Posted by Ed
As most people who know me could tell you, I'm not exactly a big fan of athletics. Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote words close to my heart when he declared that, "Whenever I feel like exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes;" I know essentially nothing about the rules of team sports, the fortunes (and misfortunes) of athletic teams, or the lives and careers of celebrity athletes.
Nevertheless, it can be fascinating to see what the coverage of athletic events tells us about the world around us. Four years ago, during the last summer Olympics, I felt like U.S. coverage of the events had a weirdly retro feel--as if the Cold War were still alive and well. The clearest-cut example of this trend was the portrayal of the Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin as a menacing threat from the east; ominous music blared in the background whenever he appeared on screen, and his Russian-ness was made to seem exotic and threatening. Another TV story described a Russian-born swimmer whose father admitted that their family came to America in search of better athletic facilities (and a greater chance to win); nevertheless, American TV insisted on portraying the swimmer's life as an inspirational tale of escape from Russian tyranny. In so doing, the show missed out on a far bigger and more interesting story that affected the lives of dozens of prominent athletes--the effects of growing worldwide mobility on international athletic events. I like to think of this trend as the globalization of sports.
The new issue of Legal Affairs features a fascinating article on this very topic. In that article, Dana Mulhauser describes the case of Stephen Chomero, the 2003 world champion in the steeplechase, who has been barred from competing in the Olympics:
Last summer, Cherono moved from Kenya to the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, becoming another on the growing list of top-caliber amateur athletes who are switching citizenships in search of more money and better training facilities. The movement has been most noticeable in track, in which most of the top competitors are African and most of the top training facilities are not. Cherono—now identified on his Qatari passport as Saif Saaeed Shaheen—is joined in his new homeland by fellow former Kenyan Albert Chepkurui, a 5,000-meter runner who goes by the name Abdullah Ahma Hassan. Six other world-class Kenyan runners have changed nationalities since last August, with the other four going to Bahrain and the Netherlands.
The International Olympic Committee began to crack down hard on such moves about a year ago. An Olympic charter rule bars athletes such as Cherono from competing for one country during the three years after they have last competed for another. The only way around the rule is through a special waiver process requiring the approval of the new and old countries, the international track federation, and the IOC itself.
Previously, the IOC was deferential to waiver requests when both countries agreed. Yueling Chen, who in 1992 became the first Asian woman to win a gold medal in track, competed for the U.S. team in the 2000 Sydney games with Chinese and IOC approval. But now the IOC has made clear that it is reluctant to grant any waivers, certainly not when an athlete's prime motivation is financial. In the cases of Cherono and Chepkurui, the two runners managed to gain the approval of the track federation, of Qatar, and of Kenya (reportedly thanks to a healthy bribe from Qatar in the form of a sparkling new track facility). But the IOC blanched at approving the transfer, so the two athletes will have to watch the race from one of the few places hotter than Athens in August: Doha, Qatar.
There are a lot of problems with U.S. coverage of the Olympics--foremost among them the preponderance of silly sob stories and the manufacturing of an artificial sense of drama. (Perhaps the war on terror will play a larger role in Olympic coverage this year, though the relative obscurity of Arabic athletes will probably decrease that story-line's prominence.) When the Olympics return to television later this year, I'll be interested in seeing whether American TV moves beyond its old Cold War storyline and recognizes the emergence of new stories for a new age.
Posted by Ed
Back when I was an undergrad at Swarthmore College, one of my favorite professors introduced one lecture by saying that since we'd forget most of our history education whatever he did, he'd cut to the chase by telling us the three things he knew we'd remember years later. The first was that the people of Paris survived the siege of the city during the Franco-Prussian War by eating the animals in the zoo. (I often feel compelled to share this factoid with friends when we're visiting a zoo, especially when an unusually tasty-looking animal is nearby.) The second "fact we'd remember" requires a little bit of background: during Russia's Decembrist uprising of 1825, thousands of opponents of the new tsar, Nicholas I, gathered in St. Petersburg's Senate Square and chanted "Konstantin i konstitutsiia!" Many of the protestors thought they were chanting the names of the Archduke Constantine and his wife, but their chant was actually the Russian for "Constantine and a Constitution!" (Constitutions were an alien concept in Russia at the time...) Amusingly enough, I don't remember what the third item on the list was, but the class did help convince me to go to graduate school in history.
I was reminded of my professor's lecture earlier today, when I learned that the maker of one of my favorite recent movies, The Triplets of Belleville, will be producing an animated movie on a very familiar theme. According to The Scotsman, the French animator Sylvain Chomet is producing a movie called Barbacoa, set for release in 2005; the film "is set in Paris and is the story of the vet at the zoo fighting to protect Barbacoa the monkey and other animals being eyed by hungry children as Prussian troops lay siege to the city." (Other sources agree that Chomet's next film will deal with the adventures of a band of zoo animals during 1871's Paris Commune.) Sounds like a lot of fun!
Posted by Susan
Jack Ryan is now officially out of the Illinois Senate race, as comedians everywhere rejoice ("Oh, you meant I should go for the swing vote?"). According to Will (who presumably means to refer to Jack Ryan rather than former scandal-plagued attorney general and erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan), Jim Oberweis is being considered as a replacement candidate. If this is true, it seems like a poor choice--Oberweis has virtually no political experience, unless one counts his previous failed attempts to run for office, and the only two things I can recall about his campaign for the nomination were his extreme xenophobia and his somewhat sketchy use of his company's funds to indirectly promote his campaign (both of these are described in the candidate profiles at Gapers Block, which is presently having server problems; here's a cached copy). The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, names State Board of Education Chairman Ron Gidwitz, third-place Senate primary finisher Steve Rauschenberger, and guy-with-similar-name-to-outgoing-senator-Peter-Fitzgerald Patrick Fitzgerald as possible nominees.
