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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Various e-readers are put on display at the Durango Public Library in Durango, Colo. (Shaun Stanley/The Durango Herald/AP)

Judge finds Apple went against anti-trust laws in e-book price-fixing case

By Staff Writer / 07.10.13

US District Judge Denise Cote ruled in New York that Apple was involved in a conspiracy to increase e-book retail prices, siding with the US Department of Justice.

“Apple chose to join forces with the publisher defendants to raise e-book prices and equipped them with the means to do so," Cote wrote in her decision. "Without Apple's orchestration of this conspiracy, it would not have succeeded as it did.”

An Apple spokesperson, however, told the Wall Street Journal “we’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Apple did not conspire to fix ebook pricing and we will continue to fight against these false accusations," the spokesperson, who was not named, said. "When we introduced the iBookstore in 2010, we gave customers more choice, injecting much needed innovation and competition into the market, breaking Amazon's monopolistic grip on the publishing industry… we will appeal the judge's decision.”

Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer, who is in charge of the antitrust division of the Justice Department, applauded the verdict.

“Companies cannot ignore the antitrust laws when they believe it is in their economic self-interest to do so," Baer said in a statement. "This decision by the court is a critical step in undoing the harm caused by Apple's illegal actions.”

The five publishers who were accused with Apple, including Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, had all settled previously. The publishers and Apple had reportedly worked to raise prices in order to be able to compete with online bookselling giant Amazon. The Department of Justice claimed Apple convinced the publishers to go with the “agency model,” in which the publisher would decide the price of an e-book rather than the retailer selling it. During the case, evidence presented included communications from the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.

As reported by Monitor writer Husna Haq, some thought Cote might side with Apple when she said, “I thought I had prepared so well” when closing the trial.

“I learned a lot,” Cote continued. “But you have helped me understand so much more through the evidence.”

According to the Department of Justice, the conspiracy between Apple and the publishers cut down on competition in the e-book industry.

An anonymous ad promising $10,000 to a poet who could use the money was posted on Craigslist on July 5.

$10,000 for a good poem, promises a mysterious benefactor

By Cameron Martin / 07.10.13

I’ve entered a handful of poetry contests in the past and when none of these contests recognized my budding promise, I submitted my work to vanity presses, where I paid other people to not read my poems.

Suffice to say I’ve never encountered a more interesting or eccentric poetry contest than this one recently posted to Craigslist, in which an anonymous benefactor is awarding $10,000 to a promising poet, who has to submit to a job interview and essentially prove they need the money.

Submissions are to be made via email ( by July 19th and should include the poem, the background of the poet/applicant, and descriptions of why you want this grant as well as, if you were selected, how you would use the funds.

The benefactor will select the 10 most intriguing poems and will meet with the writers by the end of July.

The main consideration is that the poem be the best. The secondary consideration will be someone's need. A letter or note submitted could also have some weight.

It’s been a while since I harbored any notions of being a poet, but this posting definitely piqued my curiosity, in part because this benefactor sounds like someone who’d be played by Anthony Hopkins or Dame Judi Dench in a film adaptation. 

“As background, I come from a very humble beginning and feel very fortunate that at this point in my life I am able to give back," the benefactor wrote in the ad. "I currently support a number of music and art institutions in NYC but feel that this grant is a more direct way of making a difference in the life of one aspiring poet. I am neither a poet nor a writer but appreciate poetry, music, and art.”

I reached out to this benefactor via e-mail, hoping to learn some more about their background and their quest to find a poet of promise.

They politely declined, writing,

Thank you but I am interested in remaining anonymous.  I believe that true 'giving' focuses on the cause and the recipient not the donor.  Too many charities today are fixated on the charity event, honoring the donor, celebrating the gift.  I hope you understand and respect our wishes."
I do. And I also know I could really use $10,000 and can definitely prove it in a one-on-one interview. Time to go over my rhyme schemes.

Good luck to all you other aspiring poets.

'Ender's Game' is by writer Orson Scott Card.

Geeks Out website calls for boycott of 'Ender's Game' movie

By Staff writer / 07.10.13

The world still has yet to find out whether the film adaptation of author Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic “Ender’s Game” will do well at the box office, but we already know some people won’t be flocking to theaters.

The website Geeks Out, which according to its website “rallies, empowers and promotes the queer geek community,” is calling for a boycott of the film because of statements Card has made in the past against gay marriage. Geeks Out has established a website titled Skip Ender’s Game which asks, “Do you really want to give this guy your money?”

“However much you may have admired his books, keep your money out of Orson Scott Card’s pockets,” the site reads. It urges visitors to sign a pledge to not see the film, create a “Skip Ender’s Game” event for Nov. 1, the day the movie hits theaters, and tell friends about Card’s views.

Card recently issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly about the boycott.

“Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984,” he said. “With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot.  The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

Card’s views had come up before when DC Comics hired Card to write a story for “Adventures of Superman,” an anthology series, and a petition was started to replace the author. Chris Sprouse, who had been scheduled to illustrate the comic book, dropped out of the project, stating that “the media surrounding this story reached the point where it took away from the actual work.”

Card has written pieces that slam gay marriage, including one for the magazine Sunstone that was published in 1990 in which he discussed the place of gay marriage in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. (The author is reportedly a practicing Mormon.)

“Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society,” he wrote.

In 2008, he wrote a piece for the Deseret News in which he stated that “human beings are part of a long mammalian tradition of heterosexuality… That a few individuals suffer from tragic genetic mixups does not affect the differences between genetically distinct males and females.”

A depiction of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in 'Pride and Prejudice' has been placed in the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park in London. (David Parry/AP)

Colin Firth statue appears in London lake as 'Pride and Prejudice' tribute

By Staff Writer / 07.09.13

Colin Firth has appeared in the middle of a London lake – or one version of him has, anyway.

A 12-foot statue of Firth in a white shirt, as seen in the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice” in which he portrayed Mr. Darcy, has been placed in the middle of the Serpentine Lake in London's Hyde Park to promote the new British TV channel titled Drama, which is owned by UKTV and launched on July 8. UKTV says viewers chose the scene in which Firth emerges from a pond as the most memorable moment ever to occur in drama on British television.

The statue is made of fiberglass and will move to other locations before being put in a body of water in Lyme Park, where Firth originally filmed the scene. (And no, the sequence in which Mr. Darcy goes for a swim was not originally in Jane Austen’s book.)

Adrian Wills, the Drama network general manager, told the Hollywood Reporter the statue doesn't just depict Firth.

"We're very pleased with his appearance... He's portraying many of the Darcys that have appeared over the years in film and TV adaptations," Wills said of the statue.

An anonymous swimmer told the Hollywood Reporter, "It makes swimming a bit more interesting, and I think the swans like it."

But some find the statue a bit odd. An Atlantic Wire story on the statue ran with the headline “Giant Colin Firth terrorizes London,” while Twitter users seemed both pleased and amused over the Firth tribute. 

“Loch Ness Monster?” a user named Rachel Watson tweeted. “Nope, Just a Giant Colin Firth Statue: He's not just coming for Elizabeth. He's coming for you.”

Meanwhile, the Twitter account for Des Plaines Library in Illinois tweeted, “Not sure how I feel about creepy fiberglass Mr. Darcy.”

Twitter user Claire McKinney felt the statue was going a bit too far.

“We do love Colin Firth... But a statue of him in a lake?!” she tweeted.

William Lynch has left his position as Barnes & Noble CEO. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Barnes & Noble CEO steps down following dismal financial reports

By Staff Writer / 07.09.13

Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch has announced he is leaving the company, news that came shortly after the release of disappointing fourth-quarter numbers and word that Barnes & Noble is looking to partner with another company to manufacture its Nook tablet devices. 

