Countdown to Pynchon

Thomas Pyn­chon has made a career milk­ing elu­sive­ness for all its worth. His writ­ing is noto­ri­ous­ly hard to pin down. Pub­lish­ers nev­er know when to expect some­thing new. (He has only put out 6 books since 1963.) And, phys­i­cal­ly, Pyn­chon is nowhere, ever, to be found.

But this much we know right now. Against the Day, his next nov­el and the first since 1997, is set to be pub­lished on Novem­ber 21, 2006.

This big book (1120 pages) is a big deal with­in Pyn­chon cir­cles, so much so that Pyn­chon’s pub­lish­er, Pen­guin, has­n’t both­ered pro­mot­ing the book, oth­er than casu­al­ly list­ing it on Ama­zon. Admist the hoopla, one of the cool­er things to emerge is the Against the Day Wiki. Using the same soft­ware as Wikipedia, the Pyn­chon wiki will let Pyn­chon enthu­si­asts devel­op entries that tease out the nov­el­’s char­ac­ters and events. Oh, can’t you taste the min­u­taie?!

Dave Eggers’ Real and Imagined Sudan

Dave Eggers entered the lit­er­ary world with a big bang. His first book, A Heart­break­ing Work of Stag­ger­ing Genius (2000), came out of nowhere and sat on the best­seller list for 14 weeks. It also made Eggers a Pulitzer Prize final­ist and almost the recip­i­ent of a rich movie deal — had he not turned it down.

This wun­derkind’s ear­ly suc­cess nat­u­ral­ly cre­at­ed high expec­ta­tions, and his next efforts, a nov­el in 2002 and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries in 2004, nev­er quite cap­tured read­ers’ imag­i­na­tion in the same way. Now, with What Is the What, we see Eggers com­ing back home to non-fic­tion, albeit a very dif­fer­ent form of non-fic­tion than the one we dis­cov­ered in AHWOSG. Here, the post-mod­ern devices drop out of sight, and what we get is more the imag­i­nary jour­nal­ism that we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly encoun­tered in the works of Tru­man Capote and Nor­man Mail­er.

The What is the What recounts the long jour­ney of Valenti­no Achak Deng, one of the 20,000 “Lost Boys,” who fled the Sudanese Civ­il War (1983–2005) and, though most­ly younger than than 10, trav­eled alone to Ethiopia, Kenya and, in some cas­es, the Unit­ed States. (About 4,000 end­ed up in the US in 2001.) Because Valenti­no began his odyssey as a mere six year-old, the whole ques­tion of mem­o­ry get raised. How much does a child remem­ber? Broad out­lines maybe. But how many facts, details and con­ver­sa­tions fade away? As Eggers explains in a recent inter­view , the cre­ative ele­ments added to this oth­er­wise fac­tu­al account serve to fill in these gaps in rec­ol­lec­tion, and the ele­ments, them­selves, are based on his­tor­i­cal records and Valenti­no’s gen­er­al sense of things. It is here that Eggers’ notion of imag­i­na­tive jour­nal­ism sets itself apart from many oth­er attempts at new jour­nal­ism. The point of imag­i­na­tion for Eggers isn’t so much to dress up dry facts and dri­ve the nar­ra­tive along, but to make the his­tor­i­cal record more com­plete and, in a gen­uine way, give a fuller account of a per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Per­haps this comes off as a mean­ing­less shade of dif­fer­ence. But, when you get down to it, it’s more sub­stan­tive than not.

Arti­cles and Reviews:

This hour-long radio inter­view with Eggers and Valenti­no is def­i­nite­ly worth a lis­ten.

NPR Fact Page: Ded­i­cat­ed to Eggers’ new book, this page includes links to a recent NPR inter­view, excerpts from the new book, and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion about the Lost Boys.

You can get more con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion from the PBS site, which accom­pa­nies its film, Lost Boys of Sudan.

Plus check out the reviews in New York Mag­a­zine and The New York Times.

State of Denial: How Woodward Took Down Rumsfeld

As Bob Wood­ward’s lat­est book climbed the best­seller charts last week, the per­son­al for­tunes of Don Rums­feld tum­bled. The one man’s rise and the oth­er man’s fall were not total­ly dis­con­nect­ed. Pub­lished weeks before the mid-term elec­tions, State of Denial effec­tive­ly rehashed the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s many mis­takes made before and after 9–11, and before and after the Iraq inva­sion. If Wood­ward sees a par­tic­u­lar weak link in the admin­is­tra­tion, it’s Don Rums­feld. Tar­get­ing him for the bet­ter part of the book, Wood­ward por­trays the Defense Sec­re­tary as a micro­man­ag­er who brow­beat his sub­or­di­nates and cut strong mil­i­tary thinkers out of the war plan­ning process, and who went to war with 140,000 troops (instead of the 600,000 rec­om­mend­ed by Gen­er­al Tom­my Franks), and then over­saw the ill-planned occu­pa­tion. Now #5 on the New York Times best­seller list, Wood­ward helped inten­si­fy the crit­i­cism of Rums­feld through­out Octo­ber, and, when the elec­tions went the Democ­rats’ way, the Sec. of Defense was gone. (If you don’t own the book, check out Wood­ward’s piece in Newsweek, which gives you the short ver­sion of how Rum­my dropped the ball.)

One of the big­ger rev­e­la­tions in State of Denial is that Rums­feld almost got cut back in 2004, when Bush won his sec­ond term. Andrew Card, Bush’s for­mer Chief of Staff, qui­et­ly tried to engi­neer a shuf­fle, but polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions ulti­mate­ly got in the way. (Wood­ward sum­ma­rizes this part of his book in a recent Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle.) What you get here is trade­mark Wood­ward. He gives you an intrigu­ing insid­er view of how pol­i­tics gets played out in Wash­ing­ton — how Rums­feld won’t return Con­di Rice’s phone calls, how the Chief of Staff tries to sack Rum­my, how no one will tell Bush the prob­lems they see in Iraq, etc.

Wood­ward’s account is all very inter­est­ing. But it’s also trou­bling in a way. The third install­ment of a tril­o­gy called Bush at War, State of Denial re-exam­ines some of the same ground that Wood­ward already cov­ered in first two books, but it turns a pre­vi­ous­ly enthu­si­as­tic analy­sis of the war effort into a crit­i­cal one. You can’t help but feel that Wood­ward, like so many oth­ers now, wants to dis­tance him­self from this pres­i­dent and his war. And he’s more than will­ing to make his case by inter­view­ing for­mer admin­is­tra­tion mem­bers (Andrew Card) who are look­ing to do the same. So, what you get here is a case where a cred­i­bil­i­ty gap unfor­tu­nate­ly casts doubt on the sub­stance.

Resources:

You can read the full first chap­ter of Wood­ward’s book here.

Franklin Foer reviews Wood­ward in the New York Times, Nov 12, 2006.

Final­ly, you can also catch Wood­ward on Let­ter­man:

Seymour Hersh on Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and Beyond


Sey­mour Hersh almost seems out of place in our era of soft ped­al jour­nal­ism. Look­ing at his track record, he knows one way to approach a sto­ry, and that is with inten­si­ty and no punch­es pulled. In 1969, he broke the sto­ry on My Lai, reveal­ing how US troops mas­sa­cred over 500 peo­ple — most of them women, chil­dren and old men — in a small Viet­namese town. It was an affair that the mil­i­tary had ini­tial­ly tried to cov­er up. Next, dur­ing the 1970s, as a New York Times reporter, Hersh report­ed first on the secret bomb­ings in Cam­bo­dia and the US-led coup in Chile. Then, fast for­ward anoth­er 25 years, and you find Hersh, now work­ing for The New York­er, writ­ing hard sto­ries on Iraq, most­ly dur­ing a moment when his fel­low jour­nal­ists were refus­ing to take a hard look at what we were doing there. These writ­ings have since formed the basis of his recent book, Chain of Com­mand: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.

