Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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Current News: Why Anthony Bourdain Matters

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Unless you count imaginary trips, I haven’t traveled much, although I hope to do more.

Yet, I feel I’ve traveled the world vicariously through — the rest of this sentence seems unreal to write — the wanderings of the now late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, 61, the celebrity chef, writer and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” died June 8, apparently of suicide.

In the past couple of years, news of celebrity deaths seemed to outnumber celebrities. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher/follower. Of course, I have my Hollywood heroes — Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Frances McDormand, etc. — and certainly as a teen I was obsessed with pretty much everything the band Van Halen did.

But, I didn’t get into celebrity gossip, unless you count the great TV talk shows like the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as celebrity gossip, or regularly follow TMZ — though that show has begun to warrant some legit breaking news.

The closest thing I suppose I have to celebrity obsession is with writers. I used to collect writer’s obituaries and, when I really get into a particular writer, I will read what I can about him or her. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’d probably find a hint or two I’ve had long love affair with Ernest Hemingway.

In 2016, in particular, it seemed every Hollywood star, every rock star was turning up dead, only two celebrity deaths genuinely affected me as if I’d actually lost a relative or friend — Carrie Fisher, of course was my princess, like she was for many of you. What more can you say about the space princess who was your first movie star crush?

Of course, David Bowie and Prince rank high up on the loss scale, too.

Then, however, came writer Jim Harrison. Harrison died March 26, 2016, sort of the ideal writer’s death, I suppose, if there is any ideal death — at his table, writing in longhand.

I came to Harrison, late, introduced to his writing by my mentor and colleague, Clay Coppedge. Before I ever read a word of Harrison’s prose, I heard Harrison read at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, when he was promoting his collection of essays, The Raw and the Cooked.

This is where I get back to Anthony Bourdain. As any reader of Jim Harrison knows, the man was a gourmand. Harrison took pleasure in food like no other writer I’ve ever read, other than Hemingway (Harrison would have hated that comparison).

Until 2009, I had no idea Anthony Bourdain was such a fan of Harrison’s.

Then, I had become a religious watcher of Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” It became an obsession. In Bourdain, I found a kindred spirit — I longed for adventure; he adventured. He ate, he drank and he loved life. He also wrote well about it and had his own TV show.

It was hard not to love his show and him. I was in the second year of long-term unemployment, edging toward divorce and straining under a savage bout with depression. Bourdain’s joie de vivre was intoxicating, a relief from the darkness crushing against me from all sides, from the high place of my mind.

I made sure not to miss the episode Bourdain visited Harrison in Montana.

“I’m in awe of him,” Bourdain says of Harrison in the episode. It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say he’s in awe of someone and mean it.

And it’s clear from Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, the chef was in awe of Harrison. Harrison is “the man who has done everything cool with everybody who’s ever been cool, dating back to when they invented the fucking word.”

Like Harrison, what the bad-boy chef —Bourdain was once called the Hunter S. Thompson of celebrity chefs — writer and traveler gave us was authenticity, the kind of thing that seems missing in our world of corporate ken dolls, the kind of thing Bourdain gave his fans, even in a Montana that, as wild as it still is, has also become overrun with CEOs and moguls.

In all of his shows — his most recent was “Parts Unknown” — Bourdain traveled and ate and drank and gave us armchair travelers a touch of depth about a place, the sort of thing you can’t get with ordinary tours. He went to out-of-the-way places, had a love affair with street food and in Vietnam famously ate a bowl of $6 noodles with President Obama.

After Bourdain’s passing last week, all I could post about it was “Damn.”

I hadn’t watched “Parts Unknown” in awhile, but I loved every episode for its touch of authenticity. Plus, more often than not, he’d end up citing a favorite book — in Tangier he recalled Sheltering Sky author Paul Bowles, and probably talked about William S. Burroughs — or he’d somehow work in a line from “Apocalypse Now.”

Just this week, The Atlantic, talks about Bourdain’s authenticity. “The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness.”

That’s what mattered about him. He was a pop culture icon. And yet, he could stand in awe of other icons like Harrison.

He mattered to me, because he showed a life of no fear, and he talked about good food, good books, good music. He wasn’t afraid to be cultured or crazy.

