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“Only the educated are free.”

Epictetus

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Universal Plagiarism

A college education these days contains many traps and challenges, not the least of which is to avoid (or effectively conceal) plagiarism, a campus crime almost as heinous as sexual harassment or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long, impressive documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They may have no idea what it is, but they will sign anyway. Others will be severely lectured on the subject their professors. I know, because I’ve received and delivered a few such lectures myself.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Intellectual property is just stuff that people have made up or created. This essay is intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved F.

It is dangerously easy to commit this particular sin, by borrowing a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. We’ve all done it without knowing. All our culture is one big exercise in plagiarism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be again.

Plagiarism is a very ancient art. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty.. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. The distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and another historian Professor Doris Kearns have both been in the news, accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Lord Archer, the disgraced British novelist and politician, is another distinguished example. Politicians borrow chunks of speeches from more intelligent men, artists copy photographers and each other, and musicians notoriously “borrow” certain melodic ideas when inspiration runs out. These rip-offs are routinely passed off as “tributes.” Movies are so obsessively self-referential that you get the feeling that nothing completely new has been attempted since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Real creativity is very rare.

In one sense, then, all culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. So I don’t feel strongly about intellectual property as such. When great genius or large amounts of money are involved, I suppose it becomes important. But most creative work isn’t in that league and, on the whole, we should be mildly flattered when someone finds our work worth stealing. After all, the plagiarist gains nothing, and the act itself is rather pathetic, an admission of an empty mind. I can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, and stealing from many is research

But I do have strong feelings about cheating partly because I never could get away with it when I was a student. The worldwide web has made plagiarism infinitely easier, and less detectable, and cheating by students has become an epidemic. If you look up plagiarism on the web you will find hundreds of articles and books condemning it, and even anti-plagiarism software. The cheaters cheat themselves out of an education, they cheat the honest students, and they make fools out of their teachers. I don’t like any of that.

The moral question is: should we discourage all cheating, or is it a useful skill? News media are always full of stories about cheating on an epic scale, mostly by politicians and businessmen. The notable fact about the guilty parties is that they are all very rich. My mother used to tell me that cheats never prosper: but they do. Cheating may be as essential to success in the modern world as computer literacy. By discouraging plagiarism and similar tricks, we may be condemning our students to a life of poverty and hard work.

If anyone has the answer to this educational conundrum, please let me know. But don’t send me any of those anti-plagiarism articles off the web, I’ve read them already. Where do you think this essay came from?

Caught in the Net

Those of us who were born before 1940 had to absorb a lot of changes. We were born before television, before penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, videos, and the pill. We were here before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and ballpoint pens, before dishwashers, tumble dryers, electric blankets, domestic air conditioning, drip-dry clothes, and before anyone seriously thought of going to the moon.

We got married first and then lived together (how old-fashioned can you be?) We thought Fast Food was what you ate in Lent, and that a Big Mac was an oversized raincoat. We existed before house husbands or computer dating, day care centers, group homes or disposable cameras. We never heard of FM radios, CDs, artificial hearts, word processors, or young men wearing earrings. For us a “chip” was a piece of wood, or a fried potato, “hardware” meant nuts and bolts, and “software” wasn’t even a word.

Who would have thought, even twenty years ago, that television would come down a wire and the telephone would be wireless? Who could have predicted students who don’t study, accountants who don’t account, or scientists who cheat on their experiments? Who could ever have predicted that young people would not always be clean, respectful, moral and hard working – the way we were?

We’ve had to absorb a lot of changes, and some of us may agree with James Thurber, who said: “Progress was all right; it just went on too long” But that’s the way human beings are: we work on something until it is absolutely perfect, and then we improve it until it’s not perfect any more. Classical music was perfect, for example, about 1855 the date of Brahms’s First Symphony. The novel reached its height in 1927 with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. In my opinion, cars reached perfection in 1965 with that year’s Aston Martin DB6. We just can’t leave things alone.

The manual typewriter was perfect in 1939. When I was about twelve years old my mother gave me an old Underwood model from that year. Believe it or not, I still have that typewriter, I still use it, and it has never crashed or lost any data. My data is always right there, on the roller.
But in spite of all the changes we were a fortunate generation. We had the luck to miss the First World War, to be too young for combat in the Second, and to grow up in the decades of peace and rising wages. We benefited from a mighty surge of scientific and technological discoveries, including new medical treatments that extended and improved our lives.

