Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Functioning data, obsolete media

A dispute with a company that charges an exorbitant fee to replace data on floppy disks that will no longer be accessible by the latest version of its software program leads me to wonder if the same thing could happen with the Kindle, iPad, Sony Reader, or other electronic reading devices. As far as I can tell, no one has given any thought to what happens in the sequel when electronic reading hardware becomes obsolete.

After all, those of us who paid full purchase price for data on floppy disks did so under the assumption that, as with the purchase of a print-and-binding book, we were obtaining the contents for all time. What would prevent Amazon, however, from dropping Linux in favor of a different operating system, and then charging customers an additional fee to “translate” the books they had already purchased into the new system?

What happens when Amazon ceases to support the version of the Kindle that you own? Unlike the codex, an ebook requires a piece of hardware—a machine—to be accessible. Isn’t it entirely possible that the machines will be replaced and the electronic data will have to be bought all over again, and again? And that some texts will no longer be available in the new format?

Needless to say, this is not a problem with print and binding. Nearly two years ago, I divided books into two categories: “those which are needed for practical activities and those which are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction.” The Kindle, I speculated, would never replace the latter. And perhaps the reason is that the hardware for accessing such texts—the human mind—is in no danger of becoming obsolete, despite the hostility to it in some quarters.

Monday, August 30, 2010


My friend and colleague William Bedford Clark has a delightful poem called “Tenure Deliberations” in his new volume Blue Norther (Texas Review Press, $14.95):

Today the dossiers sit at the head
Of the long table where the Chair convenes
Our meeting.
What we say must not be said
Outside this room. We adopt this strict means
Against litigation. Bile and rumor
Move among us as silent witnesses,
While we debate journals, imprints, ardor
In the classroom, what a reviewer says.

Six years, up or out! Nothing personal . . .
But the grim stakes are higher still, for we
Are in the dock; each candidate’s record
Serves as rebuke or vindication. All
Here must judge themselves too and secretly
Cower in what peace tenure may afford.
Exactly so. The decision whether to award tenure is as much a depart­ment’s judgment on itself as anything else. So much is code for whether a candidate is, like Count Mippipopolous, “quite one of us.” Questions of status and connections crowd out evaluations of merit and originality. What the department is looking for are the right signs, the reassurance that the candidate shares the interests of the tenured faculty, and in the future will vote accordingly.

In Grand Strategies, which I will be reviewing for Commentary, the long­time diplomat Charles Hill says that the line dividing “precivilization” from civilization is crossed when justice replaces status. Status is related to family or clan; justice is one of the foundations of the state:The state focuses on the public good; the clan cares most for its own private cause. The state is committed to administer justice; the clan is sensitive to its honor. The state recognizes and enforces contracts; the clan may deal in something akin to contract, but hierarchy or status counts for more.Many university departments, especially in the humanities, are organized like clans. Their “silent witnesses” are “bile and rumor,” the stock ticker of reputation among members of a clan. Their tenure deliberations are not an exercise of disinterested and impersonal justice, despite the claim that their decisions are nothing personal. They are the formal means of recog­nizing and enforcing a commitment to a department’s private cause, its honor, and its hierarchy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Last days of the academic ruling class

Higher education in America is an economic bubble that’s about to burst, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has been saying all summer. When Brooklyn College—a college with an undergraduate Jewish enrollment of twenty-seven percent—assigns a book to all incoming freshmen to serve as the basis of their “common experience,” and when that book is by a radical pro-Palestinian who claims that the government “limits the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement United States policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” you begin to suspect Reynolds may just be right.

The problem is not the assignment. In my experience, few if any of the Brooklyn Collge freshmen will even bother to open the book. I can remember the title of the book that was assigned to all incoming freshmen at U.C. Santa Cruz the year I went up there (it was Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation), but that’s the sum of what I remember about the book. I bought a copy, but never heard it discussed anywhere on campus. Same for the various books that were assigned to incoming freshmen at Texas A&M University over the years. After the English department made a fuss over choosing them, they were never mentioned again.

The problem is the reaction to Brooklyn College’s choice, as reported by Bruce Kesler (h/t: Instapundit). Donna F. Wilson, dean of undergraduate studies, replied to objections from the retired sociologist Werner Cohn by saying:

Each year professors in the English Department and I select a common reading for our entering students. We choose memoirs (a genre familiar to students) set in New York City, often reflecting an immigrant experience, and written by authors who are available to visit campus. Students in freshman composition respond to the common reading by writing about their own experiences, many of them published in [a campus publication]. This year we selected How Does It Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by one of our own faculty members, Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, because it is a well-written collection of stories by and about young Arab Brooklynites whose experiences may be familiar to our students, their neighbors, or the students with whom they will study and work at Brooklyn College. We appreciate your concerns. Rest assured that Brooklyn College values tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing points of view in all that we do.The invocation of the holy academic trinity of “tolerance, diversity, and respect for differing opinions” is the ceremonial means by which true tolerance, intellectual diversity, and recognition of differing opinions are released into the wilderness. Those who choose books for college study, no matter how politically tendentious and one-sided, are immune to objections from those on the outside.

Yesterday I made the personal acquaintance of such immunity. An English professor at a nearby college dismissed the complaints of the writing majors in a senior seminar, who did not see the point in reading Jacques Derrida.

Rather than an economic “bubble” that is about to “burst,” it is this self-satisfied immunity to public incomprehension and criticism which may at last be fading. There is no way to defend the time and expense of a four-year education which is founded, not upon its economic benefit nor upon the freedom-making greatness of the texts and authors that are assigned, but upon the soi-disant privilege of the book-choosing class.

Note: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Stay awhile, why don’t you? Have a look around. If you are interested in academic questions, this post on why university faculties are dominated by the Left might be to your taste. And here the opposite question is considered: namely, why aren’t there more conservatives in the university?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Damaged in transit

I have been unpacking my library. Because not all of the bookcases have been built, I have just been getting the books out of their boxes in random order. The job has been slowed by the depressing sight of opening each new box. The packers for the van lines did not know what they were doing. My wife says they did not think of books as having any value. Although they wrapped our paintings with extreme care—only because they were framed behind glass, if you ask me—they tossed my books into the boxes any which way. They picked up whole rows and dropped them on their tails with the spines rubbing against the box. Then they piled books on top of them, regardless of any difference in the sizes of the books. The results are dozens of crushed, bent, cocked, and torn books, many with their spines rubbed white from bouncing up and down for twelve hundred miles.

My experience, then, has not been Walter Benjamin’s. Instead of being reminded where I bought a book, and the circumstances under which I read it, I am reduced to asking whether I can afford to replace it. The first edition of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays was a gift from an old flame, who inscribed it. Does it really matter if it now looks like my wife backed over it in a fit of anger? A hip and glossy study of abstract expressionism looks as if I had thrown it across the room repeatedly. As I recall, that’s pretty much what I wanted to do at the time. Has history been added to my library, or only mimicked?

“It is amazing how books can change the way a room looks,” my wife said. She was marvelling at the whole collection. I am distraught at the fate of a few.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A light summer’s reading

I have made no secret that most of my time this summer has been taken up with what is euphemistically called “relocating.” Other than books that I have read on assignment, I’ve had time for only a few others, none of which got beyond disappointing me. Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman’s biographical study of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe who died sixteen years ago amidst fervent shouts that he was the messiah, did little more than recast the official Chabad version of the rebbe’s life. The authors were particularly tone deaf in their reliance upon the biographical fact that Schneerson was academically trained as an engineer. Unable to explain how he switched without apparent warning from a secular career to become the world’s most prominent Hasid, they fall back upon saying only that he “engineered” the switch.

Pearl Abraham’s American Taliban, a reimagining of John Walker Lindh’s story, stumbled badly. Abraham makes her John Jude Parish a surfer who is “committed to the daily minute, to living the present in the present tense, to finding the extraordinary in ordinary time, in the here and now.” The choice was an astute one, if Tim Winton’s Breath is a faithful account of surfing. Of course, Winton’s novel came out two years before Abraham’s.

Jesse Katz’s memoir The Opposite Field is about two of the subjects closest to my heart: fatherhood and baseball (coaching Little League baseball, to be specific). There is much to like in the book, but eventually its earnestness began to wear on me. Perhaps I have developed an allergy late in life to lyrical waxing about baseball.

The best book that I read while struggling to organize and manage the cross-country move was Allegra Goodman’s Cookbook Collector. Not her best novel, but an interesting peek into the IPO’s that inflated many a bank account during the dot-com bubble of the ’nineties. Goodman’s shifting point of view, her interest in several characters at once, her refusal to preen or condescend, keeps the novel fascinating on every page. I’ll have more to say on The Cookbook Collector at greater length a little later. For now, though, I’d have to call it the book of the summer.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hello, Columbus

My family and I arrived in Columbus several days ago, and are settling in. While the locals complain of a heat wave, we newcomers from south Texas look at them incredulously and enjoy the cool snap. The house is in disarray, and the library, designed by my stepfather in red oak, is still under construction. All of my books remain in boxes. Ordinary life has begun to resume, even though school has yet to start. I am grateful to my loyal readers, who have returned to A Commonplace Blog again and again, impatient for new book talk. It is past time to reignite the conversation. Let’s begin again.

Frank Kermode dies at 90

The literary critic Sir Frank Kermode has died at the age of ninety. His most recent book, Concerning E. M. Forster, completed a return to traditional life-and-works criticism, which he abandoned for a spell to become fashionably dense and theoretical. His return from theory was one of the most encouraging events in the recent history of literary criticism. Although never a distinguished prose stylist, he wrote well enough to attract a general audience. And that in itself was a great accomplishment. His like will not soon be seen again.