"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell
"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde
Friday, July 25, 2003
Human Events magazine was one of the pioneering organizations of America's post-war right-wing movement; along with better-known groups like Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society, it helped spur the early growth of the conservative movement eventually led by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It was founded during World War II by a group of former America Firsters and featured articles denouncing Communism by men like Goldwater and Joseph McCarthy.
Now that Communism is gone, what new evils does Human Events inveigh against? Perhaps the answer should be obvious: Harry Potter. It seems that young Mr. Potter is a symbol of much that is wrong with our country--including the death of science, the rise of the occult, and the "feminization" of America:
The author of this article--a woman, incidentally--ends her critique with a dire warning. "The lazy, amoral, 'magical' worldview waxes at the expense of both science and religion."
Wasn't it easier when all we had to worry about was Communist world domination?
(link via Bookslut. If you need something to do during my weekend blog hiatus, check out Bookslut's other entries.)
If you only read one magazine article about George W. Bush, read The Accidental Radical by Jonathan Rauch. It's long, and I'm not sure I agree with all of Rauch's conclusions, but it's one of the most insightful analyses of the Bush presidency and style of governing that I've seen.
(Note: you may need registration to National Journal to read the article.)
Slate has a fun article on the fate of dictators' sons. The highlight for me was learning that "after failing in a military career, Augusto Pinochet's boy now wants to exploit his father's infamy, by marketing Pinochet brand credit cards and Don Augusto wine."
I've been linking to Slate a lot lately. I don't know why, but I found the following quotation from David Edelstein's Slate Seabiscuit review oddly amusing: "I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth—especially in midsummer, between Bad Boys 2 and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Seabiscuit has some stirring sequences, fine performances, and, not incidentally, many excellent hats." The photo on the main page of Slate, finally, reminded me of something I've thought for a long time: Ann Coulter is atrociously ugly.
Thanks to Languagehat, I've just read this useful Moscow Times article on Russian interjections. Where else can you learn what Russian words you should shout at your cat as she dives onto the chicken dinner on your countertop?
The British press has continued to debate the effect of historical TV programs on history education, as well as the question of how well-read today's history students are. Rather than link to these articles myself, I'll link to the blog Historiological Notes, which discusses the question here and in other entries.
Reading about the British debate, I'm reminded of a topic I touched on in a recent entry: the question of how much people read. Do students today read less than their counterparts from the past? Each side in the debate over TV history tends to take this fact for granted. Part of me feels fairly confident that yesterday's students were better-read. I'm still somewhat skeptical, though: it's easy to romanticize the past and to assume that in the glorious days of yesteryear, every high school student was as familiar with the works of Edward Gibbon as he was with the latest hit show on TV. (Well, maybe I'm exaggerating there, but I think you get the point.) Most of my friends seem as well-read (or better-read) than people of my parents' generation with a similar educational background, though maybe my parents' generation has forgotten a lot of what it once knew. In any case, this is a question that intrigues me.
The British education debate, on the other hand, exasperates me. Critics of history TV often sound snobbish and elitist, even when I think they're on the right track. Supporters of history TV tend to make generalizations that really irritate me, like this claim from another Guardian article:
This whole debate could use some more common sense--as well as a non-elitist defense of the idea that rigorous reading and a love of books and knowledge is as relevant today as it was in the past.
A more interesting Wall Street Journal article discusses the purchase of a Martin Waldseemueller map by the Library of Congress.
I've never been impressed by James Taranto's "Best of the Web Today" feature: Taranto is much better at smirking and providing shallow analysis than in writing intelligent or worthwhile commentary. Yesterday, moreover, he decided to engage in more idiotic Eurobashing:
I'm surprised and shocked that such a high percentage of Europeans could believe such a silly idea. But Taranto doesn't seem to notice--or care--that a comparable (or higher) percentage of Americans believes that we've proven that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks, and that we've already found weapons of mass destruction there. (I'm too lazy to hunt down actual poll numbers... In case any of my readers habor the illusions I've just mentioned, we have no evidence of a significant link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and so far have found no WMD. The respondent quoted above, moreover, has a point when he says that you can't see the full impact of the war on TV--CNN, and especially Fox, have given American viewers a far more sanitized view of the conflict than other news outlets have.) Ignorance, it seems, is universal.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
The Antic Muse describes what your magazine subscriptions say about you.
I'm terrified of what my blogger ads would say about my readers. By the standards in Ana Marie Cox's blog entry, they'd have to be both conservative and liberal, which maybe isn't a huge shock--I'm a liberal who's often confused for a conservative. My readers also apparently enjoy Johnny Carson videos, enjoy reading mystical poems, buy trivia questions, work for the PTA and Habitat Humanity, hire New York Co-Op lawyers, enjoy lesbian and gay blogs, and much much more. (I still have to wonder where the Johnny Carson video ad came from...)
In 1952, Irving Kristol--a leading neo-conservative--criticized liberal critics of Joseph McCarthy in the pages of Commentary. Earlier this week, his son--Weekly Standard editor William Kristol--attacked Richard Gephardt's views of the war on terrorism with nearly identical language. David Kusnet, a former Clinton speechwriter, reports on Kristol's recycling of his father's word in The American Prospect Online.
Before I vanish into the blue, however, I'll leave you with one last link, to a Guardian profile of the biologist David Sloan Wilson. It's worth a link--even if, in linking to it, I've exceeded my quota of Guardian articles for the day.
Blogging will be light until Monday or Tuesday, so I'm afraid that you'll just have to amuse yourselves for a while. Dissertation research is calling, I have an appointment with my adviser tomorrow, I'll be busy with a quizbowl tournament for a bunch of the weekend, and I have exciting things to celebrate on Monday. If you want a cool new blog to look at, try Universal Language, which I discovered through Languagehat, or check out the links on my sidebar.
"Mildly Malevolent" reached a milestone a few minutes ago: I've now had over a thousand visits since I installed my sitemeter, and more people are visiting the site every day. Thanks to Will Baude for the link and the kind words, and to Brian Ulrich for directing more visitors my way.
I may update a time or two tomorrow or on the weekend, but don't expect much until Tuesday or so. My goal is to continue my frenetic linking to articles I find interesting, with roughly one more substantive post each day. I'm also thinking about adding a "Document of the Day" feature that will describe some of the research I'm doing. If you like what you see, you'll probably find more of it here in the weeks ahead.
When history and graphic novels meet:
This quotation vaguely disturbs me, but I find myself entranced by the idea of Superman fighting Stalin.
In Slate, Sam Tanenhaus puts Ann Coulter's latest right-wing diatribe into historical perspective, comparing her work with that of other noxious right-wing writers of the past.
Does Michael Moore have a similar pedigree in irresponsible left-wing journalism?
Has East Germany become cool? A new hit movie indulges in GDR nostalgia... Katherine Witt, the figure skating medalist, will host "The GDR Show," which will idolize East Germany's socialist past... Nostalgia for East Germany even has its own nickname: "Ostalgie."
I'm not sure what to make of this phenomenon, but I must admit, I'd like to see Goodbye, Lenin! when it comes out in the U.S.
What if Thomas Jefferson had practiced what he preached? (What happens when a journalism professor reviews a history book?)
First he wrote about concentration camps in Europe. Now Thomas Keneally is writing about detention centers in Australia.
A clergyman who had to sell his motorcycle to get his first novel published hopes that his book will be the next Harry Potter. A.S. Byatt might approve--this article refers to the book's "numinous" atmosphere.
Dan Kennedy points to the many lies and deceptions in the Bush administration's push for war.
In City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple discusses the vulgarization of English manners: "There is a Gresham's law of culture as well as of money: the bad drives out the good, unless the good is defended." (link via Bookslut, which nominates the article's title as the best headline ever)
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the Confederates had won the battle of Gettysburg? Newt Gingrich has, and now he's written an alternative history novel about it. There's a lot more information about the book at newt.org.
I'm always reluctant to comment on books I haven't read. But I think it may say something that the most prominent person willing to endorse the book in a blurb was James Carville, who isn't exactly an authority on our country's past.
News from Russia:
The excitement never dies in Russia, it seems.
Losing in sports: a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Michael Kinsley has a convincing take on Tony Blair's speech and what it says about American politics. Lots of commentators have noted that Blair is an excellent orator by the standards of American politics; Kinsley is the first pundit I've seen who's been able to point to what makes his speeches so much more compelling than most American political speeches. (No, it's not just the accent.)
