book/daddy: March 2007 Archives

... of an old-style letterpress at work, with John Kristensen printing books and announcements at Firefly Press, right down to melting his own type. Learn the origins of terms like "matrix" or "out of sorts." Watch the linotype, the machine that put Mark Twain out of the printing business, crank and slide.

Beautiful machinery, beautiful printing.

Video via Good magazine and

March 30, 2007 5:47 PM |

Irish novelist Colm Toibin has written an absolutely superb article for the London Review of Books on Samuel Beckett's two favorite actors, both sad, drunken wrecks and brilliant performers: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Beckett wrote Krapp's Last Tape for Magee (in picture as Hamm in Endgame) while MacGowran premiered a number of classic Becket roles (Clov in Endgame) as well as creating the first solo Beckett stage show (with the playwright's blessing).

Toibin splendidly conjures the period Dublin atmosphere in which these men grew up -- and which they fled. Once they've "Anglicized" themselves a little, Irish actors find that London provides better careers, but they rarely play the leading man, as Toibin notes (Peter O'Toole being the exception). They're more usually the clown, the servant, the failure. In fact, American film audiences probably know MacGowran best as the sadsack servant to Albert Finney in Tom Jones and, unfortunately, the doomed film director in The Exorcist (unfortunate because the film is ridiculous and it was his last: He died of pneumonia while making it). Magee, meanwhile, was the author-victim-revenger in A Clockwork Orange and the Marquis himself in Peter Brook's Marat/Sade. The only odd oversight in Mr. Toibin's otherwise richly evocative article is his failure to mention either Jones or Marat, yet they fit his points about the different actors perfectly.

For Beckett, living in Paris, MacGowran and Magee provided his cherished "Irish voices" -- and whiskey buddies -- and it was part of Beckett's genius to put the clowns and the failures center stage. Toibin is extremely sensitive and insightful when it comes to each actor's particular genius, its roots in Irish theater and how it blossomed in Beckett's world. It would be hard to imagine any other kind of drama making an international star out of the pathetic, comical mouse that was MacGowran.

Toibin's article reminded me of the one time I ran into Magee. When I was bumming around England before my summer at Oxford started, I stopped in a London pub in the early evening, planning on resting my feet, reading a little and restoring myself with some ale. The only other people there in the dim interior were a trio in a corner booth. I instantly recognized Magee -- from his forehead, his white hair and his unmistakable, theatrical voice. I asked the barman if I was right, and he simply nodded.

Magee and two middle-aged friends, one female, one male, possibly a marrried couple, were all clearly drunk, with Magee drunker and louder than the other two combined. They were chatting/gossiping about friends, I don't remember anything they said until, for some reason but clearly prompted by a dispute with the woman, Magee started yelling chunks of Hamlet's speeches at her (definitely not "To be or not to be." His lines were from "How all occasions do inform against me" and "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I"). After each half-dozen lines or so, when Magee's memory would peter out, the woman would tentatively suggest that perhaps the poetry was by Shakespeare. This would incite another volley from Magee, until triumphantly reciting a particular passage, he announced, "It's Byron, I tell you! Byron!"

March 30, 2007 1:11 PM | | Comments (2)

Alex Heard at The New Republic (subscription required) has accused David Sedaris of being -- an exaggerating humorist. He points to several incidents recounted in Mr. Sedaris' writings that others say didn't happen -- or they didn't remember them the way Mr. Sedaris remembered them. Or the people weren't really like Mr. Sedaris' characerization. It seems Mr. Sedaris tends to see homophobia where it wasn't intended. Funny how that works. When confronted with these charges by Mr. Heard, Mr. Sedaris unhappily 'fessed up and said, yes, some things were invented or stretched.

J. Peder Zane, the book critic of the Raleigh News & Observer (which has one of the balkiest newspaper websites I've encountered -- and that's saying something), accuses Mr. Heard of being, more or less, a humorless, self-important twit. He ignores the times Mr. Sedaris has already said he exaggerates for comic effect, and he inflates the significance of others' testimony over Mr. Sedaris' as well.

Mr, Heard, quivering with outrage at being mocked, has replied in the letters section of Romenesko that Mr. Zane and Peter Carlson in The Washington Post simply don't understand the seriousness of the issues involved -- thus, it would seem, proving Mr. Zane's charge of Mr. Heard's self-importance.

But one can't simply give a humorist a free pass for dealing with real incidents, real people, Mr. Heard argues, just because he makes us laugh by, well, the winking outlandishness of his stories. Individuals were offended by Mr. Sedaris' treatment of them. One suspects James Thurber's and Garrison Keillor's wives haven't been happy with their portrayals over the years, either, despite Mr. Heard's ringing distinction between their "humorous fiction" and Mr. Sedaris' work.

In particular, Mr. Heard points to Mr. Sedaris' portrayal of a state mental hospital as being "out of control." Nowhere does he indicate how Mr. Sedaris' humor affected, say, oversight of the hospital. Did anyone launch an investigation into its care and security? These are all very important issues, far more important -- if we're going to play this pointless game -- than whether people's feelings were hurt. Let's look at it this way: Did enough people actually take Mr. Sedaris' portrayal of the hospital as seriously as Mr. Heard obviously did and, say, propose legislation to correct its lapses?

Mr. Heard does, however, note a reason Mr. Zane might be quick to defend Mr. Sedaris: Mr. Zane unquestioningly accepted Mr. Sedaris' characterization of a local Raleigh person in a previous article. For a journalist, Mr. Heard writes, this was a "pathetic mistake."

But several other journalists have written into Romenesko, indicating that Mr. Sedaris told them, too, that he exaggerated stuff or that, in writing humorous pieces themselves, they've stretched things. Criminal charges do not seem to be pending.

