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Presidential Reading Habits


Many of our presidents were well-known bibliophiles. Rutherford Hayes enjoyed Emerson. Calvin Coolidge translated Dante's Inferno from the original Italian. Woodrow Wilson is the only president to have a PhD. And John F. Kennedy is the only Pulitzer Prize winner among presidential authors.These and other bits about the reading habits of former presidents can be found in this article from the Weekly Standard. By the way, the article's author, Richard Norton Smith, is also the author of a presidential biography I would highly recommend: Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation.

"Harry Truman loved books more than bourbon," writes Smith. "As a self-confessed mama's boy imprisoned behind coke-bottle glasses, Truman inhabited distant times and foreign cultures through volumes like Great Men and Famous Women. As a senator conducting sensitive investigations of military contracts during World War II, a frustrated Truman fantasized about going away somewhere and burying himself in Shakespeare and Plutarch. His thorough knowledge of the Bible and his deep immersion in the ancients made him naturally sympathetic to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Not long before he died, asked if he liked to read himself to sleep at night, the ex-president replied, "No, young man. I like to read myself awake.""

Here is another fun story from Smith's article about Abraham Lincoln, well-known for his voracious reading habits. "His 1860 campaign biographer, John L. Scripps, not content to have Lincoln repay a farmer for a damaged book with three days' hard labor, conjured up a young scholar at home in Plutarch's Lives. This charming tale had but one shortcoming: It had been made up out of whole cloth by a writer who simply assumed, as he put it in a postelection letter to the victorious candidate, that Lincoln was familiar with the classic work. If not, wrote an embarrassed Scripps, Lincoln "must read it at once to make my statement good." Although the author received no formal reply, the Library of Congress did in the form of a White House request to borrow the volume in question.

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 27 2005 • Books

Devils & Dust


On April 26, Bruce Springsteen will release his new CD Devils & Dust. According to reports, it will be a Dual Disc, with the CD content one one side of the disc, and live concert footage on the DVD content on the other side. Here is a report from Backstreets, a fan site:

"How's this for a B-side: the DVD portion will include the entire album in 5.1 channel surround sound and in 2-channel stereo, as well as a special Devils & Dust film by Danny Clinch, capturing Springsteen at work. Clinch, whose work with Bruce has included The Rising album cover as well as the "Countin' on a Miracle" video, filmed acoustic performances of five songs to be included here: "Devils & Dust," "Long Time Comin'," "Reno," "All I'm Thinkin' About," and "Matamoras Banks.""

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 20 2005 • Current Affairs

National Book Critics Circle Awards


The National Book Critics Circle Awards have been announced, and Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation has won the nonfiction category. This sounds like an interesting book. Here is a report on the rest of the winners from the Boston Globe.

I don't know much about the nonfiction winner or its author. However, I am always impressed by the selections made by the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Here is what the publisher writes about its book: "The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation it provoked are one of the great discontinuities in European and world history. The dramatic changes that began when Martin Luther proclaimed his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg in 1517 were of a different order to anything that had gone before. In the following two hundred years, the Christian world broke apart and the nature not just of religion but also of politics, thought, society and culture all changed utterly. The course of history down to our own time has been decisively shaped by this revolution.

"Diarmaid MacCulloch's magnificent new history is the most authoritative and wide-ranging account of these epochal and often bloody events. He brilliantly describes the changing late medieval world into which Luther, Calvin and the other reformers erupted. He proposes an original understanding of the often confusing origins of the exceptionally violent disagreements that divided men and women of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries -- disagreements for which they were prepared to kill and be killed. He examines the personalities of the leading Reformers and their opponents and the mix of ideas, prejudices and accidents that shaped the various versions of Protestantism and Catholicism.

"But this is not simply a book about popes, scholars and reformers, religious battles and secular powers. MacCulloch examines the impact of the Reformation on everyday lives -- on sex and love, on the changing sense of being a man and being a woman, on beliefs about life after death and punishment in this life, on belief in witches and ghosts. He shows the power of ideas to ruin lives and rebuild them: to bring hope, fear, hatred, anger and joy to the humblest as well as the most exalted places on the continent."