It’s the kind of thing we need now. We need pop culture of the variety of Bourdain and Harrison, even Hemingway and Twain. People unafraid of the world or life. People without borders, because somehow we’ve become a culture isolated and wanting protection through walls.

I’d rather live in Bourdain’s borderless world.

There’s a photo that’s circulated around social media. I found it on a Jim Harrison Facebook fan site. It’s of Bourdain, Harrison and the now late actress Margot Kidder. They are drinking at a bar in Livingston, Montana.

It’s a poignant scene, the kind of thing that makes you wish there were an afterlife, but only if you could hang out at bars with your friends and with great actors and writers and chefs.

It’s the kind of afterlife I hope Bourdain is enjoying.

— Todd

The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— Todd

Review: Scalzi locks readers in with ‘Lock In’

In this near-future thriller, John Scalzi blends his fast-paced science fiction with suspense to yield a vivid world in which a portion of the human population is locked inside itself as a result of an insidious disease, known as Haden’s syndrome.

Technology has advanced enough — primarily through research for a disease cure  — those who suffer with the disease can live virtually by integrating their consciousness into other willing (mostly) human “Integrators” or hooking into androids known as “threeps” (yes, it is an allusion to that android).

Newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane (a Haden’s victim) partners with veteran Leslie Vann and the two wind up investigating Haden-related murder, following a suspect who might have been integrated with a Haden. The investigation is pretty standard, or as standard as the world Scalzi presents, given the murder suspect lives inside another human being, but only temporarily.

While transferring human conscious is a standard SF trope — one that Scalzi explores in his Old Man’s War series as well — Scalzi does a bang-up job making the technology plausible, especially a consciousness transfer into an android. With the novel, like all good SF, or all good fiction for that matter, Scalzi puts forth the questions of “What is human? What is it to be human?” Are the threeps human? They only seem to come to life when a human consciousness occupies them. Are you fully human if you allow another consciousness to temporarily possess your mind?

Although not quite as mindbending as his Hugo-winning Redshirts, Lock In supplies you with a good mystery story wrapped in the questions of future technologies.

— Todd

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The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd

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*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.

 

Origins: Jonathan Walburgh on Cannibals and Vixens on the River Styx: A Journey Into ’80s Music

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I know Jonathan Walburgh from my newspaper days. Besides that experience, we both shared the experience of growing up in the 1980s, and getting our ears filled with everything from Madonna to Michael, but also Metallica and Men Without Hats (and you know what you can do with friends who don’t dance.) Paging through Jonathan’s book makes me nostalgic for ear-splitting Quiet Riot concerts (1984, Reunion Arena, Dallas, Texas was my first) and girls in Chic jeans doing their best to look like Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon.

Here’s Jonathan to tell us more about rock and/or roll ’80s style:

There’s the cliche “Write what you know.” Well, there’s also the saying “Write the book you want to read.” With Cannibals and Vixens on the River Styx: A Journey Into ’80s Music, I did both. There have been many good books about the music and pop culture of the 1970s but very few about the 1980s, so I felt I needed to fill that void.

Having experienced that decade firsthand (I’m 38) I’ve always been annoyed at how Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen get all the credit for the decade’s musical innovation. While all of them certainly contributed some quality work, there were some other acts that were pretty creative as well. The 1980s saw Neil Young take a total left hand turn and incorporate synthesizers into his music on his album Trans, while Lindsey Buckingham collided sound effects with songs on his album Go Insane to create new musical textures and soundscapes. Acts like Huey Lewis & the News and the Bangles updated the styles of the 1950s and ’60s by incorporating synthesizers into the mix to create music that sounded both retro and new at the same time. I also wanted to include other acts such as The Cars, Men at Work and Def Leppard whom I feel have never gotten the credit they deserved for creating some great music.

Being a major music buff, the biggest temptation was to focus on every obscure act that I loved, but I realized that would make pretty boring reading, so I narrowed my subjects down to the ones that whose music I felt the most passionate about and had the most interesting stories to tell. I spent three years researching the book, combing both through libraries and my own personal collection of musical memorabilia. I hope anyone with an interest in 1980s pop music reads Cannibals and Vixens on the River Styx and finds it enjoyable and informative.

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