Taking Pushkin off his pedestal

From Engelsberg Ideas:

On the evening of February 24, 2022, a few hours after Vladimir Putin ordered his army into Ukraine, thousands of Russians, most of them young, came out onto Pushkin Square in central Moscow. They stood around the statue of Alexander Pushkin, holding placards saying ‘No to War’ for a few minutes before their protest was dispersed by the police. By rallying next to the monument to the curly-haired poet, they were perpetuating a tradition dating back to Soviet times.

Five weeks later, Ukrainian forces recaptured the town of Chernihiv north of Kyiv, which had suffered grievously from a month of Russian occupation and where hundreds had died. A Russian air strike had killed 47 civilians, a war crime that Amnesty International termed ‘a merciless, indiscriminate attack’. On April 30 Ukrainian soldiers took down a bust of Pushkin which had stood in the centre of the liberated town since 1900 and removed it to the local museum.

Across Ukraine at least two dozen Pushkin statues have been removed from their pedestals since the war began. Ukrainians say they are dethroning a Russian imperialist. They cited one of Pushkin’s poems in particular, ‘To the Slanderers of Russia,’ a jingoistic text, in which he castigates Europeans for opposing the Russian army’s suppression of the Polish uprising of 1830. It wasn’t just Ukrainians. In early 2022, Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine, also invoked an imperial Pushkin, putting up placards with his portrait in towns they had captured, such as Kherson, where the poet had lived.

Many Russian liberals who opposed the war in Ukraine were aghast at such actions. Their Pushkin was the one who was sent to southern Ukraine as a political exile and who was, in the nineteenth century, called ‘the bard of freedom’. He was the man who had written ‘I lauded freedom in a cruel age,’ a line which is inscribed on the pedestal of his statue in Moscow.

The Ukraine war has sparked a debate about the relationship of Russia’s literature and culture to its neo-imperial war. Ukrainians and others have called for the ‘de-colonisation’ of Russian literature as part of the fabric of the imperial state. Others have argued that Russian literature is part of an alternative narrative to that of the authorities. In a recent New Yorker article, Elif Batuman writes, ‘Literature, in short, looks different depending on where you read it,’ saying, more or less, that a nineteenth-century Russian text read in twenty-first century Georgia or Ukraine carries a menace that she had previously missed.

Pushkin stands in the middle of this debate. Partly because of his work because, in a pure literary sense, all modern Russian literature flows from him. But even more so because of what he is seen to represent – because of his statues. A few decades after he died in 1837 aged only 37, he was elevated to the status of ‘Russia’s national writer’. That makes him a synecdoche for Russian culture as a whole: take down Pushkin’s statue and you are challenging Russia as a whole.

The Pushkin statue debate reveals different understandings of what ‘freedom’ means to different readers in Russia and its former imperial lands.

For Ukrainians the word ‘freedom’ now means a life-and-death struggle. Having experienced violence perpetrated by Russia in 2014 in the east of the country and then wholesale in 2022, the vast majority of Ukrainians now feel an existential need to emancipate themselves from Russia in most forms. To the educated class, that now includes the desire to disassociate themselves from Russian texts and films that have for centuries either explicitly or – more commonly, implicitly– denied Ukrainians agency in their own historical story. The ‘Pushkin Must Fall’ campaign, however crudely expressed at times, is part of this process.

Then there is the seemingly Sisyphean task of a large segment of Russians to win freedom from their own abusive rulers. Alexander Etkind employs the term ‘internal colonisation’ to describe the peculiar nature of Russian imperialism in being directed equally towards its own heartlands and to its captured territories. Putin’s war is also directed inwards, towards crushing the tentative freedoms that Russians had acquired in the last three decades since the Gorbachev era. If Russian literature has little or nothing to offer Ukrainians at the moment, much of it remains a sustained critique of this ‘internal colonisation’ of Russian minds and bodies, and inspires Russians to resist it.

But the repeated failure of this educated class to make a political difference asks some serious questions of them. Too often ‘Great Russian literature’ is fetishised. It also needs emancipation. Its classic literature needs to be freed from efforts to co-opt, and commodify it as an axiomatic model of ‘civilisation’ with all the assumptions of cultural superiority that entails.

That process should begin with Pushkin, whose works are still the victim of official curating, 200 years after they were first censored. If he was sometimes the imperialist, his most frequent poetic mode is a mocking irreverence that talks everyone, including himself, down from their pedestals. Pushkin deserves to be stripped of his official veneration to reveal the irreverent poet underneath.

. . . .

Pushkin is a many-sided writer, open to multiple readings. Isaiah Berlin, in his essay about hedgehogs (who know one thing) and foxes (who know many things) called Pushkin ‘an arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century’ and wrote of ‘the many varied provinces of Pushkin’s protean genius’. His greatest work, the novel in verse Eugene Onegin, was reduced to melodrama by Tchaikovsky. The original gives all sides of his varied personality, pulling off the trick of being both casually intimate and profound. Among the many Pushkins are the exile, the rebel, the libertine, the historian, the servant of empire, the African. For the average Russian reader he is first of all the lover, the author of dozens of uninhibited love lyrics that are instantly learned by heart.

Pushkin continually returns to the theme of ‘freedom’. He was a friend of the Decembrists who staged an abortive coup d’etat against autocracy in 1825 in the name of constitutional rule. In his youth, he wrote politically seditious poems, including one, ‘The Dagger’, that celebrates regicide and caused him to be sent into exile. He later dropped his revolutionary stance but remained strongly anti-clerical and critical of autocracy. Pushkin’s mature personal philosophy was a kind of individualism that eschewed Romantic egoism. He wrote in a poem of 1836 to which he gave the title ‘From Pindemonte’ (pretending it was a translation to try and bamboozle the censor): ‘Whom shall we serve – the people or the State?/The poet does not care – so let them wait./To give account to none, to be one’s own/vassal and liege, to please oneself alone,/to bend neither one’s neck nor inner schemes/nor conscience for obtaining that which seems/power but is a flunkey’s coat.’

This Pushkin was for many Russian and Soviet readers a kind of blueprint on how to maintain dignity in spite of the state. In a lecture on Descartes and Pushkin, given in 1981, the Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili said, ‘In the history of Russian literature there is also, it is true, a single but well-known example for us of a naturally free person. That is Pushkin.’ Mamardashvili elaborated that he meant neither a freedom from moral obligation, nor the kind of withdrawal into an avant-garde underground that some Russian intellectuals were resorting to in that era. Pushkin was an exemplar on how to inhabit a free private and civic space, but not retreat from society.

Yet Pushkin was also a child of empire. In 1924 the émigré critic Giorgy Fedotov named him ‘Bard of Empire and Freedom’, in an essay that locates him in Russia’s imperial history. Pushkin was a Russian patriot – although he also exposed that sentiment to mockery and said, ‘Of course, I despise my fatherland from head to foot but I feel upset when a foreigner shares my feelings.’ He was a man brought up among and by the imperial elite, who believed in Russia’s mission civilisatrice. He frequently returned to the figure of Peter the Great as a man of both vision and cruelty, who tried to transform a backward Russian society into a modern European state.

The poet of empire is most brazenly on show in his Romantic poem, ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’, written during his exile in the south of the empire in 1820-1. The main body of the poem itself is a Byronic Orientalising tale of a native woman’s doomed love affair with a Russian soldier. Pushkin shows empathy for his native protagonist, but then undermines it with a jingoistic epilogue that praises imperial bayonets and the Russian conquest of the mountain peoples of the Caucasus. Some of his friends and contemporaries, such as the politically liberal Pyotr Vyazemsky, were confounded. How could he could defend the freedom of Greek revolutionaries or African slaves and not that of Russian colonial subjects?

Link to the rest at Engelsberg Ideas 

X remains primary social media platform for publishers

From The Bookseller:

Publishers say most of their social engagement still comes through X, formerly known as Twitter, though they are now actively engaging with alternatives such as Threads, BlueSky and Mastodon.  

Since business magnate Elon Musk completed his buyout of the networking site in 2022, there have been a number of changes, notably to the platform’s verification policies, stripping verified blue ticks from accounts which hadn’t signed up for its paid-for subscription service. Links to articles also changed to only show the associated image without the headline, making it difficult to share news. This has prompted the book community’s use of the platform to dissipate, but most publishers still see X as their main social media platform as it still has the largest number of active users and newer alternatives are not yet set up for scheduling. 

Jack Birch, senior digital marketing manager at Bloomsbury, told The Bookseller: “The users that have left Twitter/X since Musk’s takeover have not gone to a specific destination; they have fragmented across different platforms such as Blue Sky, Mastodon and Threads, as well as other platforms. As a company, we felt that Threads had the potential to be the biggest competitor to X, given Meta’s history of running successful social media apps and an existing audience that they could convert (cleverly linking Instagram followers to Threads at the click of a button). We hoped Instagram and Facebook users could pivot to a text-based social network, as well as pick up people leaving Musk’s X. However, after initial enthusiasm, interactions and impressions have dropped off a cliff.” 

He believes that despite the press for dwindling numbers on Twitter/X, it remains the place for “influential media figures” such as journalists and celebrities and is still where “news breaks first”. Birch also cited how two of the more recent campaigns, Ghosts: The Button House Archives and The Rest is History, “performed exceptionally well on X, partly due to pre-existing, established fandoms, as well as each book’s content suiting the platform”.

He said that Bloomsbury believes Mastodon and Blue Sky are “currently too complicated for the general user to have wider popular appeal at least at the moment”. He added: “Our social media management platform, Sprout Social, does not currently allow us to schedule posts on these two platforms. With all of this in mind, we have put more energy into our Instagram and TikTok channels. Though content usually takes longer to produce, we are seeing excellent returns on engagements and impressions. As a company, we also have direct relationships with Meta and TikTok, and are able to solve any issues that may affect our accounts.”   

“The social media landscape has always changed very quickly, but, since Musk’s takeover of X, it is even more unstable than it ever has been before. We have a large, and engaged, social media following on Meta, TikTok and X; it is still there where we see our key audience.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

When American Words Invaded the Greatest English Dictionary

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most people think of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary as a quintessentially British production, but if you pore carefully over the first edition, compiled between 1858 and 1928, you will find thousands of American words.

There are familiar words describing nature particular to the U.S., like prairieskunkcoyote and chipmunk, but also more recondite ones, like catawba (a species of grape and type of sparkling wine), catawampous (fierce, destructive) and cottondom (the region in which cotton is grown). Today, Americanisms are easy for modern lexicographers to find because of the internet and access to large data sets. But all of the American words in that first edition found their way to Oxford in an age when communication across the Atlantic was far more difficult.

The OED was one of the world’s first crowdsourced projects—the Wikipedia of the 19th century—in which people around the English-speaking world were invited to read their country’s books and submit words for consideration on 4-by-6-inch slips of paper. Until recently, it wasn’t known how many people responded, exactly who they were or how they helped. But in 2014, several years after working as an editor on the OED, I was revisiting a hidden corner of the Oxford University Press basement where the dictionary’s archive is stored, and I came across a dusty box.

Inside the box was a small black book tied with cream-colored ribbon. On its pages was the immaculate handwriting of James Murray, the OED’s longest-serving editor. It was his 150-year-old address book recording the names and addresses of people who contributed to the largest English dictionary ever written.

There were six address books in all from that era, and for the past eight years I have researched the people listed inside. Three thousand or so in total, they were a vivid and eccentric bunch. Most were not the scholarly elite you might expect. The top four contributors globally, one of whom sent in 165,061 slips, were all connected with psychiatric hospitals (or “lunatic asylums” as they were called at the time); three were inmates and one was a chief administrator. There were three murderers and the owner of the world’s largest collection of pornography who, yes, sent in sex words, especially related to bondage and flagellation. 

You can’t go a page or two in Murray’s address books without seeing a name that he had underlined in thick red pencil. These are the Americans: politicians, soldiers, librarians, homemakers, booksellers, lawyers, coin collectors and pharmacists. They ranged from luminaries like Noah Thomas Porter, who edited Webster’s Dictionary and became president of Yale University, to unknowns such as 21-year-old Carille Winthrop Atwood, who loved the classical world and lived in a large house with several other young women in a fashionable area of San Francisco. The most prolific American contributor was Job Pierson, a clergyman from Ionia, Mich., who owned the state’s largest private library and sent in 43,055 slips featuring words from poetry, drama and religion. 

Murray marked Americanism with a “U.S” label, including casket (coffin),  comforter (eiderdown), baggage (luggage), biscuit (scone) and faucet (tap). He was often at pains to add details: For pecan tree, he included that it was “common in [the] Ohio and Mississippi valleys.” He noted that candy, not quite an Americanism, was “in [the] U.S. used more widely than in Great Britain, including toffy and the like.”

. . . .

Some American contributors involved in certain causes sought to make sure that their associated words got into the dictionary, like Anna Thorpe Wetherill, an anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia, who hid escaped slaves at her home. Her contributions included abhorrent and abolition.

Others turned to their hobbies. Noteworthy Philadelphian Henry Phillips, Jr., an antiquarian and pioneer of the new language Esperanto, ensured that the dictionary had a generous coverage of words relating to coins and numismatics: electrum (coins made of an alloy of gold and silver with traces of copper) and gun money (money coined from the metal of old guns). 

Francis Atkins, a medical doctor at a military base in New Mexico, read books relating to Native American cultures and sent in sweat-house (a hut in which hot air or vapor baths are taken) and squash (the vegetable), a word borrowed from the Narragansett asquutasquash. He also contributed ranching words: rutting season (mating season), pronghorn (an antelope) and bison (a wild ox).

Others had their favorite authors. Anna Wyckoff Olcott, one of 27 contributors from New York City (she lived on West 13th Street in Manhattan), took responsibility for providing entries from the works of Louisa May Alcott. Those included the term deaconed, from “Little Women,” defined in the OED as “U.S. slang” meaning the practice of packing fruit with the finest specimens on top. (“The blanc-mange was lumpy, and the strawberries not as ripe as they looked, having been skilfully ‘deaconed.’”)

In Boston, Nathan Matthews advised the OED for six years before becoming the city’s mayor and the person who spearheaded Boston’s subway system, the first in the U.S. But it was his brother, the historian and etymologist Albert Matthews, who was the second-highest ranking American contributor, sending in 30,480 slips from his reading of American historical sources including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving. 

Albert Matthews in particular enabled the OED to include words that no Brit would have ever have heard or needed to use. He sent in stockadedwhitefish and a rare American use of suck, meaning “the place at which a body of water moves in such a way as to suck objects into its vortex.” His reading of Daniel Denton’s “A Brief Description of New York” (1670) provided evidence for persimmonpossum, raccoon skinpowwow (spelled at the time “pawow”) and the first time that huckleberry ever appeared in print: “The fruits Natural to the Island are Mulberries, Posimons, Grapes great and small, Huckelberries.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

“I cannot wait to possess you”: Reading 18th-century letters for the first time

From Ars Technica:

University of Cambridge historian Renaud Morieux was poring over materials at the National Archives in Kew when he came across a box holding three piles of sealed letters held together by ribbons. The archivist gave him permission to open the letters, all addressed to 18th-century French sailors from their loved ones and seized by Great Britain’s Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

“I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they’re written,” said Morieux, who just published his analysis of the letters in the journal Annales Histoire Sciences Sociales. “These letters are about universal human experiences, they’re not unique to France or the 18th century. They reveal how we all cope with major life challenges. When we are separated from loved ones by events beyond our control like the pandemic or wars, we have to work out how to stay in touch, how to reassure, care for people and keep the passion alive. Today we have Zoom and WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters, but what they wrote about feels very familiar.”

England and France have a long, complicated history of being at war, most notably the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries. The two countries were also almost continuously at war during the 18th century, including the Seven Years’ War, which was fought in Europe, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific as England and France tried to establish global dominance with the aid of their respective allies. The war technically evolved out of the North American colonies when England tried to expand into territory the French had already claimed. (Fun fact: A 22-year-old George Washington led a 1754 ambush on a French force at the Battle of Jumonville Glen.) But the conflict soon spread beyond colonial borders, and the British went on to seize hundreds of French ships at sea.

According to Morieux, despite its collection of excellent ships during this period, France was short on experienced sailors, and the large numbers imprisoned by the British—nearly a third of all French sailors in 1758—didn’t help matters. Many sailors eventually returned home, although a few died during their imprisonment, usually from malnutrition or illness. It was no easy feat delivering correspondence from France to a constantly moving ship; often multiple copies were sent to different ports in hopes of increasing the odds of a letter reaching its intended recipient.

This particular batch of letters was addressed to various crew members of a French warship called the Galitee, which was captured by a British ship called the Essex en route from Bordeaux to Quebec in 1758. Morieux’s genealogical research accounted for every member of the crew. Naturally, some of the missives were love letters from wives to their husbands, such as the one Marie Dubosc wrote to her husband, a ship’s lieutenant named Louis Chambrelan, in 1758, professing herself his “forever faithful wife.” Morieux’s research showed that Marie died the following year before her husband was released; Chambrelan remarried when he returned to France, having never received his late wife’s missive.

Morieux read several letters addressed to a young sailor from Normandy named Nicolas Quesnel, from both his 61-year-old mother, Marguerite, and his fiancée, Marianne. Marguerite’s letters chided the young man for writing more often to Marianne and not to her, laying the guilt thick. “I think more about you than you about me,” the mother wrote (or more likely, dictated to a trusted scribe), adding, “I think I am for the tomb, I have been ill for three weeks.” (Translation: “Why don’t you write to your poor sick mother before I die?”)

Apparently, Quesnel’s neglect of his mother caused some tension with the fiancée since Marianne wrote three weeks later asking him to please write to his mom and remove the “black cloud” in the household. But then Marguerite merely complained that Quesnel made no mention of his stepfather in his letters home, so the poor young man really couldn’t win. Quesnel survived his imprisonment, per Morieux, and ended up working on a transatlantic slave ship.

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

The King’s English? Forgeddabouddit!

From Literary Review:

Does the misuse of the word ‘literally’ make your toes curl? Do the vocal tics of young ’uns set you worrying about the decline of the noble English language? You are not alone. But your fears are misplaced – at least according to the linguist Valerie Fridland.

Fridland’s Like, Literally, Dude does an excellent job of vindicating words and ways of speaking we love to hate. Tracing your ‘verys’ and your singular ‘theys’ across centuries and continents, Fridland offers a history of linguistic pet peeves that are much older than we might assume and have more important functions in communication than most of us would like to give them credit for.

Take intensifiers like ‘totally’, ‘pretty’ and ‘completely’. We might consciously believe them to be exaggerations undermining the speaker’s point, yet people consistently report seeing linguistic booster-users as more authoritative and likeable than others.

Then take ‘um’ and ‘uh’ (or ‘umm’ and ‘uhh’, and their consonant-multiplying siblings). Both receive an undue amount of flak for being fillers, supposedly deployed when the speaker is grasping for words, unsure what they want to say or lacking ideas. But this is not so. Fridland explains that they typically precede unfamiliar words or ideas, as well as complex sentence structures. Such non-semantic additions do what silent pauses and coughing can’t: they help the speaker speak and the listener listen. Similarly, the widely abhorred free-floating ‘like’ does not cut randomly into a ‘proper’ sentence but rather inserts itself, according to the logic of the language, either at the beginning of a sentence or before a verb, noun or adjective. It’s a form of ‘discourse marker’, used to ‘contribute to how we understand each other by providing clues to a speaker’s intentions’, writes Fridland. She points out that Shakespeare used discourse markers frequently, while the epic poem Beowulf begins with one (Hwæt!).

If what we think is ‘bad English’ is so good, why is nobody encouraging us to use those little flashy friends like ‘dude’, ‘actually’ and ‘WTF’? Corporate career guides and oratory platforms like Toastmasters warn against too many interrupters. The reason is that they supposedly make you sound insecure, weak, inexperienced and right-out dumb – like a young woman, basically. The world of power and prestige is rife with bias against ‘like’ and company, and so are our day-to-day interactions with friends and neighbours, who may judge us for that extra ‘literally’ or spontaneous ‘oh’. It’s precisely this prejudice that Fridland sets out to dismantle, arguing that linguistic change is a natural occurrence and that pronouncements on the bad and the good of language are socially motivated.

When we devalue a group’s speech habits, we perceive otherness fuelled by differences in race, class, gender, sexuality and education. To say ‘three dollar’ rather than ‘three dollars’ is not sloppy, Fridland states, but part and parcel of consonant loss at the end of English words that has its roots in the late Middle Ages, when the stress patterns of Norman French and Old Norse led to final letters being cast off. Why should we embarrass others for similar habits?

Fridland does well to burst the bubble of mockery around Californian girls’ vocal fry (think the creaking voices of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians), unpicking the social meanings we attach to verbal patterns we find unacceptable. We tend to dislike (and believe reprehensible) what we’re not regularly exposed to. And that often happens to be the language of vulnerable communities, such as black and brown people, teenagers and women. These groups often propel linguistic change. Children and teenagers, for example, are voracious speakers, eager to explore and play with new forms of language as their speech patterns haven’t quite settled. Women – particularly young women – are the Formula 1 drivers of language change, and have always been. Fridland explains that many modern English forms, such as the S ending of the third-person singular verb (‘it does’ rather than ‘it doth’), were pushed on by women and girls, whose ears tend to be more sensitive to linguistic nuances. While men are likely to snap up already-current words, such as ‘bro’, in order to signal social affiliation, women create new verbal spaces into which other people eventually step. ‘What women [bring] to the fore’, Fridland says, is ‘novelty in the form of this expressivity, not greater expressivity itself’. Once a change has become widely accepted, there is no difference in gender use, despite our perceptions

Link to the rest at Literary Review

For those who don’t know what a vocal fry (formerly glottal fry) is, you’ll hear and see an example below.


PRH UK had a “good year, boosted by a great bestseller performance.” BTW, you’re fired!

From The New Publishing Standard:

The “38 roles” being eliminated at PRH UK is not huge in the layoff scheme of things, rather just one more tranche of redundancies across the US and UK publishing industry that momentarily gains a headline, and is then forgotten.

Jobs? Hey, this is business. No-one said you had a job for life. Least of all now.

Forget all the BS about record profits, soaring global readership, literacy rates “through the roof,” etc. (Markus Dohle, May 2023). Take no notice of the fact that PRH CEO Tim Weldon has literally just told us PRH UK had a “good year boosted by a great bestseller performance.”

Didn’t you know the publishing industry is facing challenging times? Headwinds, in fact.

Explains Weldon: “Global geopolitical and macroeconomic factors have created volatility and uncertainty for all economies and businesses, which have escalated over the past few years. On a micro level, the book market is impacted in many ways by these factors. It is getting increasingly harder – and more expensive – to do business, driven by cost inflation, supply chain complexity and a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic. Paper, for instance, is more than 20% more expensive than it was in 2018. Increasing book prices (resulting from the rising costs) have buoyed the market but overall volumes are down by 4.5% versus last year.

Wait, what? Obviously Weldon didn’t get the memo from former PRH CEO Markus Dohle, who as recently as May was telling us how bright the future of publishing is. Said Dohle, “Physical bookselling is having a great renaissance,” adding, “I’m optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward. The physical format…is getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.

Just to be clear.

Dohle: “Physical bookselling is having a great renaissanceThe physical format (that’s print to normal folk)…is getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.

Weldon: “Increasing book prices (resulting from the rising costs) have buoyed the market but overall volumes are down by 4.5% versus last year.”

Dohle: “I’m optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward.”

Weldon: ” It is getting increasingly harder – and more expensive – to do business, driven by cost inflation, supply chain complexity and a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic.”

So are we to presume the headwinds Weldon talks about suddenly appeared since May?

Obviously not, and that’s just one more example of why the May TNPS polemic addressing Dohle’s disturbing disconnect with the realities of publishing needed to be written.

