevelt spotlighted a “reign of terror and international lawlessness.” Peaceful nations, he said, needed to quarantine the aggressors of the world. The backlash was overwhelming, and the president adjusted his rhetoric accordingly. His authority was further diminished by domestic failures, including his bid to “pack” a hostile Supreme Court and his attempt to “purge” conservative Democratic congressmen who had voted against his proposals. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes described him as “punch drunk from the punishment.” By the end of 1938, it seemed that FDR would be remembered at best as a semi-successful chief executive who had ameliorated the Depression and achieved little in foreign affairs.

In September 1939, the outbreak of war in Europe gave Roosevelt a new relevance that bordered on indispensability. He sent Sumner Welles to Europe as, in effect, a personal envoy and peace negotiator. When Welles’s mission proved hopeless, the president pursued policies that favored Britain and France. After the French collapsed in 1940, leaving Hitler the effective master of continental western Europe, FDR concentrated on a program of all-out aid to Britain.

It was at this point, as Mr. Lacey shows, that two relationships became central to Roosevelt’s foreign policy. The first was with Harry Hopkins, who had managed work relief programs during the New Deal years. He had no foreign-policy credentials but possessed good judgment. A journalist described him as having “a mind like a razor, a tongue like a skinning knife, a temper like a Tartar and a sufficient vocabulary of parlor profanity . . . to make a mule skinner jealous.” As Mr. Lacey notes, Hopkins had “a long and public feud” with Ickes, going back to the mid-1930s; the difference had less to do with ideas than with personality: “Each thoroughly despised the other.”

. . . .

Roosevelt dispatched Hopkins to London with the mission of evaluating England’s determination and viability—and, not least, forming a sense of its new prime minister, Winston Churchill. Hopkins would eventually become, in effect, the midwife of a close but complex relationship between the president and the prime minister.

The second relationship was with Churchill himself. On Aug. 3, 1941, Roosevelt departed from Washington on what was billed as a fishing vacation. Reporters who followed the presidential yacht at a distance instead witnessed a double posing as the president, who had transferred to a Navy cruiser that transported him to Newfoundland, met with Churchill. The two leaders sized each other up and developed a positive relationship. They issued a document, rather grandly named the Atlantic Charter, that highlighted the conflict between Nazism and Anglo-American liberalism.

. . . .

Tactically, the Pearl Harbor raid was an enormous success for the Japanese. Strategically, it was a fatal misstep. It united American sentiment for war. Congress shouted its assent the next day and soon followed with declarations against Japan’s Axis allies, Germany and Italy.

Washington became the capital city of the war effort. Once a sleepy upper-South city, it was transformed into a small metropolis with big-city virtues and vices. “While the city’s prostitutes were doing a booming business, the city’s churches were often packed to capacity at all hours of the day,” Mr. Lacey tells us. “When Roosevelt came on the radio to announce the start of a new offensive, it was not the bars that filled up, it was the churches.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Why Books Don’t Work

3 June 2019

From Andy Matuschak:

Books are easy to take for granted. Not any specific book, I mean: the form of a book. Paper or pixels—it hardly matters. Words in lines on pages in chapters. And at least for non-fiction books, one implied assumption at the foundation: people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. This last idea so invisibly defines the medium that it’s hard not to take for granted, which is a shame because, as we’ll see, it’s quite mistaken.

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish GeneThinking, Fast and SlowGuns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly. Often things go well at first. I’ll feel I can sketch the basic claims, paint the surface; but when someone asks a basic probing question, the edifice instantly collapses. Sometimes it’s a memory issue: I simply can’t recall the relevant details. But just as often, as I grasp about, I’ll realize I had never really understood the idea in question, though I’d certainly thought I understood when I read the book. Indeed, I’ll realize that I had barely noticed how little I’d absorbed until that very moment.

I know I’m not alone here. When I share this observation with others—even others, like myself, who take learning seriously—it seems that everyone has had a similar experience.

. . . .

Now, the books I named aren’t small investments. Each takes around 6–9 hours to read. Adult American college graduates read 24 minutes a day on average, so a typical reader might spend much of a month with one of these books. Millions of people have read each of these books, so that’s tens of millions of hours spent. In exchange for all that time, how much knowledge was absorbed? How many people absorbed most of the knowledge the author intended to convey? Or even just what they intended to acquire? I suspect it’s a small minority.

. . . .

All this suggests a peculiar conclusion: as a medium, books are surprisingly bad at conveying knowledge, and readers mostly don’t realize it.

The conclusion is peculiar, in part, because books are shockingly powerful knowledge-carrying artifacts! In the Cosmos episode, “The Persistence of Memory,” Carl Sagan exalts:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Indeed: books are magical! Human progress in the era of mass communication makes clear that some readers really do absorb deep knowledge from books, at least some of the time. So why do books seem to work for some people sometimes? Why does the medium fail when it fails?

. . . .

We’ve been discussing books so far, but have you ever had the same type of experience with a lecture? It’s easy to attend a lecture and feel that you understand, only to discover over that night’s problem set that you understood very little. Memory feels partly to blame: you might sense that you knew certain details at one time, but you’ve forgotten. Yet we can’t pin this all on memory. When you pull on certain strings from the lecture, you might discover that you had never really understood, though you’d certainly thought you understood during the lecture.

. . . .

Like books, lectures can be entertaining or influential; like books, lectures do seem to work… sometimes, for some people. But you probably don’t believe that lectures are a reliable way to convey knowledge.

Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.

. . . .

Lectures, as a medium, have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation. Yet if we were aliens observing typical lectures from afar, we might notice the implicit model they appear to share: “the lecturer says words describing an idea; the class hears the words and maybe scribbles in a notebook; then the class understands the idea.” In learning sciences, we call this model “transmissionism.” It’s the notion that knowledge can be directly transmitted from teacher to student, like transcribing text from one page onto another. If only! The idea is so thoroughly discredited that “transmissionism” is only used pejoratively, in reference to naive historical teaching practices. Or as an ad-hominem in juicy academic spats.

Of course, good lecturers don’t usually believe that simply telling their audience about an idea causes them to understand it. It’s just that lectures, as a format, are shaped as if that were true, so lecturers mostly behave as if it were true.

If pressed, many lecturers would offer a more plausible cognitive model: understanding actually comes after the lecture, when attendees solve problem sets, write essays, etc. The lecture provides the raw information for those later activities. Great: that’s a real model, and parts of it are supported by cognitive science. But if we’d begun with this model, would we have chosen live, ninety-minute speeches to convey raw information for a problem set?

Listeners’ attention wanders after a few minutes, so wouldn’t we want to interleave the problem-solving sessions with the lecture? Live speeches can’t be paused or rewound, so aren’t they awfully lossy for conveying raw information? People can read much more quickly than a lecturer speaks, so wouldn’t text be more efficient? And so on—it’s already clear that the traditional lecture format isn’t particularly informed by this model.

The lectures-as-warmup model is a post-hoc rationalization, but it does gesture at a deep theory about cognition: to understand something, you must actively engage with it.

. . . .

In summary: lectures don’t work because the medium lacks a functioning cognitive model. It’s (implicitly) built on a faulty idea about how people learn—transmissionism—which we can caricaturize as “lecturer says words describing an idea; students hear words; then they understand.”

. . . .

Like lectures, books have no carefully-considered cognitive model at their foundation, but the medium does have an implicit model. And like lectures, that model is transmissionism. Sequences of words in sequences of lines in sequences of pages, the form of a book suggests people absorb knowledge by reading sentences. In caricature: “The author describes an idea in words on the page; the reader reads the words; then the reader understands the idea. When the reader reaches the last page, they’ve finished the book.” Of course, most authors don’t believe that people learn things this way, but because the medium makes the assumption invisible, it’s hard to question.

Like lecturers, many authors would offer a more plausible cognitive model when pressed. Readers can’t just read the words. They have to really think about them. Maybe take some notes. Discuss with others. Write an essay in response. Like a lecture, a book is a warmup for the thinking that happens later. Great: that’s a better model! Let’s look at how it plays out.

I acknowledged earlier that of course, some people do absorb knowledge from books. Indeed, those are the people who really do think about what they’re reading. The process is often invisible. These readers’ inner monologues have sounds like: “This idea reminds me of…,” “This point conflicts with…,” “I don’t really understand how…,” etc. If they take some notes, they’re not simply transcribing the author’s words: they’re summarizing, synthesizing, analyzing.

Unfortunately, these tactics don’t come easily. Readers must learn specific reflective strategies. “What questions should I be asking? How should I summarize what I’m reading?” Readers must run their own feedback loops. “Did I understand that? Should I re-read it? Consult another text?” Readers must understand their own cognition. “What does it feel like to understand something? Where are my blind spots?”

These skills fall into a bucket which learning science calls “metacognition.” The experimental evidence suggests that it’s challenging to learn these types of skills, and that many adults lack them

. . . .

Worse, even if readers know how to do all these things, the process is quite taxing. Readers must juggle both the content of the book and also all these meta-questions. People particularly struggle to multitask like this when the content is unfamiliar.

Where is the book in all this? If we believe that successful reading requires engaging in all this complex metacognition, how is that reflected in the medium? What’s it doing to help?

