This morning on Mobylives, I found an essay by The Nation‘s book editor, John Palattella, about how everyone in the publishing, books coverage and bookstore world has been wringing their hands since 2007 because of the kindle and the disappearance or reduction of many newspapers’ books sections and, of course, the advent of HTMLgiant. (OK maybe he doesn’t read us, yet.) But Palattella is optimistic in the essay and disagrees with the idea that reduced newspaper coverage of books is representative of larger cultural problems.
Palattella writes, “I think there’s no better time than the present to be covering books. The herd instinct is nearly extinct: newspapers inadvertently killed it when they scaled back on books coverage en masse; and the web, for all its crowds and their supposed wisdom, is a zone of unfederated cantons. The field is wide open. If you can’t take chances now, if in such a climate you can’t risk seeking an air legitimate and rare, when can you?”
Maybe this is news to readers of The Nation but, yeah, tell me something I don’t already know.
Still, I think I will miss print coverage of books. I am going to miss the days when a damning or rave review in The New York Times was something that a lot of people knew about whether or not they agreed with it. It’s like having a rich, arrogant bully on the playground that we can all love to hate together, but secretly hope she’ll invite us to her birthday party because she has the best toys. Plus it’s really fun to say Michiko Kakutani. Am I alone in this? If there’s no herd (and it seems less and less like there is) what can we point to as the mainstream? Does that even matter?
Tkacik’s indictment of Gladwell is incisive, epic, merciless, and right. It runs a full seven web pages and is worth reading every word. Now, the next time you see someone reading Blink and reflexively go to slap it out of their hand, you’ll be able to explain why you did it. Here’s a choice gleaning from fairly late in the piece. Click through to start at the beginning.
And so once again we find Gladwell muckraking in the trenches of banal cliché and thereby reinforcing said cliché–and, more insidiously, banality itself. In Outliers, as in Blink, he appears to assume that the unexamined life is the only sort his readers could be living, though lessons with titles like “Demographic Luck” and “The Importance of Being Jewish” suggest that he may have downgraded his expectation of who his readers are from the less savvy to the truly oblivious. Outliers contains a few new terms and morsels of trivia: the 10,000-Hour Rule describes the number of practice hours one must put in to attain true genius; we also learn that fourteen of the seventy-five individuals on Gladwell’s list of the “richest people in human history” were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. (Cleopatra is No. 21.) But for the most part, the book’s first section, “Opportunity,” contains nothing that will enlighten anyone who has given even a small fraction of 10,000 hours of thought to the word’s meaning.
Also, it’s worth looking at this piece in light of this website’s ongoing discussion of what good criticism can or should look like. The piece is occasioned by the publication of Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, but it could hardly be considered a mere “review” of that book. And yet, it’s not a NY/LRB-style essay, where the book(s) provide a sort of anchor for a larger discussion about something else. Tkacik seems completely at ease in Gladwell’s catalogue, moving with an apparent lack of effort through and between his books. She has a clear thesis that is developed, amplified, and otherwise nuanced over the course of the essay. A writer who disagrees vehemently with Tkacik’s thesis and all her supporting arguments–or a writer who couldn’t care less about Gladwell one way or the other–still has a lot to gain from reading this essay. It’s a stand-out example of a particular kind of long-form criticism.
November 7th, 2009 / 3:45 pm
Over at The Nation, Scott Saul makes the case for Eliot Weinberger’s new collection of essays.
The pieces in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale cover a wide range of topics–the arts under the Bush administration, Obama’s presidential campaign, ancient and contemporary Chinese poetry, the color blue, exoticism, the relationship between Samuel Beckett and Octavio Paz–but are knit together by a sensibility that prizes exactitude in its formulations yet is open to the unpredictable complications of the larger world. Put another way: weak prose and parochialism are two of Weinberger’s chief enemies. One of the delights of reading his essays is that they reveal the interconnections between the two; the Wittgensteinian idea that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world becomes, in his hands, a tool for revealing the blind spots common to our culture.
This would be comical if not for the fact that these people have been teaching–or not teaching, more accurately–young Americans about sex. And then there are the assorted ridiculous sex-scare policy decisions–like the FDA holding up over-the-counter status for emergency contraception out of fear that it would make young women promiscuous or even lead to teens forming “sex-based cults.”
I think I almost made my mother cry on the phone the other night when–in a non-twist which surprised absolutely nobody–I explained my opposition to the present war. Probably this is because I used fiery invective and very few statistics or facts of any kind, but that’s what happens when you have an argument while cooking dinner. For what it’s worth, no statistics or facts of any kind were marshalled against me, but in any case, making my mother angry/sad was not the goal of the conversation, so later I sat down and tried to find some things online to send her that would make my case in a more nuanced and articulate way, not just because I thought she should be exposed to the information, but because I thought that I should.
This short comment-piece by Akiva Eldar, published first in Hebrew in Ha’aretz and then translated to English by Jessica Cohen for The Nation seems to me to have said what a better-informed, less irate version of myself would have said, and what this version of myself wishes he would have said. I have a copy of the book Eldar wrote (co-wrote, actually, with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land: The War over Israel’s Settlements and the Occupied Territories 1967-2007 sitting on my shelf, but I haven’t read it. Yet.
You might also take a look at the BBC’s Key Maps and Timeline (from which above-image is borrowed)