Writers and the CIA
There is a really interesting story in The New Republic about writers, literary magazines and the CIA. Patrick Iber writes about the history of the CIA’s attempt to impact culture and ideas. It’s fascinating literary history>
“Today’s intellectuals approach their labors in a very different set of circumstances,” he writes. “The struggle for academic patronage and the strained conditions of nearly all media properties have led to fewer jobs and fewer venues for substantial writing; the possibility of leading a public-facing life of the mind now seems vanishingly small, which only heightens nostalgia for the golden age of the 1950s. Yet the shadow of the CIA lurks behind the achievements of that time. The free play of ideas—the very thing that was supposed to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union in the first place—turned out to be, at least in part, a carefully constructed illusion. What if the prominence of midcentury intellectuals, the sense that they were engaged in important political and artistic projects, is inseparable from the fact that they were useful to America’s Cold War empire?”
Best Books of the Year
What was your favorite book you read this year? Many great best-of-the-year lists are out, including My Bookshelf, Myself and the year’s 10 Best Books from the New York Times as well as 16 Favorites from Brain Pickings and the Smithsonian’s Best Books about Innovation and Science. Bill Gate’s always highlights his favorite reads of the year in a video. This year he picks a few that will soon be on my list:
Recently I have enjoyed well-written biography more than anything else. A talented biographer not only tells a very personal story, but she also carries the reader through the time period in which the subject made their impact on the world. The reader learns about philosophy, history and science while following a captivating narrative. More biographies are already on my list for 2017.
This year, I read two very good examples of the craft: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin; and Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson.
Kai Bird is a wonderful author, and the news has it that he is at work on a biography of Jimmy Carter during his White House years. I would like to end this post with a quote from another favorite president: Barack Obama. It’s included in another book I’ve nearly finished, Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late. The quote is about story and its power to shape our culture.
“What makes our species unique is that we are not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.”
I love this quote from Content Standard’s story: Why Brand Storytelling is the New Marketing: an Interview with Robert McKee:
“The way to persuade the buyer is to get their attention with a story, and that is very difficult in this day and age of distraction. Story is the most effective way to get attention because what attracts human attention is change. As long as things are moving on an even keel, you pay attention to whatever you’re doing. But if something around you changes—if the temperature around you changes, if the phone rings—that gets your attention. The way in which a story begins is a starting event that creates a moment of change. When someone is watching a story, something happens that turns the situation, usually to the negative. (It could be to the positive, but even if it turns to the positive, it’s going to become negative in a moment.)”
McKee on writing:
“There’s this whole world of study that [all people] have to accomplish. They have to have an author’s knowledge of the art form. That’s the hardest thing for them to get through their heads: here they are, at age 25, 30, and they thought they’d done all the schooling they needed to do. That they could just sit down and be a writer, a businessman, and that they didn’t have to start learning from the beginning.
“If this was music, and not story, you would have to master music theory. You’d have to master the form of it—whether it’s classical, jazz, or rock—musicians are technicians who know the structure of music. They recognize that there’s a technique—there’s a craft. It’s the same thing with writing, you have to be able to compose.”
One campaign that McKee highlights for doing it well is Dove. “It’s a perfect example of what a great marketing/storytelling campaign can be, but it begins with an insight into human nature. Without that substance, it doesn’t matter how skillful the storytelling may be.”
Author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett takes readers on a wonderful tour of her favorite bookstores around the country in this article in the New York Times. I will certainly visit her store in Nashville, Parnassus Books, when I get a chance to travel in the area. Her story highlights two favorites here in the Twin Cities: Wild Rumpus, a wonderful children’s bookstore, and Birchbark Books, which is also owned and operated by an author, Louise Erdrich. Another author-owned bookstore didn’t make Patchett’s list, but if you are in the area I would suggest that you stop by. Common Good Books in St. Paul is owned by Garrison Keillor.
I visited two of my favorites this year: Powell’s in Portland, and The Strand, the legendary “18 miles of books” in New York City, which ranks high on my list. Here seven authors list their favorite stores. What’s your favorite bookstore?
This is pretty cool. It’s called Starfield. It’s an art installation by the French art collective Lab212. “It involves a swing, the projection of a star field in front of it and a Microsoft Kinect.” Participants can swing over scenes from the earth, Saturn’s rings, a black hole or other constellations.
“Since the invention of the cuneiform system of writing in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE and of hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3150 BCE, the serious reader of texts has enjoyed cultural acclamation,” writes Frank Furedi in Aeon."In Roman times, starting in the second century BCE, books were brought down from heaven to earth, where they served as luxury goods that endowed their wealthy owners with cultural prestige. The Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived in the first century, directed his sarcasm at the fetish for grandiose display of texts, complaining that ‘many people without a school education use books not as tools for study but as decorations for the dining room’. Of the flamboyant collector of scrolls, he wrote that ‘you can see the complete works of orators and historians on shelves up to the ceiling, because like bathrooms, a library has become an essential ornament of a rich house’.”
Owning books is not about the appearance of sophistication. Nevertheless, bookish fools exist. Furedi asks, “Is book ownership still a sign of public cultural distinction in the digital age? It’s not the performance, and not the optics that really matter, but the experience of the journey to the unknown.”
God of the Modern World
Anthony Kronman’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, looks to be an important subject for our times. David Brooks recently wrote about the important tome in his most recent column: The Beauty of Big Books. In his column, Brooks notes the former Yale Law School Dean’s journey toward understanding our modern world. “Since I first began to think about such things in even a modestly self-conscious way,” Brooks writes, quoting Kronman, “I have been haunted by the thought that destiny has placed me in a world with a unique historical identity and been anxious to know what this is.” Brooks is certainly correct in saying it’s a big book too. The volume comes in at more than 1,100 pages. Nonetheless I’m looking forward to reading it.
Here is the book’s description from the publisher: “We live in an age of disenchantment. The number of self-professed “atheists” continues to grow. Yet many still feel an intense spiritual longing for a connection to what Aristotle called the “eternal and divine.” For those who do, but demand a God that is compatible with their modern ideals, a new theology is required. This is what Anthony Kronman offers here, in a book that leads its readers away from the inscrutable Creator of the Abrahamic religions toward a God whose inexhaustible and everlasting presence is that of the world itself. Kronman defends an ancient conception of God, deepened and transformed by Christian belief—the born-again paganism on which modern science, art, and politics all vitally depend. Brilliantly surveying centuries of Western thought—from Plato to Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant, from Spinoza to Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud—Kronman recovers and reclaims the God we need today.”
Joseph Ellis at the University of Minnesota
Joseph Ellis delivered a speech at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota on September 28, 2016. His speech was titled: “The Second Founding: Four Men Who Created a Country.” The speech was part of a series called Friends Forum: A Series for Curious Minds. Check out the remaining events on this year’s calendar.
Bill Moyers with Poet W.S Merwin
This one is from the archives of Bill Moyers’ wonderful show. Here he speaks with one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin, about his 50-year-career. You can find this show and other information at Bill Moyers’ blog, which is still kept up to date, even though the television show is no longer on the air. I miss you Bill.
The Last Bookstore
A great short film from Chad Howitt called: Welcome to the Last Bookstore. It’s a touching look at Josh Spencer’s journey overcoming adversity opening an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Atlantic Video.