A Q&A with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is an author, poet, and teacher living in New Jersey. He is a staff writer for The Millions and has had his work published in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and Shenandoah. His new collection of short stories, Good People, will be published later this year.

Nick wrote or was featured in a number of insightful pieces over the last couple of months, including an essay about writing as a sacramental act, a beautiful list of reflections on teaching English, and an interview on the state of Catholic writing with The Jesuit Post. We reached out to Nick to ask a few additional questions about literature, art, teaching, faith, and New Jersey, and he graciously accepted our request.

In “Sacrament of Fiction,” you wrote: “The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.” Why did you return to New Jersey after college? To what extent does a sense of place influence or weave its way into your work? Given the political and economic tumult that our state seems to face rather consistently, what role (if any) do you believe art and literature can have in shaping public policy?

There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own culture and power structure. That observation would apply to any state, but New Jersey is unique in that this fragmentation occurs in a small state with marked economic inequalities in bordering towns and counties. I grew up in a suburban area of the state, my family is from an urban section, and I live in a rural part–Sussex County–which looks like Vermont.

I came back to New Jersey after college for family, and for those geographic and cultural diversities. I actually think being from New Jersey forces one’s imagination to be on high alert, because of all these stratifications. But I don’t often write about this state in my fiction. Place is essential to my work, but not exactly this place. I’m attracted to fiction in which topography dictates culture, so I lean more toward pastoral writers like Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. My fiction tends to be set in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, for those reasons. I can write essays about this state, but my fiction is set elsewhere. Our truths are strange enough, I guess.

Now, that’s an interesting question about art and literature in relation to public policy. I worked in a county elections office one summer, and watched all of the handshake agreements and constant “meetings” between local officials and election officers. That made me incredibly skeptical of politicians, and the idea of parties, especially. Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a place of endless squabbles and backstabbing (or frontstabbing?), so a scene from Hamlet might be most appropriate for what happens at the Statehouse.

I think art and literature can help people transcend the ephemera of the political world. That doesn’t result in the governor’s administration actually making a pension payment, nor does it lower our property taxes, but it might give some solace. More practically, art and literature adds nuance and texture to single-column, talking-point style reporting. There is a great political and social novel to be written about the theater that is Chris Christie’s New Jersey: from Xanadu to closed lanes, we’ve got high drama for low reasons. I tend to think writers and artists do better helping make sense of policy rather than directly shaping or building it.

In what ways is teaching similar and/or dissimilar to writing as a vocational, devotional endeavor?

Although I get paid to teach, if done well, it is also a selfless pursuit, focused on helping students discover themselves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Teachers are only a part of this process, but they are an important part. At some level, teaching is a kenotic activity. Writing is an inherently selfish activity. I hope that my teaching somehow evens-out my tendency to write (since I think writing for publication is, effectively, the claim that my words are somehow worth the time and money of an audience). There is certainly a penitential aspect to the teaching-writing equation.

Both endeavors require an absolute attention toward an audience, which includes mediation between performance and genuine feeling. Since I write two essays a month for The Millions, an online magazine that covers books, writing, and publishing, I need to craft pieces that are worth reading on the screen. We have a wide audience, but they are a discerning one. When it comes to teaching, I have had students who took several different courses with me, say that I seemed like a different person in each course. I’ll take that as a compliment. When Thomas Merton said “what we have to be is what we are,” I think he was more concerned with our internal than external selves. As a teacher, I play to the audience while trying not to get played (Flannery O’Connor said if a student doesn’t find a teacher’s methods or content to his taste, “Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” She’s funny, but she never taught high school English. There needs to be some compromise.). There’s a difference between being emotionally raw, wearing your emotions on your sleeves and slacks, and being genuinely interested in the well-being of your students. Many teachers leave the profession because they take it too personally. The same goes for writers.

You’ve published novellas, nonfiction books, poetry collections, and essays. Does your writing and composition process differ for each of these forms?

Yes. My novellas have been pared down from novels. This Darksome Burn, which was published last year, is more than 200 pages less than its longest version. I’m a big fan of almost maniacal line-revision on the printed page (with as sharp a pencil as possible). I like to pare away, clear the chaff, and add more.

I take the same approach to short essay writing. My book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight, was a different beast. That required so much research and sourcing and comparing that I held-off on worrying about the prose until the content was finalized. It was a weird feeling to not write a paragraph and then revise it, but the book was meant to impart information, not be lyric.

I can draft a poem very quickly, but I always put those manuscripts in a desk drawer and let them sit for a few weeks before thinking about revision. I print one poem per page at 14 point font (the errors jump out a bit more there, and it also forces me to make sure my lines aren’t too long). After a line-edit, I do one more run-through since I sometimes am too heavy on concision. I have to resuscitate the rhythm of a line before the poem is finished.

If you had to choose one writer and/or theologian who most influenced the way you think about belief and your craft, who would you select?

This is such a difficult question! Let me start with the runners-up. The only theologian who has really formed me is Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, but he has not had as much influence as Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, Thomas McGuane, Ron Hansen, and Don DeLillo. If I had to pick a runner-up, it would be DeLillo. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school and university. His work is profoundly Catholic, but he does not appear to have practiced the religion as an adult. We differ in that sense, but I often learn best from writers who are not quite like myself.

I would choose DeLillo over Dubus and O’Connor because, ultimately, even though I write about the West and Southwest, my soul is from Newark. I’m a Northeast guy with that sensibility, and it’s a sentiment DeLillo captures in everything, from Underworld to Point Omega to my favorite work of his, End Zone, which is set in Texas but is narrated by a character from New York.

The writer who has lived a life of faith that I try to emulate is Ron Hansen. I love his range: he moves from historical fiction like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to a postmodern theological thriller, Mariette in Ecstasy. His collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, has helped me as a writer, and has been a spiritual document for me as a Catholic. He’s been the model of a Catholic writer who publishes in the secular world not to proselytize, but to widen the cultural conversation.

