The Plot Against America

Socialist journal the Monthly Review has a lengthy appreciation of Jack London’s 1908 novel, The Iron Heel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. But if you’re a socialist journal, a dystopian novel about creeping American imperialism is something to celebrate:

One hundred years after its initial publication, London’s political ideas and cultural insights seem remarkably contemporary. Indeed, in The Iron Heel, he describes a sinister conspiracy, by an oligarchy, to quash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, imprison its outspoken opponents and critics, control news and information, install a professional army of paid mercenaries, create a secret police force, and wage global warfare for economic hegemony. There’s also guerrilla warfare, furious acts of wanton terrorism, and cold-blooded terrorists—a world roiling in violence that might be taken for the world of the twenty-first century.

If the essay’s author, Jonah Raskin, works a little too hard to find connections between the novel and the present day, the piece does successfully suggest that every generation gets the American authoritarian-rule fantasy it deserves, and 1905 was an interesting time to tinker with writing one:

To write The Iron Heel he drew on his own direct observations of the chaos in San Francisco that followed in the wake of the earthquake and conflagration, and also on the information that he absorbed from far-off Russia from friends and from newspapers about the repression of the 1905 revolution. He drew, too, on his close study of contemporary U.S. society: the spying on, and the intimidation of, labor leaders by the Pinkerton Detective Agency employed by mine owners and governors alike; the arrest and persecution of labor leaders, like William (Big Bill) Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the radical trade union activists better known as the “Wobblies”) who went on trial in 1906, in what was regarded, at the time, as the pivotal political courtroom battle of the era.

License to Read

My complaints about the Kindle have mainly been based on supposition, if not just plain old whining, so thanks to Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan for the legwork: He points to a paper from Columbia Law School’s Science and Technology Law Review (linked from BoingBoing, via Slashdot) that addresses the fine line between owning an e-book and merely owning a license to it–a distinction that only further complicates the question of whether you actually possess a book you buy for the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. (Both devices use language that suggest you just have a license for the book, which restricts your ability to lend or copy it.)

Money quote:

“Even if a publisher calls it a license, if the transaction actually looks more like a sale, users will retain their right to resell the copy.” Score one for the home team. There’s a kicker, though: If a court ruled with you on that front, you still can’t sell reproductions of your copy, an illegal act tantamount to Xeroxing your Harry Potters. You’d have to sell the physical media where the “original” download is stored—a hard drive or the actual Kindle or Sony Reader.

Scattered Glass

Polly Morrice writes in the New York Times about the literary inheritors to J.D. Salinger‘s Glass children. I was hoping for more examples than the three she presents–Kate Walbert‘s story “Playdate,” Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children, and Tom Perrotta‘s Little Children. (And I’m kinda calling shenanigans on that last one–Perrotta’s tykes are bright, but too young to be legitimate inheritors of the Glassian quiz-kid type, and the notion that the kids in the novel are “near-magical” doesn’t mean they’re especially interesting in any Salinger-esque way. Just that they play the role of moral polestars in the plot.)  Who else is there? I don’t think the world is hurting for more examples of precocious, smart kids, but there have got to be more than Morrice suggests.

B.E.E. Season

I’m not sure whether to be impressed or puzzled that Scott Timberg‘s lengthy attempt to reshape the debate about Bret Easton Ellis doesn’t mention that Ellis is working on a new novel. (At least, that’s what he told me.) Perhaps the L.A. Times was trying to avoid the icky, promotional-profile feel that would come along with doing a serious profile about an author’s reputation while adding the journalistic equivalent of a pop-up ad. (“Will his next novel change everything? Time will tell….”)

Update 3/23: Did I miss something? A new version of the article, which according to Google News was posted just a few hours ago, includes this sentence: “As he leaned into the argument [about Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom]– the album, which he called “sonically, an absolute ’80s masterpiece,” will lend its name to a new sequel to “Less Than Zero” — it was easy to see that he’s more engaged with things than he lets on.” I read the story twice the morning I saw it, with particular attention to the bit about Imperial Bedroom, since I figured that would’ve been the obvious place to mention the sequel. I’m not trying to foment some bloggy crisis, just worrying if my eyes are OK….

