George Saunders Booker win: why the British shouldn’t be sore at American literary success



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jannoon028/Shutterstock.com

Andrew Dix, Loughborough University

“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.

But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.

American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.

Changing the rules

Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”

A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:

A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.

Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.

Novels without borders

If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.

George Saunders with his award.
Man Booker

There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:

Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.

Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.

The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.

The ConversationBut a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.

Andrew Dix, Lecturer in American Studies, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Library of Congress opened its catalogs to the world. Here’s why it matters



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The Library of Congress is in Washington, D.C.
Valerii Iavtushenko/Shutterstock.com

Melissa Levine, University of Michigan

Imagine you wanted to find books or journal articles on a particular subject. Or find manuscripts by a particular author. Or locate serials, music or maps. You would use a library catalog that includes facts – like title, author, publication date, subject headings and genre.

That information and more is stored in the treasure trove of library catalogs.

It is hard to overstate how important this library catalog information is, particularly as the amount of information expands every day. With this information, scholars and librarians are able to find things in a predictable way. That’s because of the descriptive facts presented in a systematic way in catalog records.

But what if you could also experiment with the data in those records to explore other kinds of research questions – like trends in subject matter, semantics in titles or patterns in the geographic source of works on a given topic?

Now it is possible. The Library of Congress has made 25 million digital catalog records available for anyone to use at no charge. The free data set includes records from 1968 to 2014.

This is the largest release of digital catalog records in history. These records are part of a data ecosystem that crosses decades and parallels the evolution of information technology.

In my research about copyright and library collections, I rely on these kinds of records for information that can help determine the copyright status of works. The data in these records already are embodied in library catalogs. What’s new is the free accessibility of this organized data set for new kinds of inquiry.

The decision reflects a fresh attitude toward shared data by the Library of Congress. It is a symbolic and practical manifestation of the library’s leadership aligned with its mission of public service.

Some history

To understand the implications of this news, it helps to know a bit about the history of library catalog records.

Today, search engines let us easily find books we want to borrow from libraries or purchase from any number of sources. Not long ago, this would have seemed magical. Search engines use data about books – like the title, author, publisher, publication date and subject matter – to identify particular books. That descriptive information was gathered over the years in library catalog records by librarians.

Card catalog at the Library of Congress.
Rich Renomeron/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The library’s action sheds light on this unseen but critical network. This infrastructure is invisible to most of us as we use libraries, buy books or use search engines.

For many, the idea of a library catalog conjures up the image of card catalogs. The descriptions contained in catalog records are “metadata” – information about information. Early catalog records date back to 1791, just after the French Revolution. The revolutionary government used playing cards to document property seized from the church. The idea was to make a national bibliography of library holdings confiscated during the Revolution.

For many years, library collections were organized individually. As the number of books and libraries grew, the increased complexity demanded a more consistent approach. For example, when the Library of Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in 1815, it arranged its collections around Jefferson’s personal system organized around the themes of memory, reason and imagination. (Jefferson based this on Francis Bacon’s own model.) The library sought to arrange its collections on that model into the 19th century.

Books on my shelf, marked with KF and HB. The K indicates that the book relates to law, the H that it relates to social science. The second letter indicates a subcategory.
Melissa Levine, CC BY

As the number of books and libraries grew, a more systematic approach was needed. The Dewey Decimal System appeared in 1876 to tackle this challenge. It combined consistent numbers (“classes”) with particular topics. Each class can be further divided for more specific descriptions.

In the 1890s, the library developed the Library of Congress Classification System. It is still used today to predictably manage millions of items in libraries worldwide.

Catalogs, cards and computers

By the 1960s, systematic descriptions made the transition from analog cards to online catalog systems a natural step. Machine-Readable-Cataloging (or MARC) records were developed to electronically read and interpret the data in bibliographic cataloging records. The structured categorization coincided naturally with the use of computers.

Now, MARC records too are on the way out, making room for more modern and flexible standards.

