Sunday, June 25, 2006

The End of Authorship (by John Updike, the New York Times)

Note of the capture: John Updike's 22nd novel, "Terrorist," about a Muslim in a city that is much like Paterson, N.J., will go on sale next week.

The audio link of where John Updike made this speech.

June 25, 2006

Booksellers, you are the salt of the book world. You are on the front line where, while the author cowers in his opium den, you encounter — or "interface with," as we say now — the rare and mysterious Americans who are willing to plunk down $25 for a book. Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods. At my mother's side I used to visit the two stores in downtown Reading, Pa., a city then of 100,000, and I still recall their names and locations — the Book Mart, at Sixth Street and Court, and the Berkshire News, on Fifth Street, in front of the trolley stop that would take us home to Shillington.

When I went away to college, I marveled at the wealth of bookstores around Harvard Square. In addition to the Coop and various outlets where impecunious students like myself could buy tattered volumes polluted by someone else's underlinings and marginalia, there were bookstores that catered to the Cambridge bourgeoisie, the professoriate, and those elite students with money and reading time to spare. The Grolier, specializing in modern poetry, occupied a choice niche on Plympton Street, and over on Boylston there was the Mandrake, a more spacious sanctum for books of rare, pellucid and modernist water. In the Mandrake — presided over by a soft-voiced short man, with brushed-back graying hair — there were English books, Faber & Faber and Victor Gollancz, books with purely typographical jackets and cloth-covered boards warping from the damp of their trans-Atlantic passage, and art books, too glossy and expensive even to glance into, and of course New Directions books, modest in format and delicious in their unread content.

After Harvard, I went to Oxford for a year, and browsed for dazed hours in the rambling treasury, on the street called the Broad, of Blackwell's — shelves of Everyman's and Oxford Classics, and the complete works, jacketed in baby-blue paper, of Thomas Aquinas, in Latin and English! Then I came to New York, when Fifth Avenue still seemed lined with bookstores — the baronial Scribner's, with the central staircase and the scrolled ironwork of its balconies, and the Doubleday's a few blocks on, with an ascending spiral staircase visible through plate glass.

Now I live in a village-like corner of a small New England city that holds, mirabile dictu, an independent bookstore, one of the few surviving in the long coastal stretch between Marblehead and Newburyport. But I live, it seems, in a fool's paradise. Last month, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article that gleefully envisioned the end of the bookseller, and indeed of the writer. Written by Kevin Kelly, identified as the "senior maverick" at Wired magazine, the article describes a glorious digitalizing of all written knowledge. Google's plan, announced in December 2004, to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable, according to Kelly, has resurrected the dream of the universal library. "The explosive rise of the Web, going from nothing to everything in one decade," he writes, "has encouraged us to believe in the impossible again. Might the long-heralded great library of all knowledge really be within our grasp?"

Unlike the libraries of old, Kelly continues, "this library would be truly democratic, offering every book to every person." The anarchic nature of the true democracy emerges bit by bit. "Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page," Kelly writes. "These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."

The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding. As the current economic model disappears, Kelly writes, the "basis of wealth" shifts to "relationships, links, connection and sharing." Instead of selling copies of their work, writers and artists can make a living selling "performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the 'discovery tool' that markets these other intangible valuables."

This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an "access to the creator" more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author's works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap. As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book — a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.

In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us — our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant "Aw, shucks," disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.

The printed, bound and paid-for book was — still is, for the moment — more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness. Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Gutenberg village. "When books are digitized," Kelly ominously promises, "reading becomes a community activity. . . . The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book."

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Style of Numbers Behind a Number of Styles (By Daniel Rockmore, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Note to the painting: Jackson Pollock. (American, 1912-1956). One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel on unprimed canvas, 8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" (269.5 x 530.8 cm). Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange). © 2006 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

Note to the painting: Jackson Pollock, American, 1912 - 1956, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950, oil, enamel and aluminum on canvas, 221 x 299.7 cm (87 x 118 in.) (the National Gallery, DC, US)

Note from the blog editor: Math and art has very little to do with each other, but when they met, it is magical. It is normally not within my taste for this kind of writing, but the college I went to keeps surprise me. Richard Taylor is a physicist at the University of Oregon who was the main reference in this article.

In May 2005, the discovery of 32 previously unknown works by Jackson Pollock in a storage bin in Wainscott, Long Island, was announced by Alex Matter, a filmmaker whose family was friendly with the artist. Investigations of authenticity were undertaken, and recently we heard a pronouncement on the provenance of six of these works from Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon and consultant to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Taylor found "significant differences" between the contested works and known Pollocks, thereby casting doubt on the entire collection. Like all the experts who have been called into the fray, Taylor is asking whether the work is characteristic of Pollock's style in the relevant phase of his career — but what distinguishes him in the field of connoisseurship is that he is a specialist in fractals and chaos, and his approach replaces subjective judgment with mathematical analysis. At its core is an unsettling idea — that style can be quantified. But that concept isn't new; it's part of a larger discipline that has been around for more than a century.

Questions of style are questions of consistency, rather than equality. "Is this one like the others?" asks the connoisseur, not "Is this one the same as any of the others?" An answer requires the ability to quantify variability, and that's precisely what statistics offer. The analysis of authorial style is more straightforward in literature, and that's where the field of "stylometry" had its first notable successes. Letters, words, and sentences can be counted, and basic statistics can be gathered — such as how often a given word is used, or how frequently words or sentences of a given length appear. Count those things, and you are guaranteed to get numbers. What's surprising is that patterns emerge from those numbers: a distillation of the idiosyncratic frequencies of usage that mark a person's writing style.