I sent in the following:

Years ago, I interviewed David Sedaris about his collection, Naked. I pointed out to him that, if only one or two extraneous pieces were removed from the book, it could actually be considered a memoir of his mother and her death from cancer, a funny but also very moving memoir.

He was embarrassed, said that the suggestion had been made by someone at his publishing house and he turned it down flatly. That was taking his writing far too seriously, he said. [He added, "A memoir? You have to be kidding."] What would later cause all of the Oprah uproar over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces wasn't the fabrications; it's that he agreed to label his book a "memoir" -- the better for marketing -- although later he confessed he'd always considered it fiction. [I might add here that the "memoir" label is also what got Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors a lot of raised eyebrows -- and a lawsuit demanding, among other things, that the "memoir" label be replaced with one declaring the book "fiction."]

Given the chance, however, Mr. Sedaris refused the "memoir" label.

March 29, 2007 8:54 AM | | Comments (8)

In the April issue of Harper's, Jonathan Bate tackles "How Shakespeare Conquered the World." Among many other things, the case he presents is a vigorous and thoughtful counter to Gary Taylor's brilliant bit of iconoclastic scholarship, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, in which Taylor argues that Shakespeare became enshrined as the "Universal Poet," a unique genius, the greatest poet ever, primarily because of the rise of the British Empire and the need for a cultural standard-bearer, something of a highbrow justification for British pre-eminence other than God and the Maxim gun. One is reminded of comedian Eddie Izzard when he discovers India and finds people on it objecting to his claiming the country for the Queen: "Do you have a flag? ... Well, do you? Sorry: No flag, no country." It was kind of the same with Shakespeare: "Well, we have the Bard, and you don't." Which, actually, is pretty much what Saul Bellow said in his famous insulting dismissal: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

In any event, Bate never explicitly mentions Taylor, but he argues -- summarizing quickly here -- that Shakespeare was not hampered much by classical theories (unlike Jonson, Dryden, Moliere, etc.) and was able to enter into a wide range of characters' minds. Ergo, very quickly, he appealed to a broader range of readers and theatergoers (more than just the literary aficionados), yet he also influenced more writers (particularly the new professionals, not dependent on patronage, who saw in him a path to both commercial success and artistic respectability) -- all this, before the march of the redcoats really began. Bate then follows the Bard's rising fortunes with the re-opening of the theaters and the efforts of people like David Garrick to make Bardolatry "a secular faith."

All this is pretty straightforward and credible history, nothing that many people could object to. Taylor follows much the same path. What follows is a sensitive and complex argument involving why people find Shakespeare's characters appealing and compelling ("In Shakespeare's world, character is not predetermined"), how Shakespeare was used as government propaganda (mostly willingly, it seems) yet also presents a subtle republicanism to the prevailing monarchical and ecclesiastical powers. And so forth. Well worth reading, in short.

If you need to brush up on your Shakespeare before tackling this article, try this fun bit o' Bard background and a consideration of Bate's great question (to quote the video clip): "Why is William Shakespeare so Gosh Darn Important?":

March 28, 2007 9:53 AM | | Comments (1)

"Taken back, taken aback," my March 15 post on Eliot Jaspin's book, Buried in the Bitter Waters -- actually, my post about his appearance on the Diane Riehm Show on NPR -- has sparked a prickly exchange between Mr. Jaspin and James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns over issues of giving credit, definition of terms ("racial cleansing" and "sundown towns") and use of historical context.

Check it out.

March 27, 2007 9:12 AM |

... every Sunday in The Dallas Morning News. It might have cut down on the half-a-dozen requests I'd get each week from would-be writers for help editing-writing their manuscripts, help getting an agent, help getting their self-published book reviewed: what's entailed nowadays not just in getting that first novel published but getting copies of it sold. Plus a few rare success stories.

To give you some idea, these are the stats for British publishers according to the Guardian story. Double or triple these numbers for US houses:

· Around 70,000 titles are published a year in Britain, of which 6,000 are novels [it's closer to 180,000 new titles in America]

· Any large UK publisher will receive 2,000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year

· The average sale of a hardback book by a first-time writer is 400 copies

· Many publishers use this rule of thumb to work out advances: they pay 50 per cent of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run

· According to the latest edition of Private Eye, the first novel The Thirteenth Tale by ex-teacher Diane Setterfield (author's advance £800,000) has sold 13,487 copies to date. Only 516,129 copies to go and the book's paid for itself...

March 27, 2007 8:37 AM | | Comments (1)

A new novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, started in 1918 and partly/posthumously assembled from notes by his son, will be released next month.

My title quotation is inspired by a favorite literary anecdote. Reportedly, during a meeting of the Inklings, the Oxford dons' book club whose members included Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Tolkien read passages from his manuscript for The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was a terrible public speaker and reader, mumbling and droning, and his fellow English teacher, Hugo Dyson, promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and heard what was still going on, Dyson exclaimed, "Oh no, not another fucking elf." Thereafter, Tolkien limited his readings to those meetings of the Inklings when Dyson wasn't present. (And Dyson promptly became a personal hero of mine.)

Or so I always thought that's how it went. But Wikiquote says the line has also been attributed, ironically enough -- to Tolkien's son, Christopher.

March 26, 2007 1:53 PM | | Comments (1)

Over at Books, Inq, Frank Wilson quotes Bryan Appleyard on how blogging has altered his identity:

"In any net interaction we can pretend to be somebody else. Interactivity is now spreading through all media. The ontological transformation involved is seldom noted. Interactivity extends the self and offers alternatives. I, for example, recently started a weblog, thinking it was just another form of writing. It isn't, it is a performance in which the performer is constantly in flux, modifying himself with each response. I have begun to feel that Bryan Appleyard the blogger is not I."

