The Norwegian library with unreadable books

From The BBC:

One recent Sunday morning, in a forest north of Oslo in Norway, more than 200 people gathered to watch a ceremony. They had walked in a procession ­– some with their dogs, others their children – along gravel trails, directed by arrows on the ground made from sprinkled wood shavings. The air carried a scent of pine needles, burnt logs and strong Norwegian coffee.

At their destination ­– a recently planted forest – the people sat or crouched on a slope dotted with spruce trees. Each tree was still only around 1m (3ft) tall, but one day, when the spruces are more than 20-30 times the size, they will provide the paper for a special collection of books. Everyone there knew they would not live to see that happen, nor would they ever get to read the books.

This was the 2022 Future Library ceremony, a 100-year art project created to expand people’s perspectives of time, and their duty to posterity. Every year since 2014, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson – along with her Norwegian counterpart Anne Beate Hovind and a group of trustees – has invited a prominent writer to submit a manuscript, and the commissioning will continue until 2113. Then, a century after the project began, they will all finally be published.

It began with the author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a story called Scribbler Moon, and since then the library has solicited submissions from all over the world, with works by English novelist David Mitchell, the Icelandic poet Sjón, Turkey’s Elif Shafak, Han Kang from South Korea, and Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong.

This year, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to the forest to hand over their stories (along with returning authors Mitchell and Sjón). Forbidden from revealing the content of their work, they could only share the titles: Dangarembga named hers Narini and Her Donkey – Narini derives from a Zimbabwean word for “infinity” – while Knausgaard submitted a more enigmatic title, simply: Blind Book.

All the manuscripts will be stored for almost a century inside locked glass drawers in a hidden corner of Oslo’s main public library, within a small, wooden repository called the Silent Room. In 2114, the drawers will be unlocked, and the trees chopped down – and 100 stories hidden for a century will finally be published in one go.

The authors ­– and everyone else who was in Oslo that Sunday – knew they would almost certainly not live to see that happen. “It’s a project that’s not only thinking about us now, but about those who are not born,” explains Paterson. In fact, she adds, “most of the authors are not even born yet”.

So, why build a library where no-one today can read the books? And what might be learnt from its story so far?

. . . .

The Future Library is not the first of Paterson’s artworks to tackle the human relationship with long-term time. She traces her fascination with the theme back to her early 20s, when she worked as a chambermaid in Iceland, and was struck by the extraordinary landscape around her. “You could almost read time in the strata, you could feel the midnight Sun and the energy of the Earth,” she says. “It just was a very beautiful, sublime, awakening landscape to be around.”

This led to one of her first works, Vatnajokull (the sound of): a phone number that anyone could call to listen to an Icelandic glacier melting. Dial the number, and you’d be routed to a microphone beneath the water in the Jökulsárlón lagoon on Iceland’s south coast, where blue-tinged icebergs calve away and float towards the sea.

Since then, Paterson has explored deeper timescales from various angles, geologically, astronomically, humanistically: a glitterball that projects nearly every known solar eclipse in history onto the walls, the “colour” of the Universe throughout its existence, the aroma of Earth’s first trees, or a necklace carved from 170 ancient fossils marking each stage of life.

One of her most recent exhibitions in Edinburgh, Requiem at Ingleby Gallery, featured 364 vials of crushed dust, each one representing a different moment in deep time. Vial #1 was a sample of presolar grains older than the Sun, followed by powdered four-billion-year-old rocks, corals from prehistoric seas, and other traces of the distant past.

A few visitors were invited to pour one of the vials into a central urn: when I was there in June, I poured #227, a four-million-year-old Asteroidea fossil, a kind of sea star. Later in time, the vials represent the age of humanity, capturing human accomplishment – Greek pottery or a Mayan figurine – but also darker moments: the bright blue grains of phosphorus fertiliser, microplastic from the deepest part of the ocean, or an irradiated tree-branch from Hiroshima. When your art deals in deep time, there’s no ignoring the onset of the Anthropocene, the age shaped by humans.

. . . .

The Future Library project is one of many artistic projects I’ve encountered in recent years that seeks to foster longer-term thinking. Over the past few years, I’ve been writing my own book called The Long View, which is about why the world needs to transform its perspective of time. Along the way, I’ve heard a musical composition that will play for 1,000 years, read an endless poem being embedded in a Dutch street one letter at a time, and acquired a framed invitation to a party in the year 2269. 

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is likely a cretin, but none of these projects are likely to appear on his must-see list.

The OP does include lots of photos of trees and pleasant-looking Norwegians, however.

Inspector Morse Books in Order

From PBS:

The cerebral TV detective Endeavour Morse first materialized in the bestselling crime novels by Colin Dexter. Morse was a fascinating new sort of cop, a sensitive soul in love with opera and poetry, not stereotypically weary and hard drinking. Inspector Morse proceeded to hook U.S. television audiences from 1988–2001, generated the sequel Inspector Lewis (2006–2016), and the prequel Endeavour (2012–) with Shaun Evans as the young Morse.

Here are all 13 titles as published, with commentary from two crime fiction aficionados who knew Dexter.

. . . .

Last Bus to Woodstock (1975) Dexter first began writing in 1972, creating a police detective who’s passionate about the arts and whose intellect may be wasted in his position. Morse and partner DS Lewis explore the death of a girl beaten outside an Oxford pub. The author “struggled to refine [this debut book] into a form he found pleasing,” says Forshaw. That said, “it demonstrated at a stroke that Dexter was an effortless master of the crime novel.”

Last Seen Wearing (1976) Like most Morse stories, this one centers on a puzzle. “Someone is dead, but not exactly dead,” says Gulli. In fact, the deceased is sending letters. Dexter’s second novel “firmly set his name as a writer who’d one day be the crime fiction heir to Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr,” Gulli adds. “Though his works can be described as literary puzzles, Dexter was more concerned with the ultimate riddle—the motivations of the human mind.”

The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) Like his character Nicholas Quinn, Dexter became a school administrator after losing his hearing. Here, Quinn joins an ad-hoc university committee where his profound deafness actually leads him to unearth a conspiracy. A prologue provides readers with clues Morse and Lewis don’t have as they investigate Quinn’s murder. “With all the books I’ve written, I’ve always known what’s going to happen…I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than the kind who concentrates on the motivation of crime,” Dexter told Gulli for The Strand.

Service of All the Dead (1979) The novel is presented in four parts, each taken from a book of the Bible. Dexter addresses moral questions from personal responsibility to protecting one’s reputation. “The formula with Dexter in his [writing] was that there was no formula,” says Gulli. “This is one of my favorites—steeped with Gothic atmosphere, treachery, and murder. And not only a good book, but instructional for aspiring writers.” The UK’s Crime Writers Association awarded Dexter’s fourth novel its Silver Dagger prize.

Link to the rest at PBS

China Bestsellers in May: Emotion and Promotion

From Publishing Perspectives:

In our look at the April bestseller charts in China, we focused on an interesting inflection point in which consumers seem to be waiting for new “online literature” to take to their hearts in book form.

In May, our associates at Beijing OpenBook saw the role of what they interpret to be emotional attraction and canny promotions.

As examples, Yu Hua’s Cries in the Drizzle (Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House) entered the fiction chart at No. 22 and Crystal Spiral (Nan Hai Publishing) by Keigo Higashino arrived at N0. 29, having just been published in April (Nan Hai Publishing).

As our associates point out, Yu Hua’s To Live (at No. 10 in May in a new edition from Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House) had benefited in 2018 by an endorsement from film star Yi YangQian Xi.

This year, e-commerce pr0motions began well before the June 1 to 18 shopping promotional period, so that by May book sales pros were approaching the annual “618” promotions as a chance to push Yu Hua’s book.

And the ability of Crystal Spiral to appear so quickly in China’s relatively slow-moving market rankings reinforces the fascination that the prolific Japanese author Higashino has for so many Chinese readers.

The key to Higashino’s work, OpenBook’s Wendy Pan points out to us, is his work’s high levels of emotional content. “Crystal Spiral is a detective work full of emotion,” Pan says.

“The work makes people feel that the detective element is less important than the emotional ties in it.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Empress and the English Doctor

From The Wall Street Journal:

What a cursed kind of privilege it is to be the physician in charge of the life of a world leader. In April 2020, stories circulated about doctors from the intensive-care unit of London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital texting the Downing Street communications team when Covid-suffering Boris Johnson, as the prime minister himself would later put it, “could have gone either way.” If the virus took a lethal turn, his doctors and PR flacks wondered, who would say what, when? Scenes from the film “The Death of Stalin” flashed by: the body, the indecision, the panic.

How much worse it must have been for the 56-year-old Thomas Dimsdale, in his dark suit and curled wig, drawn from the comfort of his farmhouse in Hertfordshire, England, to travel a grueling 1,700 miles overland in a carriage to St. Petersburg. Dimsdale had been summoned by Catherine the Great to inoculate not only the empress herself but also her 13-year-old heir, the Grand Duke Paul. Catherine sought protection from smallpox, that scourge of the world that, through the ingenuity of science and social persuasion, became the first—and still the only—disease to have been eradicated by the interventions of mankind.

The smallpox pandemic makes Covid seem like a scene-stealing extra: More lethal and more contagious, it rolled through society in wave after devastating wave. In London in 1752, it was responsible for one out of every seven deaths. Uncertainty followed fever and pustules. The remedy in itself was ineffective and miserable: bleeding, puncturing to release the pus, and sweating in blankets. It was a course of treatment determined by a lingering belief in the four vital humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile—whose balance supposedly dictated health. (One of Dimsdale’s contributions to the march of medical history seems to have been his insistence on opening the window.)

As Lucy Ward dramatically relates in “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus,” Catherine’s invitation was a high-stakes affair, a testament to Dimsdale’s writings on the methodology of smallpox inoculation and his reputation for solicitous care. His Quaker upbringing had encouraged a brand of outcome- rather than ego-led practice.

Inoculation preceded vaccination. The approach was initially brought to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had first noted the practice in Constantinople. She insisted on having her own children inoculated, and convinced the Hanoverian court to follow suit, led by the future Queen Caroline, whose children, too, were subjected to the procedure.

The disease followed a heartbreaking trajectory, killing children and the young, disfiguring women and destroying their prospects for marriage even if they survived. An incredible “five reigning monarchs were dethroned by smallpox in the eighteenth century,” we are told, including Peter the Great’s grandson, the child Emperor Peter II. In Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa lost her son, two daughters and two daughters-in-law. Survival rates in Russia were particularly low. No wonder Catherine wanted to try her luck with science.

As devastating as smallpox was, for the empress herself and the grand duke who would succeed her to personally undergo inoculation was a risk to both patient and doctor. On the success side stood immunity from the disease, an almost holy example for Catherine’s people, and as-yet-untold riches for her nervous doctor. On the other side, not only the fact that all Russia would refuse the treatment if their “Little Mother” died, but also a disaster for Dimsdale and the son who had accompanied him. Geopolitics came into play too—if things went wrong, some would interpret it as a foreign assassination.

All the descriptions of lancet cuts and pus are one thing—it is the experimentation on impoverished children that makes for painful reading. Young army cadets are experimented on; a 6-year-old, “small as a bug,” according to Catherine, supplies the viral matter to his empress, who is prepared with “five grains of the mercurial powder” and purged with “calomel, crabs’ claws and antimony.” Then she waits it out at Tsarskoe Selo, her summer palace, in the hope of a desirable progression: outbreak, recovery.

With a happy result for her and her less-robust son, Catherine sets about publicizing the success. Dimsdale receives the equivalent of more than $20 million and a barony.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

William Dimsdale
Catherine II on a balcony of the Winter Palace on 9 July 1762, the day of the coup that placed her in power

A brief summary of the history of Catherine the Great, whose life was substantially extended by Dr. Dimsdale:

  • She was born in Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg.
  • Prussian king Frederick the Great took an active part in promoting the future Catherine (then Princess Sophie) as an ideal spouse for a likely future tsar of Russia.
  • Sophie arrived in Russia in 1744 and aggressively worked to ingratiate herself with the reigning ruler, Empress Elizabeth and with the Russian people. She learned to speak, read and write Russian, rising at night and walking about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made the decision then to do whatever was necessary and to profess to believe whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown. 
  • She became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and received a new name, Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) 
  • The following day, she married the man who would become Peter III. Catherine was 16 at the time.
  • Peter was an eccentric idiot when she married him and after he ascended to the Russian throne.
  • Upon the death of his mother, Peter ascended to the throne.
  • Catherine organized a coup to overthrow her husband. Six months after Peter became tsar, Catherine had Peter arrested and he signed a written abdication of the throne in favor of his wife.
  • Shortly thereafter, Peter died. There were rumors that he had been assassinated, but after an autopsy, the official cause of death was found to be a severe attack of haemorrhoidal colic and an apoplexy stroke.
  • Catherine ascended to the throne. Her crown weighed over five pounds and contained 75 pearls and 4,936 Indian diamonds forming laurel and oak leaves, the symbols of power and strength, and was surmounted by a 398.62-carat ruby spinel that previously belonged to the Empress Elizabeth, and a diamond cross.  A photo of the crown and orb taken in 1896 is inserted at the bottom of this post.
  • Catherine reigned as monarch for well over thirty years, from 1762–1796.
  • During her reign, Catherine extended by some 520,000 square kilometres (200,000 sq mi – an area a little smaller the State of Texas and about the size of present-day France ) the borders of the Russian Empire, absorbing New Russia, Crimea, Northern Caucasus, Right-bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense, mainly, of two powers—the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Copyright and Coronavirus

From Publishing Perspectives:

One of the most interesting results of this year’s sessions of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights last month at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva (WIPO) is a new report, The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Creative Industries, Cultural Institutions, Education, and Research.

The world of international policy organizations is intensely fond of its acronyms, and the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights is referred to simply as “SCCR.” The International Publishers Association (IPA), also based in Geneva, is the book-publishing body that represents the world industry at this sequence of discussions. So, in non-governmental organization (NGO) parlance, the IPA goes to WIPO’s SCCR as the NGO for publishing.

As you may recall, the SCCR meetings bring together the views and perceived pressure points of international delegates on copyright, not only as it pertains to books and publishing but also to broadcast, archives, libraries, theatrical production, and more. It’s a kind of summit of international stakeholders in industries in which copyright is important.

. . . .

Several points made in the contextual analysis on Pages 5 and 6 of the SCCR report are especially useful.

One of them–as unhappy as it makes us to read it–has to do with the potential for unfinished business relative to the current pandemic: “Far from being an imminent or emerging crisis, it is a sustained crisis: it can last for months or years, over a very long crisis existence phase, and also [be a] cyclical crisis as well because of the different contagious waves.”

The element that publishers are most familiar with, in SCCR terms, is this: “If on one hand, COVID-19 disrupted the market and business ecosystems we traditionally know, on the other hand it has accelerated innovation, introducing the so-called ‘imposed service innovation.’” In publishing, of course, we’ve used the common term “digital acceleration” for this–an “imposed” (indeed) need to muster digital alternatives most particularly in book retail in all formats, but also, for many, in distribution where ebook and audiobook formats were less well established.

And there’s the upbeat part of that digital acceleration: “This specific crisis created a change of mindset and stimulated business opportunities that would never have been considered under normal circumstances.”

. . . .

What Publishing Perspectives readers may find interesting in the report is the look at effects on the audiovisual sector, the music sector, visual arts, museums, and libraries–”nearby” creative industries, each of which has had its own path, to first understanding and then trying to respond to the impact of this protracted emergency. In so many ways, those sister industries’ struggles ran parallel to those of the book business. As bookstores closed, so did art galleries, museums, and auction houses. This, as the roughly half of the music industry’s business was shuttered, as concerts, festivals, tours, and solo performances were cancelled.

Copyright issues in audiovisual abruptly intensified surfaced as the drive toward digitally distributed entertainment in Africa suffered what’s estimated to have been at least a 50-percent loss in potential revenue, the report says, because of “illegal exploitation of creative audiovisual content”–piracy.

Not surprisingly, a line in the report’s conclusion reads, “More attention should be paid to developing e-resources that should respect copyright as a whole, including facilitating uses through licensing, of material in educational and research settings. This could limit piracy damages in crisis times and support the development of local industries while paying attention to creators.”

. . . .

In terms of the piracy issues that plague many of the world’s publishing markets–often with limited and lackluster efforts from law enforcement to help–Al Qasimi called for effective enforcement of copyright protections to shield publishers from “physical and online piracy and to boost the publication of indigenous educational resources and ‘homegrown’ authors.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG would love to know how many authors from various nations were included among the NGO’s, foundations, large corporations and government agencies attending and, more importantly, speaking at this conference.

Old Truths and New Cliches

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘A Yiddish writer in America is an unseen entity,” Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “almost a ghost.” He offered this comment to explain why he felt inclined in his fables and fictions “to search for what is hidden from the eye.”

It could be said that an important dimension of the acclaimed Yiddish novelist and short-story writer has until now been hidden from the eye of many readers. “Old Truths and New Clichés,” a collection of 19 prose articles, most appearing in English for the first time, reveals that Singer was as consummate an essayist as he was a teller of tales. “To this day,” David Stromberg writes in his intelligent introduction, “few critics deal seriously with Singer’s essayistic writings.”

Mr. Stromberg, who serves as editor to the Isaac Bashevis Singer Literary Trust, has rescued these articles from the author’s archives at the University of Texas in Austin. The collection distills the convictions that informed Singer’s art and rounds out a literary self-portrait. Singer proves to be equally at home in a range of themes and registers, from casual observation to philosophical musing. In one essay he ponders what it is to seek a God who is “eternally in love . . . with his creations.” In another, in a satirical spirit, he considers how the Ten Commandments would be received—and misread—were they issued today.

Singer liked to say that when he was born in a Polish shtetl, his mother asked the midwife, “Is it a boy or a girl?” The midwife answered, “A writer.” The quip, repeated in a short piece here, wouldn’t have amused Singer’s pious parents. For them, a writer was someone inevitably subject to secular temptations.

In “Why I Write as I Do,” Singer describes the religious atmosphere that pervaded—in his memory, stifled—his childhood home in Warsaw. Yet it was there, he writes, that he learned “to transform inhibition into a method of creativity, to recognize in inhibition a friendly power instead of a hostile one.” The son and grandson of rabbis, he waged a “private war against the Almighty,” as he puts it, and replaced orthodox faith with “a sort of kasha of mysticism, deism, and skepticism.” Even so, long after he removed his black gabardine and yarmulka, Singer believed—as he says in another essay—that “it is impossible to write truthfully about human beings without having faith in something higher than human beings.”

