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Writing Worth Reading

Can Doctor Who Survive an Older Leading Man?

Doctor Who takes on a new body each time his old one is worn out; which allows a new actor, most recently Peter Capaldi, to step into the role. For the past decade the Doctors have been youngish boyfriend-figures. Capaldi is an oldish father-figure, reaching out to an older audience. “If we can’t accept that, then we are not true fans. It’s a bold move, one that marks a crossroads for the mainstream success of nerd culture” (900 words)

Stop Obsessing About Global Warming

Not a game-changer, but still a broadside repaying attention. Sen argues that we need to know far more about the externalities — the social costs — of rival energy sources in order to formulate rational policies on climate change. If we did, we’d probably find that we are underestimating the potential for solar power, particularly in poorer countries; and also underestimating the dangers of nuclear power (4,366 words)

Attending James Joyce’s Birthday Party

Another gem from the archives of the New Republic. “It is tea time at the Joyces’. Mrs. Joyce gives us the best tea and the nicest cakes that are to be had in any house in Paris”. James Joyce is re-reading Madame Bovary, and going often to the opera. He considers modern Irish writing over-rated: “If we lift up the back-skirts of English literature we will find there everything we have been trying to do” (2,800 words)

James Wood On Hysterical Realism

New Republic republishes James Wood’s classic literary essay from 2000, as part of a series recalling the 100 best TNR pieces of the past 100 years. Wood argues that modern novelists — Rushdie, De Lillo, Pynchon, Smith, Foster Wallace — are animating their books with gimmicky plot devices at the expense of character development. They are heirs to Dickens but without his gift for “strong feeling” (5,400 words)

Science Is Not About Certainty

How can science claim authority, when it changes over time? “On the one hand, we trust our past knowledge, and on the other hand, we are always ready to modify, in depth, part of our conceptual structure of the world. There’s no contradiction between the two. Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain” (4,400 words)

Liberals Are Killing Art

Nice people like you and me are the modern audience for highbrow art — and we are killing it by requiring it to serve socially useful, or at least, socially explicable, purposes. We have no appetite for art’s “irreducible mystery and magic”. We want “to bring art’s unruly power into line with some more general system of social, political, and moral values”. This is reasonable; but art is not reasonable; a tragic contradiction (4,700 words)

A Philistine In Good Company

Does Shakespeare ‘suck’? Ira Glass, the much-admired American radio-show host, said so after seeing King Lear in Central Park. He was in good company: George Bernard Shaw and Tolstoy thought much the same about Shakespeare’s work. T.S.Eliot called Hamlet a failure. Which is not to say that Ira Glass is their equal. But we should admire his honesty in aesthetic matters. Shakespeare is hard work. Let’s not pretend otherwise (1,030 words)

What Happened To Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

If you were living in Russia, you’d get your news from state-controlled television and radio, and here’s what it would tell you: That MH17 is actually MH370, the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared in the Indian Ocean; it was secretly held at an American military base on Diego-Garcia for re-use. The plane was filled with corpses, not passengers, when it left Amsterdam; and flown on autopilot. Russia was framed (1,540 words)

Gridlock Capital Of The World

Welcome to Dhaka in Bangladesh, the world’s fastest-growing and densest city, with 15 million people and only 60 traffic lights. There is no planned road network, no subway, and 60 separate bus networks. At peak times cars and buses move at twenty feet an hour. The overhead in terms of social and economic costs is crippling. “Alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time” (1,450 words)

How Bad Can The Iraq Situation Get?

Interview with Thomas Ricks. Iran has played its long game very well; it’s going to end up dominating a Shiite rump state in Iraq, with a fair amount of oil. America got out just in time; if it still had troops in Iraq, it would be using them to defend Prime Minister Maliki, who is a big part of the problem. Obama has handled this part of the crisis smartly; perhaps because Joe Biden, the usual point man on Iraq, was busy with the World Cup (2,280 words)

Our Libertarian Age

Essay on the decay of ideology. “Ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. Since the Cold War ended we have found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.” (4,690 words)

The Temptation Of Despair

Review of “The Temptation of Despair” by Werner Sollors, a “melancholy, disjointed, awkward, but deeply powerful book” about the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Sollors tells of “a society in ruins and a people at the edge of psychic collapse”. He attempts no apologia for Nazism, quite the reverse; but his point is that deserved suffering hurts just as much as undeserved suffering (2,880 words)

Who Killed Shamus?