But Weldon and Dohle are cut from the same cloth. Both Old Guard gatekeepers, sincerely believing they know what’s best for the unwashed reading masses. Both living in a corporate bubble comfortably apart from publishing realities and the daily struggle to pay the bills that mere employees and regular authors face every day. And both staunch opponents of digital innovation in publishing. Subscription, anyone?

This was Weldon in 2014, after Scribd and Oyster first got into subscription:

We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”

Who can possibly argue with that? This man knows a reader’s mindset. That is why PRH publishes so few books, because nobody wants ten thousand books to choose from. And as we all know, even back in 2014 no bookshop anywhere had ten thousand books. That would be ridiculous.

What he was saying, of course, was that nobody wants ten thousand digital books, because that’s a slippery slope for what Dohle calls “the physical format”, and that’s always been the driver for PRH policy. Keep the brake on digital consumption to protect Dohle’s bet on print.

And as the years rolled by, Weldon kept on misreading the market. As the Pandemic arrived in 2020, PRH UK was among the first publishers to furlough its staff, not for one second imagining that lockdown might bring more people to the book market, leading to record profits in 2021.

And of course Weldon, and Dohle, immediately shared those record profits by raising author royalties.

No, hold on. In my authorly dreams.

Weldon explained in 2014 that PRH was always looking at how much authors were being compensated.

Authors are, alongside readers, the foundation of our business. We are always, always looking at our commercial arrangements with authors to make sure they’re fair and equitable.”

Which of course is why, a decade on, after record profits and revenues, amid a “renaissance“, a market that “shows no sign of weakness“, and unbridled optimism “about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward,” royalty rates remain unchanged. And jobs are being shed at a rate of knots.

And that brings us full circle to the thrust of this essay, which is that jobs and pay in publishing, along with royalties and advances for those who are “the foundation of our business,” authors, are no more secure today than ten, thirty or fifty years ago.

Weldon on the latest job cuts: “I appreciate this is very difficult news. People are – and have always been – at the heart of our business, and so as a leader you never want to have to make these kinds of decisions.

Those may be very sincere words, although I somehow doubt Tom’s losing sleep over it. His job is secure.

But here’s the thing: Industry jobs are lost, we read it in the industry news feeds for five seconds, and then we get on with our own lives. These 38 role eliminations will be forgotten next week as another bout of industry job losses somewhere else briefly pops onto our radar.

Sometimes jobs have to go. Companies have to move with the times. We all understand that. “That’s life,” we say, and get back to listening to music on subscription and watching films and TV on subscription while ranting against the very idea of subscription books. The sky is falling!

But supposing those 38 jobs had been lost due to AI… What a different story it would be.

Not because we care any more about the person who lost their livelihood to AI (who can point to anyone who has?) as opposed to “a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic,” but because the very initials A.I. strike irrational fear into what Lee Child would call our “lizard brains.”

Show me the court case where lawyers are busy fighting for author or employee careers because a publisher is shedding jobs or not renewing publishing contracts or not paying enough royalties. It doesn’t happen.

Yet right now there are lawyers milking the AI publishing bandwagon, getting paid to tell a judge AI is a threat to author careers.

. . . .

Just look at the feeble submission to the UK government that various publishing industry bodies knocked up to try influence British govt. thinking (I use the term loosely) about AI. As if the UK government gives a flying fig about jobs and authorly rights in publishing.

Authors, translators, narrators, industry employees, et al, all have a right to be treated with decency and dignity, to fair remuneration, and to have their IPs protected.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG is a big fan of The New Publishing Standard, in part because it has a broad international focus different than most publishing news periodicals which mostly focus on a single country or a small group of countries. Visitors to TPV may wish to check out TNPS.

Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America

From The Wall Street Journal:

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) was neither a systematic thinker nor a system builder, neither a philosopher nor a historian. His subject was society—make that societies, their strengths and their weaknesses, which he studied always in search of what gives them their character. Along with Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Max Weber, Ortega y Gasset, Tocqueville was a cosmopolitan intellectual of the kind that appears only at the interval of centuries.

Tocqueville is of course best known for his “Democracy in America,” a work which may be more quoted from than actually read. The first part of it was published in 1835, based on observations made when he visited the U.S. in 1831, at age 26. His powers of observation, and skill at generalization, were evident at the outset. They never slackened over the remainder of his life.

Tocqueville’s skill at formulating observations was unfailingly acute. “In politics, shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships,” he wrote. “History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.” At the close of “Democracy in America,” he predicted the coming hegemonies of Russia and the U.S. George Santayana, in a letter to his friend Horace Kallen, wrote: “Intelligence is the power of seeing things in the past, present, and future as they have been, are, and will be.” He might have been describing Alexis de Tocqueville.

The first volume of “Democracy in America” was well received. The second volume, published in 1840—more critical and more dubious of the virtues of democracy—was less so. Yet the work stayed in print for a full century, even though its author’s reputation had long since faded. Then, in 1938, with the publication of Tocqueville’s correspondence and other hitherto uncollected writings, that reputation, more than revived, became set in marble.

Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America” by Jeremy Jennings, a professor of political theory at King’s College London, thus joins a long shelf of books dedicated to the man and his works. Four full biographies of Tocqueville have been published, the last, Hugh Brogan’s “Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life,” in 2006. Nearly every aspect of Tocqueville’s work has been treated in essays, articles and book-length studies. I happened to have published a slender volume myself, “Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide” (2006), in which I wrote: “What would have surprised Tocqueville, one suspects, is the persistence with which his writings have remained alive, part of the conversation on the great subject of the importance of politics in life.” It would have surprised him, I believe, because of his innate modesty and his belief that his work was far from finished.

Tocqueville’s trip to America, which would be the making of him, had its origin in his wish to escape the reign of Louis-Philippe, king of France, whose Orléans family had been sympathetic to the French Revolution and were thus viewed askance by the house of Tocqueville. With his friend Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville proposed a visit to America to study penal institutions in the new republic; the two magistrates were granted permission, though they would have to pay their own expenses.

In “Travels With Tocqueville Beyond America,” Mr. Jennings sets out the importance of travel to Alexis de Tocqueville. “In exploring why, where, and how Tocqueville travelled,” he writes, “this volume seeks to show that travel played an integral role in framing and informing his intellectual enquiries.” Throughout his life, we learn, “Tocqueville longed to travel,” and this appetite for travel did not “diminish with either age or illness.” As Tocqueville wrote to his friend Louis de Kergorlay: “I liken man in this world to a traveller who is walking constantly toward an increasingly cold region and who is forced to move more as he advances.”

Mr. Jennings proves a splendid guide to Tocqueville’s travels. These included trips, some lengthier than others, to Italy, Algeria, Germany, Switzerland, England and Ireland. Basing his book on Tocqueville’s rich correspondence and notebooks, Mr. Jennings describes his subject’s preparations, his arrivals, his daily encounters in what for Tocqueville were new lands. Even when he did not publish works about these places, he was recording his thoughts. Above all, the author establishes the unceasing intellectual stimulation that Tocqueville found in travel. The spirit of inquiry was never quiescent in him, and, as Mr. Jennings notes, even on his honeymoon “Tocqueville managed to find time to study the Swiss political system.”

Much of the attraction of “Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America” derives from its chronicle of Tocqueville’s quotidian life and his many interesting opinions of historical and contemporary figures. Tocqueville said that Napoleon was “as great as a man can be without virtue.” His English friend Nassau Senior records Tocqueville saying of Napoleon that his “taste was defective in everything, in small things as well as great ones; in books, art, and in women as well as in ambition and glory; and his idolizers cannot be men of much better taste.”

Tocqueville remarked on the “impatience always aroused in him by the national self-satisfaction of the Germans,” and found Italy “the most unpleasant country I have ever visited on my travels.” As for Switzerland, he noted that “at the bottom of their souls the Swiss show no deep respect for law, no love of legality, no abhorrence of the use of force, without which there cannot be a free country.”

Yet he described America as “the most singular country in the world.” Among other things, during his nine months there, he was taken by its citizens’ enthusiasm for their own system of government. Americans, he found, “believe in the wisdom of the masses, assuming the latter are well informed; and appear to be unclouded by suspicions that the populace may never share in a special kind of knowledge indispensable for governing a state.”

He, Tocqueville, did not share their unabated enthusiasm: “What I see in this country tells me that, even in the most favorable circumstances, and they exist here, the government of the multitude is not a good thing.” Tocqueville was wary of what had been done to the American Indian, and predicted that “within a hundred years there will not remain in North America either a single tribe or even a single man belonging to the most remarkable of Indian races.” His views on slavery in America were even bleaker, harsher. “The Americans are, of all modern peoples, those who have pushed equality and inequality furthest among men,” he wrote. He thought, correctly as we now know, slavery to be “the most formidable of all the evils that threaten the future of the United States.”

Alexis de Tocqueville was a passionate man, and about liberty he was most passionate of all. By liberty he meant the absence of despotism, whether by monarchs or multitudes. “Liberty is the first of my passions,” he wrote, referring to it as “a good so precious and necessary,” adding that “whoever seeks for anything from freedom but itself is made for slavery.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

AI Doomers Take Center Stage at the UK’s AI Summit

From Bloomberg via Yahoo Finance:

A fierce debate over how much to focus on the supposed existential risks of artificial intelligence defined the kickoff of the UK’s AI Safety Summit on Wednesday, highlighting broader tensions in the tech community as lawmakers propose regulations and safeguards.

Tech leaders and academics attending the Summit at Bletchley Park, the former home of secret World War II code-breakers, disagreed over whether to prioritize immediate risks from AI — such as fueling discrimination and misinformation — verses concerns that it could lead to the end of human civilization.

Some attendees openly worried so-called AI doomers would dominate the proceedings — a fear compounded by news that Elon Musk would appear alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shortly after the billionaire raised the specter of AI leading to “the extinction of humanity” on a podcast. On Wednesday, the UK government also unveiled the Bletchley Declaration, a communique signed by 28 countries warning of the potential for AI to cause “catastrophic harm.”

“I hope that it doesn’t get dominated by the doomer, X-risk, ‘Terminator’-scenario discourse, and I’ll certainly push the conversation towards practical, near-term harms,” said Aidan Gomez, co-founder and chief executive officer of AI company Cohere Inc., ahead of the summit.

Top tech executives spent the week trading rhetorical blows over the subject. Meta Platforms Inc.’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun accused rivals, including DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis, of playing up existential risks of the technology in an attempt “to perform a regulatory capture” of the industry. Hassabis then hit back in an interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday, calling the criticisms preposterous.

On the summit’s fringes, Ciaran Martin, the former head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Center, said there’s “genuine debate between those who take a potentially catastrophic view of AI and those who take the view that it’s a series of individual, sometimes-serious problems, that need to be managed.”

“While the undertones of that debate are running through all of the discussions,” Martin said, “I think there’s an acceptance from virtually everybody that the international, public and private communities need to do both. It’s a question of degree.”

In closed-door sessions at the summit, there were discussions about whether to pause the development of next-generation “frontier” AI models and the “existential threat” this technology may pose “to democracy, human rights, civil rights, fairness, and equality,” according to summaries published by the British government late Wednesday.

Between seminars, Musk was “mobbed” and “held court” with delegates from tech companies and civil society, according to a diplomat. But during a session about the risks of losing control of AI, he quietly listened, according to another attendee, who said the seminar was nicknamed the “Group of Death.”

Matt Clifford, a representative of the UK Prime Minister who helped organize the summit, tried to square the circle and suggest the disagreement over AI risks wasn’t such a dichotomy.

“This summit’s not focused on long-term risk; this summit’s focused on next year’s models,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “How do we address potentially catastrophic risks — as it says in the Bletchley Declaration — from those models?” he said. “The ‘short term, long term’ distinction is very often overblown.”

By the end of the summit’s first day, there were some signs of a rapprochement between the two camps. Max Tegmark, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who previously called to pause the development of powerful AI systems, said “this debate is starting to melt away.”

Link to the rest at Yahoo Finance

What is Left Unsaid: How Some Words Do—Or Don’t—Make It Into Print

From The Literary Hub:

One summer morning in 1883, Alexander John Ellis sat at his desk in front of three large bay windows, opened wide to catch any breeze that London’s Kensington had to give. From his chair, he could hear the birds in the plane trees and see right down Argyll Road, its five-story white stucco Georgian houses resembling layers of an expensive wedding cake. By the time everyone else was rising, Ellis had generally already been up for several hours. Early morning was his favorite time of day. Ellis loved the notion of getting ahead while others were sleeping, and getting work done before his neighbor, a master singer, started his scales and taught his students by the open window. “The nuisance is awful at times,” he wrote to Murray. Ellis always ate the same light breakfast of a French roll with butter, and drank his signature beverage: a cup of warm water with a little milk.

This day, as every day, his first act on waking was to weigh himself naked, before dressing for the day. Always the same boots and coat, affectionately named Barges and Dreadnought, before heading straight to his desk on the second floor. He needed to weigh himself before putting on his clothes for one main reason: Dreadnought was heavy. Dreadnought had twenty-eight pockets, each one stuffed full with eccentric items. Ellis made a noise like a kitchen drawer as he walked. When he sat down, eyewitnesses said that his pockets “stood upright like sentinels.” They were variously full of letters, nail clippers, string, a knife sharpener, a book and philological papers in case of emergency, and two things that a teetotaller and someone who watched his weight rarely needed: a corkscrew and a scone, just in case friends were in want of either. These last two items sum up Ellis; he was kind-hearted and always thought of his friends before himself.

On his desk, there were signs of everything that he held dear: a draft of the fifth and final volume of his monumental book, On Early English Pronunciation, daguerreotypes of Venice and his three children, a tuning fork, and a favorite quotation from Auguste Comte, the founder of altruism, “Man’s only right is to do his duty. The intellect should always be the servant of the heart, and should never be its slave.”

This morning held a special excitement: also spread out in front of him were Murray’s proof sheets for the first section of the Dictionary (words A to Ant)—all 362 pages of them. Murray had sent them to Ellis for his comment. As Ellis’s eyes skimmed the proofs, he could not help looking for his own name in the Introduction. He felt a sense of profound satisfaction to see “A. J. Ellis, Esq, FRS (Phonology)” listed between Prof. Frederick Pollock (Legal terms) and Dr P. H. Pye-Smith (Medical and Biological words).

Ellis’s passions were pronunciation, music, and mathematics, and his expertise in all of these areas had been sought by Murray who had had difficulty finding British academics to help him (by contrast, American scholars were eager to be involved). He had helped Murray with the very first entry in the Dictionary—A: not only the sound A, “the low-back-wide vowel formed with the widest opening of the jaws, pharynx, and lips,” but also the musical sense of A, “the 6th note of the diatonic scale of C major,” and finally the algebraic sense of A, “as in a, b, c, early letters of the alphabet used to express known quantities, as x, y, z are to express the unknown.” Ellis was happy to see these and other results of his work on the printed page, including the words air, alert, algebra.

Many people, not only in Britain but around the world, were eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first part of the Dictionary, and Murray particularly wanted Ellis’s opinion on the draft Introduction, which he knew he had to get just right. It all read perfectly to Ellis except for one section. “The Dictionary aims at being exhaustive,” Murray had written. “Not everyone who consults it will require all the information supplied; everyone, it is hoped, will find what he actually wants.”

Is it really exhaustive? Ellis wondered. What about slang and coarse words? He scribbled to Murray in the margin (and the page with the scribble still survives today in the archives), “You omit slang & perhaps obscenities, thus are by no means exhaustive. Though disagreeable, obscene words are part of the life of a language.” Feeling satisfied with his contribution to Murray’s landmark first part of the Dictionary, and admiring of the project as a whole, Ellis placed the corrected draft into an envelope and placed it by his front door, ready for the morning post.

Ellis had raised an important question about inclusion, but he was not quite right about the boundaries of the Dictionary. Murray had included slang but it was true that, so far, he had left out obscenities. We can only imagine the uproar in Victorian society had he not. Murray would agonize over his decision to leave them out, but also had to be mindful of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 which made it illegal to expose the public to any content judged to be grossly indecent.

Murray’s caution proved wise when, a few years later, a fellow lexicographer and one of the Dictionary People, John Stephen Farmer, had his own legal drama. Farmer was writing a slang dictionary with William Henley, and was struggling to publish the second volume (containing the letters C and F) of his work on grounds of obscenity. Farmer took his publisher to court for breach of contract in 1891, and tried to convince a jury that writing about obscene words in a dictionary did not make him personally guilty of obscenity, but he lost the case and was ordered to pay costs. Eventually, he found fresh printers and avoided the Obscene Publications Act by arguing that his dictionary was published privately for subscribers only, not the public, and the remarkable Slang and Its Analogues by Farmer and Henley was published in seven volumes (from 1890 to 1904), with cunt and fuck and many other words regarded as lewd on its pages. Farmer’s legal case and the public outcry that ensued was a clear deterrent for Murray.

. . . .

Each of Murray’s advisers had different notions of what was offensively salacious. His adviser on medical terms, James Dixon, who was a retired surgeon living in Dorking, Surrey, had been all right with including cunt, but absolutely drew the line with a word which he considered so obscene it had to be sent to Murray in a small envelope marked PRIVATE, sealed within a larger envelope. Inside the intriguing packaging was a message advising him not to include the word condom. “I am writing on a very obscene subject. There is an article called Cundum…a contrivance used by fornicators, to save themselves from a well- deserved clap; also by others who wish to enjoy copulation without the possibility of impregnation,” he wrote to Murray. “Everything obscene comes from France, and I had supposed this affair was named after the city of Condom, which gives title to a Bishop.” But he had found a quotation from 1705 referring to a “Quondam” which made him rethink his assumption that it was named after the town in France. “I suppose Cundom or Quondam will be too utterly obscene for the Dictionary,” he concluded. Murray left it out.

Dixon was the man who unwisely advised Murray to delete the entry for appendicitis because it was, according to Dixon, just another itis-word. “Surely you will not attempt to enter all the crack-jaw medical and surgical words. What do you think of ‘Dacryocystosyringoketokleitis’? You know doctors think the way to indicate any inflammation is to tack on ‘itis’ to a word.” The word’s deletion turned out to be an embarrassment to Murray and Oxford University Press when, in 1902, the coronation of Edward VII was postponed because of the King’s attack of appendicitis. Suddenly everyone was using the word, but no one could find it in the Dictionary, and since the letter A was already published it could not be added until the Supplement volume in 1933.

But back to the summer of 1883. Murray received the corrected proofs from Ellis. He not only appreciated Ellis’s feedback but also trusted his judgement: he promptly deleted all claims to exhaustiveness and wrote, “The aim of this Dictionary is to furnish an adequate account of the meaning, origin, and history of English words now in general use, or known to be in use.”

. . . .

I had been wondering how Ellis got to be such a word nerd? I was fascinated by what I discovered. To begin with, something very unusual happened when he was eleven years old. His mother’s cousin, a schoolmaster called William Ellis, offered to give the young boy a substantial inheritance if he would change his surname from Sharpe to Ellis. Mr and Mrs Sharpe agreed, and from then on “Alexander John Sharpe” became “Alexander John Ellis.” The young boy was enrolled at Shrewsbury School and Eton, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and never had to earn money for the rest of his life.

Ellis’s wealth enabled him to be the quintessential “gentleman scholar,” an expert in almost everything he did, be it music, mathematics, languages, phonetics, travel, or daguerreotype photography. He was a polymath for whom life was more a science than an art. He published over 300 articles and books, and his works are quoted in the OED 200 times.

His interest in accent and pronunciation was inspired by the fact that he was born to a middle-class family in Hoxton, east London, where he was exposed to working-class cockney speakers, followed by schooling at Shrewsbury with its Welsh and English accents, and then exposed to the Received Pronunciation of the upper and upper-middle classes at Eton and Cambridge.

Words were like children to Ellis. He loved them equally, regardless of whether they were common, technical, scientific, slang, or foreign. He read the Dictionary as though it were a novel. Some words gave him pure delight in both their sound and meaning such as absquatulate, to abscond or decamp, with a quotation from Haliburton’s Clockmaker. “Absquotilate [sic] it in style, you old skunk…and show the gentlemen what you can do.” But it was their sounds that captured his imagination most. The quality of a whisper or a creak; the stress of a syllable; high pitch or low pitch.

Most people hear sounds, but Ellis saw them. He saw the air move in the mouth, the way the tip of the tongue touched the ridge of the teeth for a t; the vibration of vocal cords to change it to a d; and how the base of the tongue moved back in the mouth to block the flow of air for a g. Every sound was a picture for Ellis. He devoted his life to painting these pictures, describing their systematic order so the world might better understand the fundamentals of language.

His book On Early English Pronunciation, published in five volumes between 1869 and 1889, traced the pronunciation of English from the Middle Ages to the late nineteenth century and established him as a world authority on English phonology, a pioneer in the field of speech-sound studies. For the nineteenth-century section of the book, Ellis enlisted the help of hundreds of informants across Britain and a small group of experts, including Murray and others within the OED network. The result was the first major study of British dialects.

No language yet existed for the patterns Ellis was identifying, so he often had to invent the words, which subsequently made it into the Dictionary: palatalized, to make a palatal sound (by moving the point of contact between tongue and palate further forward in the mouth); labialization, the action of making a speech sound labial (articulated with both lips); and labiopalatalized, a sound made into a labiopalatal (articulated with the front of the tongue against the hard palate and the lips). He also invented the words septendecimal, relating to a seventeenth (in music); and phonetician, which originally referred to an advocate of phonetic spelling, rather than its current meaning of “an expert of phonetics.” Quite a few of his inventions have since fallen out of use and appear in the Dictionary with a dagger sign (which indicates obsolescence) beside them, such as vocalistic, of or relating to vowels, and phonotyper, an advocate of phonotypy (another term which Ellis invented, meaning “a system of phonetic printing”).

Ellis was one of the phoneticians on whom George Bernard Shaw modeled the character of Henry Higgins, that master of pronunciation, in his play Pygmalion, later turned into the musical My Fair Lady. Higgins (as a bet with his gentlemen friends) teaches Eliza Doolittle to speak “proper” English; but Ellis had none of Henry Higgins’s snobbery or arrogance. He was a generous, down-to-earth man, a frequent correspondent with friends, happy to offer advice when asked, and always working to bring people together and support them.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG notes that the OP is from a recently released book titled, The Dictionary People: The Unsung Heroes Who Created the Oxford English Dictionary. Since PG has had a long-time attraction to The OED, he is likely going to obtain a copy of The Dictionary People in a reputable manner.

For a long time, PG has owned a copy of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which consists of two heavy volumes in a case that also holds a magnifying glass. (You didn’t think the folks in Oxford could squeeze the 20 heavy volumes in the original set into two heavy volumes without squeezing the original words down to mouse-type size did you?)

During his younger days, PG could read the tiny type in the Compact Edition without using the magnifying glass, but that is no longer true.

However, the many virtues of The Compact Edition notwithstanding, all dictionary nerds know that there is no substitute for the full and weighty Oxford English Dictionary Experience.

And don’t forget the additional three volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series, each of which includes about 3,000 new words, for example, buckyball, nanotechnology, and freeware.

Shakespeare in Bloomsbury

From The Wall Street Journal:

I went to Shakespeare’s Globe to see “The Winter’s Tale” in London last March, on a freezing, rainy night. The mood was brightened by the production’s droll Autolycus, one of the Bard’s great con men and clowns. He teased and cajoled; he brought theatergoers up to dance with the actors; he threw in references to Brexit and Boris. Decorum resumed in the final act, in which the statue comes to life, with all the grave enchantment the text demanded.