In a Washington Post column, Anne Applebaum looks at Blair's speech from a different perspective, describing the wildly varying accounts of the speech in America and Britain and suggesting that people in different countries live in "parallel informational universes." (These parallel universes even exist domestically--someone who dislikes CNN's right-wing bias can go to moveon.org, while someone who thinks it's too liberal can switch to Fox.) "The prophets of globalization once spoke of a seamless, borderless world, in which national differences would magically disappear," Applebaum concludes. "They were wrong."
I'm now moving away from the original point of this post--which was merely to highlight two interesting columns related to Blair's speech--but I'm really intrigued by the idea of "parallel informational universes." In one sense, Soviet history is discussed in two parallel informational universes in the U.S. Most of the media view the history of the USSR in outdated Cold War terms (shaped by people like Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, and Martin Malia), even ostensibly liberal institutions like The New York Times; actual historians tend to see the Soviet past in very different terms. In that sense, academics and members of the educated public live in "parallel informational universes"--and I haven't even mentioned people who don't read The New York Times and have little sense of Soviet history at all.
Conservatism explained? (via Hit and Run)
I'm not terribly impressed by this, to say the least, but I think it would probably be a mistake to read too much into a university press release. (The actual article, unfortunately, is not available online.) The discussion of Stalin seemed very simplistic, though, again, the actual article could conceivably have been more nuanced.
Do better-looking teachers get better student evaluations? I wish the author of this Christian Science Monitor article had told more about a recently published study suggesting that they do.
Art and power: The New York Times describes how a savvy Queen Elizabeth I "[used] the royal image to assert, consolidate and maintain her grip on power." Her chastity, not surprisingly, was at the center of her image: paintings came to portray her more like a Byzantine rendering of the Virgin Mary than like a living person, the article shows, and painters added motifs from literature and mythology to bolster her image as the glorious "Virgin Queen."
Brian Ulrich has responded to the Harry Potter scholarship article I linked to yesterday with a charming quotation from Isaac Bashevis Singer. Here's what he wrote:
There's so much good material here that I'm not sure where to begin... I believe, though, that there are two real dangers in writing about children and children's literature. The first is to romanticize them--to portray them as innocent bearers of a wisdom that older readers (and especially writers) have forgotten. Singer, I believe, sometimes falls into this trap. The second danger is to believe not that children are innocent and wise, but that they're innocent and fragile (and, hence, that they need to be protected from bad children's books and molded by good children's books.) People who fall into this second trap often feel that children need to be preached to, that they should only read the "best" books, and that they should avoid, say, film adaptations of children's books that might shatter their innocence and destroy their ability to conceptualize those books on their own. (I'll admit to having misgivings about film adaptations of books, but that's a subject for another day.)
Part of Singer's argument is unquestionably true: Children do "love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes." In other cases, I think that Singer's analysis is a little simplistic. No, children don't read with the explicit goal of "finding their own identity." They do, however, read books to better understand the world around them and their place in it--which, one could argue, is a more implicit search for identity. I even tend to wonder whether children care about "logic" and "punctuation," though I'm getting picky here. (And Singer is certainly right that children wouldn't approve of experimental writing that flaunts the normal rules of punctuation and plays elaborate games with logic.)
Singer's speech doesn't go as far other writings I've seen in falling into the first trap I've described, and in general I found it quite charming. (I do believe, however, that he's inserted some of his own views into the mouths--or the minds--of children.) I still tend to prefer the speech given by Philip Pullman when his novel The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Award. In my favorite passage, Pullman attacks the idea of childhood innocence:
Pullman's conclusion can be read as an assault on the idea that children are fragile and need their literature to teach valuable lessons, though that's not precisely the point he's trying to make. Here's another excerpt:
As any reader of Pullman's work can tell you, a good story will beat a preachy story every time. (Pullman's books, as I've said before, are really good--they're dazzingly creative and better written than the Harry Potter series.)
Before concluding, I want to comment briefly on the topic of Harry Potter scholarship. I haven't read any of the essays described in the New York Times article, but my strong suspicion is that they vary in quality from the blandly innocuous to the blatantly idiotic. (Unless, of course, they're meant as parodies, which I don't believe to be the case.) It would be a mistake, however, to argue that the Harry Potter books are beyond academic analysis--as long as that analysis doesn't take the works too seriously, doesn't take itself too seriously, doesn't harbor the illusion that its findings will reshape our understanding of the books (or of children's literature, or of literature itself), and doesn't forget that the books they're looking at were intended for children. Harold Bloom has discussed his dislike of Harry Potter both on NPR and in The Wall Street Journal, proving that he has almost nothing intelligent to say on the subject. A.S. Byatt has been widely mocked for her New York Times opinion piece on Harry Potter. Each of them comes closer to a serious academic analysis of Rowling's work than the essays described in the New York Times article, I would argue, even if both of their essays are deeply flawed. Wendy Doniger, however, has a much more intelligent take on the subject, showing that one can cite Freud and world mythology in an intelligent (and entertaining) discussion of a children's book.
It might be fashionable to write off "academic" analysis of children's literature by saying "It's a children's book! It's supposed to be fun!" Good children's book will often be open to more sophisticated analysis, however--and as long as such analysis doesn't go too far, it can be entertaining and interesting. "Cinderfella: J. K. Rowling's Wily Web of Gender" sounds like a silly waste of time. Doniger's "Never Snitch: The Mythology of Harry Potter" is well worth a read.
Addendum: I've just noticed some unfortunate phrasing in this entry and my first entry on the NYT Potter scholarship story. When I referred to the Potter scholarship as charming, I was being sarcastic. When I referred to Singer's speech as charming, I meant what I said.
Update: Matt Reece wonders whether some of the Harry Potter scholarship mentioned by The New York Times is intended, in part, as self-parody, pointing in particular to the study based on Lawrence Kohlberg's hierarchy. Unfortunately, that's difficult to say--unless someone feels like running out and buying a copy of the book to find out.
There probably are some self-parodying Potter scholars out there, or some Potter enthusiasts who intend to present a serious argument along with a healthy dose of humor. But I suspect that a substantial proportion of the scholarship presented in this article and Chris Mooney's Washington Post piece is meant to be taken (mostly) seriously. (Whether that "substantial portion" is more like 30% or 70% is difficult to say.) Keep in mind that Potter scholars are academic outsiders, and may not be familiar, say, with the consensus view of Kohlberg within the psychological profession.
I think one of the paragraphs from Mooney's article is worth bearing in mind:
My hunch--and yes, it's just a hunch--is that Susan Hall's article isn't meant to be taken seriously, and that she's a hobbyist who thought that it would be fun to write an article about Harry Potter. (I'd actually like to read this essay; it sounds like fun.) I can't judge the presentation on whether Harry is Jewish without more information. The question of whether Harry is a "transgendered hero" sounds to me like it's meant to be taken more seriously--though, again, such things can be hard to judge without seeing the actual work the article is based on. So my guess is that Potter scholars have a mixture of motives--they can be enthusiastic hobbyists, self-parodying satirists, and people who think (rightly or wrongly) that they have something significant to say about the Harry Potter series and about literature overall.
Looking back over what I've written, this entry probably would have worked better if I'd split it in two, responding to Matt in a separate post. Writing so much about the sillier-sounding Harry Potter writings may have obscured my two main points: that in looking at children's literature, we should avoid romanticizing children and assigning our own views to them, and that it's possible to write a smart and entertaining article on a children's book (as Wendy Doniger has done.) If the stuff about transgendered Gryffindors and Kohlberg-quoting literary critics is too fresh in your mind, then please reread the first half of this entry (until the start of the addendum.) :)
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
My discovery of the day: E.P. Thompson, the British social historian best known for The Making of the English Working Class, was also a poet. An example of his work:
I can't say whether this verse is typical of his poetry. Thompson also seems to have written a verse homage to Salvador Allende, several poems on Chinese history, and a poem that involved shooting a cat. (The poem above had the virtue of shortness, and hence was easy to type.)
It's not uncommon for historians in the nineteenth century (and earlier) to have had literary aspirations. Did other well-known Anglo-American historians also write poetry or fiction? (No, Robert Conquest doesn't count.)
