Books

The Decline of Conservative Publishing

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As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let's just say "modest" and leave it at that, I've always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You'd go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention. It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray,...

No Exit: The Digital Edition

AP Images/Weng Lei
AP Images/Weng Lei P rivacy advocates say we should care about privacy because its erosion threatens liberty. "A human being who lives in a world in which he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them," Glenn Greenwald said in an interview. His statement echoes staunch privacy defenders of yore, like Justice Louis Brandeis, who described privacy as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” The public outrage that followed revelations about mass surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency suggests many Americans agree. But appealing only to the ethical justifications for privacy won’t be enough to spur the rescue of this right. For one, it’s not clear how the visceral want for privacy translates into actual rules and policies in the digital age, especially when surrendering personal data just seems like its...

The Ink-Stained Wretches of Wall Street

AP Images/Richard Drew
L ast year, upon the 10 th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, newspapers and magazines filled with soul-searching essays from journalists rethinking their advocacy of the invasion, documenting lessons learned and errors made. But a few months later, on the 5 th anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers, the unofficial beginning of the financial crisis, virtually nobody wrestled with their failure to anticipate the Wall Street wrecking ball. Indeed, to date, no major news organization has apologized for missing the biggest economic story of the decade, and most business journalists defend their profession, arguing that they sounded the alarm about financial industry greed and the makings of a catastrophe. “The government, the financial industry and the American consumer—if they had only paid attention—would have gotten ample warning about the crisis from us,” said Diana Henriques of The New York Times in 2008. Neither she nor her colleagues have really looked back since. As...

The Moment of Creation

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AP Images O n May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.” Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict , shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has...

In Search of Gatsby's People

Careless People takes us into the cultural hurly-burly—tabloid affairs and murders—that were likely on F. Scott Fitzgerald's mind while writing The Great Gatsby

"Sometimes history appears to have been so inebriated that it blacked out completely, and we have no idea what a mysterious trace means at all." That's one of the more enjoyable observations in a book that doesn't stint on phrasemaking: Careless People (Penguin, $29.95), Sarah Churchwell's lavish excavation of the real-life milieu whose scandals, frolics and gaudy personalities gave F. Scott Fitzgerald the raw material for The Great Gatsby. Even when she gets most carried away by her connect-the-dots enthusiasms—or gimmickry, if you prefer—her literary "Where's Waldo?" game is the liveliest contribution to Fitzgeraldiana to come my way in years. Since I once wrote a cranky novel called Daisy Buchanan's Daughter— and its octogenarian narrator hooted at the notion of seeing Jay Gatsby's quest as anything more than the odyssey of a lunatic would-be homewrecker whose monomania and narcissism destroyed her childhood—you may gather that my own relationship to Gatsby has its nettled side. I...

Rebecca Mead Gets Lost in "Middlemarch"

A new literary memoir is proof that sometimes, you really can love George Eliot too much.

I n an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago , the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch , much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.” Rebecca Mead is clearly that “certain kind” of woman. Growing up in coastal England, Mead, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, encountered Middlemarch in her teens and was smitten. “I loved Middlemarch , and I loved being the kind of person who loved it,” she writes in her new work of literary memoir, My Life in Middlemarch . “It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have to read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written.” Little bubbles of excitement about Mead’s book began floating around the Internet last fall, when the advance copies were sent...

Stevie Sings for Martin Luther King

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
I f we ignore 1979’s soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants (though it featured “Send One Your Love,” 28 on the Billboard R&B chart), when Hotter Than July came out in 1980 it marked Stevie Wonder’s first album of newly recorded music since Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. It was his longest break between albums since he started cutting LPs at age 12. Critics don’t hold Hotter Than July in as high a regard as the classic Songs , though it does include an oddly charming imitation of a country singer (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”) and a reggae number inspired by Bob Marley (“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”). The album is more important for its historical significance: It marked the beginning of Wonder’s three-year campaign to create a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The single “Happy Birthday,” which hit No.2 in the UK, states Wonder’s position: “There ought to be a law against / anyone who takes offense / at a day in your celebration,” he sings before the chorus,...

The Man Who Knew Too Little

A CIA memoir whose emptiness is something to contemplate

R eaders seeking a vicarious adrenaline kick may be disappointed by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo’s memoir of his three decades at the agency. In thrillers, the CIA is swashbuckling and sinister, replete with cloaks, daggers, and Technicolor deeds of derring-do. But Rizzo was the agency’s top lawyer, not its top spy, and Company Man —his meandering account of a life in the bureaucratic trenches—portrays not a glamorous world of espionage but a grayish realm of meetings and memos, committee reports and congressional hearings, presidential findings and memoranda of notification. Yet if Rizzo’s memoir falls short of thrilling, it’s often distinctly chilling. As the book’s title proudly proclaims, John Rizzo is the quintessential company man. For 34 years, he provides the agency with the legal assistance he feels its patriotic employees deserve, and he refrains from judgment when confronted with “vexing” issues such as CIA support for Guatemalan death squads or, more...

LBJ and Dallas's Mink Coat Mob

November 4, 1960, four days before the presidential election, LBJ travels to Dallas in a last-ditch effort to carry his home state. He is greeted at his hotel on Commerce Street by a group of angry protesters brought together by Republican Congressman Bruce Alger. The crowd, mostly women, is largely made up of Dallas high society—city leaders’ wives and daughters, former debutantes, and members of the Junior League. Several are wearing fur coats purchased at Nieman Marcus, just down the street. Onlookers joke that the unlikely gathering looks like a mink coat mob. A s the Johnson motorcade speeds into Downtown Dallas, escorted by motorcycle-riding policemen, one of the cops signals to LBJ’s driver. “They’re having a little disturbance at the Baker Hotel,” the policeman says coolly. The convoy decides to avoid the Baker’s front entrance and instead pulls to a side street. Out in front of the hotel, Bruce Alger is whipping up the crowd: If Khrushchev could vote, he’d choose Kennedy-...