Of course, great authors earnestly want readers to think carefully about their words. These authors form sophisticated pictures of their readers’ evolving conceptions. They anticipate confusions readers might have, then shape their prose to acknowledge and mitigate those issues. They make constant choices about depth and detail using these models. They suggest what background knowledge might be needed for certain passages and where to go to get it.

By shouldering some of readers’ self-monitoring and regulation, these authors’ efforts can indeed lighten the metacognitive burden. But metacognition is an inherently dynamic process, evolving continuously as readers’ own conceptions evolve. Books are static. Prose can frame or stimulate readers’ thoughts, but prose can’t behave or respond to those thoughts as they unfold in each reader’s head. The reader must plan and steer their own feedback loops.

. . . .

If the model is that people understand written ideas by thinking carefully about them, what would books look like if they were built around helping people do that?

Link to the rest at Andy Matuschak

One of Mrs. PG’s professors told her that one of the best ways of becoming familiar with a particular time period in a place was to read a well-written novel that focused on that period and place.

PG suspects that well-written fiction may be a better way of attracting and keeping a reader’s attention than the most accurate nonfiction. Thus, Jane Austen has provided more people with an understanding and appreciation of the Regency period in Britain than any academic histories covering the period from 1811 to 1820.

The Dictionary Wars

29 May 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

One might well assume that Noah Webster (1758–1843), America’s most famous lexicographer, was a cloistered pedant or quiet scholar poring over books and manuscripts. In fact, he became, over the course of his long life, a quarrelsome, legalistic, grudge-holding man—at times for good reason.

Soon after writing an English grammar in 1784, he saw an expatriate American, Lindley Murray, become the best-selling grammarian of the 19th century—selling more than 13 million grammars at a time when Webster struggled to find a publisher to reprint his own. (Even more galling was that Murray seems to have gotten the idea for his grammar when he sold Webster real estate in downtown Manhattan.) Webster’s “reader,” a selection of pieces aimed at promoting literacy, was never as popular as other English-language readers. His “speller,” a blue-backed spelling book for children and adults alike, was so radically nontraditional in its approach to English orthography that it attracted serious (and telling) revilement from competitors.

Although Webster is best known as America’s writer of dictionaries, he was also an intemperate polemicist who published this kind of thing while living in New York in the 1790s: “From the date of Adam, to this moment, no country was ever so infested with corrupt and wicked men, as the United States. . . . Bankrupt speculators, rich bankrupts, ‘patriotic’ Atheists . . . are spread over the United States . . . deceiving the people with lies.” Thomas Jefferson called Webster “a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices.”

As for Webster’s legendary status as a lexicographer, it was largely unearned: He was a prodigious drafter of entries, but he was sloppy, and the hirelings retained to impose consistency soon realized how rife his work was with problems. He used entries as a means of presenting moralistic mini-essays; he prescribed pronunciations that had little if any currency; he pushed for spellings that nobody else used (aker for acrecroud for crowd); and he included inaccurate etymologies based on his fanciful speculations (for instance, that woman derives from womb + man when in fact it derives from wife + man). By the 1830s, so many versions of his dictionaries were in print—with divergent spellings for the same words—that he couldn’t find a way of reconciling them.

Enter Joseph Worcester, a meek and tireless scholar who, though little known to history, played a major role in the making of the Webster legend. In 1827 Worcester had published an American edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. At the urging of Webster’s son-in-law Chauncey Goodrich and the publisher Sherman Converse, Worcester agreed to postpone his own English-language dictionary and help bring out a one-volume abridgment of Webster’s two-volume dictionary. It was a decision he would come to regret.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry there’s a paywall)

The Things They Carried

27 May 2019

Note: This a re-post from Memorial Day in 2012:

For readers outside the United States, today is Memorial Day in the US.

While for many, the holiday is only a long weekend marking the beginning of summer, Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day because flowers were used to decorate gravesites, was established in 1868 to commemorate men and women who died while in military service.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a classic account of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.

From  National Public Radio:

In war, there are no winners. That’s what readers take away from Tim O’Brien’s book about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, in the 20 years since its publication.

O’Brien wrote parts of The Things They Carried 20 years after his service in Vietnam. 40 years since the war, he still carries it with him. “I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam — the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers,” he tells host Neal Conan. “More importantly,” he continues, “I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt.”

But O’Brien carries joyful memories, too, “the friends I made, the conversations at foxholes where, for a moment or two, the war would seem to vanish into camaraderie and friendship.”

Still, the memories of near-death moments remain the most vivid. “There’s something about being amid the chaos and the horror of a war that makes you appreciate all you don’t have, and all you may lose forever.” Those things range, for O’Brien, from “the sublime, your parents, down to the petty — a Big Mac, and a cold Coke. When you’re really really thirsty and you’re drinking paddy water, the mind will lock on a can of cold Coke the way your mind might, you know, back in high school, have locked on a pretty girl.”

