More on the "Violent" High School Student Near Chicago
You have heard about the high school student arrested
basically for having written a violent essay. A Chicago Times column gets a bit more information out - such as the student's assignment was to write an essay, immediately setting to paper any thought and feeling without censorship.
Wonder if hearing all the stories about Virginia Tech could have had an influence? No, of course not - certainly the educational and law enforcement systems didn't get what they asked for. Oh, and the young man was supposed to enter the Marines in the fall as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but no longer. The Marines just dropped him
Now for the great irony: at least one town in Connecticut has noticed a literacy gender gap, so Greenwich public school officials want to get boys to write more. After all the news, I'm sure they're lining up, anxious to get their mug shots taken.
Labels: arrest, Carey, censorship, Delelio, high school, Illinois, literacy, Marines, senior, writing
NBC News Wants to Own Presidential Debate
Most news organizations would probably claim to be champions of free speech and the people's right to know. But according to this BuzzMachine entry
, NBC - via MSNBC - believe in free political speech that makes the company money and the right to know what the network broadcasts. It is putting significant restrictions on the use of the broadcast of the Democratic debate, including how long an excerpt can be (2 minutes maximum until a given date, and then 10 minutes), a kill date (May 26th) past which none of it can be shown, and a requirement to credit the network. What, it's not getting enough of an audience during
the debate? Oh, and the killer - no posting on the Internet.
So, in the most important election that happens in this country every four years, people are supposed to refrain from using the Internet - the one medium that gives them a voice without vetting by some corporation? This is truly disgusting. Perhaps NBC News should change its name to NBC News and Corporate Propaganda.
By the way, there is no mention of transcripts. Technically the copyright on what a candidate says belongs to the candidate. I had no success in finding a full transcript without a single mention of MSNBC, but here
at the New York Times site is the content of what the cable channel doesn't want you to have over the Internet.
Labels: debate, msnbc, nbc, presidential. electoion
Audience Block Walks Out on Monologist - and Tosses Water
Some so-called Christian group (sorry, but this doesn't seem like the action of real Christians to me) apparently got up en masse during a performance by monologist Mike Daisey, walked out while the show was running, and one of them dumped water
all over Daisey's notes. According to the report, no one in the group would engage with him, but they ran away. Bullies generally do when really challenged. Here's a video
of the incident on YouTube.
Labels: censorship, Daisey, monolog, religion, theater
Pakistan Bans Play on Burkas
The government of Pakistan has banned a play put on by the Ajoka Theatre group because it makes "unacceptable fun" of Pakistani culture, according to a BBC report
. Burkas are the head coverings often worn by women under some strict interpretations of Islam. Here's something from the government, quoted by the story:
"The veil has long been part of local culture and nobody is allowed to make fun of these values," Minister for Culture Ghazi Gulab Jamal said.
The play is satire, but obviously the government wanted it literally under wraps, and not out and about them. According to Reuters
, not everyone in the government agrees with the action:
Mehnaz Rafi, a lawmaker for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League from Lahore,
opposed the government giving in to the Islamists.
"A few people cannot
dictate affairs of the state. Every person has the right to lead his life his
own way. A few people cannot snatch freedom from society," Rafi said.
The Reuters account also mentions that some female Islamic students in burkas kidnapped three women from a brothel and would only release them after they repented their ways in front of the media, apparently in an attempt to give a black eye to a red eye district. Other students have put pressure on music and video stores.
Clearly philosophies can be dangerous things when people focus on the externals and not the actual ideas behind them, reminding me that words can be dangerous, but not as dangerous as not allowing them.
Labels: Ajoka, burka, burqa, censorship, Pakistan, play
Illinois Teen Arrested for Creative Writing Assignment
According to a Chicago Tribune news report
, a straight-A high school senior was arrested Tuesday because a creative writing assignment that was supposed to express emotion was violent enough that the teacher was "alarmed and disturbed by the content," according to Cary, Ill. police chief Ron Delelio.
Talk about the power of words. Allegedly the essay referred to a "shooting
," according to the Chicago Sun Times, but there were no specific threats directed at anyone:
The paper allegedly made a vague reference to a fictional school shooting in McHenry County but didn't specify a school or district, a law enforcement source said.
