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PURETICS...

PURETICS...


Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

He Is Nobody.....

Nick Hornby began the trend of the nobody-turned-somebody autobiography. In a culture of blogs, sex diaries and childhood-abuse memoirs, can Jasper Rees hack it with his narrative about the french horn? ...

"A few years ago I was working on a biography of Arsène Wenger, the cerebral French coach of Arsenal. One of the people I interviewed was the famous Arsenal fan Nick Hornby. Afterwards I produced a first edition of "Fever Pitch" and asked him to sign it. Signed first editions of the book that made Hornby's name are gold dust. It went on to sell well over a million in the United Kingdom, but initially it had a modest print run. Why wouldn't it? The autobiography of someone who had done precisely nothing to excite the interest of the reading public was an entirely new concept in publishing.

"Of course," said Hornby, turning to the title page. "Would you like me to just sign it, or would you like me to sign it to you?"

This sounded like a trick question.

"There's no way of putting this diplomatically, Jasper. If I just sign it the value of the book will go up. If I sign it to you..." The sentence didn't need finishing. In the NASDAQ of literary value, Hornby was saying as delicately as possible, he was a somebody. I, however, was a nobody. I didn't want to suggest to him that my only motive might be improper, so I did myself out of several hundred pounds and asked him to sign it to me.

But somewhere in the netherworld of my unconscious, was I secretly calculating that one day I too would be a somebody? We all dream of telling our life story. The brilliant conjuring trick of "Fever Pitch" was that in measuring out his life in football fixtures its author told everyone else's life story too. In this country, the book single-handedly minted a brand new genre: the nonentity memoir. Its success flashed a green light at a lurking army of authors all itching to tell the world about the new holy trinity: me, myself and, last but not least, I.

At first it was mostly journalists. Previously they might have thought of funnelling their experiences into fiction, but the new literary market allowed them to stick to the facts. They wrote about their failure as a pop star, failure as a boxing promoter, or, in Toby Young's case, failure to take Manhattan. His "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" won 250,000 friends worldwide and next autumn it follows "Fever Pitch" into the multiplex--the ultimate affirmation of arrival. Where conventional autobiographies are about the rise to the top, these were tales of bumping along the bottom. Failure was the new rock'n'roll. Which explains why there have been an awful lot of golf memoirs.

None of this happened in a vacuum. Outside the bookshop, popular culture was enfranchising nobodies to share the contents of their navel through talk radio, reality television and-the most emetic, self-promoting medium of all--blogs. The logical outcome, a decade or so in, was to detach celebrity from ability sufficiently for an absolute zero called Chantelle--or to give her her scientific name, Dolly the Celeb--to sprout from the test tube, win "Celebrity Big Brother" and immediately gush forth the ne plus ultra of pointless autobiographies, entitled "Living The Dream".

A culture which entitles "real" people to the limelight was sooner or later going to give birth to the sexual memoir. Naturally the lead came from France. Cathérine Millet's "The Sexual Life of Cathérine M", a catalogue of joyless promiscuity, sold globally in its hundreds of thousands and prompted a gaggle of cliterati fluent in the argot of "Sex and the City" to bare all in titles like "Girl with a One-track Mind: Confessions of the Seductress Next Door". Sex is notoriously difficult to write about with conviction, so when a prostitute trading under the pseudonym of Belle de Jour produced, in "Diary of a Working Girl", a stylish account of her night job which sold over 200,000 copies, she was widely assumed to have made it all up. But she can't have done. It's proper novelists who get erotica wrong, so much so that Britain's Literary Review presents a Bad Sex Award to the year's worst perpetrator in fiction.

Just as sex has set up camp on the three-for-two table, so has death. It started when an HIV-positive journalist, Oscar Moore, kept a diary in the Guardian of his journey to an early grave. Two more journalists, John Diamond and Ruth Picardie, followed suit with moving dispatches from the chemotherapy front-line, posthumously collected into books which unleashed a torrent of cancer-related memoirs. However pure the authors' motives, these books leapt off the shelves for the same reason that people slow down to gawp at car crashes.