"Double Down" Was Written for Morning Joe—Not Posterity

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
T he week Game Change was published in early 2010 coincided with my own version of journalistic martyrdom —watching my brain cells peel off like dandruff from enduring 60 hours of cable TV news in a week. From Morning Joe to Hardball to commercials for LifeLock, the authors of Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, were inescapable. Every time I switched channels, Halperin and Heilemann materialized peddling another nugget about Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton from their book on the 2008 campaign. The Game Change publicity machine so dominated cable TV news during that first week of selling in 2010 that I could have read the book in the time I spent hearing about it. It was not until I read all 473 pages of Double Down , the 2012 sequel to Game Change , that I realized I inadvertently had it right in the first place. The campaign books of Halperin and Heilemann are not designed to be read. They are instead written as fodder for cable TV news. Since both authors, whom I’ve...

Jim Lehrer's No Good, Very Bad JFK Assassination Novel

All you really need to know about Top Down is that it reads like a YA novel for old people.

Unless we watch PBS on hallucinogens, which is as unlikely in my case—I can't speak for you, obviously—as watching it at all, we have no idea what Jim Lehrer looks like when he's bug-eyed with a spirit of gleeful larceny. But imagine the thrill of un-Lehrer-like cunning he no doubt felt at bringing out Top Down— boldly subtitled "a novel of the Kennedy assassination"—just in time to cash in on the 50th anniversary of the big event. Et tu, Jim? Now that Newshour 's heretofore cleaner-than-a-hound's-tooth anchorman has acquired a taste for this kind of sordidness, he'll probably be arrested for shoplifting next. It turns out, however, that Lehrer has been saving up a precious anecdote about his own bit part on November 22, 1963, for half a century. As a young (can it be?) reporter for a long-gone (it can) Dallas daily, he covered JFK and Jackie's arrival at Love Field. The rewrite man back at his paper's office wanted to know whether the presidential limo's bubble top was going to be up...

Korean Lit Comes to America

The country frets that it trails China and Japan, which have won literary Nobels.

AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Hermes
I f, as an American, you visit a globalized megacity like Seoul, you’ll find plenty that feels familiar. Take chain bookstores: There’s bad lighting, as many smartphone accessories for sale as books, and sneaky customer habits. “I check out the covers,” says Claire, a young South Korean who’s showing me around. “If I like one, I go back to my apartment and buy it online.” Claire and I are ambling through the Kyobo Book Center in Seoul’s Gangnam district. Gangnam, of course, is the place PSY raps about in “Gangnam Style,” a song that sends up his country’s materialism and wealth. Gangnam is home to Samsung’s corporate headquarters, the city’s neon-saturated nightlife, and outposts for the top international brands, all spread out on a grid of spacious boulevards. It’s the polished, cosmopolitan Korea. What feels less familiar—more messy and alive—is the rest of the city. The streets twist and taper in a never-ending game of chicken, motorcycles versus taxis. The architecture seems to...

When Robots Take Over, What Happens to Us?

Artificial intelligence has a long way to go before computers are as intelligent as humans. But progress is happening rapidly, in everything from logical reasoning to facial and speech recognition. With steady improvements in memory, processing power, and programming, the question isn't if a computer will ever be as smart as a human, but only how long it will take. And once computers are as smart as people, they'll keep getting smarter, in short order become much, much smarter than people. When artificial intelligence (AI) becomes artificial superintelligence (ASI), the real problems begin. In his new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era , James Barrat argues that we need to begin thinking now about how artificial intelligences will treat their creators when they can think faster, reason better, and understand more than any human. These questions were long the province of thrilling (if not always realistic) science fiction, but Barrat warns...

Bretton Woods Revisited

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AP Images O n July 22, 1944, as allied troops were racing across Normandy to liberate Paris, representatives of 44 nations meeting at the Mount Washington resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, created a financial and monetary system for the postwar era. It had taken three weeks of exhausting diplomacy. At the closing banquet, the assembled delegates rose and sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” The fellow in question was John Maynard Keynes, leader of the British delegation and intellectual inspiration of the Bretton Woods design. Lord Keynes, the world’s most celebrated economist, was playing a tricky dual role. He had proposed a radical new monetary system to free the world from the deflationary pressures that had caused and prolonged the Great Depression. Bretton Woods, he hoped, would be the international anchor for the suite of domestic measures that came to be known as Keynesian—the use of public spending to cure depression and the regulation of financial markets to prevent...

Soul Food's Contested History

Does a new account with recipes get it right?

AP Images/ Jeff Roberson
AP Images/ Jeff Roberson The kitchen of Sweetie Pie's in St. Louis, Missouri. A bout a year ago, I was going down the line at Sweetie Pie’s at the Mangrove, Ms. Robbie Montgomery’s culinary temple to all things soul in St. Louis. The macaroni and cheese gleamed, the fried chicken was crisper than Ms. Robbie’s outfits when she sang backup as an Ikette, and the peach cobbler was worthy of a last meal. Surveying the clientele, however, I wondered how much connection the crowd that packed the house had to the food at hand. My fellow bear brothers (stocky, hairy, gay, but unlike me almost all white) were in town from across the Midwest for their bar night. I was in St. Louis to present on the heritage of Missouri’s African American foodways during slavery. I was hankering for a dialogue—minority to minority—on the meaning of food as hot-sauce bottles were passed around and the uninitiated suspiciously sniffed, then scarfed plates of collard greens. I suppressed my culinary-historian self...

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