Kim Jong Il Has Died

Posted on December 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Kim Jong Il has died, and the year of upheaval continues up to the very end.

But of all of the deposed dictators we’ve seen this year, Kim Jong Il inspired more than his fair share of macabre humor. During his time in power there were salacious stories of “pleasure squads” and of three-day binges, his legendary consumption of fine Scotch, his unusual appearance, and of course his unforgettable portrayal in Team America. Kim was typically regarded as more buffoonish than evil; more Goldfinger than Stalin.

Yet to his millions of subjects, living under his totalitarian vision on North Korean soil, the subject of Kim was no laughing matter. Nor to the millions in South Korea whose families were displaced by partition and war, or to the many Japanese kidnapped over the years during one of Kim’s capricious whims. I can imagine that Kim’s death will trigger a deep emotional response throughout both Koreas and through the Korean diaspora, not to mention fear and trepidation in Japan and other countries living under Pyongyang’s nuclear shadow.

So it’ll be interesting to see how the media proceeds in dealing with the question of whether it is ok to joke about Kim. My sense from following the story on Twitter is that it is.

More thoughts in the coming days.…

Christopher Hitchens

Posted on December 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 4 comments

The news of Christopher Hitchens’ death hit me harder than I thought it would. Not because it was unexpected; Hitchens fought a very public battle with¬†esophageal¬†cancer, and in recent weeks I noticed a slight lull in his usual prolific output of essays. But it was still difficult to believe that he had passed. Somehow, I always felt that he was immortal- a force of nature that couldn’t be stopped. Even stricken with cancer, Hitchens wrote more cogently and brilliantly than most of the healthy could.

Many of the comments I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere begin with a qualified “I didn’t always agree with him, but..” Well, of course you didn’t always agree with him. That was the beauty of Hitchens. In the years I followed his work, he never wrote a single craven, cynical word. Everything he wrote was with a clarity and passion that few writers have, and no opinion would lay undefended by reason and persuasion. Contrary to his popular image, Hitchens was not a contrarian for its own sake. A brilliantly idiosyncratic thinker, Hitchens’ ideas were often at odds with whatever conventional wisdom had to say about a subject, yet few writers seemed to care less what that conventional wisdom was. He was nothing if not true to his own beliefs and ideals, and he wrote with a voice so inimitable that within two sentences, without needing to glance at the byline, it was clear exactly whose words were on the page. As a writer myself, I can think of no higher praise.

Many writers are solitary, unsociable creatures- so much so that those two qualities are often described as professional requirements. Yet in reading the many fine remembrances of Hitchens this morning, I was struck by how many spoke of his generosity. For a man whose famous friends ranged far and wide, Hitchens found time to counsel and advise young journalists, interns, and students just beginning their own intellectual journeys. He was clearly a man who relished conversation and comradeship, a man for whom late night sessions around a bottle was a part of his education rather than a distraction from it.

To read the man was to feel, for just a moment, that you too were among the guests at one of his parties or functions. His essays were erudite and engaging and most importantly humorous; unlike with many writers, his many references and allusions felt unforced and appropriate. Even when I disagreed with him, which I did often on the subject of the Iraq War, I regarded Hitchens’ arguments as challenging and thought-provoking and never boring. I respected his opinion because I trusted, deep down, that his was genuine. In an war whose greatest defenders displayed a terrifying aversion to honesty and reason, Hitchens’ arguments were refreshing. He was no thoughtless neo-conservative, gleeful at the prospect of a violent struggle. He was simply a man whose hatred of totalitarianism blinded him to the tragic reality that violent chaos was sometimes worse. I suppose, in a sad way, the fact that the war officially ended the morning of his death will remain an memorable trivial footnote to his life.

But Hitchens was so much more than a political commentator. He wrote about an astonishing range of subjects with the same wit and clarity. In a given week you’d encounter an essay on current events in Slate, a literary review for The Atlantic, and a long polemical essay in Vanity Fair- none of which held the slightest relation to one another except that their author found them worth mentioning. In a world where we’re told to specialize, to focus, to dig deep- Hitchens was a true Renaissance man. In the midst of the regular writing assignments cited above, Hitchens found time to write books about atheism, George Orwell, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Theresa. His memoir, a wonderful jumble of memory and commentary, revealed that the man could have written twice as many if given the time. That was the extent of the breadth and depth of his knowledge and passion.

Mourning the death of a person you’ve never met is a strange phenomenon. But as I watch old videos of George Carlin, or read little snippets of Kurt Vonnegut, I feel an acute wish that they could be here today, if only to tell us what they were thinking. I suspect I will feel the same way about Christopher Hitchens.

And in that way, he will remain immortal.



Should Independent Bookstores Die?

Posted on December 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Farhad Manjoo makes the case in Slate. To me, independent bookstores should transition to a niche model where they provide an exceedingly detailed, well-curated collection organized into specific topics. Going to a bookstore isn’t just about browsing in a relaxing setting, as Manjoo suggests. It’s also about stumbling upon new and unfamiliar books and writers, meeting others interested in similar books, and talking to well-informed managers and clerks. People will continue to buy their famous, mass-market books on Amazon but I think a re-casting of independent bookstores as niche-driven would probably work far better than maintaining their current form.…

The Twenty Steps of Writing a Grad School Paper

Posted on December 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 5 comments

1. Receive paper topic from professor, file in backpack

2. Remark that the assignment seems “fair” and mentally mull over a few possible things to write about.

3. Forget completely about the assignment for a week

4. Realize that you better get started, so pack your bags and head to the library to do “research”

5. Walk around the library looking for the perfect study spot but realize that all the good ones are taken

6. Settle in to start work but end up in a 45-minute conversation with one of your classmates, griping about how onerous the assignment has suddenly become.

7. Find a few sources and jot down some notes, telling yourself that this constitutes an “outline”. Then go home and do something else.

8. Realize a day or two later that the paper is due imminently and you haven’t started writing. Panic, briefly. Then march off to the library and tell yourself that you’re going to buckle down and just do it.

9. Get a seat but realize you don’t have any water. You can’t work without water. It’s physically impossible!

10. Start writing but decide that a little peek at Facebook wouldn’t be harmful. Spend the next 20 minutes methodically going through each of the 67 photos your hot classmate posted about her vacation to Barbados.

11. Think hateful, homicidal thoughts about your professor.

12. Think hateful, homicidal thoughts about the people near you who are giggling. Who can giggle in a time like this?

13. Get into an argument with your friend on Google Talk about football.

14. Read a few articles in The New York Times, because you’re a grad student and it’s your responsibility to stay informed. Right?

15. Fart around online and stare at old Maxim photos of Mila Kunis. Fantasize that Mila Kunis was your classmate and you could take her out to coffee anytime you wanted. Wonder if Mila Kunis could help you with your paper.

16. Organize and color code your Google Calendar.

17. Think that going to the gym, which you haven’t done in weeks, would help you concentrate. Go to the gym for an hour.

18. Return to your paper and start to panic. Indulge in intense feelings of self-loathing about your propensity to procrastinate. Vow that next time you’re going to do things differently.

19. Start writing, feverishly. Realize that you actually don’t mind the assignment and that it wasn’t as hard as you thought. Think, darkly, that had you given yourself enough time it wouldn’t have been too bad at all

20. Turn your paper in, warts and all. Then go drink beer and congratulate yourself for having worked so hard.…