The first published account of a mathematical analysis of literature appeared in 1887, written by Thomas C. Mendenhall, an American physicist. Mendenhall focused on the statistics of word lengththat is, what percentage of words have one letter, two letters, and so on. He hoped to identify an author by this list of word-length frequencies, or what he called the "word spectrum." Mendenhall tried to distinguish numerically between Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, but his method wasn't quite up to the task.

Ten years later, a Polish philologist and historian of philosophy, Wincenty Lutoslawski, had more success when he looked at 500 numerical attributes computed from each of Plato's Dialogues, in order to determine their chronology. His guiding assumption was that, over time, any one of those numerical attributes should evolve in a regular manner, so that given several works with known dates, works whose dates were in question could be dated by seeing where their numbers best fit among those of the known works. He called that mathematical approach "stylometry."

In one way or another, simple considerations of word frequency remain the heart and soul of literary stylometry. Sometimes rare words provide telltale stylometric indicators (that's how Don Foster determined that Joe Klein was the author of Primary Colors), but more often it's the usage statistics of the ubiquitous "function words" — pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and so on — that reveal the personal signature. Notable successes include the correct attribution of anonymously published Federalist Papers, as well as settling the disputed authorship of the 15th book in the Oz series.

The visual arts have presented a harder problem for stylometry. They don't consist of discrete, countable entities the way literary works do. Still, the traditional form of attribution used by connoisseurs actually has scientific origins, usually credited to Giovanni Morelli, a 19th-century art-loving Italian statesman. His approach to art was in large part shaped by an early education focused on the sciences and, in particular, his experiences accompanying the pioneering paleontologist and naturalist Louis Agassiz on his glacier expeditions in Switzerland.

In his magnum opus, Italian Painters: Critical Studies of Their Works, Morelli writes, "As most men who speak or write have verbal habits and use their favorite words or phrases involuntarily and sometimes even most inappropriately, so almost every painter has his own peculiarities, which escape him without being aware of them." According to Morelli, those peculiarities would find expression in the quiet corners of a work of art, and the "Morellian method" relies on the comparison of seemingly minor details in paintings: depictions of fingernails, earlobes, or drapery. In such details — in effect, visual "function words," or what he called an artist's Grund-formen (fundamental forms) — the forces of tradition or schooling would be diminished enough so that the artist's true nature could shine through.

Morelli laboriously maintained a list of Grundformen that enabled him to distinguish between such details as hands painted by Botticelli and those painted by Giovanni Bellini. But today's technology can begin to make mathematics out of Morelli. For example, using "wavelet analysis," my colleagues Hany Farid and Siwei Lyu and I have found a way to extract a statistical summary relating to the simple linear elements in a picture.

In essence, wavelets permit the reconstruction of a small patch of a picture as an accumulation of lines of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal orientation, and of varying resolutions. A useful analogy is the classic Etch A Sketch, whose two knobs can be used to move a cursor right and left, or up and down, and thereby enable the user to "draw" on a screen. The virtuoso Etch A Sketch artist can make highly nonrectilinear drawings with this medium, but nevertheless, any given region of the picture consists of, at a small scale, some amount of vertical and horizontal motion. Using this analogy, a basic wavelet analysis would be determining how much each of the knobs is turned in each of a collection of small regions that tile a drawing.

We've applied the wavelet-based method to high-resolution digital scans of drawings by the great Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and it seems to provide a numerical signature for Brueghel's work. This approach is in essence the Morellian philosophy pushed to a logical extreme — a quantitative comparison of the Grundformen — and in early tests, the approach has reproduced the classifications made by connoisseurs.

And once you start to consider a picture as a data source — as an agglomeration of numbers or frequency patterns — it actually makes sense to ask whether the landscapes of Brueghel or the drip paintings of Pollock have more informational content than a Kazimir S. Malevich Suprematist composition or a Barnett Newman zip painting.

The mathematical notion of information was developed in the 1940s in the context of communications systems and is generally attributed to Claude Shannon. It is a measure of the randomness in a collection of numbers produced by some process. In Shannon's original work, that process was language, but with digitization, any artistic output is ripe for measurement, and hence comparison. In particular, the Dutch information theorist Paul M.B. Vitanyi has pushed this outlook to its extreme, developing a stylometry that depends only on this mathematical definition of information content. Through Vitanyi's work, it is now possible, by using only the digital representation of a work, to make sense of a question like, "Is the painting of Rothko more like the music of Phillip Glass or the writing of Samuel Beckett?" For him, the medium no longer matters, just the message.

Richard Taylor is by training and temperament both artist and scientist; in the mid-1990s, he took advantage of a gap between physics fellowships to go to art school and try to recreate on canvas the fascinating patterns he had witnessed in his physics research on the conductive properties of nanomaterials. And so it was a felicitous intersection of art and science that led to Taylor's research into the works of Jackson Pollock. The "chaos" for which one critic famously denounced Pollock's work when it first appeared in the 1950s is something that, in 1997, Taylor saw, quite literally, as the mathematics of fractal geometry.

The word "fractal" was coined in 1967 by the IBM mathematician Benoit B. Mandelbrot to describe the geometry of natural objects. While the perfect lines, planes, and spheres of Euclidean geometry are abstractions, good for a first approximation to things like coastlines, landscapes, and clouds, they clearly fall short in describing the true variation of the natural world. Mandelbrot noticed that the character of such natural phenomena was a similarity in scale — that at each increase in magnification, the structures of nature, complicated though they are ("fractal" is a neologism derived from the same root as fragment and fracture), repeat themselvesmaybe not precisely, but to a degree that can be quantified. The crags of a mountain range are replicated in the nooks and crannies of the stones that compose them. The eddies of a turbulent river flow are themselves composed of eddies within eddies.

It's one thing to say something is fractal; it's another to measure it. Fractal images have the property that the closer you look, the more there is to see, and furthermore, there is a regularity in this increase. For a black picture on a white background, this can be quantified according to the way in which the number of square boxes of a given size necessary to contain the image grows as the size of the box used shrinks.

For simple structures, this relationship is, well, simple. For a black line on a white canvas, the number of square boxes doubles every time you use square boxes that are half their original size, while to cover a black square, halving the size of the boxes requires that you square the number of boxes used. The former reflects that a line has "fractal dimension" of one, and the latter that a square has fractal dimension of two. It turns out that nature — coastlines and mountain ranges, the branches within branches of a fern leaf, or our own circulatory or pulmonary system — has a fractal dimension somewhere in between one and two. This is the style, a fractal signature, and it seems that it's the same as the one that is to be found in the skeins of paint in a Pollock drip painting. That is Taylor's discovery.

Moreover, there appear to be fractal dimensions that are specific to particular periods of Pollock's work. Within those periods, he reliably reproduced in his work a small range of fractal dimensions. In fact, Taylor's examinations provided evidence for two distinct fractal dimensions, as might be predicted by a documented two-step working style in which Pollock would lay down a broad "anchor layer" of paint to which he would later add detail. Pollock's early drip work has a fractal dimension near 1.4 and rises past 1.7 late in his career. By comparison, the fractal dimension of the coastline of England is about 1.24, your pulmonary artery system weighs in at around 1.6, and various fern leaves give a number around 1.8. In more recent work, Taylor has linked these fractal findings directly to the physical dance through which Pollock created his poured paintings. These new ideas relate the rhythms of his canvases to recently discovered patterns found in the quaverings of motion produced by a body trying to maintain a delicate point of balance.

In 1999 an e-mail message from the Museum of Modern Art's chief conservator, Jim Coddington (a Pollock scholar and strong supporter of computational techniques in art authentication), spurred Taylor to consider the idea that his work might be useful for identifying fakes. Taylor was put in touch with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and in recent years has applied his fractal approach to 46 poured works of "unknown origins." (According to his agreement with the foundation, Taylor cannot disclose the outcome of those tests.) But the most recent, and highest profile, case of disputed authorship was presented by the six poured paintings of Alex Matter's cache.

In a phone call with Taylor, he said to me: "People often ask me, 'Why would you bring mathematics in to look at art?' My response is, 'Well, why not?' When I got into it, I didn't realize how close art and math are, but in retrospect, it's pretty clear. Both mathematics and art are all about pattern. I mean, it would be unusual that you would not apply mathematical analysis to the question."

For some people, stylometrics clearly threatens to reduce art to a number, but that's not how things look to those who pursue it. Fractal analysis doesn't diminish Pollock's athleticism and movement, nature and turbulence, chaos and beauty; it reveals and amplifies it. When Pollock said, "My concern is with the rhythm of nature ... the way the ocean moves," he was probably closer to the truth than he knew.

Daniel Rockmore is a professor of math and computer science at Dartmouth College and the author of Stalking the Riemann Hypothesis: The Quest to Find the Hidden Law of Prime Numbers (Pantheon, 2005).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What I Learned (by David Sedaris, the New Yorker)

Note to the cartoon: “In six more weeks, these M.B.A.s will be ready for market.” (Farmers talking about a bunch of ‘suits’ corralled outside their barn.)

Note to the cartoon: “May I call you back? I’m right in the middle of a commencement address.” (Dean of University into cell-phone.)

It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.

It’s funny now, but I thought about it a lot. Some people thought about it a little too much, and it really affected their academic performance. Again, I date myself, but back then we were on a pass-fail system. If you passed, you got to live, and if you failed you were burned alive on a pyre that’s now the Transgender Studies Building. Following the first grading period, the air was so thick with smoke you could barely find your way across campus. There were those who said that it smelled like meat, no different from a barbecue, but I could tell the difference. I mean, really. Since when do you grill hair? Or those ugly, chunky shoes we all used to wear?

It kept you on your toes, though, I’ll say that much. If I’d been burned alive because of bad grades, my parents would have killed me, especially my father, who meant well but was just a little too gung ho for my taste. He had the whole outfit: Princeton breastplate, Princeton nightcap; he even got the velvet cape with the tiger head hanging like a rucksack from between the shoulder blades. In those days, the mascot was a sabretooth, so you can imagine how silly it looked, and how painful it was to sit down. Then, there was his wagon, completely covered with decals and bumper stickers: “I hold my horses for Ivy League schools,” “My son was accepted at the best university in the United States and all I got was a bill for a hundred and sixty-eight thousand dollars.” On and on, which was just so . . . wrong.

One of the things they did back then was start you off with a modesty seminar, an eight-hour session that all the freshmen had to sit through. It might be different today, but in my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.

“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”

To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond, “What? Me go to college?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, “Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so.”
“So where do you sort of think you went?”
And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.
“Where do you sort of think you went?”

And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer.
“Princeton, my goodness,” the teacher would say. “That must have been quite something!”

You had to let him get it out, but once he started in on how brilliant and committed you must be it was time to hold up your hands, saying, “Oh, it isn’t that hard to get into.”

