Books

The Best of David Foster Wallace

When the novelist learned to escape his own mind, he got a little closer to the greatness he sought.

(Flickr/Courtesy of the Lannan Foundation)
M ay 2005, Kenyon College, Ohio. David Foster Wallace steps to the podium and looks out at the graduating seniors before him. He tugs at his academic robe and bends toward the microphone, hair falling onto his face. Sweat beads and drips over his body. “If anybody feels like perspiring,” Wallace says, “I’d invite you to go ahead, ’cause I’m sure goin’ to.” He reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief and begins to relate the first of several parables: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Laughter ripples through the convocation room. The gathered seniors, those who’d previously heard of David Foster Wallace, author of the scene-smashing, biblically large 1996 novel Infinite Jest , but like so many others hadn’t actually...

Want Less Inequality? Tax It

Revive the big idea of British economist Arthur C. Pigou! And apply it to America's most outrageous problem.

Courtesy of the Ramsey and Muspratt Collection
Courtesy of the Ramsey and Muspratt Collection Arthur Cecil Pigou F or the last two decades of his life, Arthur Cecil Pigou didn’t get much respect. Once considered Britain’s leading economist, he had come under caustic attack from a colleague at Cambridge—his friend and famous protégé John Maynard Keynes—for insisting that the Great Depression would correct itself without strong government intervention. By the mid-1940s, before Keynes died, Pigou had capitulated. But the dispute between the two, and Pigou’s eventual acknowledgment that Keynes might have a point, seemed to consign his own work to the dustbin. His student Harry Johnson remembers him as “a tall, straight figure, eccentrically garbed, glimpsed occasionally walking about the countryside.” In the hall where Pigou lectured on economic principles, one unknown undergraduate had carved into a desk “Pigou mumbles.” After the 2008 crash, it seemed Pigou might make a comeback. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, writing in The...

My Favorite Martian

(AP Photo/Katy Winn)
Herman Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny way back in 1951 and later gifted heartland America with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, among other pop-culture landmarks, has just come out with a new novel at the preposterous—not to say preposterously entertaining—age of 97. The Lawgiver, it's called, and I seriously doubt book critics will decide this is their chance to take Wouk to the woodshed. Frankly, none of us wants to learn our withering review was the one clutched in his hand when ... well, you get the picture. Me, I wouldn't dream of making fun of The Lawgiver. Its mere existence leaves me too charmed for sober judgment. Even your instant scorn won't affect my affection for industrious, unfashionable Herman Wouk, who's seen more trampoline-happy hares soar past him in the Jewish-American literary firmament than any Pulitzer-winning tortoise you could name. I was itching to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard this thingamabob was a novel...

Nate Silver, Artist of Uncertainty

(Flickr/Randy Stewart)
(Flickr/handcoding) W e’re heading into the last week of a tight presidential campaign, and polls are coming in too fast to count. Partisans everywhere are desperate for omens. But at moments like these, it’s people who care most intensely that the “right outcome” occur who run a high risk of getting it wrong—picking out positive polls for comfort, or panicking over an unusual and unexpected result they don’t like. Fortunately, our most prominent number cruncher has been giving us the straight story instead of capitalizing on this anxiety. In 2008, Nate Silver correctly predicted the results of all 35 Senate races and the presidential results in 49 out of 50 states. Since then, his website, fivethirtyeight.com (now central to The New York Times ’s political coverage), has become an essential source of rigorous, objective analysis of voter surveys to predict the Electoral College outcome of presidential campaigns. Publishers lined up to offer Silver a chance to write a blockbuster, and...

The Great Conservative “No!”

William F. Buckley’s heirs are starving on a red-meat diet.  

(Associated Press)
(AP Photo/Lou Krasky) William F. Buckley Jr. talks with former California Governor Ronald Reagan at the South Carolina Governor's Mansion in Columbia S.C., on January 13,1978 I n the ’80s and ’90s, the GOP basked in an atypical rep as “the party of ideas.” Thanks to the liberal project’s distinctly dilapidated charms once Jimmy Carter got done playing the concerned mortician, the rise of deep-pocketed think tanks and often sharp-witted neocon intellectuals—and, not least, Newt Gingrich’s endlessly self-fertilizing conception of himself as a brainiac—it wasn’t even undeserved. Revealingly, though, all that froufrou stayed disconnected from the party’s popular appeal. Unlike midcentury Democrats, for whom Adlai Stevenson’s intellectualism and the New Frontier’s Harvard pedigree were pluses, the Republican base never did develop much of a taste for white meat disguised as gray matter, preferring Gingrich the hyper--partisan to Gingrich the guru every time. Today’s conservative elites...

Way Down in the Hole

Every era has its great narrative art form, stories delivered via the au courant medium that simultaneously show us the small characters of individuals and the vast social panoramas that limn their decisions and lives. The Anglo-Saxons and ancient Greeks had epic poetry, its tropes, rhythms, and assonances perfect for delivery via roving troubador or bard. Urban Greeks and Elizabethans saw the peaks of their cultures’ theatrical drama, where everyone from the aristocracy to the masses gathered for social and moral insight peppered with bawdy jokes. Nineteenth-century England had its sweeping novels, ranging from Austen to ; the 1970s gave us Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Nashville, and their kin . We are living in the age of the great television series. From Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos , from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Rome , I know I’m not the only one who’s more eager to find out what’s happening with “my” characters and plotlines than to go see some cinematic blockbuster. (I might...

What's Up With Naomi Wolf's Vagina?

Relax, folks. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Naomi Wolf's Vagina , carnal or otherwise. Everything I know about it comes from what other people have told me. And let me tell you, am I ever grateful for those reviews, which tell me I never want to put my hands on it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the entire public purpose of Naomi Wolf, at this point in her brilliant career, is to be the target of other folks’ smart sentences. Let’s start by assuming that you’ve already got the basic outline and flaws of the book from Jaclyn Friedman’s review here . Every review I’ve seen has essentially the same gripes with the book. And can we take for granted that Naomi Wolf’s “feminism,” while it once may have had some political content, has now morphed entirely into narcissism, in which she mistakes her own emotions for meaningful thought? The Beauty Myth, the book that’s the foundation of her outsize reputation, rehashed things that had been written and said before by second-wave...

The Vagina Myth

Naomi Wolf's yoni worship isn't just silly—it's dangerous.

This summer, Michigan state representative Lisa Brown was banned from the House floor when she dared to say the word “vagina” in a debate about proposed restrictions on abortion. Just three weeks ago, Todd Akin revealed what many Republicans believe: If you get pregnant, it can’t have been rape. It’s been a year of politicians trying to force women to have medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and “personhood amendments” granting one-celled organisms more rights than women, as long as the cell resides in the woman’s uterus. If there ever were a cultural moment crying out for an impassioned defense of the vagina, it would be now. It’s beyond unfortunate, then, that Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A New Biography is such a failure. Vagina: A New Biography By Naomi Wolf. Ecco Press, 400 pages, $27 Wolf is best known for her 1991 text The Beauty Myth, but more recently has made headlines for claiming that penetrating a sleeping woman represents a “model sexual negotiation” and...

Ghosts of Ballots Past

On Rick Hasen's riveting look at voting wars since Florida—and the anguished history of how we got there in the first place

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting.” —Tom Stoppard, Jumpers V oting rights are in the news again, and they’re back as a national issue. In Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and several other states, the coming election showdown on November 6 has been shadowed by a rising concern among Democrats over voter-ID requirements, restrictions on vote canvassing, and changes to early voting. How many of those worrying this year know that it was a series of late-19th-century political battles that helped decide how we cast and count our ballots? Or that this strange, only dimly remembered history leads straight to the mess we’re in today? In the years after the Civil War, Republicans who had fought for the Union continued to struggle with Democrats over how to implement a great democratic achievement. It was a first in world history. Black adult men, someone else’s property only a few years before, were now to be citizens—and being citizens meant they were supposed to be able...

