Ukraine Renews Its Independence

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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

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

From The Paris Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Maison de Balzac CC BY-SA 4.0

Difficult Empathies

From Public Books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Public Books

Author Dmitry Glukhovsky Sentenced to Prison by Moscow

From Publishing Perspectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

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

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

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

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

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

Transformative Agreements: ‘An Essential Stepping Stone’

From Publishing Perspectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The elegant extremist

From The Critic:

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Critic

Free Expression: French and US Industries’ New Challenges

From Publishing Perspectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

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

Don’t be a robot! Think for yourself!

From The Critic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Critic

PG is a sucker for a good rant.

Theoderic the Great

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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

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

Gadgets and Gizmos That Inspired Adam Smith

From Reason:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Reason

Canada’s Crisis Triggers Downsizing at Access Copyright

From Publishing Perspectives:

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Inside the Secretive Russian Security Force That Targets Americans

From The Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian Writer and Activist Victoria Amelina

From Publishing Perspectives:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

What the ‘New York Times’ Missed About Cormac McCarthy

From Publisher’s Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

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

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

Germany’s ContentShift Accelerator: Six 2023 Finalists

From Publishing Perspectives:

Earlier this month, as you’ll recall, we reported the Top 10 start-ups chosen by Germany’s eighth international ContentShift accelerator program for book-publishing-related companies.

Today (June 28), the Börsenvereinsgruppe has announced the six shortlisted finalists, which will go into competition for the program’s conclusion.

All of this culminates in a winning start-up, which will receive €10,000 euros (US$10,900). And all participating start-ups have exclusive access to members of the program’s jury, which comprises decision-makers from the book industry. Jurors provide the start-ups with advice, support, and contacts during three intensive workshop days in September.

The jury then will decide who is to become “Start-up of the Year 2023,” after a public pitch round on October 19 of that top five at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22).

ContentShift’s 2023 Finalists
  • Bookscreener from LeReTo offers an interactive, multi-disciplinary research and book tool that can make publishers’ specialist book inventory accessible. With interactive elements, it should make research for specialist knowledge more enjoyable.
  • GoLexic offers a children’s reading promotional app that can be used at home or at school. The app allows children to work independently through 15-minute training sessions, working on skills that help improve reading and spelling.
  • Lit-X makes literature success transparent and predictable based on data. For this purpose, the start-up offers dashboards and applications such as “trend scouting” and “pricing.” For example, publishers can take a look at the success drivers of a genre, compare them, and calculate probabilities of success by modifying factors.
  • Summ AI describes itself as “Google Translate for easy language”: The AI-based tool translates complicated text into “easy language” defined in the area of ​​accessibility, for example creating texts with shorter sentences, an “easy” choice of words, and accessible explanations.
  • To Teach, Thea’s platform, uses AI to enable educational providers to digitize and enrich analog content easily, to create digital content, and to play it out to a target group. The platform helps with the creation of exercises, as well as with worksheets and other teaching materials consisting of text, audio, and gamification.
  • XigXag has developed an app that combines listening and reading concepts along with a social platform. Listeners can switch between listening and reading for a single fee. They also get access to note-taking, quote sharing, word and illustration lookups, and community.

Speaking for the panel, jury spokesperson Per Dalheimer of Hugendubel is quoted today, saying, “This year’s six finalists cover key, forward-looking fields within the book industry.

“Each one of them brings new impulses to the table, including the fostering of reading skills, greater accessibility, and information processing.

“Their use of artificial intelligence as a kind of turbo booster helps to break down barriers and enable easier, lower-threshold access to books. We’re delighted about the incredible range of creative ideas made visible by the accelerator every year. Each one helps to drive our industry further.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG routinely removes any links from items he excerpts. In this case he didn’t because he found some of the product descriptions interesting and thought others might find some or all of the startups interesing.

Soldiers Don’t Go Mad

From The Wall Street Journal:

Two of England’s finest poets of World War I—Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—met in a mental hospital in Scotland in 1917. Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, is the subject of “Soldiers Don’t Go Mad,” Charles Glass’s brisk, rewarding account of the innovative doctors and their “neurasthenic” patients who suffered unprecedented psychological distress (and in unprecedented numbers) on the Western Front. By 1915, the second year of the war, over half a million officers and enlisted personnel were admitted to medical wards for “deafness, deaf-mutism, blindness, stammering, palsies, spasms, paraplegia, acute insomnia, and melancholia”—hallmarks of what at the time doctors termed “shell shock” or, as it has become known, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Modern warfare overwhelmed countless young soldiers: “For the first time in history, millions of men faced high-velocity bullets, artillery with previously unimaginable explosive power, modern mortar shells, aerial bombardment, poison gas, and flamethrowers designed to burn them alive,” as Mr. Glass, a former chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News, recounts.

Craiglockhart, originally known as the Edinburgh Hydropathic or “The Hydro,” opened as a hospital in October 1916 for “officers only.” Its château-like main building, elaborate gardens and sweeping lawns were more elite health club than mental ward. Low-impact activities available to patients—“carpentry, photography, debating, music, and writing”—may well have confirmed the suspicions of “most senior officers, including many Medical Corps physicians, [who] regarded shell shock as nothing other than malingering or cowardice that demanded not treatment, but punishment.” To the pioneering physicians at Craiglockhart, however, the damage that trench warfare inflicted on the psyche was painfully real, often giving rise to a soldier’s “trembling limbs, halting voice, and confused memory.”

Wilfred Owen, 24, had exhibited these very symptoms in France, after surviving the blast of a trench mortar shell and spending several days unconscious, sprawled amid the remains of a fellow officer. The Army Medical Board declared Second Lt. Owen unfit for duty and consigned him to Craiglockhart for treatment. His physician there, Arthur Brock, had developed a work-based approach to recovery he called “ergotherapy,” as a counter to the popular rest cure of “massage, isolation, and a milk diet.” Brock fostered activity and community, and, when Owen expressed an interest in literature, he “encouraged him to write poetry, essays, and articles” as part of his therapy. Owen took over editorship of the Hydra, the hospital’s literary journal, in which some of the most memorable poems of the war appeared, including those of his newest acquaintance, the 30-year-old Second Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.

Sassoon took a different route to Craiglockhart than Owen, with army politics playing a role as much as mental health. Sassoon had acquired the nickname “Mad Jack” for his forays into that part of the battlefield known as No Man’s Land. Enraged at the death of his training-camp roommate, David Cuthbert Thomas (“little Tommy”), Sassoon charged the enemy line for 18 days, with what some suspected was a death wish: “They say I am trying to get myself killed. Am I? I don’t know.”

But Sassoon’s raids on No Man’s Land—brave, unhinged or both—did not precipitate his review by the medical board. That followed, instead, from the outspoken officer’s criticism of the “political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” Following a medical furlough, occasioned by a bullet wound to the shoulder, Sassoon refused to return to duty. Rather than court martial the dissenter, who had been awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry,” the board sent him to Craiglockhart. Was he in fact suffering from PTSD? His friend and fellow poet Robert Graves came to think so, though Sassoon’s doctor, the renowned psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers demurred. “What have I got then?” Sassoon asked Rivers, to which he laughingly replied, “Well, you appear to be suffering from an anti-war complex.”

Rivers was “a polymath with notable achievements in neurology, clinical psychiatry, medical research, anthropology, and linguistics,” and—even more than Sassoon and Owen—he is the protagonist of Mr. Glass’s account of Craiglockhart. He founded England’s first psychology laboratories in London and Cambridge, where he was a fellow of Saint John’s College. (A dynamic portrait of Rivers may also be found in Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent “Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind,” in which Rivers’s fascination with religion, ritual and myth is shown to have contributed importantly to his treatment of mental illness.) But the physician was also a soldier, and his brief was not only to cure patients but also to fortify them for return to combat, often with predictably dire outcomes. Though Rivers was devoted to Sassoon, who came to see him as his “father confessor,” Sassoon’s pacifism put Rivers in a difficult position.

Sassoon had been at Craiglockhart for three weeks before Owen worked up the courage to introduce himself. By way of entrée, he brought several copies of Sassoon’s collection “The Old Huntsman and Other Poems” for him to sign. They talked for a half hour, during which Owen expressed his admiration, and Sassoon concluded that he “had taken an instinctive liking to him and felt that I could talk freely.” Though both were homosexual, the two men came from completely different worlds. The aristocratic Sassoon, whom Owen described as “very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d . . . head,” was educated at an upper-crust “public” school and Cambridge. Owen, the son of a railway inspector, attended a local “comprehensive” school and missed the first-class honors necessary for a scholarship to University College London.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Virginia Woolf’s Forgotten Diary

From The Paris Review:

On August 3, 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary for the first time in two years—a small notebook, roughly the size of the palm of her handIt was a Friday, the start of the bank holiday, and she had traveled from London to Asheham, her rented house in rural Sussex, with her husband, Leonard. For the first time in days, it had stopped raining, and so she “walked out from Lewes.” There were “men mending the wall & roof” of the house, and Will, the gardener, had “dug up the bed in front, leaving only one dahlia.” Finally, “bees in attic chimney.”

It is a stilted beginning, and yet with each entry, her diary gains in confidence. Soon, Woolf establishes a pattern. First, she notes the weather, and her walk—to the post, or to fetch the milk, or up onto the Downs. There, she takes down the number of mushrooms she finds—“almost a record find,” or “enough for a dish”—and of the insects she has seen: “3 perfect peacock butterflies, 1 silver washed frit; besides innumerable blues feeding on dung.” She notices butterflies in particular: painted ladies, clouded yellows, fritillaries, blues. She is blasé in her records of nature’s more gruesome sights—“the spine & red legs of a bird, just devoured by a hawk,” or a “chicken in a parcel, found dead in the nettles, head wrung off.” There is human violence, too. From the tops of the Downs, she listens to the guns as they sound from France, and watches German prisoners at work in the fields, who use “a great brown jug for their tea.” Home again, and she reports any visitors, or whether she has done gardening or reading or sewing. Lastly, she makes a note about rationing, taking stock of the larder: “eggs 2/9 doz. From Mrs Attfield,” or “sausages here come in.”

Though Woolf, then thirty-five, shared the lease of Asheham with her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (who went there for weekend parties), for her, the house had always been a place for convalescence. Following her marriage to Leonard in 1912, she entered a long tunnel of illness—a series of breakdowns during which she refused to eat, talked wildly, and attempted suicide. She spent long periods at a nursing home in Twickenham before being brought to Asheham with a nurse to recover. At the house, Leonard presided over a strict routine, in which Virginia was permitted to write letters—“only to the end of the page, Mrs Woolf,” as she reported to her friend Margaret Llewelyn Davies—and to take short walks “in a kind of nightgown.” She had been too ill to pay much attention to the publication of her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, or to take notice of the war. “Its very like living at the bottom of the sea being here,” she wrote to a friend in early 1914, as Bloomsbury scattered. “One sometimes hears rumours of what is going on overhead.”

In the writing about Woolf’s life, the wartime summers at Asheham tend to be disregarded. They are quickly overtaken by her time in London, the emergence of the Hogarth Press, and the radical new direction she took in her work, when her first novels—awkward set-pieces of Edwardian realism—would give way to the experimentalism of Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. And yet during these summers, Woolf was at a threshold in her life and work. Her small diary is the most detailed account we have of her days during the summers of 1917 and 1918, when she was walking, reading, recovering, looking. It is a bridge between two periods in her work and also between illness and health, writing and not writing, looking and feeling. Unpacking each entry, we can see the richness of her daily life, the quiet repetition of her activities and pleasures. There is no shortage of drama: a puncture to her bicycle, a biting dog, the question of whether there will be enough sugar for jam. She rarely uses the unruly “I,” although occasionally we glimpse her, planting a bulb or leaving her mackintosh in a hedge. Mostly she records things she can see or hear or touch. Having been ill, she is nurturing a convalescent quality of attention, using her diary’s economical form, its domestic subject matter, to tether herself to the world. “Happiness is,” she writes later, in 1925, “to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves.” At Asheham, she strings one paragraph after another; a way of watching the days accrue. And as she recovers, things attach themselves: bicycles, rubber boots, dahlias, eggs.

. . . .

Between 1915 and her death in 1941, Woolf filled almost thirty notebooks with diary entries, beginning, at first, with a fairly self-conscious account of her daily life which developed, from Asheham onward, into an extraordinary, continuous record of form and feeling. Her diary was the place where she practiced writing—or would “do my scales,” as she described it in 1924—and in which her novels shaped themselves: the “escapade” of Orlando written at the height of her feelings for Vita Sackville-West (“I want to kick up my heels & be off”); the “playpoem” of The Waves, that “abstract mystical eyeless book,” which began life one summer’s evening in Sussex as “The Moths.” 