Then history played a sad trick on us. Computers came into our lives sometime in the 1980s. We never asked for this. Personal computers are extraordinarily recent. We think we can’t live without them, but we did until 1981 when the first true PC was put on the market by IBM. Thirty years later these annoying machines have infiltrated every corner of our lives from medicine to grocery shopping to personal privacy, without any planning and without resistance, like a science fiction nightmare come to life. “Virus” is the exactly right word to describe this invasion. We can identify it, but we can’t stop it.

Kids launched into the new cyber-world with glee, and apparently without any need of learning, as if the computer was a natural part of their brains that had been lost, and now was found. Those of us who were already middle aged or older struggled, complained, and finally surrendered to the inevitable. The computer I am using now is one of five that I own. I don’t like any of them, and they don’t like me. But my work and my life are inextricably tied up in these annoying gadgets, and I don’t see a prospect (short of death, the final logout) of ever breaking free.

Age brings wisdom to some of us, if we’re paying attention. But knowledge is something else. Dealing with a family crisis takes wisdom. But when your computer screen goes blank, no amount of wisdom will help. You can be as wise as Solomon, and the screen will stay blank. We need knowledge, and sometimes it seems that we have less and less useful knowledge as we get older. We learn something and, before we know it our knowledge is out of date and any ten-year old kid knows more. I used to know how to fix cars, tape recorders, radios – but not anymore. Seniors are really juniors or freshmen in the world of high technology. The only consolation is that exactly the same thing will happen to today’s smug kids, and probably even faster. They will have to start asking their kids.

Since those early days the electronic revolution has engulfed us entirely. There are about seven billion cell phones in the world, and nobody ever seems to switch them off. The so-called social media have transformed and degraded the business of news and the racket of politics, and cyber warfare has become a reality. There are critics and unbelievers, of whom I am one. But we have about as much influence as atheists had in the Catholic church in the fifteenth century. Computers in their many forms are now the official gods of the world religion. Like the gods of the ancient world they are eager to battle for supremacy and, also like the gods of the ancient world, they don’t care in the slightest what happens to us.

The Writer’s Fate

Teachers should be more careful. I might have become an artist or an astronaut, but an indulgent fourth grade teacher praised one of my essays, and essays became my fate. My diaries turned into collections of tiny essays, designed to fit the two-inch space allocated for each day, and I wrote over baked sketches of anything and everything from a visit to the dentist to collecting tadpoles. Soon I became the most overpraised little writer in my school. Obviously, I wasn’t much good at anything else. Many years later I came upon the correct diagnosis of my situation in Kurt Vonnegut’s eccentric memoir Palm Sunday.

“Writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it, but it takes time.”

Vonnegut was a creative genius, and knew it. But a non-fiction writer who keeps to regular deadlines cannot afford to wait for the brilliant inspiration that may never come. We must keep pumping, grab ideas straight out of the mess of reality, and try to make sense of life in the process of writing about it. A fiction writer is limited only by imagination. An essayist is trapped in the real world, which is nothing if not repetitive.

Ideas are like events: they keep coming back in different disguises. Georges Simenon, the extraordinarily prolific author of five hundred novels, as well as countless articles and reviews, wrote in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually face the awful choice between silence and self-repetition.

History really does move in circles, as the Greeks believed. The same things keep on happening, and there are remarkably few surprises. There is always a war, an election, a summer heatwave or a winter deep freeze, a corruption scandal, a holiday season, an economic crisis, or a new invention that scientists predict will change the world. It takes a kind of perverse creativity to write something different about these cyclical themes every time they come around. At any given moment, certain ideas are “in the air”, and everyone is talking and writing about them: the addictive use of smart phones, Donald Trump, taxes, weddings, or interesting new diseases. A regular commentator must find something to say about them, and it is hard to avoid repeating what everyone else is saying and hearing in the media echo chamber. Failure to be original is always an option, and eventually it becomes inevitable. This is, in fact, the essayist’s job description. If the world refuses to gratify our desire for novelty we are forced to pretend to be original

The Unsophisticated Traveller

“Travel broadens the mind –
but first you must have the mind.”

G.K.Chesterton

Travel writers lead romantic lives. They explore the world at other people’s expense, and they don’t even need to invent their material. They simply describe the places they visit. Anybody can do that.

You know as well as I do that the above paragraph is nonsense, but the romance persists. It would be a kindness to future travelers and travel writers to lay the myth to rest here and now.

There are several varieties or genres of travel writing. The most profitable type (for the writer) is essentially a branch of public relations. This is the stuff you read in brochures and glossy magazines, and also in newspaper travel supplements. Every destination is described as beautiful, welcoming, unspoiled, and so on, with digitally enhanced pictures. This is essentially a branch of fantasy fiction, as you soon discover if you actually travel to any of these places.

Secondly there’s what I call straight travel writing that gives the reader real, accurate, and unbiased information. This is quite rare. The “Rough Guides” series is the best example I know. Straight travel writing is enormously hard work, because it demands so much detailed on-the-spot research. Stamina, attention to detail, and an iron stomach are the basic job requirements.

Thirdly (in no particular order) comes “literary” travel writing of the kind practiced by Paul Theroux or Adam Gopnik. Books and essays of this type are usually great fun to read, and can be more eye-opening than any number of guidebooks. However the literary travel writer gives no information about hotels, ferries, restaurants and so on.

Fourthly, an increasingly popular genre is what might be called the “hair raising travel adventure.” The author deliberately sets out to do something idiotic, like climbing Everest on one leg, crossing the Sahara on a unicycle, or rowing the Atlantic in a bathtub. We don’t have any new frontiers, so these writers are doing the best they can to create some excitement. As my mother would say, they should have their heads examined.

Fifthly (I’m almost done!) we have “travel pornography,” of the type exemplified by Peter Mayle’s hugely successful A Year in Provence, and its many imitators. The pornography here is not sexual but cultural. These writers take a place and a culture and recycle it as an idealistic dream fantasy.

Finally we have travel writers who use humor and satire, from Mark Twain to Bill Bryson. I enjoy these a lot, but they are not the place to look for practical information.

Americans on the whole are not great travelers. Only 8% of citizens have a passport and (almost incredibly) only 12% of U.S. Senators. This may help to explain the resolute parochialism of American culture and politics. Foreign countries are experienced mostly at secondhand, through the media, or by young soldiers who have been sent to places off the regular tourist routes in order to teach their citizens the benefits of democracy. This set me thinking about the role of travel writers. If 92% of Americans and most of their representatives glimpse the world only through the eyes of travel writers and war correspondents, what do they see?

Obviously they see only a tiny part of the planet – the regions that are designated as safe enough for tourism or weak enough for military adventures. This leaves out just about the whole of the ordinary world that most people live in, and that can only be experienced by going there.

Most of my travels are fairly conventional, so I’ve not had the opportunity to write about exotic places and extreme experiences. But even conventional travel can be written about in very different ways.

For example, we were traveling in Europe a couple of years ago. On the final leg of our journey we abandoned the rented car and look a train ride from Nice, across northern Italy and to Milan. The city was new to me, although I had driven around the bypass several times. Before leaving home I had asked my Italian barber Milan, which was his birthplace. He said: “It’s like New York but full of Italians.” When I pointed out that New York is also full of Italians he said: “Then it’s like New York.” He was quite wrong. New York has no trams.

A travel writer might handle the transition between Nice and Milan something like this:

“The train from Nice sped along the Côte d’Azur, offering spectacular views of the sea and the mountains, before turning inland at Genoa to glide across the fertile plains of Lombardy and into Milan’s imposing Stazione Centrale.”

An honest non-fiction writer might describe the experience more like this:

“The train from Nice was cancelled. All trains were cancelled due to unspecified trouble in the tunnel at Menton. Buses were laid on to take us over the mountain to the station at Monaco. But there weren’t enough buses, and a great mass of passengers had to wait for an hour in the blazing sun. When we got on a bus the air conditioning was broken and the windows were jammed shut. Instead of stopping at Monaco as promised the bus driver (ignoring the loud complaints and threats of the passengers) continued right on into Italy and dumped us all out at the station of a miserable little town called Ventimiglia where we foreigners were mildly harassed by the local police (enjoying themselves enormously, the most fun day they had had in Ventimiglia for years) before being allowed on the train. All seat reservations had been cancelled in the confusion, so there was a huge scrum for seats. The train started two hours late and crawled very slowly towards Milan, stopping at every village and sheep station to take on more passengers, none of whom could find seats. There was no food or drink on the train, and the journey took five hours (not counting the wait in Nice and the bus ride). This traveling inferno finally arrived at Milan Central Station, which is more filthy, graffiti-encrusted, crowded, hot, and infested with bums, beggars and drug addicts than even a New Yorker could imagine.”

An honest non-fiction writer might also mention that Milan’s two major tourist attractions were effectively absent. The spectacular façade of the Duomo Cathedral (1386) was covered in plastic for cleaning, and the world-famous opera house, the Teatro Alla Scala, was closed for restoration. However s/he would also feel impelled to make positive comments on the superb public transportation system, the fine restaurants, and the friendly and helpful people of Milan.

Which experience would you prefer to read about? The second one is 100% true.

Over the years I’ve published a few travel pieces. But more often I have stalled, as you may have done, in the process of trying to translate my observations into the right language. The gap between real travel experience and the conventional style of travel writing is very hard to bridge. Humor is one way to do it. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, told more unwelcome truths than most travelers of his own or any other time.

Modern travel writing is indeed a form of fiction, and most of those who read travel articles in magazines and newspapers probably understand that they are indulging a kind of dream, where everything is beautiful and every encounter is picturesque and satisfying. But fiction understood by its readers to be pure invention, and travel writing is sometimes less innocent.

Many freelances and full-time journalists who do this kind of work depend on travel companies to give them a free ride. Whenever I publish a travel piece, however small and obscure, I receive a bunch of offers from PR companies – five days in Iceland, a gastronomic tour of Burgundy, a week in sunny Kabul, and so on. These offers suggest that the PR company flacks never actually read anything that I wrote. My travel writings tend to be ironic and acerbic. No sane PR person would invite me on a tour that they wanted to promote. When I accept one of these offers (which happens rarely, and only after stating clearly in writing that I will tell the truth about the experience) I always feel guilty. My fellow hacks don’t see it that way. For them, it’s just a free ride and a joke.

The earth is an imperfect planet. It is a mess. The alien peoples of the world speak incomprehensible languages, eat peculiar foods, subscribe to bizarre religions, and march to a whole timpani section of different drummers. In short, they have no idea how to live properly. Their nations, unlike ours, are often chaotic and alarming. Even their TV schedules are not always completely reliable.

The job of the travel writer is to make these stressful foreign places seem interesting enough to justify the investment of thousands of dollars in travel costs. He or she must draw on a rather limited range of images, all of which have been used tens of thousands of times before. Commercial travel writers, like travel agents, have created a new language with its own unique resonances. Water is always “crystal clear,” restaurants are “vibrant,” anything built before 1950 is “olde worlde,” views are “breathtaking” or “big sky” or “unspoiled,” hotels are “romantic gems” or “fairytale hideaways.” It takes real skill to write like this without laughing. The travel writer’s tool kit of appealing and improbable clichés also includes the following:

• Beautiful weather (usually exaggerated and unreliable).
• Glorious golden beaches (rare, usually artificial).
• Fine and/or exotic restaurants (if you are very lucky).
• Exciting nightlife (you can probably do better at home unless you live in Iowa).
• Friendly natives (usually the biggest fiction of all).
• Interesting historic ruins (almost never interesting except to professional archeologists).
• High profile cultural credits (art, music etc., a lot of hard work).
• Natural wonders (waterfalls, mountains, lakes, deserts – just like we have at home).
• Amiable wildlife (possible glimpses of the vanishing rear ends of furry creatures).
• Unique sporting opportunities (hang gliding in the Himalayas, skateboarding through Baghdad etc. – ideal for the under-twelve crowd).

It is difficult for those of us not gifted with powerful imaginations to make the connection between these descriptions and the places we actually visit on the ground. The latter can be described, certainly, but not in language that any travel editor would publish.

But the essential dishonesty of travel writing is not so much its bizarre language as its intense selectivity. Even Paul Theroux, a serious and excellent travel writer, admitted in a British newspaper interview that even he leaves out the really bad parts – the disgusting illnesses, the interminable delays, and the predatory people he encounters on his travels. Travel writing is the art of choosing a few bright fragments out of the chaos of experience and reassembling them into a complete picture.

This is not a diatribe against traveling, or even against conventional travel writing. I love to travel, even though I feel guilty about the pollution and waste involved, because I have great curiosity about how other people live, and I need the escape from everyday life. My complaint is that inexperienced tourists often set out with unrealistic expectations, nurtured by books, magazine articles and TV programs, so they fail to get the most out of their trip while it is actually happening.

