Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mother Nature Belongs at the Bargaining Table

Original Link at Other Worlds:

December 5, 2012Op-Ed, 657 words

Friday, November 30, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Freedom vs. Fate

In In Defense of the Accidental, the German Odo Marquard addresses the perennial question of human freedom. What is freedom? Is it possible? Doesn't causality or necessity, by God or nature, preclude human choice? Doesn't Fate determine us? Marquard says no:

What makes a human being free is not zero determination--the absence of all determinants--or the superior force of a single determinant, but a super-abundance of determinants...By codetermining man, each of them--so to speak--guarantees him latitude (distance) in relations to the others, and protects him from the sole determining clutches of a single power, in the face of which he would be powerless, on his own. The principle is: "[Divide and escape!]."
In the sense that there is not one fate for each of us, but rather many conflicting fates--many chains of causation, interacting with one another--human freedom exists in overdetermination.

American philosopher Daniel Dennett agrees, sort of, maybe. In Freedom Evolves, Dennett attempts to reconcile causal-determination (e.g. the laws of physics) with human agency. He does so partly by arguing that real-world causation is so complex that it might as well be indeterministic.*

*(This is a simplification of Dennett's argument, and in any event, he also claims that indeterminism doesn't help get you to freedom. The essence of his position rests on a categorical distinction between talking about stuff qua agents vs. talking about stuff qua stuff.)

Fate vs. freedom seems like an important subject. I don't mean capital-F Fate, with the three old crones on their spinning wheel of Destiny as in Greek fables, or the unidentified force for good which guides Scott Bacula through history on Quantum Leap, or the Force of Luke and Darth. I think we can meaningfully talk about "fate" without assuming authorial metaphysics. All I mean by "fate" is the vast set of events which lie outside my control, the fact that very nearly everything which happens in my life happens in spite me rather than because of me. (I.e. Marquard's titular "accidental.")

Like, what could be more relevant to my life than the question of whether my life could--or can--be different than how it is now? Where things get tricky on this question is when you think about how the very answer I give to this question--"I am free," "I am fated"--affects the answer. Because it does: fate-believing people act fatalistic, and freedom-believing people behave freeishly. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you believe you can do something or you believe you can't, you're probably right." The self-referential nature of this pickle is kind of like the weird, logical slipperiness of the paradox "This statement is false."

Per psychologist Julian Rotter ("row-ter"), this is pretty much what happens with most people: "People with an internal locus of control believe that life outcomes are largely under personal control and depend on their own behavior. In contrast, people with an external locus of control believe that their fate has less to do with their own efforts than with the influence of external factors." This is part of a principle known as "reciprocal determinism," according to which a person, their behavior, and their environment all interfere with one another, like bumper cars running into each other. Like Marquard's overdetermination, reciprocal determinism creates indeterminacy through conflicting determinisms. Whether or not indeterminacy is helpful to those who hanker for human freedom is a separate question, but it's certainly comforting to think about.

My own suggestion on all of this is that we don't know whether we're free--not necessarily because freedom is inherently unknowable or anything, but just because we don't really seem to be clear about what "freedom" means per se, outside of specific contexts like prison. But what seems most useful, if maybe not true, is the advice of an old teacher: "Fate governs, but broadly." Maybe like the false choice between nature vs. nurture as the determinant of who a person is, the choice between free will and fate is an illusion: fate sets the rules and limits, and human freedom navigates within them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Temple Grove, upcoming Green-Scare related Environmental Action novel by Walla Walla author Scott Elliott due out in May of 2013

Deep in the heart of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula lies Temple Grove, one of the last stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection from logging. Bill Newton, a gyppo logger desperate for work and a place to hide, has come to Temple Grove for the money to be made from the timber. There to stop him is Paul, a young Makah environmentalist who will break the law to save the trees.

A dangerous chase into the wilds of Olympic National Park ensues, revealing a long-hidden secret that inextricably links the two men. Joining the pursuit are FBI agents who target Paul as an ecoterrorist, and his mother, Trace, who is determined to protect him. Temple Grove is a gripping tale of suspense and a multilayered novel of place that captures in taut, luminous prose the traditions that tie people to this powerful landscape and the conflicts that run deep among them.

Scott Elliott is associate professor of creative writing and English at Whitman College and author of the novel Coiled in the Heart. He lives in Walla Walla, Washington.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 2012 National Book Award Winners

Young People's Literature 

Goblin Secrets 
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing)

David Ferry
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations
(University of Chicago Press) 

Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 
(Random House)


The Round House
(Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) 

Elmore LeonardMedal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Photo by Dermot Cleary.

Literarian Award for Outstanding Service  
to the American Literary Community 
 Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

UW president's tactless "real job" comment to poor students

Since I'm basically a pundit, my main job consists of whinging about the failures of others and endlessly describing all the things that are wrong with the world. There are robust economic reasons for this: in terms of producing stimulating content, it's easier to tear down someone else's movie or book or statement than it is to produce my own. That is, derivative content is easier to produce than primary content (see for example here).

Fortunately for yours truly, there are plenty of asinine things said and done which merit criticism. A big one is President Obama's shifty/abusive use of drone bombings, which I wrote about (here) earlier this week.

Another, less horrific (but more local) controversy is U. Washington president Michael Young's comment at a Q&A Session following his annual address that poor students might need to get a "real job" if federal funding for Pell grants falls through.

Deepa Bhandaru et al responded (here) in the UW paper by criticizing Young:

We were appalled at Young’s insensitivity to the reality that undergraduates face, given the number of our students who work so hard at real jobs in order to make ends meet and put themselves through college.

They also discussed an ongoing dispute between the university and student employees who receive tuition waivers as part of their pay. Formerly, student fees had been included in student employees' pay, but at that same Q&A session president Young reportedly reaffirmed his intent to go to court in order to shed the UW of that obligation.

William Dow joined the kaffufle with his op-ed (here), which takes Young to task for his "real job" comment. Dow spends an awful lot of time unpacking the implications of this phrase, calling it "loaded with ivory-tower ignorance" and claiming that it signals that Young considers Pell grants a low-priority.

It was only slightly less insulting than when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney advised Ohio students to borrow money from their parents — “if you have to” — in order to start a business.

 But the proles could only beat up on their illustrious leader for so long before UW Associate Vice President Norm Atkins replied (here) with a defense of Young's remarks. Atkins claims that Young's statement has been taken out of context and its meaning has been inverted:

The comment about getting a job was inserted into the question as an option as undesirable as dropping out or taking out loans. These were presented as unacceptable options to a vibrant financial aid program that relies on federal Pell grants as its foundation. In no sense was President Young telling students to get a job — he was suggesting that having to get a job in lieu of financial aid would be an impediment to continuing their education.

The force of Atkins reply is somewhat diminished by problems with his evidence. He supplies Young's sentence in which the infamous "real job" phrase occurred (“I’d just embellish that by heaven forfend [sic] get an actual job.”), but since it's incoherent (at least in Atkins' op-ed), it's not particularly helpful in parsing out Young's meaning. Added 11/10/12 at 9:40pm: evidently "heaven forfend" is not an incoherent typo, but means "heaven forbid." (Whoops.) So Atkins' full-quote of Young's original sentence is coherent, but is also evidence of Young's snide contempt (not evidence of Young's benign intent, as Atkins claims). Atkins also supplies a link to a page which putatively shows video recording of Young's comments, but it's incorrectly formatted and doesn't work:

Your correspondent was unable to find Young's comments on Youtube via searching. And, as Dow points out, while Young's address is posted on the pivotal Q&A session is "conspicuously unavailable."

It's not clear at this point what Young actually said, or meant to say, or how he said it. But given Young's position of power, and given the coherence of his accusers and the incoherence of his defender, this does not prejudice your correspondent toward giving Young the benefit of the doubt or toward sitting on the fence. It sounds like an old, powerful white dude said something Romneyesque about poor people, and he needs to own up to it.

PS: Your correspondent's partner happens to be a Pell grant recipient at the UW. You can read his analysis of UW philosophy (here), and stay tuned to his blog for his thoughts on Young's comments (coming soon).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Obama on the Hanford Nuclear Site, Campaign Q&A, Somewhere in Oregon, May 18th, 2008

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE;  Every year the government promises to fund the Hanford Clean-Up Project in Eastern Washington, and every year they find a way to take away the funding, which results in a lot of lost jobs. Washington's current policy seems to be "the solution to pollution is dilution."


WOMAN;  What is your policy?

OBAMA;  Here's something you'll rarely hear from a politician, and that is, I'm not familiar with the Hanford Site. And so I don't know exactly what's going on there.  Now, having said that, I promise you I'll learn about it by the time I leave here on the ride back to the airport.

The Bible is like a newspaper?

Reading, at bottom, is really just another human ritual. We say that it's about meaning and communication--and we're right--but if a Martian anthropologist were to observe and describe human interaction with text, she'd surely talk about it in the same way that human anthropologists talk about religious or mating rituals among aboriginal peoples: "Well, they say that the ritual is about something called 'meaning' or 'information,' though when pressed they can't give a very clear explanation of what either of those things are. Anyway, one human will put certain ornate scratches on a sheet of paper, and later another will look at those scratches, and react in some way specific to which scratches were used."

I'm not suggesting that "meaning" isn't real. I say only that an internal account of reading ("Text conveys meaning between people") and an external account of reading ("Scratches are made and then reacted to") are quite different. As in religious experience, with reading there is "no knowing without going."

So, if reading is (in some important sense) just another human ritual, then it follows that conventions about how to properly do it are (in some important sense) arbitrary. Not arbitrary like "Do whatever you want," but rather arbitrary like the rules of soccer or chess. There's no deep reason for disallowing hand-use in soccer, but given the establishment of this rule, it's essential to the entire project of soccer that it be respected. There's no deep reason for why knights are the only pieces that can jump in chess, but once a rule, it becomes important. (See Wittgenstein's ideas on language as a game here.)

If the rules of reading are 1) fundamentally arbitrary and 2) nonetheless important, then how can we read the Bible? One answer is to read it like a newspaper: it's a description of events that really did occur in history, and the truth or validity of the Bible is basically a question of how closely its description fits the actual, historical events: either the universe was created in six days or it wasn't; either Jesus literally died and was resurrected, or he wasn't. One excellent reason to favor journalism as the model for how to read the Bible is that it seems to provide strong, clear rules of interpretation. Most people interested in the Bible want its words to really mean something in the same way that most players of chess want the rules of the game to be clearly defined, and not just be open to endless interpretation.

Another model is the novel: a psuedo-account of the world, which functions just like a lie except that (outside the text) the author disclaims factual accuracy: "This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental." If the Bible is like a novel, then the meaning of the text lies in themes and metaphors, not factual accuracy. No one faults The Brothers Karamazov for its inaccuracy: the novel must be judged on its own terms.

Is the Bible like either of these? If it's like a newspaper, then it's clearly unreliable: the disagreements between the scientific account of the world and a literal reading of the Bible are legion (see here). And if it's like a novel, well, why is it important? There are plenty of great novels about the human condition, most of them lacking an entire bloody book on the intricacies of tabernacle-ritual.

I don't have an answer to these questions. It's not clear to me how to read the Bible or similar religious texts: what assumptions, conventions, rules, and contexts to adopt. But it seems important to recognize that newspapers and novels are not the only robust models for textual interpretation. It's easy to knock down a religious text for being inaccurate; a more difficult and perhaps more useful question is, In what way can this text become important or true?

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Extended Metaphor on Reading and Bowels

Weird observation: on the one hand, books are the object of solitude par excellance. When you read, you read alone. Chuck Palahniuk has a whole essay about how to escape the lonesome writer's shack and how being a successful author is composed of a cyclical flight from, and then return to, being alone. Jonathan Franzen's essay anthology How to Be Alone is titled after the reader's solitude as a kind of political/spiritual attitude: the question of preserving one's integrity amid mass-culture is the same as the question of how to be alone. Neil Postman writes of the breakdown of individual, critical thinking under the force of mass media. We've all had the experience of trying to read Dickens or Tolstoy or Wallace in the library or a cafe and found ourselves utterly incapacitated by the jabbering gossip spewing from some guy on his cell phone, one table over. Everyone's read the same sentence twelve times without it registering, as we try in vain to tune out lady behind us on the bus as she narrates, to no one in particular and everyone in general, the minutia of her day. We've all flown, like substance-starved refugees, from the toiling, yowling masses into the blessed silence of churches, single-stall toilets, locked cars, and after-hours offices. To read. In peace.

But then over on the left hand is the fact that reading cum books cum writing cum bibliophilia is a fundamentally communal thingy. Let's skirt past how books are basically conversations (okay, monologues; but still, it takes two people) on prostheses. Let's ignore the publishing industry, libraries, book clubs, lit. classes, the canon(s), and the new, infinite psuedo-book, the Internet. Forget all that. I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of how books are social objects.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The best moment in last night's Prez debate

If you missed last night's second presidential debate, I advise you to remedy that mistake post-haste: you can catch it here, here, or here. Obama's lethargic lecturing from the first debate was nowhere to be seen last night. The POTUS came in swinging, and gave plenty of that no-holds-barred political knife-fighting ninja-technique which Dem supporters (such as your correspondent) eat up like candy or red meat or high-quality illegal substance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

ABA Opposes Proposed Swipe Fee Settlement

By Dave Grogan
Created 10/11/2012 - 11:32am

The American Booksellers Association announced this week that it is joining the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and other trade groups in opposing the proposed $7.25 billion settlement of a federal antitrust lawsuit [1] over skyrocketing Visa and MasterCard credit card swipe fees, which was announced in July.

“The ABA Board of Directors has determined that the proposed swipe fee settlement is not in the best interest of independent booksellers,” said ABA CEO Oren Teicher. “Because the proposed settlement is one-sided and preserves MasterCard and Visa’s anticompetitive practices, ABA is urging the class plaintiffs in the case to reject the proposed settlement. Ultimately, we believe that the adverse long-term effects of this settlement far outweigh any short-term monetary gain it might bring retailers.”

While $7.25 billion is the largest antitrust settlement in U.S. history, it amounts to less than two months’ worth of swipe fees, based on the estimated $50 billion in swipe fees collected by the credit card companies on an annual basis, as reported by NACS.

Among the reasons ABA objects to the proposed settlement is that it fails to introduce competition and transparency into the credit card swipe fee market. Under the settlement, Visa and MasterCard will be able to continue to fix prices for thousands of bank members. Furthermore, the settlement would not allow merchants to opt out of restrictive new rules set forth in the proposal and gives Visa/MasterCard the ability to keep market forces from working by keeping prices hidden. The settlement additionally limits innovations that could bring meaningful competition to the marketplace.

In a press release, NACS said it believes the “proposed settlement lacks any meaningful reforms that would introduce competition, transparency, and affordability into the credit card swipe fee market. The net result of a short-term apology in the form a small cash payout for the average merchant, is inadequate compensation for the proposed settlement agreement, which will lock in and protect a system that is harming NACS member stores and their student and parent customers through ever increasing swipe fees and arcane and unfair operating rules.”

RILA President Sandy Kennedy stated: “While Visa and MasterCard’s decision to pursue a settlement affirms the legitimacy of retailers’ claims, the flawed proposal upholds the networks’ anticompetitive practices and fails to provide retailers and their consumers with meaningful relief from tens of billions of dollars in hidden fees. We urge class plaintiffs to reject the proposal and send a clear message that a settlement that fails to engender competition and fix the broken electronic payments market is unacceptable.”

“The National Retail Federation categorically opposes the proposed settlement,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a press statement. “It does nothing to curb the anticompetitive behavior of Visa and MasterCard, and instead ensures that swipe fees paid by retailers and their customers will continue to rise while barring any future legal challenges. The proposal is a lose-lose-lose for merchants, consumers and competition. NRF will take any and all steps necessary to oppose the settlement as it is currently proposed and will work toward real reform of the swipe fee system.”

Class plaintiffs who are in favor of the settlement are expected to ask the court for preliminary approval as early as October 12, at which point, merchants will have 30 days to write to the court to object to the proposed settlement. More information regarding how booksellers can make their views on the proposed settlement known to the court will be available soon in Bookselling This Week.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review Pt. 2: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

This is the second half of my review of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar. See part one here.

Probably the biggest insight your correspondent owes to this work is a plausible definition for art/explanation for why art matters, in "Frivolity and Unction." Answer: it doesn't. Art is a luxurious waste of time through which extremely important issues get worked out. Hickey's analysis is, again, gorgeous, so I'll quote it here at length:

So here's my suggestion: At this moment, with public patronage receding like the spring tide anyway and democracy supposedly proliferating throughout the art world, why don't all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue--that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly, frivolous thing to do. We could do this, you know...

...We could just say: "Okay! You're right! Art is bad, silly, and frivolous. Movies are bad, silly, and frivolous. Basketball is bad, silly, and frivolous. Next question?"...

...What if works of art were considered to be what they actually are--frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that only acquire value through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic, and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and to any intention they might embody?...

...Because the art world is no more about art than the sports world is about sport. The sports world conducts an ongoing referendum on the manner in which we should cooperate and compete. The art world conducts an ongoing referendum on how things should look and the way in which we should look at things--or it would, if art were regarded as sports are, as a wasteful, privileged endeavor through which very serious issues are worked out.

Because art doesn't matter. What matters is how things look and how we look at them in a democracy...

Why I think this is valuable: if you're anything like me, you've wasted countless hours and cigarettes agonizing over whether and how art is valuable. This is a serious problem: the value of art is in no way self-evident. What is self evident is how it relates to other stuff. Like class: GED-graduates are not the major demographic for reprints of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, poor people don't flock to the theater, and loudly-played classical music is used to discourage homeless people from hanging out in public areas. Great art tends to be friendly toward the upper classes, while pro-wrestling and MTV and the Twilight books score with lower classes. (I'm not saying always, and I'm not endorsing this fact; I'm just acknowledging a broad demographic trend.)

Plus, in a world full of injustice and scarcity, why spend time on art? Why not use that energy for activism? Children die every day from starvation, and you're going to spend your time reading the thoughts of Tristam Shandy? I don't know about you, but for me, it seems that spending one's time teasing out the significance of narrative voice in Joyce's Dubliners while my neighbors suffer and die is, to be precise, vulgar. To rephrase this point as an argument: Art is a luxury activity, and it's wrong to luxuriate while others lack necessities, and others do lack necessities. Thus, it's wrong to spend time and energy on art.

So two excellent reasons to turn your back on art are 1) it's classist and 2) it's a waste of precious resources.

What I love about Hickey's analysis is that it wholeheartedly accepts both of these facts, yet still finds value in art: to wit, as an ongoing referendum on how to look at things in our society. If you see that 'How we look at things' is powerful and important, then you'll see how art has an indirect but fundamental influence on our society (and thus on class, justice, ecological awareness, etc.). Hickey is right that art does not promote virtue in the way that grant-seeking museum curators say that it does--exposure to high art does not, by and large, make people better or smarter or more empathetic. Art has no intrinsic value. What art does have is influence on how we live together, influence on the shape and texture of our society. Art, like role models and traumatic experiences, teaches us how to see. And since we're social animals, how we look at things influences pretty much everything else that we do care about (justice etc.). Art is a wasteful luxury through which important issues get worked out.

So by this point, whether you read Air Guitar or not, you've gotten a heavy taste of Hickey's writing and a summary of (what is in my view) the most important point in the whole book: art is not intrinsically valuable, but it is a social activity, and social activities have important effects.

In summary, your correspondent can report that Hickey's anthology is smart, funny, and extremely insightful. and the questions he asks guarantee interesting answers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review Pt. 1: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

One of the really big, basic questions that pops up in pretty much every arena of human activity is, How hard should I think about this stuff? When do I loose my critical thinking upon a subject, and when do I rein it back in? Let me give you an example: if you've ever taken a class outside of your field of expertise, you'll recall how most of your "introduction" to the subject consisted of learning what questions not to ask. For me, learning about special-relativity physics mostly involved learning to ignore questions like "What do we mean by an 'object'?" and "How can causality make sense vis-a-vis non-linear time?" Part of an education means learning what questions to ask, but most of it is learning what to take for granted.

This seems to be a basic epistemic (not to mention neurological) principle: in order to think about some subject, you have to ignore everything else. And by the process of concentrating on X and ignoring everything else, you end up defining X before you've even begun to consider it. It's a real pickle: you want to think about something in order to understand it, but in order to think about it at all, you sort of need to already understand it. (Incidentally, Plato formulates this problem in Meno's Paradox, and getting around it is one reason why Socrates posited that all learning is really just remembering.)

Another problem is part of the problem is existential--that is, the "Why Bother?" which occupied mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals and depressives of all stripes. Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus is the definitive investigation into correlation between 1) thinking too much and 2) suicide: "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." We'll only skirt the issue here by noting that, in fact, being well-adjusted involves avoiding lines of thought which lead to bad outcomes (or in other words: pragmatists are healthier than ruthless seekers of truth). As DFW puts it, healthy people "get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't."

But so okay: there are excellent reasons to be suspicious of careful thinking. To wit: it's epistemically impossible, practically inefficient, and emotionally dangerous.

Still, the opposite doesn't look too promising, either. One of the boons of human storytelling is that we get to see how stupid other people are, how oblivious they are to their own stupidity, and how directly their stupidity leads to woe. You've surely got your own favorite examples; mine are 1) reality television and 2) Anna Karenina. Through effective portrayals of human thought and behavior, I get to see how Anna's history, hopes, habits, etc. lead her to act in particular ways, and how these actions lead to particular outcomes. Anna is oblivious to all this: indeed, it's her profound mis-understanding of what she wants and how to get it which determines her tragic destiny. Were she more aware, she'd likely meet a better end. So the absence of critical thought is also not a promising avenue.

All that being said, here's why I love Dave Hickey: Hickey excels at ignoring the unhelpful and invading the productive. Half of good thinking is asking the right questions, and that's what he does in this anthology of his art criticism:

-How are hope and social hierarchy related to the mystique of Las Vegas?
-What is the connection between desire, community, art, and social norms?
-"What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowered cats, exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us."
-In what sense was Liberace in the closet, or not? And what about his fans?
-How was American car-culture born? And what does us tell us about the business of art?
-Why would Chet Baker walk away from the chance to become the next James Dean, for a life of heroin and jazz shows?
-Wadda'ya mean, masculine culture vs. everything else?
-How the hell could M. Foucalt make it all the way through the Sixties without once dropping acid?
-How do boredom and stimulation work in cinema and art? Why bother with limits?
-Wait, wait: you're telling me that people who sell art aren't just craven vultures?
-What did Perry Mason and Mission: Impossible tell us about their audience?
-What's the relationship between officious museums vs. art as a social practice? Wait: how is art a 'social practice'?"
-How did Julius Erving re-invent basketball, and what does that tell us about art?
-Why the hell would anyone write art criticism?
-Seigried and Roy?

You get the picture. Hickey's investigations are gorgeous, but one suspects that a trained monkey or even a bureaucrat could have carried them out, once Hickey'd framed the issue and formulated the questions for them.

Check back Sunday for part two of this review, where I'll discuss the most important insight in Hickey's book.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre

(Note: this article was originally published in two parts on

An obvious fact: Great literature connects the particular with the universal, the banal with the sublime, the mortal with the transcendent. The alchemy of fiction bridges little, familiar things with big, awesome things.

Without thematic transcendence, Moby Dick would just be an extremely long story about a crazy guy trying kill a whale. And without the particulars of Ahab, Starbuck, Ishmael, the Pequod, etc. it would have just been a tortuous, poetical, inscrutable essay on Fate and Mortality and, uh, stuff: half Schopenhauer, half Walt Whitman: the most turgid BS conceivable. Or take Demons (aka The Possessed): like a grown-up version of Ayn Rand, Dostoevsky's characters explicitly discuss the very themes (i.e. Atheism, Justice, Faith, etc.) for which they themselves are metaphors. Lose the themes, and the story becomes an espionage soap opera; lose the plot and characters, and the story become a long, pompous essay.

Or consider Camus' The Plague: it's all very well for him to write in his essay The Rebel that "When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself..." But this cannot convey the moral authority with which Dr. Rieux, physician to the plague-ridden town of Oran, states:

There's no question of heroism in all of this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is--common decency...[I]n my case I know that it consists in doing my job.

For a Europe still in shock at the atrocities of the second World War (not to mention a present that's got plenty of its own atrocities), the struggles of Dr. Rieux and the townfolk of Oran provide an all-too-apt metaphor for the human situation. And we know--because The Plague and The Rebel are essentially the same book, except that one's fiction and one's an essay--that Camus simply couldn't get at the big issues of Meaning and Death and Solidarity in the same way without the slippery, associative logic of fiction.

This is how fiction tricks us: by connecting the particular to the universal (in the same way that, say, a photograph can connect a small object in the foreground to a large landscape in the background), meaning is created.

So it is with le Carre's spy stories. Sure, his plots are wound as tight as Swiss watches. Sure, questions introduced in the first chapters get pulled higher and higher, dangling over the reader's head, tantalizing. And, yes, sure: any spy story with nighttime pistols, tragic loves, and Shakespearean power struggles is surely somewhat escapist. Pudgy, old, meditative George Smiley may not be the anti-James-Bond so much as the believable James Bond, in the same way that 'realistic' films like Black Hawk Down and Gettysburg seduce the audience into the fantasy of Glorious War more effectively than GI Joe or Red Dawn precisely because of their putative accuracy. As the audacity of a protagonist's adventures decreases, their plausibility increases.


Still, I tell you this: le Carre is a writer for the ages. Le Carre is our Joseph Conrad.

In Lord Jim, for instance, themes of guilt, redemption, courage and chance are woven into the story of the titular Jim, whose moment of youthful weakness haunts him to the ends of the Earth. When we see Jim sweating at his trial, or hopefully growing into the hero he wishes to be, or caught between the story of who he was and the story of who he's become, we see a discussion of big, important questions about how to live as a human being, a discussion that isn't reducible to an expository essay. And this discussion is built up within a straightforward adventure story: a dashing hero fights natives and pirates in an exotic locale. Conrad uses the nautical adventure story as the scaffold on which he builds his high-fallutin' Literature.

Le Carre does the same with spy stories. In Tinker we see a straightforward plot unfold from a simple premise: there's a mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence, and a retired genius quietly returns to give chase. Let's be clear: this is the same plot as the first Mission: Impossible film. This plot could not be more recognizable.

And yet in le Carre's hands, it sheds gold: Percy Alleline and his cabal of usurpers echo Julius Caesar's Brutus and his senators; the mole, orphaned by his own society, a latter-day Richard III ("...since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain..."); the inscrutable Karla, lord of Soviet intelligence, fascinates with his 'immoderate fanaticism' and seemingly-bottomless resources.

And George Smiley, le Carre's best-known protagonist, sniffing around the circumstances of Control's ouster like an unsexy Hamlet. Smiley, to my eye, is basically a contemporary moral hero: in the amoral world of Cold War espionage, he fumbles through, trying to do what's necessary or, failing that, to at least not make things worse. See this scene in which he lies in wait for the mole he's hunting:

Like an actor, he had a sense of approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgements [sic] in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible.

Smiley's good at exactly one thing, and that's his Zen-like approach to intelligence. Everything else in his life--from his marriage to his retirement to the simplest social meetings--is a mess. Yet for all that, he accomplishes much more than his peers--mostly because he doesn't make things worse. Slowly, methodically plodding through his work, courteous to a fault, without a vindictive bone in his body, Smiley strives to understand. Only then does he act.

If that's not moral, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 8, 2012



"Columbus" Day
Old Oregon Territory

          The world began in a scream
June 8, 1952 and it was Today until 1954.
The world became very old
          for the first time    when I was four,
standing on the banks of the Columbia.

          This is  my homeland--
Its roads and rivers my roots.
My grandmothers' stories sing in my blood.
--  My children were born in the Blues.

          I see the world through Ancient eyes and New.
I discovered America, and I discovered Columbus too !

(so did you.)

German immigrant pioneers
   murdered my grandmother's great-great grandfather.
The Church adopted his orphaned children
To Save them from Pagan hands.
-- His lands,
                   They fenced . . .
                             (and later, fetched a profit.)

My great-great-grandmother ran away from the Forced Relocation.
Hid in the hills of Tennessee.  She was 13.

Two and half years later, she married a German immigrant
pioneer, a farmer widower with kids. 
They moved to the Ozarks, homesteaded,
had, among others, twins.

They called my great grandpa "half-breed" and "hillbilly"
and made my gramma cry when she was only three.

They took our grandmothers' handmade baskets
in trade
for shoes her children didn't want to wear.

Young Conquistadors raped me for my gold,
and stole my Gods with their greed--
          --Four and half centuries AFTER Cortez.

          The world began in a scream,
I will not whimper.

Cowboys and Indians,
drummers and dreamers,
settlers and soldiers--
my ancestors
were murdering and marrying my ancestors

not so long ago;

                   mixing blood,
          -- in more ways than one.


          This is our air,  our land along the length
          of our own Trails of Tears to today.
The New World is ours, and I claim it for the Future !

Keep your poisonous lies out of my skies,
and keep your hands OFF my heritage.

These rivers ran deep
                   long before your damning.

 Take care.
           Or beware;
                  --my outrage at broken treaties can be savage.

 -         maggie halfacre
  Walla Walla
  (the town, not the tribe.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Living after the end times

A lot of the weirdness of contemporary life can be laid at the cyborgian feet of media technology. We don't just live in a world of the talking, life-like facsimiles of Dan Rather and Bill Clinton and Tom Cruise--a veritable Hades of talking ghosts. No, our lives are set within a history of fake-live personas. That is, we live in a world where television and film aren't just real; they're even dated. For most of human history, the idea of literally listening to dead people, with them visibly standing right there, in front of you, was the stuff of magic: a sacred, or at least ethereal, experience. Now, it's still magic, but our all-consuming drive for technology has multiplied the number of talking ghosts so far that they now outnumber the living. Our ghosts are common and banal.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review Pt. 2: How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

Note: this was originally published at

An Overview of How to Be Alone

1) 'A Word About This Book'
Authors' prefaces are nigh upon universally self-indulgent; it's hard not to masturbatory and derivative be when you're writing about your own writing. If the original writing was well-done in the first place, what more could there be to say? So Franzen's introduction is not the best piece in this collection. That said, it's interesting (in a Behind the Scenes EXCLUSIVE! kinda way) to hear his straightforward lament of being a novelist in a world where novels are obsolete and irrelevant, where interviewers "hadn't read the essay, and...the few who had read it seemed to have mis-understood it," and where "Americans seem to be asking even fewer questions about their government today [circa 2002] than in 1991."

2) 'My Father's Brain'

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

John le Carre's been a bestselling author for twice as long as I've been alive. By itself, that doesn't mean much: Michael Crichton, whose novels are marginally more intellectually stimulating than repeated punches to the head, published the breakout-hit The Andromedea Strain in 1969, just six years after le Carre's career-establishing bestseller The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Popularity is no guarantee of quality.

But neither does popularity preclude it. (Witness JK Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Salmon Rushdie.) While it's easy to presume le Carre's work to be standard 'page-turner' pulp like John Grisham or Dan Brown--in which cardboard characters and shallow cliches are hitched to a fast-moving plot--the fact is that his novels are of a different order than the rest of the bestselling thrillers he's shelved with. Le Carre, above all, is a master of psychological motivation: his spy stories show us characters whose talent at dissembling wreaks dysfunction on the rest of their lives. His spymaster George Smiley is the anti-James Bond: a humble, thoughtful, slow-moving investigator whose success at espionage is matched only by his incompetence at real life.

Le Carre is also one of our best social prophets.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review Pt. 1: How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

Note: originally published at


Jonathan Franzen has been accused of exorbitant grumpitude, for example here (and here and here and sort-of here too). One gets the idea that he just sort of crouches in his artist's garret, chainsmoking and brainstorming lists of what's wrong with the world, muttering and spitting on cats like that guy in Camus' The Plague.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 Out-of-Print & In Demand Report 2012

Original Article

The books we see for sale at a local chain bookstore or purchase new online are a small fraction of the entirety of human print culture.  In fact, 98 to 99% of all books ever published are now out of print. These are the books featured in the Report.
The Report is issued every fall, and the 2012 edition marks the 10th anniversary of our tracking the most sought after out-of-print books in America.
Topping our anniversary list are the "big three" of out-of-print books which perennially find their way onto the Report: Sex by Madonna, Rage by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King), and Promise Me Tomorrow by Nora Roberts.  This year's list also marks the graduation of Marilyn by Norman Mailer, which after appearing in four straight Reports was finallyreprinted by Taschen last December.
Some of the out-of-print titles new to the Report include:
Pure, White and Deadly ; the Problem of Sugar by John Yudkin
First published in 1972, Professor Yudkin’s book outlines his research showing that sugar and refined sweeteners are closely associated with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The book has shot back into demand after being highly praised in Robert Lustig’s lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” which enjoyed YouTube viral success.  Yudkin’s book was reprinted in the UK in 2012 but remains out-of-print in the U.S.
Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottles by Linda Dawson
This juvenile fiction work has been out-of-print in America since 1979. It features a young girl who has millions of hot-water bottles and uses them to douse a blaze when her house catches fire. She receives a puppy for her efforts.
Big League Sales Closing Techniques by Les Dane
Les Dane has published several guides to sales techniques,  including this now out-of-print 1971 title. The guide reviews common scenarios found in sales, teaching would-be salesmen fundamental techniques for closing a deal.
Country Landscapes in Watercolor by John Blockley
Blockley demonstrates techniques of landscape and watercolor in this book which has been out-of-print since 1982.

Top 100 most sought after out-of-print books in 2012

2Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)Rage
3Nora RobertsPromise me Tomorrow
4Stephen KingMy Pretty Pony
5John YudkinPure, White and Deadly; the Problem of Sugar
6Kyle OnstottMandingo
7Johnny CashMan in Black
8Luigi SerafiniCodex Seraphinianus
9Nan Gilbert365 Bedtime Stories
10Alice StarmoreTudor Roses
11Cameron CroweFast Times at Ridgemont High
12Mary and Vincent PriceA Treasury of Great Recipes
13Ray BradburyDark Carnival
14Salvador Dali, illustratorThe Jerusalem Bible
15Lynne CheneySisters 
16H.Henry ThomasArithmetic Progress Papers
17Janet WoodsBeyond the Plough
18A.C.H. SmithLabyrinth: A Novel
19Ray GartonIn a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting
20Walt Kelly I Go Pogo
21Linda Dawson & Terry FurchgottPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles
22Allen DruryAdvise and Consent
23Jean LarteguyThe Centurions
24J.R. HartleyFly Fishing: Memories of Angling Days
25Anna Elizabeth BennettLittle Witch
26W. ClawsonCollector's Guide to Colt .45 Service Pistols: models of 1911 and 1911a1 from 1911 to the end of production in 1945 complete military identification, including all contractors
27Jaś ElsnerReflections of Nero : culture, history & representation
28C.S. LewisThe Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition
29Robert NathanThe Bishop's Wife
30Madeleine L'EngleIlsa
31Sarah BradfordReluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI, 1895-1952
32Carl SaganMurmurs of Earth
33Ricky JayCards As Weapons
34Alan Raven and John RobertsBritish Battleships of World War Two: The Development and Technical History of the Royal Navy's Battleships and Battlecruisers from 1911 to 1946
35Clancy HollingBook of Indians
36Curtis RichardsHalloween
37Jay CronleyGood Vibes
38Charles FlatoThe Golden Book of the Civil War
39Dennis PotterTicket to Ride
40Elmer KeithHell, I Was There
41Ernest ColeHouse of Bondage
42Anne AlexanderThe Pink Dress
43Donald HamiltonThe Big Country
44R.P. HunnicuttStuart: A History of the American Light Tank
45Les DaneBig League Sales Closing Techniques
46David WhitfordA Payroll to Meet: A Story of Greed, Corruption, and Football at SMU
47Kate HolmesToo Good to be Threw
48Thomas CravenA Treasury of American Prints - A Selection of One Hundred Etchings and Lithogrphas by the Foremost Living American Artists
49Paul HoffmanTo Drop a Dime
50John BlockleyCountry Landscapes in Watercolor
51Mary KoniorCrochet lace : an illustrated guide to making crochet lace fabrics
52Cecil BeatonThe Glass of Fashion
53Arthur KoestlerThe Act of Creation
54 Ronald WelchBowman of Crecy
55Laura LondonThe Windflower
56Robert NathanThe Bishop's Wife
57Tom LeaThe King Ranch
58Milt TenopirThe assembly line
59Edward MatunasPractical Gunsmithing
60W Somerset MaughamTellers of Tales: 100 short stories from the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany
61Allan D RichterEve of the end
62Joseph ZbukvicMastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor: the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art
63Ben BovaThe Star Conquerors
64David WilliamsSecond Sight
65John HarrisCovenant with death
66Nicholas GuildThe Blood Star
67Truda Williams McCoy; Leonard RobertsMcCoys: their story as told to the author by eye witnesses and descendants
68John BlaineThe Magic Talisman
69Barbara Newhall FollettThe House Without Windows
70David WilkersonThe Vision and Beyond, prophecies fulfilled and still to come
71Marie SimmonsPancakes A to Z
72Glen CookShe Is The Darkness
73Martin CaidinCyborg
74Harry Twyford PetersCurrier & Ives: Printmakers to the American People
75Laura BannonThe Wonderful Fashion Doll
76Paul GallicoJennie (or The Abandoned)
77Watt PiperThe Bumper Book; a Harvest of Stories and Verses
78James Virgil HoweThe Modern Gunsmith : a guide for the amateur and professional gunsmith in the design and construction of firearms, with practical suggestions for all who like guns
79Kyle OnstottDRUM
80John D. GreenBirds of Britain
81Polan BanksCarriage Entrance
82Charles ThomsonThe Septuagint Bible
83Don GrafBasic Building Data: 10,000 Timeless Construction Facts 
84John CageNotations
85Ruth OrbachApple Pigs
86Alexei GutnovThe Ideal Communist City
87J. Jason GrantCoal
88Henry W. SimonA Treasury of Grand Opera
89Jack S. LevyWar in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975
90Doyle C. BarnesOur Journey in the Life
91Peter NewmarkApproaches to translation
92Kyle Onstott & Lance HomerThe Black Sun
93Jan WolkersTurkish Delight
94Maisie MoscoAlmonds and Raisins
95John Thomas EdsonAlvin Fog, Texas ranger
96Hugh WoosleyBasic medical laboratory subjects
97Hansjurgen FettigHand and rod puppets : a handbook of technique
98Craig Shaw GardnerThe Lost Boys
99Norman Rockwell102 favorite paintings
100William Stuart LongThe Imperialists