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

How to create a song for Eurovision with AI

From BusinessInsider:

A song for Eurovision

Insider’s Chloe Pantazi was underwhelmed by this year’s Eurovision song contest. So she asked her husband to write a song that could hypothetically compete in the contest, from the lyrics to costume suggestions for a four-person band to a melody for vocals, lead guitar, bass, and drums.

Her prompts were simple, starting with “write a song for Eurovision please” to generate the lyrics, then asking for a “melody for a four-person band to perform the song.”

“The result arguably has all the elements of a classic Eurovision song, and honestly, I prefer it to the winning entry from Sweden’s Loreen,” Pantazi writes, but adds, “Our test of ChatGPT shows that it can follow the formula for a Eurovision hit, but it won’t test the bounds of creativity.”

. . . .

Think of Eurovision as Europe’s megawatt version of “American Idol,” but, instead of a cash prize, the winner gets a microphone-shaped trophy and possibly their big break; it’s where the careers of ABBA, Celine Dion, and Måneskin were born. The country the winning act represents also gets to host the next year’s contest, so it’s really a musical tourism campaign. The notes are high and the stakes are higher.

Link to the rest at BusinessInsider

A sheltered being like PG had never heard of Eurovision. So, he did a bit of online research and found the formula for the perfect Eurovision song.

Finland is consistently ranked the happiest country on earth. For Finns, it’s an eye-roller.

From Insider:

When I asked Frank Martela what makes him happy, he held out his phone and showed me a photo of a row of brightly colored children’s bikes.

“I was taking my youngest kid to preschool when I saw all these tiny bicycles — hundreds of them parked outside,” he said. 

Some of the kids, who are as young as 7, travel to and from school by themselves and go out to play alone too.

Martela, a philosopher and researcher at Aalto University in Espoo, 12 miles from Finland’s capital Helsinki, treasures the freedom his three children have there.

“Young children can move on their own,” he said. “It’s something that Finnish people might not think about if they’ve never been outside the country. They just take it for granted.”

Finland’s high levels of social trust could be one reason the country has been ranked as the world’s happiest for six years in a row. As the World Happiness Report, which does the ranking, notes, most Finns expect their wallet to be returned to them if they lose it.

“In Helsinki it is completely normal to leave the baby outside, obviously with a baby monitor and if possible by the window, so you can see the stroller while shopping or having coffee,” said Jennifer De Paola, a social psychologist and an expert on Finnish happiness who moved to Finland when she was 25. 

. . . .

The country is also known for its focus on work-life balance. That point is underscored when I go to meet Heli Jimenez, of Visit Finland, at a Helsinki office block shortly after 5 p.m. Apart from us, the place is almost completely empty as workers have left for the day. 

Jimenez told me that Finns are surprised that people in other countries don’t have “simple skills,” like how to build a fire out in nature. 

So Finns have liberated children, trust their neighbors, commune with nature, and leave work on time.

. . . .

“We’re always surprised that we are still the first,” Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate, told me in yet another Helsinki coffee shop. “Every year there is a debate like ‘How is this possible?'”

In fact, locals I spoke to were exasperated by the survey and even annoyed by global perception of them as happy. Mentions of the report prompts eye-rolls and sighs.

“We don’t agree with it, it’s just not real for us,” an interior designer told me, without giving me a name.

A better word to describe Finns would be “content,” Jimenez said. “Because we are satisfied with our lives.”

. . . .

“The question that they asked the participants is how satisfied you are with your life at the moment. So there is no mention of happiness,” said De Paola.

“Happiness has more to do with emotions and the way the emotions are communicated,” she said, pointing to research in which she had studied word associations on social media. “So smiling, being cheerful, being joyful, are more linked to happiness than the concept of life satisfaction.

“It’s just sexier to call it the World Happiness Report rather than calling it the life satisfaction report.”

Finns don’t view themselves as exceptionally happy people. In fact, the country can be quite pessimistic.

Finnish people are “not so good at creating an atmosphere of optimism,” said Meri Larivaara, a mental health advocate. But she’s quick to add that pessimism and contentment can exist simultaneously. 

. . . .

Yes, the climate is punishing. The country’s winters are cold and abnormally dark, especially in the north, where there is almost continual darkness in the winter. 

But it’s also true that Finns are very content with what they have. 

“They call us up and just ask if we like our lives. We just say there’s nothing wrong right now, maybe call back tomorrow,” one local said of the survey. 

. . . .

As in many countries, Finland has seen a rise in mental health problems in adolescents during the pandemic. In the spring of 2021, satisfaction with life had decreased among teenagers, while anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness increased in comparison to 2019, according to a study in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, which cited Finnish research, in April.

Overall, mental health complaints from Finnish adolescents had been increasing in the last two decades, per the report.

Finland also has an aging population. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 21.9% of Finland’s population is 65 and over. The country has the third largest percentage of older people in the world, coming in just behind Japan and Italy.

Link to the rest at Insider

One of PG’s long-standing friends is Finnish, although he has lived in the United States since he was in his mid-20s. PG’s friend has acquainted PG with some of the facts of life involved in living in his native land.

One fact that was not mentioned in the OP is that Finland has an 800 plus mile border with Russia and the Russians and Finns have had more than a few wars in years past.

At the outset of World War II, Russia invaded Finland, which was neutral at the time. This resulted in the so-called “Winter War,” which was fought under some of the most difficult weather conditions imaginable. Although the Finns made the Russian army pay a high toll in casualties before a rough peace was restored, Russia still occupies significant amounts of territory that were formerly part of Finland where the predominant language is still Finnish. PG’s friend has delivered humanitarian supplies to some of his extended family still living under Russian rule and says, “The people have no hope there.”

With a population of 5.5 million people, Finland would have a difficult job of defeating a substantial Russian military attack on the country. Hence, it’s recent decision to join NATO after a long period of neutrality out of concern that such a move would possibly provoke a Russian military response.

Another consequence of living in the same neighborhood with Russia is that all Finnish males are obligated to serve in the military.

The duty of Finns to defend their country is in the Finnish Constitution, Chapter 12, Section 127, which begins with “Every Finnish citizen is obligated to participate or assist in national defence.” Finland’s mandatory military service law, also known as the Conscription Act, fleshes this out: “Every male Finnish citizen is liable for military service starting from the beginning of the year in which he turns 18 years old until the end of the year in which he turns 60, unless otherwise provided for herein.”

Failure to report for military service results in a jail sentence without the possibility of parole for up to 174 days.

A significant number of females also choose to serve in the Finnish military.

Accessibility in Books: Australia’s New Publishing Guide

From Publishing Perspectives:

You may recall that last year, Australia’s Institute of Professional Editors (IPED) made a point of firmly backing up the Australian Publishers Association as it released its first major effort in analyzing the diversity and inclusion of its industry’s workforce.

. . . .

Today (June 8), we learn that the Institute of Professional Editors is releasing a 200-page guide designed to assist publishers and editors everywhere to create accessible books.

Books Without Barriers: A Practical Guide to Inclusive Publishing may throw some industry players who’ve seen the word “inclusive” used in relation to workforce and content diversity.

In this case, however, “inclusive” refers to accessibility issues such as those embraced by the WIPO-based Marrakesh Treaty, Benetech’s accreditation, the work of Fondazione LIA, and other initiatives designed to make publishing’s work accessible to those who are in some way visually disabled or otherwise challenged in traditional modes of reading.

Publishing Perspectives understands that the new guide, released in-country at the end of April, has taken two years to prepare and was developed “to provide a comprehensive resource for accessible books that covers the whole book-publishing process,” emphasis theirs.

. . . .

Julie Ganner chairs the organization’s Accessibility Initiative Working Party and says that it’s that end-to-end element that makes Books Without Borders unique, covering accessibility requirements for both digital and physical formats.

Ganner says, “The Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative’s 2019 publication, Inclusive Publishing in Australia: An Introductory Guide, made the legal, social, and business case for creating accessible books.

“However, we couldn’t find a single resource for the book publishing industry that described how to actually do so, [covering]  the whole book-publishing process.

“Therefore, we decided to create our own resource,” she says, “one that continues the aims of the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative. And before we knew it, what we’d originally envisaged as a short guide had become a 200-page book.”

Ganner’s position is interesting not least because she and the organization see a editors playing a key role in developing reading materials that are, as is said in Benetech’s circles “born accessible” from inception.

“We hope that the advice provided in the guide,” she says, “will help transform the way editors think about editing and support them in the transition to more inclusive publishing practices.”

. . . .

In four parts, the book “outlines the barriers to reading that people with print disabilities may experience if their needs are not supported,” and it “describes how to avoid creating these barriers at each stage of the publishing process.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Japanese government issues statement on AI and copyright regulation

From GameReactor:

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, an agency under the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, has issued a statement setting out new guidelines on the use of artificial intelligence and its purposes during a seminar on AI art and copyright.

The document states that AI may be used for educational, research and non-commercial purposes freely, but not if there is an economic benefit or commercial purpose. AI-generated art that uses another artist’s work and is used for commercial purposes, or not for personal use, may be considered copyright infringement, and the copyright holder can sue for copyright infringement.

This also applies to AI that learn/copies an artist’s style, without the artist’s permission the copyright holder can claim damages or an injunction as copyright infringement, or even be subject to criminal penalties.

Although it initially appeared that Japan was going to establish much more flexible legislation than Europe with regard to the use of artificial intelligence, it seems that they have reconsidered their options and the risk to creators and artists.

Link to the rest at GameReactor

The Big Business of the British Empire

From The Wall Street Journal:

Those of us who went to school before our past was rewritten as a catalog of the White Man’s crimes were taught that empire—with all its vices and virtues—was built by monarchs and statesmen. In “Empire, Incorporated,” Philip J. Stern tells us that this picture, while not inaccurate, is quite incomplete.

British colonialism in particular, Mr. Stern says, was conceived by investors, creditors, entrepreneurs and, lest we forget, parvenus and embezzlers. This cast of men-on-the-make flourished alongside sovereigns and their ministers and produced what Mr. Stern calls “venture colonialism”—a form of overseas expansion that was driven by a belief that “the public business of empire was and had always been best done by private enterprise.”

The history of British colonialism is really the history of the joint-stock corporation. A novel strategy in the mid-16th century, this form of enterprise procured capital from an array of investors with ownership shares or profit-sharing and created a single legal entity, often granted special privileges. Among much else, the joint-stock corporation made undertakings on a global scale newly possible.

But what made joint stocks so appealing also made them “unsettling,” Mr. Stern writes, and a faction in Parliament worried about the clout of these companies in far-flung places. There was, no doubt, a class component to the apprehension. The original investors in the East India Co.—the pre-eminent joint stock, from its founding in 1600 to well into the 19th century—were all merchants, with only one aristocrat among them.

By the 1620s, the East India Co.’s demographics had changed, its successes attracting a posher class of investor. But the company ingeniously—and audaciously—refused to admit the king himself, “fearing the loss of independence it would entail,” Mr. Stern explains. The public justification for this apparent irreverence was that it was unseemly for the king to enter into commercial partnerships with his subjects.tells us how the joint-stock corporation shaped British colonialism. As a narrative, the author says, “it is like a novel that places an originally supporting character in the center of the story,” elevating fortune-hunters into fabled men. Robert Clive, that most infamous of the nabobs enriched by the East India Co. in the mid-18th century, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a mass killer of rebellious Irishmen who took possession of Newfoundland for the crown in 1583, were both VCs, or venture colonialists. As were Thomas Smythe, the first governor of the East India Co. and later treasurer of the Virginia Co., whose tobacco yielded great riches; and Sir Thomas Roe, who went as the ambassador of James I to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir even as his true purpose was to secure a trade monopoly in India.

England’s “portfolio colonialism” came into existence through royal charters, by which the sovereign doled out juicy commercial advantages to those who petitioned for them. These plums ranged from exemptions from duties and taxes to the prerogative to claim territory overseas in the name of the crown (as Gilbert did in Newfoundland). The terms could be audacious, Mr. Stern observes, allowing companies to run all sorts of enterprises over “ill-defined geographic spaces insouciantly superimposed over indigenous sovereignty.” Breathtaking claims to territory or jurisdiction resulted in assertions of rights to “sacrosanct” private property that were enforceable in British courts. The charters redrew the maps of the world.

The first such charter was granted to the Muscovy Co. in 1555. Mr. Stern writes that the company effectively became “the English government over Anglo-Russian commerce” and, as a conduit of relations between England and Russia, exercised “de facto command over Anglo-Russian diplomacy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Secret History And Strange Future Of Charisma

From Noema:

In 1929, one of Germany’s national newspapers ran a picture story featuring globally influential people who, the headline proclaimed, “have become legends.” It included the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and India’s anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Gandhi. Alongside them was a picture of a long-since-forgotten German poet. His name was Stefan George, but to those under his influence he was known as “Master.”

