Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Tis the season

Hey, selling James Joyce as a holiday tie-in, what a great idea! (Just do the Salon day pass thing. It's a pain in the ass, but it's worth it. My motto is to never pay for anything on the web.)

A few years ago, I put together a small, informal seminar on the short story with a few of my fellow grads, and we started with Dubliners. I always felt that I missed something in never having the opportunity to cover Joyce in a class setting. (Full disclosure: I love James Joyce. I've read Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses all on my own, and, even worse, I liked them. In my defense, I'm not really interested in Finnegan's Wake.)

It's tough to find new things to say about Joyce. In fact, there's a particularly nice edition of just "The Dead" packaged together with enough critical writing to make a nice little volume, if you're interested in that sort of a thing. (I own it. I also own five copies of Ulysses. It's a sickness.) I've written about some of the more annoying aspects (and redeeming qualities) of the inescapable Stephen Dedalus in the past, but Dubliners can be a tonic for those put off by Joyce's (often well-deserved) reputation for overblown, overinvolved, impenetrable writing. No tricks, no games, just amazing cameos and miniatures.

Treat yourself. (And maybe a friend, over a pint of Guinness.)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A whole new world. . .

(Thanks to Short Schrift for making me aware of this article.)

I'm not usually one for this "we have to be united, especially after such a divisive election" line of crap. First of all, as Sunni/Shiite tensions in Iraq, and the electoral shenanigans in the Ukraine show, we're plenty united already in that no matter how much we liberals may talk about our positions not being of any consequence, no one is taking up arms, and U. S. emigration, I strongly believe, will continue to be negligible. No matter what you think about the next likely Supreme Court nominees, my prediction is that the Republic will survive. That said, I feel no need to pretend to be any more conservative, or any happier with the current administration than I really am, just for some ideal of "unity."

There are however, a few ideas that have the potential to really become a national project, something that can draw contributions from brilliant minds, left and right, and lead to real and concrete benefits for the U. S., and, just maybe the rest of the world.

Thomas Friedman argues in today's New York Times that energy independence should be that project. Friedman argues that funding for the National Science Foundation should be doubled, with twinned goals of training a new generation to replace the "generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who were spurred to get advanced degrees by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik and the challenge by President John Kennedy to put a man on the moon," and to support "crash science initiative for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in 10 years." Friedman argues that an energy independent America will not only have local economic benefits, but a global political impact as well.

Friedman's words:

When did the Soviet Union collapse? When did reform take off in Iran? When did the Oslo peace process begin? When did economic reform become a hot topic in the Arab world? In the late 1980's and early 1990's. And what was also happening then? Oil prices were collapsing. . . . It's no accident that the 1990's was the decade of falling oil prices and falling walls.

If President Bush made energy independence his moon shot, he would dry up revenue for terrorism; force Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to take the path of reform - which they will never do with $45-a-barrel oil - strengthen the dollar; and improve his own standing in Europe, by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He would also create a magnet to inspire young people to contribute to the war on terrorism and America's future by becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians. "This is not just a win-win," said the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. "This is a win-win-win-win-win."

I don't care if the President is a Republican or a Democrat: put that initiative forward, and I'm on board.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A bad essay, but a good point

The text that follows is the "professional essay" that I sent off as part of my application for an internship with the Detroit Free Press. I don't know that it really does what they asked me to do--describe my journalistic experience, my journalistic influences, my journalistic plans and goals, and I don't, in all truth, really have any of those--but I did get to talk a little about books, and public book writing. So it wasn't entirely a waste of time. Thus, here it is:

Literature and journalism were once inseparable. Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens published their novels as serials, with readers following from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in the Paris and London papers of their day. Decades before he won the Nobel Prize, Ernest Hemingway served an apprenticeship at the Kansas City Star. Before the Second World War, news writing was considered an essential part of a novelist’s training. Today, the presence of journalists such as Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh on the nonfiction besteller lists belies the deep divisions that have emerged between those who write to inform and those who write for art.

As with all estrangements, there is blame enough to go around. The universities play their part. English and journalism are taught in separate departments, often in different colleges altogether. (At my alma mater, Michigan State, English was in the College of Arts & Letters, while journalism was in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.) Literary writers bemoan the grade school reading level of the average newspaper. Journalists scoff at contemporary novels that are not only overblown, but often intentionally obscure.

There is a third, often-neglected party in this estrangement: the reader. After a few highly publicized incidents of journalists giving in to their worst fictional impulses (Jayson Blair, New York Times, we’re looking at you), readers are deeply skeptical of the agendas and reliability of major news organizations. After decades of plotless, confusing, "postmodern" novels, readers have too often lost patience and given up entirely. Movies and video games compete with novels as entertainment. Television and radio compete with newspapers as sources of information. When readers stop reading, everyone loses.

Of course, it is important to remember that as deep as the divisions between literature and journalism may be, the situation may far better be described as an estrangement than a divorce. At their best, books and newspapers still serve as complements, and the success of writers such as Bob Woodward should serve as an example of how much the two great print formats still have to offer each other, and more importantly, to readers.

One of the great qualities of journalism is its constant examination of its role and duty to the public. The New York Times responded to the Jayson Blair fiasco, in part, by appointing a public editor, whose sole job is to report to the public on the Times’ biases, real and imagined, and its successes and failures in fulfilling the public trust. Newspapers would provide a great benefit for readers if they performed the same function for literature. Journalists need not attempt to replace or supplant literary critics, who are usually best left to their own obscure corner of academia, but most readers would welcome a frank and knowledgeable companion on their expeditions into the bookstore. And expeditions they are! Too many people are intimidated by the glut of new titles arriving daily, and readers are rightly jealous of their limited reading time. Better to spend $7.50 and two hours on a mediocre movie than $30 and twenty hours on a disappointing book.

Much has been made among literary writers about the decline in newspaper space devoted to book reviews, but more reviews are not the answer. In a sense, there are simply too many titles published now for reviews alone to serve the reader effectively. When appropriate, books need to be treated as public figures, and subjected to similar scrutiny. Newsworthy books should be covered, and their claims should be fact-checked. Too often, books exist in their own isolated universes. Newspapers are uniquely suited to stand as sentinels, and the reader would benefit if journalists considered the world of literature as part of their public trust.