The Library of Congress remains a primary – but not the only – source for catalog records. Individual libraries produce catalog records that are compiled and circulated through organizations like OCLC. OCLC connects libraries around the globe and offers an online catalog. WorldCat coordinates catalog records from many libraries into a cohesive online resource. Groups like these charge libraries through membership fees for access to the compiled data. Libraries, though, typically do not charge for the catalog records they produce, instead working cooperatively through organizations like OCLC. This may evolve as more shared effort and crowdsourced resources can be combined with the library’s data in ways that improve search and inquiry. Examples include SHARE and Wikipedia.

One month later

In the short time since the Library of Congress’ data release, we see inklings of what may come. At a Hack-to-Learn event in May, researchers showed off early experiments with the data, including a zoomable list of nine million unique titles and a natural language interface with the data.

For my part, I am considering how to use the library’s data to learn more about the history of publishing. For example, it might be possible to see if there are trends in dates of publication, locations of publishers and patterns in subject matter. It would be fruitful to correlate copyright information data retained by the U.S. Copyright Office to see if one could associate particular works with their copyright information like registration, renewal and ownership changes. However, those records remain in formats that remain difficult to search or manipulate. The records prior to 1978 are not yet available online at all from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Colleagues at the University of Michigan Library are studying the recently released records as a way to practice map-making and explore geographic patterns with visualizations based on the data. They are thinking about gleaning locations from subject metadata and then mapping how those locations shift through time.

There’s a growing expectation that this kind of data should be freely available. This is evidenced by the expanding number of open data initiatives, from institutional repositories such as Deep Blue Data here at the University of Michigan Library to the U.S. government’s data.gov. The U.K.‘s Open Research Data Task Force just released a report discussing technical, infrastructure, policy and cultural matters to be addressed to support open data.

The ConversationThe Library of Congress’ action demonstrates an overarching shift in use of technology to meet historical research missions and advance beyond. Because the data are freely available, anyone can experiment with them.

Melissa Levine, Lead Copyright Officer, Librarian, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is ‘fair dealing’ and when can you copy without permission?



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Fair dealing allows Australians to use copyrighted content for news and reporting.
antb/Shutterstock

Nicolas Suzor, Queensland University of Technology

Copyright law sometimes allows you to use someone else’s work – as long as it’s fair. In Australia this is called “fair dealing”, and it’s different to the law in the US, which is called “fair use”.

These exceptions are safety valves in copyright law – they allow lots of beneficial uses that society has agreed copyright owners should not be able to charge for, or worse, prevent.

There’s a serious ongoing debate about whether Australia should update its copyright laws and introduce fair use. The current law is not easy to understand – our research shows that Australian creators are often confused about their rights – and many think we already have fair use.

Fair dealing: What can you do in Australia?

The key difference between “fair use” and “fair dealing” is that Australia’s “fair dealing” laws set out defined categories of acceptable uses. As we will see, “fair use” in the US is much more flexible.

Australian copyright law sets out five situations where use of copyrighted material without permission may be allowed:

  • research or study
  • criticism or review
  • parody or satire
  • reporting the news
  • provision of legal advice.

We’ll explain the first four, as they’re most useful to the average Australian.

Research or study

You do not need permission to copy a reasonable portion of copyrighted material if you are studying it or using it for research. You do not have to be enrolled in school or a university course to rely on the research or study exception.

For example:

  • you can make a copy of a chapter of a book to study it
  • you can print or take screenshots of content you find on the web for your research
  • you can include quotes or extracts of other work when you publish your research.

The main thing to watch out for is how much you copy. It’s fair to photocopy a book chapter but not the whole book.

Criticism or review

It is lawful to use a work without permission in order to critique or review it.

Criticism or review involves making an analysis or judgement of the material or its underlying ideas. It may be expressed in an entertaining way, or with strong opinion, and does not need to be a balanced expression to be fair.

For example, a film critic does not need permission to play a short clip from a film they are reviewing. They may also use film clips from other movies to compare or contrast.

