The Claims of Memory

From First Things:

I write in defense of memory. Not Memory in her gaudy mythological form, the Titan goddess Mnemosyne, mother of the nine Muses—but memory as the glue that holds our lives together and imposes order and continuity amid the blooming buzzing confusion of sensations, thoughts, and activities that stream in upon our days. It is no exaggeration to say that a working memory is indispensable in the flourishing of the human person and of human culture.

Of course I recognize the maddening imperfections of memory: its unreliability, its failures, its deceptions, its panderings, its whispering seductions, its stealthy editing of experience for personal benefit—and its penchant for cruel taunts, for hurling self-condemnations at us without warning, for keeping us awake at night as we cling to any distraction to avoid an encounter with the rebuke of our own recollections. Memory can be a reservoir of joy, a treasury in times of woe. It can also be a source of woe, of remorse and regret that will not go away, steady work for the psychiatric profession. Whether in joy or in woe, memory maintains a shifty relationship to the truth, and like a shady accountant may maintain separate sets of books on the same account.

All these things are true of memory. And yet we cannot do without it. It is “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own,” as Touchstone declares in As You Like It. Well said, and even a one-sentence summation of my argument. For our very humanity is bound up in the inescapable fact of our memory’s vagaries and imperfections, all of which are inseparable from the fact that it is, and must be, our own.

A long time ago, at the beginning of my graduate studies in history at Johns ­Hopkins University, I read the philosopher George Santayana for the first time. We all know Santayana for a famous saying, frequently misrendered: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a favorite adage of op-ed sages. But I had never seen it rendered as it ­originally appeared, in Santayana’s book Reason in Common Sense:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

Santayana was not concerned here with the putative “lessons of history,” about whose precise contents he was always skeptical and circumspect. He was speaking of something more fundamental, more elemental, more anthropological. He was designating memory as a central precondition for a mature, civilized way of life—a subject about which he knew a great deal.

A second passage from Santayana was more startling, at least to me. Here I was at Johns Hopkins, an institution that prided itself on being the model of the modern research university in the United States, an institution dedicated not to the placid ideal of cultural conservation but to inquiry, to the remorseless supplanting of traditional learning with ever more incisive and disruptive scientific knowledge, including the relentless rethinking and reinterpretation of the past. So imagine my shock when I came across this passage:

It is one of the foibles of romanticism to insist on rewriting history and perpetually publishing new views without new matter. Can we know more about the past than its memorials transmit to us? Evidently we cannot know more; in point of truth concerning human history, any tradition is better than any reconstruction. A tradition may be a ruin, broken unrecognizably, or shabbily built over in a jungle of accretions, yet it always retains some nucleus of antiquity; whereas a reconstruction . . . is something fundamentally arbitrary, created by personal fancy, and modern from top to bottom. Such a substitution is no mere mistake; it is a voluntary delusion which romantic egotism positively craves: to rebuild the truth nearer the heart’s desire.

It was a shocking statement, a repudiation of everything Johns Hopkins University stood for. Historical revisionism a “foible of romanticism” and a “delusion”! What chutzpah!

Link to the rest at First Things

Of Sound Mind

From The Wall Street Journal:

Close your eyes. Listen to what surrounds you. At first, perhaps, the low hum of a space heater—a noise so constant that you only notice it when it stops. Then, a more distant sound—the hiss, click, whoosh of the heating system down the hall as it switches on. After a few moments, you untangle other, slighter sounds. The soft click of typing. Footfalls on an upper floor. The squawk of a blue jay outside. “Sound is all around us—inescapable and invisible,” writes Nina Kraus in “Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World.” Our sense of hearing, she tells us, “is always ‘on.’ ” We ignore it at our peril.

According to Ms. Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University and the founder of its Brainvolts auditory neuroscience laboratory, most people would choose sight over hearing—they would rather live in silence than in darkness. But, she reminds us, it is sound that provides us with our greatest means of communication. She quotes the author and activist Helen Keller: “Blindness disconnects us from things,” but “deafness disconnects us from people.” Sound is also a source of great nostalgic power. Ms. Kraus writes: “The neighborhood birds, the sounds of leaves rustling, the distant church bell, the abrupt hiss-honk of the city bus’s air brakes and the pick-up basketball game down the street. . . . These all impart a sense of place, a place of belonging.”

We live with constant racket, but we have forgotten how to listen. And yet the part of our brain that is given over to sound—what Ms. Kraus calls the“hearing brain” or “sound mind”—is far bigger and more complex than any of our other sensory equipment. Hearing influences how we feel, how we see, how we move, how we think. It makes us who we are.

“At some point deep in our evolutionary past,” Ms. Kraus explains, natural selection gave us the ability to sense pressure changes with our ears. We developed body parts that “turn the air movement caused by a vibrating guitar string or a spoken word” into something meaningful. Both our ability to move and our ability to hear were developed from similar sources: The deep thrum in our chests when we hear a drumbeat, the innate desire to move to a rhythmic tempo—these echo our earliest development. Sound is motion.

The way by which we convert sound waves into electrical brain signals is indeed unusual: Within the inner ear are tiny hairs in a fluid; when external vibrations enter the ear canal, they agitate the fluid and cause the hair cells to bob up and down. Microscopic projections that perch on top bump and bend, causing porelike channels to open. Chemicals rush into the cells, creating electrical signals that the auditory nerve carry to the brain. Ms. Kraus’s descriptions of the process are rich in metaphorical imagery, giving us the sense that an ear is a cathedral with walls, roof and floor, with fountains of living (electrical) water. But while the science is clear, there remains a magical, awe-inspiring sense of wonder that somehow timing, timbre and pitch can become conversation, lyric and song.

Our comprehension of sound also works in the opposite direction, explains Ms. Kraus: not only from ear to brain, but from brain to ear. A few years ago, a meme on the internet featured someone pronouncing a word. Simple—except no one could agree on the word: It depended on your context. How could this be? Ms. Kraus describes a similar experiment wherein an audio “ba” sound is paired with a video of someone expressing a “fa” sound. Close your eyes, and you hear “ba.” Watch the person in the video, and you hear “fa.” What your brain tells you—in this case, from the sense of sight—influences what you hear. To use another of Ms. Kraus’s examples: During one of her classes she often plays a recording of a sentence that has been so distorted that it sounds like “Darth Vader with a toothache doing a Cookie Monster impersonation during a thunderstorm.” Her students will find the recording incomprehensible—that is, until she plays a clear version of the sentence. “When I play the garbled one again, lightbulbs go off all over the lecture hall. Suddenly that garbled mess is completely understandable to every student. Everyone is amazed at how obvious (in retrospect) the garbled sentence was and can’t believe it was ever challenging. What we know has an enormous influence on what we hear.”

Link to the rest at the Wall Street Journal

On the Most Adapted Ghost Story of All Time

From The Literary Hub:

Ghost stories are about seeing. If their earnest intention in simplistic terms is to scare, then that fear first and foremost arises from witnessing. Seeing becomes séance in tales of the supernatural. In the history of the literary ghost story, several writers have taken the form to its zenith through terrifying temporal lapses of perception. Those glimpsed stories of M.R. James’s or those witnessed horrors of Charles Dickens; all stories in which the act of seeing becomes the spine of the narrative.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see why several of the strongest ghost stories of the last two hundred years or so have found their way onto screens in various forms. With the act of seeing so pivotal to their narrative arcs, there is an obvious visual quality within them that renders their potential for screen adaptation irresistible. It could almost be argued that the most adapted of writers and their stories are those that convey this visual terror most effectively.

M.R. James is likely the most adapted of ghost story writers (perhaps with some competition from Algernon Blackwood), in terms of the sheer number of different stories that have made it onto the screen. An upcoming adaptation of his story The Mezzotint is due to be screened at Christmas this year on the BBC. In terms of singular stories, one of the most adapted is arguably Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, partly (like James) due to its firm position within Christmas tradition.

One story above all is returned to again and again by filmmakers across countries and eras, suggesting that it may be the most visually alarming of all English language eerie tales. That story is Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw.

The novella follows the haunted and disturbing events at a manor in Bly, Essex. A group of men are being read a manuscript authored by a governess who was charged with the care of the children of the manor, Miles and Flora. Miles has been mysteriously expelled from school and returns home. The governess becomes increasingly unnerved by their behavior and the presence of a man and a woman seen variously around the property. They are said to be the spirits of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Soon, the governess suspects liaisons between the ghosts and children, her investigations resulting in horror and tragedy.

James’s heady novella is arguably the most successful ghost story ever written, at least in terms of creative responses to it. A cursory glance over IMDb entries reveals over two dozen screen adaptations, and that’s before including filmed versions of the chamber opera of the story by composer Benjamin Britten.

In particular, the last two decades have seen a slew of television adaptations, 2020 itself boasting no less than six screen versions of various kinds. Even this year, there have already been two adaptations, and filmmakers seem to sleepwalk into recreating it in the same somnambulist fashion as the children of the narrative; possessed of spirits older and darker than themselves.

Out of the many adaptations, Jack Clayton’s 1961 version is considered the benchmark. The film celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having premiered in London on the 24th of November, 1961. Considering the sheer number of competitors to Clayton’s version, it is telling of the film’s qualities that it still stands far and above its many peers. In fact, it is difficult to see James’s story without those stark black-and-white images of the film coming to mind, as well as its stunning central performance by Deborah Kerr. Suffice to say, 60 years on, Jamess’ screen ghosts still haunt.

. . . .

The Turn of the Screw has the sort of ambiguous ghostly heritage expected of such a celebrated tale. James was acquainted with another noted exponent of the English ghost story, E.F. Benson. Benson’s father Edward White Benson was the Archbishop of Canterbury and, on a visit to his house in 1895, the archbishop purportedly told James a story. The story was one vaguely similar to the narrative he was soon to produce, in which two children were left in the care of ill-suited servants, both of whom died and haunted the children, corrupting them even from the grave.