I'm not impressed that this is a feature of internet use at all. It's an aspect of Appleyard's earlier writing, too, he just didn't notice it. I find this is one of those claims for the internet that is really an observation first made about literature in general: Appleyard is borrowing wholesale, consciously or not, from a very literary source, and one that's at least 40 years old, probably older. "Borges and I" appeared in Labyrinths, a collection from 1962. It must have appeared in Spanish much earlier but I've been unable to track down when (see James Woodall's biography of Borges and his "Note on the Texts Used" for the massive problems with Borges' published editions).

"Borges and I" is one of Jorges Luis Borges' most famous short essays (it's only 300 words long and was put in the section called "Parables" in Labyrinths). In it, Borges posits two people named "Borges" ("The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to") -- one is the writer created by his writings, and the other is this Borges, the personal one, the "real" one.

Borges being Borges, he playfully confuses things ("I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography" -- a good trick when you're blind). But then, the two have a complicated connection, one with certain tensions: "It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me."

Utlimately, it's even a tragic relationship -- contra Appleyard's typical shining internet optimism. It's a trap -- the writer and his writing, even human consciousness or self-awareness itself -- they're just another one of Borges' impenetrable labyrinths: "Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

"I do not know which of us has written this page."

I posted an earlier variant of this with Books, Inq and with Scott McLemee, whose blog Quick Study first brought this to my attention.

March 26, 2007 12:38 PM |

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

March 22, 2007 9:04 PM |

In the interest of bringing you the finest, most convenient online literary experience -- just short of dropping by chez vous with a bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee for you to sip while you appreciate our dazzling commentary -- we here at book/daddy have added a spiffy new feature over on the right side. Scroll down beneath our recommended books, and you'll now find "Best of the Vault." These are the collected editions of several lively, long-running topics, such as our early discussion of Literary Thrillers and our rabble-rousing against the Bush Necropolis. This way, you won't have to scroll through the long list in Archives, trying to decipher once-clever, now-confusing titles (what are "duelling bozos"?) but will now be gently guided to our anthology of favorites, sure to please.

Enjoy, with the compliments of the management.

March 22, 2007 8:35 PM | | Comments (2)

It's not as if I ever thought of Foucault as an actual historian, mind you. More of a Big Idea Man, Big Ideas that were welcome for their provocations more than their scholarship. That first English edition of Madness and Civilization didn't even have footnotes. And it's not as if Foucault were the only one casting a gimlet eye on psychiatry's claims of scientific accuracy and goodwill.

But in this Times Literary Supplement cannon blast against Routledge Classics' new, more complete translation, Andrew Scull argues vehemently that Foucault got England's Bethlem hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam) completely wrong, he cherry-picked his handful of outdated materials ("It is odd, to put it mildly, to rely exclusively on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship to examine the place of leprosy in the medieval world.") and he radically distorted the real history of madhouses to buttress his contention that the Enlightenment didn't empower human reason so much as shackle it.

Pretty convincing. It's almost enough to put you off French theorists.

March 22, 2007 3:19 PM |

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why

March 22, 2007 10:49 AM |
March 22, 2007 10:47 AM |
March 21, 2007 8:05 PM |

After bravely debuting with a Dickensian novel set in a Victorian sewer system -- The Great Stink -- Clare Clark follows that with a novel about an impoverished, pregnant teen apprenticed to a mad apothecary. This time, the novel is set in 18th century London -- when the Thames was "no more than a stinking brown ditch of rotting shit."

There's definitely something in the air: The Nature of Monsters is released in the US in May.

March 21, 2007 10:45 AM |

Espionage thrillers, then and now

March 19, 2007 10:15 AM |

Still looking for a job. Scrolling through a notice for yet another in-house corporate editor's position -- proficient in Excel, contract management, writing profiles and press releases (I liked the part about "creative writing for our clients"), a positive attitude, a self-starter, etc. etc. The usual impression that they want a high-powered world-beater who'll do everything for next-to-nothing.

Then I came to this requirement: Must be able to lift up to 50 lbs.

Shoot. It seems I won't have an assistant to lug out the boxes of shredded documents.

March 18, 2007 5:45 PM | | Comments (4)

In The New York Sun, Carl Rollyson reviews Nigel Hamilton's new book, Biography: A History, and quotes Mr. Hamilton about the lack of any study of the form, despite its long existence and recent popularity: "So why is there 'no single, accessible introduction to the subject, either for the general reader or the specialist?' Mr. Hamilton asks."

My first response was, well, then what in the world was Leon Edel's Literary Biography from 1957? Admittedly, it's a series of lectures. But if nothing else, it's a detailed look into the ways Edel himself (in photo) thought and worked -- no small insight into the field, obviously, considering Edel's landmark biography of Henry James. Edel devotes an entire chapter just to the influence of psychoanalysis on modern biography. The book was also partly cannibalized for Edel's later masterful collection-cum-manifesto, Writing Lives: Principio Biographica.

But then I went out and got a copy of Mr. Hamilton's book. The two words missing from the quotation -- "in print" -- there are no such studies "in print." Ah well, true. Upon further delving into Biography, however, I was surprised that although Mr. Hamilton can certainly make the point that such books are currently lacking, you'd think he'd still reference them. He never mentions the Edel or Catherine Parke's Biography: Writing Lives. Or Michael Holroyd's Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography Writing. There's also much to learn about biography-making from Richard Holmes Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.

Surely, Mr. Hamilton didn't overlook all of these books. But not a single one is indexed and I can find no citation as I go through the book. And one might think Mr. Rollyson might bring up this odd oversight in his review -- after all, he wrote American Biography and A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography --both of which are also never mentioned, it appears.

I'm not even particuarly well versed in the art of biography, but I've read several of these and it took me all of 15 minutes to look up the others.

[I posted an early version of this as a comment on the Critical Mass website.]