The crucial distinction here is between travelers (us) and tourists (them). Tourists expect what the travel writers have told them to expect. Travelers expect anything and everything.

The interesting thing about tourists is that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they enjoy their trip or not. Years ago, when I was much younger and even more foolish, I took on a summer job as a driver and guide for a company called Minitrek Expeditions, operating out of London. They offered what they humorously called “Adventure Holidays” in Greece, Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe and north Africa, using heavy-duty buses and stretched Land Rovers. These holidays appealed mostly to young people who were strong enough to survive the experience. The “adventure” was created by the fact that most of the driver/guides were, like me, complete amateurs. My own groups enjoyed an extra level of uncertainty because I was not good at reading maps. My tours might end up anywhere.

These trips were hard work. It’s no accident that the English word “travel” derives from the French “travail” (work). We camped, often in foul weather. We had so much sickness that I carried a box full of antibiotics and sulfa drugs, illegally purchased in what was then Yugoslavia. The vehicles often broke down. The passengers fell in love and fought with each other, usually at the same time, and found a common enemy in their driver/guide. The places where we stopped were often poverty-stricken and grim, and sometimes dangerous. Nobody could or did call it fun. But we always had plenty of customers, and even repeat customers.

After a particularly diabolical journey in the Sahara, I decided to run a little experiment. A week before the trip I had the victims (sorry, passengers) fill out a questionnaire about their expectations. Halfway through the trip those passengers who were still conscious and coherent filled out another questionnaire about how their expectations were being fulfilled. Two weeks after they returned home the survivors filled in a third questionnaire about their memories of the trip. This was repeated over several dozen trips to different places with different guides.

The result was an almost inverted perfect bell curve. Expectations started high, and plummeted down to zero in the middle of the experience. Two weeks afterwards, false memories were firmly in place. The travelers looked back on their adventures with nostalgia, and their memories were almost as rosy as their original hopes.

I published this finding as an article in a small weekly magazine, and tried to sell it to a wider audience. But nobody wanted to read it. Being funny about vacations (à la Chevy Chase) is fine. Telling the plain truth is almost sacrilegious. This was, admittedly, an extreme and unusual example, but my knowledge of the tourist industry is slightly broader than that. I’ve worked as a guide the northern Italian cultural boot camp circuit (Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Venice etc.), and also as a troubleshooter in the villa rental business in Cyprus and Turkey. None of my experiences have contradicted the impressions recorded above.

All vacations probably follow the same curving path from anticipation, down to experience, and up again to nostalgia, and experiences are less powerful than memories. To paraphrase something that Professor John Gagnon said about sex: “First there’s the expectation, then there’s the memory. But best of all is the expectation of the memory.”

This lets travel writers off the hook. The Technicolor fantasies they create may cause travelers to suffer a rude shock during the vacation itself, but they provide essential material for the re-creation of happy memories afterwards. Once tourists have recovered from the jet lag, stomach disorders and the credit card bills, they begin to imagine that they actually did enjoy the golden beaches, exotic restaurants, and unique cultural experiences that they read about before booking the trip.

The main lesson for tourists themselves is not to take detailed notes during the journey. Like any diary, these notes will make unwelcome reading afterwards. Tourists must allow the ever-inventive travel writers to stock their dreams and refurbish their memories, and not ask too many questions.

Mission Impossible

Whenever we communicate with a charity, a non-profit, a college or a big business, they expect us to read, and even to take seriously, a flatulent piece of prose described as their “Mission Statement.” I don’t know when this phrase crept into the language, but I think it should creep right out again.

The only people who are entitled to a mission statement are missionaries, and all they need to say is: “We go out to spread the faith.” But the so-called mission statements concocted by most organizations are monstrosities of verbal inflation and obfuscation, insults to the language. Universities and colleges, whose administrators should know better, are among the worst offenders. I spent a painful half hour looking at college prospectuses in the library, and it was soon clear that all their mission statements were variations on the same few vapid words and phrases. “An environment of academic freedom;” “A spirit of enquiry;” “High academic standards;” “Preparing for the challenges of the next century;” “Realize the student’s highest potential;” “Challenge;” “Responsibility;” Excellence;” and of course, “Diversity.” With this linguistic tool kit you can construct an impressively absurd mission statement for every educational enterprise, from play school to the University of Oxford.

