Sunshine Recorder

strangeopus replied to your post “What I’ve read this year”

If you had to suggest 3 of these to someone who appears to be interested in things similar to you, which would you suggest? (I need more books to read)

Well, I like to read about a lot of different things so it is hard to answer this question without knowing about your preferences, but I’ll try (not in order, and more than 3, sorry): 

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

This is one of the few books I love to return to. It’s a difficult book to describe: there is no plot, the chapters are usually very short and fragmented (the writings were found and assembled after Pessoa’s death), and it’s some kind of “factless autobiography.” It’s basically a collection of small vignettes and reflections on life, loneliness, love, friendship, social interactions, and so on. The prose is beautiful, poetic, and very melancholic. If you’re an introvert, you’ll probably enjoy it even more. I’ve posted a few excerpts in the past if you want to check it out: http://sunrec.tumblr.com/tagged/the+book+of+disquiet

Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord

This one is not an easy read for some people, but it’s written in aphoristic form so it is easy to re-read a passage if you need to understand it better. It critiques the effects of advertising, the media, and the consumerist society in general on individuals and social relations. It was written over 30 years ago, but it’s more relevant today than ever before, and it will change the way you see things.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

One of my favorite novel. It’s a mix of story-telling and philosophical speculations about love, relationships, and the meaning of life. It’s set around the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and you follow four different characters whose lives are intertwined. One thing I really liked is the fact that the narrator often talks directly to the reader about philosophy, introducing concepts that relate to the story, life in general, or just talk about the characters themselves. It creates some kind of intimate relationship between you, the narrator, and the characters. It’s a wonderful and thought provoking read. I never wanted it to end. 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

This is one of the most fascinating and disturbing book I’ve ever read. It tells the true story of a family of four that was murdered by two young men in Kansas in 1959. It reconstructs the lives/psychologies of the murderers and their victims, the murder itself, the investigation that led to the capture, the trial, and execution of the killers. It’s a disturbing, but the writing is absolutely wonderful and very captivating. A true crime masterpiece.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here’s why you should read it: http://sunrec.tumblr.com/post/68689535286/on-dostoyevskys-notes-from-underground

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

I grew up in France and I never learned about native Americans in school so I started reading a few books about this history when I moved to North America, and this is one of my favorite. It focuses on the Indian Wars of the American West throughout the 19th century. It’s very sad, but it’s a must read, especially if you live in NA.

The Fall by Albert Camus

I love Camus, and this is one of his best work. It’s a short read but it’s deep and hilarious at the same time, and it gets better with each re-reading. It is a series of monologues by an ex-lawyer you meet in a bar in Amsterdam who tells you his life story, and reflects on the absurdities of life and society. 

These books are not necessarily the best books I’ve read, but I enjoyed them a lot and they’re pretty accessible and relatively short, so I like to recommend them. Anyway, I hope this answers your question, and if you’re looking for something more specific, let me know. You can also find me on Goodreads. :)

What I’ve read this year

Bold = books I enjoyed the most

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rüdiger Safranski
Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
The Miso Soup by Ryū Murakami
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution by Roy Bainton
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Précis de décomposition (A Short History of Decay) by Emil Cioran
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Québert by Joël Dicker
The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee 
In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Key Kesey
Homosexuality & Civilization by Louis Crompton
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
À la recherche du temps perdu: Du coté de chez Swann (In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way) by Marcel Proust
The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
Consuming Life by Zygmund Bauman
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
Tu montreras ma tête au peuple by Francois-Henri Désérable
The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee
Everything was Forever, Until it was No More by Alexei Yurchak
The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
Profit Over People by Noam Chomsky
Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
How Shall I Live my Life? by Derrick Jensen
Madness: a Very Short Introduction by Andrew T. Scull
Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery
Marx for Beginners by Rius
Ecology & Socialism by Chris Williams
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno
Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr

Sanctuaire 1/2/3 by Xavier Dorison
Tintin 1/2/3/4/5 by Hergé
The Walking Dead Vol. 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman

Link: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Literature

In order to guide English-speakers towards the authors best suited for specific tastes, Culture.pl has put together an exclusive guide offering historical context and tailor-made recommendations.

Polish literature, from its sheer quantity and innovative quality, undoubtedly deserves a place alongside the greatest, yet it has remained significantly less mainstream than its Russian or French counterparts, perhaps on account of the language barrier. However, outstanding translations of classics and contemporary successes have been steadily appearing over the last few years, offering book lovers a newfound chance to discover hidden treasures.  Simply select the statement that applies best, and you will be redirected to the information you need to take to your local bookstore.

Where did it all begin?

The earliest pieces of literature in the Polish language emerged in the 14th century.  Of these early works – which developed a literary tradition outside that of the works being written in Latin –Bogurodzica, a hymn invoking the Mother of God, is most significant. 

With the relative political stability that resulted from the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the nation saw increasing opportunities for contact with the rest of Europe.  16th Century Polish arts reflect the impact of the Renaissance – particularly the influence of Italian artists and writers.  The oeuvre of Jan Kochanowski honed the poetic language integral to later Polish literature and stands as an exemplar of the pinnacle of Polish Renaissance literature.  Kochanowski’sLaments – written after the death of his daughter, Urszula – stand out in his diverse and prolific work as a piece of enduringly beautiful and heartbreaking verse. 

Poland remained engaged with the arts of Europe and followed its cultural trajectoy through the Baroque and Enlightenment. 

Romanticism sets the tone for what’s to come…

The first half of the 19th century saw Poland largely reject Enlightenment values of the previous generation and embrace a Romantic spirit, in both literature and political action.  The spirit of Romanticism has proven to have an enduring effect on Polish thought, and the greatest name of the period – Adam Mickiewicz – retains a prominent place in contemporary Polish culture.  As “the bard of Poland,” Mickiewicz might be likened to Pushkin, Byron, Goethe, or Shevchenko.  The opening lines of Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, a novel in verse, can be recited by many Poles; and the work – set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars – is a Polish national epic.  His drama Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) refers to Slavic pagan tradition and is a fascinating example of Romanticism’s engagement with mysticism and the Absolute.

