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I always enjoy speaking to writers because most of them are smarter than I am (admittedly not that difficult) so I learn from them. Plus I'm fascinated by people who have the self-discipline to sit by themselves for long periods of time and create entire worlds in their heads.
Finn by Jon Clinch. I had the chance to spend a few minutes with him, talking about what I thought was his brave decision to tell the story of Huckleberry Finn's father, mentioned only briefly but tantalizingly in Mark Twain's novel. Jon is a former advertising man and knows how important it is to hook someone right away. This he accomplishes in the first four paragraphs of Finn.
It occurs to me there could be a cottage industry for those who want to write the stories of minor characters in major novels. Geraldine Brooks (who is a charming person, by the way) imagined the story of March, the absent father in Little Women, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Tom Stoppard (who may be charming, but whom I've never met) rescued Shakespeare's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from relative anonymity. Anyone have any other favorite minor characters worthy of their own novel or play? Nominations are now being accepted and will be forwarded to The International Society for the Advancement of Minors, which I plan to found as soon as someone gives me a major grant to do so. It will, of course, be headquartered in Minor, Alabama. Or Minor, Virginia. Or maybe Minor, Kentucky.
But I digress.
Fortunately, I digress to Clive James.
Cultural Amnesia is a huge book from a huge brain and it's treat. Clive James is one of those public intellectuals of the kind you often see on chat shows in Britain -- people who can talk knowingly about Jacques Derrida one moment and comment enthusiastically about the wacky adventures of the British royal family the next. Life just seems more interesting to them, somehow.
AUDIO: Clive James on humanism and a free society
I'm learning about all sorts of folks I probably should know about already but don't -- for example, historian Marc Bloch, journalist Alan Moorehead and polymath/cabaret star Egon Friedell, who may become my new role model, except for the jumping-out-the-window-to-his-death-to-avoid-being-taken-by-the-Nazis part (although I wish I would be so brave and so gallant in similar circumstances. Friedell's last words were said to be "Watch out, please!", since he wanted to avoid falling onto a passerby). I am very grateful to Clive James for introducing these people to me because no one else was going to do so and I'm delighted to spend some time with them.
I was also happy to spend some time with Clive on the radio and hear him talk about paying attention to cultural contributions that have stood -- or are likely to stand -- the test of the years. It seems to me he's trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's work for a lifetime, especially because there's a lot of chaff out there.
Here's a book anyone who uses email (which, at this point, is just about everyone -- including some particularly clever farm animals) should read:
David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
AUDIO: Shipley and Schwalbe on one of the common sins of emailing
Send is The Elements of Style for the electronic age. Whereas Strunk and White taught us how to use a semicolon (I read that section; I may not have absorbed it), David Shipley and Will Schwalbe teach us how to keep from making complete Cyberfools of ourselves. Learn to avoid "The email that's unbelievably vague. ('Remember to do that thing.')"
and "The email that won't go away. (Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: that thing.)"!
AND FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, DO NOT TYPE IN ALL CAPS. IT'S INCREDIBLY ANNOYING. THANK YOU.
I learned a lot talking with these guys and had a great time in the process. I don't agree with everything David and Will accept -- honestly, do we ever really need emoticons? Would, for example, the King James Bible have been a better work with them?
"...and God saw that it was good. :-)"
"Thou shalt NOT," say both the Lord and I.
But this is a fun, useful book, the main message of which is: Think before you click (I may have this advice tattooed on the back of my hands so I can see it as a type on my computer).
I'm happy to report The Washington Post has begun podcasts with some of the authors featured in the weekly Book World section. Check them out at: