Day 102: Could go either way

Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.

Which set of anxieties seems the most prescient? Feels like a tossup to me.

Day 77: The exemplars

The exemplars, unordered:

  • John McPhee — For being the consumate deep reporter, for prose that is the perfect alloy of precision and grace, for devotion to craft.
  • George Orwell — For his willingness to stare down anyone with acute questions, and his commitment to saying what was true.
  • Bob Dylan — For his work ethic, and for doing what he wanted to do and fuck everyone who was unhappy about that.
  • Walter Murch — For exemplifying the inquiring mind and the amateur scholar.
  • Christopher Hitchens — For courage, and for a savage wit wielded so well.
  • Lawrence Weschler — For being the model of the polymath scribbler.
  • Annie Dillard — For being a modern transcendentalist, for her unique and dexterous mind, and the best book on writing.
  • Craig Mod — For his thinking about the future of the book.
  • Seth Godin — For his wit, his nimble mind, and his clarity. And for always raising a ruckus.
  • Austin Kleon — For one piece of advice: Show your work.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin — For her defense of genre fiction, and for her steadfast and always courteous cussedness.

Day 21: Stories too good to fact-check

Julian Barnes, writing about George Orwell in The New York Review of Books, 03.12.2009:

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

Eric Blair’s passport photo, complete with unfortunate mustache.

One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Ele-phant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.

At least two of Orwell's biographers, including the aforementioned Mr. Crick, believe he did not. Shoot the elephant, that is. To me, a more interesting question now is, Does it matter? Orwell never purported to be documenting elephantcide in the colonies for the historical record. If he was claiming the authority of the honest, diligent journalist all the while inventing some or all of the story, that dishonesty does him dishonor.

But at this point and in this case, I think nothing matters but the quality of the prose, which is high indeed. I do not defend anyone who tries to pass off invention as reportage, especially when accuracy and fidelity to actual events is essential to the moment and situation. But whether or not Eric Blair pulled that trigger is now a mere academic argument.

It's odd, perhaps, but I"m less concerned with the veracity of Orwell's account than I am with the story of the Crick-Sonia confrontation. I very much want for that to have happened.