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It seems that Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is all the rage...even though it hasn’t even been published yet. The New York Times has already published a lengthy review (by Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus no less), while other publications across the world weigh in as well. Tanenhaus calls it a “masterpiece of American fiction.” He…


It seems that Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is all the rage...even though it hasn’t even been published yet. The New York Times has already published a lengthy review (by Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus no less), while other publications across the world weigh in as well. Tanenhaus calls it a “masterpiece of American fiction.” He writes, “Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” Even President Obama has been rumored to have received an early copy and is enjoying it on his vacation. By the way, the novel is called Freedom, and it doesn’t arrive in stores until Tuesday.

Yet, in the article I linked to above, Julie Bosman writes that some of the early praise has started a bit of controversy. Does the book deserve it, so soon? And does the New York Times (and other publications) favor the white male author over all others? She writes, “Within this Franzenfrenzy there is the whiff of Franzenfury, or Franzenfreude, as the novelist Jennifer Weiner has called it. She and Ms. Picoult have recently unleashed a steady stream of Twitter jabs about Mr. Franzen and The New York Times, charging that female novelists are unjustly overlooked by critics.

“Do I think I should be getting all of the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope. Would I like to be taken at least as seriously as a Jonathan Tropper or a Nick Hornby? Absolutely,” said Ms. Weiner in an interview that the Huffington Post conducted with her and Ms. Picoult. For Ms. Picoult’s part, “I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against Jonathan Franzen,” she said in the interview. “I hope I read (‘Freedom’) and love it. None of this was motivated as a critique against him or his work, just that he is someone The Times has chosen to review twice in seven days.””

For a complete list of all that’s been said about the book, check out the post from Amazon’s book blog. A few highlights from that post include:

* Sam Anderson in New York: “Few modern novelists rival Franzen in that primal skill of creating life, of tricking us into believing that a text-generated set of neural patterns, a purely abstract mind-event, is in fact a tangible human being that we can love, pity, hate, admire, and possibly even run into someday at the grocery store.”

* Jonathan Jones in the Guardian: “This new book demands comparison rather with Saul Bellow’s Herzog or something loftier – it is self-evidently a modern classic.... Freedom is the novel of the year, and the century.”

* David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times: “For Franzen, this is the trick: not to outgrow who we are but instead to accept it, and in so doing, to accept the world of which we are a part. That’s the freedom to which the title is referring, the freedom at the center of this consuming and extraordinarily moving book.”

Franzen is scheduled to make an appearance here in St. Paul on September 21, as part of the Talking Volumes series. It is especially interesting in that the book is also set in St. Paul. It should be quite an event.

One last word from Tanenhaus about the book: “Like all great novels, “Freedom” does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.” I can’t wait to read it. I’ve already got my copy pre-ordered.

Posted by Joel on August 29 2010 • Books

Trading Up

The latest issue of Granta includes an article on Nostalgia. Part of that issue includes this Web-only feature that reprints an old essay called Ribbon of Valour. The discussion about whether new technology is really better didn’t begin with the invention of the Internet. From Granta online: “Hal Crowther’s essay ‘One Hundred Fears of Solitude’, a blistering critique of digital technology and the internet age, is printed in Granta 111: Going Back. This article, which voices similar concerns about a dawning technological age, was printed in The Independent Weekly of Durham, North Carolina, upon Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. Principally an ode to an ageing typewriter, it is also the sound of an increasingly rare voice: a concern that we may not, after all, be trading up when we digitize.”

I particularly like this line: “Silent in the computer showroom, a 47-year-old digital virgin among high-tech commandos speaking the brave new language, I stared at my future laptop as a college freshman might gape at his first blind date. I felt like one of those Japanese soldiers on the Pacific atolls who surrendered twenty years after the war was over.”

And then there’s this prescient line, written in 1992: “Another thing that worries me is that the tendency of all this technology – laptop, desktop, electronic bulletin boards – is to make every writer his own publisher. Eventually there will be more publishers than readers, better than a one-to-one ratio between the sources of information and its consumers. Besides dilution and a loss of focus, there will be a tendency for consumers to eat what they like and ignore what is nourishing.”

Posted by Joel on August 27 2010 • Multimedia

Books vs E-Books

Preliminary research is showing that people who buy e-readers are actually reading more than they ever have before. This recent article from the Wall Street Journal highlights some of the most recent data. From the story: “A study of 1,200 e-reader owners by Marketing and Research Resources Inc. found that 40% said they now read more than they did with print books. Of those surveyed, 58% said they read about the same as before while 2% said they read less than before. And 55% of the respondents in the May study, paid for by e-reader maker Sony Corp., thought they’d use the device to read even more books in the future. The study looked at owners of three devices: Amazon.com Inc.’s Kindle, Apple Inc.’s iPad and the Sony Reader.” By the end of September, 11 million Americans will own at least one type of e-reader, according to the predictions made by Forrester Research.

From Newsweek...

Posted by Joel on August 27 2010 • Books

Harris Tweed

I know it sounds old school, but I love Tweed--Harris Tweed to be exact. But from what I read in the latest Esquire magazine, Tweed is in again this fall. It goes to show that if you hold onto something long enough, it comes back into style again. Increasingly, that cycle of what’s old is new is getting shorter. Nonetheless, only wool spun and dyed in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland can be called Harris Tweed. Any garment made from the cloth receives the official seal. Once highly sought after, the fabric has gone in and out of fashion. But the fabric has always had a loyal following, myself included.

It’s rather bookish too. According to Wikipedia, “the fictional character Robert Langdon, from the novels Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, wears Harris Tweed[8], as does the fictional detective Miss Marple[9] , the eleventh portrayal of the fictional Doctor from the television series Doctor Who[10], and Glasgow University Rugby Football Club. Jasper Fforde also uses a fictional character named Harris Tweed in his Thursday Next series, most notably in Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots.”

From Esquire’s Style Blog: “British comedian and actor Vic Reeves was given the uncommon opportunity to make the “Reeves Weave”: he picks the colors, visits the home weaver of and eventually has a suit made from his very own tweed on the Isle of Harris. While watching the silly but informative video — part two, here, and three are the best — we were struck with equal parts amusement, fascination, and jealousy.”

Posted by Joel on August 21 2010 • News

The Economics of Attention

One of the more fascinating books I’ve read over the past few years regarding the subject of new media is The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information by Richard Lanham. An emeritis professor of English literature, Lanham looks at today’s evolving media environment not through the lens of technological development but rather at the ever-valued, and ever-depleting, of commodities: our attention. Here is a description of the book, which came out in 2006, from Barnes and Noble.

"If economics is about the allocation of resources, then what is the most precious resource in our new information economy? Certainly not information, for we are drowning in it. No, what we are short of is the attention to make sense of that information. With all the verve and erudition that have established his earlier books as classics, Richard A. Lanham here traces our epochal move from an economy of things and objects to an economy of attention. According to Lanham, the central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style, for style is what competes for our attention amidst the din and deluge of new media. In such a world, intellectual property will become more central to the economy than real property, while the arts and letters will grow to be more crucial than engineering, the physical sciences, and indeed economics as conventionally practiced. The new attention economy, therefore, will anoint a new set of moguls in the business world—not the CEOs or fund managers of yesteryear, but new masters of attention with a grounding in the humanities and liberal arts.”

I recently came across this interview with Prof. Lanham from the California Literary Review. Prof. Lanham, from the interview: “The common assumption runs deep. What is really important, really real, is the physical stuff of the world. Commodities. Substance. We dug and grew it in the Agricultural Age, and we built it in the Industrial Age. The allocation of such stuff, after all, is what classical Adam-Smith economics came on the scene to explain. The rest is just “Fluff,” style not substance, “rhetoric” instead of “reality.” But now we are in a third age, the Age of Information. Now we’re stuck, it seems, with the “everything else.” With the “fluff.” And the fluff sometimes seems to be more important than the stuff.

