Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Get ahead of regulation

It’s easy to make money in this market. We’d better get in before they pass a law against it.
—Joseph P. Kennedy

quoted in David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 12

A longer excerpt:
"It’s easy to make money in this market," the canny speculator Joseph P. Kennedy had confided to a partner in the palmy days of the 1920s. "We’d better get in before they pass a law against it." The New Deal did pass a law against it, then assigned Joseph P. Kennedy to implement that law, a choice often compared to putting the fox in the henhouse or setting a thief to catch a thief. In 1934 Kennedy became the first chairman of the new Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), one of just four new regulatory bodies established by the New Deal.
Id. (citing Michael R. Beschloss, Kennedy and Roosevelt: An Uneasy Alliance (New York: Norton, 1980), 60)

"Keep the people thoroughly informed"

[W]hile the district attorney did his work in the county where the voters could see how they were being served, Washington was a long way off. How were the people to know about the proceedings of Congress and the work of their congressman?

I thought it all over. It was clear to me that the only way to beat boss and ring rule was to keep the people thoroughly informed. Machine control is based upon misrepresentation and ignorance. Democracy is based upon knowledge. It is of first importance that the people shall know about their government and the work of their public servants. "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This I have always believed vital to self government.

Immediately following my election to Congress I worked out a complete plan for keeping my constituents informed on public issues and the record of my services in Congress; . . . .

When some Congressman made a speech on sound money . . . I would get the necessary number of copies of that speech, and send them to those interested in the money question. When the oleomargarine bill, the interstate commerce bill, and other important legislation was pending, I sent out speeches covering the debates thoroughly. In this way I supposed I sent out hundreds of thousands of speeches, my own and others.
Robert M. La Follette, "La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences,"  The American Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 1, Nov. 1911, p. 8

Monday, June 29, 2015

Shorter days—winter's coming!

In late June, when summer hasn't even kicked in and already the days are getting shorter, I am seized by a kind of epic desperation. On these days I am reminded of doing drugs, and reach instead for my decanter of coffee brandy. I am reminded of when, after doing drugs on a semi-regular basis, your terror of the come-down creeps closer and closer to the apex of your druggy glory, until the moment when you're nearing your happiest is also the moment most tinged with terror and apprehension because you're about to begin the long descent.
Heidi Julavits, "Maine," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

More and more scientists!

[I]f you uttered the statement "Eighty percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today" nearly anytime in the past three hundred years, you'd be right. This has allowed more research to be done by larger scientific teams. Not only that, but higher-impact research is done by teams with many more scientists. Of course, growth like this is not sustainable—a long exponential increase in the number of scientists means that at some point the number of scientists would need to exceed the number of humans on Earth, While this mah almost be the case on Krypton, Superman's home planet, where the whole population seems to consist entirely of scientists, I don't see this happening on earth anytime soon. But this rapid growth demonstrates that scientific discovery is by no means anywhere near finished.
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 2

I'm not a geologist, but this law seems familiar

Arroyo el Mimbral confirmed a well-known law of geology—the best outcrop of a field season is always found on the last day, at the most remote location, just as it's getting dark.
Walter Alvarez, T. rex and the Crater of Doom (Princeton, NJ: 2008) (first pub. 1997), p. 117

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Einsteins lost to poverty

I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1980), quoted in Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 209.

Moving to a new race

Migration, by definition, involves people leaving the communities in which they and their families are known for new communities in which they and their families are unknown, very likely. It is a move in which, if one has the physical appearance to pull it off, one can leave one's racial identity behind. During the 1920s, the peak years of the Great Migration, it is estimated that ten to thirty thousand blacks she'd their black identities each year in precisely this way, passing into a sea of whiteness as they migrated north. 
 Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), pp. 64-65

Happy in a small room

Mrs. Crupp  had indignantly assured him that there wasn't room to swing a cat there;  but, as Mr. Dick justly observed to me, sitting down on the foot of the bed, nursing his leg, "You know, Trotwood, I don't want to swing a cat. I never do swing a cat. Therefore, what does that signify to ME!"
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 35


The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. 

Dorothy Parker

I found many websites and collections of quotations attributing this to Parker, but I didn't find a more specific source. It's a great line, no matter who said it.