David Greenberg's "History Lesson" column in Slate this week presents a fascinating discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis tapes recorded in the JFK White House. I won't comment in detail, in part because I'm in the awkward position of having strong opinions on such matters without having any especially deep knowledge of the subject, and in part because I know one of the people involved in the controversy. (By far my best academic experience in high school was an independent study at the JFK Library under Sheldon Stern's supervision.) I recommend the article, though.
I missed this article on Harry Potter scholarship when it first appeared in The New York Times, but I just found it via Bookslut. A highlight:
Other articles in the same collection rely on the theoretical contributions of the psychologists Otto Rank, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Sigmund Freud, as well as the folklore scholar Vladimir Propp. How charming!
Are TV programs on history a mixed blessing?
Some British historians apparently think so, arguing that a recent boom in TV programs about history (such as Simon Schama's "History of Britain") spread the message that history is about narrative and story-telling, not about rigorous academic scholarship. There may be something to this--I'm not sure I'd approve of the wholesale "Schamerisation" of history, as some critics have dubbed the phenomenon, and I think that history classes need to be more than mere "edutainment." Nevertheless, if more students take history classes because they've seen history shows on TV, then professors who worry about these sorts of issues will have more opportunities to introduce their students to the discipline of academic history. In fact, enrollments in British history classes have been rising, though The Guardian takes it for granted that this rise was due in part to the spread of history programs on TV.
Is the phrase "literary economist" an oxymoron? Charles Kindleberger didn't think so.
This sounds like a cool novel: two twenty-first century academics stumble upon papers about the marriage of James I's widowed daughter and an African nobleman named Pelagius. Maybe I'll read it if I ever have the time...
I think this is a first: Clinton foes plan to open a Counter-Clinton Library the same day the Clinton presidential library is opened, drawing attention to the many scandals surrounding Bill Clinton. According to the library's website, visitors will be able to take a tour highlighting such subjects as impeachment, "the real Hillary," "pardons for dollars," the "Clinton casualties," and "the Department of Domestic 'Affairs'."
The main point of the library, it seems, is to "educate" visitors about the Clinton administration's legacy and to counter the "spin" likely to be put out by the Clinton presidential library. The question of bias at presidential libraries is an interesting one: I don't think anyone should visit the museum at the JFK library expecting to find an exhibit on the president's sex life, but bias at presidential libraries tends to be relatively mild, in my experience anyway. More importantly, presidential libraries seem to be completely legitimate research institutions with no perceptible bias when it comes to serious historical research.
What intrigued me most about the Washington Post article was the following sentence: "Dick Morris, the Clinton strategist who resigned in a sex scandal, has pledged stacks of his insider documents, as has Gary Aldrich, the former FBI agent who wrote a best seller about Clinton's scandals." Does this mean that the Counter-Clinton library will also be a center of anti-Clinton research? Or are Morris and Aldrich merely donating their papers to help the museum's curators design their exhibits?
The scariest person in Washington is getting more powerful.
Romania, it seems, is a great place to make movies, even if you have to import your artificial snow and blood.
Those of you who aren't from Massachusetts probably know very little about the saga of William Bulger--a charming, Latin-quoting politician who dominated Massachusetts politics as a dictatorial state Senate president for 17 years. He's now the president of the University of Massachusetts, and has been getting into trouble lately for his relationship to his brother "Whitey"--the head of organized crime in South Boston. I haven't been able to follow the latest details of the Bulger story, but Brent Staples describes the unusual relationship between the Bulger brothers on today's NYT editorial page.
Normally I'm more likely to link to newspaper or magazine articles than to link to other blogs, but here are two blog entries that interested me:
a) A blog I don't know very well--Two Blowhards--has a long discussion of bestseller lists.
b) Lawrence Solum has a lengthy post on "The Internet and the Academy." Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell (from Crooked Timber) also weigh in.
Louis Menand is one of my favorite writers. He's best known for The Metaphysical Club, a history of pragmatist philosophy and the impact of the Civil War on American thought; he also wrote an essay about Tolkien for the New York Review of Books that did a fantastic job describing the emotional bond Tolkien fans feel toward The Lord of the Rings. I read his articles with interest whenever I come across them.