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 19 2005 • Books

Men Don't Sell


Why haven't Vanity Fair's recent issues sold on the newstand as they once have? In a word: men. According to Lia Miller's recent article in the New York Times, the cover models are to blame.

"Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, blamed the cover models for his magazine's flagging newsstand sales in a recent interview with Women's Wear Daily," Miller writes. "The drop, he said, was the result of three covers in a row featuring men at the end of 2004 - Jude Law in October, Johnny Depp in November and Leonardo DiCaprio in December."

Newstand sales have dropped 22.5 percent in the last half of 2004, Miller writes. Breaking from Vanity Fair's traditional cover treatment of a portrait of Hollywood starlets, the April issue features three European models in white bikinis. "Vanity Fair may be trying to bolster sales through the tactics of magazines such as Maxim, whose covers have perfectly exploited that ideal nexus of women and attractiveness - the sexy young model in a bikini," writes Miller. "There has not been a model on Vanity Fair's cover since 1994, when Cindy Crawford was featured."

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 19 2005 • Journalism

The New New Thing


I found a new book I want to put on my list to read (which is getting too big these days). It's called The New New Journalism, and includes interviews with the best writers practicing long-form journalism today. I still have dreams of completing such a project some day. (Maybe I will talk about it here more often.) Here is what the publisher has to say about the collection of essays.

"Forty years after Tom Wolfe, the late Hunter S. Thompson, and Gay Talese launched the New Journalism movement, Robert S. Boynton sits down with nineteen practitioners of what he calls the New New Journalism to discuss their methods, writings and careers. The New New Journalists are first and foremost brilliant reporters who immerse themselves completely in their subjects. Jon Krakauer accompanies a mountaineering expedition to Everest. Ted Conover works for nearly a year as a prison guard. Susan Orlean follows orchid fanciers to reveal an obsessive subculture few knew existed. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spends nearly a decade reporting on a family in the South Bronx. And like their muckraking early twentieth-century precursors, they are drawn to the most pressing issues of the day: Alex Kotlowitz, Leon Dash, and William Finnegan to race and class; Ron Rosenbaum to the problem of evil; Michael Lewis to boom-and-bust economies; Richard Ben Cramer to the nitty gritty of politics. How do they do it? In these interviews, they reveal the techniques and inspirations behind their acclaimed works, from their felt-tip pens, tape recorders, long car rides, and assumed identities; to their intimate understanding of the way a truly great story unfolds."

Here is an article about the collection written by Julia Klein in the Columbia Journalism Review. One interesting point she notes is that very few of the writers were trained in conventional journalism programs (my graduate degree wasn't in journalism either). Another fact that she highlights is that none of the authors hide their own opinions or biases on the subjects covered. In fact, they are part of the selling point of the piece. I actually agree that it isn't a problem that writers share their feelings or lean one way or the other in taking a particular angle on such topics, particularly for long-form journalism, as long as it doesn't cause them to ignore certain facts or twist the truth. I think some of the best creative nonfiction that I have read includes the evolution of the author's feelings in the course of the book's narrative as they research and experience their sub-culture or subject matter first hand.

Klein also makes a good point in questioning why most of the authors collected here are male. "Is the culprit rank sexism? Male editors hiring their male buddies? Or else the magazine’s preference for subjects such as war and politics that draw more male writers? Do women writers, facing rejection, discourage more easily? (I’ve heard that thesis proposed.) Or, as devoted mothers and daughters and wives, are they simply unavailable to devote the months and years of zealous, almost superhuman effort required by immersion journalism? There is surely no single, and no easy, answer."

Jack Shafer of the New York Times has a review of the book in this weekend's Book Review. He wonders what's so "new" about this so-called "new" new journalism. "And there can't be all that much ''New New'' about Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin and Jane Kramer, all of whom have been writing feature journalism since the early 1960's," Shafer writes. "Evidence that the two schools span a shared literary continuum resides in the fact that Talese appears in both Boynton and Wolfe's pantheons. Several of Wolfe's writers (Garry Wills, James Mills, Joe McGinniss) fit the New New journalism mold, and several of Boynton's writers (reporter-artists Ron Rosenbaum, Richard Ben Cramer and Michael Lewis) wouldn't be arrested for loitering if they appeared in a revised edition of Wolfe's anthology."

