Roving thoughts and provocations

The Phantom Tollbooth’ and the Wonder of Words

Michael Chabon

Jules Feiffer

When I was a boy I read, in a biography of Daniel Boone, or of Daniel Beard, that young Dan (whichever of the two it may have been—or maybe it was young George Washington) had so loved some book, had felt his heart and mind inscribed so deeply in its every line, that he had pricked his fingertip with a knife and, using a pen nib and his blood for ink, penned his name on the flyleaf. At once, reading that, I knew two things: 1) I must at once undertake the same procedure and 2) only one, among all the books I adored and treasured, was worthy of such tribute: The Phantom Tollbooth. At that point I had read it at least five or six times.

Goldstone’s Retreat?

David Shulman

Ashraf Amra/AP Photo

Richard Goldstone’s much-discussed retraction of key findings in his committee’s report on the 2009 Gaza war has produced in Israel a predictable burst of self-congratulation. From the prime minister on down, the message from the Israeli government is a defiant “We told you so!” spoken from the always-privileged vantage point of an innocent victim wrongly accused. Along with this, we have an updated Israeli version of the Prodigal Son; Goldstone, a South African former judge and liberal Zionist of the old school, has supposedly come (rather shamefacedly) back home.

Budget Fallacies: Why the Ryan Plan Won’t Work

Jeff Madrick

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities | cbpp.org

Among the economic fallacies embraced in Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, two are particularly egregious: that getting rid of Medicare will reduce health care costs and that enacting yet further tax cuts for the rich will spur growth and investment.

Critics on the left are up in arms because Ryan’s proposal to force Medicare recipients to buy private insurance will raise the amount those now under 55 will pay when they are old enough to get Medicare by an average of $6,000 a person. In other words, critics say, we are trying to cut health care costs—and supposedly reform it through more privatization—on the backs of future elderly Medicare recipients. But the Ryan plan won’t reduce health care costs.

New Travels with Mark Twain

Andrew Delbanco

delbanco_1-022411.jpg
Berg Collection/New York Public Library

Andrew Martin: It seems like the public perception of Twain remains the guy on the porch, this sort of genteel Southern nostalgia.

Andrew Delbanco: That’s a part of him, but to the extent that he puts it out there as his public face, it’s a construction. He was immensely sophisticated about a lot of things, with the possible exception of investment practices, which he wasn’t so good at. I think you can make the case that he was fundamentally a travel writer. I mean, he was children’s writer, he was a young-adult storyteller, he was a social critic, he was a lot of things. But his mode was really just to watch the world go by, and he was a relentless, compulsive traveler. Even if he was living in the same town, he would move constantly: he had multiple addresses in Washington, multiple addresses in New York, and so on and so forth. And then he took many long and arduous trips to Europe and around the world, often under financial pressure to make money by speech-making and by writing travel articles. It’s really in his travel writing that you find him at his most alert.

Obama and the House Radicals

Elizabeth Drew

Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg/Getty Images

As is his custom, President Obama erred on the side of caution in confronting this country’s grave fiscal crisis. On Wednesday he gave a good speech far too late. What if he hadn’t been so dilatory on a subject he inevitably would have to confront?

Putting the Watch on Putin

Amy Knight

Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s democratic opposition gets a lot of criticism from political observers for failing to convey its message to ordinary Russians. No doubt this owes in part to the overwhelming dominance of the country’s political space by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his supporters as well as to general political apathy. As authoritarian states in the Middle East erupt in popular uprisings, the Russian public continues, for the most part, to be resigned to its political leadership. In a new poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 61 percent of respondents said they take no interest in politics or public life, up from 39 percent in 2007. The liberal oppositionists clearly face an uphill struggle in trying to reach beyond the circle of urban educated people who comprise Russia’s small online community of bloggers and activists. But they have by no means given up.

Exiles

Roberto Bolaño

To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self. Swift, master of exile, knew this. For him exile was the secret word for journey. Many of the exiled, freighted with more suffering than reasons to leave, would reject this statement.

All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.

Probably the first exiles on record were Adam and Eve. This is indisputable and it raises a few questions: can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?

The concept of “strange lands” (like that of “home ground”) has some holes in it, presents new questions. Are “strange lands” an objective geographic reality, or a mental construct in constant flux?

The Education of Lord Bloomberg

Diane Ravitch

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.

We Don’t Know the Language We Don’t Know

Nicholson Baker

Ellen Rachel Davidson

One Saturday last month I went to Lafayette Park in Washington D.C., across the street from the White House, in order to protest several wars. The squirrels were out doing seasonal things. A tree was balancing big buds on the finger-ends of its curving branches; the brown bud coverings, which looked like gecko skins, were drawing back to reveal inner loaves of meaty magnolial pinkness. A policeman in sunglasses, with a blue and white helmet, sat on a Clydesdale horse, while two tourists, a father and his daughter, gazed into the horse’s eyes. The pale, squinty, early spring perfection of the day made me smile.

How to Beat a Dead Octopus

Jana Prikryl

In his poem “Some General Instructions,” which The New York Review published in 1975, Kenneth Koch offered advice on how to live. “Be careful not to set fire/To a friend’s house.” “When taking pills, be sure/You know what they are.” “To ‘cure’ a dead octopus/You hold it by one leg and bang it against a rock.” But quoting bits of the poem seems a falsification, because its true effects are cumulative—it is 233 lines long, a punch-drunk sort of length, as if its principal message were that one should never, in this life, worry about going over quota—and much of its alternating lyricism and irony depend on the coloring that each line receives from its placement above or below another. Koch stuck to ordinary language—the dangerously trite language of self-help manuals—and somehow walked the knife’s edge between wicked parody and an honest urgency that acknowledged the reader’s need to know how to exist in the world. “Think of what you feel/Secretly, and how music has imitated that. Make a moue.” Besides which, he was not afraid of humor—not just as an ornament, but as the engine driving serious self-examination, which is another way of saying that this extravagantly long poem is an enactment of stylistic humility. It never claims to know more than just what is contained in each line—for example, how to cure an octopus.