Through­out the war, Hersh was out ahead on many sto­ries. But, he’ll be remem­bered pri­mar­i­ly for break­ing the sto­ry on Abu Ghraib. In the spring of 2003, Hersh and CBS’s 60 Min­utes II both got ahold of the famous pho­tos reveal­ing the tor­ture and abuse of Iraqi pris­on­ers. But while CBS decid­ed to heed the Pen­tagon’s request not to pub­lish the pho­tos, Hersh and David Rem­nick, the edi­tor of The New York­er, imme­di­ate­ly decid­ed to take the sto­ry pub­lic. And, with that, the com­plex­ion of the war effort began to change. Look­ing back, it’s clear that this was the first of a series of rev­e­la­tions that caused the Amer­i­can pub­lic to lose con­fi­dence in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion, and the Repub­li­cans to lose this week’s nation­al elec­tion and Don­ald Rums­feld, his job. When the defin­i­tive his­to­ry of the Iraq War gets writ­ten, it’s almost a cer­tain­ty that the rev­e­la­tion of Abu Ghraib will be con­sid­ered an impor­tant turn­ing point.

These days, Hersh has been turn­ing his atten­tion to Iran and also hit­ting the lec­ture cir­cuit. Arriv­ing on the Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus just a cou­ple weeks ago, Hersh gave the keynote speech for a con­fer­ence called Think­ing Human­i­ty after Abu Ghraib (which I will be writ­ing more about lat­er), and his speech has now been made dig­i­tal­ly avail­able. (If you have iTunes, you can access the audio here.) To be clear, it’s not your usu­al uni­ver­si­ty talk. It’s stream of con­scious­ness all the way, and it has a sur­pris­ing, but wel­come, kind of frank­ness to it. Things get par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing when (toward the end of his talk) Hersh gets to speak­ing in spe­cif­ic detail about how he cracked the Abu Ghraib sto­ry. Here you get an insid­er’s look at how an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist dogged­ly fol­lows a chain of leads, which can take him to both banal and dan­ger­ous places, until he puts the full sto­ry togeth­er. It’s cap­ti­vat­ing … as is his brief sug­ges­tion that he’ll soon be writ­ing more about how senior Amer­i­can offi­cials knew much more about what was hap­pen­ing at Abu Ghraib and then cov­ered it up. The insin­u­a­tion is stay tuned for Abu Ghraib II.

To learn more about My Lai, check out this part of PBS’s site, The Viet­nam Expe­ri­ence.

Many of Her­sh’s post 9/11 and Iraq writ­ings can be found in the The New York­er Iraq Archive.”

The pho­tos doc­u­ment­ing the abus­es at Abu Ghraib can be found in this Salon.com col­lec­tion.

Final­ly, if you want to watch Sey­mour Hersh speak, you’ll want to check out this UC Berke­ley video. Please note that Hersh starts speak­ing exact­ly at 40:00, so you may want to move the slid­ing time bar ahead to that time.

50 Film Classics in a Box: Truffaut, Kurosawa and more

Janusimage4
Janus Films has spent the last 50 years bring­ing clas­sic for­eign films to Amer­i­can audi­ences, expos­ing them to the works of Ing­mar Bergman, Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, Jean-Luc Godard, Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, and François Truf­faut, among oth­ers. To cel­e­brate its half-cen­tu­ry anniver­sary, the film dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­ny has done some­thing pret­ty remark­able. It has released on DVD a col­lec­tion of 50 clas­sic films, which include Black Orpheus (Camus), M (Fritz Lang), The 400 Blows (Truf­faut), Grand Illu­sion (Renoir), Sev­en Samu­rai (Kuro­sawa), The Sev­enth Seal (Bergman), La Stra­da (Felli­ni), and The 39 Steps (Hitch­cock). You’ll love the Essen­tial Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films if you’re a diehard film buff, but not if you’re light in the wal­let. Even when bought at a dis­count of $650, the col­lec­tion still runs a hefty hunk of change. But it’s noth­ing that a home equi­ty loan can’t fix.

