Books

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...

The Decline of Conservative Publishing

Available for pre-order now!
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

AP Images
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...

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