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By Nathan Bierma


Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:

A GOOD BOOK OR TWO, OR 50

Every night at 8:30, prisoners of the Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in Minersville, Pennsylvania, are sent to their bunks for three hours of quiet time before lights out at 11:30. Among them is Sam Waskal, the founder of ImClone, sentenced to over seven years for insider trading. And he seems to want to make the most of those three hours.

One week before his sentence began in July, Waskal logged on to Amazon.com and made a Wish List, a registry of books he wanted to read, according to Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker. Her review of his high-minded, 50-item list, which "would put a MacArthur Fellow to shame," Mead says, is intriguing. Among the volumes in which Waskal will wallow: A History of the Modern World; Einstein: His Life and Times; Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist;Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question; Alexander the Great; Ulysses Annotated; Herodotus' Histories; two versions of the Peloponnesian War; letters of Friedrich Nietzsche; and several titles on Jewish history.

"Waksal has not indulged himself with the standard books that one has always wanted to get around to reading properly but never had the time for; there is no Proust, no Gibbon, no Clarissa," Mead says. Still, it may take him more than seven years to polish off the books he did request; at the time of Mead's writing, 47 of his 50 wishes had been granted (some by well-wishers at a farewell party). Mead notes that Amazon's recommended add-ons to Waskal's list (which is now unavailable online) included Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

I linked earlier to an item that talked about weblogs as records of a person's pattern of thought and personal guides to what's worth reading. In theory, Wish Lists could be too. In practice, they aren't. For one thing, looking up anyone but a friend is a dubious exercise: a stack of New Age CD's was entered by a David Broder of Washington D.C., but presumably not by the Washington Post columnist, while it's hard to see why Anne Lamott would need Typing Tutor 10 (though the town and birthday are correct). (The first choice of some joker who registered as George W. Bush was none other than Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.)  Meanwhile, as the New York Timeswrote last year, Daypop.com's rankings of the most popular Wish List items are unremarkable: Harry Potter, Michael Moore, and Simpsons DVD's. In short, most people whose reading lists would be interesting can afford to buy what they want themselves; the Amazon lists will continue to be used mostly for birthdays (including mine).

PLACES & CULTURE

From the Washington Post:

GORLOVO, Russia—In his battle to keep the 6,500-acre cooperative farm he manages from following thousands of other Russian farms into oblivion, Ivan Matantsev has survived economic panic, a killer drought and endless breakdowns of his fleet of 15-year-old tractors. Whether he can survive Galina Belikova is still in doubt. From a coffee-colored cottage nicknamed "the pit," built on an asphalt lane with no name, Belikova dispenses bottles of rotgut vodka to any of the farm's 80 workers who can muster 30 rubles. By Matantsev's reckoning, nearly a third of his workers would gladly give in to the incapacitation offered by Belikova and the other vodka vendors. To counter that danger, the farm's 53-year-old director says he decided to take drastic action. For the past seven years, he has refused to pay cash salaries to his workers. Instead, they receive scrip that is good for purchases at the farm's own store, which sells food, toiletries and other staples, but no booze. Some workers are grumbling, but Matantsev says the main purpose is temperance, and his tactics seem to be working. … Matantsev is battling not just for the farm, but for the survival of the village of Gorlovo. Full story

NEW YORK—As America has long suspected, no one here can drive. Lawyers, doctors, day laborers, actors, psychotherapists: New York City has more able-bodied, non-licensed, car-phobic adults than anywhere in the United States. … More than half of the [Washington D.C.]'s residents are licensed drivers. In this city, approximately 25 percent of the inhabitants possess a driver's license. (How many of that select club actually can drive is another matter.) Caroline Hwang, 33, a novelist and editor, is one of New York's carless millions. She lives in Manhattan and walks, hails cabs, uses her subway card. She packs her beach towel and takes the Long Island Rail Road to the Atlantic Ocean beaches and bums a ride when friends insist on one of those bucolic weddings north of the Bronx. As a teenager in Wisconsin she had a license, but that seems so yesterday. Full story

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