When the revels ended, I shuffled with the crowd toward the Underground and happened to glance down a garbage-strewn alleyway, where I saw a skinny, shivering, tawny little fox. Unaware that this is a common sight in the city, I felt caught in the same time warp that the ancient play, with its modern interjections, had just evinced. It was as if the year was 1610 and the fox had hitched a ride on a rural wagon to the big city—yet somehow it was also here in 2023. The Britons who first saw “The Winter’s Tale” were mourning the death of their long-reigning Elizabeth; Londoners in our century had just lost their own. Both eras had recently seen the theaters close and reopen because of plague. Both audiences of the Globe had wanted to believe that a statue had come to life, and maybe it had.

As it turns out, these are just the kinds of ruminations that the Bloomsbury group, that famous coterie of early-20th-century British writers and artists, would have dismissed as lightweight and slightly vulgar. (The original group included the writers Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry.) Bloomsbury’s keen interest in Shakespeare did not lie in comparisons between their age and the Elizabethans’, in the historical roots of the plays, or in questions about provenance. They were not much concerned with Shakespeare’s character or with his beliefs. They deplored most of the professional productions they saw, complaining that they were (as one of them said) “smothered in scenery” and objecting to the fussy intonations of the players. “Acting it they spoil the poetry,” Virginia Woolf wrote to her nephew in 1935.

Instead, for the most part, the Bloomsbury group exercised its passion for Shakespeare simply by reading the plays and the sonnets, sometimes aloud together, but more often silently to themselves. Their relationship with him existed almost entirely through his language, with which they all felt an evangelical connection, intense and personal. In the beginning and the end, for them, was the word.

The subject of how different eras engage with Shakespeare is a juicy one, and an excellent choice for Marjorie Garber, a longtime professor of English at Harvard as well as the distinguished author of six previous books about Shakespeare among more than 20 volumes on subjects literary and otherwise. “Shakespeare in Bloomsbury” is a survey rather than an argument, proposing no more tendentious a thesis than that the members of the group adored Shakespeare and that she is going to show readers how in the most expansive and delightful way possible.

And this she does, propelling those readers through a lively inventory of the playwright’s imprints on Bloomsbury’s lives and works. She points out the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s frequent nods to Shakespeare serve as a “network of shared reference,” a handshake of recognition between a writer and her audience. Woolf’s 1927 novel “To the Lighthouse,” for instance, expects readers to identify its refrain of “Lights, lights, lights” as a line from “Hamlet.” Woolf uses the allusion to weave images of brightness through a narrative that plays with time passing, observing light as an ambiguous flicker in an impermanent world, one that “welcomes and protects,” as Ms. Garber notes, but one that “can also warn of danger if its signals are seen and understood.” “Orlando” (1928) blurs fiction and fact along with time, offering glimpses of an unnamed poet of the Elizabethan age who shows up at Knole, the ancestral estate of Thomas Sackville, who was a Tudor-era forebear of Woolf’s great friend Vita Sackville-West. Sackville was a cousin of Elizabeth I, a statesman and dramatist who co-authored the first English play written in blank verse. By connecting Knole with her shadow-image of Shakespeare, Woolf seduces readers into celebrating a dual aesthetic inheritance that for her represents the heart of Englishness.

Woolf and the other Bloomsbury members counted on Shakespeare’s plays to console and counsel as well as to inspire. In 1904, when young Leonard Woolf traveled to Ceylon to take an administrative post in the colonial civil service, he brought along a miniature edition of the works of Shakespeare and Milton, along with a 90-volume set of Voltaire, as bulwarks of familiarity against his fears of the unknown. Two years later, when Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard about the shocking death of their mutual friend Thoby Stephen, Strachey relied on “Antony and Cleopatra” to express his grief: “There is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon.”

Clive Bell, a founder of Bloomsbury who never felt entirely accepted by the group, saw the Bard as a token of belonging, telling a paramour who had recently enjoyed an Old Vic staging of “Measure for Measure” that “we, of course, only read Shakespeare.” Keynes parlayed his own veneration into civic munificence, using his government influence as an economic adviser to establish and support funding for the Cambridge Arts Theatre and to oversee the public institution that became, in 1945, the Arts Council of Great Britain.

The members of Bloomsbury defined themselves as modern rebels against the stodginess of Victorian culture. Yet their faith in the primacy of Shakespeare transcended the differences between generations, linking old and new centuries together. After a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1934, Virginia Woolf commented in her diary on the “sunny impersonality” of the playwright’s garden and house, noting that he’s “serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating around one . . . but never to be pinned down.”

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

Hunting the Falcon

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” So were schoolchildren once taught in order to remember the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives. Anne Boleyn, the second one (that would be “beheaded”), was by far the most interesting and intelligent, the only one of the six who engaged actively in politics, and the only one whom the monstrous Henry ever loved.

To understand Anne’s story it is necessary first to understand Henry, and John Guy and Julia Fox, husband-and-wife authors who have each published previous works of Tudor-era history, give a compelling portrait of Henry in “Hunting the Falcon,” an absorbing chronicle of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

As a young king, Henry was intelligent and glamorous but “over-indulged by a doting mother and over-protected by an autocratic father,” the authors write. He grew into “a narcissist who saw exercising control as his birthright, a man who never accepted blame for his own actions and always looked for scapegoats.” The Golden Boy became a sullen, terrifying brute, England’s Stalin.

Anne was neither royal nor noble. She belonged to the rapidly rising gentry class. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was a greedy and ambitious public servant, employed sometimes on diplomatic missions, an able man who later proved despicable when his daughter’s fate hung in the balance.

In her youth, Anne was sent to France—a sort of finishing school. There she joined the retinue of Henry’s sister Mary, who had, for reasons of state, been affianced to the “gouty, toothless, libidinous” widower Louis XII. Anne would end up spending seven years in France, much of it at the royal court. She became an accomplished young lady and was always a Francophile, encouraging Henry to ally England with France rather than Spain.

Henry fell in love with Anne not long after her return to England in 1522. Her elder sister Mary had already been Henry’s mistress—Mary is the headliner in Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl”—but Anne held out for marriage and would do so for several years, a remarkable feat.

As we know from the many popular treatments of this story, a marriage between Anne Boleyn and the king would be possible only if Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon could be annulled. When the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, failed to achieve this end, Anne urged Henry to dismiss him. He needed little urging, but readers of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels will remember that the royal adviser’s loyalty to the fallen cardinal made him Anne’s enemy—even though, in politics and religion, they were as one. Anne favored religious reform, like Cromwell, though she was never a Protestant. She is better described as an evangelical Catholic. According to Anne’s chaplain, the authors write, “her apartments were hives of evangelical piety with her ladies reading the English Bible and sewing clothes for the poor.”

The break with Rome, engineered in part by Cromwell’s management of Parliament, finally made the marriage possible. In sure anticipation of the annulment—delivered by the new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—Anne had at last gone to bed with Henry. She was already pregnant when the marriage took place, in January 1533, when the still doting Henry arranged a magnificent coronation for his true and only queen. “Anne was determined,” the authors write, “that everyone who mattered should attend,” though Thomas More chose to stay away, feeling that he couldn’t grace the coronation of a queen “he believed to be living in adultery.” The child proved to be a disappointment, a daughter (the future Elizabeth I), not the son Henry craved.

Anne, the authors stress, was never popular. Some called her a whore and were hanged for their impudence. She was a political power as no previous queen had been, but the security of her position and influence depended on her giving birth to a son. Two miscarriages made her position perilous, all the more so because Henry was wearying of her public activity—she “pushed hard for her people,” Mr. Guy and Ms. Fox write, aiming to fill posts and secure preferments. The adored mistress was becoming a tiresome wife. Henry already had his eye on a replacement, a demure girl named Jane Seymour. He wanted to be rid of Anne.

Cromwell was ready to oblige. Anne had been careless, allowing men to mingle with women in her apartments in the style of the French court. Cromwell first seized Mark Smeaton, a young musician reported to have looked longingly at the queen. Cromwell sent him to the Tower to be tortured. Naturally a confession followed. There were other suspects, among them Anne’s brother, George. Materials for a trial were quickly assembled. Anne’s contemptible father, Sir Thomas, escaped the purge by, as the authors put it, “consenting to condemn her.” Anne, briefly hysterical on first being admitted to the Tower, recovered her spirit, but the trial was a grisly farce, a well-managed show trial.

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

It’s an Anne Frank situation

From 1843 Magazine/The Economist:

It started at 6.29 in the morning with a siren going off. I live alone so I just jumped out of bed and ran straight to my safe room. My block of flats is less than a year old and they put a safe room in every apartment.

Usually the siren sounds for rocket attacks and lasts 10-15 minutes. Then you come out and go back to your daily life. But yesterday morning it lasted a very, very long time. Even inside the safe room you could hear the missiles. I heard the ones Hamas fired on Ashkelon, on Ashdod, on Kiryat Gat and on Beersheba, where my daughter lives. We live very close to the Iron Dome battery that intercepts them, so I hear our missiles responding. I couldn’t get access to the internet.

After an hour I was able to get back online. That was when I realised there had been an operation by Hamas to break through the border, enter the city and start to mess things up here. We have never encountered such a situation. At least 20 of them must have entered Sderot. They were running around 300 metres from my home.

I have been in touch with friends across town since it started. We don’t exchange security tips, we don’t know how to. But as much as possible, we try to pass on reliable information. There is also a lot of disinformation around – Hamas do a very good job of circulating it on tv and social media.

We’ve received messages that terrorists have commandeered police vehicles, as well as ones belonging to the army and border guards. And they also took uniforms, to disguise themselves as Israeli soldiers, so we were warned about this as well. There are reports of actions considered war crimes.

I’ve seen our troops underneath my balcony. They’re driving around in hatchback vehicles, the soldiers pointing their weapons out of the window – which is something I’ve never seen in Israel. Normally if they’re loaded they keep them hidden. But now they’re brandishing them.

There seem to have been two main skirmishes in Sderot. We’ve had reports from other places nearby too. In Ofakim, near Beersheba, a Hamas squad reportedly took civilians hostage.

In the kibbutzim around here, which are closer to the border than we are, people were besieged in their homes and their bomb shelters. Hamas squads were trying to enter their safe rooms to murder them. They’ve reported that 25 people are dead, but from my experience – I was an army captain for many years – the numbers that the emergency services initially announce double or triple in the final count. Most of the dead are probably not soldiers.

One of my colleagues lives in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just on the border with Gaza, and she was trapped in her safe room with terrorists outside. It was an Anne Frank situation. That’s the only way to describe it. She was inside her house, with her children, and her husband who is sick, while Hamas were outside, kicking the door. She feared they would either set fire to her house, or blow up the walls and break in.

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine/The Economist

Kahlil Gibran: Godfather of the “New Age”

From JSTOR Daily:

In September 1923, Alfred A. Knopf brought out a slim, hundred-odd page volume. The publisher did little to promote it, yet its first print run (some twelve hundred copies) sold out within a month—unheard-of for a poetry volume, then and now.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was a slow but steadily growing burn, one that has continued, year on year, for ten decades.

Interspersing twenty-six short prose-poetic pieces with original illustrations, The Prophet has made Gibran the third-bestselling poet in history—behind Shakespeare and Lao Tzu. To date, The Prophet has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide (over 10 million in the United States alone) and has been translated into more than a hundred languages.

Yet The Prophet has always been and remains uniquely troublesome, and to call it the bestselling “poetry book” of its century might be misleading. Is it poetry? Or is it (in today’s language) Inspirational Fiction, wisdom text, a spiritual guide of New Age wellbeing or self-help? Perhaps (to deploy a paradox, Gibran’s favorite device) it is all these things and none of them.

Gibran wrote once of his desire “to write a book that heals the world.” The Prophet was that dream’s fruition. Yet his other work—eight English language collections and more books, poems, and other writings in his native Arabic—is largely ignored in the Anglosphere. The Prophet is thus a bestseller with an almost anonymous author. Gibran’s book has outlived him in more than one sense. Though it has had the kind of afterlife of which he himself can only have dreamed, there is in this a strange irony. Gibran was so successful in his likely aim—absorbed into the figure of “The Prophet,” imitating the unknown authors of scripture—that, for many readers and lovers of his book, he remains irrelevant.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

AI could help unearth a trove of lost classical texts

From The Economist:

The object known as P.Herc.Paris.3 resembles a dark grey lump of charcoal, about the size and shape of a banana. That explains its nickname: Banana Boy. It is in fact a papyrus scroll, found in the ruins of a villa in the Roman town of Herculaneum, in Campania. Along with hundreds of other scrolls in the villa’s library, it was carbonised when scorching gases engulfed the town during the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in 79ad, that also buried the nearby town of Pompeii.

Although the scrolls survived, their charring means that unrolling them is almost impossible. Now, nearly 2,000 years later, words from inside Banana Boy have been revealed for the first time, after volunteers competing in a prize challenge used x-rays and artificial intelligence to do the unrolling virtually.

The first word to be found, announced on October 12th, was “porphyras”, which means “purple” in ancient Greek. It was uncovered by Luke Farritor, a computer-science student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earning him a $40,000 prize. Mr Farritor built on work by Casey Handmer, a former nasa physicist, whose examination of x-ray images of Banana Boy’s charred layers identified a characteristic “crackle pattern” indicating the presence of ink.

The same word was later found by Youssef Nader, a robotics student at the Free University of Berlin. (Dr Handmer and Mr Nader both received $10,000 prizes.) Mr Nader has since produced an image from the scroll showing four columns of text, side by side. For classicists, this is heady stuff. The villa in question is thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The ability to read its well-stocked library could significantly expand the number of texts that have survived from antiquity. Already there is excited speculation about forgotten plays, new works of philosophy—or even lost Homeric poems.

Efforts to read the scrolls began in the 1750s, when the villa was rediscovered. Attempts to unpick them with knives caused them to disintegrate. Recognising their fragility, Antonio Piaggio, a conservator from the Vatican, built a machine in 1754 to unroll them slowly, using weights on strings. Even then, the unrolled scrolls fell to pieces. And the resulting fragments were almost impossible to read: charcoal-based ink is hard to see against the shiny black of charred papyrus. But the few characters that could be read revealed some scrolls to be philosophical works written in ancient Greek.

A quarter of a millennium later, in 1999, scientists from Brigham Young University illuminated some of those fragments with infrared light. That created a strong contrast between papyrus and ink, making the writing more legible. Multi-spectral imaging in 2008, combining many wavelengths of light, was even better, revealing previously unreadable words. Many fragments turned out to belong to texts written by a Greek philosopher called Philodemus of Gadara. Until then, they had been known only from mentions in other works. (Cicero, though, was a fan of his poetry.)

Around 500 scrolls remain unopened. Given the damage it does, physical unrolling is no longer attempted. Instead the focus has shifted towards finding ways to unwrap them virtually, by using 3d scans of the rolled-up scrolls to produce a series of legible 2d images. The pioneer of this approach is W. Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky. In 2009 he arranged for Banana Boy, and another scroll known as Fat Bastard, to be scanned in a computerised tomography (ctx-ray machine, of the sort usually used for medical scans. This produced detailed images of their internal structures for the first time. But the ink within the scrolls could not be made out.

In 2015 Dr Seales analysed a different carbonised scroll found in 1970 at En-Gedi, near the Dead Sea in Israel. It had been written using a metal-rich ink, which stood out strongly from the papyrus in x-ray images. (The text turned out to be the Book of Leviticus.) This confirmed that, in the right circumstances, digitally unrolling a carbonised scroll and reading the contents could indeed be done.

The next step was to combine the existing approaches into a new one. In 2019 Dr Seales arranged for Banana Boy, Fat Bastard and four fragments of other scrolls to be scanned at high resolution using the Diamond Light Source in Britain, a particle accelerator that can produce much more powerful x-ray light than a ct scanner. He then paired infrared images of the fragments, in which the ink can be readily seen, with x-ray scans of the same fragments in which it cannot.

Earlier this year Stephen Parsons, a graduate student working with Dr Seales, fed the two sets of images into a machine-learning model, which used the infrared scans to teach itself how to recognise the faint signs of ink in the x-ray ones. By applying the resulting model to x-ray images from the rolled-up scrolls it would be possible to reveal their contents. At this point, deciphering the scrolls had, in theory, been reduced to a very complex software problem. But that software still needed to be improved and scaled up.

Enter Nat Friedman, a technology executive and investor with an interest in ancient Rome. Mr Friedman offered to help fund Dr Seales’s work. Over a whisky, they decided that the best way to accelerate things was to organise a contest, with prizes handed out for completing various tasks. Mr Friedman and Daniel Gross, another entrepreneur, launched the Vesuvius Challenge in March, with a prize fund of $250,000. Other tech-industry donors soon increased that to over $1m. To get the ball rolling, an initial challenge was posted on Kaggle, a website that hosts data-science contests, to improve the ink-detection model developed by Dr Parsons.

More than 1,200 teams entered. Many competed in subsequent challenges to improve the tools for ink detection and “segmentation”, as the process of transforming the 3d scans into 2d images of the scroll’s surface is known. Scrutinising segmented images from Banana Boy, Dr Handmer realised that the crackle pattern signified the presence of ink. Mr Farritor used this finding to fine-tune a machine-learning model to find more crackles, then used those crackles to further optimise his model, until eventually it revealed legible words.

Mr Nader used a different approach, starting with “unsupervised pretraining” on the segmented images, asking a machine-learning system to find whatever patterns it could, with no external hints. He tweaked the resulting model using the winning entries from the Kaggle ink-detection challenge. After seeing Mr Farritor’s early results, he applied this model to the same segment of Banana Boy, and found what appeared to be some letters. He then iterated, repeatedly refining his model using the found letters. Slowly but surely its ability to find more letters increased. All the results were assessed by papyrologists before the prizes were awarded.

. . . .

One reason that classical texts are so scarce is that the papyrus upon which they were written does not survive well in Europe’s temperate, rainy climate. So it is a delicious irony, notes Dr Seales, that the carbonisation of the scrolls, which makes them so difficult to read, is also what preserved them for posterity—and that fragments of scrolls that disintegrated when they were unrolled physically would eventually provide the key to unrolling the rest of them virtually. 

Link to the rest at The Economist

The culture wars have come to Canada

From The Economist:

On october 10th Scott Moe, the conservative premier of Saskatchewan, Canada’s breadbasket province, summoned lawmakers back to their legislature two weeks early to deal with an emergency. No withering blight had tainted the province’s vital grain stores. There was no looming peril to its vital potash industry. The threat was more mundane: that pupils under 16 can choose their preferred name or pronoun at school, without having to get the consent of their parents.

According to Statistics Canada, just 0.19% of Canadians over the age of 15 identify as transgender. Even fewer, 0.14%, are non-binary. Yet pronouns are becoming a big issue for right-wingers across the country. Doug Ford, the conservative premier of Ontario, has claimed that school boards are indoctrinating children by letting them choose their pronouns without asking their parents. Similarly, earlier this summer Blaine Higgs, the conservative premier of New Brunswick, retroactively changed his province’s education policy to ensure parental consent is mandatory before a student changes their pronoun.

Mr Moe is going much further. His provincial government introduced a new policy requiring parental consent in August. In September Michael Megaw, a judge, decided to delay the legislation as it could cause “irreparable harm”. According to Mr Megaw, there was little evidence that the education ministry had discussed the policy with teachers, parents or students.

In response, Mr Moe has invoked Canada’s “notwithstanding clause”. This refers to Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows the federal parliament or any provincial legislature to pre-emptively stop a law from being invalidated by a judge.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that, at least in the United States, the practice of an individual selecting preferred pronouns that polite people are obliged to use was not (in his experience) widespread until a couple of years ago.

He wonders how a socially-created “right” can move so quickly from nonexistence into a necessity that requires judicial intervention to avoid “irreparable harm” to those who wish to have others address them by preferred pronouns other than those suggested by their appearance.

But, of course, PG is not a Canadian and acknowledges that Canada is not a northern extension of the United States.

The Forgers

From The Wall Street Journal:

By 1940 the possibility of escape had become so small for the millions of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe that even the most outlandish-sounding gambit seemed worth a try. One such ploy was to obtain a forged Paraguayan passport. Far-fetched though that plan may have been, the exit papers helped somewhere between 800 and 3,000 Jews flee across Nazi borders and survive the Holocaust.

Put into perspective, that makes the tactic among the most successful wartime efforts to free Jews from the Nazi death machine. (Perhaps the best-known strategy, organized by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, saved approximately 1,200 Jews.) Yet, as we learn in Roger Moorhouse’s valuable but uneven chronicle, “The Forgers: The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation,” for years the Paraguayan-passport scheme remained virtually forgotten. Mr. Moorhouse’s subject thus encompasses a double mystery: how the operation worked and succeeded, and why it seems to have disappeared from the historical record. The author does better explaining the former than the latter.

Of the many threads that weave through the story, perhaps the most intriguing describes the unlikely bedfellows who masterminded the operation: a Swiss-based group of officials from the Polish government-in-exile, working in tandem with Polish-born Jewish community leaders who had found refuge in Switzerland. Then, as now, the very notion of a joint Polish-Jewish humanitarian project can seem surprising against the backdrop of Poland’s long history of often-violent antisemitism. But in numerous documents cited by Mr. Moorhouse, a British World War II historian and the author of “Poland 1939,” the Polish government-in-exile affirmed its intention to protect all Polish citizens, Jewish or otherwise, from Nazi persecution.

The declaration was humanitarian, but the intention was also strategic. Jan Karski—the Polish resistance fighter sent by the government-in-exile on clandestine trips into Nazi-occupied Poland to report on conditions there—warned in early 1940 that Polish antisemitism could “create something akin to a narrow bridge” that would align Polish citizens with Nazi aims and persuade them to collaborate. To counter that, Karski advised building “a common front . . . an understanding that in the end both peoples are being unjustly persecuted by the same enemy.” Karski would later smuggle out his eyewitness accounts of the harrowing conditions in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and at Izbica, the transit camp from which Jews were sent to the Bełżec death camp. He would travel to Washington and London to attest to the mass murder of Jews by cyanide at Auschwitz. To save the Jews of Poland, these reports made clear, additional Allied intervention would be needed.

That help did not arrive. In the breach, the men who would launch the Paraguayan-passports scheme found each other. Their team, called the Ładoś Group, was led by the career Polish diplomat Aleksander Ładoś, who came to the Swiss capital of Bern in 1940 to serve as the unofficial ambassador of Poland’s government-in-exile. In addition to being “positively predisposed toward Poland’s Jewish populations,” Mr. Moorhouse tells us, Ładoś “was not a man overly burdened with respect for the legal sanctity of official documents.” He was the perfect candidate to helm the covert operation.

Rudolf Hügli, a Swiss notary and an honorary consul of Paraguay, would, for a fee, provide the blank passport documents. Joining Ładoś in providing cover for and operating the scheme were three consular colleagues: Stefan Ryniewicz, his deputy; Konstanty Rokicki, whose responsibilities included handling passport applications and often filling in the names of the passport bearers; and Juliusz Kühl, an attaché who himself was Jewish and was the legation’s representative for Jewish affairs.

Kühl became the liaison to several representatives from Jewish aid organizations, most notably Abraham Silberschein, a former member of the Polish Parliament who had helped found the Relief Committee for Jewish War Victims, and Rabbi Israel Chaim Eiss, a founder of the Orthodox Agudath Israel movement. These two community leaders, along with several others, took charge of spreading word of the passport scheme through the ghettos and camps. They also oversaw the coded correspondence used to collect individual information and photos for the fake passports, and managed the passports’ delivery.

After a German spy exposed the scheme in 1943, Swiss authorities arrested or sanctioned most of the group and no more passports were issued. But the documents that had already been distributed still helped some survive, Mr. Moorhouse explains. As the war neared its end, reclaiming soldiers to fight for Hitler took precedence in Germany over vetoing forged passports. And so Germany sought a deal with the Allies to trade German prisoners of war for those Jewish camp inmates who held papers, valid or not, from countries beyond the Reich. Even so, the negotiations were so prolonged that many Jews died while awaiting their release.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

She Reeled Us In With The Odyssey. Now: The Hard Stuff.