Roger Clarke, the author of The Natural History of Ghosts, has researched the story’s history thoroughly and highlighted the murky contradictions within its possible inspirations. “The general scholarly view is that The Turn of the Screw is not based on any known story but,” he writes, “in fact, the story recounted one January evening at the archbishop’s house in Addington…” Clarke sees some connection to the famous haunting of Hinton Ampner and its occupant Mary Ricketts, perhaps passed down through the upper echelons of society to the archbishop. He does stress, however, that E.F. Benson, along with the archbishop’s wife, could never recall the man recounting such a ghost story.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub


PG has had offspring and grand-offspring running around the house for the past several days.

The offspring have definitely captured PG’s attention during that time and PG has missed a couple of days of posting.

Today, the male grand-offspring are otherwise occupied and the female offspring and grand-offspring will be joining Mrs. PG for High Tea at a local establishment.

Mrs. PG has experience with High Tea from visits with English friends some years ago and assures PG that the local version is true to the original even if it takes place in a location far-removed from England.

(If High Tea is also traditionally observed in Scotland and/or Ireland, PG apologizes. He didn’t mean to exclude you from his reference to locations where High Tea is traditionally observed. Having never partaken of High Tea himself, he is quite without knowledge of much beyond its existence and that sweets are involved.)

To Comma, or Not to Comma

From Writers in the Storm:

Welcome to comma central, where we’re talking about all things comma. Among most writers, you’ll find a consensus when it comes to this tiny, ambiguous mark. They don’t like it. It’s too confusing. When do you use it? Where do you use it? Why do you use it? And who even cares, really?

Trust me, as a writer, you do!

. . . .

In this section, we’ll cover essential and nonessential information in a sentence and how that plays into when and where you add in commas or leave them out.     

But first, a quick review.

Crucial Definitions

CLAUSE is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence.

Or think of it this way. A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.

SUBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.

A PREDICATE is a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.

An OBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.

Here’s an example.

Mr. Jones (noun) walked (verb) his yippy dog (object) at the crack of dawn.

Nonessential vs Essential Information

When it comes to your sentence, what information can you afford to lose and what information do you have to keep? How do you figure it out? And what do you do once you know?

The quick answer is:

  • nonessential information is the part of a sentence you can do without. 
  • essential information is the part of a sentence you can’t do without. 

Nonessential Information:

Let’s start with nonessential information—the parts of a sentence you can do without. That doesn’t mean we’re putting those words on the chopping block. It just means we need to set them off with commas.

What we put inside commas or after a comma is usually considered NONESSENTIAL information. It isn’t needed to decipher the meaning of the sentence.

In the examples below, the bolded words are nonessential.

Inside Commas: The book on the shelf, which is exciting, is the one you should read next.

After a Comma: The weather in Texas is hot, which I really don’t like.

Do you see how the bolded information doesn’t really matter when it comes to understanding the sentence? The important part the author is trying to get across is that it’s hot in Texas.

The key point to note here is this. If we were to take out anything between the commas or after the comma, the sentence still has to be grammatically correct and make sense. It has to do both.

Nonessential words are red shirts. Like in the original Star Trek. Treat what’s in between commas of after a comma as a red shirt—an expendable part of the team, usually the first to die. At any time, I could sacrifice it without losing a crucial member of the sentence squad.

Inside Commas: A week off for vacation, I think, is great.

After a Comma: A week off for vacation is great, I think.

Removing “I think” in either instance above changes nothing grammatically or in terms of what each sentence means.

The red-shirt idea works for clauses, phrases, and single words too. Any of the words in bold below can be deleted and still keep the sentence grammatically correct without changing the essence of what I want the sentence to mean.

  • Clause: Next October, which is my favorite month, works for our writing retreat.
  • Phrase: You’re a great guy. Your brother, sad to say, I could do without.
  • Word: I usually like my English teacher. Today, however, I do not.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

We ask “C”: how do intelligence services need to change in the 21st century?

From The Economist:

IN HIS first public speech since he became chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Richard Moore said the service needs to “become more open to stay secret.” On “The Economist Asks” podcast, host Anne McElvoy and Shashank Joshi, The Economist’s defence editor, ask Mr Moore exactly what that means in practice.

The spymaster, whose position is traditionally referred to simply as “C”, describes the “entrepreneurial animal spirits” he hopes to attract by lifting the veil on MI6’s plans and challenges. Can partnering with technological talent lend British intelligence the heft it needs to punch above its weight against larger rivals like Russia and China?

China, Mr Moore says, is the service’s most pressing priority. Alongside what he calls the “key battleground” and exponentially-growing “digital attack surface” of technology and data-gathering, debt traps threaten to slowly erode the sovereignty of other states as China garners ever-more influence in emerging markets.

A key challenge, he says, will be to assert and defend Western democratic values while securing China’s “cooperation on the key transnational issues”, including “the biggest issue of all”—climate change.

. . . .

“Vladimir Putin…really does think that Russia, in the 21st century, has the right to impose limits on the sovereignty of the countries on its periphery,” he says. “And that’s a problem.” Still, he adds, Mr Putin runs the risk of underestimating his counterparts in Washington.

Despite a strong focus on technology, the business of intelligence is “still, fundamentally a question of building a relationship with a fellow human being,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. So I need officers who can build trust with people who are taking significant risks to work with us.” But as adversaries build up extraordinary surveillance capabilities, and after the heavily-publicised assassinations by Russian operatives, we ask Mr Moore how British intelligence services continue to guarantee protection to their agents.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The OP includes a link to a podcast of the interview with C.

Under Jerusalem

From The Wall Street Journal:

In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud compared memory and its recovery to the archaeology of Rome. The visitor cannot see the earlier layers of civilization, but the guidebook says where they once were. This allows us to look at the Colosseum and imagine the Golden House of Nero below. But, Freud wrote, a single physical space cannot hold “two different contents.” If it did, then the Palazzo Caffarelli would occupy the same spot as the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and we would see the temple in both its early, Etruscan form and its later, imperial form.

Freud never saw Jerusalem. Not only is its visitor’s imagination incited by the Bible, the guidebook of guidebooks, but Jerusalem’s archaeology also presents the simultaneity that Freud thought impossible. The sacred core of Jerusalem is so great that, like New York, they named it twice: Raise your head as you emerge from the warren of the Old City, and you see the Temple Mount of the Jews and the Noble Sanctuary of the Muslims. Two different contents, two different contexts—not forgetting the Christians, who cannot agree among themselves where their sacred sites should be.

In “Under Jerusalem,” journalist Andrew Lawler directs our contemplation away from the heavenly city, and down into the roots of history and faith. Modern archaeology in Jerusalem began as an effort to substantiate Christian faith through modern science. The history of its practice in Jerusalem presents a parade of eccentrics and fanatics, enlivened by obscurantism and riot. Mr. Lawler, unlike so many of his characters, navigates the terrain without offending the political or religious sensibilities of his subjects.

In the 19th century, tourists like Twain and Melville were disappointed by the rundown and rather modest architecture of Ottoman Jerusalem. When Baedeker issued a guidebook in 1876, he apologized for the “modern crust of rubbish and rottenness” that obscured the “Jerusalem of antiquity.” Exceptional in being sacred to all three monotheisms, Jerusalem is unusual as ancient cities go. The tel, a man-made hill in which civilizations are stacked layer upon layer like stony pancakes, is common in the Middle East; the Israeli site at Har Megiddo, the “Armageddon” of the Christians, has 26 layers. But Jerusalem is rocky and hilly. Its layers are compressed as though by tectonic forces and honeycombed with cisterns and tunnels.

Archaeology was a European invention introduced to Jerusalem by French and British Christians. The European soldiers and churchmen viewed sacred archaeology in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson: “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and the dead have “neither rights nor powers over it.” Mr. Lawler’s tale begins in 1863, when the French senator Louis-Félicien de Saulcy launched the first modern dig, just outside the Old City walls. Breaking into an ancient tomb, de Saulcy abducted an attractive sarcophagus and, while Jerusalem’s rabbis launched an international protest against this foreign graverobber, took it to Paris and declared its occupant to be “the consort of a Judean ruler from the seventh century BCE.” He was only 700 years off.

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

Usufruct (yo͞ozəˌfrəkt)- “The right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.”

How to Write a Compelling Antihero

From Writers Helping Writers:

What is an Antihero?

Heroes embody courage, perseverance and skill. They can easily turn into villains when they use their talents for personal gain. This means antiheroes are like their name suggests … a character that DOESN’T have or has twisted the classic hero attributes, for whatever reason.

Lots of writers believe antiheroes ‘have’ to be protagonists, but this is not the case. An antihero can be ANY main character – protagonist, antagonist or even secondary – that has ‘gone wrong’ when it comes to being a hero.

Iconic Antiheroes

In I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, our protagonist Pilgrim is contrasted with the antagonist, Saracen. Pilgrim is supposed to the ‘classic’ American spy thriller hero, whereas Saracen is the threat to the Western world from the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’.

As the story continues, it becomes clear the two are both not only antiheroes, but doppelgängers. They are the same men, but on opposite sides. In contrast to reader expectation, Pilgrim is arguably NOT the ‘good’ one, nor is Saracen the ‘bad’ one.

In the TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White’s arc is ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface‘. Facing a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer, White’s intentions to provide for his family after his death are understandable and good. However, in doing this he descends onto a rocky road where he becomes a drug kingpin. NOT good!

In the Marvel movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is a genocidal murderer and wants to bring Wakanda down, whom he blames for his father’s death. He is evil, but he is right: Wakanda did him a terrible wrong. His own family abandoned him as a child to keep up appearances.

In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne is the voice of spurned women everywhere. She discovers her husband Nick has betrayed her, so decides to take him down by utilizing society’s misogyny in her favor.

Amy proves she will stop at nothing to make him pay. Knowing most women are murdered by the men in their lives, she fakes her own disappearance and frames Nick.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The new normal is already here. Get used to it.

From The Economist:

Is it nearly over? In 2021 people have been yearning for something like stability. Even those who accepted that they would never get their old lives back hoped for a new normal. Yet as 2022 draws near, it is time to face the world’s predictable unpredictability. The pattern for the rest of the 2020s is not the familiar routine of the pre-covid years, but the turmoil and bewilderment of the pandemic era. The new normal is already here.

Remember how the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 began to transform air travel in waves. In the years that followed each fresh plot exposed an unforeseen weakness that required a new rule. First came locked cockpit doors, more armed air marshals and bans on sharp objects. Later, suspicion fell on bottles of liquid, shoes and laptops. Flying did not return to normal, nor did it establish a new routine. Instead, everything was permanently up for revision.

The world is similarly unpredictable today and the pandemic is part of the reason. For almost two years people have lived with shifting regimes of mask-wearing, tests, lockdowns, travel bans, vaccination certificates and other paperwork. As outbreaks of new cases and variants ebb and flow, so these regimes can also be expected to come and go. That is the price of living with a disease that has not yet settled into its endemic state.

And covid-19 may not be the only such infection. Although a century elapsed between the ravages of Spanish flu and the coronavirus, the next planet-conquering pathogen could strike much sooner. Germs thrive in an age of global travel and crowded cities. The proximity of people and animals will lead to the incubation of new human diseases. Such zoonoses, which tend to emerge every few years, used to be a minority interest. For the next decade, at least, you can expect each new outbreak to trigger paroxysms of precaution.

Covid has also helped bring about today’s unpredictable world indirectly, by accelerating change that was incipient. The pandemic has shown how industries can be suddenly upended by technological shifts. Remote shopping, working from home and the Zoom boom were once the future. In the time of covid they rapidly became as much of a chore as picking up the groceries or the daily commute.

Big technological shifts are nothing new. But instead of taking centuries or decades to spread around the world, as did the printing press and telegraph, new technologies become routine in a matter of years. Just 15 years ago, modern smartphones did not exist. Today more than half of the people on the planet carry one. Any boss who thinks their industry is immune to such wild dynamism is unlikely to last long.

Link to the rest at The Economist – should be a free link, but PG doesn’t know if the Economist prevents it from being used more than a handful of times.

Flog a Pro

From Writer Unboxed:

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

Here’s the question:

Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a page.

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

“Is that the mill?” he asked.


“I do not remember it.”

“It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass.”

He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant’s smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.

“Then you cannot see the bridge from here.”

“No,” the old man said. “This is the easy country of the pass where the stream flows gently. Below, where the road turns out of sight in the trees, it drops suddenly and there is a steep gorge—”

Were you moved to turn the page?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

There’s a Yes/No polling button at the OP. The results of the poll when PG checked didn’t speak well for the methods of the traditional publishing industry for reviewing submissions.

Book publishing was never a heaven

Book publishing was never a heaven “run by editors”, and it is by no means today a hell “run by accountants.” If our “sole interest” was “instant profit,” not only would we never do any number of the things we actually do every day, we probably wouldn’t be in book publishing at all.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Penguin Random House Defends Effort to Buy Simon & Schuster

From The New York Times:

Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the United States, said in a court filing on Monday that its plan to buy a competitor, Simon & Schuster, would be a boon for the industry, benefiting authors, booksellers and readers.

The Justice Department has disagreed. Last month, it sued to stop the $2.18 billion acquisition, as the Biden administration takes a more skeptical view of corporate consolidation across industries.

In its complaint, the department attacked the deal on the grounds that it would harm best-selling authors, since they could potentially receive lower pay with one fewer publisher competing to acquire their books. It documented several bidding wars between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster that went into six and seven figures and argued that if the proposed merger goes through, those authors wouldn’t have received such lucrative advances.

By focusing on authors’ pay, the Justice Department signaled that it is taking a more sweeping view of antitrust law. For decades, it has been used to block deals on the grounds that consumers can be harmed when big companies with few competitors can raise their prices. But in its suit to block Penguin Random House, the government does not claim that the prices for books will rise for readers or for booksellers, but instead argues that if Penguin Random House gets even larger, it will have more leverage over authors.

In the joint response filed on Monday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster said the government’s argument misunderstands the way the publishing industry functions.

. . . .

“The government wants to block the merger under the misguided theory that it will diminish compensation to just the highest-paid authors,” said Daniel Petrocelli, a lawyer representing Penguin Random House and its parent company, Bertelsmann, in an interview on Monday. “That is legally, economically and factually wrong, and it ignores the vast majority of authors who will indisputably benefit from the transaction.”

Penguin Random House is defending its plan in part because it stands to lose millions if it does not go through. Acquisitions like these often come with termination fees that are owed to the prospective seller if the transaction doesn’t close. In this case, Penguin Random House would have to pay Simon & Schuster’s seller, ViacomCBS, about $200 million.

Monday’s filing described the book industry as more than just the “Big Five” that consists of Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette and Macmillan. There are other major players like Disney, Amazon and Scholastic, along with hundreds of small and midsize publishing houses. On any given deal, Penguin Random House said, “at least one” smaller publisher will often compete, and some of the country’s highest-selling authors, including J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter”) and Jeff Kinney (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”), are published by companies outside the big five.

Penguin Random House criticized the government for focusing on the relatively small but influential group of authors who command the highest advances, calling it an “invented market.” Publishers do not “divide the market for book rights into distinct categories based on the author’s compensation,” it said in the response.

“This slender piece of the market does not exist,” Mr. Petrocelli said. “There is no objectively definable market for authors of anticipated top-selling books.”

Many writers outside that group, Penguin Random House said, would stand to make more money as a result of the deal. Authors now published by Simon & Schuster would be brought into the Penguin Random House supply chain, widely considered to be the best in the business, which would make their work more visible and available. The company’s supply chain and distribution network also helps neighborhood bookstores compete with Amazon, the response said.

There is little dispute that the proposed acquisition would reshape publishing, which has been transformed by increasing consolidation over the past decade.

The merger of Penguin and Random House in 2013 helped to accelerate an arms race among other publishers who felt they had to bulk up to compete with the enormous new company. Hachette Book Group has expanded its catalog by buying successful independent publishers, including Perseus Books in 2016 and Workman Publishing this year. HarperCollins has also made acquisitions central to its growth strategy, purchasing the romance publisher Harlequin in 2014, and earlier this year it acquired Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books and Media, the trade publishing division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for $349 million.

But in its court filing on Monday, Penguin Random House said that since 2013, competition in the industry has grown. More titles are published every year, it said, and more than half of the dollars spent on hardcover and paperback books in the United States now go to publishers outside the big five, a higher percentage than before the 2013 merger.

. . . .

Eleanor Fox, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in antitrust and competition policy, said the government’s argument was unusual in that it focused on top author earnings rather than harm to consumers or the market as a whole.

“It’s somewhat unique in this time to focus on the supply market and argue that the suppliers will be exploited,” she said. “They have a much weaker case about consumer pricing.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times (Sorry, but the Times thinks you should pay to visit their website and look at the ads you see there. You can sign up for a limited free subscription, however.)

George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

From The Guardian (4 March 2017):

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

. . . .

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do. . . . Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Will you ever buy mostly e-books?

From Nathan Bransford:

Well well well.

For the first time since the heady days of early 2010s e-book enthusiasm, we’ve seen a pretty significant jump in people who think they’ll buy mostly e-books, with a clear plurality.

While the number of people who are sticking to paper books has stayed mostly the same, there was a big shift in people who welcome their coming e-book overlords, mainly due to fence-sitters hopping off into the e-book column.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Bookstat: Ellis scales the chart at long last

From The Bookseller:

JR Ellis’ Murder at St Anne’s (Thomas & Mercer) has clocked in as the Bookstat e-book number one for the week ending 11th December, marking the author’s first number one in the chart.

. . . .

The e-book and print charts tend to divert more than ever at this time of year, with the print market so laser-focused on Christmas gifts and e-books still firmly in the self-gifting arena. The Bookstat chart saw a flurry of new entries, with Nicolas Sparks’ The Wish (Sphere), Robert Bryndza’s Darkness Falls (Sphere) and Emma Haughton’s The Dark (Hodder & Stoughton) debuting in the top five.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Do the Humanities Need Experts or Skeptics?

From Public Books:

How should cultural critics regard claims about the artistic value of literary works in the European traditions? Should such arguments be taken seriously, as experts offering essential information for living a human life well? Or should they be regarded skeptically, as the ideological counterpart of two centuries of Western hegemony? There are, after all, an uncountable number of artistic practices in human cultural history. And if, in a quiet moment, critics are unable to explain why, say, twentieth-century Anglophone novels are more worthy of attention than Ottoman shadow puppetry or the art of knot tying, then perhaps skeptics of the contemporary humanities have a point. Perhaps the prominent scholars of this particular practice are simply the pretentious snobs of an unjustly privileged elite, and perhaps this particular literary-artistic tradition should not play a significant role in education.

Answering this challenge involves first getting clear on what could even count as an answer, and a contention of two recent books is that critics and philosophers have been confused about what it means to deny aesthetic value. Michael W. Clune’s A Defense of Judgment and Dominic McIver Lopes’s Being for Beauty: Aesthetic Agency and Value both contend that the debate is misled when conducted in terms of the broad category “art,” and that answering skeptical challenges has to start within the density of specific artistic practices. If the justifications are thus humbler than more enthusiastic predecessors—great artworks do not improve readers or transform the world here—they are all the more plausible. And if English professors turn out to be something less than history-transcending authorities, that humility is key to recognizing what they actually can contribute to one’s decisions about which works of art to spend time with.

. . . .

The fusion between aesthetic appreciation and intellectual analysis here is a difficult line to walk (one I’ve attempted myself, in arguing that reading Victorian novels for their moral philosophy is a way of enjoying them). But Clune’s theory of literary appreciation does at least do justice to the specificity of literary experience: it can account well for the difference between reading a poem and, say, contemplating a landscape. And it is strengthened by his insistence that critics should not overstate their intellectual competence. Rather than social activists or free-ranging intellectuals, at the end of the day critics are simply masters of a few discrete capacities in written culture (example: “the ability to show students what you are seeing in a work”). So while they must use ideas from other disciplines to comprehend literary works, the expert critic also recognizes the scholarly standards of those disciplines in so doing.

Yet literature professors have often had significant difficulty acknowledging their expertise and corresponding difficulty in justifying their status to skeptics, Clune contends, for broadly two reasons. First, a commitment to democratic equality has made it difficult to espouse hierarchies in any form: judging one work of art to be worse than another—much less judging one person’s capacity for judgment to be worse than another’s—has seemed to many a violation of the moral ideal of fundamental equality. But this is a mistake, Clune argues: aesthetic experience isn’t the product of a capacity for disinterested pleasure shared universally, as Immanuel Kant thought. David Hume’s account is better: aesthetic experience is the result of a learned sensitivity. It’s not that some are born able to judge art while others are not; it’s that some receive an education others don’t. The inequality between those who have the skill and those who don’t is thus inevitable but also untroubling (at least philosophically).

Link to the rest at Public Books

The OP made PG feel grateful that it has been decades since he had any interaction with professors of humanities.

NPD Projects US Print Book Unit Sales 17 Percent Above 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

In today’s release (December 13, 2021) of its United States print books weekly media report for the week ending December 4, Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst with NPD Books and Entertainment, shows the American publishing industry pressing into the holiday run with the strength that has distinguished it and several other world book markets in the second year of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

McLean writes, “2021 and 2020 are converging as we reach the end of the year.

“This past week was essentially flat” in comparison to the same week in 2020, she reports, “crossing the 25-million-unit mark about a week earlier than the seasonal norms set in 2019 and 2018, and two weeks earlier than 2017.

“The market finished the week up 10 percent on a year-to-date volume of 726 million units, which is 67 million units ahead of 2020, and 118 million units ahead of 2019.

“If we finish the year as we project at 8 percent higher, year-over-year, on a unit basis, that will be 17 percent higher than 2019, a finish none of us would have foreseen on January 1, 2020.”

And this time, McLean has included what NPD Group calls its “Total Market Retail Thermometer” (from its “Retail Center of Excellence” material), to get a look at the sales revenue performance of all other non-book retail that NPD tracks as a percentage of 2019 performance.

“2021 has already exceeded 2019 by 4 percent,” McLean announces, “with four more holiday weeks to go.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The headline of the OP caught PG’s attention because he suspected 2019 was a typo.

PG will note that NPD’s data “covers approximately 85 percent of trade print books sold in the U.S.” so there is apparently no ebook sales data included.

Per Booksliced, in 2020, the share of market in ebooks looks this way:

Amazon 81%
Nook 9%
Apple Books 7%
Kobo 3%

PG hadn’t heard of Booksliced until he did a quick search for ebook market share. If anyone can locate additional data on ebook market share, feel free to share in the comments.

A Head for Metals

From The Wall Street Journal:

George Hearst was famous for discovering metals—copper, silver, gold—but he liked any mineral he could pull out of the earth. New Year’s Eve 1889 found him far from his San Francisco home, in West Virginia’s coal country. “We found the coal veins all right,” said Hearst’s traveling companion, T.J. Clunie, a young California state senator. “The samples were fine, the price was low, and I expected to see Hearst snap at the offer.” But Hearst was hesitant. “I don’t like to buy a pig in a poke,” he said. “We had better crawl up and see that coal for ourselves before we discuss the price.” That meant scaling a 3,000-foot hill.

At the summit Hearst found a vein of coal, hacked out a chunk, and set it on fire. The flame sputtered and died in seconds. He tossed the lump aside and went looking for another. He found a different vein, hacked out another piece and ignited it. This one burned steadily for 10 minutes, Clunie recalled, while Hearst watched it “as a mother does her first-born.” Hearst scrambled back down the hill and bought the vein. He was 69 years old.

Stomach cancer would claim Hearst barely a year later, but as Matthew Bernstein demonstrates in “George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age,” the old miner went about his work right to the end with the same tenacity, demon energy and genius for finding what he was after that had made him one of the richest men in the American West.

Hearst was born in 1820 into modest yet comfortable circumstances in Missouri, where his father owned three small farms. Farming interested young George not at all, but when he was 15, lead was discovered near his home. The subsequent diggings fascinated him. “I think I was naturally a mineralogist,” he would write years later. “The knowledge seems to me instinctive.”

When gold was discovered in California, Hearst headed west with plenty of competition: There were perhaps 800 San Franciscans before the metal revealed itself at Sutter’s Mill. By the time Hearst arrived, in the fall of 1850, the city’s population had swelled to 25,000, with more than 100,000 hopefuls scouring the riverbeds.

Hearst joined them, and after some discouraging months seeking gold along the rivers—which were overcrowded and quickly exhausted—he turned to the mountains. By then he was looking for quartz, not because it was valuable, but because he had learned that during the volcanic birth of California’s coastal mountains, streams of molten quartz carried gold along with them and imprisoned it as they cooled.The knowledgeable prospector could crack open a stone and see within its snowy depths a gleaming yellow filling. Hearst’s friends gave him the name “Quartz George.”

Then came Washoe, part of Utah Territory at the time. Hearst had heard about silver deposits there, and bought a share of a mine. At first nobody believed that the ore he brought back to San Francisco was valuable, but finally the head of the San Francisco Mint agreed to give it a look—he offered Hearst and his associates $91,000 after costs, or about $3 million today, for what turned out to be one of the earliest extractions from the Comstock Lode. After that, the money never stopped.

Nor did Hearst. In the following decades he traveled throughout the West, sometimes coming up dry, more often not. Some 65 miles outside of Butte, Mont., in 1883, Hearst began digging at the Anaconda Mine, where “they struck a bed of pure copper. Continuing to delve, they found that the bed was thirty to forty feet wide and descended more than a thousand feet. In other words,” Mr. Bernstein writes, “it was the greatest copper strike on the planet.”

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

Online Copyright Registration Services: Writer Beware

From Writer Beware:

In 2014, I wrote a post about Copyright Registration Online, one of many faux and exploitative copyright registration “services” that cater to writers’ anxiety about theft and plagiarism, particularly of unpublished work, by promising to register US copyright or to provide some sort of copyright verification service.

Naturally, there are fees for these services. At the time I wrote the post, Copyright Registration Online was charging $135–which was a ripoff, on two fronts. You can register copyright yourself online at the US Copyright Office for only $45. Just as important: there’s absolutely no need to register copyright for unpublished work.

Some registration services are basically pass-throughs: they do submit registration applications to the US Copyright Office, just at a seriously inflated cost. Others provide their own “registration” documentation or certificates, often based on some sort of timestamp. These are completely worthless, not just because they could easily be faked and are therefore unlikely to stand up in court, but because there is no legal substitute for registration with the US Copyright Office (in the United States, you must previously have registered your copyright in order to file an infringement action). Just like so-called poor man’s copyright, any “registration” received from a source other than the Copyright Office has zero legal validity.

So why am I dredging up old blog posts? Because Copyright Registration Online is still around, and it has seriously upped the disinformation factor.

Now also calling itself Copyright Registry or Copyright Registry Online, it’s got a spiffy new web domain, website, and eagle-and-flag logo. Services are basically the same; prices are a little higher, but not much: “registration” for a single author with a single work will set you back $144.

. . . .

Complaints at the BBB–which currently gives the company an F rating–further illustrate this point.

. . . .

By law, you own copyright from the moment you write down the words. Registration is an extra step that gives you the right to pursue an infringement claim in US court (other countries have no such requirement for filing a claim). But theft and plagiarism are vanishingly unlikely at the query stage. Reputable agents and editors won’t risk their reputations by stealing; disreputable ones aren’t interested in your work, only in your money. Infringement only becomes a danger when your work is exposed to a wide audience: in other words, published.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

PG notes that for registrations with the US copyright office are made through the website. You may wish to confirm the .gov URL to make certain you haven’t clicked on one of the services about which Writer Beware warns in the OP.

Like more than a few government websites, is not a triumph in website design. However, if you make your way to the Registration Portal (note the .gov extension), you’re in the general area where you want to be.

Once you’re at the Registration Portal (the government’s use of “Portal” is, PG assumes, an attempt to be regarded as internet-savvy), you’ll likely have to work your way through some preliminary warnings to hunt for a blue button that promises to give you access to the “eCO” (Electronic Copyright Office, but “eCO” sounds more technical) registration system.

Once you get to eCO, you’re into full government world. You see a very simple screen with one button marked “Log in to eCo”.

Some may wonder how they are supposed to log in if they haven’t registered themselves as a user. Go ahead and click the log-in button anyway. To the best of PG’s knowledge, this is not a federal criminal offence.

When you click that button, you’ll likely see a popup warning that using browsers other than Firefox may result in a less than optimal experience. PG has found no problems (at least with the copyright website) using Chrome, but your experience may vary.

After you’ve clicked, you’ll see another page with an ID/Password form for your Copyright Office eCO credentials, which you won’t have if you haven’t signed up to obtain those credentials.

Some (many?) would-be registrants will give up at this point, but go ahead and click.

When you get to the next page, your greatest fears will be realized. Your eyes will immediately go to User/Password fill-in boxes.

Don’t panic. Instead look carefully below those prominent boxes and you will see a much-less prominent blue on dark gray link that says “If you’re a new user, click here”. If a private organization used such a design, someone would sue on behalf of those with less-than optimal vision.

If you wait too long to find the obscure link, you’ll be informed that your session has timed out and you’ll have to click on the obscure link again.

If you’ve made it this far, you should see a signup page last modified in 1981 which includes several boxes to fill with your personal information, including “Salutation”. You’ll want to click on the obscure blue-on-gray link for User ID Help to make certain you read the instructions concerning what is or is not a government-approved User ID.

You’ll also be informed that you must change your password every sixty days or “when instructed”. If it takes you longer than sixty days to write your next book, don’t worry, you’ll be instructed to change your password.

Once you stumble through the portal, you’ll be confronted with yet more things to read and fill out, but if you’ve had the patience to work your way through the eCO gate, you’ll get through the registration process as well. Just don’t schedule anything else for an hour or two. And don’t trust some organization that shows up in a Google internet search to do this for you.

99% of the time, you don’t need a lawyer to register your copyright.

Full Disclosure: PG wades through this government website mess for Mrs. PG’s books but for no one else. He’s sorry if you’re disappointed, but won’t change his mind except for people he’s known for thirty years or more and is still talking to.