Ozzy Man Reviews runs a popular channel that reviews existing material, relying on the fair dealing exceptions.

It’s also legal to quote an excerpt of a book or song lyrics, or to reference a photograph in another publication as part of a review or critique of the work.

You need to be really critiquing your source material. So, for example, a review video that is really just the highlights of a film or show probably won’t be fair.

This is something that tripped up Channel 10 in its clip show, The Panel. When the panellists discussed and critiqued the clips they showed, it was generally fair dealing. But when they just showed clips that were funny, a court found them liable for copyright infringement.

Reporting the news

You don’t need permission to use existing copyrighted material while reporting on current or historic events. The law is designed to ensure that people can’t use copyright to stifle the flow of information on matters of public interest.

The key issue to check here is whether a work has been used in a way that is necessary to report the news. If the material is just used incidentally, to illustrate a story or provide entertainment, it won’t count as fair dealing.

Parody or satire

It is legal to use another person’s copyrighted material without their permission to make fun of them, or to make fun of another person or issue.

Making something funny is not sufficient to rely on this exception. The use must be part of some commentary (express or implied) on the material or some broader aspect of society.

FriendlyJordies is known for his satirical videos that comment on and criticise politics and everyday life in Australia.

When is a use ‘fair’?

Fair dealing only applies when the use is “fair”.

When assessing fairness in Australia, there are a number of relevant considerations, including:

  • how important copying is to your work (“nature and purpose of the use”)
  • the type of work being copied (less original works may not be protected as strongly as more creative works)
  • whether it is easily possible to get a licence within a reasonable time at an ordinary commercial price
  • the effect of your copying on the potential market for the original
  • the amount taken from the original work
  • whether attribution has been given to the original author.

Generally, a use will be fair if you are copying for a valid reason, you don’t copy more than you need, you give attribution where possible, and your work is not directly competing in the market against the original.

Things to remember:

  • Is copying necessary? Copying has to be necessary for one of the purposes above. This means that it might be fair to copy part of a song to review it, but it won’t be fair if you’re just using the song as background music.
  • Copy no more than you need. Sometimes you need to copy the entirety of an existing work – if you’re critiquing a photograph, for example. Usually, though, you should only copy the parts that are necessary. You can’t get away with showing a whole TV episode in order to critique one scene.
  • It’s usually not fair if you’re competing with the original. This is often the most important factor. When you copy existing material for your own study, to report on the news, or to create a parody, you usually won’t be undercutting the market for the original. But if you’re just repackaging the original material in a way that might substitute for it – a consumer might be satisfied with your work instead of the original – then your use probably won’t be fair.

How is ‘fair use’ different – what can’t you do with fair dealing?

In the United States, the law is more flexible, because it can adapt to allow fair use for purposes that lawmakers hadn’t thought of in advance.

Some of the things that are legal without getting permission in the US but not in Australia include:

Adapting to new technologies: Fair use is flexible enough to adapt to change, but fair dealing is not. For example, in the US, fair use made it legal to use a VCR to record television at home in 1984. In Australia, this wasn’t legal until parliament created a specific exception in 2006 – just about the time VCRs became obsolete.

Artistic use: In Australia, it’s legal to create a parody or a critique, but not to use existing works for purely artistic purposes. For example, Australian law makes it largely unlawful for a collage artist to reuse existing copyright material to create something new.

Machinima uses game environments to create new stories – but is not legal in Australia without permission from the game’s publisher.

Uses that document our experiences: Media forms a big part of our lives, and when we share our daily experiences, we will often include copyright material in some way. Without fair use, even capturing a poster on a wall behind you when you take a selfie could infringe copyright.

In a famous example, Stephanie Lenz originally had an adorable 29-second clip of her baby dancing to a Prince song removed from YouTube, due to her use of the song. She was able to get it put back up under US fair use law – but an Australian wouldn’t have that right.

Stephanie Lenz’s “dancing baby” video is legal under US “fair use”, but would likely infringe copyright in Australia.