From Slate:

Translators often go unsung, but Emily Wilson became a household name with the success of her Odyssey. Since then, readers have been waiting for her Iliad to appear—some with pure excitement, others with skepticism that she could work the same magic again. As Wilson herself acknowledges, translating the Other Epic was not simply a matter of repeating a proven recipe. The Iliad and the Odyssey have both come down to us under the name of Homer, but even ancient audiences recognized them to be very different poems.

Both belong to the ancient epic cycle about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Both also use nearly the same idiom and compositional techniques and feature many of the same characters. (Odysseus and Achilles play important roles in each other’s epics.) Yet while the Iliad is a poem that uses mass human death to explore the nature of immortality—of the gods, and of a hero’s name and deeds—the Odyssey’s tale of survival is a reflection on mortality and its consolations. There are other reasons, too, that the worlds of the two poems seem different. In the Greek epic tradition, Zeus engineered the Trojan War to rid the world of its excess of heroes. In the Odyssey we can feel their absence.

Partially for that reason, ancient critics regarded the Iliad as the finer work. Socrates refers, in the Platonic dialogue Hippias Minor, to a widespread notion that the Iliad is superior to the Odyssey because its star, Achilles, is a manlier man than Odysseus. An ancient critic known as Longinus saw the Odyssey as the composition of an aged Homer who had succumbed to the elderly’s habit of storytelling. “Writing the Iliad at the height of his powers,” Longinus observed, “Homer suffused the whole work with drama and action, whereas the Odyssey is full of stories—just like old age.”

. . . .

Translators often go unsung, but Emily Wilson became a household name with the success of her Odyssey. Since then, readers have been waiting for her Iliad to appear—some with pure excitement, others with skepticism that she could work the same magic again. As Wilson herself acknowledges, translating the Other Epic was not simply a matter of repeating a proven recipe. The Iliad and the Odyssey have both come down to us under the name of Homer, but even ancient audiences recognized them to be very different poems.

Both belong to the ancient epic cycle about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Both also use nearly the same idiom and compositional techniques and feature many of the same characters. (Odysseus and Achilles play important roles in each other’s epics.) Yet while the Iliad is a poem that uses mass human death to explore the nature of immortality—of the gods, and of a hero’s name and deeds—the Odyssey’s tale of survival is a reflection on mortality and its consolations. There are other reasons, too, that the worlds of the two poems seem different. In the Greek epic tradition, Zeus engineered the Trojan War to rid the world of its excess of heroes. In the Odyssey we can feel their absence.

Partially for that reason, ancient critics regarded the Iliad as the finer work. Socrates refers, in the Platonic dialogue Hippias Minor, to a widespread notion that the Iliad is superior to the Odyssey because its star, Achilles, is a manlier man than Odysseus. An ancient critic known as Longinus saw the Odyssey as the composition of an aged Homer who had succumbed to the elderly’s habit of storytelling. “Writing the Iliad at the height of his powers,” Longinus observed, “Homer suffused the whole work with drama and action, whereas the Odyssey is full of stories—just like old age.”

In antiquity the Iliad was not just the favorite of intellectuals, it was also the preferred text for study in schools. Ancient papyri preserving lines from the Iliad outnumber those with text of the Odyssey by a ratio of 3-to-1. At North American colleges in the 18th century, the Iliad was required reading (in Greek). For millennia, schoolteachers thought that Homer’s poem about glory in war offered a better model for young men than his tale of misbehavior and wandering.

Only in the 20th century did the Odyssey definitively surpass the Iliad as the better-known and better-liked epic. Longinus’ complaint that it is too full of stories is probably one of the reasons it is more attractive to modern audiences. The Odyssey can feel more dynamic than the relatively stationary Iliad, its settings and characters more varied. It is also more optimistic about the human condition, or at least its ending is happier (from the protagonist’s perspective).

This is why it was a canny move on Wilson’s part to arouse new general interest in Homer by translating the Odyssey first. The dramatic action of the Iliad precedes that of the Odyssey (and it is likely the Iliad was written down first), but the many ways in which the Iliad differs from the Odyssey are also what make it the more challenging, and now less popular, of the two poems.

Naturally, Wilson’s admirers hoped that her second Homeric translation would be as great an achievement as the first. What they might not have expected is that it would be better.

Link to the rest at Slate

Spy, womaniser, cad: the writer who created James Bond

From The Economist:

It was a chance invitation to a dinner party that changed Ian Fleming’s life and legacy. In 1960, Fleming, the author of some modest-selling books about a spy called James Bond, was on a trip to Washington, DC, as foreign manager of the Sunday Times. The dinner was with John F. Kennedy, who had just declared himself a presidential candidate and was a James Bond super-fan. As the conversation turned to the problem of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary Cuba, Kennedy asked Fleming, “What would James Bond do?” Fleming replied that Bond would make Castro look ridiculous, rather than important.

That Kennedy should have sought Fleming’s (and Bond’s) advice on how to bring down Castro was not as odd as it might seem. Fleming had a wartime career as an officer in British naval intelligence. In 1961, when Kennedy had become president, he told Life magazine that Fleming’s “From Russia, with Love”, the fifth Bond novel, was one of his ten favourite books. The endorsement introduced a relatively unknown English author to American readers. Fleming’s publisher scrambled to relaunch five Bond books ahead of the publication of “Thunderball”.

As Fleming’s literary agent in New York put it, “the gusher burst”. In the remaining two years of his short life, Fleming became an international celebrity. James Bond made his first big-screen appearance in “Dr No” in 1962, launching what would become the longest-running—and one of the most valuable—film franchises of all time.

Well over 100m copies of Fleming’s 14 James Bond books (12 novels and two short-story collections) have been sold. With 27 movies in the can, global box-office revenues are around $20bn in today’s prices. The search is currently on for the eighth actor to play 007. Whoever is chosen for the part may do it for around 15 years, about the same length as Daniel Craig’s tuxedo-clad tour of duty.

The Complete Man” is only the second biography authorised by Fleming’s estate since the author’s death in 1964. (The first, by John Pearson, a Sunday Times colleague, was published in 1966.) But Nicholas Shakespeare’s is the most comprehensive picture yet of Bond’s creator and offers insights into how his wartime career shaped his fiction.

Fleming’s childhood and early adulthood were privileged but defined by loss. His grandfather was a self-made Scottish financier, who disapproved of Ian’s mother, Eve, who he thought was a social climber. Fleming’s father, Valentine, the mp for Henley, was killed by German shelling in 1917. (Winston Churchill wrote his obituary in the Times.)

Valentine left the equivalent of about £15m ($18.2m) today to care for his widow and four children. With his war-hero father dead, mother in control of the purse strings and brilliant older brother groomed as the male head of the family, “the mould was set…like Peter Pan, part of Ian remained frozen at the age of eight,” Mr Shakespeare writes.

After a miserable time at prep school, Fleming left Eton early for Sandhurst, a military academy. He contracted gonorrhoea, an early sign of the womaniser he was to become. Next came a spell in Switzerland, where Eve hoped learning languages would get him into the Foreign Office. While there he fell in love, but not with someone grand enough for Eve, who threatened to cut Fleming’s allowance if he married her. He capitulated, a decision that would affect his relationships with women for the rest of his life.

Failing to be accepted into the Foreign Office, Fleming worked as a journalist until his family pushed him into stockbroking. Fleming’s City connections recommended him as an assistant to John Godfrey, the director of Naval Intelligence (who would become the inspiration for “M”), when the second world war broke out.

Fleming proved an innovative administrator, who used his ruthless charm to get results. He helped devise “Operation Mincemeat”, a successful ruse to deceive the Nazis with a dead body bearing bogus intelligence, and set up a spying network in Spain. He was one of a trusted few tasked with drawing America into the war. Mr Shakespeare argues (controversially) that Fleming was “one of the three main spearheads” who contributed to the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services, which morphed into the CIA.

The commando unit known as 30 Assault Unit (30au), formed to seize enemy documents from targeted enemy headquarters, was also Fleming’s creation. One of 30au’s triumphs was to capture a German inventor, Dr Hellmuth Walter, at his rocket-motor works in Kiel before the Russians could get to him. A co-operating Walter revealed a trove of advanced weapons including the forerunner of a ballistic missile submarine. In “Moonraker”, the third Bond book, the villain Sir Hugo Drax employs a “Dr Walter” to build a nuclear missile to destroy London.

After the war, Fleming missed the derring-do of the clandestine world. He set up a network of foreign correspondents for the Sunday Times (some were probably recruited as mi6 agents) and found refuge in Jamaica, building “Goldeneye”, a house with steps down to the sea where he could scuba dive with sharks. It was there he mustered the self-confidence and found the time to write novels, starting with “Casino Royale” in 1952. All drew on Fleming’s wartime experiences.

Soon after Fleming opened his typewriter to write the first Bond book, he married Ann Charteris, a socialite with whom he had conducted an affair throughout her marriage to his close friend, Esmond Rothermere, the Daily Mail’s owner. Neither would remain faithful to the other. But Fleming was discreet in the many liaisons he carried on, which the author Roald Dahl, a friend, attributed to the fact that the women “were almost always married”.

Towards the end of his life Fleming was dogged by ill health. He suffered from a heart condition made worse by alcohol and the 70 cigarettes he smoked a day. He was also stressed by litigation related to accusations of plagiarism brought by an Irish director, who had worked with Fleming on a screenplay for “Thunderball” before the novel was written. Fleming felt increasingly trapped by Bond and resentful of the pressure to produce new books. He died at the age of 56, a few days after he played a round of golf.

While there have been at least seven other books written about Fleming, Mr Shakespeare’s is likely to be remembered as definitive, albeit overlong. What he does not do is make Fleming likeable. Despite Fleming’s patriotism and notable contributions to Britain’s war effort, the picture Mr Shakespeare draws is of an entitled, selfish misogynist.

Some think the same could be said of Bond as Fleming wrote him. 

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes the publication date is shown as March 12, 2024, and the date first available is listed as January 1, 1970.

The publisher is listed as Harper. The website for HarperCollins has a bit more information about the book than its Amazon listing, but not much.

A check of the book on Amazon’s UK site shows a different cover and a price in British pounds that is lower than Harper’s announced US price of $17.99 for the ebook- £12.99, which at today’s exchange rate is $15.90 US. The UK site already lists used copies of the hardcover for sale as well.

PG has no idea what’s involved in purchasing ebooks from Amazon’s UK site, but some thrifty Scots who have emigrated to the US might have the answer.

Sublime Neutrality

From Public Books:

I read somewhere that good literature is indifferent to evil. It might have been that good writers are indifferent to evil. I retained none of the context, only the pull quote, and why wouldn’t I? What a seductive proposition—giving readers permission to banish the author, or at least the specter of their moral character; giving writers permission to write without thinking, first, always, what does this say about me?

Literary evil is thin on the ground these days; all those charming pedophiles, sadists, murderers, crowded out by neurotics, malingerers, failed imposters. Look at Dennis Cooper: even snuff is “tender.” You have to meet your reader in the middle. Too much specificity and you alienate your audience, who go from book to book looking for themselves. A popular template from the middlebrow almanac: name a place, throw in trees, quality of light, some vague cultural analysis, no real particulars. In the first person, the speaker invites you to where they are, which is very generous of them. They let you in, and there’s plenty of room in their blousy descriptions for you to bring yourself and everything you already knew. Particularity can be dangerous, even violent, so writers learn to be careful what they ask their readers to relate to. But if the writer knows what they’re doing, relatability doesn’t come into it. The reader has forgotten they exist as a being apart.

Before the publication of his first collection of short fiction, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa enjoyed a remarkably slick career for a local short story writer. Who is his agent??? I would seethe, watching his bylines appear in GrantaThe Paris Review, and, most recently, Forever, a magazine so cool I paid $100AUD for it to get lost in the mail. I was surprised he even had an AustLit entry, despite failing to appear in the bloated back-catalogues of print periodicals or obscurely-monied short story competitions, not one weird poem on a glorified blog run by regional cat people. Dalla Rosa has been careful not to embarrass himself.

The stories in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are set in millennial Carver-country, an abstract zone of aestheticized precarity and terminally online mass culture, where there is no space but private space and hell is ourselves. Reviews of the collection have described its “poise,” “precision” and “elegance.” The stories are written with a calculated reserve, a wry and reflexive humor; they are contemporary without unduly dating themselves, breaking no sweat under anxiety of influence, neither unfashionably literary nor fashionably unliterary, with the author citing Ottessa Moshfegh, Amie Barrodale, Gary Indiana, Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, Dean Kissick, Jordan Castro, Honor Levy, Megan Boyle, Chelsea Hodson, and Tao Lin as influences, a North American canon of cool edge. Any dorky, undergraduate-writing-class interest in “place” has been excised. Settings are always threatening to turn into somewhere else (the Gold Coast “felt kind of like California, with theme parks, palm trees and water, but it wasn’t California”). Smartphones blink. People regard each other in terse, empty moments. Technology represents alienation. Sex also represents alienation. Mutual regard is held with roaches, emotionally dysfunctional pets, and Mary Gaitskill, but never other people. The dust jacket claims the book is “tender and unsparing,” and the word tender comes up in more reviews than I bothered to count. In profiles, interviews, and rarefied circles of snobs, the collection’s “deft execution,” “taut” prose, “forensic” detail have been praised. The general view holds Dalla Rosa as that rare and highly-prized thing: a craftsman.

Why is craft such cause for comment? If craft is so remarkable, this must mean that writing badly is not a barrier to publication in Australia, and while nobody wants a reputation for cruelty, failing to say this produces its own contradiction: if “craft” (labor) does not produce “craft” (quality), then the latter is either innate or some transcendental haze that comes over the writer like a spell, possibly after receiving an Australia Council grant. Or, and this is my suspicion, praise of “craft” is primarily bestowed on writers who tend toward a spare, ironic, placeless style; the skill here concerned is the disciplined study of fashionable Americans, who sometimes sound “American” but mostly sound, to their own ears and everybody else’s, neutral.

Americans are freaks, but they represent the imperial centre of Western cultural production and it’s natural to be curious what they get up to. If Dalla Rosa’s reception has a touch of “local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner”—when he gets called the “real deal” and it bears the same inflection as world class—that is hardly his fault. And Dalla Rosa is writing in a tradition of, for want of a better word, nasty stories, brutal tales told with jaunty elegance, which we perhaps do not associate with the ruddy and simpering national character. Nobody has ever praised the dark glamor of the Wheeler Centre; there is something staid, dismayingly crude, about a literature that counts Murnane among its sexiest cult figures, making some dissociation from the local an understandable position for aspiring stylists. Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gaitskill, thinks writer-character Paul as he turns to sex work in “An MFA Story,” and Bad Behavior certainly looms, ur-text to a strain of fiction that, in its anti-sentimental approach, its “transgressive” subject matter, may court accusations of bad taste but never a failure of self-knowledge. What was transgressive in 1988 is a little pat now; this kind of franchizable cynicism has become familiar, which is not to say, in Dalla Rosa’s case, that it’s poorly done; and, in fact, its very iterability is the binding principle of the collection.

. . . .

Where a novel is an argument, a short story is an axiom. It’s the minor form for a reason. A novelist may have to publish three or four times before revealing that, like the proverbial flat character, they’re essentially possessed by one idea. A short story writer is less lucky; a story lasts just long enough for some central fixation or moral ideology to crystallize before it collapses under the imperative of economythen the gesture must be repeated. This is why short stories can be uniquely frustrating to read and to write; it’s also why they work so well when the prevailing mode is nastiness, bad people doing cruel and stupid things. The fetish figure of a typical short story collection might be the revenant, the same preoccupations returning again and again to be killed off in entertaining ways. Rather than the revenant, we might say, the fetish of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is the Sim.

This motif of the digital puppet pursues the characters across the collection. “The stars indicated I was under the influence of an inverted Mars,” says the narrator of “The Hard Thing,” “which meant I could act like a body possessed.” In “Charlie”:

Emma had begun to see herself as a model in one of her renders, or more so as an Emma avatar in the game The Sims or a Sims Brooklyn expansion pack. Emma’s avatar was a Sim that was playing The Sims to earn money, but that money was only ever enough to keep playing, and, at certain times, upgrade homewares.

At one point, Emma’s brain feels like an overworked MacBook; when she’s angry, her MacBook overheats. Experience in “COMME” is “like a certain kind of YouTube video,” or, for the movie star in “In Bright Light,” like “watching a 2D movie that was now 3D.” In “Contact,” in which a call center worker is automated out of her job, the character views her hallway as “a low-rendered loading screen she must navigate as her apartment buffers.”

Link to the rest at Public Books

There are clues in the excerpts, but PG confirms that the author of the OP is Australian. The OP first appeared in the Sydney Review of Books.

Amazon’s latest actions against fake review brokers: 2 fraudsters found guilty of facilitating fake reviews in Amazon’s store

From Amazon:

Two individual fake review brokers were found guilty of illegal business operations intended to deceive Amazon customers and harm Amazon selling partners through the facilitation of fake reviews. These verdicts are the result of local law enforcement’s investigation and a criminal referral supported by Amazon.

From March 2021 to March 2022, the China-based defendants used third-party messaging applications to advertise and sell fake reviews to bad actors operating Amazon selling accounts. In exchange for a fee, the defendants left fake positive reviews to boost a bad actor’s product ranking, or fake negative reviews to lower the ranking of a competitor’s product.

Following the criminal referral, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and confirmed the review brokers’ illicit activities in Amazon’s U.S. store. The defendants were officially sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation in China, marking Amazon’s second criminal judgement of this kind.

“Amazon is pleased to see that these fraudsters are being held accountable for their actions,” said David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Risk. “The verdicts are a testament to the partnership of local officials in bringing down those who attempt to deceive our customers and harm our selling partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with law enforcement toward the mutual goal of bringing fake review brokers to justice.”

Link to the rest at Amazon

The most impressive part of the OP to PG is that Amazon relied upon local Chinese law enforcement to handle the arrest and whatever trial procedure China uses to punish the fake review scammers.

J. G. Ballard’s Brilliant, Not “Good” Writing

From The Paris Review:

Putting Ballard on a master’s course list, as I’ve done a couple of times, provokes a reaction that’s both funny and illuminating. Asked to read Crash or The Atrocity Exhibition, the more vociferous students invariably express their revulsion, while the more reflective ones voice their frustration that, although the ideas might be compelling, the prose “isn’t good.” This is especially the case with students who’ve been exposed to creative writing classes: they complain that the books are so full of repetition they become machinic or monotonous; also that they lack solid, integrated characters with whom they can identify, instead endlessly breaking open any given plot or mise-en-scène to other external or even unconnected scenes, contexts, and histories, resulting in a kind of schizoid narrative space that’s full of everyone and no one.

This second group, of course, is absolutely right in its analysis; what’s funny (and, if I can teach them anything, reversible) about their judgment is that it is these very elements (repetition, machinism, schizoid hypermnesia) that make Ballard’s work so brilliant. Not only are his rhythmic cycles, in which phrases and images return in orders and arrangements that mutate and reconfigure themselves as though following some algorithm that remains beyond our grasp, at once incantatory, hallucinatory, and the very model and essence of poetry; but, mirroring the way that information, advertising, propaganda, public (and private) dialogue, and even consciousness itself run in reiterative loops and circuits, constitute a realism far exceeding that of the misnamed literary genre. If his personae are split, multiplied, dispersed, this is because they are true subjects of a networked and fragmented hypermodernity—ones for whom identification, if it is to amount to anything more than a consoling fiction, must come through man’s recognition of himself (as Georges Bataille put it) not in the degrading chains of logic but instead, with rage and ecstatic torment, in the virulence of his own phantasms.

While Ballard’s more outwardly conventional books may give us solider, more stable realities, what these realities often present—in, for example, Empire of the Sun, which is digestible enough for a blockbuster Spielberg adaptation—is a child (or childlike figure) frolicking against a backdrop provided by the destruction of an older order of reality that the world previously took for granted. It’s a cipher for his oeuvre as a whole: endlessly playing among the ruins, reassembling the broken or “found” pieces (styles, genres, codes, histories) with a passion rendered all the more intense and focused by the knowledge that it’s all—culture, the social order, the beliefs that underpin civilization—constructed, and can just as easily be unconstructed, reverse engineered back down to the barbaric shards from which it was cobbled together in the first place. To put it in Dorothean: In every context and at every level, Ballard’s gaze is fixed, fixated, on the man behind the curtain, not the wizard.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

European Publishers Hail Parliament’s Book Sector Report

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its statement today from Brussels (September 14), the Federation of European Publishers notes that today’s adoption by the European Parliament of what’s called the Future of the European Book Sector report is “the first time in 10 years that the parliament has made dedicated recommendations for the [book] sector, in which Europe is a world leader.

As is clear in this briefing from the parliament’s offices, the report is a “bibliographical review” ordered up by the rather direly termed “Cult Committee,” which is the legislative body’s committee responsible for cultural and educational elements of the European Union.

In this briefing’s introduction, we read, “Besides its important cultural value and role, the book sector is an essential economic activity in the EU.

“In 2021, it was assessed as the second cultural activity, right after watching or listening [to] a program, and represented 12 percent of the EU average cultural expense. Still in 2021, it had a turnover of more than €23 billion (US$24.5 billion), 18 percent of it being generated by export (a rate relatively stable over the years).”

This compendium of papers, however, contains nuanced points that get at the caution required in an age of unprecedented dynamics that include—by organizational headers—digital and digitization; ecological considerations; market evolution; diversity and accessibility; COVID-19; and “stakeholders’ points of view.” At various points in this material, you can catch glimpses of the fact that books and publishing exist today in an historically unprecedented competitive environment of electronically produced and distributed entertainment media.

The federation in its statement reflects this, writing that the report, “recognizes the fundamental contribution of the book sector, providing citizens with millions of books to educate and entertain themselves.

“But this contribution relies on key elements which must be defended, even in the EU: including a balanced value chain, freedom of expression, editorial diversity, and independence from state censorship.”

The book sector also has a societal responsibility to fulfill, according to the federation, such as to become greener; provide more accessible books to people with a handicap; or support Ukraine. The report underlines the initiatives already taken by the sector but also highlights the need for further technical and financial support to help publishers in their efforts.”

. . . .

Federation president Ricardo Franco Levi is quoted, saying, “The European Parliament made very important proposals to ensure that Europe remains the world leader of publishing, while facing the many challenges of the 21st Century.”

. . . .

Members of the European Parliament, the publishers write, “call for a stronger place for the book sector in existing EU programs, such as Creative Europe and Horizon—the latter of which having made news last week when the United Kingdom rejoined—to support translation, the circulation of books, innovation, and research.

“The Parliament also calls for national and European initiatives to support reading promotion, such as book vouchers or ‘reading ambassadors.’”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Books and politicians are not PG’s favorite combination.

The British empire peaked 100 years ago this month

From The Economist:

The British empire was and is many things to many people: a civilising endeavour, a bringer of peace, an exploitative force or a project based on white supremacy. Arguments exist for each characterisation. But there is one thing that the British empire is not: completely over.

It lives on in court cases, including one brought in 2019 by indigenous people of the Chagos Islands, whom the British colonial government forcibly relocated between 1965 and 1973 (with American support). It exists in the loyalties of the 15 commonwealth “realms”, including Australia and Canada, for which King Charles III (pictured in 1984) is their monarch and head of state. And it lives on in the demographic make-up of Britain, where one in five people is Asian, black or mixed race. (A similar share of cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are children of immigrants from the former empire.) As the old saying goes, “We are here because you were there.”

Two new books consider the “here” and “there”. “One Fine Day” is a sprawling account of the British empire by Matthew Parker, a historian. It travels like the never-setting imperial sun across Asia, Africa and outposts of the “new world” in the Caribbean. The book’s organising principle is a day—September 29th 1923—when the British empire reached its maximum territorial extent. The portrait is achieved with a wide-angled lens, but the choice of a single day also brings focus.