Posted by Susan
A few interesting links, largely from Nature:
Posted by Ed
I'm just back from Boston, where I spent a very productive week-and-a-half reading Soviet archival documents in the Harvard libraries. (If only Chicago were as rich as Harvard... We only have one of the six sets of microfilmed files I'd most like to read, and Harvard has all six.) Here are some links:
Posted by Matt
Briefly, thoughts on a couple of things I read recently:
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I was in the mood for something light and amusing, and, as bad fiction goes, this was entertaining enough. The writing is poor: most of the adjectives and all the adverbs could be struck out to good effect, and the dialogue sounds as if the characters know they are in a suspense novel. It's amusing that every academic seems to be "venerable," "revered," or "renowned." And so many things are "astonishing"! I feel sorry for those at Harvard, where apparently all the girls smile knowingly due to their awareness of the sacred feminine.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. This was certainly an improvement over the former in terms of literary quality, but I couldn't help feeling that I was reading more or less the same story over and over again. Typically they are vignettes of a relationship that has grown stagnant, or that is collapsing. The characters all seem bored, or boring, and this makes it harder to feel any sympathy for them. Careful attention is paid to the food that is being prepared in many of the stories, and also to the characters' attire. This might help add authenticity to stories of immigrants from India, but I would have preferred that more attention be given to developing characters I could care about. Perhaps I am being too harsh: in places the stories break through this monotony and at times they are moving. The ending of the last story, musing on the strangeness of the many places and people one comes to know in a lifetime, is one example. These stories aren't bad, and if I hadn't read them all in one stretch my feeling about this book would be better.
Five more days before I go back to Chicago for a while: time to decide what to read next....
On an unrelated note, how is gmail working for people? I tried sending some mail to my gmail account from my uchicago account, and after about a day it still hasn't shown up.
Posted by Matt
Today I finished reading Nabokov's The Gift, the last of his novels written in Russian. (The translation is by Michael Scammell, with Nabokov's input.) I really enjoyed this novel. It's Nabokov's tribute to Russian literature, and not having read Gogol or Pushkin, I'm sure there is much that I missed. But as usual with Nabokov, much of the joy of reading this book comes from the incredible prose.
One passage I particularly liked is this one near the end, in which the main character, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is falling asleep:
As always on the border between consciousness and sleep all sorts of verbal rejects, sparkling and tinkling, broke in: "The crystal crunching of that Christian night beneath a chrysolitic star"... and his thought, listening for a moment, aspired to gather them and use them and began to add of its own: Extinguished, Yasnaya Polyana's light, and Pushkin dead, and Russia far... but since this was no good, the stipple of rhymes extended further: "A falling star, a cruising chrysolite, an aviator's avatar..." His mind sank lower and lower into a hell of alligator alliterations, into infernal cooperatives of words. Through their nonsensical accumulation a round button on the pillowcase prodded him in the cheek; he turned on his other side and against a dark backdrop naked people ran into the Grunewald lake, and a monogram of light resembling an infusorian glided diagonally to the highest corner of his subpalpebral field of vision. Behind a certain closed door in his brain, holding on to its handle but turning away from it, his mind commenced to discuss with somebody a complicated and important secret, but when the door opened for a minute it turned out that they were talking about chairs, tables, stables.
My sleep cycle has been very erratic the past few weeks, and at times I found myself reading this book at moments at which I was drifting off to sleep, the language mingling with my final physics homeworks, and I experienced similar feelings of complicated and important connections that, on jolting awake, were nonsense. It's an interesting feeling, the half-asleep state in which ordinary things seem infused with new meanings coming from dreams. Nabokov's descriptions of this sort of state are beautiful.
Another passage I liked:
But sometimes I get the impression that all this is a rubbishy rumor, a tired legend, that is has been created out of those same suspicious granules of approximate knowledge that I use myself when my dreams muddle through regions known to me only by hearsay or out of books, so that the first knowledgeable person who has really seen at the time the places referred to will refuse to recognize them, will make fun of the exoticism of my thoughts, the hills of my sorrow, the precipices of my imagination, and will find in my conjectures just as many topographical errors as he will anachronisms.
The story itself is compelling. At first I was a bit bored, but the book caught my interest fairly quickly, and its views of the central character (as a struggling writer, as a child wishing he could accompany his father on his long journeys, as a young man in love) are strengthened by the analogs to Nabokov's own life. Fyodor is one of the more completely sympathetic main characters I have encountered in a Nabokov novel, and the love story here is not colored by moral ambiguity as, say, that in Ada is. The Gift falls short of some of Nabokov's later novels in greatness, but it is a substantial and enjoyable work of fiction.
Posted by Ed
Last weekend I came home to Boston for a week, mainly to do some research in the Harvard libraries. That's cut down on my blogging time, but I'll be posting more soon. Until I do, here are some more links:
On an unrelated note, I was weirdly intrigued by Chris Suellentrop's Slate assessment of Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield. It's a fairly convincing account of how one of the least amusing comic strips around became a marketing juggernaut.
Posted by Matt
Update: I've uploaded some pictures from graduation.
My graduation ceremony was this morning. I'm now officially an alumnus of the U of C. It's a very odd feeling to realize that I'm no longer a student here. It's mostly been a very good four years.
The ceremony itself was nice enough. Mearsheimer gave a speech about the role of America in the global balance of power that managed to be somewhat political and yet still not seem inappropriate to me. The students who spoke also did fairly well. One question still troubles me about graduation: why have the seniors line up in the overly hot Henry Crown Field House when the new Ratner gym is large and air-conditioned?
Last night was the reception at the Museum of Science and Industry, where I spent a long time searching for a few people and not finding them. Eventually my friend Jess showed up after the majority of the crowd had left, and we spent a while exploring. The MSI is very entertaining when it's almost empty, but it becomes spooky when doors start being locked and you wonder if you're going to be shut up in part of the museum all night. Which could be pretty fun, depending on how much of the museum you would have access to.
Tonight Jess convinced me we should go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which to my surprise was still showing (AMC River East). Ed has blogged about this film here and here. For the most part I agree with him. I enjoyed the movie, but it did seem to me to have significant problems. It focused too much on the Lacuna employees. I agree that there was some realism in the depiction of the relationship between Clementine and Joel, but I still feel like the film's treatment of them fell short of the mark. The reasons they give for their decision to erase their memories of the other don't really sound sufficient for such a drastic action. Sure, we're told that Clementine's impulsive, and we also see this, but to erase her memories of Joel seems far beyond impulsive. I don't feel like their relationship was treated in enough detail for the plot's basic premise to seem realistic or compelling. I don't see how anyone could have viewed this film as being romantic; its treatment of relationships seemed to me to be pessimistic and cynical. For instance, we see Joel confiding in two of his friends who are a couple, and their own problems surface during this discussion. This detail didn't seem to me to serve much of a function, unless it is meant to reinforce the pessimistic idea that relationships are all fragile and strife-ridden.
In any case, I should finish packing and get some sleep.
Posted by Ed
Some links to amuse, enlighten, or entertain you:
The most interesting of these articles, I thought, was the New York Times profile of Adrienne Mayor. An excerpt:
[W]hen Ms. Mayor's first book, "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton University Press), came out four years ago, this late-blooming outsider with no advanced degrees caused something of a sensation among high-ranking anthropologists, paleontologists, geologists and others. She used Roman and Greek texts to argue that some fossils were used to support or create myths about strange creatures in the ancient world.
"Art historians think that Ms. Mayor may well have solved the puzzle of the Corinthian vase depicting Heracles shooting arrows at the head of the monster of the Troy legend," John Noble Wilford wrote in The New York Times in 2000. She noticed that the mysterious monster's head closely resembled the skull of an extinct giraffe.
Now Ms. Mayor is at it again. She said her third and latest book, a combination of history, archaeology, folklore and old-fashioned detective work, would be the first scholarly attempt to set the record straight about Native American contributions to paleontology.
American museums often juxtapose Indian artifacts with dinosaur remains, Ms. Mayor said, but curators never seem to make the connection between local native cultures and the evidence of remarkable creatures from another age that the Indians had encountered on their lands. ("The message you get is that both are extinct," she said.) So she took on the task of documenting the extensive paleontological knowledge of many Indians, expanding a historical record that showed that they often served as sources and guides for early fossil expeditions.
The Comanche people in Oklahoma, she said, told stories about grandmothers' sending them out to find the bones of monsters, which they would grind into a powder for medicine or mix with water to set bones.
"They said you could tell if it was the right bone if it stuck to your tongue," Ms. Mayor said. Researching that report, she discovered that paleontologists do indeed lick bones to tell whether they are real fossils, because the real ones cling to the tongue. (Fossil bone is hydrophilic, which means that it absorbs moisture.)
Posted by Susan
No, Ed is not the only author of this blog, though I admit he certainly has been lately. While I intend to write more substantive things later, I had to post this now:
Christian Kammerer's Prion Song is now online (.wav format). The Prion Song is more than just a wonderful song about renegade peptides set to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; it is (much like Scav Hunt) a symbol of everything that is good about the University of Chicago and its students. Enjoy.
Posted by Ed
Earlier this week, I linked to a New Yorker "talk of the town" piece in which Joshua Wolf Shenk discusses the apparent discovery of Abraham Lincoln's lost "suicide poem." (As Shenk points out, Lincoln scholars disagree on whether the 36-line poem from 1838 can be attributed to Lincoln; Douglas Wilson thinks that it can, but David Herbert Donald disagrees. At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker quotes an email from Michael Burlingame noting that the verse "certainly sounds like Lincoln.")
The poem isn't exactly a masterpiece of American literature, but I still find it oddly intriguing. Here's the conclusion:
Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!
Second, you can make a case that Lincoln's verse-writing is closely connected to his oratory: as Garry Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg, "Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry." Would Lincoln have been such a great speaker if he hadn't been willing to dabble in mediocre verse? Is the greater popularity of poetry in 19th-century America in any way connected to the superior quality of American oratory before 1900? (It's hard to imagine George W. Bush ever writing a poem, after all, even if his wife once tried to make us think he had; then again, some of the wisest sayings of our president have been combined to form the verse masterpiece "Make the Pie Higher!") It's fascinating, then, to read some of the Lincoln poems whose authorship is not in dispute.
I wish I had something to add to this discussion; I suspect that a Lincoln scholar could rip holes in the analysis I've offered above. I'll look forward, though, to learning more about scholarly reaction to the poem--and to how it changes historians' view of my favorite American president.
Posted by Ed
Yesterday I linked to some of the more interesting articles that have been written in the wake of Ronald Reagan's death, but I somehow missed the best article of the lot: a Rick Perlstein piece on the late president that appeared yesterday in Salon. Perlstein's tone is exactly right: he's critical of the dead without sounding nasty or disrespectful, and he begins with a nice point that had never occurred to me. ("I feel bound to respect Ronald Reagan, as every American should -- not least because he chose a career of public service when he could have made a lot more money doing something else, and not least because he took genuine risks for peace.") Here's one key passage:
It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.
Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.
Posted by Ed
I'm not usually a huge fan of behind-the-scenes Hollywood gossip: whether I enjoy a movie or not, I don't usually care which of its stars were in the midst of a torrid love affair during filming, and I'm not terribly interested in how a director or an actor succeeded in winning himself a choice part. Delightful as it is to learn that Vin Diesel really wanted to audition for the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, I'd much rather just watch the movie.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. To name just one example, I'd love to know how Alfonso Cuaron came to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and--even more importantly--how he won the authority needed to put his own personal stamp on the film. Cuaron isn't necessarily the first director who leaps to mind for an adaptation of an English children's book, after all. True, he did direct a highly regarded adaptation of The Little Princess, but he's better known for his racy Mexican sex comedy, Y Tu Mama Tambien; according to one press report I've seen, the producers of the Harry Potter series were so worried about Cuaron's influence on the cast that they included a clause in his contract that banned him from swearing in front of the movie's child actors. In the end, however, Cuaron didn't just win the job of director, but injected a real sense of liveliness, charm, and wonder into the series.
The first two Harry Potter films, I thought, never quite seemed like real movies: they seemed like a series of video illustrations of the book. (Chris Columbus, the director, was so determined to avoid deviating from the novels that he never gave his movies a life of their own.) Most film critics agreed with me. In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell likened the first movie to a "film equivalent of a book on tape" while A.O. Scott compared the first two movies to "a staged reading with special effects"; David Edelstein has even argued that in the hands of their first director, the world of the Harry Potter movies felt like "a synthetic movie theme park." Those movies did a decent job of showing us what the world of the books might look like, but they had no life of their own to speak of.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is visually spectacular, and--under Cuaron's guidance--Hogwarts seems like a real place, full of a charm and character all its own, and not merely like a movie set. The movie's script is quirkier and more charming than either of its predecessors, and even when it departs from the novel, it matches the spirit of Rowling's work far better than its literal-minded predecessors. Every child actor in the film does a much better job than in the past; the pacing is faster and more natural; the film as a whole shows us more of a sense of wonder than either of its predecessors, even though many of its plot elements are familiar to us from Chris Columbus's work. The first two movies, I'd argue, are mildly entertaining for people who liked the books, but the third is an entrancing and delightful story that I'd recommend to anyone.
I don't want to suggest that the movie was perfect, of course. In fact, I can see three major problems with it:
That structure took its toll on the movie, I thought. The early parts of the film often involved rapid-fire movement from scene to scene, with very little transition between them; this gave the movie a slightly choppy feel. The movie's twin climaxes, moreover, make it hard to maintain a feeling of tension, though I thought that each climax was paced as effectively as possible under the circumstances. I worried that the story of Sirius Black didn't get enough attention; in the novels, Black was a specter haunting the book from start to finish, but in the movie, his role is somewhat diminished until the end.
If you're a fan of the books, then these oversights might not really matter. (If I recall correctly, the movie series as a whole has deemphasized the rivalry between Snape and James Potter, and generally isn't very good in explaining the backstory.) Based on the script alone, however, the plot of the movie seems like a loosely connected series of events that happened to take place in the same school year; one of the strengths of the book, I've always felt, was that it brilliantly tied the story of Harry's parents and their friends together with Harry's story to produce one intriguing and fast-paced narrative. That element of the books is almost completely lost.
Gambon's Dumbledore is a much more appealling figure. His voice is livelier, his speeches convey more personality, and the eccentric side of his personality comes to the forefront. My only concern is that Gambon sometimes looks too much like an aging ex-hippy, and too little like a wise old sage; what's more, when you combine Emma Thompson's eccentric portrayal of Sibyl Trelawney with Gambon's Dumbledore, the Hogwarts spaciness quotient shoots through the roof. Gambon and Cuaron have taken an underdeveloped and neglected part of Dumbledore's personality and given it the attention it deserves, but they never really portray him as a complete character. One brief scene, in which Dumbledore debriefs Harry on the events of the movie and explains the significance of Pettigrew's betrayal, would have both added to out understanding of Dumbledore and clarified the larger story arc of the series.
In short, Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban--like Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore--is a brilliant and lively interpretation of the novel, even when it doesn't precisely match my own interpretation. Under Cuaron's direction, Gary Oldman emphasizes the crazy side of Sirius Black but plays down his sinister reputation. There's a romantic tension between Ron and Hermione that's far stronger than in the books. Emma Thompson's Sibyl Trelawney comes across as a crazy ex-hippy, but not necessarily as incompetent. (We don't see too much of her, after all, and in one key scene, she actually utters a prophecy!) You can argue with any of these interpretations, but together, they give the movie a sense of liveliness that was completely lacking in its predecessors.
Even more importantly, the setting of Prisoner of Azkaban is a visually spectacular world with a character all its own. The film comes across as grittier, grainier, and more real; it never seems squeaky clean, like its predecessors, and instead comes across as a dark and gloomy place with lots of personality. (The first films sometimes seemed too picture-perfect: I can almost imagine Daniel Radcliffe's hairdressers leaping up to adjust his hair every time they possibly could during the filming of the first two movies. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see that Harry's hair was often quite messy in the third movie--just as Rowling said it should be!) I often loved Cuaron's interpretation of the movie even when it didn't match my own: Buckbeak's executioner, for example, comes across as a chilling, picturesque, and distinctively English character who could have come straight out of Dickens.
What impressed me most, however, was Cuaron's willingness to move beyond Rowling's text. The script was loaded with jokes that never appear in the book: Cuaron treats us to a delightful vignette of the Fat Lady singing, for instance, and I loved the scene where Malfoy sends Harry a threatening note. I wasn't as big a fan of the many shrunken heads that appear in the movie, but details like this--even when they had no basis in the original novel--were exactly the sort of quirky and charming touches we'd expect from Rowling. Cuaron succeeded in replicating the spirit of the novel even when he departed from a literal interpretation of its plot.
It's easy to quibble about the movie, of course. I'm not sure that Cuaron's film ever achieves the psychological realism of the novel, for example, and I was slightly disappointed in his portrayal of the Dementors: they looked really cool as they hovered in the air, but whenever we moved close to an individual dementor, it seemsed less lifelike and less real. (We also never really see, for ourselves, that they suck all the happiness and joy from their victims, leaving them only with their worst memories.) It would be too much to expect the movie to be a perfect adaptation of the book, however, and I was delighted to see a film as quirky, as clever, as fast-paced, and as visually stunning as this one.
Posted by Ed
As most of my readers are undoubtedly aware, former President Ronald Reagan died this weekend at the age of 93. He was my second least-favorite president since World War II and I think he was a disaster as our country's leader, but I've always had the impression that he meant well and had good intentions. That's more than you can say about other recent presidents.
My own memories of Reagan are fairly hazy. The 1981 attempt on Reagan's life is the first historical event I can remember (I turned five the next month); I'd been misbehaving that afternoon, if I recall correctly, and I was surprised to see just how shaken my mother was when she heard that Reagan had been shot. I can remember saying something along the lines of "Why are you so upset? I thought you didn't like him!", to which she replied, "I voted against him, but I didn't want him killed!" That's not a bad lesson in democracy (and basic human decency) for your average four-year-old... Three years later, I went to bed on election night convinced that Walter Mondale was going to be the next president of the U.S. (he sounded really confident when he appeared on the news, after all!), and was shocked the next morning to hear that Reagan had won again. I can remember Reagan's speech after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and I have a lot of memories of the 1988 election, but to me, Reagan will always be a distant, avuncular, and sometimes even sinister figure from my past.
What's the best way to remember a figure like this? There's a part of me (as my few long-term readers may remember) that delights in the nasty obituary. Hunter Thompson's 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, for example, is a small masterpiece, and its opening paragraphs always make me smile:
Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."
I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.
Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."
Some of the best comments on the dead transcend the glories of the nasty obituary by focusing not just on the life of the deceased, but on its meaning and on the way it will be remembered. Scott McLemee, for example, has the following to say on his blog:
Somebody once said: "I always hope that Kenny Rogers is in good health, because when he dies they're gonna play his songs on the radio all day long."
And in much that spirit of loathing at the prospect of the inevitable forced march through certain memories -- a public celebration of things better off buried in an unmarked spot, on a moonless night -- I have, for some years now, dreaded the news of Ronald Reagan's passing.
This morning, a thought came to mind -- the aftermath of digesting as much of last night's Sixty Minutes as we could stand. (Switched it off halfway through; the gorge becoming buoyant at hearing they were about to do a segment on the man's irrepressible sense of humor.) To whit: Let nobody say that liberalism has a monopoly on the therapeutic conception of politics. "He changed America by making us feel good about ourselves."
What a vacuously privatized notion of leadership (let alone of politics or the common good). Jimmy Carter got no end of grief for having read Christopher Lasch and coming forth with that bit about the nation's "malaise." But the candidate who "lifted" that malaise did so only by giving the culture of narcissism a happy pill.
Or as Steven Shapiro puts it at his always-interesting site The Pinocchio Theory, the Great Communicator "created an ugly social and cultural climate in America, one that is still with us today: a climate of cynicism, greed, selfishness, bigotry, frat-boy self-congratulatory boorishness, and blame-the-victim disdain for 'losers' and the weak, all buttressed by a willfully ignorant, proudly vapid, feel-good-at-all-costs Pollyanna-ism."
That about covers it. Could be worse, I guess. How is Kenny Rogers feeling, these days?
Remembrances of the dead can serve another useful purpose: reminding us of little-remembered facts about the deceased. Terry Teachout's blog, for instance, has linked to a past entry on Reagan that described him as "the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times." At Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer remarks on Reagan's role in defeating a 1978 anti-gay initiative on the California ballot. Posts like this can complicate our understanding of past figures, without attempting an overall assessment of their lives.
What bothers me most about the majority of obituaries and tributes is that they transform the recently living into figures bereft of liveliness and personality. Too many obituaries are lists of facts and anecdotes that never capture the personality or significance of the deceased; too many tributes try to capture a life's meaning and instead repeat a bunch of cliches and meaningless generalities. The occasional obituary is more successful, of course--and I think the British do a better job remembering the deadthan we do--but I look forward to the day when our newspapers pay as much attention to their obituaries as they do to their sports coverage.
Update: Christopher Hitchens has now published his own tribute to Reagan.
One could go on. I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.
The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.
Posted by Ed
Since I'm too lazy to write anything substantive at the moment, here are some links to browse:
Later tonight or tomorrow I'll post my review of the new Harry Potter movie (short version: it's really good), but otherwise I think I'm done with blogging for the weekend.
Posted by Ed
Two new articles out this weekend discuss popular perceptions of World War II, and I'd recommend both of them. The first piece, a Slate article by David Greenberg, argues that "World War II nostalgia has gone too far" and that D-Day plays too large a role in our understanding of the conflict:
Obviously, the invasion of Normandy was a crucial event in American history, worthy of commemoration. But so are many of the events of World War II, and it's worth asking why V-E Day, for example, or V-J Day, or for that matter the death of Franklin Roosevelt doesn't serve as the focus of our national remembrance. Why does D-Day prompt Tom Brokaw to hustle into a helicopter and report to us for three nights from the skies above Omaha Beach?
An answer to these questions begins with the realization that the D-Day enthusiasm, like all rituals of memory, says more about the present than it does about the past. For one thing, unilateralism is ascendant today, and the popular D-Day storyline glorifies the U.S. role above all: tens of thousands of average American boys dramatically storming the beaches of Normandy to open a second front against the German army, their success speeding Hitler's demise.
But this version neglects, among other small details, the importance of the Allies. It especially shortchanges the Soviet Union—no doubt a vestige of Cold War attitudes. For three years, after all, the Germans focused their efforts on their all-important Eastern front, and most military historians agree that the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the real pivot point in the decline of Axis fortunes. (Meanwhile, the United States was pouring its energy into fighting Japan; as the critic Benjamin Schwarz has noted, the D-Day-centered narrative of World War II also unfairly slights the Pacific Theater.)
Besides overstating the centrality of the second front and neglecting the Allies' part, the current D-Day obsession also feeds off and perpetuates a romance with war and militarism. The tone of the recent coverage of D-Day (and World War II in general) has been surprisingly monochromatic, especially when compared to that of past eras. In the war's immediate aftermath, as the historian Gunter Bischof has noted, cultural and artistic treatments of the combat weren't all rosy. Novelists Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, showed that however noble the war's purpose, absurdities and moral conundrums abounded, and millions died needlessly. (Schwarz links to a 1946 Atlantic Monthly article that voiced similarly ambivalent feelings about the war.)
