Books

Searching for the Next Great Conservative Novel

Lots of room on this shelf. (Flickr/Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas)
Conservatives often complain that the machinery of entertainment and popular culture is controlled by liberals, which is basically true. So periodically, one of them tries to encourage the rest to get behind a project to produce a right-wing culture, to get conservative ideas into the collective consciousness in more subtle and lasting ways than another "Why Liberals Are Destroying America" book from Ann Coulter or Brent Bozell. The latest of these pleas is an essay by publisher Adam Bellow in the National Review , which has the distinction of offering fiction, in the form of books(!), as the most important means of doing so. While the essay is overwrought at many points and self-contradictory at others (he says of the left, "Political power eludes them," then later laments their "decades-long march through the institutions of government, academia, and popular culture"), Bellow makes some interesting points even as, I think, he shows why this is such an uphill climb for his...

Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being The First

America's woman space pioneer paid a price back on Earth.

NASA
NASA On June 15, 1983, three days before launch aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride takes a last look at Houston before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a few days of preparation at KSC, Ride and four other astronauts became the first NASA five-member crew to fly in space as they lifted off in the Challenger from Launch Pad 39A. W hen one of Sally Ride’s college friends inquired about her astrophysics major, Ride replied simply, “It’s about space.” Yet she claimed she didn’t always aspire to be an astronaut. The space program was still a closed-door club—inaccessible to her—when she went through school in the early 1970s. Ride was content to pursue an academic career until NASA undertook a nationwide effort to recruit women and let them know the club had room for more than white male fighter pilots. Then and only then did she start itching for orbit. Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born...

The Road to Marriage Equality: Boies and Olson’s Wedding March

AP Photo/Adam Lau
AP Photo/Adam Lau David Boies kisses fellow lawyer Theodore Olson on the cheek at a public rally on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010 in West Hollywood, Calif. Gay rights supporters turned out in droves to celebrate a federal judge's overturning of California's Proposition 8, a same-sex marriage ban, a landmark case which could eventually land before the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if gays have a constitutional right to marry in America. T he history of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans took a dramatic turn on June 26, 2013. On that date, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which since 1996 had defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. The Court also let stand a lower ruling that declared Proposition 8—the 2008 voter referendum outlawing same-sex marriage in California—unconstitutional. The two legal victories rode momentum that had revved and sputtered ever since the early hours of June 28, 1969, when...

New Film About Liberal Gadfly Gore Vidal Totally Misses the Point

Gore Vidal rejoiced in making his readers' lives more complicated by baring the power drives underneath our political pieties. The United States of Amnesia does him, and its audience, no justice.

I t's a good rule to be wary of intellectuals who simplify your life, and Noam Chomsky is the left's current star example. His fault-finding take on whatever has just hit the fan is as predictable as a Honeymooners rerun, providing his admirers—of which I'm not one, just in case you're wondering—with a default reaction to pretty much everything they might more usefully think for themselves about. By contrast, the late Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, rejoiced at his provocative peak in making his readers' lives more complicated by baring the power drives underneath our political pieties, the opportunistically avid circuitry underneath our sexual and familial ones—and, unlike Chomsky, the genuine if snobbishly customized devotion to a Platonic ideal of America underneath his own captiousness. That's why it's dismaying that the people behind the new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, which opened in New York last week, don't and/or can't distinguish between the valuable...

Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?

Screen shot from John Green's Indianapolis TEDx talk, November 27, 2012
TEDx Indianapolis video still John Green delivers a TEDx talk in Indianapolis on November 27, 2012. T he young-adult novelist John Green rose to fame in 2012, following the publication of his breakout hit The Fault in Our Stars , but for years he has channeled an outsider’s empathizing ethos to fans called “Nerdfighters.” YouTube hosts Vlogbrothers , the popular video diary Green keeps with his younger brother Hank, and Green’s personal website hums with reader feedback. The arrival of The Fault in Our Stars, now a movie starring Shailene Woodley as Hazel, a sardonic teenager with terminal cancer, has only served to energize Green’s wholesome it-gets-better brand. In anticipation of TFIOS–mania (the clunky acronym and hashtag fans are using), Prospect writing fellow Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Prospect contributor Clare Malone decided to explore the Nerdfighters’ universe and compare notes. The following is an edited version of their conversation. Clare Malone: I was skeptical of a...