In the wake of "Angela's Ashes", Frank McCourt's memoir of a grim Irish childhood that spawned a trilogy and a movie, the publishing industry was quick to latch on to the commercial potential of childhood trauma. The New York Times was moved to describe Dave Pelzer's relentless commodification of his own abuse as "dysfunction for dollars" as authors queued up to retrieve similar memories. The formulaic titles hinted at the corporate cynicism that attended their publication: "Damaged and Punished and Abandoned", "Please, Daddy, No", "Tell Me Why, Mummy", "Don't Tell Mummy", "Don't Ever Tell". In a recent cartoon in the New Yorker a woman brandishes a letter at a man. "Congratulations!" she says. "Your manuscript was the one-millionth personal memoir submitted to us this year."

And so to the million and first--written, I almost blush to admit, by me. Without wishing to put anyone off, there is no sex or death or even illness in my life story. There is, however, a narrative I hope readers can identify with. I was taught at school never to use the word "I" in essays, and in journalism I've more or less stuck to it. Never having entertained the slightest ambition to write about myself, I found the idea stealing up on me on the cusp of my 40th birthday, no doubt a symptom of some sort of midlife rethink, when I decided on a whim to answer the beating of my heart and resume the musical instrument I'd given up on leaving school.

I was emboldened to write about what happened next by meeting many people who had expressed a similar longing. I also met some who thought they were being helpful when they said, "You must read X's personal memoir about pianos" or "Do you know Y's done something similar on the electric guitar?" I've become aware that this isn't the first story of a nobody with a musical theme. But it's my story, and like other memoirs by people you've never heard of, its aim is to tell a tale that is at once familiar and original. In alighting on the common experience of learning an instrument, and describing the nightmare-come-true of performing in front of a paying audience, I hope I've done both. So should I just sign your first edition, or should I sign it to you?"

Posted by Ajay :: 7:19 PM :: 0 comments

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History Matters?

History Matters
I have been working for the past several years with a group of historians who are trying to create a National History Center in the nation’s capitol. This is an idea proposed many years ago by J. Franklin Jameson when he was the Librarian of Congress, and resurrected by my former Princeton colleague James Banner several years ago. The distinguished University of Texas historian, Roger Louis, adopted the idea as his own when he was elected the president of the American Historical Association. The goal is to create a separate organization, closely affiliated to the AHA through an interlocking board of trustees, that can undertake a variety of roles related to promoting the importance of history in American and international public life.

Toward that end the NHC has undertaken a fundraising campaign among the membership of the AHA, and has collected sufficient funds to raise its flag and initiate its first programs. Among them have been summer seminars for community college history teachers, exploration of issues relating to history policy (state and federal history programs), a publication series on historiography with the Oxford University Press, and Congressional briefings on the historical understanding of contemporary public policy issues. The underlying ideas are both that historians have obligations to the public that extend beyond ordinary teaching and research, and that if the public is to support the work that historians do, it must understand better what it is that professional historians do.

One of the most promising activities of the new Center has been the inauguration of a series of talks on the history of foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Last night I attended the second session at the CFR, a brilliant presentation by the Columbia University historian Fritz Stern on why the Nazis rose so quickly to power in Germany in the 1930s. Stern pointed to the long, failed political education of the German people, the failures of leadership on the part of the German ruling class and other specific reasons for the (nonelectoral) transfer of power to Hitler, but he focused on the manipulation by the Nazis of national security issues to consolidate their power – fear of the enemy within (the Jews) was manipulated to devastating effect. This produced, according to Stern, a “silent and jubilant submission” of the German people. There was a long and spirited discussion following the talk, in which it became clear that the audience was making connections between the dangers and failures of the 1930s and those of the contemporary world. When asked what he most feared today, Stern replied “the Singapore model” – authoritarianism and economic development. Which of course is one way to describe the Nazi experiment. History matters.
By Stan Katz

Posted by Ajay :: 7:08 PM :: 0 comments

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