Rather than naming a direct replacement for Lynch, B&N said Mitchell Klipper will stay in his current position as CEO of the chain’s stores and current CFO Michael Huseby will become CEO of the Nook unit of the company and president of Barnes & Noble. Former vice president of the company Allen Lindstrom has been given the job of Chief Financial Officer, while Leonard Riggio, the company’s chairman, will remain in his post and Max J. Roberts will remain as chief executive officer of the Barnes & Noble College section of the company.

“We thank William Lynch for helping transform Barnes & Noble into a leading digital content provider," Riggio said in a statement. "As the bookselling industry continues to undergo significant transformation, we believe that Michael, Mitchell, and Max are the right executives to lead us into the future.”

Lynch said he had valued his time at B&N.

“There is a great executive team and Board in place at Barnes & Noble, and I look forward to the many innovations the Company will be bringing to its millions of physical and digital media customers in the future,” he said in a statement

Lynch was previously in charge of the bookstore chain’s website, according to the Wall Street Journal

Meanwhile, B&N spokesperson Mary Ellen Keating told the New York Times the company has "no immediate plans to name a CEO."

B&N announced late last month that it was looking to partner with another company to produce its color tablets while still manufacturing their black-and-white devices themselves. The development occurred after the company’s fourth-quarter numbers showed a net loss that was more than double their loss for the same quarter last year.

Meanwhile, in February, Riggio told Barnes & Noble he might bid for the company’s website and stores but left the college bookstores and the Nook business out of that proposition. There has not been an update on the possibility since then. Meanwhile, Microsoft invested $300 million recently in the college store and Nook parts of the business.

Tom Desjardin is the author of 'These Honored Dead.'

Looking back at Gettysburg: Writer Tom Desjardin discusses the legacy of the Civil War conflict

By Randy Dotinga / 07.08.13

A century and a half ago this month, the Battle of Gettysburg lasted for three days. Then the armies of North and South promptly skipped town. Generations of Civil War historians would follow their paths to victory and surrender at Appomattox. But what about Gettysburg itself, then a tiny southern Pennsylvania town just above the Maryland border?

The residents of Gettysburg faced battles of their own: to cope with thousands of dead and injured men, to rebuild their shattered community, to find hope and resilience amid so much carnage. No other town ravaged by a Civil War battle faced quite the same struggles. "A town of 2,400 ends up being invaded by 170,000 combatants who leave 8,000 dead and 22,000 wounded and all this destruction," said Tom Desjardin, historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Desjardin explored the legacy of the battle in his 2004 book "These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory." I asked him to describe the Gettysburg of 1863, the scars of the battle, and the long march toward recovery.

Q: What was Gettysburg like? What kinds of people lived there?

A: Like many American towns of that time, it was a farming community. It was also known for carriage-making and for being a crossroads on the road from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and from Harrisburg to Baltimore and Washington.

There was a seminary, a small college, and a railroad. I'm sure there were wagon makers, a hardware store, and a place to sell grain. But there wasn't big industry or a big mill, and there weren't any big mansions or anything like that.

Q: The battle came as the Confederate Army tried to bring the war to the North by invading it. Would a town like Gettysburg ever have expected the Civil War to appear at its doorstep?

A: Not until General Lee headed north. Before that, no one thought of the war spilling into Pennsylvania. The idea that it would go that far north was a bit unthinkable.

Q: So was the battle itself a complete shock?

A: The Confederates had come through on June 26 and tried to ransom the town, [saying], Give us 1,500 pairs of shoes and X number of dollars and so many bales of hay, or we'll burn the town.

They didn't get their shoes or money. Instead, they said, Never mind, and they left, which wasn't an uncommon phenomenon. They weren't really in the practice of burning someone's town.

Q: How close did the battle come to the town itself?

A: On the first day, it was north and a little west of the town by half a mile, and then the second and third day, it was south of the town, a mile or two miles, maybe three. In the town, there were Confederate troops shooting at Union troops. There are a number of buildings that have bullet holes still in them.

Q: What was the state of things when the battle ended?

A: It was just horrible. The Union Army is still there, and the Confederates were making their retreat. Both armies would disappear to keep on fighting, leaving behind this carnage. On the battlefield, almost completely surrounding the town, there were 8,000 or more shallow graves with soldiers in them. There were about 22,000 wounded left behind by both armies and 4,000 of them would die over the next month.