A Democrat Congress: Where Barak Obama & Richard Rorty’s Thinking Might Take Us

When we wake up tomor­row morn­ing, a new polit­i­cal era will have begun. The Democ­rats will have tak­en con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and per­haps amaz­ing­ly the Sen­ate, sud­den­ly find­ing them­selves polit­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant for the first time in six very long years. And they’ll have the unusu­al lux­u­ry of decid­ing how they will exer­cise polit­i­cal pow­er. The Pres­i­dent, on the oth­er hand, will now find him­self oper­at­ing in a dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. At best, he can no longer expect Con­gress to rub­ber stamp his poli­cies. At worst, by Wednes­day after­noon, after his post-elec­tion news con­fer­ence, he might find him­self a full-blown lame duck.

How the Pres­i­dent and the Democ­rats move for­ward is a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly open ques­tion. How­ev­er, in prac­tice, the ques­tion of what the Democ­rats will do is a far more inter­est­ing one, part­ly because Bush will real­is­ti­cal­ly be con­strained by a dif­fi­cult war and his gen­er­al inabil­i­ty to adapt, and part­ly because the Demo­c­rat slate is clean, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for defin­ing their direc­tion are very real.

Mov­ing into pow­er, the Democ­rats will have three choic­es before them. Obstruct­ing reflex­ive­ly (a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty); accom­mo­dat­ing (a very unlike­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty); and devel­op­ing a well rea­soned, defined and pos­i­tive posi­tion some­where in between obstruc­tion and accom­mo­da­tion (a smart but not nec­es­sar­i­ly inevitable pos­si­bil­i­ty). Obstruc­tion seems most like­ly because it’s the eas­i­est thing to do, and because the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s style of rul­ing invites thoughts of revenge. But it’s not the best way to go. The Democ­rats came back to rel­e­vance not on the strength of their ideas, but on the weak­ness of their oppo­nents. And if they hope to con­vince Amer­i­ca that they gen­uine­ly deserve this pow­er, they’ll need to devel­op a sub­stan­tive plat­form and a smart approach to gov­er­nance in gen­er­al, and the Iraq war in par­tic­u­lar.

Obama
Barak Oba­ma is emerg­ing as a very real­is­tic can­di­date for the pres­i­den­cy because, unlike so many of oth­ers, he’s devel­op­ing a con­vinc­ing argu­ment that our nation should come before pol­i­tics, and ideas before par­ty. Right now, his new book, The Audac­i­ty of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaim­ing the Amer­i­can Dream, is #5 on the Ama­zon top sell­er list, when most politi­cians’ books come and go with very lit­tle notice. (The New York Times actu­al­ly just ran a sto­ry on this.) And what makes Oba­ma stand out, beyond his charis­ma, is his will­ing­ness to find a think­ing cen­ter. When asked “How do you make peo­ple pas­sion­ate about mod­er­ate and com­plex ideas?” Oba­ma answers:

I think the coun­try rec­og­nizes that the chal­lenges we face aren’t amenable to sound-bite solu­tions. Peo­ple are look­ing for seri­ous solu­tions to com­plex prob­lems. I don’t think we need more mod­er­a­tion per se… We just need to under­stand that actu­al­ly solv­ing these prob­lems won’t be easy, and that what­ev­er solu­tions we come up with will require con­sen­sus among groups with diver­gent inter­ests. That means every­body has to lis­ten, and every­body has to give a lit­tle. That’s not easy to do.

