An American Editor

January 6, 2012

Worth Noting: What do Liberal & Conservative Really Mean?

I am always interested in words and their etymology. But, I admit, I’ve not given a lot of thought to the question “What does it mean to say someone is [liberal, conservative, revolutionary, reactionary, counterrevolutionary, etc.]?”

As if answering my unasked question, the current issue of The New York Review of Books tackles the matter as part of a book review. “Republicans for Revolution” by Mark Lilla tackles the problem as part of his review of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin, a book that Lilla pans. (Interestingly, the book under review gets little attention in this article. Instead, the focus is on the meanings of the various labels.)

I think you will find the article interesting and worth reading and thinking about. (And, no, it is not a liberal diatribe against Republicans.) Once you get a grasp of what the labels really mean, the labeling of politicians changes. I particularly found it interesting how fluid the labels are depending on your view of human nature:

Is the unit of political life society or the individual? Do you view “society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for” and for which “we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights”?

Or do you “give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds” and “assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action”?

Hard questions with no firm answer, but questions that need resolution when applying a political label.

As always, if you are not a subscriber to The New York Review of Books but are a book lover, I recommend subscribing. I think it is the finest magazine of its type, and significantly better than the New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of Books is what the New York Times Book Review once was, decades ago, and what it should be today.

June 13, 2011

On Books: Wondering Why Stieg Larsson

Sometimes one has to go with the flow because there is some unknown force that pushes you along that path. I find that most frequently happens when I am “pushed” toward the local Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream — for our dog! Yes, our Lily, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel, loves ice cream and Dairy Queen’s in particular.

Unfortunately, that push also sometimes shoves me toward a particular book: Because millions are reading it, I sometimes get “pushed” toward the need to read this book of millions to discover why. Usually finding out why simply reinforces my belief that bestsellers too often fail the discerning reader test (i.e., no discerning reader would ever read this book!), which is why I rarely buy or read books on the bestseller lists.

Well this unknown force pushed me to read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thankfully, there will be no followup books to this trilogy.

I read the trilogy a couple of months ago and thought it deserved a rating of 2 stars maximum in my system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)) except that my system’s 2-star rating doesn’t seem to cover a book that has nearly no spelling errors, few grammar errors, is published by a traditional publisher, but is atrociously bad reading. That’s because my rating system was designed for indie books, not traditional books. So, we’ll just have to temporarily adapt.

The Millennium Trilogy is a 1.5- to 2-star series on almost any 1 to 5 rating scale. Whatever compelled people to buy the books is elusive — except that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is an interesting, albeit unbelievable, character who tends to rope you into wondering what next will happen in her world (in a way these books demonstrate the value of character-driven books; see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? and On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail). To me, these books are like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — superficial quick reads that help pass time without taxing any cognitive processes whatsoever. Perhaps the books are better in their original language (Swedish) than in the translation; one can only hope.

Okay, you have the picture — I don’t think the books are worth buying let alone reading (50 million buyers worldwide say contrariwise) so why am I writing a “review”? I wouldn’t have in the normal course of events. My general policy is not even to mention, except in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles, books that I think so little of. What made me write this article (anybody remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine and her line “The devil made me do it!”?) was a review of these books in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) a couple of weeks ago that I just got around to reading.

The Moralist by Tim Parks, is a NYRB review well worth reading by those who have bought the Trilogy but not yet read it; those who have bought the Trilogy and have read it; those who are thinking of plunking down hard-earned money to buy the Trilogy but haven’t yet done so; and those who have no intention of either buying or reading the Trilogy because the article is well worth reading in its own right. It is also a good article to read by anyone who is interested in getting a feel for the types of articles and reviews that NYRB publishes.

My commentary here is really less about Larsson’s Trilogy than about encouraging those who are interested in books and culture to read NYRB, and perhaps subscribe to it. Articles in NYRB are significantly different from reviews one reads in, for example, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR). There was a time when I read the NYTBR faithfully every week. When I first discovered NYRB years ago, I faithfully read both the NYRB and the NYTBR but soon discovered that the NYTBR was not of the same quality caliber as NYRB, with the result that my faithfulness to the NYTBR began to wane and today I barely look at the NYTBR. Instead, I eagerly await the next issue of NYRB.

One of the problems with book buying today is that there are so many books published and so few trustworthy reviews of them. No magazine, no online site can put a true dent into the numbers — the number of reviews will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the number of books published, which problem is exacerbated by the easiness of self-publishing ebooks. But I seek some guidance from somewhere that is reliable and I have no faith whatsoever in the anonymous reviews at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Although I have high praise for NYRB, it does have its faults. For example, it has yet to introduce to the print version a “column” devoted to ebooks. It needs to do so and it needs to begin reviewing books that are available only as ebooks, as well as books that are available in both p and e versions. NYRB also fails to identify the formats that the books it does review are available in and whether there are problems with the production. But for content review, NYRB can’t be beat.