The first-year teacher called the head of the English department, who then called the police. According to the police chief:
In Lee's case, "We filed what we thought was the appropriate charge," Delelio said. "We need to be very vigilant today when we're dealing with school settings."
In the wake of Virginia Tech, I could understand someone being concerned about violent imagery in a student's essay. But calling the police and arresting the kid? I thought the idea of getting an early warning was to bring in professionals and see if there was a cause for alarm, not to find some pretext of a criminal charge. This is the sort of knee-jerk reaction that obviously leads to self-imposed censorship. What students, or parents, will allow an essay that could get a kid in trouble with the law because people want to react first and think ... never?
Labels: arrest, Carey, censorship, Delelio, high school, Illinois, senior
American Manufacturers Want to Redefine Chocolate
Words definitions count, and when someone redefines what a word means, you might find yourself affected. Look at this entry
in my Flash in the Pan blog. Large members of the U.S. chocolate industry want the FDA to change the definition of chocolate so they can use vegetable fat instead of cocoa butter and whey instead of whole milk powder. If they get their way, things once labeled as chocolate flavored could instantly become chocolate and you wouldn't know the difference from the label. Today's the last day for public comment and there's a link on the entry to let the FDA know what you think.
Labels: ADM, Archer Daniels MIdland, Berkshire Hathaway, chocolate, cocoa butter, definitions, Guittard, Hershey, Nestle, See's Candies, Warren Buffet
College Basketball Player Told No Book or No Play
This is one of the most ridiculous stories I can remember. A University of Arizona basketball team forward, Fendi Onobun, was one of a group of six sophomores who had written a book called The Nerdy McFly Manifesto
. Was is the operative verb of being - or not being, since he won't be credited
as one of the authors. Why? Because the NCAA says that it would mean he was making money off his name and image, and so would make him ineligible to compete.
Here's the NCAA Division I bylaw 220.127.116.11:
Advertisements and Promotions Subsequent to Enrollment - Subsequent to becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual:(a) Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind, or(b) Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual's use of such product or service.
The student authors have a web site
. Although Onobun's name and picture were supposed to come down from the site, there are still images of a half dozen students, it may be that his image still appears there.
Because the book hasn't been published yet, he hasn't technically profited and so can keep playing. Heaven forbid that anyone other than the university and the NCAA profit from his name and image, or that college sports promote the concept that athletes might be able to read and write and excel at things other than putting paying customers in the stands.
Labels: Arizona, athletics, books, censorship, Nerdy McFly, Onobun, sports, university
Wolfowitz's Lawyer Stumbles Upon Defense
In a Washington Post story
, there is a quote from Robert S. Bennett, the defense lawyer hired by Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank:
"He is not going to resign," Bennett said after meeting with Wolfowitz this weekend. "His mood is just fine. . . . He feels people are trying to interfere with his job to get at world poverty, and he wants to get this thing behind him so that he can concentrate 100 percent of his effort."
Obviously he was arranging for a big pay bump for his girlfriend to keep her out of world poverty.
Now look a bit deeper into the words of this quote. People are trying to interfere with his job? No, they're questioning his propriety. And since when does the position become his
job? I know this is a common usage, but I get the sense from many in power that they regard these positions as their property, not something with which they are entrusted. The attitude also shows an invisible poverty: one of the spirit, because if they had a stronger internal sense of themselves, they would probably have a lesser need to lean on the external ones. For those who think that there is no justice in this world, think of how terrible it is to feel that your existence consists solely of what others think and of the vagaries of your position in life. What would be a setback for a more psychologically and spiritually grounded person is shattering for one like this.
Labels: Excuses, Lawyers, Politics
Tommy Thompson and Power of Words
Words are peculiar. You can't touch them though you can see and hear them. And sometimes you can taste them. The taste of the words uttered by Tommy Thompson - former governor of Wisconsin and former Secretary of Health and Human Services - were sour and nasty. Not just the statement he made in front of a D.C. Jewish group, saying, "I'm in the private sector and, for the first time in my life, I'm earning money. You know, that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that. I enjoy that." There was the moment he again walked up to the podium and allegedly said the following:
"I just want to clarify something because I didn't in any means want to infer or
imply anything about Jews and finances and things. What I was referring to,
ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion and the
Jewish people. You have been outstanding businesspeople and I compliment you for
that and if anybody took what I said wrong, I apologize. I may have
mischaracterized it. You are very successful. I applaud you for that."
