Category Archives: Feuilleton

Warm, but no spring

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It’s about 20 degrees warmer today than it has been for most of the week, but still not spring. And certainly not green.

 

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On recommending books

    We do it enthusiastically, breathlessly, when we’re young, with no worries about whether or not the friend to whom we recommend a book will find anything at all meaningful in it. Have you read this? You must read it. I don’t recommend books very often any more, and I try to discipline myself in conversation: Never ask someone if he has read something or not. It makes you look pretentious and many people interpret the question as a challenge, or a taunt.
    As you grow older learning contributes to isolation, which you feel all the more keenly if you’re inclined to look back nostalgically at early adulthood. Young minds happily take direction from anyone, as if any imprint from the outside world is a step in the right direction, like kneading is an improvement to dough no matter shape it must ultimately take. When I was young, when all too many books simply baffled me, I admired anyone who was passionate about a book. That was all the recommendation necessary. I still have a collection of books I keep only because close friends were insistent that they would change my life.
    Now, much older, that seems a very inefficient way of getting what one needs from reading. But it’s sad every so often when a book moves you in the way books moved you as a youth. The instinct to recommend them is powerful, but checked by the sad reality that most people are too busy, too deep into their own idiosyncratic habits of reading, to put down what they must read in favor of a superfluous book. I was just reading…well, it doesn’t matter… but as soon as the vestigial thought fluttered up (“You must read this…”) came the more pragmatic realization: It appeals to me for reasons so private and particular to what has happened in the past few weeks and years that my enthusiasm can’t be trusted as an endorsement.
    Book reviews sometimes tell us that we ought to read a particular book. But they are too much bound up with the commerce of books to be entirely trusted. A book gets reviewed when it’s new, when there’s some chance that you might see it on the shelves of a bookstore (bookstore: noun: A place of business where books are the main item for sale, also called bookshop), or in the hands of someone on the Metro, or hear about it on radio or television. The premise of every book review, however, is that the book is new and therefore necessarily under consideration. A very different thing from the passionate recommendation of book we have just discovered.
    One imagines a post-professional paradise, where everyone reads again entirely for pleasure and disinterested learning. And recommendations are happily received and given, with no worry that one might be violating some nicety of etiquette. A community of learning rather than a hermitage.

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A minor Hitch anecdote having nothing to do with salami

            Everyone is offering his Christopher Hitchens memories today. I had only one face-to-face encounter, after he gave a lecture at the Greek embassy about the Elgin Marbles (he argued passionately for their return to Greece). Some of us retired to a restaurant afterward, and the proprietors must have known him well because an enormous tumbler of Scotch, filled to the brim, arrived as if by magic, before the menus, water and the bread basket. It disappeared almost as quickly and was replaced at least once more and probably twice (I don’t remember very well). He spoke of the novels of Mary Renault, which I said I loved, and he said deserved a better reputation and wider audience. At one point he was trying to remember the name of a critical battle between Ancient Greece and Persia and I tentatively offered an answer, Salamis, which unfortunately I pronounced a bit too much like the Italian meat product. He raised his hand, and said impatiently, “No, no, no.” He thought for a moment, and then said, “sal-uh-MEES.” He was right, of course.

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Gingrich the Entrepreneur

            Republicans may be refining the idea of what business competence means. The party has long cherished expertise gathered in the marketplace over mere political skill or experience.  But there was an interesting nuance introduced in a Washington Post article about Newt Gingrich, published today, which suggests that the ideal of the man of commerce may not be monolithic.

            In an article exploring concerns about Gingrich’s leadership during his years a Speaker of the House, former Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) praised the fast-rising presidential contender for getting “a plane that hadn’t flown in 40 years to fly.” But he went on to say that the plane then flew erratically, up, down, left, right, raising questions about Gingrich’s leadership skills.

            “Newt is an entrepreneur more than he’s a manager,” says Shays.

            Interesting. Is there a distinction forming between the self-made man (entrepreneurial skill) and the technocratic leader (managerial expertise)? The former implies risk taking, vision and a willingness to fail; the latter suggests steadiness, competence and professionalism.

            Genuine success in business no doubt requires both skill sets, and there are many cases in which the entrepreneurial founder  of a corporation eventually finds himself sidelined by business-school types after the start up grows bigger than the founder’s ability to manage it.

            Both skill sets are idealized by the political parties that dominate U.S. politics, but the Democratic Party, of late, has stressed managerial competence while the Republican Party idealizes the self-made man. The rise of candidates such as Herman Cain (which skill set was primary on his résumé?) and Gingrich may require more subtle thinking about just exactly what the Republican Party wants to valorize in the commercial sector. And that will give importance clues about how it conceives of the presidency.

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LEGOs: Love’em

Of course I played with LEGO blocks when I was a kid, and not so long ago I went out and bought a large tub of basic pieces, purportedly for use by the children of my friends, but in fact for my own therapeutic needs. Last Sunday I wrote about a LEGO master, Adam Reed Tucker, whose works are on display at the National Building Museum. And I also wrote a column about the proposed National Museum of the American Latino, which raises the following concerns:


Indeed, the entire concept of a Latino American Museum seems almost retro. Sometime between 2040 and 2050, according to a study done by the Center for the Future of Museums, today’s minority groups will make up a majority of the American population. Americans will be “hybridized,” with multiple ethnic strands to their identity.

Or, as Gregory Rodriguez of the New America Foundation put it at a lecture at the Canadian Embassy in February, “We have no idea what it means to be Latino in 2050. None.”

That’s a strange world in which to start building a museum to celebrate Latinos, especially given how problematic ethnically focused museums are. There’s resistance to them among people who don’t identify as minorities, and while much of that resistance is based in racial and ethnic animus, some of it represents legitimate concern that history won’t be well served by an infinite fracturing into sub-narratives, each under the control of a different cultural group.

It seems likely that within a generation, the Mall could have a large collection of very quiet and not terribly relevant museums. Not because the stories they have to tell are irrelevant or uninteresting, but because the game changed. The appetite for history will be for complicated master narratives that cross lines between ethnic groups, that dip into technology and economics and art, and can’t easily be told in an old-fashioned, balkanized museum of ethnic identity.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Feuilleton, Museums, Uncategorized, urban design

Nancy and the Gavel

I wrote a quick piece about a striking image that came out of Sunday’s health care reform vote. Around noon, Nancy Pelosi and top Democratic leaders walked from the Cannon Office Building to the House, with Pelosi carrying a rather over sized gavel. It was an impromptu gesture, by all accounts, but it sent a strong signal. She meant business.

Since Democrats retook control of the House in January 2007, the gavel hasn’t been just a symbol of the speaker’s power. It has been a particularly volatile image from the moment she was photographed receiving it from John Boehner. The outgoing Republican majority leader wasn’t just yielding power after an electoral thumping, he was yielding it to a woman, the first woman to sit only two heartbeats from the presidency. Right-wing blogs frequently use that image, often without explanation, as if it is manifestly obvious that the world is upside down if a woman from San Francisco in a tailored cabernet-colored suit is brandishing the implement.

How will this image affect public perception of the reform bill, and the politicians who worked to pass it? I touched on those questions in a Tuesday story for The Washington Post. The Note, a political links blog hosted by ABC, called it a must read. The Atlantic Wire called it a screed and mocked it unmercifully. You decide.

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Where do we find the time for opera?

Opera News editor Brian Kellow approached me a few months ago with that question, which inspired a short riff in the April issue.  Here’s a sample:

What is the elevator pitch for Wagner’s Parsifal? Is there any opera today that could survive the rigorous condensation of modern life? Opera, it seems, requires a slower world. It hides vast amounts of time in its form — not just the duration of the music but the astonishing hours of preparation, the rehearsals and the private study (years, decades, whole lives) upon which every scintilla of music is predicated. When the public balks at the high price of tickets, we often explain the problem in terms of money — the millions of dollars it may cost to put a production onstage. Even more impressive, though impossible to quantify, is the sheer accumulation of time — and history — in every finished work.

And here’s a link to the rest of the essay.

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