January 26, 2012
My husband bought me an iPhone for my birthday nearly a year ago. I fell in love immediately. As Hemingway once famously said, “writing is a moveable feast,” and to be able to send texts, answer emails, check the weather, listen to music, upload pictures to Facebook, all while I lead my nomadic writer’s existence has made my personal life and my working life much, much easier. Anyone who owns a smart phone knows what I mean. It’s a magnificent invention.
So I was heart struck Sunday and then again today after reading two investigative articles in the New York Times by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza:
Upon finishing these articles, my immediate thought was this: Had I known about Apple’s egregious behavior, its callous disregard, I probably would not have accepted the gift of an iPhone. Although most electronics are manufactured and assembled overseas these days, other companies are better than Apple at complying with International Labor Law.
I am sure that as a consequence of these articles, there will be more changes. At least I hope so because my second thought is this: Apple is one of China’s best customers. Certainly, they can exert some pressure.
January 21, 2012
I went to the New York Historical Society on Friday to check out the recent renovation and the current installations. The centerpiece of the new lobby is a large vitrine holding two small notebooks once owned by John Lansing, a lawyer from Albany, who was a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. Written in a delicate, nearly illegible hand, these rare notebooks will soon be digitized by the Society and added to its significant collection. The library on the second floor has always been home to visiting scholars and writers. I have spent many hours there researching articles and books. Once endangered with closure, this American treasure trove has survived a reorganization. The Lansing notebook acquisition is typical of the Society's interest and foresight, a Historical Society extending from the past into the future of our still young nation.
To my surprise, Lansing's Constitutional Convention notebooks were written secretly against the express orders of George Washington. Washington had asked for a vow by the delegates not to take any notes, an off-the-record debate. Though probably intended to encourage everyone to speak freely, it can also be read as an attempt to silence and/or censor the historical record. Fortunately, our first President did not succeed and the evolution of our freedoms continued.
Lansing and others—such as Rufus King and James Madison—were courageous enough to defy these orders. Without them we would never have eyewitness documentation of this seminal event in our early history. According to the Society press release, Lansing's notes are the most detailed and unedited. He recorded speeches and debates, assigning names to the speakers and their locations in the chamber. He was distressed that the delegates were seeking to establish an entirely new government rather than simply amending the Articles of Confederation, as charged. Lansing and his fellow New Yorker Richard Yates left the Convention early, but not before he had participated actively and created this illuminating record. Quill pen in hand, he managed to fill these two notebooks, probably on his lap, and to secret them away when he left. No security guards at the door, no sensors, only censors.
The following year, Lansing went to the New York State ratification convention where he insisted that the new Constitution be enlarged by a Bill of Rights.
If you go the Historical Society, be sure to go up to the Luce Collection on the Fourth Floor where glass fronted storage vitrines of Tiffany lamps, furniture, silver, porcelain, a rare stage-coach, weaponry, and much more, await a writer’s curiosity and imagination. The curators’ narratives here are limited to computer descriptions of individual items, but we remain free to create our own narratives in our free society.
January 8, 2012
Because one year after he won the Pulitzer, Liu Xiaboa is still in jail and his writing banned. "We will stick to our writing," he says in a video on the PEN American Center site:
Slow death by humiliation and imprisonment. This must stop.
I have told my 99 year old mother about Liu Xiaboa and other persecuted Chinese writers and she said, immediately, "It reminds me of the Nazi regime," a euphemism to describe the destruction of a culture, of a people, of books and ideas, of freedom itself.
My mother grew up in Vienna surrounded by books, immersed in books. Her father was on the PTA of her elementary school and distributed books to the children as gifts. A local bookseller gave out free books to children. She read all the time and the saddest moment in her recent life was the day she realized she'd outlived her sight. I read to her as much as I can--the newspaper, poetry, books her book club is reading. Needless to say, she's the oldest member. We've tried to transition her to audio, but it's been difficult.
She is still telling stories, rushing to tell them as they surface in her memory. I'm writing them all down, then posting them in emails to those near and dear for the historical record. Yesterday, a new story surfaced about a bookstore near her home in Vienna's Second District. She remembers the name of the owner--Mr. Tuchner--and a day in the late fall of 1938 he disappeared and the store was trashed and shuttered. She didn't witness his arrest, but those that dared to stand and watch spread the story of the SS officer pronouncing the store a treasure trove of Filthy Jewish Bolshevist Free Thinking Pornography. No such literature would be permitted to be saved much less published in Hitler's Reich.
The lists of books to be destroyed included all Jewish authors except for those in the sciences. These collections were spared as they were considered irreplaceable.
January 6, 2012
They've become a cultural phenomena and they are ubiquitous. Publishers encourage them and add talking points to the back of the book targeted at reading groups. These pages often include interviews with the author, biographical information, and advertisements for other books by the same author, or other authors. This is all good news: people are reading, people are interested in how writers work, how the work began, what a writing day is like. And, when they get together, they like to talk about their experience of the book: characters, plot, the story itself, how they relate to the story and characters. If the book is nonfiction, the discussion can be equally engaging and informative.
I have belonged to more than one reading group and, like writing groups, they seem to have a lifespan, some longer than others. I have found that they work best when discussion is orderly, when they are mixed male and female, when they are ethnically and age diverse, when they have both writers and devoted readers who are not writers, and when people stop talking and listen to one another.
Recently, I left one group because it had become too social, focused more on food and drink, and less on discussion about the books. Three of the ten or so members were writers, the others well read readers, but the shift from discussing the book in-depth to the food and drink would not abate. So I left.
Then I was invited into another group, none of whom are writers. They had met each other in the laundry room, elevators and foyer of the condo where they live, and had started the group on a whim. They all lived in the same line, so they were fated, one of the members told me. Meetings rotated from one floor to another, all with beautiful views of downtown Manhattan and distinctive décor. They were mostly book club "virgins" and, when I arrived, they solicited suggestions: Should there be food? A presenter? Who selects the book? And so on. About half the group was high-brow, the other half low-brow never having read any literary fiction; one or two were able to toggle between the two. The first book I read as a member of this group was the second of the Stieg Laarsen trilogy-- "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest," not a book I would have ever chosen to read on my own. No matter: I was curious. My doctor had recommended "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" in the midst of my annual exam, not a moment I take any such recommendations seriously. I had ignored him, and then seen all the movies. Mostly, I was interested in Lisbeth Salander, Laarsen's vigilante, his alter ego, the woman who gets the bad guys when he--in his too short life-- could not. And this is what I wanted to discuss with the group: the phenomena of the Laarsen trilogy. Anyone who knows anything about writing agrees that the books are not well written plus they are in translation. So I was astounded when the group was so swept away by the story and the characters that they could not stand back and discuss the book as a piece of writing. Why should I have been surprised? They were ordinary readers. They read the way most people read. Only the writer toils month after month, year after year, to make a book that works. Genre fiction, literary fiction, or nonfiction, it makes no difference. Writers toil and readers who are not writers read mostly for pleasure. The book is read, it's done, they liked it or didn't, and they move on. For some reason, I found this realization wounding. I don't know why, but I did. This new group didn't care one whit about the writing per se or about my writerly comments. One woman even told me that she already had her education and she didn't want to learn any more about writing or anything else (from me). Obviously, I was in the wrong group. So I left again.
If I do decide to join or form another reading group--and it won't be anytime soon-- I'm almost certain all the members will be writers, that there won't be any food, that the view won't matter, that we'll live in diverse neighborhoods all over the city, that we'll be good listeners and articulate commentators, and that all of us will have a curiosity about good literature--genre or literary, fiction or nonfiction--the society in which it is born, and how it is made.