The Books We Talk About (and Those We Don’t)

Tim Parks

Abner Dean

We tend to categorize novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular. Perhaps more usefully, we should distinguish those that make the conversation, and those that do not: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not.

The Birds of War

Christopher Benfey

Dominic Nahr/Magnum Photos

Is it to be war? It would seem so, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the future seems, increasingly, unforeseeable, as the seers, convened around the tables at CNN or PBS, predict the most contradictory things. I myself have found that a few quiet minutes on the patio, facing the cloud-infested sky, give me a clearer sense of the future than the morning newspaper.

Taking Aim at Hong Kong

Jonathan Mirsky

Wally Santana/AP Images

Watching tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Hong Kong, I have felt the same emotion I experienced on the nights leading up to the killings in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989. Again we are watching heavily armed police trying to disperse peaceful democracy protesters and they are possibly awaiting orders to do more than that.

In the Cage of Memory

Michael Greenberg

Pascal Victor

I was twelve years old when I saw my first Peter Brook production, and the effect of entering his concentrated world, of experiencing the actors as a personal presence, of feeling myself to be part of a spectacle rather than the watcher of one, has never left me. It remains an artistic ideal: spare, attentive, incendiary, mystical.

A New Plan for Syria

Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson

Dusan Vranic/AP Images

The most realistic short-term US policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict. This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere.

The Unstoppable Soprano

Martin Filler

Ira Nowinski/Corbis

How old is too old in opera? It all depends on the voice and the role, of course. Beverly Sills, who had a relatively light instrument, retired at fifty-one. Birgit Nilsson, the Heldensopran, bowed out at sixty-four. The tenor Plácido Domingo is still onstage at seventy-three. But few have lived up to the standard set by the Italian soprano Magda Olivero, who died in Milan this month, at the age of 104.

What Scotland Won

Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Mitchell/Demotix/Corbis

British prime minister David Cameron promised that if Scotland voted No, Scotland would be rewarded with much greater autonomy. So Cameron is now honor-bound to cede many new powers to Scotland—moving closer to “devo-max,” or maximum devolution—at breakneck speed: the timetable published on the eve of the referendum speaks in weeks and months rather than years.

They Don’t Want Moderate Uighurs’

Ian Johnson

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Why was Ilham Tohti arrested?

Wang Lixiong: The only conclusion is dark: they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.

Taiwan’s Master Timekeeper

J. Hoberman

Trigon Films

I first became convinced of the genius of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien when I saw The Puppetmaster (1993). Until then I thought of Hou as the maker of extraordinarily fine, quasi-autobiographical youth films. The Puppetmaster went much further, showing a profound sense of motion pictures as a way of exploring the passage of time.

The Soul of the Censor

Robert Darnton

David Levine

Reading is an essential aspect of censoring, not only in the act of vetting texts, which often lead to competing exegeses, but also as an aspect of the inner workings of the state. Not only did censors perceive nuances of hidden meaning, but they also understood the way published texts reverberated in the public. Despite its ideological function, the reworking of texts often resembled the editing done by professionals in open societies. To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong.