Roving thoughts and provocations

How Google Can Save America’s Books

Robert Darnton

Félix Vallotton

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Google has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?

NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

At the close of its summit meeting in Lisbon on Saturday, NATO announced it had reached an agreement with the Afghan government to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for years to come. But it is far from clear that these plans—which postpone a transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces until 2014—will find much support in Kabul. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.

Brazil in the Shadow of Lula

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Ricardo Stuckert/PR

On October 31, a former bureaucrat named Dilma Rousseff became the first female president of Brazil after easily winning a runoff election with 56 percent of the vote. Yet this outcome—in which she defeated Jose Serra, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party—had very little to do with Rousseff’s appeal among the Brazilian public or any distinct political platform of her own. Instead, it reflected the overwhelming popularity of outgoing president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.

Obama’s Torture Problem

David Cole

In the face of overwhelming evidence that numerous US detainees were tortured during the Bush years, President Barack Obama has famously said he wants to “look forward, not back.” He prohibited the use of torture and cruelty in one of his first executive acts, but since then he has consistently resisted all efforts to hold accountable those who, under the prior administration, authorized such mistreatment. He has opposed a commission of inquiry, failed to order a criminal investigation of high-level officials who authorized—and concocted legal justifications for—torture, and successfully defeated all suits seeking damages for victims. Unacknowledged guilt, however, has a stubborn way of sticking around. In recent days, torture has been back in the national conversation, raising once again the issue of what we (and others) should do about it.

My Reading Life

Claudia Gonson

Le Poisson Rouge

Caveat: I am nursing a 2 month old baby right now, so remembering anything, like what I ate for breakfast today, has become very difficult. Remembering what I have read throughout my life is going to be pretty much impossible, but what the hell. Here goes. I don’t have a great recollection of my reading before about 12, but my childhood room is amazingly still there and when I go back to Cambridge I sit and gaze at the most wonderful books, like Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and all those pre-teen girl titles like Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins, etc. etc. One of my favorites from early days was Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, about a kid who said everything twice, and it turned out to be his super power. I also read Judy Blume, yes it’s true.

The Playful, Grumpy, Over-Literate, Fixated, Flummoxed Brain of Stephin Merritt

Dan Chiasson

Emma Straub, courtesy of Variance Films

The Magnetic Fields is the name Stephin Merritt calls the band he often plays with, when he isn’t playing alone or with several other bands he invented. The core group is Merritt and his old friend Claudia Gonson, who started as a drummer but now plays piano, “toys” (wire whisks, xylophone, sleigh bells—it’s a long list), sometimes sings, and, as her day job, manages the band; plus Sam Davol, a former lawyer who plays cello and sometimes flute and sometimes other things, too; and John Woo, a guitarist who often plays banjo. Merritt himself plays just about everything, including ukelele and a Greek instrument called a bouzouki.

A New Cold War in Asia?

Pankaj Mishra

Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Is Asia about to enter a new cold war? Accusing the United States of undervaluing the dollar, China has, after its mainly “peaceful” rise, recently assumed an aggressive posture toward its neighbors. In recent visits both to longstanding American allies (Korea, Japan) and to erstwhile enemies (Vietnam, Cambodia), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proposed the US as a counterpoint to China. Seeking to match the Bush administration’s landmark nuclear agreement with India in 2005, Barack Obama is also supporting India’s case for permanent membership on the UN Security Council.

The columnist Thomas Friedman interprets such moves as “containment-lite,” invoking George Kennan’s proposal in 1947 that Soviet expansionism “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Apparently, such counter-force against China is already being applied. An Indonesian political scientist told the New York Times last week that his government feels the US is putting “too much pressure” on Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “to choose sides.”

Why Are We Supporting Repression in Ethiopia?

William Easterly and Laura Freschi

Mike Goldwater/Getty Images

Foreign aid observers have often worried that Western aid to Africa is propping up autocratic regimes. Yet seldom has such a direct link from aid to political repression been demonstrated as in “Development without Freedom,” an extensively documented new report on Ethiopia by Human Rights Watch. Based on interviews with 200 people in 53 villages and cities throughout the country, the report concludes that the Ethiopian government, headed by prime minister Meles Zenawi, uses aid as a political weapon to discriminate against non-party members and punish dissenters, sending the population the draconian message that “survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party.”

Raising the Banner of Beauty: Glasgow’s Master Craftsman

Martin Filler

The public’s outsized affection for the Scottish architect and furniture designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) is all the more remarkable since as late as the mid-twentieth century his place in history was by no means secure. His stature rose, however, with the 1960s revival of interest in his small but exquisite output (much of it ephemeral interior decorating schemes). Indeed, Mackintosh’s hometown of Glasgow has in recent years developed a thriving cultural tourism industry largely because it contains nearly all his executed buildings, fewer than twenty in toto.

New York’s New Schools Czar

Diane Ravitch

Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

After a stormy eight-year reign, New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein announced last week that he was stepping down to work for Rupert Murdoch. Mayor Bloomberg immediately selected another non-educator, Cathleen Black, the chairman of Hearst Magazines, to take charge of the school system.

What is most striking about the mayor’s decision is that he seems to see the superintendency as a job not for an educator, but for a manager.