March 17, 2007 5:16 PM |

Sterling Morrison, the late guitarist for the Velvet Underground (far left), may be the most famous person I ever almost sort of knew. We both taught literature at the University of Texas at Austin but as has been the general case with this intrepid interviewer whenever I've met an idol I've really obsessively followed for years (Pete Townshend, Don DeLillo), I am reduced to pathetic adolescence, having nothing to say, knowing the answers he's given to a million questions already or not wanting to bother the oracle with my bizarrely picayune points. In fact, I deliberately flubbed my one chance to go out for drinks with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

So when we met in the halls, Sterling and I talked about medieval lit (his specialty).

Later, when I'd left academia and was writing about rock music and film, I met Morrison at a party and was flattered that he remembered me and had read some things I'd written. Or so he said, I didn't inquire too closely, figuring he actually mistook me for someone else. At any rate, with both of us now feeling more at ease, having trashed the UT English department (and having had several beers), I divulged my profound interpretation of "All Tomorrow's Parties" (which mercifully, I no longer remember, but it had something to do with Cinderella and myth theory).

No go. Morrison told me the song was about an impoverished drag queen crying over the fact that he can't afford any new clothes. He'll have to make do with the same old tatty gowns -- for which he'll be thoroughly snubbed, his life is over. Hence, the title.

And, of course, to anyone paying attention, that's obviously what it's about.

So there's a new bio of the Velvet Underground, and Mike Greif has some fun with it in the London Review of Books

March 15, 2007 5:41 PM | | Comments (4)

The interview this morning on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR with Elliot Jaspin, author of Buried in the Bitter Waters: The History of Racial Cleansing in America was a little startling because of the general attitude of Mr. Jaspin and guest host Katty Kay of the BBC that the material they were discussing was completely unknown, had been widely and deliberately overlooked.

Mr. Jaspin's book examines the wave of mass extraditions, forced evictions of entire black communities by whites, with these events running from the Reconstruction era through the 1920s. These he terms "racial cleansing" -- and to fit his definition, the evictions must include a public demand for blacks to leave (not simply a real estate policy of exclusion), a demand often backed by threats of violence and by acts of very real violence against African-Americans.

It is certainly true that the horrible, widespread nature of these events are not fully understood by the average white American -- and if informed of them, he would probably refuse to believe their extent at first. I certainly did. One e-mailer to the show this morning insisted that Mr. Jaspin was simply wrong about Corbin, Kentucky -- if he wasn't just outright lying. Nothing like this ever happened there. For such denials, the paper record of the Freedmen's Bureau, census bureau, police records and newspaper reports will never be enough counter-evidence.

But given the explosion of national publicity in the early '90s accorded the all-but-forgotten 1921 Tulsa race riot and given the 1997 Hollywood film, Rosewood about a similar act of mass racial terrorism in Florida, the interview's overall air of surprise and fresh discovery seemed a bit odd.

What made it odder still is James Loewen's eye-opening study, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism from two years ago. Admittedly, Mr. Jaspin and Professor Loewen discuss two different things: the violent expulsion of blacks vs. the continued exclusion of African-Americans from entire communities (in the case of the infamous "sundown towns," these were communities that actually had signs threatening blacks to get out after dark, although the sign wasn't necessary for Prof. Loewen to label a town a sundown community. What's required is the continued lack of any black population more than 1 percent) .

But sundown towns are essentially cases of racial cleansing made more or less permanent. Prof. Loewen began his study thinking he would find perhaps a few dozen such towns around the country. He has since found 432 confirmed sundown towns -- just in Illinois. This means thousands across the United States and, in many, many cases, towns whose racial segregation status is unknown to many recent residents because it has simply "always been the case."

Prof. Loewen and Mr. Jaspin make very similar arguments, use similar evidence -- that the "Great Migration" of African-Americans northward after the Civil War, for example, was followed by what Prof. Loewen terms the "Great Retreat," the removal of blacks from hundreds, even thousands of communities, north and south. Or that this was hardly just a "Southern" thing. According to the US Census Bureau, the most racially segregated big-city in America today is Milwaukee. Or -- what was particularly telling to me -- Mr. Jaspin's recounting on the air of how young blacks, when they learned to drive, were often taught two things by their elders: how to act when stopped by the police and areas of town to avoid. This directly echoed Prof. Loewen's material about old, printed guidebooks for cross-country black travelers, advising them on which towns to drive around or not stop in when riding a train.

There is a good reason, though, that Prof. Loewen's book isn't better known, didn't stir up more controversy. I wrote a sizable feature on Sundown Towns as did the Washington Post. But The New York Times didn't even review it -- although it would certainly fit book editor Sam Tanenhaus' argument for non-fiction books getting pre-eminent coverage these days (they offer us "news about the culture") But if the NYTimes doesn't deem something important, other media outlets follow suit, especially when it concerns books or socio-political issues.

I'll be curious to see whether Mr. Jaspin's book gets covered by the Times -- because it "happened to a journalist" and because his story involves the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's refusal to print his original series of stories about racial cleansing.

An opportunity for the NYTimes to look better than other print media certainly can't hurt a book's cause.

**Read the comments attached to this for Prof. Loewen's and Mr. Jaspin's responses.

March 15, 2007 12:30 PM | | Comments (4)

I found Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars highly flawed but still fascinating. Now comes the esteemed Anne Barton, and she absolutely rips the book in The New York Review of Books. She sounds a tad defensive (and unpersuasive) when she insists that Shakespearians really are a peaceful lot and not at all riven by arguments. But otherwise, I sheepishly stand corrected on a number of points, such as Mr. Rosenbaum's accuracy (on others -- such as his improbable preference for Shakespeare on DVD over Shakespeare on stage as somehow more "Shakespearian" -- we are very much in agreement). Professor Barton is far more convincing, more scholarly, in her arguments against the book than the NYTimes' Michiko Kakutani's almost peevish dislike of it and everything about it.