Not only did he use an offensive racial stereotype, but then he followed it with something that makes you wonder whether he actually managed to stuff three feet into his mouth instead of the regulation two. What comes next: "Some of my best friends are Jews?" Oh, wait, apparently he has already
And there's yet another aspect as noted in this editorial
from a Gannett paper. He made $115,000 a year as governor and $180,000 annually as HSS Secretary, and neither of those salaries was money? Does he mean that people who make those trifling amounts don't really earn a living? Are the only people worth talking to in the real world those who make, oh, $500,000 a year and up? Will the rest of us be asked to stand quietly at the back of the room - or the line or the bus - while the "real" people get taken care of?
What astounds me is that some conservatives are still taking him seriously as a candidate. George Will
calls him "the Republican presidential candidate with perhaps the most impressive resume." Yet he's even managed to make George W. Bush seem like an intelligent public speaker. Now there's
a frightening thought.
Labels: Jew, Jewish, Politics, presidential candidate, Thompson
Word Oddities Site
Just a short entry, as I'm trying to prepare for a phhotography workshop I'm to give this afternoon. Here's
a site with an odd collection of word oddities. I particularly liked the page with words that could be touch-typed with only one hand, and I'm certainly glad the high school teacher I had in the subject apparently knew nothing of these.
Labels: oddities, words
Book Authors Lamenting Publishing
Those who writer books often complain about the publishing industry, and some you have to take with a grain of salt. But I've been talking with colleagues, editors, and lawyers at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and much of what you could hear has been frustration. Writers are frustrated with publishing companies that, as a whole, can't seem to move beyond how they've always sold books and even thought about books. The authors often get tired of pitching ideas that go nowhere, or knowing that they will have to do all of the marketing because the publishers won't past the first three months, and often the efforts right after a book comes out are still hard to see. The premium is for the writer with a "platform" - the ability to provide a pre-existing audience and virtually guaranteed sales. And then, to top it all, the publishers are often highly inefficient and clumsy in how they operate, so even the corporate drive for more profits are frustrated. top management would do far better with fixing their in-house systems so that they didn't waste so much time and money. Then they could afford some chances and the possibility that they might actually find the next big thing by doing something that no one else is rather than by doing only what others have before. Until then, I don't hold out much hope for reading that startles you with its originality.
Labels: books, publishing
U.S. Reading Program Invesigated for Financial Mismanagement
According to the Associated Press, the Inspector General of the Department of Education has referred allegations of conflict of interest to the Justice Department. The report
suggests that the Reading First program, created by the No Child Left Behind law has seen federal officials try to tell local governments how to run their programs and that some of the people putting the pressure on had financial interests in the results. Sounds like someone needs lessons in how to read a leger book as well as a story.
Magazine Closed Down After One Week
The BBC reported that a British magazine, Popworld Pulp
, tanked a week after the first issue was released. The Popworld part of the name came from the branding of a television show on Channel 4
, a British public service channel
. Hopefully the program is better loved than the magazine, which only managed to sell 9,000 copies out of 130,000 printed. According to someone from the publisher, "The magazine has bombed in a way nobody connected with it could ever have envisaged." You think? Here's a bit more:
Mr Styles said: "Every piece of research we did, every dummy we created and the concept in all its forms was fantastically received from first to last.
"The industry wanted it, the news trade wanted it, the market was there according to every group we asked - but come the acid test the readers were absent."
Oh, right, I knew we had forgotten something.
BBC Cancels Short Story Broadcast: Censorship, or Sense?
The Guardian reports
that author Hanif Kureishi - who, among other things, wrote the screenplay for My Beautiful Launderette
, accused the BBC of censorship. Radio 4 (part of the BBC) had scheduled a reading of Kureishi's short story Weddings and Beheadings
, which describes "the work of a cameraman who films the executions of western captives in Iraq." The BBC canceled the reading because of unconfirmed reports that a radical group had killed BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. The story includes this:"
It seems to me that as a journalist, he would be against censorship," he [Kureishi] said of Johnston, who has been missing for more than a month and for whom fears intensified on Sunday when a previously unknown group, the Palestinian Brigades of Monotheism and Holy War, claimed to have killed him.
Kureishi said: "There are journalists and newspapers in peril all the time around the world. We support them by supporting freedom of speech rather than by censoring ourselves."
I understand the need for freedom of speech, but with freedom comes responsibility. Were it my short story that had received the public axe, I hope I would have understood the motivations of the BBC, even if I thought that it wouldn't help what it was hoping to achieve. Yes, we support journalists with freedom of speech, but if someone has a gun to his head, is it really wrong to avoid pushing the situation at that particular time in the hope of saving someone's life? But then, it's easy to be a principled absolutist when you're living safely away from where the roiling trouble exists.
Lawyer Might Lose Commission Position Because of Book
The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has apparently lost confidence in its chairman because of a book, according
to Law.com. As the story says, "The agency's 10 commissioners -- all but Felder -- were unanimous in expressing their loss of confidence," and it released a statement saying that the members were seeing if they could remove chair Raoul Felder.
Oh, he must have written a very, very, very bad book. Oh, wait, it was called Schmucks!
and the other author was comedian Jackie Mason. Bad, bad, bad, wicked
man. To write something that is "crude, biased, vulgar and otherwise demeaning" in the eyes of the commissions. No matter that Mr. Felder makes his living as a divorce lawyer, surely one of the most acrimonious professions one could imagine, particularly with clients like former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But that was apparently fine.
What put things over the line? Here's something from the story:
In its statement, the commission cited several aspects of "Schmucks!" that
"undermine the appearance of impartiality, and the dignity and probity that is
required of the Commission and its Chair."
One unacceptable assertion cited in the statement was that "anytime you hear the word 'allegedly' you can bet it's true."
"Such a viewpoint is untenable from a Commission member whose
role is to evaluate allegations of judicial misconduct," the commission stated.
How excruciatingly naughty to think something like that, as I would bet most lawyers do, and then to actually say it. Of course, Felder's comments during his career - for example, during the Giuliani divorce when he said that now ex-wife Donna Hanover was "howling like a stuck pig" - were perfectly fine. I guess that doesn't affect the appearance of impartiality nor the dignity and probity required of the position.
Male Authors Top Waterstone's Best Selling List
According to a UPI story
, Waterstone's, the big book store chain in Britain, found that in it's top 100 best selling books written since 1982 (the founding of the first of the stores), male writers appear more often than female. Unfortunately, the story doesn't bother to say what percentage of the list is men, so I did a bit more checking ... and found that this is much more complicated than it should be.Here's
what London's Daily Telegraph has to say:
The company asked its 5,000 employees to name their favourite five books written since 1982, when Waterstone's opened its first store. The resulting list of the top 100 favourites is dominated by male authors.
That's hardly best selling - just the off-hand favorites of 5,000 people, who, I would think, are not truly representative of the clientele. Now the foolishness really starts. Here's the lead sentence in the Telegraph's story:
Controversial though it may sound, men write better books than women, at least according to the staff of Britain's biggest book chain, Waterstone's.
Huh? Favorite means the best? How about ... favorite? And then apparently some spokesperson for the chain gave his theory of how this came about - that men prefer books by men but that women are not influenced by the sex of the author.
This entire exercise shows that a) journalists should get some understanding of numbers and what a study can and cannot show, and b) journalists should also learn some basic logic and understand whether one statement of a necessity follows another. For what it's worth, or not, here's the Waterstone's list
Pravda Defends Don Imus?
Pravda, icon of Soviet/Russian-controlled media, has come out claiming
that Viacom fired Don Imus as part of a conspiracy to protect the ongoing war in Iraq. Somehow I don't expect to hear Imus in the Kremlin
any time soon.
David Sedaris, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Fact, and Truth
Alex Heard in the New Republic
and, in reaction, Jack Shafer in Slate
both question how much of the work of David Sedaris is really non-fiction and how much is made-up. Mr. Shafer has been disappointed in the lack of reaction on the part of journalists and the humorist and also asks a question:"So, why has Sedaris added fiction to so much of his nonfiction?"
For an answer, I go back to a talk I once heard given by Jean Shepherd. Many know him as the author of the work on which the movie "A Christmas Story" was based - and he played the off-screen adult voice of Ralph Parker. But for years he walked into a radio studio, apparently unencumbered by notes or scripts, and wove miraculously humorous tales
from the pain of childhood. His stories were in top magazines and then collected into books - a good investment of reading time, by the way. But not as funny as hearing him tell the stories.
So in this talk in front of a large group of college students, Jean Shepherd talked about one of the things that enormously annoyed him: when people refused to believe that the stories were fiction. People would insist that the short tales were actually recounting of real events. "They refuse to give me the credit of being the author," he said in those or somewhat similar words - or not, but the meaning was clear. People wouldn't take the material to be fiction even if he said it was.
In that light, why shouldn't David Sedaris say that his work is "embellished" non-fiction? Even if he said that he made every last bit up, no one would believe him, and I don't buy that people can read his stories and think that they are 100% fact. The quotes and actions are too perfect. But they often have a ring of truth, and that, to me, is more important.
Williams Chides Bloggers, Web Bites Back
NBC anchor Brian Williams apparently has little regard for various aspects of online media, including bloggers ("people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe" and Wikipedia ("We don't get hung up on facts. In my entry alone there are seven errors..."). Someone reacting online asked a simple question: "If there are 7 errors, why doesn't Williams correct them?" Good question. Maybe he didn't have a bathrobe with him at the time.
While Analyzing Imus, David Carr Shows His Own Possible Biases
In his New York Times spot today, David Carr discussed the Don Imus situation
. While talking about the radio host stepping over the line, Mr. Carr wrote the following:
He also picked on the wrong coach. C. Vivian Stringer protects her posse; her eloquent, aggressive defense of the team — and the obvious class of the players at the podium — made for riveting television with a great deal of emotional content.
I think this is a perfect example of how unconscious attitudes shape language. First, his use of the word posse is condescending and demeaning. This group was neither a sheriff with a group of aiding citizens nor a gang of Jamaican friends. Ms. Stringer doesn't protect a posse; she protects a team. As for using the term eloquent, would Mr. Carr have included it had the coach been male and white? Somehow I suspect not. Or perhaps he would, but just having the question appear in a reader's mind - and I doubt I'm the only one who found it curious - shows how careful one's use of words must be to communicate what you intend and nothing more.
Imus and the Language of Permissiveness
All the turmoil over Don Imus's remarks hvae sent me thinking about several things. One is that derogatory terms and their unpleasant connotations are always the creation of those in power that seeks to label as sub-human those not in power. There are various negative terms that some members of ethnic groups use toward Americans of western European descent, yet these terms have never gained the vitriolic taste of those used by whites for others. There are a number of terms for women that are considered derogatory, yet I can't think of a single one for men that has taken hold. This is because the terms only truly hurt when they become the embodiment of power misused, and for that to happen, the ones using the term must have the power.
I also heard the point some made that Imus used language that is certainly no worse than what what rap and hiphop often use. That got me pondering something odd. If my observation is correct, then African-Americans comprise the only ethnic group I can think of that regularly uses derogatory terms in self-reference. For example, I've heard blacks use the term nigger, but never hear Jews use the word kike, or Italians call themselves wops, or Hispanics name themselves spics. Maybe I'm just naive or inexperienced, but I don't think so.
That brings me to the third point. I know that some African-Americans like Richard Pryor claimed that they used the term nigger to wrest the power from it. Looking at where the country is now, I think what the action did was like whistling when going past a scary place, hoping that nothing will happen. But what this practice did was effectively give permission to others to use the term, no matter how often African-Americans said, "We can use it, but you may not." Speech cannot be contained in this way. If it's wrong from one group to use it, it's wrong for all groups to use it. To use it is to allow others to use it - and to make the associations behind the term become part of our intellectual baggage, because thought is made of words. If you use rotted ingredients in cooking, the food is bad. If you use rotted concepts in your thinking, the thoughts will be bad.
And now for the fouth and final point. I understand why many groups like the National Association of Black Journalists came down so hard on the talk show host. To use language with strongly degrading associations - whether toward race, gender, sexual identity, national origin, or faith - is bad, and to do so with a national media megaphone is indefensible. However, if you condemn one doing this, you must condemn all. You must demand an end to the terms in rap music. You must demand an end to them, no matter what the color or gender of the speaker and no matter who the target. To do less is to use the most powerful language of all - the language of action - to condone such offensiveness so long as it's applied to those whom you dislike. To take action against the various isms of society must begin at home, and must apply to one's self as thoroughly, or even more thoroughly, than one's neighbor.
Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title
It seems that there's an annual prize - called the Diagram - for the oddest book title
. The winner this year as voted by the readers of TheBookSeller.com is Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
, beating out Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan: Magic Medicine Symbols in Silk, Stone, Wood and Flesh
. Here's what they say about the winner:
Horace Bent, diarist at The Bookseller, said: "In the fine tradition of the prize—going on title alone—I have not yet read my copy of Montague's tome. But my appetite has been whetted by one of its reviews on Amazon.com: 'One of the most complete and well thought-out works I have ever encountered. Montague's language coupled with his beautiful photography give the lowly carts individual personalities. Refreshing, for an art piece, it never takes itself too seriously. It will change the way you look at the urban environment, and most importantly it's endlessly fun.'"
I couldn't find the latter at Amazon.com but finally did
at Amazon.co.uk. I actually originally thought there were two titles, with the inked mountain women and spoon boxes each getting their own volume. I find it vaguely disappointing to find them lumped together.
Kurt Vonnegut Has Died
Kurt Vonnegut, author of such novels as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Ice Nine, and Breakfast of Champions, has died at age 84 from complications of a fall he had taken in his home. He also wrote
short stories, plays, and essays. Describing his own voice as a Midwestern buzz-saw, he brought a deceptive simplicity that could mask the complex workings of his mind, tangling equally with questions of reality, time, morality, and the human condition. For all the writing, however, I think his art work was an even clearer distillation of what he did. Scrawling, spare lines would map out elegant visual commentaries on the world. Vonnegut's own web site
, which displayed the art, now has a single image: an open bird cage surrounded by a black border.
Book Summary Competition
Whie sitting in a local coffee and espresso place this morning, I overheard someone saying that he had never seen the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. That got a few people onto trying to summarize what happened. Here is what I said:
Boy meets ring. Boy loses ring. The end.
So here's the challenge: pick a large literary work and create a summary in ten or fewer words.
Does Marvel Have Ghost of a Chance in Ghost Rider Suit?
You might have heard of the movie called Ghost Rider, based on an old comic book. Well, if the original author of the character has his way in court, there may be many more deathly pale faces out there. Gary Friedrich is suing
Marvel Comics, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and others for putting together a joint venture without owning or licensing the rights. Apparently Mr. Friedrich had created the character in 1968, licensed its use for a few years to what would become Marvel, and then in 2001, using a provision of U.S. copyright law, regained the rights he had signed away. Fair enough - until Marvel worked with Sony to create a movie that earned an estimated
$215.2 million world wide ... so far. Who says you can't take it with you? And that's exactly what Mr. Friedrich will be seeking to do.
Banned in a Maryland County: The Chocolate War
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is number four on the American Library Association's list
of "most frequently challenged books" from 1990 to 2000. And the book banning hasn't stopped; a Maryland county has removed the title
from the school's curriculum because the book about bullying had "vulgar language including homophobic slurs." Right, good thing we're keeping that out of the hands of teenagers who would never use such language themselves. But they're probably too busy going to the malt shop and building a float for the big homecoming game anyway to read.
The irony is that the book is still in the school and public libraries and that since the controversy broke, demand for the title shot up so much that the country library system bought more copies, bringing the total number circulating to 51.
Celebrating Books with Food
I love reading and I love eating - and eating while reading. But I've never considered turning books and their subjects into food sculptures. Apparently I've missed out on a thriving aspect of modern culture. Columbia University
has an annual book art event, and in Marquette, MI, a library had a "Books 2 Eat
" festival. Please, someone tell me that no one will end up adapting Silence of the Lambs
into this medium.
Review: Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith
Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a series of letters, collected as Letter to a Young Artist
(2006; Anchor Books) about "the rules of the road in the business of making and selling art." Certainly the book has received high praise from sources including actors, editors, authors, and museum directors. I found my own reactions more ambivalent, partly due to a prejudice I have regarding how people in the arts tend to talk about themselves and their work. Let's get that out first. Mind you, I'm a writer, photographer, and am often involved in various ways in theatre, so I'm not indifferent to the arts. Yet I dislike the term artist, because its context has come to emphasize the individual at the expense of the craft. But to many, the label is important and they tend to focus on the primacy of the "artist," not the art. Sometimes in the book that is the sense I have of Smith. For example, she writes:
"I think of art as work, so I worry about going off into the stratosphere with theoretical questions like, 'What is art? What is truth?' ... If we get caught up in pondering these questions, we sell ourselves short. How we live, and how we treat one another, is what is at issue."
Yet then she goes on to nothing less than questioning the nature of art. Although she is trying to pass something on, I had the sense that she really usually doesn't know the answers and often is as puzzled as the fictional BJ, whom she addresses. That, to me, made the book intriguing. At times I found the contradictions gave me material for thought. In one section, she discusses the fictional difficulty that BJ faces when his or her school is about to turn a painting studio into a state-of-the-art biology lab and move the studio into a basement. On one hand she arguing about the uselessness of such a lab "ridiculous." Nevertheless she still goes on to write:
The awareness of the importance of the artist's vision always needs to be enhanced in schools. it is shocking to me that the argument continually needs to be made--but it does.
Now think of the biology students who for some apparently extended period of time had to make due with second-rate facilities. Also, it is easy to take some of her stated reactions, like being spell-bound by a given recorded performance of a song, and as self-indulgences unless you can remember having similar moments. (I can remember once being so floored by hearing a guitar transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations that I stood still for a while just listening, and then immediately bought a copy.)
There are times that I got the sense she was missing the very point of an experience that she was trying to communicate, such as her father telling her, "Don't take it too hard," on finding that she didn't win a Tony. "I could feel his resignation about his failures in his own life," Smith wrote. Maybe that's what he felt, or perhaps, in his 70s, he knew that the real failure is to take such ephemera as important when in the most profound sense they mean nothing. After all, when Herman Melville died, the critics had long written him off as an unimportant writer, rather than one of the foundations of American literature. J.S. Bach in his day was considered a second-rate composer. How foolish on reflection is our collective wisdom, and how more foolish to spend precious life paying attention to it.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of good in the book. Smith well understands the practicalities of art - that there are power structures one will deal with and that a Tony might well mean the difference between a show continuing or closing. Those are certainly lessons that those in the arts need to learn, that they will be engaged in commerce, whether they like it or not. Ultimately, I found that reading the book and engaging with the author led to my rethinking things, and whether I agreed with Smith or not, as always it is a useful exercise.
New Volume of Thornton Wilder Theatre Writings
I just noticed a piece
that ran a few days ago in the New York Times about the Library of America's new volume: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater
by Thornton Wilder ($40). I'm not familiar with his one acts, but his longer works are brilliant. For those who see, as the essay suggests, hints of a theatrical Normal Rockwell, realize that behind that sentimental exterior is a heart dark enough to be in an O'Neill play, yet, to my taste at least, more essential and fundamentally disturbing. In fact, thinking of these two, I can understand the reaction some playwrights have toward "psychological" drama. The issue isn't a disinterest in characterization, but a desire to get beyond quotidian existence and wrestle with some of the great themes of classic drama, and of life. I'll pick up a copy and am interested in particular to look at some of Wilder's writings about
theatre. This is always a chance, as many playwrights, when the cover the topic, become far less interesting and far more limited. There are few George Bernard Shaws. (For example, I find David Mamet's non-fiction on theatre to be didactic, bombastic, and generally dreadful.) I'll be interested to see what Wilder did.
Harry Potter Twists Arms of Librarians
According to the Associated Press, Scholastic Inc., which is the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series, has issued
"strict rules for libraries handling the book this summer":
Among them: Libraries must limit the number of employees who handle the books before the July 21 release and provide names and contact information for each branch manager, according to the contract from Scholastic Inc.
And then there's this
"We acknowledge and agree that any such violation will cause irreparable harm to Scholastic and the author, J.K. Rowling, and that monetary damages will be inadequate to compensate for violations," the contract states.
I find this disgusting. Once the library purchases the copy, it owns
the copy. That means it should be able to do with it as it wishes. But marketing has taken an obvious stranglehold. If the company doesn't want the book to show up before the release date, then, by all means, express ship it the day before. Apparently a Scholastic spokesperson claimed that the effort was to preserve a "magical moment" for the kids. Horse manure. It's more like preserving a magical buzz moment for the salespeople. However, no need to boycott the system - because Scholastic has already seen lowered sales figures, and I'm sure that once the last blockbuster volume rolls out and the enormous sums that rolled in stop, heads in management will surely roll and libraries will go back to what they should be doing: encouraging reading and not ensuring the marketing plan of a corporation.
Grand Central Pays $1.2 Million for Cat Book
Grand Central (formerly Warner Books
) is apparently paying $1.2 million
for a book about a cat that lived at a library. The cat, named Dewey (for Dewey Decimal System) was left in a small northwest Iowan town library's book drop in 1988. TV crews came from all over the world to do a literal warm and fuzzy story. Now the cat has died and librarian Vicki Myron has a book deal. Furthermore, she's not even writing the book herself, but has a ghost. As part of the evidence for Dewey's popularity, "she has found more than 200 "hits" for Dewey on the Internet search engine Google." Hell, that's nothing - I checked my name and came up with - no joke - 25,600, at least one of which was for a financial planner in Florida. So let's call it 25,000; I'm ready for my $150 billion, Mr. Warner ... or Mr. Central, or whatever your name is. I won't even need a ghost.
Author Pre-Publication Tours
There's nothing new in author tours - they go back at least to Charles Dickens, and probably before. (In fact, I wrote a piece for Pages on this topic - I'll post it some time in the near future.) But here's a new twist: the pre-publication tour
. I tip my hat to the New York Times, which I usually don't see as breaking new ground in business coverage; among journalists I know, when an idea hits the Times, people have been writing about it in lesser-known publications for at least a couple of years. But I must credit them in this case; the story of publishers selling authors to book sellers is fascinating. The pivotal point is getting book sellers and authors together in a social setting - that is, an excuse to put a human face and create something of a personal connection, no matter how tenuous. It's a classic tool of sales and ironic, or as the article puts it:
“It’s a bit of an odd system,” he said. “You take a writer, the kind of person who wants to sit on his own for three years at a time, and then make them go to a bunch of dinner parties.”
That leaves a question: You can take them somewhere, but can you dress them up?
Books That the British Just Can't Wait to Put Down
The Independent Online last month (I've always felt behind the times - or, since this was in the Independent, would it be behind the Times) had a report on the books that Britons are least likely to finish reading
. The fiction list included a Man Booker Prize winner on top and James Joyce's Ulysses in third. Second? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. On the non-fiction list were autobiographies by Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton, which shows some wisdom after all in limiting politicians to sound bites.
Dutch Novelist Finds Literally Lost Novel
Some lost novels are works that have disappeared during the vagaries. But Dutch novelist Hella Haasse had literally misplaced a novel
that had run as a newspaper serial in 1950. It seems, though, that the writer, who has published more than 50 books, had cut out the installments and saved them in "this incredible pile of paper at home." Haasse finally came across the parts, sent them as a joke to her regular book editor, and then found the joke was on her as he said he wanted to publish it.
Top April Fool's Day Hoaxes
For a lighter side on how people use language, check this list
of the top April Fool's Day hoaxes people have pulled over the years. Thanks to the site MuseumOfHoaxes.com for gathering the gags.
High School Considers Firing Journalism Teacher Over First Amendment
According to the Associated Press, the East Allen County School Board in Indiana is considering firing a journalism teacher
. The problems started when the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School paper printed an editorial in favor of tolerance for gays and lesbians. According to a letter, quoted by the story, sent by the district to the teacher:
"The journalism program at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School would be better served by replacing you with a teacher willing to work collaboratively with, not in conflict with, the building administrator in carrying out the prior review curriculum requirement for school-sponsored publications," the letter said.
The final straw for the district was that the class did not produce a paper in March and instead studied some First Amendment cases. My guess is that the politicians didn't want the children getting any radical ideas.