Singer had the good sense to leave Poland for New York City in 1935, before Europe’s descent into barbarity and Poland’s dismemberment by Nazi and Soviet occupiers. Other writer-immigrants, like Joseph Conrad (Poland) and Vladimir Nabokov (Russia), switched to English upon arriving in English-speaking lands. Singer refused to do so. Having left behind—one might say, having betrayed—his religious past, his first wife and his 5-year-old son, he remained faithful to his native language, a language without a homeland. As he eked out a living writing under several pseudonyms for the Yiddish daily Forward, he felt comforted by what he calls “the language of exile.” In another essay, he contends that “journalism exerts a beneficial influence upon literary creativity.”

. . . .

The breakthrough came when “Gimpel the Fool,” the tale of a pure-souled simpleton, appeared in Saul Bellow’s propulsive translation in 1953. Singer’s short novels “Satan in Goray” in 1955 and “The Magician of Lublin” in 1960 brought him to a wider American audience. His mischievous narratives, teeming with demons and dybbuks and false messiahs, soon migrated from the pages of small magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary to glossier outlets like Playboy, Esquire and the New Yorker.

An earlier generation of Yiddish writers—led by I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim—had perfected a plain-spoken and pathos-laden mode of storytelling. Singer inherited that legacy but also subverted it, by introducing notes of irony and carnality. Not everyone was pleased. In her novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Cynthia Ozick depicted Singer’s detractors, who didn’t merely resent the American fame of a writer they saw as a careerist but, as Ms. Ozick writes, “raged against his subject matter, which was insanely sexual, pornographic, paranoid, freakish.” Singer reports that the editor who published his first stories at a journal in Warsaw had asked: “Why write about thieves and whores when there were so many decent Jewish men and devoted Jewish wives?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

From The BBC:

You’re a typical American in 1870. You live on a rural farm. If you’re a man, you likely began a lifetime of manual labour as a teen, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you’re a woman, you spend your time on labour-intensive housework. If you’re Black or any other minority, life is even harder.

You’re isolated from the world, with no telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in an outhouse.

One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different. Your home is “networked” – you have electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer connections. You marvel at new forms of entertainment, like the phonograph, radio, and motion picture. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You might own a car, and if you don’t, you have met people who do. Some of the wealthiest people you encounter have even flown in a plane.

These transformations, documented in the economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growthemerged thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. And it wasn’t just a US story – the industrialised nations experienced dizzying transformations during the early 20th Century.

. . . .

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

. . . .

One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. Over the past few years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress could be slowing down, which they worry will cause economic growth to stagnate.

To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the rate of progress between the mid-late 20th Century and 2020s. Imagine after that first nap as a typical American, you had taken a second one in 1940, waking up in the 2020s. Your fridge now has a freezer, and your new microwave lets you reheat your leftovers. You are refreshed by air conditioning. You are far more likely to own a car now, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, TV, and smartphone. These are impressive inventions, and some seem like magic, but over time, you realise that your living standards haven’t transformed quite as much as when you woke up in 1940.

. . . .

Gordon claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can’t expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is “not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long”, he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: “American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions.”

Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the “low-hanging fruit” that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. They estimate that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

. . . .

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen’s low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

We have partially compensated for this decline by increasing the share of the population going towards research, but this, of course, can’t go on forever. Global population growth may help, but this is expected to slow and then reverse before the end of the century. It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline – or even initiate a new era of explosive growth – but some researchers fear that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that harm progress, or worse.

. . . .

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is reminded of a conversation he had at an annual meeting of The American Bar Association in the 1990’s (he thinks).

It was a fascinating discussion of Future Studies which sounded then to PG a little like Progress Studies as described in the OP. The guy PG spoke with (PG apologizes for not recalling his name) was the head (and, PG suspected the only employee) of something called The Future Studies Project at Harvard University. The last time PG checked, there was a Department or an equivalent entity that was involved in future studies.

There’s even a Wikipedia entry for Future Studies.

The idea of Future Studies and Progress Studies is that we need to think about and make plans regarding Progress and the Future.

While PG finds nothing inherently bad about this class of endeavors, he thinks that chance and ideas/forces coming out of left field will continue to affect the future and progress to a greater extent than academic studies of those topics.

There are also unexpected political and leadership factors that, as the West considers Russia, China, Ukraine, etc., cause or allow a variety of startling events.

PG would love to know whether any Russia/Communist/Asian/Eastern European/etc. experts predicted the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. This event doesn’t seem like something Progress Studies or Future Studies would predict other than on a level so general that the predictions would be of any value before the event took place.

Far be it from the English to use the subjunctive

From The Economist

It is often bemoaned in Britain that English is going to pieces—and Americans are generally to blame. Whether you call it decline or not, the moaners are on to something: America has indeed produced many of the innovations that have made their way into global (and British) English, for better or worse.

Bucking that trend is an intricate feature of old-fashioned English grammar that has not only survived in America but made a comeback in Britain, thanks to the unwitting preservation efforts of the Americans: the subjunctive. British commentators seem flummoxed by the unusual situation of Americans being more conservative than the mother country in this aspect of grammar.

The subjunctive in question is the present one, which can be distinguished by the lack of the usual –s on first- and third-person singular verbs, as in take instead of takes. (The subjunctive of to be is be.) Everyone knows a host of fixed phrases using it, even if they don’t realise they are subjunctives. Far be it from me. Heaven forbid. So be it. These are not declarations but a sort of wish, equivalent to May it be far from me. May heaven forbid. May it be so. Britain and America even have distinctive national refrains with a subjunctive: God save the queen and God bless America. These look a bit like imperatives, but they are not; the faithful do not order the creator of the universe around.

The transatlantic difference is that, in America, the subjunctive remained what linguists call “productive”, meaning that people use it in sentences never uttered before. Americans naturally write or say things like It is essential that every parent remain supportive or She suggested that he talk to someone else.

In Britain, the subjunctive had a very different 20th century. In 1906 the Fowler brothers, co-authors of “The King’s English”, a venerable usage guide, thought the subjunctive would not last another generation, a disappearance they approved of. But it did not disappear. An article in the Observer in 1936 referred to “the most remarkable phenomenon in modern American syntax, viz., the pedantic revival of the subjunctive”.

By the middle of the century, revered usage writers in Britain such as Eric Partridge and Ernest Gowers were warning of the subjunctive as “a hallmark of officialese” which had “a formal, even pedantic air”. Another British commentator, Catherine Nesbitt, feared the return of the subjunctive was “now spreading so rapidly that, if left unchecked, it will do real damage to the structure of the language”. By the end of the 20th century it was firmly associated with Americans who, wrote Kingsley Amis, a novelist, “often indulge in subjunctive forms”.

What a strange fate. The subjunctive was common in the classic writings of the early-modern English period, particularly in the King James Bible—as in “hallowed be thy name” or “before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice”. By the 1990s it was being treated by Amis and others as a vice a writer or speaker might “indulge” in. But such warnings were issued precisely because British scribblers were, in fact, indulging: use of the subjunctive increased markedly in the 20th century in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Cafe That Helps Beat Writer’s Block—by Fining You $22

From The Wall Street Journal:

TOKYO—At the Manuscript Writing Cafe, people on a deadline pay to put themselves under the gaze of a manager in hopes of curing writer’s block.

Joe Sasanuma, a lawyer at a technology company, is under orders from his publisher to complete a legal book by the end of the year. Alas, the words to explain the contractual obligations of cloud-computing providers haven’t flowed effortlessly. So Mr. Sasanuma has been visiting the cafe.

The cafe’s co-owner, Takuya Kawai, directs his customers to set a goal for the day and, if requested, prods them to get on with it. If they fail to meet it by the time they leave, they have to pay a fine equivalent to $22. It’s an honor system, says Mr. Kawai, but it seems to work.

“Looking at each other, they find themselves under the same amount of stress—and so, together, they end up working hard,” he said.

Students working on book reports, comic-book illustrators, authors and corporate warriors with a presentation due have been flocking to the cafe, which opened in April in an artsy Tokyo neighborhood.

Mr. Sasanuma started co-writing his book last year while cooped up in his apartment. He was fretting about his lack of progress to his chess partner, who suggested the cafe. It seats 10, and costs around $2 an hour, or $4.50 an hour for a premium seat facing a brick wall.

Mr. Sasanuma arrived one day in early May and signed up for a four-hour session, telling Mr. Kawai that his goal was to write three pages. On his first try, the lawyer-author walked away triumphant. He has returned several times since, writing up to four pages each time.

“Maybe it’s the atmosphere, maybe because I’m paying, but I sit down and immediately start typing,” Mr. Sasanuma said.

Deadlines are universal, but this particular way of trying to meet them taps into some parts of Japan’s exam and writing culture. Preparation for the nation’s all-important school entrance exams begins as soon as elementary school for some students trying to get into a well-regarded junior high. These exams stress memorization of facts, and procrastinating students sometimes need the help of a hovering parent or cram-school teacher to buckle down.

Some go to study rooms at public libraries, where the enforced quiet and implicit peer pressure of others dedicated to their studies create the right mood.

Kyoko Ohtagaki, who has used the Manuscript Writing Cafe to work on a manual about digital terminology for government officials, said Mr. Kawai’s technique reminded her of childhood. “It’s comfortable. It feels like home, where you can have the help of someone lightly supervising your homework,” she said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Autocrat of the Dinner-Table

From Medium:

The Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Notes on Muscovite Affairs, Notes on the Muscovites, or Notes on Russia), written by the Austro-Slovene diplomat Sigismund von Herberstein in 1549, was the first authoritative historical and ethnographic account of East Slavic civilization to be published in Western Europe. Herberstein had twice served (1517–1518 & 1526–1527) as an ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, or Muscovy. His high-level position there in the Moscow court, coupled with his command of Slavic languages, gave him a level of access to Russia beyond the reach of the region’s previous western visitors. Herberstein wrote in the spirit of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, compiling the history, politics, culture, religion, geography, military affairs, and natural history of the Russian world together with an account of his own time there as imperial ambassador. The best-selling work marked a watershed in Russian historiography and remained a western European authority on the Russian world for decades.

. . . .

The following selections from the Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii are taken from Herberstein’s account of a 1526 state dinner at the Kremlin with fellow imperial ambassador Count Leonardo de Noguerol and Czar Vasili III

. . . .

A CZAR’S INVITATION

After the salutation had been gone through and we had been some time seated, the prince invited each of us in rotation with these words: “You will dine with me.” I may here add that, in my first embassy, he had, according to their custom, invited me in this manner: “Sigismund, thou wilt eat our salt and bread with us.” Presently after, he called our caterers to him and spoke to them in a low voice, but I know not what he said. But each of them in his turn gave instruction to the interpreters, who said to us: “Arise, let us retire to another house.”

SETTING THE TABLE

A CZAR’S FEAST. From a 1579 German edition of the Commentarii

When the preparations for dinner were made and the prince, his brothers, and the councillors were already seated, upon our being shown into the banqueting room, the councillors and all the others immediately arose in deference to us. We, in our turn, having been informed of their habits, before they sat down, offered our thanks to them by bowing on all sides and took a place at the table which the prince himself indicated to us with his hand. The tables were arranged around the banqueting-room. In the middle stood a table laden with a variety of gold and silver goblets. … We sat at another table opposite the prince, with our friends and attendants at a small distance from us. … On the tables were placed vessels, some filled with vinegar, some with pepper, and others with salt.

BREAD AND SALT

RUSSIAN WELL-WISHERS WITH BREAD AND SALT (1874). Wilhelm Amandus Beer

Meantime, when all were seated, the prince called one of his servants to him and, giving him two long pieces of bread, said: “Give this to Count Leonhard, and this to Sigismund.” The servant, taking the interpreter with him, accordingly presented the bread to each of us in rotation accompanied by the following speech: “O Count Leonardo, the Grand Duke Vasiley, by the grace of God, King and Lord of all Russia, and Grand Duke, extends his favour to thee, and sends thee bread from his own table.” … Bread is used by the prince to express his favour towards anybody, but when he sends salt, it is intended to express his affection — indeed it is not possible for him to show greater honour to any one at an entertainment given by himself than by sending him salt from his own table.

Meantime, when all were seated, the prince called one of his servants to him and, giving him two long pieces of bread, said: “Give this to Count Leonhard, and this to Sigismund.” The servant, taking the interpreter with him, accordingly presented the bread to each of us in rotation accompanied by the following speech: “O Count Leonardo, the Grand Duke Vasiley, by the grace of God, King and Lord of all Russia, and Grand Duke, extends his favour to thee, and sends thee bread from his own table.” … Bread is used by the prince to express his favour towards anybody, but when he sends salt, it is intended to express his affection — indeed it is not possible for him to show greater honour to any one at an entertainment given by himself than by sending him salt from his own table.

PASS THE SWAN, PLEASE: “Olim lacus colueram …”

Detail from A BOYAR WEDDING FEAST (1883). Konstantin Makovsky (1839–1915)

At length the servers going out for food … first brought in brandy, which they always drink at the commencement of the dinner. Then they brought in roasted swans, which it is almost always their custom to lay before their guests for the first dish whenever they eat meat … [the prince] pierced [the swans] with his knife to try which was the best and which he would choose in preference to the rest and immediately ordered them to be taken away … When we began to eat the roast swans, they placed vinegar on the table with salt and pepper mixed in it, which they used instead of sauce or gravy. Sour milk was also placed on the table for the same purpose with pickled cucumbers and prunes cooked with the same object, which are not removed during dinner time. The same fashion is observed in bringing in the other dishes unless they be again taken away to be cooked … They say that each and every vessel which we looked upon, in which were placed meat, the drinks, the vinegar, the pepper, the salt, and all the other things which were set upon the table, were of pure gold; and from their weight this would seem to be true … The grand-prince sometimes spends three or four hours over dinner. During my first embassy, our dinner was prolonged till one o’clock in the morning. For just in the same manner as they often spend the whole day in deliberating over matters involving doubt and difficulty and do not leave it till it has been maturely discussed and decided upon, so also they will sometimes consume a whole day over their banquets and convivial meetings and only retire when darkness overtakes them.

Link to the rest at Medium

Working on a Vineyard Taught Me to Slow Down and Pay Attention

From Catapult:

I first saw L’Albera at night. I’d traveled north by train from Barcelona to Figueres, Salvador Dalí’s hometown, and then by bus to Sant Climent Sescebes, a village of about six hundred people near the French border. It was dark when I boarded the bus, and I could only make out vague silhouettes in the dim landscape around me. We wound through quiet neighborhoods, their stone buildings illuminated by weak streetlights. Passengers left the bus one by one. At the second-to-last stop, a man in army fatigues got out and disappeared into the darkness. There was, I’d been told, a military base just outside of town, and on some days artillery practice could be heard across the foothills. I was headed to the last stop, farther north and east, to a forested nature reserve in L’Albera. It was strange, I thought—a nature reserve next to a military base: preservation and destruction adjacent.

Barbara, one of the winemakers I’d be staying with for a few months, picked me up in a blue van. She had a wide smile and feathery eyebrows that reminded me of an owl’s tufts, and she spoke to me in Italian-accented Spanish, a holdover from her three decades in Milan. She drove us ten minutes down a dirt road, toward the mountains. The massif of L’Albera was the easternmost extension of the Pyrenees and eventually tapered off into the Mediterranean; just beyond was France. Sweeping south from the mountains was an alluvial plain, called Empordá; dispersed across the plain were Roman-era footpaths and megalithic stone monuments called dolmens, which dated back some seven thousand years. In the foothills, one could sense the antiquity of the land, Barbara told me.

Joan Carles, Barbara’s husband, was sitting in the farmhouse kitchen when we arrived. It was cavernous and drafty, with a massive hearth in one corner and a gas stove next to a worn wooden table. Carles, as Barbara called him, had a low, gruff voice, his Spanish inflected with a northern Catalan accent that required my full attention to comprehend. After a few minutes chatting—about missiles the army had accidentally lobbed into a nearby forest several years before—Barbara showed me to my room upstairs. It was spartan, with a small desk and chair and a double bed facing a set of glass doors. The doors led to a terrace that looked out onto farmland. Settling onto the mattress, I watched the night deepen until I fell asleep.

L’Albera was just the name of the mountain range, but I came to think of it as a region unto itself.

During the springtime, the season I’d come to live there, Carles and Barbara spent much of the day working in the vines for their winery, called Celler La Gutina. They had eighty hectares of land, a patchwork of vineyard, oak and chestnut forest, and olive groves interspersed with scrubland, meadows, and ponds that existed only during years of good rainfall. The river Anyet threaded through the foothills, and trails connected the region’s villages. The landscape brimmed with life: A diversity of plants—wild asparagus, thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage—flourished alongside javelinas, turtles, eagles, and owls. On the property lived a number of farm animals too: five chickens, two horses, two dogs, and two donkeys.

The vines themselves amounted to some fifteen hectares, scattered in small parcels around the property, and needed attention year-round. Working with them required a profound knowledge of place. The orientation of the vineyard—whether it faced north, south, east, or west—affected the vines’ growth, as did elevation, humidity, wind patterns, and strength of sunlight. All of these factors played a subtle role in how the wine tasted.

Link to the rest at Catapult

In the Shadow of the Gods

From The Wall Street Journal:

The talent that creates an empire is often in conflict with the skills that preserve it. The “recklessly heroic style” of Alexander the Great, Dominic Lieven notes in his new book, was a political dead end. Even in durable empires, a tension remains between the emperor, whose authority is supreme and superhuman, and the empire, in which power is managed by bureaucrats, soldiers, viceroys and local elites. Empires are founded by war and personal charisma, but they are sustained by paperwork and compromise.

Mr. Lieven, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, compares the Chinese emperor who bore the Mandate of Heaven to the helmsman of “a great modern family firm.” Most heirs and emperors are not up to the job, but the system sustains them regardless. The emperor is always a “captive of his officials.” Valentinian I of Rome, who seems to have found this arrangement frustrating, kept Goldflake and Innocence, “two savage and underfed man-eating bears, outside his bedroom as a warning to his entourage.”

In the Shadow of the Gods” is an instructive epic, deficient only in that the author does not pursue his subject to the present day. Mr. Lieven defines emperors as “hereditary holders of supreme authority,” ruling disparate populations over long distances. They are usually male, notwithstanding Catherine the Great of Russia, Victoria of Great Britain, and Cixi, the dowager empress of China. The modern age, Mr. Lieven argues, is a “radically new era” in which hereditary and sacred monarchy are “no longer viable.”

