Sponsored ads and Stores launches in Egypt

From Amazon Ads:

What launched?

Sponsored Products, Sponsored Brands, and Stores are available to use on Amazon.eg. Sponsored ads can help you achieve your business goals by reaching customers as they shop for relevant products on Amazon, gaining product visibility and building your brand.

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If you don’t know where to start your online advertising, Sponsored Products is a great way to begin your advertising journey in Egypt. Sponsored Products appear in shopping results and on product pages, it’s an effective approach to engage customers as they shop for similar products on Amazon.eg.
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Link to the rest at Amazon Ads

A Detective Poet, and an Empire in Revolt

From Public Books:

In 1857, the largest rebellion against the British East India Company took place. It spread across the subcontinent and among people of different religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class. The city of Delhi, as the seat of the Mughal emperor, held special significance among the rebellion’s many centers. The previous year, the Company had annexed the neighboring state of Awadh and exiled its ruler in a particularly venal move. It shattered the last illusions that the Company’s political ambitions would be limited by even an appearance of what was lawful. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was to become the last Mughal emperor, feared for his remaining authority, which did not really extend beyond the city of Shahjahanabad, the walled enclave of political power in Delhi. And it is the powder keg of Shahjahanabad that is threatened with ignition by a murder in Raza Mir’s historical mystery, Murder at the MushairaThat is, unless Mirza Ghalib—a real-world poet in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor—can solve the mystery in time.

As required by their profession, detectives in Indian historical mysteries in English routinely and expertly transgress boundaries created by the socialization of the encounters between native and colonial hierarchies. In Mir’s novel, the process of this socialization comes to a head, with battle lines being drawn not only between the British and the rebels, but between rebels with different understandings of history, and between domestic and public spheres, as well as between different systems of political and cultural patronage.

At the center of these many oppositions is Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. In his novel, Mir casts one of 19th-century Delhi’s most illustrious residents as his detective.

Ghalib was born in 1797, six years before the East India Company captured Delhi from the Maratha Confederacy. His first collection of poems was written when he was 19, followed by decades of poetic compositions in Persian and a Persianized Urdu. Most of his now-famous Urdu ghazals, written later in life, were under the patronage of Bahadur Shah, himself a poet. Mir portrays Ghalib, as he was in real life, beleaguered by debt and familial conflict, painfully aware of each slight to his prodigious talent—in this case a reluctant detective who would rather write poems than solve crimes. Unlike many historical-mystery writers whose characters are taken from real history, Mir makes little to no changes to Ghalib’s character and temperament for the sake of fiction, for which there is sufficient documentation. His family being at the receiving end of both Mughal and Company patronage, his employment by the British in the role of a “cultural expert,” a native informant, to solve the mystery also rings true. It is of course a role that is then overwhelmed by the happenings of 1857, when, as Ghalib wrote in a letter a year later, “so many friends died that now when I die, there won’t even be anyone left to mourn for me.”1

In Murder at the Mushaira, Mirza Ghalib, blessed with uncommon insight and nearing the end of his life, is chief witness to the dying of his world. The novel itself is a satisfying read, paradoxically perhaps, because it so often divests its energies from genre conventions that are beloved by fans, and it gives itself over to the uncertainty and devastation of this moment in the history of India.

Mystery and crime fiction, even when not ostensibly historical, depend on the past, however recent, being available as a tantalizingly difficult object of investigation. Historical mysteries not only reinforce this rewarding pastness of the past by placing it at a greater distance, but they also analogize the detective’s queries within the narrative to the reader’s curiosity about the past itself. So what does it mean when Indian historical mysteries concentrate on the period of colonial rule? How does the solution of the crime figure against the collective inheritances of colonial pasts?

These novels have understandably capitalized on the romance of the Raj—the British colonial regime that lasted until 1947—which, in turn, is often connected to the decline of colonial rule. In fact, quite a few of these series are set in the 1920s, corresponding to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, when the likes of Agatha Christie started publishing.

The 1920s as a cultural idiom have powerfully affected writers of historical mysteries. But in choosing to set their mysteries in India of the 1920s, a decade that saw an upswell both in anticolonial movements and in their brutal repression, these writers produce interesting results.

Christie’s novels frequent the drawing rooms and parties of the English upper and middle classes. At times, these elites are shielded from the economic downturn in Britain in the early 20th century, often benefiting from colonial wealth. Christie’s crime fiction is mostly classified as cozy mysteries, indicating their underlying sense of comfort and the conviction that nothing really bad happens, which is a product of the novels’ spatial and economic logics.

However, the spaces that contain and arrange Christie’s characters—manor houses, seaside resorts, golfing hotels, and even sleepy hamlets—all replicate the logics of empire, their coziness inextricably tied to the latter’s political, ideological, and economic cohesion. Even when Christie mocks superior senses of Britishness that would brook no criticism, whether in person or in organization, the lasting impression of these spaces’ comfort is still linked to that Britishness that has resulted from centuries of imperial self-affirmation.

The factors behind the coziness in Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry novels are a little different. Here the coziness is afforded by the detective’s upper-class Anglicized Parsi community of Bombay, whose monetary and social capital was a product of the colonial economy. Modeled after the first female lawyer of modern India, Cornelia Sorabji, Mistry’s exclusion from the larger professional field of law owing to her gender is calibrated against the affluent spaces that open up for her due to her class. In the first novel of Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series, the blame for the murder of a British official is at first falsely laid on Indian nationalists, but finally is brought home to the inner rot of the colonial administration. One also has to read his novels vis-à-vis the origins of modern policing in India, which had less to do with solving individual crimes than with the management of colonized spaces and peoples, and often the protection of the interests of religious caste majorities. Besides Mukherjee and Massey, Barbara Cleverly, Brian Stoddart, and Harini Nagendra also set their mysteries in the 1920s.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Modern depiction of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

PG notes that the book described is apparently only available as a hardback on Amazon. Evidently, the publisher didn’t permit Look Inside to be activated for the book. The Share button also appears to be unusable as well.

Breaking into English

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 2016, MEXICAN ESSAYIST Mariana Oliver released her debut collection, Aves migratorias. In March 2017, she read a fragment of the book on a podcast, catching the attention of the literary translator Julia Sanches. At the time, Sanches, a former literary agent, had just quit her job and moved to Rhode Island, where she was debating her next professional steps. She ordered a copy of Aves migratorias, waited the seeming eternity it can often take for a book to cross national borders, and, after reading the collection, began to translate an excerpt. She submitted the resulting English-language essay to several journals, but had no luck until Charlotte Whittle, a fellow translator and Oliver fan, included it in her pitch for an issue of the international literary magazine Words Without Borders focusing on women essayists from Mexico — an issue that eventually came out in May 2020. Adam Levy, one of the founding editors of the Oakland-based publisher Transit Books, read the essay and reached out to Sanches, and, as she told me, “the rest is history.” Migratory Birds came out from Transit a year later and went on to win the 2022 PEN Translation Prize.

This years-long story is not, in the world of translation, uncommonly slow. If anything, six years between the publication of the original text and its English translation is rather speedy, especially for a literary work whose author is not a known quantity in the United States. Books like Oliver’s often take a long time to appear in English, finding publishers only through intense effort and great patience on their translators’ part. Indeed, translators frequently double — or, really, quadruple — as literary agents, scouts, and tastemakers. So do the editors who make a point of working with them. It is telling that Sanches first published her translation of Oliver’s work in a journal that rarely prints creative works written originally in English; telling, too, that Levy runs a press that specializes in translation. Increasingly, translated literature in the United States exists in its own ecosystem, one that Eric Becker, digital director and senior editor at Words Without Borders, says “grew out of necessity.” The journal was founded in 2003, he told me, to “address the fact that there wasn’t much work being published in translation.” Twenty years later, the translation landscape is growing, and the magazine has expanded its mission, striving not only to publish translated works but also to “reach people who may not even know they’re interested in international literature” and to advocate for the translators and critics who help that work enter the American literary conversation.

Of course, the question of what constitutes advocacy in the literary world is a complex one. For Words Without Borders, Becker told me, it means crediting translators, paying writers and translators equally, and actively seeking to launch new writers’ and translators’ careers. The magazine has published some 3,000 poems, stories, and essays by authors from over 140 countries, giving many — including every writer mentioned in this essay — their first English-language exposure or helping their work grab the attention of agents who can further their careers. Crucially, that exposure is readily available to anyone with an internet connection: unlike many print-only or print-focused literary journals, which tend to rely on a subscription model, Words Without Borders is free.

But free isn’t always a good thing. Many translators, myself included, are exhaustingly familiar with the expectation that we should work for little or no pay. One way to resist that idea is simply to expose it; another, for many translators, is cooperative action. Translators’ collectives are abundant; online and in industry groups like the American Literary Translators Association, translators offer each other information and support that can be vital in the often opaque publishing industry. Asked about the effect of her agenting past on her translation present, including her role as the chair of the Authors Guild’s Translation Group, Sanches said that this insider knowledge “makes me a better advocate for myself and my peers.” She then highlighted the Authors Guild’s model translation contract, which is heavily annotated and includes the explicit statement that “a large number of U.S. translators are being paid rates that make it difficult, if not impossible, to earn a living, so we continue urging translators to ask for fair compensation and publishers to provide it.” Arguably, fair compensation is the bedrock on which any other politics of translation must rest; as Jhumpa Lahiri writes in the introduction to her 2022 essay collection Translating Myself and Others, it’s hard to perform the “essential aesthetic and political mission of opening linguistic and cultural borders” without being able to make the rent.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Death by Machine Translation?

From Slate:

Imagine you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and your small child unexpectedly starts to have a fever seizure. You take them to the hospital, and the doctors use an online translator to let you know that your kid is going to be OK. But “your child is having a seizure” accidentally comes up in your mother tongue is “your child is dead.”

This specific example is a very real possibility, according to a 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal about the limited usefulness of AI-powered machine translation in communications between patients and doctors. (Because it’s a British publication, the actual hypothetical quote was “your child is fitting.” Sometimes we need American-British translation, too.)

Machine translation tools like Google Translate can be super handy, and Big Tech often promotes them as accurate and accessible tools that’ll break down many intra-linguistic barriers in the modern world. But the truth is that things can go awfully wrong. Misplaced trust in these MT tools’ ability is already leading to their misuse by authorities in high-stake situations, according to experts—ordering a coffee in a foreign country or translating lyrics can only do so much harm, but think about emergency situations involving firefighters, police, border patrol, or immigration. And without proper regulation and clear guidelines, it could get worse.

Machine translation systems such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and those embedded in platforms like Skype and Twitter are some of the most challenging tasks in data processing. Training a big model can produce as much CO2 as a trans-Atlantic flight. For the training, an algorithm or a combination of algorithms is fed a specific dataset of translations. The algorithms save words and their relative positions as probabilities that they may occur together, creating a statistical estimate as to what other translations of similar sentences might be. The algorithmic system, therefore, doesn’t interpret the meaning, context, and intention of words, like a human translator would. It takes an educated guess—one that isn’t necessarily accurate.

In South Korea, a young man used a Chinese-to-Korean translation app to tell his female co-worker’s Korean husband they should all hang out together again soon. A mistranslation resulted in him erroneously referring to the woman as a nightlife establishment worker, resulting in a violent fistfight between the two in which the husband was killed, the Korea Herald reported in May. In Israel, a young man captioned a photo of himself leaning on a bulldozer with the Arabic caption “يصبحهم,” or “good morning,” but the social media’s AI translation rendered it as “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew. This led the man, a construction worker, to being arrested and questioned by police, according to the Guardian in October 2017. Something similar happened in Denmark, where, the Copenhagen Post Online reported in September 2012, police erroneously confronted a Kurdish man for financing terrorism because of a mistranslated text message. In 2017, a cop in Kansas used Google Translate to ask a Spanish-speaker if they could search their car for drugs. But the translation was inaccurate and the driver did not fully understand what he had agreed to given the lack of accuracy in the translation. The case was thrown out of court, according to state legal documents.

These examples are no surprise. Accuracy of translation can vary widely within a single language—according to language complexity factors such as syntax, sentence length, or the technical domain—as well as between languages and language pairs, depending on how well the models have been developed and trained. A 2019 study showed that, in medical settings, hospital discharge instructions translated with Google Translate into Spanish and Chinese are getting better over the years, with between 81 percent and 92 percent overall accuracy. But the study also found that up to 8 percent of mistranslations actually have potential for significant harm. A pragmatic assessment of Google Translate for emergency department instructions from 2021 showed that the overall meaning was retained for 82.5 percent of 400 translations using Spanish, Armenian, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, and Farsi. But while translations in Spanish and Tagalog are accurate more than 90 percent of the time, there’s a 45 percent chance that they’ll be wrong when it comes to languages like Armenian. Not all errors in machine translation are of the same severity, but quality evaluations always find some critical accuracy errors, according to this June paper.

The good news is that Big Tech companies are fully aware of this, and their algorithms are constantly improving. Year after year, their BLEU scores—which measure how similar machine-translated text is to a bunch of high quality human translations—get consistently better. Just recently, Microsoft replaced some of its translation systems with a more efficient class of AI model. Software programs are also updated to include more languages, even those often described as “low-resource languages” because they are less common or harder to work with; that includes most non-European languages, even widely used ones like Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, to small community languages, like Sardinian and Pitkern. For example, Google has been building a practical machine translation system for more than 1,000 languages. Meta has just released the No Language Left Behind project, which attempts to deploy high-quality translations directly between 200 languages, including languages like Asturian, Luganda, and Urdu, accompanied by data about how improved the translations were overall.

However, the errors that lead to consequential mistakes—like the construction worker experienced—tend to be random, subjective, and different for each platform and each language. So cataloging them is only superfluously helpful in figuring out how to improve MT, says Félix Do Carmo, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. What we need to talk about instead, he says, is “How are these tools integrated into society?” Most critically, we have to be realistic about what MT can and cannot do for people right now. This involves understanding the role machine translation can have in everyday life, when and where it can be used, and how it is perceived by the people using it. “We have seen discussions about errors in every generation of machine translation. There is always this expectation that it will get better,” says Do Carmo. “We have to find human-scale solutions for human problems.”

And that means understanding the role human translators still need to play. Even as medications have gotten massively better over the decades, there still is a need for a doctor to prescribe them. Similarly, in many translation use cases, there is no need to totally cut out the human mediator, says Sabine Braun, director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey. One way to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology while guarding against errors is something called machine translation followed by post-editing, or MT+PE, in which a human reviews and refines the translation.

Link to the rest at Slate

Longest single-volume book in the world goes on sale – and is impossible to read

From The Guardian:

A limited edition single volume of the long-running manga One Piece is being billed as the longest book in existence.

At 21,450 pages, it is physically impossible to read, making it less of a book and more of a sculpture.

Priced at €1,900 (£1,640), the book isn’t credited to Eiichiro Oda, the writer and artist behind One Piece, which has been serialised in Japanese magazine Shōnen Jump every week since 1997. It is being sold instead as the work of Ilan Manouach, the multidisciplinary artist who has designed the limited edition volume, which is titled ONEPIECE.

Manouach printed out the Japanese digital edition of One Piece and bound it together, treating the comic not as a book but as “sculptural material”, according to the book/ artwork’s French publisher JBE.

A spokesperson for JBE told the Guardian that ONEPIECE is an “unreadable sculpture that takes the shape of a book – the largest one to date in page numbers and spine width – that materialises the ecosystem of online dissemination of comics.” Whatever it is classed as, there certainly seems to be a market for ONEPIECE – the limited edition run of 50 copies sold out within days of its release on 7 September.

Manouach’s piece came about because of the “profusion of available online content and the rampant digitisation of the comics industry” which “challenges the state-of-the-art of comics craftsmanship”, according to his publisher. “Ilan Manouach’s ONEPIECE proposes to shift the understanding of digital comics from a qualitative examination of the formal possibilities of digital comics to a quantitative reappraisal of ‘comics as Big Data’.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

There are photos of the book at the link.

Twelve Writers Bring Back Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

From Smithsonian Magazine:

In 1927, with the publication of her short story “The Tuesday Night Club,” Agatha Christie debuted a new and instantly iconic character: Miss Jane Marple, an elderly woman from a small British village, whose twee penchants for knitting and local gossip belie a cunning ability to crack killer crimes.

Christie did not expect Miss Marple to rival the popularity of Hercule Poirot, her meticulous Belgian detective who put his little grey cells to good work in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the novel that had catapulted Christie to literary fame the previous year. But readers loved the “fussy and spinsterish” Marple, whom Christie would go on to feature in 12 novels and 20 short stories. The detective made her final appearance in 1976’s Sleeping Murder, published the same year as Christie’s death.

But now, Miss Marple is making a comeback. As Sarah Shaffi of the Guardian reports, a new collection of short stories, sanctioned by the Christie estate, features 12 new Marple tales penned by a diverse lineup of contemporary women writers.

Simply titled Marple, the collection includes contributions by seasoned crime authors, like Val McDermid and Dreda Say Mitchell. But it also features stories by those who typically work in other genres, like the historical writers Kate Mosse and Natalie Haynes, and the fantasy author Leigh Bardugo.

The writers were asked to follow a set of guidelines. They had to set their stories within the time period in which Miss Marple exists in Christie’s work, and refrain from inventing new backstories for the detective. They were able to incorporate characters and events from the canon of Marple stories, but they were asked not to draw on plot points from other Christie books.

The project came with pressure to live up to the legacies of the “Queen of Crime” and one of her most beloved characters. “The greatest challenge was knowing that if I didn’t do this well, I would enrage many, many fans,” Jean Kwok tells Emily Burack of Town & Country.

But the new stories transcend mere emulations of Christie’s writing, with each author leaving her unique fingerprints on the narratives. Mitchell, for example, tells the Guardian that she is personally interested in the contributions of Caribbean women during the world wars, and thus has Miss Marple collaborate with Miss Bella, “a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force whom Miss Marple met in an air raid shelter.” Kwok used to read Christie’s novels as “a poverty-stricken first-generation immigrant” who had moved to New York City from Hong Kong; she has her Miss Marple travel to Hong Kong on a cruise ship—with an “untimely death aboard,” of course.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Why Britons love to queue

From The Economist:

Hundreds of thousands of Britons have responded to the death of Queen Elizabeth II in a very British way: by queuing. A line to see the queen lying in state started to form on September 12th, two days before viewings in Westminster Hall began. By the afternoon of September 15th the estimated waiting time in London was over eight hours. It will continue, day and night, until 6.30am on September 19th, the morning of her funeral. As the line snaked for miles along the Thames, observers reacted appreciatively. One tweet called The Queue “the greatest bit of British performance art that has ever happened”. But is queuing the best way to do things?

Organisers needed a way to allocate scarce resources, or in this case, limited slots to file through Westminster Hall past the coffin. An ideal system would give spots to those who value them the most, with everyone having an equal shot at securing one. A queue effectively rations out the spots to those who turn up first—and who are willing to wait. An alternative might have been a lottery, with spots randomly allocated to a subset of those who applied, as was deployed for a concert to mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June. Or even perhaps some kind of market, with prices for each time slot set high enough to balance supply and demand. To visit Buckingham Palace, for example, one must buy a ticket.

As a rationing mechanism, a queue has some advantages. Participating in a line that could stretch overnight, or at least several hours, is a strong signal of one’s eagerness. It also reduces the risk that those who cannot afford to pay for the privilege are shut out. But it has drawbacks. Although participants are not paying money for their spot, they are paying in time and comfort. Economists fret that a queue such as this favours those without much else to do and excludes those who cannot, for example, afford to skip work. Others, such as the frail and the sick, might not be able to access the queue at all.

The alternatives reduce the inefficiency of long waits. But they have their own disadvantages. A lottery system risks those who feel very strongly about seeing the queen losing out to someone lucky who does not care very much. A market-based system will allocate spots based on who values the experience—and who is also most able to pay. That would seem distasteful and unfair. A study published in 1977, by Martin Weitzman, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that, in cases where needs were more equally distributed or where income was more unequally distributed, rationing (of which queuing is one form) outperformed pricing in its ability to allocate things to whoever needed them most.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Flowers of Orwell

From The Dublin Review of Books:

The Brazilian rubber tapper, labour activist and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by a rancher in the Amazon in 1988, reportedly once said that “ecology without class struggle is just gardening”. The aphorism is often deployed to remind less radical environmentalists that questions of social and economic justice have to be at the centre of their concerns. Gardening, a hobby seen as the preserve of the relatively privileged few, becomes a slur in this context, typifying a tendency of the green movement to value nature primarily as a space for merely private contemplation or spiritual nourishment, a refuge rather than a battleground.

One of the effects of climate breakdown is that it is gradually and irreversibly rendering all politics climate politics, whether we like it or not. This is a disorienting situation, to say the least. It means that traditional, much cherished conceptions of nature as something separate from society, and from the sinful humans who would do it harm, become obsolete. What we call nature is no Garden of Eden – it is not a paradise and we were never cast out of it. Instead it is a collaboration between human and nonhuman beings seeking mutually enriching coexistence on a finite planet. But perhaps this shift in our thinking about nature also means reassessing the politics of gardens. This is what Rebecca Solnit suggests through a series of fascinatingly digressive and wide-ranging reflections on the roses George Orwell planted in the garden of his cottage in Hertfordshire in the spring of 1936.

This period marked the key turning point in Orwell’s life, when he went from being what Solnit describes as a partly successful novelist with a curmudgeonly affection for old-fashioned English ways, to a fierce political essayist and prophet of dystopia. The transformative event was the Civil War in Spain, for which he departed at the age of thirty-three in the winter after he’d planted those roses. His experiences among the communists fighting Franco, recorded in his book Homage to Catalonia, marked him indelibly. He emerged from the war a committed revolutionary socialist with a hatred for all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, whether right-wing or left-wing, having witnessed at first hand Stalinist repression of supposed Trotskyists in the Spanish trenches. An already-existing hostility to ideological rigidity and officialdom was intensified in the writer.

Solnit, a leading American cultural critic, feminist and environmental activist, is less interested in dissecting Orwell’s political consciousness than in asking where his love of roses and gardening fit into it. Despite his decades-long influence on her work, she encounters Orwell anew through his horticultural efforts, of which he kept a charmingly straightforward diary that Solnit returns to again and again. Through this and other avenues, she seeks out an Orwell very different from the one most of us know — an Orwell who could bore you to tears with his detailed knowledge of shrubs and the superiority of sixpenny Woolworths roses, an Orwell of wheelbarrows and well-earned cups of tea, who lamented the loss of common English names for flowers to the fancy Greek nomenclatures of science. Solnit observes how her second book, the superb Savage Dreams from 1994, which documented a grassroots campaign against nuclear weapons testing in the deserts of Nevada, echoes Homage to Catalonia in how it interweaves a personal and subjective narrative with a bigger historical one. The two Orwells, she argues, come together in this precarious balancing of the private and the personal – even the seemingly apolitical – against the crushing weight of history and its techniques of power. To love a sixpenny rose, or the wild roses of northeastern Nevada’s Shoshone territory, hardly seems a political act, but it becomes so within a larger social and historical story.

At the same time, Solnit avers, “love of nature is no guarantor of virtue”. This is certainly true, as Stalin’s curious dream of growing lemon trees inside the Arctic Circle demonstrates. But this is where the book becomes somewhat evasive. Solnit addresses the colonial nostalgia implicit (and sometimes explicit) in idealising portrayals of the English countryside, but she largely glosses over how all of this is connected to Orwell’s own sentimental anglophilia and his faith in the common folk. During the 1941 Blitz, he wrote in a famous essay that the English

are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official …

Solnit refers to the passage but does not critique its cultural nativism or the ridiculous claim made in the essay that the plain people of England would never allow totalitarianism to take root in their land precisely because of their natural immunity against the official culture of states and flags and military uniforms, the British empire notwithstanding.

Link to the rest at The Dublin Review of Books

For the first time, a Uyghur novel is translated into English

From The Economist:

Perhat Tursun was a precocious teenager.

He published his first poem when he was 11 years old and started university in Beijing at the age of 14. Back then, in 1983, few books by foreign authors were available in Uyghur, his native tongue. So Mr Tursun mastered Mandarin and gained access to troves of translated foreign works. He devoured the writings of Camus, Dostoyevsky, Joyce and Kafka. When other Uyghurs arrived in the capital to study, he advised them to do the same.

Through reading, young Uyghurs could explore a world that was off-limits. As members of the predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority, acquiring a passport was difficult and they faced bitter prejudice in Beijing, a city dominated by ethnic-Han Chinese. Despite these obstacles, the group of Uyghurs nurtured a passion for literature and philosophy and would go on to become some of the leading intellectuals of their generation. Mr Tursun made a name for himself as one of the most influential modernist writers in the Uyghur language. He chafed against convention and despised obsequiousness, recalls Tahir Hamut Izgil, a renowned Uyghur writer and film-maker living in exile in America, who was among the students Mr Tursun mentored.

Years later, in 2006, Mr Tursun finished writing “The Backstreets”, a book which echoes his life. The narrator is a nameless Uyghur from rural Xinjiang, a region in the far west of China, who is hired by a company in Urumqi, the regional capital, to fill their diversity quota. The protagonist grapples with racist superiors and callous strangers while searching for a place to live. Published in America and Britain on September 13th, “The Backstreets” is the first Uyghur-language novel to be translated into English.

Written as a stream of consciousness, the book exemplifies Mr Tursun’s unconventional use of form and style. At one point the Uyghur narrator imagines the murderous rage of a Han bystander and the page is filled with 215 consecutive repetitions of the word “chop”. Visceral and often disorientating, “The Backstreets” illustrates the painful effects of racism and exclusion. It is a strange and devastating novel, a portrait of what it means to become a second-class citizen in your homeland.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, discovered the novel while conducting fieldwork on Uyghur migration in 2014 and felt it “deserved a broader audience”. To decode the book’s dense language and cultural references, he relied on his co-translator, a Uyghur migrant living in Urumqi, credited only as Anonymous. They met daily in a teahouse, often in the company of friends—and, they suspected, informants.

Link to the rest at The Economist

In search of Agatha Christie. Misperception and mystery cling to the life of the elusive novelist

From The Guardian:

If Agatha Christie remains elusive, it’s not for the want of those trying to find her. Janet Morgan’s official biography of 1984 and Laura Thompson’s equally detailed but ultimately more impressionistic portrait of 2007 have both been updated and reissued; and there are numerous other analyses that try to understand how the woman who routinely described herself as a housewife became Britain’s bestselling novelist of all time. Enter historian Lucy Worsley, whose declared intention is to rescue Christie, who died in 1976 at the age of 85, from the misperceptions that cling to her life and her works of fiction.

In service of the former, she revisits the most notorious episode of Christie’s life: her disappearance for 11 days in December 1926, prompting blanket media coverage, an extensive police search and, after she had resurfaced at a hydropathic hotel in Harrogate, widespread suspicion that her tale of memory loss was an elaborate publicity stunt. In terms of the novels, Worsley’s focus is on debunking the assumption that Christie invented and epitomised what has become known as “cosy” crime fiction, pointing to the darker elements of her work, its modernity, and its increasing interest in psychological themes.

Is she convincing? Up to a point. These ways of thinking about Christie are not entirely new or unfamiliar, and although Worsley has evidently done due diligence among her subject’s correspondence and personal records, there are no major revelations. It’s more, perhaps, that she brings a clear-eyed empathy that allows her to acknowledge Christie’s limitations and prejudices without consigning her to the silos of mass-market populist and absentee mother.

Sometimes, this is a stretch. Worsley is correct to argue that dismissing the books as formulaic – algebraic, indeed – is a way of diminishing Christie’s power to graft an apparently impenetrable mystery on to an evocatively imagined and interestingly peopled setting, and to repeat the trick over and over again; such reductive ways of characterising the work of popular writers are still very much in evidence. Her gift for dialogue and for manipulating social stereotypes, as Worsley demonstrates, was formidable, keenly attuned to the proliferating class anxieties of the 20th century; numerous characters are, interestingly, transitional or dispossessed in some way, at odds with one view of her as a writer of the country-house elite. (This approach gets only so far when it comes to discussing her reliance on racist tropes, and particularly antisemitic slurs, on which Worsley maintains that we must accept her as a product of her class and time, but also that we must squarely face the reality of what she writes and not try to excuse it. The issue here is that, fundamentally, the circle cannot be squared and rests largely on whether one believes bigotry is, at some level, historically inescapable.)