The second article is a New York Times "arts and ideas" piece about the reenactment of recent wars:
Civil War re-enactors are, of course, well known, having been famously portrayed as oddball history nuts in Tony Horwitz's book "Confederates in the Attic." But the re-enactment of battles from more recent wars like World War II and Vietnam, with some participants playing Nazis or Vietcong, has a different flavor. For real survivors, some whose memories are still raw, the safe historical distance collapses.
The events also raise troubling questions. Is this an acceptable representation of war or a parody? Many people would shudder at the thought of taking an M-16 and donning fatigues to go on a fake search-and-destroy mission to honor those who fought in Vietnam. And surely, joining a simulated German Panzer unit to roam the woods in a kübelwagen and shoot blanks is a far cry from more traditional ways of commemorating World War II.
Update: Kieran Healy has a Crooked Timber post looking at the number of New York Times stories since 1980 that mentioned D-Day.
Posted by Ed
Last month, when Wolfgang Petersen's disappointingly mediocre film epic Troy appeared in theaters, we were treated to a delightful spectacle: movie critics across the country did their best to pretend that they were experts in The Iliad, Homeric epic, and the mythology of the Trojan War. Call me cynical, but I expect that if you'd asked Roger Ebert about Ajax the Greater back in April, he'd have told you that it was a really good toilet-bowl cleaner; nonetheless, that didn't stop him from thundering that "Homer's estate should sue" the makers of the film for their desecration of a classic when he reviewed the movie in May.
It can be nice, then, to read a review of the movie by a critic who actually knows something about the ancient world. The current issue of The New York Review of Books features a late but entertaining review of Troy by Daniel Mendelsohn, a former lecturer in classics at Princeton; in his article, Mendelsohn does a nice job of mocking the movie's inanities without pedantically bashing anyone who'd dare depart from the classics in a movie about the Trojan War. Over the course of his review, Mendelsohn criticizes the mischaracterization of Homer by critics who liked the movie, provides a compelling argument about how the updating of the story destroyed the sense behind the action, and injects a tone of humor into the debate on the movie.
Consider this excerpt, in which Mendelsohn discusses Petersen's bizarre decision to transform Patroclus from Achilles's lover into his "cousin":
Watching Troy, you'd think that there was no higher value for the Bronze Age Greeks than cousinage. "He killed my cousin!" Achilles shrieks at Priam when the latter comes begging for his son's body at the end of the story. "You've lost your cousin, now you've taken mine," a mournful Briseis (in this version, Hector's cousin) tells Achilles. "When does it end?" This film's notion that entire civilizations were destroyed because of excessive attachment to one's collateral relations is, surely, a first in world myth-making.
Similarly flimsy as motivations for the characters' actions are the incessant references to a bona fide Homeric value: the glory heroes derive from being celebrated in song through the ages. And yet here again, the gritty twenty-first-century realism favored by Troy's makers makes nonsense of a genuinely Bronze Age element they have nonetheless retained. For the endless references to immortality through future fame ("men will write stories about you for thousands of years to come," one character says, blissfully innocent of the fact that there is no writing yet) are undercut both by the pervasive cynicism and by the grim modern character of the milieu Benioff works so hard to establish. There's no reason to believe that men as disillusioned and irreligious as those we keep seeing here would ever believe in anything so fuzzy as "immortality" in the first place. Anyway, if the Trojan War was really no more than a territorial affair —"about power, not about love"—what about it, precisely, is worth celebrating at such great length in all those epics—epics which clearly include this movie itself?
Update: Edward Rothstein of The New York Times has published a short piece on whether Troy is the first movie of the second Iraq war. The piece isn't great, but it has some okay moments.
Posted by Ed
This week's Guardian education supplement features an intriguing little article on an unusual topic: a West London finishing school that offers courses in English manners for students from Japan. The most popular courses, it seems, discuss how the English drink their afternoon tea; a majority of the students are wives of Japanese businessmen who work in London, though some pupils fly to London from Tokyo just to take the class.
Here's the most interesting passage from the article:
There is something deeply incongruous about a Japanese woman teaching Japanese students old-fashioned English traditions and it is hard to work out whether they believe what they are learning is useful or merely interesting. One student tells me she wants to learn how to serve tea to her English teacher, another how to use the Royal Doulton tea set she had collected at home.
Cherry says her interest stems from a fascination with the elegance of a bygone age. "Afternoon tea is about quality of life," she says. "Japanese people always want to do things quicker, make more money. There is no concentration on ceremony. Now, by learning about afternoon tea, we make the event the purpose of the act."
Traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, she says, are now rarely practised in Japan. But it is through a reference to western films that Cherry reveals one of the central, and for us, perhaps most shameful, motivations behind her school.
"In some films, like Lost in Translation, Japanese people are seen as a joke," Cherry smiles. "That's fine, we can laugh at ourselves, but I can teach people how not to be a joke when they come here."
Hailing from a country where there is no word for "sarcasm" and where conformity is something of a cultural tenet, it is unsurprising that there is a market for Cherry's own particular brand of British conventionality.
Posted by Ed
I'm afraid that I'm really busy today with grading and writing, so unless inspiration unexpectedly strikes, I won't have anything original to contribute to this blog. Here are some nice history links, though:
Posted by Ed
Over at Crescat Sententia, Will Baude links to a Tyler Cowen post commenting on the high quality of Polish cuisine. He notes that "Things have definitely changed since I was there about ten years ago. I do hope Cowen has steered clear of Polish pizza though, which probably hasn't changed, and probably still involves both ketchup and wonderbread. And no, I kid you not."