Imperial authority always was symbolic as well as actual. From his invention, the emperor was, if not divine, then the next best thing, tricked out in the ancient robes of “sacred monarchy.” The first emperor was Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE), a Near Eastern priest-king who found his city-state too small and conquered modern Iraq and Syria. As Elizabeth II, the daughter of the last emperor of India, heads the Church of England, so Sargon’s daughter became high-priestess of the moon god in the temple at Ur.

One of the things the Romans did for us was to define empire. Under the Roman republic, an imperator was a victorious general, and later one of two consuls. The empire began in 27 BCE under Augustus, the victor of Rome’s civil wars. A “ruthless and skilful politician,” Augustus mollified the senatorial aristocracy with a small share of his power and a “much greater helping of top jobs and patronage.” He learned from his uncle Julius Caesar’s mistakes, refusing to be “officially proclaimed a living god” in Rome, and calling himself primus inter pares, “first among equals.” But he accepted the divine status bestowed by local elites in his eastern empire. The geography of empire always includes a gulf of hypocrisy between the metropolis and the provinces.

The western Roman Empire lasted five centuries and became the template for the modern European empires. Its eastern, Byzantine heir endured for another millennium, until Constantinople fell in 1453. Yet Rome’s emperors, Mr. Lieven suggests, struggled at the basic task of succession. When Diocletian (284-305 CE) upgraded the emperor from first citizen to divine autocrat, living up to the image “put an extra strain” on an emperor. Add the intriguing of the Praetorian Guard, and the Romans got through 53 emperors in 311 years: not much different to the election cycles of the American republic, with their “never-ending” factional struggles. The Sassanids of Persia, founded in 224 CE, had 30 emperors in three centuries, and the British have had only a dozen monarchs since 1707. No wonder that the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, the most personal testimony left by a Roman emperor, advises Stoic endurance.

Russia’s Romanovs lasted three centuries, the Habsburgs nearly a millennium in various forms, but the Chinese are the long-distance champions: their first imperial dynasty, the Qin, was founded in 221 BCE. The unification of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) led to “great economic advances and a superb flowering of Chinese literary and artistic high culture.” The second Tang emperor, Taizong, was “beyond question one of history’s greatest emperors,” combining military and administrative skills with a “flair for the dramatic, flamboyant gesture.” Like Marcus Aurelius, he bequeathed advice to his heirs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym Review: A Modern Jane Austen

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you are familiar with the quiet little gems that are the novels of Barbara Pym, you may be surprised by the number and intensity of the writer’s love affairs—all doomed. Paula Byrne brings these mostly painful experiences to the fore in “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Biography” and shows how Pym wrung from them a brisk, coolly ironic view of the relations between men and women. Ms. Byrne, the author of two novels, as well as books, on Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, among others, gives us a work that surpasses in length and detail the two previous book-length accounts of Pym’s life: the more discreet “A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym” (1990) by her friend, Hazel Holt, and “A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters,” (1984) edited by Holt and Pym’s sister, Hilary. Perhaps we can hope that now, with this huge biography and with all Pym’s novels available in print, this master of the comedy of resignation will not disappear again—as she almost did during her own life.

Among the many relics of the buttoned-up past that the 1960s kicked to the gutter were the novels of Barbara Pym. To a big, brash, in-your-face era, they were sadly outmoded, smacking of postwar privation and preoccupied with spinsters, seasoned widows, paid companions, young curates and fortifying cups of tea. In addition to the novels’ seemingly obsolete outlook, the problem was also that Pym’s genius lay in her attention to what people mistakenly think of as trivialities—sharing a bathroom, attending scholarly lectures, darning the socks of another woman’s husband, eating spaghetti—the minor travails which, in fact, make up most of life’s substance. The novels’ bleak comedy and subtle wit were lost on an age that admired provocativeness over restraint and was deaf to irony.

Pym got the message in 1963. Already the author of six well-received novels, she sent the manuscript of her seventh to her longtime publisher, Jonathan Cape—only to receive a curt letter of rejection. It stunned her. “She had been, in her own words, ‘offloaded,’ ” writes Ms. Byrne. “And the men responsible had not bothered to give her the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. It was the most cowardly and cruellest of rejections and it affected her for a long, long time.” She tried other publishers with no success and so began what Pym called her “wilderness years.”

. . . .

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born in 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire, in the west of England, the first child of Frederic Crampton Pym, a solicitor, and his wife, Irena. Her sister, Hilary, was born three years later; the sisters were very close and set up house together in later life. In 1931 Pym went up to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied English and embarked on a number of infatuations, affairs and heartbreaks. She was remarkably ahead of her time in sexual liberation (“I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to its being seen”) and, as Ms. Byrne shows, men were central to her life. She courted their attention, slept with them, typed for them and mended their clothes: Being without a man, she wrote years later, was a “nice lump of misery which goes everywhere like a dog.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The War’s Toll on Ukrainian Publishers

From Publishers Weekly:

An online survey of the Ukrainian book market undertaken by Anastasiia Zagorui on behalf of Ukrainian trade publication Chytomo was conducted from March 26 to April 8. Eighty-one publishers participated in the survey, which examines how the publishing community has adapted to wartime conditions; of those, 10% said they were forced to stop their operations, including 4mamas Publishing House, Abrykos, Booksha, DIPA, Mamino, Oleksandr Savchuk, Osnova Publishing Group, and Smoloskyp. Others, such as Blym-Blym, Ïzhak, and Klio, have been severely compromised. The majority of publishers, 51%, continue to publish but have altered their operating models, taking such measures as reducing their working hours. Thirty-nine percent of publishers had not changed their models when the survey was taken.

In one comment, the team of Creative Women Publishing said that, despite the war, they are back on track with all their projects. “Despite the fact that the publishing house’s employees are geographically dispersed—some have stayed in Ukraine and others are abroad—everyone keeps in touch,” Creative Women reported.

Many publishers responded that they continue to work normally but are allowing displaced employees to work remotely and are ramping up the production of e-books. The Nash Format publishing house told Chytomo that members of its editorial department work from different parts of Ukraine and abroad, and that the vast majority of its freelancers, including translators, are continuing to work. The publisher is focusing on titles that will be of particular interest during the war and in the postwar period.

Many publishers continue working on projects they began before the invasion, including organizing readings and events. “We are looking for ways to financially support our authors,” said Yevheniia Lopata of the Meridian Czernowitz cultural festival. “Namely, we organize our authors’ readings in front of German-speaking audiences—mostly online. We already have an agreement with the Vienna University of Applied Arts for a series of public talks and literary events with our authors”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

My Life in Crime

From CrimeReads:

One sunny weekend twenty-five years ago, during a crime writing conference at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, I chatted with a fellow British author. This was Andrew Taylor, a novelist equally at home with writing contemporary fiction as with producing his multi-award-winning historical mysteries. Andrew and I were discussing Julian Symons’ classic study of the genre, Bloody Murder (known in the US as Mortal Consequences), which we both admired. Knowing of my lifelong interest in the heritage of crime writing, Andrew urged me to have a go at writing a book that would, in effect, be a modern version of Symons’ masterpiece.

At that time, I liked the idea, but it seemed like a pipe-dream. My career as a crime novelist was still in its early stages and it made sense to prioritize fiction. Yet I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I’ve wanted to be a crime novelist. In those long ago days, I kept a card index with notes on favorite books, authors, and topics. I’d written plenty of articles about the genre as well as reviews and I’d contributed essays to several reference books. I liked the idea of writing a book of my own about the genre, but my thinking was vague. But I never forgot that conversation with Andrew.

One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed taking part in crime festivals is that not only do I relish the company of fellow crime writers, I am fascinated by the nature of the crime writing life. Before I achieved my dream of having a novel published, I could never understand why so many established authors simply retire from the fray. After I talked to experienced novelists, and gained an insight into the ups and downs of literary life, I began to see why even apparently successful writers sometimes experience doubts about their work, or even downright demoralization. The reasons include financial pressures and changing literary fashions, but there are plenty of others. It’s a privileged life to be a published author; nevertheless, challenges abound.

I was lucky, in that I had a separate career as a partner in a law firm, so I felt I could write books that I believed in rather than those that a publisher wanted me to write. And I gave talks, as I do to this day, about ‘My Life in Crime’. In the 1990s, I focused on my juggling of two distinct careers. And I found that readers were interested, as they are interested in the lives of all writers whose books they appreciate. This set me thinking.

A decade or so passed, and I started work on the book that became The Golden Age of Murder, in essence a study of mysteries from the 1930s during the first years of the Detection Club, of which Symons was once President. My agent, whose support had been invaluable, felt such a book wouldn’t sell and that I’d do better to concentrate on fiction. But I kept working at it, and when it was finally ready to be submitted, her successor in the agency managed to persuade HarperCollins to take it. The book did far better than I’d ever dared to hope. Soon I was casting my mind back to that conversation with Andrew…

As a result, I’ve found a pleasing way to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Bloody Murder. My own history of crime fiction is about to be published, again by HarperCollins. In truth, seven years have passed since I signed a contract for The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators. So what took me so long?

Well, the history of our genre is a huge subject. You only need to glance at the essays on CrimeReads to see that. Tens of thousands of mysteries must have been written since Bloody Murder first appeared, and in any event, I wanted to cover more ground than Symons did, taking in film, radio, TV, the theatre, and true crime as well as fiction. I also aimed to travel around the world, talking about (for instance) the Far East and South America, as well as the Anglophone. Nor did I want to neglect issues of difference and diversity.

What’s more, I aimed to explore the notion of the ‘life of crime’, in one sense by writing a sort of biography of this type of writing, in another by glancing at the rollercoaster lives of some of the most interesting crime writers. I hoped to convey a sense (paradoxical as it may seem for stories concerned with sudden death) of the sheer vivacity of this branch of fiction. And I was keen to pursue one of my hobby-horses, the connections that unite authors—however varied their style or subject—from different eras, different countries and different backgrounds. Where is the common ground to be found? That’s a question that I keep coming back to.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

The Battle of the Book Cover: British versus American Edition

From Electric Lit:

We know, we know: you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. And yet, for as widely as the adage as used, we are all—whether consciously or subconsciously—judging books by their covers every time we browse a bookstore, or quickly scroll through a most anticipated list, stopping at the ones that catch our eye. Publishers put an awful lot of stock into book covers as well, following certain hot trends (cough cough, the Blob, cough) and moving away from others (such as photorealism having taken a backseat the past few years).

Whether we book people like to admit it or not, the cover is a very important part of a book’s perception, and so we here at Electric Lit think it’s a worthwhile endeavor every now and again to take the pulse of the public and see what aesthetic choices are making a splash, and which aren’t faring so well. Is the Blob still in, with publishers or the public? Is realism making a comeback? To test the waters, we asked our Instagram followers to choose between the UK and US book cover editions, to see what the hottest book cover trends are this year, and which trends are soooOOoo 2021.

Careering by Daisy Buchanan

There’s something similar going on between the two covers here: the shade of green, even the pink—which is only a flash of lipstick and nail polish in the U.S. cover, rather than the primary element of the U.K. cover—and a clearly at-her-wits-end woman, which perfectly resonates with this book about a woman who finally lands her much-desired dream job writing for a magazine, only to find burnout waiting for her there. And in a very interesting twist for our first battle, realism is the clear favorite! If you’ve followed our book cover battles in the past, you may know that realism has historically been the loser, so this clear sweep is a surprising start. Is this the beginning of a turning tide?

 

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

These two covers take different approaches to portraying this book about a mysterious inheritance a mother leaves her children: the U.K. cover opting to depict the more literal part—a spoon representing the physical black cake—while the U.S. cover chooses to depict the woman hiding behind secrets that are slowly uncovered after her death. The colorful swirls of the American cover feel very familiar—it’s sort of like those magic images where everything is a blur at first, but if you focus your eyes and stare long enough, the image beneath begins to appear. Comparatively, the British cover takes a more simplistic approach. Our voters, it seems, prefer the task of sussing out the secret inside swirls of the US cover.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Some languages pay closer attention to family ties than others

From The Economist

“Merry christmas from the Family”, a country song by Robert Earl Keen released in 1994, tells the tale of a sprawling festive get-together, replete with champagne punch, carol-singing and turkey. Many listeners will recognise the chaos the narrator describes; even more than that, they may identify with his struggle to recall how he is related to the various guests. “Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen,” Mr Keen croons. “Can’t remember how I’m kin to them.”

That may have something to do with the English language. It is often joked that anyone around your age is a “cousin”, regardless of actual relation, and anyone older is an “uncle” or “aunt”. English is rather bare in its terms for family members. Other languages pay far more attention to the details.

Take “brother” and “sister”. Societies that value age-order highly often have different terms for older brother, older sister, younger brother and younger sister. These are gejie, di and mei in Mandarin (usually doubled in speech, as in didi), or ani, ane, ototo, imoto in Japanese. Though generic alternatives exist for certain situations (like the abstract concept of “siblings”), not specifying a specific person’s seniority in these languages would be odd.

Then take marriage relations. English just adds the rather cold -in-law to refer to a relationship through a spouse. French has the rather warmer beau- or belle- (belle-mère for mother-in-law, beau-frère for brother-in-law, and so on), but at least it means “beautiful” rather than implying a bureaucratic shackle.

Other European languages have distinct words for the many different relatives by marriage. A Spanish-learner must memorise cuñado/cuñadayernonuera, and suegro/suegra for brother-/sister-, son-, daughter- and father-/mother-in-law (the terms are similar in Portuguese). Spanish even distinguishes cuñado (brother-in-law by blood relation to your spouse) from concuñado, your spouse’s sibling’s husband—something like “co-brother-in-law”. It also has the term cuñadismo, brother-in-law-ism, or talking about things you know little about as though you were an authority—the phrase is akin to “mansplaining” in English.

. . . .

Finally, it is a curious fact that English lacks a word to describe the crucial relationship between the parents of a married couple. Hebrew and Yiddish, though, have mehutanim and machatunim, and Spanish offers consuegros for this critical relationship. Anglophones, meanwhile, are forced to say something awkward like “my son’s wife’s parents”.

The focus that some cultures put on labelling every possible relation with a distinct term does not mean that those who lack those terms do not pay heed to familial networks. Every English-speaking family seems to have at least one armchair genealogist who can tell you that Henry Ford was a great-great-great uncle or fourth cousin five times removed. But each family also has members who couldn’t care less, waving a hand and saying “uncle” or “cousin”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Detention of Publisher, Bookseller in Belarus

From Shelf Awareness:

The International Publishers Association, the Federation of European Publishers and the European and International Booksellers Federation have strongly condemned the detention of Belarussian publisher and bookseller Andrey Yanushkevich and his associate Nasta Karnatska for selling copies of George Orwell’s 1984. They were reportedly detained after they opened a general bookstore in Minsk and continued to sell copies of the novel, which was banned, along with other publications, on May 19.

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee, said: “We recognized independent Belarusian publishers in the 2021 IPA Prix Voltaire shortlist. We know that publishing and bookselling is so difficult in Belarus now and incidents like this will undoubtedly lead to self-censorship on the part of authors, publishers and booksellers. We continue to offer our support to all those publishers in Belarus who want to publish freely.”

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

Belarus is located in a part of the world which has a very dense history of being ruled by dictators and people who don’t reside in the country. Bordered by Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, Belarus has been ruled for twenty-six years by a guy named Alexander Lukashenko, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Signs indicate that Lukashenko has no plans to retire, ever.

Orwell’s Humor

From City Journal:

We don’t easily think of George Orwell as a comic writer. We also don’t think of him principally as a writer of novels, though he wrote six, including Animal Farm and 1984, the books that earned him enduring fame. The novel as a form claims a degree of irresponsibility or disinterestedness inconsistent with our idea of the man who created Room 101.

Orwell’s two comic novels of the 1930s, Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up For Air (1939), remind us of how essential the satiric impulse was to his anti-totalitarianism. And though they were published only three years apart, they show his progression, as England prepared for war with Germany, toward the dire seer of 1984.

Maybe our trouble accepting Orwell as a humorist begins with his face. The George Orwell that looks back at us from book jackets is dour and serious, wearing sturdy gray and brown wools under a face long and grave, ascetically thin, and burdened by unwelcome knowledge. This is the iconic, global Orwell, the one read by dissidents in Burma and Iran. Of course, Orwell was serious, in the ultimate sense of preferring grim reality to comforting illusion. He credited himself with a crucial “power of facing unpleasant facts.”

Orwell was suspicious of pleasure and especially of ease. The pivotal decision of his life was to decline the scholarship to Oxford that would have gained him admission to England’s elite in favor of an especially unpromising post as a colonial police officer in Burma. The choices he made after that—to live a tramp’s life, “down and out” on the streets of Paris and London; to fight for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War; and ultimately to turn against his former comrades on the Stalinist left—all seem like a coda to the first.

As a counterweight to this flinty integrity, humor was essential to Orwell, not merely as a form of relief but as an aspect of his realism. His writings on tea are a comic compendium in themselves. He was terribly serious about tea (“tea is one of the mainstays of civilization in this country”), which he understood was funny, in the manner of any trivial obsession. He was perfectly willing to die for the Spanish Republic and nearly did, but he took great pains (or caused his wife to take them) to see that he got decent tea sent to the front. Fifteen years later, as he lay dying of tuberculosis in a London hospital, his final gift from his friend, Paul Potts, was a single packet that Orwell didn’t live to consume. In “A Nice Cup of Tea,” he affects a schoolmasterly rigidity about its proper preparation, writing with an irony so light that it is easily missed. (“These are not the only controversial points to arise in connection with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become.”) It’s a complex kind of humor, both alert to and tolerant of human eccentricity—what one is tempted to call the humor of democratic liberalism, except that it is abundant in Russian literature, too. It is the humor that celebrates the part of us the state can never reach.

Fittingly, Gordon Comstock’s inability, without Philbyish deceptions, to serve himself a cup of tea in his room, a practice forbidden by his landlady, is the most striking of his humiliations in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s semi-autobiographical novel of genteel literary poverty:

Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar, and listened. No sound of Mrs. Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was the major household offense, next to bringing a woman in.

 “Don’t you see that a man’s whole personality is bound up with his income?” he asks her. “His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you’ve got no money?”

Gordon hates the well-turned-out young men who come into the bookshop, “Those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Cambridge to the literary reviews.” Poverty insinuates itself into every aspect of his life, partly because Gordon, with his poet’s sensitivity, is so permeable. He is that type of tireless complainer who takes everything personally. “In a country like England,” he acidly observes, “you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.”

Link to the rest at City Journal

Life As a Book Publisher in Wartime Ukraine

From The Literary Hub:

Vivat, where I work as a publicity manager, is one of the largest publishers in Ukraine. In pre-war times, it published more than 400 new books each year, and the rights to its books were sold to more than 24 countries in the world. The publishing house has 117 employees, who are now scattered across the world. The city of Kharkiv, where Vivat is based, has been under fire from the first day of the war to the present day; its offices are still intact, but the work there has terminated.

The first month of the war passed with all staff in search of safe places, working mainly to survive; the first and most important goal for the publisher was to keep people safe. To date, 95 percent of all the company employees have been evacuated from the city. Some stayed in the country but moved to quieter places; others left the country while hoping to return. City authorities have stated unequivocally: There are no safe areas in the city anymore. Wherever you are, you may be killed by a Russian missile.

At the same time, even in safety, not everyone could continue their work, as some did not have the technical facilities to do so; all the company’s equipment was left behind in Kharkiv. In spite of those difficulties, we were able to establish new work processes, especially thanks to employees who collected and sent equipment away from the city during the first month of the war.

. . . .

In addition to what was left behind at the office, there was another enormous problem for the publishing house: its warehouses are also located in Kharkiv, from which it is not possible to transfer books because of constant shelling. Attempts are still being made to relocate books in small batches to a relatively safe area. However, it is not yet possible to provide the pre-war assortment, delivery frequency, and operation of the online store.

The main income of the publishing house, as it is not difficult to guess, is the sale of books. Given the problems with the warehouse, the company’s financial losses to date amounted to 90 percent, compared to this time last year. The bulk of financial expenses, for the company, is due to the publishing house’s commitment to staff: the main goal is to keep the same members of the team working, even at reduced salaries. That is, no layoffs to save money.

. . . .

Profit recovery is currently taking place on several fronts. One of the main ones is in the sale of rights abroad. Since the beginning of the war, the demand for Ukrainian books has significantly increased. Certainly, such an interest mostly owes to the growth of Ukrainian refugees abroad; people who have been forced to leave their homes want to read books in their native language, and books provide an opportunity to stay in touch with their country and their lives before the war.

Among these refugees there are many mothers with children, so books are also a necessity for them, due to their new language surroundings. However, foreigners themselves have also become much more interested in Ukrainian books. People want to know more about Ukrainian history, everyday life, art, and traditions. Because of this, Vivat is entering more actively the international market and establishing new offices. Soon we will open a new office in Poland to distribute books there.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Empires and emperors are things of the past—in theory

From The Economist

From the decorative sovereigns of Europe to the more potent ones of the Gulf, monarchs still abound in the 21st century. But none of them is a real emperor. That is to say, there is no modern ruler who wields personal authority over a huge, diverse range of polities, thanks to a distinctive, mysterious swirl of dynastic and spiritual credentials.

That is the observation, delivered with a near-audible sigh of regret, of a historian who has devoted a professional lifetime to one empire in particular, that of Russia under the Romanovs, and to imperial regimes in general. Dominic Lieven brings to his latest work a striking, informed empathy for the dilemmas of mighty sovereigns, from Britain’s Queen-Empress Victoria to galloping lords of the steppes.

As his narrative whirls through the realms of Rome, India, the various Islamic caliphates (including the Ottoman one), the tsarist autocracy and colonial systems commanded from western Europe, he demonstrates an unmistakable soft spot not only for most of the empires of the past, but for their masters and mistresses too. Few readers will share that sentiment, but most will enjoy the journey.

Mr Lieven offers especially vivid portraits of some great empresses, from China’s Wu Zetian (who ruled from 690 to 705ad) to Russia’s Catherine the Great (1762-96), both of whom made shrewd use of their status as outsiders in male-dominated worlds. With verve, he describes the good-cop/bad-cop games played by imperial strategists: that mixture of light-touch suzerainty through local proxies, and occasional ruthlessness, which often let a handful of individuals hold sway over vast and scattered populations.

He presents empires as systems in which disparate cultures and technologies could co-exist creatively. He sees ethno-nationalism—the emergence of small and sharply defined states that slip the imperial bonds—as a destructive force. He is disarmingly frank about the personal history that colours this approach. His academic home is in Britain but he descends from Baltic-German nobles who served Russia; he grew up among Anglo-Irish folk in the twilight of British domination, and spends many months with his in-laws in Japan.

The title promises a focus on imperial claims to divinely ordained legitimacy, or to the plain divinity asserted by the rulers of ancient Rome and nearly modern Japan. And Mr Lieven does say a lot about the unifying and legitimising role played by religion in various empires, from Buddhism and Confucianism in China to Russian Orthodoxy. He writes well about the stark, compelling simplicity of Islam, which galvanised a previously unremarkable group of middle Arabians to overwhelm more sophisticated places.

But religion is only one of his themes. He is no less fascinated by the disproportionate role in history played by the fighting horsemen who, as he recounts, held sway over the north Eurasian grasslands for about 2,500 years—until well into the second Christian millennium. As Mr Lieven notes, the dynastic realms that once extended from modern China can be divided into those dominated by the Han Chinese (the Song and Ming), and the much larger territories governed by the Mongol, Qing and Tang dynasties, whose origins can be traced to “the nomadic warrior world of the Eurasian steppe”.

Both the Ottomans and (less obviously) the Russians, especially those of Moscow, could claim similar roots. Russians are taught at school that in 1480 their forebears threw off the yoke of their so-called Tatar-Mongol masters. This falsely conflates two peoples; it also understates the deep symbiotic link between the Slavic rulers of the Muscovy region and their overlords.

Having said that real empires are a thing of the past, Mr Lieven rather shyly makes the case that understanding them is still important. As he puts it, “most large countries in Asia remain more like empires than the European model of the ethno-national polity.” If the continent “catches the disease of European ethno-nationalism the planet might well not survive the resulting chaos.”

Modern India, he writes provocatively, is the product of the Mughal and British empires, which used divide-and-rule tactics, along with pomp and ceremony, to knit the subcontinent together. Having lost its anti-colonial legitimacy, Mr Lieven says, the Indian state is now succumbing to the plague of ethno-nationalism, and seems to be locked in an ever-more dangerous stand-off with Pakistan.

That analysis will be controversial in India. In any case, the argument for studying empires can be made more simply. Recall that since 2017 American strategy has avowedly been based on great-power competition, which means vying with Russia and China. Officially, neither is now an empire in the sense of being ruled by a sovereign. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are depicted as emperors in cartoons, but both emerged from an ideology that in theory abhorred inherited privilege.

What matters most, though, is not what they are, but what they think they are.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Subplot

From The Wall Street Journal:

As democracies around the globe wrestle over where to draw the line between free speech and unlawful lies and what—if any—rules should govern social-media platforms, we might assume that under nondemocratic governments such matters are cut and dried. Not so. Anyone who has ever lived in a communist country knows that the rules are often vaguely worded and the system enforcing them capricious. A book the authorities ignore today might trigger their anger tomorrow. In China, writes Megan Walsh in “The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters,” some call this the “anaconda in the chandelier” with the onus being on “publishers and writers to second-guess what might cause the snake to strike from above.”

Outside China, many assume that anything that gets past the censors must be, at best, without artistic merit or, at worst, propaganda. After all, Xi Jinping made it clear in 2014 that art and literature should “take patriotism as its muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country, and culture.” Yet to consider banned books the only ones worth reading, Ms. Walsh argues, is still a political litmus test. “It would benefit us as foreign readers wanting to understand Chinese society—as well as our own—to seek out fictional worlds, rather than the broad-brush political and economic narratives of the public domain.”

Ms. Walsh began exploring the world of China’s writers and artists in 2004 while she was living in Beijing. In “The Subplot,” the London-based arts writer compiles a kaleidoscopic picture of fiction written and published in mainland China over the past 10 to 20 years. Despite a proliferation of trendy bookstores, most fiction reaches its audience online in what Ms. Walsh describes as “the largest self-generating industry of unregulated, free-market fiction in the world.”

The confluence of technology, economic growth, periods of relative creative freedom and the persistence of writers has produced an unprecedented diversity of voices. Some who lived through the Cultural Revolution, for example, only to see it—and their own past—erased from the “correct views of history,” publish haunting stories of alienation. In Mo Yan’s “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” the narrator is reincarnated as one animal after another, never coming back as a human and therefore incapable of affecting or participating in China’s often violent transition from feudalism to socialism to capitalism. Among ethnic minorities, Ms. Walsh shows how Tsering Woeser and Pema Tseden expose the murky, painful realities of being “happy Tibetans”; and how the Uyghur author who goes by the pen name Tarim writes love poems in his native tongue but uses Chinese for political verses. In a poem translated by Ms. Walsh, he asks: “Friends say / Chinese poetry needs metaphor / I ask / Is that the same as a bat liking the dark?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, sorry.)

“Navalny”, “Tango with Putin” and the editor in the Kremlin

From The Economist:

“LET’S MAKE a thriller,” Alexei Navalny tells Daniel Roher, and the Canadian film-maker tries to oblige. “Navalny” has many of the genre’s key elements—a hero, villains, skulduggery—but runs into an obstacle. “Tango with Putin”, a documentary by Vera Krichevskaya about Dozhd (also known as TV Rain), a gutsy Russian news channel, faces the same problem. It lies not in the directors’ craft, still less in the merits of their subjects, but something deeper: the throttling of narrative in a dictatorship.

His eyes are a reproach. Piercingly blue, they peer from the screen as Mr Navalny exhorts his compatriots not to give up. Mr Roher filmed the Russian opposition leader as he recovered from a poisoning in Siberia in 2020 (old footage shows Yulia, his indomitable wife, struggling to get into his hospital room, lest his assailants finish the job). Recuperating in Germany, the patient links up with Christo Grozev, whom he describes as a “very kind Bulgarian nerd”; the investigator uses data from the dark web to track down the failed assassins.

Mr Navalny is a social-media maestro—barred from campaigning in other ways, he has had to be—and some viewers may already know of the phone calls he made to the goons who allegedly tried to kill him. The sequence is still gripping. One falls for his impersonation of a Kremlin official and spills the details of the botched hit, including the smearing of Novichok in Mr Navalny’s underwear. “He’s a dead man,” the team pityingly conclude of the unwitting informant.

If “Navalny” elucidates the workings, and incompetence, of Vladimir Putin’s death squad, the source of its subject’s amazing courage remains something of a mystery. By contrast, “Tango with Putin” (also called “F@ck This Job”) shows how bravery can be nurtured by circumstance.

When Natalia Sindeeva launched Dozhd in 2010, she envisaged an upbeat lifestyle channel, not a crusading news outlet. By her own account, she previously had more interest in partying than in politics: the news imbued her with principles, rather than the other way round, beginning with a bombing at a Moscow airport in 2011. A four-way split screen—a repeated device in Ms Krichevskaya’s film—contrasts Dozhd’s coverage of the aftermath with the tranquillising pap being aired by state-controlled channels.

Another motif is Dozhd’s journalists calling in from the back of police vans. As the repression worsens, reporting becomes riskier, from the rigged Russian elections and protests of 2011-12, to the crisis in Ukraine and eruption of war in the Donbas region in 2013-14. The channel becomes a beacon of integrity less by design than by observing elementary journalistic principles. To be good, in this telling, is simply to obey your conscience. (Mr Navalny turns up in this film, too, giving advice on lighting for an interview.)

Link to the rest at The Economist

‘The Wordhord’ Review: Here Be Dragons

From The Wall Street Journal:

The language now known as Old English arrived in Britain in the fifth century, not long after the end of Roman rule, brought by settlers from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. It was in use for 700 years, but only about 200 manuscripts containing any Old English survive, mainly from the period between 900 and 1100, and they comprise a total of 3.5 million words—fewer than in the current U.S. tax code. Today most people who engage with Old English do so at college and treat it as a dusty relic of a less enlightened age. Those who have not encountered it tend to imagine it’s the stuff of archaic English pub signs. Worse, they assume it’s the name for the language of Geoffrey Chaucer (which is actually Middle English) or Shakespeare (which is technically Early Modern English, despite student protestations to the contrary).

Hana Videen is one of a rare and treasurable breed of enthusiasts who want to remedy such misconceptions. Since the fall of 2013, she has taken to Twitter every day, as @OEWordhord, to post a single example of an Old English word. More than eight years on, the fruit of this slow accumulation is her first book. I doubt that I’m alone in frowning at the proliferation of nonfiction that began life as burblings on social media, and there’s an undelightful subgenre of Twitterature consisting of volumes that merely pile up linguistic trivia. But Ms. Videen is both a passionate medievalist and a relaxed, lucid writer; the pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.

Some of the vocabulary presented in “The Wordhord” looks very familiar: One needs no help to understand what’s meant by the nouns “butere,” “sumer” and “wulf,” and it’s pretty easy to make sense of “leornung-mann,” a student, or even “ears-endu,” the buttocks. Yet many Old English words have a discouragingly odd appearance, not least because its alphabet boasted three letters that haven’t survived—ash (æ), thorn (þ) and eth (ð). Ms. Videen likens her book to an old photo album; many of the words she cites are “familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children.” And while she revels in showcasing lexical quirks, she has a larger mission: “As I gathered words like gems, I realised that they weren’t just funny, strange and beautiful, but that together they told a story about people’s lives more than a millennium ago.”

Instead of offering a comprehensive guide to Old English, “The Wordhord” leads the reader on a tour of those people’s everyday concerns: food, work, recreation, travel. You may be reassured (or dispirited) to learn that the most frequent topics of discussion in Old English included sickness and the weather—though it’s interesting that the latter was by default regarded as mild and that someone warning of an approaching deluge would refer to “un-weder.” A different kind of age-old preoccupation is evident in the description of Grendel, a vicious marauder in the epic poem “Beowulf,” who’s considered monstrous because he is a “mearc-stapa”—in other words, a “boundary-stepper,” lurking on the fringes of society and threatening the established order.

Yet, unsurprisingly, much about the world evoked in “The Wordhord” feels alien. One could pay one’s tax in fish, perhaps throwing in a few eels for good measure, or in honey, lumber or blankets. A person accused of a crime might be expected to hold an ounce of bread and cheese in his mouth; if he had difficulty swallowing it, he was guilty. The smallest unit of time measurement was the hour. There was no Old English word for “nature”; one simply referred to “sceaft” (creation).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)

France’s ‘Digital Barometer’: 27 Percent Trying Audiobooks

From Publishing Perspectives:

As you may recall, just before the Festival du Livre de Paris at the Grand Palais Ephémère (April 22 to 24), the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE-France) announced that May would be “Audio Book Month” in France.

There was a promise at the time that the French publishers would release new data from what turns out to be the market’s 12th annual Digital Book Usage Barometer, and today (May 4), we have some numbers from that information. What we have today is focused on digital reading in ebooks and audio formats. The entire report runs to 107 pages, available here in French (PDF).

In many world publishing markets, some of these figures will make it clearer why the publishers’ association has moved to declare this its Mois du Livre Audio: The study conducted again by Médiamétrie, this time at the beginning of this year, studies reading habits of French citizens in 2021, and finds that:

  • Fifteen percent have listened to a “physical audiobook,” meaning on CD or tape, of course
  • Twelve percent report that they have listened to a digital (downloaded or streamed) audiobook

In ebooks, by comparison, 25 percent—these respondents are 15 or older—have read a digital book.

Respondents whose reading habits are on the light side tend to be using fewer digital (ebook or audiobook) products, while those who say they’re generally medium-to-heavy readers are leading the way. Some 22 percent of digital book readers report that in general they’re “avid” readers.

And here’s a bright spot: The association reporting that audiobooks, both physical and digital, “are increasingly attracting male readers.” This trend, seen at times in other markets including the United Kingdom, continues to suggest that audio may be a format that can help publishers draw more men and boys to reading, which is dominated by female consumers in many markets.

. . . .

Among Digital Fans: More Intense Reading

Bulleting out some more points for you from the research:

  • Thirty percent of ebook readers say they read more books than before
  • Twenty 20 percent of physical audiobook listeners say they’re listening more than in the past
  • Twenty-seven percent of digital audiobook users say they’re listening to more titles than before
  • Only 52 percent of physical audiobook listeners say they’ve listened to one fewer title than they did a year ago, and the researchers say they believe that signifies that those respondents are likely moving to downloadable and streaming audiobooks from CDs and tapes

Reading among the study’s respondents is still “very largely considered above all as a pleasure activity,” the report tells us, with more than 80 percent of those asked in all reading media in agreement that they do most of their reading at home

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

John Donne, a rake-turned-cleric, is a gift to biographers

From The Economist

The centenaries of both James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” fall in 2022. Reflecting on those twin monuments of modernism, readers might also give some thought to the writers of the past whom those authors revisited or revered. Eliot famously downgraded Milton—regarded for over two centuries as the greatest of English poets—and upgraded John Donne, for most of the same period largely forgotten. As a result, many poets of the mid-20th century hearkened to Donne, who died in 1631, as to a contemporary.

What made the metaphysical poet exciting, Eliot wrote in 1921, was that “a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” To give one example, Donne compares a woman lying on a bed to a map of the world awaiting exploration in “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. (“My Empirie/How blest am I in this discovering thee!”) Such unexpected pairings of the carnal with the energetically intellectual were compelling to 20th-century readers, and the map image, reminding readers that Donne lived in the Age of Discovery, brings the historical context of the work vividly close.

Do readers today still feel as Eliot did? Yes, says Katherine Rundell in “Super-Infinite”, a new biography. She proclaims that “Donne is the greatest writer of desire in the English language” and finds his love poetry sexy and appealing to 21st-century sensibilities. She argues for Donne’s uniqueness, perhaps exaggerating: Shakespeare, for instance, is equally frank, but then his sonnets are weighed down with a guilt and self-disgust quite foreign to Donne’s cheerfully boastful randiness.

. . . .

Despite her palpable enthusiasm for Donne’s love poetry and the gift to a biographer of his swashbuckling early years—he was imprisoned for marrying an underage woman without her father’s consent and went to sea on privateering missions—Ms Rundell is at her best when writing of his maturity. He became famous as Dean of St Paul’s and was an enthralling preacher and laureate of death. Not for nothing are poems such as “Death Be Not Proud” often recommended readings for funerals.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War

Not exactly PG’s normal choice of topic, but certainly relevant to the concerns of many around the world at present.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Russia conducted its first test of the Sarmat, an intercontinental ballistic missile that carries a heavy nuclear payload, on April 20. Vladimir Putin and his advisers have issued nuclear warnings throughout the war in Ukraine, threatening the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with attack if they escalate their involvement. Moscow recently threatened Sweden and Finland with a pre-emptive strike if they join NATO.

The reality is that unless the U.S. prepares to win a nuclear war, it risks losing one. Robert C. O’Brien, a former White House national security adviser, proposed a series of conventional responses, which are necessary but not sufficient to deter Russian nuclear escalation. Developing a coherent American strategy requires understanding why Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons and how the U.S. can recalibrate its strategic logic for a nuclear environment.

Russia’s war is being fought on two levels. At the military level, the battlefields have been restricted to Ukrainian and, in a handful of instances, Russian territory. But the conflict is also a war against NATO, given Ukraine’s position as an applicant, NATO’s military support for Ukraine, and NATO’s willingness to embargo Russian products and cut off Russian energy.

Mr. Putin had two objectives in going to war. First, he hoped to destroy Ukraine as an independent state. Russia planned to drive into Kyiv within hours, install a quisling government, and months later stage referendums throughout the country that would give the Kremlin direct control of its east and south. Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus, and perhaps the Central Asian despots, would fall in line. Mr. Putin would therefore reconstitute an empire stretching to the Polish border.

Ukrainians thwarted that plan. Much depends on the next few weeks, as Russia stages a major offensive in the east designed to destroy the Ukrainian military’s immediate combat capacity, tear off eastern provinces, and solidify a land corridor to Crimea. But there is a serious possibility that Ukraine wins this next round of fighting. Russia has no reserves beyond its mobilized forces; its units have dwindling morale; and those formations withdrawn from around Kyiv are trained to conduct armored, mechanized, and infantry operations and poorly suited for combat. Meantime, the Ukrainians are receiving heavier weapons from the West and have begun a counteroffensive around Kharkiv, which, if successful, will spoil Russia’s attack.

If Russia’s military situation appears dire, Mr. Putin has a dual incentive to use nuclear weapons. This is consistent with publicly stated Russian military doctrine. A nuclear attack would present Ukraine with the same choice Japan faced in 1945: surrender or be annihilated. Ukraine may not break. The haunting images from Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere demonstrate Russia’s true intentions. A Russian victory would lead to mass killings, deportation, rape and other atrocities. The Ukrainian choice won’t be between death and survival, but rather armed resistance and unarmed extermination.

Nuclear use would require NATO to respond. But a nuclear response could trigger retaliation, dragging Russia and NATO up the escalation ladder to a wider nuclear confrontation.

Perhaps a conventional response to a Russian nuclear attack would be sufficient. What if the U.S. and its allies destroyed Russian military units deployed to the Black Sea, Syria and Libya; cut all oil pipelines to Russia, and used their economic clout to threaten China, and other states conducting business with Russia, with an embargo?

Each of these steps is necessary. But Russia’s goal in going nuclear is to knock NATO out of the war. The Kremlin believes its resolve outstrips that of the U.S. A conventional American response would confirm this—and create incentives for additional Russian nuclear use.

The Kremlin is resurrecting the arcane art of nuclear war fighting. These weapons have a military purpose. They also have a political one. The U.S. should reframe its thinking in kind.

This isn’t to say the U.S. should use nuclear weapons—again, a nuclear response would make global nuclear war more likely. But America and its allies can take steps against Russia’s nuclear arsenal that undermine the Russian position at higher escalation levels. The U.S. Navy’s surface ships, for example, could be re-equipped with nuclear weapons, as they were during the Cold War.

Most critically, if Russia used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. could use its naval power to hunt down and destroy a Russian nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, the backbone of Russian second-strike capability. Late in the Cold War the U.S. Navy threatened to do exactly that, pressuring the Soviet Union’s nuclear bastions, the protected littoral areas from which Soviet subs aimed to operate with safety. In a series of naval exercises during the Reagan administration, the U.S. and its allies simulated assaulting the Sea of Okhotsk and Barents Sea bastions, while U.S. submarines probed and shadowed Soviet boats in both areas. Post-Cold War evidence reveals that American naval pressure had a major impact on Soviet policy making: Despite Moscow’s priority of armaments over all other state needs, the U.S. showed it would still be able to fight and win a nuclear war.

The ability to win is the key. By arming surface ships with tactical nuclear weapons as well as attacking a nuclear-missile sub and thus reducing Russian second-strike ability, the U.S. undermines Russia’s ability to fight a nuclear war. The Soviets were deeply afraid of a pre-emptive strike by NATO. That fear has morphed, under Mr. Putin’s regime, into a fixation on the “color revolutions,” pro-democracy uprisings in former Soviet republics. Jeopardizing Russian second-strike capability would tangibly raise the military stakes. Mr. Putin could no longer unleash his nuclear arsenal with impunity. Instead, he would need to reckon with the possibility that NATO could decapitate the Kremlin—yes, suffering casualties in the process, but still decapitate it.

A nuclear war should never be fought. But the Kremlin seems willing to fight one, at least a limited one. If the U.S. demonstrates it is unwilling to do so, the chance that the Kremlin will use nuclear weapons becomes dangerously real.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Vladimir Putin’s Rewriting of History Draws on a Long Tradition of Soviet Myth-Making

From Smithsonian Magazine:

History has ever been a harbor for dishonest writing—a home for forgers, the insane or even “history-killers” who write so dully they neutralize their subjects. Direct witnesses can be entirely unreliable. The travelogue of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, which he dictated while in prison in Genoa to a romance writer who was his fellow inmate, is about two-thirds made up—but which two-thirds? Scholars are still debating. Survivors of Josef Mengele’s vile experiments at Auschwitz recall him as tall and blond and fluent in Hungarian. In fact, he did not speak that language and was relatively short and dark-haired. The director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel has said that most of the oral histories collected there were unreliable, however honestly contributed.

Many of these instances can be ascribed to the quirks of human memory. Actual fakery, though, has a long history. As Tacitus begins his Annals, “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” In England in the 16th century, it was common to share made-up stories about your ancestors in the hope of achieving greater social standing.

Most countries at one time or another have been guilty of proclaiming false versions of their past. The late 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan is known for his statement that “forgetfulness” is “essential in the creation of a nation”—a positive gloss on Goethe’s blunt aphorism, “Patriotism corrupts history.” But this is why nationalism often views history as a threat. What governments declare to be true is one reality, the judgments of historians quite another. Few recorders set out deliberately to lie; when they do, they can have great impact, if only in certain parts of the world.

. . . .

“I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” wrote George Orwell in 1942, reflecting on pro-Franco propaganda in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.” The problem continued to trouble him. Three years later, he went further: “Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.” Chief among the culprits were the falsifiers of the Soviet Union, in particular Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

. . . .

In her history of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum writes of the “peculiarly powerful combination of emotions—fear, shame, anger, silence—[that] helped lay the psychological groundwork for the imposition of a new regime,” Stalin’s Soviet Union. The completeness of the state, the pervasiveness of every institution from kindergarten schools to the secret police, put an end to independent historical inquiry. In this brave new world (Orwell described Soviet commissars as “half gramophones, half gangsters”), historians were not just to do Stalin’s bidding; if, in his eyes, they failed to do so, their lives were ruined and often shortened. For instance, Boris Grekov, director of Moscow’s Russian History Institute, had seen his son sentenced to penal servitude and, in terror, made wide-ranging concessions to the Stalinist line, writing books and papers to order.

Another leading historian, Yevgeny Tarle, was one of a group of prominent historians falsely accused of hatching a plot to overthrow the government; he was arrested and sent into exile. Around the same time, between 1934 and 1936, the Politburo, or policy-making body, of the Russian Communist Party focused on national history textbooks, and Stalin set scholars to writing a new standard history. The state became the nation’s only publisher. Orwell had it right in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Records Department is charged with rewriting the past to fit whomever Oceania is currently fighting. The ruling party of Big Brother “could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”

Stalin, too, wrote his own version of events, contributing part of a “short course” on the history of the Soviet Communist Party. In his teens, vozhd (the boss), as he liked to be called, had been a budding poet, and now he contributed verse for the national anthem, improved on several poets’ translations and even made changes to the film script of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. He was a master of what could be done with language; under him, the euphemism “extraordinary events” was used to cover any behavior he considered treasonable, a phrase that covered incompetence, cowardice, “anti-Soviet agitation,” even drunkenness. The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was to refer to Stalin ironically as “the Great Linguist” for his corruption of language.

“Uncle Joe” himself died peacefully, aged 74, on March 5, 1953, after three decades of bloody rule. Three years later, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, announced a special session in which he gave delegates a four-hour “secret speech” denouncing the former leader and providing a radically revisionist account of Soviet history that included a call for a new spirit in historical work. Practitioners were admonished to upgrade their methods; to use documents and data to explain rather than simply proclaim past Bolshevik views; and to write a credible account—one that would include setbacks, confusions and real struggles along with glorious achievements.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Ukraine: A Call to Buy Rights to Support Publishers

From Publishing Perspectives:

The Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association (UPBA) has released a new spring 2022 rights catalogue, Books From Ukraine, which features titles in six categories available from Ukrainian publishers.

The intent behind Books from Ukraine, association president Oleksander Afonin says, is to create a way for international publishers to provide financial support to Ukrainian publishers during the chaos and hardships caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Our publishing business is in an extremely difficult financial and economic situation because of Russia’s aggression,” Afonin says.

“More than two-thirds of the country’s main publishing and printing facilities are located in areas in which active hostilities are taking place. As a result of missile attacks and bombings by the aggressor, the offices of publishing houses, bookstores, warehouses, and printing houses have been destroyed. The vast majority of staff have left and are now scattered throughout the unoccupied territory of Ukraine and abroad.”

“Most publishing houses,” Afonin says, “don’t have the funds to continue their activities or to financially support their employees, to give them money for basic living expenses.”

He’s asking foreign publishers to download the catalogue and consider buying rights, which he points out is “one of the few options available to financially support Ukrainian authors and publishers in this extremely tragic situation.”

Another motivation for wanting more Ukrainian books translated, Afonin says, is to combat what he calls a 20-year “information war” waged by Russia against Ukraine, in which, he says, Russia distributed “completely distorted, false information about history, culture, art, achievements of Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Palace Papers

From The Wall Street Journal:

One of these days, barring a revolution, the barely United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will acquire a new monarch. After decades in waiting, the present Prince of Wales will become Charles III, a king as unlikely to lose his head (see Charles I) as he is to be nicknamed the Merry Monarch (see Charles II), for here is a man who eats what his family calls “birdseed” for breakfast and is prone to gloomy reflections. Some of which may be explained by the crude fact that “only the monarch’s firstborn wakes up every morning knowing that to advance to the ultimate prize, all he has to do is stay alive.”

Which is hardly a nice thing to have pointed out to one. But then Tina Brown, the writer making the comment in her new royal potboiler, is not, in that sense, nice. A sharpshooting journalist rightly admired for her stylistic accuracy and flair, Ms. Brown has several trophies to her credit including the past editorships of Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Her previous targets include the late Princess Diana, whom she sympathetically dissected in her 2007 volume “The Diana Chronicles.” Ten years later, Ms. Brown broadened her range with “The Vanity Fair Diaries,” which conjured up the “Crazy Eighties” in all their tawdriness and which also charted the author’s ascent in Manhattan, where every putdown she received was lobbed back as a challenge. “When [Robert] Gottlieb tells her that as an English person she could never understand The New Yorker,” one reviewer wrote, referring to that magazine’s earlier editor, “we know exactly where she’s headed.”

And now it’s back to Buckingham Palace, where, my goodness, that family has been through the wringer. Though the weddings, at least, went well. True, Charles and Camilla’s had to be postponed when John Paul II died (“not just any pope,” Ms. Brown points out), and the ceremony then clashed with the Grand National steeplechase (which the Queen managed to sneak off to watch). Meghan and Harry’s day was fine; no embarrassing relatives showed up though some of the famous guests were strangers. (When asked how they knew Meghan, the Clooneys replied, “We don’t.”) But the worst was yet to come: Megxit! Andrew! And the worst has always brought out the best in Ms. Brown, whose latest book, “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil” finds her eager as ever to rummage in the royal laundry basket.

The result of Ms. Brown’s research is a handsome volume—enriched by footnotes and telling photographs—that spans 25 years of a monarchy afflicted by recurring bouts of silliness and sleaze. The players are, of course, familiar: Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Diana, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Meghan, Andrew and Fergie, Andrew and, ahem, other people. Their dramas unfold in chapters with titles such as “Sex and Sensibility,” “Privacy and Prejudice.” And if some of the revelations are inevitably a little stale, all are richly seasoned. Indeed, when it comes to pithy asides, Ms. Brown can be positively Wildean. She notes, for example, that Camilla “left school with one O Level, a good address book, and the ability to fence,” and that Charles, while married to Diana, “followed the traditions of upper-class adultery by pausing while the breeding was done.” She reminds us that “until he lost his hair, Prince William was probably the biggest heartthrob to be heir to the throne since the pre-obese Henry VIII,” and mercilessly depicts Andrew’s “guffawing, boob-ogling pickup style.”

. . . .

The Queen, we are reminded, does not collaborate, grant interviews or explain herself. The Queen simply is. “I have to be seen to be believed,” she reportedly pointed out when an adviser suggested cutting back on appearances. And while the most intimate glimpses here are those of a monarch squelching happily across Balmoral in her Wellies or scrutinizing her heating bills, the complete portrait is one of a shrewd and diligent manager. In 2019, for example, with the Meghan/Harry psychodrama still feeding a tabloid frenzy, the Queen, preparing to deliver her televised Christmas speech, indicated a snapshot of them on her desk and said, “I suppose we don’t need that one.” Heads still roll, just a little more gently these days.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Romania’s streaming start-up Voxa targets EUR 1 million and international expansion in 2022

From The New Publishing Standard:

Running a catalogue of audio and ebook titles in Romanian and English, the Romania-based streaming platform Voxa has a market capitalisation of EUR 6 million ($6.5 million), up from just EUR 3.9 million ($4.3 million) in November.

The 54% leap in capitalisation reflects the way Voxa CEO Catalin Mester has aggressively marketed the company within the Romanian market.

Attracting the desired EUR 1 million ($1.08 million) comes on the promise of further expansion within Romania and beyond. Voxa intends to launch in neighbouring Moldova in this current quarter (Q2) and in 2023 expand to further countries.

The decision to expand into neighbouring Moldova is unsurprising given the shared history and language, but where the third country might be remains to be seen, although Germany, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary are known to be on the list.

Bulgaria is already home to Storytel, which dominates the market, but Hungary, Czech Republic and Estonia could offer Mester a chance to show off the Voxa potential to its fullest.

Another contender must be Serbia, where again a Romanian-speaking element would welcome the existing catalogue and Mester could likely bring on board Serbian publishers for the Voxa platform. Likewise Ukraine, but given the current situation there we can rule that out for the foreseeable future.

Voxa’s successful launch in Romania just six months ago has some impressive numbers to back the narrative, in mind Romania is a country of just 20 million people (helped by the fact that 15 million of those online).

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard and here’s a link to Voxa

No, there’s not a tight fit between Romanian streaming media and what TPV usually discusses, but, hey, its Romania and not Russia.

Biographer Antonia Fraser Tells the Stories of Women Who Made History

From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Antonia Fraser’s bestselling biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette probed the unique travails of female monarchs in eras dominated by men. Her 1984 book “The Weaker Vessel,” about the grim lives of women in 17th-century England, has been hailed by critics as a pioneering feminist work.

Yet despite her familiarity with historical sexism, Ms. Fraser was shocked when she learned about Caroline Norton. a well-born Englishwoman and prolific writer, who in 1836 was publicly accused by her husband George of having an affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. George punished Caroline by stealing away their three young children and keeping the proceeds from her writing for himself. “The fact that she was found innocent of adultery, yet George Norton could throw her out of the house, legally take away their three children and live off the copyright of her books, that absolutely stunned me,” Ms. Fraser, 89, says over video from her home in London, while her two cats sashay around the room. “I was surprised by the appalling state of women’s legal rights. It seemed there’d been no progress since the 17th century.”

In “The Case of the Married Woman,” published in the U.S. next month, Ms. Fraser writes that Caroline Norton was witty, beautiful and charismatic, the author of over a dozen well-received novels, plays and volumes of poetry. Yet the writings she is best known for today are her pamphlets arguing for the rights of married women. “A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men,” Norton once lamented. Her advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, arguably the first feminist legislation in English history, which made it possible for mothers to petition the courts for custody of their children. She was also instrumental in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which expanded access to divorce and gave women legal protection from exploitation by their husbands.

“The more I knew about her, the more I admired her,” Ms. Fraser says. When it came time to write about the tragic and needless death of Norton’s youngest son while he was in the negligent care of his father, she admits “there was a tear in my eye, because I identified so much with her at that point.” This sense of “tremendous kinship” came largely from the fact that Norton was both a writer and a mother—“those two strong calls, which I experienced, too,” Ms. Fraser says.

Ms. Fraser had just given birth to the last of her six children with her first husband, the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser, when she began writing her first work of serious historical biography, “Mary Queen of Scots.” Published in 1969 when she was 36, the book was a bestseller in 11 languages, and Ms. Fraser says it changed her life overnight. Her latest is her 30th book, including 10 novels, two memoirs and two books for children. She credits the daunting output to her discipline during her “sacred” working hours between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. “According to my children, there was a notice on the door saying only come in if you’ve broken a leg. I deny it,” she says with a mischievous smile. She now has 20 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren: “There’s something so exciting about babies, though they do grow into teenagers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Bread in Ukraine: why a loaf means life

From 1843 Magazine:

On March 7th, less than a fortnight after Russia invaded Ukraine, an industrial bakery in Makariv, near Kyiv, was hit by Russian shells. At first people hoped that no one had been working there at the time. But this is Ukraine, where bread is taken seriously: 13 people had been killed. In the Guardian newspaper Andrey Kurkov wrote a lament for Makariv bread, “a soft, white, brick-shaped loaf”, remembering the fragrance of it, its taste when dipped in fresh cow’s milk or spread with butter and salt, and his sense that after the bombing it might instead taste of blood.

Nine days after the bakery bomb, more people died as they queued for bread farther north in Chernihiv. The city was under heavy bombardment and later encircled by Russian forces, but where bread was concerned there was no question that citizens should continue to go out with shopping bags and stand in a line, easy victims. How else could they obtain the very stuff and staff of life, the food a hungry human first thinks of? In other towns, bread was being delivered by busy volunteers. Around the same time, the mayor of the village of Hostomel was shot dead as he distributed bread to residents. He was handing out medicine, too. In terms of comfort and reassurance, there is not much difference.

