Awash In A Sea Of Memes

Frank Rich gets it right more often than not, and his col­umn in the Times last Sun­day swept the entire decade into a neat lit­tle dust­pan and dumped it in the garbage. His insight is that Tiger Woods is truly the per­son of the decade, a fraud cap­ping a decade of frauds that started with Enron, wound its way through a phony war, went broke with phony financiers, and con­cluded with a phony hero. For­tu­nately Rich con­cluded with a spir­i­tual and uplift­ing con­clu­sion that, at least for me, had me singing on the way out of the theatre.

Actu­ally, in the spirit of Rich’s phony decade, I lied about that last part. There was no happy con­clu­sion to his piece. But it caused me to keep won­der­ing — why are we so unteth­ered? What hap­pened to the basic judg­ment of a pre­vi­ously sen­si­ble people?

Authors swim in the memes of the times. If there are strong cur­rents, we go with them and occa­sion­ally bring under­stand­ing to the great issues of the day. But when we are sur­rounded by eddy cur­rents, we too find our­selves stuck in lit­tle cur­rents, unable to find the great tide that, as Shake­speare said, “When taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”

Before the era when the N.Y.Times was dis­trib­uted to its print­ers around the coun­try elec­tron­i­cally, all of the papers were printed in and around Man­hat­tan. On any Sun­day, air­planes would leave New York, weather per­mit­ting, and the mas­sive bun­dles would spread out across the coun­try, bring­ing a mea­sure of coherency to many of the major memes that flowed through the cul­ture. At the very least, the Times pro­vided a sen­si­ble, appar­ently com­plete view of what had hap­pened in the past week. And it also pro­vided an agenda for the near future.

Later, the roll-out of the Sun­day Times became almost simul­ta­ne­ous and national. On the West Coast, that meant our Sun­days could start ear­lier. We were even more in sync with New York. That phase has mys­te­ri­ously eroded away with the onset of the Inter­net. That steady weekly pulse of the Sun­day Times has given way to a con­tin­u­ous flow of infor­ma­tion from an infi­nite num­ber of sources. The Times as author­ity has been drowned out. No insti­tu­tion has taken its place.

We find our­selves in a new Wild Wild West, and, as pre­dicted, the snake oil sales­men are hav­ing a grand time of it —those rubes will believe any­thing and buy any­thing. We might take some com­fort in remem­ber­ing what came next: news­pa­pers arrived in those fron­tier towns, coura­geous reporters, edi­tors and pub­lish­ers began to shine a light on the forces of cor­rup­tion and to rally pub­lic opin­ion on the side of good (some­times.) The towns even­tu­ally hired sher­iffs, and built jails. Judges rode the cir­cuit and dis­pensed justice.

For­tu­nately, order will pre­vail over the cur­rent chaos. Vision­ary and coura­geous pub­lish­ers in all media will invest might­ily to make the most of the new oppor­tu­ni­ties. A New New York Times, either on the ashes of the old or a new enter­prise alto­gether, will arise. Out of the sheer force of bril­liant and per­sis­tent report­ing, deep com­men­tary, and vision­ary lead­er­ship, the nation will find its way once again. Memes will cohere, and authen­tic­ity will once again be the cur­rency of the cul­ture. That’s the way it’s going to be. Really. Trust me.

Can We Have A Little Chat About Money?

penny back closeupIf you read the N.Y.Times in its cov­er­age of the dis­rup­tion of the Kin­dle, you might think that pub­lish­ers are los­ing a for­tune from the sud­den rise in Kin­dle sales.

Actu­ally, the oppo­site is true. Ama­zon is buy­ing Kin­dle rights from pub­lish­ers at the same price they’re pay­ing for phys­i­cal books. And Ama­zon is stick­ing with its pol­icy to sell Kin­dle books at no more than $9.99. So take your aver­age $20 list price hard­cover book (if I were a shame­less self-promoter, I would use my book The Genius Machine as an exam­ple, since it also has a list price of $20. But I will resist the temp­ta­tion.) The pub­lisher sells it to Ama­zon for 50% off, or $10. Ama­zon could sell my the book for $20, but they dis­count it down to $13.57, and make a profit of $3.57, or maybe a lit­tle less if Ama­zon is pay­ing for ship­ping. Con­tinue read­ing Can We Have A Lit­tle Chat About Money?