Technical and non-consumptive uses: The internet we love today is built on fair use. When search engines crawl the web, making a copy of every page they can in order to help us find relevant information, they’re relying on fair use.

Under Australian law, even forwarding an email without permission could be an infringement of copyright.

The copyright reform debate

Two recent government reports, from the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Productivity Commission, have recommended that Australia simplify its copyright law by introducing fair use.

Many of us copyright academics have written here extensively in support of fair use over the past few years, but there are still many myths about what the law would do.

It’s been suggested that introducing fair use here would provoke a “free for all” use of copyrighted work, but that hasn’t happened in the US. In fact, some of the same major studios that oppose fair use in Australia are at pains to point out that they support fair use in the US because it is vital to commercial production that happens there.

The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, says that “Our members rely on the fair use doctrine every day when producing their movies and television shows”.

To put it simply: we don’t think that fair use will harm creators.

The “fair” in fair use means that it’s not about ripping off creators – it mainly allows uses that are not harmful. But we do think that fair use would provide an important benefit for ordinary Australians – both creators and users.

The ConversationKatherine Gough, a musician and law student at Queensland University of Technology, co-authored this article.

Nicolas Suzor, Associate professor, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Philanthropy is funding serious journalism in the US, it could work for Australia too


Bill Birnbauer, Monash University

Non-profit investigative journalism centres have invigorated watchdog reporting in the United States over the past decade, a period commonly associated with despair over the state of serious journalism. My research attributes a sharp increase in the number of such centres in the United States directly to philanthropic funding, made more attractive by tax deductibility, and this same model could work in Australia.

This rescue mission of quality journalism has seen philanthropically funded news centres winning the most prestigious awards in journalism including several Pulitzer Prizes. Millions of Americans access stories written by non-profit investigative journalists, either on non-profit websites or published in mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS and other outlets.

Three key ways exist to fund the labour intensive and time consuming work of investigative journalism. The traditional media model, which today is characterised by market failure. Funding by government such as the ABC’s Four Corners program – a model that has worked well in Australia but that elsewhere raises questions of independence and funding security.

And there’s funding by foundations, wealthy benefactors and individuals. That’s different from crowd sourcing which may finance a specific story project but does not fund the necessary infrastructure (office, computers, rent, salaries etc.) or build the journalistic capacity required for a sustainable model.

In the United States, there are about 150 independent non-profit centres doing investigative and public interest journalism. The budgets of the biggest centres such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting are about US$10 million a year; smaller centres less than US$100,000.

Non-profit investigative and public interest news centres see their work as a form of public service. In the United States, these centres are recognised by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as eligible for non-profit status under Section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Non-profit status enables these organisations to avoid federal and some state taxes and donations to them can be tax deductible. The IRS does not have a distinct category for media organisations. Instead, investigative and public interest news organisations attract non-profit status under a broad education category.

There has been a profound cultural transformation in the way mainstream media organisations regard non-profit centre stories. Collaborations between legacy and non-profit media are commonplace in the United States because non-profit journalists have the same ethics, news values and editorial practices as journalists in the commercial and public media.

Foundation-funded journalism does not come close to replacing what has been lost due to staff and other cuts by mainstream media since the financial crisis. But it has been embraced by key media outlets as a means of boosting the quality of their stories. Non-profit centres do not compete with mainstream media; they complement it.

How this could work in Australia

A recent study found only a handful of Australian not-for-profit news organisations have been granted deductible gift recipient status by the Australian Tax Office and that news organisations face seemingly challenging obstacles in gaining such status. This may well discourage the creation of news organisations.

Given the diminished resources of Australian media to hold power to account, other measures to bolster democratic processes should be considered. Investigative journalism cannot readily be monetised.

It is expensive to do, takes a long time, sparks legal action and upsets powerful interests. It takes a big commitment by media organisations.

But the societal benefits can be huge: lives saved, corruption exposed, environments improved, governments and corporate interests held accountable. A recent book by a media economist found that for each US$1 spent on a specified investigative story, US$287 in policy benefits resulted.