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 17 2005 • Books

Regret the Error

imageI recently came across an interesting blog for those who follow the media. It’s called Regret the Error, and it simply tracks all of the errors made by major media outlets across the country. It’s fascinating. It includes links to the correction pages to newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks. It also includes links to various Web sites that discuss media issues.

Here’s a somewhat funny error the blog recently highlighted regarding my hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune. “In a story on Page B3 Wednesday, the word “mayors’ “ was omitted from a quote attributed to Randy Harmes, a Mankato firefighter. He was referring to St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly’s decision to back President Bush and former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman’s decision to switch parties and become a Republican. Harmes jokingly said he wondered whether “someone was spiking the mayors’ drinking water in St. Paul that makes them go over to the ‘dark side.’ “

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 17 2005 • Journalism

Digital Gallery

imageThe New York Public Library has put its image database online, free for anyone to view. Here is what they have to say about it. “NYPL Digital Gallery is The New York Public Library’s new image database, developed to provide free and open online access to thousands of images from the original and rare holdings of the Research Libraries. Spanning a wide range of visual media, NYPL Digital Gallery offers digital images of drawings, illuminated manuscripts, maps, photographs, posters, prints, rare illustrated books, and more. Encompassing the subject strengths of the vast collections of the Research Libraries, these materials represent the applied sciences, fine and decorative arts, history, performing arts, and social sciences.”

I have been browsing already and it’s pretty cool. This is the kind of thing that I think many thought about when the Internet was first coming online. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if (fill in the blank) were available at your fingertips?

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 06 2005 • Multimedia

Easy Reader

It seems that Sony is no longer alone in making advances in the eBook. Sharp is entering the fray. According to this post at Gizmodo, Sharp has already built a prototype eBook reader with a screen that is only 1mm thick — inside the transparent plastic case that is thicker.

“Although they don’t plan to have the technology in saleable form until 2007, they already have one major leg up on Sony (and I’m not just talking about the color screen); since eBooks have already been a major part of Sharp’s Zaurus campaign, their library already has around 7000 titles, compared to Sony’s meager 100 or so.”

I’m not sure if I would become a user of the technology or not. I hope I don’t sound too old school, but I still like the book and its bound pages. I have a Palm, color screen included, and I use it as an eBook reader--for reading eBooks but mostly for magazine articles. And it has its place, especially on the train during my commute. But still, even if the technology was available, I don’t think I could give up the printed page. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 04 2005 • Multimedia

Sweet Charity

imageI realize that I have been out of action here for some time. Wow, in fact I just realized that I only posted twice during the entire month of February. Not good. This month marks the one year anniversary for my blog, and I hope to be much better about posting.

Work has been very busy lately. In the last month alone, I have attended a conference up north, finished a challenging feature story, and worked to finish a couple of editing projects. I am also working to complete a presentation I am going to give with my colleague tomorrow.

I have had some fun too. I serve as the lead editor of Where Twin Cities, one of the magazines that my group edits where I work. It’s a magazine for visitors to our wonderful part of the country. In February, Christina Applegate visited Minneapolis with her show, Sweet Charity, as she and her talented cast members worked out the kinks before heading to Broadway. Needless to say, we put her on the cover. In return, they were very kind to invite us to attend not only a show, but an after-party as well. I had a blast. I loved the show, and rubbing shoulders with the cast was great fun, especially meeting Tony Award-winner Denis O’Hare. I think the best part was when Ernie Sabella (you’ll recognize his voice as Pumba from the animated “Lion King” movies) bought a $200 bottle of wine and shared a glass with me.  He is one nice guy.

OK, I know I’m name dropping. But when will I get the chance again? Great fun indeed. If anyone from the cast or public relations team is reading this, thank you very much for allowing me and my colleagues to attend the show and party. Thanks for visiting the Twin Cities; good luck in New York.

Posted by Joel Schettler on March 01 2005 • Current Affairs