Etch a Sketch and Google Announce E-Book for Kids

Search and adver­tis­ing giant Google and Ohio Art, maker of the children’s clas­sic draw­ing toy announced a joint ven­ture today to pro­duce the first e-book reader for pre-schoolers. Named the Etch a Book, the new reader will cap­i­tal­ize on the highly refined Etch a Sketch two knob inter­face which is already famil­iar to mil­lions of par­ents and chil­dren all over the globe.

In mak­ing the announce­ment, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, revealed that Google has been scan­ning children’s lit­er­a­ture of all kinds for sev­eral years now, accu­mu­lat­ing a library of more than 2,000,000 children’s titles, many of which have been out of print for decades. Con­tinue read­ing Etch a Sketch and Google Announce E-Book for Kids

Is the New Yorker on S.I. Newhouse’s DNR List?

Call­ing in those McK­in­sey folks to review your profit and loss num­bers in the mid­dle of the deep­est reces­sion since the 1930s is a lit­tle like hav­ing Dr. Kevorkian over to offer a sec­ond opinion.

“No, really, I’m feel­ing fine. Just a lit­tle touch of the flu.”

“Not at your age. You know, if you were a new pub­li­ca­tion, you might pull through. But Harold started you back in 1925. That’s a long, long haul for a weekly. But look on the bright side: it’s been a good run.”

When Si New­house decided that Gourmet was wear­ing a Do Not Resus­ci­tate bracelet this week, a great many peo­ple were stunned. My wife even called Condé Nast to leave a mes­sage for Mr. New­house, but the switch­board said there was no way to leave a mes­sage for the boss. Maybe that’s the way it is when you’re the emperor. You can begin to feel as if you don’t need to lis­ten to any­one, even your cus­tomers. And I guess that’s true. Con­tinue read­ing Is the New Yorker on S.I. Newhouse’s DNR List?

Stinkoread, And The New Complete Theory of Peak Book

Where bad books goWhen I was involved with …and Ladies of the Club a few eons ago I received an offer for the audio rights for the book. This was to be a con­densed ver­sion, since the book was more than 1000 pages long. I asked for a sam­ple script from the audio pro­ducer, and it turned out to run some 75 pages. You had to laugh. Gone were the inner lives of the two prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters. Gone was the story of the fifty years of the devel­op­ment of the U.S. from the Civil War to the Depres­sion. Gone were the dis­cus­sions of ideas. Left was the barest shell of the events of the novel. Any­one buy­ing the tape would have been defrauded, believ­ing they were about to hear any­thing that resem­bled this mas­ter­piece. We declined the offer.

Screen­plays are sim­i­lar. No mat­ter how long the orig­i­nal novel, a screen­play is, with few excep­tions, not going to be longer than 125 pages. A screen­play is double-spaced, descrip­tive para­graphs honed down to noth­ing, and lots of space taken up by the character’s names before their speeches. Bob. (line break) “You know what I’m think­ing?” (line break) Jim. (line break) “No. What?” (line break) Bob stirs the camp­fire. (line break) Bob. (line break) “There’s some­thing out there in the dark.” (line break) In a screen­play, you’ve just eaten up almost half a page. Con­tinue read­ing Stinko­read, And The New Com­plete The­ory of Peak Book

The Failure of Filters — Why We’re Getting Dumber by the Hour

Screen shot readers subscription foundersMy mother was a live book reviewer in Cleve­land, an activ­ity that seems to have gone the way of the trav­el­ing magic lantern lec­ture tent show. For­tu­nately for Mom, the traf­fic lights in our com­mu­nity were exceed­ingly slow, and she always had a book by her side. We joked that she had com­pleted War and Peace just by judi­cious use of her time at red lights.