Then he’d say, “Really? But I heard—”
“Wrong,” you’d tell him. “You heard wrong. It’s not that great of a school.”
This was the way it had to be done—you had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.

I needed to temper my dad’s enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or, at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”
My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?” she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder?”

They started bickering, so in order to make peace I promised to consider a double major.
“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.
Those last few months at home were pretty tough, but then I started my freshman year, and got caught up in the life of the mind. My idol-worship class was the best, but my dad didn’t get it. “What the hell does that have to do with patricide?” he asked.

And I said, “Umm. Everything?”

He didn’t understand that it’s all connected, that one subject leads to another and forms a kind of chain that raises its head and nods like a cobra when you’re sucking on a bong after three days of no sleep. On acid it’s even wilder, and appears to eat things. But, not having gone to college, my dad had no concept of a well-rounded liberal-arts education. He thought that all my classes should be murder-related, with no lunch breaks or anything. Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

In truth, I had no idea what I wanted to study, so for the first few years I took everything that came my way. I enjoyed pillaging and astrology, but the thing that ultimately stuck was comparative literature. There wasn’t much of it to compare back then, no more than a handful of epic poems and one novel about a lady detective, but that’s part of what I liked about it. The field was new, and full of possibilities, but try telling that to my parents.

“You mean you won’t be killing us?” my mother said. “But I told everyone you were going for that double major.”

Dad followed his “I’m so disappointed” speech with a lecture on career opportunities. “You’re going to study literature and get a job doing what?” he said. “Literaturizing?”

We spent my entire vacation arguing; then, just before I went back to school, my father approached me in my bedroom. “Promise me you’ll keep an open mind,” he said. And, as he left, he slipped an engraved dagger into my book bag.

I had many fine teachers during my years at Princeton, but the one I think of most often was my fortune-telling professor—a complete hag with wild gray hair, warts the size of new potatoes, the whole nine yards. She taught us to forecast the weather up to two weeks in advance, but ask her for anything weightier and you were likely to be disappointed.

The alchemy majors wanted to know how much money they’d be making after graduation. “Just give us an approximate figure,” they’d say, and the professor would shake her head and cover her crystal ball with a little cozy given to her by one of her previous classes. When it came to our futures, she drew the line, no matter how hard we begged—and, I mean, we really tried. I was as let down as the next guy, but, in retrospect, I can see that she acted in our best interests. Look at yourself on the day that you graduated from college, then look at yourself today. I did that recently, and it was, like, “What the hell happened?”

The answer, of course, is life. What the hag chose not to foretell—and what we, in our certainty, could not have fathomed—is that stuff comes up. Weird doors open. People fall into things. Maybe the engineering whiz will wind up brewing cider, not because he has to but because he finds it challenging. Who knows? Maybe the athlete will bring peace to all nations, or the class moron will go on to become the President of the United States—though that’s more likely to happen at Harvard or Yale, schools that will pretty much let in anybody.

There were those who left Princeton and soared like arrows into the bosoms of power and finance, but I was not one of them. My path was a winding one, with plenty of obstacles along the way. When school was finished, I went back home, an Ivy League graduate with four years’ worth of dirty laundry and his whole life ahead of him. “What are you going to do now?” my parents asked.

And I said, “Well, I was thinking of washing some of these underpants.”
That took six months. Then I moved on to the shirts.
“Now what?” my parents asked.

And, when I told them I didn’t know, they lost what little patience they had left. “What kind of a community-college answer is that?” my mother said. “You went to the best school there is—how can you not know something?”

And I said, “I don’t know.”
In time, my father stopped wearing his Princeton gear. My mother stopped talking about my “potential,” and she and my dad got themselves a brown-and-white puppy. In terms of intelligence, it was just average, but they couldn’t see that at all. “Aren’t you just the smartest dog in the world?” they’d ask, and the puppy would shake their hands just like I used to do.

My first alumni weekend cheered me up a bit. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only unemployed graduate in the world, but the warm feeling evaporated when I got back home and saw that my parents had given the dog my bedroom. In place of the Princeton pennant they’d bought for my first birthday was a banner reading, “Westminster or bust.”

I could see which way the wind was blowing, and so I left, and moved to the city, where a former classmate, a philosophy major, got me a job on his rag-picking crew. When the industry moved overseas—this the doing of another former classmate—I stayed put, and eventually found work skinning hides for a ratcatcher, a thin, serious man with the longest beard I had ever seen.

At night, I read and reread the handful of books I’d taken with me when I left home, and eventually, out of boredom as much as anything else, I started to write myself. It wasn’t much, at first: character sketches, accounts of my day, parodies of articles in the alumni newsletter. Then, in time, I became more ambitious, and began crafting little stories about my family. I read one of them out loud to the ratcatcher, who’d never laughed at anything but roared at the description of my mother and her puppy. “My mom was just the same,” he said. “I graduated from Brown, and two weeks later she was raising falcons on my top bunk!” The story about my dad defecating in his neighbor’s well pleased my boss so much that he asked for a copy, and sent it to his own father.

This gave me the confidence to continue, and in time I completed an entire book, which was subsequently published. I presented a first edition to my parents, who started with the story about our neighbor’s well, and then got up to close the drapes. Fifty pages later, they were boarding up the door and looking for ways to disguise themselves. Other people had loved my writing, but these two didn’t get it at all. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

My father adjusted his makeshift turban, and sketched a mustache on my mother’s upper lip. “What’s wrong?” he said. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong: you’re killing us.”

“But I thought that’s what you wanted?”

“We did,” my mother wept, “but not this way.”

It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I seemed to have come full circle. What started as a dodge had inadvertently become my life’s work, an irony I never could have appreciated had my extraordinary parents not put me through Princeton.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The National Entertainment State, 2006 (the editors at the Nation and Jeffrey Chester, the Nation)

link to this year's media map

The National Entertainment State, 2006

[from the July 3, 2006 issue]

Where do Americans get their news and who controls what they consume? Ten years ago, when The Nation first charted a map of the National Entertainment State, four colossal conglomerates spread across the media landscape. Today, that map has significantly changed, because of the rise of new media and a vigorous reform movement, but the old corporate giants still hold most of the cards. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are quickly rising, but are not included in this chart because they do not own--not yet, anyway--the major television networks, which remain Americans' #1 source of news.

Illustration by Peter Ahlberg. Research: Emily Biuso, Sarah Goldstein.

The National Entertainment State (Forum)

[from the July 3, 2006 issue]

Ten years ago, just after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, The Nation published a special issue on the National Entertainment State. The issue featured a centerfold chart depicting the tentacles of four colossal conglomerates that were increasingly responsible for determining how Americans got their news--Time Warner, General Electric, Disney/Cap Cities and Westinghouse. And essays by Norman Lear, Walter Cronkite and Mark Crispin Miller, among others, looked ahead to a period of no-holds-barred consolidation green-lighted by the new legislation. Today, after a decade of strategic mergers, impulsive couplings and messy divorces--not to mention the birth of "new media" as well as a vigorous media reform movement--the landscape is considerably more complex, though it still bears the oversized footprints of a few
giants. This is reflected not only in the detailed fold-out map that appears in this issue but in the range of contributions to this year's forum.

The centerfold is an invitation to step back from the outrage of the moment--be it over Rush Limbaugh's addled ranting, Bill O'Reilly's spin or the White House press corps's inability to distinguish between journalism and stenography--and see the big picture in gruesome detail. It reminds us that while we might hate the rigid recitation of conservative talking points on Fox News programs and love the Internet frontier reached via, both Fox and MySpace are owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It tells us that when we are wondering whether we should trust an NBC Nightly News report on the greening of nuclear power, it is important to keep in mind that NBC's owner, General Electric, has a more than passing interest in the development and operation of nuclear power plants. And the chart also reminds us that GE owns Universal Pictures and Universal Studios, making it a major player in the creation of the culture--the TV shows and movies--that goes so far to define what Americans think and do.

It is the power that a handful of corporations continue to wield over the media we consume--even the new media of a supposedly liberating Internet--that ought to concern us as citizens. It is not enough to hope that the Internet will set us free. Yes, the World Wide Web is evolving in ways that few anticipated a decade ago, and yes, as the optimism of Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and the skepticism of Mark Crispin Miller illustrate, there are differing views among progressives of what that
evolution is likely to mean. It is a good bet, however, that another forum participant, Rebecca MacKinnon, is right when she argues that new-media companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft will in relatively short order either displace some of the old-media companies on the chart or acquire or merge with them. (Those entities do not appear on this year's chart simply because they do not own major television networks--not yet, anyway--and the Internet has yet to surpass television as Americans' number-one source for news.) But the vast frontiers of new media are being colonized by big players of old media, which just won round one in the fight over "net neutrality" with the House's passage of the COPE Act, legislation that would allow commercial sites to dominate the net. With the FCC preparing another attempt to strike down rules that guard against local media monopolies, we are entering a period of intense struggle over the fundamental questions for both old and new media: Who will own what, and will the rules regulating ownership be written to benefit the owners or the rest of us? The powerhouses of today's National Entertainment State stand ready to answer those questions as they always have, by using all their might to make sure that the new boss is the same as the old boss.

But the past need not be prologue. As Robert W. McChesney, Jeffrey Chester and others explain in this issue, the media reform movement that has taken shape over the past decade can do far more than merely police the margins of this Big Media map. It can, and must, chart a course of activism that makes real the promise of new media, that confronts the problems of old media and that recognizes the necessity of creating
genuine diversity of media ownership and communicative opportunity, anchored by civic rather than commercial values. If this movement realizes its potential, the next chart of the National Entertainment State will be a map of our media, not theirs.

A Ten-Point Plan for Media Democracy

[from the July 3, 2006 issue]

Ten years after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital technologies are rapidly reshaping the country's communications system. It will be the most powerful media environment ever created--always "on" with connections via PCs, digital TVs and an array of mobile devices, delivering a torrent of personalized, interactive and virtual content, much of it coming from the nation's most powerful traditional and new media companies (e.g., AT&T, Comcast, Google, Microsoft). The next several years are critical to insure that the promise of what we now experience online--and its vast potential to help build a just civil society--is fulfilled. With Congress poised to pass legislation that rewrites key parts of the
Telecom Act, the following ten action items should be on any media reform agenda.

1. Media Ownership

The GOP-controlled FCC wants to eliminate key media ownership restrictions affecting TV and radio stations, cable systems and newspapers. Expect fewer owners of our most powerful outlets and a further decrease in journalism budgets.

Action: Join the new "Stopbigmedia" coalition ( to promote diversity of media ownership and content. Also, work against the renomination of FCC chair Kevin Martin.

2. Mergers

Sprawling new media powerhouses are emerging, in which offline and digital content and distribution, advertising and marketing are tied to the same multinational giants. For example, the pending AT&T and BellSouth merger will create a colossus spanning voice, broadband and video.

Action: Join with Media Access Project ( to fight the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Push for new laws to restore our trust in antitrust.

3. Network Neutrality

We can't permit the Internet to come under the control of phone and cable companies, like Comcast and AT&T, that want to transform it into a toll road, with fast lanes for corporate media and a digital dirt road for everyone else.

Action: Join the "strange bedfellows" coalition, which includes, the American Library Association and the Christian Coalition, pressing Congress to pass "network neutrality" rules to protect the principles of nondiscrimination and open access. Join Save the Internet (

4. Spectrum Management

The wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) has been an unprecedented success, with more than 35,000 hot spots (many of them free) operating in the United States. But for the wireless broadband revolution to continue, it needs new unlicensed spectrum. Big communications companies, including broadcasters, want to keep for themselves what should be the public's airwaves.

Action: Urge the FCC to set aside additional spectrum for unlicensed use and support legislation currently in Congress that will make unused TV spectrum available for Wi-Fi applications. The New America Foundation ( has been leading the charge for enlightened spectrum management.

5. Community Broadband

Municipal wireless systems represent the most promising alternative to the two-fisted stranglehold that cable and telephone companies currently have over the broadband Internet. Fourteen states, acting at the behest of the cable and telco lobbies, have passed laws limiting these efforts, and others are considering such restrictions.

Action: Urge your Representatives to support federal legislation (e.g., the municipal broadband provision in the otherwise objectionable Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement [COPE] Act) that will restore the right of cities to undertake their own broadband projects. See Free Press's Community Internet page

6. Privacy

As the recent furor over NSA access to millions of private telephone records makes clear, we need to update privacy protections for the digital age. Such protections should extend into the commercial arena too, where new data-collection and -mining technologies, coupled with personalized marketing campaigns, represent a new threat to our personal privacy.

Action: Call for a thorough overhaul of existing privacy regulations, beginning with a requirement for "affirmative consent" before personal data can be collected, and covering the latest developments in digital data collection and analysis. See the EPIC website (

7. Intellectual Property

Just as privacy protection must move from the analog to the digital domain, so must copyright law reflect the reality of networked computers and other personal devices. Congress's initial effort in this regard, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, went way overboard in its desire to protect content owners (namely, the entertainment industry), and the principle of "fair use" suffered accordingly.

Action: Urge your Representative to reject the Bush-backed Intellectual Property Protection Act (which compounds the DMCA's excesses) in favor of legislation that preserves fair use. See

8. Universal Digital Service

Millions of Americans still lack basic Internet, let alone broadband. We need new approaches to achieving "universal service," the policy that sought to make telephone service affordable for low-income and rural Americans.

Action: Call for Congress to expand the Universal Service Fund in the digital era, and support efforts to bridge the digital divide through municipal Wi-Fi and community networking projects.

9. Diverse Broadband Content

The phone industry is building a new system that will deliver interactive TV programming and broadband content (e.g., Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's Project Lightspeed). Cable is also expanding its network offerings. Progressive media must make sure their content is on these networks. We must also build and expand new media services, including digital TV programming channels, broadband websites and mobile networks.

Action: Urge phone and cable companies to open their system to progressive, alternative and diversely owned content. Funders must support an independent digital infrastructure.

10. Minority Ownership

African-Americans, Hispanics and others have fared poorly in the media business, owning only a handful of radio and TV stations. Most of the cable outlets aimed at minorities are owned by corporate giants (e.g., Viacom now owns BET and Comcast controls the new TV One service for African-Americans).

Action: Civil rights groups need to take a more adversarial approach to the media monopoly--seeking minority ownership of local and national broadband outlets.

about Jeffrey Chester
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining the diversity and openness of the new broadband communications systems. He is the author of the forthcoming Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy, to be published in late fall by The New Press.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Literary Guide to the World (Salon & Travel Channel)

What is the Literary Guide to the World?

By Hillary Frey

Looking for the best novel about Zimbabwe? Or just want to take a virtual trip to Martha's Vineyard? On this literary journey, everything is first-class.

A few years ago, I went to Delhi to visit a friend. On the long flight to India, I worked my way through the American magazines I was bringing as a gift, and Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love" (very good airplane reading). Once I had settled in my friend's white-tiled apartment in the quaint Nizamuddin district, I wanted to take in something that seemed better suited to my destination. Not a travel guide -- those I had already read and dog-eared. Rather, a book that could thrill and educate me all at once, a book that would enhance my visit rather than distract me from it.

My friend handed me a beat-up paperback edition of "City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi" by the British writer William Dalrymple. The taxiwallahs, the shrines, the Khan market immediately came to life in a whole different way. Dalrymple, whose book I toted all over Delhi, became my traveling companion -- pointing out the sites, teaching me Delhi's complicated and storied history, cracking jokes that were much funnier in India than at home. Dalrymple, even more than Mr. Vijay, who ran our very necessary car service, showed me the city. His book was indispensable -- and a delight.

After that trip, I started thinking: Wouldn't it be cool if there was a travel guide devoted not to restaurants, hotels and museums, but to the literature of a place? Yes, it would. So here it is: Salon's Literary Guide to the World. It's a grand name, to be sure, but one that suits. From Turkey to Togo, D.C. to L.A., Rio to Russia and beyond, the Guide promises to recommend the best books -- fiction, history, memoir or otherwise -- to take with you on your travels. And if there's a place that you've always dreamed of seeing, but won't visit in the foreseeable future, the Literary Guide will point you to the books that offer the best virtual tours around.