That kind of mod­er­ate, prag­mat­ic, and not reflex­ive­ly ide­o­log­i­cal approach is more of what the Democ­rats need. They need more sub­stance and, even more than that, some more mag­na­nim­i­ty. It gets back, I think, to how Richard Rorty, one of Amer­i­ca’s lead­ing philoso­phers, starts out his short book, Achiev­ing Our Coun­try. There, he talks about how “nation­al pride,” an “emo­tion­al involve­ment with one’s coun­try,” is “nec­es­sary if polit­i­cal delib­er­a­tion is to be imag­i­na­tive and pro­duc­tive.” At this point, the Democ­rats bad­ly need to put the coun­try before par­ti­san­ship and gen­uine­ly deal with the impor­tant issues that face it. That’s the only way that they will take this oppor­tu­ni­ty — one that is per­haps unde­served — and do some­thing with it that will build a sus­tain­able future for the par­ty and our nation.

Lis­ten here to New York­er edi­tor, David Rem­nick, recent­ly inter­view­ing Barak Oba­ma

Google, Copyright and the Courts

The Google Book Search project ran into anoth­er road­block last week when a group rep­re­sent­ing 400 French pub­lish­ers joined anoth­er law­suit brought ear­li­er this year in French courts. The upshot of the law­suit is essen­tial­ly the same as the suit brought by a con­sor­tium of Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers last year: They’re look­ing to put a quick end to Google’s bid to make the book uni­verse as search­able as it has made the world­wide web. Actu­al­ly, to be clear, it’s not the project itself that’s mak­ing pub­lish­ers run to the courts. Rather, it’s Google’s assump­tion that it can scan and index mil­lions of copy­right­ed books — just as it has cached bil­lions of web pages — with­out first get­ting per­mis­sion. That,
the law­suit claims, is clear copy­right infringe­ment.

Google’s defense rais­es a series of fas­ci­nat­ing (and com­pli­cat­ed) legal ques­tions about copy­right in the dig­i­tal age. The com­pa­ny’s first line of defense is to argue that the pro­gram falls under the fair use doc­trine. Here’s the basic log­ic: Although Google Book Search must index com­plete copies of books to make the print uni­verse search­able, users only get small snip­pets of copy­right­ed text in their search results, which fall under “fair use.” The key assump­tion here is that there’s a crit­i­cal dis­tinc­tion between what hap­pens on the back end and the front end. It does­n’t mat­ter that Google has indexed full digi­tial copies of text on its servers. The only thing that counts is what users see, and if users only see small snip­pets, fair use applies and no pub­lish­er per­mis­sion is required. But, just to be safe, Google will hon­or explic­it pub­lish­er requests not to include con­tent in the book search pro­gram.

Along­side the fair use defense, Google has also put for­ward a larg­er argu­ment that gets to issues we dis­cussed in the Lawrence Lessig piece. After being hit with the first major law­suit, Google took the PR offen­sive, and Eric Schmidt, the com­pa­ny’s CEO, wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Jour­nal, which con­clud­ed with this:

“Imag­ine the cul­tur­al impact of putting tens of mil­lions of pre­vi­ous­ly
inac­ces­si­ble vol­umes into one vast index, every word of which is
search­able by any­one, rich and poor, urban and rur­al, First World and
Third, en toute langue — and all, of course, entire­ly for free. … This egal­i­tar­i­an­ism
of infor­ma­tion dis­per­sal is pre­cise­ly what the Web is best at;
… pre­cise­ly what copy­right law is ulti­mate­ly intend­ed to
sup­port.”

Here, Schmidt offers the reminder that copy­right law exists for the ben­e­fit of soci­ety first and fore­most. Yes, copy­right law pro­tects the rights
of authors and pub­lish­ers. But only as a means to anoth­er end — that is, pro­mot­ing cul­tur­al devel­op­ment and the growth of the cre­ative
com­mons. Schmidt’s pas­sage gives some insight into the very large ben­e­fits that Google Book Search can deliv­er. But, there is obvi­ous­ly
much more to it, and I’d high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing this lengthy fea­ture sto­ry — Scan This Book! — that appeared ear­li­er this year in the New York Times Mag­a­zine.

Some­where in the legal process, it seems, a judge will need to look at how things net out. Does it mat­ter that Google makes full dig­i­tal
copies with­out per­mis­sion if it shows only snip­pets to users? (In oth­er words, does the tra­di­tion­al taboo against mak­ing full copies of texts get over­rid­den by the prac­ti­cal fact that full copies won’t be giv­en away to users?) And does this uncon­ven­tion­al move get trumped by the fact that Google’s project offers so much social promise? The judge will take a look at this, but some­where along the way, I sus­pect, he might focus on this one issue: Ama­zon already has a sim­i­lar pro­gram under way. It index­es book con­tent to allow cus­tomers to review books
before mak­ing a pur­chase deci­son. The only dif­fer­ence is that it gets pub­lish­er per­mis­sion first. Giv­en that Ama­zon has rolled out its
“Search Inside” pro­gram fair­ly suc­cess­ful­ly, the obvi­ous ques­tion gets raised: Why can’t Google also get per­mis­sion first and sim­ply avoid putting a judge in a posi­tion to make a rul­ing that risks ful­ly open­ing up Pan­do­ra’s box? One of Google’s sec­ondary argu­ments for its pro­gram
is that, with its huge mar­ket share, Google Book Search will bring atten­tion to pub­lish­ers’ books and help them gen­er­ate new sales. If
that’s true (and it almost sure­ly is), it seems no less true that pub­lish­ers will have every incen­tive to con­tribute their works to Book
Search and get on board with the project. Mean­while, Google Book Search will grad­u­al­ly ful­fill most of its promise. Under this sce­nario,
pub­lish­ers and authors win, as does Google and soci­ety. It seems like a com­pro­mise posi­tion that makes a lot of sense.

Resources:

Copy­right’s High­way: From Guten­berg to the Celes­tial Juke­box — Excel­lent book on the his­to­ry of copy­right law and its evo­lu­tion with new tech­nolo­gies.

Stan­ford Copy­right and Fair Use — Anoth­er thor­ough resource for under­stand­ing copy­right and fair use.

The Google Print Con­tro­ver­sy: A Bib­li­og­ra­phy — You can get a range of impor­tant texts and opin­ions on this sub­ject here.

More Google inter­nal views on Book Search:

Final­ly, I would def­i­nite­ly check out Lawrence Lessig’s 30-minute pre­sen­ta­tion on the Google Book Search con­tro­ver­sy. This will get you more than up to speed.

A Harvard Free Ride

What do sleep­ing and com­put­ing have in com­mon? Not a whole lot (nor real­ly should they), except for this. We sleep and use com­put­ers a good chunk of our lives, and yet we gen­er­al­ly have no idea how either works. Sleep is the 33% of our lives that we hard­ly give a thought to. And com­put­ing, well, few of us know what’s going on inside that box when we turn it on, open a pro­gram, surf the web or, alas, get a virus.

As usu­al, Har­vard has answers, at least for the techies among us. But instead of ask­ing stu­dents to go into hock to get them, this time the uni­ver­si­ty is giv­ing the answers away. (Con­sid­er it a gift from the school’s $29.2 bil­lion endow­ment.) Cour­tesy of the Har­vard Exten­sion School, any stu­dent who can’t make it to Cam­bridge can freely access the online course Under­stand­ing Com­put­ers and the Inter­net. The course, which revolves around a series of 14 lec­tures, is con­ve­nient­ly deliv­ered in sev­er­al for­mats — one ver­sion that down­loads to your com­put­er, anoth­er that down­loads to the Ipod/iTunes, and final­ly one that streams over the web, which you can find at Google Video and Youtube. To get start­ed, to get your lit­tle piece of Har­vard for free, click here.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.