The wounded are scattered in just about every hog pen, barn, and basement where you could put them out of the rain and sun. On top of that, there are another couple thousand dead horses and mules. The lives of civilians are completely wrecked. Their barns were burned, their crops are gone.

They'd gathered their wheat for harvest, and the armies had marched all over it and destroyed it. Their orchards were wrecked, their trees and fences trees cut for firewood, their animals confiscated or killed, their hay confiscated.

Q: What was the attitude like among the people?

A: Stricken. They were just horrified as to what happened. Many had fled, and they came home and found they had no water because their spring had a dead horse in it, they had no crops and the battle had left explosive ordnance under the ground. Your livelihood was gone, and you had nothing but a house with bloodstains deep into the floorboards. The government focused on the wounded and dead, leaving the people of Gettysburg to fend for themselves.

They were also besieged by what we call lookie-loos today: reporters and people from neighboring communities. Tourists started to come and started looking around.

Q: What surprised you when you did your research?

A: The stories are amazing when you think of the fortitude. It was just a situation where everything was damaged and awful. People suffered but also rose the occasion. They provided food, shelter and clothing both to the soldiers who were wounded and the people who were displaced.

There was a woman named Elizabeth Thorn whose husband was caretaker of the town's cemetery. At seven months pregnant, she and her stepfather had to bury 72 soldiers who were lying dead around their property. There was a union general named Joshua Chamberlain who said war is a test of character that makes bad men worse and good men better. In Gettysburg, you had a lot of both.

Q: The town of Gettysburg is still there, surrounded by a kind of national shrine full of statues and tourists amid the rocks, fences, and fields. Are there other physical signs of the battle?

A: There are probably as many as 1,500 bodies still out there that aren't accounted for. The last one was found in 1995. And every once in a while, someone will find an unexploded shell.

Q: What kind of role did the Gettysburg Address – at the dedication of a national cemetery – play a few months after the battle?

A: The government had managed to relocate about half of the Union soldiers and the Confederates were beginning a process where the people in the South could generate funds to relocate their soldiers. That's why the event that prompted Lincoln's address was so important. They could envision a day when the bodies wouldn't be buried in their fields. And winter's coming, which tends to help with germs and flies and the smell. Symbolically, this is going to be over.

He gave the speech on Nov. 19, and declared that the last Thursday of the month would be a day of Thanksgiving.

Q: What lessons can we learn from all this?

A: The armies fought like crazy, took a day off and then left, leaving 2,400 people to deal with the carnage and waste and destruction without much in the way of help. They managed. They're still there.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

'This Town' is by Mark Leibovich.

'This Town': What are early reviews saying?

By Staff Writer / 07.08.13

The release of "This Town,” Beltway reporter Mark Leibovich’s examination of D.C. culture, has been eagerly anticipated by political buffs (and recently made the Monitor’s list of the top 10 books of July). So does the book by Leibovich, who works as the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, live up to the hype?

Early reviews have been mostly positive. Washington Post writer Carlos Lozada called it “not bad” and said the acidic look at our nation’s capital can be hard to take at first.

“His tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place – a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant and acts of public service appear largely accidental,” Lozada wrote.

However, the book by Leibovich does suck you in, says Lozada, who notes that while Leibovich wrote for the Washington Post, he has never met him.

“Only two things keep you turning pages,” he wrote of "Town." “First, in Leibovich’s hands, this state of affairs is not just depressing, it’s also kind of funny. Second, you want to know whether the author thinks anyone in Washington – anyone at all? – is worthy of redemption.”

New York Times writer David M. Shribman praised Leibovich’s ability to depict the often strange culture of Washington.

“He’s an insider, Mr. Leibovich is, first a reporter at The Washington Post, now the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine,” Shribman wrote. “Yet he seems to wear those special glasses that allow you to X-ray the outside and see what’s really going on... Start to finish, this is a brilliant portrait.”

Meanwhile, Politico writer Dylan Byers calls the main theme of the book “Washington’s power to shape and corrupt.”

“[“This Town”] will benefit the reader,” he wrote. "For the political junkie, the anecdotes included are top-notch.”

“Town” is scheduled to be released on July 16.

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' is directed by Peter Jackson. (Jon Furniss/Invision/AP)

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' gets its first behind-the-scenes video (+ video)

By Staff Writer / 07.03.13

The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson has some bad news and some good news for fans. On the down side, there won’t be any presentation at Comic-Con this year. But the good news is that there’s a new video blog with more behind-the-scenes secrets. 

Jackson begins the video by explaining why the second film, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” won’t be a presence at Comic-Con (the convention held in San Diego) this year. Last year, Jackson and some of his cast members attended and presented new footage at the convention.

“We’re still shooting and we’re going to be shooting through the period of Comic-Con… there wasn’t really anybody available, I can’t go,” Jackson said.

The director says he also discounts the possibility of sending video footage of the new film to the convention because of his own busy schedule.

“I’m so busy shooting, working six days a week trying to get these pick-ups done, that every hour that I spend focusing on a really great reel for Comic-Con … would be hours spent away from the vital job of making the second and third ‘Hobbit’ films as cool as they can possibly be,” Jackson says.

The blog begins with a clip from the film in which wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) are discussing recent events.

“Gandalf, if what you say is true, the world is in grave danger,” McCoy tells McKellen.

Most of the video shows behind-the-scenes work, including crew members greeting each other enthusiastically as everyone arrives for the pick-up shooting. Footage also shows crews taking covers off sets and going through props.

Stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell looks on with amusement as some of the actors, including three who play the dwarves, Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), and Stephen Hunter (Bombur), reunite with hugs and claps on the back.

“Hugs and kisses, and then we can do some fighting,” he says.

Jackson notes that the big war scene, known as the Battle of the Five Armies, that will be coming up in the third film.

“We are putting our dwarves through a very extensive training regime,” he says. “They have to be fighting fit for that battle, and so they’re working very hard at the moment.” 

Footage of the dwarves with their fake hair and beards attached, topped with sweatbands, follow, with the actors doing goofy ‘80s-style aerobicizing.

The struggles of the extras department to cast people for large scenes are also documented. 

“Out of the thirty elves we had, I have about two,” says extras casting director Victoria Beynon.

Actress Evangeline Lilly, who plays elf Tauriel, appears for the first time as part of a scene with Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and McKellen.

“Legolas Greenleaf,” McKellen greets Bloom in character, then looked over at Lilly. “And you….”

“Hi,” Lilly tells him.

“Welcome to the film,” says McKellen.

George Packer, author of 'The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,' says he sees the "thrust of how Americans live ... shifting back towards an urban life." (Guillermo Riveros)

George Packer talks about the 'unwinding' of America

By JP O'MalleyContributor / 07.03.13

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of the award-winning 2005 book "The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq." Packer’s other non-fiction books include, "The Village of Waiting" and "Blood of the Liberals," the latter winning the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is also the author of two novels, "The Half Man" and "Central Square."

Packer’s latest book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, is a work of non-fiction that attempts to document the massive political and economic changes that have taken place in the last three decades in the United States.

The narrative follows the successes and failures of various Americans, including: Dean Price, the son of a tobacco farmer and an evangelist for a green economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a Rust Belt factory worker trying to survive the financial collapse of Youngstown, Ohio; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, who questions the true worth of the technology economy.

Packer gives us these tales without opinion or commentary. Instead, he simply lets readers make their own judgments from the stories he provides. If this literary style of journalism is subtly trying to push a polemic at the reader, in brief, it might be summarized this way: the Roosevelt Republic which reigned for over half a century – building institutions; creating a prosperous middle class; devising a strong sense of camaraderie among the population, and an honest work ethic, where physical things were made and sold – has been replaced by a fictitious economy that exists on bogus credit ratings and mind-numbing consumption, a system that isolates individuals from what one might define as a decent society.