The Church has seen a significant amount of change since Francis became Pope. You’ve written about your youthful aspirations to become a priest; do you think we’ll see more substantial changes in Church policy or doctrine in the coming years on subjects such as married priests? Would these kinds of changes be good for the Church?

I think we have seen changes in delivery and tone under Francis, more so than we have seen doctrinal shifts. He appears to be more self-aware of the theater of his role than Benedict. Outside observers, particularly lapsed Catholics or those who have never had a faith, expect swift dogmatic moves. His humble gestures are in the tradition of the name he has taken, and have certainly improved the face of the Church. Fr. James Martin, one of America’s most known Jesuits, has been in magazines, on websites, and on television and radio stations with a consistent refrain: Pope Francis is a brilliant, compassionate man who will likely not deviate from traditional church teachings.

In regards to married priests, I think Francis’s presence will hopefully create more reasonable dialogue about priestly celibacy (and, really, the emotional and physical identities of priests overall), but I do not think the Church will shift its stance here. While still a Cardinal, Francis said that celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.” Some media markets have run with that statement, but to again echo Fr. Martin, it is important to remember that Francis is both a theologian and a Jesuit, prone to extemporaneous thinking. I think that is a positive trait. He is open-minded and dynamic. I don’t think it means he is necessarily malleable. It’s not my place to say whether priests should be married are not. There are instances of Lutheran pastors (and those of other rites) converting to Catholicism and remaining priests, but this gets into theologically murky territory that I don’t have sufficient background in to comment. I think the best thing for the Church is to view the laity as “their people,” not a separate entity. That seems to be happening more under Francis.

In response to Dana Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” you noted the following in an interview with The Jesuit Post:

The ultimate problem is that we are lacking a Catholic critical infrastructure…. Without this critical infrastructure–without conversation and contradiction–we are left with a provincial literature. Catholic stories published in Catholic magazines for Catholic readers, or Catholic books reviewed on Amazon by Catholic reviewers who gauge the writer’s fidelity to Catholicism as you would rate a vacuum.

This quote suggests an aversion to literature that falls in an exclusively “Catholic” genre. Would you say that “Catholic literature” should instead be more of an approach, a movement to interpret and discuss all secular art from a faith-based frame? What steps could we take to initiate conversations on a broader scale? What kind of infrastructure would you want to see created?

I do have an aversion to literature that forcefully identifies itself as Catholic in a genre sense, as if self-identification is an affirmation of aesthetic quality. I like the idea “approach” much better, for the reasons you mention; articulating Catholicism as a worldview. I happen to think it is a wonderfully nuanced worldview. Catholic faith and Catholic Mass are intrinsically analogical and performative. Catholic schooling and upbringing are excellent preparations for sensitive artists. As Catholics, we are taught close reading, the power of song to transform story, the possibility of something being simultaneously a symbol and a real thing, the wealth of community, the models of saints, and more—all experiences that translate well into the creation of, and appreciation for, art.

In order for a return to a significant presence of Catholic arts and letters in the wider secular discussion (as in the time of Flannery O’Connor), we need a recognition of certain aesthetic standards, and the acceptance that not all work written by Catholics (or about Catholics) is necessarily good. There is a difference between private and public literature. Private literature is cathartic, personal, immediate. It does not need an editor. Public literature needs an editor, a publisher, an audience. It needs distribution and discernment. In order for these Catholic conversations to reach a “broader scale,” we need men and women writing from a Catholic worldview articulating that aesthetic sense in the largest and most influential markets, magazines, and locations. I think of Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie. But four is not enough.

The infrastructure component you discussed was well-covered in “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, but I would add that we need to bring the private versus public conversation to the undergraduate and graduate classrooms in creative writing. We need top-notch writing programs at Catholic universities, training young writers to also write criticism for wide audiences, not simply peer-reviewed journals (which are excellent, but don’t reach enough readers beyond the academy). These movements will be slow, but they are necessary. Catholicism is a tremendously misunderstood and misrepresented religion, culture, and intellectual space. Catholic writers need to do the work of correcting these errors while inspiring adherents to look at their faith with new eyes.

Thanks again to Nick for responding to our questions. Check out his latest novella, This Darksome Burn, here. For more information on Nick, visit www.nickripatrazone.com.

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The Complete Reader’s Guide to David Mitchell

This post is an overview of the bibliography of author David Mitchell.  It includes links to interviews, reviews, and essays, as well as information about his forthcoming books.

Last updated July 2017.

Table of Contents
I. Collected Works
II. Book Review Compilations
III. Select Critical Analysis
IV. Select Essays, Interviews and Lists
V. Videos
VI. The Future and Forthcoming Books

***

Introduction

In its starred review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Publisher’s Weekly posed the following question: “Is [this] the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?”

High praise, indeed, and appropriately prescient; The Bone Clocks was ultimately longlisted for several end-of-year literary awards.  But Mitchell’s readers have long known that such critical praise is both justified and deserved.  David Mitchell, author of six novels and over a dozen short stories and librettos, is one of the most ambitious (and enjoyable) writers of the twenty-first century.

What makes Mitchell’s body of work so unique?  In brief, his use of lush language, kinetic storytelling, and an expansive vision of how his fiction fits together.  Mitchell is pioneering what might be deemed a “meta-novel,” in which all of his books and short stories are part of a larger universal narrative.  Thanks to his emotionally resonant characters and the thematic depth of his fiction, this has yielded an unparalleled micro- and macro-storytelling project unlike anything else in modern literature.

The varied structures and styles of Mitchell’s individual novels reflect this overarching scope.  They range from standard first-person Bildungsroman (Black Swan Green) to multi-narrator historical fiction (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) to symphonies of interconnected narrative strains.  Cloud Atlas, perhaps his most well-known work, features six linked stories-within-stories that span hundreds of years, authored in the styles of epistolary correspondence, judicial inquisition, 1970s political thriller, and more.  Ghostwritten, his debut novel, features nine independent stories that connect over the course of the book.  Mitchell’s first manuscript, which was roundly rejected by publishers, somehow puts its successors to shame in scope: it included 365 different chaptersmultiple subplots, and dozens of characters.

