Saturday, August 11, 2018

Taken from a profile in the Times yesterday of  Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk whose book Flights won the Man Booker International Prize. She grew up under communism in Poland and in East Germany:

In a recent Skype interview Ms. Tokarczuk said that when she began writing Flights, more than a dozen years ago, she set out to describe a world very different from the one we are living in now. “I wrote this book when the world was looking to be open for everybody,” she said. “Now we’re seeing how the European Union will probably become weakened by the policies of countries like Poland and Hungary, which are focused on their borders once again.”

Speaking from her home in Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, Ms. Tokarczuk also referenced President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the United States border with Mexico. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”

Friday, August 10, 2018

Guy at the Strand bookstore. It’s a real perk of city life to walk to bookstores. The parts of town where the kids don’t do well on reading tests, don’t have bookstores to walk to. Which makes it even more of a disgrace how insufficient the neighborhood library hours are. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

(from the latest New York Magazine. Too arresting, too severe not to pass along.)

How Did the End of the World Become Old News?


The fire this time (in Sweden). Photo: Mats Andersson/AFP/Getty Images
There has been a lot of burning lately. Last week, wildfires broke out in the Arctic Circle, where temperatures reached almost 90 degrees; they are still roiling northern Sweden, 21 of them. And this week, wildfires swept through the Greek seaside, outside Athens, killing at least 80 and hospitalizing almost 200. At one resort, dozens of guests tried to escape the flames by descending a narrow stone staircase into the Aegean, only to be engulfed along the way, dying literally in each other’s arms.
Last July, I wrote a much-talked-over magazine cover storyconsidering the worst-case scenarios for climate change — much talked over, in part, because it was so terrifying, which made some of the scenarios a bit hard to believe. Those worst-case scenarios are still quite unlikely, since they require both that we do nothing to alter our emissions path, which is still arcing upward, and that those unabated emissions bring us to climate outcomes on the far end of what’s possible by 2100.
But, this July, we already seem much farther along on those paths than even the most alarmist climate observers — e.g., me — would have predicted a year ago. In a single week earlier this month, dozens of places around the world were hit with record temperatures in what was, effectively, an unprecedented, planet-encompassing heat wave: from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The temperature of one city in Oman, where the daytime highs had reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit, did not drop below 108 all night; in Montreal, Canada, 50 died from the heat. That same week, 30 major wildfires burned in the American West, including one, in California, that grew at the rate of 10,000 football fields each hour, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term — “fire tsunami” — along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. The following week, the heat struck there, killing dozens. The following week.
In other words, it has been a month of historic, even unprecedented, climate horrors. But you may not have noticed, if you are anything but the most discriminating consumer of news. The major networks aired 127 segments on the unprecedented July heat wave, Media Matters usefully tabulated, and only one so much as mentioned climate change. The New York Times has done admirable work on global warming over the last year, launching a new climate desk and devoting tremendous resources to high-production-value special climate “features.” But even their original story on the wildfires in Greece made no mention of climate change — after some criticism on Twitter, they added a reference.
Over the last few days, there has been a flurry of chatter among climate writers and climate scientists, and the climate-curious who follow them, about this failure. In perhaps the most widely parsed and debated Twitter exchange, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes — whose show, All In, has distinguished itself with the seriousness of its climate coverage — described the dilemma facing every well-intentioned person in his spot: the transformation of the planet and the degradation may be the biggest and most important story of our time, indeed of all time, but on television, at least, it has nevertheless proven, so far, a “palpable ratings killer.” All of which raises a very dispiriting possibility, considering the scale of the climate crisis: Has the end of the world as we know it become, already, old news?
If so, that would be really, really bad. As I’ve written before, and as Wen Stephenson echoed more recently in The Baffler, climate change is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a binary process where we end up either “fucked” or “not fucked.” It is a system that gets worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases. We are just beginning to see the horrors that climate change has in store for us —but that does not mean that the story is settled. Things will get worse, almost certainly much, much worse. Indeed, the news about what more to expect, coming out of new research, only darkens our picture of what to expect: Just over the past few weeks, new studies have suggested heat in many major Indian cities would be literally lethal by century’s end, if current warming trends continue, and that, by that time, global economic output could fall, thanks to climate effects, by 30 percent or more. That is an impact twice as deep as the global Great Depression, and it would not be temporary.