In this process, the gap between rich and poor has become ever wider, and millions of US citizens who were once members of the middle class have now slid into a permanent state of poverty.

I spoke to Packer about this "unwinding" process – an age in which the vision of America as an unquestionable superpower and leader in global market forces has gradually come to a standstill.

You speak in the book about the move away from manufacturing, and into the fictional world of finance. How important was that drastic change for the American economy in the last 30 years?

It’s been a huge historical event that goes almost ignored because it’s so pervasive, and has been with us for a whole generation now. If you go to the Rust Belt, to the former steel-making cities, or to small towns in places like North Carolina, where there used to be textiles and furniture, the departure of manufacturing has devastated these places, leaving behind these ghostly downtowns, dismal empty main streets, and closed shops. This has opened the way for Wal-Mart up on the highway to be the center of all activity. And it pushes everything downward. We have become a consumer society where most of the wealth is spun out of thin air by Wall Street, with the exception of Silicon Valley.

On the coasts, and in the big cities, this is not considered a terrible thing, because these places have done well. I live in one of them, Brooklyn. But once you leave these so called creative cities, and go into these old industrial cities, or even the small towns, that weren’t particularly industrial, it’s a real landscape of depression, where Wall Street is not loved. You can point to all the blind forces that have led to this, to globalization and automation. But that is not much good to people who had a middle class life, and don’t anymore. What I heard over and over again: in Ohio, North Carolina, and in Florida, is that there is not a middle class, there is just rich and poor.     

You also speak about the shift in American popular culture, where celebrity worship became primarily about money. You use Jay Z and Oprah as two examples. When did it become almost acceptable to flaunt your wealth as your sole motivation as an artist or a celebrity in America?   

 I think celebrity comes to the fore of people’s consciousness in times of inequality, when they stand in for the old institutions that used to guide more ordinary aspirations. Modern celebrities were invented in America in the 1920s. Celebrity itself requires a machine-made diffusion. So celebrities grow in power and in influence. Today when I hear Jay Z at concerts, I get the feeling that he is telling his fans: Just give it to me. I will live it for you. And you can fantasize about it through me. But you are not going to get here, even if you wear my clothes, and flash my corporate logo.

Even Newt Gingrich did something to politics, where he turned it into an entertainment industry. He was willing to say anything, the more outrageous the better. He was willing to break down old taboos about what you could call your colleagues in Congress, and how much you could boast to a reporter, and how viciously you could try and tear down the president or [Congressional colleagues].

I guess what I am getting at is a collapse of taboos at that level of society that says: This is actually a rigged game. The old rules don’t work. If you are continuing to play by them, you are a sucker. Jay Z’s story tells you: Don’t hold down an honest job and stay in school, and hope that you move up. No, go for all of it, by any means, and then success will be its own justification. So that is why Jay Z interests me. I think he is a talented individual, but I also think that his story is one of success at all costs.       

You also observe how social interaction is on the decline in American suburbs. Could you speak about this increasing isolation in American life, a disinterest in community. Where do you suspect this comes from? 

Well I’m not the first to point this out. There was a famous book by a Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, who wrote a book called "Bowling Alone," which said that Americans don’t join groups much anymore. There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them are not political. It’s just the way people live in the suburbs.

You speak about Tampa Florida as one example of this?

Yes, Tampa is a great example of a vast ex-urban place, where people want to get away from the city, and people end up in these sub-divisions where they have no roots. Then as soon as the housing market goes down, everyone leaves and it’s a ghost town. But that is changing, in that more and more people are moving back into cities.

Today in America the suburbs are becoming poorer, with the housing collapse all around Florida, and other states that had a big boom. The suburbs look like impoverished areas. It’s the cities that are attracting people with money, education, and talent. So I think the whole thrust of how Americans live is shifting back towards an urban life. Because there you are around people you don’t know, and exchange ideas with them, and that sparks growth.

This book looks at the unwinding of America from inside the country. Did you think about this unwinding in terms of external forces? For example, the idea that America might be presently at the last stages of a fallen empire?