March 15, 2007 12:12 PM |

Unlike many book critics, I found Vernon God Little, DBC Pierrre's satire of fat, Texas hickdom, to have a heavy hand when it comes to pouring on the acid. It was unfunny, relentless and eagerly unsubtle in dealing with Bush America. Not surprisingly, the novel won the Booker Prize, more as an anti-American political protest from British intellectuals, surely, then any sort of praise for a novel that didn't rise to the lampoon level of Cletus, the Simpsons' slack-jawed yokel.

Now it's won another award, unsurprisingly: It topped out the Guardian's list of books Britons bought and never finished reading.

March 14, 2007 4:19 AM | | Comments (1)

Peter Osnos, of the Century Foundation, has a remarkably welcome column about newspaper book review pages: how newspapers might get more ads in them, how they could make the pages more interesting in a world where Starbucks has suddenly become a major player on the bestseller lists and how publishers could actually help in all this even with their tiny publicity budgets.

It's a welcome column, not just because it covers some of the points I've made about book review pages and their money sources, but because it actually advances sensible arguments not previously heard in all of the cutbacks and wailing over same. The notion, as advanced by Jay Trachtenberg in The Wall Street Journal, that the publishing industry has only itself to blame for cutbacks in ads (and therefore cutbacks in book sections), is pretty thin -- if not outright nonsense.

One of the more intriguing suggestions that Mr. Osnos offers is based on the education-industry ads that the NYTimes developed into what are now several pages for its Week in Review section. These can't be high-cost display ads (many of the little colleges couldn't afford them), yet they've become a standard feature of the section, certainly something of a moneymaker for the Times, otherwise they wouldn't continue. Mr. Osnos also notes that many small-press and university-press ads run in The New York Review of Books -- for what, again, must be relatively low rates. Yet they make money for the NYRB.

Why not something similar for book pages across the country?

In my experience, the weakness in this idea -- or the change that newspapers would have to make -- is that no single ad person handles book-related ads. They provide such small revenue. When I was the theater critic and tried to get The Dallas Morning News to collect all of the theater ads into a few pages in its Guide listings section -- the better to emphasize their presence, make them more like the Times' Broadway directory -- I found the ad department to be set up almost as if it were designed to frustrate what would seem to be a perfectly sensible idea. There was no single, point person to handle such ads; they came from different sources, were handled in different ways, ended up in different locations.

In short, newspapers generally don't have anyone trained to deal with such areas -- unlike the staff they have for car ads -- because the arts & entertainment field (except for movie or restaurant ads) is so nickel-and-dime. It would take some re-education (not impossible but necessary) for anything like Mr. Osnos proposes to get off the ground and the newspapers probably believe it just wouldn't be worth it.

But as he writes:

"Books, as has been said many times, have proven to be durable objects of popular interest against the onslaught of movies, television, and the Web. Book review sections and pages are vulnerable to the pressures of economics, but they always have been. What we need is for the people on both sides of the proverbial divide, the people who make and sell books and the people who publish newspapers and magazines, to realize that protecting and supporting book reviews is worth the trouble."

Thanks to Bill for the link.

March 13, 2007 6:08 PM | | Comments (2)

Michael Phillips, my brother-in-law -- the historian who took over book/daddy for his comments on Arthur Schlesinger -- has just won the T. R. Fehrenbach Award from the Texas Historical Commission for his ground-breaking book on Dallas' racial history, White Metropolis.

The painful irony here is that Michael hasn't been able to get a full-time teaching job as a historian for several years now. And you thought mainstream media has been going through some pathetic employment upheavals lately. I have had friends -- department chairs -- tell me they've had a hiring freeze for five years now.

Not even The Dallas Morning News has been that bad.

Congratulations, Michael.

March 13, 2007 5:50 PM |

Postings will be light this week. It's spring break -- l'enfant admirable is out of school -- so we've decided to enjoy the single, greatest advantage of living in Dallas:

The art museums in Fort Worth.

We're heading over to the Kimbell Art Museum, one of architect Louis Kahn's masterpieces, to see what has been hailed as a superb touring exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e (浮世絵 --"floating world") paintings from the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Afterwards, we'll stroll over to the Modern Art Musem of Fort Worth, one of Japanese architect Tadao Ando's masterpieces (pictured), to see "Pretty Baby," an exhibition of works on childhood identity.

March 13, 2007 9:57 AM |

For my judgment of Jon Clinch's novel, Finn, you can check out the "recommended books" on the right or the more extensive review below.

But in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Ron Powers, author of Flags of Our Fathers and an irritating, over-written biography of Mark Twain, reviewed Finn. In the course of the review, he chided Mr. Clinch for borrowing from Twain and chided him for differing from Twain and chided him for occasionally acknowledging those borrowings and those differences. In effect, Mr. Powers objected to the entire project.

One of the oddest parts of his argument was his sarcastic reference to Mr. Clinch's depiction of the "nihilistic, uninflected murder and cruelty that seem inextricable from the harsh riverine terrain" -- odd because of Mr. Powers' own book, Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America, in which he investigates the senseless, contemporary murder of an old man by two teenagers as well as his own childhood with an abusive father.

As for the spellbinding language and style Mr. Clinch uses in Finn, those were influenced by Cormac McCarthy, Mr. Powers declares. Probably true, but then, in his biography of Twain, Mr. Powers drops words such as "absquatulated," goes off on highly poetic raptures (he compares Twain's language to jazz riffs, after all) and repeatedly hails Twain himself as a rock star.

So perhaps as literary stylists go, Cormac McCarthy isn't such a bad model for a first-time novelist to choose.

March 12, 2007 10:45 AM | | Comments (1)

... at a comic book called Action Philosophers! -- now on issue #8 with Immanuel Kant defending the existence of God and a Charlie Brown-like John Stuart Mill knocking utilitarianism -- but what would you make of the estimable Terry Eagleton addressing the entire meaning of life in only 200 pages?

