On the New York Review of Books

On February 1st 1963 The New York Review of Books published its first issue during a printer’s strike that had shut down all seven New York City newspapers. Over the years, the scope of its coverage has expanded to the extent that it has become the leading cultural periodical in this country. I recently purchased a copy of that first issue. The editors introduced the publication this way:

The New York Review of Books presents reviews of some of the more interesting and important books published this winter. It does not, however, seek merely to fill the gap created by the printers strike in New York City but to take the opportunity which the strike has presented to publish the sort of literary journal which the editors and contributors feel in need in America….The hope of the editors is to suggest, however imperfectly, some of the qualities which a responsible literary journal should have and to discovery whether there is, in America, not only the need for such a review but the demand for one.

After more than 50 years of publishing a new issue almost every two weeks, there is little doubt there both a “need” and demand for a publication of this sort. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, once the foremost literary publication in this country, has said it was “surely the best first issue of any magazine ever.” The quality of the essays in the succeeding issues has continued that tradition.

The first issue has superb reviews of well-known authors by well-known writers. Mary McCarthy reviewed William Burroughs’, The Naked Lunch; Susan Sontag reviewed Selected Essays by Simone Weil; W. H. Auden wrote about David Jones’ Anathemata; Dwight Macdonald reviewed The Politics of Hope by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. etc., etc.

Separately, the first issue contained new poems: Robert Lowell’s Buenos Aires; John Berryman’s Three Dream Songs; Robert Penn Warren’s "Lyrics" from Delight, as well as reviews of several books of poetry. And there were a great many pages advertising new fiction and non-fiction books.

I always look forward to the next issue. Will there be topics that interest me, writers who impress me with their erudition, and writing that will amuse and educate? There always are; here is an example.

In the August 8, 2013 issue Freeman Dyson reviewed a new biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the troubled genius I so admire, that focuses on his work in physics. Dyson knew Oppenheimer and believes that his work in physics was of minor importance.

But he thinks highly of his many other contributions—role in building the first cyclotron at Berkeley, teaching graduate students, leading the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and serving as Chairman of a committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Still, it is his failure to break new ground in theoretical physics that disappoints Dyson. He attributes it to a lack of what he calls “Sitzfleisch.” “Sitzfleisch” is a German word that means “the ability to sit still and work quietly. He could never sit still long enough to do a difficult calculation. His calculations were always done hastily and often full of mistakes.”

I have no way to evaluate Dyson’s claim. But the concept of Sitzfleisch interests me and as I think about it, I realize it applies widely. I know how fruitful it can be to concentrate for an extended period on a topic. And I know others who are simply unable to do that, to their detriment and ultimate regret.

Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have recently made a film, The 50 Year Argument that is an in-depth-portrait of the periodical. It draws upon rare archival material, interviews, and the work of some of its writers to illustrate the range of the magazine during the past five decades.

The film premiered on HBO at the end of September. I trust it will eventually become more widely available.


Janet Yellen on Economic Inequality

Speeches by government officials on economic inequality are rare. You recall the speech President Obama delivered some time ago in which he said it was the defining issue of our time. We haven’t heard a word from him since, let alone any major policy changes to remedy the situation.

But Janet Yellen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, spoke out forcefully on this issue last week (10/17/14). In her speech to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston she said:

"The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concerns me. … It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity."

From all accounts this is the first time a Chairman of the Federal Reserve devoted an entire speech to economic inequality in this country. In 2007 when he was Chairman, Ben Bernanke did talk about the issue but lamely concluded,

I will not draw any firm conclusions about the extent to which policy should attempt to offset inequality in economic outcomes; that determination inherently depends on values and social trade-offs and is thus properly left to the political process.” Talk about passing the buck.

In contrast, Yellen identified a number of areas that called for action. She said it was the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to do all it could to promote economic opportunities in this country, called for efforts to reduce the enormous debt students incur in attending college, as well as promoting early education and affordable higher education. She noted that mobility is lower in the United States than most other advanced countries and urged the creation of new businesses that would give individuals a chance of moving up.

All in all, a very concrete set of proposals, an impressive statement from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Let’s hope it isn’t Yellen’s last word on this issue. She obviously cares about the problem, so I don’t think it will be.

Yellen alluded to the possibility that income inequality could be a significant factor in the overall weakness in the economy. According to Neil Irwin (Times, 10/17/14) the logic of this conjecture goes like this:

"The wealthy tend to save a large proportion of their income, whereas middle and low- income people spend almost all that they earn. Because a rising share of income is going to the wealthy, spending—and hence aggregate demand—is rising more slowly than it would if there were more even distribution of income."

If true, this hypothesis provides additional support for using fiscal policy and congressional action to lessen the extent of economic inequality in this country. The benefits are clear. Other than fiscal policy, the likelihood of congressional action now is virtually nil, an outcome that is deeply distressing to this writer and I imagine to Yellen too.


The Rescuer

What do these well-known individuals have in common: Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Claude Levi-Strauss, Marcel Duchamp? They are among the many individuals, currently estimated to be over 2,000, that Varian Fry helped to escape from Nazi Germany and occupied France during World War II. They were largely Jewish individuals who were well-known cultural figures—artists, writers, musicians and scientists.

Fry began his work by volunteering to serve on the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in Marseille that aided persons fleeing the Nazis. When he began, the group had the support of the State Department, but that ended 13 months later as the Department slowly turned against it in favor of the Vichy Government that, with the State Department’s agreement, eventually arranged his arrest and expulsion from France.

Before then he had successfully procured forged identity cards, visas to America and arranged passage on ships leaving from Marseille or smuggling those in flight across the border to Spain or Portugal. When asked about his motives for his extremely risky activities, Fry responded that when he had visited Berlin in 1935, he saw Gestapo men assaulting Jews in the city’s streets, and he felt he could no longer remain indifferent.

''I remembered what I had seen in Germany. I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them ... It was my duty to help them ... Friends warned me of the danger. They said I was a fool to go. I, too, could be walking into the trap. I might never come back alive."

In her book about Fry, The Rescuer, Dara Horn is less generous. She attributes his reasons to a mental illness, characterized as a manic-depressive struggle that occupied his entire life. She writes that his son held a somewhat similar view. He is quoted as saying, “Maybe you need to be a little unhinged to do something foolhardy like that. If Prozac had existed in the 1940s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

I regard both accounts as irrelevant to his work. What he did is far more important, indeed of historic and cultural importance, than his motives, motives that neither Fry, his son, biographer or anyone else can ever hope to fathom.

Unfortunately, Fry was never honored or received the kind of gratitude from those he saved that Sousa Mendes did from the individuals he helped escape from Nazi Germany. Mendes was Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux when Germany invaded France. The Times reported that 40 of them made a pilgrimage to Portugal recently to pay homage to the man who saved their lives.

It is estimated that Mendes issued at least 30,000 (1/3 of whom were Jews) Portuguese visas to individuals seeking to flee the Germans. “He issued many of the visas personally and also persuaded some others on the Portuguese diplomatic staff stationed in France to do the same.” This was contrary to the policy of Fascist government in Portugal that tried and subsequently dismissed him from the diplomatic services, canceling his pension rights. He died in poverty in 1954.

Like Fry he has been honored in Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” One of the people who made the pilgrimage to honor Mendes said, “You hear about people who argued that they couldn’t help because it was wartime and they had their own family to worry about, but here was a man with a career, a wife and an incredible amount of children who certainty did do something for others.”


The Liar's Wife

Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife consists of four novellas, each about an individual at a different stage of their life. Most look back on previous times, reviewing mistakes that were made and how their life has changed since then.

In the first titled novella, an elderly, retired scientist recalls her brief marriage to a lying, deceiving Irishman and her life in Dublin before she simply walked out on him. Many years later, he and his new wife, both looking like hippies, visit her at her home in Maine. After the night they spend there, she realizes, “Without Johnny she wouldn’t have known, really, who she was. Because he had taught her who she was not.”

In “Simone Weil in New York,” French born Genevieve, now living in New York with her husband, child, and brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is troubled by the forthcoming visit of Weil. She and her parents had fled France to escape the Nazis who had overrun the country. Weil decides to visit Genevieve, once a student in her classes.

Genevieve dreads having to spend time with her, day after day listening to her moral hectoring and is no longer interested in engaging in the unanswerable questions Weil keeps pestering her with. Eventually Weil leaves for England to join the French Resistance group there. Genevieve asks, “How is she able to say these things; how did she become the way she is. She comes from a loving family… a maimed genius? A Saint? A madwoman?”

Bill Morton a 90 year-old retired physician looks back on “the greatest day of my life” in the third novella, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Young Bill Morton was chosen to introduce Thomas Mann to his classmates when he visited the school after fleeing Nazi Germany.

Bill’s reminiscences as he unfolds the visit are moving. He recalls Mann’s speech to the students was “electrifying.” It was almost as if were being given shock treatments…but instead of torment, being replaced by nullity, the nullity of my own life…of what it meant to be human in a world that was full of evil and greatness, of terms and conditions larger than I had ever imagined.