Tax deductibility for independent journalism centres would provide incentives for individuals and philanthropic organisations to donate to producers of quality journalism.

The availability of tax deductions has the potential to increase the sum of quality journalism in Australia, enhance our democratic processes and better serve the community. I believe legacy and digital media in future would enter collaborative partnerships with non-profit investigative and public interest centres, ensuring a wider distribution and impact of their stories.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has some recommendations for the Australian Tax Office to consider when it comes to determining who should be granted deductible gift recipient status.

First is the history and background of the journalist who is applying, particularly their adherence to professional and ethical standards and whether the organisation they work for has conventional editorial practices. The organisation should create stories that are in the public interest and educate audiences rather than covering news of popular interest.

Another is introducing a commitment that the media nonprofit lists funding sources, including publication of the identities of donations of more than A$1,000, on its website. It also says anonymous grants, or funding from political and other entities where the source of the funding is not transparent, should be banned.

The foundation emphasises that individuals and organisations that advocate particular causes, should not be granted non-profit status under any media category.

No-one knows how sustainable the non-profit model will prove over time. However since 2007, I estimate that more than US$350 million has been donated to US non-profit investigative news centres; others have said closer to US$500 million.

The ConversationWe are in the midst of financial and technological disruption of traditional media models. No-one has yet worked out how to bolster accountability journalism that is essential to healthy democracies. The United States’ experience to date offers a potential solution that we should not ignore.

Bill Birnbauer, Adjunct senior lecturer , School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What would Mark Twain think of Donald Trump?



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Twain was an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.
Terry Ballard/flickr, CC BY

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, University of California, Irvine

Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articles, interviews, tweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump. The Conversation

But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?

We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.

I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman – the pre-2016 version – a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.

A champion of irreverence

I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.

Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.

It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.

It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains – as well as different Trumps – to consider.

Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades – the 1880s and the 1900s – that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.

One of these Trumps is not like the other

The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago – a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention – fascinating. He may have even befriended him.

But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had” – the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.

My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.

In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle – as in “The Apprentice” – the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.

An advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like show that toured the nation.
NPGpics/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.

This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts – such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives – and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.

Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.

Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections – indeed, less human – than others.

In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.

He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if – perhaps especially if – he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.

Twain targets Teddy

By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump – whom some have compared with Roosevelt – has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.

A 1904 New York World cartoon criticizes Teddy Roosevelt’s militaristic and imperialistic impulses.
Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.

In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.

Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of these campaigns. The main goal in the Philippines and in China, Roosevelt insisted, was not enrichment but defeating “barbarous” enemies.

Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.

Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.

Sticking to his guns

The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.

Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail – in addition to the immigration ban – particularly distasteful.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided – and he let him know.

In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.

That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream – and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of Chinese and World History, University of California, Irvine

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America



Image 20170130 7685 15qhqab
A Soviet-era stamp depicts a scene from Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace.’
Wikimedia Commons

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.” The Conversation

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ can inspire those who fear Trump’s America


Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

As a professor of Russian literature, I couldn’t help but notice that comedian Aziz Ansari was inadvertently channeling novelist Leo Tolstoy when he claimed that “change doesn’t come from presidents” but from “large groups of angry people.”

In one of his greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1869), Tolstoy insists that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and communities of people.

The unexpected electoral victory of Donald Trump last November was a political surprise of seismic proportions, shocking pollsters and pundits alike. Myriad explanations have been provided. Few are conclusive. But for those who disagree with his policies and feel powerless as this uncertain moment unfolds, Tolstoy’s epic novel can offer a helpful perspective.

The illusory power of an egomaniacal invader

Set between 1805 and 1817 – during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its immediate aftermath – “War and Peace” depicts a nation in crisis. As Napoleon invades Russia, massive casualties are accompanied by social and institutional breakdown. But readers also see everyday Russian life, with its romances, basic joys and anxieties.