Mr Parker’s approach is to find the most interesting currents in the empire’s various corners in September 1923 and to tell them through little-remembered colonial administrators and prominent locals. For example, in what was then Malaya (modern-day Malaysia and its surrounds) readers meet Hugh Clifford, who learnt Malay and fell in love with the country and its people. He was self-aware enough to wonder whether “the boot of the white man” had stamped out the best parts of local culture. Yet Clifford was also responsible, at the age of just 22, for adding 15,000 square miles of territory to the empire and described Malays as “the cattle of mankind”.

In colonies across continents, elites were disillusioned with the obvious hypocrisy of foreign rulers, while foot-soldiers such as George Orwell found themselves uneasy with the violence of colonial rule. What emerges is a picture of an empire straining under the weight of its own contradictions. The British thought of their role as an enlightened one: stopping tribal warfare and introducing modern health care and education. Yet they brought forced labour and colonial massacres, racist rules, and substandard health care and education. Rather than simply stating so baldly, Mr Parker points this out through copious examples and meticulous research. He appears to have read the front page of every newspaper published in the empire on that day.

. . . .

Imperial Island” by Charlotte Lydia Riley, a historian at the University of Southampton, is half the length and better organised. Starting with the contributions of the empire’s troops in the second world war and the meagre thanks (or even acknowledgment) given to them afterwards, she runs through headline events of post-war British history.

Yet to call this an imperial history is misleading. The book reads more like a history of race relations in modern Britain, and the links to empire often feel forced. Fundraising for a famine in Ethiopia reveals, in Ms Riley’s telling, a guilt-ridden imperial hangover, as do children’s books about India and cookbooks with dishes from around the world. A map of countries where an overseas volunteer organisation operates is—what else?—a throwback to the British empire’s pink map.

This is a shame, because a book that lived up to the promise made by Ms Riley’s would have been revealing and important. The legacy of colonialism, like the empire itself, is riddled with contradictions. It is impossible to attempt to understand Britain today without wrestling with ambiguities. Yes, children of immigrants in Britain carried out the tube bombings in 2005, sparking a national reckoning over homegrown extremism, as Ms Riley describes over several pages; but another child of immigrants, Rishi Sunak, ascended to the highest echelons of government and is not mentioned by Ms Riley. The Brexit campaign to leave the European Union was based on the paradoxical promises of keeping foreigners out while opening up to the foreign empire. It deserves more careful examination than the meagre four pages Ms Riley devotes to it.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Amazon’s Latest Actions Against Fake Review Brokers: 2 Fraudsters Found Guilty Of Facilitating Fake Reviews In Amazon’s Store

From Public.:

Two individual fake review brokers were found guilty of illegal business operations intended to deceive Amazon customers and harm Amazon selling partners through the facilitation of fake reviews. These verdicts are the result of local law enforcement’s investigation and a criminal referral supported by Amazon.

From March 2021 to March 2022, the China-based defendants used third-party messaging applications to advertise and sell fake reviews to bad actors operating Amazon selling accounts. In exchange for a fee, the defendants left fake positive reviews to boost a bad actor’s product ranking, or fake negative reviews to lower the ranking of a competitor’s product.

Following the criminal referral, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and confirmed the review brokers’ illicit activities in Amazon’s U.S. store. The defendants were officially sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and three years of probation in China, marking Amazon’s second criminal judgement of this kind.

The Counterfeit Crimes Unit is a global team dedicated to partnering with law enforcement, brands, and other stakeholders to disrupt counterfeiters and their networks.

“Amazon is pleased to see that these fraudsters are being held accountable for their actions,” said David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Risk. “The verdicts are a testament to the partnership of local officials in bringing down those who attempt to deceive our customers and harm our selling partners. We look forward to continuing to partner with law enforcement toward the mutual goal of bringing fake review brokers to justice.

“Amazon pioneered online customer reviews 25 years ago, and we are committed to ensuring that our reviews remain a trustworthy, insightful resource for customers. Amazon will continue to protect customers, our selling partners, and our stores from fake reviews by investing in proactive tools to detect and stop fake reviews from appearing in our stores. As a result of continued investments, Amazon proactively blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews from our stores in 2022, and as of the end of August, we have taken legal action against 147 fraudsters across China, Europe, and the U.S.”

Link to the rest at Public.

Proust, ChatGPT and the case of the forgotten quote

From The Guardian:

The other day, I was looking for a quote in Proust, so I thought I would ask ChatGPT. Here’s how it went.

EB: Is there a passage in In Search of Lost Time when Proust talks about how love affairs repeat themselves, and says that when you’re writing about a love affair in the past, you’re often drawing inspiration from a different love affair in the present?

CHATGPT: Yes, there is a passage in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (also known as “Remembrance of Things Past”) where he discusses the repetition of love affairs and the influence of present experiences on writing about past love affairs. The passage can be found in the first volume of the novel, “Swann’s Way” (Du côté de chez Swann).

In this passage, Proust reflects on how our present emotions and experiences often color our memories of the past. He suggests that when we write about a past love affair, we might unknowingly be influenced by the emotions and experiences of a current or recent love affair. This blurring of past and present emotions can result in the repetition of themes and feelings in our writing.

The idea of how love affairs repeat themselves and how we are influenced by our present experiences when writing about the past is a recurring theme in Proust’s work, as he delves into the complexities of memory, perception, and the nature of human emotions.

Please note that the specific wording and context of the passage may vary depending on the translation and edition of the novel. If you’re interested in exploring this theme further, I recommend reading “Swann’s Way” to experience Proust’s beautiful prose and intricate exploration of love, memory, and the passage of time.

Some things I was thinking at this point:

1. Hmm, I had expected it to be in Volume 2 or 3. Probably the more recent experience of reading Volume 2 or 3 coloured, or even substituted, my memory of reading Volume 1! Memory is amazing! (Didn’t Proust say something about that somewhere?)

2. I wonder why it didn’t give me a direct quote. I hope it isn’t going to be squirrelly or weird about quotes. Maybe it’s stressed out about copyrighted translations. I’ll try asking for the original.

EB: Could you quote the passage for me in French?

GPT: Certainly! Here’s the passage from Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”) in its original French:

“Une seule chose avait pourtant changé : les lieux, les êtres, ne présentaient plus qu’un intérêt général et par conséquent, ne m’offraient plus aucun détail intéressant. Ce que je cherchais en eux, ce que j’avais entrevu en eux une fois pour toutes, c’était un état, un sentiment de mon âme, c’était Swann lui-même. Les personnes que je fréquentais pouvaient me parler, au lieu de Swann, de beaucoup d’autres noms propres, lesquels désignaient des états analogues à ceux que Swann me faisait connaître, des états dans lesquels ma personnalité resterait, pourrait se développer, des états qui n’étaient d’ailleurs pas incompatibles avec ceux de Swann, avec sa présence, son souvenir, au point que parfois j’hésitais à les attribuer à l’un plutôt qu’à l’autre. Dès lors j’avais pu reconnaître en chacun de ces êtres à leur manière un des aspects de Swann. Eux seuls désormais m’intéressaient, mais moins comme des personnes distinctes, que comme les moyens qu’ils m’offraient de sortir de moi-même, d’atteindre Swann, d’assouvir ma curiosité, de m’apaiser. Les désirs qu’ils pouvaient me suggérer d’eux, me paraissaient neutres, comparés à l’unique et ardente désir que j’avais de Swann. Mais, lorsque j’essayais de les mettre en pratique, ils m’étaient impossibles ; ils se heurtaient à l’existence, au souvenir de Swann, ils avaient pris naissance dans un état d’esprit inconciliable avec celui-là. Alors il me semblait que j’avais changé d’idées, que j’avais transformé ma vie; ce qui en était la cause, c’était plutôt la présence en moi d’un état d’esprit transitoire, avec lequel je m’étais représenté ma vie passée, mais qui avait en réalité en lui bien peu de choses du passé, et par contre beaucoup d’éléments empruntés à un état d’esprit différent que je n’avais connu que depuis peu de jours et qui allait, lui, en durer peu.”

(Note: This passage is taken from “Du côté de chez Swann,” the first volume of “À la recherche du temps perdu.”)


1. Wow, ChatGPT is so friendly and cool, it wasn’t offended at all!

2. My French must have really deteriorated because this feels so hard to read.

3. I guess I forgot how boring Proust can be.

4. Damn this quote is boring.

5. It says “ne m’offraient aucun détail intéressant” [“didn’t offer me a single interesting detail”] … and that’s kind of how I feel about the quote!

6. I guess I was pretty naive and literal-minded to look for words like amourécrire, and/or nouveaux. Proust probably uses more sophisticated synonyms or metaphors.

7. None of this feels familiar at all.

8. I wish I had read Proust in French when I was studying literature in graduate school. Why was I so lazy in my 20s?

9. I guess I was too busy being in love.

10. God, I was so dumb.

11. Yeah, but it was also structural.

12. Whatever, I’m going to put the quote in Google Translate.

13. Good Lord, or should I say Bon Dieu, this is so boring I might actually die.

14. I had been thinking Google Translate was getting good enough with European languages to replace human translators, but I guess it still isn’t at the level of translating Proust.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Blenheim’s £5M Gold Toilet Heist: 7 Suspects Await Legal Outcome

From Culture.org:

The Case That Flushed Four Years Down the Drain

Ladies and gentlemen, grab your metaphorical plungers because we’re about to dive into the long and winding pipe of the infamous £5 million golden toilet heist at Blenheim Palace. For four years, this crime has mystified investigators, and its audacity has shocked the art world. Now, finally, we might be on the brink of flushing out the truth.

Back in 2019, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan unveiled an art piece that, well, dazzled in the literal sense. It was an 18-carat gold toilet entitled ‘America,’ initially exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Let’s be honest: this toilet was no ordinary John; it was a symbol of opulence, of irony, and it attracted a whopping 100,000 people in New York eager to, ahem, experience it.

The golden spectacle was then relocated to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, strategically placed in a chamber opposite the room where the British Bulldog himself, Winston Churchill, was born. But before anyone could say “seat’s taken,” it was stolen in a high-stakes heist on September 14, 2019, just a day after its grand UK unveiling.

H2: The Hurdles and Whirlpools of a Baffling Investigation

Despite the passage of four years and the arrest of seven suspects—six men aged between 36 and 68, and one 38-year-old woman—the investigative waters have been murky. Not a single charge has been filed. Until now, that is. It seems the cogs of justice are finally turning.

The Thames Valley Police recently submitted a comprehensive file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the organization responsible for pulling the flush, so to speak, on any charges. This move significantly raises the possibility that the seven suspects could soon find themselves in deep water.

Maurizio Cattelan, the mastermind behind the £4.8 million toilet—yes, let’s not forget the 200k difference—initially took the theft with a grain of artistic humor. “Who’s so stupid to steal a toilet? ‘America’ was the one percent for the 99 percent,” he mused. But everyone knows, stealing art is no laughing matter, especially when it’s a toilet that takes on the American Dream, as the Palace’s chief executive Dominic Hare pointed out. The theft didn’t just rob a stately home; it flushed a cultural commentary down the drain.

What Happened to the Golden Throne?

As curious as it sounds, investigators believe the golden toilet was melted down and transformed into jewelry. While not confirmed, this adds another layer of irony to the story—turning an art piece designed for the “99 percent” into an elite object once again, only this time in the form of necklaces and rings.

Link to the rest at Culture.org

PG says the author should have limited herself to fewer garderobe puns.

In praise of short books: to start and finish in one sitting is a rare, unbridled joy

From The Guardian:

n recent weeks and months, more by chance than planning, I’ve been reading more much shorter books than I usually do. A slow and careful reader, I take on average a week to finish a 300-page novel (I once read that most adult novels are between 70,000 to 120,000 words). Nonfiction books usually take me significantly longer.

I recently took six weeks to finish Mister Mister by Guy Gunaratne (374 pages) for a review – but that had as much to do with my walking away after every 20 or so pages, sometimes for days, to contemplate the provocation of this fine novel.

But the more concise book – the novel of 55,000 words, the novella of, say, 35,000 and the extended essay of 30,000 words – has really been grabbing me lately.

We – I – do live in a binge culture. We’ve been primed to want it all now. Every episode of each series of a made-for-streaming drama in a weekend. Give it to me. The entire audiobook on a road trip or sleepless night. Now please. All episodes of that fantastic podcast on a long flight.

All of this, of course, challenges our attention and fragments our concentration when it comes to the written word. Especially in the form of a book, best read when the device is in another room – or the fridge.

But the shorter book may be something of an antidote to this. So allow me to tell, briefly, of its virtues.

To sit after dinner one evening, start a book and finish it by bedtime without moving is an unbridled joy. Or to read half a book in 45 minutes one evening, to go to sleep thinking about it and wake up excited at the prospect of reading the rest before work, feels like such a guilty and rewarding pleasure.

Recently, while immersed in both Mister Mister and the divisive Bret Easton Ellis’s The Shards (rollicking, unsettling and brilliant, in my view; 177,905 words, 608 pages), I reread – for the fourth, maybe fifth time – Kenneth Cook’s classic Wake in Fright (56,000 words, 224 pages) in a few hours one night. It’s a masterful work of very skilful brevity; a thoughtful, fast-paced ride into a boozy, macho, violent, misogynistic national interior – an antipodean Heart of Darkness. It followed me into my dreams. I woke, if not quite in fright, then certainly with it front of consciousness.

In for a penny: given I was already in that headspace, a few days later I reread, in a sitting, Joseph Conrad’s actual Heart of Darkness (38,000 words, 109 pages).

On the nonfiction front, earlier this month in two 45-minute sittings, I read Jeanne Ryckmans’ tense, elegantly written (and disarmingly black-humoured) Trust. At 30,000 words and 119 pages, it is a hang-on-tight rollercoaster of emotion and foreboding.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

W H Smith reports 28% increase in group revenue

From The Bookseller:

High street retailer W H Smith has reported a 28% increase in group revenue compared to 2022, driven by the Travel business, which was up 42%.

In a Pre-Close trading update ahead of publication of the full-year results to 31st August 2023, the retailer showed “strong summer trading” with the full year “in line with expectations”.

W H Smith said the Travel businesses “continued to benefit from the recovery in passenger numbers across all our key travel markets”. UK Travel stores were up 36% compared to 2022, with North America up 31% and Rest of the World up 98%.

. . . .

The retailer also opened 43 stores in North America in the past year, and has had further recent significant tender wins, including four stores at San Diego airport. In the Rest of the World, W H Smith has opened an additional 30 stores and has won further new business, including new stores at Budapest and Madrid airports.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

How Obscenity Laws Nearly Stopped Nabokov’s Lolita from Being Published

From Literary Hub:

Lolita was originally published as a limited edition in France in September 1955. The book was released by Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, a company known for specializing in pornography, but which had also built a reputation for publishing challenging literary titles. The first print run had been 5,000 copies and the book received little attention.

Over the next few months, a handful of copies of Lolita were smuggled into England. A single copy made its way into the hands of Graham Greene, who reviewed it favorably in the Sunday Times. This was followed soon after by a scathing article in the Sunday Express, which denounced the book as “sheer unrestrained pornography.” Shortly after, the British Home Office ordered that all copies entering the country should be seized.

When he first read Lolita, George Weidenfeld knew immediately he wanted to publish it. His partner, Nigel Nicolson, was not so sure. Nor were Nigel’s parents. His father Harold Nicolson “hated” the book and said it would be “universally condemned,” while his mother Vita Sackville-West “saw no literary merit in it at all.” As for Nigel himself, he told George that he was not convinced they should proceed with publication.

George was unrelenting. He took legal advice, however, and learned that publication in England would be extremely hazardous. Under the current law, they would likely lose the case, which would result in huge losses. Any copies that had been printed would have to be pulped, not to mention the enormous editorial, marketing, publicity and legal expenses incurred up to that point. Such an outcome would be calamitous for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, placing its future in serious jeopardy.

As luck would have it, the lawyers said, the Labour politician Roy Jenkins was right then guiding a new obscenity bill through Parliament. Under this new law, if the government blocked publication and the case went to court, then the publisher would be able to argue the literary merits of the book by calling authors, academics and reviewers to testify. If this bill was enacted, then just maybe, George might have a chance. The effort would still pose an enormous risk but, for the publisher, it might be worth it.

In the decades leading up to the proposed publication of Lolita, governments had frequently cited “obscenity” as the reason for preventing controversial books being published. In the United States, the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873 had been used to ban Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Voltaire’s Candide. In Britain, the legal test for obscenity derived from a 1868 case known as Regina v Hicklin, in which a judge ruled that obscene material tended “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence.”

In 1928 the British government had relied on the Hicklin case to ban Marguerite Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. Opposition to the book was whipped up by the media, particularly the Sunday Express whose editor wrote, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” That same year, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was also deemed to violate the obscenity laws and was commercially published in only an expurgated version. Six years later, the publisher Boriswood was prosecuted for obscene libel and severely fined for releasing Boy, a sexually explicit novel by James Hanley.

Over the summer of 1958, with the lawyers saying that the new bill had a good chance of passing through Parliament, and with Nigel Nicolson’s tenuous but nervous agreement, George reached out to the author, Vladimir Nabokov, in New York and asked for permission to publish Lolita in the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth. By the end of November, they had reached an agreement on the general terms and Nabokov wrote to George saying “an English edition of Lolita is nearing signature.”

In his reply to the author in New York, George said, “May I take this opportunity of telling you how inspired and moved my colleagues and I feel by the book and how determined we are to see that it launches with dignity and success in this country.” Publication of Lolita in Great Britain seemed a little closer, but then, by the year’s end, George’s plans started to unravel.

When word began circulating in the press that Weidenfeld & Nicolson intended to release Lolita, Nigel’s political colleagues pressed him to change course. At one point the Conservative chief whip Ted Heath (and later prime minister) begged him to cancel publication. Nigel asked him if he had read the book. Heath said he had. “Did you think it obscene?” Nigel asked. “As a matter of fact I thought it very boring,” Heath replied. “If it is boring it cannot be obscene,” Nigel said, which he later admitted was not a very good argument.

A few days later, the Attorney-General, Reginald Manningham-Buller (called “Bullying Manner” behind his back), stopped Nigel in a dark corridor in the bowels of the House of Commons. “If you publish Lolita you will be in the dock,” he said, jabbing a finger at him. “Even after the Obscenity Bill has been passed?” asked Nigel. “That won’t make any difference,” responded the country’s top lawyer. ‘The book is thoroughly obscene. I’ve given you a clear warning.”

On 16 December 1958, a week before Christmas Eve, Roy Jenkins’ new Obscenity Bill was debated in the House of Commons. Midway through the proceedings, Nigel stood up to speak. First, he acknowledged that he had an interest in the matter as a director of the firm Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which was planning to publish Lolita. Then he moved on to the substance of his speech. “The question could be asked,” he declared, “Is an obscene work of art a contradiction in terms? I would answer the question by saying, no, it is not. It is quite possible for a work of art to be obscene.” He then went on to say that the book had already been published in America, where over 250,000 copies had been sold.

Lolita had also been published in France and Italy. “The question arose whether it should be published in England. That was the question which my colleagues and I had to answer,” he continued.

Lolita deals with a perversion. It describes the love of a middle-aged man for a girl of twelve. If this perversion had been depicted in such a way as to suggest to any reader of middle age or, for that matter, any little girl—could she understand it—that the practices were pleasant and could lead to happiness, I should have had no hesitation in advising my colleagues that we ought not to publish this book. But, in fact, Lolita has a built-in condemnation of what it describes. It leads to utter misery, suicide, prison, murder and great unhappiness, both to the man and to the little girl whom he seduces.

At this point, Emrys Hughes, a Welsh Labour MP, rebel and general troublemaker, tried to interrupt, but Nigel brushed him aside and moved on to his conclusion. “I asked myself whether the loss to literature in this country through the non-publication of Lolita was greater than the risk which one ran of offending certain people by its publication.” Pausing to take a breath, he then said, “In the end, I came to the conclusion that it was probably right to publish this book.” Nigel had for the first time publicly declared his support for the publication of Lolita.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

‘Chytomo’ Opens New Award for Ukraine Publishing

From Publishing Perspectives:

With the support of Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22) and the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, the Ukrainian book industry magazine Chytomo is today (August 29) announcing the Chytomo Award, a recognition of “outstanding achievements in the Ukrainian publishing and literary sphere.”

Germany’s ministry of culture, led by Claudia Roth, is reported to be providing a purse of €4,000 (US$4,350) for the winner of each of the new award’s three categories, as part of Berlin’s newly announced €900,000 initiative designed to create “wider familiarity with Ukrainian culture and history in Germany.”

It’s expected that the award will be presented near the end of the year and will honor “the most remarkable achievements which contribute to the development of the book market and the industry as a whole, as well as to the promotion of reading.”

Eligibility is not restricted to book publishers. In addition, nominations can be made to highlight the work of book bloggers, journalists, libraries, bookstores, and other players and operations with achievements “have been particularly notable during the year.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

China Bestsellers in July: Etiquette and Education

From Publishing Perspectives:

In looking at the July bestsellers in the Chinese market, the familiar summertime pattern was clearly in place, as sales of the four key classic novels recognized in educational programming in China was led by a new version from Publishing House of the China Literary Federation of Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber making its move for the first time onto the fiction charts.

This as well as Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong’s Water Margin (People’s Literature Publishing House) and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West (People’s Literature Publishing House) are often animated by the release of new editions, and this summer, the usual engine of primary and secondary school-reading lists have been revved up by the ministry of education’s addition of a “reading the whole book” requirement.

An outlier in this regard is the first appearance at No. 1 of Think Tank by the 17th-century sage Feng Menglong (Beijing Union Publishing), following its debut on the charts at No. 2 last week. It’s a departure from the contemporary-classics/new-version pattern, in that it’s a book introduced in June this year, quite new, and written by an opera scholar of the Ming Dynasty. It’s a collection of “wisdom stories”—more than 1,000 of them—published in simplified Chinese. And as “classics” go, this is a collection of centuries-old classics, not the decades-old leading titles making such strong summer-reading showings.

The real story in July, it turns out, was in nonfiction, which saw a surprisingly big cohort of new arrivals—14 in the Top 30.

And just what sells to the readership in terms of fast-charting nonfiction? – books that we in the West call “how to” or “self-help.” Among the new arrivals:

  • Five-Minute Comic Worldly Wisdom
  • Sentence Planet
  • Strategy
  • Be a Calm Mom
  • The Art of Dinner
  • Cognition Awakening
  • Emotional Intelligence In Sales That Touch People’s Hearts
  • Chinese Medicine Prescription Collection
  • Winning The Three-year High School Critical Period

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

France hopes to force Microsoft Edge and others to censor websites at a browser level

From Windows Central:

Web browsers like Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Firefox may be forced to block websites at a software level if the French government has its way. 

In a blog post penned by Firefox’s parent company Mozilla, the firm warned on the potential chilling effects the so-called SREN Bill currently travelling through the French regulatory system could have on web browsers, and the free internet at large too. 

Article 6 of the bill describes the French government’s desire to force web browsers to bake in tools that would function as filters, acting as a mandatory content blocker for a government-backed list. It’s not as if these sorts of laws haven’t existed previously. Totalitarian-leaning states like Russia and China already have pervasive internet control tools, but even self-described democracies like Australia and the UK have some over-reaching laws revolving around government snooping and censorship on the web. I distinctly remember my UK ISP blocking Pirate Bay with a big red warning label at one point, although the ban seems to have been relatively short-lived (since it’s once again available now). 

What’s different here is the mechanism being sought after by the French government. By operating at a browser level, it would give the government a disturbing amount of power, while putting pressure on web browsers to fund systems that could be exploited by totalitarian states. 