Scott Adams, the creator of the popular Dilbert strip, had a lot to say about mission statements. His web page offered a “Mission Statement Generator,” with a handy vocabulary of the key mission statement words, which must be both impressive-sounding and fundamentally meaningless: “Professionalize;” “Globalize;” “Disseminate;” “Integrate;” “Customize;” “Foster;” “World-class;” “Cutting edge;” “Emerging;” “Interdependent;” “Paradigm;” “Infrastructure;” “Leadership;” and of course the all-important “Synergy,” which everyone applauds, and nobody understands.

Several years back, Scott Adams, disguised as a “consultant,” infiltrated a company called Logitech International, and persuaded its executives to adopt a mission statement so vague and contradictory that it would serve equally well for a peace movement or a manufacturer of nuclear bombs.

As a writer, I appreciate the hard creative work that goes into these statements. But why does a University, for example, need a mission statement? Its mission is or should be obvious. It is even more bizarre to concoct a mission statement for a profit-making business. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller didn’t have mission statements. If anyone had asked, they would have answered with a single word: “money.” One can’t help suspecting that a thousand word mission statement is hiding something, probably that the organization doesn’t know what it is doing, or that it doesn’t want us to know.

If organizations must have a mission statement, it should at least be brief, and truthful. “We educate people” would be fine for a college, for example – assuming that they do. A military organization could truthfully claim: “We kill people.” A fast food company might say: “We serve monstrously unhealthy but cheap meals to millions of Americans in order to make large profits.” No possibility of misunderstanding there. When you have to read a mission statement with a dictionary in hand, there’s something wrong.

It must also be said that a “mission” is not necessarily a good thing. Every lunatic and fanatic in the history of the world has imagined that he or she was blessed with a “mission” – from Genghis Khan to the Crusaders, and from Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler, Stalin, and the Islamic State. The old Communist Party of the USSR had a very fine mission statement, namely The Communist Manifesto. Much good it did them, or us. Mr. Theodore Kaczynski, the anarchist bomber who was convicted at the end of the 1990s, had a mission statement. But it was 35,000 words long, so nobody except the FBI read it, which is why nobody knows what his mission actually was. He may or may not have been crazy, but Mr. Kaczynski certainly lacked the gift of brevity.
People and organizations with mission statements are always bad news. My advice would be to put your trust in those can explain what they are doing in ten plain words or less, or those who, like me, have no idea what they are doing or why, but who at least are honest enough to admit it.

I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or adjectives like “supersize”? But, all too often, new terms simply push out the old without raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,” stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision. Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word that’s aggravating me at the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult, or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh, he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referentially, as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out, or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute. I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into nonsense by people who whine about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President Trump and Secretary Clinton have issues. Most of us don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints, as listeners to this commentary know all too well: about computers, international politics, plastic bags, household chores, and squirrels on my bird feeders, among many other things. But none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and struggle – divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever. Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints, pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories, gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant, peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to anybody. We don’t need “issues.”

The Chronicles of Wasted Time

Every writer has the same complaint – I don’t have enough time to do my work. Yet writers in the past managed to be prolific without the crutch of a computer, or sometimes even a typewriter. How did they do it?

The answer is summed up in a book by Alison Light: Mrs. Woolf and The Servants (2009). It records the sad travails of Virginia Woolf in dealing with the ill-paid people whose job it was to cook for her, clean for her, arrange her clothes, and in general make her life absolutely free of household cares. According to the book Mrs. Woolf hated her servants, although she was as helpless as a child without them. Even that great champion of the working class Karl Marx left all the dreary tasks of daily life to his servants, and treated them badly.

It’s interesting to remember how many distinguished creative careers in the past depended completely on the existence of a servant class. Only the very rich have servants now, so they have plenty of free time to spend playing golf or meeting with their accountants. But the rest of us must be our own servants, slaves to our homes and families. Our time is swallowed up by mindless domestic tasks. No wonder we feel inferior to our more productive ancestors whose time was, quite literally, their own.

Solitude Lite

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.”

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

We humans are a sociable species. That’s how we survive. We have the self-protective herd instinct that tells us to conform, follow the leader, and go with the crowd. This behavior can be seen in its purest form in your local high school, where ‘fitting in’ is practically a religion.