The Ukrainian flag is really an abstract landscape: a cobalt sky – perfect harvest weather – above a yellow wheatfield

Meanwhile, the bakers of Ukraine have been working harder than ever. Brick-shaped and flute-shaped loaves have been layered like munitions into rattling metal trays, part of the war effort. In Kherson, one man has been working 20 hours a day, producing thousands of loaves of “Victory Bread” to hand out from his truck round the streets of the beleaguered city. At a certain point he was kneading dough so long and so hard that his wrists seized up and he couldn’t open doors. Why this extraordinary effort? Because bread, he explained, is visceral to Ukrainians.

In Ukraine, people have been baking since the dawn of time. The very aroma of the crust stirs a deep feeling for the Motherland, a love of the earth in which the wheat and rye seeds germinated. The Ukrainian flag, after all, is really an abstract landscape: a cobalt sky – perfect harvest weather – above a yellow wheatfield.

he importance of bread to Ukrainians, both physically and spiritually, has been clear far beyond the country. Refugees reaching Poland are given a warm drink and a piece of simple, ungarnished bread. In Parabiago, outside Milan, Matteo Cunsolo is making and selling “peace bread” in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. In shape it is much like Makariv bread, a heavy oblong, different from anything Italians themselves eat; the bottom half is stained with saffron, the top coloured blue with an infusion of the butterfly-pea flower. Meanwhile the Bakehouse in Kyiv, which is handing out thousands of loaves to residents, is being supported by Proof Bread of Mesa, Arizona, to buy flour and yeast.

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine (sorry if you hit a paywall)

The Banning of Persepolis Has Inspired Its Own Graphic Nonfiction Book

From Book Riot:

While book banning and censorship attempts in the U.S. have been at an unprecedented high in the last two years, they’re also not new. In 2013, library science graduate student Jarrett Dapier filed a Freedom of Information Act request that made public the Chicago Public School district’s attempt to quietly remove Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi from school libraries and classrooms.

Persepolis is a highly acclaimed graphic memoir of the author’s life growing up in Iran, and the emails showed that the title had been removed from schools without following the formal process for challenging a book.

News of the banning caused a public outcry, especially after Dapier brought his finding to the news and the ALA. The ALA later awarded Dapier the John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award for “defending the principles of intellectual freedom.”

Now, Dapier is turning this story into its own graphic nonfiction work called Wake Now In The Fire. It’s illustrated by AJ Dungo and follows a group of Chicago high school students who fight back against the attempts at censorship in their own school. It will be published in Fall 2023 by Chronicle Books.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper?

From The Guardian:

When was the last time you saw a scientific paper? A physical one, I mean. An older academic in my previous university department used to keep all his scientific journals in recycled cornflakes boxes. On entering his office, you’d be greeted by a wall of Kellogg’s roosters, occupying shelf upon shelf, on packets containing various issues of Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychophysiology, Journal of Neuropsychology, and the like. It was an odd sight, but there was method to it: if you didn’t keep your journals organised, how could you be expected to find the particular paper you were looking for?

The time for cornflakes boxes has passed: now we have the internet. Having been printed on paper since the very first scientific journal was inaugurated in 1665, the overwhelming majority of research is now submitted, reviewed and read online. During the pandemic, it was often devoured on social media, an essential part of the unfolding story of Covid-19. Hard copies of journals are increasingly viewed as curiosities – or not viewed at all.

But although the internet has transformed the way we read it, the overall system for how we publish science remains largely unchanged. We still have scientific papers; we still send them off to peer reviewers; we still have editors who give the ultimate thumbs up or down as to whether a paper is published in their journal.

This system comes with big problems. Chief among them is the issue of publication bias: reviewers and editors are more likely to give a scientific paper a good write-up and publish it in their journal if it reports positive or exciting results. So scientists go to great lengths to hype up their studies, lean on their analyses so they produce “better” results, and sometimes even commit fraud in order to impress those all-important gatekeepers. This drastically distorts our view of what really went on.

There are some possible fixes that change the way journals work. Maybe the decision to publish could be made based only on the methodology of a study, rather than on its results (this is already happening to a modest extent in a few journals). Maybe scientists could just publish all their research by default, and journals would curate, rather than decide, which results get out into the world. But maybe we could go a step further, and get rid of scientific papers altogether.

Scientists are obsessed with papers – specifically, with having more papers published under their name, extending the crucial “publications” section of their CV. So it might sound outrageous to suggest we could do without them. But that obsession is the problem. Paradoxically, the sacred status of a published, peer-reviewed paper makes it harder to get the contents of those papers right.

Consider the messy reality of scientific research. Studies almost always throw up weird, unexpected numbers that complicate any simple interpretation. But a traditional paper – word count and all – pretty well forces you to dumb things down. If what you’re working towards is a big, milestone goal of a published paper, the temptation is ever-present to file away a few of the jagged edges of your results, to help “tell a better story”. Many scientists admit, in surveys, to doing just that – making their results into unambiguous, attractive-looking papers, but distorting the science along the way.

And consider corrections. We know that scientific papers regularly contain errors. One algorithm that ran through thousands of psychology papers found that, at worst, more than 50% had one specific statistical error, and more than 15% had an error serious enough to overturn the results. With papers, correcting this kind of mistake is a slog: you have to write in to the journal, get the attention of the busy editor, and get them to issue a new, short paper that formally details the correction. Many scientists who request corrections find themselves stonewalled or otherwise ignored by journals. Imagine the number of errors that litter the scientific literature that haven’t been corrected because to do so is just too much hassle.

Finally, consider data. Back in the day, sharing the raw data that formed the basis of a paper with that paper’s readers was more or less impossible. Now it can be done in a few clicks, by uploading the data to an open repository. And yet, we act as if we live in the world of yesteryear: papers still hardly ever have the data attached, preventing reviewers and readers from seeing the full picture.

The solution to all these problems is the same as the answer to “How do I organise my journals if I don’t use cornflakes boxes?” Use the internet. We can change papers into mini-websites (sometimes called “notebooks”) that openly report the results of a given study. Not only does this give everyone a view of the full process from data to analysis to write-up – the dataset would be appended to the website along with all the statistical code used to analyse it, and anyone could reproduce the full analysis and check they get the same numbers – but any corrections could be made swiftly and efficiently, with the date and time of all updates publicly logged.

This would be a major improvement on the status quo, where the analysis and writing of papers goes on entirely in private, with scientists then choosing on a whim whether to make their results public. Sure, throwing sunlight on the whole process might reveal ambiguities or hard-to-explain contradictions in the results – but that’s how science really is. There are also other potential benefits of this hi-tech way of publishing science: for example, if you were running a long-term study on the climate or on child development, it would be a breeze to add in new data as it appears.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As PG has mentioned on a couple of prior occasions here, the current mode of publishing scientific and academic papers is extraordinarily profitable for the those who do the publishing. The authors and those other academics and scientist who review the articles don’t get paid anything.

The universities and large research institutions that financially support the academics and scientists receive nothing from the sale of the research through journals despite the fact that those who employ the academics and scientists pay dearly to obtain subscriptions to the publishers of academic and scientific papers so their employees can read what other academics and scientists have published in the journals.

The publishers of the journals, commonly private companies owned by excessively wealthy European families who are heirs to hereditary fortunes receive and keep every bit of the shamefully large subscription revenues from the publication of other people’s work.

PG suggests that virtually any alternative would have to be better than the current, badly-outdated system.

Does a 2006 Russian Novel Provide Clues to Putin’s Next Move?

From The Interpreter:

Two months ago, Mariya Snegova, a Russian sociologist at Columbia University, suggested that Vladimir Putin was drawing on Mikhail Yuryev’s 2006 novel, The Third Empire, as a guide to his moves against Ukraine and as a source for a new imperial ideology.

Snegova’s conclusions about the impact of Yuryev’s thinking on Putin have been eerily confirmed by subsequent events. And that in turn suggests that Putin, who often cites the works of other writers and who is said by aides to identify The Third Empire as his favorite novel, may plan to act in the future in ways the novelist wrote about eight years ago.

Consequently, because the Columbia scholar proved so prescient about Putin and Ukraine, it is worth revisiting what she wrote in early March as well as considering the broader implications for Russian policy contained in the Yuryev novel itself, the text of which is available online.

Over the past dozen years, Snegova noted, Putin has regularly cited Russian writers like Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyev and Ivan Ilin, all of whom argued that Russia must have an enormous role in the international arena and build to that by promoting “Orthodoxy on the territories under its control.”

Indeed, despite the suggestion of many that the Kremlin leader does not have an ideology, Putin’s reading of these and other books suggests that he not only does but has been developing it for some time. Among the books that have most influenced him, she argued, is Yuryev’s The Third Empire: The Russian Which Must Be” published in 2006.

That book is a description of the world in 2054 purportedly written by a Latin American as a Russian history textbook. Drawing on Samuel Huntington’s vision, the book says that by 2053, “as a result of global wars,” there remained only “five state-civilizations, one of which was Russia in the form of the Third Empire.” (The tsarist and Soviet states were the first and second.)

In Yuryev’s telling, Snegova said, “the construction of the Third Empire began with the coming to power of Vladimir II the Restorer (the first, Vladimir Judas was Lenin) who was able to restore Russia to the status of a great power and to gather the Russian lands.”

That Putin views himself this way is clear, but what is more intriguing is Yuryev’s suggestion that “initially Vladimir the Ingatherer concealed his pro-imperialist impulses, built up reserves and waited for the weakening of the West,” that his state was “based on state corporatism and economic protection,” and that he destroyed the oligarchs and other “pro-Western agents of influence.”

In his book, Yuryev said that Vladimir the Ingatherer began with “an explosion in Ukraine” that led people in the eastern portions of Ukraine to appeal to Moscow to defend them “against ‘Western rule.’” Russia dispatched 80,000 troops, sparking a war with NATO.

As a result of this conflict, Ukraine was divided in two parts, one in the center and west linked with Europe and the West and a second, “Russian” part, consisting of Kharkiv, Dneprpetrivsk, Mykolayev and Odessa regions and oriented toward Moscow. Yuryev did get the date for all this wrong: he wrote that it would happen in 2008.

As Snegov wrote, Yuryev suggested that under Vladimir the Ingatherer, Russia would “gradually unify the territory of the Second Empire” because in his telling – and now in Putin’s – “the disintegration of the Second Empire in 1991 was not by the will of the peoples but rather was the result of a special operation of the West” in conjunction with internal “traitors.”

Yuryev then said that Vladimir the Ingatherer would, in order to establish “the real equality of all the peoples” of the Third Empire, disband the Russian Federation and replace it with a Russian (Eurasian or Customs!) Union.” Having restored a state with more than 200 million people and more than 20 million square kilometers, Russia begin a new “cold war” with the West.

Link to the rest at The Interpreter

When a vampire not called Dracula bested the copyright system, and what it tells us about derivative works

From IPKat:

Last month marked one hundred years since the first screening in Berlin of the iconic vampire movie—Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. And, while the copyright laws were used to try to keep the film from public view, ultimately it failed, to the continuing benefit of cinematic creation. The tale of Nosferatu shows the sometimes-uneasy relationship between copyright protection and the making of derivative works.

Nosferatu was a 1922 adaption (just how much was the subject of the copyright challenge to the movie) of the wildly popular 1897 book by Bram Stoker—Dracula. But the Stoker book did not emerge from a creative tabula rasa. Vampire folklore had been passed down for centuries. Their common denominator was the presence of a creature that feeds on the vital essence (e.g., blood) of the living. The vampire was an “undead” creature which, although deceased, acts as if it is still alive.

The first modern vampire book—The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori in 1819. Its genesis was the same story-telling gathering in the summer 1816 along Lake Geneva that produced “Frankenstein”. This was followed inter alia in 1845-1847 (as a series of pamphlets) by Varney the Vampire written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, and in 1871 by the book Carmilla written by Sheridan Le Fanu. Thus, when Stoker produced Dracula in 1897, there was an established literary tradition alongside ongoing oral folklore.

The specific sources for Stoker’s book are still much discussed, and they include Transylvanian folklore and history (Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century figure, is often mentioned). Some also refer to claimed structural similarities with the novel by Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. It is claimed that “[m]any of the book’s characters have entered popular culture as archetypal versions of their characters.” The upshot was that Stoker had plugged into extensive and multiple sources on vampire folklore as well as contributing to on-going archetypes of the genre.

Still, Stoker’s enormous success with the book took the vampire genre to a new level. It is not surprising that creative activity involving vampires, and particularly Dracula-like characters and story line, would be picked up by the nascent silent film industry.

And so it was that Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau and produced by Albin Grau, both German filmmakers, came into being. The report goes that Grau’s inspiration for the movie came from hearing stories about vampires from local farmers in Serbia, this while he was serving in the German army in 1916. It followed with the establishment of a film company and with the hiring of Murnau (as producer) and Henrik Galeen (as screen writer).

It is here that the story, as a copyright matter, become murky. It was one thing to get excited about the possibility of making a vampire movie; it was another when the focus was taking the best of the German expressionistic cinema tradition, then in vogue, to do a movie version of Dracula. Assuming that even if Grau was not familiar with Stoker’s book when he heard the stories from the farmers in Serbia, still his decision to focus on Dracula brought him directly into contact with the copyright universe.

A movie version of a published literary work might require permission from the author, depending on how close the move came to the book. Stoker’s estate (he had died in 1912) gave no such authorization. Undaunted, Grau pressed on, and the movie was produced.

With an eye towards copyright, changes were made, beginning with the name of the movie and the main characters. Also, the plot witnessed various modifications (in the words of one commentator, “Murnau really only borrowed the skeleton of Stoker’s plot.”). For example, the most effective weapon used against the vampire is not a stake, but sunlight; the movie replaces a male band of vampire slayers with the resolute Ellen, who by virtue of self-sacrifice, saves the day; and a swarm of rats accompany the main character on his travels.

That said, arguably the most notable aspect of the movie were its novel cinematic contributions. As described in the February 26th issue of The Economist, —

A century on, “Nosferatu” is still revered for its experimental techniques—shooting on rugged locations as well as in a studio; using stop-motion animation and fast-motion footage—and for the glut of horror-movie conventions it established. The film includes villagers in a tavern who warn the hero not to proceed, and the conceit that vampires are burnt to ash by sunlight. It is the archetypal Dracula film. And yet, its most strikingly modern aspects are those that leave Stoker’s novel behind.

Enter the copyright laws. Florence Stoker, in the name of Stoker’s estate, vigorously pursued Grau and his production company in German court. She prevailed (unwisely for Grau, it seems that the early releases of film still used the name “Dracula”), the court awarded damages (Grau’s company declared bankruptcy), and the court issued a destruction order for all copies of the movie (ripping the movies from their canisters to do so, and having court-mandated agents to track down and destroy copies or negatives). The movie had entered cinema oblivion.

However, there was no longer copyright protection of the book in the U.S. due to a defect in the copyright notice (this was a material issue under the 1909 copyright law then in effect in the US). So, if a copy of the movie could be found, the movie could be safely screened there.

That is what happened, with one copy discovered in the 1940’s and another in the 1950’s. With the book in the public domain, these discoveries enabled circulation of the movie, leading to a spate of other Dracula-based productions, taking their lead from Nosferatu.

To this Kat, the real horror story here is how the copyright system and, in particular, protection regarding the unauthorized production of a derivative work, nearly put a stake in the heart of an exceptional artistic creation.

Link to the rest at IPKat and thanks to C. for the tip.

7 Books About the Chinese Exclusion Act

From Electric Lit:

p until my early 20s, I had never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I remember taking classes on Mississippi history during my childhood in Oxford, then Texas government, and later the story of the Alamo during my teenage years in Austin. Our history textbooks were heavy and thick, always a pain to take home. Still, for all their pages, they never discussed that period of history when an entire group of people was barred because of the threat they posed to white labor and racial purity. It wasn’t until I took an intro to Asian American studies course in my senior year of college that I was introduced to that significant moment of American history: in 1882, President Chester A. Aurthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act (then known as the Chinese Restriction Act), which banned Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years.

In my debut novel, Four Treasures of the SkyDaiyu, the 13-year-old narrator, is kidnapped from her home in Zhifu, China and smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean, where she is sold to a brothel in San Francisco. From there, Daiyu journeys to Idaho, hoping to find her way back home. It is not just the physical journey that stands in her way, however—Daiyu is in America at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment, arriving just on the heels of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It is this pervasive hatred, this revulsion of the “moon-eyed heathen,” that poses the greatest threat to her return—not the wilderness nor the cold of winter.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is not a singular moment of anti-Chinese action in our history. Years before, for example, came the Page Act, which indirectly banned Chinese women from entering, thus contributing to the lopsided demographics of Chinese immigrants for years to come. Decades before that was People v. Hall, which ruled that the Chinese—following precedence from Section 394 of the Act Concerning Civil Cases—were not allowed to testify against white citizens in court, claiming they were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.” When examining the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we must also consider what came before as well as what came after, and the ugly culmination of violence and legislative escalation that leads us to where we are today. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG would have been happy to embed an Amazon ad that would allow visitors to examine the first several pages of the author’s new book, but, as PG mentioned earlier, the geniuses at Flatiron Books, the publisher of the book, didn’t have Look Inside working so PG could embed the ebook ad and have it work.

Putting French Literary History on Trial

From Public Books:

Once, French theorists tried to bury the author. In 1967, in a now famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” critic Roland Barthes declared the author “dead,” suggesting that the literary text was merely a “fabric of quotations”—a dense weave of disparate borrowings, echoes, and recycled words. Two years later, philosopher Michel Foucault responded to Barthes’s dead author with his notion of the “author-function.” “What is an author?” anyways, he mused, and “What difference does it make who is speaking?”

Despite French Theory’s claims to the contrary, the identity of the author, in the case of minoritized writers, has always seemed to matter. This is especially true of “Francophone” writers—a designation that has long served as a byword for “Black” or “foreign” and frequently is applied to any Afro-descended writer working in French, even those born in France. In the history of Black authors writing in French—and in Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s new novel, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt—it turns out that authorship matters very much.

In fact, in 1968—a year after Barthes announced that the author was dead and cautioned critics against the pitfalls of confusing close reading with author biography—the French publishing world erupted in a literary scandal turned witch hunt, one that hinged almost entirely on questions of authorship and authenticity. For 1968 was also the year the Éditions du Seuil in Paris published a breakthrough novel by the young Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), which won one of France’s most prestigious literary honors, the Prix Renaudot. A baroque and bloody history of an imaginary West African empire spanning the thirteenth to twentieth centuries, Ouologuem’s novel met with critical acclaim. Then it became embroiled in a controversy that has spanned multiple continents and several decades.