Thanks to scientists and citizens

T. rex and the Crater of Doom comes with warm thanks to three groups of people: First to my scientific colleagues on all sides of the extinction debate, all over the world, who have made this the most exciting intellectual adventure I can imagine. Then to the citizens of the State of California, who employ me at their splendid university to teach geology to their sons and daughters. And finally to the people of my country, who support the American research enterprise with their taxes, through agencies like the National Science Foundation and NASA. I hope they take pleasure from this story of discovery.
Walter Alvarez, T. rex and the Crater of Doom (Princeton, NJ: 2008) (first pub. 1997), p. xxii

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Fourth-grade reading binge

The summer between fourth and fifth grades I spent almost entirely by myself reading in a room on the third floor of Mount Kisco, where I went through all of Dumas, eight volumes of Louisa May Alcott (starting with Little Women), Treasure Island, and a stirring adventure series by a man named Knipe. I counted up at the end, found that I had read around one hundred books, and wrote my parents that I was "positively floating in books." I couldn’t have been happier. Unfortunately, this early passion for reading somehow diminished after the fifth grade, until I read only sporadically. A little later on I was concentrating on movie magazines, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. Later still, I resumed reading, particularly loving Dickens’s Great Expectations and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
Katharine Graham, Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 50.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Life is short: work for freedom

[Jim] Bevel had been known to take his young trainees to a graveyard and say, "in forty years you are going to be here. Now, what are you going to do while you're alive?"
The schoolchildren went nuts. No one had ever talked to them like that, goading them to freedom rather than coaxing them into "gittin' an education."

Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), p. 343.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Subway reading

Everything everyone reads on the subway always seems interesting to me; I always want to be reading it over their shoulders.
Mary Gordon, “Journal: Manhattan/New Paltz Winter 2000,” The American Scholar, Spring 2000, p. 135.

Books are the new T-shirts

Question: How did you get your publisher to give you a contract for a book of stuff that you had already written and published?

Answer: Books are the new t-shirts. We used to buy t-shirts as a way of covering our hard abs. Now, though, the purpose of the t-shirt is to be a souvenir, to give us a concrete way to remember something that mattered to us—and to give us an easy way to spread that idea to others.

Every non-fiction book published today has its core ideas available for free, online. Freakonomics was in the NY Times, The Tipping Point was in the New Yorker and on Malcolm’s site, plenty of stuff is on Changethis. The Long Tail was endlessly dissected years earlier. All are bestsellers because a book adds a different sort of value.

So, yes, the words have been in various places before, but not in a handy, nearly waterproof, easily shared and referred to format. My hope is that people will identify the nine most clueless people they know and buy one for each.
Seth Godin, in online interview by Guy Kawasaki about Godin's book, Small Is the New Big, which is a collection of blog posts

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The messy desk

The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head.
Malcolm Gladwell, "The Social Life of Paper," The New Yorker, March 25, 2002, at 92, 93.

Geologic boosterism, New York

New York City's cosmopolitanism runs pretty deep, too, geologically speaking. We've been entertaining foreign visitors for better than half a billion years. Most notably the continent of Africa, which came over about three hundred million years ago, crashed into America, stuck around long enough to build the Alleghenies, and then headed back east. If you look at a geological map of New York, it looks a lot like a state map of ethnicity. The bedrock geology upstate is fairly white-bread uniform—big deposits of limestone from the time when New York was a shallow subtropical sea. But when you get down toward the lower Hudson and the Manhattan spur, the rock becomes incredibly heterogenous and folded and fragmented. You've got remnants of every kind of crap that's come crashing into the continent tectonically, plus other crap from various magmatic upwellings due to rifting, plus further crap that got pushed down by the glaciers. Downstate looks like a melting pot that needs a good stir. And why? Because New York truly always was very central. It sits at the far southeastern corner of the original North American shield, and at the very top of the Appalachian fold belt, and on the western margin of all the gnarly New England volcanic-island crappy-crap that got appended to the continent, and in a northwest corner of our ever-widening Atlantic Ocean. The fact that it's a conjunction of all these things helps explain why it ended up as the most open and inviting state in the whole seaboard, with its easy routes up to Canada and over to the Midwest. Because, literally, for hundreds of millions of years, New York is where the action's been.
Jonathan Franzen, "New York," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008) (in a fictional dialogue that includes, here, the New York State Geologist)

Jonathan Franzen ♥ Harriet the Spy

For me, the real introduction to New York was Harriet the Spy. . . a kid's book. The first time I ever fell in love with a character in literature, it was a girl from Manhattan. And I didn't just love her—I wanted to be her. Trade in my whole pleasant suburban life and move to the Upper East Side and be Harriet M. Welch, with her notebook and her flashlight and her hands-off parents.
Jonathan Franzen, "New York," in Matt Weiland & Sean Wilsey eds., State by State: A Panaramic Portrait of America (2008)

Character in sickness and health

I lied when I said, "It's not me, not the real me. It's the sickness that's speaking." For sickness has no voice, and it was me, a nasty me. How can I claim that my goodness, my lofty feelings, constitute the "real me," and that my rancor and malice are just "sickness" and not me?