By the way, if you're interested in brushing up on Derrida ("The Deconstructionator!") or conversely, Schopenhauer's cheery description of humanity as a "ghastly mistake that should have been called off long ago," previous, splendid issues of Action Philosophers! have been collected into two amusing, different volumes (see image), while the ambitious Eagleton encapsulation gets released in America next month.

March 12, 2007 10:21 AM |

The National Coalition for History sent the following e-mail to the members of the American Historical Association:

On March 8, 2007, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee unanimously approved H.R. 1255, the "Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007." The bill is expected to go to the House floor the week of March 12.

The National Coalition for History is asking everyone in the historical and archival community to contact their House member as soon as possible and ask that they support H.R. 1255. A summary of the bill is available below.

Here is a link to the NCH's CapWiz legislative grassroots site. This site allows you to either send a pre-written electronic letter to your Member of Congress or to edit the letter we have prepared to express your own personal views.

It is important that you act TODAY, since the bill may come up as early as next week!!

Overturning the Bush Executive Order. Under the Presidential Records Act, presidential records are supposed to be released to historians and the public 12 years after the end of a presidential administration. In November 2001, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13233 which overturned an executive order issued by President Reagan and gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely. The Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007 would nullify the Bush executive order and establish procedures to ensure the timely release of presidential records.

Establishing a Deadline for Review of Records. Under the Bush executive order, the Archivist must wait for both the current and former president to approve the release of presidential records, a review process that can continue indefinitely. Under the bill, the current and former president would have a set time period of no longer than 40 business days to raise objections to the release of these records by the Archivist.

Limiting the Authority of Former Presidents to Withhold Presidential Records. Under the Reagan executive order, a former president could request that the incumbent president assert a claim of executive privilege and thereby stop the release of the records. If the incumbent president decided not to assert the privilege, however, the records would be released unless the former president could persuade a court to uphold the former president's assertion of the privilege. The Bush executive order reversed this process and required the incumbent president to sustain the executive privilege claim of the former president unless a person seeking access could persuade a court to reject the claim. In effect, the Bush order gave former presidents virtually unlimited authority to withhold presidential records through assertions of executive privilege. The legislation would restore the Reagan approach, giving the incumbent president the discretion to reject ill-founded assertions of executive privilege by former presidents.

Requiring the President to Make Privilege Claims Personally. Under the Bush executive order, designees of the former president could assert privilege claims after the death of the president, in effect making the right to assert executive privilege an asset of the former president's estate. The bill would make clear that the right to claim executive privilege is personal to current and former presidents and cannot be bequeathed to assistants, relatives, or descendants.

Eliminating Executive Privilege Claims for Vice Presidents. In an unprecedented step, the Bush executive order authorized former vice presidents to assert executive privilege claims over vice presidential records. The bill restores the long-standing understanding that the right to assert executive privilege over presidential records is a right held only by presidents.

Lee White
Executive Director
National Coalition for History
202-544-2422 x-116

March 10, 2007 4:26 PM |

With The Namesake opening today in movie theaters across the country, I found my interview in The Dallas Morning News with author Jhumpa Lahiri from when the novel first came out. Consider it a necessary primer to read before you see the film.

March 9, 2007 6:11 AM |

The latest update from the New York Times on how President Bush's Executive Order 13233 has thoroughly bogged down historical research in presidential archives: The wait for papers at the Reagan Library is now six and a half years.

Nowhere in the article is the suggestion that President Bush made this directive because many prominent members of his administration (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush himself) had served in the Reagan and previous Bush administrations. Ergo, they didn't want embarrassing memos from those years suddenly popping up and distracting them from their current work, successfully inspiring terrorists and fouling up the recovery of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, in a vote Wednesday, the SMU faculty senate was split right down the middle, 13-13, on whether the school should dissociate itself from the partisan think tank that will be part of the proposed Bush Presidential Memory Hole. The partisan institution will not report to SMU but to a Bush foundation. How's that for giving them money and land but deeding over control? Sounds like President Bush's old days helping to sell Arlington on building a new stadium for the Texas Rangers -- with city money but with the Rangers' retaining profits. And in keeping with such Bush thinking, SMU filed a court motion to keep its documents related to the library under wraps. The university is being sued over the way it took over the condos it tore down to make way for the library.

Unfortunately, the deadlocked senate vote may have been the faculty's last shot at stopping the steamroller. Predictably, the faculty's objections to the Bush library/propaganda center have led to pundits pointing out how liberal professors preach open-mindedness, free speech and the rights of minorities -- except when it comes to conservatives, who are so outnumbered in academic circles.

Funny. I didn't know SMU needed more rich, white conservatives.

The university is also approaching the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church for official sanction for the library because one proposed location includes land from the original gift that started the school in 1911, and SMU needs church permission to sell or lease it. The word is, however, that if the Methodists get snippy about it, there's other real estate that can be used to build it without their consent.

Half a billion dollars in fundraising will always find the One, True Way.

March 8, 2007 9:18 AM |

I promise not to giggle at the logical and moral failings of The Dallas Morning News' opinion pages all the time because, otherwise, I might as well stop writing about books. But there's a nice punchline here, trust me.

Mark Davis is the right-wing radio host whom the Morning News hired for a handsome salary several years ago rather than continue employing the reporters and writers and photographers the paper was laying off. This morning, in response to the verdict in the Scooter Libby trial, Mr. Davis trotted out the "lying is lying" argument to explain -- not why Vice President Cheney or Karl Rove should be indicted -- but why the Libby verdict proves we should have impeached Bill Clinton and removed him from office.