Initially hailed as an African Proust, Ouologuem was soon denounced by critics as a mere plagiarist and charged with having stolen passages from writers such as André Schwarz-Bart and Guy de Maupassant. The English novelist Graham Greene even filed a lawsuit against Ouologuem and his publishers at Seuil, claiming that lengthy passages had been directly plagiarized from Greene’s novel It’s a Battlefield (1934). Seuil stopped production and removed the book from shelves; the novel was subsequently banned in France. (Only in 2018 has Le Devoir de violence been reedited and republished in French—the result of work by scholars in recent decades to rehabilitate Ouologuem’s reputation and clear his name, so to speak.)

What happened next both mystified and maddened French critics: Ouologuem disappeared from public view, seemingly without a trace. Although he would go on to publish two more works in short succession, Lettre à la France nègre (1969; A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France) and an erotic novel, Les milles et une bibles du sexe (1969; A Thousand and One Bibles of Sex), under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph, Ouologuem ultimately decided to “wash his hands of writing in French,” as Christopher Wise puts it. Ouologuem refused to state his case, turned his back on the French publishing world, and returned to Mali.

Now, a new novel has been dedicated to Yambo Ouologuem: 31-year-old Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (2021; The Most Secret Memory of Men), which won the Goncourt last year. In it, Sarr revisits Ouologuem’s story to confront the racist history of France’s elite literary prizes, the parasitism and hypocrisy of literary criticism, and the ambivalent status of African writers working in former colonial languages within a global literary marketplace.

With his masterful novel, Sarr has done more than set ablaze the French literary scene. Ultimately, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes puts on trial French literary history itself.

. . . .

Sarr’s novel is a literary history cum detective novel about an elusive Ouologuem-like figure. Inspired by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel about the search for an obscure poetess, The Savage Detectives (1998), it follows the peregrinations of Diégane Latyr Faye, a Senegalese novelist living in Paris in 2018 who stumbles on traces of a mythic text whose author remains shrouded in mystery. The manuscript, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain (The labyrinth of the inhuman), was published to much fanfare in 1938 by a certain T. C. Elimane, a young Senegalese student who became the darling of the French literary world before charges of plagiarism led to a very public fall from grace.

Hailed as a “Black Rimbaud” (Rimbaud nègre) before being condemned as a fraud, Elimane (whose real name, we learn, is Elimane Madag Diouf) emerges as a clear historical double for Yambo Ouologuem. But his story also bears similarities to the Antillean writer René Maran, the first Black writer to receive the Goncourt. In 1921—exactly a century before Sarr’s win—Maran was awarded the Goncourt for his novel Batouala: veritable roman nègre (1921; Batouala: A True Black Novel), which was subsequently banned for its harsh critique of French colonization.

. . . .

Diégane’s search for the ghost of Elimane is also ultimately a journey through texts and a patchwork of experimental literary forms. The novel incorporates press clippings, letters, interviews, text messages, journal entries, reports, oral histories, and manuscripts-in-progress. An entire chapter, told from the perspective of Elimane’s aging mother, is narrated without terminal punctuation.

. . . .

Formal virtuosity aside, Sarr’s novel performs an especially adept sleight of hand in its very premise, since Sarr both stages and enacts the ambivalences of navigating the French publishing world as an African writer, satirizing the world of French letters as he soars to its greatest heights. Sarr’s narrator, Diégane, is part of a throng of young, ambitious writers, mostly from the African diaspora, living in Paris and vying for purchase in a cutthroat literary scene, where success comes at the cost of leveraging one’s own identity—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—to become legible.

The world of French letters is where Diégane and his friends, like Elimane before them, explore and feed a passion for literature. But it is also a world fundamentally unprepared and unwilling to receive them on their own terms—unable, as Sarr writes, to see the African writer as anything besides a nègre d’exception.

. . . .

Sarr’s most biting commentary thus is reserved for the French literary marketplace, with its neocolonial and essentialist trappings. The novelist and playwright Marie NDiaye, who in 2009 became the first Black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, is a case in point. Despite being born in France, she was treated as a twenty-first-century évoluée, a term coined by French colonists to describe colonized subjects who had “successfully” assimilated France’s linguistic, cultural, and social norms.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Two Charles Darwin Notebooks Disappeared More Than 20 Years Ago. They Mysteriously Reappeared.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks, which went missing more than 20 years ago, have been returned to the Cambridge University Library unscathed. 

The university said Tuesday that the nearly 200-year-old notebooks were found March 9, left in a public area of the library inside a bright pink gift bag with a note wishing the librarian a “Happy Easter.” 

The notebooks, the size of postcards, contain Mr. Darwin’s notes as he worked out his theory of evolution. One of the notebooks contains the naturalist’s “Tree of Life” sketch from 1837, which sought to map out evolution and the relationship between species. Above the sketch are two words: “I think.”

Dr. Jessica Gardner, the university’s librarian, said that a colleague spotted the pink bag and brought it in. They looked inside to find a brown envelope with a typed message:

Librarian

Happy Easter

X

“That note is quite unusual,” Dr. Gardner said. “It absolutely adds to the mystery.”

. . . .

Within the envelope was a box they recognized as belonging to the library. Inside, the two notebooks were wrapped in plastic wrap, which isn’t how the library stored them. Still, Dr. Gardner recognized the notebooks and was sure it was the missing ones. She didn’t remove the plastic wrap until the police gave the OK to do so six days later. 

“It was a really thrilling moment,” Dr. Gardner said about unwrapping the notebooks and looking through the pages. 

The notebooks are believed to have gone missing in 2000, when they were taken out of the library’s archive to be photographed. The library didn’t notice they were gone until a routine check in 2001. Some at the library thought they may have just been misplaced. 

. . . .

It isn’t currently known where the notebooks were. Dr. Gardner, who became the university’s librarian in 2017, said the police have the pink gift bag and the envelope, as well as security camera footage from the day they were returned.

. . . .

The notebooks will be displayed in a free exhibition at the library in July. But for now, they’re hidden away.

“They’re safe and tight in a vault,” Dr. Gardner said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (where there are photos)

Publishers should be less risk-averse

From The Guardian:

David Peace, 55, is the author of 11 novels, including The Damned Utd, made into a film with Michael Sheen in the lead role as Brian Clough, and the Red Riding Quartet, set amid the Ripper murders in West Yorkshire, where Peace grew up. One of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2003, he won the James Tait Black prize a year later for GB84. Tokyo Redux, out in paperback this month, concludes a true-crime trilogy about US-occupied Japan, and concerns the death (still unexplained) of Sadanori Shimoyama, the first president of Japanese National Railways. Peace spoke from Tokyo, his home since 1994.

What led you to write about postwar Japan?
I really wanted to write about Tokyo after I finished GB84, around 2003. My children were young and I wanted to know the city’s modern history to be able to tell them about the area we live in, the east end, which was one of the areas bombed flat in March 1945. I wanted to try to understand the experience of survival and how the city rebuilt itself into the Lost in Translation Tokyo people are familiar with. Because I’d tried to understand the time and place in which I grew up by examining the effect of crime on its society, I decided to try to write about three crimes in the occupation period.

What drew you to Shimoyama’s case in particular?
It’s generated so many conspiracies and theories; it was the beginnings of the cold war and we’re still living in its legacy. America came to Japan promising democracy, but by 1949, with the Japanese Communist party doing well and the iron curtain going up in Europe, it changed policy – the Reverse Course – and Shimoyama was very much a big part of that. He’s appointed the head of the national railways and gets given a list by America of 100,000 people whose jobs should be cut, mainly leftwing agitators. Posters go up all over Tokyo against him. Then his body turns up on the railroad tracks, decapitated. People asked: was it suicide or murder? And if it was murder, was it the left? The Japanese right? The Americans? The Soviets?

Do you see Tokyo Year ZeroOccupied City and Tokyo Redux as crime novels?
When I wrote Nineteen Seventy-Four [his debut], I wanted to write the best crime novel ever; I don’t think I did, but that was my intention. Now I don’t think about that any more. It’s odd: in Europe I’m a crime writer but in the UK I’m not. In Germany I’ve won a Deutscher Krimipreis three times – Redux won it – and El País made Redux their crime novel of the year, but I’ve never been invited to the Harrogate crime-writing festival or anything like that. My publishers have a hard time because fundamentally my books are too literary for a crime audience and too crimey for a literary audience. Yet The Damned Utd sold loads of copies, and half that book is told in the second person in a voice I took from Company by Samuel Beckett. Publishers should be less risk-averse. Look at Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, or The Treatment by Michael Nath; if novels are going to survive, novelists have a responsibility to push the boundaries.

Tokyo Redux took 10 years, during which time you also wrote a novel about Bill Shankly, the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted Red or Dead, 700 intensely repetitive pages that don’t exactly seem a relaxing side project…
But it was! I wasn’t getting Redux right; I wrote probably 300,000 words that didn’t go in, because I was obsessed with keeping the novel in 1949, when the great importance of the Shimoyama case is how [views of it] change over time. So those two joyful years writing Red or Dead were a breath of fresh air. I got this huge box of tapes from Shankly’s ghostwriter and all I had to do was sit in my little room in Tokyo and listen to Shankly, a hero of mine, and read football reports and results. It was a real pleasure to write, even though to a lot of people it’s not a pleasure to read; it is quite obsessional, I realise that. Part of my process is that I take notes from what I’m reading and work them into a text to read aloud, trying to attain a kind of poetry; a great deal of it is reconstructing other people’s sentences. I was lucky to be exposed young to TS Eliot, Beckett and Dos Passos, and I’ve always been attracted to that kind of technique.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.

What’s on Vladimir Putin’s Reading List?

From The Wall Street Journal:

Vladimir Putin is reputed to love Russian literature. So did Joseph Stalin, who read voraciously and even gave “advice” to authors after reading their manuscripts carefully. For that matter, Czar Nicholas I made himself Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, a dubious honor the poet would rather have forgone. Even Lenin was influenced as much by Nicholas Chernyshevsky’s utopian novel “What Is to Be Done?” as by Karl Marx.

Why would Russian leaders take such an interest in literature? Even if Mr. Putin only pretends to be guided by great writers, why should he feel the need for such pretense? American presidents don’t claim to get their ideas from “Moby-Dick” or “The Scarlet Letter.”

The answer is that in Russia literature has greater prestige than anywhere else. It is important for leaders to situate themselves in their country’s cultural tradition, and in Russia that means literature.

Not all Russian literature conveys the same message. While some works express the most profound truths about human existence, others voice various forms of opprobrium and hatred. Some Russian thinkers adhere to a kind of nationalism Americans rarely understand. Whereas Americans presume that the state exists for the benefit of its citizens—what else could it be for?—nationalist Russians often presume the reverse: People come and go, but the state endures. That is why Russians are ready, sometimes eager, to die for it.

The profound contempt for anything “bourgeois” among many Russian writers—Alexander Herzen, for example—reflects a distaste for any view of life that does not transcend individual contentment. For Nikolai Gogol and other 19th-century writers, the bourgeois outlook was fit only for Germans. More recently, it is attributed to Europeans and Americans, who allegedly care for little but economic prosperity. To someone like Mr. Putin, this understanding of life characterizes people too weak to defend themselves. A famous paraphrase of Lenin reads: “When we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.”

In the Soviet period, “class” replaced “nation.” The Communist Party represented the most progressive class in history, the working class, and the Soviet mission was to ensure its final triumph and the destruction of its enemies everywhere. Much Soviet literature celebrates violence against class enemies. When one of Mikhail Sholokhov’s characters can’t bring himself to take food from starving Ukrainian peasant children, the novel’s model hero expresses rage: “You’re sorry for them. . . . You feel pity for them? And have they had any pity on us?” Another echoes this sentiment: “You could line up thousands of old men, women and children, and tell me they’ve got to be crushed . . . for the sake of the revolution, and I’d shoot them all down with a machine-gun.” The world divides neatly into “us” and “them.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if it goes stale)

Maria Aggressorovna

From The Wall Street Journal:

This may not be the timeliest moment to proclaim Russia’s creative superiority, but the musical facts are incontrovertible. Over the past century, Russia has produced most of the world’s outstanding pianists, from Rachmaninov and Horowitz at the dawn of recording to Daniil Trifonov and Igor Levit right now.

The Soviet system didn’t interrupt the flow of talent. If anything, it accelerated the production line. Any serious music lover can enumerate without difficulty three-dozen Soviet pianists who made important Beethoven recordings. At their head are Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels—one a bull-headed law unto himself, the other a petrified Party flag-bearer—and behind them are legions of relative unknowns who were denied the right to travel abroad or obtain a comfortable lifestyle.

Among them, two women—Maria Grinberg and Maria Yudina—deserve universal recognition, if much belated. Grinberg (1908-1978) was a committed Communist whose father was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1937. Thirty years later, when the Kremlin accused the Israeli state of aggression in the Six-Day War, Grinberg signed autographs with a caustic new patronymic: “Maria Aggressorovna.” The Kremlin could never control her.

Yudina (1899-1970) rejected communism from the outset, converting to Russian Orthodoxy in 1919. She risked life and liberty supporting exiled priests in Siberia, all the while maintaining an ambivalent relation to the official church and displaying a wild-haired defiance at the heart of Moscow’s concert life. She played Stravinsky when he was officially banned, as well as the music of the mystical Leningrad recluse Galina Ustvolskaya. In Elizabeth Wilson’s “Playing With Fire,” the first English-language biography of Yudina, there is a fabulous 1962 photograph of the pianist in a scruffy raincoat and uncombed hair facing down the manicured Tikhon Khrennikov, a Stalinist apparatchik who ruled the lives of Soviet composers for half a century. Yudina was not afraid.

Lest anyone be tempted to buy the book under false pretences, Ms. Wilson—the cellist-daughter of a 1960s British ambassador to Moscow—is quick to debunk the only story about Yudina that anyone knows outside Russia. It appeared in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony(1979), a bestselling account that was published as the smuggled-out memoirs of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who had died in 1975.

According to Shostakovich (in Mr. Volkov’s account), Stalin, upon hearing Yudina play a Mozart concerto (K.488) one night on the radio, asked for a recording of it. There was none, so his minions hustled Yudina, an orchestra and three frightened conductors into a studio in the dead of night and pressed a single copy for the Great Leader. Stalin, delighted, sent Yudina a prize of 20,000 rubles. She wrote back saying that she was giving the money to her church and would pray to the Lord to pardon “your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He will forgive you.” The story forms the opening scene of Armando Iannucci’s quirky 2017 film, “The Death of Stalin.” According to a further legend, Yudina’s Mozart record was found spinning on the turntable beside Stalin’s lifeless body.

During the 1917 Revolution, Yudina rejoiced at the fall of the czar, joined a “people’s militia” and formed a group to run a play-school for working-class children. But a short trip home plunged her into an intoxicating circle of Hegelian and Kantian philosophers who, mostly Jewish converts to Christianity, drew her toward the Russian Orthodox Church. Yudina’s atheist father was outraged, but she was helplessly in love with her mentor, a textual critic by the name of Lev Pumpyansky, the first of a string of unsuitable, ephemeral lovers. When she declined his offer of marriage, Pumpyansky set out to assault her father, who threw him down the stairs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be free, but PG doesn’t know if the link degrades over time.)

Italian Publishers: Book Piracy Cost €771 Million in 2021

From Publishing Perspectives:

During the course of the still-ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, book piracy has cost the Italian book publishing industry €771 million (US$856.7 million) as well as an estimated 5,400 jobs.

That’s the top-line finding of a second round of research conducted by IPSOs and just released today (March 29) by Gli Editori, a research partnership formed by the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) and the Italian Federation of Newspaper Publishers (Federazione Italiana Editori Giornali, FIEG). This is the follow-up to the 2019 study, on which we reported when it was released in January 2020.

To get a sense for how big a chunk of the potential revenue is evaporating because of piracy, consider that the figures put together for this report represent a third of the overall market, 31 percent, excluding the educational and export sectors.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG does not condone book piracy in any form.

However, studies of piracy as discussed in the OP always assume that anyone who pirated a book or read a pirated book would have purchased the book for whatever price it was selling for.

While PG, to the best of his knowledge, is not acquainted with anyone who pirates books, he suspects a significant portion of book pirate community would not purchase most of the books they pirate if piracy was impossible.

Can We Repair the Past?

From Public Books:

n late 2020, I, an American citizen, became an Austrian, through a new law granting citizenship to the descendants of victims of the Third Reich. (Germany has long had a similar law; Austria, far worse in their anti-Semitism, according to my late grandfather, was much slower on the uptake.) My family was exiled and imprisoned. Wealthy Austrian Jews had assimilated into metropolitan Viennese life; many were able to flee and thus avoid the camps and the gas chambers, opportunities not afforded most other Jews across Europe. They arrived in the US, Australia, Israel, England, and Brazil with copious amounts of documentation of the crimes against them. These materials not only allowed family members to claim money from a number of different funds set up to atone for the violent plunder and taking by the Nazis but also recently provided a path back to membership in the Austrian nation.

I keep coming back to the ideas of possession, place, and property when I consider my new status as an Austrian. I’ve never been to the country; my only attachment to it now is a red passport. But the nature of lineage and changing laws mean I have the right to claim.

Can the harm done to our ancestors be remedied through reparative acts in the present? Perhaps we can grant ownership of what was lost, but does that correct historical violence? Such questions frame Menachem Kaiser’s new memoir, PlunderIndeed, I was drawn to the book in part because of my own recent forays into reparative justice for Nazi-era atrocities. Nominally centered on the author’s attempts to reclaim a Polish building his Jewish grandfather lost during World War II, Plunder takes its reader on an audacious journey through Polish property ledgers, Nazi treasure hunting, and the mundane urbanism of Eastern European cities remade after many rounds of occupation and Jewish extermination. At its heart, the book considers rights to property and ownership as central to historical legacies of memory and place.

Kaiser is keenly aware that his regaining ownership of the building will change the lives of its inhabitants, introducing uncertainty and even fear of the loss of their home. In the West, we are taught that property and its rights are natural and ordered, producing good citizens and harmonious communities. Yet property, and by extension possession, always relies on dispossession, a taking from one to give to another, at least at first. It is, in the crudest terms, a form of loot or plunder. His possessing the building will take something from its inhabitants. Not as violent as the Third Reich seizing heirlooms from Jewish ghettoes across its growing empire (what a friend recently referred to as the “shtetl belt”—we Jews love to joke about past horrors), but still a kind of theft. As Kaiser wades into the various laws regarding property, discovered objects and antiquities, and descent, he reveals how possession is tenuous and fraught, rife with conflict between individuals, nation-states, and competing historical narratives.

