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Of Proust and Seuss

Perhaps it is merely a matter of mood—mine is unaccountably cheery of late—but I do not believe that things literary are as dreary as Cynthia Ozick [“Literary Entrails,” Criticism, April] might have us understand. Ozick is certain, for example, that literary criticism is not happening. By this she means that one will not find, in the cultural air, the quantity and quality of conversation that she claims prevailed half a century earlier when her avatars—Trilling, Kazin, Howe, Wilson—were all reviewing regularly.

Born a half-century after Ozick, I have a different sense of what one might reasonably expect of literary culture: I expect very little in the particular, by which I do not mean that I expect less than I used to. “No teacher in grammar or high school ever so much as hinted that reading was a normal activity,” wrote Guy Davenport in “On Reading.” Books, it seems to me, were never the interest of the majority—any majority.

Like playing competitive tennis at a world-class level or composing polyphonic music in one’s mind, reading a book is—to generalize James Wood’s particular feeling about reading Saul Bellow—a special way of being alive. I do not think, though, that people will be convinced to do it by more and better book criticism, any more than I believe, as Arthur Krystal suggests in his June letter, that writing’s enduring value to a society can be measured, seismically, in its “cultural resonance.”

Reading resonates with individuals first and still, and always with a minority. For to hear a story—descanted by a rhapsode; related around a campfire—requires only ears, whereas to read a book, whether by Proust or by Dr. Seuss, demands work: most everyone has the former, and most anyone despairs of (or hasn’t a taste for) the latter. As a delivery device for stories, the book is a recent innovation, one that allowed a Roman form of storytelling—the novel—to proliferate, very richly. All that has happened to our “literary culture,” it seems to me, is that, lately, we have seen the rise of a better technological approximation of the campfire—the passive, story-absorbing state we have long preferred.

Wyatt Mason
Cambridge, Mass.

Power to the Eco-People

In his June Notebook, “Climate, Class, and Claptrap,” Garret Keizer fails to recognize that environmentalism is a social-justice movement whose objectives, if achieved, would do more to abolish inequity than any other before it. Environmentalism is currently the biggest threat to capitalism and its need for unlimited economic growth and consumption. Since the 1960s, environmentalists have talked about the urgent need to make polluters pay for their crimes and to curb unsustainable growth by redistributing wealth. In fact, redistribution of wealth is a necessary condition for saving the earth. Combating global warming will bring about the social and economic reforms Keizer thinks the middle class and the rich are avoiding.

Lorna Salzman
East Quogue, N.Y.

Garret Keizer engages in the increasingly popular game whereby the people’s outrage about something—say, the vile conditions at Walter Reed hospital—is deemed unworthy in the face of a greater outrage—i.e., the vile conditions of the poor. This undermines any stab at reform, leading only to apathy. After all, why help anyone if everyone will not be helped?

It does not seem likely that America’s moneyed elite will soon realize their errors, but that has little to do with the concrete measures we can take to curb the serious problem of global warming, such as signing the Kyoto agreement and lessening carbon emissions. While Keizer stares stoically through his beloved sugar maple trees in his blue-collar New England night, angry at his previous night’s dinner and most everything else, others press forward, seeking to change our suicidal environmental policies.

Rafael Cohen
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Liberty Under Siege

In his contribution to the June Forum, “Undoing Bush,” David Cole writes, “For a short parlor game, challenge your friends to name a constitutional right that Bush has not sought to undermine. After the right to bear arms and the guarantee against the quartering of soldiers, the game will be over.” Although it is true that the president has not tampered with the Third Amendment, he did undermine the closest thing to it: the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits military personnel or a federalized National Guard from acting in a law-enforcement capacity within the United States. The president slipped a provision into this year’s defense budget that makes it easier for him to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law. Along with the evisceration of habeas corpus, this may be the single most dangerous attack on civil liberties undertaken by the Bush Administration.

Ian Alterman
New York City

Chris Mooney argues in the June Forum that we might have profited greatly in the last six years had there been fewer constraints on federal stem-cell research funds. But what other opportunities have we missed by allowing politics to trump science? A 2005 National Academies report identified five areas in which the selection process for presidential science and technology appointees could be reformed in order to recruit and keep the best scientists and engineers as government advisers. None of those recommendations have been followed, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy continues to be marginalized. Without a commitment to separating ideology from sound science, advice from a second tier of experts will sound like testimonials to decisions that have already been made. We won’t realize the high expectations Americans have for science until scientists have the independence to pursue avenues of research that hold the most promise and to share their findings candidly.

Mary Woolley
Alexandria, Va.

Although the Bush Administration’s economic policy deserves much criticism, Dean Baker exaggerates Bush’s impact on the value of currency and the size of the housing bubble. On the latter, Baker admits as much when he writes at length about Alan Greenspan. On the former, Baker notes that the overvalued dollar is a legacy of Clinton, and that the dollar has depreciated since 2002. Why, then, blame Bush? Instead, criticize Bush for increasing the national debt and government spending, and for his protectionist pandering to special-interest groups.

Baker also writes about the trade deficit in goods and services without mentioning the subsequent trade surplus in investments. If we import $500 billion of goods and services from a country and export $400 billion to it, what does the country do with its $100 billion surplus? Often it invests those dollars in American businesses and government. In fact, our country’s investment surplus may well be a sign of economic health.

D. Eric Schansberg
Professor of Economics
University of Indiana Southeast
New Albany, Ind.

After reading “Undoing Bush,” I realized that the Bush years have destroyed a different kind of intelligence than the one James Bamford describes. Bush is responsible for a general dumbing-down of our federal government. From the hiring of 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School, to the lowering of enlistment standards for new military recruits, to the president’s own bumbling remarks, the Bush Administration promotes mediocrity or, worse, plain stupidity. If intelligence and its rewards can be restored to the public sector, perhaps we can indeed succeed in “undoing Bush.”

Joseph DiBenedetto
Yonkers, N.Y.

Arcadia No More?

Behind my parents’ house, there are woods where as a kid I loved to explore the flora and fauna. There were pheasants and quail and bright red salamanders. All of those creatures are gone now. I had been thinking about this loss of wildlife when I read Edward Hoagland’s June essay, “Endgame.” His reflections on our environmental negligence and destruction are poignant. It is a bitter truth that we do not yet know the consequences of our loss.

Michael Teters
Plainfield, N.J.

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August 2007

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