“The driver of the change, the earthquake that has caused the tsunami, is how we have come to think of physical nature itself, as information, information “as an active agent, something that does not just sit there passively, but informs the material world, much as the messages of the genes instruct the machinery of the cell to build an organism.” (Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1982.)

Posted by Joel on August 21 2010 • Books

Remember Reading on Paper?

Check out this link for a photo collection at Slate called “Remember Reading on Paper?” This photo of James Dean was taken at the Winslow farm in Indiana in 1955. He is reading James Whitcomb Riley.

There seems to be so much discussion in the media and on various blogs lately contemplating the end not only of traditional media, but of print culture in general. Ross Douthat at the New York Times takes up the debate in a blog post titled Reading as a Luxury Good. “Yes, escape and vacation have always been luxury goods, but since the dawn of mass literacy, deep reading has been a possibility for everyone, rich and working-class and poor alike. Yes, most people who grew up in Jacobs’ circumstances didn’t read their way into broader intellectual vistas — but some of them did, and any of them could.”

Posted by Joel on August 01 2010 • Multimedia

The State of the News 2010

A few months ago, The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual study of the media business. As you might guess, it’s bleak. The questions aren’t just about how the media will recover after a (let’s hope) short-term recession, but rather they center on the long view, which is equally dire. “The market research and investment banking firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson projects that by 2013, after the economic recovery, three elements of old media — newspapers, radio and magazines — will take in 41% less in ad revenues than they did in 2006.

“For newspapers, which still provide the largest share of reportorial journalism in the United States, the metaphor that comes to mind is sand in an hourglass. The shrinking money left in print, which still provides 90% of the industry’s funds, is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models online. The industry must find a new model before that money runs out.

“The losses are already enormous. To quantify the impact, with colleague Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute we estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30%. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.”

The news is equally dire for magazines, although not to the extent of that facing newspapers. “In magazines, the number of ad pages sold across all titles studied fell by 26% in 2009, more than double the decline of a year earlier (12%). Almost every magazine suffered. Only 8% of the nearly 250 titles monitored saw an increase in ad pages. Among news magazines, the larger ones were hard hit. Time and Newsweek, for instance, saw ad pages fall 17% and 26% respectively. Niche news magazines examined tended to do better, though even here, the only one to gain ad pages was the Week, up 9.5 percent.” For some other key findings, click here.

For a very good discussion about the state of the today’s news business, check out the July 16 episode of On the Media, available on iTunes as a podcast. 

Posted by Joel on August 01 2010 • Journalism

Philosophy of Journalism

This is an older article I recently stumbled upon, but it is a topic of interest: the philosophy of journalism. The article asks why it is difficult to find a philosophy of journalism at college campuses across the country. “Why, at a time of breakneck technological and social revolution in news and newsrooms, do deans and presidents permit ossified philosophy departments to abdicate their responsibility to cover the world by not thinking about the media?” writes Carlin Romano. “How can it be that journalism and philosophy, the two humanistic intellectual activities that most boldly (and some think obnoxiously) vaunt their primary devotion to truth, are barely on speaking terms?”

Even though he doesn’t say it outright, Romano, a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, believes journalism programs lack intellectual depth and fail to address the bigger questions when teaching their students. He writes, “Broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.”

Romero writes that all journalism students must at least be required to take a history of journalism course. I was, and I believe my alma mater, the University of Nebraska, succeeds in this area. Many of these discussions were required in courses such as media history and media law. It’s what makes the program a standout above many journalism programs throughout the country.

This article provides much food for further thought. “There’s a great history to be written of philosophers’ engagement with journalism, from Hegel’s citation of the daily newspaper as his morning prayer, to Ortega y Gasset’s lessons from newspaper life, to Russell’s widespread freelancing and the later Wittgenstein’s instantiation of conceptual journalism as a philosophical method.”

Posted by Joel on August 01 2010 • Journalism