Purloined Letters

An acquaintance of mine, Margo Rabb, recently wrote a piece for the New York Times on which books are most often stolen from book stores. The Bible, along with books by Martin Amis, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo and Jack Kerouac, are at the top of the list. As Rabb points out, the most stolen books tend to be written by men, and this is probably because the shoplifters tend to be a certain kind of young man. That young man was identified in an article Ron Rosenbaum wrote years ago on a similar theme for the New York Observer. He is “Bukowski Man”:

Bukowski Man, sort of like our anthropological forebears Peking Man or Piltdown Man, almost a special subspecies of human. You’ve probably run into Bukowski Man in one form or another. He’s like, you know, a rebel, he’s not into conventional literature, man. Because it doesn’t tell the truth. The man can’t handle The Truth, which of course is all about (and only about) getting drunk and pissing and shitting and puking and fucking and passing out, not necessarily in that order, sometimes virtually simultaneously. What else do we know about Bukowski Man? He’s probably a suburban white boy who’s never been more down and out than a collect call to his parents. Usually there’s a surfboard or a skateboard or a Frisbee involved. His dog wears a red bandanna around its neck. Oh, and yes, he’s likely to be a shoplifter.

Anyway, I find the topic of most stolen books (and cars and records and other things) fascinating, and wish papers would run a “most stolen” list next to the bestsellers.

Books

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Be Afraid

Glenn Greenwald has a good article at Salon about the ways in which the threat of terrorism is being used by some to argue for various violations of the Contstitution and our civil rights. He also highlights the media’s complicity in stoking these fears.

I thought of the article last night when I happened to see a “teaser” on the local news for a story about the recent attempted airplane bombing. The newscaster said something along the lines of “In the wake of the recent attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines 253, Americans are increasingly worried about airport security.” It was a good reminder to always be on the lookout for weaselly abstractions in writing or speaking. “Americans,” “everybody,” “more and more people,” “sources,” and my personal favorite, usually used by politicans, “folks,” are all signals that a tendentious argument (or simple hogwash) disguised as an assertion of fact is being proffered.

Television news teasers are meant to be vague and unspecific, of course, because they’re supposed to entice you into sitting through the commercials to find out what they’re actually talking about. But it’s good to keep in mind some of the best advice I’ve ever come across, political, aesthetic, or otherwise, concerning language. From Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style:

16. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

It’s hard advice to live up to consistently, but our media could certainly be doing a better job of it.

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Year in Review

Well, 2009 was a fantastically unproductive blogging year for me, though quite eventful and exhausting personally. Frightening, really, that I’ve neglected this blog for a year, and it doesn’t even seem that long. Tempus fugit and all that. This year will be different, perhaps, though again, I’ll make no promises.

I will begin the new year, though, by wishing all readers my best wishes for the year to come, and offer my endorsement for this proposal from the National Association of Good Grammar (NAGG) to say “twenty ten” instead of “two thousand and ten.”

Happy new year, everyone!

Language
Meta

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It Looks Like You’re Reading The Newsstand Sophisticate. Would You Like Help?

If you’ve used Microsoft Word in the past ten years or so, you’ve probably been annoyed by “Clippy,” the little talking paper clip who recognizes that you’re writing a letter and then offers you some “help.” If you’ve ever wondered where Clippy (or the talking dog that also offered his unwanted assistance) came from and how Microsoft could have thought they were good ideas, wonder no more: The Secret Origins of Clippy have been revealed.

Computers
Design

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Happy New Year

I haven’t posted anything in a while, in part because the last three months of 2008 were very busy for me: I had several freelance projects, found full-time gainful employment (twice!), endured an episode of the flu, and found out that my wife and I will be having another child. I would have written exhaustively about all of this, in modern Internet-confessional fashion, but it didn’t occur to me. I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.

The last three months (and last year) were eventful outside the walls of my apartment as well, of course, but I didn’t write about recent great events, either. I could vow to write more in 2009, but my favorite new year’s resolution is to resolve not to make any empty promises.

Best wishes to all for 2009!

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Shuffle Off

It’s not Scranton, but here’s an article from New York magazine about people who have moved from New York City to Buffalo and are trying to make the long-benighted city a better place.

I certainly understand the experiences and motivations of the people profiled in the article. I lived in New York City for around seven years, and decided, along with my wife, to move to Austin, which though not as cheap or rundown as Buffalo, is definitely smaller and less expensive than New York. I don’t regret having lived in New York at all, but I’m definitely happier here in Austin. One of the Buffalo transplants, Jana Eisenberg, said something that comes pretty close to my own feelings about leaving New York:

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What [Eisenberg and her husband have] done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

I’m working as a freelance writer and living downtown across the street from a beautiful park and my daughter is in an excellent public school. Such a combination is not impossible to achieve in New York, but it’s certainly more difficult and costly to do there than it is in Austin.

I hope this sort of thing is happening around the country in other neglected towns and cities, and I hope it can bring genuinely positive urban revitalization (rather than just create mini-Williamsburgs surrounded by ghettos). If accompanied by good urban planning and community activism, I think it can. There’s no good reason, especially with modern communications, that one should have to move to one of only a few big cities to have an interesting life. If cities like New York and San Francisco continue to be too expensive for all but the rich (or those willing to live beyond their means), this smaller-scale urbanism will continue and succeed.

(Tip of the hat to Brian C. for sending me the article.)

Cities
Culture
Economics
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M(a)us(ol)eum Cities

(Because it’s fun to make fun of parentheses-heavy academic book titles.) As I wrote about earlier, some cities’ cores seem to be emptying out, or at least becoming more ethnically and economically homogeneous, as high prices make it harder for low- and middle-income people to afford living in them. Paris, San Francisco, Manhattan, Rome, and London are perilously close to becoming “museum cities,” beautiful and rich, but accessible to most by day-pass only. A recent article in Canada’s National Post describes the end point of the trend in an examination of Venice, a city with few permanent residents at all. Venice has become primarily a place where wealthy foreigners buy summer residences and cruise ship tourists take photos and buy souvenirs. Once again, I’m not really sure what can be done about the trend, but when a city’s economy is reduced to taxing foreigners, selling trinkets, and polishing the marble, I can’t help but feel that it has become a mausoleum, a monument to its past but a real city no longer. Density and diversity (of all sorts) are the defining characteristics of cities, and the disproportionate economic clout of the wealthy seems to be reducing both. As the author of the piece, Kelvin Browne, puts it:

In a global economy, only a few cities are the most desirable places to live. They draw their inhabitants from around the world. Locals have to fight for space with these outsiders, who can choose any place they want to call home, even if briefly.

It’s sad to see this happen in cities I love (especially in San Francisco, my birth city and, indeed, my favorite city) but I do hope that it will lead to a revival of urbanism, density, diversity, and local culture in smaller cities and towns. If San Francisco is becoming blander, it’s time to make Scranton more interesting.

(Via TreeHugger)

Cities
Culture
Economics

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You Make Me Feel Like Danzig

Ed Brayton delves into the beliefs of a Catholic priest in England who recently announced that “among the causes of homosexuality is a contagious demonic factor.” The priest, Father Jeremy Davies, also said that “extreme secular humanism, ‘atheist scientism,’ is comparable to ‘rational satanism,’” which is one of the more ridiculous terms of abuse I’ve ever heard. I guess “secular humanism” is losing its sting.

I can’t give Father Davies’s demonic theories much credence. I know many kind-hearted, utterly un-demonic homosexuals. And everything I know about demons I learned from Glenn Danzig. According to Danzig’s studies of the phenomenon, demonic factors lead primarily not to homosexuality but to awesomely ridiculous heavy metal videos:

Comedy
Music
Religion
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Bleak House

Asra Q. Nomani relates a dispiriting story in the Wall Street Journal about Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’s “racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet [sic] Muhammad.” The reason for the decision is depressingly familiar:

Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well, considering the mayhem that followed the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, I’m sure the publication of a book describing Muhammad and Aisha’s wedding night might “incite” acts of violence (by people, it must be remembered, who are perfectly capable of deciding not to be violent in response to such “incitement”). But it’s not as if Random House’s decision not to publish will be free of nasty consequences. It will embolden that small, radical segment to threaten other publishers with violence the next time something it finds offensive is published. Perry’s statement might more accurately be rendered as, “If we’re about to publish something you don’t like, threaten us with violence and we won’t publish it.”

It’s especially shameful that this has happened at Random House, whose co-founder, Bennett Cerf, faced an obscenity trial for trying to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Cerf and Random House won the case, of course, and began typesetting copies of Ulysses within ten minutes of the decision.) It’s hard to think of a more dismal way to traduce Cerf’s legacy than to cave in to the demands of religious fanatics.

It’s shameful, too, that the University of Texas, alma mater of my parents and my paternal grandfather, has a part in this. Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at UT, was asked to review Jones’s book by Random House and after doing so took it upon herself to mobilize Muslim opposition to the publication of The Jewel of Medina. According to Nomani’s article, Spellberg said, “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

You can’t? Why not? It’s a novel, that is, a work of the imagination, not a history book. And anyway, offending religious sensibilities and titillating readers with soft-core pornography are an important part of the novelistic tradition and have been since the very beginning, as anyone who’s ever read François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, to name only two early novelists, can tell you. I hope there is a publisher out there with a spine and an understanding of the fundamental importance of defending freedom of speech against thugs, bullies, and perpetually offended humanities professors (someone in other words more like Bennett Cerf than Thomas Perry), who will publish this book.

Books
Censorship
Religion
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The War on Buncombe: Good News from the Front

It’s impolite, and probably poor character, to take delight in the misfortune of others, but I can’t help but feel gleeful upon hearing that hogwash peddler Uri Geller (the man who mostly uses his fantastic “psychic powers” to solve one of mankind’s most vexing problems—how to bend spoons with your mind) has been forced to withdraw a frivolous copyright threat to people who posted video on YouTube of him failing to bend spoons on The Tonight Show. Geller’s company will also have to pay a settlement and allow use of the clip under a Creative Commons license. Well done, Electronic Frontier Foundation. (And a posthumous tip of the hat to Johnny Carson, who made sure the spoons given to Geller on that long-ago Tonight Show were normal spoons, untouched by Geller or any of his assistants, and which thus proved resistant to the psychic vibrations.)

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