Mickiewicz and his contemporaries, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, have become known as poet-prophets (wieszcze), as their work elevated the reflection of Poland’s political struggles to a spiritual plane.

If you like vast, historical epics…

The literary scene at the turn of the 19th century produced two masters of the novel.  The work of both Henryk Sienkiewicz and Bolesław Prus turned toward historical detail and clear, accessible prose.

Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, Sienkiewicz is best known for Quo Vadis and hisTrilogy – comprised of With Fire and SwordThe Deluge, and Fire on the Steppe.  The Trilogy is set in the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while Quo Vadis takes place in Nero’s Rome.  Sienkiewicz’s work – filled with adventure and acts of heroism – is often cited as having played a vital role in preserving Polish national spirit in the era of partition. 

Eschewing Sienkiewicz’s dramatic portrays of historical struggles, the literary worlds of Prus’s fiction are remarkable in their accuracy – both of tone and geography.  Those who enjoy the social realism of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will appreciate Prus’s masterpiece, The Doll, which brilliantly presents a vision of late 19th century society in Warsaw.  Prus’s innovative variation in narrative perspective and tone were unmatched in his time and are not to be missed.

“Young Poland” at the dawn of the 20th Century

In the first decades of the 20th century, Poland’s arts flourished in the era of “Young Poland.”  The literature of this period developed through a number of stages and produced great works byStanisław Przybyszewski, Leopold Staff, Bolesław Leśmian, and Stefan Żeromski.

In this period Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding stands out as an essential work of the period.  The symbolist drama – densely packed with allusions to Polish history and culture – tells the story of a wedding that brings together not only peasants and urban intelligentsia, but also a host of spirits and ghosts.  Ultimately a critique of both political stagnation and earlier theories of “art for art’s sake,” this rich drama remains one of the most influential works in Polish literature.

Searching for Direction in the Interwar Years

Having regained independence in 1918, interests in Poland found themselves at odds regarding the future of the nation.  Similarly, the interwar period in literature is characterized by diversity in aesthesis and influences.  Zofia Nałkowska’s The Romance of Theresa Hennert offers an illuminating picture of the conflicting perspectives and personalities looking to shape the identity of the newly independent nation. 

The futurist movement that developed across Europe in the 1920s found its way to Poland in the works Bruno Jasieński and Aleksander Wat.  Those who enjoy the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti or Vladimir Mayakovsky of Russia will delight in the Polish take on this dynamic and urban style.  Rejecting tradition and embracing a technological future, Polish futurists envisioned a Poland radically divorced from its past.  Though Wat’s work later moved away from futurism, his 1927Lucifer Unemployed is a biting and darkly comic take on a changing world in which Lucifer finds a career in cinema – having otherwise found himself superfluous in atheistic modern society.

In contrast to the futurists’ radical break from the past, poets associated with the Skamander group looked back to classical images and traditional literary forms.  Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Julian Tuwim were among the founders of the Skamander group, and their poetry of the time endures in its simple beauty and accessibility. 

Looking for Something Both Brilliant and Strange?

Alongside the diverse literary schools of the interwar, there emerged three authors who defy labels.  These “great innovators” – Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz – addressed issues of form and social relations, though each approached their subjects in very different ways. 

Witkacy’s dramas – both brilliant and bizarre – are considered a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd associated with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.  His work often engaged with the desire to break free from social conventions and expectations.  His The Madman and the Nun is a play in which character types – more so that actual characters – come together in an asylum.  Though it is the poet character who is committed to the institution, Witkacy explores how the ideologies underlining the actions of all the characters (psychoanalysis, scientific positivism, etc.) are their own kind of madness.  Witkacy’s The Shoemakers offers an allegorical look at conflicting political ideologies of the time as a fascist, a communist, and an aristocrat are pitted against one another. 

Learn more about Witkacy here

Like Witkacy, Gombrowicz explored the relationship of the individual with the various “masks” offered by social relations.  His Ferdydurke is a brilliant satire of the simultaneous desires for individuality and belonging – presented through the story of a man who wakes to find himself returned to his days as a schoolboy.  The convoluted Cosmos details one man’s search for meaning in a seemingly random series of events and observations.  In this engaging and unsettling novel, as his protagonist begins to form increasingly unexpected associations within his environment, Gombrowicz lays bare the absurdity in our search for meaning and connection. 

The poetic beauty of the worlds Schulz creates in his stories is the basis for his meditations on the relationship of physical reality to a metaphysical universal.  His tales of inaccessible time and lost homes exist in the interaction between imagination and experience.  Though his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered during the Nazi occupation of his hometown of Drohobycz, the collections he left behind – Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and Street of Crocodiles– remain and are not to be missed.

If you’re interested in the Polish experience of, and response to, WWII, consider…

As a central battleground of the Second World War, Poland – and her literature – was deeply affected by the trauma of the war.  The literature of the period and the years that followed address the experience of a people whose country not only was invaded from both sides, but also was to become the territory in which the Nazis carried out their genocidal policies. 

A member of the Polish underground, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  The poetry he left behind expresses the fears and passions of a young man facing an uncertain and violent future.   Poets Anna Świrszczyńska, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Miron Białoszewski survived the Warsaw Uprising, and their work reflects the trauma of the event in various ways.  Białoszewski spent much of his life after the war writing and editing a memoir of the Uprising.  In his A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, he looks to strip his memories of a retrospectively imposed narrative thread, instead presenting a densely detailed account of life in the besieged city. 

Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen offers a brutal portrait of life in Auschwitz.  Himself a survivor of the camp, Borowski’s frank prose and clipped details present the world in which kindness is shocking and no one is a hero.  Also addressing the horrors of Nazi policy,Nałkowska’s Medallions, published shortly after the war, is a collection of short stories assembled around chilling accounts Nałkowska collected as part of an investigative committee on Nazi war crimes. 

More recently, a new generation of Poles – whose experience of the war comes only through the memories of others – has addressed the legacy of trauma in their work.  Marek Bieńczyk’s Tworki, set in a psychiatric hospital near Warsaw, explores the relationship between memory and imagination as the musings of the contemporary narrator meld with a narrative of life in occupied Poland.  Piotr Paziński also confronts echoes of the past in his two novels, Pensjonat and Ptasie ulice.  Paziński’s is a world of spirits – both a poignant meditation on loss and a carefully crafted celebration of the vanishing language of Poland’s Jewish population.

Looking for something a little lighter? 

Amongst the rather dark literature that emerged out of a Poland that endured the Nazi occupation only to find itself under the shadow of Soviet power, there remain examples of delightfully quirky and darkly comic fiction. 

Lovers of science fiction will delight in the works of Stanisław Lem, whose novels and collections of stories include SolarisThe Star Diaries, and The Cyberiad.  Though in his stories Lem’s characters often find themselves confronted with beings and settings alien to them, there is simultaneously a feeling that these worlds are grounded in reality.  His work is as much philosophy as it is science fiction.   Lem’s playful and inventive use of language, along with his thoughtful and engaging narratives, make him a great choice both for those looking for a charming adventure and absurd humor, as well as readers searching for a creative philosophy of encounter with an other.

Sławomir Mrożek similarly used his writing creatively to comment on contemporary social conditions.  His 1957 collection of short stories, Elephant, offers a satire of life in communist Poland.  He highlights the absurdity of the authorities and conditions of life in what Spectator describes as “brief fables…something like Kafka’s stories, but funnier.”  Mrożek’s drama Tangoreturns to some of the themes of Witkacy’s The Shoemakers, though his work grounds the political conflict within a story of familial dysfunction. A joy to read, Mrożek’s prose can be enjoyed both as immensely humorous tales, as well as texts that illuminate the environment in which they were composed.

If you’re only going to know a few names, know these…

No survey of Polish literature would be complete without the three most prominent Polish poets of the 20th century – Czesław MiłoszWisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert.  Easily the most recognized name of Polish letters around the world, Miłosz’s rich and philosophical poetry vividly reflects upon the spiritual and scientific in the world around him.   Also a gifted and prolific scholar, translator, and prose writer, the collected essays in his 1953 The Captive Mind remain a classic of literature on totalitarianism, and his The History of Polish Literature was invaluable in fostering an awareness of Polish literature in the English speaking world.  Szymborska, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, might well be understood as a poet of scale.  Her work frequently approaches the particularity of its subject from a macro level or zooms out to reveal the vastness of one’s environment.  Herbert’s cerebral verse is deeply engaged in questions of ethics and history; it is both moral and ironic. 

Born after WWII, a “New Wave” of Polish poets found prominence in the late 1960s.  Of this “Generation of ’68,” the work Adam Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak is of particular note.  Both poets masterfully represent social reality with clear language and a dose of irony.  Along with their collections of poetry, Zagajewski and Barańczak have published collections of essays and criticism.  Barańczak’s 1990 Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays offers a particular engaging examination of the experience of the Polish writer in exile and the transformations that were shaping Eastern Europe.

Looking to get a sense of the diverse voices of contemporary Polish literature? Check out…

For those interested in Poland’s future, there are perhaps few better signs of her promise than the thriving and diverse creativity on display in contemporary literature.  Though the world of contemporary Polish literature is vast, the follow are but a few of the outstanding artists whose work has found acclaim in translation. 

Andrzej Stasiuk’s stunning prose depicts the environment in the collapse of Communism.  His 1994Tales of Galicia captures the fading past and uncertain future of rural communities, while 2005’sOn the Road to Babadag details his journey through oft neglected “other Europe.”

Olga Tokarczuk, a gifted storyteller and stylist, is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of contemporary Polish literature.  Her 1996 novel, Primeval and Other Times, offers a microcosm of mankind steep in myth and psychological subtlety. 

Michał Witkowski’s Lovetown (2004) portrays both a transitional period from communism and the frequently overlooked subject of homosexuality with sharp wit and a keen ear for spoken language.

Dorota Masłowska burst onto the scene with the 2002 publication of Snow White and Russian Red.  A sort of Polish Trainspotting, the novel depicts the exploits of a group of aimless youth in pitch perfect narrative attuned to the rhythm and style of its protagonists.  Masłowska’s gift for capturing the language of the street  also is evident in her 2005 novel, The Queen’s Peacock, which employs a hip-hop idiom to cast a critical lens on media and pop culture. 

Currently Reading:

Confronting Consumption by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca

Comforting terms such as “sustainable development” and “green production” frame environmental debate by stressing technology (not green enough), economic growth (not enough in the right places), and population (too large). Concern about consumption emerges, if at all, in benign ways—as calls for green purchasing or more recycling, or for small changes in production processes. Many academics, policymakers, and journalists, in fact, accept the economists’ view of consumption as nothing less than the purpose of the economy. Yet many people have a troubled, intuitive understanding that tinkering at the margins of production and purchasing will not put society on an ecologically and socially sustainable path.

Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing “the consumption problem” and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In Part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy, emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, “ad-busting,” and product certification. Together, the chapters propose “cautious consuming” and “better producing” as an activist and policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving focus of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Whether she is contemplating the history of walking as a cultural and political experience over the past two hundred years (Wanderlust), or using the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a lens to discuss the transformations of space and time in late nineteenth-century America (River of Shadows), Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

Link: The Books We’ve Lost

Used-book stores are disappearing in our day at an even greater rate than regular book stores. Until ten years ago or so, there used to be a good number of them in every city and even in some smaller towns, catering to a clientele of book lovers who paid them a visit in search of some rare or out-of-print book, or merely to pass the time poking around. Even in their heyday, how their owners made a living was always a puzzle to me, since typically their infrequent customers bought nothing, or very little, and when they did, their purchase didn’t amount to more than a few dollars. Years ago, in a store in New York that specialized in Alchemy, Eastern Religions, Theosophy, Mysticism, Magic, and Witchcraft, I remember coming across a book called How to Become Invisible that I realized would make a perfect birthday present for a friend who was on the run from a collection agency trying to repossess his car. It cost fifteen cents, which struck me as a pretty steep price considering the quality of the contents.

What made these stores, stocked with unwanted libraries of dead people, attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure. Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins. How delightful to find some unknown reader commenting in pencil on a Victorian love poem: “Shit,” or coming across this inscription in a beautiful edition of one of the French classics:

For my daughter,
make beauty, humanity and wisdom
your lifelong objectives; and in all circumstances
you will know what to do. Happiness will be
the reward for your efforts.

One would either restore the volume on the shelf, or continue lingering over it and delaying the verdict. Of course, every now and then, there would come along some trashy book that one could not resist having, like the biography of Rudolph Valentino, the silent movie heartthrob, I bought last fall, which advertised itself as the sensational, never-before-published truth about the most fiery sex god of our time, and promised to reveal why his first wife left him before dawn on their wedding night.

However, other times there’d be a book I’d start reading and couldn’t put down. Here, for example, is the opening of one called Business be Damned—not a very promising title—by someone called Elijah Jordan, published in 1952 by Henry Schuman, New York, and presented at some unknown date to the library of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas by its original owner, Dr. Joe Colwell, and subsequently removed from their collection:

There have always been businessmen and business in the world. But never in history till today was business accepted as a morally honorable activity for men; never before was the businessman permitted to dominate the affairs of men. Today the rule of the businessman, accepted, justified and glorified, has become undisputed and absolute.
Until lately, however, the activity of the businessman has always been questioned as to its moral rightness. The formulation of this doubt has been the negative or critical premise upon which every developed moral system and every cultured religious system has been founded. The new fact, therefore, in what is called modern civilization, is the acceptance of business activity as morally honorable, the approval of the capacities and the characteristics of the businessman, and the assumption that these capacities are appropriate for rule and control of human affairs.

This is extraordinary, I said to myself. Jordan (1875-1953), who was a professor of philosophy at Butler University for many years, saw the writing on the wall, pointing out already back then that business had become the dominant force in our lives with all other human interests in this country subservient to it. Religion, politics, government, morality, art were all being asked to acknowledge its absolute right and absolute power to be the final arbiter.

If he came back from the dead today, Jordan would be surprised that his fellow Americans still haven’t caught on that they are being taken to the cleaners. On the contrary, many of them now believe that the solution to all our problems, be it failing schools or expensive healthcare, is to hand over every publicly run institution to profit-seeking private companies, which, thanks to their knowhow and the magic of the free market, will save tons of money for the tax payers. This is what is known as “privatization” today, the scam that makes everything from private prisons, the vast growth of our surveillance state, and our global military presence, a hugely lucrative enterprise. Voters, one can’t help but conclude, no longer seem to have any problem with fortunes acquired dishonestly and at their expense, some of them even going into huge debt to send their sons and daughters to prestigious business schools so they can go to work for these hucksters and emulate their success.

After the demise of used-book stores and libraries, what are the chances that someone will come across a book like Jordan’s? That there are others like him—a few known and others completely unknown—I have no doubt. Not that he and these other truth-tellers made much of an impression on their contemporaries, or on later generations of Americans who’d rather hear fairy tales about us being the envy of all creation, unique as a nation, a country of unlimited potential and opportunity, best in everything, rather than have some loser tell them otherwise. No wonder their books are doomed to perish in the coming years. The fate of these forgotten writers is a sad reminder that this will also happen to many serious works of philosophy, history, fiction, poetry, and all the other books collecting dust on their shelves. As long as they were there, some browser with plenty of time on her hands would have a chance to find a phrase, a bit of description or some little story in one of them, that enriches her life and does her soul good.

Link: Are eReaders Really Green?

In 2009, the Book Industry Environmental Council set a couple of environmental goals for the U.S. book industry. Using a calculation of the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 as its baseline, the BIEC and its members pledged to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 20% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. When the pledge was made, the Kindle had existed for only a year and a half, and the Nook was still eight months away. (Kobo eReaders and iPads didn’t emerge until 2010.) eBooks, still in their infancy, accounted for a measly 5% of books sold in America.

Today, it seems like many publishing houses are on their ways toward achieving the BIEC goals. Thanks to the proliferation of FTP software, most major publishing houses have slashed the amount of printing done in-office. At John Wiley & Sons, my production group had a paperless workflow: Adobe was our editing tool of choice, and to be one of our freelancers, you had to pass an exhaustive MS Word screening test. Later on, at Oxford University Press, a common email signature asked readers to “save paper and print only what’s necessary.” Organizing stacks of paper on your desk was out; navigating sub-folders on a shared drive was in.

Meanwhile eBooks were becoming ever more popular. By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week, and Apple said it had sold over 40 million iPads. Consequently, eBooks accounted for 31% of U.S. book sales by 2012. According to a Pew Internet study, as many as one in four American adults now own an eReader or tablet (one in three if they went to college). The trend toward digitization is undeniable, and there are many reasons to be optimistic: big publishers are making more money off of more products than ever before; it’s easier than ever to publish a book; and the number of books available to anyone with an internet connection is unprecedented. Some analysts even predict that soon print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files.

But is all of this really cutting the industry’s carbon footprint? Is total eBook adoption — that is: elimination of the print book — really an ecologically responsible goal?


Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. This is mostly due to an increasing global population. While America, Australia, India and the UK are the most rapid adopters of digital reading devices — at least for the time being — eBooks presently account for only a small fraction of the world book market. (This is due to factors such as availability of technology, reliable internet connections, and disposable income.)

Necessarily, the increased consumption of print and digital books has led to an ever-increasing demand for the materials required to create, transport, and store them. In the case of eBooks, though, vast amounts of materials are also necessary for the eReaders themselves, and this is something typically overlooked by proponents of digitization: the material costs are either ignored, or, more misleadingly, they’re classified as the byproduct of the tech industry instead of the book industry.

National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis recently posted a brief note of encouragement to owners of eReaders, and it illustrates exactly the type of oversight I just mentioned. “The steady rise of eBooks,” Tellis wrote, “should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits.” He went on to note how certain study groups have determined “that the carbon released from eBooks is offset after people read more than 14 eBooks” on a single eReader. But Tellis ignores the fact that global print book consumption is risingconcurrently with eBook consumption. In other words: the carbon footprint of the digital book industry is mostly growing in addition to, not to the detriment of, the growing carbon footprint of the print book industry.

I couldn’t locate the source of Tellis’ information about those 14 eBooks offsetting the ecological cost of their owner’s eReader. Instead, I found thisNew York Times op-ed which painted a starkly different picture: “the impact of one e-reader … equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” Still more damning, Ted Genoways’excellent VQR article about the raw materials needed for the production of eReaders (and other gizmos), found that:

At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books — not used or rare editions, 250 million new books — each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.

[…] Things are trickier than they seem, too. The truth is that the dedicated eReader died almost as soon as it arrived, and it’s since been replaced by items even worse for the environment than its ancestors. What we presently refer to as eReaders are more like all-purpose tablets equipped with email clients, web browsers, games, movie players, and more. (Even one of the earliest generations of Kindles offered a prototype web browser — buried in subfolders within the device’s navigation system, though clearly a hint of what was coming.) As these devices become more sophisticated, they invite more prolonged usage, so those 2.5 g of emissions per hour of use continue to add up. Likewise, as these devices become more sophisticated, their manufacture demands more precious materials — often from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still more problematic is the fact that outdated devices are too often discarded inappropriately. You don’t need to investigate very hard to find evidence of the toll this mineral mining and e-waste dumping takes on fragile ecosystems.

The emissions and e-waste numbers could be stretched even further if I went down the resource rabbit hole to factor in: electricity needed at the Amazon and Apple data centers; communication infrastructure needed to transmit digital files across vast distances; the incessant need to recharge or replace the batteries of eReaders; the resources needed to recycle a digital device (compared to how easy it is to pulp or recycle a book); the packaging and physical mailing of digital devices; the need to replace a device when it breaks (instead of replacing a book when it’s lost); the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own eReading device (whereas print books can be loaned out as needed from a library); the fact that most digital devices are manufactured abroad (and therefore transported across oceans); and etc…

This is the ultimate result of our culture’s fetishization of technology — a problem which will assuredly worsen before it improves.

Link: The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

… If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel,” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Memory, however, is capricious and deeply unfair. It is why I can recall nothing about how a cell divides, or very little about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but can sing any number of television theme songs in the shower. (“Touch has a memory,” Keats wrote—but I can’t find my copy of his complete poems to test the theory, and, anyway, I found that quote on Goodreads.) The words that researchers use about forgetting are all psychically hurtful for the lay person: interference, confusion, decay—they seem sinister and remind us of all the sad limitations of the human brain, and of an inevitable march toward another kind of forgetting, which comes with age, and what may be final forgetting, which is death. Yet those same researchers are also quick to reassure us. Everybody forgets. And forgetting may even be a key to memory itself—a psychobiological necessity rather than a character flaw. That could be, but I still wish I could remember who did what to whom in D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love”—and the actual, rather than pompous and pretend, reasons why I’ve told people that I preferred “Sons and Lovers.” Or is it the other way around?

This may be a minor existential drama—and it might simply be resolved with practical application and a renewed sense of studiousness. There is ongoing dispute as to the ways in which memory might, in a general sense, be improvable. But certainly there are things that we can do to better remember the books we read—especially the ones that we want to remember (some novels, like some moments in life, are best forgotten).

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once. A professor I had in college would often, to the point of irony, cite Nabokov’s statement that there is no reading, only rereading. Yet he was teaching a class in modern fiction, and assigned books that are generally known as “slim” contemporary classics. They were short, and we were being tested on them—we’d be foolish to read them only once. I read them at least twice, and now remember them. But what about in real life, set loose from comprehension examinations and left mostly to our own devices and standards? Should we reread when there is a nearly endless shelf of books out there to read and a certainly not-endless amount of time in which to do it? Should I pull out my copy of Eudora Welty’s “The Optimist’s Daughter” to relearn its charms—or more truthfully, learn them for the first time—or should I accept the loss, and move on?

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. But her regime is disrupted by the arrival of McMurphy – the swaggering, fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin who resolves to oppose her rules on behalf of his fellow inmates. His struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a seemingly mute half-Indian patient who understands McMurphy’s heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them imprisoned. Ken Kesey’s extraordinary first novel is an exuberant, ribald and devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness.

Link: In Theory: The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books – and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry’s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs – (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads – devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train – at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover – or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” – and hence that of modern literature – as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

Link: A Night in Arzamas

How Tolstoy’s obsession with mortality became a teachable moment.