The best books of 2021

From The Economist:

Politics and current affairs

Empire of Pain. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday; 560 pages; $32.50. Picador; £20

This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma—which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.

Do Not Disturb. By Michela Wrong. PublicAffairs; 512 pages; $32. Fourth Estate; £20

A devastating exposé of a remarkable leader, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He won global praise for ending the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and promoting development. But his regime has ruled through fear, invaded its neighbours and assassinated opponents even after they fled abroad. The author, a former admirer, spent years gathering evidence for this terrifying account.

Invisible ChinaBy Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. University of Chicago Press; 248 pages; $27.50 and £22

The biggest obstacle to China’s development is that rural children—two-thirds of the total—do terribly in school, argues this stunningly researched book. Many are malnourished, lack reading glasses or suffer from energy-sapping intestinal worms. If these basic problems are not fixed, say the authors, China will struggle to reach its goal of broad prosperity.

. . . .


The Gun, the Ship and the Pen. By Linda Colley. Liveright; 512 pages; $35. Profile Books; £25

A wide-ranging account of the forces that propelled the writing of constitutions—documents that have defined the modern world—from the 18th century until today. The trend was driven by the evolving nature of war and turbocharged by high-speed printing presses. An illuminating and original global history.

Tunnel 29. By Helena Merriman. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $28. Hodder & Stoughton; £20

Using a narrow, 120-metre tunnel beneath the wall that had recently divided their city, 29 East Berliners escaped to freedom in September 1962. A captivating retelling of one of the most astonishing episodes in East Germany’s grim history.

. . . .

Biography and memoir

Fall. By John Preston. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $28.99. Viking; £18.99

The story of Robert Maxwell, a monstrous, enigmatic, bullying, narcissistic crook of gigantic appetites—who at his peak was one of the world’s most recognisable businessmen—may be largely unknown to anyone under 40. This book tells it with great verve and the benefit of extensive interviews with, among others, Maxwell’s one-time rival Rupert Murdoch.

The Radical Potter. By Tristram Hunt. Metropolitan Books; 352 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25

Josiah Wedgwood wanted to “astonish the world”. He succeeded, says this delightful biography of the 18th-century British potter. To boost productivity, he aimed to make machines of men—and he did.

. . . .


Mother for Dinner. By Shalom Auslander. Riverhead Books; 272 pages; $28. Picador; £16.99

In this laugh-out-loud, gravely serious satire on identity politics, a mother’s deathbed presents a solemn decision: whether or not to eat her. The family are Cannibal-Americans, the most reviled minority in a place where “everyone else was retreating to their cages and calling it freedom”. What, the novel asks uproariously, do individuals owe history?

The Books of Jacob. By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. Fitzcarraldo Editions; 928 pages; £20. To be published in America by Riverhead Books in February; $35

The tome that secured its author the Nobel prize of 2018 encompasses a “fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects”. At the centre of this epic of faith, ideas and the Enlightenment is a real-life 18th-century mystic.

The Plot. By Jean Hanff Korelitz. Celadon Books; 317 pages; $28. Faber; £8.99

There are too many novels about writers, but this is one to read. A down-on-his-luck author steals a slam-dunk plot from a creepy student. The result is wealth, fame—and spiralling disaster. At once a close-to-the-bone satire on publishing, an inquiry into the ethics of storytelling and a propulsive upmarket thriller.

. . . .

Science and technology

A Shot to Save the World. By Gregory Zuckerman. Portfolio; 384 pages; $30. Penguin Business; £20

A journalist at the Wall Street Journal tells the story of the great vaccine race of 2020. A superb scientific drama of failure, determination and triumph.

I, Warbot. By Kenneth Payne. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95. Hurst; £20

A thought-provoking reflection on how artificial intelligence will change conflict. The offence will dominate, the author says. Martial virtues such as courage and leadership will yield to technical ones.

Being You. By Anil Seth. Dutton Books; 352 pages; $28. Faber; £20

Understanding consciousness is a “hard problem”, noted the philosopher David Chalmers. Here a pioneering neuroscientist takes readers to the edge of what is known, how scientists know it, and, most importantly, how that knowledge could be made useful in medicine and psychology.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that the Economist’s original list is much longer than PG’s excerpt.

He didn’t do a careful comparison between the Best Books list published by The Economist and that published by the New York Times, (posted just before this post) but he doesn’t think either publication’s list contained a book listed by the other.

He will grant that the New York Times is a general distribution American newspaper with a shrinking subscription base (as is the case with virtually every newspaper except, perhaps The Wall Street Journal, which currently has more than twice as many subscribers as the Times) and The Economist is a business magazine, but, even so PG expects most Economist subscribers who live in or near New York City are also likely to be subscribers to the Times. (As are the salaried employees of every New York publisher)

PG admits to not seeing any books on the NYT list that interested him. This surprised him somewhat. Several on the Economist’s list are on PG’s mental to-read list (which floats in and out of his mind and can’t be described as unchanging and for which he has no check-boxes).

The New York Times Reveals Their 10 Best Books of 2021

From Book Riot:

The 10 Best Books Of The Year as it is currently presented by The New York Times has been going on since pretty much the beginning of the Book Review magazine, back in 1896.

After several changes across the years, in 2004 the list has taken the shape that is still being used today: as fall arrives, the editors start reading, discussing, and choosing what will become their definitive list of the ten best books of the year.

These are their choices for 2021:

As it’s common with the New York Times 10 Best Books Of The Year lists, the first five books are labelled under the genre literary fiction, and the other five are works of non-fiction, although Labatut is said to stand on the edge of both.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Join the Fight for School Librarians

From Publishers Weekly:

I’m a children’s book author, a mom, and a grownup whose earliest childhood memories involve trips to the library. As a kid in the ’70s my mother would take me to the public library, where I’d fill my plastic flowered library bag to the brim. It was a magical and mysterious place, with its distinct smell of books and the Shakespeare portrait by the water fountain that gave me the creeps. At school, on crisp fall days, our librarian Mrs. Bright read us the Cranberryport series by Wende and Harry Devlin. She helped us discover our favorite authors and expertly guided us through book reports about unusual animals such as the aye-aye. My time in libraries was a treasure and a privilege—one that some kids will never know.

As a grownup, I know that things are not fair. Not all kids get to go to the public library or bookstores on weekends. Not all homes have shelves brimming with books, or parents who read bedtime stories. For some kids, their best—and possibly only—chance to interact in a meaningful way with books is at school.

School library programs provide equal access to books, technology, and research skills—lifelong and life-altering benefits. School library programs improve students’ literacy outcomes, test scores, and even graduation rates.

In addition to providing equal access to materials, there are social-emotional benefits to having trained librarians in schools as well. Kids feel seen by a knowledgeable adult, a reading concierge of sorts, who recognizes what they like to read and can show them to new and interesting books, topics, and authors. In the school library, kids have choice, autonomy, and freedom. This differs greatly from the classroom, where reading can be mired in leveling, mechanics, and even shame at not being on par with other students. It’s in the school library where children truly choose books for pleasure, where they fall in love with them and become life-long readers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Choose the Perfect Title for Your Novel

From Jane Friedman:

Your book title, along with the cover, is a key marketing tool: it must prompt potential readers to pick up the book in a bookstore or click on it online because they want to know more.

General nonfiction often makes its purpose explicit in the title or subtitle, but memoirs and novels are more ethereal; they explore themes, characters and situations, and their titles can go in a thousand directions. This richness of choice can sometimes stump a writer.

. . . .

Don’t get overly invested in your working title

Heather Young, author of literary murder mysteries, loved her initial titles, but her publisher asked her to change them—a very common experience.

“I pitched my first novel with the title White Earth, but the marketing department said it sounded like an alien invasion novel,” explained Young. “My agent recommended that I go through the book and find a phrase that leaped out at me. I found ‘once we were light’ and I pitched it, but they said it sounded like a weight loss book. Finally, the publisher suggested The Lost Girl. My contribution was, ‘Let’s make it plural,’ so the title The Lost Girls came by committee, between me, my publisher and the marketers.”

. . . .

Respect your contract with the reader

You may have a great title, but if it doesn’t fit the tone of your book, it’s not going to work. Jeannine Ouellette, author of The Part That Burns, faced this dilemma. Her book is a memoir in fragments. When it came time to choose the title, she hesitated between the title of two of the fragments, Four Dogs, Maybe Five and The Part That Burns.

“Both captured something essential to the book,” explained Ouellette. “Four Dogs, Maybe Five pointed to the way trauma destabilizes memory. It was also playful, but what concerned me is that it established a false contract with the reader. I wouldn’t want a dog lover to think this is a happy story about dogs because it’s not, so I wasn’t completely comfortable with this title, even though it had more light.”

The Part That Burns also contained some of the essential meaning of the book. “In this fragment the narrator is integrating the memories of her stepfather’s abuse, her sexuality, motherhood, and the power of giving birth; she understands that she can only live a full life by accepting the fullness of who she is and that includes the trauma of what happened to her. That’s what the title represented for me, and it didn’t have the disadvantage of being misleading. It’s a little intense, but I felt that was okay for this book.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Best Books of 2021: Mysteries

From The Wall Street Journal:

Our Mystery columnist selects the best new works of mystery, suspense and crime fiction for 2021.

The Dark Hours’ by Michael Connelly

Retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch, the hero of many a Michael Connelly procedural, shares billing on the dust jacket with Renée Ballard, a younger active-duty officer whose passion for justice matches his, but this is Ballard’s book, with Bosch giving moral and physical support. The novel’s title refers not only to the late-evening shift Renée works but also to the malaise fallen over L.A. in the wake of protests over police abuse, in the thick of the Covid pandemic. Ballard carries on regardless, pursuing a “tag team” of serial rapists even as she hustles to make the case against the New Year’s Eve killer of a Hollywood auto-repair shop owner. Sharp observations of characters, from victims to perpetrators, make this entry a standout.

Find You First’ by Linwood Barclay

Forty-two-year-old self-made multimillionaire Miles Cookson is enjoying life to the fullest until he learns it will end sooner than expected, due to a debilitating inherited disease. Officially childless, he nonetheless feels the prick of conscience: during his scuffling days, he donated sperm to a fertility clinic. Shouldn’t he contact any kids he may have sired, to warn them of their possible genetic ill fortune and provide for their medical care? Others in Cookson’s family and business are alarmed at how this may diminish their own eventual inheritances. Soon shady agents are shadowing Cookson and those offspring he locates; and Miles’s newfound children begin to vanish as if they’d never existed. Linwood Barclay can plot like Dickens and thrill like Hitchcock.

. . . .

‘The Turnout’ by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s first-rate thrillers take place in sealed-off environments, where characters’ passions and resentments simmer in dangerous ways. “The Turnout” is set in a young people’s dance school run by two orphaned sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. The school’s course of study is focused on its annual production of “The Nutcracker,” with students (pushed forward by ambitious parents) competing all season for the prominent roles. Into this hothouse of jealousy slithers Derek, a manipulative contractor who talks the school’s owners into an expensive makeover that strains frayed nerves to the breaking point. Family secrets are revealed, malicious pranks draw blood, and terror erupts in a manner worthy of Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal, including links to the original reviews. (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)


Keeping the Flame of Freedom Alive

From Publishers Weekly:

We’re used to the notion that bookstores are quiet, welcoming refuges, not the focus of state-sponsored kidnapping and detentions. But the mysterious disappearances of five booksellers from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books and its eventual closure are reminders of how powerful ideas in books can be.

In 2015, five publishers and booksellers linked to Causeway Bay Books quietly disappeared one by one. One was abducted at a beach resort in Thailand. Two were picked up at their wives’ homes just across the mainland China border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen. One simply vanished.

The kidnapping in Hong Kong of the fifth, Paul Lee, at the end of 2015 left no doubt that Chinese security agents were systematically picking up the owners of the Mighty Current publishing house and its Causeway Bay Books bookstore. In the case of Lee, he was pushed into a minivan when he was delivering books and taken across the border. And then there were none. This was the nightmare scenario many envisioned following the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China—the scenario in which people exercising their civil liberties within Hong Kong would be snatched.

The Causeway Bay cover-up unraveled when one of those detained, Lam Wing-kee, was allowed by mainland authorities to return to Hong Kong with the promise that he would retrieve information useful to security operatives. Instead, Lam held a press conference, during which he detailed his imprisonment and forced confession.

Until recently, Hong Kong was the freest city in China, and it had long been a beacon of hope in a bleak landscape. The city was home to a lively semi-underground publishing world that specialized in books on China. One of its prominent members was Jin Zhong, who arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland in 1980 and founded a pro-democracy magazine.

. . . .

“When I came to Hong Kong and found freedoms, I really wanted to enjoy those freedoms,” Jin told me from Brooklyn, where he now lives. “My mission in every article I wrote and in every issue of the magazine was to point out all the wrongs that had been done by Mao and the Communist Party.” The magazine thrived, and Jin set up a publishing house, becoming what was known as a “banned-books publisher,” specializing in books that could not be sold in mainland China.

After the Hong Kong handover in 1997, dissident publishers like Jin played a delicate game with security agents. Visitors from the State Security Bureau would ask him to join them for dinner. It was always cordial, free of coercion, but clearly an offer he could not refuse. The point was to let him know he was being watched.

“The idea wasn’t to make you do or not do something, but to break down your feeling of antagonism or resistance,” Jin recalls. “What happened to the Causeway Bay booksellers—those were the hard methods. For most people in Hong Kong, it was soft treatment.”

Tactics toughened when Jin prepared to publish a book in 2015 by Yu Jie, a Chinese American democracy activist, on Chinese president Xi Jinping. “They made it clear that this book was different,” Jin says. “It was clear that these instructions had come from a high level. If I insisted on going ahead with the book, they would have sabotaged it anyway.”

. . . .

Some years earlier, it had emerged that almost all bookstores in Hong Kong were secretly owned by mainland interests. This infiltration of the book business mirrors the secretive party tactics employed throughout Hong Kong.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has lived long enough to see a great many Communist governments come and go. One or two enlightened leaders grant more freedom, but a nation is only one dictator away from a complete lockdown.

As the OP demonstrates, Chinese President Xi Jinping is China’s latest leader for life and the crack-downs are coming at an increasingly rapid pace.

When Mao died in 1976, after a period of contention for power, Deng Xiaoping took over. He focused on economic growth under a “Four Modernizations” program and seemed to be a new type of leader. Under Deng, the planned economy loosened and China began to thrive materially. He negotiated the return of Hong Kong and its thriving economy from British rule.

Deng felt forced to take harsh steps after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 due to substantial pressure from Communist hardliners. He told Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Communist factions were preparing to take control of substantial numbers of Red Army forces had he not taken the path he did.

Later that year, realizing that he had lost a great deal of power due to the Tiananmen Square protests and the hard-liners’ reaction to them, Deng resigned from leadership of the country and toured the country, giving speeches about economic reform. He died in 1997 without having had much more success.

Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, tried to steer a middle path, keeping the economy healthy as a “socialist market economy” while keeping the Party firmly in control of the levers of power.

In 1999, Jiang ordered a harsh crack-down on the crack down on Falun Gong, a religious/spiritual movement, arresting thousands of Falun Gong organizers and sending leaders and members to prison where they were subject to harsh reeducation regimes, sometimes resulting in death.

Jiang slowly relinquished leadership positions before 2005, when he pulled away from public life, but still exercised significant power behind the scenes.

Jiang was succeeded by Hu Jintao who ruled from 2004-2012. Hu reintroduced state control in some sectors of the economy that were relaxed by the previous administration and cracked down on ethnic and religious minorities. Hu and Vladimir Putin in Russia were described by a UPI reporter as “Tough and able authoritarians who had extensive experience of repressing dissent on their rise to the top.”

Hu managed not to screw up the Chinese economy and China’s exports continued to grow while he was in power. However, he was severely criticized for his violations of human rights of various minorities in China or areas subject to Chinese control.

In 2012, Hu was succeeded by Xi Jinping, who is, in PG’s opinion, a full-up serious Communist dictator of the worst sort. So far, Xi has stepped up censorship and mass surveillance and caused a substantial deterioration in human rights beyond what his predecessors were willing to support.

About a month ago, China’s Communist Party declared Xi’s ideology the “essence of Chinese culture”. This is the third fundamental resolution of the Chinese Communist Party since its inception. The first resolution was adopted in 1945 to increase and ratify the power of Mao Zedong.

Xi is different, however, in encouraging a cult of personality to develop around him (see also Mao). Xi also formally removed term limits to his leadership, so he’s in until he dies or someone forcibly removes him from power, a very tough, likely impossible, job.

About a month ago, China’s Communist Party declared Xi’s ideology the “essence of Chinese culture”. This is the third fundamental resolution of the Chinese Communist Party since its inception. The first resolution was adopted in 1945 to increase and ratify the power of Mao Zedong.

Hong Kong, which was originally viewed as a portal for China to do business with the capitalist world when the British ceded control to China is, in PG’s assessment, no different than any other part of China now. He hopes anyone who doesn’t want to live in a place that is like other parts of China is able to escape before it’s too late.

PG acknowledges Wikipedia as a source of many details of his commentary. You can donate to Wikipedia and Wikimedia as PG has just done, by going to Wikipedia and hitting the Donate Button.

Independent Publishing: Off the Beaten Path

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Independent publishing, as opposed to commercial pushing (think Random House), is a terrific option for authors whose books don’t fit a literary agent’s idea of “saleable.” Authors of short story or essay collections, flash fiction, poetry, hybrid work and off-the-beaten-path novels very often seek out independent presses for possible publication, and they are right to do so: the world of independent publishing is an exciting one, full of terrific presses and excellent books.

I have written three collections of stories, two published and one forthcoming, all with independent presses, and I cannot overstate how supported I have felt, and how preciously my books have been treated.

My first press was very small—a “micro” press—that publishes only two books a year, so you can imagine the attention that was paid to every aspect of my book. I was treated as an artist and my book a work of art, and it was marvelous. Though my editor there wasn’t interested in publishing my second collection, I am indebted to her, and we are still good friends.

At the other end of the spectrum, my second publisher was quite large; my book was one of many and so did not receive the same attention, yet that press works with a larger distributor than a smaller press can, which means my book could end up on bookshop shelves—a big plus, as brick-and-mortar stores rarely stock small press books.

My third publisher lands between the first two in terms of how many titles they publish in a year. So far, my editor there is attentive and sensitive, and I foresee a good experience.

How do you find the right publisher for your book? 

. . . .

By now you’ve doubtless gathered that if you want your book displayed in the front windows of Barnes and Noble or to be an Oprah pick, independent publishing is not for you. There are downsides to publishing independently, and lack of exposure is one of them. Amazon will carry your book, of course, and bookstores will special order it on demand, but it will likely not be available to browsers and that will affect sales.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

PG has an alternate answer to the question in the OP, “How do you find the right publisher for your book?”

For the Sheer Joy of It

From Writer Unboxed:

I realize this blog typically concerns itself with the “craft and business” of fiction, but I want to address instead something we seem to discuss too little.

I wrote this post before reading Wednesday’s superb piece by Kathleen McCleary, “Stories Will Save You,” in which she discussed how fiction can offer meaning and insight. Here I too discuss the value of fiction, but from a slightly different perspective: the pleasure of reading.

I grew up in Ohio, and December days were overcast, the nights were long, and snow often covered the ground. Going outside was fun for a while but so was coming back inside where it was cozy and warm—hygge, as they say in Norway—the perfect environment for reading.

“Curling up with a good book” was something that, for me, defined the winter months (and made them a bit more bearable). I remember immersing myself in Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre and Moby Dick, all those thick 19th-century marvels few of us return too—sadly, in my opinion—except in their cinematic versions. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Dawn of Everything

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Dawn of Everything” is a brainy and braggadocious book, styling itself—without a hint of modesty—as “a new history of humanity.” A combative work that pushes a revisionist view of prehistory, it takes its fight to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas on early man as a creature mired in a State of Nature it dismisses as pure fantasy. This is the anthropological equivalent of a tearing down of statues. Its authors are (the late) David Graeber and David Wengrow, professors, respectively, at the London School of Economics and University College London. Their book is a manifesto for early man, a bid to restore him to his “full humanity.”

Prehistoric man, say Messrs. Graeber and Wengrow, was no simpleton or dolt. Far from being akin to the modern-day apes to which he is glibly likened by popularizers of anthropology—such as Yuval Noah Harari in “Sapiens” (2014)—he was complex, creative and “full of playful possibilities.”

“The Dawn of Everything” is the latest—and most provocative—in a line of Big History: bold, panoptic works that offer to explain the whole sweep of man’s story. The genre kicked off with “Maps of Time” (2004), by David Christian, and includes such practitioners as Mr. Harari, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. The book was 10 years in the writing and is every bit as dense and passionate as you’d expect from a decade-long labor of love—conceived by two learned and mischievous men.

Mr. Graeber, the more ungovernable of the two authors, died in September of last year, three weeks after the book was finished. An American anthropologist and anarchist, he had migrated to Britain in 2008 after failing to get tenure at Yale (and, subsequently, not getting a job at any of the more than 20 U.S. universities to which he applied). His views were simply too radical, which is astonishing in light of the present-day obsessions of American campuses. Mr. Graeber also helped to organize the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011, the year in which his anti-capitalist book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” was published.

Mr. Wengrow, his British partner-in-writing, is a soft-spoken professor of archaeology with a lower public profile. In a dedication to Mr. Graeber, he describes the latter as someone who “tried to live his ideas about social justice and liberation.” It’s not surprising that a man like that would, with his co-author, attempt to liberate prehistoric humans from the straitjacket in which they have been confined since Rousseau wrote his “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind” in 1754.

Until the early years of the 19th century, the authors tell us, “there was as yet no ‘prehistory.’ There was only history, even if some of that history was wildly wrong.” The term “prehistory” only entered the common language after a dig in Brixham Cave in Devon, in 1858, uncovered stone axes in a sealed rock casing, alongside the remains of extinct animals. After this, archaeology and geology began to play a major part in our understanding of man and earth.

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

For the record, PG is firmly in the capitalist camp of economics. He suggests the greatest examples of charitable giving which benefits others were some of the greatest capitalists. For a classic example, he’ll point to Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie emigrated to the United States from Scotland at the age of twelve. He had been born in a weaver’s cottage with only one main room which served as living room, dining room and bedroom. After his family arrived in the US, his first job was in a cotton factory where he worked as a bobbin boy, changing spools of thread in a cotton mill 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He earned $1.20 per week, equivalent to $36 in today’s dollars.

Eventually, Carnegie became one of the richest men in United States history. He gave away 90% of his fortune for charitable purposes. One of Carnegie’s best-known charitable activities was to build and equip over 3,000 public libraries in the United States, Canada and England. The first Carnegie library was built in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was born.

When PG was young, he and his family were patrons of a couple of different Carnegie libraries in places which would have been unlikely to have libraries absent Carnegie’s gifts.

No Christmas Without Books

From Publishing Perspectives:

Warily watching the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic numbers in Europe, particularly with the picture of the omicron variant’s presence still coming into focus, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) in Brussels has opened a “No Christmas Without Books’ campaign.

The Booksellers Federation is joined by the Federation of European Publishers and Intergraf, the organization of more than 110,000 European and United Kingdom printing companies in this appeal, which calls on EU leadership and all the member-states’ national authorities to “Follow the lead of several European countries—Italy, France, Belgium—in recognizing books as essential cultural goods, thus allowing bookshops to remain open.”

The effort is a kind of pre-emptive strike, in the vernacular, a warning prior to many actual such closures having been put into place.

There’s a decided and understandable emphasis on print, of course, not only as the most desirable format for bookish gift traffic but also as the retail segment most vulnerable to sales-point shutdowns. In such closures lie the worst memories of the pre-vaccine part of the pandemic era, when, for example, Germany saw its bookstores closed just 15 days before Christmas 2020.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Bad moves across the board

From The Times Literary Supplement:

In 1957, a little-known Harvard professor had his first taste of fame after the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Appearing three months before the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, Henry Kissinger’s book earned public praise from no less than Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, as well as the leading foreign policy realist, Hans Morgenthau. The New York Times reported, accurately, that “officials at the highest government levels” were reading it: Vice President Richard Nixon certainly did. Not only was the book selected by the Book of the Month Club; Kissinger also found himself on television for the first time. “We believed for too long that we were relatively invulnerable”, he told viewers of CBS’s Face the Nation. “I believe that it [countering Soviet aggression] will take a somewhat firmer attitude and a … somewhat greater willingness to run risks.”

The core argument of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was that the United States lacked a “strategic doctrine” for the nuclear age. There had been a failure in Washington to grasp the full implications of an all-out thermonuclear war, namely that there could be no winner, “because even the weaker side may be able to inflict a degree of destruction which no society can support”. This awful reality made the Eisenhower administration’s periodic bouts of brinkmanship either wildly reckless or mere bluff. As mutual renunciation of nuclear arms seemed unattainable, Kissinger sought to develop a doctrine of limited nuclear war.

That doctrine was never put to the test. Indeed, even Kissinger later repudiated parts of his own argument. Yet, if one looks back on the way NATO strategy evolved in the three decades after 1957, limited nuclear war was at its heart. What else were all those short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles for? Had war broken out with the Soviet Union in Europe, at least on the Western side there would have been an attempt to fight it without the intercontinental ballistic missiles whose launch would have heralded Armageddon.

Sixty-four years have passed since the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Yet at ninety-eight, Henry Kissinger has not lost his knack for identifying doctrinal deficits in US national security strategy. “The age of AI”, he and his coauthors write, “has yet to define its organizing principles, its moral concepts, or its sense of aspirations and limitations … The AI age needs its own…

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement (sorry if you hit a paywall)

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. . . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia

Stories Will Save You

From Writer Unboxed:

Stories Will Save You. Early in the pandemic I wrote these words on a yellow sticky note and stuck it on the wall above my desk, where I see it often. At the time I wrote that note, I thought writing stories would save me during a difficult time in my life. Instead, stories written by other people saved me. I realized that a critical part of being a good writer is understanding that stories are an important teacher—for both author and reader. Stories can show us how to act (or not act), how to confront our own discomforts, how to better understand ourselves, other people, the world around us, and our place in it. As writers, I think most of us are aware of how the act of writing helps us figure things out, but it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell do this for others. Storytelling is our superpower.

Why do stories have so much power to save us, and how does that work? Some of the stories that saved me over these past 18 months include The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead; Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; the BBC series ShetlandGrey’s Anatomy; and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, among many others. Here’s what I learned:

There is a big, wide world out thereThe Great Circle took me on a journey from Antarctica to Montana, Alaska, Seattle, and London during WWII. Cooped up in my pandemic-imposed semi-quarantine, with my travel limited to trips to the grocery store, I relished reading about and imagining far-flung places, and adventures as varied as working as a battlefield illustrator or circumnavigating the globe in a small plane. That world is real, I thought, and I will be able to jump into it again one day.

Everyone has a story. It’s easy to spend too much time in our own heads, narrating our own lives. The best stories have a wide cast of characters, whose personalities and choices and successes and heartbreaks are as unique as they are. Some of the characters in the stories I devoured drove me crazy, some made me laugh, the best ones made me recognize pieces of myself or pieces of the people I’m closest to. And with that recognition comes some insight and understanding.

Everyone suffers. This is obvious. But if you’re suffering, it can be enormously helpful to remember other people are suffering, too. I started watching (okay, binge-watching) Grey’s Anatomy, a TV series I missed when it debuted in 2005 because I was working full-time and had young kids and don’t remember having time to watch anything. Sure, it’s a television medical drama, so there’s significantly more drama (hopefully) than in my life or yours. But the characters—all surgeons and physicians— have to deal daily with grief, loss, danger, fear, and things that can’t be fixed. This is real life, just more intense and condensed into a shorter time period. The novel Hamnet has one of the most searing and accurate depictions of grief I’ve ever encountered, as Shakespeare’s wife mourns the loss of their young son. We are not alone is a welcome feeling when life is a struggle.

We are small pieces in a great, big puzzle. One of my favorite quotes in literature is from My Antonia: “At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” Again, it’s a helpful reminder that the universe is vast and varied, that life holds infinite surprises, that today’s heartache may lead to tomorrow’s new beginning. The best stories transport us out of ourselves and into an awareness of all that.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Millions of followers? For book sales, ‘it’s unreliable.’

From The New York Times:

A book by Billie Eilish seemed like a great bet. One of the most famous pop stars in the world, Eilish has 97 million followers on Instagram and another 6 million on Twitter. If just a fraction of them bought her book, it would be a hit.

But her self-titled book has sold about 64,000 hardcover copies since it came out in May, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks most printed books sold in the United States — not necessarily a disappointing number, unless Eilish got a big advance. Which, of course, she did. The book cost her publisher well over $1 million.

It’s difficult to predict whether a book will be a hit. A jar of tomato sauce doesn’t change that much from year to year, making demand reasonably predictable. But every book is different, an individual work of art or culture, so when the publishing industry tries to forecast demand for new titles, it is, however thoughtfully, guessing. Because there are so few reliable metrics to look at, social-media followings have become some of the main data points publishers use to try to make their guesses more educated.

An author’s following has become a standard part of the equation when publishers are deciding whether to acquire a book. Followings can affect who gets a book deal and how big an advance that author is paid, especially when it comes to nonfiction. But despite their importance, they are increasingly seen as unpredictable gauges of how well a book is actually going to sell.

Even having one of the biggest social-media followings in the world is not a guarantee.

“The only reliable part about it,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble, “is that it’s unreliable.”

An author’s platform has long been something publishers look at — does she have a radio show, for example, or a regular guest spot on TV? But as local news outlets and book coverage have dwindled, the avenues for book publicity have shrunk, making an author’s ability to help get the word out more crucial. And when an author speaks to her followers about a book she wrote, she is talking to people who are at least a little bit interested in what she has to share.