Sounds logical, and certainly relevant to today's concerns. But lying is a serious business, Mr. Davis maintains, and his "whining" liberal opponents who defend Clinton so eloquently when they say "So what?" are hypocrites or political cynics. In his column, Mr. Davis conflates the Whitewater investigations, which never found the Clintons guilty of anything, with the successful conservative ploy to get the president under oath answering questions about his sex life. But no matter. Lying is lying, remember, although Mr. Davis goes on to demonstrate that, in any event, Libby's lying didn't really matter, even if it was done to the FBI in the midst of a felony investigation.

Perhaps the best response to the "lying is lying" line of argument is to paraphrase the great British stand-up Eddie Izzard:

Look, there are different levels of lying. Don't believe me? Then why do we have different levels of homicide? There's murder one, murder two, homicide, manslaughter. There are different levels of theft: robbery, breaking and entering, armed robbery. The law makes distinctions among violations of the law all of the time.

So why not lying? Lying about breaking into the Democratic national headquarters -- that's lying 1. Lying about trying to defame a political opponent by revealing his wife is a CIA agent and then lying to the FBI about it -- that's lying 2 or 3.

Lying about oral sex? That's ... lying 12.

March 7, 2007 10:34 AM | | Comments (2)

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Dallas author Ben Fountain's debut collection of short stories and one of my top picks for last year, just won the 2007 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a first book. He won over the popular Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which received an honorable mention. The two finalists were Rebecca Johns for Icebergs, and Yvette Christianse for Unconfessed. The other honorable mention went to Janna Levin for A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

Last week, Ben won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Fiction Award.

Yee, as they say in Texas. Haw.

March 6, 2007 12:16 PM |

Jay Trachtenberg has an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning about the decline in newspapers' book pages, tied to the LATimes' re-vamp of its 30-year-old book section. Needless to say, everyone in the publishing industry is e-mailing it to everyone else because of Mr. Trachtenberg's charge: Publishers have shifted their ad dollar to buying in-store display space, and this loss of revenue accounts for the dying book reviews. The industry has only itself to blame.

"Even those who say they still support book-section advertising say it's only effective as part of a larger marketing effort. Michael Pietsch, publisher of Lagardere SCA's Little, Brown imprint, says advertising in book reviews can help drive sales if the author is well-known and if it's done in conjunction with online campaigns....

"New York publishing houses have always cried poverity when it comes to advertising. Every book requires a different ad, as in the movie business, but the publishers don't have the studios' deep pockets. And unlike other advertisers, publishers can't do brand-building: No one buys a book because it comes from Random House or Simon & Schuster."

But the weakness in Mr. Trachtenberg's argument is apparent in that paragraph: Ad revenue from books has always been a trickle. Book publicity is a relatively minor factor when it comes to newspaper revenue. And, it's been argued, even to book sales.

I'm perfectly willing to be corrected on this point, but I don't believe any newspaper's book pages (unless they're absolutely miniscule) are supported by the publishing industry -- and that includes the well-known freestanding book sections in New York, LA, Chicago and Philly. It may be that those sections have had such razor-thin budgets all along that a decline even in the small area of book ads has been enough to threaten the sections' very existence.

But I repeat what I said last year to Pat Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers, when she protested to The Dallas Morning News about its arts coverage cutbacks:

"In my experience, newspaper arts coverage -- including the book pages -- is supported by movie ads (and to the degree that they're part of the same pages, restaurant ads). Publishers and booksellers will never have the kind of ad budget to support book pages across the country. But there are significant services of big-city newspapers that have never been supported by ad revenue: op-ed pages, letters page, investigative reporting, editorial cartoons and the like. These were once considered the mark of serious newspapers educating and leading their communities, but it's precisely these money-losing areas that are being gutted by papers under the gun to keep up ridiculously high profit margins for Wall Street."

One might suspect the Wall Street Journal of an unwillingness to accuse newspaper owners for their years of over-the-top profits and their gouge-the-customers approach to ad rates as possible factors here. They begin losing that revenue to online sources and in-store displays (among other things) and promptly start gutting their cultural coverage in response. One might.

But Mr. Trachtenberg does quote the Chicago Tribune's managing editor-features Jim Warren on the time-honored value of the book pages to the newspapers' own mission and audience: "A book-review section is a small but important symbol of the support of literacy."

Or, as the Philly Inquirer's Frank Wilson puts it later: "I don't understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving those people who like to read."

To continue with my argument: "Reader outrage can actually influence a newspaper's decisions, but I suspect that trying to combat that revenue vise by appealing to a newspaper's traditional higher calling is not going to work. As I pointed out, though, the NFL doesn't support even a tiny fraction of the massive outpouring of free sports coverage it gets from papers, TV, radio and the internet. It's other advertisers who covet that football-fascinated audience. If the AAP wanted to do anything, it could try to convince advertisers that the readers of books pages may not be the young illiterates with poor impulse control that marketers currently want but neither are they the old and the dying, as conventional ad wisdom has it. They're a well-off, often media-savvy and intellectually- and socially-involved audience.

"This is not some wildly unconventional, radical re-think: TV networks have come to respond to an older audience (the kids are all off in the clubs or on the computer anyway) and has long positioned 'geezer' ads for its news programming. Why not the arts pages?"

Mr. Wilson does suggest another possible way out of this trap: online syndication -- in effect. If newspapers are supposedly shifting some of their attention and staffing to online resources and if publishers are using web campaigns more, then why can't the Philly Inquirer tap into these two trends and franchise its reviews to other papers, with them adding their own local reviews?

But I don't see how this differs from what happens today with papers like the Morning News augmenting their own dwindling freelance reviews with wire copy. Perhaps Mr. Wilson may elaborate on his brief suggestion in the WSJ.

