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Archive for August, 2012

A Small Truth

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Everyone’s angry. Everyone’s ready to pop off. No one has patience. and hardly anyone remembers an old-fashioned, slightly nostalgic word these days: courtesy.

No, I’m not going off on a rant about psychology. But ranting is what an awful lot of people are doing. Have you been to a blog recently? Try the AJC’s blogs to get a sampling of the meanness and divisiveness that’s out there now. Whether it’s politics or sports, or even a discussion on traffic, bloggers are angry and they’re not going to put up with it any longer. And they’re not going to put up with anyone who doesn’t agree with them any longer, either. Blogging has become symptomatic of our national mindset: take no prisoners.

We just concluded a rancorous Republican National Convention. We’re headed to a rancorous Democratic National Convention. And don’t bother blogging about the results of either, because what you’ll get is name-calling, misstatements of fact (to put it pleasantly), rumors, condescension and really batty concepts, all delivered at a shout. I challenge anyone to show me that a blog entry has ever changed anyone’s mind, which begs the question of why we can’t just take it down a notch.

It all puts me in mind of one of my favorite historians, Jim Cobb, who holds a distinguished chair in history at UGA and is the former president of the Southern Historical Association. His area of expertise is Southern history, and he has written about it with great insight and occasional good humor in a well-received books. One of them is “Away Down South,” published in 2005, in which he looked at the fascinating topic of Southern identity. Some of his conclusions bear directly on what I’ve been writing about here, and I hope some of the bloggers, at least, might take these lines to heart:

“To a world where diminishing national distinctions may make other sorts of group distinctions seem far too important and sometimes even matters of life and death, the South’s experience surely says that any identity — national, regional, cultural, or otherwise [even political] — that can be sustained only by demonizing or denigrating other groups exacts a terrible toll, not simply on the demonized and denigrated but ultimately on those who can find self-affirmation only by rejecting others.”

I wish I could say it as well as Jim Cobb. Too many of us are affirming our own beliefs by running down those of others. By showing no respect for those who believe differently, we minimize ourselves. By demanding that others accept what we hold true, we speak against our country’s basic principles. And we lessen ourselves in the process.

It’s shabby. It’s a shame. And I suspect the people who need most to stop it will never, ever read Jim Cobb’s words. Much less act on them.

Summer Reading: A Venerable Tradition

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Summer reading. Ah, the time of loafing through light reading. Beach books. Settling into a hammock and letting the mind slip into cruise control with some guilty pleasures by Danielle Steel or Suzanne Collins or maybe Ken Follett. It’s been a tradition for … well, a heck of a lot longer than most of us probably imagine.

I came across a fascinating article the other day written by Craig Fehrman in The Boston Globe which I want to tell you a little about since the Globe doesn’t have much circulation in these parts. He writes that while we may think of the summer reading habit as recent — a likely invention of publishers to sell their books — way back in 1874 the Globe was urging its readers to take along books when they considered vacations. And the notion of vacations — which followed along with changing attitudes about work in the latter part of the 19th century — led to the idea of books being an essential part of time off from work. In his research, Fehrman tells us that as early as 1897 The New York Times was compiling a list of the 100 best summer books. And perhaps that resulted from librarians and teachers starting summer reading lists for the kids.

Fehrman — who deserves a lot of credit for digging up some intriguing information about this topic — writes that “by the start of World War I, summer reading was such an accepted and widespread practice that  “it no longer seemed worth squabbling over.” He quotes one book review writing in 1915 that “The summer, by our custom, is the time when one loafs.”

It could be argued, I suppose, that in the 21st century we seem to have entered a period when vacations are again edging toward extinction as people labor long in their jobs and seldom seem to take all of the vacation time they are allotted — or have finally landed a job after lengthy unemployment and have little opportunity for time off. And some of us who do vacation have always leaned toward the summer as a time of challenge: the time to face up to a book that I “ought” to read. Because of that, I’ve plowed through the likes of “Ulysses,” “The Sound and the Fury,” “The Ambassadors” and Proust (well, not all of Proust) in the hottest months and come away with a wonderful sense of accomplishment if not always a total sense of entertainment.

“Summer reading has come to offer an ideal space in the middle,” writes Fehrman, “equally accepted as a way to escaper the pressures of work or as a course in self-iprovement.” Agreed.

And as summer’s days wind down (though not temperatures in this part of the country), there’s no longer a need to be defensive about what your summer reading might be. Instead, Fehrman reminds us, “you can be pleased to be joining a venerable, beloved American tradition — the right to relax with a book in the sun.”

Introducing Natasha Trethewey

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

It’s really a very special occasion that Georgia can claim a strong connection — though hardly the only one — to the newly named Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey. She’s a very special writer and woman, and she carries a deeply felt character in her presence and her work.

She officially begins her prestigious new literary assignment in mid-September at the Library of Congress — the home, by the way, of the national Center for the Book — which means that when she comes to the Georgia Literary Festival at Jekyll Island November 9-10 she will be making her first “official” book appearance in this state. That’s a big deal, and those  of us who have been working to put together that festival are excited and honored to welcome her to what is shaping up as arguably this year’s best book-related event.

Natasha will become the 19th Poet Laureate, though the post goes back to the 1940s when those chosen were called “Consultants in Poetry” to the Library of Congress. Her predecessors are an incredibly distinguished lot. Consider some of the names: Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Dickey and more recently Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins and the most recent  Laureate, Philip Levine. That’s a daunting group of poets at any time, anywhere.

Natasha has written four books and she has a new one, a new collection of poems, due later this fall, but just in time for the Jekyll Island festival, where it will be available for sale and signing. (Yep, this is a shameless plug for that beachfront event, with the added bonus of an appearance by the newly named Georgia Poet Laureate, Judson Mitcham. No tickets are required, and it’s free of course. Check out details at this web site.)

Natasha is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, a post she retains during the 12-months she is the U.S. Poet Laureate. That’s her native state (she was born in Gulfport in 1966), though her home is now in Georgia where she teaches at Emory University. She’s made several appearances with the Georgia Center for the Book, of course, and her work has been included on the Center’s important list of “25 Books All Georgians Should Read.”

In other words, she’s really someone very special. I hope you get to meet her. I hope you get to read her.