Roving thoughts and provocations

The North West London Blues

Zadie Smith

The Victorian Society

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell.

When Westerns Were Un-American

J. Hoberman

filmforum.org

With the escalation of the Vietnam War, every Marxist intellectual, it seemed, wanted to write a Western. The most notable was Franco Solinas (1927–1982), a teenaged partisan and longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, journalist for the Communist newspaper L’Unità, and author. Solinas worked on four Spaghetti Westerns—all included in a three-week-long series at New York’s Film Forum that begins June 1—contributing to this wildly commercial and equally disreputable mode as decisively as director Sergio Leone or composer Ennio Morricone.

Putin’s Propaganda Man

Amy Knight

Viktor Bogorad/Moscow Times

Though he was inaugurated only weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin already faces serious challenges to his administration. Judging from a controversial cabinet appointment that Putin made last week, one way the Kremlin may try to combat growing opposition is to revive a traditional Soviet-era weapon—propaganda. The person running the propaganda machine will be the new Minister of Culture, 41-year-old Vladimir Medinsky, who some Russian commentators have already dubbed the Russian Goebbels.

Before the Nazis: A Ukrainian City’s Contested Past

Philippe Sands

Sony Pictures Classics

Tucked away in the far western corner of present-day Ukraine, the city of Lviv defies expectations. Far smaller than Kiev, it was a closed city during the Soviet period from 1945 to 1991, and even today remains relatively little known. Yet in the early twentieth century, it was home to a roughly equal number of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews and as a result the city played a special and largely unrecognized part in shaping our modern international system of human rights. I have been spending time in Lviv, exploring its remarkable but largely unknown legal history.

Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

Ian Johnson

baike.baidu.com

Few people in the West have heard of Bill Porter, a translator of Chinese poetry and religious works whose works in print rarely sell more than a thousand copies each year. For most of the past decade, he says, his annual income has hovered around $15,000. Several of his books humorously thank the US Department of Agriculture—for providing food stamps that have kept him and his family going. But in China, Porter’s writings about Chinese hermits have recently gained him hundreds of thousands of readers, book contracts, and celebrity status, thanks to a small but growing new publishing culture for foreign authors.

When Poetry Gets Under the Skin

Henri Cole

Civitella Ranieri Foundation

In this podcast, Henri Cole reads from his recent book of poems, Touch (2011), and talks about his search for what he calls the “essentialness of emotion.”

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Sasha Weiss: You liken the self to a needle pushing in a vein.

Henri Cole: We live in a time where, in the last decade or two, there was a drift away from the essentialness of emotion, because of the fashions of poetry … and so I wanted my book to sort of focus on the essentialness of piercing the skin—poems should have fear, wonder, grief, desperation, triumph, some element of these emotions in them.

The Mormon Constitution

Garry Wills

Will a Mormon president treat constitutional clauses as divine injunctions? If so, what grounds will we non-Mormons have for interpreting with secular arguments what is presented as God’s will? For that matter, what right will the Supreme Court have to treat the document as anything less than a divinely inspired covenant?

In the Chloroformed Sanctuary

Tim Parks

Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

“Walk around a university campus,” fumed Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage, “and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.” In my last piece in this space I suggested that writers are anxious to present literature as somehow more alive than life itself—a place of great intensity and courageous engagement—perhaps out of concern that the profession they have opted for is actually a space of relative refuge and fearful retreat. But what about those who write about writing, the reviewers and academics? Is Dyer correct that while original literature throbs with life, literary criticism is the work of cloistered drudges who suffocate the very creature that provides them with a living?

Why Are We Abandoning the Afghans?

Ahmed Rashid

Bryan Denton/Corbis/AP Images

What will Afghanistan look like in 2014, after a dozen years of occupation, more than 2,800 NATO soldiers killed, and an expenditure of $1 trillion? If the participants in this week’s NATO summit in Chicago are to be believed, what they will leave behind is little more than a series of fortresses in enemy territory: Kabul and the other major cities will be protected by Afghan forces, while the countryside falls back into the hands of the Taliban. NATO leaders all but acknowledged that much of Kandahar and Helmand provinces—where 30,000 US marines had launched “the surge” two years ago to root out the Taliban—would quickly revert back to Taliban control once the Americans left.

Saudi Arabia and the New US War in Yemen

Hugh Eakin

Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The United States is quietly being drawn into an escalating conflict in Yemen. Following the discovery earlier this month of a new bomb plot aimed at American airliners, the US government has been aiming drones at alleged members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at an unprecedented rate. Last week, US and Yemeni officials revealed that US special operations forces are on the ground in Yemen and that more may be on the way. Meanwhile AQAP, the Yemen-based organization now regarded by some officials as one of the principal terrorist threats to the United States, has stepped up attacks around the country, including a huge suicide bombing in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on Monday, that killed at least sixty people.