This doesn’t quite amount to the claims made in one eyebrow-raising passage in the biography, in which Worsley appears to argue that Christie has common ground with the modernists whose defining moment came as her first novels were published: “What if the middlebrow and the modernist could actually be the same thing?” she writes. “A more inclusive definition of modernism might mean that you can also find it in works that don’t necessarily bludgeon you in the face with the shock of the new in the manner of Ulysses.” If you are going to rescue one writer from misunderstanding, it’s as well not to visit the same ignominy on another. And as much as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’s ingenuity relies on the disruption of accepted narrative convention, I don’t think it has a lot in common with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Once again, PG notes that the publisher, Pegasus Books, has a release date of September 8, but makes it impossible for enthusiastic readers to look inside the book.

Book trade’s next generation fear burnout and low pay will force their departure

From The Bookseller:

Young people in the book trade are experiencing widespread burnout and dissatisfaction about pay and progression, a survey by The Bookseller has revealed. The results also indicated that more needs to be done to make the industry accessible and that, though most respondents are largely satisfied in their current roles and hoping to stay in the industry, retention is a rising concern.  

The bulk of the 238 people who completed the survey, which was aimed at book trade staff aged 25 and under, worked in publishing (86.5%), with agents accounting for just over 10% of respondents and booksellers accounting for just over 2%. The remainder hailed from the distribution, library and freelance sectors. When asked why they pursued a job in the industry, the vast majority cited a love of books and a desire to work in a creative field. Others highlighted the opportunity to make a cultural impact, with one distribution worker wanting to “be part of making a change with [regards to] diversity in the book world”. 

In terms of entering the industry, more than half of the survey respondents found it “fairly easy” to find out information about the trade and the job roles available, but more than 40% had found this either “fairly” or “very” difficult. Furthermore, it was “fairly” or “very” difficult for over 80% to actually get a job in the book world. Common reasons for this included: huge competition for vacancies, unrealistically high expectations for “entry-level” roles, a lack of transparency about the industry, geographical constraints and the pandemic. 

One respondent shared: “Even when you have transferable experience, you could be applying to entry-level, low-paid roles and hearing nothing back for well over a year… It can feel impossible.” The pandemic compounded this, as some companies paused hiring or internship schemes, while competition increased as experienced candidates who had been made redundant were also going for junior positions. 

The first step

Several responses highlighted that “entry-level” roles regularly require applicants to have extensive work experience. According to one agent, publishers “expect more and more every year—now, even for junior positions, you often have to do two interviews and time-intensive tasks”. One publishing staffer felt that “the job hunt is harder than the job itself”, which was echoed by someone with a Masters in Publishing who confessed of their qualification: “I don’t need this to do my job at all in practical terms, it just adds to my CV.”  

Several comments suggested that the barriers to entry are even higher for those who are working class, not white, not British, disabled and/or living outside of London. An agent described it as “near impossible” to find a good job outside London. One publisher who entered the trade via a dedicated scheme said they would have “struggled to get a job through a CV and cover letter, having no connections to the industry and not knowing what to highlight”. “The publishing industry is riddled with classism,” wrote another respondent, who felt judged for being working-class. A couple of answers touched on the application process for immigrants, with one person feeling they “had to jump through even more hoops to show my commitment” compared to British candidates. 

. . . .

Reflecting on how their experiences within the industry have differed from their expectations, many found it friendlier than anticipated, but also less forward-thinking and glamorous. One person said: “Working for a large publisher was more corporate than I expected… I moved into working for smaller independents and I have really enjoyed that.” An agent was surprised by how “gossipy” the industry is and also by “the sheer amount of extra work people do outside of working hours and how this is very openly expected”. 

Meanwhile, a Big Five publishing staffer had found that “in many ways, it’s been better” than their preconceptions, as “overwhelmingly, staff are kind, generous and super-creative”. However, they noted low morale in more senior colleagues, expanding: “Low pay, over-working, slow or no progression seem to be common themes. I’m at the very start of my publishing career and it makes me nervous for the future.” 

This was echoed in the survey results, with similar topics arising in answer to a question about the key issues young workers face in their jobs. Many argued that they could not afford to live comfortably in London, with a Big Five staffer sharing: “Sometimes I have to skip meals to pay my bills.” Others confessed that they would not be able to support themselves without a secondary income or partner’s financial help.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Trade bodies warn new data mining copyright exception will have ‘severe negative impact’

From The Bookseller:

Trade bodies including the Publishers Association have warned the government that its decision to introduce a new copyright exception will “seriously undermine the UK’s intellectual property framework”. 

Text and data mining encompasses techniques used for computer-based analysis of large amounts of data, and is often used in AI. The exception, announced in June following a consultation, would allow any entity, based anywhere in the world, to mine copyrighted text and data for free, for commercial use. 

In a letter addressed to secretary of state Kwasi Kwarteng, signatories including Publishers’ Licensing Services, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers and the Independent Publishers Guild warn “the government’s decision to create a broad copyright exception will seriously undermine the UK’s intellectual property framework, conflict with international law, and… unintentionally provide international rightsholders and non-UK based research organisations with a competitive advantage.”

It continues that the proposed exception would “have a severe negative impact on UK rightsholders” and create an unfairness that benefits those using content for text and data mining.

“The immediate consequences of the exception will be that, without the ability to licence and receive payment for the use of their data and content, certain businesses will have no choice but to exit the UK market or apply paywalls where access to content is currently free,” it says. 

“The UK’s world-leading copyright framework is fundamental to the success of the UK publishing industry, as well as the wider creative economy. It empowers people and businesses from across the country to invest in and create a wealth of different products, from novels to academic journals, from databases to newspapers.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Friend of Contingency

From the Sydney Review of Books:

The release of John Keane’s brief history took place between the Australian federal election, the war in Ukraine, and China’s ‘security’ agreement with the Solomon Islands. So, within a few weeks of its publication, The Shortest History of Democracy achieved dramatic salience. Not quite prepared for this new chapter, its tone addressed an earlier Zeitgeist, in which many were disengaged from democracy by Trumpian politics and EU in-fighting.

One of a series of ‘Shortest Histories’ from Black Inc, it follows the format of an amiably-written generalist’s book from a scholarly author – John Keane is professor of politics at Sydney University. At times it is admirably succinct. ‘Democracy heightens awareness of what is arguably the paramount political problem: how to prevent rule by the few, who act as if they are mighty immortals born to rule?’, he writes.

What Keane calls the problem of titanism – ‘rule by pretended giants’– threatens democracy even in peacetime. It’s hard to watch the populace in the Philippines vote in the son of a tyrant; or, in the Solomons, the four-times Prime Minister take his country close to tyranny to shore up his own hold on power.

Democracy has always had rival methods of distributing power. From monarchy and empire to tyranny and despotism, history in Keane’s account is a litany of successive political arrangements. None except democracy retain at heart a principle of egalitarian rule. He writes that ‘democracy is exceptional in requiring people to see that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place, and so, in order not to give themselves over to monarchs, emperors and despots, they need to live openly and flexibly.’

Democracy, Keane tells us, is the friend of contingency. He provides in 240 pages an instructive taxonomy – from ‘assembly’ to ‘electoral’ and ‘monitory’ democracy, each arrangement a response to different contingency.