Mann remarks: I have spoken to you of truth, justice, civilization, democracy … Civilization is in retreat. A period of lawlessness and anarchy reigns over the outward life of people…Evil has been revealed to us in such crassness and meanness that our eyes have been opened to the dignity and simple beauty of the good…I salute you in this country that is conscious of its own human inadequacy, a country that perseveres in a faith which is sound and utterly necessary to life—faith in goodness, in freedom and truth, in justice and in peace.

Many years later Bill enters the University of Chicago during the era of Robert Hutchins. It was the first time he had lived away from home. His excitement at reading the Great Books is an experience well known to me, the study of the Socratic method, the insistence on rigorous scientific evidence, debates about he theory of a just war and moral responsibility. It was one of the golden ages of academic education.

While he loves the study of the literature, Bill knew he would never be a great literary scholar and he saw no point in pursuing the subject unless he was going to be great at it. And so he devoted the rest of his life to medicine.

In “Fine Arts,” Theresa Riordan, a brilliant student in Catholic seminary, is sent by the nuns to a highly regarded university. While there she discovers her love of arts and in particular a rarely known Italian sculptor. After a brief, disastrous, affair with her married professor, she is granted a stipend that enables her to spend a month in Lucca studying the 15th century sculptor, Mateo Civitali.

While there she meets a wealthy, elderly collector, Signore Allard, who has several works by the sculptor. He becomes her guide and mentor as they meet for meals each day and visit museums that have other works by Civitali. After dinner one night the aged Signore Allard is killed as his car runs off the road on the way to his villa.

The fairy tale story ends when, back in America, Theresa receives a telephone call from Allard’s attorney with the following bit of news: Signore Allard has provided very handsomely for you. The villa and its contents belong to you; he has arranged that the staff be kept on, that they be paid an annuity only as long as they continue to work there. And has left you a very large sum of cash because he makes a point that you will be responsible for the upkeep of the villa as he left it....I hope you can come to Lucca as soon as possible.

It is difficult to identify any underlying theme that connects the four novellas. There are ideas that crop up in some, but not all—beauty, affliction, privilege, injustice, responsibility. But otherwise each tale stands alone in my mind, a set of short stories that in no way diminishes the pleasure of Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife.


On Libraries

During World War II in the neighborhood where I lived, a small lending library of current fiction and non-fiction books was maintained in a nearby home. Anyone could pay a modest fee to borrow a book for a week or so, making it unnecessary to purchase a copy or wait until one became available at the distant public library. It wasn’t so easy to buy books during those wartime years so the little lending library around the block became a popular and much appreciated neighborhood center. Whatever happened to those small private lending libraries? I suspect they have all but vanished from this country.

About the time I entered Junior High, I began to study at the nearby library in my hometown. It was a small library located in the City Hall of what was then a village, albeit no less fashionable than now. The library was not far from my home and eventually I began biking or taking the bus there several times a week. It was quiet. The tables were hidden from one another in between the open stacks that filled the rooms. The books that I needed then were readily available. But mostly I would go to study and read. It was more than enough to simply be amongst those books for an hour or two in the afternoon.

I recall an older man was always there when I arrived. Now that I think about it, he must have been about the same age as I am now. Perhaps he was a writer for he was always scribbling something on a pad of yellow paper. I suspect I was rather impressed by his devotion to writing and seriousness of intent. Strangely, after all of these years, I’ve not forgotten him or that strange blend of paper, leather, and dust that I inhaled each time I stepped foot in the little library in my hometown.

In his blog (10/16/14), Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes a somewhat similar experience, updated for modern times. Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent.

Since the days of my youth, I have been to many fine libraries: Widener, Bodleian, the libraries at Stanford and Berkeley. I am overwhelmed with gratitude each time I step foot in one of those places. The first time I wandered in to the great reading room of the New York Public Library I had to stop and catch my breath.

Before me were row after row of tables with hundreds of readers peering at their books. I walked down one of the long aisles lined with book shelves glimpsing the titles of reference books most of which I didn’t even know existed, crossed over to the other side with a comparable collection that I would love to be able to get my hands on. It was hard to leave. While I usually work alone, after being in that room, I realized for perhaps the first time that I could actually read and write in the reading room of the New York Public Library and that if I lived in New York, I would probably go there every day.

And yet, as rich as are the resources of the New York Public Library and other comparable collections, the little library in the City Hall of my hometown, like any first love, will always remain my favorite. It is where I would want to be when it comes time to read my last book. I am sure the card catalog will still be there. After all, the librarians would never think of abandoning it for something as racy as a computer.

Is anyone going to the library now? To find out I went over to the Portland State University library the other day. I walked in the main entry and was immediately confronted by a room full of computers, with a student working at each console and a long line of other students waiting for an opening.