I hope some of you will take the time to read  The Moralist by Tim Parks and take a look at NYRB with an eye toward making it a regular stop for interesting commentary and reviews, and perhaps even becoming a subscriber. (For those of you who wonder about the ideological slant of NYRB, it is a liberal/left-leaning publication, but I have only found that evident in its commentaries, not in its book reviews.)

Disclosure: I am not now and never have been associated with NYRB in any fashion, manner, way other than being a long-term subscriber to the print edition. I receive no compensation from NYRB, not even a calendar or a T-shirt. FWIW, my current subscription, for which I duly paid the full subscription price, expires in 2015 and I will extend it as soon as NYRB permits. (They are unwilling to take more than one 3-year extension at a time or I would have extended my subscription into the 2020s already.)

July 7, 2010

Worth Noting: Words by Tony Judt

As I have mentioned several times over the life of this blog, I am a subscriber to The New York Review of Books. In a recent issue of the NYRB, Tony Judt, an historian, wrote a column titled “Words.” This is a column well-worth reading.

Judt discusses inarticulacy and how the education of the 1950s and early 1960s taught students to speak and write with precision, to be articulate so that others could comprehend what was being communicated. He goes on to lament the “revolution” of the 1970s and subsequent years that lessened the emphasis on articulation and heightened the emphasis on the idea being more important than its expression, and thus a rise in inarticulacy. As Judt, put it:

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom.

Perhaps more alarming is Judt’s analysis of academic writing:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism.

The obscurantism of which Judt complains, I see daily in my work as an editor. How much trouble are we in when our best-educated people are unable to express themselves with clarity — or are unwilling to do so? Leadership is usually top-down, not bottom-up. More importantly, if the best educated are unable to recognize their own obscurantism, how can we expect them to correct (or even identify) obscurantism in others? Or if they can identify it, correct it?

As Judt notes, when words become Humpty Dumptyish (i.e., they have multiple meanings but mean only what I say they mean), the ideas the words express also become Humpty Dumptyish, that is, meaningless, because there is no foundation by which they can be understood globally. When the ideas become Humpty Dumptyish, they become anarchic and chaotic. Perhaps this is the problem in today’s partisan politics — political ideas have no meaning because they have so many meanings. The pomp becomes more important than the circumstance (perhaps a diplomatic-world failing) and the standard becomes that of text fragments.

I recall how unhappy I was when I discovered that my daughter’s high school English teacher (and this was in the early 1990s) had no idea that a sentence was composed of words that undertook important parts of speech, such as noun, verb, adverb, each designed to contribute to a universal understanding of the message. Yet this teacher was responsible for grading my daughter’s grasp of English, as well as teaching my daughter how to grasp English. Sadly, it appears that the situation continues to deteriorate, if some of the books I edit are an indication of the articulateness of the current generation of academic authors.

I have often thought about what it is that can be done to reverse course. I sure would hate to discover that but for inarticulacy war could have been avoided. I also wonder how many mishaps that we are now paying for occurred as a result of President George W. Bush’s inarticulacy. Alas, I do not see an easy road to resolution; rather, I see the problem getting worse. I see it getting worse because of the difficulty in focusing.

I think the problem of inarticulacy is exacerbated by the “need” to multifunction. Few of us use a laser-like focus in our daily lives; we need to handle multiple things simultaneously and so we take a shotgun approach, hoping the “effective” zone of the spread is sufficient. We also reward the ability to multifunction, regardless of how effective the multifunctioning is. The old saying was to handle one problem at a time; today’s saying might better be handle all problems simultaneously and hope for the best.

Reversing the inarticulacy trend is probably impossible because too few people are knowledgable about how to be articulate — and because too many people would resist the necessary steps as being an infringement of their freedoms. Imagine if suddenly every parent was told that for their child to graduate from elementary school to middle school the child had to show proficiency in debating skills. (Of course, the first objection, and rightfully so, would be the teachers can’t show that proficiency so why should my Susan show it?) Part of the problem is the texting mindset. How do you overcome the fragmentary expression culture that it creates?

As articulation decreases and inarticulacy increases, I wonder what will become of our society 50 years from now. Would those of us educated in the 1950s and 1960s be able to communicate effectively in that future? Will the United States become a third-rate country because of dysfunctional communication skills? Will editors have a role in such an anything-goes-writing-milieu?

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