Keane writes eloquently of democracy’s beginnings. Early forms of assembly democracy, with public gatherings of citizens debating and deciding matters for themselves, appear first in Syria-Mesopotamia and move east to the Indian subcontinent and west to Phoenician cities. Democracy settles famously in Athens. There, assembly democracy allowed for a direct form of self-government, and citizens made an artform of speaking to the assembly, striving for a political consensus. But Athens, notably, didn’t enfranchise everyone. Women and slaves underpinned the freedom of Athenian citizens without sharing in it. And perhaps this foundational injustice led to the anti-democratic impulse that was Athens’ eventual undoing, according to Keane – the building of Empire. When the Macedonians finally defeated Athens in 260 BCE, they dismantled its democratic ideals and institutions, which had become fatally tainted by the lure of imperial wealth and its attendant militarisation of political life.

Democracy caught on in the Atlantic regions from the twelfth century, as a more ‘electoral’ form of democracy emerged. Church governance and early forms of parliament were seen from Spain to Iceland, instituting the choice of delegates from a constituency who were empowered to make decisions on its behalf. In each case, a solution short of violence was found for sorting different interests and for moderating power.

The electoral method of democracy differed from the assembly method by allowing for the adjustment of differences rather than the determination of consensus. In this lay a great virtue of democracy: the peaceful resolution of conflict while sustaining pluralism. For all the talk of ‘the People’, no such unified will existed in practice. Keane shows that, despite the rhetoric of the People’s sovereignty, the new strength of electoral democracy was in its capacity for finding vectors out of division through power-sharing.

It took until the twentieth century for the theory and practice of electoral democracy to mature and flourish, but after the Second World War it reached a high watermark in the governance of nations, as Keane outlines. There was an explicit belief in the possibility that the democratic form of government, taken as a global precept, could protect the world from the catastrophe of war in an age of weapons of mass destruction.

Ukraine, a modern European democracy, was invaded by its imperialist autocratic neighbour in February this year. It came as a dramatic existential shock to the globalised West, even as Putin had massed troops on the border for months, and even in the wake of earlier aggression like the annexing of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas.

In Europe, the horrible face of war had been shrouded for eighty years. Despite hiding in plain sight, shown nightly on television ­– ‘and a warning this footage contains images of war’; in no particular order, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Georgia, Syria – it took the conflict in Ukraine for Europe to look its ravaged visage in the eye. People one day sitting in cafes drinking coffee, their children playing on swings in playgrounds, their ageing parents sitting in apartment lounge rooms with the TV on. The next, huge holes blown in those apartments, tearing the windows out, exposing the décor like so many dolls’ houses. Playgrounds dismembered by exploded shells now lying on the ground beside the play equipment.

People shown wearing familiar brand names on their sweatshirts or on their backpacks, in puffer jackets, scrambling onto trains and buses, clasping shopping bags and wheelie suitcases of what possessions they could grab as they run from their homes. Running for their lives. Or worse, unable to leave, stranded in basement bomb shelters and underground railway stations without food and water and power, let alone clean clothes, hot showers, fresh air and creature comforts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a forcible reminder that the long years of peace following the world wars were not a global default position. There is no ‘end of history’, despite Francis Fukuyama and other political theorists who trumpeted a tale of ‘how the West won’ in the wake of the Cold War.

. . . .

Scepticism and cynicism about democracy arise from the evil of centralised and despotic power to the other extreme, the scattering of political will in exaggerated diversity, he argues. In defence of monitory democracy, against the ‘morbid critics’ of democracy no less than the cynical promoters of ‘phantom democracy’, Keane recommends it as the form of government devised for the safeguarding of contingency.

. . . .

Keane reflects on a despondency and loss of faith in democracy, especially by younger people and especially in India and South America, as shown in several global studies. He points to the development of an unhealthy ‘managed democracy’ in many places, where corporate industry interests seize control of government with the help of commercial media and demobilise and shepherd the citizenry.

It is obvious to Keane that democracy, at least in the West, has been disfigured by the triumphant power of business, banking and conservative neo-liberal policy. He writes: ‘State policies of “saving capitalism“ have weakened trade unions, promoted deregulation of public services and spread the culture of consumption fuelled by private credit and the belief in the sanctity of the unobliged individual.’

His critique goes further, toward what he warns is a ‘new despotism’. Monitory democracies are facing a new global competitor: the regimes in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and China ‘with top-down political architecture and the capacity to win the loyalty of their subjects using methods unlike anything known to the earlier modern world.’

Link to the rest at the Sydney Review of Books

PG didn’t include parts of the review that objected to capitalism and glorified trade unions, many of which, at least in the United States, are more than a little corrupt and as deeply entrenched in their business niche as any corrupts capitalist.

In the UK: 16,000 Books for Young Ukrainian Refugees

From Publishing Perspectives:

Another effort in getting books to refugee children being displaced in Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, the United Kingdom’s Publishers Licensing Services (PLS) collective licensing agency Publishers’ Licensing Services (PLS) and the printing firm Halstan have announced a partnership to pay for and produce 16,000 Ukrainian-language books for young readers in the UK.

And among the many “without borders” operations in the international sphere, one called “Books Without Borders” has been organized by the Ukrainian embassy in London to engage in these efforts, with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, as its patron.

An event was held Thursday (August 11) at the British Library to recognize the effort, in which Ukrainian publishers provided layouts and permission for 16 picture books and novels for ages 3 to 17.

England’s Halstan did the printing in the UK because much of Ukraine’s printing capability has been halted. Zelenska made a digital appearance during that program by remote video, doing a bit of a reading for some of her country’s displaced children in the course of the meeting.

Such efforts as these, as our readers know, have been replicated across many parts of Europe, most recently in our reportage in Germany, Poland, and Italy.

In this case, production of the books was funded through substantial donations by Publishers Licensing Services (formerly Publishers Licensing Society) and Halstan, with additional material support provided by Canon Commercial Print Division and Premier Paper.

. . . .

In her comments on the program’s work, Zelenska said, “Books not only entertain and educate us. They also unite us and bring us back to a feeling of home. This project is our victory on the cultural front, and it brings our primary victory closer.

‘We can bring the homeland to Ukrainian children in the form of books. We called this project ‘Books Without Borders’ as Ukrainian books can travel with Ukrainians to any country where they’re needed. The embassy of Ukraine to the UK, together with Halstan, Publishers’ Licensing Service, and other benefactors, have printed 16,000 books.

“I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed to this project. Displaced Ukrainian children will now be able to enjoy a mini-library at home.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Oxford University Press Is Migrating Its Catalogue to Its Online Platform

From Publishing Perspectives:

A migration of Oxford University Press‘ books as well as journals to the online platform Oxford Academic announced Wednesday (August 3) is expected to “further streamline access to high-quality scholarly content,” according to media messaging.

At this point, the company writes, more than 42,000 books and more than 500,000 chapters have been uploaded to the site, which already hosts some 500 journals and roughly 3 million articles.

Last month’s migrations included books from Oxford Scholarship OnlineUniversity Press Scholarship OnlineOxford Handbooks OnlineOxford Medicine OnlineOxford Clinical Psychology, the AMA Manual of Style, and Very Short Introductions.

. . . .

While it may seem something that a company as prominent as this in academic publishing would have done before now, the rationale for the move is one that makes sense: the ability to create a one-stop point of access and search for a broad base of high-profile and disparate content.