George was 61 years old that year, had no fixed abode and very little was known of his personal life and past. But that didn’t matter to his followers; to them he was something more than human: “a cosmic ego,” “a mind brooding upon its own being.” Against the backdrop of Weimar Germany — traumatized by postwar humiliation and the collapse of faith in traditional political and cultural institutions — George preached an alternate reality through books of poetry. His words swam in oceans of irrationalism: of pagan gods, ancient destinies and a “spiritual empire” he called “Secret Germany” bubbling beneath the surface of normal life. In essence, George dreamed of that terribly persistent political fantasy: a future inspired by the past. He wanted to make Germany great again.

George dazzled Germans on all sides of the political spectrum (although many, with regret, would later distance themselves). Walter Benjamin loitered for hours around the parks of Heidelberg that he knew the poet frequented, hoping to catch sight of him. “I am converting to Stefan George,” wrote a young Bertolt Brecht in his diary. The economist Kurt Singer declared in a letter to the philosopher Martin Buber: “No man today embodies the divine more purely and creatively than George.”

Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, met Stefan George in 1910 and immediately became curious. He didn’t buy George’s message — he felt he served “other gods” — but was fascinated by the bizarre hold he seemed to have over his followers. At a conference in Frankfurt, he described the “cult” that was growing around him as a “modern religious sect” that was united by what he described as “artistic world feelings.” In June that year, he wrote a letter to one of his students in which he described George as having “the traits of true greatness with others that almost verge on the grotesque,” and rekindled a particularly rare word to capture what he was witnessing: charisma.

At the time, charisma was an obscure religious concept used mostly in the depths of Christian theology. It had featured almost 2,000 years earlier in the New Testament writings of Paul to describe figures like Jesus and Moses who’d been imbued with God’s power or grace. Paul had borrowed it from the Ancient Greek word “charis,” which more generally denoted someone blessed with the gift of grace. Weber thought charisma shouldn’t be restricted to the early days of Christianity, but rather was a concept that explained a far wider social phenomenon, and he would use it more than a thousand times in his writings. He saw charisma echoing throughout culture and politics, past and present, and especially loudly in the life of Stefan George.

I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’

— Ernst Glöckner

It certainly helped that George was striking to look at: eerily tall with pale blueish-white skin and a strong, bony face. His sunken eyes held deep blue irises and his hair, a big white mop, was always combed backward. He often dressed in long priest-like frock coats, and not one photo ever shows him smiling. At dimly lit and exclusive readings, he recited his poems in a chant-like style with a deep and commanding voice. He despised the democracy of Weimar Germany, cursed the rationality and soullessness of modernity and blamed capitalism for the destruction of social and private life. Instead, years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power, he foresaw a violent reckoning that would result in the rise of a messianic “fuhrer” and a “new reich.”

Many were immediately entranced by George, others unnerved. As the Notre Dame historian Robert Norton described in his book “Secret Germany,” Ernst Bertram was left haunted by their meeting — “a werewolf!” he wrote. Bertram’s partner, Ernst Glöckner, on the other hand, described his first encounter with George as “terrible, indescribable, blissful, vile … with many fine shivers of happiness, with as many glances into an infinite abyss.” Reflecting on how he was overcome by George’s force of personality, Glöckner wrote: “I knew: This man is doing me violence — but I was no longer strong enough. I kissed the hand he offered and with choking voice uttered: ‘Master, what shall I do?’”

As German democracy began to crumble under the pressure of rebellions and hyperinflation, George’s prophecy increased in potency. He became a craze among the educated youth, and a select few were chosen to join his inner circle of “disciples.” The George-Kreis or George Circle, as it came to be known, included eminent writers, poets and historians like Friedrich Gundolf, Ernst Kantorowicz, Max Kommerell, Ernst Morwitz and Friedrich Wolters; aristocrats like brothers Berthold, Alexander and Claus von Stauffenberg; and the pharmaceutical tycoon Robert Boehringer. These were some of the country’s most intellectually gifted young men. They were always young men, and attractive too — partly due to George’s misogynistic views, his homosexuality and his valorization of the male-bonding culture of Ancient Greece. 

Between 1916 and 1934, the George Circle published 18 books, many of which became national bestsellers. Most of them were carefully selected historical biographies of Germanic figures like Kaiser Frederick II, Goethe, Nietzsche and Leibniz, as well as others that George believed were part of the same spiritual empire: Shakespeare, Napoleon and Caesar. The books ditched the usual objectivity of historical biographies of the era in favor of scintillating depictions and ideological mythmaking. Their not-so-secret intention was to sculpt the future by peddling a revision of Germany’s history as one in which salvation and meaning were delivered to the people by the actions of heroic individuals.

In 1928, he published his final book of poetry, “Das Neue Reich” (“The New Reich,”) and its vision established him as some kind of oracle for the German far-right. Hitler and Heinrich Himmler pored over George Circle books, and Hermann Göring gave one as a present to Benito Mussolini. At book burnings, George’s work was cited as an example of literature worth holding onto; there was even talk of making him a poet laureate. 

Link to the rest at Noema

The British Male!

From The Paris Review:

To be British is a very complicated fate. To be a British novelist can seem a catastrophe. You enter into a miasma of history and class and garbage and publication—the way a sad cow might feel entering the abattoir. Or certainly that was how I felt, twenty years ago, when I entered the abattoir myself. One allegory for this system was the glamour of Martin Amis. Everyone had an opinion on Amis, and the strangeness was that this opinion was never just on the prose, on the novels and the stories and the essays. It was also an opinion on his opinions: the party gossip and the newspaper theories, the Oxford education and the afternoon tennis.

The British male! Or at least the British bourgeois male, with his many father figures, both real and acquired. From certain angles, in certain photos, Amis looked like Jagger, and so he became the Jagger of literature. He was small, true—I feel a permanent pang of camaraderie at his line in The Pregnant Widow about a character who occupies that “much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—but he was also hypermasculine. It wasn’t just his subjects: the snooker and the booze and the obsession with judging all women “sack artists.” It wasn’t even just the style: an inability to leave a sentence alone without chafing at every verb, the prose equivalent of truffle fries. It was also the interview persona, all haughtiness and clubhouse universality, however much that could be contradicted in private by thoughtfulness and generosity of conversation.

But most of all, his British maleness was in the purity of his comic perception of the world. He practiced a very specific form of oral literature—anecdote, putdown, punchline, alcoholic joke: monologues from the ruined-dinner table. This morning I picked up an old copy of Money taken from my parents’ house and there they were, the riffs: “You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park round here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving.” Or: “I should have realized that when English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis. Americans mean that they can play tennis.” Or: “This guy had no future in the frightening business. He just wasn’t frightening.” A novel by Amis is an apparatus for each line to find its best exposure. ” ‘Yeah,” I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

This vision of the world as comedy is why the Amis novel that still seduces and alarms me most is Time’s Arrow, his first experiment into Europe. That novel famously tells the life of Tod T. Friendly in reverse, beginning in a postwar American suburb and ending with him transformed into Odilo Unverdorben, one of the psychopathic doctors at Auschwitz. This means that appallingly touching things happen in the camp: gold is carefully placed back into Jewish mouths; smoke becomes a corpse, which becomes a living person, who is then beautifully reunited with their family. Ghettos are dismantled. Meanwhile, everything is narrated in a tremulous high style: there is, for example, the shoe, in an antechamber to the gas chambers, “like a heavy old bullet thrown out of the shadows, and skilfully caught.” Naturally, our narrator is delighted by this beautiful arc of history, always tending towards improvement—“A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place. Women went out of that lab looking 20 years younger.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Germany: ‘IGLU’ Shows School Reading Skills Lagging

From Publishing Perspectives:

A regular analytical program called the International Primary School Reading Study (IGLU) in Germany has this month announced a disturbing result: the number of primary schoolchildren in that market who cannot read to adequate levels of skill continues to increase.

There’s some irony here, in that the report from May 3 made by the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, in coordination with the book wholesaler Libri found that 16- to 29-year-olds seem to be purchasing books at an accelerating rate.

The primary-school group, of course, is younger, but an uncomfortable implication here is that unless their reading skills make some progress, they may reverse the trend toward bookish consumerism that has gladdened the eye of many in the industry’s retail sector.

The new study from IGLU, carried out every five years, looked at the reading skills of some 4,600 students and encompassed data from 65 nations and regions. And as the Börsenverein puts it in its media messaging, “If you can’t read properly, chances are closed to you, first at school and then at work.”

The proportion of children who don’t have sufficient reading skills, the Börsenverein reports, “has risen significantly compared to 2016: every fourth child leaves primary school without sufficient reading skills.”

In its announcement, the publishers’ association says, “The Reading Foundation and the German Book Trade Association are calling for an immediate political and social rethink. Together with the German Book Trade Association, the Reading Foundation founded the ‘National Reading Pact.’ More than 180 partners from business, science, society, and politics have come together here to make reading promotion binding, so that educational justice can finally become a reality.”

And to that end, the initiative is striving for a nationwide package of measures,” the Börsenverein says, “that should ensure binding and uniform structures for all parties involved in reading promotion. The aim is for all children and young people in Germany to be able to read.”

‘Promoting Reading Must Have the Highest Priority’

Peter Kraus vom Cleff, general manager of the German Book Trade Association, says, “The results of the current IGLU study are alarming.

“They show once again how urgently we must act. Reading skills are essential for self-determined social participation and the key to a successful professional life. Thus, promoting reading is not only fundamental for the individual path through life, but for our entire democracy.

“Together with the Reading Foundation and a broad alliance from politics, business, and society, we strive for a well thought-out cooperation to improve reading skills in Germany. Because from now on, promoting reading must have the highest priority in Germany.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

In global rush to regulate AI, Europe set to be trailblazer

From The Associated Press:

The breathtaking development of artificial intelligence has dazzled users by composing music, creating images and writing essays, while also raising fears about its implications. Even European Union officials working on groundbreaking rules to govern the emerging technology were caught off guard by AI’s rapid rise.

The 27-nation bloc proposed the Western world’s first AI rules two years ago, focusing on reining in risky but narrowly focused applications. General purpose AI systems like chatbots were barely mentioned. Lawmakers working on the AI Act considered whether to include them but weren’t sure how, or even if it was necessary.

“Then ChatGPT kind of boom, exploded,” said Dragos Tudorache, a Romanian member of the European Parliament co-leading the measure. “If there was still some that doubted as to whether we need something at all, I think the doubt was quickly vanished.”

The release of ChatGPT last year captured the world’s attention because of its ability to generate human-like responses based on what it has learned from scanning vast amounts of online materials. With concerns emerging, European lawmakers moved swiftly in recent weeks to add language on general AI systems as they put the finishing touches on the legislation.

. . . .

“Europe is the first regional bloc to significantly attempt to regulate AI, which is a huge challenge considering the wide range of systems that the broad term ‘AI’ can cover,” said Sarah Chander, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi.

Authorities worldwide are scrambling to figure out how to control the rapidly evolving technology to ensure that it improves people’s lives without threatening their rights or safety.

Link to the rest at The Associated Press

PG suggests that regulating AI is Act 2 of regulating the Internet.

He suspects that AI computer systems will locate in places that are interested in the benefits of high-tech business and the great jobs it can create. PG is not aware of any reason AI capabilities cannot be miniaturized into a smartphone. PG just checked and found several AI apps that are available for his iPhone already. He predicts that the AI app goldrush is just getting started.

The Soviet Century

From The Wall Street Journal:

We have had reason of late to think anew about the Soviet Union and the legacy of the Cold War—the fighting in Ukraine reverberates with the ruthless geopolitics of an earlier era. In “The Soviet Century,” Karl Schlögel takes us on a tour of the Soviet past in all its materiality, a tour that puts on display, as he puts it, the “archaeology of a lost world.”

He begins with a visit to the vast outdoor flea market at Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park, where, as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the early 1990s, “an entire world-historical era was being sold off on the cheap.” A modern-day refuse heap, the bazaar showcased the offerings of hundreds of individual households eager to turn their once-cherished tchotchkes into much-needed cash.

It wasn’t only in Moscow that such a selling-off was attempted. Haphazard bazaars, Mr. Schlögel says, sprang up across the country. Using blankets or folding tables, people displayed samovars, cups and saucers, Red Army hats, insignia pins, captured German military uniforms, pennants, Communist Party membership cards—“the debris and the fragments of the world of objects belonging to the empire that has ceased to exist,” as he writes. Anything that might attract a buyer.