Menand has an essay in the current New Yorker about three books on dictatorial regimes. It's well worth a read. The first half of the review--a rehash of Friedrich and Brzezinski's theory of totalitarianism, and a discussion of Arendt's vision of fascism and Stalinism--didn't especially grab me. I also think it missed the point that the Friedrich-Brzezinski theory was historically questionable, as well as politically questionable when used by rabid Cold Warriors. Then again, I think that totalitarian theory has something to teach historians even now, though that's a story for another day.
The rest of the article is a little disjointed, but makes some interesting points. I think it would have benefited from the deletion of the material on Fareed Zakaria; the books by Alpers and Orizio sounded more interesting to me. In particular, Alpers makes a nice point about popular views of different totalitarian regimes:
In short, I'm not sure that this was a great article by Menand's standards. It makes some interesting points and touches on some fascinating ideas, but it's disjointed and tries to deal with too much diverse material. (The discussion of how the struggle against dictatorial Muslim regimes fits into this equation could have been better treated in a different essay, or a much longer one.) The article is still worth reading, in part for the interesting points it makes and in part for such charming asides as this:
Addendum: Menand makes reference to this article by the recently deceased Bernard Williams in Philosophy & Public Affairs. Check it out.
Addendum 2: Unfortunately, Menand's Tolkien article is no longer available on the NYRB website. (You either have to subscribe to the NYRB's electronic edition or pay an exorbitant $4 to read the article online.) Only the first paragraph is still available, but even that captures a crucial part of the attitude of long-time Tolkien fans:
I certainly felt this way about Tolkien, and I just read the book a year or two before most of my friends did. Even now, I can't help but feel that I know the book--that I really understand it--far better than anyone else I know. (In reality, I know there are people who can recite more random facts about The Lord of the Rings than I can. But, as I said, I still like to think that I understand the book better than they do. Maybe I'm just arrogant...)
Addendum 3: As I learned while searching for the Tolkien article, Menand has also written an essay on another well-loved cultural icon: the Cat in the Hat.
Christo: misunderstood genius?
Monday, July 21, 2003
The legacy of Woodrow Wilson has often been invoked in the current debate on America's role in the world--see this John Judis article from The New Republic on what Wilson can teach the imperialists of today. But perhaps, one historian suggests, it would make more sense to listen to the views of Wilson's archrival--Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
Another British periodical has published another review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin book. I've probably bored my few regular readers silly by posting links to them all; perhaps one of these days (when I have time) I'll write something about the treatment of Soviet history in the American and British press.
Why does kleptomania predominantly affect women? Is there a link between eating disorders and stealing?
The BBC: under fire at home, trusted and respected abroad.
Will people be willing to buy their way out of traffic jams?
The Miami Herald, it seems, has a delightful history. Then again, most any newspaper with a long history probably has its share of amusing anecdotes and charming characters...
A new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is about to be published.
I enjoyed reading the Chronicle of Higher Education's commentary on the manual's early history:
I'm afraid I prefer other usage guides and style manuals, but I probably shouldn't admit that now that I'm here in Hyde Park.
Dog empathy: an article on dog communication in The Washington Post reports on research designed to measure whether dogs' abilities to read subtle signals from people is inborn or learned.
Here's a charming New York Times article by Sarah Lyall about the latest business venture of the family of the Earl of Sandwich. Guess what they're selling!
Amanda Butler points to one of the most striking quotations in yesterday's New York Times Magazine article on Random House:
I find this passage astounding. (Then again, other people might find it astounding that I spend about a fourteenth of my income at the Seminary Co-op...) I'm slightly unclear on what the quotation means: I assume that "finish school" means "finish your education" at whatever level--college, high school, grad school, etc. I also wonder whether the quotation is conflating "buying a book" and "reading a book." But there's a little vagueness there.
Whatever the statistic means, I think that this would be a fascinating dissertation topic for a sociologist. How many books does the average person read (or buy)? How well do differences in income (or political views) correlate with how much a person reads? Are there geographical differences in the quantity of reading? How well are education and interest in reading correlated? I would imagine that the answers to these questions aren't as straightforward as one might guess.