Tolstoy looks at events from a historical distance, exploring the motivations of the destructive invasion – and for Russia’s eventual victory, despite Napoleon’s superior military strength.

Tolstoy clearly loathes Napoleon. He presents the great emperor as an egomaniacal, petulant child who views himself as the center of the world and a conqueror of nations. Out of touch with reality, Napoleon is so certain of his personal greatness that he assumes everyone must either be a supporter or take pleasure in his victories. In one of the novel’s most satisfying moments, the narcissistic emperor enters the gates of conquered Moscow expecting a royal welcome, only to discover that the inhabitants have fled and refuse to pledge allegiance.

Meanwhile, the heart of a novel about one of Russia’s greatest military victories does not rest with Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I or the army commander, General Kutuzov. Instead, it rests with a simple, loving peasant named Platon Karataev who is sent to fight the French against his will.

But even though Platon has little control over his situation, he has a greater ability to touch others than the authoritarian Napoleon, who only sets a pernicious example. For example, Platon offers the motherless hero, Pierre Bezukhov, an almost feminine and maternal kindness and shows him that the answer to his spiritual searching lies not in glory and blistering speeches but in human connection and our inherent connectivity. Pierre soon has a dream about a globe, in which every person represents a tiny droplet temporarily detached from a larger sphere of water. Signifying our shared essence, it hints at the extent to which Tolstoy believed we are all connected.

The case of Platon and his spiritual power is only one example of the grassroots power of individuals in “War and Peace.” At other times, Tolstoy shows how individual soldiers can make more of a difference in the battlefield by reacting quickly to the circumstances than generals or emperors. Events are decided in the heat of the moment. By the time couriers return to Napoleon – and he boldly reasserts his conquering vision – the chaos of battle has already shifted in a new direction. He is too removed from the real lives of soldiers – and, implicitly, people – to really drive the course of history.

In depicting Napoleon’s campaign this way, Tolstoy seems to reject Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history – the idea that events are driven by the will of extraordinary leaders. Tolstoy, in contrast, insists that when privileging extraordinary figures, we ignore the vast, grassroots strength of ordinary individuals.

In a sense, this vision of history is appropriate for a novelist. Novels often focus on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. Nonetheless, to the novelist, their lives and dreams possess a power and value equal to those of “great men.” In this dynamic, there are no conquerors, heroes or saviors; there are simply people with the power to save themselves, or not.

So in Tolstoy’s view, it is not Napoleon who determines the course of history; rather, it’s the elusive spirit of the people, that moment when individuals almost inadvertently come together in shared purpose. On the other hand, kings are slaves to history, only powerful when they’re able to channel this sort of collective spirit. Napoleon often thinks he is issuing bold orders, but Tolstoy shows the emperor is merely engaging in the performance of power.

A united, public opposition

All of these ideas are relevant today, when many who did not vote for President Trump are concerned about how his campaign rhetoric is shaping his presidency and the country.

Obviously, the president of the United States has tremendous power. But here is where “War and Peace” can provide some perspective, helping to demystify this power and sort out its more performative aspects.

There’s quite a bit of action coming from the White House, with President Trump furiously signing one executive order after another before the cameras. It’s hard to say how many of these executive orders can go into immediate effect right away. Many – like the recent ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries – are certainly affecting lives. But others will also require legislative and institutional support. We hear every day about government workers and departments, mayors and governors vowing not to follow President Trump’s orders.

While those who oppose Trump might not have philosopher peasants like Platon Karataev at their disposal, mass marches and protests broadcast united opposition – as do all the petitions, safety pins, pink pussy hats and rogue tweets. Some of this might be derided as #slacktivism. But collectively they map out tenuous networks of connections among individuals.

Thinking in essentialist terms, Tolstoy felt that Napoleon failed to destroy Russia because the collective interests of Russian people aligned against him: a majority of people – wittingly or unwittingly – acted to undermine his agenda. Is it possible that we will see a similar alignment of grassroots interests now? Could men, women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA individuals make their voices heard against some of President Trump’s executive actions, which may threaten many on a personal level?