“In a well-intentioned yet dangerous move to fight online fraud, France is on the verge of forcing browsers to create a dystopian technical capability. Article 6 (para II and III) of the SREN Bill would force browser providers to create the means to mandatorily block websites present on a government-provided list. Such a move will overturn decades of established content moderation norms and provide a playbook for authoritarian governments that will easily negate the existence of censorship circumvention tools.”

Mozilla elaborates that, while on the surface, it might not seem wildly different from tools like Microsoft Smart Screen which automatically blocks sites reported as being hotspots for phishing and malware attacks, the key differentiator is that Smart Screen and other similar tools can be bypassed easily by users if necessary. These mechanisms sought after by the French government would simply be a permanent block on any website or platform they see fit. 

. . . .

While these kinds of features may be well-intentioned (seriously giving the benefit of the doubt here), having these sorts of systems in place allows future potential governments to exploit them for political gain while remaining within “legal” definitions. Perhaps more crucially, they also never really work in practice. The idea that the French government could somehow prevent the free flow of information this way is asinine, and likely serve only to give browser firms a big headache. The open-source community would have forked versions without government controls prepped in minutes. And then, the potential for legitimate users getting caught out by actual malware would undoubtedly increase, if they had to seek open tools from perhaps less-than-legitimate sources.

The UK is also pushing similar bills through its parliament at the moment. The so-called “Online Safety Bill” would force companies like Microsoft to bake in government-mandated back doors into apps with end-to-end encryption. It would kill apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and other services that rely on strong encryption methods to keep user data private.  Firms like WhatsApp and Signal have even threatened to exit the UK entirely over the bill. The government often says these bills are about preventing crime, but when governments have a monopoly on violence and incarceration, the definition of crime can shift very quickly. You need only look at the complete and total erosion of free speech in nations like Hong Kong and Russia, where, increasingly, criticism of the government can land you with lengthy prison terms (or worse). Both the UK and French governments have earned themselves a lot of criticism lately …

Link to the rest at Windows Central and thanks to F. for the tip

PG suggests that governments can’t prevent the spread of information and he predicts that, should such stupid and gormless laws be passed, information in the form of unimpaired browsers would be quickly smuggled, likely online, into nations with such bans. Other methods of escaping such software restrictions include satellite internet on the high end and VPNs and thumb drives lower down. If the British ISP’s are dragged into the enforcement process, going to internet service providers offshore will become very much easier.

The whole thing would degenerate into a whack-a-mole game with smart technical people frustrating the drones applying government bans on an ongoing basis. Built into its fundamental bones, the internet is very fault-tolerant and it will route information around censorship just like it would around hardware failures on the network.

One additional point – English and French businesses are in competition with companies all over the world. PG suspects requiring these businesses to use crippled internet software could lead to a lack of competitiveness against businesses without crippled internet services.

The proposals in the UK and France bring to mind the Great Firewall of China. Do the politicians in England and France want to emulate that degree of authoritarian control over the speech and interactions of their citizens interacting with each other and with other people around the world.

Ukraine Renews Its Independence

From The Wall Street Journal:

The average age of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s 450-seat parliament, is 41. Only three of the elected representatives are older than 60, while 17 were under 30 at the time of their election. This means that when Ukraine declared its independence, many of us were essentially children, and some weren’t yet born. What do we remember from Aug. 24, 1991?

I was 6. My memories of that day are of something profoundly significant. People didn’t go to work; they gathered in the city center, on what is now Hrushevsky Street, greeting each other in an atmosphere of incredible joy and uplift.

Now, in the 10th year of Russia’s war against Ukraine and 18 months into its full-scale phase, my thoughts drift back to the Verkhovna Rada elected in 1990, before independence. Its composition was diverse and varied. There weren’t many professional politicians. There were only Ukrainian patriots and Communists.

Everyone had an agenda. Some aspired for greater autonomy within the Soviet Union. Some defended the Ukrainian language. Some were building their careers with an eye toward Moscow. All etched their names in Ukraine’s history when they accomplished what our ancestors had dreamt of for centuries and what society demanded at that moment—independence.

On Dec. 1, 1991, the Ukrainian people overwhelmingly affirmed their desire for independence in a referendum with 84% turnout. In the Crimean peninsula, more than 54% voted in favor of independence. In the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Odesa regions, support was over 80%. Today’s Russian propaganda conveniently forgets these numbers, insisting in its narrative that Ukraine and Ukrainians don’t exist.

Historians often joke that people living through major historical events don’t realize how significant those times are. There’s some truth to that. When the current Verkhovna Rada was elected in 2019, the primary demand of the Ukrainian people was a renewal of political authority. No one could have imagined the challenges we would face in less than three years: working during a full-scale war, making pivotal decisions, defending the nation’s sovereignty, and upholding the rights of Ukrainians to exist.

Like all Ukrainians, I will never forget Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russian troops invaded. By 7 a.m., a full-scale war had been raging for two hours. Russian forces were advancing in the Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and from the direction of Crimea. From Belarus, they were moving toward the Kyiv region and the capital city itself. Cities like Odesa, Kherson, Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro and Kyiv, along with their surrounding areas, were under missile attack.

In Kyiv, lines formed at petrol stations, railways and ATMs—but even longer queues formed outside military recruitment offices. Tens of thousands of men and women were eager to take up arms to defend their homes, their loved ones, and their country against the invader. Ukrainians enlisted en masse in territorial defense units. Those ready to fight were given weapons. In Kyiv alone authorities distributed 20,000 rifles on Feb. 24.

. . . .

Ukraine surprised the world, the enemy and even itself. We have managed to unite, support each other, and rally around what’s crucial: our nation, our freedom, and the future of our children.

History is made by ordinary people. They become heroes, and the future depends on them. This isn’t the first time Ukraine has had to fight for its right to exist. We must win. Each and every one of us knows what we are fighting for.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Not exactly about books, but Ukraine is a terrific story. PG fervently hopes for a happy ending.

Jacqueline Wilson says rewriting children’s books can be justified

From The Guardian:

Jacqueline Wilson has said editing children’s books to remove inappropriate and dated language is sometimes justified because young people do not have “a sense of history”.

However, the bestselling children’s author told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that she was opposed to “meddling with adult classics”.

Children’s books by authors such as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl have been rewritten by publishers to take out words and references that are deemed inappropriate or offensive today.

In February, Puffin Books hired sensitivity readers to review Dahl’s texts to make sure his books could “continue to be enjoyed by all today”.

Hundreds of changes included replacing the word “fat” with “enormous”, and changing “ugly and beastly” to “beastly”. “Old hag” in Dahl’s The Witches was changed to “old crow”.

Blyton’s books, including The Famous Five, Noddy and Malory Towers, dating back to the 1940s, have also undergone “sensitive text revisions”. Words such as “queer” or “gay” have been replaced because of their contemporary meanings relating to sexuality.

Blyton has also been criticised for racism and xenophobia in her books.

While some have welcomed the changes, others have criticised the rewriting of classics, saying it is a form of censorship.

Wilson said her view on such changes depended on “how it’s done”.

She added: “There are some things I think that would make us a bit worried if we returned to our old children’s favourites and read them with fresh eyes. We might be a little surprised.

“I think with children, they often absorb texts. They still haven’t got the power to sort things out and have a sense of history.”

Wilson has been involved in updating earlier works. Last year, she wrote The Magic Faraway Tree: A New Adventure, a reimagining of a Blyton novel.

Her version is without Blyton’s sexist stereotypes and “unfortunate references that were very ordinary in their times but nowadays don’t fit with the way we think”, she told the Irish News last year.

Wilson has admitted that she would not write one of her books, published in 2005, today.

Love Lessons is about a 14-year-old girl, Prue, who falls in love with an art teacher who partly reciprocates. They kiss and he admits that he loves her, too.

When asked in a recent interview if she would write such a book now she told the Guardian: “No. It’s so different now.”

But she told Good Morning Britain on Monday: “I’m very against meddling with adult classics.

“I was just thinking about Jane Eyre the other day. I mean, with the mad woman in the attic and the way she’s depicted, you’d never find that sort of treatment of people with serious mental health problems.

“And yet, I would be absolutely at the forefront of people saying: ‘No, leave it alone. It’s my favourite book.’”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

“There are some things I think that would make us a bit worried if we returned to our old children’s favourites and read them with fresh eyes.”

Playing the devil’s advocate, PG notes that at the time each popular children’s classic was first published, children read them “with fresh eyes.” Fresh eyes are the only sort of eyes most children have.

If we change old texts to satisfy contemporary political correctness, PG suggests readers will not understand important facts about and behaviors of humanity during other times. He posits that it’s good to understand how times have changed.

Absent an accurate understanding of prior behaviors, the incurious reader will be lead to believe that today’s standards and mores have always been universal, which is, of course, a substantial misreading of history. It’s valuable to understand what has been tried and why it failed. It’s a good preventative for making the same mistakes over and over again.

The Lawn Is Resting: A Visit to Balzac’s House

From The Paris Review:

The Maison de Balzac is located in the sixteenth arrondissement at 47, rue Raynouard, Paris, in the heart of the former village of Passy. If you visit, chances are you’ll approach it along the rue de l’Annonciation, which is pleasantly quiet and perfectly shaded, and boasts, according to Google Maps, a Pizza Hut that I don’t remember seeing when I visited in April. What I do remember seeing was an unaccompanied Alsatian with some sort of harness girding its chest, loping through a small nearby park. When I looked around, vaguely nonplussed, I noticed a clinique vétérinaire directly across the street.

If I’d had to explain to myself why, with only three days to spend in Paris, I felt such an acute need to visit the home where Honoré de Balzac, a writer I wasn’t even that familiar with, had composed the bulk of The Human Comedy, a fictional project I’d barely even dipped my toes into, I’m not sure what I would have said. Probably it just seemed that if anyone would have had an interesting house, it would have been him. Open one of his novels at random, and chances are you’ll find a gratuitous description of a room and its furnishings, a flurry of signifiers that, today, can seem hard to place. Take Monsieur Grandet’s living room, for instance, as it appears in the opening chapter of Eugénie Grandet. We learn the room has two windows that “gave on to the street,” that its floor is wooden, that “grey, wooden panelling with antique moulding lined the walls from top to bottom,” that its ceiling is dominated by exposed beams. “An old copper clock, inlaid with tortoiseshell arabesques, adorned the white, badly carved, stone chimney-piece,” Balzac goes on. “Above it hung a greenish mirror, whose edges, bevelled to show its thickness, reflected a thin stream of light along an old-fashioned pier-mirror of damascened steel.” I don’t know what a pier-mirror is, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate an old-fashioned model from a sleeker, more modern one. In a sense, this feeling of being lost was part of the appeal of Balzac’s world as I’d imagined it. 

Which is another way of saying that when I contemplated a sort of generic Balzacian space, a vision of plushness, of pure and overwhelming material profusion would unfurl in my mind: a little room fitted out with dark wood and damask curtains, gilt mirrors and stubbornly bombé furniture, its walnut shelves and limestone mantelpieces offering stable quarters to a full range of dandy’s trinkets, like engraved pistols and silver-handled riding whips and even, glowing palely in the manufactured dusk like a sturdy snowball, a fine Sèvres sugar bowl—every detail, down to the motes of light-struck dust spinning in the sepia-toned air, tuned precisely to some ideal of costive, costly languor. You know, luxus, as the Romans must have done it. Who wouldn’t want to disappear into this?

So, here I was. There was a false start: a pleasant little gate with a plastic-sheathed slip of paper taped to it declaring that the gate was no longer the entrance to the Maison de Balzac. Through the gate I could see a set of steps leading down to the grounds of the museum, which occupies a sort of plateau between the rue Raynouard above and the rue Berton below, but I was directed instead down the road some thirty yards, to a squat, flat-roofed, glass-walled hutch. When I entered, the young woman manning the information desk swiftly rerouted me to a side door, which deposited me at the top of a set of open-air stairs that, it turns out, are completely accessible from the street. Dizzily, I descended.

The ground floor of the visitor center is occupied by the Rose Bakery, a modern assemblage of plate glass and black steel that seems, topologically, to bend everything into its orbit, like a black hole of bad taste. Spacewise, the Maison de Balzac seemed unbalanced, as though every effort had been made to keep my eyes directed away from the actual home where Balzac had lived. A half-kempt garden occupies most of the grounds, while the home itself is tucked away in a corner. Looked at directly, the house is strikingly modest—a low, almost defensive-looking structure, huddled on the hillside like a barnacle. I went in.

Inside visitors are confronted, not with the building blocks of a home—trinkets, chairs, rugs—but with depictions of the man himself: twenty or so visions of Balzac, the bulk of them markedly ugly. Here, for instance, is a caricature by the lithographer Benjamin Roubaud, in which Balzac looks like a swollen, somehow arrogant thumb. If your taste veers more modern, admire Balzac, Monumental Head by Auguste Rodin, a slabby, gleaming bust that seems to be actively melting before your eyes and that fully delivers on the promise of its title: it is a head, and it is monumental. And for a very particular audience, here’s a sculpture of Balzac as a surprisingly svelte seal, leaning back coquettishly as though just surfaced from the seas of some sexually confusing fever dream. (Apparently the statuette was made by Hanz Lerche to capitalize on the negative reaction to Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, whose harshest critics noted the work’s Pinnipedian affinities.)

Seven aggressively productive years of Balzac’s life were spent here. In 1840, harried by creditors in Paris and looking to disappear, he fled to the western suburb of Passy, going so far as to rent the property under the name of his housekeeper, Louise Breugniot. Naturally, a sense of guardedness animates the home. In his biography of Balzac, Graham Robb describes it as “a cunning little house,” partly hidden between an upper road and a lower road, while the writer Gérard de Nerval, Balzac’s close friend, referred to it as “an upside-down house.” It was here that Balzac went about his customary routines, composing his novels in the early morning hours and taking breaks to write passionate, lengthy letters to his mistress Eveline Hańska, the Polish noblewoman he later married, or gorge on stone fruits and pomes. Balzac was, by all accounts, extremely partial to pears, and their delicate, rounded scent pervaded the home in Passy.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Maison de Balzac CC BY-SA 4.0

Difficult Empathies

From Public Books:

Krishan is a shy, sensitive social worker in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. One day, he receives an unexpected telephone call about Rani, his grandmother’s former caretaker. The night before, Krishan learns, Rani fell into a well, broke her neck, and died. Caught completely off guard and not sure what to say, Krishan finds his mind meandering, casting ponderous light on the accident:

He felt … [the] need … to hear all the circumstantial details that connected the unlikely death to the so-called real world before [he] could accept that its occurrence was not in opposition to the laws of nature. It was the fact, above all, that sudden or violent deaths could occur not merely in a war zone or during race riots but during the slow, unremarkable course of everyday life that made them so disturbing and so difficult to accept, as though the possibility of death was contained in even the most routine of actions, in even the ordinary, unnoticed moments of life.

This is only the beginning of Krishan’s story in Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel A Passage North. Reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, the novel meditates on the physical destruction and psychological damage that the Sri Lankan state inflicted on the Tamil minority during 26 years of war.

Arudpragasam belongs to that group of writers, who, when confronted with traumatic memory, transform their psychic anxiety into a kind of creative pressure, just the sort that is necessary for the writer’s survival in an excessively violent narrative. In A Passage North, that pressure is employed in how Arudpragasam frequently camouflages the spectacular with a teeming forest of trivial details, or, as the above passage indicates, circumvents the horrifying to broach the philosophical. It is through these long philosophical detours about the nature of love, beauty, time, desire, disease, and war that Arudpragasam exposes his readers to deeper and more disturbing truths.

What would a successful war novel look like? This question, asked of a teacher years ago, concealed a deeper question I had: What would a truthful Kashmir novel look like? I have grappled for years with such questions, since I grew up amid the violent rebellion that Kashmiri Muslims waged against the Indian state in 1988. At first, I wondered whether the job of the novelist was to replicate the traumatic event that one had intimately witnessed.

But ultimately, I found that the work of a novelist demands something more. Thanks to reading my teacher Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream, I understood that novelists need to transmute history, metabolizing it into the human details that constitute the selfhood of the character. My first book, The Night of Broken Glass, features multiple fictional narrators who contemplate the killings and custodial torture and myriad massacres that happened in the recent history of Kashmir. In the process of writing these interweaving short stories, I realized it was only possible because I’d witnessed the events of excessive military violence as they were inflicted on my people. But perhaps even more significant than witnessing these terrifying events was the act of measuring their psychological impact, in determining how they continued to manifest in the lives of characters whose fates they’d permanently altered.

In recent years, a number of South Asian novels that fictionalize war or extreme violence have appeared. It is true that rarely have any novels succeeded in transmuting the history of a people in the way A Passage North doesStill, it is worth examining Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field and Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs along with Arudpragasam’s book. While Vijay’s novel is about a young Indian woman from Bangalore who watches the struggles of a Kashmiri family during the war, Mahajan measures the destructive effects of a bombing carried out by Kashmiri rebels in the Indian capital, New Delhi. Both the Indian-origin American writers, falling afoul of Indian nationalist stereotypes, fail to empathize with their Kashmiri characters.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Author Dmitry Glukhovsky Sentenced to Prison by Moscow

From Publishing Perspectives:

Fortunately, the author and journalist Dmitry Glukhovsky was not in Russia on Monday (August 7) when a Moscow court found him guilty on a charge of spreading false information about Russia’s armed forces. He has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

Today (August 9), in response to our inquiry, Glukhovsky’s German public relations agent, Dorle Kopetzky at the Weissundblau agency, says that the writer left Moscow shortly before Vladimir Putin began his assault on Ukraine in February 2022, “and did not return after he called the war what it is.”

Glukhovsky, who joined us onstage at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22) in 2018 for a Publishing Perspectives Talk interview, has rarely been complimentary to the Putin administration, and many of his works were openly defiant.

“He has been critical towards the regime all these years now,” Kopetzky says, “and has fortified his efforts in exile.”

The Associated Press account of Glukhovsky’s sentencing points out that he is “the latest artist to be handed a prison term in a relentless crackdown on dissent in Russia,” referencing the May 5 pre-trial detention for theater director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk.

Most prominently, of course, on Friday (August 4), the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, already imprisoned, was convicted on charges of extremism and sentenced to 19 years in prison. That event prompted the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal to write, “The world hardly needs another reminder of the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s Russian state.”

A Reuters write-up in February spoke to Glukhovsky from an undisclosed location, and confirmed that prosecutors in Russia were “proceeding with a case against exiled science fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, accused of publishing ‘false information’ about Russian atrocities in the Ukraine war.” As early as June of 2022, Reuters had reported that Glukhovsky was on a Russian interior ministry wanted list, the author on encrypted communication services having called out the Kremlin’s “special military operation” as a euphemism for Putin’s land-grab.

Glukhovsky, in a 2018 pre-Frankfurt interview with Publishing Perspectives, described the “wonderful times” of the current post-Soviet era for writers willing to see “an epoch of not only post-truth but also post-ethic.”

“These are really the times,” he said, “when all a writer needs to do is sit down and focus carefully on the dubious reality unfolding around him. What’s the point of writing a dystopian fiction nowadays,” he asks, “when the reality is exceeding your wildest fantasies?”

. . . .

Having worked in film, video game, and television development Glukhovsky has particularly broad potency as a storyteller and since the release of his debut trilogy Metro 2033, he has cultivated a loyal international following, propelling his writings into broad international translation and publishing deals.

Kopetsky describes his latest two-volume “Outpost” series as being set “in a Russia isolated from the West and ruled by a new czar from Moscow.” In the books, “a disease in Russia turns people into man-eating zombies after they hear a special combination of words, a ‘somewhat pandemic neuro-lingual infection.’”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says Russia has experienced a huge brain drain as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. A great portion of the nation’s young highly-educated and talented people left the country to live in Eastern Europe and points beyond during the weeks following the outbreak of the war. PG thinks most will never return to Russia. They will certainly not return if Putin or someone who emulates Putin is the nation’s ruler.

Not far into the war, Russia instituted a program to take convicted criminals out of the nation’s prisons with a promise of a full pardon if the convicts agreed to fight on the front lines for a period of time – often one-two years. These conscripts have been used for roles such as leading charges toward dug-in Ukrainian troops armed with machine guns, and artillery.

Such charges define the term, “cannon fodder” and the Russian conscripts have been killed and severely wounded in large numbers. Needless to say, regular Russian soldiers have priority for the treatment of their wounds, and the convicts are left to treat themselves or each other as best they can.

Russia had a shrinking population before the invasion and the death and crippling of so many young Russian men will certainly accelerate the population decline. Russian ex-pats are unlikely to bring their families back to Russia in the aftermath of the war, regardless of how it ends.

An old saying goes, “The future belongs to those who show up.” Fewer and fewer Russians are going to show up for Russia’s future.

Transformative Agreements: ‘An Essential Stepping Stone’

From Publishing Perspectives:

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the academic and scholarly world’s march toward open-access models hasn’t moved as quickly as many would like. The late-June release of Europe’s Coalition S initiative for open access called “Plan S” was plainly presented as a disappointment.

Closer to the ground, if you will, however, there are parties gamely announcing progress and achievements, among them the London-based 182-year-old Royal Society of Chemistry (the URL of which, yes, looks like that of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

In its media messaging today (August 11), the society—which has an international membership of more than 50,000—is focusing on what may be to some a surprising number of transformative agreements in North America, 46 all told. They are:

  • 2018: One agreement (the society’s first in the United States, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
  • 2019-21: Three agreements (all in the United States)
  • 2022: Seven agreements (all in the United States)
  • 2023: 35 agreements (21 in the United States, one in Mexico, and 13 in Canada)

The Biden administration in August of 2022 announced its controversial requirement that by the end of 2025 all taxpayer-funded research will have to be made freely available to the public as soon as a final peer-reviewed manuscript of a report is published. The chemistry society in England is now mentioning this as one of the factors that has accelerated its agreements, along with the society’s own plans.

“On the back of the US government’s open-access mandate and our own open-access commitments,” the society reports, “the number of deals has grown rapidly within the region every year, with 2023 seeing 28 new deals, including our first agreements with partners in Canada and Mexico.”

. . . .

Sara Bosshart is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s head of open access, and she’s quoted today, saying, “We were very excited last year to announce that we aim to make all of our fully society-owned journals open access within the next five years. Open access is at the core of our mission to help the chemical sciences make the world a better place and by making our 44 society-owned journals free-to-read, we’ll be providing unrestricted global access to all of the cutting-edge research we publish.

“A key priority for our transition,” Bosshart says, “is to ensure that our international author base continues to have the same ability to publish in our journals. For this reason, we’re planning to spend the next two years working with our world partners, institutions, and community to develop new open-access models that function at an institutional level, rather than relying solely on author publication charges.

“Transformative agreements are an essential stepping stone in our [progress] toward 100-percent open access as they form the basis for future open-access agreements and allow us to transition gradually from subscriptions to open access. They also strengthen the relationships we have with our United States institutional partners and create a forum for conversation and collaboration toward a joint open-access future.

“Our end goal is an open-access future that ensures that everyone, everywhere, has the same potential to access and contribute to the latest discoveries in the chemical sciences and beyond—and we’re looking forward to working collectively with our community to achieve this vision.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The elegant extremist

From The Critic:

Imagine a parlour game where the aim is to cite two practitioners in one field who are such polar opposites to each other that they make us doubt that it really is one field at all. In cinema, for example, one could offer everything-explodes merchant Michael Bay and nothing-happens master Andrei Tarkovsky.

In fiction, one extreme might be Ian McEwan, the young author who shocked literary London.

. . . .

And the far side would be occupied by Ian McEwan, darling of the twenty-first century prize lists and bestseller shelves, whose novels have appeared on the Queen Consort’s Reading Room book club, and who once said with a straight face, “It’s an aspect of getting older that I find in my social circle a handful of judges.”

How does one become the other? When did Ian McEwan stop being a risk-taker, the enfant terrible of nasty sex (“Ian Macabre” was Private Eye’s nickname for him), and start being the grandfather of the well-plotted English literary novel of ideas? The answer is that he always was both at the same time. 