We can readily see in others what we do not care, or dare, to see in ourselves. The patients I work with are chronically ill. They have, they know they have, little or no hope of recovery. Some of them show a transcendent humor and gallantry, an unspoilt love and affirmation of life. But others are bitter, virulent, envenomed—great haters, great spiters, murderous, demonic. It is not the sickness but the person that shows here, his collapse or corruption with the cruelties of life. If we have youth, beauty, blessed gifts, strength, if we find fame, fortune, favor, fulfillment, it is easy to be nice, to turn a warm heart to the world. But let us be disfavored, disfigured, incapicitated, injured; let us fall from health and strength, from fortune and favor; let us find ourselves ill, miserable and without clear hope of recovery—then our mettle, our moral character, will be tried to the limit. 
Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand on (1984 with 1993 afterward), p. 148 [Funny: the Kindle edition doesn't indicate the publisher.]

Steinbeck's poodle and civil rights

Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn't even know abut race, nor is he concerned with his sisters' marriage. It's quite the opposite. Once Charley fell in love with a dachshund, a romance racially unsuitable, physically ridiculous, and mechanically impossible. But all these problems Charley ignored. He loved deeply and tried dogfully. It would be difficult to explain to a dog the good and moral purpose of a thousand humans gathered to curse one tiny human. I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 269 (orig. published 1962)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Let's talk about people

In general, I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or, as we gossips like to say, character analysis.  
Elizabeth Hardwick (quoted in David Laskin, Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 202)

It'd be okay if more people cared about literature and writing

Do not suppose that I object to writing programs in general (I myself am a proud graduate of the Seminar) or that I indulge in the all-too-tiresome hand-writing about the proliferation of MFA programs and the pseudo crisis of "too many writers." If every member of the human race evinced a fondness for literature and even a moderate level of dexterity with the written word, I would be a happier, if not more well-adjusted, man. The trouble arrives when students are led o expect tenure-track jobs (those days are behind us) or champagne and caviar parties at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p.66.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Aha! is best after Huh?

Mysteries are powerful, Cialdini says, because they create a need for closure. "You've heard of the famous Aha! experience, right?" he says. "Well, the Aha! experience is much more satisfying when it is preceded by the Huh? experience."
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007), ch. 2 (quoting Robert Cialdini, social psychologist at Ariz. St. Univ.)
Cialdini believes that a major benefit of teaching using mysteries is that "the process of resolving mysteries is remarkably similar to the process of science." So, by using mysteries, teachers don’t just heighten students' interest in the day's material; they train them to think like scientists.

Middle-aged health worries

During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. [He was fifty-eight.] When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about the slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake. It had happened to so many of my friends. The lecture ends, "Slow down. You're not as young as you once were." And I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they are encouraged by wives and relatives, and it's such a sweet trap.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 17 (orig. published 1962)

The university's value

When she was selected to head the University of Washington's Faculty Senate [in 1985], Donna Gerstenberger used her inaugural address to express her worry about a trend in American education—that of the need to "market" the university and align it more closely to business and industry.
"Our value is in being what we are and doing what we do, not the least of which is teaching students the value of a mind full of many things,"Professor Gerstenberger told her colleagues.
Katherine Long, "Donna Gerstenberger, Leader; Mentor at UW," Seattle Times, Jan. 22, 2012

Trouble with the inbox

There are days on which Julia does not open letters. She is overcome, as I understand it, by a sort of superstitious dread, in which she is persuaded that letters bode her no good: they will be from the Gas Board, and demand money; or from the Inland Revenue, and demand accounts; or from some much valued friend, and demand an answer. If a letter arrives on such a day as this, she does not open it but puts it carefully away, to be dealt with when she feels stronger. After that, I had always supposed, it is never seen again.
Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades (New York: Dell, 1995), p. 53. (copyright 1984)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Parting with a dear love (coffee)

Coffee. Oh, how I love coffee. My addiction to coffee is a bit more ingrained than the dope addiction. Not only is there a tremendous amount of ritual surrounding my coffee-drinking, but the stories . . . the stories aren’t informed by the addiction but exist because of the addiction. The only way I’ve been able to write plays, essays, rants, etc., for the last ten years is with the help of coffee, and her trusty pal caffeine, and their sidekick coffeehouse. The four of us have spent long hours writing, laughing, and loving each other. But if giving up coffee prevents me from getting cancer again then I, Cancer-Ridden Katan, relinquish caffeine forever. Goodbye to the sweet steam of inspiration twirling around my nimble writer fingers, allowing them to gently brush the pages of my journal with strokes of genius. So long, clarity and potential literary greatness. Au revoir, cute barista girl, who always knows how to fill up my cup. Adieu to you and you and you.
Tania Katan, My One-Night Stand with Cancer (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2005), p. 136.