Like Kaiser, I have been somewhat bemused by this turn of events. My relationship with Austria is tenuous at best. I already have citizenship in the wealthiest country in the world, something millions long for (granted, options at this particular historical juncture are great to have, but wouldn’t the passport be better used by one of the millions, if not billions of people at risk of violence, political oppression and war, and the ravages of climate change?). But I am also unclear as to whether this is a means of righting a historical wrong or simply the logic of jus sanguinis, blood citizenship.

Kaiser writes poignantly about his family’s internal struggles over his quest for reclamation, interlacing them with his own confusion about the nature of his journey. Here he toys with language, searching for the precise terms to describe what he is doing. Is it reclamation? Or, as he alights on, assertion? What might be the difference? And what of the myriad other terms he does not use, such as recuperation, and of course most critical for our present conjuncture, reparation?

What if, like Kaiser’s, our attachment to the place of our ancestors’ suffering is fleeting, a historical filament? He admits that he has no real affective relationship with his grandfather’s Poland. Kaiser never met his grandfather, who died several years before he was born. Until his death, his grandfather, for whom he is named, sought to reclaim the multistory building that had been his family patrimony at the onset of war in the Polish city Sosnowiec.

The author decides to take up his ancestor’s reclamation project, in part as a way of connecting with a relative he never got to know. As he delves in, he encounters a lively cast of characters and makes a detour into rural Silesia. There treasure hunters—or are they explorers?—search for Nazi-era loot within a series of underground bunkers and tunnels Jewish slave laborers built at the apogee of the war. Rumors, myths, and historical fabulations abound in the lush forests and industrial ruins.

By placing his effort to reclaim family property against the unfolding dramedies of his new explorer friends, Kaiser makes us ruminate on the book’s title. As noted above, possession requires dispossession; the restoration of plunder might require plundering in turn.

At points, he seeks to justify his planned taking—plundering?—by rendering inheritance straightforward, a question of lineage. Moreover, he does not deploy the term reparations, seeing his claim for property as an assertion of inheritance and lineage. However, inheritance is never so simple, hence a canon of literature on its anxieties, from Howards End to Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest to a plot point in the recent Sex and the City rebootMany of those works, too, concern property and its rightful (or proper) place. To whom does what belong? Is it a question of what is written in the property ledger or the cadastral map? Or is it about sentimental attachments and the affective relationships we develop to places?

Link to the rest at Public Books

As PG has opined before, while he understands the deep and terrible things that were done to human beings by other human beings during the 20th Century, providing something tangible – land, money, etc. – to the descendants of those who were treated terribly will not provide any benefit to those who were actually harmed by such wrongdoing.

PG suggests that going down this path leads to the nurturing of national and/or racial hatred that characterizes the endless enmity between ethnic/religious/etc. groups. As an example, some radical Muslims identify Christians of European descent as Crusaders, referring to a period generally agreed to have lasted from 1095 – 1291 AD.

There is no one on this planet who was harmed by an actual Crusader. Ditto for a child or grandchild of someone who was harmed by a Crusader.

One of the beneficial aspects of traditional societies in the US is that they left their ancestral feuds behind them. While African Americans were harmed by slavery and its aftermath, no one alive today has been a slave or the son/daughter, grandson/granddaughter of a slave. Racial prejudice, where it still exists in the United States, has a more contemporary source than 150 years ago.

With respect to Native Americans, serious injustices did occur at the hands of some European immigrants and their descendents . On the other hand, some of the earliest British settlers in the United States, experienced terrible race/nationality-based atrocities at the hands of Native Americans.

If we’re going to get specific, it’s likely that far more Native Americans and their civilizations were harmed by Spanish colonists and soldiers than by English colonists and soldiers. So, do the descendants of British or Swedish or Russian colonists have a gripe against those who claim they owe something to the Native Americans in South and Central America whose ancestors were displaced by Spanish or Portuguese invaders?

Many are familiar with a concept in American and British law known as a statute of limitations.

Here’s one description of the purpose of statutes of limitations:

Legislative act(s) restricting the time within which legal proceedings may be brought, usually to a fixed period after the occurrence of the events that gave rise to the cause of action. Such statutes are enacted to protect persons against claims made after disputes have become stale, evidence has been lost, memories have faded, or witnesses have disappeared.

If your great-grandfather killed my great-grandfather in cold blood in 1900, even if my great-grandfather’s wife were still alive, she would have no claim for damages against your great-grandfather if he were still alive. Any claim would be barred by a statute of limitations.

The principle is even clearer for PG if we’re talking about the descendents of the great grandfathers and great-grandmothers.

‘Slav’: A Regional Heritage Linked Through Speech

From The Wall Street Journal:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pits two countries sharing a Slavic heritage against each other. In his rhetoric leading up to the war, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin cynically exploited this shared heritage to claim that three Slavic national groups—Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians—are all part of a “triune nation,” justifying his expansionist goals.

With Slavic identity so violently contested, it is worth stepping back to consider where the “Slavic” label comes from.

The terms “Slav” and “Slavic” have historically referred to groups sharing a common ethnolinguistic background. Present-day Slavic languages can be traced back to a common ancestral language that historical linguists call “Proto-Slavic.” Scholars place the homeland for Proto-Slavic in the present-day lands of eastern Poland and western Ukraine.

Starting around 500 A.D., Slavic speakers dispersed in all directions from this homeland. The language family now encompasses three main branches: East Slavic (including Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian), West Slavic (including Polish, Czech and Slovak), and South Slavic (including Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovene, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian).

These days, we often see the Ukrainian nationalist slogan “Slava Ukraini,” meaning “Glory to Ukraine,” but that “slava” doesn’t actually have an etymological connection to “Slav.” The word “slava” meaning “fame” or “glory” in many Slavic languages (and found at the end of names like “Miroslav”) goes back to an unrelated root.

The words “Slav” and “slave,” on the other hand, do share a historical linkage, according to most scholarly accounts. As Yale classics professor Noel Lenski explained in a recent article on slavery in the Byzantine Empire, the Greek term for Slavs, “sklabos,” started to be used with a meaning akin to “slave” in written sources around the 11th century. “Latins, Greeks and Arabs profited from political and military instability in the region through the steady influx of captive Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bulgars,” Prof. Lenski writes. Greek “sklabos,” Latin “sclavus” and Arabic “saqaliba” all referred to subjugated Slavs before becoming more generic labels for enslaved people.

Some question the “Slav”/“slave” connection, however. Anatoly Liberman, a Russian-born etymologist teaching at the University of Minnesota, suggests that Byzantine Greek “sklabos” for Slavic people happened to resemble a pre-existing word for slaves, which he surmises comes from the Greek root “skylon” meaning “spoils of war.”

The Latin version, “sclavus,” transformed into “sclave” in medieval French, the source of English “slave.” In the language of the Venetians, meanwhile, it became “sciavo” or “s-ciao,” and was used in the expression “s-ciao vostro,” roughly meaning “I am your humble servant.” That eventually got shortened into the Italian pleasantry, “ciao.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Cooking with Dorothy Sayers

From The Paris Review:

Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison opens with a description of a man’s last meal before death. The deceased, Philip Boyes, was a writer with “advanced” ideas, dining at the home of his wealthy great-nephew, Norman Urquhart, a lawyer. A judge tells a jury what he ate: the meal starts with a glass of 1847 oloroso “by way of cocktail,” followed by a cup of cold bouillon—“very strong, good soup, set to a clear jelly”—then turbot with sauce, poulet en casserole, and finally a sweet omelet stuffed with jam and prepared tableside. The point of the description is to show that Boyes couldn’t have been poisoned, since every dish was shared, with the exception of a bottle of Burgundy (Corton), which he drank alone. The judge’s oration is another strike against the accused, a bohemian mystery novelist named Harriet Vane, who saw Boyes on the night he died, and had both motive and opportunity to poison him. Looking on from the audience, the famous amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey writhes in misery; he believes Harriet Vane is innocent, and he has fallen suddenly and completely in love with her. 

The moment is one of great significance for fans of Sayers’s work. The eleven Wimsey books, published between 1923 and 1937, hinge on the romance between Wimsey and Vane, which percolates through several novels following Strong Poison, and culminates in Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon. For me, though, it’s the menu that’s more intriguing: cold Jell-O soup, followed by sauce-smothered fish, soggy-skinned chicken, and eggs with jam? Even if you account for changing tastes, this meal is a pungent reminder that Dorothy Sayers was having a joke. Urquhart is smugly respectable, and the stuffy and unappetizing menu illustrates his stodgy Victorian-era tastes. Moreover, it reminds us that Wimsey began as a satire—a bumbling Bertie Wooster who detects things—dreamed up a time when Sayers desperately needed the money. The books were potboilers, and the upper-class milieus, four-course dinners, mannered menservants, literary quotations, and aged wines were played for winks and kicks. When Sayers’s financial situation stabilized, she moved on to work she considered more important: writing a series of religious plays, penning original theology, and translating Dante.

And yet, the books have endured, despite their many flaws, and I’ve read and reread the entire run every few years since first discovering them in high school, including the wonderful one about the church bells and the boring one about the artists’ colony in Scotland. The biographer James Brabazon suggests that their true appeal was the pleasure of spending time in Sayers’s company. She was the daughter of a rector, born in Oxford, and a member of its first female graduating class. Her erudition informs her plots, and Peter’s silly, quotation-laden verbal style has delighted readers for generations. When Harriet, declining Peter’s proposal of marriage, tells him that “if anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” the reader understands. Sayers’s books are also credited with being the first feminist detective stories, and she also worked in advertising as a woman in the twenties, wore gender-bending three-piece suits, and expressed a frank sexuality. Brabazon writes that her work has been so successful because it “communicat[es] her energy, her amusement, her intelligence, her love of writing, her enthusiasm, her sense of fun.” I refined that theory when I read—at long last—the work Sayers did take seriously: her theology and her translation of Dante. How I’d never done this before is the true mystery.  

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

St. Basil’s Guide to Cultural Appropriation

From First Things:


Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the European Renaissance was the profound harmony it achieved between the classical and Christian elements in Western history. That harmony remained characteristic of Western schools down to recent times. It is worth reflecting on how it came about.

By the mid-fourteenth century, when Petrarch invented the studia humanitatis or humanities, the clamor of the ancient battle between pagan classical culture and Christianity, whose greatest monument was St. Augustine’s City of God, had been largely stilled. A new Christian civilization had grown up since the twelfth century that fed with gusto on the rich fare of Roman grammar, rhetoric, and law as well as Greek philosophy and medicine. Canon lawyers, above all Gratian—compiler of medieval Europe’s most influential canon law textbook—agreed that formed Christians in universities could read pagan books without damage to their faith. Medieval universities were in essence corporate bodies created and loosely supervised by religious and secular authorities. For the most part they were highly effective in preventing heresy and political subversion. Most university students intended to make careers in the Church or in lay government, and could be counted upon to do and say nothing that might blight their prospects of advancement.

Petrarch and the Christian humanists of the Renaissance were proposing something different. They wanted to train the children of the elite in classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, with the goal of spreading virtue and eloquence among the future leaders of society. The graduates of their schools would be faithful Christians who combined great personal distinction with devotion to family and country. Christendom would be strengthened, it was thought, if its leaders could draw upon the neglected reservoirs of Roman virtue and Greek wisdom.

. . . .

St. Basil’s letter-treatise on education, entitled To Young Men, How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature, had an enormous influence on Renaissance culture when it was first translated into Latin around 1397-99. The translator was the great humanist scholar-official Leonardo Bruni. Bruni was a protégé of Coluccio Salutati, a pious Christian humanist who at the time was involved in an epistolatory controversy with another of his protégés, one Giovanni da San Miniato. Giovanni, whom Salutati had personally urged to take up the monastic life years before, had now aligned himself with the more severe critics of humane studies and had questioned the utility of teaching pagan literature to the young. Bruni’s translation was the perfect response. The little work became by far the most influential patristic text of the Renaissance.

St. Basil (A.D. 330-379), apart from being a saint, had credibility with Christian ascetics, being a monk of a particularly austere disposition. His mother and great-grandfather had died in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. He was also a bishop and had two brothers who were bishops. Basil had had a fine classical education in the pagan university town of Athens, but could never be accused of being a literary dilettante with no serious commitment to the faith.

In his letter-treatise, St. Basil argued that humanistic studies would not only help students in the secular duties of life, but would also prepare their souls for Christian teachings. He urged young men finishing their first training in grammar to go on to classical literature. They should not be discouraged by the philistine attitude of some fellow Christians, but should recognize the extraordinary value of pagan literature. Not that everything in those authors could be approved: Students should take only what was useful to them as Christian members of society. They should avoid acquiring a pagan spirit and should not “surrender the rudder of their minds” to the pagan authors. They should be discriminating, like bees who take only what they need from the best flowers. The present life is nearly worthless compared to the life to come, but at their age they were unable to appreciate the full wisdom of Christ. Just as men who wanted to be soldiers must start with physical exercises that might seem to have nothing to do with fighting, so young scholars should be exercised in “the poets and historians and orators” and other writers who could improve their minds. Like fullers preparing cloth to receive its eventual color, the classical authors prepare us with tou kalou doxa, a correct opinion of the Good, before the heavenly Dyer fixes in us the true colors of faith. Moses acquired the learning of the pagan Egyptians before becoming leader of the Israelites, and Daniel, counselor to the kings of Babylon, learned the lore of the Chaldaeans while remaining true to the God of Israel.

Crucially, Basil was far more positive about the merits of studying pagan literature than either St. Augustine or Martianus Capella, hitherto the two most influential authorities available in Latin on the use of the classics in Christian education. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote that pagan learning should only be acquired insofar as it furthered the goal of salvation, in particular in preaching and the interpretation of the Bible. Martianus Capella—Augustine’s contemporary and a fellow African—also narrowed the range of disciplines Christians should accept from pagan Rome. He reconfigured them into seven liberal arts that emphasized linguistic skills (the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and skills involving numbers (the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musical harmony). Both authors, in other words, focused on useful knowledge. Neither mentioned the possibility of learning virtue or wisdom from non-Christian authors.

St. Basil, by contrast, urged his young men to take lessons about virtue from pagan poets, orators, and philosophers. “All the poetry of Homer is praise of virtue.” The right pagan philosophers, above all the moral philosophers, can teach us how to escape from the prison of the body’s passions. To be worthy of the prize of eternal life we must do our allotted tasks in this life well, and the study of pagan classical authors will help the young Christian keep his soul in tune while performing his earthly duties and awaiting the fuller light that will come as he approaches his heavenly reward.

Link to the rest at First Things

An anthology by female writers shows a different Afghanistan

From The Economist:

The story of Ajah, or grandmother, begins with a child, born in 1905 in Chimtal, a district of the Balkh province of northern Afghanistan. The girl is orphaned at seven, when tuberculosis kills her parents, and is married off at 12. Her husband is paralysed after falling on a mountain path while searching for a cure for his infertility. By the age of 27 the character is a widow, and takes on the only name she is given in the story.

When Ajah’s village is struck by an earthquake, which reshapes the land and threatens to flood her beautiful orchard, she alone digs a drain to channel away the waters. “It’s men’s work,” the local imam tells her, but no men are available, having been enlisted in the army. When the rains come, the women of the village join her in widening the trench, saving their homes. At the story’s close, the men cannot believe what work the women have done. “And why not?” replies Ajah. “They till the land; they raise your children. They lift buckets of water from the well every day. How difficult is digging a tiny channel when us women come together?”

That message, in a tale by Fatema Khavari, might well stand for all 23 short stories in “My Pen is the Wing of a Bird”. They were written by 18 Afghan women and translated from the original Dari and Pashto by other Afghans; the anthology was put together by Untold, an ngo founded by Lucy Hannah that in 2019 recruited writers across the country via social media, text messages and local radio stations. The settings range in time and place, from “Ajah” in the early 20th century through to the present day, and from rural backwaters to Kabul. The plots include all manner of men and women in Afghanistan.

One story is about the challenge of being a refugee, another about having your family leave you for the safety of a foreign land. Others evoke grinding poverty or the fight against corruption. A few are about lost love and the tragedy of war. “Bad Luck”, by Atifa Mozaffari, is particularly heartbreaking. It tells of a young blind woman whose suitor, thought dead, returns from Iran with money for her cataract surgery—but too late to save her from marriage to someone else. All depict the resilience, stoicism and humanity of Afghan women.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Murders of Moisés Ville

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Argentine journalist Javier Sinay’s family memoir, “The Murders of Moisés Ville: The Rise and Fall of the Jerusalem of South America,” is as fascinating as it is quirky—a journey that begins in the impoverished Jewish communities of late 19th- and early 20th-century Eastern Europe and winds its way through the newly built towns on the pampas of Argentina, where, for a time, Yiddish was the common tongue.

Imagining the lilting sound of Yiddish echoing through the Argentine plains and countryside can seem like a dream. But Mr. Sinay reminds us that this was a real chapter in Jewish history. The Yiddish-speaking members of the diaspora who fled the pogroms and persecution of the Old World for South America differed little from those who landed in North America.

What we also tend to forget, or never knew, is the particular draw that attracted many Jews to the port of Buenos Aires: the possibility of owning and running a farm, courtesy of the Jewish philanthropist Maurice de Hirsch. In 1891, shocked by news of the starvation and deaths of would-be Jewish farmers lured to the pampas by fraudulent land schemes, Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association, designed to fund agricultural colonies for distressed Jews emigrating from Europe. Hirsch purchased large tracts of land throughout the country for new immigrants to build their own villages, where they could make a living by working the land while also maintaining their cultural and religious traditions through Jewish schools and synagogues. These farming towns grew so quickly that in 1896 Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, weighed for a moment whether the Jewish State should be situated in Palestine or in Argentina.

Moisés Ville, located some 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, was among the first of Hirsch’s colonies, eventually growing so big that it was dubbed the Jerusalem of South America. It was also the site, between 1889 and 1906, of the murders that Mr. Sinay refers to in his title. Perhaps most important to the author, this is where his own ancestors first settled in 1894, when they emigrated from Belarus, before moving a few years later to the Jewish-immigrant-filled neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

. . . .

Inevitably, Mr. Sinay arrives in Moisés Ville. During its 1940s heyday, the town was home to about 5,000 Jews, which accounted for more than 90% of its population. Today, the town’s total population is less than 2,500, of which roughly 10% are Jewish, most of them elderly. Mr. Sinay describes a picturesque if sleepy scene, with the main street still called Calle Barón Hirsch. At the fully restored synagogue, he finds himself drawn to attend for the first time in his life a Friday-night service welcoming the Sabbath. Very few others are present. What happened to the once-thriving Jewish town that existed here, Mr. Sinay wonders. The answer has the ring of classic Jewish humor: “We planted wheat and harvested doctors.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)