Cluckin’ A

I haven’t paid close attention to the Tournament of Books, an annual March Madness-esque competition for the best novel of previous year, as judged by a batch of litbloggers and other smart folks. It’s a little insider-baseball, and I haven’t read many of the choices; also, there ‘s a rooster involved, but I’m not sure quite what for. But the latest matchup was between Vendela Vida‘s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (a novel I very much loved) and Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke (a novel I very much didn’t), I at least felt like I had a dog in the hunt. Mark Sarvas, after gassing a bit about his disappointment that The Savage Detectives didn’t make the cut, eventually takes Johnson’s side, a little unenthusiastically and a lot unconvincingly. (“Clean, clear, and unfussy” prose, my ass.) His complaints about Vida are well taken–occasionally the scenes feel too carefully blocked, and the dialogue is often bloodless. But the whole point was to evoke the feeling of life being stiffened, chilled, iced over–the neat trick of Northern Lights was that it honestly and humanely addressed a lot of emotional turmoil while still preserving that just-so feel; the tension of the prose echoed the tension of the plot.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Clarke was a Brit, of course, but I won’t stand on ceremony here–his fiction played as formative a role to my childhood reading (and viewing) habits as it did to many of the folks paying tribute to him today. Jeff VanderMeer has a lovely tribute at Omnivoracious. Back in 2001 I reviewed Clarke’s Collected Stories for the New York Times; excerpt of the blurb:

Clarke began writing shortly before World War II, and he consistently infused his work with both an optimism about technology and a fear of its misuse; the atomic bomb looms large over this book’s 900-plus pages. That balance of dread and wonder is Clarke’s hallmark, and it’s what made his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) screenplay to ”2001: A Space Odyssey” such a deft fable — after all, what’s the HAL 9000 computer if not our collective technophobia personified?

Roundup: Mission Accomplished

  • Dave Eggers speaks at TED about the success of his 826 Valencia project.
  • That’s not just a white suit–that’s a heavily armored ego-protecting shell. Tom Wolfe says the critiques of I Am Charlotte Simmons only prove he’s Pete Rose: “”I feel like Pete Rose did when his batting average dipped from something like .331 to .308, and he said, ‘That’s not bad for a guy entering his fourth decade.’ “
  • The latest issue of Bookforum is now online. Hard to figure out where to start but I gravitated to the Jhumpa Lahiri interview, in which she discusses immigrant fiction and the Indian writer pigeonhole:

I get frustrated by this tendency to flatten whole segments of the population, like the Indian immigrant or the Jewish immigrant. I know these are just words and phrases, but I think people tend to see these other groups as a people. They are “other,” and it’s harder to see the nuances and the variations because they’re just a group of people. I have been sensitive to it my whole life, and annoyed by it. As a writer, I didn’t set out to represent a certain group of people, but I acknowledge that I write about Indians and Indian Americans. And I hope at least in writing about these characters, you can prevent those generalizations.

Breaking: Books Portable

British publishing exec Scott Pack talks a little sense when it comes to the integration of books and handheld technology:

“The iPod allows you to listen to Shostakovich on the train, Kate Nash on the walk to the office and then Radiohead at your desk.

“But it doesn’t work like that with books. You don’t want to read James Joyce on the train, Maeve Binchy while you’re walking and John Grisham at your desk.

“I’ve got every album I own on my iPod and can listen to anything I want whenever I want. But books are already portable and even if they weren’t, you don’t need to transport your entire library around wherever you go.”

“Factors which were very important on the music side, just aren’t at all with books.”

However, he argues that new technology will eradicate the cookbook, and we’ve heard that one before. As Chris Anderson points out in his recent article on free economies, people first thought that the home PC would only be useful for recipe filing, and look how that turned out.

Your Guide to the Depression

As somebody who cherishes his Illinois and California WPA guides, it’s hard to argue with David Kipen‘s plea to revive them online:

I’m calling for the creation of a free, route-based, readily searchable online repository of all the text and photography from every last American Guide, with the Center for the Book’s literary maps to all 50 states thrown in for good measure. Copyright law here should prove less of a headache than usual, considering that the American taxpayer already paid for this priceless treasure house a lifetime ago.

The WPA guides, somewhat famously, helped support many writers during the Great Depression, including Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, and more. (A 2003 New York Times piece captures the breadth of the contributions.)