We Are What We Read


Many of us who are avid readers of John Sutherland’s books naturally gravitated to his piece on the front page of the New York Times book review earlier this year.

He reviewed two new books:

THE WRITTEN WORLD: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization, by Martin Puchner, and THE SOCIAL LIFE OF BOOKS: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home, by Abigail Williams.

Of the two, his review of Puchner’s book had the most to offer from my perspective. Here is part of what he shared:

“Literature,” the first page declares, “since it emerged 4,000 years ago,” has “shaped the lives of most humans on planet Earth.” We are what we read.

“The Written World” makes this grand assertion on the basis of a set of theses. Storytelling is as human as breathing. When fabulation intersected with writing, stories were empowered to propagate themselves in society and around the world as civilization-forming “foundational texts.”

Puchner opens, by way of illustration, with Alexander the Great. Under his pillow at night he had, alongside his dagger, a copy of the “Iliad.” His literary GPS, we understand. As important as the epic’s originally oral story of great conquest was the script it was written in: That too would conquer worlds. This review is printed in a variant of it.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Best Books


One thing many of us look forward to on Sundays is to read the New York Times Book Review section. Here, outstanding writers offer their opinions on new books. They never seem to miss.

For much the same reason, we look forward to the Times year-end “best books” list. For 2017, the list is especially rich. Here is how the article begins:

This was a year when books — like the rest of us — tried to keep up with the news, and did a pretty good job of it. Novels about global interconnectedness, political violence and migration; deeply reported nonfiction accounts of racial and economic strife in the United States; stories both imagined and real about gender, desire and the role of beauty in the natural world. There were several worthy works of escapism, of course, but the literary world mostly reflected the gravity and tumult of the larger world. Below, The New York Times’s three daily book critics — Dwight Garner, Jennifer Senior and Parul Sehgal — share their thoughts about their favorites among the books they reviewed this year, each list alphabetical by author. Janet Maslin, a former staff critic who remains a frequent contributor to The Times, also lists her favorites.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Lost Wars


The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 profoundly change America’s national security equation – perhaps forever.

Those attacks spawned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and these have all-but-consumed the U.S. military for more than a decade-and-a-half.

There have been several books – some good and some less so – that have tried to help us come to grips with not only why we embarked upon these wars, as well as why we can’t “win.”

Andrew Bacevich’s review of Daniel Bolger’s book, “Why We Lost,” offers some key insights. Here is how he begins:

The author of this book has a lot to answer for. “I am a United States Army general,” Daniel Bolger writes, “and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” The fault is not his alone, of course. Bolger’s peers offered plenty of help. As he sees it, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, abysmal generalship pretty much doomed American efforts.

The judgment that those wars qualify as lost — loss defined as failing to achieve stated objectives — is surely correct. On that score, Bolger’s honesty is refreshing, even if his explanation for that failure falls short. In measured doses, self-flagellation cleanses and clarifies. But heaping all the blame on America’s generals lets too many others off the hook.

Why exactly did American military leaders get so much so wrong? Bolger floats several answers to that question but settles on this one: With American forces designed for short, decisive campaigns, the challenges posed by protracted irregular warfare caught senior officers completely by surprise.

Since there aren’t enough soldiers — having “outsourced defense to the willing,” the American people stay on the sidelines — the generals asked for more time and more money. This meant sending the same troops back again and again, perhaps a bit better equipped than the last time. With stubbornness supplanting purpose, the military persisted, “in the vain hope that something might somehow improve.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Intellectual Property


There was a time when movies were based on either a book (typically a very good book) or an original screenplay (typically by a great screenwriter). That was then, this is now.

I’d always had the notion that something was changing, but Alex French’s article in the New York Times magazine, “How to Make a Movie Out of Anything — Even a Mindless Phone Game,” so revealing – and so frightening. Here how he began:

In 2013 a movie producer named Tripp Vinson was thumbing through Variety when he stumbled upon a confounding item: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a pair of writers and directors, were working on something called ‘‘The Lego Movie.’’ Vinson was baffled. ‘‘I had no idea where they were going to go with Legos,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s no character; no narrative; no theme. Nothing.’’

