Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

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Good News

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 17, 2006 11:47 am


Blogger Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things will now be speaking the Syntax of Kids. He just became a dad -- congrats Jeff and Elaine (and Marlena)!





Hugging the Page

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 15, 2006 08:36 am


We're blogging on paper now







Co-operating

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 08:16 pm


I'm very proud to announce that LitKicks is joining the Litblog Co-op, a group of excellent website publishers who work together to recommend books, stage events and represent a unified "online voice" within the publishing community. I first heard of this group in a Village Voice article published in April 2005, and to be honest I've been hoping for an invitation ever since.

I like this group because they work hard to raise the visibility of the entire literary blogosphere. The publishing world is a mercurial place, and it's easy for small but worthy independent websites to get lost in this swirling corporate (and I do mean corporate) environment. Blogs may be a big fad on the covers of newsmagazines, but that doesn't mean we get the respect, access and visibility we believe we deserve. The Litblog Co-op is designed to change this, and I am very psyched to be a part of the ongoing adventure.

I'm still on vacation, but I'll be back soon -- and I hope Jamelah Earle will be filling in with her latest venture into the classics.





Reviewing the Review: June 25 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 25, 2006 09:39 pm


It's always good to see Luc Sante show up in the New York Times Book Review, and this week's cover article on Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield does not disappoint. As only the best reviewers do, Sante allows his subject to occupy every bit of space in his article, delivering a fascinating summary that leaves me hungry for more. I'd forgotten how interesting and contradictory this crazed Harvard professor was (on the positive side, Leary had a great wit; on the negative side, he became a willing government witness to save himself from a long jail sentence). All in all, this is a good rollicking read on a Sunday morning.

Talk about rollicking: John Updike contributes an endpaper ominously titled The End of Authorship, which can only mean we're talking about Google again. It's no secret that I revere John Updike, but I'll admit the great author has served up turkeys before (evidence, evidence), and this particular turkey is big enough for Thanksgiving. Updike, having read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Kevin Kelly about the future of books in the age of massively indexed search engines, thinks somebody's trying to make books go away.

Books are actually not going away, of course (evidence, evidence), and in fact there's no reason that printed literature can't co-exist happily and profitably with the internet. Books are incredibly appealing and practical things, and they're not going to go away as long as people continue to buy them. Updike sees a stark battle where there really isn't one, and he embarrasses himself with shrill sentences like this:

"In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscious 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."

Yawn. Yes, John, in fact a greedy entrepeneur already amassed a fortune by cutting texts up into indexed snippets and reselling them (without permission or payment) under his own insidious brand. His name was John Bartlett. Somehow, though, the world of literature has managed to survive the launch of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in 1855. Literature will find a way to survive Google too.

Updike is usually quite well-informed, so it's surprising that he doesn't realize this debate already played itself out in Wired and the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine during the late 1990's (books didn't end then either, and neither did Y2K cripple the world's communications). Search engines will find new ways to promote and cross-reference literature, and the internet industry and the book publishing industry will gradually work out how to make this fair and rewarding for all.

The most insulting part of John Updike's article, though, is here:

"Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile."

Upon reading this, I can only conclude that John Updike has never visited MaudNewton.com or Bookslut or Syntax of Things or Return of the Reluctant or Elegant Variation or Words Without Borders or the Literary Saloon or Metaxu Cafe or Rake's Progress or Ready Steady Book or (I daresay) this humble establishment or any of many worthy others, all of which present carefully edited original commentary and try hard to maintain high standards of quality. If Updike had visited any of these sites, I do not believe he would make generalizations like this. Yo, John ... we're book people here too.

The internet will survive John Updike's cannonade, and John Updike's reputation will certainly survive it too. Now, if you'd like to read some quotes that help explain why so many of us do think John Updike is the greatest, check out this wonderful Nerve interview, which easily makes up for the mess in the Times.