March 6, 2007 8:14 AM | | Comments (2)

My brother-in-law, Michael Phillips, historian, author of White Metropolis, sent me an extended comment on the late Arthur Schlesinger, so I thought I'd turn book/daddy over to him for the moment. In response to the laudatory obits, Michael raised the following point:

"Arthur M. Schlesinger certainly was a well-intentioned liberal, but he shared the flaw held by elite New Frontiersmen: black people, brown people, women and radicals rarely captured his attention, except as a sideshow to the more crucial ideological battles waged between wealthy Anglo liberals and conservatives. Schlesinger essentially embraced a Whiggish, triumphant view of American history, seeing the national narrative of the United States as a march towards greater and greater liberty and freedom with only an occasional detour, such as McCarthyism, along the way. Victims of that alleged American progress didn't fit into that storyline, so Schlesinger ignored them.

"For instance, in the 523 pages of text in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (published in 1945), Schlesinger doesn't discuss even in passing one of the most striking and consequential aspects of Andrew Jackson's presidency: the initiation of Indian removal in Georgia culminating in the "Trail of Tears," a policy that led President Jackson to commit an impeachable offense by defying two Supreme Court decisions.

"Even if we accept the right-wing argument that concern over "minority" history is only a symptom of modern-day political correctness, the political world thought Jackson's Indian policies were important in Jackson's time, so Schlesinger's disinterest in an American act of genocide 100 years later is hard to excuse. Unfortunately, in the Schlesinger era of scholarship, people of color functioned as the exception that proved the rule. The suffering of Indians, African American slaves, etc, only highlighted how free the rest of us were. Any achievement of the civil rights movement was taken not as a sign of how courageous or determined blacks, browns and others were, but of the greatness and generosity of this country. But Schlesinger couldn't reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn't happen.

"Schlesinger's semi-regular polls of scholars rating the presidents had a similar pernicious effect. The scholars he consulted condemned or praised presidents based on their competence, not on whether they used their office to promote justice. Actions that extended American power were taken by these scholars as a good in and of themselves, regardless of the suffering such policies might cause other peoples and other lands. In Schlesinger's polls, American presidents "fail" but they don't consciously pursue evil. Schlesinger had a good heart, but like many liberals of the Cold War era, he had a moral blind spot when it came to dealing with the non-white world."

March 5, 2007 1:30 PM |

The San Francisco Chronicle weighs in with a more complete report on the LATimes' possible re-vamp (and reduction) of its 30-year-old books section.

March 5, 2007 9:05 AM |

One of the greatest poets of the (early) English language, and we know next to nothing about him: Frank Kermode discusses two new translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and compares them to Tolkien's classic version:

"[Once this point is made] one can see how it happens that we have before us two translations that are about as far apart as they could possibly be while each retaining its own fidelity to the original. Both positions are defensible; both allow for the variety of the content and for flexibility in its delivery; above all, both are continually aware that they are handling a rather beautiful object."

March 5, 2007 8:17 AM |

What will surely rank as one of the stranger moments this year, the centenary celebration of W. H. Auden's birth:

On Thursday, Britain's MI5 released files about the agency's failure to get Auden to answer questions about his possibly aiding the 1951 escape of the Cambridge spies -- Guy Burgess and Donald McLean -- from England.

March 4, 2007 6:57 PM |

... the National Book Critics Circle's website. They've managed to type up all the names on the Los Angeles Times' not-so-shortlist for its book prizes AND Granta magazine's top 21 American novelists under 35 as well.

Interesting sideline, by the way, about the LATimes' presentation by publisher James O'Shea last night in New York: Mr. O'Shea addressed the rumors that the Times is going to cut its books coverage. The rumors are simply not true, he said, but in an expression of whole-hearted commitment familiar to those who've read my discussion of cuts in newspaper arts coverage and, in particular, the Dallas Morning News' handling of same, Mr. O'Shea didn't convince anyone in the room, it seems, that the Times wasn't going to fold its freestanding book section into its op-ed section.

That, at least, was the impression of the people who've e-mailed me this morning. And the impression of GalleyCat as well.

March 2, 2007 12:00 PM | | Comments (1)

Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, is a haunting, savage little wonder, remarkable for the scope of its ambition and the apparent ease with which it achieves it. Mr. Clinch takes on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without supplication or imitation, fills in the grimmer, gothic corners of Twain's masterwork that Twain was constrained from exploring fully (race, sex, murder, madness, miscegenation) and does it all with a lyrical prose that is often spellbinding:

"He is between worlds, this boy.... He knows some things that he can never say, not even to himself...

[The other boys] find his dark history as dizzying as a leap from some great bluff into a Mississippi pool and his scrapes with his violent pap as thrilling as a narrow escape from Injun Joe's cave and his deep broad knowledge of woodsman's lore and slave's superstition as enchanting as a spell of protection against nightwalking spirits and werewolves, these boys forbidden to play with him yet drawn into his wake like needles to a lodestone, these boys whom he has trained well enough that at least one of them knows what he'll say before he says it and indeed has said it already, that the body is not a man's at all on account of it floats faceup."

Mr. Clinch's inspiration was not writing a prequel or sequel to Huck Finn so much as approaching the book sideways, more or less, with a tale that intertwines with Twain's. His main character is Pap Finn, Huck's brutal, drunken father, whom Twain left murdered, discovered by Jim and Huck (though Huck doesn't learn it until much later). Twain never explains the murder, but then, given Pap's vile character and the crime scene (his corpse is found in a flood-ravaged house floating down the river), there's power in Twain's suggestive shorthand. Obviously, Pap was shot while robbing the house or during some whiskey-fueled quarrel.

March 2, 2007 8:57 AM | | Comments (1)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and confidant of the Kennedy administration died yesterday in New York of a heart attack.

March 1, 2007 7:16 AM |


Best of the Vault

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why

Spy vs Spy:  

Espionage thrillers, then and now



About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by book/daddy in March 2007.

book/daddy: February 2007 is the previous archive.

book/daddy: April 2007 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.