Monday, 10 February 2014

Slow blogs, rushed book reviews, and the last great promise of Obama

I want to explain my motivations for writing this blog, the inspiring ways I plan to talk about science and all that, but first I will digress a little.

On the dashed-off nature of blogs. I'm skeptical of it. If you don't mind, I'd rather mull things over a bit before just throwing them out there. It's all very well if I've gone into the intellectual wilds, as it were, and caught a good idea, but in most cases I think you'd prefer if I didn't just toss it to you raw; I should cook it first. If a draft or two is against the spirit of a blog, then I confess to them up front. In fact, for added pretentiousness disguised as honesty, whenever necessary I will include the dates over which the post was written, like those fancy writers do: "Barcelona-Osaka-Montreal-Lima, 2007-2012."

My reservations about the spontaneity of blogs extend to a lot of old-fashioned print media, too. There has always been a desire to be the first out with an opinion, to set the tone of the discussion. The example that comes to mind, for some reason, is political memoirs. I remember when Bill Clinton's memoirs came out. That was one heavy block of a book, and I imagined that all the reviewers had been handed a copy one day before publication, and had immediately leaped into their reading chairs, or beds, or baths, and started ploughing through it like maniacs, every one of them desperately hoping that they didn't miss a single headline-making passage before they finally had to put it down and belt out a 1000-word review to send off to their paper by 5am.

In reality they were probably given a pre-publication copy and a non-disclosure agreement three months earlier, plus an index to key pages provided by the publicist ("…amusing childhood experience No. 32, p. 234… re-election campaign, p. 452-587… stains on dress, forget it."). But the point is that no-one is interested in a review that appears six months later, even if it is the result of careful consideration, detailed research and fact-checking and interviews, and contains brilliant insights and subtle observations. Now, this is probably because no-one gave a damn about Clinton's memoirs for more than a week, and maybe that's how it should be. But I assume that there is the occasional amazing political memoir out there, and I would be very happy if someone, years after it was published, were to write a "re-review" (or perhaps it should be "aged review") that explained to me why, even though I haven't read a political memoir in my life, this one will be worth my while. That is something I would love to see. I wouldn't mind having a go at that kind of "aged review" myself in this blog, although probably not with political memoirs.

Except, perhaps, Obama's memoir. (Ok, now I'm writing an opinion several years before the book is written, so I'm botching the whole thing already.) I have high hopes for Obama's memoirs. Probably higher hopes than I had for his presidency. After all, he had never been President of the United States before, and, as was disingenuously pointed out during the 2008 election campaign by all of his rivals, who also had never been President before, this was a man with no direct experience of the job.

On the other hand, Obama has already written a memoir. I read "Dreams from my Father" in those heady times between Obama's election and his inauguration, and I was amazed. It wasn't just that I found the book inspiring, although of course it was certainly that, especially in those months. After his every insight about the difficulties of black America, I would think, "Yes, racial prejudice is just too deeply ingrained in the culture. There's no way this guy could ever be elected president, not in a million years… Just a minute, he HAS been!" This wonderful realisation would strike me every 20 pages or so, and maybe that biassed my assessment of the book. (Really, Mark? You think?) But I'm not the only one who gave it the literary thumbs-up. A few months later I read a beautiful article in the New York Review of Books by Zadie Smith, where she discussed, among other things, Obama's great skill at capturing a character's personality, outlook, and entire culture, all in the perfect rendition of their unique voice.

In short: this is a guy capable of incisive self-analysis and shrewd observations of others, and the ability to illuminate it all in fine prose. He's not a President who can write, but a writer who became President. How often does that happen? Who would not relish the thought of such a fellow writing a first-hand account of being President of the United States? Sure, we could imagine more tantalising figures for the job. I'd much rather read Mark Twain's century-delayed autobiography if Book Three was devoted to his (presumably disastrous) one-term presidency. Or Hemingway refusing to be apologetic that in a drunken fit he launched a nuclear holocaust: "I ordered the attack. The missiles were airborne. It felt good. And that time, the Earth really did move." Or Philip Roth's autobiography-as-fiction blockbuster Zuckerman Rules. Obama may not match what they would have done, but he's ambitious, and we can be sure that he'll try; and if you read Smith's article (and you should), you'll be convinced that in fact he is capable of doing a greater job than any American writer before him. Now, I know that the man who comes out the other end of the presidency will not be the same man who went in (who in turn was not the man who'd just left Harvard when he wrote his first memoir), and the whole thing may be nothing but charming anecdotes and convoluted self-justifications, but -- just to induce a cringe in disillusioned liberals -- I can have the audacity to hope.

If you cannot bear the possibility of disappointment, you can also just wait to see if I write an "aged review" of it. Sometime around 2020.

Sorry. I was going to tell you what this blog will be about, and why I'm writing it, but I got a bit sidetracked. At this rate I'm going to write a blog devoted entirely to the question of what the blog is about. As thrillingly post-modern as that may sound, I promise to reveal at least one of my nefarious motives next time.

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