I've thought about questions like this in the past in a slightly different context. Highly educated Russians sometimes seem better read than their American counterparts: two Russians I know have told me that I should read Sir Walter Scott's Heart of the Midlothian, for example. (How many Americans do you know who've heard of the book, much less read it?) When I was in Russia last summer, I wanted to buy a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's translation of Alice in Wonderland; I checked the obvious locations in a bookstore (children's books and foreign books), only to find that the book was located in a separate Nabokov section. I could continue listing anecdotes like this, but I think you get the point. My hunch is that well-educated Russians aren't significantly better-read than well-educated Americans, but that they're better educated in certain classics of international literature. (The old intelligentsia culture also places an emphasis on looking cultured and knowledgeable about literature.) But I still have to wonder sometimes...
I thought of these questions again last week, when I read The Fly Swatter, a biography of the Russian economist Alexander Gerschenkron. Gerschenkron was, to put it mildly, a voracious reader and an extremely impressive scholar: he was offered chairs at Harvard in economics, Slavic Studies, and Italian literature, for example, and was an authority on everything from chess to Charles Dickens. The Fly Swatter led me to a charming essay on reading that Gerschenkron published in The American Scholar, which explained that he read 90-100 books a year. (It also discussed the role of memory in reading and the characteristics of a good book.)That number puts me to shame.
I wish I could bring this entry to some sort of grand conclusion, but I'm afraid I can't. I do believe, however, that this would be a fascinating subject for some sort of interdisciplinary study. Then again, some of the most fascinating material for such a study would be anecdotal... So maybe someone with a lot of time on his or her hands should write a long, rambling book, loaded with cool stories, random observations and meditations, and serious attempts at studying the question as "scientifically" as possible. I'd buy it!
Update: At the Volokh Conspiracy, Tyler Cowen writes about how well the classics sell. He suspects (quite reasonably, I think) that book sales are shaped by movies and school reading requirements, though I think he may be underestimating how well The Hobbit would sell if Peter Jackson had never gotten around to adapting The Lord of the Rings.
Arthur Walworth--a biographer of Woodrow Wilson who may be the oldest living winner of the Pulitzer Prize--believes that Wilson's multilateralist ideals have much to offer the US today.
Another bad idea: entertainment ultrasounds.
Scientists at Cambridge plan to use genetic fingerprinting to learn about the origins of medieval Christian parchments like the Canterbury Gospels. (Similar techniques have been used to sort out early Chaucerian manuscripts, it seems.)
I find some of Amazon.com's latest plans intriguing--like the new program that will allow users to search through large numbers of nonfiction books.
I've been thinking lately of what the best historical analogy for the occupation of Iraq might be, and just found an article making the case for my leading candidate--our ill-fated occupation of the Philippines. (The article isn't great; it came from--of all places!--American Heritage.)
Sunday, July 20, 2003
Does illegal immigration hurt the poor?
An American who fought against the Russians in Chechnya has now published his memoir, My Jihad. Aukai Collins, a self-proclaimed "warrior," has bad things to say about everyone from the Russians to al-Qaeda to the CIA. I'm not sure whether he's a publicity hound, a murderer, or a principled person who should be taken seriously, but the article's fascinating--and I can't help but be amused by any work of journalism that refers to Lafayette as "a punk kid in his 20s who defied his king to volunteer with secessionist rebels."
Here's something else that simultaneously amuses and scares me:
I think my gender renders me completely incapable of understanding this phenomenon. The doll hospital is the scariest part. (Am I wrong, or is this the only hospital in the world where you can get a head transplant?)
St. Petersburg has been reborn. But, as a writer for the British magazine Prospect points out, some things remain inexplicable: "Why do all Russian car number plates have RUS on them in the Latin alphabet? Why do Russians smoke themselves to death in closed rooms? Why don't private bedrooms have proper curtains to shut out the light? Why can't I buy Russian vodka in London?"
Another Prospect article poses a fascinating question: why are women more influential politically in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world?
The Exile--an English-language alternative newspaper, based in Russia and known for its frequent lack of good taste--has published a review of William Taubman's Khrushchev biography. It's an entertaining read:
I found the article amusing, though I'm not sure I agree with the author's assessment of the book and I dislike his use of the word "fascist" (a subject I might return to someday). I was also reminded of a past entry I wrote in this blog, about how Robert Conquest was willing to joke about Stalin in a way that no one would joke about Hitler. Perhaps I'll try to hunt down the Amis quote, which I assume comes from his book Koba the Dread.
My weekly Sunday morning reading summary: