WSJ on a talkative (noisy) US expat. TLS & its Incomprehensivity Prize. Vrij Nederland on the Internet Jail (aka Gafam). A quick word too on the Katyn storytelling.
Saturday is the day to buy printed newspapers & magazines. There's more time to read and, also, doing so every day would be rather costly. I know, I buy more than I actually can afford. But, as Charlie Brown's cute little sister Sally aptly says, "who cares?"
There was an amusing piece in the Wall Street Journal's week-end edition (14-16 October 2016, volume XXXIV N° 181, you can't beat that kind of reference, nor the price, 3.20 euros).
It's about an American expat from Durango, Colorado, who makes a living in London as a "health-education worker" (one of many funny jobs nowadays). He's a talkative chap of 42 years, this Jonathan Dunne, and the silence in the Underground is something he'd like to disrupt. He thinks people should talk to each other. He sees it as his mission. So, what he's done is to hand out, first 500, then 1.000 badges to passengers of the London subway enticing them to yak away to their fellow travelers. Well, as the paper notes, it didn't quite work. He's been made fun of on social media. There was even a guy who responded by handing out hundreds of buttons carrying the message: "Don't even think about talking to me." Obviously, a case of cultural clash. I, for one, prefer to read entombed in silence when using public transport. Which is pretty hard. There's always some idiot endlessly screaming in his or hers cellphone. Noise is the absolute nuisance of our times, be it empty talk or mind-numbing muzak: there isn't a cafe, a bar, a restaurant or a shop in Brussels that doesn't drown you with that kind of sticky melodic syrup.
There were some real news as well. The rapprochement between Egypt and Russia, for instance, with a nice picture showing Putin and Al Sisi side by side putting on big chummy smiles during the G-20 summit in China. As one Moscow pundit comments, it's only natural: "All the states in the region [Middle East, that is] want to balance off the U.S." A good one-liner of Al Sisi is quoted as well: "There are attempts to pressure Egypt but it won't kneel before anyone but God." Who's side God is on, is another matter, as the prize-winner (n-word there) Bob Dylan once said. Maybe he was thinking of the dollar bill, God is on one of its sides. We'll leave it to the theologicians. Another piece was about the 271 schoolgirls Boko Haram abducted in April 2014 in Nigeria. 21 of them have just been released. There's not a word about the other 250 left behind.
However, the best pick (every week) is of course The Times Literary Supplement, TLS for short. In this issue, dated October 14th, 2016 with the serial number 5.924 (4.20 euros), there are loads of good things to read, on Claude Lévi-Strauss (new biography, in French), on Alan Bennett (his latest vitriolic musings), on Dante Alighieri (eight books, no less, devoted to that luminary), on Cervantes (ushering in modernity), on Aragon (biography again, also in French), on Mircea Eliade (his diary), on the Roman Empire (as seen by Edward N. Luttvak, a sharp pen), on the Encyclopaedia Britannica (its Eleventh Edition in 1910-11), on William Burroughs (an archive piece from 1964), that's fourty pages of tightly-packed well-written erudition which, yes, very often spares one the trouble (and the cost) of actually buying the books reviewed: it's all there, neatly summarized. The first thing one reads is of course the "Nota Bene" page at the back of the magazine written by the legendary J.C.
This time he pours some disheartening words on the demise of two excellent second-hand bookshops: Turn the Page in south-west London and Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road. Neither of them, says JC, "could keep up with modern times." We all know what that means. He does find some consolation in the continued existence of the Amnesty bookshop (King Street - alas, "hideous post-punk racket streamed from speakers") and the Oxfam bookshop near the Turnham Green Tube station. One will regret, though, the disloyal competition such bookshops exert thanks to their volunteer staff (unpaid) and donated books (unpaid again): they operate at almost no cost whereas traditional second-hand bookshops are under pressure to sell in order to make ends meet. J.C. didn't say that. I did.
The best part of his piece is on TLS' own (clandestine) literary prizes, of which, this time, duly shortlisted, supplicants to the Incomprehensibility Prize and the Poetry Babble awards are exposed to ridicule. One cannot but marvel at volleys such as this one, composed to promote a collection of poems: "An ode to excess that masticates the inscribed and liminal (gender, race, capital, the idealized environment); a feral politics indeed. The new cosmophagist anthem." As J.C observes, "It takes skill to pack that much incomprehensibility into so few lines." Writing Workshops, take note! There's a career on offer for that kind of gibberish.
Smartphones are bad for your health
Enough about the TLS. Buy it for chrissake! You might, then, also want to buy Vrij Nederland, a fine quality weekly, it's in Dutch, of course, so you have to learn Dutch first, but why not? It's a language as fine as any other. My October 15th issue cost 6.95 euros but then it's thick, 130 pages. Two pieces stand out. The first, by Bette Dam, reveals that the Talibans, shortly after the nine-eleven conundrum, were about to lay down their arms and surrender, thereby hoping to strike a deal with both Karzai and the US. In other words, the war could have stopped then and there. This was not, however, an option for the US and the whole thing was hushed up and hidden from all save Rumsfeld. Quaint. History has its ebbs and tides.
The other piece is an interview of Manfred Spitzer, a doctor in Ulm, Germany, who has authored books (some translated into 14 languages) on how the digitalization of our lives affect our brains and bodies. The concluding remark is a tell-all: "It makes us dumber and sicker." What he has to say is scary. In Germany, the young are presently hooked to their screens for as long as between seven and eight hours every day, as opposed to the fifteen minutes they devote daily to read the real stuff, books, newspapers, and so on. Screen-addiction, he says, is harmful, almost more than tobacco, it impairs the faculty to think and concentrate, it leads to higher blood pressure, diabetes, stress, obesity, to name but a few of the induced mental and bodily disorders. And this is not his personal view, it's grounded on scientific papers that all point in the same direction. So why then the hoopla to have screens in every school and replace books by low-grade e-rsatz & so on? You don't have to be paranoid to notice that the ultimate sources of propaganda for digitalized stuff are those that produce and sell it. A case in point: in the Wall Street Journal mentioned above there's a story lamenting the fact that Indian girls and women are largely denied access to smartphones (parents & husbands don't want them to wither away in the streaming trash). They just don't know how lucky they are. Now, guess what source the two journalists of that paper rely on to make their claim. The statistics, they say, come from "GSMA, an international cellphone-industry group". That's a laugh. I'm not sure they're quite aware of that. They would probably write the same kind of corporate-biased nonsense to bemoan that people don't eat enough potatoes - if only some international potato-industry group tells them to do just that. So it goes, as Vonnegut used to say.
Ah! There's also a seemingly charming paper on Ljoedmila Petroesjevskaja in Vrij Nederland, an excentric diva and outspoken critic of the Soviet era, still alive and kicking at 78. I haven't read that one yet. Saving it for some other time.
I've almost finished the book I bought on Sunday, though. Translated from the US English, it's by historian Grover Furr and titled Le massacre de Katyn - Une réfutation de la version «officielle» (éditions Delga, 2015, 66 pages, 10 euros). Interesting. This version of the events collides head-on with Gorbachev, Putin & Medvedev, and Wajda, of course. So it wasn't the Russians, then, that did the mass-killing of Polish prisoners in 1941 near Katyn. Possibly. It does look pretty doubtful. When in doubt, doubt!