In 1869, just after he finished War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis as the result of an incident during a journey through the city of Arzamas, which is on the Tyosha River about 250 miles east of Moscow. As he described it in his unfinished story Notes of a Madman (so titled because Tolstoy was convinced his readers would find the tale implausible), a few hours after midnight he awakened “seized by despair, fear and terror such as [he had] never before experienced.” After asking himself what there was to be afraid of, none other than Death himself answered, “I am here.” Tolstoy, confronting the inescapability of his own death, panicked and raged against its power.

That evening stayed with Tolstoy for the rest of his life; he became permanently preoccupied with mortality. Writing his Confessions a decade later, Tolstoy would ask: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” “He engaged in long and laborious meditations”, wrote Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife, Sonya. “Often he said his brain hurt him, some painful process was going on inside it, everything was over for him, it was time for him to die.”

Tolstoy’s “Arzamas Horror”, as the Russian dramatist Maxim Gorky called it, also served as the basis for his masterful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this slim book, a 45-year-old Russian judge realizes he is dying and acknowledges that he has wasted his life attaining comfort and status. While outwardly appearing successful, Ilych suffers from an unhappy marriage, a meaningless career and a selfish existence. “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”, reads one typically devastating Tolstoyan line.

Melancholy as this is, the most harrowing parts of the story lie in Ilych’s terror at confronting his own mortality, much as Tolstoy had years earlier in the dark morning hours in Arzamas. Perhaps nowhere else in all of world literature is the sheer horror of the fact of death laid so bare: “He would go to his study, lie down, and again remain alone with it. Face to face with it, and there was nothing to be done with it. Only look at it and go cold.”

(Source: sunrec)

Link: The Culture of the Copy

On the printing press, the Internet & the impact of duplication.

Technological revolutions are far less obvious than political revolutions to the generations that live through them. This is true even as new tools, for better and worse, shift human history more than new regimes do. Innovations offer silent coups. We rarely appreciate the changes they bring until they are brought. Whether or not we become the primitives of a new culture, as the Futurist Umberto Boccioni observed, most of us still live behind the times and are content to do so. We expect the machines of the present to fulfill the needs of the past even as they deliver us into a future of unknowns.

World-changing inventions almost always create new roles rather than fill old ones. It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one? was the classic response to the telephone, variously attributed to Ulysses S. Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes but probably said by neither of them. Life-altering technologies often start as minor curiosities and evolve into major necessities with little reflection on how they reform our perceptions or even how they came to be.

In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke could see the significance of the French Revolution while observing its developments in real time. Yet “in the sixteenth century men had no clue to the nature and effects of the printed word,” writes Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy, his 1962 book on the printing revolution and the dawning of the electronic age. It wasn’t until nearly 200 years on that Francis Bacon located the printing press alongside gunpowder and the compass as changing “the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Writing in his 1620 book Novum Organum (“New Instrument”), Bacon maintained that “no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo called the invention of printing the “greatest event in history” and the “mother of revolution.” Political revolution began in this technological upheaval.

An argument can be made, and so I will make it here, that the invention of the Internet is the under-recognized revolution of our time. The world-changing technology of the Internet, of course, is already apparent and barely needs retelling. The Internet is more significant than the telephone, the television, the transistor, or the personal computer because it subsumes all these prior inventions into a new accumulation that is greater than the sum of its parts. As the network of networks—the “inter-network”—the Internet is a revolution of revolutions.

Yet while we appreciate the Internet’s technological wonders, the cultural landscape it leads to is less explored. We acknowledge the Internet’s effect on information but are less considering of its influence on us. Even as we use its resources, most of us have no understanding of its mechanics or any notion of the ideas, powers, and people that led to its creation.

One way to situate the Internet is to see it as inaugurating the next stage of copy culture—the way we duplicate, spread, and store information—and to compare it to the print era we are leaving behind. New technologies in their early development often mimic the obsolete systems they are replacing, and the Internet has been no different. Terms like “ebook” and “online publishing” offer up approximations of print technology while revealing little of the new technology’s intrinsic nature.

Just as the written word changed the spoken word and the printed word changed the written word, so too will the digital word change the printed word, supplementing but not replacing the earlier forms of information technology. Speaking and writing both survived the print revolution, and print will survive the Internet revolution. The difference is that the Internet, with its ability to duplicate and transmit information to an infinite number of destinations, will increasingly influence the culture of the copy.

Link: Bibliopocalypse Bullshit

If you’re a literature lover, you’ve probably grown weary of false prophets proclaiming The End of the Book. It’s easy to shake your head and smirk at the world’s December 21st doomsday preoccupations, but rumors of the publishing apocalypse have bombarded the literary world for a long time now, and such discussions still make us tense with worry.

The Four Horsemen of the Bibliopocalypse came galloping down years ago. They rode their brimstone-snorting steeds with a blazing fury, each one more frightening then the last. First there was Radio, and then came Film, TV, and finally—that fearful, ever-morphing chimera, Internet.

Suddenly the nightmarish paranoia of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit-451 became depressingly naive: who would burn books if no one even bothered to read them?

As an undergraduate searching for a job in publishing, believe me—I’m nervous. In the months before Y2K, wild-eyed neurotics (including my fairly rational parents) stockpiled jugs of water, lined their pantry shelves with SPAM, and stacked sardine tins into squat, shiny pyramids. Our family probably had enough dried bean varieties to create a full-scale modge-podge of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Who can blame them? Don’t we book lovers suffer similar hysterics when we hear prophecies of the literary end-times?

If you’re panicky, like me, you just might be another juvenile, aspiring writer, terrified that you’ve missed out on the literary lifestyle you’ve idealized for the past two decades, ever since you mouthed your first intelligible word, “book.” You’re on the edge of tossing out your literary delusions and your late-night, idealism-soaked desires to write The Great American Novel. This very afternoon you’ll get serious! You’ll start submitting your sparse resumes and bland cover letters to the kind of respectable jobs your parents always wanted you to have. The kind of job that promises a stable family life and dental insurance. Imagine it, writer. You might be a lawyer. Or a banker. Or a consultant. You might be about to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life—but don’t do it. Not yet.

