Barnouw, Erik. Handbook of Radio Writing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1939. LCCN  39-030193.
This book is out of print. The link above will search for used copies which, while not abundant, when available are generally comparable in price to current hardbacks of similar length. The copy I read is the 1939 first edition. A second edition was published in 1945; I haven't seen one and don't know how it may differ.

August 2003 Permalink

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare. London: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-719790-3.
This small, thin (200 page) book contains just about every fact known for certain about the life of William Shakespeare, which isn't very much. In fact, if the book restricted itself only to those facts, and excluded descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Shakespeare's contemporaries, actors and theatres of the time, and the many speculations about Shakespeare and the deliciously eccentric characters who sometimes promoted them, it would probably be a quarter of its present length.

For a figure whose preeminence in English literature is rarely questioned today, and whose work shaped the English language itself—2035 English words appear for the first time in the works of Shakespeare, of which about 800 continue in common use today, including critical, frugal, horrid, vast, excellent, lonely, leapfrog, and zany (pp. 112–113)—very little is known apart from the content of his surviving work. We know the dates of his birth, marriage, and death, something of his parents, siblings, wife, and children, but nothing of his early life, education, travel, reading, or any of the other potential sources of the extraordinary knowledge and insight into the human psyche which informs his work. Between the years 1585 and 1592 he drops entirely from sight: no confirmed historical record has been found, then suddenly he pops up in London, at the peak of his powers, writing, producing, and performing in plays and quickly gaining recognition as one of the preeminent dramatists of his time. We don't even know (although there is no shortage of speculation) which plays were his early works and which were later: there is no documentary evidence for the dates of the plays nor the order in which they were written, apart from a few contemporary references which allow placing a play as no later than the mention of it. We don't even know how he spelt or pronounced his name: of six extant signatures believed to be in his hand, no two spell his name the same way, and none uses the “Shakespeare” spelling in use today.

Shakespeare's plays brought him fame and a substantial fortune during his life, but plays were regarded as ephemeral things at the time, and were the property of the theatrical company which commissioned them, not the author, so no authoritative editions of the plays were published during his life. Had it not been for the efforts of his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, who published the “First Folio” edition of his collected works seven years after his death, it is probable that the eighteen plays which first appeared in print in that edition would have been lost to history, with subsequent generations deeming Shakespeare, based upon surviving quarto editions of uneven (and sometimes laughable) quality of a few plays, one of a number of Elizabethan playwrights but not the towering singular figure he is now considered to be. (One wonders if there were others of Shakespeare's stature who were not as lucky in the dedication of their friends, of whose work we shall never know.) Nobody really knows how many copies of the First Folio were printed, but guesses run between 750 and 1000. Around 300 copies in various states of completeness have survived to the present, and around eighty copies are in a single room at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Now maybe decades of computer disasters have made me obsessively preoccupied with backup and geographical redundancy, but that just makes me shudder. Is there anybody there who wonders whether this is really a good idea? After all, the last time I was a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I spotted an ACME MISSILE BOMB right in plain sight!

A final chapter is devoted to theories that someone other than the scantily documented William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. The author points out the historical inconsistencies and implausibilities of most frequently proffered claimants, and has a good deal of fun with some of the odder of the theorists, including the exquisitely named J. Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman, and George M. Battey.

Bill Bryson fans who have come to cherish his lighthearted tone and quirky digressions on curious details and personalities from such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything (November 2007) will not be disappointed. If one leaves the book not knowing a great deal about Shakespeare, because so little is actually known, it is with a rich sense of having been immersed in the England of his time and the golden age of theatre to which he so mightily contributed.

A U.S. edition is available, but at this writing only in hardcover.

July 2008 Permalink

Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-532487-7.
For somebody who built an entire philosophical system founded on reason, and insisted that even emotion was ultimately an expression of rational thought which could be arrived at from first principles, few modern writers have inspired such passion among their readers, disciples, enemies, critics, and participants in fields ranging from literature, politics, philosophy, religion, architecture, music, economics, and human relationships as Ayn Rand. Her two principal novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), remain among the best selling fiction titles more than half a century after their publication, with in excess of ten million copies sold. More than half a million copies of Atlas Shrugged were sold in 2009 alone.

For all the commercial success of her works, which made this refugee from the Soviet Union, writing in a language she barely knew when she arrived in the United States, wealthy before her fortieth birthday, her work was generally greeted with derision among the literary establishment, reviewers in major newspapers, and academics. By the time Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, she saw herself primarily as the founder of an all-encompassing philosophical system she named Objectivism, and her fiction as a means to demonstrate the validity of her system and communicate it to a broad audience. Academic philosophers, for the most part, did not even reject her work but simply ignored it, deeming it unworthy of their consideration. And Rand did not advance her cause by refusing to enter into the give and take of philosophical debate but instead insist that her system was self-evidently correct and had to be accepted as a package deal with no modifications.

As a result, she did not so much attract followers as disciples, who looked to her words as containing the answer to all of their questions, and whose self-worth was measured by how close they became to, as it were, the fountainhead whence they sprang. Some of these people were extremely bright, and went on to distinguished careers in which they acknowledged Rand's influence on their thinking. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle in the 1960s, making the case for a return to the gold standard in her newsletter, before becoming the maestro of paper money decades later.

Although her philosophy claimed that contradiction was impossible, her life and work were full of contradictions. While arguing that everything of value sprang from the rational creativity of free minds, she created a rigid system of thought which she insisted her followers adopt without any debate or deviation, and banished them from her circle if they dared dissent. She claimed to have created a self-consistent philosophical and moral system which was self-evidently correct, and yet she refused to debate those championing other systems. Her novels portray the state and its minions in the most starkly negative light of perhaps any broadly read fiction, and yet she detested libertarians and anarchists, defended the state as necessary to maintain the rule of law, and exulted in the success of Apollo 11 (whose launch she was invited to observe).

The passion that Ayn Rand inspires has coloured most of the many investigations of her life and work published to date. Finally, in this volume, we have a more or less dispassionate examination of her career and œuvre, based on original documents in the collection of the Ayn Rand Institute and a variety of other archives. Based upon the author's Ph.D. dissertation (and with the wealth of footnotes and source citations customary in such writing), this book makes an effort to tell the story of Ayn Rand's life, work, and their impact upon politics, economics, philosophy, and culture to date, and her lasting legacy, without taking sides. The author is neither a Rand follower nor a confirmed opponent, and pretty much lets each reader decide where they come down based on the events described.

At the outset, the author writes, “For over half a century, Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.” I initially found this very off-putting, and resigned myself to enduring another disdainful dismissal of Rand (to whose views the vast majority of the “right” over that half a century would have taken violent exception: Rand was vehemently atheist, opposing any mixing of religion and politics; a staunch supporter of abortion rights; opposed the Vietnam War and conscription; and although she rejected the legalisation of marijuana, cranked out most of her best known work while cranked on Benzedrine), as I read the book the idea began to grow on me. Indeed, many people in the libertarian and conservative worlds got their introduction to thought outside the collectivist and statist orthodoxy pervading academia and the legacy media by reading one of Ayn Rand's novels. This may have been the moment at which they first began to, as the hippies exhorted, “question authority”, and investigate other sources of information and ways of thinking and looking at the world. People who grew up with the Internet will find it almost impossible to imagine how difficult this was back in the 1960s, where even discovering the existence of a dissenting newsletter (amateurishly produced, irregularly issued, and with a tiny subscriber base) was entirely a hit or miss matter. But Ayn Rand planted the seed in the minds of millions of people, a seed which might sprout when they happened upon a like mind, or a like-minded publication.

The life of Ayn Rand is simultaneously a story of an immigrant living the American dream: success in Hollywood and Broadway and wealth beyond even her vivid imagination; the frustration of an author out of tune with the ideology of the times; the political education of one who disdained politics and politicians; the birth of one of the last “big systems” of philosophy in an age where big systems had become discredited; and a life filled with passion lived by a person obsessed with reason. The author does a thorough job of pulling this all together into a comprehensible narrative which, while thoroughly documented and eschewing enthusiasm in either direction, will keep you turning the pages. The author is an academic, and writes in the contemporary scholarly idiom: the term “right-wing” appears 15 times in the book, while “left-wing” is used not at all, even when describing officials and members of the Communist Party USA. Still, this does not detract from the value of this work: a serious, in-depth, and agenda-free examination of Ayn Rand's life, work, and influence on history, today, and tomorrow.

December 2010 Permalink

Chesterton, Gilbert K. Heretics. London: John Lane, [1905] 1914. ISBN 0-7661-7476-X.
In this collection of essays, the ever-quotable Chesterton takes issue with prominent contemporaries (including Kipling, G.B. Shaw, and H.G. Wells) and dogma (the cults of progress, science, simple living, among others less remembered almost a century later). There is so much insight and brilliant writing here it's hard to single out a few examples. My favourites include his dismantling of cultural anthropology and folklore in chapter 11, the insight in chapter 16 that elevating science above morality leads inevitably to oligarchy and rule by experts, and the observation in chapter 17, writing of Whistler, that what is called the “artistic temperament” is a property of second-rate artists. The link above is to a 2003 Kessinger Publishing facsimile reprint of the 1914 twelfth edition. The reprint is on letter-size pages, much larger than the original, with each page blown up to fit; consequently, the type is almost annoyingly large. A free electronic edition is available.

September 2004 Permalink

Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0-374-10464-6.

June 2003 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002. ISBN 0-465-03049-1.

December 2002 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. La grammaire est une chanson douce. Paris: Poche, 2001. ISBN 2-253-14910-1.
Ten year old Jeanne and her insufferable fourteen year old brother survive a shipwreck and find themselves on an enchanted island where words come alive and grammar escapes the rationalistic prison of Madame Jargonos and her Cartesian colleagues in the black helicopters (nice touch, that) to emerge as the intuitive music of thought and expression. As Jeanne recovers her ability to speak, we discover the joy of forging phrases from the raw material of living words with the tools of grammar. The result of Jeanne's day in the factory on page 129 is a pure delight. The author is a member of l'Académie française.

January 2005 Permalink

Orsenna, Erik. Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif. Paris: Stock, 2004. ISBN 2-234-05698-5.
Two years have passed since Jeanne and her brother Thomas were marooned on the enchanted island of words in La grammaire est une chanson douce (January 2005). In this sequel, Jeanne takes to the air in a glider with a diminutive cartographer to map the Archipelago of Conjugation and search for her brother who has vanished. Jeanne's luck with voyages hasn't changed—the glider crashes on the Island of the Subjunctives, where Jeanne encounters its strange inhabitants, guardians of the verbs which speak of what may be, or may not—the mode of dreams and love (for what is love if not hope and doubt?), the domain of the subjunctive. To employ a subjunctive survival from old French, oft-spoken but rarely thought of as such, « Vive le subjonctif ! ».

The author has been a member of the French Conseil d'État since 1985, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, is an accomplished sailor and president of the Centre de la mer, and was elected to l'Académie française in 1998. For additional information, visit his beautiful and creatively designed Web site, where you will find a map of the Archipelago of Conjugation and the first chapter of the book in both text and audio editions.

Can you spot the perspective error made by the artist on the front cover? (Hint: the same goof occurs in the opening title sequence of Star Trek: Voyager.)

April 2005 Permalink

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. New York: Vintage, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-7949-7.
Pulitzer Prize-winning mainstream novelist Philip Roth turns to alternative history in this novel, which also falls into the genre Rudy Rucker pioneered and named “transreal”—autobiographical fiction, in which the author (or a character clearly based upon him) plays a major part in the story. Here, the story is told in the first person by the author, as a reminiscence of his boyhood in the early 1940s in Newark, New Jersey. In this timeline, however, after a deadlocked convention, the Republican party chooses Charles Lindbergh as its 1940 presidential candidate who, running on an isolationist platform of “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war”, defeats FDR's bid for a third term in a landslide.

After taking office, Lindbergh's tilt toward the Axis becomes increasingly evident. He appoints the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford as Secretary of the Interior, flies to Iceland to sign a pact with Hitler, and a concludes a treaty with Japan which accepts all its Asian conquests so far. Further, he cuts off all assistance to Britain and the USSR. On the domestic front, his Office of American Absorption begins encouraging “urban” children (almost all of whom happen to be Jewish) to spend their summers on farms in the “heartland” imbibing “American values”, and later escalates to “encouraging” the migration of entire families (who happen to be Jewish) to rural areas.