What makes us different from cows or lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.

The moments when we are separated from the swarm, mentally or physically, are precious, potentially creative spaces, when we can actually reflect on what (for want of a better phrase) I have to call the meaning of life. Even though Monty Python made an international joke out of it, the meaning of life is still a pretty important question.

This makes the absence of solitude al the more disturbing. Oddly enough it used to be available in public places like airports or trains, where we had to wait in a kind of limbo. But limbo has been abolished by scientific progress. In any such area today, the whole world is connected with cell phones, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, blueteeth, greenteeth any many other technologies I haven’t even heard of yet. Everyone is talking into thin air, or peering at a tiny screen while trying to press buttons the size of deer ticks. Nobody has the slightest desire to pause for reflection. On the contrary, that kind of solitude has become quite scary.

Normally couples just ignore each one another in public spaces. Now they actively turn their backs, each one absorbed in communication with someone else, somewhere else. The solitude of their togetherness is too much to endure. Or perhaps they are just following the prescription of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Cellphones make it easy to escape the other, but not the millions and billions of others.
We can travel to the ends of the earth, but even the deserts and mountains are crowded. Resorts ironically offer “Relaxation and solitude,” when you and they know that thousands of others will be sharing the same solitary experience. Solitude, when we find it, is all in the mind.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel A Hundred Years of Solitude is not really “about” solitude, except in so far as it follows the pointless and circular lives of the Buendia family, cut off from the wider world and progress. They are solitary in so far as they are ignorant, and their solitude is less a gift than a pathology.

But solitude remains a romantic, poetic notion, especially for creative people. A strange thing happened to me last summer. On a trip abroad I was unable to connect to the Internet for about a week, I had no telephone, and the cell phone failed. We had no TV or radio either. We were cut off from the continuous chatter of the outside world, and achieved a kind of solitude by default.

It was very disturbing at first, but then a profound peace descended. This, I supposed, was the magic of solitude that everyone writes about, but almost nobody finds. I could almost feel my blood pressure going down, I slept better, I was relaxed – and I couldn’t write a word.

This may be what happens to people who hide away in remote writers’ colonies, hoping that peace and quiet will bring the inspiration that everyday life had failed to bring. Thoreau wrote a lot about solitude, but he was constantly involved with people, with nature, and with his own philosophy. He was no more solitary than I am, sitting completely alone in my study, apart from two cats, the birds outside the window, and the radio playing a harp concerto by a composer with a marvelous name – Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf.

Real solitude must be very much like Death Lite. Solitary confinement is one of our cruelest punishments. Not wonder we love to dream about it, but never to practice it on ourselves.

The Comic Sage of Remsenburg

If you are under a certain age you may not be familiar with the comic genius of P.G.Wodehouse. His novels and stories were the consolation of my teenage years, when schoolwork and examinations seemed to fill the whole horizon. For light relief there were always the books of P.G.Wodehouse.

He was the creator, among many other things, of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which an idiotic young man about town is saved from numerous disasters by his suave valet Jeeves. They were splendidly incarnated by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the Masterpiece Theatre series which ran for four seasons in the early 1990s. The running joke in these books – and it’s a joke as old as Shakespeare – is that the servant is smarter than the master, and not just smarter but also more of a gentleman. The plots are chaotic and complicated, but most of them concern the eternal struggle by Bertie Wooster to avoid marrying a succession of ghastly women – notably the appalling Madeline Bassett.

Here’s a quote from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie Wooster’s perpetual dilemma.

“Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, had long been under the impression that I was hopelessly in love with her and had given me to understand that if she ever had the occasion to return her betrothed, Gussie Fink-Nottle, to store, she would marry me. Which wouldn’t have fit with my plans at all, she, though physically in the pin-up class, being as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. The last thing, as you can well imagine, one would want about the home.”

Nobody else wrote (or writes) like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he was affectionately known by his friends, created a fictional world in which a giant pig called the Empress of Blandings, a passion for newts, or the correct arrangement of a white tie were infinitely more important than death or taxes, or even school examinations. It wasn’t a fantasy world on the lines of Harry Potter, but a wildly exaggerated version of a real world that had existed once upon a time, when Wodehouse was young – a world of idle young gentlemen and flighty women, suave servants and eccentric aunts. As a teenager, I badly wanted to enter that world. In particular, I wanted to be an idle young gentleman with a valet.

I was lucky to grow up with Wodehouse. Some critics say that he was the finest English comic writer since Shakespeare. He had splendid timing, just the right amount of erudition, and a marvelous way with words. He was also enormously prolific, producing 126 books with titles like The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood and A Pelican at Blandings Castle, plus over fifty plays and musical comedies, and hundreds of short stories. He was still busily writing in the year of his death at the age of 94.

Although his stories and settings are so quintessentially English, P.G. made his reputation and his fortune in the United States. He came here in 1946 and lived in New York and Hollywood until 1955, when he and his wife Ethel settled just down the road from us in Remsenburg, Long Island, on a twelve acre estate by the sea. There he lived happily for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by dogs and cats and still spinning his wonderful stories. He was belatedly knighted and became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1975.

He never lost his sense of humor. even when he was interned in Germany in the Second World War. Wodehouse’s subject was the human comedy – the endlessly entertaining contrast between what we pretend to be and what we are. He helped me to get life in perspective, to “see the joke,” which isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The sad and pedestrian books now sold as “Young Adult” novels – full of family and school problems and facile solutions – are a poor substitute for the inspired satire of a writer like P.G. Wodehouse.

I think the evidence for P.G.s quality is that he still has fan clubs all over the world – the biggest in India, Russia and Japan, and of course in England. Millions and millions of people must have laughed out loud at his wonderful comic inventions. Come back Plum, we really need you.

Read it out loud

I read somewhere that the habit of reading aloud to children at bedtime is slowly fading away. Busy or lazy parents prefer to let their little darlings settle down with a video. As the beneficiary of untold hundreds of hours of reading aloud by my parents, this seems like a shame to me. Not only was it a very warm and companionable thing, but it made me see my parents as magical storytellers, so I have admired storytellers ever since. My father was a particularly good reader, having a resonant voice, good timing, and a gift for imitation. The family myth is that, at a very young age, I learned all my favorite stories by heart, so they could never get away with skipping a page, or even a single line.

The human voice is a marvelous instrument. Growing up with (British) radio instead of television I listened to stories and plays all the time. Voice actors, with the aid of a few sound effects, can create world that are even more vivid than those in TV or movies. When talking books started to be popular I was skeptical at first, but then I found that those talented actors had migrated to the recorded book business. Now I can get someone to tell me a story anywhere, anytime, and it gives me the same warm feeling that I used to get when my parents read to me.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was normal for literate families to read aloud to each other, just as it was normal for them to play music together. Now recording technologies have made those sociable habits largely redundant, just as they have made domestic music-making redundant. Most of us, if called upon to read from Shakespeare, or even from the morning paper, will make a sad hash of it. We just don’t have the skills that come from having the habit.

If you work in radio, of course, you get the habit. I’ve had the pleasure of reading essays and music program scripts for our local public radio stations for more than twenty years. But it has never become effortless. Sometimes a single sentence needs four or five takes before it sounds right. But in the process of reading aloud the writing is always improved.

This is what I always tell students in writing workshops: Read It Out Loud. The advice is not original. I read it myself many years ago in a textbook whose author I have now forgotten. But my bad memory doesn’t change the fact that this is great advice: Read It Out Loud. All the repetitions, clunky phrases, and awkward transitions will jump out of you once you put your writing into audio mode. Poets know this, of course, but if you have never thought of reading your own prose out loud, try it.

Another benefit of reading aloud for writers is that so many of us are lousy speakers. Arthur Krystal wrote an entertaining essay in The New York Times Book Review (September 22, 2009) about the curious gap that often exists between writing and speaking skills. Writers who are fluent at the keyboard may be tongue tied when it comes to public speaking, or even social conversation. He mentions Nabokov as one example, but we all know that the most engaging and amusing writers can be very boring to meet. Talking is just not their (or my) thing – at least not talking without a script.

I am full of genuine admiration for those who can chatter on cell phones all day, or keep up lively conversations on the steps of the post office, or with the man who came to fix the gas furnace. How do they find things to talk about?

The good news, for writers, is that reading out loud can help with the problem of inarticulacy. It may not make you a brilliant conversationalist, but it will make you much better at the essential tasks of talking about and reading your own work in public. Accents are improved, blurred speech becomes clear, and you can learn how to express feelings more convincingly. Listening to recorded books is good training too. We all have this incomparable instrument, the human voice: why not use it?