A Library Without Walls

Robert Darnton

Can we create a National Digital Library? That is, a comprehensive library of digitized books that will be easily accessible to the general public. Simple as it sounds, the question is extraordinarily complex. It involves issues that concern the nature of the library to be built, the technological difficulties of designing it, the legal obstacles to getting it off the ground, the financial costs of constructing and maintaining it, and the political problems of mobilizing support for it.

Despite the complexities, the fundamental idea of a National Digital Library (or NDL) is, at its core, straightforward. The NDL would make the cultural patrimony of this country freely available to all of its citizens. It would be the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress, but instead of being confined to Capitol Hill, it would exist everywhere, bringing millions of books and other digitized material within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, junior colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any person with access to the Internet.

North Korea’s New Prince

Christian Caryl


So now it’s official. North Korea’s ruling party has given its blessing to Kim Jong Il’s choice of a successor. The lucky man is Kim’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un. On September 28 a special conference of the Korean Workers’ Party named the heir to the party’s Central Committee and also appointed him to a position as vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Just for good measure Kim Jong Un also earned a promotion to four-star general (pretty impressive for someone who’s never actually served in the military).

Messerschmidt’s Mad Faces

Willibald Sauerländer

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the enlightenment. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not only a madman but also a mad artist. At the same time that he began to withdraw from society, he started to work on the project that would isolate him artistically as well, the Kopfstücke, or “character heads,” in which he concentrated his efforts to depict the passions and emotions of humanity.

The Serbian Surprise

Charles Simic

An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo. Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Serbian government has maintained that it will never recognize the right of its former province to secede, but will fight through diplomacy and through the United Nations to get it back. And it continued to maintain that position even after the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in July that there is nothing in international law that prohibits Kosovo from declaring independence. Now, to the surprise of everyone—including me—the Serbian government has agreed to hold compromise talks with Kosovo.

Iran’s Interrupted Lives

Haleh Esfandiari

In late September, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York asserting his government’s respect for human rights, several young students in Iran were receiving lengthy prison sentences for their efforts to speak out in defense of those rights. Indeed—as a small photography exhibition about student repression in Iran at Georgetown Law School this month powerfully reminded us—hundreds of Iranian students, journalists, and bloggers have been jailed, many of them in deplorable conditions, since the disputed elections of June 2009. And though the matter has received little attention in the press, many more continue to be arrested and sentenced.

From Chamonix to Islamabad: A Road Trip

Jeremy Bernstein

When still in my early teens I decided that over the course of time I would see the ten highest mountains in the world. It did not occur to me that I would climb any of them, but I thought I could surely see them and even get to their bases. In 1967, I went to Nepal and managed to see seven of them; I even made it to the base of a couple, including Everest. But I missed Kanchenjunga, the third highest, which is in the far east of the country on the border with the Indian state of Sikkim. I also hadn’t seen K2, the second highest, which is on the border of Pakistan and China; or Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest, which is in the Pakistani Himalayas. To see these two I would have to get to Pakistan.

Turkey Packs the Court

Can Yeginsu

On September 12, fifty-eight percent of the Turkish people voted in favor of amending their country’s constitution. The international community, including the European Union and the United States, has endorsed the result as a victory for democracy in Turkey. However well-intentioned, that optimism rests, I fear, on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was truly at issue in that vote. To explain, let me turn to an unlikely starting point: the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Who’s Afraid of Ukrainian History?

Timothy Snyder

On summer evenings, the people of the west Ukrainian city Lviv come to sing: under the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the great poet who prophesied Ukrainian independence in the nineteenth century, on the street that was renamed Liberty Boulevard when Ukraine emerged from Soviet rule in 1991. The songs tell of beautiful dark-eyed girls pining for brave soldiers. In one song, young men must leave their homes to fight for freedom as partisans; in the next, they are overwhelmed and killed by Soviet forces. One of the more bellicose songs ends “We’ll cry out ‘Glory, glory, glory’ until the earth shakes,” accompanied by the stamping of feet on the cobblestones. These passionate Ukrainian laments overlook the fact that Lviv was once Polish Lwów, and before that Habsburg Lemberg. Well into the twentieth century it was a Polish-Jewish city.

Bashevis Revisited

Harold Bloom

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when first it was published in English a half-century ago. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second novel established his American audience, which grew until his death at eighty-seven in 1991. Rereading it now in Yiddish and in English (the novel has just been reissued in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication) has been a mixed experience. The book set the formula for all his narratives long or short. They are prurient sagas of the flesh and of repentance, marked by the ambivalences of a vegetarian satyr.