Ask most Americans to describe the Taliban – the militant Pashtun tribesmen who once ruled Afghanistan – and "poetic" probably won't be an adjective you'll hear frequently employed. But that's exactly the point of publishing an English edition of poetry by the group, says Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the editors of the newly released US edition of "Poetry of the Taliban." "Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well," he says.
Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter recently spoke with van Linschoten about the book and his decision to publish it.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book?
A: We were running an organization to give voices to the debate and discussion happening in Afghanistan. As part of that project, we were monitoring the Taliban website and we saw that there were these Taliban poems in a very prominent location on the website. We started to have them translated because I was curious. We just kept on doing it even after our project had finished. Then, about a year and a half ago, we mentioned to our publisher that we had these 300 to 350 Taliban poems, and he said, "Let’s publish them."
Q: What first stood out to you about the poems?
A: There are the kinds of things that you would expect, like a poem called "Death is a Gift," and there’s a lot glorifying the war and the military aspect of the conflict. But then a very large number of the poems have nothing to do with the war. They’re about flowers, they’re about what it means to be a writer, they’re about religion and so on. There are self-critical poems about the destruction, but not glorifying it in the way that the others are. It was interesting that there were more in the way of these unexpected poems.
Q: What are your favorite poems?
A: There’s one quite interesting one where the Talib imagines himself as a deer running through the forest, and then he imagines the American soldier as the hunter who is trying to hunt him. I think this is an interesting image of the conflict. The final poem, which is about a widow visiting the grave of her husband every day, that’s quite a strong one.
Q: Do the poems have literary merit or are they only interesting because of who wrote them?
A: They’re really emotional. It’s not great art on the highest level, but still it has an emotional pull to it. I think you have a similar kind of dynamic here where people in Kandahar are listening to them, particularly the kind of writers and literary guys, they don’t necessarily think this is great literature, but it has an emotional effect on them.
Q: This book has been pulled into the political debate. Did you intend for that?
A: We didn’t publish the book with any sort of political agenda, but I’ve found it interesting how challenged people have been just by the idea that Talibs write poems, even regardless of the actual content. A lot of the negative responses we’ve had are by people who’ve never read the book; they’re just objecting to the pure existence of it. I think that says something interesting about how we view the Taliban. We don’t think of them as people who write poems. They’re the enemy, they’re terrorists, people who blew up the Buddha statues, they’re people who’ve done all these bad things to women. We have quite a limited frame of reference. If there was anything we were trying to do with the book, it was to try to offer an extended, more complex view of things.
Q: People have criticized you for over-emphasizing the Taliban’s humanity. What do you think about that?
A: It’s surprising that this is such an outrageous observation to have. Where do people think these guys come from? It’s not like they came from Mars in a spaceship. They’re Afghans and they’re engaged in this political conflict. Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well.
Q: Is this a book for Afghan experts or a general audience?
A: We tried to make it as accessible as possible to a general audience. There are a couple of introductions and forewords that explain the context of the poems. We footnote things that wouldn’t be understandable to a general reader. People who even just have a passing interest in Afghanistan or folk culture would find it interesting.
Q: Do you think this book will make people rethink how they view the Taliban?
A: Books are not the way to change the world, as I’ve discovered from other books I’ve written. Most of the discussion we’ve seen about the book has taken place without people actually reading it, but at least it generates some kind of debate.
Q: What’s your main hope for this book?
A: That people read it and there’s a discussion about it, and that they actually look at the poems rather than just talking about the idea of the book. You can’t engage with something without actually looking at it.
Tom A. Peter is a Monitor contributor.
The paperless office, the currency-devoid bank, the jobless recovery. The latest in a string of euphemistically-named contradictions? The bookless library.
It began with the academic libraries. Kansas State University’s engineering school went bookless 12 years ago. The University of Texas at San Antonio ditched print for e-books and e-journals in 2010. Stanford University’s engineering school pruned 85 percent of its books last year. Drexel University opened a new library just last month with nary a bound volume – just rows and rows of computers. And Cornell recently announced a similar initiative.
For better or worse, the trend is now spreading to public libraries. Facing a budget crunch, the Balboa Branch library in Newport Beach, California, is mulling a plan to strip its original library of most of if not all its 35,000 books – and from the sounds of it, a few librarians, too. If patrons wanted a book, they could approach a voice-activated kiosk, speak to an off-site librarian to order books, then wait by the library’s fireplace for the books to be dropped off in an on-site locker.
Even the grand New York Public Library, that “beautiful Beaux-Arts structure of marble and stone occupying two blocks’ worth of Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan,” is planning for, if not a bookless future, a future with far fewer books. The NYPL’s upcoming transformation “anticipates the parallel and integrated worlds of electronic digital systems and traditional books” in a flexible space that can change with the times, architect Norman Foster told Time.
As ludicrous as a bookless library sounds, the development shouldn’t come as a surprise. Steadily growing sales of tablets, e-readers, and e-books make a case for a more digital-centric library, as do the reports by many academic and local libraries that a majority of patrons use libraries primarily for studying or accessing the Internet. All that has led to the Association of Research Libraries’ findings that American libraries are spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books. Take that a few steps further and you have yourself a bookless library.
As for us, we’re less than enthused by an idea that appears barely considered, ill-conceived, and just plain foolish. From our perspective, there are a number of problems with a bookless library.
As academic librarian Barbara Fister points out in Inside Higher Ed’s “The Myth of the Bookless Library,” libraries have to pay hefty yearly subscription fees to gain access to collections of e-books and e-journals. In essence, the library is renting these materials; it never owns them and if it stops paying “rent,” it loses the entire collection. “Instead of winning freedom by going digital the library commits itself to often extortiate annual fees to maintain its virtual collection,” writes blogger Alastair Creelman. “The books you used to buy were not cheap but once they were on the shelf you knew what you had. Not so with much e-literature.”
Perhaps more importantly for millions of Americans, the vanishing bookstore and shrinking library deprives us of a critical ingredient in the exploration and discovery of books: the ability to wander, browse, and stumble upon new treasures at random. In an age when bookstores are few and far between – this blogger recently moved to a new city in which she learned the closest bookstore is a 20-minute drive away and, when asked if there was anything closer, a local librarian pointed her to Target – we increasingly rely on our local library to fill our need for literary escape.
"The library is a societal tent pole,” best-selling author Michael Connelly told Time. “There are a lot of ideas under it. Knock out the pole and the tent comes down.” Wandering the aisles of his campus library led Connelly straight to a writing career, he told Time. “Can something like that happen in a bookless library? I'm not so sure.”
Perhaps we might consider the example of our cousins across the pond. When news broke that 350 libraries in England were set to close as a result of budget cuts last month, a group of British authors led “save the libraries” rallies at dozens of cities. A library-less future, author Philip Pullman warned, “will gradually make us a less informed, less intelligent, less aware, less useful, less imaginative, less kindly people than we might have been.”
We don’t know about you, but we’re ready to march.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Sobol’s series featured the title character, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, who earned his nickname for his immediate recall of any number of random facts. Brown often was able to puzzle out the mysteries faced by his father, the police chief, before dinner time was over. He also defended his schoolmates against fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes cooked up by local troublemakers such as bully Bugs Meany or the wily Wilford Wiggins (who, in one volume, tried to sell local kids “worm pills” to lure worms to the surface).
First published in 1963, the Encyclopedia Brown books included 27 volumes, with a 28th due for release this October, and have sold millions of copies around the world. Sobol also wrote a large number of other books, many of them for children.
Sobol first worked as a journalist for publications including the Long Island Daily Press, and penned a column titled “Two Minute Mysteries” that inspired him to create the Encyclopedia Brown books.
“I am totally unqualified to be a writer,” he is reported to have said. “My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful. Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”
The plan for a national museum devoted to American writers has taken another step forward. The American Writers Museum Foundation, which has worked to develop a site centering exclusively on honoring writers from the United States, published a concept plan July 16 that explored how the museum might be laid out and what its focus would be.
According to Amaze Design, the company that developed the museum plan, many Americans are aghast that a facility honoring US authors does not yet exist. “The most common reaction to [the museum] is, ‘You mean we don’t have an American writers museum?’” the concept plan reads.
The stated goal for the proposed museum – which would be 60,000 feet in size when complete – includes the expectation that the first 20,000 feet would be completed by 2015. While nothing has been finalized, the museum will probably be located in Chicago, Ill., according to the foundation.
The concept plan was compiled after brainstorming sessions by authors, designers, museum workers, and others in Boston, New York, and Chicago, funded by the Stead Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The projected layout of the museum includes an education center, theater, cafe, bookstore, and literary lounge as well as an open area titled the literary commons. Visitors would walk through the literary commons to reach the writers’ hall, which would contain various sets devoted to topics like “American Families,” “American Towns,” and “Conflict,” with each including famous works that fit the theme. (For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” would be highlighted in the “American Families” section.)
Branching off from the central writers’ hall would be focus galleries, which could center on themes such as banned books or children’s literature.
The full text of the concept plan can be found here.
Gaiman, who has written for both children and adults, will begin with the picture book “Chu’s Day,” which follows a panda named Chu who has a loud sneeze. It will be released next January. The second picture book will also follow Chu’s adventures.
Of the three chapter books, one will be a sequel to Gaiman’s children’s novel “Odd and the Frost Giants,” a book about a Norse boy named Odd that was inspired by Norwegian mythology. Another of the chapter books for HarperCollins is currently titled “Fortunately, the Milk,” but no other details are known. All three books are classified as “middle grade" and are intended for readers aged 8 to 12.
Writer Gillian Flynn’s bestselling new book “Gone Girl,” about a woman who vanishes on the day of her fifth anniversary of a toxic marriage, will be adapted into a film by 20th Century Fox.
Actress Reese Witherspoon will produce the film, and Flynn will pen the screenplay for the movie version.
No word yet on who will star in the film or when the movie will be released.
His fantastic mutton chops alone should give Heinrich Barth some immortal fame. But that's not all that sets him apart. The 19th-century German explorer led an extraordinary five-year expedition into Islamic Africa, a journey that taught the West about the amazing cultures and creatures of a mystery continent.
But Barth and his adventure are barely remembered today. Perhaps it's because of his nationality, his prickly personality, or his inability to express his thoughts in anything less than thousands of pages.
Whatever the case, one of the world's great explorers is now the subject of his first biography in English. It's titled "A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa" and written by Connecticut-based freelance journalist Steve Kemper.
Q: Why haven't we heard of this guy?
A: There are a lot of reasons, and they all add up to a perfect storm.
He was German and working for the British, who like their heroes home-grown and have a long history of suspicion of the Germans. He managed to accomplish one of their greatest expeditions ever, and he was German. Some people didn't get over that.
There was also was the length and density of Barth’s work -- 3,500 pages of closely observed nature, culture, ethnography. The book didn't create the stir that Livingstone and Stanley did.
Then there's the stuff he came back with: Islam is a great religion, and Africa has a history of culture and literature, complex societies and systems of government. This was going against what people wanted to believe about the continent they wanted to pillage and take over.
And there was also his personality.
Q: To borrow an old word, he seems like a bit of a prig. Was he?
A: Not more priggish than other Victorians were, but he was highly susceptible to slights against his honor. Whenever he felt he was slighted, he responded with too much pique.
Q: What did he discover during his travels in north-central Africa?
Q: As you write, he spent time in Timbuktu, which still has a reputation as being a place out in the boonies. What's the story behind Timbuktu?
A: It's had a reputation for centuries.
There was an man named Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, a gigantic kingdom in Africa in the 14th century. He decided to make a voyage to Mecca, and took camels laden with gold. When he got to Cairo, he spent like a crazy man and his hajj became legendary. That’s when people first heard of Timbuktu, thinking there must be a golden city there.
It was a mythic place in most people's minds. But Barth was a scientist, so he wasn't interested in the myth. He was interested in the data. He brought out so much information about what was in the market, how much things cost, what the system of government was like, who was in power.
He spent his seven months there essentially under house arrest. But he did make a number of outings under threat of death and brought back a picture of the educated people and uneducated people, and the fundamentalists and the scholars, which sounds so familiar today.
Barth said Timbuktu was a very literary place, filled with manuscripts. That was a pretty shocking idea in Europe.
Q: What did he learn about Islam?
A: Almost anything he understood was not understood in the West because we're so ignorant of Islam.
He brought back information that you could find scholars in Africa -- Islamic scholars who could you talk to you about astronomy, Aristotle, Ptolemy, music, law, theology.
He brought information about all the factions of Islam and the fanatical sects. He said it is a great religion that is controlled in some areas by fanatics and ignorant people, and it has never lived up to his potential. And by the way, neither has Christianity.
Q: Did he make a big point of that observation?
A: He made a couple quips about that, reminded people that Christianity had done some of the same things that the West had accused Islam of doing. What he said was that Islam is like any other religion: It includes great people, it includes criminals and thugs and ignorant people, and both shysters and magnificence. It's a great religion, it deserves respect.
He could quote the Koran, especially the opening prayer, which saved his life several times.
Q: Do you feel like you're restoring his reputation?
A: I really hope that this brings him to people's attention. Boy, he deserves it. He's one of the greatest explorers who ever lived. Why he's not known is a mystery and a shame, and I hope my book does a little bit to nudge him back toward the spotlight.
Q: Why is his story important today?
A: You can't help but read his story and this book without noticing how ignorant Europe was about Africa – and how ignorant we still are.
Barth had a totally idealistic view about the ability of science to dispel ignorance. I hope my book adds one little match to that flame.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Now here’s a government initiative we can get behind: the National Endowment of the Arts announced Tuesday its seventh annual nationwide read-a-thon program, The Big Read.
The Endowment is providing $1 million in grants to 78 communities across the country to host Big Read programs to encourage folks to read, share, and discuss literature. It’s a kind of nationwide summer book club for communities across America.
“At the NEA we know that the arts can help to create strong, vibrant communities by bringing people together,” NEA chairman Rocco Landesman said in a statement. “Through The Big Read, these 78 organizations are giving their communities the opportunity to share both great works of literature and memorable experiences.”
Here’s how it works. The NEA is providing 78 nonprofit institutions across the country, including arts councils, boys and girls clubs, libraries, public broadcasting stations, and universities, grants ranging from $2,500 to $20,000 to promote and host Big Read programs. Communities select one book from a group of 31 works of literature chosen by the NEA, including Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Ernest J. Gaines' “A Lesson Before Dying,” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Educational materials like author biographies, discussion questions, and CDs supplement each title.
Once books and materials are selected and a kick-off event is held to launch the program, communities spend one month between September 2012 and June 2013 immersed in the selected book. Activities, events, and discussions like panel discussions, lectures, public readings, and exhibits will help further promote and explore each work of literature, reports the Los Angeles Times’s Jacket Copy blog.
“Whether you're reading a used paperback or a downloaded novel on an e-reader, nothing can beat the experience of getting lost in a good book,” NEA’s director of literature Ira Silverburg said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the creative ways these 78 organizations will use The Big Read to promote reading within their communities.”
We’re excited about this program and eager to see it spread to more communities next year. Click here to find out if your community was selected for a Big Read grant.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
He’s still with us, but we’re going to miss the brilliant workings of Gabriel García Márquez’s mind. The Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate has dementia, Márquez's brother announced last weekend, and is not writing.
“He is doing well physically, but he has been suffering from dementia for a long time,” brother Jaime García Márquez said in a lecture in Cartagena, Colombia, over the weekend.
Best known for epic works of fiction illustrating “magical realism,” including “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. In 1999, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and treated with chemotherapy, which accelerated the onset of dementia, Jaime García Márquez said.
“Dementia runs in our family and he’s now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death,” he said. “Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defenses and cells, and accelerated the process.
“…Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him…but he still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had,” Jaime García Márquez said.
Gabriel García Márquez had been working on the second part of his autobiography, “Vivir Para Contarla” (“Living to Tell the Tale”), which brother Jaime said is unlikely to be completed because of the author’s condition. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll be possible, but I hope I’m wrong.”
Gabriel García Márquez was a pioneer of the literary school known as magical realism, an aesthetic genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. He now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since the publication five years ago of “Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
It’s a debate we expect to hear a lot more of in coming years: is developing a ratings system for increasingly dark young adult literature a move toward responsibility and oversight – or a slide into censorship?
In its latest iteration, the debate is being played out across the pond in the UK, where bestselling children’s authors G.P. Taylor and Patrick Ness sparred on BBC Breakfast over Taylor’s proposal to establish an age-ranging system for children’s lit.
After diving into the vast pool of vampire-themed literature with his Vampyre Labyrinth Series, about vampires living in Yorkshire, England during the Second World War, Taylor, better known for classic children’s novels like "Shadowmancer" and "Wormwood," said he decided to withdraw from the dark direction young adult lit has recently followed.
“I wrote the Vampyre Labyrinth, it came out, I hadn't really read it when I wrote the book, and people who were reading it and reviewing it were saying, 'This is the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids,'” Taylor told BBC Breakfast, as reported by the Guardian. “I have changed my mind: I think children's literature has gone too far.”
After telling BBC Breakfast he got “dragged” into the vampire craze, Taylor hit upon the hot-button topic du jour: advocating the establishment of an age-ratings system for young adult literature, similar to ratings systems for movies and video games.
“I think the way forward is a certification system for books, the same way we have in films,” he said. “For children, we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to have a guide for parents.”
His comments come on the heels of a recent study by Brigham Young University that found young adult bestsellers have twice the rate of cursing of video games and characters who swear are typically portrayed as wealthier, more attractive, and more popular than their clean-mouthed counterparts.
And it’s not the first time age ratings have been proposed for children’s books. Publisher Scholastic proposed just such a measure back in 2008, which was met with swift condemnation, rebellion, even a petition against the measure signed by some 800 authors, including J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett.
Given the less-than-warm response to Scholastic’s proposal, we’re not surprised Taylor’s proposal was similarly rejected. Patrick Ness, whose Carnegie Medal-winning novel “A Monster Calls,” about a boy whose mother has cancer and is visited by a monster, not only rejected Taylor’s proposal but said he embraced darkness in young adult literature.
“All you have to really do is read what teenagers write themselves, and I've judged competitions for teenagers writing, and it's darkness beyond anything I would come up with,” Ness told BBC Breakfast. “Teenagers look at this darkness all the time, and I always think if you're not addressing it in your fiction, then you're abandoning them to face it themselves.
“It's not as if books exist in a vacuum and that's all the input teenagers are getting,” he continued. “Teenagers look at the Internet, they look at the news, they look at pornography on the internet, they look at violent movies on the Internet. So if children's literature is not addressing that, if it's addressing the world as it should be rather than as it is, then why would a teenager read you?”
What’s more, Ness argued, ratings systems for young adult literature simply don’t work. “If it's got an 18 certificate for adults, then younger children will look it out when their parents are not around … Children are great self-censors. They know what they can read and they know what they want to read, and if you don't give it to them, they'll find it somehow.”
The topic has stirred even more debate in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, where bestselling author Charlie Higson tweeted, “Why was GP Taylor on BBC news suggesting govt introduce measures to keep books out of the hands of kids who want to read them?”
What do you think – is it time young adult lit comes with an age rating?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.