What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea? An old book you feel you ought to have read? Or is it more casually serendipitous: An old book you have rediscovered and want to share with the world? And what does a “classicist” (in the Greek-and-Latin sense of the word) have to contribute to the debate?
In 1999, the German photographer Olaf Otto Becker took a picture of a glacier in Iceland for his first book, Under the Nordic Light. When he returned to photograph the same glacier three years later, it was gone.
As a rule, I read and write poetry in bed; philosophy and serious essays sitting down at my desk; newspapers and magazines while I eat breakfast or lunch, and novels while lying on the couch. It’s toughest to find a good place to read history, since what one is reading usually is a story of injustices and atrocities and wherever one does that, be it in the garden on a fine summer day or riding a bus in a city, one feels embarrassed to be so lucky. Perhaps the waiting room in a city morgue is the only suitable place to read about Stalin and Pol Pot?
“The French photographer André Zucca was not a Nazi,” Ian Buruma writes in his recent article on Paris during the German occupation, “but he felt no particular hostility to Germany either…. Zucca simply wanted to continue his pre-war life, publishing pictures in the best glossy magazines. And the one with the glossiest pictures, in fine German Agfacolor, happened to be Signal, the German propaganda magazine.” Born in Paris in 1897, Zucca worked for both French and foreign publications in the 1930s, and covered the Russian–Finnish War in the winter of 1939–1940 for Paris-Soir, before becoming a photographer for Signal from 1941 to 1944. After the liberation he was arrested but never prosecuted, and spent the remainder of his career as a wedding and portrait photographer in a small town west of Paris. He died in 1973. Recently, a volume of Zucca’s controversial wartime pictures of Paris was published in France. Here is a selection from it with comments by Buruma. —The Editors
One of the defining features of social media, if not the defining feature, is its participatory nature. Anyone, everyone, is a content producer. Anyone, everyone, is a critic. And, for the most part, everyone’s voice registers at the same volume. Your take on the new Michael Jackson movie, and my take, and the take of the fifteen-year-old boy down the street are given equal weight. True, there are some sites, like The New York Times and Amazon that let readers rate or recommend other people’s musings, rants and insights, but even so, all the comments are put “out there” with little or no intercession. This works really well for consumer products, where the average user, whose experience is actual and authentic, is typically a more reliable guide than that of professional testers, though manufacturers have figured out how to game the system by mobilizing armies of average-joe posters to shill their products. Still, if 328 people have something to say about a piece of software or a robotic vacuum cleaner you’re interested in, you are going to get a very good sense whether these products will meet your needs.
“How Google Can Help Newspapers,” ran the benign-sounding headline atop an Op-Ed column by Google CEO Eric Schmidt in the December 1 Wall Street Journal. In it, Schmidt sought to rebut claims that, as Les Hinton, the CEO of Dow Jones, has put it, Google is a “digital vampire” that is “sucking the blood” out of the news business. Quite to the contrary, Schmidt argued, Google wants to turn that business around. He wasn’t very convincing. In fact, his article shows how inept Google has been in responding to its critics. I’d like to suggest a better way.
In the fall of 1967 with two French friends I trekked from Kathmandu to the base of Mount Everest. At that time, climbing was forbidden in Nepal and the trekking business was in its infancy. During the thirty-seven days we were on our trek we saw less than a handful of other westerners and the ones we saw were in Nepal on official business. The high point of our trek in every sense was our climb of a small hillock named Kala Patthar. It was a grassy knoll whose summit was at 18,200 feet—about 800 feet above what had been the British base camp for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s climb of Everest in 1953. From this summit one has a fantastic view of Everest and neighboring peaks, such as Nuptse and Lhotse. In fact, during a reconaissance mission with Hillary and others in 1951, the British climber Eric Shipton used vantage points on the ridge that Kala Patthar is part of to plot the route that Hillary’s team took in their ascent two years later.
We call the revolution of 1789 the “French Revolution” and the revolution of 1917 the “Russian Revolution,” but it seems unlikely that we will ever call the revolution of 1989 the “Polish Revolution”—even though that is essentially what it was.
Obama’s long speech on Afghanistan did not refer even once to India or Kashmir. Yet India has a large and growing presence in Afghanistan, and impoverished young Pakistanis, such as those who led the terrorist attack on Mumbai last November, continue to be indoctrinated by watching videos of Indian atrocities on Muslims in Kashmir. (Not much exaggeration is needed here: an Indian human rights group last week offered evidence of mass graves of nearly 3000 Muslims allegedly executed over the last decade by Indian security forces near the border with Pakistan.) Another terrorist assault on India is very likely; it will further stoke tensions between India and Pakistan, enfeebling America’s already faltering campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference will depend in part on whether both countries can live up to recent pledges by their leaders to curb emissions. Just as important for China, however, is the need to address repression—until now ignored by the Obama administration—of citizen activists trying to call attention to the country’s environmental problems.