Then again, maybe you’re not a writer at all. Maybe you’re a reader. You won’t panic, but you’ll begin to feel nostalgia creeping over your skin, like lichen over an old gravestone. In a moment of introspection, you’ll consider how it must have felt to watch the first automobiles roll down a city street, how soon they would replace the carriages. Out of everyone, you would have been the one to miss the horses. You use to take a giddy pleasure in stroking their velvet noses, in the hot flush of their breath against your palm. One day you’ll wander into a used bookstore, if that still exists where you live, and you’ll drift through the dusty quiet. The place has the hospice-ward hush of a nursing home. You’ll say hello to the books, touch your fingertips to the papery skin of their pages, and whisper kind, soft things into their yellowed spines. The books are frail strangers, but you think you might be able to save one, take one home and treat it gently. After all, it doesn’t have long for this world.


Richard Beeston on Spies, Lies and Foreign Correspondents
FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic. // The former foreign correspondent takes us on a gloriously anecdotal ramble through the history of war reporting, espionage and journalistic half-truths, and recalls his encounters and friendship with “the third man” Kim Philby.
Your first book is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Could this be the handbook for a budding foreign correspondent?
I think it is the best description of a foreign correspondent’s career, and I doubt it will ever be bettered. It’s still very relevant to this rather ridiculous life. When I was covering the early days of the Congo, a group of us were there, maybe five or six correspondents, and somebody had a battered copy of Scoop that we passed around. It just read straight – the life we were living was hardly exaggerated.
Waugh had a history in journalism, didn’t he?
Yes, although he wasn’t himself a particularly good correspondent. Though his experience is why the book felt so real and believable. He went first to Ethiopia for the coronation of Haile Selassie and was then sent back to cover the Abyssinian war.
Did Waugh model William Boot, aka ‘Boot of the Beast’, on anyone in particular?
My editor at the Telegraph, Bill Deedes, had been a very young correspondent, 22, forThe Morning Post. When he was sent out to Abyssinia he arrived at the railway station with an amazing amount of equipment – weighing 600lb. It’s that naivety, this theme of the innocent abroad, in the book. Of course Bill Deedes has always fended off suggestions that he was the inspiration for William Boot, but the ‘Beast’ was the Daily Express.
Is there much contempt from Waugh towards the characters?
I don’t think it’s contempt, but he has this fantastic ability for satire. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a foreign correspondent in particular but somehow he managed to sum up the thing in a brilliant manner.
One rather humorous character, a maverick correspondent called Wenlock Jakes, could write stories without being there. Waugh writes, ‘Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up in the wrong station…went straight to a hotel and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches… They were pretty surprised getting a story like that.’
Was this common practice?
There was a famous occasion when the Dalai Lama was on the run from the Chinese, and a group of journalists, including a Daily Mail correspondent, rented a plane. They flew as far as the Indian Tibetan front and were turned back by the Indian air force. Everybody was very depressed that they couldn’t get a story but this Daily Mail man wasn’t worried. He said, ‘It’s all right I’ve already written mine. I’ve seen the Dalai Lama on horseback, threading through the valleys. In the background you could see the temples ablaze.’ He’d written the whole thing before he’d even taken off!
Your second book is Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean.
Maclean was one of the great characters of the 20th century. He was a junior diplomat in Moscow in the late 30s and then went on to join the SAS. During the war he kidnapped a Persian general who had collaborated with the Nazis. He was also a friend of Ian Fleming and partly an inspiration for the James Bond character. His account of the Soviet Union in the 30s was quite brilliant. A lot of journalists in those days were making excuses for communism, suggesting it was a hope for the future and were putting the best possible spin on it. But his account showed the whole hopelessness of the Soviet empire – its incompetence and its evilness. He did a brilliant account of the great Stalin purge trials.
The mock trials?
Yes, when most of the leading communists of the day were destroyed by Stalin. That whole bleak period was brilliantly described by Maclean. He showed up the hollowness and incompetence of the whole Soviet system. This is a very carefully worded account of life in those early days after the revolution, one of the first exposés of that system. He tells one particular story when he was a young diplomat. He went to a cocktail party and had a relationship with a young Russian ballet dancer who then disappeared. He had a phone call from her mother saying she’d disappeared and that she’d never forgive him. Chilling. I met him when I was correspondent in Moscow; he was then in his late 70s and he was still writing and taking pictures.
The Battle of the Bundu covers a more forgotten chapter of history. Could you shed some light on it?
Miller’s book is the most accurate and detailed account of this little known part of the First World War. A fascinating epic about an amazing German general, von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was in his early 40s when he arrived in what is now Tanzania, in those days German East Africa. It’s an account of his campaign against the Allies, which lasted throughout the entire war. In fact he was still fighting after the armistice, because no one was able to get through to him there.
Against some serious odds?
Against amazing odds! There was no way to get reinforcements or supplies; he was surrounded by British East Africa, the Congo and the Royal Navy. With a small force of German officers and loyal native troops he managed to hold up something like a quarter of a million Allied forces. He became a hero, not only of the Germans but of the British. There was little chance of Germany being able to communicate with him, but as he got more promotions and iron crosses the British would pass this through the lines to let him know how well he was doing. It was the most extraordinary campaign.
Why has this been forgotten?
There was just so much going on. This was very much a small affair, compared to what was happening ­– it rather got ignored. He certainly became a famous name to all the British and South Africans who fought him. In fact in 1929 he was invited to London as a guest of honour at an anniversary dinner for British East Africa expeditionary forces. In the 30s, Hitler wanted to appoint him as German ambassador to Britain. But he decided that the Nazis were a disaster and he turned Hitler down. He was then on their blacklist and had a very hard time of it. But after that war, in 1953, he came back, aged 83 years old, to be welcomed by the British authorities and met some of his old comrades. It’s very touching.