I counted about 50 workstations and as I walked up and down row upon row of them, I failed to see a single person reading a book. Some were taking notes from a website, others were writing text, while still others were composing e-mails. I went upstairs and observed much the same at about a dozen round tables each with five radiating computer stations, fully occupied with students peering at the screen.

As far as I could tell, not one was reading from a book. Where were the books, anyway? What a barren place I thought. Off to the side there were a few scattered readers. Most of them were taking notes from textbooks not anything from the library collection. However, I did see a fair number of students listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones.

Up to the third, fourth and fifth floor with progressively fewer students but almost without exception each one working away on their laptops. These floors were largely devoted to the library’s open stacks, aisle after aisle of book shelves crammed full of books, journals, and monographs. I walked down the central aisle of each floor, glancing to my left and then to my right and I did not see a single individual browsing through these books.

I did see a few library personal returning books to the shelves. That was reassuring. And there were a small number of students reading at the largely empty tables on the perimeter of each floor, but not one by a pile of books that they had collected from the stacks or checked out from the library. So many books, so many unopened, untouched books, so few, if any, readers, year after year.


Books by Bike

Every time I return to Portland, Oregon, where I am now, I’m astonished at the number of bikers on the street. Portland is often referred to as the biking capital of this country, although I am sure there are other cities with numerous bikers on its roadways.

I’ve never understood how there could be so many bike riders here. For nine months of the year it often rains, with occasional periods of freezing cold, once in a while it snows, and during those nine months, clouds and dense fog frequently settle over the city. How can they do this day after day? What hearty souls they must be.

Meanwhile, city planners keep adding additional bike lanes to the dismay of automobile drivers. A two-lane avenue can quickly be reduced to one lane, plus a separate bike lane, leaving those in their cars stuck in long lines of traffic, while the bikers go speeding by.

The Times recently (10/10/14) reported yet another biking development in Portland. It is said to combine its bike-friendly (“if not bike-crazed”) tradition with its literary, environmental and liberal history. The development is known as Street Books, a service designed to deliver books to the countless homeless individuals who live throughout the city.

The number of homeless individuals that live in Portland also astonishes me. When it isn’t raining or cold, they sleep anywhere they can find a legal space. When it rains, they move under bridges, highways, or deep in building alcoves that protect them from the elements.

Street Books is a non-profit book bike-delivery service to “people living outside.” It was founded by Laura Moulton, an artist and adjunct professor of creative nonfiction. She started Street Books from Kickstarter backers and raised additional funds from various grants and foundations.

Together with three part time salaried employees, she travels around the city handing out books to homeless readers. One of the employees who pedals the bike around the city commented:

“Taking books to the streets sends the message that poor and marginalized people are no so different from the “us” that defines the educated literate mainstream of the city, whether in its hipster, computer geeks or bankers. It transcends the bookish culture of Portland, though I think it’s perfect for the bookish culture of Portland.”

That’s Portland at its best. I’ve lived here for over 47 years, ever since I came to teach at Reed College. I recall visiting Portland when I was a graduate student during a summer job with an advertising company. That was more than 50 years ago.

The city then was a far cry from what it is now—old and run-down, without city planning, an environmental movement or leaders like Tom McCall who was governor of the State from during the 60s and 70s and Neil Goldschmidt who really transformed the city when he was mayor in the late 80s to 1991.

I found Portland dismal, dreary, and disappointing during that initial visit and vowed to myself that I will never live there. And look what happened!


On the Ebola Virus

At the time of this writing, the Ebola patient in Dallas is “fighting for his life.” As of now he is the only victim of the disease in this country. More than 7,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola in this latest outbreak, the biggest on record. More than 3,000 victims have died.

The disease continues to be spreading. Meanwhile, medical aid centers from several countries are gradually being established in the hardest hit areas. While the conditions in which the virus is transmitted are well known, it remains uncertain how many more individuals will be infected.

I was reminded of a blog I wrote earlier this year about two films that deal with the spread and consequences of viruses. I am reposting it today.

Deadly Viruses
In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.

Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).

Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.

The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or pressing elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.

Outbreak opens deep in an African rain forest where a monkey has infected a small village, killing everyone who lived there. Again a team of researchers descends upon the village in an effort to understand the source of the virus and contain it, insofar as possible. They are unsuccessful, as one of the disease carrying monkeys is imported to this country and escapes into a forested area close to a small town. Eventually most of residents who lived there are infected with the virus, whereupon the military is ordered to quarantine the town so that no one can leave.

Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.

In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train, whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.

What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?

The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.