Mr. Schlögel doesn’t mention the avoyska—a “just in case” knitted bag—that Soviet citizens routinely carried with them on the chance they would happen upon tomatoes or melons for sale on a street corner (something I used to see for myself on my visits to the Soviet Union in the 1980s). He does note that when urban dwellers lined up for goods—not only at bazaars but at the entrances to subway stations, where people sold loaves of bread and articles of clothing—they often did so without knowing what everyone else was waiting for and just assumed it would be for something they needed.

For Mr. Schlögel, an esteemed historian based in Frankfurt, such improvised markets are an emblem of a broader theme. His focus is not on the foreign relations or domestic crises of Soviet rule but on outward appearances: the look, the smell, the sounds of everyday life. Based on decades of research and an intimate knowledge of history and culture, “The Soviet Century” is a fascinating chronicle of a not-so-distant era.

Among much else, we learn about life in a typical communal apartment, where several families had to share a space that was now divided into single rooms for each multigenerational family. As late as the 1970s, 40% of Moscow’s population “enjoyed” such accommodations, with all of its inevitable tensions, petty disputes and invasions of privacy. We learn about the system of door bells: “Ring once for Occupant A, twice for Occupant B and so forth.” And about the lavatory as a semipublic space. “A toilet for over thirty people . . . was not untypical,” Mr. Schlögel writes. A gallery of toilet seats would hang on the lavatory wall.

Other stories in “The Soviet Century” (translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone) capture unique and surprising moments in cultural history. Who would have guessed that the original formula for the Soviet perfume Red Moscow—developed before the Revolution but introduced to the public in 1927—led to the creation of Chanel No. 5? Or that when the special archive of banned books and periodicals was finally made available to researchers during the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in 1987, it included “300,000 book titles, 560,000 journals, and a million newspapers”? Of course, the Soviet century included bannings of another sort. As Mr. Schlögel reminds us, more than 200 “philosophers, writers, university teachers, and agronomists” were personally chosen by Lenin and banished to Western Europe in 1922. Others were simply shot.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG suggests that, while some details have changed, Putin’s Russia still seems a lot like Stalin’s Russia.

The Last Secret of the Secret Annex

From The Wall Street Journal:

After two years in hiding in Amsterdam, 15-year-old Anne Frank was arrested in August 1944, along with her sister, mother, father and four other Jews. All but Anne’s father, Otto Frank, perished in Nazi concentration camps, along with three-quarters—more than 100,000—of the Netherlands’ Jewish population. Anne’s adolescent diary, first published in 1947, has since become one of the most celebrated and poignant artifacts of the Holocaust. A flood of literature on the Frank family and the Dutch people who helped them survive has followed. Among the nagging questions that remain: Who betrayed the Franks and the others in hiding with them?

The Last Secret of the Secret Annex” is both a fascinating attempt to unlock this mystery and a case study in how Holocaust trauma can ripple through the generations. It comes from the Belgian journalist Jeroen De Bruyn, who confesses a lifelong obsession with Anne’s story, and Joop van Wijk-Voskuijl, whose mother, Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, was, in her early 20s, the youngest of the Franks’ Dutch “helpers.” The authors met when Mr. De Bruyn was just 15, and eventually became partners in the enterprise.

Narrated in Mr. van Wijk-Voskuijl’s voice, “The Last Secret of the Secret Annex” updates and expands an earlier book by the duo, published in 2015 in the Netherlands, and self-published in the United States three years later as “Anne Frank: The Untold Story.” The current volume details the courage of the narrator’s mother, who foraged for food for those in hiding, and his maternal grandfather, Johan, who built the revolving bookcase that concealed the “annex” in which the Frank family lived. It also takes withering aim at the multiyear “cold case” investigation chronicled in Rosemary Sullivan’s 2022 book “The Betrayal of Anne Frank.”

Led by former FBI special agent Vince Pankoke, that inquiry—in which the authors cooperated—concluded that the culprit was likely the notary Arnold van den Bergh, a member of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council. Citing an anonymous accusation and other evidence, it posited that he traded addresses of Jews in hiding to the Gestapo in exchange for his family’s survival. Dutch scholars found that scenario far-fetched, and their criticisms led to the Sullivan book’s withdrawal from circulation in the Netherlands.

Messrs. De Bruyn and van Wijk-Voskuijl propose a different possible informant: Mr. van Wijk-Voskuijl’s maternal aunt, Bep’s younger sister Nelly. During the Occupation, the then-teenage girl was, in the authors’ words, “seduced by everything German.” High-spirited and combative, Nelly had Nazi boyfriends and worked for the German military. Two survivors of that period—another of Bep’s sisters, Diny, and Bep’s wartime fiancé, Bertus Hulsman—attested that Nelly knew her relatives were helping Jews in hiding. Both recalled her angrily saying “Just go to your Jews!”—or words to that effect—to other family members.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Knowing What We Know: How Information Was Born

From The Wall Street Journal:

Knowledge is power, Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, using a quill and the Elizabethans’ distinctive “secretary hand.” Thomas Hobbes, who started out as Bacon’s secretary, agreed: Scientia potentia est, Hobbes wrote in the 1668 edition of “Leviathan.” Generations of spymasters, dictators and tax inspectors concurred, and so, as the rubble of the Humanities confirms, did the French theorist Michel Foucault. Yet knowledge is no longer power.

Today digital information is power. The quantity of information debases its value: The printed newspaper is dematerializing before our eyes. The smartphone offers more than a different physical experience from its predecessors, the tablet, scroll, manuscript and printed book. It carries the entire history of information. Writing, Socrates warns in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” “will implant forgetfulness.” If we “cease to exercise memory,” we will be “calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” When we outsource the storage of information, we outsource our knowledge of the world and ourselves.

Philosophers agonize over how knowledge is made. Historians are more interested in its circulation and application. In “Knowing What We Know,” Simon Winchester dispenses with the technicalities. Mr. Winchester, a prolific author whose bestsellers include “The Meaning of Everything,” considers knowledge as per the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning no. 4b: “The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth.” With his typical fluency and range, Mr. Winchester then traces the intertwined evolution of knowledge, society and the individual, from ancient illiteracy to the wisdom of the hour, artificial intelligence.

The first transmissions of knowledge, Mr. Winchester writes, were “oral or pictorial.” As current indigenous practice shows, the collective cultural inheritance and identity of the tribe is transmitted by “knowledge keepers,” usually “designated elders or specially skilled custodians.” The oldest surviving written transmission, a “small tablet of sunbaked red clay” found recently in what is now Iraq, dates to around 3100 B.C. In the Sumerian city of Uruk, a man named Kushim, who “appears to have been an accountant,” issued a receipt in a Mesopotamian warehouse for a delivery of barley. He had created a piece of movable information. Anyone who could read it was educated: able to acquire information, able to pass it along. As scarcity ensured value, the invention of writing devalued knowledge. It also lowered the tone. When people started to write as they thought, Mr. Winchester argues, they aired the “more vulgar aspects of society.”

Mr. Winchester is adroit at arranging information in pursuit of knowledge, and he has an eye for the anecdote. The familiar prehistory of the Latin alphabet is here, but he emphasizes the simultaneous making of a cross-civilizational consensus on education and its methods.

Innate human curiosity is the engine of knowledge, but the engine runs on two fuels, experience and facts taken on trust. Mr. Winchester’s own experiential curiosity was triggered at the age of two by a wasp sting. For his brain to develop into “some kind of mental context-cabinet,” he needed a mental filing system. Facts and memorization were emphasized in the imperial-minded curricula of ancient Sumeria, Confucian China and Mr. Winchester’s schools in England. The Chinese examination system ran for 1,316 years, until 1905. Mao revived the idea of early testing to identify a future elite in 1952, and the annual gaokao exams remain “an ordeal of the first magnitude,” requiring proof that “one’s degree of acquired knowledge is both immense and of the highest quality.” The American schoolroom may be a kinder place, but the rest of the world thinks that the SAT is “ridiculously easy.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Bookwire integrates ChatGPT into its software

From The Bookseller:

Frankfurt-based publishing technology and distribution company Bookwire has integrated ChatGPT as a beta version into its “Bookwire OS – One Solution” software.

The organisation says that with the integration it aims to offer publishers “the latest technology and ensure the best service for the industry”.

During the beta phase, publishers will be able to test the benefits of the artificial intelligence tool for their digital book marketing. As an example, it says ChatGPT can be used to create automated blurbs and social media posts for Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

“As ChatGPT cannot access content from OS but only publicly available information on the internet, the tool is particularly interesting for backlist titles,” Bookwire states. “With just one click, publishers receive tailored texts for various scenarios from everyday publishing life. Publishers are free to decide whether they want to use the tool for their content.

“Bookwire will only submit requests to ChatGPT if the publishers have expressly agreed. Bookwire only provides the technical interface and does not assume any responsibility for the content created by ChatGPT.” It goes on that “it is important to emphasise that ChatGPT in Bookwire OS cannot access content or metadata but only uses publicly accessible information on the internet”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Even if it’s a lie

Even if it’s a lie, it’s a place of my own. That’s why I’m going to keep it. It doesn’t need to be a big lie—just big enough for one person. And if I can hold on to that lie inside my heart, if I can keep repeating it to myself, it might lead me somewhere. Somewhere else, somewhere different. If I can do that, maybe I’ll change a little, and maybe the world will, too.

Emi Yagi, Diary of a Void


From The Wall Street Journal:

When he was 28, Burkhard Bilger learned a jarring family secret: Shortly after World War II, his grandfather spent two years in jail while on trial as an accused Nazi war criminal.

The revelation shocked Mr. Bilger. His parents, who moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1962, seldom spoke about their Nazi-era upbringing. Mr. Bilger, who was born in Oklahoma a year and half after his parents’ emigration, similarly avoided calling attention to a heritage that could give pause to new acquaintances. “To be German, it seemed, was always to be one part Nazi,” he writes. “In my case, that part was my grandfather.” Rather than dwell on the past, for the most part he avoided it. Then the past found him.

In 2005, a package arrived from one of Mr. Bilger’s aunts in Germany containing a shoebox filled with letters dating from around World War II. Mostly handwritten, some in an old-fashioned German script difficult for contemporary readers to decipher, the documents propelled Mr. Bilger into a yearslong journey to make sense of how his grandfather, a reserved and seemingly upstanding schoolteacher, had entangled himself and his family in the rise and fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

The result is Mr. Bilger’s resolutely unflinching and ultimately illuminating book “Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets.” In the course of his quest, Mr. Bilger, a staff writer at the New Yorker, interviewed far-flung family members as well as his grandfather’s long-lost neighbors, and scoured government archives in both Germany and France. As he pieces together the memories and documentary evidence, Mr. Bilger makes palpable the tension he feels between the wish to forget the past, in all its discomforting details, and the desire to understand behavior that might be easier to erase from memory than to confront and try to take in, much less forgive.

He begins by wondering how his grandfather Karl Gönner could have been both the father his mother loved and “the monster history suggested.” She was still a schoolgirl when her father finally returned from the war, and she remained too fearful to ever ask him if he was guilty of the crimes for which he was accused. What if Mr. Bilger discovered, now, that the answer was yes?

An authentic reckoning with his grandfather’s past demanded that he find out. Mr. Bilger charts his family’s history, generation by generation, back to the 18th century. Gönner himself had provided the roadmap in his personal “ancestry passport”—the official document laying out his “pure” Aryan genealogy over the centuries, as required for his membership in the Nazi Party as well as for his government-regulated teaching job.

Like his ancestors before him, Gönner was born in the Black Forest village of Herzogenweiler, founded in 1721 by a successful consortium of glassblowers. By the time of Gönner’s birth in 1899, though, the glass business had collapsed and the once-flourishing village had become derelict.

Religious and bookish by nature, Gönner set his sights on the priesthood as his best route to an education and a career away from poverty. Then came World War I. Drafted in 1917, Gönner arrived at the Western Front in time to join the German army’s battered retreat. In late September 1918, beaten down by hunger and the muck of the trenches, his troop arrived at Meuse-Argonne, the site of one of the war’s final and most brutal battles. A land mine blasted Gönner unconscious, its shards piercing his right eye, arm and thigh. Upon his release from the hospital several months later, Mr. Bilger writes, Gönner “came home hobbled and half blind, with a sense that never left him that the world was a shattered thing, in need of radical repair.”

Yet he was told he was lucky. After all, his brother Josef, who had been killed in Flanders, never returned from the war at all. But what kind of a life could Gönner have back in the impoverished villages of the Black Forest? The war cost him his religious faith and replaced his right eye with a sightless glass prosthetic. Eventually he married and started a family, became a teacher and, in 1933, joined the Nazi Party.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Beyond black

FromThe Bookseller:

This past week has seen the good and bad of the book trade writ large. The good was manifest in The London Book Fair, a return to a “proper” event packed full of agents meetings, seminars, parties and general all-round buzz. There was plenty of good humour too, and one or two decent rumours. We are an industry that wants to meet, and mischief make.