Well, I've certainly worked myself up talking about John Updike. There are a few other nobable pieces in this week's Book Review. Robert Alter approves of Steven B. Smith's Reading Leo Strauss, which takes a fresh look at the surprising legacy of this highly skeptical political critic, who has significantly influenced both liberals and conservatives in different ways. Jonathan Freedland also approves of Noam Chomsky's Failed States, which is more surprising since Chomsky's book presents a harsh critique of the USA's actual record (as opposed to its stated ideals) in foreign policy and governmental justice. Having finished Freedland's review, I think I'm going to have to check this book out (I'll let you know what I find).





Huffington Pummels Pearlstine at Slate Media Summit

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 23, 2006 08:20 am


Slate is celebrating its tenth birthday this month with a retrospective book, The Best of Slate. The online magazine also convened a debate last night at the New York Public Library between three contentious media stars with wildly different ideas about the future of online and traditional journalism.

Slate is an electronic publication designed for readers who are ambivalent about the internet. It's named after a physical writing surface, and its masthead has always been crowded with comforting names from print journalism (including its brave founder, Michael Kinsley, previously of the New Republic). Not surprisingly, the solid new book feels more appealing than the sometimes ad-strewn web presence. It's packed with one well-written piece after another, all of them blessedly short, from Paul Berman's The Cult of Che in 1997 to Josh Levin's quite funny Rappers and Bloggers in 2005, which argues that hiphop hustlers and online self-promoters share much in common:

For starters, both groups share a love of loose-fitting, pajama-style apparel. Still not satisfied? Bloggers and rappers are equally obsessed with social networking. Every rapper rolls with his entourage; every blogger rolls with his blog roll. Women can't win an audience in either profession without raunching it up like Lil' Kim or Wonkette.

However, the Slate-sponsored media summit last night in the Celeste Bartos room at the New York Public Library featured a woman blogger with the lordly confidence of a Jay-Z or a Dr. Dre, rather than the publicity hungry raunch of Lil' Kim. Arianna Huffington has recently rocked the political blog world with her immensely popular Huffington Post. Like Slate, the Huffington Post features well-known writers from offline media in an online format, but unlike Slate it adopts a straight-up bloggy style, proudly ignoring the grandiose traditions of old-world journalism. This has worked out well for the Huffington Post. Personally, I check this dynamic and unpredictable site several times a week, and I only go to Slate if somebody tells me to. I suspect many other readers have similar habits.

Slate had chosen Arianna Huffington to represent the brash world of blog-based journalism in last night's panel, and reached to the far extreme for her opposition, former Wall Street Journal and Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Norman Pearlstine (Slate's Michael Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg staked moderate positions on this panel, and essayist Malcolm Gladwell played the designated wisecracker). The panel was clearly designed to turn into a yell-fest, and the only question was how much restraint each of the parties would display, and who would score the best shots.

Pearlstine opened with a dramatic thesis. Magazines would transform themselves and survive the onslaught of online journalism, the former magazine and newspaper magnate said, but newspapers probably would not. Are we facing a future without newspapers? This topic consumed the first half-hour of the debate, with Malcolm Gladwell drawing big applause for his suggestion that, if newspapers had been invented after the internet they would be seen as a fascinating technical trend (tactile, flexible texts that can be carried anywhere) and would generate massive hype and venture capital investment. Norm Pearlstine waited for the applause to die down before tamping out Gladwell's brief fire with a dull observation that the business model for this hypothetical new printed paper device would not be profitable enough to attract serious investment.

Arianna Huffington had the best take on the rather tired print-vs.-blog fracas. "This whole debate is incredibly old-fashioned and irrelevant," she said. "It's Ginger vs. Maryann. This is 2006, let's have a three-way." Huffington tried to undercut the idea that print and blog formats could not co-exist, instead portraying the journalistic spectrum from print to broadcast to online as a single ecosystem. She's undoubtedly right, and Malcolm Gladwell seemed to agree, pointing out that "bloggers would have nothing to write about" if the New York Times ceased to exist (I think he's exaggerating, though it would certainly free up my Sundays).