I can’t see Tolstoy wearing a pink pussy hat. But always a voice of defiance, he would have certainly approved of resistance.

The Conversation

Ani Kokobobo, Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, University of Kansas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Most Popular Library Ebooks in the USA for 2016


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the most popular library ebooks in the USA for 2016. Do any of our readers read library ebooks? If so, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments.

For more read:
http://goodereader.com/blog/digital-library-news/these-are-the-most-popular-library-ebooks-of-2016

What’s behind America’s insistence on instilling grit in kids?


Paige Gray, Fort Lewis College

In the same way that actual grit accumulates in the cracks and crevices of the landscape, our cultural insistence on possessing grit has gradually come to the forefront of child-rearing and education reform.

Recent academic papers on grit include the education-leadership dissertation project of New England College’s Austin Garofalo, titled “Teaching the Character Competencies of Growth Mindset and Grit To Increase Student Motivation in the Classroom,” and UMass Dartmouth professor Kenneth J. Saltman’s “The Austerity School: Grit, Character, and the Privatization of Public Education.”

In contrast to the range of perspectives on grit offered in academia, the popular media will often frame it as an essential characteristic for healthy, productive maturation – and certainly a necessary component for academic success.

In 2012, Paul Tough’s book on the topic, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” was a critical and commercial success, earning positive acclaim from Kirkus Reviews, The Economist, The New York Times, Slate – and even former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

And last year, in a column for The Washington Post, Judy Holland, editor and founder of ParentInsider.com, wrote that the “coddled kids” of the “‘self-esteem’ movement in the 1980s” produced children who were “softer, slower and less likely to persevere.”

“Grit is defined as passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” she continued. “Grit determines who survives at West Point, who finals at the National Spelling Bee, and who is tough enough not to be a quitter.”

As someone who specializes in children’s literature and cultural attitudes toward childhood, I’ve been interested in this insistence on fostering grit. I’ve also taught writing and literature over the past year to West Point cadets, who, it seems, must learn how to acquire this somewhat elusive quality.

But I can’t help but wonder if we’re talking about grit in an unproductive way. And maybe one of the problems is that it’s presented as a concept: abstract, indeterminate and somewhat magical or mysterious.

How can we define grit, or the idea behind it, in a way that means something? What if we’re not framing the discussion of grit in the right way, since grit can mean something entirely different for a kid living in the Chicago’s South Side than it does for a kid living in the suburbs?

A slippery buzzword?

In 2014, National Public Radio’s Tovia Smith looked at how educators and researchers are using the concept of grit in the classroom. She interviewed MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Angela Duckworth, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” which was published in May. In it, she considers how teaching grit can revolutionize students’ educational development.

“This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that’s grit,” Duckworth told Smith in the NPR segment. Expanding on the national significance of grit, Duckworth added, “It’s a very, I think, American idea in some ways – really pursuing something against all odds.”

But more recently, Duckworth has backtracked from some of her earlier advocacy. In March she told NPR’s Anya Kamenetz that the “enthusiasm” for grit “is getting ahead of the science.” And Duckworth has since resigned from the board of a California education group that’s working to find a way to measure grit.

As Kamenetz notes, part of the problem with buzzwords like “grit” – and the attempt to measure or implement them in the classroom – “is inherent in the slippery language we use to describe them.”

Is grit something that can even be taught? Can we measure it? Is it a trait or a skill? If a quality like grit is a trait, then it may be genetic, which would make it difficult to simply instill in kids. If it’s a skill or habit, only then can it be coached or taught.

Grit’s place in children’s literature

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that grit – the kind that describes “firmness or solidity of character; indomitable spirit or pluck; stamina” – originated as American slang in the early 19th century. It’s easy to see its kinship to the other definition of grit: “minute particles of stone or sand, as produced by attrition or disintegration.”

It’s come to represent a refusal to give up, no matter the odds – a refusal to wash away, break down or completely dissolve.

American children’s literature has long had “gritty” protagonists: characters who’ve arguably instilled moralistic values of bravery, industry and integrity in generations of readers.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, another word featured in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “grit” definition figured more prominently in mainstream children’s literature – pluck.

Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both exhibited pluck, seen in their wily charm, adventurous spirit and underlying moral conscience. But the notion of pluck, grit’s forefather, was largely popularized in Horatio Alger’s stories, which are known for their hardworking young male protagonists trying to eke out livings and educate themselves within the American urban landscape.

“Dick knew he must study hard, and he dreaded it,” Alger wrote in his landmark text, “Ragged Dick.” “But Dick had good pluck. He meant to learn, nevertheless, and resolved to buy a book with his first spare earnings.”

Grit goes mainstream with Charles Portis’ plucky protagonist Mattie Ross.
Author provided

Though he hates it, Dick studies hard because he believes he needs an education “to win a respectable position in the world.”

The determined, plucky child figure arguably evolved into one of grit through Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ 1968 western novel of revenge set in the late 19th century.

The novel quickly establishes Mattie’s resilience and resolve, which solidify after the murder of Mattie’s father. Mattie, reflecting on her doggedness, says, “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood.”

Grit to what end?

Mattie Ross and Horatio Alger’s clever street boys helped shape an American ideal of youthful grit. But these fictional characters asserted their grit because they had goals. What good is grit if you feel like you have nothing to strive for?

In early children’s literature for African-Americans, publications such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ monthly youth magazine The Brownies’ Book attempted to also give its young readers an idea of what they could achieve. While much of American children’s literature during the turn of the last century – and even today – filters ideas of grit through the perspective of the middle-class white child, The Brownies’ Book specifically addressed the lives and experiences of African-American children. First published in 1920, the magazine encouraged African-American children to fully embrace their cultural identities, participate in their communities and become citizens of the world.

The Brownies’ Book was a monthly magazine for African-American kids.
Author provided

But that was 1920, during the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when the work of African-American artists, activists and thinkers brought newfound optimism to the push for racial equality and cultural pride. Over the course of the 20th century, circumstances for many children of minority communities changed. As Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained, a public policy of ghettoization has left many urban school districts impoverished and underserved, with few examples of hope or achievement outside the drug trade. Yes, kids could develop grit – they could find confidence, diligence and resilience outside the law – a version of grit demonized by mainstream society.

David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series “The Wire” illustrates the narrow possibilities for black kids growing up in the city. Grit, as depicted in “The Wire,” comes via success in the drug trade. This kind of grit has the bottom line of economic gain. It’s not about a search for identity, cultural understanding or artistry because kids don’t think they have the same opportunities and potential highlighted in the issues of The Brownies’ Book.

A 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that in America, there still exists a pattern of racial inequality in public schools, whether it’s course offerings, teacher performance or student expulsion. These statistics – the same as those echoed in “The Wire” – leave many somber, dejected, angry or, too often, complacent.

So how can students have – or learn – grit when all kids face different realities – different struggles, different dreams and different social structures?

Yes, it’s important to reevaluate the education system, as monumental a task that may be. But all institutional or systemic change starts with the individual.

“A lot of what ‘The Wire’ was about sounds cynical to people,” Simon said in a 2009 Vice interview. “I think it’s very cynical about institutions and their ability to reform. I don’t deny that, but I don’t think it’s at all cynical about people.”

Maybe the first step is to think of grit not as something to cultivate in students. Instead, maybe grit is the debris – the dream – that lingers. If children and young adults get that piece of grit stuck to them, they’ll be motivated to keep going until the grit is gone.

Perhaps the job of adults, then, isn’t to tell kids to buckle down and work through adversity. It’s about opening their eyes to the innumerable possibilities before them – so they’ll want to persevere in the first place.


Correction: In an earlier version, the academic papers on grit were conflated with popular media coverage. A paragraph has been rearranged and a phrase added to differentiate the two.

The Conversation

Paige Gray, Visiting Assistant Professor, Fort Lewis College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.