Will's post reminded me of a Chicago Tribune article I'd planned to discuss over the weekend:
Fifteen years after shaking off communism, Eastern Europe is engulfed in a food revolution, with people no longer content to shovel down only meat, boiled potatoes and stick-to-your-ribs dumplings.
From Bratislava to Budapest, eating habits and tastes are radically changing. It's a stark shift from 15 years ago, when classic spaghetti in Slovakia meant ketchup and shredded cheese atop overcooked noodles.
Under communism, vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus were virtually unknown. Today, nearly everything is available, and in quantities that would have been inconceivable during communism.
No more waiting in line to get the basics, or fresh pineapple or mandarin oranges for a special Christmas treat. These and other fruits can be bought year-round.
Tastes are fuller and more refined. Ethnic eateries have helped convince people that mixing meat with fruit isn't a crazy idea. Italian restaurants have shown that pizza shouldn't be a thick yeast cake topped with vegetables and ketchup.
I'm fortunate in that all of my Russian travels took place after the fall of Communism; I ate the worst pizza I've ever tasted in Moscow's Sheremetevo airport, but at least it didn't have ketchup on it!
(There are moments, by the way, in which I think it would be fun to be a culinary historian: it's not the biggest historical sub-discipline, of course, but there has been some recent work in the field. If I'd wanted to make culinary history my main scholarly interest, however, I could have picked a country of study whose cuisine is tastier than Russia's!)
Posted by Ed
I'm feeling too lazy to write anything substantive right now (well, on my blog, anyway), so here are some links:
Posted by Ed
One of these days, when I have just a little more time, I plan to write an enormous blog entry detailing my assessment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I've already spent some time working on it, in fact: I bought the DVD of The Return of the King last Wednesday, and I've spent a handful of my spare moments since then watching the movie and jotting down my thoughts.
If there's one thing that regular readers of this blog know, however, it's that I'm a Tolkien addict--and that sometimes my thoughts on movies expand far beyond my audience's willingness to read them. I've decided, therefore, to begin my musings on Jackson's Lord of the Rings with a short initial entry, in which I'll discuss the lessons that George Lucas should take from Jackson's work. For now this entry will be a preview of the full review I'm working on, and when my main commentary is done, this post will be a sidebar to my primary argument.
As most of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy--even though I think that he sometimes moves too far away from both the text and the spirit of the books . I'm willing to accept the movies as Peter Jackson's look at Middle Earth, however, since I love the way he brought Tolkien's books to life. In Jackson's hands, the movie is more than a fantasy film or a summer special-effects blockbuster: as my main review will argue, it also combines elements of the sweeping David Lean-style epic, the realistic war movie, the schlocky horror film, the tension-driven thriller, and the classic Hollywood swashbuckler.
Where does the swashbuckling come in? Consider these scenes from The Two Towers and The Return of the King:
You can argue over whether Jackson's swashbuckling is effective: I thought that Legolas's attack on the oliphaunt was a little over-the-top, for instance, and it's debatable whether swashbuckling belongs in the midst of a realistic battle scene. What seems undeniable is that Jackson has achieved exactly the sort of effect that George Lucas is most interested in--and he's done so in the middle of a movie that's far more serious, complex, and multi-faceted than anything Lucas has attempted. If you're not convinced, ask yourself this question: Who's the ideal audience for the second scene I mentioned above? I'd argue that the ideal viewer for this sequence is a nine-year old boy, and that such a viewer would experience exactly the reaction Jackson wanted: first he'd gasp when he thought that a bunch of mercenaries had arrived to help the forces of Mordor, and then he'd heave a massive sigh of relief as Aragorn and company rushed in to help the good guys.
What lesson should George Lucas take from all this? One of my biggest problems with the two Star Wars prequels is that Lucas has almost completely lost his sense of fun; in my more frivolous moments, I've even argued that the most serious flaw in the new Star Wars movies is that almost no one repeats the line "may the force be with you," and when they do, it comes across as a serious mantra rather than a quirky-sounding admonition. In Episode I, Lucas aimed too low, giving his movie an annoyingly juvenile feel. (Witness Jar-Jar Binks and the incompetent Gungans!) In Episode II, far too much of the story was filled with boring talk about politics or with self-important efforts to build up the back-story, and Lucas was more interested in giving his fight scenes a look that would appeal to sci-fi nerds than he was in making the story fun and exciting for nine-year-olds. Lucas says that his goal is to produce the sort of exciting movies that he loved to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid, but the only scene in the prequels that met this goal was Yoda's fight scene in Attack of the Clones.
This contrast between The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels, I believe, strongly favors Jackson: Jackson injects moments of swashbuckling fun into a movie series that's usually far more realistic and serious, while Lucas casts a dull pallor over a series that's supposed to be light-hearted fun. If only that were the primary flaw in Lucas's work...
There's a second area where I believe that Lucas could learn a lot from Jackson, however, and that area is the use of detail.
In 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released in theaters for the first time, Roger Ebert wrote a delightfully wrong-headed review of the movie. Here's how he began:
Here is just one small moment in Return of the Jedi, a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.
It is that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas. Other movies might approach the special effects. Other action pictures might approximate the sense of swashbuckling adventure. But in Return of the Jedi, as in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, there's such a wonderful density to the canvas. Things are happening all over. They're pouring forth from imaginations so fertile that, yes, we do halfway believe in this crazy Galactic Empire long ago and far, far away.
I think Ebert makes a big mistake at the start of his second paragraph, however: is it really true that an "extra level of detail" is what "makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas"? Looking back now, two years after the fifth installment in the series, I think it's fair to say that all the Star Wars movies show an amazing attention to detail. The prequels, however, just don't work particularly well as movies: it's hard to care about the characters, and the basic storyline isn't terribly interesting. Sometimes it seems like Lucas took Ebert's words to heart and decided that if he kept piling lay upon layer of detail into his most recent films, critics and audiences would love them just as much as they loved the originals. Lucas, of course, was wrong.
