The Arch Obit

Obituaries must be charming.

When a writer conveys the deceased subject’s wicked faults yet still elicits empathy from the reader, the reader has been charmed into a kind of forgiveness for the dead.

When the writer seeks to elicit no empathy or respect for the deceased subject – there are some brutal obituaries out there! – the reader still needs to be charmed, in order to forgive the author.

The author of this obituary of “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate,” Bill Morris, lands in both categories quite beautifully.

Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.

His death was noted … 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe.…

Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre. He was a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen. …

Editing provided Mr. Botsford with a welcome respite from the rigors of writing. “I found editing myself difficult and being edited by others humiliating,” he wrote. “I got around this by editing others with generosity and rewriting with humility.” He called translation “the supreme exercise of mastering someone else’s style.” …

In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.

His interest in bullfighting led him to write a biography of the celebrated Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguin (1926-96), whom Ernest Hemingway profiled in his nonfiction book “The Dangerous Summer.” In the biography, published in 1972, Dominguin was quoted as dismissing Hemingway as “a commonplace bore” who “knew nothing about fighting bulls.”

Mr. Botsford’s opinions could be just as barbed. He once wrote of the French composer Olivier Messiaen: “Messiaen is the Al Gore of music. That is, he sells a brand of French intellectual sanctity that I will do a great deal to avoid.” …

Severely burned as a boy, Keith spent much of his early life bedridden, and thus reading avidly. By age 7, he told The Times in 2007, “I was a man of letters.” …

He entered Yale but left before graduation to enlist in the Army. By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Mr. Botsford received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1949 and a master’s in French literature from Yale in 1952. He also studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music, Japanese at Columbia University and law at the University of Strasbourg in France and at Holborn College in London. …

After Saul Bellow’s death, Mr. Botsford visited southeastern Costa Rica at the urging of one of his sons, Joshua, a chef, and ended up building a house there on a lush tropical plot overlooking the Caribbean Sea. (His wife at the time, Angela Carol Fellows, a molecular biologist 52 years his junior, continued to live in Boston.) [Sometimes the greatest lines are placed between parentheses! – Ed.] …

Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:

“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”

At the end of the original version of this obituary, the author wrote that Botsford’s survivors could not be reached. Discussing this, my partner and I thought that was odd, since several of his children had been named in the obituary. 

In the version linked here, that line has been removed. Normally the Times publishes a note describing changes to posted articles – but not this time.

My partner had suggested that Botsford’s children had broken with their father after he married someone younger than they were. Who knows?

Remaining in the piece, though, is that diabolical bit about the 25-word paid death notice in the Boston Globe.

Also remaining, poignantly, is this single note of tenderness for Botsford. It is from his friend Saul Bellow – “Bellow’s last words to [Botsford], he said, were, ‘One good thing in my life was that I loved you.'” This is almost cruel writing: The only person who attests that you were loved is you.

Does even the most pompous man deserve that? (Perhaps.)

Community College

I teach at a regional, commuter university, near Vancouver, BC: It has superb programs in traditional academic disciplines as well as in the trades. It enrols both the unusual and the usual suspects as students. Teaching them is a challenge and a joy, making my work life profoundly meaningful.

A few weeks ago I came across the New York Times obituary of Janet Lieberman, who established LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY. The obituary made me happy.

Janet E. Lieberman, an educational innovator who made college education more accessible to struggling high school students and recent immigrants as the guiding spirit of LaGuardia Community College in Queens from its inception, died on March 19 in San Francisco. She was 97.

The college, part of the City University of New York, opened in 1971 in Long Island City in a refurbished plant where White Motor Company once made auto parts and Ford Instrument once manufactured range finders for naval weapons during World War II. The building was within wafting range of a Chiclets gum factory next door.

Dr. Lieberman not only helped shape the mission of LaGuardia, a two-year college that now enrolls some 45,000 students from 150 countries; she also established collaborations with other educational institutions to attract high school students who had struggled academically, or who had to hold down jobs while taking classes, or who could not afford a four-year college. …

“Programs that she revolutionized — guiding promising underserved high school students into college, and forging collaborations between colleges to create pathways to transfer — have become models used nationwide,” Gail O. Mellow, LaGuardia’s president, said by email.

In “The Wisdom Trail: In the Footsteps of Remarkable Women” (2009), Dr. Lieberman and Julie Hungar profiled a range of accomplished women, each of whom, they wrote, “has made her mark and gained gratification by making a difference.”

In her case, Dr. Lieberman said in “Unexpected Influence,” “We made a college.”

Keep your promises, keep your confidences, and keep your appointments.

The prefix para means “beside” or “beyond.” Paralinguistic or paraverbal communication usually refers to *how* one’s words are conveyed: through tone, body language, speaking speed, or even through one’s wardrobe.

Siberian Tigers at The Bronx Zoo

In both workplace and social environments, though, beside and beyond the verbal language one uses with others is also one’s commitment to behave in a sound and regular fashion. Erratic habits subvert sound sentences.

Keep your promises, keep your confidences, and keep your appointments.

Media theorist Jay Rosen’s forlorn list

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019. Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy style” remains in place

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy. 

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful is isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, and immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will see more of it. 

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that’s only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda network. But it’s also true that the Trump government is a cable channel— with nukes. 

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this. 

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer.) 

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. And we know how it works with subscription. For membership, we do not know what that contract is. 

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of this work matters.

Jay’s #8 is truly shocking to me. I have faith that his work really does matter.

Reposted with permission.

Stopping the page from being blank …

In the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, I got a job doing Investor Relations for a public company drafting news releases, presentations, brochures, and the like. I would put drafts of these items together and present them to management and staff. During these meetings one sedulous and normally silent colleague would typically tear my work to pieces: “What about that, and this. And you forgot that,” etc. I did my best to address all these concerns and fill in the lacunae and maintain my professional demeanor.

One afternoon during such a meeting the company President evidently guessed that this regular show was beginning to make my smiling responses seem a tad bit forced, and he asked my colleague, “Where were you when the page was blank?” (I believed at the time that this utterly marvelous sentence was original with my client. It wasn’t, alas.)

While this remark later became my unofficial job description on basil.CA — “Essentially what I do is stop pages from being blank” — it completely silenced our sedulous colleague forever after, sometimes to the detriment of our company’s IR activities.

I tell my students that colleagues and teachers who edit their work have the same goals they do: To make prose on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) more correct, concise, complete, convincing, and current. “It’s about the paper, not you. Don’t take it personally. And certainly never feel hurt by this process.”

Addendum: The company President mentioned above needed no more than three or four elliptical sentences by me on a draft news release to compose a detailed, two-page revision himself. But he was helpless before the blank page. My mentor at Prometheus Books Inc., Doris Doyle, was the same way. Each could compose blemishless prose themselves, by fixing the work of others. My sometimes lame drafts served as “generative devices” to get their own prose going.

“Generative Devices,” wrote my Stanford professor Gil Sorrentino, “are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the ‘laws’ set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of ‘inspiration,’ and its idiot brother, ‘writer’s block.'”

I rather like knowing that I was the “preconceived limitation” that got my colleagues’ writing engines humming.

Photo by Miles Basil

Catastrophe

I have always considered being a bit of a catastrophist an important part of my mental hygiene. This started in my undergraduate days when I took a lot of classes in probability and statistics. The most important word in the question “What could possibly go wrong?” was “possibly” rather than “wrong.”

My mathematical imagination failed me in the early years of social media. I could not see how Twitter and Facebook and YouTube could possibly provide nests for Nazis or White Supremacists. Or anti-vaxxers.

I had no excuse, having studied zines, the precursor of today’s blogs, for years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had a large library of hate and ignorance. I should have known these authors and their progeny would fly to new media platforms.

The website Healthline.com has just published an article called “How Major Tech Companies Are Handling Anti-Vaccine Content.” Its tone is perhaps more optimistic than is warranted by the facts, and by the histories of some of these companies.

Earlier this month, the American Medical Association issued a public letter to the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube.

The central questions posed to tech companies: How are these platforms spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric and what, if anything, is being done to stop it?

“While misinformation is spread in many different ways, we know that social media is a leading source of how Americans are getting their information today,” AMA President Dr. Barbara L. McAneny, told Healthline.

McAneny explained why experts are worried that more and more parents than ever before get health information from social media.

“We are concerned that the proliferation of this type of health-related misinformation will undermine sound science, further decrease vaccinations, and persuade people to make medical decisions that could spark the spread of easily preventable diseases,” she said.

Pinterest is blocking “vaccination-related searches.” Amazon’s removing some anti-vaccination titles. YouTube’s “demonetizing” anti-vax videos and channels. Read the whole article here. Pray for the best.

Pretentiousness done right

God bless Janet Malcolm.

What books are on your nightstand?