“By collating core research books and journals onto one online platform,” Oxford’s media messaging says, “Oxford University Press is better enabling its users to rapidly share and seamlessly connect ideas that advance research.

“This will continue a cycle of scholarship that furthers the press’ mission to create world-class academic and educational resources and to make them available as widely as possible. The platform will be further expanded and updated over time to provide the most effective and accessible service for users and customers.”

David Clark, for the nearly five years the managing director of Oxford Academic, is quoted, saying, “Scholarly publishing is becoming increasingly digital and this migration is an important step in realizing our potential as a digital-first publisher.

“By implementing new digital tools to access and share research faster, we’re increasing our reach as a publisher … I look forward to seeing the impact of the new Oxford Academic platform for authors, librarians and, of course, readers.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes this item would be deemed not newsworthy anywhere except in academic publishing.

England’s National Centre for Writing: Emerging Translator Mentorships

From Publishers Weekly:

In the United Kingdom, the National Centre for Writing in Norwich has today announced (July 22) the available languages and mentors in its Emerging Translator Mentorships program for the 2022-2023 cycle.

In its 13th year, the program is intended to encourage “successive new cohorts of literary translators into English, particularly for languages the literature of which is under-represented in English translation.”

Languages and Mentors Named
  • Arabic – mentored by Sawad Hussain
  • Danish – mentored by Paul Russell Garrett
  • Hindi (The Saroj Lal Mentorship) – mentored by Daisy Rockwell
  • Indonesian (Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize) – mentored by Khairani Barokka
  • Italian – mentored by Howard Curtis
  • Japanese – mentored by Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Korean – mentored by Anton Hur
  • Norwegian – mentored by Rosie Hedger
  • Polish – mentored by Sean Gasper Bye
  • Québec French or First Nations languages – mentored by Sarah Ardizzone
  • Swedish – mentored by Nichola Smalley
  • Ukrainian – mentored by Nina Murray
  • Visible communities – mentored by Meena Kandasamy

As to the reference to “visible communities,” it’s “a mentorship open to UK-based literary translators who are either Black, Asian and ethnically diverse, or working from heritage, diaspora, and community languages of the United Kingdom.”

The slot for mentoring in Québec French or First Nations languages is open to literary translators working from either one or more of the following languages: Québecois French, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Cree, Innu, Inuktitut, Micmac, Mohawk, or Naskapi.

In a prepared statement, the center’s program manager, Rebecca DeWald, is quoted, saying, “‘We’re looking forward to offering 13 promising literary translators the opportunity to work with an experienced translator to hone their skills and expertise and build their confidence as key players in international literature.

“The selection of languages we’re supporting this year spans many Asian, European, and Afro-Asian languages, as well as, for the first time, First Nations languages spoken in Québec. In addition, we’re pleased to be able to offer a dedicated Ukrainian mentorship this year, and to feature Hindi for the second time, thanks to the Saroj Lal mentorship. We’re also excited to continue our biannual partnership with publisher Harvill Secker for this year’s Young Translators’ Prize in Indonesian.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Don’t Blame Dostoyevsky

From The Atlantic:

Culture, too, is a casualty of war. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some Ukrainian writers called for a boycott of Russian music, films, and books. Others have all but accused Russian literature of complicity in the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers. The entire culture, they say, is imperialist, and this military aggression reveals the moral bankruptcy of Russia’s so-called civilization. The road to Bucha, they argue, runs through Russian literature.

Terrible crimes, I agree, are being committed in the name of my people, in the name of my country, in my name. I can see how this war has turned the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy into the language of war criminals and murderers. What does the world see of “Russian culture” today but bombs falling on maternity hospitals and mutilated corpses on the streets of Kyiv’s suburbs?

It hurts to be Russian right now. What can I say when I hear that a Pushkin monument is being dismantled in Ukraine? I just keep quiet and feel penitent. And hope that perhaps a Ukrainian poet will speak up for Pushkin.

The Putin regime has dealt Russian culture a crushing blow, just as the Russian state has done to its artists, musicians, and writers so many times before. People in the arts are forced to sing patriotic songs or emigrate. The regime has in effect “canceled” culture in my country. Recently a young protester faced arrest for holding a placard that bore a quote from Tolstoy.

Russian culture has always had reason to fear the Russian state. In the saying commonly attributed to the great 19th-century thinker and writer Alexander Herzen, who was sent into internal exile for his anti-czarist sentiments—and reading “forbidden books,” as he put it—“The state in Russia has set itself up like an occupying army.” The Russian system of political power has remained unchanged and unchanging down the centuries—a pyramid of slaves worshipping the supreme khan. That’s how it was during the Golden Horde, that’s how it was in Stalin’s time, that’s how it is today under Vladimir Putin.

The world is surprised at the quiescence of the Russian people, the lack of opposition to the war. But this has been their survival strategy for generations—as the last line of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov puts it, “The people are silent.” Silence is safer. Whoever is in power is always right, and you have to obey whatever order comes. And whoever disagrees ends up in jail or worse. And as Russians know only too well from bitter historical experience, never say, This is the worst. As the popular adage has it: “One should not wish death on a bad czar.” For who knows what the next one will be like?

Only words can undo this silence. This is why poetry was always more than poetry in Russia. Former Soviet prisoners are said to have attested that Russian classics saved their lives in the labor camps when they retold the novels of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky to other inmates. Russian literature could not prevent the Gulags, but it did help prisoners survive them.

The Russian state has no use for Russian culture unless it can be made to serve the state. Soviet power wanted to give itself an air of humanity and righteousness, so it built monuments to Russian writers. “Pushkin, our be-all and end-all!” rang out from stages in 1937, during the Great Purge, when even the executioners trembled with fear. The regime needs culture as a human mask—or as combat camouflage. That’s why Stalin needed Dmitri Shostakovich and Putin needs Valery Gergiev.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

In the United Kingdom, TikTok Announces Its Own Book Club

From Publishing Perspectives:

There may be something in the British water supply driving people to start Book Clubs. Less than a week after London’s Booker Prize Foundation announced its new “Booker Prize Book Club Challenge”—devised to draw social-media attention to its shortlist—TikTok has announced a TikTok Book Club, capitalizing on the success of its #BookTok channel.

According to the company’s announcement, posted on Monday (July 18) to its United Kingdom news page, BookTok has had nearly 65 million views. “As one of our most active communities on TikTok,” the announcement reads, “BookTok has become the place to find #readingrecs and #readinginspo, share reviews and tap into fan culture, super-charging book discovery, and having a real-world impact on book sales globally.”

The club is to “serve as a virtual space for the TikTok community to discuss new titles together,” an interesting move by the platform to formalize its burgeoning book-fan channel and a potential new outlet to which publishers can present their upcoming releases for consideration.

The format is to involve a new title, announced monthly, “and we’re inviting fellow-booklovers to read along and come together in-app to share their experiences. There will also be a #Book Club hub in app, so users can easily find out about the month’s title, and start creating and sharing their own reviews, book aesthetics, or newest literary crush.”

. . . .

Book industry pros will note that in the BookTok world, “discussing new titles together” can mean chatting about a 205-year-old book. However, Netflix’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion directed by Carrie Cracknell is very new, indeed, just released on Friday (July 15). And that’s the prompt for the choice of Persuasion. It would be intriguing to have the new TikTok Book Club survey its participants at the end of the month to find out how many actually read the Austen and how many only watched the film, which has a screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow, and has been produced by Andrew Lazar and Christina Weiss.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The writer of “The Crown” takes on Putin and the oligarchs

From The Economist:

In retrospect, would Boris Berezovsky agree that the Russian privatisation scheme of the mid-1990s was unfair? The questioner had in mind the way a few insiders took over vast industrial assets for a song, a giant scam that helped discredit markets and democracy among their struggling compatriots. Absolutely it was unfair, replied Berezovsky, who in 2000 had sought refuge in Britain, where the exchange took place: Mikhail Khodorkovsky got more than he did.

Mr Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, spent a decade in prison before his release into exile in 2013; Berezovsky died in contested circumstances in the same year. Both numbered among the original Russian oligarchs: a small cadre of men who grew up in the Soviet era and in the bare-knuckle 1990s became more rich, more quickly than almost anyone ever had. They brought their feuds to London, along with their wealth, in some cases eventually losing much of it. They lived many lives in one, all of them dramatic. Now Peter Morgan has written a version of that drama.

The star turn, though, is Will Keen as Putin. The stage is shaped like a nightclub bar, and for a while Putin sits on a low stool, unnoticed, before—literally and symbolically—Berezovsky yanks him up and into the action. Mr Keen mimics the snarl and seething menace of a hangdog who wants to be top dog. During his traceless rise from deputy mayor of St Petersburg to fsb boss, prime minister and then the presidency, Putin’s nervy strut becomes a swagger, the posture hardens inside his better-cut suits. The heart dies.

It didn’t have to be this way. That is one message of “Patriots” (in which, for almost everyone, patriotism and self-interest are fused). Cornered on press night, Mr Morgan said the tragedy of his play lay not in Berezovsky’s fate but in the miscalculation he made in elevating Putin, a mistake with still-spiralling consequences. Live and organic, theatre is the perfect art form to capture this feeling of contingency, the vertiginous sense that history turns on moments and decisions that might have gone differently.

Link to the rest at The Economist

How to Read English in India

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

AS SOMEONE WHO grew up in India in the early 2000s, after the once-colonized country had opened itself to the global economy, one thing was clear to me. Aspiration and English were synonymous. Both were essential. This lesson was drilled into me at my missionary-run English-medium high school in New Delhi. Whether we dreamed of becoming doctors or engineers or corporate hotshots, we were repeatedly told that we needed to have English. Students were penalized for speaking in any language other than English, and our pronunciations were disciplined in preparation for roles no one doubted we would take on. Away from the institutional ear, my peers and I still cherished our other languages, to varying degrees. But, for the most part, we learned to joke, dream, rebel, and obey in English.

Everyone agreed that English was A Good Thing to Have. I heard similar ideas about the importance of English at home as well. My father, raising daughters in a country that did not value women, encouraged my sister and me to speak in English, and beamed with pride when we did. This expectation felt awkward — absurd, even — because English was not a language the other women in our family shared. My grandmother and mother both spoke in Hindi. I remember once, while tidying the house, my grandmother asked my sister if she needed the scrap of paper she had just thrown on the floor. No, my sister replied. But isn’t it important? It says something in English, it has your name. My grandmother was confused as my sister rolled her eyes. I remember feeling curious about how my grandmother, who I was sure didn’t know English, must have memorized the visual shape of the Roman script that traced her firstborn grandchild’s name. I remember wondering if she could read my name in English.

More recently, working on a book on the English language in postcolonial India, I was moved by my grandmother’s instinct to save a piece of paper scribbled over in English. A Good Thing to Have. It made me curious about how the material life of English in India overlapped with its literary life. What else had my grandmother read in English visually like this? I was also struck by how scenes of speaking and reading in English at school and at home — our most intimate and ordinary experiences — were rehearsals of caste and class positions. Each scene unfolded a different register of the meaning of English, drawing from and moving beyond it as the language of transnational capitalism and as a dubious legacy of British colonialism. With each case, to paraphrase Rebecca Walkowitz, English became both more than and less than a language. English was the promise of social mobility and feminist progress. It was a correct(ed) pronunciation and a scrap of paper.

The story of English in India toggles between the conceptions of the language as an idea and as an object. Scholars of postcolonial literatures have often looked to its colonial formation as the source of its meaning. But English has always been a language that has looked ahead to the future. Forged multiply in the crucible of caste, class, gender, and ethnic politics, English has found roots in India as a language that erases itself in the hope of what it could be. As a nation, we are obsessed with correcting each other’s grammar. Just look to Twitter. We shame celebrities for speaking “wrong” English, whatever we think that is. The memes and jokes about Indian English write themselves, filling up a billion-people-sized cloud storage on the internet and spilling out of WhatsApp groups. But this preoccupation with linguistic propriety is not about English at all. It stems, in fact, from a desire to claim English — either as a marker of class and caste authority or as its rejection. It stems from the lush possibilities associated with English — what it could be made to mean, what it could be made to do, what one could do in it.

. . . .

Amid bloody protests in non-Hindi-speaking parts of India, the Indian Constitution enlisted English for its potential to be something other than a language of slavery. English, the reasoning went, was equally foreign to all in India and thus politically neutral. Through translational projects, English could help create a governmental vocabulary in Hindi and mediate language conflicts. First temporarily in 1949 and then permanently in 1963, English was legislated as the associate official language, with Sanskritized Hindi as the official language of India. This practical concession to the monolingual aspirations of a newly formed nation would ensure that Hindi developed in relation to English. Hindi and English together would enhance the postcolonial Indian state’s democratic, secular, and modern character, while also leaving the undemocratic and communally charged Sanskritization of Hindi unchallenged. On several occasions, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, referred to English as a key to world knowledges, as a unifying cement to hold together the country’s linguistic diversity, and as a technology of progress to lead it into the future. The possibilities of English in the world’s largest democracy lend the language an outsize symbolic presence. But instrumentalized as a supplement and a prop to Hindi — as national cement — English also seems to shrink into something less than a language.

But perhaps “shrink” is not the right word. For this same English — instrumentalized as the supplementary language of democracy — also expands political worlds. Dalit thinkers and writers have leveraged the scientific rationalism and the linguistic medium of British colonial rule to challenge upper-caste authority. Key Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, and the education reformers Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule often wrote in and praised English, invoking its potential as a weapon in the struggle against the caste system. Writing in English helped reach a wider Anglophone audience and find global allies. English also offered an alternative medium of expression to the caste-marked Indian languages. Most playfully and provocatively, in 2010, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer-activist of libertarian leanings, paid tribute to the promise of English by calling the language a Dalit goddess and building a temple for it. He mounted the idol of this goddess on a computer-shaped pedestal, putting the bilingual (Hindi and English) Indian Constitution in one of its hands and a pen in the other. This iconography equated the English language with liberty itself, promising that literacy and technology would guarantee freedom and democratic inclusion. Its devotees — many of whom can neither read nor write English — worship the Dalit goddess English for delivering them from centuries of caste oppression. English as goddess derives its power from technology and invokes the democratic potential inscribed in the Indian Constitution to contest the casteist state.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

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

. . . .


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.”


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.



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.)