Have Literary Prizes Lost Their Meaning? (Have They Ever Had Any?)

eskaylim/iStockphoto.com
eskaylim/iStockphoto.com N either chapel nor cricket shows any meaningful sign of resurgence, but prize-giving—that other great hallmark of English boarding-school life—has in the past few decades zipped across the globe. As James English notes in his The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value , the number of literary awards has more than doubled in the United Kingdom since 1988 and tripled in the United States between 1976 and 2000. More than 1,100 honors are distributed to American writers each year. Not only have prizes proliferated; the prestigious ones have grown more important as the midrange book market drops away. Our National Book Awards or Britain’s Man Booker might not make a best-seller. But they can transform a book that’s sold sluggishly into a popular and financial success. As in the famous sausage-making paradigm, we are generally better off not knowing what went into the manufacture of a literary prize. But there is one major...

The Brothers Koch: Family Drama and Disdain for Democracy

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes N ot long ago, a pal of mine asked whether I’d heard the latest scoop about Charles and David Koch, the right-wing billionaires currently overseeing capitalism’s final solution to the democracy problem. Did I know—did I know!?—their grandmother had been none other than Ilse Koch, the human-lampshade-loving wife of Buchenwald’s commandant? Cazart, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say. Overseeing final solutions just runs in the family. My friend looked distinctly chagrined when I told her it wasn’t so. Like many liberal Americans, she hates the Kochs so much that no calumny strikes her as too far-fetched. But as it happened, I was midway through Daniel Schulman’s first-rate Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty , and I felt reasonably sure that Schulman wasn’t saving Ilse and her apocryphal lampshades for a Harry Potter gotcha toward the end. Considering that Charles and David are worth more than $80 billion...

The Clear-Eyed Utopianism of Ellen Willis

University of Minnesota Press
University of Minnesota Press Ellen Willis, circa 1970 However much you may respect and admire a journalistic colleague, routine proximity to her and her work can dull your understanding of her overall accomplishment. I'm proud to say that I knew Ellen Willis slightly; during my stint at the Village Voice , we worked together a couple of times and occasionally chatted. Of course, I was also reading her Voice pieces as they came out, so a lot of what's included in The Essential Ellen Willis —edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and newly out from the University of Minnesota Press —isn't unfamiliar to me. Re-encountering insights and stray observations of Willis's that had stayed messily filed in my brain for 30 years or more was an ongoing pleasure. But the effect of reading her in bulk was staggering just the same. Gee, one of the 20th century's great essayists and feminist pioneers used to say "Hi" to me when our paths crossed in the office. Dedicated utopianism will never...

Too Big to Fail. Not Too Strong.

Nomi Prins’s new book traces America’s propping up of banks since the robber barons.

F rom Andrew Mellon’s nearly 11 years as Treasury secretary under Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover to our time, when Timothy Geithner went from financial regulator at the New York Federal Reserve to Treasury secretary to investment executive, journalists have often employed the image of a revolving door to describe the flow of bankers between Wall Street and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. But few know that the White House and the Treasury are, arguably, a single building. A tunnel connects 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue with 1600. Presidents use this passageway to slip visitors in and out of the Oval Office. Nomi Prins, in her new history All the Presidents’ Bankers , does not say it in so many words. But she shows that the tunnel from the White House to the Treasury extends, metaphorically, for 226 miles to Lower Manhattan. Prins digs into presidential libraries and national archives and mines a shelf of books. She also knows Wall Street from the...

A Song for Gabriel García Márquez--and the Rest of Us

AP/Eduardo Verdugo
Obituaries sing the praises of the departed, as they should, but those obituaries that matter most sing our song, too. It’s fortunate that my American first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude is missing its jacket, or I might have been tempted to make a mortgage payment with it at some point over these difficult years, and then I would have been sorry, extremely and often, and long before Gabriel García Márquez died yesterday at the age of 87. I was given the book by a Colombian friend at UCLA upon its domestic publication in 1970, as my adolescence was still barely keeping up with my literary pretensions. Just to show how such pretensions will invariably humiliate you, I didn’t have a clue who García Márquez was, and by the time I got around to reading the novel a year or two later—out of a sense of obligation to my friend who made such a big deal of giving it to me—I still had no idea. A chapter or two in, I knew well enough, or what I needed to know anyway. As much as any...