On home ownership

No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.

William Levitt

quoted in David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Fawcett, 1993), p. 132

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Frustrations of typing

The second semester, I decided to take typewriting, which Mother did not consider frivolous because I was going to be a writer. Before the class was allowed to touch typewriters, we memorized the keyboard letters by pounding away on their arrangement printed on heavy paper. When we finally got to real typewriters, which had blank keys, the room was so noisy I understood why the class was hidden away in a corner of the basement. Speed and accuracy were the goals, but for me all the nervous clattering of typewriters and pressure to hit the right keys faster was so exhausting I just managed to squeak through the semester with a grade of G for Good. I could not face the second semester, so I still have to peek to type numbers. Today, when I am asked the most difficult part of writing, I answer "typing," which is taken as a joke. It is not. There is nothing funny about typewriting.
Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill (New York: Dell Yearling, 1989), p. 212

Monday, June 15, 2015

Packing lots of notebooks and books

I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can't read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls "mule it over" for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this elf-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes. Also I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn't got around to reading—and of course those are the books one isn't ever going to get around to reading.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 11 (orig. published 1962)

Duty to take care of the land

In time, ownership of property will probably carry with it certain obligations, over and above the obligation to pay the tax and keep the morgtage going. There are signs that this is coming, and I think it should come. Today, if a landowner feels the urge, he can put a backhoe into his hillside pasture and disembowel it. He can set his plow against the contours and let his wealth run down into the brook and into the sea. He can sell his topsoil off by the load and make a gravel pit of a hayfield. For all the interference he will get from the community, he can dig through to China, exploiting as he goes. With an ax in his hand he can annihilate the woods, leaving brush piles and stumps. He can build any sort of building he chooses on his land in the shape of a square or an octagon or a milk bottle. Except in zoned areas he can erect any sort of sign. Nobody can tell him where to head in—it is his land and this is a free country. Yet people are beginning to suspect that the greatest freedom is not achieved by sheer irresponsibility. The earth is common ground and we are all over-lords. whether we hold title or not. gradually the idea is taking form that the land must be held in safekeeping, that one generation is to some extent responsible to the next, and that it is contrary to the public good to allow an individual, merely because of his whims or his ambitions, to destroy almost beyond repair any part of the soil or the water or even the view.
E. B. White, One Man's Meat, November 1942, in Martha White ed., E. B. White on Dogs (Gardiner Maine: Tilbury House, 2013)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How straightforward was Truman?

[Truman] was as straightforward as a sentence without commas. 
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 21

Exceptional summer reading

            He read widely and well and his restless mind never stopped ranging far afield. One fall day I innocently asked him what he had read that summer at his coast cabin.

            “The complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Messer Marco Polo by Donn Byrne; a history of Oregon coastal trails; Poor People by Fyodor Dostoevsky; a history of the Tillamook Burn; and something by Stewart Holbrook that wasn’t all that great, I’m sorry to say, for I like Holbrook, a terrific storyteller.” 
Brian Doyle, “A Sturdy Man: Notes on a Human Symphony,” American Scholar, v.74 n.1, Winter 2005, at 94, 97 (profile of Bob Boehmer).

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Some false beliefs are really wrong

[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. 
Isaac Asimov, quoted in Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 3

Stereotype threat shapes everyone's world

The reality of stereotype threat also made the point that places like classrooms, university campuses, standardized-testing rooms, or competitive-running tracks, though seemingly the same for everybody, are, in fact, different places for different people. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 60

The writing voice

Inside your head, you're yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you're trying to transpose what you're thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music. This writing voice is the voice that people are surprised not to encounter when they "meet the writer." The writer is not so surprised. 
Louis Menand, "Bad Comma," New Yorker, June 28, 2004, at 102, 104 (reviewing Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2004)).

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sherlock Holmes's attic theory of knowledge

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. . . . My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.     
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."     
"To forget it!"     
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."     
"But the Solar System!" I protested.    
"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, ch. 2 (first published 1887)

Lousy correspondent


Felix Frankfurter, telegram to his sister, Estelle (Telly), Dec. 13, 1935
quoted in Harvard Law Bulletin, Summer 1999, at 32

Why are people vulnerable to stereotype threat?

Here was the irony we had suspected. What made Mikel's vanguard black students susceptible to stereotype pressure was not weaker academic confidence and skills but stronger academic confidence and skills. Their strengths led them to be identified with school, to care about school and how well they did. But in school, when working in difficult material they understood to be ability diagnostic, they encountered the extra pressure of the stereotype. It wasn't low expectations that made them susceptible to the pressure, then; it was high expectations. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 58

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Being lost breaks the ice

The techniques of opening conversation are universal, I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of hi time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 9 (orig. published 1962)

Anne Frank loved writing

I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work. I know myself what is and what is not well written. Anyone who doesn't write doesn't know how wonderful it is; I used to bemoan the fact that I couldn't draw at all, but now I am more than happy that I can at least write. And if I haven’t any talent for writing books or newspaper articles, well, then I can always write for myself.