Book review­ers were prime enter­tain­ment at women’s orga­ni­za­tions until some­where around the late 1960s, pos­si­bly replaced by book clubs where every­one was sup­posed to actu­ally read the book for them­selves. Until then, the job of the book reviewer was to bring the ideas in impor­tant books to life for a whole com­mu­nity, to put it into con­text, to enrich the lis­tener. The expec­ta­tion that most of the audi­ence would rush out and pur­chase the book, as Oprah’s audi­ence does today, was not there. With a good book reviewer, you didn’t need to do any stink­ing page turn­ing your­self. Con­tinue read­ing The Fail­ure of Fil­ters — Why We’re Get­ting Dumber by the Hour

Michiko Kakutani Is Destroying The Fabric Of American Culture

BookstallsOh to sing the joys of Sun­day morn­ing with the NY Times Book Review sec­tion, where we can dis­cover which books are going to get their sec­ond Times review. This morn­ing the win­ner was E.L. Doctorow’s nov­el­is­tic treat­ment of the hoard­ing Col­lyer broth­ers, a story appar­ently of immense import to the edi­tors of the Times. Our first indi­ca­tion that Doc­torow was about to get a Full Fried­man wasn’t Michiko Kakutani’s review in the daily Times on August 31st. No, it was the PR-generated almost com­pletely coin­ci­den­tal At Home with E.L. Doc­torow by Steven Kurtz that ran in the Times on Sep­tem­ber 2nd with a lovely photo reveal­ing to our great relief that the Doc­torow home, unlike the Col­ly­ers’, is incred­i­bly neat.

For the last few years I have ever-so-slowly come to real­ize that if some­one at the Times thinks your book ought to enter the zeit­geist, you get a sec­ond review — like the one that ran this morn­ing with even more pic­tures of the Col­ly­ers’ dump. Thank you Michiko. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about the hoard­ing broth­ers with that first review, or even the up-close story about Doc­torow, but with that third review, you’ve ham­mered it home. I give up. No more reviews! I’ll buy the book!

Like hell. Con­tinue read­ing Michiko Kaku­tani Is Destroy­ing The Fab­ric Of Amer­i­can Culture

Why Start With The Perfect?


You’re third in line for take­off, finally ready to depart La Guardia and get to your lunch meet­ing in Chicago. The pilot comes on the P.A. for a last-minute cheery mes­sage: “Thanks for your patience. We hope to make it up once we’re in the air and get you to O’Hare on time. Or at least some­place not too far from there. We’re think­ing maybe Gary or Indi­anapo­lis. As the Pres­i­dent says, we shouldn’t make the per­fect the enemy of the essen­tial. So wish us luck.”

What if that were accept­able? What if we never got where we were hop­ing to go, and it was okay?

What are the impli­ca­tions when Pres­i­dent Obama tells us that part of his phi­los­o­phy is, “We shouldn’t make the per­fect the enemy of the essen­tial?” Sounds rea­son­able, in a way. Don’t want to be a per­fec­tion­ist about every­thing. Wouldn’t be real­is­tic. Never get any­thing done. Got to com­pro­mise, make a deal. Make progress of some kind.

I’m not so sure about throw­ing the per­fect over­board. Con­tinue read­ing Why Start With The Perfect?


The Third Golden Age Begins?: Welcome to the Berliner Philharmoniker

Josephine Apple LRIn the golden days of radio the great sym­phony orches­tras of the world broad­cast over short and long wave bands, cre­at­ing pock­ets of lis­ten­ers all over the globe. In iso­lated Japan in the 1940s the young com­poser Toru Takemitsu learned the ways of West­ern music from the Armed Forces radio net­work. In Maine, Charles Ives lis­tened to the pre­miere of his 2nd Sym­phony, con­ducted by Leonard Bern­stein, over the radio.

When FM came in after the Sec­ond World War, sound qual­ity improved, but the since the range of FM is lim­ited to line-of-sight, those mil­lions of lis­ten­ers lucky enough to get an ionos­phere bounce from New York to Ver­mont or Chicago to Col­orado were left in silence. The advent of the long-playing record took the thrill and neces­sity away from live broad­casts, and radio audi­ences shrank.

Then came the golden age of tele­vi­sion, Con­tinue read­ing The Third Golden Age Begins?: Wel­come to the Berliner Philharmoniker