. . . .

From the book: Every third or fourth man carried a claymore antipersonnel mine, 3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades, 14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade, 24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorous grenades. They carried all they could bear and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

Link to the rest at NPR

Recounting the Untold History of the Early Midwestern Pioneers

14 May 2019

From The Smithsonian:

David McCullough, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian . . . is known for writing about some of the most famous Americans, including presidents John Adams and Harry Truman. But his new book centers on five men many people have never heard of: the pioneers who settled what was known as the Northwest Territory in the late 18th century.

In the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, Great Britain handed the newly minted United States a huge package of land—a region that includes the current states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. With the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, Congress opened up this swath of wilderness for cheap to compensate underpaid Revolutionary War veterans. That ordinance, championed by Massachusetts minister Manasseh Cutler, also set three sweeping conditions for the territory: religious liberty, free universal education and the prohibition of slavery. Soon after, a group of pioneers, most of them Puritans from New England, set out to establish the first U.S. settlements in this vast expanse. The ordinance also pledged that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards Indians.” Although this initial group fostered more peaceful relations with neighboring tribes, the influx of settlers throughout the territory would lead to fierce conflicts until the Native Americans—including the Shawnee, Seneca and Delaware—were eventually forced out of the region.

McCullough’s . . . book, The Pioneers, focuses on five men, including Cutler, who helped build the first settlement in the region, in a town called Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. Over years of visits to that river town, McCullough pored over a collection of primary documents stored at Marietta College, including letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs. The resulting narrative follows these early Midwesterners as they come up against great odds to transform their little town into a thriving settlement. Even today, McCullough tells me, we have a lot to learn from the pioneers: “Their belief in honesty, and hard work, and worthy purpose in life, and kindness—all of this is at the core of who we are, and we must never forget it,” he says.

. . . .

What inspired you to write this book and focus on this period in American history?

A number of years ago, in 2004, I was invited to come speak at the commencement ceremony at Ohio University because it was to be their 200th anniversary. In the process of preparing my thoughts on what I might say, I came to know more than I had known about the history of the university and found it fascinating. Particularly when I found that the oldest building on campus, Cutler Hall, was named for one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever come upon: Manasseh Cutler, who came from Massachusetts, and who was the leading voice for the passage of what was called the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—one of the most important decisions Congress ever made.

. . . .

Manasseh Cutler was an 18th-century polymath. He was a man who was as brilliant as almost anybody I’ve ever read about. He had doctoral degrees in law, theology and medicine. He was three doctors in one, if you will. He was also almost certainly one of the leading botanists of the time; he spoke several languages; he was a great speaker, and so forth. And he never went and lived [in the Northwest Territory]. He just got it started. But one of his sons, Ephraim Cutler, became a leading figure, and is one of the leading figures of my book.

The other was a notable Revolutionary War general named Rufus Putnam, and another was this man, Joe Barker—a carpenter who eventually became a prominent architect. And then there came a young doctor who arrived later. He was only in his 20s, named Samuel Hildreth, who had a spectacular reach of mind, who was not only a physician and a scientist but became one of the leading scientists of his time.

I had always wanted, my whole writing career, to write a history of a town in which the main characters, all real characters from real life, would be people you’ve never heard of. I was inspired, I’m sure, by Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town. I think one of the lessons of history that is underestimated is gratitude. When I think of how much we owe people like that, to have no interest in them, or know nothing about them, is an inexcusable ingratitude. History is about human beings, it’s not just about facts and figures and quotations.

. . . .

River towns are story towns—I feel that strongly. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where the Ohio River begins, knowing that there were always stories about the river towns. And that’s what history is: stories. We need those stories, and we are better off having them. We can do what we do in life more knowledgeably if we have some sense of history.

. . . .

Could you talk a little bit about the ways that these pioneers changed our country and where you see the legacy of this settlement today?

They advanced the state educational system as no state ever had until then. They instituted the whole idea of state universities. They demonstrated that slavery was wrong, that slavery was something we could stop and get rid of, if we all joined forces. They enjoyed music and literature. When they came west, they didn’t just bring axes and saws and cooking kettles. They brought books; they brought a love of learning, and it never went away.

Much of that is in the Puritan tradition. This is really in many ways as much a New England story as it is a wilderness of the West story, because virtually all the characters were from New England; they were from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Education was deep in the whole philosophy or attitude of the Puritans. We have something of a misconception about the Puritans; they also liked to sing and dance and have a good time, just like everybody else. And their influence on the whole world of American education is incomparable. That’s why all the first universities were in New England, and still stand so prominently in what matters to our country.

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian


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