The key issue, I think, is this: if a movie's audience cares about the characters and the plot, then fun or intriguing details can increase those feelings and make viewers love the movie even more. But if no one cares about what's happening on screen, then an added level of attention and detail won't make a shred of difference.
Jackson, I think, understands this. (His movies' sense of conviction is their strongest point: you really get the sense that Jackson believes in Tolkien's world, and that the characters have a real stake in what's happening. This helps make the audience care, too.) Consider these three scenes from his trilogy:
What's most crucial about the first two details, however, is that they're supporting details. Gollum's reaction adds to the emotion surrounding Sam's speech--but if you don't like the speech to begin with, Gollum's sad and thoughtful demeanor won't add anything to the film. The unfortunate collision of Merry's feet and an innocent warrior from Rohan, moreover, adds to the jolly atmosphere of the dance. In a sense, it was a detail added to a detail, making the Rohirrim's celebration of their victory more personal and more cinematically effective. The hobbits' dancing would have been a nice touch even without Merry's carelessness, and the victory celebration would have been a good scene even if Merry and Pippin hadn't been there.
In other words, clever or charming details can add a lot to a scene when they add to the mood or help develop a character--but, in and of themselves, they can only do so much. I'm not sure that George Lucas understands this. I think it's great that the first Star Wars prequel featured Wookiees in the Senate, for example, but the scene in which they appeared was still boring, bland, and stilted; the presence of the Wookiees could have been the crowning touch on a more entertaining film sequence, but instead they were lost in the midst of an eminently forgettable Senate debate. Similarly, it was fantastic to see womp rats on Tatooine in Attack of the Clones, but the Tatooine scenes in that movie weren't terribly effective: I get the sense that Lucas wrote those scenes because they were needed for the movie's plot, not because he had something interesting or important to say.
At the same time, a director can get some of the details spectactularly wrong, but if he still understands the big picture, that can be enough to save his work. Once again, Peter Jackson is a case in point. Of all the decisions he made in his trilogy, by far the biggest mistake was the way that he transformed Faramir from a wise and far-seeing Numenorean--the most sympathetic character in the trilogy--into an underwhelming Boromir Lite. This "detail," in fact, is a major plot point, but however much I hate the way Jackson treated Faramir, there were so many fantastic scenes in The Two Towers that I was willing to forgive Jackson his few transgressions.
Turning back to Return of the Jedi, the rancor keeper's tears wouldn't matter to us at all if we didn't care about what was happening: the movie is full of familiar and likeable characters whose fate matters to the audience, and that's why the movie is worth seeing. (In this sense, it's like the surprised troll in Return of the King.) From a technical standpoint, I can't even say that Return of the Jedi is any better than Attack of the Clones, but when the first movie is bad, it's bad in an entertainingly stupid way--and when the second movie is bad, it's just boring. Questions like this make a world of difference.
I could go on, of course: I'd also argue that Jackson's work features a sense of conviction and a sense of wonder that appeared in the first Star Wars movies but were completely lacking in the prequels. I don't want to pick on George Lucas too much, though--and if you want to read more of my thoughts on Peter Jackson, then you'll just have to wait.
Posted by Ed
Today's New York Times features a fun article on a recent senior thesis by a Princeton engineering student who mathematically analyzed the fiction published in The New Yorker:
Ms. Milkman, who has a minor in American studies, read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and built a substantial database. She then constructed a series of rococo mathematical tests to discern, among other things, whether certain fiction editors at the magazine had a specific impact on the type of fiction that was published, the sex of authors and the race of characters. The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies: one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.
The study's confirmation of the obvious left some wondering why Ms. Milkman, who graduates this morning from Princeton with high honors, went about constructing such an intricate wristwatch in order to tell the time, but others admire her pluck and willingness to cross disciplines in a way that wraps the left and right brain neatly into one project. Her adviser on the project, Prof. René Carmona, was thrilled by the concept and amazed by the resulting thesis.
Here are some of the student's more substantive findings:
In analyzing such matters, Ms. Milkman has brought statistical rigor to one of the more intense parlor games in the literary world. Critics have long suggested that under Mr. Buford — who took over the magazine's fiction department in 1995 when Mr. McGrath came to The New York Times, and left to write books in 2002 — female authors were about as welcome as they would be at the clubhouse of Augusta National.
According to Ms. Milkman, the number of male authors rose to 70 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 57 percent under Mr. McGrath. She also found that Mr. Buford was much more likely to publish stories set in the New York area: the number of stories set in the mid-Atlantic region rose to 37 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 19 percent under Mr. McGrath. The study also found that the first-person voice rose mightily under Mr. Buford, which may reflect the growth of memoir in the 90's more than anything else.
Under both editors the fiction in the magazine took as its major preoccupations sex, relationships, death, family and travel. Mr. Buford was relatively more interested in sex, a topic in 47 percent of the stories he published as opposed to 35 percent under Mr. McGrath. Mr. McGrath's authors tended to deal with one of the occasional consequences of that act, children, more frequently than Mr. Buford's writers: 36 percent under Mr. McGrath, 26 percent under Mr. Buford. (History, homosexuality and politics all tied for the attentions of Mr. Buford at a lowly 4 percent.)
The more I think about it, the less I'm sure what to make of this article. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see that The New York Times has written a humorous article about academia: America's paper of record would benefit from a couple more good laughs, and I'm always glad when it delves into a (supposedly) intellectual subject. There's a part of me, however, that would have liked to see the paper pay more attention to the thesis's ideas. But would it really be appropriate for the Times to rip an undergrad thesis to shreds? (For that matter, is it fair for a major national newspaper to subject a young student's ideas to a really rigorous public examination, even if those ideas turn out to be sort of okay?) I guess I'm glad that the Times published this article, since it was kind of fun and kind of interesting. But a different sort of publication might have been better suited to giving this story the kind of attention it deserves.