A bearded, lank-haired 26-year-old McEwan, looking very Generation Z, loomed out of the publicity materials for his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975 (first edition, left). Even the positive reviews of these stories of murder, child abuse and cat-roasting, McEwan recalled later, “were scandalised. What monster had come among us?”

With The Child in Time there was a sense almost of relief among critics that McEwan was finally putting his talents to less ugly uses. “The McEwan you and I have been waiting for,” offered The Guardian, while The Listener affirmed that the book “attains a new level of seriousness”. Yet this overlooks that The Child in Time was still a deeply eccentric book, set in the future during an unprecedented heatwave, where one character is of unspecified gender and another plot strand involves an MP literally reverting to childhood.

And despite their smoother, maturer surfaces — “To call The Innocent a spy novel would be like calling Lord of the Flies a boys’ adventure yarn,” said The Sunday Times — these were still novels where bad things happen to people excitingly: missing children (The Child in Time), a fight to the death (The Innocent), being terrorised by Nazi-trained dogs (Black Dogs) or victimised by a mentally-ill stalker (Enduring Love). 

The blend was perfect: uneasiness delivered with aplomb, and at least two or three virtuosic set pieces of action in each book. Zoë Heller called him “the master clockmaker of novelists”. But there was comedy in them too — comedy that readers had overlooked since McEwan’s early stories, and the lack of response to which may have led him to make his next novel the much broader comedy (featuring, naturally, forced euthanasia), Amsterdam (1998).

By now the transition for McEwan to Master of the Universe (English Literary Fiction Division) was complete. Amsterdam — not uncontroversially, as an unapologetic bagatelle among his works — won the Booker Prize, and kick-started what we might call his imperial phase. 

His next novel, Atonement (2001), was fast-tracked to modern classic status. It had everything — spanning 60 years, incorporating country-house romance, war and a twist that meant that, as Claire Messud put it, “complicatedly, this novel is both itself, and a novel about itself”. The twist irked almost as many readers as it delighted, showing that even in his crowd-pleasing pomp, McEwan could still kick against the pricks.

Link to the rest at The Critic

Free Expression: French and US Industries’ New Challenges

From Publishing Perspectives:

For some time, the United States book market has stood as the de facto capital of the world’s far-right efforts in literary censorship.

A new government-imposed limitation on sales of a novel for young readers in France, however, is drawing stark criticism as censorship: Support for Manu Causse’s Bien trop petit (Far Too Small) from Éditions Thierry Magnier now includes the full-throated backing of the powerful French publishers’ association, the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE).

The SNE has issued a particularly forthright demand for a review of a 74-year-old law used by the French national government to limit sales of a single children’s book.

The association writes in a terse statement delivered today to the international press corps, “The National Publishing Union (SNE) recalls its unwavering attachment to the principles of freedom of creation and publication, in compliance with the legal provisions intended to protect minors.

“Taking note of the decree of July 17, 2023, prohibiting the sale to minors of Manu Causse’s work Far Too Small published by Éditions Thierry Magnier—taken in accordance with the law of July 16, 1949, revised in 2011—the SNE requests that [there be] carried out an evaluation of the system for the protection of minors established by this law. The SNE questions the consistency and effectiveness of the rules defined almost 75 years ago when the main current vectors of exposure of minors to the content covered by the law did not exist.”

Not only is this case clearly defined and—thanks to the SNE—now very high-profile, but its content lies in areas that society isn’t always comfortable discussing, even in the name of free expression: young male sexuality.

This makes it, of course, of particular value as an instance in which publishing can test its own critical allegiance to producing its best work and resisting self-censorship.

The author Manu Causse’s Bien trop petit was published in September as part of a series, Éditions Thierry Magnier’s Collection L’Ardeur.

In the publisher’s descriptive copy about the book, accompanying an audio sample from the novel, Éditions Thierry Magnier writes:

“A novel full of humor that explores the complexity of adolescence and a tribute to the powers of the imagination in the construction of our sexualities.

“Grégoire has a small penis. If he had never really realized it, after the derogatory comments of his comrades at the swimming pool, he is forced to face the facts. He’s convinced that his love and sexual life is now over before it even started because of this insurmountable flaw.

“His immediate solution to cope with his frustration: take refuge in his fan fiction. He has been writing for a long time the adventures of the brave Max Égrogire and his sidekick, the beautiful Chloé Rembrandt. But this time, his story will take an unexpected turn since Grégoire writes an erotic passage for the first time. And among his readers, one person will challenge him: Kika encourages him, jostles him a little, and pushes him to go farther.

“From message to message, Grégoire delivers the sequel to Chloé Rembrandt’s erotic adventures to Kika. Through their exchanges, he explores his own fantasies and can’t believe he can share them with someone. Perhaps excitement and desire can go through many other things than bodily contact?”

According to French press accounts, the publisher wasn’t aware until July 18 that France’s interior ministry had issued a decree on the book, which is said to have had an initial print run of 2,500 copies with sales of some 500. Apparently, however, the book had been reported by the Commission for the Supervision and Control of Publications for  Youth to the interior ministry in January.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG wonders why censorship is so often connected with the far right, especially when woke censorship and trigger warnings, the most common species of censorship in the US at present, are most certainly far-left.

‘There’s an industry-wide mental health crisis’: authors and publishers on why the books sector needs to change

From The Guardian:

Author and publisher welfare has been a hot topic in the books industry of late. Publishing houses, trade unions and industry bodies have scrambled for solutions following a survey by the Bookseller in which debut authors reported overwhelmingly negative publication experiences: more than half of respondents said the process adversely affected their mental health. Now, a series of measures are being rolled out across the industry in response to these concerns.

This month, Anna Frame, communications director at the independent publisher Canongate, has confirmed various initiatives are being discussed, including an authors’ handbook in partnership with the Society of Authors (SoA) and a resource pack for publishers, in conjunction with English Pen. Canongate has also announced that it will publish fewer books so that it can dedicate more time to authors.

These discussions follow news that the Orion publishing group will establish an academy for debut novelists with the aim of “demystifying the process and ensuring expectations are clear”. Meanwhile, the Publishers Publicity Circle (PPC) is launching free media training and crisis communications sessions for publishers.

A lot of authors I know feel quite powerless. We are the product, but we are not a member of the team

Imogen Hermes Gowar

Ed Gillett – whose debut book Party Lines will come out in August – said that working with his publisher Picador was a “really positive” experience. However, he added that writing a book can be isolating. “I signed my deal during lockdown, which was obviously a period of particularly acute disconnection for everybody, but that sense of operating in a bit of a bubble has persisted.”


Imogen Hermes Gowar published her first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, in 2018. She described her publisher and agent as “faultlessly supportive”, but said that she could have been better prepared.

“It impacted my mental health gigantically. For me it was the total change in status. I was 28 when I sold my book and […] I was used to being the intern, or the temp, or the volunteer juggling day jobs in cafes and care work to pay my bills. Suddenly I was treated like the most important person in the room, and it really did a number on me. I doubt it would have occurred to anyone that this might be the case.

“For publishing professionals, for whom this is all literally just another day at the office, it’s easy to overlook the fact that for a debut author it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”

She added that clearer communication throughout the process would have eased her concerns. “A lot of authors I know feel quite powerless and shut out from decision-making. We are the product, but we are not a member of the team […] it’s extra alienating to feel that decisions directly concerning our work and careers are often not shared with us.”


Through their cross-sector initiatives, Frame, the SoA and the PPC are hoping to tackle these issues. Frame said: “The moment when a book reaches publication is hugely exciting for writers, but it can feel exposing and stressful, too.”

“Often the weight of providing emotional support for authors during this vulnerable time falls to publicists, editors and agents, who aren’t mental health professionals,” she pointed out. “That pastoral care is vital, but as an industry we have to acknowledge the need for professional resources, too, and provide access to that support. Publishing is a team game, and having the difficult conversations at an earlier stage in the process will help us protect our own mental health, and that of the writers we’re working with.”

Likk to the rest at The Guardian

Don’t be a robot! Think for yourself!

From The Critic:

A few years ago, I wrote a short biography (for purposes of internal family consumption) of my great grandfather. Born in 1892, he went to work in the brickfields at the age of 12. He then served in the Royal Navy, where he was shot at on the beaches of Gallipoli, sunk in the North Sea and ended up in Crimea for the Russian Civil War. Afterwards, he got a job as a platelayer on the Tilbury Docks. He became politically active around about the time of the General Strike, joined the Communist Party and was instrumental in getting a fellow traveller selected as the Labour candidate and then MP for Thurrock. He became acquainted with people like Fenner Brockway, a leftist intellectual, and V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became independent India’s Defence Minister.

One of 15 children, he was brought up in the direst poverty imaginable. He mistakenly hoped that the Royal Navy would be more bearable than the brickfields. He soon realised his mistake: this was a time when birching was still allowed in the Navy. His life was a (literally) bloody struggle, and he only found some degree of comfort when he got married and his father-in-law managed to get him a relatively decent job on the docks. Being a platelayer, later a wagon examiner, was a slightly better paid and less tough job than being, say, a stevedore.

When I started to write this little bit of amateur family history, my grandfather (his son, now 91) — who hero-worshipped his father — gave me all the papers and other materials he had relating to him.

Amongst these was a large box of periodicals, magazines and pamphlets. As well as a White Russian propaganda paper that he picked up when he was in Odessa in 1921 during his naval service, many old souvenir copies of the Daily Worker (including one from the day that Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space), pamphlets on disarmament, “the labour question” and suchlike, there were many copies of leftist periodicals such as Labour Monthly, World News and Views and, most numerous of all, Plebs magazine. Plebs was the official organ of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), a workers’ educational organisation with close ties to the trade union movement.

By turns both serious-minded and irreverent, with spiky cartoons and anti-capitalist jokes, Plebs facilitated an astonishing range of educational opportunities. Readers of Plebs were encouraged to learn subjects ranging from socialist and Marxist theory (naturally), to history, economics, psychology, English, mathematics and so on. Day schools, week-end schools, teach-yourself books and correspondence courses were all offered at affordable prices. Each edition would contain suggestions for new books to read, a large book review section, and adverts for all kinds of booksellers and pamphlets.

The NCLC movement saw education and reading as the path to a better and more hopeful world, encouraging workers to think independently and understand the world as it really was. The slogan of its correspondence courses — “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself” — catches the spirit of the whole movement well. Considering that most of the readers of Plebs (at least, the ones lucky enough not to be unemployed) continued to work long hours in tough jobs, the fact that they chose to use what little extra income and time they had to educate themselves and improve their minds is a testament to their grit and determination.

My great-grandfather also got heavily involved in the Esperanto movement. Esperanto was (still is, to a small band of enthusiasts) an artificial language invented in 1887 by a Jewish eye-doctor from Poland, Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof. A sort of simplified and regularised generic romance language, the idea was that it could function as a common tongue for the entire world, reversing the primal sin of the Tower of Babel and helping to spread peace, love and global understanding. It was enthusiastically taken up by left-wing idealists like my great-grandfather, who taught it to himself: my grandfather still has his Esperanto dictionary and copies of The British Esperantist, the official magazine of the British Esperanto Society. He named his bungalow in Grays “La Espero”, which means “Hope” in Esperanto.

Browse the pages of Plebs, and what strikes you immediately is an enormous sense of energy, confidence and agency. The NCLC had been created because working class people demanded it (they rebelled against the more staid offerings of Ruskin College Oxford to set it up). It was by and large run by trades unionists and other working men, many of whom would have faced genuine deprivation and struggle. Their hardscrabble lives made them utterly determined to assert their own dignity and educate themselves, on their terms: they had no deference whatsoever to established educational institutions. Their whole attitude towards the establishment, of whatever kind, from the bespectacled lefty lecturers at Ruskin College to the Tories running the country, was: balls to the lot of you, think you’re better than us? We’ll bloody show you: we can think and write and educate ourselves, thank you very much, without being spoon fed by the likes of you. In short: “Don’t be a Robot! Think for Yourself”.

Contrast this to the attitude of many on the left nowadays, to whom the hollowed-out corporate behemoths that are modern British universities are unquestionable redoubts of authority and status. Never mind that most humanities and arts courses consist largely of being taught to mindlessly imbibe the syllogisms and dogmas of poststructuralism and critical theory with considerably less critical engagement than the priestly scholars of the Middle Ages would have been expected to absorb the axioms of scholastic theology. Never mind that modern universities have completely lost their historic ethos of scholars governing themselves through deliberative collective structures and are now instead ruled over by middle-managers, HE departments and accountants, with all the respect for academics of an imperial governor dealing with recalcitrant natives.

No class has ever shown more deference to official qualifications and the authority of credentials than modern progressives. You can see this in the nasty undertone of much Twitter rhetoric, where people with lots of letters after their name love to lord it over those who haven’t spent three years soaking in Foucault. I have a doctorate, and believe me, brandishing it in such a way as to suggest that your opinions are fortified by an impenetrable wall of unimpeachable truth and expertise is laughable: I am qualified to speak about 18th century British politics, but not necessarily much else. This doesn’t stop the “I think you’ll find that actually I’m Doctor Bloggs” brigade from suggesting that it is unimaginable impertinence to challenge them. What such people would have made of the proletarian autodidacts who read Plebs, one can only imagine.

Yes, I went to university, but in many ways, I have received more education since university than during it — and I went to Cambridge in the before days, pre-decolonisation and the imposition of other such tedious orthodoxies. What did I do at university? Read a lot of books, think about them and write essays. All I needed was a reading list, and I was away. How much use was “contact time”? In some ways it can help, but in others it can constrain: inevitably university teachers spend a lot of time trying to help the indolent come up to a basic level of knowledge. They wish to teach a relatively narrow range of topics that they know well enough, which means one often has to make one’s own way anyway. Much of the mystique of a university education comes from the need of the institutions, and those who teach at them, to justify their own existence and bolster their status. Ignore the blither, and the value added — particularly with ever larger teaching group sizes — is nowhere near as big as universities would claim.

Nothing is more modish or conformist than academia. Trends — “material culture” one day, “the new political economy of capitalism” the next — come and go. Many academics are constantly trimming the wind to suit the whims of funding bodies, who suddenly decide that their priority is “queer epistemologies” or anything that can claim some tenuous link to climate change. The social background and assumptions of academics are incredibly narrow, which inevitably influences what they teach and research.

Link to the rest at The Critic

PG is a sucker for a good rant.

Theoderic the Great

From The Wall Street Journal:

If there was a Roman version of “1066 and All That,” the satirical romp through English history, the year 476 would surely be one of those suspiciously bold lines in our collective historical imagination. It was then that Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, was deposed in the west. On one side of his 10-month reign lay Antiquity. On the other, the Middle Ages.

Where does that leave Theoderic the Great, the Ostrogothic king who reigned in Italy from 493 until his death in 526? Under the rule of this Gothic-speaking warrior, the Colosseum still rang with the roar of spectators, crisp mountain water still streamed through the aqueducts, and giants of Latin literature, like Cassiodorus and Boethius, still served in the senate.

Hans-Ulrich Wiemer’s “Theoderic the Great: King of Goths, Ruler of Romans” is a monumental exploration of the life and times of this remarkable leader. It is the most important treatment of its subject since Wilhelm Ensslin’s 1947 biography, and since Mr. Wiemer’s book (here in John Noël Dillon’s fluid English translation) surpasses its predecessor in breadth and sophistication, the author can claim the laurel of having written the best profile of Theoderic we have.

The story of Theoderic is epic and improbable. He was born in 453 or 454 in the ever-contested Danubian borderlands, probably in what is now the east of Austria, to an elite Gothic warrior and a mother of obscure background. The Gothic tribe to which Theoderic belonged had just emerged, following the recent death of Attila, from a long spell of domination by the Huns. In 461, the boy Theoderic was shipped to Constantinople as insurance for a treaty. He spent almost a decade, his formative youth, in the great metropolitan capital of the Roman Empire.

Theoderic’s power derived less from his distinguished ancestry or the Gothic respect for royal legitimacy, Mr. Wiemer emphasizes, than from his success as a warrior. As an upstart prince, he killed the Sarmatian King Babai with his own hands. As a commander at the head of a fearsome Gothic army, he proved a fickle ally for the eastern Roman Empire, whose emperors were hardly models of loyalty themselves. In the early 480s, he was named commander-in-chief by the Romans. Within a few years, he was besieging Constantinople.

If his career had ended there, Theoderic’s name would belong among the distinguished mercenary warlords of the troubled fifth century. But fortune favors the bold, and Theoderic had even grander ambitions. In 488, he set off with some 100,000 followers—men, women and children—in an armed wagon train on an uncertain journey from the banks of the Danube (in what is now Bulgaria) to Italy. Their goals were to unseat Odoacer—the deposer of Romulus Augustulus—and to find for themselves a permanent home. Theoderic cornered Odoacer and his forces in the major stronghold of Ravenna, and the two signed a treaty by which they were meant to share power. The treaty lasted all of about 10 days, before Theoderic personally clove his rival in two (“with a single sword stroke,” Mr. Wiemer tells us, “slicing him apart from collarbone to hip”). From such sanguinary beginnings emerged a generation of peace in Italy.

What makes Mr. Wiemer’s survey so rich is his mastery of recent research on the twilight of antiquity. Theoderic’s reign cuts to the heart of virtually every great debate among scholars of this period. Were his Ostrogoths an essentially Germanic tribe, or is ethnicity a fiction ever reconfigured by contingent power dynamics?

For Mr. Wiemer, a professor of ancient history at the University of Erlangen–Nuremberg, Ostrogoths were a “community of violence” whose material basis was war and plunder. But the author recognizes that the masses who followed Theoderic on his Italian adventure were a people of shared history and culture, setting them apart from the natives in Italy and drawing them closer to other groups, such as the Visigoths who had settled in Spain and Gaul.

Mr. Wiemer is convincing on the main lines of Theoderic’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, Theoderic pursued functional specialization between the Goths and the Romans. The former were warriors (if also landowners), the latter civilians. A two-track government reflected this essential division of labor. Theoderic sought complementarity, not fusion.

Abroad, he sought legitimacy from the eastern Roman capital, along with stability in the post-Roman west. By means of strategic treaties and an astonishing network of marriage alliances among the Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, Burgundians and others, Theoderic emerged as the most powerful ruler west of Constantinople. Thanks to opportunistic expansion, he came to control wide swathes of the Balkans, much of southern Gaul and (nominally) the Iberian Peninsula. In the early sixth century, it would not have been obvious that the Frankish kingdom would prove more enduring and consequential.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theodoric the Great). Roman Vassal and King of the Ostrogoths. Only a single coin with this design is known; it is in the collection of Italian numismatic Francesco Gnecchi, displayed in Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mausoleum of Theoderic, built in 520 AD by Theoderic the Great as his future tomb, Ravenna, Italy Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gadgets and Gizmos That Inspired Adam Smith

From Reason:

Pocket gadgets were all the rage in Adam Smith’s day. Their popularity inspired one of the most paradoxical, charming, and insightful passages in his work.

The best known are watches. A pocket timepiece was an 18th century man’s must-have fashion accessory, its presence indicated by a ribbon or bright steel chain hanging from the owner’s waist, bedecked with seals and a watch key. Contemporary art depicts not just affluent people but sailors and farm workers sporting watch chains. One sailor even wears two. “It had been the pride of my life, ever since pride commenced, to wear a watch,” wrote a journeyman stocking maker about acquiring his first in 1747.

Laborers could buy watches secondhand and pawn them when they needed cash. A favorite target for pickpockets, “watches were consistently the most valuable item of apparel stolen from working men in the eighteenth century,” writes historian John Styles, who analyzed records from several English jurisdictions.

But timepieces were hardly the only gizmos stuffing 18th century pockets, especially among the well-to-do. At a coffeehouse, a gentleman might pull out a silver nutmeg grater to add spice to his drink or a pocket globe to make a geographical point. The scientifically inclined might carry a simple microscope, known as a flea glass, to examine flowers and insects while strolling through gardens or fields. He could gaze through a pocket telescope and then, with a few twists, convert it into a mini-microscope. He could improve his observations with a pocket tripod or camera obscura and could pencil notes in a pocket diary or on an erasable sheet of ivory. (Not content with a single sheet, Thomas Jefferson carried ivory pocket notebooks.)

The coolest of all pocket gadgets were what antiquarians call etuis and Smith referred to as “tweezer cases.” A typical 18th century etui looks like a slightly oversized cigarette lighter covered in shagreen, a textured rawhide made from shark or ray skin. The lid opens up to reveal an assortment of miniature tools, each fitting into an appropriately shaped slot. Today’s crossword puzzle clues often describe etuis as sewing or needle cases, but that was only one of many varieties. An etui might contain drawing instruments—a compass, ruler, pencil, and set of pen nibs. It could hold surgeon’s tools or tiny perfume bottles. Many offered a tool set handy for travelers: a tiny knife, two-pronged fork, and snuff spoon; scissors, tweezers, a razor, and an earwax scraper; a pencil holder and pen nib; perhaps a ruler or bodkin. The cap of a cylindrical etui might separate into a spyglass.

All these “toys,” as they were called, kept early manufacturers busy, especially in the British metal-working capital of Birmingham. A 1767 directory listed some 100 Birmingham toy makers, producing everything from buttons and buckles to tweezers and toothpick cases. “For Cheapness, Beauty and Elegance no Place in the world can vie with them,” the directory declared. Like Smith’s famous pin factory, these preindustrial plants depended on hand tools and the division of labor, not automated machinery.

Ingenious and ostensibly useful, pocket gadgets and other toys epitomized a new culture of consumption that also included tea, tobacco, gin, and printed cotton fabrics. These items were neither the traditional indulgences of the rich nor the necessities of life. Few people needed a pocket watch, let alone a flea glass or an etui. But these gadgets were fashionable, and they tempted buyers from a wide range of incomes.

A fool “cannot withstand the charms of a toyshop; snuff-boxes, watches, heads of canes, etc., are his destruction,” the Earl of Chesterfield warned his son in a 1749 letter. He returned to the subject the following year. “There is another sort of expense that I will not allow, only because it is a silly one,” he wrote. “I mean the fooling away your money in baubles at toy shops. Have one handsome snuff-box (if you take snuff), and one handsome sword; but then no more pretty and very useless things.” A fortune, Chesterfield cautioned, could quickly disappear through impulse purchases.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, Smith examined what made these objects so enticing. Pocket gadgets claimed to have practical functions, but these “trinkets of frivolous utility” struck Smith as more trouble than they were worth. He deemed their appeal less practical than aesthetic and imaginative.

“What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility,” Smith wrote, “as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number.” Toys embodied aptness, “the beauty of order, of art and contrivance.” They were ingenious and precise. They were cool. And they weren’t the only objects of desire with these qualities.

The same pattern applied, Smith argued, to the idea of wealth. He portrayed the ambitious son of a poor man, who imagines that servants, coaches, and a large mansion would make his life run smoothly. Pursuing a glamorous vision of wealth and convenience, he experiences anxiety, hardship, and fatigue. Finally, in old age, “he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys.”

Yet Smith didn’t condemn the aspiring poor man or deride the lover of toys. He depicted them with sympathetic bemusement, recognizing their foibles as both common and paradoxically productive. We evaluate such desires as irrational only when we’re sick or depressed, he suggested. In a good mood, we care less about the practical costs and benefits than about the joys provided by “the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system….The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety.”

Besides, Smith suggested, pursuing the false promise of tranquility and convenience had social benefits. It was nothing less than the source of civilization itself: “It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth.”

Then Smith gave his analysis a twist. The same aesthetic impulse that draws people to ingenious trinkets and leads them to pursue wealth and greatness, he argued, also inspires projects for public improvements, from roads and canals to constitutional reforms. However worthwhile one’s preferred policies might be for public welfare, their benefits—like those of a pocket globe—are secondary to the beauty of the system.

“The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects,” he wrote. “The contemplation of them pleases us, and we are interested in whatever can tend to advance them. They make part of the great system of government, and the wheels of the political machine seem to move with more harmony and ease by means of them. We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions.” Only the least self-aware policy wonk can fail to see the truth in Smith’s claim.

Here, however, the separation of means and end can be more serious than in the case of a trinket of frivolous utility. Buying a gadget you don’t need because you like the way it works doesn’t hurt anyone but you. Enacting policies because they sound cool can hurt the public they’re supposed to benefit. “All constitutions of government,” Smith reminded readers, “are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.” Elsewhere in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith criticized the “man of system” who imposed his ideal order, heedless of the wishes of those he governed.

Link to the rest at Reason

Canada’s Crisis Triggers Downsizing at Access Copyright

From Publishing Perspectives:

Today, we include in our rights edition an urgent story that’s not focused on translation- and publication-rights deals but on a crippling copyright fiasco that has damaged a major publishing market for more than a decade. The news, arriving today (July 14), is not good. And copyright, after all, is precisely at the heart of every rights meeting, offer, and deal made across trading-center tables and borders the world over.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the story of Canada’s ironically named Copyright Modernization Act of 2012 has entered its 11th year. The act—like those parties taking advantage of it to utilize copyrighted material without payment—has crippled English-language Canadian publishers and authors, causing a loss of as much as US$151.3 million in lost licensing revenues.

The board of directors at Access Copyright—the collective management organization duly established by creators and publishers for English-language Canada—made the organization’s most alarming announcement yet, saying that it is initiating “a significant downsizing and restructuring of the organization because of the federal government’s decade-long inaction in fixing Canada’s publishing marketplace.”

The board’s statement confirms that “Canadian writers, visual artists, and publishers—an indispensable part of Canada’s culture—have been deprived of more than CA$200 million in unpaid royalties under tariffs certified by the Copyright Board of Canada.

“This staggering figure,” the board’s statement says, “is among the many impacts, including job losses and several educational publishers stepping away from the K-12 or post-secondary markets, that have hit Canadian creators and publishers since amendments to Canada’s Copyright Act were enacted in 2012.”

. . . .

What the board of directors describes as “mass, systemic, free copying of creators’ works by Canada’s education sector outside of Quebec since 2012” has led to Access Copyright’s “total distributions to rightsholders dropping by 79 percent.”

Despite the fact that Access Copyright, more than 30 years old, is “a key piece of Canada’s cultural infrastructure that Canadian creators and publishers rely on to be fairly compensated for the use of their work,” the government in Ottawa has not gotten around to addressing this fast-deteriorating situation, even after the national budget in April 2022 specifically promised relief for unpaid copyright holders.

The pertinent language in the federal budget pledges “to ensure a sustainable educational publishing industry, including fair remuneration for creators and copyright holders, as well as a modern and innovative marketplace that can efficiently serve copyright users.”

This, the Access Copyright board members point out, “was a direct acknowledgment of the harm that the 2012 changes to the Copyright Act have caused and the need for legislative action to repair it.” And yet no action has materialized. “Creators nationally continue to wait for the government to make good on its commitment, and the marketplace for a viable Canadian educational publishing industry continues to dry up.”

. . . .

Much of the world publishing industry has looked on in disbelief as the education system itself sued Access Copyright at one point, and as court rulings went in the agency’s and publishers’ favor and then against it—leaving a legislative remedy the only hope. By late 2021, Copyright Clearance Center‘s Michael Healy, one of the most influential voices in world copyright issues, told Publishing Perspectives in his annual year-end interview with us on copyright issues, “It’s clearly the end of the judicial road” in Canada.

Critics say that as much as Canadian Heritage—the cultural division of Canada’s federal framework—has been admired in many parts of the world in the past, the Canadian government appears not to care that its own botched legislative action has cratered its once-prized Canadian educational publishing industry.

. . . .

Speaking for the Writers’ Union of Canada, its CEO, John Degen, is quoted, saying, “The abandonment of Canadian creators and publishers is a blight on our country, and an international embarrassment.

“When the Copyright Act was amended to include a fair-dealing exception for education, the Liberals in opposition then expressed deep concern that it was likely to be exploited at the expense of creators. They were right; that’s exactly what happened.

“The government has promised to fix the gaps in the act many times, but we are still waiting for meaningful change. In the meantime, a key market has disappeared and, with it, countless Canadian stories.”

. . . .

The news that Access Copyright is downsizing is devastating to Canadian literary publishers, especially as there are solutions at the ready that would meaningfully address the current ambiguity in fair dealing and add clarity to fair compensation for the use of creators’ works.

“The federal government must stand up for Canadian creators and publishers. We are out of time.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Inside the Secretive Russian Security Force That Targets Americans

From The Wall Street Journal:

For years, a small group of American officials watched with mounting concern as a clandestine unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service covertly tracked high-profile Americans in the country, broke into their rooms to plant recording devices, recruited informants from the U.S. Embassy’s clerical staff and sent young women to coax Marines posted to Moscow to spill secrets. 

On March 29, that unit, the Department for Counterintelligence Operations, or DKRO, led the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, according to U.S. and other Western diplomats, intelligence officers and former Russian operatives. DKRO, which is virtually unknown outside a small circle of Russia specialists and intelligence officers, also helped detain two other Americans in Russia, former Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, these people said.

The secretive group is believed by these officials to be responsible for a string of strange incidents that blurred the lines between spycraft and harassment, including the mysterious death of a U.S. diplomat’s dog, the trailing of an ambassador’s young children and flat tires on embassy vehicles. 

The DKRO’s role in the detention of at least three Americans, which hasn’t been previously reported, shows its importance to Russia under Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel who led the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before rising to the presidency. The unit intensified its operations in recent years as the conflict between Moscow and Washington worsened. 

As with most clandestine activity carried out by covert operatives, it is impossible to know for certain whether DKRO is behind every such incident. The unit makes no public statements. But officials from the U.S. and its closest allies said that DKRO frequently wants its targets to know their homes are being monitored and their movements followed, and that its operatives regularly leave a calling card: a burnt cigarette on a toilet seat. They also have left feces in unflushed toilets at diplomats’ homes and in the suitcase of a senior official visiting from Washington, these people said.

The DKRO is the counterintelligence arm of the FSB responsible for monitoring foreigners in Russia, with its first section, or DKRO-1, the subdivision responsible for Americans and Canadians.

“The DKRO never misses an opportunity if it presents itself against the U.S., the main enemy,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security analyst who has spent years studying the unit. “They are the crème-de-la-crème of the FSB.”

. . . .

This article is based on dozens of interviews with senior diplomats and security officials in Europe and the U.S., Americans previously jailed in Russia and their families, and independent Russian journalists and security analysts who have fled the country. Information also was drawn from public court proceedings and leaked DKRO memos, which were authenticated by former Russian intelligence officers and their Western counterparts. Gershkovich’s lawyers in Russia declined to comment.

“They’re very, very smart on the America target. They’ve been doing this a long time. They know us extremely well,” said Dan Hoffman, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Moscow, about DKRO. “They do their job extremely well, they’re ruthless about doing their job, and they’re not constrained by any resources.”

. . . .

On March 29, DKRO officers led an operation, hailed by the FSB as a success, that made Gershkovich, 31 years old, the first American reporter held on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War, according to current and former officials and intelligence officers in the U.S. and its closest allies, as well as a former Russian intelligence officer familiar with the situation.

The Journal has vehemently denied the charge. The Biden administration has said that Gershkovich, who was detained during a reporting trip and was accredited to work as a journalist by Russia’s foreign ministry, has been “wrongfully detained.” Friday is his 100th day in captivity.

Putin received video briefings before and after the arrest from Vladislav Menshchikov, head of the FSB’s counterintelligence service, which oversees DKRO, according to Western officials and a former Russian security officer. During the meeting, Putin asked for details about the operation to detain Gershkovich.

DKRO also led the operation to arrest Whelan, in what U.S. officials, the former Marine’s lawyers and his family have said was an entrapment ploy involving a thumb-drive. The U.S. also considers him wrongfully detained.

When Moscow police held Reed, another former Marine, after a drunken night with friends, then claimed he had assaulted a policeman, officers from DKRO took over the case, according to the U.S. officials and Reed. Reed denied the assault and has said Russian law enforcement provided no credible evidence it had taken place. He was given a nine-year sentence, and eventually swapped for a Russian pilot in U.S. custody.

.S. officials blame DKRO for cutting the power to the residence of current U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Lynne Tracy the night after her first meeting with Russian officials in January, and for trailing an embassy official’s car with a low-flying helicopter. U.S. diplomats routinely come home to find bookcases shifted around and jewelry missing, for which they have blamed DKRO officers.

More recently, a Russian drone followed a diplomat’s wife as she drove back to the embassy, unaware that the roof of her car had been defaced with tape in the shape of the letter Z, a Russian pro-war symbol. U.S. officials say they believe the group was behind that. U.S. officials strongly believe that the Russian police posted around Washington’s embassy in Moscow are DKRO officers in disguise.

American diplomats posted to Russia receive special training to avoid DKRO and other officers from the FSB and are given a set of guidelines informally known as “Moscow Rules.” It was updated recently to reflect the security services’ increasingly aggressive posture. One important rule, say the officials who helped craft it: “There are no coincidences.”

In May, the spy agency arrested a former U.S. consulate employee, Robert Shonov, and charged him with collaboration on a confidential basis with a foreign state or international or foreign organization. At the time of his arrest, the Russian national was working as a contractor to summarize nwspaper articles for the State Department, which called the arrangement legal and the allegations against him “wholly without merit.” Like Gershkovich, Shonov is now in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

. . . .

“Today, the FSB is incredibly powerful and unaccountable,” said Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat who resigned and went into hiding shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. “Anyone can designate someone else as a foreign spy in order to get promoted. If you are an FSB officer and you want a quick promotion, you find some spies.”

DKRO officers occupy a privileged position within the security services and Russian society. Its predecessor was the so-called American Department of the KGB, formed in 1983 by a hero of Putin, Yuri Andropov, the longtime security chief who became Soviet leader.

. . . .

The unit’s officers are well-paid by Russian standards, receiving bonuses for successful operations, access to low-cost mortgages, stipends for unemployed spouses, preferential access to beachside resort towns and medical care at FSB clinics that are among Russia’s best.

The FSB emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union subject to little legislative or judicial scrutiny. Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, its official duty to expunge spies and dissidents has given it such expansive control over many aspects of Russian life that some security analysts now call Russia a counterintelligence state. In one of his final articles before his arrest, Gershkovich and colleagues reported that the invasion was mainly planned by the spy agency, citing a former Russian intelligence officer and a person close to the defense ministry, and was filtering updates from the front lines—roles usually reserved for the military.

In April, Russia passed new treason legislation that further empowered the FSB to squelch criticism of the war. In May, the spy agency, using wartime powers, said it would start to search homes without a court’s approval.

Putin has publicly berated his spy agencies several times since late 2022, after his so-called special military operation fell short of his expectations. Around that time, U.S. officials noticed an uptick in aggressive actions toward the few Americans still in Russia.

. . . .

“You need to significantly improve your work,” Putin told FSB leaders in a December speech to mark Security Agents Worker’s Day, a Russian holiday. “It is necessary to put a firm stop to the activities of foreign special services, and to promptly identify traitors, spies and diversionists.” 

He repeated the admonishment during a visit to Lubyanka, the FSB headquarters, a month before Gershkovich’s arrest. 

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in April denied that Putin had a role in authorizing the arrest. “It is not the president’s prerogative. The security services do that,” he said. “They are doing their job.”

Putin likes to be personally briefed on the FSB’s surveillance of Western reporters, said U.S. and former Russian officials. Leaked FSB documents from previous surveillance cases against foreign reporters show agency leaders along the chain of command adding penciled notes in the margins of formal memos, so that higher-ups can erase any comments that might upset the president. 

DKRO memos often begin with greetings punctuated by exclamation marks to indicate urgency and militaristic formality—a common style in the Kremlin bureaucracy—followed by meticulous notes about the movements of Westerners in Russia and the locals they meet.

“We ask you to identify an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at his place of employment, interrogate him about the goals and nature of his relations with the British, and as a result, draw a conclusion,” read one 2006 memo reviewed by the Journal. 

The FSB has oversight for espionage trials conducted in secret using specialist investigators and judges. During Putin’s 23 years in power, no espionage trial is known to have ended in acquittal.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that the lives of 20th and 21st Century dictators have often ended in premature death.

For those who manage to hang on and direct the affairs of their nations for more than a brief period of time, the fact of their dictatorship tends to impoverish many of their people and results in a nation in which the economy substantially lags those nations which have non-dictatorial political structures.

Populations that live under dictatorships seldom produce world-class technology innovations or other types of creativity. Persistent anxiety and uncertainty regarding one’s standing with those who are part of the extensive government agencies principally assigned to controlling the populace and rooting out enemies of the government shrivel the creative impulses of all but a miniscule percentage of the larger population.

Leaders who gain and hold their positions using thuggery snuff out creativity and economic dynamism among their people and inevitably fall behind nations with a stable tradition of democratically- elected leaders.

Forough Farrokhzad gave voice to Iranian women’s despair and defiance

From The Economist:

Women’s liberty is at the forefront of Iranian politics. In September Mahsa Amini was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly and died in police custody; for weeks people occupied the streets and chanted “women, life, freedom.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s praetorian guard, has clamped down on the protests and arrested tens of thousands of people. Some police officers have continued to threaten women who do not cover their hair and have erected billboards stating that those forgoing the hijab are dishonouring their families.

The struggle for female emancipation was powerfully articulated by Forough Farrokhzad, a 20th-century poet. She was born into a strict military family in Tehran in 1934; at the age of 16 she married a distant, much older relative and had a son. In 1954 the couple divorced and, in accordance with the law at that time, she lost custody of the child. Farrokhzad released her first collection of poetry, “Asir” (“The Captive”), the following year.

Her work offered provocative explorations of lust; the verses are shot through with religious language. “Weary of divine asceticism,” she wrote, “in the middle of the night in Satan’s bed/I’d seek refuge in the slopes of a fresh sin.” Elsewhere sex and artistic inspiration are entwined: “You kindled my passionate desire/Thus setting my poems afire.”

. . . .

Farrokhzad saw that the repression of women was having a stultifying effect. Poets such as Rumi had imagined Persia as a thriving garden, yet she saw her country as “dying” and “waiting for rain”. In her final and most widely read collection, “Tavalodi Digar” (“Another Birth”, 1964), a blistering poem attacked self-satisfied elites who “suckle on our past glory”.

She released only four collections of poetry during her short life: she died in 1967, aged 32, in a car accident. Her work was potent enough to cause consternation more than a decade later, during the Islamic revolution of 1979. Religious clerics banned the dissemination of her poetry and, when Farrokhzad’s publisher refused to stop, he was thrown in jail.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Ukrainian Writer and Activist Victoria Amelina

From Publishing Perspectives:

As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, when Ukraine’s Victoria Amelina gave us her thoughts on the slain children’s author and illustrator Volodymyr Vakulenko, she said, “Everyone in Ukraine, including Ukrainian writers, keeps losing their loved ones.”

Now, Amelina herself has been lost. She died on Saturday (July 1) of injuries sustained in the June 27 Russian missile strike on the pizza restaurant in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. Victoria Amelina was 37.

In the spring, she had made the trip to Lillehammer to be at the World Expression Forum, WEXFO, on May 22 and accept the International Publishers Association‘s 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Special Award for Vakulenko. One of the things she told Publishing Perspectives about the slain children’s author was that “Vakulenko believed we are to make history. He always responded to the challenges of his time.”

Today (July 3), the IPA’s offices in Geneva have reported that the Prix Voltaire Special Award now honors Amelina as well as Vakulenko. In a tweet on May 28, Amelina announced that she’d delivered the IPA’s special Prix Voltaire to Vakulenko’s mother.

. . . .

Iryna Baturevych at Ukraine’s publishing-industry news medium Chytomo writes to us, “We are shocked. [Amelina] has a little son, almost the same age as my son. He will be 12 in July. Victoria was courageous.”

As Chytomo’s article notes, Amelina was working with a watchdog organization called Truth Hounds, which monitors and documents details of potential war crimes.

Reported today (July 3) by CNN’s Svitlana Vlasova, Claudia Rebaza, Sahar Akbarzai, and Florencia Trucco, Amelina has become the 13th person now known to have died from that attack Kramatorsk–which is close to the front lines in the Donetsk province. The attack was timed to a particularly busy moment when the Ria Lounge near Vasyl Stus Street was crowded with evening diners. At least 61 people are reported to have been wounded when what analysts say was a Russian short-range ballistic missile called an Iskander hit the restaurant.

In BCC’s write-up, George Wright reports that Amelina’s first English-language nonfiction book, War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, is expected to be published, although no time frame for that release is mentioned.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

What the ‘New York Times’ Missed About Cormac McCarthy

From Publisher’s Weekly:

In his essay “Cormac McCarthy Had a Remarkable Literary Career. It Could Never Happen Now,” which ran in the June 19 New York Times, professor Dan Sinykin recognized the role that editor Albert Erskine played in McCarthy’s life, and raised valid issues about publishing past and present. However, McCarthy’s publishing story was more complicated and nuanced than Sinykin indicated; simply contrasting the days of personal ownership by entrepreneur-publishers with the conglomerates controlling the largest houses today leaves out significant points and people.

In March 2008, I interviewed McCarthy for a biography I was researching about Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random House, which published his first five novels. (Cerf and McCarthy had met, introduced by Erskine, who by then was Cerf’s favorite editor.) Cerf and his business partner, Donald Klopfer, had hired Erskine in 1947; at RH he’d already edited Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, James A. Michener, and Robert Penn Warren, before adding McCarthy in 1963. They worked together even after Erskine retired, and stayed close until Erskine’s death in 1993.

During my hour-long phone conversation with McCarthy, he said not once, but twice: “Other than my brother, Albert was the best human being I’ve ever known.” He was “a person of honesty and rectitude… warmth and decency,” who “saw humor in the absurdity of things.” McCarthy wanted Erskine to get the credit he deserved, credit that the equally private Erskine, like many fine editors, never sought. But deserving as Erskine was, others deserved recognition for their contributions, too.

McCarthy’s publishing story began with a young woman, not a seasoned editor. Maxine Groffsky’s job was at the bottom of the heap: reading “slush.” It was mostly a thankless task, but that day in May 1962 when she opened the package addressed to “Fiction Editor, Random House,” containing the manuscript of what would become The Orchard Keeper, she began to read, later scrawling a note to a colleague further up the totem pole to let them know it was worth a look. That colleague, Larry Bensky, was about the same age, but in the boys’ club of those days, already a junior editor. Bensky agreed about the writing and began to send encouragement, praise, and comments to McCarthy. On Aug. 22, 1963, he offered McCarthy a contract. By then, Erskine and either Cerf or Klopfer (Bensky didn’t say which) had read, and liked, the manuscript. But both Groffsky and Bensky soon left RH for Europe (she’d later work with the Paris Review, then become an agent; he’d go into radio). Bensky was one of Erskine’s fledglings, and the file passed to him.

“Albert’s style was to go through word by word,” McCarthy recalled. “He’d look up everything. If there were typos or questionable facts, or if he thought something was improbable, he’d comment. His editing was trying to fix mistakes, not fix what you’d written.”

Erskine’s first letter to McCarthy was delicate, cordial, and understanding, discussing how the novel began and its use of punctuation (or lack thereof, since it was clear McCarthy had modeled his on Faulkner’s). Letters gave way to phone calls, and eventually “a week at a time at Albert’s home, working together page by page.” Erskine’s wife, Marisa, an Italian contessa, would cook gourmet meals and charm the resident author. McCarthy also lauded a copy editor named Bert Krantz, whom Erskine “revered.” She read manuscripts “three times, and you couldn’t get anything past her.” Through five novels that did not make money, the three worked together. Erskine helped McCarthy get fellowships and foundation money. Cerf, who had absolute faith in Erskine, died after the second book; legend has it that by the fifth, Erskine had made clear to the powers above that he’d resign if told he could no longer publish this writer.

Erskine was retired and ill when the sixth novel was ready; McCarthy got an agent, Amanda Urban, who moved him to Knopf. He’d sent his first book to RH because he’d thought “they were the foremost literary publisher in America.” But at that point, McCarthy said, Urban told him that “Knopf was going to be the Random of the next foreseeable future.” It was “a very different time,” but it wasn’t simply the conglomeratized world of 1992 that made the difference in what happened next.

McCarthy, having been lucky with an editor, proved lucky again, with a publisher. Sonny Mehta, who’d come to Knopf in 1987, was that most unusual figure: a consummate reader, whose editorial and commercial instincts were both extremely acute.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

PG notes that the personal interaction between an author and an editor who worked for a publisher to develop a book over period of however long it required to make a masterpiece is long gone in Big Publishing.

Today, a major New York publisher is owned by a large conglomerate, often headquartered in another country. The masters of the conglomerate are interested in this year’s profit and not really much else, certainly nothing beyond next year. Any nurturing that goes on between an editor and author is fine, provided that the editor is delivering profits for this quarter and next quarter. If the editor misses a quarter due to nurturing an author, the editor is likely to be out on the street, perhaps thinking about the good old days when Bennett Cerf was running Random House.

Why right-wing Europeans are flocking to an English thinker

From The Economist:

Customers at the Scruton cafe in Budapest don’t turn up for its chicken and buttered cauliflower. Nor for its decor. Instead they come for the peculiar contents on show. Scattered around the room are a writing table, a blue-and-white china tea set and a collection of vinyl records (classical) all shipped from England. Odd goods are also on sale. Spend 4,900 forints (about £11) and you can pick up a T-shirt emblazoned with “Conservatism is more an instinct than an idea”. A plaster bust of a tousle-haired, middle-aged man costs twice that. The figure depicted was a political thinker, Roger Scruton.

It’s peculiar to see a cafe in Budapest devoted to Scruton, a conservative Englishman who died in 2020. Stranger yet, two more such cafes exist in the Hungarian capital. In each are scattered “Scrutopia”: various items donated by his widow from his flat in London and farm in Wiltshire. Most striking is the sight of a saddle and riding crop. Scruton was not born to hunt, but took it up with enthusiasm in middle age, perhaps because the hobby chimed with his political philosophy and love of tradition. The author of over 50 books, he wrote about values of community, reciprocal obligations, courtliness and kingship, and more. These all, he believed, were embodied in the hunt.

In Britain, Scruton’s ideas have gained some traction. As prime minister, Theresa May appointed him to lead official efforts to rewrite planning rules to ensure new constructions went up along traditionalist lines—a process dubbed “building beautiful”. (It fell apart.) A summer school for avid Scruton disciples in Britain takes place each June. And his ideas still have a strong pull on the New Right of the Conservative Party, which tends to avoid taking detailed policy positions other than being in favour of tradition. Whereas Thatcherism involved ideas of borderless free-market capitalism, which went together with smashing up old ways of doing things, for Scrutonites there is much to be said for harking back to old ways. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was a senior figure in government until recently, and Suella Braverman, the home secretary, are two Scruton-enthusiasts.

Where Scruton really stirs up strongest interest, however, is among those on the right fringe of continental European politics—the most notable adherent is Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban. Scruton’s ideas of the home and his talk of the rituals of a nation seem to resonate especially strongly. Mr Orban can employ such ideas to try to justify his hostility to immigrants and to international institutions such as the European Union (even as it simultaneously subsidises his country’s economic growth). Some right-leaning Swedes are fond of Scruton, too. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is another fan. She likes to quote one saying of his: “it is always right to keep things as they are, in case worse things are proposed”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG had never heard of Scruton, but he is sometimes drawn to authors who collect a lot of negative attention, especially if they write non-fiction.