But we are also less than perfect. That is a polite reference to The Bookseller’s survey of author welfare that has rightly been the most read news piece across our website this week and sparked a robust online conversation.

The results were stark and, at times, depressing. More than half of authors (54%) responding to the survey on their experiences of publishing their début book have said the process negatively affected their mental health. Authors talked of a lack of attention from their publisher, and a lack of preparedness. In fact, just 22% of the 108 respondents to the survey described a positive experience overall with their first publication. As one author said: “It has taken me a long time to reconcile the train wreck of my début.”

Some hardened souls might shrug their shoulders at all this. The sample size is small, and no doubt skewed by those whose experiences prompt them to fill in such surveys. Besides, publishing is a tough business. A bad launch need not dictate a book’s fortunes in the same way that a great launch doesn’t guarantee success. I once went to a party at the Groucho Club for a book by a relatively well-known journalist and spent most of the evening talking to the author’s immediate family, the relations making up the bulk of the attendees. The book? Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’ve been to huge events for books long since forgotten, written by authors whose follow-ups were silently sidelined. Publication day—launch or not—tells us very little about future prospects.

At least that’s half-true. In reality trade book publishing works on a momentum model—titles build as word-of-mouth does its thing, with those books that bulk-up during the publication process likely to land with a greater thud at launch. This is as true for débuts such as Lessons in Chemistry as it was for Spare; quiet books can do well but their need for a slice of good fortune will be greater.

For authors, and particularly for début writers, this can be a chastening experience, and one that can feel increasingly futile as they see an arcane world united only by indifference. My concern reading the survey and the many other comments not reported is that as a sector we are doing too poor a job managing expectations; we focus too much attention on the race and not enough on the athlete.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says that traditional publishers regard authors as content providers, nothing more. And if an author gets uppity and forgets her/his place, there are always lots of other content providers banging on the door, begging to enter.

Manga Freelancers Say, ‘Show Me the Money’

From Publisher’s Weekly:

Despite some slowdown, manga is still leading graphic novel sales in North America. But that success hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the professionals who help bring manga to market: translators, letterers, and editors, including many freelancers.

After the last manga boom/bust cycle (roughly 2007-2008), which resulted in layoffs at many publishers, freelancer rates were cut dramatically. For the most part, rates haven’t returned to pre-2007 rates. For example, translation services companies MediBang and Amimaru have drawn criticism for paying letterers as little as $1 to $1.15 per page, as reported on Anime News Network.

M, a veteran Japanese-to-English manga translator who spoke to PW on conditions of anonymity, said that “some manga series move a few hundred copies. Others, millions. But I get paid the same for both.” They complained that the standard is flat fee payment for translation, without residuals, and bonuses and raises are atypical. The result, they said, is that “rates drop every year when taking inflation into account.”

But with manga publishers enjoying a period of prosperity, freelancers have begun speaking out and demanding pay increases. The United Workers of Seven Seas, the first US manga/light novel publishing union, was formed with the support of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) last year; the union was recognized by Seven Seas Entertainment soon after. Two publishers, Yen Press and Viz Media, also reportedly responded by raising rates for freelancers. Specific payment terms were not disclosed by the publishers, who offered no comment. But according to M, between the two major manga houses, base rates rose between 10-20%. “We were thrown a long overdue bone,” says M.

That said, translation costs and time present a real concern for manga publishers, especially for digital releases, which may net less margin combined with shorter turnover time for simulpub print and e-pub volumes.

One possible solution being actively explored is machine or AI-assisted translation. As Beth Kawasaki, executive director of content and marketing at Media Do International, a leading digital manga distributor, put it, “human editorial expertise is still needed, but advances in tech may make (AI-assisted) localization more cost effective in the future.”

Machine learning and AI-assisted translation is a controversial topic, for both manga publishing professionals and readers.

“Quality comes a cost,” explained Kae Winters, marketing lead at Tokyopop. “I understand why there’s a lot of interest in machine translation as the technology progresses…but I think we’d all agree it’s got a long way to go. If you’ve ever run a Japanese book description through Google Translate, it’s a coin toss whether it’ll even be understandable.” And yet, she added, “I’m sure when the radio was invented, the idea of having moving images to go along with it sounded like science fiction, too.”

From the professional translator side, M defends the skills required by human translators in capturing the nuances of Japanese language and culture in manga storytelling. Manga is “filled with puns, jokes, cultural references, allusions, context-sensitive SFX (sound effects), callbacks, call-forwards, and unspoken nuance that all requires the deft touch of a fully bilingual human brain to parse, contextualize, reimagine, localize, and write,” M explains.

The pitfalls of shoddy translation were evident in the recent release, then quick removal, of Blic Publishing/Book Live’s first digital release of The Ranking of Kings by Sousuke Toka from e-book stores due to complaints about the translation quality, followed by similar complaints about Titan Comics’s release of Kamen Rider Kuuga. Manga fans are eager for more manga, but as their taste for a greater variety of subgenres grows, so do their expectations for the quality of what they’re buying.

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality

From The Wall Street Journal:

Chances are, unless you’re a philosopher, you’ve never heard of Derek Parfit. A philosopher’s philosopher, he spent most of his career far from the madding crowd in the cloisters of All Souls College, Oxford, determined to demonstrate that there was an objective basis for secular morality rooted in rational foundations. He produced just two books—“Reasons and Persons” (1984) and the multi-volume “On What Matters” (2011, 2017)—but, as David Edmonds makes clear in his wonderful biography, “Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality,” they were outsize in both length and influence.

Mr. Edmonds, co-author (with John Eidinow) of “Wittgenstein’s Poker” (2001), one of my all-time favorite books of philosophy for non-academics, is ideally suited to write about Parfit. His Oxford BPhil and PhD dissertations in the late 1980s and early ’90s—both on ethical issues—were supervised, respectively, by Parfit and his longtime partner (and eventual wife), Janet Radcliffe Richards.

As in “Wittgenstein’s Poker,” Mr. Edmonds exhibits an impressive ability to explain complex philosophical arguments to the lay reader. He takes us into the nitty-gritty of Parfit’s reasoning, breakthroughs and responses to critics. He also locates Parfit in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries in the philosophical pantheon.

Most of this exegesis is remarkably accessible, though my mind balked at Mr. Edmonds’s three-point summary of Parfit’s conclusions and knotty ethical conundrums such as the Asymmetry Problem, the Non-Identity Problem and the wonderfully named Repugnant Conclusion. Offering more than a thinker’s life and career, “Parfit” is a crash course in the evolution of moral philosophy, and the best account I have read of what “doing philosophy” entails.

For Parfit, this entailed devising ingenious scenarios to tease out the ramifications of his ideas—about subjects ranging from the continuity of personal identity and our moral duties to future persons to questions about ideal population size and the intrinsic value of principles like equality. Many of his ideas involved issues concerning Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Henry Sidgwick’s utilitarianism. He addressed these via thought experiments that were often variants of the famous Trolley Problem, which involved “individuals endangered in unfortunate circumstances, where there is the option to help, but at the cost of harming others.” In one, you could use a lifeboat to save either a single person stuck on a rock threatened by rising tide, or five people on a second rock. In another, the only way to divert a train from a track that will kill five people is to activate a trap door which will cause a person standing on a bridge above to fall to his death in front of the train. In both cases, Parfit shows how different principles all indicate that choosing to save the five rather than the one is the preferable option.

. . . .

Parfit supplemented his All Souls income (for which he was not required to teach) and broadened his reach with regular half-term stints at American universities, mainly Harvard, NYU and Rutgers. But he was a perfectionist whose name has apt roots in the French parfait, or “perfect,” and he suffered from what Mr. Edmonds calls “chronic publishing constipation.” He tested and retested his theories, circulating draft after draft among dozens of fellow philosophers and graduate students. Spurred by a publish-or-perish ultimatum from All Souls, he became maniacally focused on completing “Reasons and Persons” in the early ’80s, causing him to further cut all social activity, prepare instant coffee with tap water to save time, and read even while brushing his teeth.

Such personal details—and splashes of humor—provide plenty of relief from the book’s abstruse material. Parfit’s succinct summary of the history of ethics is especially delightful:

1. Forbidden by God.

2. Forbidden by God, therefore wrong.

3. Wrong, therefore forbidden by God.

4. Wrong.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

New Data on the UK’s Translated Fiction Readers

From Publishing Perspectives:

Nielsen’s 2022 Books and Consumers data looked at monthly updates on 3,000 United Kingdom book buyers aged 13 to 84.

. . . .

In an age in which much of the world book publishing industry focuses a preponderance of its output—and workforce—on women as the majority consumers, it’s worth placing some of the gender-related data here first. Surely by now, a review of the “guys don’t read” trope is called for.

According to the newly released analysis, while only 32 percent of overall UK fiction buyers are male, 48 percent of translated fiction buyers are male.

“With reports that young men are reading less fiction than ever,” the foundation writes in its report, “publishers and retailers will be encouraged to see a publishing sector in which male readers are on a par with females.”

Here’s a bit more of a breakdown in regard to the gender criterion:

  • Females aged 13 to 24 make up the largest purchase group for translated fiction, with 15.5 percent of all buys
  • Females aged 25 to 34 are the next largest, at 13.7 percent of all translated fiction purchases

But then, women seem to pass the baton to men. The next highest purchase groups are:

  • Males aged 45 to 59 (13.6 percent, effectively the equivalent of the 15-t0-24 group at 13.7 percent led by females)
  • Males aged 25 to 34 (11.2 percent) register as the fourth purchase group

Overall, the Nielsen Book data indicates that readers of translated fiction in the United Kingdom in 2022 were “significantly younger” than readers of fiction generally.

Buyers aged 25 to 34 purchased almost a quarter (24.9 percent) of all translated fiction in the United Kingdom in 2022, an increase from 21 percent in 2021. The second highest purchase group is 13-24 year olds, indicating that book buyers younger than 35 account for almost half of all translated fiction purchases.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Hilary Mantel’s genius, ‘riotous’ humour and ‘innate goodwill’ celebrated at memorial

FromThe Bookseller:

Hilary Mantel’s immense legacy, “riotous sense of humour” and generosity to other writers have been celebrated at a memorial service in honour of the late author.

Mantel, the author of 17 acclaimed books including the Wolf Hall trilogy – two books of which won the Booker Prize, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, died aged 70 in September 2022.

Speakers at the packed service at Southwark Cathedral on 20th April included HarperCollins c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne, A M Heath’s Bill Hamilton, Mantel’s long-time literary agent, and Nicholas Pearson, her editor. Authors Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and Anne Enright gave readings from Mantel’s work, and a fragment of the novel she had been working on before her death, Provocation, inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice told from the perspective of Mary Bennett.

In his welcome remarks, Redmayne said it had been HC’s privilege to publish Mantel’s work for the past 24 years, and that it was “wonderful” to see so many in attendance to remember Mantel “and what she meant to us, both as an incredible, one of a kind writer, and also individually, as a wife, sister, friend, colleague or peer”.

He added that it was fitting that, alongside her family and friends and those who worked with her on her books, stage and screen adaptations, there were “many among us who only knew her through her words, but who also felt compelled to come here today to pay their respects”.

“Aside from being one of the greatest writers that ever lived, Hilary was also a champion of the arts, she was generous with her time, and a mentor to many people, and also hugely supportive of other writers,” Redmayne said, a side of her “appropriately represented” by the children’s charity, Scene and Heard, of which Mantel was a patron and which attendees of the service were encouraged to support.

In a moving tribute, Mantel’s lifelong friend Anne Preston described her as “kind and funny, fierce and full of self-belief” and “a consummate craftsman and weaver of spells”, while her brother Brian Mantel, in a statement read by actor Ben Miles, said: “For Hilary, words were as a piano to Mozart. [She] engraved her legacy in mighty tablets of stone.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

La Fabrique’s Moret released from police custody

FromThe Bookseller:

La Fabrique’s foreign rights manager Ernest Moret has been released from police custody, after being arrested and detained by British anti-terrorist police upon his arrival at London St Pancras station, ahead of London Book Fair. 

The Metropolitan Police confirmed to The Bookseller that Ernest was bailed on the evening of 19th April.

His phone and work computer were seized by officers for interrogation, according to the French publisher and its collaborator Verso Books. Moret’s lawyer, Richard Parry from Saunders Solicitors, said that the rights manager will be required to return to London in May. 

Pension reform demonstrations have rocked France over the past three months, with the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, attributing any violence on those on the Left. Police were allegedly interested in Moret’s writing on recent events, and any participation he may have had in the protests, according to Parry.  

