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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:


"I slipped on a baseball cap," President Bush recalled, "as did Condi. We looked like a normal couple." One of the best-kept secrets in presidential travel was safe, and President Bush was on his way Baghdad to surprise troops there and everyone else (including his parents) back home. Other secrets were harder to keep last month. A House committee uncovered the FBI's efforts to bend the law to protect mob informants in New England, efforts the House called "one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement." Other secrets, conspiracy theorists continued to insist, remained unexposed on the fortieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. In Detroit, a federal court ordered the deportation of a 78-year-old Romanian immigrant who worked as a guard at a Nazi concentration camp and was found hiding under his basement stairs earlier this summer.

The banishment of a former guard was not the only turning of history's tables in November. A report found that more women than men are applying to American medical schools for the first time ever. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled against a ban on same-sex marriages. Wheaton College held its first dance after lifting a 143-year ban on dancing. Freddy Adu, a 14-year-old soccer player, became the youngest American professional athlete since the 19th century. San Francisco witnessed the first hit-and-run incident involving a Segway scooter. Elsewhere, change was resisted; reports surfaced last month of a farming village in Thailand which successfully cracked down on drug dealers by threatening to withhold funerals and prayers upon their deaths.

Bobby Hatfield, one of the Righteous Brothers, died in November at age 63. Gertrude Edelerle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel, died at 98. Warren Spahn won more games than any other left-handed pitcher in baseball history. Bubba Hyde was one of the first inductees into the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame. Hal Walker was one of the first African-American network news correspondents. Penny Singleton was the voice of Jane on The Jetsons. Irv Kupcinet had written the longest-running newspaper column and was a Chicago institution. Art Carney appeared with Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. As obituary editor of the Washington Post, Richard Pearson wrote instant biographies. From literature to technology to cartoons, imaginative scholar and critic Hugh Kenner was a devout Catholic and what he would call a "pattern recognizer."

Mike Yaconelli, who died in a car accident last month, was co-founder of The Wittenberg Door and Youth Specialties ministries, and reminded listeners that God's strength arrives in our weakness. "You and I are incomplete," he once said. "And the reality is that's where God meets me: in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness."

Related: B&C editor John Wilson on Hugh Kenner in the Boston Globe

Timeline: October 2003


From the Washington Post:

Enrique Acevedo's office is a shady corridor under the ornate arches of Santa Domingo Plaza in the cobblestoned heart of Mexico City's historic center, where two dozen typists sit before old metal desks. Like his father and his grandfather, Acevedo is in the letter-writing business. In a country where love is more common than literacy, his typing and spelling skills make for good business. … Acevedo hauls his old desk and typewriter out of a small storage room, plugs in his machine, unfolds his morning paper and waits for the city to bring him its needs. He never waits long. On this day, a contractor asks him to type up an estimate for a new home. Then a policeman wanders up, needing a letter of resignation. … He collects his fee and waits for something juicier to come along—like love or jealousy or betrayal. Full story

In the throes of an unrelenting drought, Las Vegas is scrambling to save water. It is shutting off public fountains, ordering golf courses to cut back on irrigation and all but begging reluctant residents to replace plush green lawns with desert landscaping. But water consumption remains on the rise. Local officials say residents and businesses used more water last month than they did in October of last year. They blame warmer-than-usual weather and the fact that not a single drop of rain fell last month. If water consumption does not show sizable and consistent declines soon, authorities are vowing to take more drastic steps to restrict water use among homeowners and business owners who have long been allowed to ignore that they are living in a desert. Story


For this week's dispatch, I asked Megan Feenstra Wall, a fellow Calvin College graduate who is studying architecture at Columbia, to describe daily life between campus and the studio apartment she shares with her husband in Midtown Manhattan.

The whole city is in a rush. You can see it; you can even feel it. Everything—the cars, people, taxis, buses—are just rushing about as though everything is five minutes behind schedule. There are two things I like about my hated commute. I love riding past Lincoln Center on the bus. I love the big glass curtain wall that reveals all the dressed-up people milling about after a concert. I am a part of it as I watch them from my blue seat on the M11 bus. As for the subway, well, I love it even while I hate it. I love that you can't go anywhere. Often I get impatient waiting for it to come or, once it does, to get where I need to go. But the great thing is, I am stuck; I can't go any faster than the train is going, When I realize this, it is the only twenty minutes in my day where I can relax and let someone else worry about time. I can enjoy the craziness and absurdities of my train-mates and the day's newspapers. If I am lucky, I will even get in a Poetry in Motion car, with its little snippets of culture in ads for Barnes and Noble. And then I get to where I was impatiently going. Suddenly time is relevant again, and more than likely, I am five minutes late.

Previous City Scene: Washington, D.C.


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  • "No one has ever done anything after he got it," said T.S. Eliot of the Nobel Prize after winning it for literature in 1948. That won't stop many of the world's most brilliant minds from fussing over the prizes this week when they are awarded in Stockholm (nor one non-winner from running angry full-page newspaper ads in protest). Endowed by Alfred Nobel to soothe his conscience after inventing dynamite, the prizes—and the lavish white-tie galas that surround them—have become "something out of a royal fairy tale," says The Week magazine. But if the prizes are so special, The Week asks, why did James Joyce never win a Nobel Prize for literature, nor Gandhi for peace, nor the creator of the periodic table of elements for chemistry? Full story
  • Speaking of luminaries, an eternal flame resides at the grave of John F. Kennedy, whose assassination was widely remembered last month. Yet the man who shone a more enduring light, and who died on the same day forty years ago, was less celebrated this past November 22. The exception was an op-ed on C.S. Lewis in the New York Times by Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation. "In his ability to nurture the faithful, as well as seduce the skeptic, C. S. Lewis had no peer," Loconte wrote. He hated self-righteousness—"Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst," Lewis once wrote—but did not take the next step into coy cynicism about the church. "Instead," Loconte says, "his writings offer bright glimpses into the moral beauty of divine goodness, what Lewis called 'the weight of glory.'" Full story
Related from B&C:
Why There Are Seven Chronicles of Narnia
C.S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists (preview only)
  • One pastor who presumably reads C.S. Lewis side-by-side with Noam Chomsky is the Rev. Bill Coffin, profiled in a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" last month. Coffin, the former Yale chaplain and pastor of New York City's Riverside Church, is terminally ill and retired in Vermont, but remains outspoken about violations of what he considers the Bible's most important mandates: justice and peace. His sermons and speeches on the wrongs of the world have been culled into a book, Credo, which comes out next month. "Politics and religion have never been far apart in the preachings and doings of Bill Coffin," the New Yorker said. While his book may be received as an ideologically slanted critique of American power, Coffin is complex, equally likely to quote Augustine or the morning's New York Times . "As Americans," he says, "we should love America, but pledge allegiance to the earth, to the flora and fauna and human rights." Full story
Related: The New Yorker on the Rev. Al Green

• One contentious intersection of the sacred and secular is the debate over homosexual marriages. "Marriage, which relies on fidelity, is being asked to survive in a culture of contingency," writes David Brooks in a recent column for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. In a culture that worships freedom and choice in everything from elections to cell phone plans, Brooks says, "the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract." Given the need for fidelity and "covenants, such as Ruth made to Naomi," Brooks asks, why do his fellow conservatives believe that legalizing homosexual marriage would weaken the institution of marriage rather than strengthen it? Full story The piece by Brooks is worth a read, but ultimately fails for its neglect of a crucial question: what is the relevance in the legal realm of traditional interpretation of Levitican and Pauline teachings on homosexual relations?

Related: The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell: What does "institution of marriage" mean? (see last paragraph)
  • By the end of the decade, the magnificent ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro may completely evaporate. Four-fifths of it has already disappeared over the last 90 years. But it's not too late to save the summit, wrote author Oliver Morton last month in the New York Times . One Zimbabwean scientist has proposed draping a vast sheet of polypropylene fabric over the top of the mountain, which would shield the ice from sunlight and keep it cool (or, as a Timeseditorial worried, it would speed up the ice cap's demise by trapping the heat). Morton suggests bringing in the building-swaddling artist Christo as a consultant. "Cloaking the ice cliffs of Kilimanjaro," he writes, "would be a preservation of beauty that is itself, beautiful." Full story
  • The function of footnotes is to anchor a text, to fix it to authoritative sources which anyone can find. Now that more footnotes cite Internet sources, however, research increasingly seems to be floating through time rather than fixed in it, says the Washington Post. A recent report in the journal Science found that about one sixth of Web references in certain scientific journals are unavailable after two years. Another study showed that one-fifth of the links in an online high school curriculum were gone after one year. "It's a huge problem," says one librarian. "The average lifespan of a Web page today is 100 days. This is no way to run a culture."Full Story
Related:Research as relationship from Common-place.org
Earlier in this weblog:the problem with annotation (fifth item)

Miscellaneous: Car safety gear can injure rescuersUniversity prez pay tops $800,000Man who reads every New York Times is up to summer 2002Pigs approved to guard West Bank settlements

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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