Our writers know their stuff: The first group of eight includes Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville on his homeland; New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Fuller on her childhood home of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia); frequent Salon contributor -- and once-Togo resident -- Matt Steinglass on the small West African nation he used to call home; and the lauded young novelist Tony D'Souza on Havana, where he had a very good time.

Throughout the summer, the Literary Guide will feature two new locations a week; in autumn we'll continue with one a week. There's much to look forward to, including pieces from National Book Award winner William Vollmann (Norway), Salon favorite Garrison Keillor (Minnesota) and "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" author Rebecca Wells (Louisiana). We'll take you as far as Papua New Guinea and South Africa, but we've also got the books to read if you're staying closer to home -- in Martha's Vineyard, say, or the Jersey Shore. And you can make your own suggestions, too. We hope you'll use Salon's letters feature to comment on our writers' choices, and to make some suggestions of your own.

Welcome to the Literary Guide to the World -- we hope you have a great trip!

the project cover page

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The in-betweeners (by Philip Marchland, the Toronto Star)

Note to the caption: They are too old to be boomers, but it wouldn?t have been the same without Mick Jagger (born July 26, 1943), above, or Bob Dylan (May 24, 1941). (JEFF CHRISTENSEN/AP)

Jun. 4, 2006. 07:50 AM

Why have these people born in the 1930s and early 1940s exercised such disproportionate influence?

I can think of four possible reasons. The first is purely demographic. People in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years of the early 1940s were not having a lot of babies.

"The 1930s was a great time to be born," says Daniel Stoffman, co-author with demographer David Foot of Boom, Bust and Echo. "It is always good to be part of a small age cohort. That benefits you all the way through life, from not having crowded classrooms and getting more attention from teachers, to entering the labour force when people are just desperate for labour."

Albee looks back with fondness to the job he had as a Western Union messenger in the late 1950s. It was "a nice job," he recalls. "It kept you out in the air."

Who knows what would have happened to his career if he hadn't been able to find a job to support himself in the years when he was trying to be a playwright, or if the only jobs available to him in this part of his life were gruelling or unpleasant?

A second reason is that this generation was the last to grow up without television. This, of course, does not set it apart from previous generations, but it may well have given its cohort a decisive advantage over the following generation of baby boomers.

Television, as we now know, has a hypnotic effect that destroys your mind. Well, more or less. The February 2002 issue of Scientific American reports the results of a survey of television viewers thusly:

"Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted."

The predominant mode of television is irony and discontinuity. This helps explain why the generation to first become addicted to television has proven to be, in general, less focused, less intense, less alert, and less serious than its predecessors.

A third reason is that the generation of the '30s and early '40s took advantage of a unified culture that has since disappeared. The artists, writers and activists of this generation wrote and performed and argued before an audience that often saw the same movies, viewed the same newscasts, and read the same journalism.

There is no equivalent today of cultural institutions such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Life magazine, which made conscious efforts to combine highbrow and middlebrow offerings ? Ed Sullivan introducing his audience to opera singers and dog acts, Life magazine offering profiles of Picasso and Marilyn Monroe. All this made for a very broad cultural conversation. The Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan, which everybody watched, reverberated throughout North America.

By contrast, we are now in an age when people are encouraged to "personalize their use of the media" and to join "virtual communities." As Joey Kramer would say, people are "kind of doing their own thing." The coherence of cultural conversations, and the general sense of meaningfulness, is breaking down. It is unthinkable now that any audience could care as much, or believe that religiously in its music, as the audience members at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that booed Bob Dylan for going electric.

The fourth, and most significant, reason is that the generation of the '30s and early '40s came of age at a crucial turning point in human history. For 50 years apocalypse had been staring the Western world in the face ? two world wars, a Great Depression, the threat of communism.

But then Western Europe made a surprisingly quick recovery from the war, at the same time as North America enjoyed exceptional prosperity. "We were more bright-eyed and hopeful for the future, breaking out of the leftover Victorian mould of attitudes and poverty and hardship," George Harrison said of The Beatles, in contrast to their elders.

Good riddance to "poverty and hardship," the ancient companions of the human race. Good riddance to all the fears and restraints and taboos that go along with poverty and hardship. Time to enjoy! "What struck me throughout America and England was that so many people have found such novel ways of doing just that, enjoying, extending their egos way out on the best terms available; namely, their own," Wolfe reported in 1968.

The generation born in the '30s and early '40s was at the forefront of this campaign to destroy old taboos, to eradicate the fears and restraints. For a while, it seemed an epic struggle ? taboos and fears and restraints die hard. An aura of heroism, of great projects of liberation, clung to their efforts. And those efforts did take courage and conviction.

But by the early '70s, the battle had been won. The taboos were gone. And all we had left were "lifestyles," the religion of the baby boomers, with their extended egos. Whatever else this religion is, it is not a formula for greatness.

link to the original posting

Monday, June 05, 2006

Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry's Rules (by Motoko Rich, the New York Times)

Note to the caption: Mark Z. Danielewski's novel has margin notes sent in by online fans.

Note to the caption: Yochai Benkler of Yale has offered his entire book online free.

June 5, 2006

When Mark Z. Danielewski's second novel, "Only Revolutions," is published in September, it will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work. Nearly 60 of his contributors have already received galleys of the experimental book, which they're commenting about in a private forum at Mr. Danielewski's Web site,

Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor and author of the new book "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom" (Yale University Press), has gone even farther: his entire book is available — free — as a download from his Web site. Between 15,000 and 20,000 people have accessed the book electronically, with some of them adding comments and links to the online version.