Since Vinson got into the business, something has changed in Hollywood. More and more movies are developed from intellectual property: already existing stories or universes or characters that have a built-in fan base. Vinson thinks it started in 2007, when the Writers Guild went on strike. ‘‘Before the strike, the studios were each making 20-­something movies a year,’’ he says. ‘‘Back then, you could get a thriller made. After the strike, they cut back dramatically on the number of films they made. It became all about I.P.’’ — intellectual property. With fewer bets to place, the studios became more cautious. ‘‘The way to cut through the noise is hitching yourself onto something customers have some exposure to already,’’ he says. ‘‘Something familiar. You’re not starting from scratch. If you’re going to work in the studio system, you better have a really big I.P. behind you.’’

This trend toward I.P.-­based movies has been profound. In 1996, of the top 20 grossing films, nine were live-­action movies based on wholly original screenplays. In 2016, just one of the top 20 grossing movies, ‘‘La La Land,’’ fit that bill. Just about everything else was part of the Marvel universe or the DC Comics universe or the ‘‘Harry Potter’’ universe or the ‘‘Star Wars’’ universe or the ‘‘Star Trek’’ universe or the fifth Jason Bourne film or the third ‘‘Kung Fu Panda’’ or a super-­high-­tech remake of ‘‘Jungle Book.’’ Just outside the top 20, there was a remake of ‘‘Ghostbusters’’ and yet another version of ‘‘Tarzan.’’

Want more? You can read the full article here

Number Crunching

Writing Techniques

It was bound to happen sooner or later – and later is now! Literature has met big data. Are we ready for it?

I’d always “suspected” something was afoot, but it hit me like a two-by-four when I read a recent New York Times article: “Reading by the Numbers: When Big Data Meets Literature.” Here is part of what this intriguing article offered:

Most literary criticism is grounded in close reading, with scholars poring over individual texts to tease out subtle meanings. But to truly grasp the laws of literature, Mr. Moretti has argued in a series of polemics, requires “distant reading”: the computer-assisted crunching of thousands of texts at a time.

It’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, perhaps, but one that Mr. Moretti has put into practice. Since 2010, Stanford Literary Lab, which he founded with Matthew Jockers, has issued a string of pamphlets chronicling its research into topics ranging from loudness in the 19th-century novel to the evolving language of World Bank reports.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Printing Press and iPhones


If you read only one article this week, read, “The Phone Is Smart, but Where’s the Big Idea?” Here’s just a taste:

I used a smartphone GPS to find my way through the cobblestoned maze of Geneva’s Old Town, in search of a handmade machine that changed the world more than any other invention. Near a 13th-century cathedral in this Swiss city on the shores of a lovely lake, I found what I was looking for: a Gutenberg printing press.

“This was the Internet of its day — at least as influential as the iPhone,” said Gabriel de Montmollin, the director of the Museum of the Reformation, toying with the replica of Johann Gutenberg’s great invention. It used to take four monks, laboring in a scriptorium with quills over calfskin, up to a year to produce a single book.

With the advance in movable type in 15th-century Europe, one press could crank out 3,000 pages a day. Before long, average people could travel to places that used to be unknown to them — with maps! Medical information passed more freely and quickly, diminishing the sway of quacks. And you could find your own way to God, or a way out of believing in God, with access to formerly forbidden thoughts.

The printing press offered the prospect that tyrants would never be able to kill a book or suppress an idea. Gutenberg’s brainchild broke the monopoly that clerics had on scripture. And later, stirred by pamphlets from a version of that same press, the American colonies rose up against a king and gave birth to a nation.

Intrigued? You can read the entire article here

Seven Books


Last week, I posted a blog built around my thoughts on a 2011 New York Times article entitled, “Novelists Predict Future With Eerie Accuracy.”

More recently, I read an interesting piece that called out specific events or technologies, from the atomic bomb, to digital media, to Watson, to more. Here is how the piece begins:

The late Tom Clancy was known for his uncanny ability to accurately predict future events with his fiction writing. His 1994 novel, “Debt of Honor,” describes a September 11th-like attack, and his 2010 book “Dead or Alive” describes the capture of a Bin Laden-like public enemy.

While remarkable, these seeming premonitions aren’t uncommon; Sci-fi writers have been predicting the future for centuries. Jules Verne was describing rocket ships and submarines before these vehicles of exploration even existed. Although we don’t delve into the ocean’s depths inside of “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale,” his prediction, while distorted, more or less came true.

This presents a “chicken or the egg?” sort of question: Do writers simply notice the direction a cultural phenomenon is heading in, or do their ideas inspire cultural and technological change? In some cases, a fiction writer’s imagination serves as a sort of catalyst for new technologies. But sometimes, like with Edward Belamy’s lost classic “Looking Backwards,” it’s difficult to say whether or not the author had anything to do with the eventual inventions.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

The Future

Writing Techniques

I tend to keep a few “gems,” articles that inspire me, make me think, and just stir things up. One of them is one I read and reread, simply because it does what it promises to do.

The New York Times Sunday Review piece, “Novelists Predict Future With Eerie Accuracy,” appeared earlier this decade, but each time I read, I’m staggered by how prescient it is.

Here is part of what writer John Schwartz shares:

“The dirty little secret of speculative fiction is that it’s hard to go wrong predicting that things will get worse. But while avoiding the nihilism of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” in which a father and son wander a hopeless post-apocalyptic moonscape, a number of recent books foresee futures that seem more than plausible as the nation’s ambient level of weirdness rises.”

“In “Ready Player One,” the novelist Ernest Cline extrapolates from the ripples that rising energy prices and climate change send through the economy, and gives us a future where the suburbs die off and many people are packed into in high-rise urban trailer parks, spending their days on an increasingly addictive Internet instead of facing the quotidian squalor. Readers who spend so much time issuing updates via Twitter, Facebook and Google+ that they have forgotten what their spouses look like might see themselves reflected in Mr. Cline’s funhouse mirror. “I did try to envision it as a possible future,” Mr. Cline said. I don’t see it as a future we’re necessarily headed for.”


Want more? You can read the full article here.

Why Write?


Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated writers of our generation. Like many of us, I gobble up each one of his new books as soon as it is published.

That’s why I was intrigued by James Campbell’s review of Roth’s latest book, Why Write? And what writer among us wouldn’t want to read it. I did, and it was well worth the time.

Here is part of what Campbell said in his review:

Why write? In an interview with the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in 2014, four years after the publication of what he claimed would be his final novel, Philip Roth offered an oblique answer to the question that gives the title to this collection. “Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. . . . It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.”

If Mr. Roth’s basic subject is me and my novels, the former is protective of the latter. An amusing 14-page letter to Wikipedia, titled “Errata,” sets out to correct the misrepresentations of his work that he found on the website. The first concerns the novel “The Human Stain” (2000), described in the Wikipedia entry at the time of writing (2012) as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard. ” Broyard was a book critic for the New York Times, who, although African-American by heritage, passed in literary society for white (there is debate about how much of a secret his passing was). When Mr. Roth contacted Wikipedia to correct the misstatement that his novel was based on Broyard’s experience, he was told (through his “official interlocutor”) “that I, Roth, was not a credible source. ‘I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,’ writes the Wikipedia Administrator—‘but we require secondary sources.’ ”

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Writing Update

Books George Galdorisi

It has been a busy year from a writing perspective, embarking on a number of fiction and non-fiction projects. One thing that has made the work joyful, rather than drudgery, has been a super-supportive family, as well as a community that has embraced the arts in a positive way. Read more about the City of Coronado Cultural Arts Commission here: http://coronadoarts.com/

Probably the most exciting writing adventure this year has been joining Braveship Books. A creation of writers and entrepreneurs Matt Cook and Jeff Edwards, this new publishing imprint leverages emerging technologies in printing, distribution and communications to produce books in the action adventure, thriller and sci-fi and fantasy genres. You can read more about Braveship Books here: http://braveshipbooks.com/index.php.

Braveship Books has just published my first Rick Holden Thriller, the Coronado Conspiracy in both print and e-book versions.

Last month, Coronado Eagle-Journal reporter, David Axelson, caught up with me and captured my recent writing adventures. Want more? You can read the full article here.