Richard Beeston on Spies, Lies and Foreign Correspondents

FiveBooks interviews asks writers, academics, and experts to list recommended books on a given topic. // The former foreign correspondent takes us on a gloriously anecdotal ramble through the history of war reporting, espionage and journalistic half-truths, and recalls his encounters and friendship with “the third man” Kim Philby.

Your first book is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Could this be the handbook for a budding foreign correspondent?

I think it is the best description of a foreign correspondent’s career, and I doubt it will ever be bettered. It’s still very relevant to this rather ridiculous life. When I was covering the early days of the Congo, a group of us were there, maybe five or six correspondents, and somebody had a battered copy of Scoop that we passed around. It just read straight – the life we were living was hardly exaggerated.

Waugh had a history in journalism, didn’t he?

Yes, although he wasn’t himself a particularly good correspondent. Though his experience is why the book felt so real and believable. He went first to Ethiopia for the coronation of Haile Selassie and was then sent back to cover the Abyssinian war.

Did Waugh model William Boot, aka ‘Boot of the Beast’, on anyone in particular?

My editor at the Telegraph, Bill Deedes, had been a very young correspondent, 22, forThe Morning Post. When he was sent out to Abyssinia he arrived at the railway station with an amazing amount of equipment – weighing 600lb. It’s that naivety, this theme of the innocent abroad, in the book. Of course Bill Deedes has always fended off suggestions that he was the inspiration for William Boot, but the ‘Beast’ was the Daily Express.

Is there much contempt from Waugh towards the characters?

I don’t think it’s contempt, but he has this fantastic ability for satire. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a foreign correspondent in particular but somehow he managed to sum up the thing in a brilliant manner.

One rather humorous character, a maverick correspondent called Wenlock Jakes, could write stories without being there. Waugh writes, ‘Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up in the wrong station…went straight to a hotel and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches… They were pretty surprised getting a story like that.’

Was this common practice?

There was a famous occasion when the Dalai Lama was on the run from the Chinese, and a group of journalists, including a Daily Mail correspondent, rented a plane. They flew as far as the Indian Tibetan front and were turned back by the Indian air force. Everybody was very depressed that they couldn’t get a story but this Daily Mail man wasn’t worried. He said, ‘It’s all right I’ve already written mine. I’ve seen the Dalai Lama on horseback, threading through the valleys. In the background you could see the temples ablaze.’ He’d written the whole thing before he’d even taken off!

Your second book is Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean.

Maclean was one of the great characters of the 20th century. He was a junior diplomat in Moscow in the late 30s and then went on to join the SAS. During the war he kidnapped a Persian general who had collaborated with the Nazis. He was also a friend of Ian Fleming and partly an inspiration for the James Bond character. His account of the Soviet Union in the 30s was quite brilliant. A lot of journalists in those days were making excuses for communism, suggesting it was a hope for the future and were putting the best possible spin on it. But his account showed the whole hopelessness of the Soviet empire – its incompetence and its evilness. He did a brilliant account of the great Stalin purge trials.

The mock trials?

Yes, when most of the leading communists of the day were destroyed by Stalin. That whole bleak period was brilliantly described by Maclean. He showed up the hollowness and incompetence of the whole Soviet system. This is a very carefully worded account of life in those early days after the revolution, one of the first exposés of that system. He tells one particular story when he was a young diplomat. He went to a cocktail party and had a relationship with a young Russian ballet dancer who then disappeared. He had a phone call from her mother saying she’d disappeared and that she’d never forgive him. Chilling. I met him when I was correspondent in Moscow; he was then in his late 70s and he was still writing and taking pictures.

The Battle of the Bundu covers a more forgotten chapter of history. Could you shed some light on it?

Miller’s book is the most accurate and detailed account of this little known part of the First World War. A fascinating epic about an amazing German general, von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was in his early 40s when he arrived in what is now Tanzania, in those days German East Africa. It’s an account of his campaign against the Allies, which lasted throughout the entire war. In fact he was still fighting after the armistice, because no one was able to get through to him there.

Against some serious odds?

Against amazing odds! There was no way to get reinforcements or supplies; he was surrounded by British East Africa, the Congo and the Royal Navy. With a small force of German officers and loyal native troops he managed to hold up something like a quarter of a million Allied forces. He became a hero, not only of the Germans but of the British. There was little chance of Germany being able to communicate with him, but as he got more promotions and iron crosses the British would pass this through the lines to let him know how well he was doing. It was the most extraordinary campaign.

Why has this been forgotten?

There was just so much going on. This was very much a small affair, compared to what was happening ­– it rather got ignored. He certainly became a famous name to all the British and South Africans who fought him. In fact in 1929 he was invited to London as a guest of honour at an anniversary dinner for British East Africa expeditionary forces. In the 30s, Hitler wanted to appoint him as German ambassador to Britain. But he decided that the Nazis were a disaster and he turned Hitler down. He was then on their blacklist and had a very hard time of it. But after that war, in 1953, he came back, aged 83 years old, to be welcomed by the British authorities and met some of his old comrades. It’s very touching.

You know, my boy, he said, it’s impossible to love men such as they are. And yet we must. So try to do good to men by doing violence to your feelings, holding your nose, and shutting your eyes, especially shutting your eyes. Endure their villainy without anger, as much as possible; try to remember that you’re a man too. For, if you’re even a little above average intelligence, you’ll have the propensity to judge people severely. Men are vile by nature and they’d rather love out of fear. Don’t give in to such love: despise it always.
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Adolescent

(Source: sunrec)