I take it you mean the imaginary Doric column that supports a teetering pile of current and old books that the interviewee wants to bring to the reader’s attention. My actual nightstand is a small wood table with a box of Kleenex, a two-year-old Garnet Hill catalog and a cough drop on it. When I go to bed I bring with me the book I am reading during the day. Right now it is the British edition of Sally Rooney’s brilliant, enigmatic new novel, “Normal People.”

How do you organize your books?

I organize them by genre. The largest section is fiction, which I alphabetize. I also alphabetize poetry. The other sections — biography, autobiography, theater, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, classical literature, literary criticism, art, photography, books by friends — are not alphabetized. I can find my way around them. I have been doing a lot of rereading in recent years. Why have a large library and not use it? Why keep books, if you are not going to read them more than once? For the décor? The answer isn’t entirely no. A book-lined room looks nice.

Naked Security

The “Naked Security” blogs published by Sophos remind me how vigilant online publishers – and all organizations, really – have to be to protect their content, their data, even their names. Indeed, the word “vigilance” needs to at the top of our whiteboard every day – and never erased.

When I moved to Vancouver in 1996, I saw that almost no small-cap companies in the exploration and mining business had online presences. This was a good business opportunity. I knew my way around the Internet – coming from Stanford, you had to be – but hadn’t created websites myself. I found a couple of partners who did, and we found a bunch of clients right away.

The first order of business was registering URLs for each client. This typically involved registering four or five: client.com, client.net, clientresources.com, clientresources.net, and clientinvesting.com, for instance. We wanted to make sure that we covered the bases, so to speak. We would use the main URL and make sure that the others “pointed to” the main one.

For a couple of years, on the Internet there was the equivalent of the 19th-century American land rush. Promoters, IT whizzes, managers, communications pros, publishers, inventors, entrepreneurs – everybody, it seemed to me – were staking out their claims to URLs, in essence buying names and making them their own. Whether or not these names were used for actual websites, for some it was just as important that their competitors *didn’t* have these names.

I have a spreadsheet to make sure that I never forget to re-register the “stable” of URLs I own or manage (a few dozen). Two times I missed a deadline; I lost one URL (this still bugs me, as you can imagine) and miracle of miracles I got the other one back.

Forgetfuless is one way to lose control of your URL. Having it stolen is another. The other day Sophos blogger John E Dunn published an article called “US gov issues emergency directive after wave of domain hijacking attacks.”

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued an emergency directive tightening DNS security after a recent wave of domain hijacking attacks targeting government websites. …

Domain hijacking has been a persistent issue in the commercial world for years, a prime example of which would be the attack that disrupted parts of Craigslist in November 2014.

In that incident, as in every successful every domain hijacking attack, the attackers took over the account used to manage the domains at the registrar, in this case, Network Solutions.

The objective is to change the records so that instead of pointing to the IP address of the correct website it sends visitors to one controlled by the attackers.

This change could have been made using impersonation to persuade the registrar to change the domain settings or by stealing the admin credentials used to manage these remotely. …

Dunn recommends that you verify your company’s IP addresses and “change passwords on all accounts used to manage domain records.” Read his entire post for a longer list of important safeguard measures.

Free at Last

United States copyright law was changed repeatedly in the last century to grant copyright extensions to entire classes of works of literature and entertainment. This meant that such work could not be referenced at length in works of scholarship without incurring substantial permission fees; it also meant that lots of books were much more expensive than they would have been otherwise.

As of yesterday, the copyright on many thousands of works had expired. This is very good news.

“The drought is over,” proclaims Duke Law School’s Center for the Public Domain, highlighting some of the works which are now available royalty-free, by authors from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Kahlil Gibran, PG Wodehouse to DH Lawrence, Edith Wharton to ee cummings. It’s not only books: copyright in the US is also expiring on a host of films, paintings and music.

“The public domain has been frozen in time for 20 years, and we’re reaching the 20-year thaw,” the center’s director Jennifer Jenkins told the Smithsonian. The magazine predicted that the release’s impact on culture and creativity could be huge, because “we have never seen such a mass entry into the public domain in the digital age”. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, told the Smithsonian: “We have shortchanged a generation. The 20th century is largely missing from the internet.”

The expiration means anyone can publish an edition, to take one example, of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. That novel, alongside thousands of other books, will become part of the repository of texts on sites such as the Internet Archive and Google Books. Writers will be able to use it as inspiration, creating new works or sequels based on it. Students will be able to quote freely from it; theatre producers will be able to adapt it.

As an editor, I have been very concerned about the viability of book and magazine publishing. And I know that several publishers do benefit from having a robust backlist. That said, overall these restrictions have stymied the publication of creative and academic work for many decades.