Mr. Benkler said he saw the project as "simply an experiment of how books might be in the future." That is one of the hottest debates in the book world right now, as publishers, editors and writers grapple with the Web's ability to connect readers and writers more quickly and intimately, new technologies that make it easier to search books electronically and the advent of digital devices that promise to do for books what the iPod has done for music: making them easily downloadable and completely portable.

Not surprisingly, writers have greeted these measures with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. The dread was perhaps most eloquently crystallized last month in Washington at BookExpo, the publishing industry's annual convention, when the novelist John Updike forcefully decried a digital future composed of free downloads of books and the mixing and matching of "snippets" of text, calling it a "grisly scenario."

Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry, where digitalization has started to displace the traditional artistic and economic model of the record album with 99-cent song downloads and personalized playlists. Total album sales are down 19 percent since 2001, while CD sales have dropped 16 percent during the same period, according to Nielsen BookScan. Sales of single digital music tracks have jumped more than 1,700 percent in just two years. What writers think about technological developments in the literary world has a lot to do with where they are re sitting at the moment. As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader," thinks a digital library of all books would be a "godsend" during research, allowing her to "sniff out all the paragraphs" on a given topic. But, she said: "That's not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there's no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue."

Others have a much less fixed notion of books. Lisa Scottoline, the author of 13 thrillers, the most recent of which, "Dirty Blonde," spent four weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list earlier this spring, offers the first chapter or two of each book on her Web site; and her publisher, HarperCollins, hands out "samplers" of a few chapters of her titles in bookstores. Any of these formats are fine with her, she says. Whether its "paper, pulp, gold rimmed or digitized, I don't think you can take away from the best stories," she said.

Liberating books from their physical contexts could make it easier for them to blend into one another, a concept heralded by Kevin Kelly in an article in The New York Times Magazine last month. "Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together," wrote Mr. Kelly in an article that was derided by Mr. Updike in his BookExpo polemic. "The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book."

"Does that mean 'Anna Karenina' goes hand in hand with my niece's blog of her trip to Las Vegas?" asked Jane Hamilton, author of "The Book of Ruth" and a forthcoming novel, "When Madeline Was Young." "It sounds absolutely deadly." Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. "When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I'm in the presence of the divine," Ms. Hamilton said. "I don't want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don't want to go to her Web site."

For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, "Unclaimed Territory," just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called "How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok," on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. "I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology," Mr. Greenwald said. "That's one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors."

For many authors, the question of how technology will shape book publishing inevitably leads to the question of how writers will be paid. Currently, publishers pay authors an advance against royalties, which are conventionally earned at the rate of 15 percent of the cover price of each copy sold.

But the Internet makes it a lot easier to spread work free. "I've had pieces put up on Web sites legally and otherwise that get hundreds of thousands of hits, and believe me I sit around thinking 'Boy, if I got a dollar every time that somebody posted an op-ed that I wrote, I'd be a very happy writer,' " said Daniel Mendelsohn, author of the forthcoming book "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million," a memoir about his hunt to discover what happened to relatives who were killed in the Holocaust.

Mr. Mendelsohn said he understood that technological shakeups take time to play out, and that he can't bemoan every lost penny. "But as an author who creates texts that people consume, I want my authorship to be recognized and I want to get compensated," he said.

Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. "Even in music, price can compete with free," Mr. Benkler said. "The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won't be willing to pay $3 for a book."

He argues that without the costs of paper and physical book production, publishers could afford to give authors a higher cut of the sale price as royalties.

In the context of history, the changes that today's technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.

That history gives great comfort to writers like Vikram Chandra, whose 1,000-page novel, "Sacred Games," will be published in January. Mr. Chandra, a former computer programmer who already reads e-books downloaded to his pocket personal computer, said he saw no point in resisting technology. "I think circling the wagons and defending the fortress metaphors are a little misplaced," he said. "The barbarians at the gate are usually willing to negotiate a little, and the guys in the fort usually end up yelling that 'we are the only good things in the world and you guys don't understand it,' at which point the barbarians shrug, knock down your walls with their amazingly powerful weapons, and put a parking lot over your sacred grounds.

"If they are in a really good mood," he added, "they put up a pyramid of skulls."

Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. "Only Revolutions," he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. "As excited as I am by technology, I'm ultimately creating a book that can't exist online," he said. "The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you're exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that's the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs(Rolf Potts, Yahoo Travel)

Photo: Rolf Potts
Image Source

Rolf Potts
Tue May 9, 3:33 PM ET

Here's a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard's birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare's, and spirited them home as souvenirs.

In retrospect, it's easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven't seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the last 220 years.

I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of online shopping — you don't have to travel to Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of T-shirts emblazoned with rude messages.

It seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a T-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida ("I'm not a bitch, I'm 'Miss Bitch' to you"). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once seated Shakespeare.

Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they've seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta's New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate toward boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. Buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk, although, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room.

It may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, but the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it's easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed Wal-Mart.

If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one's home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a Japanese girl's bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask representing her father's trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia — all purchased at Narita Airport.

Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.

But whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don't evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as a beat-up, navy-blue "Bruin Track & Field" t-shirt I wore in both countries.

Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.

Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I'd wager that "it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks."

In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.


Tip sheet

"Souvenir strategies that can reduce the knucklehead factor"

1) Don't confine the notion of what a souvenir is.

Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn't mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant place mats to pressed leaves to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you'll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.

Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don't go off shopping for knickknacks before you've had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectibles, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this new found loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you've traveled and made some comparisons.

3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.

In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don't let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.