Anne Frank, "I Want to Write" (1944), in The Living Language 386, 387 (Linda A. Morris et al. eds., 1984). [from Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day]

Vowell's motto: It could be worse

If I had to nail down the objective of my historical tourism, it's probably to collect evidence in support of my motto. And my motto in any situation is "It could be worse." . . . In my self-help universe, when things go wrong, I whisper mantras to myself, mantras like "Andersonville" or "Texas School Book Depository." "Andersonville" is a code word for "You could be one of the prisoners of war dying of disease and malnutrition in the worst Confederate prison, so just calm down about the movie you wanted to go to being sold out." "Texas School Book Depository" means that having the delivery guy forget the guacamole isn't nearly as bad as being assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald as the blood from your head stains your wife's pink suit. 
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 40

Reducing stereotype is just a start

Reducing identity threat is not sufficient to overcome real skill and knowledge deficits in school. To do that, students have to have the opportunity to acquire the relevant skills and knowledge. They need good instruction and the chance to apply themselves to critical material, sometimes for long periods of time. but it's equally true that for ability-stereotyped students, reducing stereotype threat is just as important as skill and knowledge instruction. It may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. That is, no amount of instruction, no matter how good it is, can reduce these deficits if it doesn't also keep identity threat low. Without that, threat will always have first claim on students' attention and mental resources.  
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 181

Different capacities for domestic pursuits

Chrissi is tall and green eyed, a long-legged marathon-runner-type woman. A woman who cans and weaves and wins prizes for her preserves and tapestries at various California fairs. I admire such industriousness. Every time I bake a loaf of banana bread, plant a petunia, or fold a fitted sheet I feel so taxed, I must take to the sofa with a novel.
Karen Karbo, The Stuff of Life: A Daughter’s Memoir (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), p.34.

To write well, read well

[T]he starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014). ch. 1

Protesting versus litigating

The desegregation of Montgomery's buses had not come about as a result of the heroic protest by the city's masses. It was the fruit of the NAACP's lawsuit stemming from Rosa Parks's arrest. "All that walking for nothing!" the NAACP's chief legal strategist, Thurgood Marshall, said disparagingly. He had missed the larger truth, however. The legal victory highlighted the flaws of the NAACP's strategy of patience since the decision affected only the buses of Montgomery; theoretically, every other community in the South would have to take to the courts for similar relief. The NAACP's legal triumphs would henceforth be a preamble to the civil rights movement—the book of an Old Testament prophet. The bus boycott had introduced a new gospel. The struggle had moved out of the hands of the talented tenth and into the streets.

Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), p. 95.

(The case was Browder v. Gayle.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

WWII and Depression and WWII

[N]ot only did the war rescue the American economy from the Depression; no less significant, the Depression had in turn poised the economy for phenomenally rapid conversion to war production.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 18

Oh, we do love to talk about our dogs

But when it comes to dogs, especially their own dogs, even laconic dog people turn voluble. 
Susan Conant, The Wicked Flea (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2002), p. 35

Computers take care

But don’t despair. If software engineering practice is out of reach, you still have options. For starters, you could just say no. You could decide that the ease of buying plane tickets online is not worth the hours you while away trying to get your printer to print or your modem to dial. Understand that saying no requires an ascetic nature: abstinence is not terribly attractive to most of us. On the other hand, you could sign up for broadband with the full knowledge your computer, a jealous lover, will demand many, many Saturday afternoons. Most people are shocked when they learn that their computer requires more care than, say, their refrigerator. Yet I can tell you that its charms are immeasurably richer. First among them is the dream state. It’s almost irresistible. 
Paul de Palma, “The Software Wars: Why You Can’t Understand Your Computer,” American Scholar, v.74 n.1, Winter 2005, at 69, 83.

What made Margaret Atwood a writer?

In biographies there is usually some determining moment in early life that predicts the course of the future artist or scientist or politician. The child must be father to the man, and if he isn’t, the biographer will do some cut-and-paste and stick on a different head, to make it all come out right. We do so wish to believe in a logical universe. But when I look back over he life I led until I began writing, I can find nothing in it that would account for the bizarre direction I took; or nothing that couldn’t be found in the lives of many people who did not become writers.
Margaret Atwood, “A Path Taken, with All the Certainty of Youth” in Writers on Writing Vol. II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (introduction by Jane Smiley) (New York: Times Books, 2003), p. 11.