I didn’t think about it writing the book, and if I had, I don’t think the book would have been very good, because I would have been worried about it being true to a grand vision. Grand visions are not very good for storytelling. It’s better to focus on a small subject, and illuminate a large one through it, rather than take it on directly.

That was my aim here with this book. I don’t know whether [the question of empire] is true or not. It’s a huge question Americans are asking all the time these days. It’s very hard to answer honestly because you will get beat up by two different sets of people, depending on your answer. If you say that Obama is our Clement Attlee, then you are called a pessimist, and are accused of giving up on what is great about America. If you say, no, America can come back, you seem out of touch.

You make a good analogy between America and Wal-Mart. You say America got cheap like Wal-Mart. Could you talk about this?

Wal-Mart has had a real effect. It’s not just a symbol of our economy: it’s a big part of our economy. Wal-Mart reached 100 billion dollars in sales by 1997. And another statistic that I cite in the book is that the six heirs to Wal-Mart fortune have the same value as the bottom 30 percent of the United States, which is the equivalent to 90 million people, it is staggering.

 Although I do think that Sam Walton’s story is an interesting one because he is a truly small town guy who built an Empire. But he built it ruthlessly, at the expense of small town life. The strategy of Wal-Mart was to move like an army across the heartland of America, and lay waste to one little downtown after another, and bring in the stores that were going to just deplete all the little shopkeepers. 

And they did exactly that. They were lowering the cost of living, where nobody could compete with their prices. But by doing that they were driving American manufacturers overseas, because American manufactures could not give the price that Wal-Mart was demanding. They were also driving down the standard of living, and they became the only job in town.

Are we presently at a point in American capitalism that hasn’t been seen since the Gilded Age? And are egalitarian values regressing, not progressing?

There is still a deep belief in egalitarianism among Americans. It doesn’t mean we should all have the same, or live the same. It means there should be roughly equal opportunity, and that it should be real, not just theoretical. And what has happened over the last generation is that it has become more theoretical and less real. More Americans can make it to the top, get great education and great jobs: blacks, immigrants, women, gay Americans, there is this great inclusiveness, and that is not going to stop. But it is coinciding with this stratification and division.

And Black Americans have done very badly, right before and after the financial crisis, and that offends people. It’s rigged. Where you are born determines a lot where you are going to end up, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of Americans: We don’t see ourselves as being a class society. And Europe now has more social mobility than America, which is unprecedented. That is a huge loss for us, because that was our claim to being a democracy, where anyone can do well. We don’t have some of the security and social protections of Europe and that is hardening.     

What kind of role do you think Silicon Valley and technology is playing in widening the gap between rich and poor in America? And why did you decide to use Peter Thiel as one of your characters in this book, to start a conversation about the super-wealthy?

Thiel interested me because he is a Libertarian. I think Libertarianism is a really strong impulse among Americans today, especially among people in technology who think that technology, rather than government, will solve our problems. But he also has a more realistic view of where the country is than a lot of people in Silicon Valley do.

There is a certain amount of dreaming that goes on out there. But Thiel distinguishes with the Internet and technology, between change and progress. Technology may change how much information we can get, and how we can get it, but it has not produced progress in the way that the earlier industrial age did by raising living standards and creating the middle class. If anything, technology has been part of a great divide, where some, who know how to use it, do very well. And people who can't use it, but whose talents are more suited to working on an assembly line are falling behind. Technology is hurting them. It’s taking their jobs away. The picture is mixed, and Thiel sees that. He goes in a direction I don’t particularly like, but I was interested in him because I thought that he was unusually thoughtful about these things.

Some people imagine that wildland firefighters are in it for 'the rush and the adrenaline,' says Matthew Desmond, author of 'On the Fireline.' 'There's something to that, but it fades over time.'

'On the Fireline' author Matthew Desmond recalls life as a wildland firefighter

By Randy DotingaContributor / 07.02.13

A decade has passed since Harvard University sociology professor Matthew Desmond spent his college summers working as a wildland firefighter in northern Arizona. But he hasn't left the woods behind.

Desmond relied on his experiences to write his 2007 book On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters. And yesterday he found himself on the phone trying to reach his friends in the rugged land where he grew up. He wanted to know if they were OK.

Details are still emerging about the deaths of 19 firefighters near the Arizona city of Prescott. They were caught in a firestorm while trying to fight a wildfire that threatened the tiny town of Yarnell.

Desmond grew up in nearby Winslow, Ariz. (yes, the little town from the song) and spent many scorching summer months waiting to rush toward smoke on the horizon.

I asked him to describe the risk and appeal of a dangerous job. Rural firefighters like to complain that city firefighters have more "street cred" and attention from females, he says, but there's another side to the coin: "You feel like you own this piece of America."
Q: People think of Arizona as being a desert state, but you fought fires in the woods, not too far from a ski resort or two. What was the landscape like there?
A: Arizona has a lot of different climates. This area is a forest with many ponderosa pines. It gets snow in the winter, but it can dry out quickly, and Arizona has witnessed high temperatures and drought in the last few years. They've also experienced a massive beetle infestation, which dries out trees and makes them tinder sticks. Along with other things, these have all contributed to massive fires in Arizona over the past 10 years.
Q: How did you become a firefighter?
A: This was what a lot of us, mainly young men, did in the summers in northern Arizona. This is how I put myself through college. I fought fires in the summer, and then I went back and did it again when I went to graduate school.
Q: What was the appeal of this life for you?
A: At the station, it's 45 minutes away from the nearest anything. We live out there, we cook and eat out there, and when there's no fires and we get off at 5, you have the whole rest of the night to yourself. You feel like you own this piece of America in a way.
Q: What backgrounds do the firefighters have?
A: They tend to have rural, working-class backgrounds. Some folks' dads would be mail carriers, postmen, or work for the railroad in rural Arizona. Or maybe even high school teachers. My dad was a preacher.
Q: What would people do during the long off season?
A: You have college kids who go back to college and some guys who just collect unemployment and wait until the next season or take odd jobs like working in the family restaurant.
Q: How did firefighters deal with the tremendous risk they face?
A: We dealt with it by telling ourselves that if we're competent and follow the rules, it wouldn't happen to us. A lot of us who grew up in the country, hunting and fishing, being very familiar with the woods and dirt roads, have the skill set you need to fight fire. You come with that. It's your background.

You take all those skills and you're told about the 10 standard fire orders, which are like the 10 Commandments. You're told to follow those, and you'll be OK. But there's a cost to that.

These are young men in their early 20s. On one hand, getting young men to follow the rules and pay attention, emphasizing the mistakes that they can make, helps with a kind of situational awareness. On the other hand, it can cultivate a kind of culture where what's valued most is your individual competence.
Q: How is that a problem?
A: That kind of self-reliance is dangerous for firefighters. It could lead to a breakdown in the chain of command and leaders not being listened to. It can lead to poor teamwork.
Q: What do people misunderstand about what wildland firefighters do?
A: There's a narrative that these country kids do it for the rush and the adrenaline. There's something to that, but it fades over time. When you fight fires for a few seasons, you know what to expect. Your heart doesn't race as much as it did.

Some say it's for the money and the paycheck, that it's a good way to stock up. It's true that you're in the middle of nowhere and you can't spend that much money. And if it's a hard fire season, you're working overtime and getting hazard pay. But it's not really about that, either.

It's more about the land, about being able to work outside and not being behind the desk. "The desk" epitomized this terrible existence.

And it's a way to ply the skills you gained growing up in the country in a profession that values those skills, like how to wield a chainsaw and how to drive a four-wheel drive.
Q: Would you go back?
A: My life's very different now, but I miss it.

It's hard work and it's grueling, but it's also very rewarding and satisfying. Fire itself is very beautiful, and there's an attachment to fire that firefighters have.

It's not a pyromaniacal fascination but a kind of intimacy that you get after being around a lot of fire and seeing what it can do in a majestic way.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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