No Touchdown for Paterno Biography

When news broke in November 2011 that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was about to be indicted for 52 counts of sexually assaulting children, Joe Posnanski—perhaps the most celebrated sportswriter in America— happened to be at State College in Pennsylvania working on a biography of Sandusky's former boss, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Although the initial signs were not encouraging, there was still reason to hope that Posnanski would use his access and considerable gifts to write a definitive account of the scandal that led to Paterno being fired in disgrace. Unfortunately, such hopes were not realized. Paterno is not an outright hagiography, but it is a squandered opportunity. The book's publication schedule was rushed by nine months—and it shows. Crucial information about Paterno's role in the scandal (much of which didn't emerge until the month before the book hit the shelves is barely acknowledged, and Posnanski's too-charitable assessment...

The Long Arc of Gore Vidal

The prolific man of letters spent the last decades of his life tarnishing his own reputation—but what a reputation it was.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photos) Gore Vidal in 1977 With typical cheek, Gore Vidal, who died yesterday, once reviewed a book about himself by a young academic named Ray Lewis White. This was in 1968, when “in many quarters,” reviewer-Vidal explained, author-Vidal was “still regarded with profound suspicion,” making White’s study a bit of an outlier. Expressing gratitude for what he deemed “a most interesting book” wouldn’t have suited Vidal’s act, to put it mildly. But he came close in his summing-up: “[I]n the declining kingdom of literature,” he wrote, “Mr. White has staked out with some nicety the wild marches of a border lord.” Some marches; some border. (I can already imagine Vidal’s ghost complaining: “What about ‘some lord’?”) It’s hard to think of another American writer who conducted so many campaigns on multiple fronts with such aplomb: superb essayist, undauntable political polemicist and TV jouster, unexpectedly engaging autobiographer. His other incarnations ranged from successful playwright...

Friday Poetry Break: When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer

From Walt Whitman : WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5 Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (With thanks to Kevin Franck for the suggestion!)

The London Games

A new book sheds light on the ruins that always lie in an Olympics's wake. 

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, by Iain Sinclair, Faber and Faber, 405 pages, $30.00 July 2012 marks the third time London has hosted the modern Olympics. In 1908, Britain was a rich and imperious nation, and British athletes topped the medals table. For the 1948 “Austerity Games,” London was scarred by bomb damage and suffering under a postwar regime of rationing. There was no money for new buildings, so athletes were housed in Royal Air Force barracks; the USA won the medal count, while Britain slipped to 12th place. This year, Britain is once again mired in economic gloom. Yet the 2012 contest was awarded in the heady, affluent days before the financial crash. On July 6, 2005, when news broke of the successful Olympic bid, scenes of genuine, unstaged jubilation took place in Trafalgar Square. The official talk was of inspiring a generation, transforming British sports, and regenerating East London—particularly a tract of...

Out of Work, Out of Luck

MIT Press
Back to Full Employment , by Robert Pollin. A Boston Review Book. The M.I.T. Press. 187 pages. $14.95 Achieving full employment has been at the center of the progressive project for more than a century. If work is available at decent wages for everyone who wants it, then the rest of the agenda is a lot easier. Opportunity proliferates. People feel a sense of dignity and worth. Human potential is fully utilized. In a virtuous circle, adequate purchasing power has a rendez-vous with the economy’s productive capacity. Tight labor markets give workers the leverage to bargain for decent wages. Social-transfer programs can be reserved for special needs rather than being strained to make up for the fundamental lack of decent income. As Robert Pollin writes in his important new book, Back to Full Employment , a society with jobs for all “is also the best tool for fighting poverty.” He reminds us that in the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, unemployment rates fell to below 4 percent,...

Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

George W. Bush has the answers.
This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs , a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need. A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems...

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