At this point Huffington had the crowd behind her and she began badgering Norm Pearlstine, who seemed quite willing to play the heavy. She had called for increased interaction between online and offline formats, but she could still have fun railing at old media. "Online is OCD, print is ADD" she said (this is clearly a rehearsed line, but it got big applause anyway). She also remarked that the print/broadcast old media failed to do enough to expose the flawed logic behind George Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which prompted Norm Pearlstine to sonorously drone his one attempted joke of the evening ("I'm sorry the Huffington Post wasn't there to stop the Iraq war").

By the time the debate ended and many of us convened upstairs for a star-studded reception featuring trays of papaya and tandoori chicken on skewers, Huffington had emerged as the victor. Malcolm Gladwell still held the title for best haircut, and Norm Pearlstine seemed bored and eager to leave.





Reviewing the Review: June 18 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 18, 2006 10:32 pm


This is your New York Times Book Review on ginkgo biloba, or something, today. The intellect factor is at an unusually high level, with a Robert Stone cover story on John Updike, a Harold Bloom essay contemplating the legacy of Rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and a brain-cell heavy endpaper by Lee Siegel on the legacy of eccentric literary critic Paul Zweig.

The honest truth is, after a weekend of Father's Day festivities, freeze tag, swimming pools and barbecues, I'm in no shape to take in all this high-octane intellectual stuff, and I may have to finish reading some of the minor articles in this weekend's issue tomorrow. Naturally I turned first to acclaimed novelist Robert Stone's review of Updike's Terrorist. Stone is roughly Updike's peer (they both came up in the Vietnam War era), though he's never been quite as renowned, and I think the Book Review chose this match-up well.

Stone waxes impressionistic about Terrorist, careening a bit wildly a way from his subject at times, but making up for it with poetic sentences like:

But the great informing image in the sky over Jersey, still so conjurable in memory as to serve as a totem, is the tower of smoke twisting skyward, replacing the elongated dominoes that had lorded like idols over the plain.

Hey, who's the writer in the spotlight here, Updike or Stone? Updike may well be wondering the same thing, since Stone maintains a respectful tone in much of this article, then gently tips his hand in the last paragraph that he doesn't think the book works very well. But he got to write a good article about it, so it wasn't a total loss.

I don't know what to say about Harold Bloom's excessive rumination on the heritage of a great 17th Century Dutch/Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spizona, who is the subject of a new Rebecca Goldstein book called Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Who Gave Us Modernity. I don't think many people are going to be able to follow Bloom's badly-connected arguments. I have a B.A. in Philosophy, and I was just barely hanging on in some spots. Take this incredible phrase:

Leo Strauss (never to be confused with our plague of his disciple's disciples) implicitly manifested a distaste for Spinoza ...

Who's confusing what with who's disciple's disciple (whatever that means)? And why is the name Leo Strauss being dropped (with no explanation or attribution) into an article about a book on Baruch Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein? Bloom has some interesting points to make about Spinoza's dual status as a religious philosopher and a mystical non-religious logician, but they are lost in the thoughtlessly impenetrable exposition. This article is not Harold Bloom's finest moment.

Jay Parini has harsh words for Laura Esquivel's Malinche, which he says is nowhere near as good as the author's popular Like Water for Chocolate. He balances this with a very positive review of another book about the same legendary native-Mexican historical figure, Night of Sorrows by Frances Sherwood. Parini makes a strong case for both of his opinions, and I hope we'll see more reviews by this author.

The Times gets self-reflective with a review by Harold Evans of Daniel Okrent's collected self-reflective columns about the New York Times, Public Editor #1. I'm not quite sure how this book will prove timeless, but I am very happy to see my former boss Daniel Okrent's literary reputation increasing. How often do you hear a guy describe a former boss as a great role model? I worked for him for about three years at Time Warner's Pathfinder.com, where he had been hired to correct the famously bad management of the original editorial team. He wasn't able to save the Pathfinder project, but he impressed me constantly with his unflappably sardonic approach to the then-raging dot-com craze.

Pathfinder was the laughing-stock of the internet business at the time Okrent was hired, because Time Warner had invested incredible amounts of money into a site that nobody liked, and because we represented the heavy, plodding corporate presence in the fast-growing internet content space. We looked bad in every newspaper or magazine article that mentioned our site. Then one day we ran a poll (on People.com, one of our sites) for the most beautiful person in America, and Howard Stern crashed our servers by asking all his radio listeners to vote for Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf.

I remember reading about it in the New York Times the next morning, and when I saw that our new editor-in-chief was being interviewed I figued we were going to look mighty silly in public, yet again. But now Daniel Okrent was in charge, and when the New York Times asked him "What are you going to do about this?" he answered "We are going to stand by and look bemused."

And I thought to myself: this new guy might be worth watching..

Okrent began working for the New York Times as the public representative, or ombudsman, a few years after Pathfinder's final demise (he's since yielded the position to Byron Calame). Harold Evans gives his new book a very positive review. Having read most of the original columns that make up this book, I'm sure it's well deserved.





Action Poetry User’s Manual

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 1, 2006 07:49 am


We'll be rolling out some software upgrades on this site in the next few weeks, starting with some changes in progress to the Action Poetry page. The page looks mostly the same, but it now automatically rolls over and creates an archive page at the beginning of each month, and the selection of featured poems in the middle right panel of every LitKicks page will now be updated continually instead of a few times a month. Today is the first of June, so the current Action Poetry page is now a blank slate (check last month's page to see what it will look like once it gets moving).

It's occurred to me that many people visit LitKicks regularly but never post on our poetry forum because they don't know what it's all about. Action Poetry is a free-form showcase for amateur or professional poets or writers. You can post an original piece, or you can write a response to another writer's poem. We try to maintain a zen atmosphere on this page -- each poem simply exists for the sake of existing, and may or may not get a response. There is no "official voice", and we never interrupt the flow to make announcements or provide structure of any kind. You may never know whether anybody liked your poem or not, and that's how Action Poetry works.

Any format, style or subject matter is okay, as long as you are sincerely trying to write well. We ask only a few things: check your spelling and formatting before you post, post only original work, and keep it short (this is not the place to upload your unpublished novel).

You can use Action Poetry as therapy, or you can use it to express secrets that won't fit on a postcard, or you can use it to show off your poetic skills. If you've never posted on Action Poetry before, all you have to do is create a LitKicks member name and you're all set.

Whoever you are, please consider writing us a poem soon.





Hungry Like The Wolf

by Levi Asher on Friday, May 19, 2006 02:58 pm


1. BookExpo America is the big story in the publishing community this week, and I'm really sorry I'm not there to attend the Litblog Co-op party or watch Ed Champion heckle Sam Tanenhaus. However, Jeff "Syntax" Bryant was visiting New York for the first time this week, and Jeff and I met up to have our very own little BookExpo, consisting of two guys, some good conversation, and lots of talk about baseball. So there. We even got somebody to take a picture so we can be cool like our friends down in Washington DC.



2. Jeff and I also wandered over to the YMCA on 63rd Street where Bob Rosenthal, Jason Shinder, Eliot Katz, Vivan Gornick and Kurt Brown staged a reading from Jason Shinder's Howl: The Poem That Changed America. Every reader was inspiring, but the bit I'll remember best is when Bob Rosenthal pointed out that the title of the poem Howl is often misunderstood to refer to a howl of pain, when actually a howl is used by dogs or wolves to communicate any number of sentiments. Rosenthal played a recording of actual wolf howls and asked us to note the fact that when one wolf howls others join in -- more than anything else, a wolf's howl is a call for community. All of which proves that, despite what anyone might think, it is still possible to come up with something new and interesting to say about Allen Ginsberg's much-discussed poem.

3. You may have heard that Beloved by Toni Morrison was named the best book of the last 25 years by a panel led by Sam Tanenhaus. My natural inclination when I heard this was to begin complaining, but then it occurred to me that I've never read Beloved (though I have read Morrison's Tar Baby), which renders any complaint of mine rather ill-informed. I am now about 50 pages into the book and it's better than I thought it would be (and better than Tar Baby too). I must be getting more open-minded as I grow older ... the old me would have complained first and read the book later. I still think the Times Top 25 list is a creaky mess, though.