In many ways, Mitchell’s penchant for unique, interlocking narrative structures makes him a perfect author for contemporary fandom, in which the close-reading of small plot points and finishing touches is rewarded with new layers of thematic depth.  The interconnectedness of his books and stories yields a dizzying number of crossover character appearances and cameos from title to title, which in turn affect how the reader understands the drama and stakes of a given scene or plot.  Dr. Marinus, the wise, gruff botanist from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, appears in a different capacity in The Bone Clocks, despite the two books taking place nearly 200 years apart.  Knowing Marinus’ role in the latter book completely re-shapes how the reader could interpret the full narrative arc of the former.

Of course, such interplay between books only works when characters and plots are compelling, and Mitchell does not disappoint.  Tracking Jason Taylor’s maturation in Black Swan Green, Jacob de Zoet’s hopes and fears in Thousand Autumns, and Zachry’s attempts to make sense of post-apocalyptic society in Cloud Atlas are case studies in the pathos that Mitchell can draw from his protagonists. A recurring theme in his work is the dynamic of power structures and how benevolence can exist amid aggressive malevolence. Seeing his characters navigate their surroundings and these power structures is a joy, thanks to Mitchell’s ability to weave together action, humor, and quiet moments of reflection.

To help fans appreciate the scope of Mitchell’s expansive literary universe, we’ve compiled a host of links and resources that comprise a significant portion of his bibliography.  We hope this will serve both newcomers to his work and seasoned fans looking for hard-to-find stories and interviews.  Enjoy!

***

I. Collected Works

Every major piece of fiction and nonfiction in Mitchell’s bibliography. Book links lead to Amazon pages; short story links lead to online copies if available; libretto links lead to synopses and interviews.  Short story publishers and publication dates represent the earlier publication date between U.K. and American editions.

Credit to this site for compiling many of the short stories listed, and special thanks to Mr. Robert Borski for his kind help in adding additional stories and recommended links. 

Books

Unpublished Manuscripts

  • The Old Moon
  • From Me Flows What You Call Time (Future Library Novel)

Book Translations (Nonfiction)

Short Stories and Fiction

  • The January Man (2003. Printed in Granta 81. Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.)
  • What You Do Not Know You Want (2004. Included in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon, published by Vintage.)
  • Acknowledgments (2005. Printed in Prospect.)
  • Hangman (2005. Included in New Writing 13, edited by Ali Smith and Toby Litt; published by Picador.  Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.)
  • All Souls Day (Pre-2006, 2016. First discussed in Sarah Dillon’s Critical Essays prior to the publication of Black Swan Green. Published in Jealous Saboteurs by artist Francis Uprichard in 2016. Early version of a chapter from Black Swan Green.
  • Preface (2006. Printed in the Daily Telegraph.)
  • Dénouement (2007. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • Judith Castle (2008. Reprinted in the New York Times; included in The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith, published by Penguin.)
  • The Massive Rat (2009. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • An Inside Job (2009. Included in Fighting Words, edited by Roddy Doyle, published by Stoney Road Press.)
  • Character Development (2009. Reprinted in The Guardian; included in Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Amnesty International, published by Amnesty International.)
  • Muggins Here (2010. Printed in The Guardian.)
  • Earth Calling Taylor (2010. Printed in the Financial Times.)
  • The Gardener (2011. Reprinted in The Guardian; originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “The Flower Show” art exhibition.)
  • The Siphoners (2011. Included in I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet edited by Mark Martin, published by Verso Books.)
  • In the Bike Sheds (2012. Printed in We Love This Book.)
  • Lots of Bits of Star (2013. Originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “Caught by the Nest” art exhibition.)
  • Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut (2014. Printed in Granta Magazine 127.)
  • The Right Sort (2014. Published via Twitter. Early version of a chapter from Slade House.)
  • My Eye On You (2016. Originally created for Kai & Sunny’s “Whirlwind of Time” art exhibition.)
  • A Forgettable Story (2017. Printed in Silkroad Magazine.)

Short Story Translations

  • The Earthgod and the Fox (2012. By Kenji Miyazawa; translation printed in McSweeney’s Issue 42.)

Librettos

Other

II. Book Review Compilations

Collected links for reviews of three Mitchell titles.

III. Select Critical Analysis

Periodical Criticism

Academic Scholarship

IV. Select Author Essays, Print Interviews, and Reading Lists

Select Essays

Japan and My Writing – “This lack of belonging encourages me to write: I lack a sense of citizenship in the real world, and in some ways, commitment to it. To compensate, I stake out a life in the country called writing. I don’t mean the publishing world: I mean a mental state (mental is the word!), where characters and plots in the head achieve the solidity of people and lives outside the head.”

Two essays for BookBrowse – “Writers’ motives are as varied as criminals’, but I suspect that the historical novelist’s genetic code contains the geeky genes of the model-maker – there is pleasure to be had in the painstaking reconstruction of a lost world.”

Lost for Words (published in Prospect) – “Stammerers are furnaces of willpower, burning more of the stuff in making a single phonecall than our non-stammering accusers get through in a week. My first ever public event as a writer was in 1999, at the generous invitation of AS Byatt and Tibor Fischer. Tibor picked up on my nervousness and, meaning to reassure me, said: ‘This will be the scariest reading you’ll ever do.’ I’ve never told him how right he was.”

An essay for The Atlantic – “We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.”

Imaginary City (published in GEIST) – “Closer up, my imaginary Vancouver is scoured by the cold Pacific (as much an oxymoron as ‘hot Atlantic,’ where I’m from) and in need of a fresh lick of paint, like any working port. Ferries lit like Christmas trees plow the harbour, and snow-carved mountains encircle a stained-glass-at-night sky.”

A Possibly True Ghost Story (published in Freeman’s) – “Being young, I felt that I owned an unlimited bank account of hours and days, so I’d often zone out and gaze at the river, its herons, and the steep flank of wooded mountain rising from its far bank. No great leap of the imagination was required to picture the irradiated human beings of all ages arriving 50 years earlier—right there, at the very same spot where I aired my futon, hung my laundry, and ate my granola.”

Select Interviews

Blurbs and Recommendations

V. Select Videos

Longer Conversation

Short Clips

(Also parts 2, 3, and 4)

(The first in a series of 10, linked from that video.)

VI. The Future and Forthcoming Books

Mitchell signed a three-book deal with Random House in 2014, which covers the publication of two new novels and another translation of Naoki Higashida’s work (the author of The Reason I Jump).  It appears that one of these novels is his most recent book, Slade House, which was published in October 2015. His translation of Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight was released in July 2017, which would suggest there is currently one book remaining on the Random House deal.

Next Novel

As part of the publicity tour for Slade House, Mitchell noted that he’ll be working on side-projects in advance of his next novel, which will take place in the 1960s:

I’m doing a couple of non-novel side-projects to ‘omnivorize’ myself a little, but I’ve promised not to discuss these for the time being. My next novel will be set in Soho London, Greenwich Village and Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s and will contain not a whiff of the supernatural. Probably.

Mitchell had discussed the themes of this next novel in a May 2015 interview:

Though most of Mitchell’s works can seem dark, they are ultimately also imbued with an inescapable sense of optimism. He believes in a future for humanity, and in the resilience of the human spirit, and it shines through.

Those ideals also colour the novel that Mitchell is currently working on, the book that may come after the novella in October. I won’t divulge too much, except to say that it’s set primarily in London in the 1960s and 1970s, and explores youth and creativity.

“What is idealism? What use is it? How ridiculous is it? But does anything change for the better without it?”

He also described the basic plot of the book in a 2014 interview with The Yale Herald:  

It’s going to be set in 1967, ‘68, ‘69. It’ll be a British act in the folk rock revival starting in Soho—which is like our Greenwich Village, London’s Greenwich Village—and then they’re agent will try to “break America,” so they’ll be performing in the Gas- light Bar, and in places like that. But there are drugs around, so you can then bend the laws of reality with that justification but stay within realism. There will be weird shit happening in the book.

Following Novel

In an August 2015 interview with The Guardian, Mitchell acknowledged how all of his work shares a common universe, and he briefly referenced the next book he’ll be working on after the Slade House follow-up is finished:

He added: “Everything I will do will be in this universe. Even if it’s the book after the next one I do, which will be set around the turn of the first millennium.”

Additional Forthcoming Books

Kathryn Schulz wrote about Mitchell’s next five novels in her Vulture piece on The Bone Clocks:

Over lunch at a café in Kinsale, Mitchell astounded me by describing, in extensive detail, his next five books. These include further adventures with soul-eating villains, a trio of linked novellas set in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a return to historical fiction (different hemisphere this time), and a fictionalized biography of an 18th-century person you’ve probably heard of. The final installment of the Marinus trilogy will follow all that. Mitchell is also toying with an idea for what will by then be his 12th novel. It is set 250 million years in the future.

In his 2014 interview with The Millions, Mitchell described the Marinus title in greater detail, along with information about another book:

I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year.

Mitchell seems to have referenced the Marinus title in an interview from 2015:

…he’s been recently very interested in Iceland and so something with Vikings, or Greenland, or the Sagas, is probably in the queue. Particularly, he’s interested in writing something set 30 years after the end of The Bone Clocks and set in Iceland.

In that same interview, he also appears to have dropped a hint about the protagonist of his book set in the 18th century:

He also admitted to being fascinated by the 18th century harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti who was decidedly average until the final years of his life when he wrote 550 sonatas of brilliance. The inversion of the more familiar child-prodigy figure appeals to him and he wondered what might have triggered that sudden awakening of genius.

At Book Expo America 2014, Mitchell mentioned that he would like to write a novel about soccer but provided no additional details by way of plot or style.

Future Library Title

In May 2015, the Future Library project announced that David Mitchell would be its second participating author.  Future Library is a literary time capsule that will be collecting new, never-before-published work from 100 authors over the next 100 years, and it will lock those manuscripts away from public consumption until 2114.

In May 2016, Mitchell submitted his contribution, From Me Flows What You Call Time, at a ceremony held in Oslo.  Few details have been revealed about the manuscript, save that it’s a 90-page novella and that it shares its name with an orchestral composition by Toru Takemitsu.

Anything Else?

Not at the moment, but if you have any recommendations for additions to the list, send them our way- we’ll update this post as new features are published or uncovered.  This is not a exhaustive accounting of every interview, review, and conversation that David has been a part of, but we hope it’s a good introduction to his body of work.

Amazon Should Acquire Barnes & Noble

You’ve got to hand it to Jeff Bezos. Amidst ongoing news coverage of Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire HDX, its online foray into Netflix-esque digital programming, and its familiar role as nexus of the online holiday shopping season, Bezos managed to pull yet another PR ace from his company’s burgeoning sleeve this past weekend with the announcement of Amazon Prime Air. The new service is expected to launch in 2015 and will supposedly deliver small packages via drone shipments within 30 minutes of placing an order.

It’s an amazing, terrifying idea, and one that will probably have to clear miles and miles of regulatory tape before any drone levitates a single inch off the ground of one of Amazon’s storage facilities. So what other aces can Bezos play in the meantime to keep up his company’s ever-increasing public profile?

Here’s one suggestion: acquire Barnes & Noble. My friend Jamie and I began talking about this idea about a month ago, and it’s increasingly clear that such a move would be a highly sensible avenue to buttress Amazon’s identity as a known and trusted brand.

The immediate impetus for this move would be to consolidate Amazon’s power as the largest market force in bookselling. Barnes & Noble is the last major challenger to Amazon’s cost-effective behemoth and absorbing it into the Amazon portfolio would give Amazon a great deal of additional power in controlling book marketplace standards. It would also remove the competition of B&N’s Nook which, although an increasingly marginal player in the e-reader and tablet market, still has a relatively robust digital infrastructure. Acquiring this infrastructure could have important implications down the road. Example: Microsoft owns a 10% stake in Nook and an Amazon purchase of the entire B&N brand would eliminate the potential of Microsoft adding a Nook-based reading application to Windows if and when Nook is spun off.

There would also be direct financial benefits from such a deal. Amazon can easily afford the $985 million market cap of Barnes & Noble as well as a hefty stock purchase premium. And given that B&N still earns $374 million in annual profits from its physical bookstores, it’s a deal that would eventually pay for itself.

More important than market share consolidation, however, is the new public narrative that Amazon can create from such an acquisition, as well as the previously untapped footholds it can gain in local communities. The conventional bookseller lament is that Amazon is destroying the joys of the physical book store with its soulless, algorithmic cost-slashing. In one acquisition Amazon becomes the cultural proprietor of the local bookstore, a global force that still cares about the benefits it can provide to local communities.

People like bookstores for a variety of reasons. They imbue a sense of spontaneity and discovery that online shopping will always have a hard time replicating. They’re a great place to wander through on rainy days while grabbing a coffee or pastry and enjoying extended previews of potential purchases. They’re a prime destination for picking up quick but thoughtful gifts. Most importantly, in many cases, they’re a sort of cultural hub for the community, hosting authors and other guest speakers that are open to the public, almost always free of charge.

Imagine how the noxious narrative surrounding Amazon would change if they purchased the largest bookseller and made a campaign of further promoting these public goods that bookstores provide. Not only would Amazon become a cultural touchstone in many communities, it would be seen as the savior of bookstores and a force that understands the communal value of reading.

How Amazon would operate a brick-and-mortar bookstore chain is open to interpretation, but I see the potential to combine the best of a library rental system with the benefits of immediate purchasing. Amazon would still offer books for sale, perhaps at a slight markup from their online counterparts, but customers would likely pay the premium for the immediacy of purchase. More importantly, Amazon could leverage its Prime program to create further purchasing incentives, in which anyone with online membership would receive perks or in-store benefits. Jamie suggested a bevy of avenues this kind of program could take: free coffee, sales discounts, or even participation in a library-esque book loan system.

Unlike Apple and Microsoft, Amazon does not have a dedicated physical space to demonstrate its wares. Its Kindle line is available in a number of retailers but is often displayed amidst a sea of other tablet options. Purchasing Barnes & Noble would give Amazon space for a devoted Kindle display in the most innocuous of atmospheres- surrounded by physical books! This space would also allow Amazon to publicize and promote any major, non-book online deals, letting customers test out key products that they might be reticent to purchase without trying beforehand. This kind of store setup would also facilitate the purchase of online products in-store. Most people go home from Barnes & Noble to buy a discounted or e-reader edition of what they saw in the store. Why not cut out the middleman and let people make those purchases directly from a store terminal?

A purchase of Barnes & Noble would have limited returns, to a degree. The single-floor B&N stores in malls throughout the country would not be conducive to this kind of plan; the main core of the deal would be access to the multi-tiered B&N megastores that dot select communities in major population zones. And, again, on the whole, this would be revenue-neutral for Amazon at best. Its margins are already slim or nonexistent in the online book business and any revenue gained from the stores would not generate net profit (due to the deal’s upfront expenses) in the immediate future.

But, as Jamie noted in our conversation: “Normally, this might be a pie in the sky scenario for a profit-maximizing corporation in Amazon’s shoes, but Amazon hasn’t ever cared about profits, and shareholders apparently don’t care that Amazon doesn’t turn a profit.”

The purpose of this deal is one of crafting a strategic PR narrative rather than strict accounting. Bookstores are not moratoriums for the dying print medium; they’re living, breathing communities where people go for diversion, enlightenment, and solace. Subsidizing this kind of experience is something Amazon can easily afford, while simultaneously eliminating its largest bookseller rival and creating a dedicated space to promote Amazon products. It’s a win-win-win for Amazon’s reputation, readers, and communities across the board. (Indie booksellers, not so much… but that’s why they should band together and create an online distribution network, as described here.)

Thanks to Jamie for the conversation and ideas that informed this post.

Quick Link: A Different Sea, and Different Mountains

Two years after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Haruki Murakami returned to the town where he grew up to see what had changed.  Murakami chronicles this trip in an essay that reflects on the interplay of violence, change, growth, and memory.  One passage of note:

I’d managed to make it this far, so I decided to climb the steep slope that led to my old high school… It was so completely still it felt like I’d stumbled into a level of space I shouldn’t be in. Why this utter silence?

I gazed at Kobe harbour, sparkling leadenly far below, and listened carefully, hoping to pick up some echoes from the past, but nothing came to me. Just the sounds of silence. That’s all. But what are you going to do? We’re talking about things that happened over thirty years ago.

Over thirty years ago. There is one thing I can say for certain: the older a person gets, the lonelier he becomes. It’s true for everyone. But maybe that isn’t wrong. What I mean is, in a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help us get used to loneliness. That being the case, there’s no reason to complain. And besides, who would we complain to, anyway?

Reasonable Reads: “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” by José M. Sánchez

The first two installments in our “Reasonable Reads” series featured reviews by Chris of works of fiction, neither of which he particularly enjoyed. It seemed about time to shake things up a bit, namely by having (a) me take a look at some (b) nonfiction that (c) I would actually end up recommending to you as something worth reading. On that note, I hereby offer up my thoughts on Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy by José M. Sánchez, a masterfully nuanced and methodical look at one of the greatest controversies in twentieth century world history.

I realized as I stumbled upon Pius XII in the religion section of my local library that I really didn’t know much about the fraught question of the papacy’s attitude toward Nazism during the Second World War beyond the fact that there was a question and that it was fraught. I remember hearing criticism of Pius in the wake of Benedict XVI’s decision to move him one step closer to being declared a saint in December of 2009. I suppose that at the time I had meant to do some digging and develop a more informed opinion, but somehow I never got around to it. When I came across Sánchez’s book and was reminded that I still knew very little about an episode that clearly elicits strong views to this day, I decided that it would worth it to finally bring myself up to speed.

Of course, one worries going into any book that purports to be a primer on a contentious topic that it will fail to present the facts of the matter as objectively as possible and instead serve to advance one particular reading at the expense of other plausible interpretations. Any work of history will necessarily have to emphasize certain events and deal less extensively with others, but the likelihood that it is actually partisan propaganda masquerading as neutral scholarship is directly related to the volume and intensity of the public debate surrounding its subject matter. I was happy to discover that Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University in Missouri, is not a shill for any particular camp and is in fact extremely even-handed in his analysis. While the writing is hardly scintillating and often ponderous, Pius XII lives up to its billing as a concise and accessible guide to “understanding the controversy.”

Sánchez starts off by tracing the development of that controversy:

[Pius, who served as pope from 1939 to 1958,] was universally praised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as the spiritual leader not only of Catholics but of Western Civilization itself… Four years after his death, in the late winter of 1963, that image was tarnished by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who published his play, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy)… Hochhuth created a sensation by charging Pope Pius with violating the moral charge of his high office by not speaking out publicly and forcefully in defense of the Jews against the Nazi machine of destruction in World War II. (Sánchez, 1-2)

From there he moves to an overview of the available historical sources, an attempt to understand what and how much Pius knew about the Holocaust as it was unfolding, and a meticulous consideration of the various hypotheses that have been adduced as explanations for Pius’ behavior.

The issue of how informed the Pope was about what was really going on in Europe turns out to be central to Sánchez’ conclusions about how he ought to be judged by history. Ultimately, Sánchez maintains that Pius’ failure to offer an unequivocal public denunciation of the extermination of the European Jews was not rooted in anti-Semitism or sympathy for the agenda of Hitler and the Nazis, but rather than it was motivated by a desire to “not make things worse” and to prevent reprisals against Catholics (including Jewish converts) living in Germany or in territories occupied by the Germans.

To those who would reply that nothing could have been worse than the Holocaust, Sánchez notes that the gift of hindsight can easily blind us to the fact that the ultimate Nazi objective of slaughtering all the Jews in Europe was unknown to virtually everyone outside of Hitler’s inner circle until the end of the war. The Holocaust was the worst act of genocide in the history of the modern West, a crime against humanity utterly without precedent; who could blame those who failed to deduce that the persecution of some Jews was only a prelude to the mass murder of them all for not comprehending the Nazis’ horrific schemes sooner?

Did Pius know that these killings were simply the first step in the German plan to kill all the European Jews? To move from the fact of persecution, to the knowledge that they were killing many, to the belief that they were going to kill all is a big leap. It was not commonly believed by the Allied leaders, who with their espionage services were probably in a better position to know German aims. John Conway says that ‘it is possible to agree… that, like the majority of educated men in Western Europe, the Pope could not conceive of iniquity on such a scale, which was a failure of imagination, rather than of nerve.” (45)

Yet he does not argue that ignorance suffices to explain the lack of a strong public protest, nor does he excuse all of Pius’ actions during the war. (For example, he is sharply critical of Pius’ failure to denounce the campaign of forced conversion and ethnic cleansing directed against the Orthodox Serbs by the ostensibly Catholic government of Croatia under the fascist Ustasha, who we can only assume might have been actually cowed by a papal rebuke.) Instead, he contends that Pius’ personality and background as a Vatican diplomat led him to follow a path of (perhaps excessive) caution in his dealings with the Axis powers. He explains how Pius appears to have nurtured a hope throughout the war that the Vatican would eventually be called upon to mediate the conflict, and that he evidently held fast to this belief in the face of mounting evidence that there was in fact no chance whatsoever that a diplomatic solution was possible:

All historians agree that Pius wanted to mediate the war and therefore was less critical of the Germans than he should have been… Michael Marrus says that as time went on, Pius “clung to the wreckage of his prewar policy” of diplomatic mediation even when it no longer had a chance of success… It should, however, be pointed out that Pius did not consider his policy one of indifference to the warring powers. He told Cardinal Faulhaber that his attitude was not one of neutrality, which he said was ‘passive indifference,’ but rather one of impartiality, ‘which judges according to truth and justice.’ This is a subtle distinction that gets lost in the great moral issues of World War II. (111-112)

A subtle distinction indeed – one that reminds me of my own effort to draw a subtle distinction between “centrism” and “moderation.” It seems that Pius was on to something here, at least in a philosophical sense. Yet it is clear that this stance was impractical, not least of all because of the fact that neither side was interested in seeking the Pope’s mediation. When the deadliest war in human history is raging all around you, isn’t it at least possible that trying to stay completely out of it will be seen as an act of cowardice? Even if you are not actually a coward?

Just as I’ve argued that the pursuit of moderation necessarily involves negotiating the tension between the need to appear open-minded and willing to engage with anyone and the reality of having to sometimes admit that one side is right and the other wrong, the pursuit of “truth and justice” during World War II presented Pius with a moral dilemma that was simply too much for him to handle.

Since we can never know what might have come to pass had someone other than Pius occupied the Chair of Peter during the Holocaust, we can never really know whether his silence was due primarily to his own introspective and deliberative nature, or to situational factors that would have backed even the most resolute and decisive pontiff into the same unfortunate corner. Sánchez writes that

[the] dilemma was compounded by the geographical existence of the Vatican in Fascist Italy. In the Lateran Accords that ended the Roman Question and provided for mutual recognition between the Italian state and the Holy See, the Holy See promised to maintain neutrality in conflicts between states, at the same time reserving to itself the prerogative to speak out on moral questions – another dilemma in itself. (38)

While it might seem self-evident that these objectives are bound to come into conflict in the course of almost any armed dispute, Sánchez observes elsewhere that World War II was, again, completely unlike the wars that had come before it. This was not a struggle over competing territorial claims or political legitimacy: it was a cosmic clash of good and evil. The diplomatic protocols that Pius had internalized over his long career as a papal ambassador were now moot. If even a man who had decades of political experience couldn’t get it right, why should we assume that someone else would have done any better?

