Hold the Obits!

Opinion The Comeback of the Century The New York Times

Over the past decade, countless obituaries have been written for books. Many were convinced the printed book would soon suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs.

Hold the obits!

The printed book is making a huge comeback. I had been aware of this in bits and pieces, but am grateful to Timothy for helping with some perspective. Here’s how he began a recent op-ed:

Not long ago I found myself inside the hushed and high-vaulted interior of a nursing home for geriatric books, in the forgotten city of St.-Omer, France. Running my white-gloved hands over the pages of a thousand-year-old manuscript, I was amazed at the still-bright colors applied long ago in a chilly medieval scriptorium. Would anything written today still be around to touch in another millennium?

In the digital age, the printed book has experienced more than its share of obituaries. Among the most dismissive was one from Steve Jobs, who said in 2008, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

True, nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year. But the book — with a spine, a unique scent, crisp pages and a typeface that may date to Shakespeare’s day — is back. Defying all death notices, sales of printed books continue to rise to new highs, as do the number of independent stores stocked with these voices between covers, even as sales of electronic versions are declining.

Nearly three times as many Americans read a book of history in 2017 as watched the first episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones.” The share of young adults who read poetry in that year more than doubled from five years earlier. A typical rage tweet by President Trump, misspelled and grammatically sad, may get him 100,000 “likes.” Compare that with the 28 million Americans who read a book of verse in the first year of Trump’s presidency, the highest share of the population in 15 years.

So, even with a president who is ahistoric, borderline literate and would fail a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, something wonderful and unexpected is happening in the language arts. When the dominant culture goes low, the saviors of our senses go high.

Want more? You can read it here

Iraq Misadventure

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Volumes have been written about America’s misadventure in Iraq. Those books vary in quality as well as readability.

I recently read one that was insightful and made me think. My interest was stirred by a book review of Michael Mazarr’s new book, “Leap of Faith.”

Mazarr’s subtitle, “Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy,” likely tells you where his book is headed, but here is more from the review:

The operative word in the title of “Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy” is the last one: tragedy. Drawing on extensive interviews with unnamed “senior officials” as well as recently declassified documents, Michael J. Mazarr attributes the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 to good intentions gone awry. Here is an example of “America’s worthy global ambitions” that went “terribly wrong.”

The Iraq war was not a tragedy. It was more like a crime, compounded by the stupefying incompetence of those who embarked upon a patently illegal preventive war out of a sense of panic induced by the events of 9/11. An impulse to lash out overwhelmed any inclination to deliberate, with decisions made in a “hothouse atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.” Those to whom President George W. Bush turned for advice had become essentially unhinged. Iraq presented an inviting opportunity to vent their wrath.

The handful of officials who shaped policy after 9/11, writes Mazarr, a political scientist currently with RAND, were “not evil or pernicious human beings.” Instead, Mazarr credits them with acting in response to a “moralistic sense of doing the right thing.” Viewed from that perspective, “the Iraq war decision was grounded in sacred values,” even if the evil and pernicious consequences of that decision continue to mount.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Founding Fathers

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Few Americans – or others for that matter – would argue that the American Revolution was one of the most iconic events of the last millennium. But we tend to have mixed feelings about the men (all men) at the center of the revolution.

That’s why I found Rick Atkinson’s recent piece, “Whey We Still Care About America’s Founders,” so compelling. Here is how he begins:

There’s a lot to dislike about the founding fathers and the war they and others fought for American independence.

The stirring assertion that “all men are created equal” did not, of course, apply to 500,000 black slaves — one in five of all souls occupying the 13 colonies when those words were written in 1776. Nor was it valid for Native Americans, women or indigents.

And yet, the creation story of America’s founding remains valid, vivid and exhilarating. At a time when national unity is elusive, when our partisan rancor seems ever more toxic, when the simple concept of truth is disputed, that story informs who we are, where we came from, what our forebears believed and — perhaps the profoundest question any people can ask themselves — what they were willing to die for.

What can we learn from that ancient quarrel? First, that this nation was born bickering; disputation is in the national genome. Second, that there are foundational truths that not only are indeed true, but also, as the Declaration of Independence insists, “self-evident.” Third, that leaders worthy of our enduring admiration rise to the occasion with acumen, grit, wisdom and grace. And fourth, that whatever trials befall us today, we have overcome greater perils.

There is a great deal more in his piece, which you can read at the link below, but if you are interested in the American Revolution, here are two books I highly recommend:

  • “1776” by David McCullough
  • “Six Frigates” by Ian Toll

Want more? You can read it here

Richard Holbrooke

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Volumes have been written about the Cold War, America’s involvement in Vietnam, and other issues that have led to what has generally been called, “The End of the American Century.”

But much of this has focused on the history and not the participants. Until now. Walter Isaacson’s review of “Our Man” a new book by George Packer focuses on a man at the center of it, American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, one of the most iconoclastic statesman of the last half-century. Here is how he begins:

Richard Holbrooke was a large man with gargantuan appetites — for food and women and movies and acclaim and, above all, diplomatic and undiplomatic maneuvering — appetites that struggled to feed an outsize ego that was matched only by his insecurities. As the last great freewheeling diplomat of the American Century, Holbrooke, with his turbocharged zeal and laughable lack of self-awareness, earned fervent admirers and fevered enemies, including a few longstanding colleagues who fell passionately and paradoxically into both camps. In fact, Holbrooke himself was caught in this duality of being his own most fervent admirer and worst enemy (although when someone once commented that he was his own worst enemy, a national security adviser he had worked with snapped, “not as long as I’m around”).

Want more? You can read it here

Too Busy?

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Full disclosure…I am busy. Really busy! Or am I? I always pine for some relaxation, but feeling the need to do one more thing usually overwhelms me.

That’s why I was drawn to a recent review of a book “How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” Here’s how it begins:

In 2015, Jenny Odell started an organization she called The Bureau of Suspended Objects. Odell was then an artist-in-residence at a waste operating station in San Francisco. As the sole employee of her bureau, she photographed things that had been thrown out and learned about their histories. (A bird-watcher, Odell is friendly with a pair of crows that sit outside her apartment window; given her talent for scavenging, you wonder whether they’ve shared tips.)

Odell’s first book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” echoes the approach she took with her bureau, creating a collage (or maybe it’s a compost heap) of ideas about detaching from life online, built out of scraps collected from artists, writers, critics and philosophers. In the book’s first chapter, she remarks that she finds things that already exist “infinitely more interesting than anything I could possibly make.” Then, summoning the ideas of others, she goes on to construct a complex, smart and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto.

Though trained as an artist, Odell has gradually become known for her writing. Her consistent theme is the invasion of the wider world by internet grotesqueries grown in the toxic slime of Amazon, Instagram and other social media platforms. She has a knack for evoking the malaise that comes from feeling surrounded by online things. Like many of us, she would like to get away from that feeling.

Odell suggests that she has done this, semi-successfully, by striking a stance of public refusal and by retraining her attention to focus on her surroundings. She argues that because the internet strips us of our sense of place and time, we can counter its force by resituating ourselves within our physical environment, by becoming closer to the natural world.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Deadly Reviews

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Since my primary passion is writing, I tend to hang out with other writers. We share our aspirations and ideas, hopes and fears.

I don’t know any writing friend – or any writer for that matter – who doesn’t fear a bad review of his or her book. Negative reviews cut like a knife.

That’s why I was cheered by a recent New York Times article revealing that books we admire – FAMOUS BOOKS – soared in spite of scalding reviews.

That should give us all a confidence that in spite of a negative review on Amazon or Good Reads we should KEEP WRITING.

This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the reviews of these books here

W.E.B!

We lost one of our generation’s great writer’s last month, W.E.B. Griffin. Many of us who love military stories tried to emulate his work. None of us could come close.

W. E. B. Griffin, who depicted the swashbuckling lives of soldiers, spies and cops in almost 60 novels, dozens of which became best sellers, died on Feb. 12 at his home in Daphne, Ala. He was 89.

W.E.B. Griffin estimated that he had published more than 150 books, many of which appeared on the best-seller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and other publications. His output included fiction for young adults and children’s books. Determining the exact number of books he wrote is not so easily done, however: He was a ghostwriter for many, and many others were published under a variety of pseudonyms, including Webb Beech, Edmund O. Scholefield, Allison Mitchell and Blakely St. James.

Even the name W. E. B. Griffin was a pseudonym; his real name was William E. Butterworth III.

His best-known books are under the Griffin name. The first was “The Lieutenants” (1982), which became the first installment in “The Brotherhood of War,” a nine-novel series that followed soldiers in the United States Army from World War II through the Vietnam War. Among his other series were “Badge of Honor,” about the Philadelphia Police Department, and “Clandestine Operations,” about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency.

His fast-paced novels, rooted in history and chockablock with technical details, combined action, sex and patriotism and had a devoted readership. A profile in The Washington Post in 1997 described Mr. Griffin as “the grizzled griot of the warrior breed” and “the troubadour of the American serviceman.”

Mr. Griffin saw himself in simpler terms. “Basically I’m a storyteller,” he said. “I like to think I’m a competent craftsman, as writers go, but I am wholly devoid of literary ambitions or illusions.”

Facebook

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It’s been about 5 years since Jim Cramer and Bob Lang coined the acronym “FANG” for mega-cap high growth stocks Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet Google.

And while it just happens to lead a handy acronym, Facebook is quite possibly the most controversial tech company of all time.

For most, this is due to one person, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. It has been almost a decade since the movie about Facebook and its founder, The Social Network, hit with such force.

We remain fascinated by Facebook and Zuckerberg. We want to learn more, but we want something different. That’s why I was drawn in by a book review for “Zucked.” Here’s how it begins:

The dystopia George Orwell conjured up in “1984” wasn’t a prediction. It was, instead, a reflection. Newspeak, the Ministry of Truth, the Inner Party, the Outer Party — that novel sampled and remixed a reality that Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism had already made apparent. Scary stuff, certainly, but maybe the more frightening dystopia is the one no one warned you about, the one you wake up one morning to realize you’re living inside.

Roger McNamee, an esteemed venture capitalist, would appear to agree. “A dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready,” he writes in “Zucked.” Think that sounds like overstatement? Let’s examine the evidence. At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself “a platform.”

Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labor; on the contrary, users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and consequently strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the company’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform. Want more? You can read the full article here

Go Greek!

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Can you stand one more “self-help” book? Most of us can’t, so I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical when I read a review of, “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.

The review was great. The book was better. This blog would be pages long if I told you all about the book, so please enjoy a few paragraphs from the review. Here’s how it begins:

Three years ago, New Year’s came and I promised to eat only organic. I lasted two weeks. A year ago, I resolved to run before dawn and take a cold shower every morning. That lasted two days. This year, I don’t have a resolution. Instead I read Edith Hall’s “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life,” and concluded I probably didn’t have to undergo some painful — and therefore temporary — transformation to remake my life. I just had to put some sustained effort into being properly happy.

There is a pernicious, but widely held, belief that turning over a new leaf always involves turning our worlds upside down, that living a happy, well-adjusted life entails acts of monkish discipline or heroic strength. The genre of self-help lives and dies on this fanaticism: We should eat like cave men, scale distant mountains, ingest live charcoal, walk across scalding stones, lift oversize tires, do yoga in a hothouse, run a marathon, run another. In our culture, virtuous moderation and prudence rarely sell but, taking her cues from Aristotle, Hall offers a set of reasons to explain why they should.

Hall’s new book clears a rare middle way for her reader to pursue happiness, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, usually translated as well-being or prosperity. This prosperity has nothing to do with the modern obsession with material success but rather “finding a purpose in order to realize your potential and working on your behavior to become the best version of yourself.” It sounds platitudinous enough, but it isn’t, thanks to Hall’s tight yet modest prose.

“Aristotle’s Way” carefully charts the arc of a virtuous life that springs from youthful talent, grows by way of responsible decisions and self-reflection, finds expression in mature relationships, and comes to rest in joyful retirement and a quietly reverent death. Easier said than done, but Aristotle, Hall explains, is there to help. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Better Prose

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Whether you write at work, at home, as a hobby, whatever, you likely welcome tips on how to improve what you write. It’s human nature.

That’s why I was struck by a recent review of a book, “Dreyer’s English.” The review had the intriguing title, “Flossing Your Prose.” Here’s how it began:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.) Want more? You can read it here