Archive for the ‘books’ Tag

Bush’s memoir could be called “Delusion Points”

According to a write-up in the Times this week of George W. Bush’s new memoir, here’s one way in which the former president regards the Iraq war:

For the most part, Mr. Bush offers a strong defense of his presidency, declaring that his decision to invade Iraq was the right one because … “the Iraqi people are better off with a government that answers to them instead of torturing and murdering them.”

From the Times’ coverage last month of the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs:

[T]he documents … contain indelible details of abuse carried out by Iraq’s army and police. The six years of reports include references to the deaths of at least six prisoners in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Beatings, burnings and lashings surfaced in hundreds of reports, giving the impression that such treatment was not an exception. In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi Army officers of cutting off a detainee’s fingers and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees.

Love in the time of Terror Babies

“My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library-science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.”

So begins Daniel Alarcón’s recently published short story “Second Lives,” whose narrator is a Latin American man with a potent longing for a First World life. His dream has eluded him; he realizes he is doomed to a “terminal condition” of Third World citizenship, despite that his older brother — the one lucky to be born on U.S. soil — had seized the opportunity to emigrate many years prior.

Alarcón is a writer I’ve long admired, in part for how he weaves complex cultural politics into quietly powerful narratives. (His luminous story collection War by Candlelight is a must-read.) “Second Lives” arrived with uncanny timing in this politically boiling August. At face value, its opening easily could be another rallying cry for the political far right, members of which have been stirring up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria from California to Texas to lower Manhattan.

Even by today’s standard of partisan politics, the hot wave of demagoguery hitting the country feels off the charts. Take the fear mongering of Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who has been flogging the “terror babies” conspiracy on national television: Shadowy foreigners are plotting to give birth in the U.S., only to take their tots overseas, train them as terrorists and send them back decades later, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, to wreak havoc inside the country.

That this theory is plainly ridiculous, and has been debunked by FBI and U.S. Customs officials, is beside the point. As Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote from Phoenix, this is political opportunism of a very scary kind.

You might say that Gohmert is just small potatoes. But what about more influential Republicans eager this election season to foment a crusade against Islam? The tactics aimed at the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” — which in name is pure invention — are no less craven. Newt Gingrich put a Hitlerian stamp on the proposed Muslim center in lower Manhattan: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said by way of egregious comparison on Fox News. No doubt Gingrich is pleased to be in lockstep with the cowardly Anti-Defamation League; he could scarcely do more to exploit fearful support from Jews than to evoke the Holocaust.

There seems to be not a shred of empathy or basic human decency in this dark political campaign. Oh, sure, some agitators will say that some of their best friends are Muslims — which should ring about as true and logical as pronouncements on CNN by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association: “I love Muslims, I am pro-Muslim. I am anti-Islam. I would say to a Muslim, ‘Look, your ideology is destructive, it’s deceptive, it’s dark.’” Or as Fischer also put it: “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is a religion of war, it is a religion of violence.”

In this war, Gingrich, Boehner and Cantor are the generals, the Fischers their captains on the ground. For them anything goes in the battle for congressional power this fall, the rising dangers of nativist provocation be damned.

Which returns me to Alarcón’s story. Against the multitude in the media recently (no shortage of fictions among them) it is an unwavering prick of light. It brims with the humanism that America’s darkly cartoonish politicos so palpably lack. As great fiction should, the story never directly grapples with the Big Political Issues, like immigration. Indeed, the politics here are personal, etched in the lives of characters coping with family struggle, romantic heartbreak and the daily challenges and amusements of assimilation. “Second Lives” is a portrait of a divided family gazing across the chasm between the Third and First Worlds — and it is a vivid reminder of what is really in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of America’s immigrant hopefuls.

“In school,” recalls Alarcón’s narrator, “my favorite subject was geography. Not just mine, it should be said.” He continues:

I doubt any generation of young people has ever looked at a world map with such a powerful mixture of longing and anxiety; we were like inmates being tempted with potential escape routes. Even our teacher must have felt it: when he took the map from the supply closet and tacked it to the blackboard, there was an audible sigh from the class. We were mesmerized by the possibilities; we assumed every country was more prosperous than ours, safer than ours, and at this scale they all seemed tantalizingly near. The atlas was passed around like pornography, and if you had the chance to sit alone with it for a few moments you counted yourself lucky. When confronted with a map of the United States, in my mind I placed dots across the continent, points to mark where my brother had lived and the various towns he’d passed through on his way to other places.

That dream of “other places,” of course, has everything to do with the greatness on which our immigrant-rich society has been built. The demagogues who have forgotten this truth, or who knowingly have traded it for the miasma of deranged politics, would do well to read and ponder Alarcón’s tale. It is so much taller, as it were, than any of theirs.

Into the mind of David Foster Wallace

(First page of a handwritten draft of Infinite Jest by DFW, via HRC @ U of T.)

A year ago I explained why I thought it would be so rewarding if the world could get a deeper look at the personal correspondence of the late, great David Foster Wallace. Bravo to his longtime publisher, Little, Brown and Company, and to the University of Texas at Austin, who are making it happen. Many of his letters and other personal notes, annotations and scribbles will soon be available at the Harry Ransom Center, a research library and museum at UT. “David’s letters are delightful to read in themselves,” affirmed his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, “and we hope that scholars will benefit from finding his notes to his editors and copy editors in the same archive with his draft manuscripts, journals and other correspondence.” The archive opens in fall 2010; in the meantime here’s a taste of what’s in store.


A few years back when I was working on craft at USF, I found inspiration in the idea that writers work in perpetual dialogue with their fellow scribes — not just immediate peers, but also those across geography and time. The books whose authors spoke to you — the ones that you kept returning to and sat with and spoke back to — granted insight and spurred productivity as much as any workshopping of manuscripts ever did. That kind of literary communion was something David Foster Wallace knew well. The archive at UT has already put some of his on display, with this look inside some of DFW’s intricately annotated books. (Click on the images at the above link to zoom in.) Inside his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, for example, you can see his studied list of Cynthia Ozick’s diction, from “telluric” to “pullulating” to “fructuous.” Notes scrawled inside the cover of Don Delillo’s Players reveal traces of his thinking about The Pale King, a novel he had yet to complete at his death: “Guy hired as lawyer for IRS. Sent to Peoria, but no one ever complains or contests audits in Peoria.”

Even just visually, as his copy of “Borges: A Life” shows, it’s easy to see that DFW’s immersions went deep:

There’s also a poignancy to seeing these snatches of handwritten script, an intimate reminder of his tragic, early exit. May the scholars soon get to work at UT and take us even deeper into the mind and methods of one of the great writers of his generation.

UPDATE: Lots more on the contents of the DFW archive from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog.

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

Dick Cheney’s 9/11 conspiracy

The former vice president took a break from hunting and fishing this week to return home to Fox News and fire away once again at Barack Obama. Headline-grabbing potshots this time included characterizing the sitting president as “radical” and calling the Obama administration’s decision to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed on trial in New York City “a huge mistake.” Cheney stopped just shy of labeling Obama’s policy as treason. “It’ll give aid and comfort to the enemy,” he said of the pending terrorist trial.

The retired veep is as entitled to his opinions as the next guy, one supposes, however politically motivated they may remain. But particularly since Cheney’s arguments depart ad nauseam from his views about the 9/11 terrorist attacks (see the saturated transcript linked above), it seems an apt moment to point out some news that bubbled up a few weeks ago regarding Cheney and that fateful September day. Newsworthy indeed, although it seemed barely to register in the media: A new book by John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey who served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, says flat out that Cheney lied about how the U.S. government handled the Al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington as they unfolded.

As someone involved in producing much coverage on the story of 9/11 (including this wide-ranging series for Salon in 2006), I can say that this is one conspiracy worthy of attention. (Numerous others, not so much.)

According to Jacob Heilbrunn’s recent review in the Sunday Times of “The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11,” Farmer handily debunks the Bush administration’s storyline that the White House acted decisively and effectively that day. He describes how both Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz “provided palpably false versions that touted the military’s readiness to shoot down United 93 before it could hit Washington,” according to Heilbrunn. “Planes were never in place to intercept it. By the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector had been informed of the hijacking, United 93 had already crashed.”

Moreover: “Farmer scrutinizes F.A.A. and Norad records to provide irrefragable evidence that a day after a Sept. 17 White House briefing, both agencies suddenly altered their chronologies to produce a coherent timeline and story that ‘fit together nicely with the account provided publicly by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney.’”

Farmer’s damning conclusion? “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.”

It gets one thinking about a comment Cheney made to Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, discussing the memoirs he’s currently writing about his 41 years in Washington, dating back to the Nixon administration: “There are some fascinating stories and interesting things I was involved in.”

Do tell, Mr. Vice President.

Desperate for some digital magic

It seems quite odd at this late date that Damon Darlin thinks serendipity has been lost in the digital deluge of the Internet. In a column in the Sunday Times, Darlin acknowledged that “we’ve gained so much” in the way of information and entertainment. “But we’ve lost something as well,” he says: “the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”

Huh? When was the last time you went online and didn’t end up encountering things unexpected and interesting?

JamesYangforDarlinNYTDarlin laments what he sees as the fading possibility of perusing friends’ book shelves and CD and video collections in search of new discoveries, with those goodies increasingly obscured inside laptops, iPods and Kindles. It’s a strange line of reasoning to resuscitate, one long ago dispatched by Web thinkers, including author/blogger Steven Johnson three years ago. Back then, was the diminishing use of libraries as engines of discovery something to mourn?

“I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student,” Johnson wrote in May 2006. “Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the ‘binding.’) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture.”

Darlin’s loss-of-serendipity riff is akin to one that pops up regularly among those warning about the extinction of newsprint. If you’re getting all of your news online, the argument goes, you’ll be deprived of stumbling across a cool story inside those oversized inky pages, one that you might not otherwise ever read.

I still enjoy the ritual of immersing in the Sunday paper to which Darlin contributes, and I usually find interesting stuff in it to soak up, some of it even unexpected. But the fact is, that kind of fortunate discovery happens about a bazillion times more often in the digital realm. As Johnson also wrote:

I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I’m exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I’m constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I’m thinking: how did I get here? I can’t tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.

The big challenge these days seems to be figuring out how to better handle the fire hose of content flow. It can indeed be frustratingly easy to forget what you set out for in the first place, to get lost down the endless digital byways. (Hah — how, exactly, did you end up here?) Yet, whatever nostalgia aside, when it comes to print vs. digital (or albums vs. iTunes, etc.), I don’t think we’re facing a zero-sum equation.

Medicine Bow: A tale of beauty and devastation

Late last week, as world leaders were again failing to make progress on the rising threat of climate change, I was hiking to the top of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming. An unusually wet June produced a stunning sweep of wildflowers high upon the 12,000-foot mountain:

MF-Medicine Bow wildflowers

Combating global climate change is a complicated matter, to say the least, but I suspect that most people, attendees of G-8 summits included, would view the imperative in a whole new light if they were to witness the ecological devastation hitting this breathtaking region of the Mountain West. The fallout can be seen in the lush forests ringing Medicine Bow and other majestic snow-capped ranges in the area and in nearby Colorado — in the bleak, sprawling signature of an ongoing bark beetle epidemic. Warmer winters and drought in recent years allowed the insect population to explode, bringing destruction to more than 1.5 million acres.

“By about 2012, beetles will have killed nearly all of the mature lodgepole trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” reports the USDA Forest Service, “affecting water flows and watersheds, future timber production, wildlife habitat, recreation sites, transmission lines and scenic views. Beetle-killed trees also present a fuels build-up situation that could result in catastrophic wildland fires. These events pose threats to homes and property and could cause adverse economic impacts to communities.”

According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist in Laramie, the beetle infestations have been roaring on unabated because of climate change. “These infestations take place naturally on 20- to 40-year cycles,” he said in a news article early last year. “In the past, they’ve run their course until a bitterly cold winter took place. Studies show that you need a two-week cold snap at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off the beetles. Nothing else works.”

For several years now, it hasn’t gotten cold enough.

The forests seen here in the distance from the top of Medicine Bow…

MF-Medicine Bow 2

… could soon resemble these seen in this recent aerial photo, taken in northern Colorado, from the USDA Forest Service:

USDA-beetlekill

Some other forested areas I saw last week in the vicinity of Medicine Bow (especially at lower elevations that stay warmer) are already riddled with dead and dying trees. The friends I was with, who’ve been coming to the area for the last decade, described the accumulating damage in dramatic terms — some pristine expanses that existed just a couple of years ago won’t be seen again in our lifetime.

It’s hard to know how bad it might get (it’s already bad), or whether anything can actually be done to slow or stop this particular disaster. But it’s one stark example of what climate change can bring, and why we have to pay attention. Over the weekend Timothy Egan argued that Michelle Obama should throw her political weight behind America’s increasingly marginalized national parks. Egan’s perspective was more cultural than environmental, but from what I saw in Wyoming, there’s no lack of pressing reason on the latter front, either.

Or perhaps, as Emerson suggested in his famous essay on nature, what’s ultimately at stake is an essential interdependence:

“The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.”

Dave Eggers, Peter Orner and more

I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.

rumpus_header

It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:

With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.

thelonelyvoiceAbsolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.

A Titanic for these times

The June issue of the Atlantic has a look at the mind-blowing Oasis of the Seas, a gargantuan ocean liner forthcoming from cruise company Royal Caribbean International. Its unprecedented scale of apparent luxury surely required feats of engineering. But any awe that inspires would seem to wash away with apprehension of the ship’s untold economic and ecological hubris.

A decade ago, a large cruise ship typically carried in the neighborhood of 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members. But in an industry intently focused on swelling its profits no matter the non-fiscal costs, bigger is always better. Ordered in 2006 for $1.4 billion (on the crest ahead of the economic meltdown), the Oasis leaves those old numbers far in its wake. “In November,” writes Rory Nugent, “Royal Caribbean will take delivery of a true sea monster. Now in its final phase of construction, the Oasis of the Seas will be the biggest (longest, tallest, widest, heaviest) passenger ship ever built — and the most expensive. It will dwarf Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and cast shadows dockside atop 20-story buildings. A crew of 2,165 will tend the expectations of up to 6,296 passengers.” (Photos from the official Oasis site.)

Oasis2-Nov08 Oasisfloatout-Nov08

According to the Atlantic, the ship has 21 swimming pools onboard, circulating more than 600,000 gallons of water. Passengers are expected to consume another 560,000 gallons per day, including daily production of 110,230 pounds of ice cubes — more than the weight of nine adult male elephants. The Oasis will also function as “its own utility company” with a 100-megawatt electrical grid — which will consume 12 tons of diesel fuel per hour and generate enough juice to power 105,000 homes.

There is a 1,380-seat playhouse onboard, though it’s not even the main attraction. That would be the outdoor “AquaTheater,” which apparently is “wrapped in its own wind-shielded microclimate” and uses nearly 2,000 nozzles to spray water in concert with a Las Vegas-style light show.

Oasis-Atlanticmap

A good many people enjoy this kind of thing, the decadent vacation cruise. (Enough of them to support an industry with annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars.) Based on the intuition that the experience might feel a bit like feasting on a nine-course meal in the middle of an Ethiopian refugee camp, I’ve never had any intention of trying it. David Foster Wallace famously once did. It’s a safe bet that the Oasis of the Seas would have left him royally retching. (His great essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s in 1996 as “Shipping Out,” was made available online by the magazine after his tragic death last fall.)

From Florida to Alaska, the consumptive ships of Royal Caribbean have been in the news before. Seven years ago federal investigators determined that the cruise company had covered up massive environmental malfeasance, despite a case focusing on one of its ships, the Norway, that resolved with a $1 million slap on the wrist. As USA Today reported in November 2002:

Now, some of the federal agents who investigated the case say the company’s pollution went on for much longer and was much worse than the light fine suggests. Environmental Protection Agency agents say — and court records support — that the Norway not only poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of oily bilge water into the ocean. It also dumped raw sewage mixed with hazardous, even cancer-causing, chemicals from dry cleaning and photo development into the waters near Miami for many years.

In the late 1990s, according to that USA Today report, Royal Caribbean had eventually pleaded guilty to 30 criminal charges in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, the Virgin Islands and Alaska, and had paid $27 million in fines in 1998 and ’99. By the 2002 news report, it had “implemented a companywide environmental compliance program.”

About to embark with its new mega-ship (click on the first link in this post to zoom in on the above graphic), has it since cleaned up its act? A year ago this week, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship dumped 20,000 gallons of contaminated water just off the coast of Southeast Alaska.

Daphne Merkin’s literary depression

There is a peculiar quality to “A Journey Through Darkness,” Daphne Merkin’s memoir of chronic depression published this week in the Times Magazine. Her intimate account of lifelong struggle with the disease, centered on her latest stint in a Manhattan psychiatric facility in 2008, evokes the perspective of a highly intelligent, sensitive, deeply troubled soul. Even if the trappings are familiar from numerous other written explorations of the subject, her story seems to shed light on the dark terrain of mental illness by way of an intense personal account.

But an intriguing question sits at the margins: Who, exactly, is telling this story?

merkinmemoir

Merkin is a skilled writer with a clear command of technique. Memory has been and always will be a writer’s imperfect tool. But something about her in-depth reflection feels a little too… artful. It begins and ends with the bright imagery of ocean beaches, neatly bookending the tale of her latest debilitating episode. There is elevated language and metaphor all over the place. “Soggy as my brain is from being wrenched off a slew of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in the last 10 days, I reach for a Coleridgian suspension of disbelief, ignoring the roar of traffic and summoning up the sound of breaking waves,” she writes of an attempt at mental escape from the hospital grounds.

And: “Depression — the thick black paste of it, the muck of bleakness — was nothing new to me.”

And: “When I was awake (the few hours that I was), I felt a kind of lethal fatigue, as if I were swimming through tar.”

And: “I felt as if I were being wished bon voyage over and over again, perennially about to leave on a trip that never happened.”

And: “In truth there was more uncharted time than not, especially for the depressives — great swaths of white space that wrapped themselves around the day, creating an undertow of lassitude.”

As with that last flourish, there are other assertions of truth telling. Which is not to say her story is untruthful.

Merkin has in the past written publicly about her experience with depression, and to her credit here she points at a vexing problem of distinction — it’s almost as if she’s questioning her own reliability as narrator:

Whatever fantasies I once harbored about the haven-like possibilities of a psychiatric facility or the promise of a definitive, once-and-for-all cure were shattered by my last stay 15 years earlier. I had written about the experience, musing on the gap between the alternately idealized and diabolical image of mental hospitals versus the more banal bureaucratic reality. I discussed the continued stigma attached to going public with the experience of depression, but all this had been expressed by the writer in me rather than the patient, and it seemed to me that part of the appeal of the article was the impression it gave that my hospital days were behind me. It would be a betrayal of my literary persona, if nothing else, to go back into a psychiatric unit.

Certainly a writer aims to convey an experience as vividly as possible. Merkin’s work gives the sense she is deeply invested in sorting out her experience, both for herself and for her audience. (Having that audience, as she seems to know, could be a particularly complicating factor.) Yet as carefully constructed as it is, something about her story feels distinctly blurred.

Maybe it’s of a piece with a vexing question about the treatment of mental illness, one I’ve often puzzled over when concerned for people I know who are afflicted: Where, exactly, is the line between the physical and the psychological?

In that respect Merkin’s deliberate prose does little to help us out of the dark.

Google, Kindle and The Library of Babel

Technological innovation seems almost strangely commonplace these days, from say, contact lenses that could layer data directly onto your view of the world to robots fighting far-flung wars to computer systems perhaps smart enough to compete on “Jeopardy!” All astonishing developments in their own right, and yet the most profound change of our times may yet be purely informative in nature: The digitization of all that we read.

At the University of San Francisco on Sunday I participated in a symposium on “Life after the MFA” for students graduating the writing program. Unsurprisingly, the technological upending of books, magazines and newspapers was a particular focus. Fellow panelist Patrick Dunagan, a poet who works as a specialist at the USF library, spoke with some alarm about the rate at which books and print periodicals there are going the way of the dodo. The idea is that many are being replaced digitally. I expressed a bit of surprise to him about this afterward, whereby he asked me when I last conducted any research in a library. Point taken. If only Borges were still hanging around and could rejoin the discussion.

visualofbabel

One theme I hoped to suggest in my part of the talk was that print vs. digital isn’t a zero-sum equation. We can still love books and newspapers while getting charged about the possibilities of digital publishing. In many ways the latter remains a Wild West — and without a doubt has blown holes in some old ways of doing business. But in my view the rising digital infosphere is far more expansive and generative than it is destructive.

In a recent essay published in the Wall Street Journal, author Steven Johnson explores both the thrill and potential chill of electronic books, a fast-growing realm thanks to Amazon’s innovative e-book reader, the Kindle, and Google’s Book Search service, home to approximately 10 million scanned titles and counting. One exciting aspect Johnson flags with regard to ideas and research:

Before too long, you’ll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read — as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you’ve read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven’t encountered yet.

But there will be pitfalls, too, especially with respect to evolving market forces. The all-powerful search engine that is Google, and the ways in which it guides users to digital content of all sorts, could impact how books actually get written:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We’ll have to see.

A strength of Johnson’s essay is that he doesn’t pass judgment on these possibilities; he concentrates on laying out in lucid terms what he sees coming. (Another recent piece of his, on how the web’s information ecosystem changes how we get our news, is also well worth reading.)

The latter segment above, under the subhead “Writing for Google,” got me thinking about a worn adage heard in MFA programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” If that advice translates fundamentally to writing from a place of experience and passion, it could take on fresh meaning in the digital future — when the suggestion to “Write what you can search engine optimize” may well become a growing temptation.

UPDATE: Some wonder if Google already has too much sway with its Book Search service, including the U.S. Department of Justice.

This is David Foster Wallace

On Tuesday, Little, Brown and Company publishes a book version of “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” the celebrated commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College. The pocket-sized book breaks up the nearly 4,000-word speech into digestible pieces on the page, some as brief as a single phrase. It’s an intriguing approach: In one sense, practical to publishing the essay in book form while drawing out its epigrammatic layers. At the same time, it seems rather un-DFW — contrary to the hyper-digressive, cascading prose for which he is so well-known.

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Wallace giving a reading in 2006 in San Francisco. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Whether Wallace would approve of the presentation we probably can’t know. But it highlights a radiant directness that was often in danger of obscuring beneath his towering intellect. (It’s worth noting that there are some subtle differences to be found in other versions of the commencement speech floating out there; I contacted the publisher seeking clarification on how the text was prepared, but a publicist responded that Wallace’s longtime editor, Michael Pietsch, was declining to be interviewed about the book.)

Wallace’s focus was on the far from easy task of living life consciously in the adult world. He begins with a “didactic little parable-ish story,” as he puts it, about young fish who are oblivious to the environs through which they swim. More than just challenging the conventions of the commencement genre, Wallace makes use of them with a fierce sincerity: “I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”

Segments like these carry an added poignancy in the wake of Wallace’s death by suicide last fall at the age of 46. Rather than a matter of morality or religion or the afterlife, he went on to tell the young graduates, “the capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

More striking, though, is his evocative insight and humor. If the students really do learn how to think and pay attention in life, he tells them, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”

The pleasure of experiencing Wallace’s speech again underscored a realization I had when reading D.T. Max’s lengthy look back at Wallace’s life: The world deserves a published collection of David Foster Wallace’s correspondences, too. Various bits of it appearing in the recent New Yorker article — with fellow writer Jonathan Franzen, his literary agent Bonnie Nadell and others — cast additional light on Wallace’s humanity and highly emotive lexicon.

While I’ve admired some of his fiction, I’ve always thought Wallace was at his best with essays and literary journalism; as I wrote about here recently, gems found in his private correspondences show how the epistolary form (actual letters as well as email) brought out a more direct spirit of his, too.

The back cover of “This Is Water” asserts that the essay was Wallace’s answer to “the challenge of collecting all he believed about life and lasting fulfillment into a brief talk.” The inflated language of marketing copy, it would seem — Wallace’s prolific, restive consciousness probably could never be so perfectly distilled. A deeper look at his personal correspondences, meanwhile, could only add to the picture of a life and work tragically cut short and revered by so many.

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