4. Want to hear the wolves howl while you work on your own fiction or poetry? Here's a writing workshop in Idaho you might enjoy.






Reviewing the Review: May 14 2006

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 14, 2006 09:17 am


Bookish readers of today's New York Times will turn first to the magazine, drawn in by Kevin Kelly's cover article about "What Will Happen To Books?" in the age of Google. Noting that there are currently thousands of hourly workers busily scanning books around the world to feed into various corporate and academic search engines (as well as a few robotic scanning monsters doing the same job at places like Stanford University), Kelly's article explains why book publishers are taking an automatic stand against this trend.

There's nothing new about this controversy, but Kelly offers some valuable historical perspective, pointing out that book publishers have been voraciously lobbying to strengthen copyright laws in the USA since 1976, amounting to a near land-grab:

As more intellectual property became owned by corporations rather than by individuals, these corporations successfully lobbied Congress to keep extending the once-brief protection enabled by copyright in order to prevent works from returning to the public domain. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56.

Never before in human history have book publishers been able to throw so much legal weight behind their elongated copyrights, and Kelly presents the new search engine companies that are brazenly building the world's universal library as a corrective balance to this earlier sea change in publication law. I think it's a damn good argument, and I concur with Kelly on most points.

I only wish the New York Times Magazine hadn't chosen to hype the article with sensationalistic language on the cover ("Publisher, be very, very afraid" ... "A manifesto by Kevin Kelly"). Every article that supports Google does not have to be called a manifesto. Nothing in Kelly's well-reasoned article should make book publishers very afraid, but apparently the New York Times Magazine subsists on high drama and must present every debate in the starkest terms.

On to the Book Review, where Adam Begley makes a strong case for me to rush out and buy George Saunders' appealing new book of stories, In Persuasion Nation. But poetry critic Langdon Hammer's review of Franz Wright's God's Silence is disappointingly misdirected. It's a safe bet that most readers of the Book Review are not highly familiar with Wright's work, and an introductory approach would best serve the audience. Instead, Hammer busies himself by challenging Wright's notions of morality and religion, leaving the vast majority of us poor souls who have not yet read God's Silence out in the cold.

Roy Blount Jr. is supposed to be a good writer, right? Somebody explain to me how the hell to parse a sentence like this, in his review of Richard Lingeman's Double Lives:

Clemens' friend William Dean Howells, to be sure, was also a friend of Edith Wharton's friend Henry James (who didn't care for Clemens nor Clemens for him), but Howells spurned the overtures of H. L. Mencken's friend Theodore Dreiser, whose bodacious improprieties in life and art Howells deplored (as did Mencken, eventually).

Thanks for clearing that up, Blount. I think Stamford's book-digesting robot might even crash on that line.

But today's issue redeems itself with an informative endpaper by John H. Summers about late sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose The Power Elite was published fifty years ago and feels quite relevant today:

At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated "into each and every cranny" of American life.

They did that fifty years ago too? Of course, the Power Elite was then known as the "military-industrial complex", whereas now we simply refer to it as "Dick Cheney".

Finally, let's move on to the Times' already-infamous list of the 25 best American books of the past 25 years which the newspaper has, for some unknown reason, decided to compile. This is too easy a target and I don't even want to take aim. I'll just refer to Mark Sarvas's excellent riposte, which points out that any selection process that produces a list this uninspired must be asking the wrong people. I also want to say that I'm becoming increasingly sick of the canonization of Philip Roth, who is undoubtedly a great writer but who did not write six of the twenty-five best books of the last twenty-five years. He just didn't, and you know this too. I may have more to say about this later.





Flash Mob Visits The Strand

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 8, 2006 05:56 pm


Some people think the Strand on Broadway and 12th Street in New York City is the best used book store in the world. Some other people hate it. And then there's the occasional flash mob that converges to create a spontaneous Cell Phone Symphony by planting 60 highly synchronized phones in bag check (read about it, then check the video). Amusing and pointless, like so much that is good in life. Thanks to Judih for the tip.





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