Karl Polanyi Explains It All

Tim Bower
I n November 1933, less than a year after Hitler assumed power in Berlin, a 47-year-old socialist writer on Vienna’s leading economics weekly was advised by his publisher that it was too risky to keep him on the staff. It would be best both for the Österreichische Volkswirt and his own safety if Karl Polanyi left the magazine. Thus began a circuitous odyssey via London, Oxford, and Bennington, Vermont, that led to the publication in 1944 of what many consider the 20th century’s most prophetic work of political economy, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time . Polanyi, with no academic base, was already a blend of journalist and public intellectual, a major critic of the Austrian School of free-market economics and its cultish leaders, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Polanyi and Hayek would cross swords for four decades—Hayek becoming more influential as an icon of the free-market right but history increasingly vindicating Polanyi. Reluctantly,...

How John Paul Stevens Would Amend the Constitution

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
What made John Paul Stevens's contributions in his 35 years on the Supreme Court so invaluable was not just the votes he cast but his fiercely intelligent idiosyncrasies. On issues ranging from the fundamental incoherence of trying to use different categories of scrutiny to apply the equal protection clause to the Establishment Clause, to problems presented by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to racial discrimination in the War on Drugs, Stevens carved out unique positions that have generally aged much better than the alternatives. So it's gratifying that Stevens has not retired in silence, instead providing valuable commentary on constitutional controversies including the right to vote and the American criminal justice system . Stevens's new book , Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution , represents another valuable and accessible contribution to the country's constitutional discourse. The premise of the book is accurately captured by the title, which...

Why Reading Globally Matters

The case for breaking our parochial American reading habits.

AP Images/Anthony Devlin
When it was announced in March that Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo had won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for her mesmerizing debut novel We Need New Names , it wasn’t difficult to share in her victory. Honors such as these further prove that literature from all parts of the world merits our collective attention. Bulawayo, who writes in English, shows the beaming promise of a young Junot Diaz. With a style all her own—one steeped in wit and striking imagination—she movingly details the complexities of the immigrant experience. Not only is Bulawayo talented, she is also necessary. Discovering her and her work, whether we know it or not, is necessary. Although I’d read a ton of poetry—from Frost to Dickinson and Whitman—I’ll submit I wasn’t all that bookish a teen. Not until the summer after my senior year of high school, in fact, did I realize my reading habits were a bit too insular, lacked variation. This needed to be remedied. So I sought out some familiar titles, made a...

Francois Mitterrand, the Man with a Plan

AP Images
I f you can imagine Richard Nixon without his pathological unease—that is, a Nixon who was all dispassionate sang-froid and opportunistic mastery, the way he so desperately wanted to be seen—then you have a fair picture of Francois Mitterrand. I don't recall that the parallels between these two near contemporaries got much attention from the U.S. commentariat during their lifetimes, partly because we're not in the habit of comparing our own chief executives—however benighted—to foreign ones. But for American readers of Philip Short's A Taste For Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of Francois Mitterrand (Henry Holt, $40), the doppelganger effect of Mitterrand's setbacks, gambles, pragmatic self-reinventions and survivalist ploys is a bit eerie. His 14 sphinxlike years as president of France (1981-1995) outdid any French ruler since Napoleon III in longevity. Despite its somewhat trashy title, Short's richly detailed, never dull bio is a spellbinder for anyone interested in 20th-century...

Piketty's Triumph

Three expert takes on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty's data-driven magnum opus on inequality.

Courtesy of Fondation Jean Jaurès
In the 1990s, two young French economists then affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, began the first rigorous effort to gather facts on income inequality in developed countries going back decades. In the wake of the 2007 financial crash, fundamental questions about the economy that had long been ignored again garnered attention. Piketty and Saez’s research stood ready with data showing that elites in developed countries had, in recent years, grown far wealthier relative to the general population than most economists had suspected. By the past decade, according to Piketty and Saez, inequality had returned to levels nearing those of the early 20th century. Last fall, Piketty published his magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century , in France. The book seeks to model the history, recent trends, and back-to-the-19th-century future of capitalism. The American Prospect asked experts and scholars in the field of inequality to...

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