All of this, and its many consequences, ranging from trivial to tragic, are seen through the eyes of young Philip Roth, perceived as a young boy would who was living through all of this and trying to make sense of it. A number of anecdotes have nothing to do with the alternative history story line and may be purely autobiographical. This is a “mood novel” and not remotely a thriller; the pace of the story-telling is languid, evoking the time sense and feeling of living in the present of a young boy. As alternative history, I found a number of aspects implausible and unpersuasive. Most exemplars of the genre choose one specific event at which the story departs from recorded history, then spin out the ramifications of that event as the story develops. For example, in 1945 by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany does not declare war on the United States, which only goes to war against Japan. In Roth's book, the point of divergence is simply the nomination of Lindbergh for president. Now, in the real election of 1940, FDR defeated Wendell Willkie by 449 electoral votes to 82, with the Republican carrying only 10 of the 48 states. But here, with Lindbergh as the nominee, we're supposed to believe that FDR would lose in forty-six states, carrying only his home state of New York and squeaking to a narrow win in Maryland. This seems highly implausible to me—Lindbergh's agitation on behalf of America First made him a highly polarising figure, and his apparent sympathy for Nazi Germany (in 1938 he accepted a gold medal decorated with four swastikas from Hermann Göring in Berlin) made him anathema in much of the media. All of these negatives would have been pounded home by the Democrats, who had firm control of the House and Senate as well as the White House, and all the advantages of incumbency. Turning a 38 state landslide into a 46 state wipeout simply by changing the Republican nominee stretches suspension of disbelief to the limit, at least for this reader, especially as Americans are historically disinclined to elect “outsiders” to the presidency.

If you accept this premise, then most of what follows is reasonably plausible and the descent of the country into a folksy all-American kind of fascism is artfully told. But then something very odd happens. As events are unfolding at their rather leisurely pace, on page 317 it's like the author realised he was about to run out of typewriter ribbon or something, and the whole thing gets wrapped up in ten pages, most of which is an unconfirmed account by one of the characters of behind-the-scenes events which may or may not explain everything, and then there's a final chapter to sort out the personal details. This left me feeling like Charlie Brown when Lucy snatches away the football; either the novel should be longer, or else the pace of the whole thing should be faster rather than this whiplash-inducing discontinuity right before the end—but who am I to give advice to somebody with a Pulitzer?

A postscript provides real-world biographies of the many historical figures who appear in the novel, and the complete text of Lindbergh's September 1941 Des Moines speech to the America First Committee which documents his contemporary sentiments for readers who are unaware of this unsavoury part of his career.

November 2006 Permalink

Sacks, David. Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 0-7679-1172-5.
Whaddya gonna do? The hardcover is out of print and the paperback isn't scheduled for publication until August 2004. The U.K. hardback edition, simply titled The Alphabet, is currently available.

March 2004 Permalink

Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed in anything outside their speciality often found around university campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and mutter “English majors…”. I'd always assumed it was a selection effect: a career which involves reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who those more engaged in the real world inevitably find tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians, engineers, or members of other productive professions.

This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it. Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a recent biography.

In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English and their professors consider their “day job” is highly destructive to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with human values, that he consistently encloses “humanities” in scare quotes.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe deems the study of literature pernicious in each.

  1. Seven Types of Immaturity
    “Outgrowing” loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
  2. Seven Avenues to Unawareness
    Imputing “motivation” where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness—it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
  3. Five Avenues to Unhappiness
    Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up—this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
  4. Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
    Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
  5. Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
    Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.

That's a pretty damning bill of particulars, isn't it? Most of these indictments of the rôle of literature in inducing these dysfunctions are illustrated by fictionalised anecdotes based on individuals the author has encountered in English departments during his career. Some of the stories and arguments for how devotion to literature is the root cause of the pathology of the people who study it seem a tad over the top to this engineer, but then I haven't spent my whole adult life in an English Lit. department! The writing is entertaining and the author remains true to his profession in invoking a multitude of literary allusions to bolster his points. Whatever, it's comforting to believe that when you took advantage of Cliff's Notes to survive those soporific equation-free requirements for graduation you weren't (entirely) being lazy but also protecting your sanity and moral compass!

The book is out of print, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive. Special thanks to the visitor who recommended this book.

November 2005 Permalink

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Profile Books, 2003. ISBN 1-86197-612-7.
A U.S edition is now available.

January 2004 Permalink

Waugh, Auberon. Will This Do? New York: Carroll & Graf 1991. ISBN 0-7867-0639-2.
This is about the coolest title for an autobiography I've yet to encounter.

April 2003 Permalink