Scholarship requires fuel, after all

On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself, it was almost eleven and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment. 
Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (New York: Dell, 1994), p. 4. (copyright 1981)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Enabling comments leads to slant

[W]hen you and I can contribute to an online newspaper, there's a surprising effect on the real-world version. The print versions of the papers become more mild in terms of the opinions expressed (particularly those of a political bent), while conversely, the online versions of the papers become more slanted, either to the left or to the right.
David R. Bell, Location Is (Still) Everything: The Surprising Influence of the Real World on How We Search, Shop, and Sell in the Virtual One (Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2014), p. 136 (citing Pinar Yilirim, Esther Gal-Or & Tansev Geylani, "User-Generated Content and Bias in News Media," Management Science, vol. 59, no. 12 (Dec. 2013), pp. 2655-66)

Why Steinbeck went in cognito

[I]t has been my experience that when people have heard of you, favorably or not, they change; they become, through shyness or the other qualities that publicity inspires, something they are not under ordinary circumstances. This being so, my trip demanded that I leave my name and my identity at home.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 6 (orig. published 1962)

Books and friends and books

Do you read a book so you can get together with your friends, or do you get together with your friends so you can read a book? The answer is both. You get the pleasure of comradeship and you get the joy of reading the writing, because the sharing of something— of ideas and stories—that is important to you deepens both experiences. It's not the reading and writing so much as the conversation we have about it that changes us.

—literary publisher Paul Dry (Paul Dry Books), quoted in Nell Porter Brown, "A Leap into Books," Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2001, at 90, 91.

Teacher learns from basketball

On some fundamental level, basketball is a game for which, love it as I may, I have no real aptitude. I move too slowly; the signals from my brain take too many detours on the way to my legs and arms. But it’s a good thing for someone who makes his living as a teacher to submit himself to a discipline that doesn’t come naturally. It builds a sort of kindliness and tolerance for students who come with varying abilities—some with seemingly no aptitude at all. Without the genial frustrations of basketball, I’d be more likely to think that stamping my foot might be the best way to get someone who seems utterly unable to understand a word of a poem by Wordsworth to find its flow. Well, I might suggest instead to this student that he can learn to read "Tintern Abbey" a little the way I learned to shoot a hook. Break it down into small, small elements; go one piece at a time; trace all the micromovements. "Long live what I badly did at Clemson": that’s James Dickey, thinking back to his "spindling explosions" as a running back in college. Well, long live what I do badly enough at basketball—humility, as the critic R. P. Blackmur liked to say, comes through submitting yourself to humiliation from time to time. 
Mark Edmundson, “Fadeaway Jumper,” American Scholar, v. 75, no. 1, Winter 2006, p. 61 at 65

Monday, June 8, 2015

Darcy and Elizabeth on their defects

"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil—a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."
"And YOUR defect is to hate everybody."
"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is willfully to misunderstand them."
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 11 (colloquy between Elizabeth and Darcy)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dictionaries are fun!

The dictionary invites a playful reading. It challenges anyone to sit down with it in an idle moment only to find an hour gone by without being bored. 

Mortimer Adler, "How to Read a Dictionary" (1941), in Words, Words, Words About Dictionaries 53, 53 (Jack C. Gray ed., 1963). (From Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Everyone has bias

One of the first things one learns as a social psychologist is that everyone is capable of bias. We simply are not, and cannot be, all knowing and completely objective. Our understandings and views of the world are partial, and reflect the circumstances of our particular lives. This is where a discipline like science comes in. It doesn't purge us of bias. But it extends what we can see and understand, while constraining bias. 
Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 13

Reading as chore or pleasure

Reading in college was always a chore for me. I only started enjoying books when I didn't have to have them finished by the next morning. 
literary publisher John Corenswet (Paul Dry Books), quoted in Nell Porter Brown, "A Leap into Books," Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2001, at 90, 91.

Justice is a gift

"Properly conceived, justice is not solely the product of governmental institutions, procedures and actions – the grist of laws and lawsuits. Justice is a gift that good people give to each other by the way they treat one another at all times and places, in and out of the courtroom.

Roger C. Cramton, "Spaulding v. Zimmerman: Confidentiality and Its Exceptions," in Legal Ethics Stories 175, 178 (Deborah L. Rhode & David Luban eds. 2006)

Book awards and dangerous books

I like getting awards. But I am also suspicious of the whole process. I like getting banned more.
Sherman Alexie, on receiving the Outstanding Achievement in the Arts award from ArtsFund, quoted in Nicole Brodeur, Sherman's Lunch: Alexie Gets an Award from ArtsFund, Seattle Times, June 3, 2014. (Hat tip to the librarian who has this in her signature block.)