It’s forty years since “Chinatown”. What killed the classic Hollywood detective movie? Perhaps China: “Detective movies are talky. And often a studio won’t greenlight a film unless it can play in China, which means too much talk is out.” Perhaps Google: “With the Internet everybody thinks of themselves as a detective. Now that everyone can go online and dig up stuff, they’re not as interested in watching other people do it” (990 words)

Churchill’s Last Surviving Daughter

Evelyn Waugh called Winston Churchill “a most unsuccessful father”, which was largely correct. “All three of the elder children went wrong, all of them had failed marriages, all of them were undone by drink”. One died of drink; another committed suicide. The exception was the youngest, Mary, who died in May aged 92 — “the only one who had grown up safe and sound, to live a long and fulfilled life” ( words)

The Writers Who Fell In Love With Fascism

Review of “The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940″, by Frederick Brown, on the intellectuals and ideologues who pulled France towards fascism during the last decades of the Third Republic. “It is as if the culture that, perhaps more strongly than any other, celebrated reason and geometrical order, also provoked within itself a deep, wild, and willfully primitive reaction, a return of the repressed” (2,850 words)

We Need Strong Prisons, But Fewer Prisoners

Expert review of “Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment” by Robert A. Ferguson, law professor at Columbia University. “The solution lies in decriminalization of much conduct that is now criminalized, in fewer and shorter prison sentences, in a more generous social safety net, in greater willingness to learn from foreign penal policies and experience, and in more attention to the mental health needs of inmates” (4,000 words)

AIDS In America: Why So Much Death?

AIDS has taken more lives in New York City than in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined. Even now, AIDS kills 15,000 in the US each year; in Germany and the UK, fewer than 800. America’s greater suffering is due to the cost of healthcare; the clustering of high-risk populations; the stigmas attaching to AIDS and to drug abuse. “We’re a much bigger, much more complex, and much more unjust country” (3,700 words)

The False Promise Of The Digital Humanities

The term “digital humanities” has passed into the language of academia even before its meaning is clear. The minimalist version means simply the application of computer technology to traditional scholarly functions, such as the editing of texts. The maximalist agenda insists the availability of digital technologies should lead to a revolution in the field to which they are applied — that the primacy of writing is over (4,337 words)

Hell Is An Understatement

Report from the “bloody, crumbling” Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims are at war. The danger is “unequaled anywhere in present-day Africa”. Street lynchings “are so common that they cease to be news”. In the capital, Bangui, the Red Cross operates “an on-demand sanitation service that, within an hour of being called, will show up to collect human bodies, whether chopped up or left intact” (6,070 words)

Four Years Later: Haiti’s Heartbreaking Failure

Notes from Haiti four years after the earthquake that killed 200,000 and left a million homeless. Port-au-Prince was going to be “built back better” by now: That hasn’t happened. “You see the country’s terrible wear and tear, the old buildings in various states of collapse, the mountains turning gray as the topsoil washes away. On bad days, I think Haiti might be a sinking ship, too far gone, too used up to save” (1,725 words)

How Kafka Actually Lived

Another biography of Franz Kafka. But an exceptional one. Reiner Stachs does an “honest and honorable” job of telling the story without trying to impose his own meaning on it. He “offers no key, no code, no single-minded interpretive precept. The ‘Kafkaesque’ is mercifully missing … The biographer excavates, he does not transcend; and through this robustly determined unearthing he rescues Kafka from the unearthliness of his repute” (7,100 words)

The Greatest Ex-Nazi Writer

Who has heard of the German poet Gottfried Benn? Where is he in the anthologies? Nowhere. Yet Benn was “one of the great German poets of the twentieth century”, and the “equal of Eliot or Montale”. The problem is “not the work but the life”. He was a Nazi — if not for long. He writes “from a cancelled perspective”. A new selection of his writing translated by Michael Hofmann transmits his genius (4,580 words)

The Unwisdom Of Crowds

People-powered revolutions are overrated. Protesting crowds provide good newspaper copy and great photographs. But they may not represent the majority, and they are the antithesis of the highly structured institutions — courts, legal systems, bills of rights — which functioning democracy demands. The crowd may have its moment, but the key to building durable democracy is long negotiation, as in Chile and Poland (1,570 words)

How Silence Became A Luxury Product

Technology has “increased our perceived need for silence and created (or at least improved) the means of attaining it”. From quiet cars on trains, to noise-cancelling headphones, to super-quiet Lexus cars, “there has never been quite so great a premium placed on silence”. We crave quiet as a way “to push back against the gnat-like ticking of technology”. Silence, especially in cities, has become “the ultimate luxury” (1,800 words)

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