These are not the kinds of findings it is easy to ignore, or dismiss, or compartmentalize, even though we have all become exquisitely skilled lately in compartmentalizing the threat. Neither is it easy to forget the stories of the Greek wildfires, or the Japanese heat wave. Which is why it is perhaps important to remember that the media did not ignore these stories, or the month of global climate horrors that gave rise to them. Television networks covered those heat waves 127 times. That is, actually, a very lot! They just utterly failed to “connect the dots,” as Emily Atkin put it incisively at The New Republic —broadcasters told the story of the historic temperatures, but chose not to touch the question of why we were seeing so many of them, all at once, with the atmosphere more full of carbon, and the planet hotter, than it has ever been at any point in human history.
When you think about it, this would be a very strange choice for a producer or an editor concerned about boring or losing his or her audience — it would mean leaving aside the far more dramatic story of the total transformation of the planet’s climate system, and the immediate and all-encompassing threat posed by climate change to the way we live on Earth, to tell the pretty mundane story of some really hot days in the region.
Which is why this all sounds to me a lot more like self-censorship than ratings-chasing — by which I mean self-censorship of two kinds. The first is the intuitive one — the kind done in anticipation of political blowback, an especially acute problem for would-be neutral, would-be centrist platforms like network news. This self-censorship in fear of right-wing backlash is a familiar story, and most of those concerned about global warming know the villains already: oil companies, climate deniers, indifferent (at best) politicians, and constituents who see science as a culture-war front.
But public apathy, and its cousin climate complacency, is as big a problem — perhaps bigger. And this problem, too, is connected to self-censorship on the part of storytellers who feel intimidated from attributing what we used to know as natural disasters to global warming because scientists are so excruciatingly careful about attributing cause. As NPR’s science editor Geoff Brumfiel told Atkin, “You don’t just want to be throwing around, ‘This is due to climate change, that is due to climate change.’”
Well — why not? The stated reason, when a reason is stated, is that scientists can take years to definitively conclude that a particular disaster was impossible without the effects of warming, and often only speak with certainty about specific events a decade or more in the past— the 2003 European heat wave, for instance, which killed tens of thousands. But wildfires are “not caused by climate change” only in the same way that hurricanes are not caused by climate change — which is to say they are (only) made more likely by it, which is to say the distinction is semantic. The same is true, even more so, for heat waves: We know global warming will cause many more deadly temperatures, and should not be confused, at all, when we suddenly encounter an unprecedented number of them. The fact that most climate scientists would say something like, “These disasters are consistent with what we would expect, given global warming,” rather than “these disasters were caused by global warming” is not a reason to elide discussion of climate change. Doing so is an evasion, even if it is made with a scientific alibi.
It is also a dangerous one. Decades of bad-faith debates about whether climate change is “real” and good-faith questions about whether it is “here” have dramatically foreshortened our collective imagination and provided an unfortunately limited picture of what global warming will yield. Treating every climate disaster as a discrete event only compounds the problem, suggesting that impacts will be discrete. They won’t be, and the longer-view story is much more harrowing: not just more months like July, but an unfolding century when a month like this July has become a happy memory of a placid climate. That it is almost hard to believe only makes it a more important story to tell.
*A version of this article appears in the August 6, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

(Two young women, not together, both teachers, stopped at my sign today. They asked all about it. They both agreed with the message of it. They rushed to tell me about the dysfunction in the system. They only had a few minutes. There was a conference they were going to. I'm reprinting here an essay from months ago. I gave them the blog address. Maybe they'll read it.)


How books and reading can save your life. I think they saved mine.

I’ve mentioned this before. In college in the late 1960s there was an upperclassman on campus who stood outside the dining hall with a large bright tin can. He wore, in my pretty-certain memory, a loose white T shirt and light khakis with no crease and sandals. There was a California look about him in his easy clothes which seemed romantic to underclassman-me then who most days wanted to be in California or some place progressive rather than there in South Bend, Indiana. I’d only been to California once, a few years before, the summer Trini Lopez hit it big with ‘If I Had a Hammer’. There was something arresting to me about the way this guy stood with his shiny can and the small sign attached to it that asked for money for the poor people of Bangladesh. He had no guitar or love beads. Just the can. It has stayed with me, that picture of him there. He’s dead now I heard. And I’m 71.