The publishers said in a statement: “Ernest was interrogated for several hours and asked some very disturbing questions: his point of view on the pension reform in France, on the French government, on Emmanuel Macron, his opinion on the Covid crisis… Perhaps most seriously, during his interrogation, he was asked to name the ’anti-government’ authors in the catalogue of the publishing house La Fabrique, for which he works.”

The Metropolitan Police refused to provide any comment regarding what was raised during police interviews.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

An easily-overlooked foreign rights manager by day, but . . . .

Self-published authors earn more than traditionally published counterparts, according to ALLi report

From The Bookseller:

New research by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) claims authors who self-publish currently earn more than traditionally published authors.

ALLi circulated the survey to its members and subscribers, as well as “through other key self-publishing and author organisations” in February 2023. It was answered by more than 2,000 respondents – 60% of whom were in North America, with 21% from the UK and 8% respectively for Australia/New Zealand, and Europe. It found the the median revenue for independent authors in 2022 stands at $12,749 (£10,229).

This compares to the findings of a report into authors’ earnings commissioned by The Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) and published in December 2022, which showed that median earnings from writing alone for authors with third-party publishers stands at approximately $8,600 (£7,000).

The ALCS’ report showed “a sustained fall in professional writers’ real terms income from writing over the past 15 years of around 60%, pushing median earnings down to minimum wage levels,” a trend which ALLi suggests self-published authors are “bucking” in light of its survey’s findings, which suggest average incomes of self-published authors are rising, with a 53% increase in 2022 over the previous year.

By contrast, its report goes on, “previous author income surveys, which have focused on revenues received by authors with third-party publishers, have repeatedly reported falling incomes.”

. . . .

ALLi has commissioned the UK Copyright & Creative Economy Centre, CREATe – which conducted the ALCS’ survey – to expand analysis of the findings, particularly in relation to “key demographic groups and factors that contribute to higher incomes.” ALLi will publish the full report including demographic data in June 2023, together with a collection of insights from several peer self-publishing organisations, as the Big Indie Author Data Drop. This compilation and final 2023 report will be presented at the Self-Publishing Live conference in London in June 2023 and will repeat as an annual event, which the organisation says will fill “a notable gap in author income research”.

Orna Ross, ALLi director, said of the findings: “ALLi has always believed that authors are financially better off self-publishing. Now that the results of this survey confirm that belief, we want to make sure all authors know that they can make a living as an author, if they do the work and acquire good publishing skills, alongside good writing skills. And that they are not alone. There is full support for talented and dedicated authors at ALLi and throughout the self-publishing community.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that Orna Ross, the founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, has been doing good things for indie authors for a long time (ALLI was founded in 2012).

Those who recall 2012 (including PG, just barely), will remember that this year included a notable antitrust suit filed by the U.S. Justice Department against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster for trying to fix prices for ebooks, and strangle Amazon’s ebook business in the crib.

Basically the five big publishers agreed to refuse to sell ebooks to Amazon unless Amazon sold their ebooks at the publisher’s list price. The agreement was made at the instigation of a top Apple exec and provided that Apple would sell the majority of e-books between $9.99 and $14.99, with new releases being $12.99 to $14.99.

Apple also adopted the agency model which it used in its App Store for distribution of e-books. This let Publishers control the price of the e-books with Apple receiving a 30% commission. The joint agreement provided that the Publishers would establish ebook prices on Amazon so ebook prices on both platforms would be identical.

On the day Apple launched its ebook store, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Jobs why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. In response Jobs stated that “The price will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.”

As PG has opined on more than one previous occasion, doing this reflected the rank business and legal stupidity of the major publishers. What Jobs and the publishers agreed to do was a classic example of illegal price-fixing that was (and still is) clearly prohibited by US antitrust laws.

Jobs was a highly magnetic and innovative individual who built Apple from nothing into a major world-wide computer brand, a wonderful American business success story.

However, Jobs was dying of cancer at the time, kept this information secret and (PG suspects) decided to propose this agreement without any input from Apple’s lawyers at all. A law student who had taken a single antitrust class would have recognized this was prohibited conduct.

After being sued, the publishers quickly caved, took their financial licks from the Justice Department and some state attorneys general who joined in the suit, and went back to business as usual. Apple lost at the trial level, lost at the United States Court of Appeals. The US Supreme Court declined to take the case.

Amazon kept pushing ebooks, including more generous royalty terms than authors could get from traditional publishing, and never looked back. PG has suggested on numerous occasions that traditional publishers missed a wonderful opportunity to earn a lot of money from ebooks because they didn’t want to harm their printed book sales or relationship with traditional bookstores.

It was a classic example of one bad decision after another.

Orna Ross and ALLI have provided a lot of help for indie authors ever since the Apple antitrust case was still roaring along, so she’s seen the thick and thin of indie authors. You may want to check out the membership benefits the organization offers.

Google Becomes a Client of MVB’s Metabooks

From Publishing Perspectives:

As MVB Books UK marks its anniversary at London Book Fair this week (April 18 to 20), the news today (April 17) is that MVB’s Metabooks has signed a contract to become an official metadata supplier to Google.

The deal guarantees Google receipt of metadata from Metabooks Brasil and Metabooks Mexico, as well as future MVB databases in Latin America. Google and MVB will work in cooperation with a goal of “improving the user experience for people on Google searching for books and authors, using quality metadata guaranteed by Metabooks,” according to today’s media messaging.

Crucially, the program is also expected to boost sales results of publishers, booksellers, and customers who are looking for books to buy and read.

In a prepared statement, Ronald Schild, the international CEO of MVB says, “The constant search for the improvement of our services is one of the pillars of our company.

Ronald Schild

“Bringing more and more benefits and solid results to our customers and book lovers is one of our objectives.

“The partnership with Google represents an important reinforcement for the books on our platform to be—and always remain on—the ‘right shelf’.

. . . .

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Metabooks provides publishers and bookstores in Brazil and Mexico with an infrastructure for uniform, complex metadata management.

The technological basis of this is the central platform for the automated exchange of product information in the German-language book industry: Verzeichnis Lieferbarer Bücher (VLB). VLB plays a key role in helping to shape international standards, and this is part of what the system then provides to retailers and other buyers with optimized metadata.

MVB essentially makes books visible by surfacing them on major platforms—operating on international metadata standards—to enable publishers and bookstores to promote their products successfully and efficiently in their home markets and abroad.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The Culture of Bloomsbury and Industry Progress

From Publishing Perspectives:

The four founders of Bloomsbury in 1986 included Liz Calder, the legendary editor who had also helped to found the Groucho Club and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Although Liz had left by the time I joined and the company had grown considerably, the culture she had established was very much still there, and this included the prominent roles taken by women–not least, Alexandra Pringle, who was a superb editor-in-chief for 20 years. Across the company as a whole, probably 70 percent of the staff were female during my time there. This was a reflection on Bloomsbury, but also how the overall culture of publishing had changed over the years – according to the Publishers Association’s most recent survey, women now occupy just over half of the industry’s senior management positions.

Despite this progress for women in the industry, it has not always been straightforward. Take the instance of The Society of Bookmen, which had been founded in the 1920s as a monthly dining club for professionals from across the book trade, bringing together publishers, booksellers, printers, librarians and the occasional author. The dinners, held at the Savile Club in Mayfair, had long been an important part of London’s publishing scene – a place to socialize and do business, and for younger publishers to learn and make contacts. Forty years into its existence, the Society had belatedly admitted women in 1972, and I joined in 1988 shortly after I started at Reed. But by the 21st century, with 40 percent of the members being female, many felt that the name “Bookmen” was increasingly problematic. There had been two attempts to get it changed, but it required at least two thirds of the members to vote for change in a ballot and had failed to pass. In desperation, the chair of the Society called an emergency motion at one of the monthly dinners and, in a show of hands held there and then, it was renamed The Book Society.

I had been at this dinner and obviously voted for the change of name, but was troubled by the use of an emergency motion as a way of avoiding a full democratic ballot and submitted my resignation to the Society’s management committee. Instead, as is the way of things, I accepted their suggestion that I should become president of The Book Society and work with the chair to help ensure that principles of good governance were upheld in the future. A couple of years after this, a member of the Society pointed out that membership of the Savile Club where we regularly dined was restricted to men, and so an unsuitable host venue. I spoke with the Club manager who confirmed that this was the case and was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future – their only female member being someone who had joined as a male and then subsequently undergone a sex change! And so we moved to the Conduit, a club in Covent Garden. It was a shame to end the long association that the Society had enjoyed with the Savile Club but also, I strongly believed, the right thing to do.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Another adjective to be applied to traditional publishing: misogynistic.

Inside Kenya’s booming podcast scene

From Chatham House:

I am eating a pre-hiking meal of oatmeal with espresso on the side at a local coffee house while waiting for my hiking buddies to join me at 7am on a Sunday. Even though it is January, we are experiencing an intense heatwave and I am trying to calculate how many litres of water I will need to face the challenge ahead.

The plan is to trek the 16km-plus out-and-back route through the seven Ngong Hills, lying in the Great Rift Valley about an hour from Kenya’s capital. During the group catch-up beforehand, I give a quick rundown of my latest favourite podcasts and remember one I had come across that Emily, an avid art lover, would enjoy, Art Fraud.

The smartphone revolution

Storytelling is a core part of Kenya’s history and a surge in the number of podcasts in the region comes as no surprise. We love a good story. Podcasts are especially popular with the under-35s living in urban areas.

Improved technology coupled with better access to the internet and more user-friendly software have led to a boom in podcasting. This is helped by the growth in 4G and 5G wireless access available in parts of Nairobi and its outskirts.

Smartphones are the real reason the popularity of podcasts has taken off. In Kenya, 46 per cent of connections were made by smartphones in 2021 and this is predicted to grow to 68 per cent by 2025, according to figures from the GSM Association, which represents the interests of the mobile network industry.

According to a podcasting report by Baraza Media Lab, which I work for, and made in collaboration with Africa Podfest, some of the most popular themes in podcasts are culture, media and the arts, health and wellness, current affairs and news, science and technology and business in that order.

People listen to them while carrying out their daily tasks such as working out, running errands, on the commute to-and-from work or school, or in their leisure time. It is an exercise that continually raises awareness, entertains, educates and helps unravel some of the most complex issues from around the world.

. . . .

Spotify’s popularity increased when it teamed up with the mobile money service Mpesa which is available to anyone with a registered SIM card and a mobile phone.

This mobile money payment option is used by millions of Kenyans each day and it allows more customers to buy audio and streaming services. Other streaming platforms demanded debit or credit card details, or PayPal and E-wallet apps which are rarely used in the region, for the prepaid option.

With as many as 68 languages spoken in Kenya, podcasts are now being produced in Sheng’, Kamba, Maasai, Kikuyu, Kiswahili and Luo among others.

While radio is still the most popular medium for news and entertainment, audio storytellers are using podcasts to share topics that range from local and global news, politics, money management, sex education, lifestyle to sports and that cater to their audience profile.

Podcasts have provided a platform for women, young people, disabled people, LGBT+ groups and other marginalized communities to share their experiences without editorial distortions that can apply on mainstream media platforms. This moves away from Kenya’s traditional media platforms that are mostly privately owned, supported by large budgets and studio-structured production and which rely on advertising to hold their bottom line.

Link to the rest at Chatham House

7 Books About the Scam of Wellness

From Electric Lit:

It’s no coincidence that wellness has become a trillion-dollar industry at the same time that most people have been affected by failing public health systems and government agencies. Self-care has become a best-selling product, a buzzword that anyone can use to increase their bottom line. Because of this, it can be impossible to parse what wellness is, and to imagine methods of self-care that don’t come with a staggering cost. 

In my novel Natural Beauty, a talented pianist is forced to give up a promising career in order to care for her ailing parents. She stumbles upon an opportunity to work at Holistik, a high-end wellness and clean beauty store, and finds herself seduced by the promise of becoming her best self. She slathers on products, ingests pills, and submits to procedures, all in the name of endless self-optimization. But something sinister lies beneath Holistik’s glossy veneer, an ugly truth that threatens to consume her. Natural Beauty is ultimately a journey of self-love through the horrors of a commodified wellness industry. 

Below, I present a list of books that, together, begin to form a clear picture of what wellness is and what it isn’t, who it currently serves, and who it excludes. The illness of wellness lies in wellness that tries to exist within capitalism, participating and becoming an extension of it. All of these books have also informed me, one way or another, in my own journey with self-care. 

Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom

Former influencer Anna Wrey seeks to undo  all of her previous surgeries with a new procedure, Aesthetica, which promises to restore your natural face. Scenes of her readying for the procedure in the present are cut with flashbacks that show the harrowing history that brought her to this point. She has spent her life learning to read the desires of men, ignoring her own, and surgically adapting to exterior preferences. It’s a deeply powerful and sad depiction of influencer culture, the pursuit of beauty and youth as leverage for power, and the choices women make, which are limited and designed to make us believe we are in control. Rowbottom is so effective at showing the absolute hollowness of getting all the things we’ve been conditioned to want, it’s frightening. This anti-fairy tale cautions us: be careful what you wish for, because your wishes are not your own. 

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu

Hu moves to Seoul as the first-ever Korea and Japan bureau chief for NPR correspondent and takes a deep dive into South Korea’s beauty industry and how it impacts society and women at large. In this astonishingly researched and unputdownable book about topics like the prolific plastic surgery procedures being invented everyday to burgeoning feminist movement, she dissects the myriad ways beauty ideals intersect with geopolitical tensions, class, and societal issues, as well as articulating technology’s part in enabling and accelerating beauty culture. Among the many pressing questions Hu asks: How does beauty intersect with sexist power structures? Who benefits when women expend so much energy enhancing themselves?  Where is unchecked consumer beauty culture leading us to? Nowhere in the world are there such clear lines drawn between beauty and social and economic success than in South Korea. Flawless manages to provide an in-depth look at the history of Korea, which very well may be the future for the rest of the world. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The topics in the OP and each of the books it mentions are terra icognita for PG. So, for once, he has no opinon regarding the OP.

On Mary Wollstonecraft

From The Paris Review:

Around the time I realized I didn’t want to be married anymore, I started visiting Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave. I’d known it was there, behind King’s Cross railway station, for at least a decade. I had read her protofeminist tract from 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, at university, and I knew Saint Pancras Churchyard was where Wollstonecraft’s daughter, also Mary, had taken the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when they were falling in love. When I thought about the place, I thought of death and sex and possibility. I first visited at thirty-four, newly separated, on a cold gray day with a lover, daffodils rising around the squat cubic pillar. “MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN,” the stone reads. “Author of A Vindication of the rights of Woman. Born 27th April, 1759. Died 10th September, 1797.” I didn’t tell him why I wanted to go there; I had a sense that Wollstonecraft would understand, and I often felt so lost that I didn’t want to talk to real people, people I wanted to love me rather than pity me, people I didn’t want to scare. I was often scared. I was frequently surprised by my emotions, by the things I suddenly needed to do or say that surged up out of nowhere.

Unexpected events had brought me graveside: when I was thirty-two, my fifty-seven-year-old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t genetic; no one knew why she got it. We would, the doctors said, have three to nine more years with her. Everything wobbled. This knowledge raised questions against every part of my life: Was this worth it? And this? And this? I was heading for children in the suburbs with the husband I’d met at nineteen, but that life, the one that so many people want, I doubted was right for me. I was trying to find my way as a writer, but I was jumping from genre to genre, not working out what I most wanted to say, and not taking myself seriously enough to discover it, even. Who do you tell when you start to feel these things? Everything seemed immovable. Everything seemed impossible. And yet I knew I had to change my life.

There were a string of discussions with my husband, threading from morning argument to online chat to text to phone to therapy session to dinner, where we floated ideas about open marriage and relationship breaks and moving countries and changing careers and dirty weekends. But we couldn’t agree on what was important, and I began to peel my life away from his. We decided that we could see other people. We were as honest and kind and open as we could manage as we did this, which sometimes wasn’t much. The spring I began visiting Wollstonecraft’s grave, he moved out, dismantling our bed by taking the mattress and leaving me with the frame. I took off my wedding ring—a gold band with half a line of “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath etched on the inside—and for weeks afterward, my thumb would involuntarily reach across my palm for the warm bright circle that had gone. I didn’t throw the ring into the long grass, like women do in the movies, but a feeling began bubbling up nevertheless, from my stomach to my throat: it could fling my arms out. I was free.

At first, I took my freedom as a seventeen-year-old might: hard and fast and negronied and wild. I was thirty-four and I wanted so much out of this new phase of my life: intense sexual attraction; soulmate-feeling love that would force my life into new shapes; work that felt joyous like play but meaningful like religion; friendships with women that were fusional and sisterly; talk with anyone and everyone about what was worth living for; books that felt like mountains to climb; attempts at writing fiction and poetry and memoir. I wanted to create a life I would be proud of, that I could stand behind. I didn’t want to be ten years down the wrong path before I discovered once more that it was wrong. While I was a girl, waiting for my life to begin, my mother gave me books: The Mill on the Floss when I was ill; Ballet Shoes when I demanded dance lessons; A Little Princess when I felt overlooked. How could I find the books I needed now? I had so many questions: Could you be a feminist and be in love? Did the search for independence mean I would never be at home with anyone, anywhere? Was domesticity a trap? What was worth living for if you lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman’s life? What was worth living for at all—what degree of unhappiness, lostness, chaos was bearable? Could I even do this without my mother beside me? Or approach any of these questions if she was already fading from my life? And if I wanted to write about all this, how could I do it? What forms would I need? What genre could I be most truthful in? How would this not be seen as a problem of privilege, a childish demand for definition, narcissistic self-involvement, when the world was burning? Wouldn’t I be better off giving away all I have and putting down my books, my movies, my headphones, and my pen? When would I get sick of myself?

The questions felt urgent as well as overwhelming. At times I couldn’t face the page—printed or blank—at all. I needed to remind myself that starting out on my own again halfway through life is possible, has been possible for others—and that this sort of life can have beauty in it. And so I went back to the writers I’d loved when I was younger—the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft, the novels of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. I read other writers—Elena Ferrante, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison—for the first time. I watched them try to answer some of the questions I myself had. This book bears the traces of the struggles they had, as well as my own—and some of the things we all found that help. Not all of the solutions they (and I) found worked, and even when they did, they didn’t work all the time: if I’d thought life was a puzzle I could solve once and for all when I was younger, I couldn’t believe that any longer. But the answers might come in time if I could only stay with the questions, as the lover who came with me to Wollstonecraft’s grave would keep reminding me.

. . . .

A Vindication was written in six weeks. On January 3, 1792, the day she gave the last sheet to the printer, Wollstonecraft wrote to Roscoe: “I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to the subject.—Do not suspect me of false modesty—I mean to say that had I allowed myself more time I could have written a better book, in every sense of the word.” Wollstonecraft isn’t in fact being coy: her book isn’t well-made. Her main arguments about education are at the back, the middle is a sarcastic roasting of male conduct-book writers in the style of her attack on Burke, and the parts about marriage and friendship are scattered throughout when they would have more impact in one place. There is a moralizing, bossy tone, noticeably when Wollstonecraft writes about the sorts of women she doesn’t like (flirts and rich women: take a deep breath). It ends with a plea to men, in a faux-religious style that doesn’t play to her strengths as a writer. In this, her book is like many landmark feminist books—The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique—that are part essay, part argument, part memoir, held together by some force, it seems, that is attributable solely to its writer. It’s as if these books, to be written at all, have to be brought into being by autodidacts who don’t know for sure what they’re doing—just that they have to do it.

On my first reading of A Vindication as a twenty-year-old undergraduate, I looked up the antique words and wrote down their definitions (to vindicate was to “argue by evidence or argument”). I followed Wollstonecraft’s arguments in favor of education. I knew she’d been a teacher, and saw how reasonable her main argument was: you had to educate women, because they have influence as mothers over infant men. I took these notes eighteen months into an undergraduate degree in English and French in the library of an Oxford college that had only begun admitting women twenty-one years before. I’d arrived from an ordinary school, had scraped by in my first-year exams, and barely felt I belonged. The idea that I could think of myself as an intellectual as Mary did was laughable. Yet halfway into my second year, I discovered early women’s writing. I was amazed that there was so much of it—by protonovelists such as Eliza Haywood, aristocratic poets like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and precursors of the Romantics like Anna Laetitia Barbauld—and I was angry, often, at the way they’d been forgotten, or, even worse, pushed out of the canon. Wollstonecraft stood out, as she’d never been forgotten, was patently unforgettable. I longed to keep up with her, even if I had to do it with the shorter OED at my elbow. I didn’t see myself in her at the time. It wasn’t clear to me when I was younger how hard she had pushed herself.

Later in her life, Wollstonecraft would defend her unlettered style to her more lettered husband:

I am compelled to think that there is something in my writings more valuable, than in the productions of some people on whom you bestow warm elogiums—I mean more mind—denominate it as you will—more of the observations of my own senses, more of the combining of my own imagination—the effusions of my own feelings and passions than the cold workings of the brain on the materials procured by the senses and imagination of other writers—

I wish I had been able to marshal these types of arguments while I was at university. I remember one miserable lesson about Racine, just me and a male student who’d been to Eton. I was baffled by the tutor’s questions. We would notice some sort of pattern or effect in the lines of verse—a character saying “Ô désespoir! Ô crime! Ô déplorable race!”—and the tutor would ask us what that effect was called. Silence. And then the other student would speak up. “Anaphora,” he’d say. “Chiasmus. Zeugma.” I had no idea what he was talking about; I’d never heard these words before. I was relieved when the hour was over. When I asked him afterward how he knew those terms, he said he’d been given a handout at school and he invited me to his room so that I could borrow it and make a photocopy. I must still have it somewhere. I remember feeling a tinge of anger—I could see the patterns in Racine’s verse, I just didn’t know what they were called—but mostly I felt ashamed. I learned the terms on the photocopy by heart.

Mary knew instinctively that what she offered was something more than technical accuracy, an unshakeable structure, or an even tone. Godwin eventually saw this too. “When tried by the hoary and long-established laws of literary composition, [A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] can scarcely maintain its claim to be placed in the first class of human productions,” he wrote after her death. “But when we consider the importance of its doctrines, and the eminence of genius it displays, it seems not very improbable that it will be read as long as the English language endures.” Reading it again, older now, and having read many more of the feminist books that Wollstonecraft’s short one is the ancient foremother of, I can see what he means.

There are funny autobiographical sketches, as where Mary is having a moment of sublimity at a too-gorgeous sunset only to be interrupted by a fashionable lady asking for her gown to be admired. There is indelible phrasemaking, such as the moment when Mary counters the Margaret Thatcher fallacy—the idea that a woman in power is good in itself—by saying that “it is not empire, but equality” that women should contend for. She asked for things that are commonplace now but were unusual then: for women to be MPs, for girls and boys to be educated together, for friendship to be seen as the source and foundation of romantic love. She linked the way women were understood as property under patriarchy to the way enslaved people were treated, and demanded the abolition of both systems. She was also responding to an indisputably world-historical moment, with all the passion and hurry that that implies. Specifically, she addressed Talleyrand, who had written a pamphlet in support of women’s education, but generally, she applied herself to the ideas about women’s status and worth coming out of the brand-new French republic. In 1791, France gave equal rights to Black citizens, made nonreligious marriage and divorce possible, and emancipated the Jews. What would England give its women? (Wollstonecraft was right that the moment couldn’t wait: Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in October 1791 and ironically dedicated it to Marie-Antoinette, was guillotined within two years of its publication.)

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Kurkov introduces essay by imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Dzhelyal

FromThe Bookseller:

International Booker-longlisted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov has written the introduction to an essay by imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Nariman Dzhelyal.

Written by Dzhelyal from jail, the full essay with the title “Dignity cannot be annexed” will appear in the spring 2023 issue of the Index on Censorship magazine, published in early April. A non-profit that campaigns for free expression across the world, Index on Censorship publishes work by censored writers and artists and monitors threats to free speech. 

With his introduction, Kurkov aims to draw attention to the plight faced by the leader of the persecuted Ukranian group, who was sentenced last year to 17 years in prison “for a crime he did not commit”.

In August 2021, Dzhelyal left Crimea for Kyiv for the first meeting of the Crimean Platform, a newly created international organisation whose goal is the de-occupation of Ukrainian Crimea. On 4th September 2021 Dzhelyal was arrested and charged with an attempted terrorist act.

Kurkov wrote: “There is an urgent need to raise the profile of this case before the final judgement of his appeal, after which he could be transferred to one of [the] most remote Russian prisons and we risk losing touch with him.”

Kurkov said he was struck by Dzhelyal’s “determination to act on his principles and beliefs with a calm understanding that this is the only way to fight injustice and create a path for a positive outcome for the Crimean Tatar people”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet

From The Wall Street Journal:

Megan Buskey was raised in a middle-class suburb of Cleveland, a place she describes as “emphatically incurious.” We’re lucky that she is the emphatic opposite, not merely curious—about her own world and the world that her Ukrainian grandmother and mother fled from for America—but driven by a kind of spiritual passion to uncover the secrets that her family had left unaddressed for years.

These secrets were dark, many rooted in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists had the “uncomfortable history” (in Ms. Buskey’s words) of being allied with Nazi Germany. Her people, she says, “had their reasons for staying quiet about their pasts.” This reticence was compounded in the postwar Soviet Union, in which Ukrainians were “schooled in the consequences of revealing too much to the wrong person.”

Born in 1982, Ms. Buskey now lives in New York, where she makes a living as a writer. “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet,” her first book, is the story, foremost, of her grandmother Anna Mazur. The book’s title is derived from the first line of Ukraine’s national anthem. Although it resonates in the present day, with Ukraine fighting hard to get out from under Vladimir Putin’s jackboot, the title was chosen, Ms. Buskey tells us, well before the Russian invasion. More than just a commentary on the country’s condition, the fragment from the anthem reminds Ms. Buskey of how Ukraine “lived on” in her grandmother’s memory, “often as a site of trauma,” long after she came to the U.S.

It was through her grandmother, and her “foreignness,” that Ms. Buskey became conscious of Ukraine. She and her siblings, ensconced in their Cleveland life of almost embarrassing material excess, were particularly “flush with clothes.” Grandma Anna, who lived nearby, would box up the most neglected of these garments and mail them to family members back in Ukraine. In the months that followed the dispatch of the care packages, Ms. Buskey would find photos of relatives at Anna’s house and feel jolts of recognition: “That was my sweater with the rainbow stripes!”

Growing up, Ms. Buskey wasn’t overly enamored of Ukraine, the land that Grandma Anna and her two daughters (Olga and Nadia, Ms. Buskey’s mother) had left in 1966. Nadia was 12 at the time and integrated quickly into Midwestern America. The more tongue-shy grandmother, by contrast, avoided speaking English in public to her dying day. A resentful Ms. Buskey was made to attend Ukrainian school every Saturday morning and dragged to Ukrainian-language services at an onion-domed church just outside Cleveland’s western boundary.

Church was her grandma’s social highlight, a place where her “small, hobbling friends would flock to her like pigeons spying a bread crust.” It was not until Ms. Buskey went to the University of Chicago that she embraced her own Ukrainian identity with anything approaching enthusiasm. After she graduated, a Fulbright fellowship took her to Ukraine, where she immersed herself in her family’s story and in the history of that “beautiful, imperfect, singular country.”

It is a country we are all now coming to know, so that Ms. Buskey’s personal journey into historical comprehension has a rough parallel with our own fitful attempts to grasp the geopolitical conundrums that beset the Ukrainians. Part of such understanding is an awareness of Ukraine’s long and tangled history with the Russian Empire and, in the modern era, with the Soviet Union, from which Grandma Anna and her daughters had been able to emigrate—a near-impossible feat at the time—only because Anna’s father was an American citizen.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

February’s China Bestsellers: A Crime Drama Knockout

From Publishing Perspectives:

In a change to the recent leadership of the key bestseller list in mainland China, the Beijing OpenBook fiction chart is being led by a crime-drama tie-in novel from a trio of authors.

The Knockout (Qingdao Publishing House)—by Zhu Junyi, Xu Jizhou, and Bai Wenjun—has vaulted to the No. 1 spot on the fiction list from no previous ranking, effectively blindsiding consumers and the industry.

The trilogy that The Knockout has shoved down to Nos. 2, 3, and 4 is the mighty “Three-Body Problem” series by Liu Cixin, which, as Publishing Perspectives readers know, has been surging to the tops of the monthly lists on the strength of both an animated and a live-action television adaptation.

True to form for the Chinese readership, The Knockout is—you guessed it—being fueled by the dynamic popularity of a new television series, itself.  Xu Jizhou directs this CCTV-8 and iQIYI series, which premiered on January 14 this year. Xu has written the adaptation along with Junyi Zhu, and Jijun Xue produces with a cast featuring Xi Zhang, Songwen Zhang, Gang Wu, Jianyi Li, and Danping Shen.

The show is about a 20-year struggle by a police officer against an organized crime mob operating in Jinghai, which borders Hebei province and Beijing.

The popularity of the show “has been soaring since its launch,” OpenBook’s Wendy Pan says, having watched it gain traction in social media during the spring festival earlier in the year.

The book, a film tie-in edition, has leapt onto the February chart in the first month of its eligibility, those sales fueled by what’s described as “bizarre plot twists” in the television series. Qingdao Publishing has also used interactive elements to bond viewers and readers to the content, and has produced live events on various platforms, featuring actors from the cast.

Oriental Selection—one of the influential book-friendly shows we hear a lot about—is among shows used to raise the property’s visibility.

No need to cry for Liu Cixin and his “Three Body Problem” success—his work occupied seven slots on the February chart.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Why Marie Antoinette’s Reputation Changes With Each Generation

From The Smithsonian Magazine:

Approximately 230 years after Marie Antoinette’s execution by guillotine at the hands of revolutionaries, the French queen remains one of history’s most recognizable royals. Depicted alternatively as a materialistic, self-absorbed young woman who ignored her people’s suffering; a more benign figure who was simply out of her depth; and a feminist scapegoat for men’s mistakes, she continues to captivate in large part because of her tragic fate.

“[Marie Antoinette] has no official power. She’s just the wife of the king of France, and yet she’s put to death,” says Catriona Seth, a historian and literary scholar at the University of Oxford. “It seems like an almost gratuitous action on the part of the revolutionaries. … [If] they had sent her back to Austria or put her in a convent,” she would be far less famous.

Marie Antoinette’s exploits at the glittering court of Versailles, coupled with her dramatic fall from grace during the French Revolution, have inspired numerous silver screen adaptations, from a 1938 film starring Norma Shearer to Sofia Coppola’s sympathetic 2006 biopic. But “Marie Antoinette,” a new series premiering in the United States on March 19, is the first major English-language television show to tell the queen’s story. Much like Marie Antoinette herself, it’s proving controversial, with biographer Évelyne Lever deeming the production a “grotesque caricature” and a “litany of historic aberrations.”

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the series’ debut on PBS.

Is “Marie Antoinette” based on a true story?

Yes, but with extensive dramatic license. Created by British screenwriter Deborah Davis, who co-wrote the 2018 period drama The Favourite, “Marie Antoinette” originally premiered in Europe in 2022. Featuring Emilia Schüle as the queen and Louis Cunningham as her hapless husband, Louis XVI, the show’s first season (one of three planned installments) covers roughly 1770 to 1781, beginning with Marie Antoinette’s journey to France and ending with the birth of her first son. In between these milestones, she struggles to win the affection of both her husband and her subjects, all while navigating the competing interests of her birth kingdom of Austria and her new home.

In keeping with the recent period drama trend of presenting historical figures and settings through a thoroughly modern lens (see “Bridgerton,” “The Great” and “The Serpent Queen”), “Marie Antoinette” offers a feminist take on the queen’s life. As Schüle told Variety last October, Marie Antoinette was a “rebel” who was “modern, emancipated, and fought for equality and for her personal freedom.”

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian Magazine

Orwell, Camus and truth

From The Critic:

A war still raged in Europe, but the enemy were firmly in retreat. The occupation of Paris had been broken, and France was free, and so were the cafés of the Boulevard St Germain. No longer did the waiters have to serve coffee to SS officers.

One afternoon in April 1945, a dishevelled Englishman walked into one such café. He was a war correspondent for the Observer — fond of shag-tobacco and Indian tea. His pen-name was George Orwell. 

Orwell was meeting Albert Camus – the distinguished writer and intellectual. But even so, I always imagine Orwell taking a seat indoors, among the pale, ornate woodwork, and feeling slightly out of place. Les Deux Magots, and the Café de Flore opposite, were frequented by a kind of intellectual of which Orwell often disapproved. That is, philosopher-types with communist sympathies: the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 

Orwell sat and waited, and waited, for Camus to arrive. He never turned up: he was laid up with an exacerbation of tuberculosis. They would never get the chance to meet again, and Orwell would die five years later, having lost his own battle with the same disease.

My admiration for both of these eminent writers developed in isolation of one another — but I have always unconsciously identified them as the same sort of writer, and indeed, the same sort of person. There are various superficial similarities: the TB diagnosis that prevented both of them from joining the armed forces, the foreign birth, the rampant womanising, the shared hatred of fascism and suspicion of communism. Much more importantly, they seemed to share the same outlook. Both of these writers took the view that truthfulness was more important than ideological allegiance and metaphysics, that the facts should be derived from the real world, rather than the world of ideas. They were similar stylistically too: both wrote candidly, clearly and prolifically. 

Camus seemed to have shared my view. He said as much in a letter to his mistress, Maria Casarès, on the day of Orwell’s death in 1950.

Some bad news: George Orwell is dead. You don’t know him. A very talented English writer, with exactly the same experience as me (although ten years older) and exactly the same ideas. He fought tuberculosis for years. He was one of the very few men with whom I shared something.

For Camus to say that another writer had “exactly the same ideas”, and was “one of the very few men with whom I shared something” was no small thing. 

No correspondence between the two authors seems to exist. In fact, when I searched for personal links between them there was little to go on. But although my hunt for biographical evidence of a relationship was fruitless, the time I have since spent reading and comparing their work yields some rather more intriguing connections. 

Orwell’s best-known novel is undoubtedly Nineteen Eighty-Four. What’s remarkable about this novel — above virtually all other novels in English — is the number of words and expressions it has bequeathed to the English-speaking world. Perhaps this was Orwell’s greatest gift to mankind: an entire language through which to talk about the coming age of state sponsored surveillance, fake news and post-truth politics in which we now live. When someone says a policy or a government’s behaviour is “Orwellian” people know precisely what is meant.

One phrase from Nineteen Eighty-Four should be familiar to us all, even to those who might not have actually read the novel: 

There comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.

Except of course, these words are not Orwell’s at all. This is a quote from Albert Camus’ novel La Peste, which was published two years before Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1947. Of course, the formulation of two and two making five has a history that predates both Orwell and Camus, but Orwell used a very similar version of it as far back as 1939, in a review of a book by Bertrand Russell in Adelphi:

It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two plus two will make five when the Leader says so

The similarity between these lines is patent. Is it possible that Camus got the idea from Orwell’s article? Yes, but such things are nearly impossible to prove. Still, it is not important whether Camus was taking influence from Orwell’s writing (although an interesting possibility). What’s important about this example is that it exposes common ground. These quotes embody a foundational principle that united their work: a shared anxiety over the fragility of truth.  

. . . .

Both Camus and Orwell are rightly credited with being “antitotalitarian” writers. And yet their reasons for being so are not wholly political. They were antitotalitarian not just because they opposed totalitarian regimes, but because they both understood that the totalitarian mindset requires you accept that truth comes from ideology. If the ideas say something is true, it becomes true, and is true. For Fascists and Communists, ideology is not merely a set of values or beliefs, but a cohesive explanation of the past, present and future of mankind. This is what Camus referred to in The Rebel as the desire “to make the earth a kingdom where man is God”. Orwell and Camus both understood the dangers of such thinking, and sought to repudiate it in their work.

Link to the rest at The Critic

BBC crisis escalates as players and stars rally behind soccer host Gary Lineker

From National Public Radio:

The BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming as the network scrambled to stem an escalating crisis over its suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker for comments criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.

As a growing number of English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker’s support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain’s national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.

The broadcaster said it would air only “limited sport programming” this weekend after hosts of many of its popular sports shows declined to appear, in solidarity with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from “Match of the Day,” a popular soccer highlights show, over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers’ language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first comments on the storm, saying: “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government.”

Instead of blanket coverage on Saturday of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summary of the final scores of Premier League games. Lunchtime TV program “Football Focus” was replaced with a rerun episode of antiques show “Bargain Hunt,” while early evening “Final Score” was swapped for “The Repair Shop.”

Soccer fans tuning in for “Match of the Day” — the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years — will be getting a 20-minute show instead of one typically lasting around an hour and a half. There will be no commentary on the matches and no studio punditry from some of the most high-profile stars in the British game who have chosen to support Lineker and not work.

There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to participate in interviews with ‘Match of The Day.'”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

Americans may play on soccer teams in the US and elsewhere, but a great many of us don’t really understand the intense popularity of The Beautiful Game elsewhere.

That said, PG has always viewed the powers that be that control the BBC to be more than a little poncey from time to time. Perhaps it’s because BBC programs in the US run primarily on educational channels, usually non-profits, and more often than not associated with a local college or university.

Plus, there’s no US analog to the British television license fee that Brits must pay to watch or record television on any channel. This means that the stations that carry BBC programs in the US tend to interrupt them with breaks to ask for money “to support good programming such as the show you’ve just been watching for ten minutes since our last pledge break,” sounding more than a little like poncey beggers as well.

Of course, in more than a few US universities, the annual salaries paid to the football coach and the basketball coach would fund the university’s public television activities for several years.