I thought about Pius as I read news reports of the current Pope’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and by all governments. How would Francis have acted if he were the leader of the Church during the Holocaust? Or perhaps the more tantalizing question is: would Pius have denounced the Assad regime if he were leading the Church today? The questions raised by Pius XII and the Holocaust are ones that are highly relevant in our own time, and in fact may never cease to be relevant.

Sánchez is a scrupulous historian who is consistently aware of the limitations of his project, and his work is thought-provoking and carefully researched. The sole weakness of the book – or perhaps some may see it as yet another strength – is its almost mechanical prose, which repeatedly crosses the line from clear and systematic argument into what seems like the dry recitation of a bulleted outline. The chapter entitled “Vatican Diplomacy Has Always Been Cautious” begins by reporting how “Pius’ defenders [argue] that he was simply following papal tradition in exercising a cautious diplomatic policy…” The one called “A Crisis of Conscience for German Catholics” opens by saying that “[o]ne of the strongest arguments critics have made is that Pius did not protest against the Nazi terror because such a protest would have caused a crisis of conscience for German Catholics…” The first sentence of “Pius Wanted to Serve as Mediator in the War”? “From the time of the loss of the Papal States in 1871, the papacy attempted to play a role in mediating conflicts between states.” In summarizing his judgments about the various possible explanations for Pius’ failure to explicitly denounce the killing of the Jews, Sánchez begins three paragraphs with the formulation, “Argument X does/does not appear to have substance.” I certainly learned a lot from this book, but I felt at times as if I were reading a study guide for an AP Twentieth Century Vatican History exam.

That said, I suppose it’s only natural for authors trying to bring civility and levelheadedness to an otherwise combustible controversy to err on the side of pedantry, and I certainly don’t think it would be fair to dismiss the book on those grounds alone. Pius XII and the Holocaust is in fact an exemplar of the very notion of reasonable read. It deservedly becomes our first enthusiastic recommendation.

Imagining the Borgesian Hypertext

Almost every online news piece or blog post published today includes hyperlinks to either a source story or related articles.   Depending on the organization in question (and RM is no exception), these links are either listed peripherally to the body of the story or included in the text itself.  Links help drive traffic on the site by increasing the number of clickthroughs, and the reader benefits by having immediate access to a more thorough scope that print, radio, and television news cannot provide.

As we work to digitize all of our physical pieces of written information and scholarship, the hyperlink offers unique promise beyond simple references to other work.  The ability to connect a main body of writing with almost any other piece or format of information is an exciting development in connecting unorganized information.  Individual works are no longer isolated from the material from which they were composed, and further incorporation of links will eventually reduce cumbersome associations with variable keywords.  This possibility of establishing specific ties between related pieces for holistic analysis or consumption has the potential to shift how we read, study, and comprehend.

The evolution of the research paper and the bibliography is a case study in the practical possibilities of increased connection in scholarship.  Current medical and scientific journals reference previous studies as bases for their tests, but the print copies of these journals require readers to look up the studies to understand the experiment’s full context.  Theses and longer scholarly papers list hundreds of references or additional resources that, while of potential interest to the reader, are either difficult or time-consuming to acquire.  The bibliography or works cited page is a necessary summation of these references but often appears as an accessory to the work itself.

A thoroughly hyperlinked research paper or scholarly article creates a dynamic ecosystem of information to buttress the author’s thesis.  The ability to shift from article to article, study to study, allows for more immediate connection with previous scholarship.  The bibliography is now an integral part of the argument by showing readers how a given insight or point of argumentation was derived.  (Check out this recent JAMA article for an example.)  And should the reader not want to view all of the associated resources, they’re not mandatory viewing- the main narrative will still make sense despite the presence of links.  The ability to create this kind of cohesive backing network streamlines our ability to connect data and draw conclusions by allowing easy reference or comparison to related scholarship.

Beyond the applications for academic work, I’m particularly excited about the potential for hyperlinks to change how we experience literature on electronic readers.  The ability to reference other pieces of literature within a particular piece sounds ridiculous and unnecessary, especially since many readers value the immersion of a good book and wouldn’t want that spell broken with constant link-outs.  Taken to the extreme, though… that’s where things would get interesting.

I’m imagining a short story in which each word, phrase, or sentence links to another story or concept.  Even a story that’s ten pages long could have dozens of linked stories associated with a given paragraph.  Perhaps a link from the word “rhythm” would tell about how the protagonist’s band got its start at the Paradise Rock Club in 1982.  Or an entire sentence could link to another entirely unrelated story about a set of characters experiencing the same kind of situation under entirely different circumstance.  And all of these various linked stories or pieces would also be completely composed of links that present references to the same body of stories.  Think of it as a quilt of hundreds of stories all stitched together through different references and links.  The result would be a disorienting reading experience with few guidelines for best understanding the main narrative, but I would find the sheer depth of content (and the challenge of experiencing it all!) exhilarating.  Of course, the stories would have to be interesting for readers to make everything click.

I think of this kind of story as a Borgesian hypertext, a modern-day application of Jorge Luis’ Borges’ famed labyrinths.  Many of Borges’ stories, such as The Garden of Forking Paths, involve the fantastic interplay between multiple narrative levels (think Inception’s dream-within-a-dream concept but with more poetic subtlety and craftsmanship and fewer BWAAAAAAAH sounds).  The hypertext would combine this stacked narrative form with the idea of linguistic permutations and combinations Borges discusses in The Library of Babel and The Book of Sand.  The latter describes a text in which “the number of pages… is no more or less than infinite.  None is the first page, nor the last.”  In contrast, the hypertext narrative would be a minor self-contained infinity lacking a set beginning, end, or story arc.  It would ideally envelop readers in labyrinths of words, history, and perspectives and leave them trying to piece together a multi-dimensional narrative puzzle.  It’s impossible to do something like this in print text, but it would be one of the most unique developments in what an “eBook” can entail.

The ability to create this kind of a totally interlocking story has been possible for many years now; any website developer could have slapped hundreds of linked pages together in the last two decades.  So why is this concept particularly germane now?  There are a couple of basic reasons: improved design capabilities allow for greater cohesion, and the ability to experience this content on a tablet in a devoted app makes exploring the story a more immersive and easier-to-navigate experience.  These reasons inform my primary argument for the hypertext’s relevancy today: there’s finally a demand for its model of an evolutionary reading experience.  eBooks have opened the door to increased readership on computers and screens where the boundaries of print need not apply, and this new market for experiences that go beyond the traditional limited text is producing some amazing work.  I’m particularly interested in Invisible Islands, a text / app by Caden Lovelace and Laura Grace that the former calls “a map the size of the world, a ‘dream archipelago’ accessed via GPS, a topography laced with hidden stories.” This new method to tell stories is immensely exciting and the Borgesian hypertext slots neatly into the same market.

Is this hypertext a categorical model for what stories and reading should be like in the digital age?  Certainly not.  If anything, this concept would become tiring if applied to more than a handful of stories.  But it’s a novel imagining of what a “book” now entails, an initiative that has seen some amazing entries in the last five years and will continue to grow in the next decade.  Much credit should be given to those who are paving the way, and I look forward to seeing what’s on the horizon.

Reasonable Reads: “Skios” by Michael Frayn

What happens when an author subverts his plot to fully achieve his theme?

Plot: A farcical account of one man’s decision to impersonate a renowned doctor who is giving an address to a wealthy foundation on the fictional island of Skios.

Quick Summary: The final chapter of Skios turns the aforementioned plot on its head and frames the entire preceding narrative as insignificant.  This raises the question: what are the benefits and consequences of an author negating an entire story to fully realize his or her predominant theme?

Expanded Discussion: For the first 238 pages of Skios, Michael Frayn crafts a light and amusing meditation on chance and inevitability.  It’s a classic story in the vein of Twelfth Night about the follies and consequences of assumed identity.  Oliver Fox, a laid-back ladies’ man who leaves everything to chance, is presented with the opportunity to impersonate Dr. Norman Wilfred, an academic who is giving a keynote address on an exclusive Greek island.  Oliver’s ruse is successful; he charms event organizer Nikki and has the foundation’s president eating out of his hand.  Elsewhere on the island, the real Dr. Norman Wilfred finds himself stuck in a remote villa with Oliver’s intended female liaison and begins to question the surreal nature of his situation.

Oliver and Norman represent the twin poles of random occurrence and “perfectly rational” causality, two philosophies which clash through the text. (123)  It’s a strong dichotomy that’s weaved throughout Frayn’s yarn, providing a backbone for his satirical portraits of power, wealth, and romance.  Oliver’s instantaneous and unplanned decision to impersonate Norman is successful because of the unquestioning crowds who accept every word he says, regardless of their quality or depth.  Even Nikki, who is well aware that Norman is an older man, lets herself be swayed by Oliver’s charm.  Frayn’s breezy reflection on how chance and rationality intersect succeeds because of his characters’ adherence to their circumstances.

As the final chapters opens, it seems like shenanigans and a minor frenzy will ensue when Oliver and Dr. Wilfred finally come face to face.  Instead, Frayn concludes his book in an unusual manner: he provides a brief summary of what would have normally happened to the characters, but then identifies a trivial event with “no imaginable significance or place in any self-respecting causal chain.” (243)  This trivial event, in which a minor character unexpectedly reaches for a piece of dessert and lights himself on fire, sets off an entirely new sequence of occurrences to actually conclude the book.  And this sequence is substantially different from the first one- a gun battle suddenly erupts in the fire, creating mass chaos and leaving a number of people dead.

The shift in tone is jagged and more than a little bizarre.  Frayn had alluded to some sort of mob movement on the island earlier in the book, but the violence of the last chapter is completely unexpected and rejects the preceding levity.  It’s also an abrupt ending to the story.  All of the characters either experience hasty conclusions or just disappear entirely.

Frayn’s decision to end Skios in this way is his means of weighing in on the chance vs. rational causality debate, and he emphatically sides with chance.  In this respect, Frayn succeeds in providing a forceful realization of the book’s core theme by shifting the narrative to reflect his verdict.  The events of the book were so unexpected that even his narrator couldn’t foresee them; ipso facto, chance is the order of the day.

This is a clever way to end the book, but it also feels flimsy and somewhat inconclusive.  Frayn doesn’t bridge any unassailable tenets of exposition by shifting his narrative so abruptly; after all, it’s his story and his characters can do whatever he wants.  But the incongruity between the majority of the novel and its conclusion makes the final sequence a hollow realization of the theme.  Readers spend time and energy in a narrative with the expectation that the characters, setting, and plot are consistent in some fashion, even if this consistency is defined by inconsistency (i.e. from the start of a book, the setting changes every chapter).  To establish a set of constructs for almost 90% of a story and then have those constructs upended is, in some ways, to undermine the reader’s trust in the author.

This is especially the case in Skios, where Frayn presents the narrator as being both omniscient in knowing what would have happened but also unable to foresee the actual conclusion until it occurs.  After crafting a very specific plot with carefully detailed elements, it’s grating to have the author abdicate his authority and have a “random inconsequential event” shape the end of the book.

It also raises questions over why it was worth investing time in reading about all of Frayn’s characters and this story in particular.  His satire imparts some bemusing profiles of power but, after the conclusion, it’s essentially unwedded to the plot and primary theme.  The idea of a rogue incident changing the course of a narrative could have been applied to any story and it’s unclear why Frayn couples it with his social commentary on wealth and influence.

What, then, should we make of Skios?  How should we consider a book that to some extent trivializes its own plot and characters to realize his theme?   In the end, I appreciate what Frayn accomplishes with Skios, since I’ve never read a story in which author so forcefully undermines his plot to hit home a message.  But it’s a tempered, dispassionate appreciation for technique rather than story.  As a concept, Skios is an exercise in the unorthodox that was worth reading, but as a narrative, it isn’t particularly memorable or essential.