“It’s become more and more important as the years went on,” said Marc Resnick, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press. “We learned some hard lessons along the way, which is that a tweet or a post is not necessarily going to sell any books, if it’s not the right person with the right book and the right followers at the right time.”

Take Justin Timberlake. His book “Hindsight” was acquired for more than$1 million, but when it came out in 2018, Timberlake had bruised vocal cords and was unable to promote it as planned. The 53 million Instagram followers he had at the time weren’t able to make up for it. “Hindsight” has sold about 100,000 printed copies since its publication three years ago, according to BookScan, not nearly the number his publisher was hoping for.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is no global pop star, but she has a significant social-media presence, with 3 million Twitter followers and another 1.3 million on Instagram. Yet her book, “This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman,” which was published in May 2020, has sold just 26,000 copies across print, audio and e-book formats, according to her publisher.

Tamika D. Mallory, a social activist with more than 1 million Instagram followers, was paid more than $1 million for a two-book deal. But her first book, “State of Emergency,” has sold just 26,000 print copies since it was published in May, according to BookScan.

Journalist and media personality Piers Morgan had a weaker showing. Despite his followers on Twitter (8 million) and Instagram (1.8 million), “Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts” has sold just 5,650 print copies since it was published a year ago, according to BookScan.

It’s difficult to know why this happens. Sometimes, publishing and marketing executives say, there is a mismatch between what people post about on social media and the subject of their books. Perhaps the books don’t provide anything beyond what they’ve already put on Instagram. It could be that the author hasn’t pushed the book to his followers effectively, or that those followers (the ones who aren’t bots, or paid for) aren’t terribly engaged with what he posts.

Or maybe the book isn’t that good. Social media is only one part of why a book does or doesn’t work, just as it is only a piece of why a book is acquired — publishers were interested in Billie Eilish’s book not just because of Instagram, but because she is Billie Eilish.

In an effort to mitigate these issues, some book contracts now specify the number of posts required before and after a book is published.

“In addition to hearing from the agent and reading the manuscript, we want to hear from the celebrity that they are invested in the book,” said Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. “To say, in the nicest way possible, what would you say about this project and where would this fit in with all the other things you’re doing?”

Link to the rest at The New York Times (via The Baltimore Sun)

The Behaviors and Attitudes of U.S. Adults on Twitter

From The Pew Research Center:

Roughly one-quarter of U.S. adults now use Twitter, and the site has become a space where users get news, discuss topics like sports, engage in personal communication or hear from elected officials.

Pew Research Center recently conducted an in-depth survey of U.S. adults who use Twitter, looking to better understand their behaviors and experiences on the site along with their attitudes towards the service. The survey included a subset of respondents who shared their Twitter profiles for research purposes, allowing their survey responses to be matched to their actual Twitter activity.

As in many of the Center’s surveys of technology and online platforms, this study finds that Twitter users report a mix of both positive and negative experiences on the site. For instance, 46% of these users say the site has increased their understanding of current events in the last year, and 30% say it has made them feel more politically engaged. On the other hand, 33% of users report seeing a lot of misleading or inaccurate information there, and 53% say inaccurate or misleading information is a major problem on the site.

The analysis also reveals another familiar pattern on social media: that a relatively small share of highly active users produce the vast majority of content. An analysis of tweets by this representative sample of U.S. adult Twitter users from June 12 to Sept. 12, 2021, finds that the most active 25% of U.S. adults on Twitter by tweet volume produced 97% of all tweets from these users.

High-volume tweeters differ from less prolific tweeters in important ways. A majority visit the site daily, and roughly one-in-five say they do so too many times to count on a typical day. Their use of Twitter also carries a more overtly political valence: They are more likely than others to say the site has increased how politically engaged they feel in the past year.

They also respond differently to the presence of certain negative interactions on the platform. High-volume tweeters are roughly twice as likely as others to say they have personally experienced harassing or abusive behavior on the platform (24%, vs. 11% of less active tweeters). But they are less likely to view the overall tone or civility of discussions on the site as a major problem (by a margin of 27% to 42%).

Link to the rest at The Pew Research Center

PG was an early adopter of Twitter (he has a tendency to try out a lot of new online services) and was also an early unadopter of Twitter.

As PG just examined the Twitter accounts with the largest following, he saw a lot of pop musicians, some over the hill, and a lot of other people he’s not interested in hearing from. Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Barack Obama are the only ones who might have something to say that’s interesting for PG, but, of course, you don’t really have the space to say anything of note in 280 characters.

Yes, you can insert a link in a Twitter message, but PG has no trouble naming a great many sites that offer curated links that have a high probability of being of interest to PG. The curated link sites will definitely include anything Bill, Elon and Barack have to say on any matter of substance.

But PG is likely not representative of any demographic of a size that interests advertisers, so he’s happy to let Twitter be Twitter and make money for tattooed entrepreneur Jack Dorsey and other shareholders as well as whoever buys Twitter from its present owners. He’ll continue to abstain.

Race relations are difficult, sometimes agonizing

Race relations are difficult, sometimes agonizing. The harmony for which the country yearns is not at hand, and may never be achieved. Because whites are generally blamed for making race into such an enduring problem, white racism has become not just a moral failing but the worst moral failing. Our society forgives sexual misconduct, abuse of office, dishonesty, and incompetence far more readily than it does any action by whites that could be described as “racism.”
At the same time, promoting diversity is a way for whites to demonstrate virtue. Diversity policies benefit non-whites by encouraging their immigration, employment, promotion, or admission to university, and to support diversity is the most readily recognizable way of demonstrating opposition to racism. For whites, diversity therefore has moral rather than practical goals, and this is why it does not require justification in ordinary terms. Americans attribute unrealistic, exaggerated benefits to diversity because they support it for emotional rather than rational reasons. They call it “America’s greatest strength” not because they have weighed all of America’s strengths and come to a rational conclusion about which is greatest. They are expressing an emotional commitment to something they feel they must support in order to prove they are not racists.

Jared Taylor

Nicola Barker is Our Great Post-Punk Novelist

From The Literary Hub:

“I feel like, at some level, we are all outsiders,” Nicola Barker says of the vast array of oddballs and originals who populate her bafflingly innovative thirteen novels. “Society is fluid. But you need to stand outside of a situation, a dilemma, an experience, to truly understand it. That’s what my characters often do. They are inquisitive. They can’t be satisfied by the time or circumstances they are living in.”

It is January in this deadly winter of COVID-19, and we are exchanging emails across the Atlantic—me in Richmond, Virginia, and my literary hero in the town of Faversham, formerly the home of the explosives industry in the UK. Both of us are home-bound, like most everyone else, trying to feel like writers even if we’re spending a lot of our time staring at walls. When I asked her what she’s been up to recently—during Britain’s Tier 5 lockdown—she says she’s done little but “walking and thinking,” though she spends a good deal of time talking by phone to family scattered across the globe.

Our correspondence has been a small miracle for me, as my discovery of Barker’s work a decade ago completely changed the way I write and think about writing. Often, after sending an email, I’ll spend a tortured day thinking of what I could have said that will finally prove that I am a fool (why did I insist on making that corny Bowie joke?), but I find again and again that she responds with effusive grace and a rich supply of advice on writing and life.

Hailed as an “unclassifiable genius” by the Guardian, Barker is a well-known literary figure in Britain. But if she is familiar at all to readers in America, it is often for her 2007 novel Darkmans, a wild and paranoiac book that is both about history and very much about twenty-first century life—and a strong candidate for the eight hundred funniest pages in literature. I ran into the book back in the last recession, during a phase in my life when I was hopping from job to job, rudderless, trying to hold on to some idea that I could be a writer. It challenged everything I’d learned thus far about fiction and pointed me in a new direction, one centered on character and voice and trust in one’s aesthetic obsessions and particularities, on the inner play of consciousness, on the lightning-quick moves of our real lived experience.

. . . .

Maybe I needed a change. Maybe I needed to spend a couple of years trying to write like someone else—someone who takes risks without a net—in order to discover an authentic voice of my own. Darkmans made the short list for the Booker Prize, and she made the long list for the Booker for two other novels, Clear and The Yips. One could call Barker an avant-garde writer, but she looks at her style as something more like play: “I need to feel free. I won’t be constrained. Especially not by the expectations of others or even my own expectations. I am guided by a sense of mischief. I don’t ever sit down to write and think: I’ll use this tone, this accent, this layout…”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Kaaps Writings From South Africa

From Publishing Perspectives:

While many in South Africa have felt understandably penalized by travel restrictions resulting from the initial report and detection of the variant, Stephanie Nolan at The New York Times has a fine feature on the state-of-the-art KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban and the accompanying door-to-door campaign being deployed to reach the population. The speed with which KRISP reported out its findings has contributed to the timeliness of today’s coordinated, cooperative international research effort on the variant.

. . . .

Words Without Borders, before moving to its December edition, has featured in November guest editor Olivia M. Coetzee’s look at Kaaps writing from South Africa, and we want to bring this to your attention, not least because it’s an example of Words Without Borders’ work in bringing to light some of the niche linguistic contexts.

In her introduction to Kaaps, Coetzee–who is originally from Namibia and was raised near Cape Town–points out the question “What is Kaaps” produces more than one answer. “Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called ‘Coloreds’ living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans,” she writes.

In notes provided by Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris notes, “Kaaps was created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s, and took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English people. Late-19th-century Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps and eliminated the indigenous elements in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans.”

Coetzee points to the fact that Kaaps has been considered slang, and thus “Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy.

“While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the ‘White man’s language,’ Afrikaans.

“And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people,” she writes, “with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.”

What Coetzee is experiencing, it turns out, is the rise of Kaaps as a bonding agent between those who speak it. It begins to function as an element of identity, as she writes. “Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency,” even with its image still in need of an upgrade.

“A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement,” she writes, “but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Prof. Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first-of-its-kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.”

The writers whose work she brings to the edition, she says, “not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Some virtues

Some virtues, when they become fashions, also become exaggerated. Just because nobody likes a judgmental attitude does not mean that there isn’t a sort of spoiled, self-righteous hypocrisy when one man obsessively commands other men not to judge without knowing the circumstances without himself, too, knowing their circumstances behind their judgments.

Criss Jami