The prolific and offbeat author, who was honored for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, told the crowd of how his National Book Award-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has been on banned-book lists for years—but was knocked out of first place by “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s book about two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo who cared for an egg together. 
“Gay penguins are more dangerous than reservation Indians,” Alexie cracked.

FDR's patronage

He had also freely and consciously spent the oldest coin of political exchange: patronage. The New Deal had dispensed CWA and WPA jobs not only to the materially needy but to the politically needed.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 9 (Kindle location 5098)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Show dog like a boarding school kid

I soon learned that having a show dog is like having a kid in boarding school. You are constantly required to send money and equipment, but you rarely see your offspring. When she comes home she usually needs grooming and she claims not to know who you are. She wants to parade around the kitchen and be applauded. She doesn’t want to mess her coiffure by wrestling with you on the floor or muck up her smile fetching sticks. She is, in short, a snob. All the ribbons she’s won have gone to her head.
Erica Jong, “A Woman’s Best Friend,” in The Editors of the Bark, eds., Dog Is My Co-Pilot (New York: Three-Rivers Press, 2003), p.53

We did some awful things in the war, too

"It is in the things not mentioned," Steinbeck later reflected, "that the untruth lies." "What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway?" asked one correspondent after the war. "We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers."
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 21 (citing John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War (New York: Viking, 1958), xiii, and Edgar Jones, “One War Is Enough,” Atlantic Monthly, February 1946, 49)

Reading books and writing them

"Ah, child, you pass a good many hours here! I never thought, when I used to read books, what work it work it was  to write them." 
"It's work enough to read them, sometimes," I  returned. "As to to the writing, it has its own charms, aunt."
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 62

Scholars impress

They sat gazing at me with bewildered apprehension. Lucinda sought or offered reassurance by surreptitiously clasping her brother's hand.
            "I don't understand how you know all this,' said Lucian. 'You seem to know things that no one could know except us."
            "I am a scholar," I said. "Few mysteries are impenetrable to the trained mind."
            They continued, however, to gaze at me with a sort of superstitious dread, as if supposing me studied in some darker and more secret learning than is to be found in the statutes of Edward I or the books of Glanvil and Bracton. My heart warmed to these delightful young people: it was such a different response from any I could have hoped for in Lincoln's Inn, where my carefully reasoned deductions would have been described as mere guesswork, or else as so childishly simple that the members of the Nursery, had they not been occupied with more important matters, could have worked them out for themselves in half the time.

--Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades (New York: Dell, 1995), pp. 270-71. (copyright 1984)

"But you do find things out, don't you? Things that one wouldn't expect."
            "It is by way," I said, not ungratified, "of being my profession. The Scholar is dedicated to the pursuit of Truth, most of all when she is hidden and elusive."
            "Isn't the pursuit sometimes fruitless?"
            "Where nothing at all is known, even Scholarship is helpless; but even a small amount of information, perhaps of little apparent relevance, will enable the Scholar to detect the minute inconsistencies which betray the boundary between truth and falsehood. It is logically impossible, you see, for a lie to be perfectly consistent with truth: in order to tell an un-[page break] detectable lie, it would be necessary to invent an alternative universe."
Id. at 286-87.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Will newspapers be around in 1960?

I spent the morning in reading Dumas, and in wasting time over the Sunday Herald. I wonder whether Sunday newspapers will exist in 1960, or if they do exist whether they will be larger or smaller than at present. They are now a resource for people who read nothing else, but a burden for the rest of the world.
Adam Sherman Hill, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, Harvard University, March 4, 1900, journal entry for a project to be placed in the University Archives and opened in 1960. Quoted in The American Scholar, Spring 2001, at 131-32.

When therapy began to help

I can't point to the moment in this story when therapy actually began to help. Sentences flow in a necessarily linear manner, but whatever self-understanding I've gained through therapy has come about in a circular, roundabout path that would bore the pants off any reader if I tried to write about it. What is boorish and hackneyed on paper can be profound and life-changing in reality.
Lucy Grealy, “The Story So Far,” in Jason Shinder, ed., Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 215.

I'll give it 4 stars, no 5!

Cocktail party fact: the average rating for books sold on Amazon is about 4.1 stars out of a possible 5 stars. Aren't we all rather nice? For whatever reason, reviewers at BarnesAndNoble.com are even a little kinder—the average is 4.5 stars, and more than two-thirds of all reviews on the site are 5-star reviews.
David R. Bell, Location Is (Still) Everything: The Surprising Influence of the Real World on How We Search, Shop, and Sell in the Virtual One (Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2014), p. 78

How much do you have to do?