There were TV shows then that we all watched. Movies you had to see. There were record albums that you had to have. We all read newspapers from Chicago to see what the progress of the war was in Vietnam. We couldn’t imagine going to war. We put quarters in the juke box and lit another cigarette. And talked about the war, and the songs, and sports.

We read Kurt Vonnegut. Professors and priests couldn’t keep up with him or Dylan or Herman Hesse or Portnoy. It was tough to go to class for a lot of us. There was more that mattered in the newspapers in the student center. There was more in the little Seeburg juke box menus on the wall in each booth. There was more in the paperback books we carried in our pockets.

It was the books that took me into other worlds, into other ways of seeing things. There were also magazines then that were much more radical than all the periodicals our parents got at home. They were companions to us who didn’t want to fight in a war. Racial issues were also often discussed in bold ways in those books and magazines. Women’s issues too. It was really where a lot of us got our education.

I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road.

Today of course there aren’t the books or readers like there were then. On the subway, you still see Kerouac books. On another train you might see Soul on Ice. I don’t know what new books are radical like those were. Are music and TV shows and Netflix movies the radical‘s companions now like books and magazines were and record albums were back then? I’m not fighting for the way it was. I just wonder.

I got this nudge from somewhere to make a sign a half a dozen years ago that had this sentence on it: WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL. I don’t know where that somewhere was. I had been thinking about city schools and poor kids and the failure of that combination. Especially in reading.  I had put out a few copies of acityReader which talked about my frustration over the year-after-year continuation of the reading gap. So maybe the sign was just the natural next step. It was certainly a natural step for a guy who wanted to be like the guy with the can, to have a passion for something like he did.

The message of the sign has indeed become my passion. Six years is it now that I’ve held it for an
hour every weekday that it isn’t raining or too, too cold in front of Dept of Education building in downtown Manhattan? It could be seven. I wouldn’t change a word on the sign, which is unusual for me. I tinker, I over-think things, I cut my own hair. 

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
                                      -Herzog by Saul Bellow

You watch the Ken Burns Vietnam episodes on PBS and you remember those times when everything was intense. When you argued with your father over the war. When you rushed to take a couple of basic education courses so you could get a provisional teaching certificate and then get a job to teach in an inner city grade school which would give you a deferment from going in the army which you certainly didn’t want to do then since you had a baby daughter who was born the week before you graduated.

That daughter is 48 now and has kids of her own, and there are two other daughters and three other grandchildren.  And their long-divorced father wanted to text them the other night to tell them to watch the Ken Burns Vietnam series, so that they’d know him and their mother better and maybe excuse him easier. But they have their own shows. Everybody’s got their own shows.

Some mornings when I’m walking with my sign in its big Kinko’s bag from the subway to where I stand with it, I catch myself just ambling along not really thinking about what I’m there for. I run a sequence of images quickly through my mind that seem to focus me. The images are in black and white like an old newsreel. They are pictures I’ve seen of poor neighborhoods were hope doesn’t spring eternal. Places where it seems to me the surest way to give hope is to see to it that everybody in those scenes is taught to read well. That seems like a solution to a lot of things. I’m focused then. And I hold the sign like I believe it. Which I do. I believe it more than anything. I believe that it could change the world.

These are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.

                                                       -James Baldwin

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

It’s not all about my sign and reading books like I do and wishing the city school kids have that kind of life. It’s really about survival. In the first cityReader newsletter I did years ago now I said that if you lived on an island kids would have to know how to swim or they could drown. You would have to teach every kid to know how to swim. That’s what it’s about. Many kids here are drowning. The elders haven't noticed?

Monday, August 6, 2018

An essay from yesterday’s Times by the writer of the Pulitzer Prize novel The Sympathizer about the war in Vietnam and the life of immigrants from that country now living in California.

Losing My Son to Reading

Books helped me gain independence. So it saddens me just a bit to see my son reading on his own.

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Do you remember when you learned to read? Like most of us, I don’t. Still, many people can take comfort in knowing that this event, beyond memory, involved our parents. The parents who took us to school, who read books to us at home, who could speak to us in a shared language. But in my case, one of the things I lost as a refugee, without even knowing it at the time, was a childhood where my parents would have read to me.

I came to the United States when I was 4, with my parents and older brother. Our language at home was Vietnamese, but somehow, by 6 or 7, I had learned how to read in English. My parents could speak English, but I have no memory of them reading to me, and if they did, they would not have been reading to me in English. It must have been my teachers who taught me, just as my 5-year old son’s teachers taught him. Earlier this year I went away for a week and when I came back, the little boy who I had been reading to for years was suddenly reading by himself.

Being a father makes me reflective, especially as I look at my son and remember myself at his age. Early in our American years, my father chuckled when I called the kitchen a “chicken” in English. He affectionately recalled for me how, when I was a baby in Vietnam, I saw the cows eating grass and called it “salad.” Like my father, I take pleasure in seeing my son learning a language, and through it, stories. I love the way he loves stories, the raw emotions he brings to them, the way he thrills to, or is terrified by, a powerful narrative. I know when a book is great because he cuddles up to me and asks to have it read to him again and again. The closeness a parent feels with a child, where boundaries are permeable, is mirrored in how a powerful story pulls a reader through a page and through the words and into the story itself.

The story of my parents involved crossing a different boundary, the border of this country.
We lost many things at the border, beginning with our shared language. Growing up and seeing my parents struggle with building a life for themselves and my brother and me, I could feel our closeness dissipating along with my Vietnamese. The better my parents were at taking care of their children by working endless hours, the less time they had to spend with us. It was the classic immigrant and refugee dilemma — sacrifice yourself for your children and in the process sacrifice your intimacy with them.

Books saved me from feeling alone. I love books so much that I gave my son, for a first name, a writer’s surname — Ellison. Ralph Ellison was not a writer of children’s books, but a writer of the big truths, of the frightening world, of the unknown interiors of ourselves. Children’s books, of course, deal with those things, too. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are when I was 6 or 7. The story of a little boy lost in the wild, having journeyed there by boat and separated from his parents, seemed too much, in retrospect, like my life as a refugee. But my son loves Sendak’s book, and I love that book now, too. It was only as an adult that I could confront the childhood fears in it.

I first found the book in a public library. Books were not a priority for my parents, so we never had them in the house. I would go to the public library every week and stuff my backpack full of books, which were barely enough for a week. I never owned my own until high school. My son has a bigger library than I ever had. While my parents showed me they loved me by making sure that I always had enough to eat, I show my love for my son by making sure that he always has enough to read (as well as to eat). For me, the library was a second home, and I want my son to have his own home in my home.

By 11 or 12, I knew how to get to my second home by myself, on foot or on the bus. But in remembering that childhood library, what I also know is that libraries are potentially dangerous places because there are no borders. There are countries called children’s literature and young adult literature and adult fiction, but no border guards, or in my case, parents to police the borders and protect me. A reader could go wherever he or she wanted. So, at 12 or 13, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters.

All that stayed with me for decades from Roth’s novel was the infamous scene where a young Alex Portnoy masturbates with a slab of liver that will be his family’s dinner. As for Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, the graphic depiction of how American soldiers brutalized Vietnamese people, including raping them, enraged me. I wanted revenge on Heinemann’s novel, until I reread it as an adult in preparing for my own novel, and realized he was right. Like Sendak, he wanted to show where the wild things are — inside of us. As did Roth. When I became a writer, I paid homage to both of them in my novel The Sympathizer, where the shocked child has finally become the writer willing to shock.

Crossing the border into confronting those wild things that I did not understand and that my parents could not protect me from was part of how I began the journey to adulthood and writing. Seeing my son reading, I realize he is taking one step further on his own road to independence, to being a border-crosser, someone who makes his own decisions, including what he reads and what he believes. Perhaps that’s why seeing him read on his own is tinged with melancholy. I remember my own loss and I sense the loss that is yet to come, when he is no longer all mine, as he is when he wakes in the morning and says some of the sweetest words I will ever hear: “Daddy, read me a book.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of The Refugees, and the editor of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

Sunday, August 5, 2018