9. You are not responsible for the rest of the world. I sponsor two children, one in the United States and one in Indonesia. I do it because it doesn’t cost very much and because maybe it will help them somehow. I also recycle and give money to the Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty. But that’s about it. I used to want to join every group that worked for something I believe in. But then reading all those mailings and trying to divvy up my annual contributions budget between 327 different organizations just got to be too much. So I picked a couple I think work and I stick with them. You can’t save everything or everyone. All you can do is your little bit. Someone else can worry about the whales. I’ve got Indonesia covered.
Michael Thomas Ford, “Scraps,” in James L. Harmon, ed., Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two 79, 82 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Obituaries are full of life

And obituaries, as anyone who reads or writes obituaries will tell you, are really not about death. They’re occasioned by death, and they almost always wrap up with a list of those separated from the beloved by death. But they are full of life. The good ones are as intoxicating as a lung full of snowy air, as clarifying as the glass the ophthalmologist drops before your eyes, that brings the world into sudden sharp focus. The great obits aren’t the products of jackknifed tractor-trailers and hurricanes—the obits are released by such disasters.
Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 195-96.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Can you be too safe?

They wanted well-lit, even pathways so children and elders wouldn't trip and skin a knee or break a hip. And they didn't realize they were raising a generation of children who could only walk on level ground. The pathfinders of the world, henceforth, would be confined to the pre-paved paths.

Garth Stein, A Sudden Light (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), ch. 28

Serious reading, even when sick

I was allowed out of bed only four hours each day [when I had tuberculosis]. Lally used to come into my room after school every afternoon in her little green jumper, the Madeira School uniform, and have a snack while we visited. One day early in my forced hibernation, she found me reading a mystery, promptly removed it from my hands, and substituted Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. She was right that I shouldn’t waste this valuable time in bed reading trash or light, amusing books. All I needed was her gentle push and I finished all seven volumes.
Katharine Graham, Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p.284.

Mr. Bennet's library

“In his library he had been always sure of leisure and tranquillity; and though prepared, as he told Elizabeth, to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, he was used to be free from them there . . . .”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 15

Understanding stereotype threat can help

The aim of this book is not to show that stereotype threat is so powerful and persistent that it can't be overcome. Quite the contrary. Its goal is to show how, as an unrecognized factor in our lives, it can contribute to some of our most vexing personal and societal problems, but that doing quite feasible things to reduce this threat can lead to improvements in these problems. 
 Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 11

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thought and expression handy at work

You may be searching this letter for references to Troy's "relevant experience." (Troy asked me to limit myself in this recommendation to the qualities and attributes that will make him an asset to your firm.) Let me suggest that, no matter the variety of employment, there is nothing more relevant or crucial than an aptitude for original thought and imaginative expression.
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p. 49

Gotta have courage and hope

The Movement was going to have to give people courage and hope in order to give them nonviolence. That process would later get lost in the anecdotal lore of the Movement, the danger and the comedy of the showdowns. In fact, religion was what the activist Miles College professor Jonathan McPherson would call "the magnet that attracted people to the Movement and the cement that held it together.
Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001, with 2012 Afterword), p.308

Monday, June 1, 2015

No time for novels, harumph

I have no patience with minutiae. I have spent my life cutting through trivia, getting to the core of a story. Maybe this is why I have read, from beginning to end, only two long novels in my lifetime: Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago.
Leon Jaworski with Mickey Herskowitz, Confession and Avoidance: A Memoir (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979), p. 3, quoted in Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005), p. ____.

Humanities scholar in the jury room

I realize now that for me—a humanist, an academic, a poetaster—the primary aim of sustained thinking and talking had always been, in a way, more thinking and talking. Cycles of reading, interpreting, and discussing were always exactly that: cycles. One never "solved" a poem, one read it, and then read it again—each reading emerging from earlier efforts and preparing the mind for future readings. The same went for understanding the past, for teaching history. Whereas scientists and mathematicians might get kudos for answering questions, for resolving problems, I had always felt that my work involved the exact opposite project: keeping the questions open. They were different sorts of questions, of course. For me, being a humanist meant committing my life to a somewhat absurd task: serving full-time as the custodian of unanswerable questions (how to live? What to do? How to know? Why?); caring for them; nudging them to the fore in a crowded world; resurrecting others, now forgotten; keeping track of long-lost answers. Such questions cannot be answered, but they are not stupid.

But this, for all its beauty (and it is, I believe, beautiful, if also, yes, a bit mad), makes exceedingly lousy training for the grim duty of actually answering—closing definitively—an immensely complicated question with swift, withering, and barbed implications: a question like, "Is Monte Milcray guilty of murder?"
D. Graham Burnett, A Trial by Jury (New York: Vintage Books, 2001) pp. 157-58.