The Church and the Fiction Writer

Flannery O'Connor
From March 30. 1957

When "The Church and the Fiction Writer" appeared in America in March 30, 1957, Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor had just turned 32. By then her novel, Wise Blood (1952), and her short stories, some of which had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review and Shenandoah (eventually published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories [1955]), had gathered national acclaim, though not all critics could locate her genius with any precision. Granville Hicks, for example, wrote in The New Leader of A Good Man Is Hard to Find that "Miss O’Connor regards human life as mean and brutish and that she makes this judgment from an orthodox Christian point of view. But one does not have to believe in original sin to be affected by the stories."

It is not surprising that after one of her priest-friends, James McCown, S.J., recommended her to Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., the literary editor of
America, O’Connor submitted an essay clarifying her views about the relationship of a professedly Catholic fiction writer to the tenets of the Catholic Church. Her taut prose, sensitive both to the mystery of God’s presence in the world and obligations of a writer to his or her task, argues that the faith of a writer does not needlessly limit a writer but provides an "added dimension" to a creative work, which must be judged "by the truthfulness and wholeness of the natural events presented." In her essay, O’Connor measured her argument and her prose carefully, and it is understandable that she was upset that Father Gardiner had altered one of her paragraphs, which we have inserted into the text below in brackets. We publish this original paragraph with our belated apologies.

Patrick H. Samway

The question as to what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us. One has to think not only of gifts that have ended in rut or near it, but of gifts gone astray and of those never developed. Some time ago, the editors of Four Quarters, a quarterly magazine published by the faculty of La Salle College in Philadelphia, printed a symposium on the subject of the death of Catholic writers among the graduates of Catholic colleges. In response, letters appeared from writers and critics, Catholic and non-Catholic.

This correspondence ranged from the statement of Philip Wylie that "a Catholic, if he is devout, i.e., sold on the authority of his Church, is also brain-washed, whether he realizes it or not" (and consequently does not have the freedom necessary to be a first-rate creative writer) to the often repeated explanation that the Catholic in this country suffers from a parochial esthetic and a cultural insularity. A few held the situation no worse among Catholics than among other groups, creative minds being always hard to find; a few held the times responsible.

The faculty of a college must consider this as an educational problem; the writer who is a Catholic will consider it a personal one. Whether he is a graduate of a Catholic college or not, if he takes the Church for what she takes herself to be, the writer must decide what she demands of him and whether she restricts his freedom. The material and method of fiction being what they are, the problem may seem greater for the fiction writer than for any other.

For the writer of fiction everything has its testing point in the eye, an organ which eventually involves the whole personality and as much of the world as can be got into it. Msgr. Romano Guardini has written that the roots of the eye are in the heart. In any case, for the Catholic those roots stretch far into those depths of mystery about which the modern world is divided--one part of it trying to eliminate mystery, while another part tries to rediscover it in disciplines less personally demanding than religion.

What Mr. Wylie contends is that the Catholic writer, because he believes in certain defined mysteries, cannot, by the nature of things, see straight; and this contention, in effect, is not very different from that made by Catholics who declare that whatever the Catholic writer can see, there are certain things that he should not see, straight or otherwise. These are the Catholics who are victims of the parochial esthetic and the cultural insularity and it is interesting to find them sharing, even for a split second, the intellectual bed of Mr.Wylie.

It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of his faith or, at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural. He may be. No one can be sure of his motives except as they suggest themselves in his finished work, but when the finished work suggests that pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered, whatever purposes the writer started out with have already been defeated. What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is. What is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.

The Life of Mystery

Henry James said that the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of "felt life" that was in it. The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery; that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.

To the modern mind, as represented by Mr. Wylie, this is warped vision which "bears little or no relation to the truth as it is known today." The Catholic who does not write for a limited circle of fellow Catholics will in all probability consider that since this is his vision, he is writing for a hostile audience, and he will be more than ever concerned to have his work stand on its own feet and be complete and self-sufficient and impregnable in its own right. When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.

The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that lie in the material itself, and these will generally be more rigorous than any that religion could impose. Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction-writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him here is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.

Nature and Grace in Fiction

If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.

Many well-grounded complaints have been made about religious literature on the score that it tends to minimize the importance and dignity of life here and now in favor of life in the next world or in favor of miraculous manifestations of grace. When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete observable reality. If the writer uses his eyes in the real security of his faith, he will be obliged to use them honestly and his sense of mystery and his acceptance of it will be increased. To look at the worst will be for him no more than an act of trust in God; but what is one thing for the writer may be another for the reader. What leads the writer to his salvation may lead the reader into sin, and the Catholic writer who looks at this possibility directly looks the Medusa in the face and is turned to stone.

By now anyone who has faced the problem is equipped with Mauriac’s advice: "purify the source." And along with it he has become aware that while he is attempting to do that, he has to keep on writing. He becomes aware, too, of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure but from which may come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church’s dogmas, but of a false conception of their demands.

[The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption, and if in some instance, the church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.]

The author must, of course, realize that it is his function, no less than it is the function of the Church, to protect souls from dangerous literature. But in striving to live up to the legitimate requirements of his rut, he will know that not all fiction will turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption. If in some instances the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the Catholic author will be thankful that he has been recalled to a sense of responsibility.

The fact would seem to be that for many writers it is easier to assume universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work. This view probably owes as much to romanticism as to piety, but the writer will not be liable to entertain it unless it has been foisted on him by a sorry education or unless writing is not his vocation in the first place. That it is foisted on him by the general atmosphere of Catholic piety in this country is hard to deny, and even if this atmosphere cannot be held responsible for every talent killed along the way, it is at least general enough to give an air of credibility to Mr. Wylie’s conception of what a belief in dogma does to the creative mind.

The Added Dimension

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add to the writer’s observation a dimension which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge; but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist. A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. A purely affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God.

If we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but ensures it (the restrictions of art are another matter). To convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages that they consider obscene.

Insight Required

It is popular to suppose that anyone who can read the telephone book can read a short story or a novel, and it is more than usual to find the attitude among Catholics that since we possess the truth in the Church, we can use this truth directly as an instrument of judgment on any discipline at any time without regard for the nature of that discipline itself. Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.

It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life, and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the sense of the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if be obeys those, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these (and the one he may presently least expect?) will be the satisfied Catholic reader.

- Flannery O'Connor is the author of, among other works, Wise Blood and A Good Man is Hard to Find. She died in 1964.


Flannery O’Connor & the Christian Novelist, Part 1 -

Flannery O’Connor & the Christian Novelist, Part 2 -

The NYPD Caves to CAIR

January 31, 2012

On Monday, the New York Post reported on a website where would-be jihadists have been “meticulously dissecting” convicted terrorist Faisal Shahzad’s failure to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. The purpose of this dissection is to improve the chances of the next bomber’s ability to carry out a mission of destruction. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who has distributed these analyses to law enforcement officials, consider them critical in understanding violent jihad. Thus, it is a little more than ironic that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has been brow-beaten by the American left and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stop showing the anti-extremist film, The Third Jihad to police personnel. Thankfully, some Muslims have seen through the political intimidation. Enter Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).

Dr. Jasser, a devout Muslim, refuses to buy into the conventional “wisdom” embraced by both the New York Times and CAIR, both of whom see any attempt to inform police personnel (or anyone else) about the aspirations of violent jihadism as tantamount to Islamophobia. “Last week’s controversy over the NYPD’s showing of the documentary ‘The Third Jihad,’ which I narrated, has brought horrendous distortion of the film and my body of work against radical Islam,” writes Jasser. “It seems obvious that The New York Times, and in its wake the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg, is buying into blatant inaccuracies peddled by the Council on American-Islamic Relations–a group named in federal testimony as linked to the terrorist organization Hamas and one to which the FBI has broken off all ties.”

Times reporter Michael Powell’s latest article, “In Police Training, a Dark Film on Muslims,” is hardly news. It is essentially the re-telling of a story published by the uber-leftist Village Voice newspaper over a year ago, describing the film as “a full-length color feature, with more explosions than a Transformers sequel and more blood-splattered victims than an HBO World War II series.” The Voice contends the film is a “spectacularly offensive smear of American Muslims.” Powell augments that theme. “Ominous music plays as images appear on the screen: Muslim terrorists shoot Christians in the head, car bombs explode, executed children lie covered by sheets and a doctored photograph shows an Islamic flag flying over the White House,” he writes.

If Mr. Powell has bothered to do anything resembling honest reporting, he might have informed his readers that the flag in question can be found in a picture of a poster held by Muslim radical themselves, demonstrating at the site of the 9/11 terror attack in New York during an anti-jihadist rally on February 1st–2006. Powell further notes that the film was shown even as the NYPD “wrestles with its relationship with the city’s large Muslim community” and, as a result of the film’s dissemination, “members of the City Council, civil rights advocates and Muslim leaders say the department, in its zeal, has trampled on civil rights, blurred lines between foreign and domestic spying and sown fear among Muslims.”

Dr. Jasser isn’t buying it. “The facts outlined in ‘The Third Jihad’ are almost entirely based on documents submitted into evidence by federal prosecutors in the largest terrorism-financing trial in American history, US v Holy Land Foundation, et al.,” he writes. “Those documents show the common Muslim Brotherhood origins of CAIR and many of the other groups courted by most of the US media and many government officials, especially since 9/11. The Muslim Brotherhood may have vast differences with al Qaeda on tactics, but they share the same Islamist, global goals,” he adds.

In the 2008 case, United States v. Holy Land Foundation, where five former leaders of a U.S.-based Muslim charity were convicted on all 108 counts of funneling more than $12 million to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, CAIR was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” As mentioned above by Dr. Jasser, this resulted in the complete severing of ties between CAIR and the FBI. Yet CAIR is nonetheless apparently influencing the NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

According to the original Village Voice article, “Zead Ramadan, president of CAIR’s New York board, said he raised the matter [of the film] with police commissioner Ray Kelly when he saw him at a Gracie Mansion celebration of Eid, the Muslim holy day. ‘I told him we’d had this report about a disturbing movie being shown to police officers. The commissioner seemed concerned, but said he knew nothing about it, that a consultant company handled that part of the training. I said, ‘You should review who your consultants are because this is potentially damaging to the city.’ He said he would take care of it.’”

Taking care of it is exactly what Kelly and Bloomberg did. Kelly, who appeared in the film after agreeing to do an interview in 2007 with the film’s director, Erik Worth, acknowledged last Tuesday through spokesman Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne that he had “personally cooperated” with the film-maker. Brown had originally told the NY Times that Kelly’s participation consisted of old interview clips. The film’s producer, Raphael Shore, emailed the newspaper, detailing Kelly’s cooperation in a 90-minute interview on March 19, 2007. Browne then revised his story, noting that he himself “recommended in February 2007 that Commissioner Kelly be interviewed.”

Yet Kelly apparently couldn’t handle the political pressure inveighed against him, pressure from Muslim civil rights groups (including CAIR) demanding his resignation from the force. Nihad Awad, national director of CAIR, contended Kelly has “disqualified” himself from leading the NYPD. “As leaders of the nation’s largest police department, Commissioner Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Browne’s actions set a tone for relations with law enforcement that impact American Muslims nationwide,” Awad said. “It’s time for change.” As a result, Kelly disavowed his participation in the film. “Commissioner Kelly told me today that the video was objectionable,” explained Browne, “and that he should not have agreed to the interview five years ago, when I recommended it.”

Undoubtedly influencing Kelly’s decision was see-no-Islamist-evil Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg explained that whoever showed the film to police during training “exercised some terrible judgment,” and he vowed to find out who it was. A police sergeant who reportedly made the decision to play it has been reprimanded.

Dr. Jasser is incensed by such political capitulation to the likes of CAIR and its leftist enablers: “I participated in the documentary because we Muslims need to have a true jihad against the radicals who seek to hijack our faith. In this country, millions of us cannot be represented by any single leader or lobby; we are far too ideologically diverse. Political Islam is the lifeblood of groups like CAIR; they will never publicly acknowledge its incompatibility with western liberalism and Americanism. Were Americans ever to finally become educated to the slippery slope between nonviolent Islamism (political Islam) and Islamist militancy, the legitimacy of these Muslim-Brotherhood-legacy groups would evaporate. In fact, many of us who have long sought to take on the Islamist establishment in America formed the American Islamic Leadership Coalition, a group Mayor Bloomberg and the Times would do well to reach out to in the future before trying to apostatize any movies narrated by observant Muslims.”

This is the crux of the issue. For years, CAIR has been granted the greatly undeserved status of “official spokesmen” for the Muslim community at large. That they have remained so in light of their status as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation case is appalling. Even more appalling is the fact that the Eric Holder-led Department of Justice declined to pursue further investigations against the 246 individuals and organizations named as unindicted co-conspirators in United States v. Holy Land Foundation–specifically the CAIR and its co-founder, Omar Ahmad, along with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT).

Why are we attempting to “build bridges” with suspect Muslim organizations while legitimately pro-American Muslim organizations remain marginalized? Dr. Jasser has the answer. “One of the chief ways that radical Islamists across the globe silence anti-Islamist Muslims is to publicly push them outside of Islam, to declare them non-Muslims, not part of the community (ummah), and so subject them to takfir (declaring them apostates). That is what the vicious distortions about this film do to my work and the work of so many others within the House of Islam who are trying to publicly take on the American Islamist establishment.”

Political statesman Edmund Burke said “all that is necessary for triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy are attempting to do something, as in illuminate both the problem of, and the solution to, the West’s relationship with Islam. That he remains a relatively obscure voice, even as leftists remain naively attached to the machinations of CAIR, et al., is a tragedy.

Unindicted terrorist co-conspirators have no business contributing anything to the national conversation about radical Islam. That they still do speaks as badly of those who take them seriously as it does of the co-conspirators themselves. Perhaps all of their motives should be as “meticulously dissected” as the plans of would-be jihadists.

Judge condemns 'sick notion of honour'

By Timothy Appleby
Kingston, Ont.— Globe and Mail Update

Mohammad Shafia, center, Tooba Yahya, right, and Hamed Shafia, left, arrive at the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ontario, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. A jury took 15 hours to find each guilty of four counts of first-degree murder in a case so shocking it has riveted Canadians from coast to coast. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

The murder trial of three Afghan-Canadians accused of drowning four relatives in a so-called “honour killing” came to a cathartic end Sunday afternoon as the defendants were convicted on all charges.

Before the trio were led away in handcuffs and shackles to begin automatic sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years, each proclaimed their innocence, and they were visibly upset.

Mr. Justice Robert Maranger of Superior Court was unmoved.

Their crimes stemmed from “a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society,” he told the packed courtroom.

“You have each been convicted of the planned and deliberate murder of four members of your family,” the trial judge said, citing a verdict that was “clearly supported by the evidence presented at this trial.

“It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour, a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women.”

Staring hard at the defendants, the judge said:

“There is nothing more honourless than the deliberate murder of, in the case of Mohammad Shafia, three of his daughters and his wife, in the case of Tooba Yahya, three of her daughters and a stepmother to all her children, in the case of Hamed Shafia, three of his sisters and a mother.”

Half an hour later, a large crowd gathered under a cold sun to watch as businessman Mohammad Shafia, 59, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 42, and their eldest son, Hamed, 21, were for the last time taken away in a police van. Boos rang out as they were led from the courthouse.

The verdict was reached shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon and delivered about an hour later.

In all, the seven-woman, five-man jury had deliberated just over 15 hours, spread over two days, sequestered on the second floor of the historic Frontenac County Court House in downtown Kingston.‬

After the proceedings ended, defence lawyer David Crowe said he was “disappointed” with the outcome and there would be an appeal.

Right to the end, the killers maintained they were not guilty.

“We are not criminals, we are not murderers, we didn't commit the murder and this is unjust,” Mr. Shafia said in Dari, his words relayed through a translator.

“Your honourable justice, this is not just,” his wife said through tears. “I am not a murderer, and I am a mother – a mother.”
Their son spoke in English: “Sir, I did not drown my sisters anywhere,” he said.

Mr. Shafia, Ms. Yahya and Hamed Shafia were convicted of murdering sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock, just east of Kingston, in June, 2009.‬

The fourth person in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin, but who in fact was part of a polygamous marriage and who by every indication had desperately wanted to escape from it.

The trial attracted enormous attention, the chief reason being that in the history of Canada, and probably every other Western country, it was unique.‬

There have been other murder charges involving so-called “honour killings” – homicides of women slain out of a perverse desire to “purify” families of disgrace created by supposedly immoral conduct. But not on this scale, and not involving parents who were willing to wipe out half their family for the sake of their honour, and then lie about it.‬

Outside court, lead prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis said the guilty verdicts reflected Canadian values that he hoped would resonate.

“This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy,” Mr. Laarhuis said, amid cheers of approval from spectators.

Staff-Sgt. Chris Scott, who headed the widely praised Kingston Police investigation, said the prosecutors and court process had allowed the dead women to finally be heard.

“They gave these victims a voice when they had none,” he said.

The 10-member family – one husband, two wives, seven children who were all Ms. Yahya's progeny – settled in Montreal in 2007 after fleeing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1992 and spending years in Pakistan, Australia and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

What linked the four victims, co-prosecutor Laurie Lacelle told the jury in her closing arguments, was their shared desire to break away from the constraints of the oppressive Shafia household, ruled with a rod of iron by Mr. Shafia, the ill-tempered, often violent family patriarch.

The defendants pleaded not guilty to what the prosecution contended was a carefully planned but clumsily executed quadruple murder, disguised as an accident, committed chiefly to cleanse the Shafia name and reputation of shame brought about by the victims’ rebellious conduct, particularly Zainab’s and Sahar’s interest in boys and dating.

‪The trial began Oct. 20 and in its final weeks it drew big crowds, often lining up well ahead of time for a spot in the 150-seat courtroom.

It was also expensive. A police source directly involved in the case estimated the final tab will run into millions of dollars.‬

Among the regulars was Kingston resident Barb Jagger, 52, who for a couple of weeks shared a cell with Ms. Yahya in the segregation block of Quinte Detention Centre, west of Kingston.

She recalls her cellmate as quiet, pleasant and evidently deeply religious. She would pray five times a day, Ms. Jagger said, and often read the Koran.

Ms. Yahya denied murdering anybody, Ms. Jagger said.

“She looked me in the eyes, she had tears streaming down her face, and she said to me: 'Barb, I didn't bring seven children into this world just to kill them.'"

More related to this story

More related to this story

Ritalin Gone Wrong

The New York Times
January 28, 2012
THREE million children in this country take drugs for problems in focusing. Toward the end of last year, many of their parents were deeply alarmed because there was a shortage of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall that they considered absolutely essential to their children’s functioning.

But are these drugs really helping children? Should we really keep expanding the number of prescriptions filled?
In 30 years there has been a twentyfold increase in the consumption of drugs for attention-deficit disorder.
As a psychologist who has been studying the development of troubled children for more than 40 years, I believe we should be asking why we rely so heavily on these drugs.
Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects, including stunting growth.
Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs.
What gets publicized are short-term results and studies on brain differences among children. Indeed, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that seem at first glance to support medication. It is because of this partial foundation in reality that the problem with the current approach to treating children has been so difficult to see.
Back in the 1960s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs. It turns out, however, that there is little to no evidence to support this theory.
In 1973, I reviewed the literature on drug treatment of children for The New England Journal of Medicine. Dozens of well-controlled studies showed that these drugs immediately improved children’s performance on repetitive tasks requiring concentration and diligence. I had conducted one of these studies myself. Teachers and parents also reported improved behavior in almost every short-term study. This spurred an increase in drug treatment and led many to conclude that the “brain deficit” hypothesis had been confirmed.
But questions continued to be raised, especially concerning the drugs’ mechanism of action and the durability of effects. Ritalin and Adderall, a combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine, are stimulants. So why do they appear to calm children down? Some experts argued that because the brains of children with attention problems were different, the drugs had a mysterious paradoxical effect on them.
However, there really was no paradox. Versions of these drugs had been given to World War II radar operators to help them stay awake and focus on boring, repetitive tasks. And when we reviewed the literature on attention-deficit drugs again in 1990 we found that all children, whether they had attention problems or not, responded to stimulant drugs the same way. Moreover, while the drugs helped children settle down in class, they actually increased activity in the playground. Stimulants generally have the same effects for all children and adults. They enhance the ability to concentrate, especially on tasks that are not inherently interesting or when one is fatigued or bored, but they don’t improve broader learning abilities.
And just as in the many dieters who have used and abandoned similar drugs to lose weight, the effects of stimulants on children with attention problems fade after prolonged use. Some experts have argued that children with A.D.D. wouldn’t develop such tolerance because their brains were somehow different. But in fact, the loss of appetite and sleeplessness in children first prescribed attention-deficit drugs do fade, and, as we now know, so do the effects on behavior. They apparently develop a tolerance to the drug, and thus its efficacy disappears. Many parents who take their children off the drugs find that behavior worsens, which most likely confirms their belief that the drugs work. But the behavior worsens because the children’s bodies have become adapted to the drug. Adults may have similar reactions if they suddenly cut back on coffee, or stop smoking.
TO date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve. Until recently, most studies of these drugs had not been properly randomized, and some of them had other methodological flaws.
But in 2009, findings were published from a well-controlled study that had been going on for more than a decade, and the results were very clear. The study randomly assigned almost 600 children with attention problems to four treatment conditions. Some received medication alone, some cognitive-behavior therapy alone, some medication plus therapy, and some were in a community-care control group that received no systematic treatment. At first this study suggested that medication, or medication plus therapy, produced the best results. However, after three years, these effects had faded, and by eight years there was no evidence that medication produced any academic or behavioral benefits.
Indeed, all of the treatment successes faded over time, although the study is continuing. Clearly, these children need a broader base of support than was offered in this medication study, support that begins earlier and lasts longer.
Nevertheless, findings in neuroscience are being used to prop up the argument for drugs to treat the hypothesized “inborn defect.” These studies show that children who receive an A.D.D. diagnosis have different patterns of neurotransmitters in their brains and other anomalies. While the technological sophistication of these studies may impress parents and nonprofessionals, they can be misleading. Of course the brains of children with behavior problems will show anomalies on brain scans. It could not be otherwise. Behavior and the brain are intertwined. Depression also waxes and wanes in many people, and as it does so, parallel changes in brain functioning occur, regardless of medication.
Many of the brain studies of children with A.D.D. involve examining participants while they are engaged in an attention task. If these children are not paying attention because of lack of motivation or an underdeveloped capacity to regulate their behavior, their brain scans are certain to be anomalous.
However brain functioning is measured, these studies tell us nothing about whether the observed anomalies were present at birth or whether they resulted from trauma, chronic stress or other early-childhood experiences. One of the most profound findings in behavioral neuroscience in recent years has been the clear evidence that the developing brain is shaped by experience.
It is certainly true that large numbers of children have problems with attention, self-regulation and behavior. But are these problems because of some aspect present at birth? Or are they caused by experiences in early childhood? These questions can be answered only by studying children and their surroundings from before birth through childhood and adolescence, as my colleagues at the University of Minnesota and I have been doing for decades.
Since 1975, we have followed 200 children who were born into poverty and were therefore more vulnerable to behavior problems. We enrolled their mothers during pregnancy, and over the course of their lives, we studied their relationships with their caregivers, teachers and peers. We followed their progress through school and their experiences in early adulthood. At regular intervals we measured their health, behavior, performance on intelligence tests and other characteristics.
By late adolescence, 50 percent of our sample qualified for some psychiatric diagnosis. Almost half displayed behavior problems at school on at least one occasion, and 24 percent dropped out by 12th grade; 14 percent met criteria for A.D.D. in either first or sixth grade.
Other large-scale epidemiological studies confirm such trends in the general population of disadvantaged children. Among all children, including all socioeconomic groups, the incidence of A.D.D. is estimated at 8 percent. What we found was that the environment of the child predicted development of A.D.D. problems. In stark contrast, measures of neurological anomalies at birth, I.Q. and infant temperament — including infant activity level — did not predict A.D.D.
Plenty of affluent children are also diagnosed with A.D.D. Behavior problems in children have many possible sources. Among them are family stresses like domestic violence, lack of social support from friends or relatives, chaotic living situations, including frequent moves, and, especially, patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared. For example, a 6-month-old baby is playing, and the parent picks it up quickly from behind and plunges it in the bath. Or a 3-year-old is becoming frustrated in solving a problem, and a parent taunts or ridicules. Such practices excessively stimulate and also compromise the child’s developing capacity for self-regulation.
Putting children on drugs does nothing to change the conditions that derail their development in the first place. Yet those conditions are receiving scant attention. Policy makers are so convinced that children with attention deficits have an organic disease that they have all but called off the search for a comprehensive understanding of the condition. The National Institute of Mental Health finances research aimed largely at physiological and brain components of A.D.D. While there is some research on other treatment approaches, very little is studied regarding the role of experience. Scientists, aware of this orientation, tend to submit only grants aimed at elucidating the biochemistry.
Thus, only one question is asked: are there aspects of brain functioning associated with childhood attention problems? The answer is always yes. Overlooked is the very real possibility that both the brain anomalies and the A.D.D. result from experience.
Our present course poses numerous risks. First, there will never be a single solution for all children with learning and behavior problems. While some smaller number may benefit from short-term drug treatment, large-scale, long-term treatment for millions of children is not the answer.
Second, the large-scale medication of children feeds into a societal view that all of life’s problems can be solved with a pill and gives millions of children the impression that there is something inherently defective in them.
Finally, the illusion that children’s behavior problems can be cured with drugs prevents us as a society from seeking the more complex solutions that will be necessary. Drugs get everyone — politicians, scientists, teachers and parents — off the hook. Everyone except the children, that is.
If drugs, which studies show work for four to eight weeks, are not the answer, what is? Many of these children have anxiety or depression; others are showing family stresses. We need to treat them as individuals.
As for shortages, they will continue to wax and wane. Because these drugs are habit forming, Congress decides how much can be produced. The number approved doesn’t keep pace with the tidal wave of prescriptions. By the end of this year, there will in all likelihood be another shortage, as we continue to rely on drugs that are not doing what so many well-meaning parents, therapists and teachers believe they are doing.

L. Alan Sroufe is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

Obama to the nation: Onward civilian soldiers

The Washington Post
January 27, 2012

War, said James Madison, is “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” Randolph Bourne, the radical essayist killed by the influenza unleashed by World War I, warned, “War is the health of the state.” Hence Barack Obama’s State of the Union hymn: Onward civilian soldiers, marching as to war.

Obama, an unfettered executive wielding a swollen state, began and ended his address by celebrating the armed forces. They are not “consumed with personal ambition,” they “work together” and “focus on the mission at hand” and do not “obsess over their differences.” Americans should emulate troops “marching into battle,” who “rise or fall as one unit.”

Well. The armed services’ ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.

Progressive presidents use martial language as a way of encouraging Americans to confuse civilian politics with military exertions, thereby circumventing an impediment to progressive aspirations — the Constitution and the patience it demands. As a young professor, Woodrow Wilson had lamented that America’s political parties “are like armies without officers.” The most theoretically inclined of progressive politicians, Wilson was the first president to criticize America’s founding. This he did thoroughly, rejecting the Madisonian system of checks and balances — the separation of powers, a crucial component of limited government — because it makes a government that cannot be wielded efficiently by a strong executive.

Franklin Roosevelt agreed. He complained about “the three-horse team of the American system”: “If one horse lies down in the traces or plunges off in another direction, the field will not be plowed.” And progressive plowing takes precedence over constitutional equipoise among the three branches of government. Hence FDR’s attempt to break the Supreme Court to his will by enlarging it.

In his first inaugural address, FDR demanded “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” He said Americans must “move as a trained and loyal army” with “a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.” The next day, addressing the American Legion, Roosevelt said it was “a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace.” In such a time, dissent is disloyalty.

Yearnings for a command society were common and respectable then. Commonweal, a magazine for liberal Catholics, said that Roosevelt should have “the powers of a virtual dictatorship to reorganize the government.” Walter Lippmann, then America’s preeminent columnist, said: “A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” The New York Daily News, then the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, cheerfully editorialized: “A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. Now we have one. . . . It is Roosevelt. . . . Dictatorship in crises was ancient Rome’s best era.” The New York Herald Tribune titled an editorial “For Dictatorship if Necessary.”

Obama, aspiring to command civilian life, has said that in reforming health care, he would have preferred an “elegant, academically approved” plan without “legislative fingerprints on it” but “unfortunately” he had to conduct “negotiations with a lot of different people.” His campaign mantra “We can’t wait!” expresses progressivism’s impatience with our constitutional system of concurrent majorities. To enact and execute federal laws under Madison’s institutional architecture requires three, and sometimes more, such majorities. There must be majorities in the House and Senate, each body having distinctive constituencies and electoral rhythms. The law must be affirmed by the president, who has a distinctive electoral base and election schedule. Supermajorities in both houses of Congress are required to override presidential vetoes. And a Supreme Court majority is required to sustain laws against constitutional challenges.

“We can’t wait!” exclaims Obama, who makes recess appointments when the Senate is not in recess, multiplies “czars” to further nullify the Senate’s constitutional prerogative to advise and consent, and creates agencies (e.g., Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board and Dodd-Frank’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) untethered from legislative accountability.

Like other progressive presidents fond of military metaphors, he rejects the patience of politics required by the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.

The Bookstore’s Last Stand

The New York Times
January 28, 2012

William J. Lynch Jr., chief executive of Barnes & Noble, with a wall full of e-readers at its site in Silicon Valley, where 300 employees are building the company's digital side. (Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)

Palo Alto, CA - IN March 2009, an eternity ago in Silicon Valley, a small team of engineers here was in a big hurry to rethink the future of books. Not the paper-and-ink books that have been around since the days of Gutenberg, the ones that the doomsayers proclaim — with glee or dread — will go the way of vinyl records.

No, the engineers were instead fixated on the forces that are upending the way books are published, sold, bought and read: e-books and e-readers. Working in secret, behind an unmarked door in a former bread bakery, they rushed to build a device that might capture the imagination of readers and maybe even save the book industry.

They had six months to do it.

Running this sprint was, of all companies, Barnes & Noble, the giant that helped put so many independent booksellers out of business and that now finds itself locked in the fight of its life. What its engineers dreamed up was the Nook, a relative e-reader latecomer that has nonetheless become the great e-hope of Barnes & Noble and, in fact, of many in the book business.

Several iterations later, the Nook and, by extension, Barnes & Noble, at times seem the only things standing between traditional book publishers and oblivion.

Inside the great publishing houses — grand names like Macmillan, Penguin and Random House — there is a sense of unease about the long-term fate of Barnes & Noble, the last major bookstore chain standing. First, the megastores squeezed out the small players. (Think of Tom Hanks’s Fox & Sons Books to Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in the 1998 comedy, “You’ve Got Mail”.) Then the chains themselves were gobbled up or driven under, as consumers turned to the Web. B. Dalton Bookseller and Crown Books are long gone. Borders collapsed last year.

No one expects Barnes & Noble to disappear overnight. The worry is that it might slowly wither as more readers embrace e-books. What if all those store shelves vanished, and Barnes & Noble became little more than a cafe and a digital connection point? Such fears came to the fore in early January, when the company projected that it would lose even more money this year than Wall Street had expected. Its share price promptly tumbled 17 percent that day.

Lurking behind all of this is, the dominant force in books online and the company that sets teeth on edge in publishing. From their perches in Midtown Manhattan, many publishing executives, editors and publicists view Amazon as the enemy — an adversary that, if unchecked, could threaten their industry and their livelihoods.

Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces. Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman — that is, traditional publishers — by publishing e-books directly.

Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brutal capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry’s future. Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books. If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and — well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.

“It would be like ‘The Road,’ ” one publishing executive in New York said, half-jokingly, referring to the Cormac McCarthy novel. “The post-apocalyptic world of publishing, with publishers pushing shopping carts down Broadway.”

Shouldering the responsibilities of Barnes & Noble is one thing. Holding the fate of American book publishing in your hands is quite another. But William J. Lynch Jr., the C.E.O. of the company, says he is up for the battle. With all of three years of experience in bookselling, Mr. Lynch must pull off a balancing act that would be tricky even in good times. He must carve out a digital future for Barnes & Noble without forsaking its hard-copy past, all while his company’s profit and share price are under pressure, his customers are fleeing to the Web and Amazon is circling.

It might come as a surprise, but Mr. Lynch says Barnes & Noble is, in fact, a technology company. Never mind that it has 703 bookstores and operates in all 50 states. To the delight of publishers, he has pushed hard into e-books and, with the help of the well-reviewed Nook, even grabbed a lot of market share from Amazon. But he is playing David to Mr. Bezos’s Goliath. Barnes & Noble’s stock closed on Friday at $11.95, putting the value of the company at $719 million. Amazon’s shares closed at $195.37, valuing Mr. Bezos’s company at $88 billion.

“We could sit here and bang our head against the wall and get sick about it like we do every week,” Mr. Lynch, 41, said of his company’s stock price. But he contends that pushing into e-books with the Nook is the right way, and perhaps the only way, forward.

“Had we not launched devices and spent the money we invested in the Nook, investors and analysts would have said, ‘Barnes & Noble is crazy, and they’re going to go away,’ ” Mr. Lynch said.

BEFORE Mr. Lynch joined Barnes & Noble in 2009, he had never sold a book in his life. (The last book he read — on the Nook, he said last week — was “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” by John le Carré.) Mr. Lynch came to the job from IAC/InterActiveCorp, where he worked for, the online outlet of the Home Shopping Network, and

And yet, in three years, he has won a remarkable number of fans in the upper echelons of the book world. Most publishers in New York can’t say enough good things about him: smart, creative, tech-savvy — the list goes on. It helps that he has forged the friendliest relations between publishers and Barnes & Noble in recent memory. They are, after all, in this together.

Mr. Lynch grew up in Dallas and still speaks with a hint of Texas twang. But he has the foot-tapping intensity of a tech type running on four Mountain Dews. It seems fitting, then, that he usually works out of an office in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where Barnes & Noble’s Web and digital operations are based, rather than at the company’s stately headquarters on Fifth Avenue, not far away. When he talks, you get the sense that he could be selling just about anything. As it happens, he is selling books.

Mr. Lynch says Barnes & Noble stores will endure. The idea that devices like the Nook, Kindle and Apple iPad will make bookstores obsolete is nonsense, he says.

“Our stores are not going anywhere,” he said in an interview this month in his office. He pointed to a surprisingly robust holiday season. In the nine weeks leading up to Christmas, sales were up 4 percent from the previous year. Titles for children and young adults are doing well, partly a result of the popularity of fiction with paranormal or dystopian themes, like “The Hunger Games.” And in the second half of 2011, Barnes & Noble picked up a big chunk of business from its vanquished rival, Borders.

Yet no sooner had the holidays passed than Barnes & Noble came out with some downbeat news for the year ahead. On Jan. 5, it projected it would lose as much as $1.40 a share in fiscal 2012. On top of that, Mr. Lynch said shareholders seemed to be underestimating the Nook’s potential so much that perhaps the company would be better off if it just spun off its digital business. Wall Street howled, and Barnes & Noble’s stock still hasn’t fully recovered. A bit of good news for the company is that, thanks to the Nook, it’s been grabbing e-book business from Amazon. Mr. Lynch said Barnes & Noble now held about 27 percent of the market, a number that publishers confirm gleefully. Amazon has at least 60 percent.

Responding to questions about the battle over e-books, Amazon issued a statement on Friday pointing to its own recent growth. In the nine-week holiday period ended Dec. 31, it said, “Kindle unit sales, including both the Kindle Fire and e-reader devices, increased 177 percent over the same period last year.”

Granted, Mr. Lynch inherited a company at a pivotal moment in its long, winding history. Barnes & Noble dates back to 1873, when Charles Barnes went into the used-book business in Wheaton, Ill. His company later moved to New York, bought an interest in an established textbook wholesaler, Noble & Noble, and opened a large bookshop on Fifth Avenue.

So it went until an enterprising young bookseller, Leonard Riggio, came along. After gaining a foothold in college bookstores, he bought that Barnes & Noble bookshop in 1971. Before long, he was offering deep discounts — and expanding wildly across the nation.

Early in his tenure, Mr. Lynch pressed Mr. Riggio’s brother, Stephen, his predecessor as C.E.O., to explain the business he’d gotten himself into.

“I had this ‘La Femme Nikita’ immersion with him,” Mr. Lynch recalled. “We went to lunch and I just told him, ‘Tell me everything you know about the book business.’ ”

But at that time, Amazon had already made the first successful move in e-readers: the first-generation Kindle hit the market in November 2007. Mr. Lynch had arrived in the C-suite, but was perilously late to the party.

ON Homer Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is a tiny, two-story building that once housed the maker of Palo Alto Bread. It was here, in March 2009, that Barnes & Noble brought a few new hires to create the Nook. Outsiders weren’t quite sure what the company was up to. The landlord figured that Mr. Lynch wanted to open a store.

What began as an almost quixotic effort to catch up with the Amazon Kindle has now grown into a 300-person operation in the heart of Silicon Valley. Mr. Lynch has hired engineers, software developers and designers, who are today spread among five low-slung buildings.

In one room, a virtual wallpaper of Nook color devices hangs in rows neat as a checkerboard. A common area holds a foosball table and a cooler of VitaminWater. Some of the walls are made of silver-colored mesh. Some of the cubicles are lime green.

But there are also reminders of the old Barnes & Noble. Over here is a basket of actual books, including “Travels With Charley” and “The Little Prince.” Over there on a wall are enormous vintage covers of books like “Of Mice and Men” and “The Great Gatsby.”

It was Nick Carraway who told Jay Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” That warning seems to hang over these offices. A sign above one group of engineers says: “We are changing the future of bookselling.”

For all the bells and whistles and high-minded talk, Barnes & Noble doesn’t exactly have the cool factor (or money) of, say, a Google or a Facebook.

Ravi Gopalakrishnan, the first engineer whom Mr. Lynch hired and now the chief technology officer for digital products, said his techie friends were incredulous when he joined Barnes & Noble.

“They were all wondering what I was up to,” Mr. Gopalakrishnan, 46, said. “I’m a technology guy — why I was working for a retail company? They thought I was nuts. There were a lot of e-mails that said, ‘Barnes & Noble?!’ ”

Bill Saperstein, a mild-mannered surfer and a veteran of Apple, said he was persuaded to leave retirement to join Barnes & Noble as vice president for digital products hardware engineering.

“We don’t see a lot of the stock and the free sushi bar and everything else that you find at Google, but there’s a lot of responsibility,” said Mr. Saperstein, 62, who spent seven years working for Steve Jobs. “It was stuff that I strongly believed in, which was reading.”

Barnes & Noble is trying to strike at Amazon with another device. At its labs in Silicon Valley last week, engineers were putting final touches on their fifth e-reading device, a product that executives said would be released sometime this spring. (A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman declined to elaborate.)

Back in New York, Mr. Lynch has been working to revamp the look of Barnes & Noble stores. Last year, the company expanded sections for toys and games and added shiny new display space for its Nook devices. In another sign of the digital revolution, Mr. Lynch expects to eliminate the dedicated sections for music and DVD’s within two years — while still selling some of them elsewhere in the stores. He also plans to experiment with slightly smaller stores. And, before long, executives will take the Nook overseas — a big switch, given that Barnes & Noble has focused almost exclusively on the American market for decades. The first stop is expected to be Waterstones bookstores in Britain.

All of this would be a tall order for any C.E.O., and some analysts wonder if Mr. Lynch has bitten off more than he can chew. Then again, given this industry’s pace of change, Barnes & Noble may have to adapt to new realities, or die trying.

“I think they realize they can’t continue at the rate they’re going,” said Jack W. Perry, a publishing consultant. “They need more money to invest, to slug it out.”

THESE are trying times for almost everyone in the book business. Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly 500 independent bookstores — nearly one out of five. About 650 bookstores vanished when Borders went out of business last year.

No wonder that some New York publishers have gone so far as to sketch out what the industry might look like without Barnes & Noble. It’s not a happy thought for them: Certainly, there would be fewer places to sell books. Independents account for less than 10 percent of business, and Target, Walmart and the like carry far smaller selections than traditional bookstores.

Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually makes economic sense, suddenly seems a reach. Marketing books via Twitter, and relying on reviews, advertising and perhaps an appearance on the “Today” show doesn’t sound like a winning plan.

What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.

“That display space they have in the store is really one of the most valuable places that exists in this country for communicating to the consumer that a book is a big deal,” said Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations and digital for Random House.

What’s more, sales of older books — the so-called backlist, which has traditionally accounted for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the average big publisher’s sales — would suffer terribly.

“For all publishers, it’s really important that brick-and-mortar retailers survive,” said David Shanks, the chief executive of the Penguin Group USA. “Not only are they key to keeping our physical book business thriving, there is also the carry-on effect of the display of a book that contributes to selling e-books and audio books. The more visibility a book has, the more inclined a reader is to make a purchase.”

Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, says the biggest challenge is to give people a reason to step into Barnes & Noble stores in the first place. “They have figured out how to use the store to sell e-books," she said of the company. "Now, hopefully, we can figure out how to make that go full circle and see how the e-books can sell the print books.”

Mr. Bezos, for one, isn’t waiting. Amazon has set the book industry on edge by starting a publishing unit that has snagged authors like Timothy Ferriss and James Franco. And, each day, the stock market provides a sobering reminder that Mr. Bezos, not Mr. Lynch, has the deeper pockets.

While publishers’ fates are closely tied to Barnes & Noble, said John Sargent, the C.E.O. of Macmillan, it’s not all about them.

“Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.”

Today's Tune: The Gaslight Anthem - Changing of the Guards

Film Reviews: 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan'

‘Annie Hall’ (1977) Blu-ray Review: Flawless Film in Flawless High Definition

by John Nolte
January 28, 2012

With six feature credits already under his belt, some of them classics, co-writer/director Woody Allen finally became Woody Allen with the brilliant “Annie Hall,” and in doing so would be rightfully rewarded with four major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Original Screenplay (co-written by Marshall Brickman), Director and Actress (Diane Keaton). 35 years later, the simple story of Manhattan neurotic Alvy Singer (Allen) and his years-long romance with the delightfully ditzy Annie Hall (Keaton) still delights in ways that few romantic comedies ever come close to.

Told with a scattershot timeline (that somehow works) and through an endless number of short scenes that could stand on their own as insightful, amusing, and romantic skits, “Annie Hall” is a story told to us in the first-person by Alvy, a famous New York comedian. His story isn’t so much about his romance with Annie; it’s more about what he’s learned from the experience — not only about himself but human nature in general. And if you judge the film by its touching closing scene (as I do), you can count this among Allen’s rare optimistic offerings.

Keaton’s performance is a wonder to behold. When you compare the “la-dee-da” Annie Alvy first meets to the more worldly and composed Annie she eventually becomes (much of it due to Alvy pushing her in that direction), Keaton’s Oscar win is a no-brainer. Right along with Alvy, we fall in love with Annie at first sight and, in the end, long for the innocence she loses. And this, of course, is also why the film is so bittersweet. With the best of intentions (mostly), Alvy helps Annie grow up, and she ends up outgrowing him.

What “Annie Hall” really is, though, is hilarious. The hit-to-miss ratio for jokes that fly at you about every 15 seconds is somewhere around 98%, something that even the Marx Brothers never achieved. Like “Manhattan,” none of the humor is contrived or driven by the need for a punchline. It all emanates from that most perfect of places, and that’s characters created with genius precision. For that reason, the humor of “Annie Hall” never grows stale, and thanks to depth of Allen’s themes and ideas, there’s always something new to discover in subsequent viewings.

In 93 perfectly paced minutes, Allen not only gives us a full tour of the human condition of his two protagonists but one of the most penetrating and hilarious skewerings of Hollywood you’ll ever see. And, as always, liberal intellectuals are hit hardest.

“Annie Hall” is a flawless film, and thanks to a structure impossible to recreate, it’s also a one-of-a-kind storytelling experience. Unfortunately, this new Blu-ray release is as bare bones as the DVD release. The notoriously private Allen — because he wisely wants his films to stand on their own and not be interpreted by anyone, including him — just doesn’t do behind-the scenes extras or commentary.

For those of you as in love with the pre-Disneyfied New York of the 1970s as I am, that alone makes the upgrade to Blu-ray worthwhile. Almost every shot in “Annie Hall” is iconic, and Allen taking us on an affectionate tour of a small part of that small island he loves so much is just one of the many pleasures waiting to be discovered in one of the best films produced during a decade with all kinds of impressive competition.

“Annie Hall” is available at

‘Manhattan’ (1979) Blu-ray Review: It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This

by John Nolte 
January 26, 2012

Yes, the Woody Allen screen persona is well-known and established, but the actor does play different characters within that persona. Sometimes it’s just a few degrees off and hardly perceptible to the naked eye, but his Isaac Davis in “Manhattan” is noticeably unique. Isaac is something of an innocent, an unassuming man whose unwavering integrity comes naturally.

In a city like Manhattan, this, of course, might lead to his downfall, and the genius of Allen’s absolutely brilliant screenplay (Marshall Brickman co-wrote) is how this story is all about driving towards the film’s final line, a beauty of a closer that perfectly hits every cinematic sweet spot right before the fade:

“You have to have a little faith in people.”

Another of Isaac’s weak spots (and much of the film’s humor) comes from his inability to suffer pretentious, elite, liberal intellectuals. This is what likely cost him his first two wives, both of whom were pretentious, elite, liberal intellectuals. Overall, though, when we first meet him, Isaac is doing just fine. He’s making good money as a television comedy writer, is a loving father to his son, and his close friends — the married Yale and Mary (Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne Hoffman) — have taken him under their wing like a kid brother.

Isaac isn’t perfect; he is involved in a love affair with Tracy, a 17 year-old high school student. In his defense, she is more mature than he is and he refuses to lie to her. He’s very open about the fact that eventually she will have to move on with her life, that she has to experience life without him, and that what they have together isn’t permanent.

Things start to unravel with the arrival of Mary (Diane Keaton), a pretentious, elite, liberal intellectual Yale is having a passionate affair with. Because Yale can’t choose between wife and mistress, Isaac inadvertently gets pulled into the relationship and ends up falling for Mary. Isaac is a loyal friend, though, and keeps his distance. Eventually, Yale and Mary break up, and with Yale’s blessing, Isaac begins seeing Mary. Soon after, they fall in love and move in together.

Events seem to have finally conspired in Isaac’s favor, but in reality things have only started to get complicated. Through no fault of his own, other than his own naïve belief that people are like him, especially his friends, Isaac is soon faced with the very real possibility that on top of the job he quit in a fit of integrity, he could lose the woman he loves and both of his best friends.

The main selling point of “Manhattan” is how legitimately funny and touching the story is. This is a title in my permanent rotation, a film I’ve seen at least fifty times, but because the humor isn’t about punch-lines or complicated set-ups, the jokes never grow stale and still catch me off guard, especially Isaac’s reactions to a world he’ll never quite understand.

“Manhattan” is also optimistic. Knowing Allen’s work the way I do, it’s doubtful his story of a decent man unmercifully punished for being so was meant to be optimistic. But in the end you know that Isaac will prevail, that the world hasn’t beaten or changed him. Better still, when you see his unforgettable reaction to being told to have a little faith in people, you know that at the very least, he’s wiser.

If you’re going to buy one Woody Allen film on Blu-ray, there isn’t even a close second place. Cinematographer and longtime Allen collaborator Gordon Willis (they’ve done 8 films together) photographed the City of Manhattan in gorgeous, widescreen black and white, and seeing it in high-def literally takes your breath away.

My Madonna/whore love affair with New York is defined both by Allen’s Gershwinized “Manhattan” and William Friedkin’s gritty “French Connection” vision. And to see one of those visions realized to its full potential is, in a word, delightful.

Though I’m absolutely in love with over 25 of Woody Allen’s films, “Manhattan” is, for my money, his magnum opus — a genuine masterpiece that I have to stop myself from watching too often for fear it gets stale. Thankfully, the Blu-ray is like a reboot, a 2.0 version that adds something entirely new.

“Manhattan” is available at Amazon.

Sorry, Newt. Only the debt ceiling will reach the moon

By Mark Steyn
The Orange County Register
January 27, 2012

Had I been asked to deliver the State of the Union address, it would not have delayed your dinner plans:

"The State of our Union is broke, heading for bankrupt, and total collapse shortly thereafter. Thank you and goodnight! You've been a terrific crowd!"

I gather that Americans prefer something a little more upbeat, so one would not begrudge a speechwriter fluffing it up by holding out at least the possibility of some change of fortune, however remote. Instead, President Obama assured us at great length that nothing is going to change, not now, not never. Indeed the Union's state – its unprecedented world-record brokeness – was not even mentioned.

If, as I was, you happened to be stuck at Gate 27 at one of the many U.S. airports laboring under the misapprehension that pumping CNN at you all evening long somehow adds to the gaiety of flight delays, you would have watched an address that gave no indication its speaker was even aware that the parlous state of our finances is an existential threat not only to the nation but to global stability. The message was, oh, sure, unemployment's still a little higher than it should be, and student loans are kind of expensive, and the housing market's pretty flat, but it's nothing that a little government "investment" in green jobs and rural broadband and retraining programs can't fix. In other words, more of the unaffordable same.

The president certainly had facts and figures at his disposal. He boasted that his regulatory reforms "will save business and citizens more than $10 billion over the next five years." Wow. Ten billion smackeroos! That's some savings – and in a mere half a decade! Why, it's equivalent to what the Government of the United States borrows every 53 hours. So by midnight on Thursday, Obama had already re-borrowed all those hard-fought savings from 2017. "In the last 22 months," said the president, "businesses have created more than 3 million jobs." Impressive. But 125,000 new foreign workers arrive every month (officially). So we would have to have created 2,750,000 jobs in that period just to stand still.

Fortunately, most of the items in Obama's interminable speech will never happen, any more than the federally funded bicycling helmets or whatever fancies found their way onto Bill Clinton's extravagant shopping lists in the Nineties. At the time, the excuse for Clinton's mountain of legislative molehills was that all the great battles had been won, and, in the absence of a menacing Russian bear, what else did a president have to focus on except criminalizing toilet tanks over 1.6 gallons. President Obama does not enjoy the same dispensation, and any historians stumbling upon a surviving DVD while sifting through the ruins of our civilization will marvel at how his accumulation of delusional trivialities was apparently taken seriously by the assembled political class.

An honest leader would feel he owed it to the citizenry to impress upon them one central truth – that we can't have any new programs because we've spent all the money. It's gone. The cupboard is bare. What's Obama's plan to restock it? "Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary," the president told us. "Asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."

But why stop there? Americans need affordable health care and affordable Master's Degrees in Climate Change and Social Justice Studies, so why not take everything that Warren Buffett's got? After all, if you confiscated the total wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans it would come to $1.5 trillion.

Which is just a wee bit less than the federal shortfall in just one year of Obama-size budgets. 2011 deficit: $1.56 trillion. But maybe for 2012 a whole new Forbes 400 of Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs will emigrate to the Hamptons and Malibu and keep the whole class-warfare thing going for a couple more years.

The so-called "Buffett Rule" is indicative not so much of "common sense" as of the ever-widening gap between the Brobdingnagian problem and the Lilliputian solutions proposed by our leaders. Obama can sacrifice the virgin daughters of every American millionaire on the altar of government spending, and the debt gods will barely notice so much as to give a perfunctory belch of acknowledgement. The president's first term has added $5 trillion to the debt – a degree of catastrophe unique to us. In an Obama budget, the entire cost of the Greek government would barely rate a line-item. Debt-to-GDP and other comparative measures are less relevant than the hard-dollar numbers: It's not just that American government has outspent America's ability to fund it, but that it's outspending the planet's.

Who gets this? Not enough of us – which is exactly how Obama likes it. His only "big idea" – that it should be illegal (by national fiat) to drop out of school before your 18th birthday – betrays his core belief: that more is better, as long as it's government-mandated, government-regulated, government-staffed – and funded by you, or Warren Buffett, or the Chinese Politburo, or whoever's left out there.

What of his likely rivals this November? Those of us who have lived in once-great decaying polities recognize the types. Jim Callaghan, Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in the Seventies, told a friend of mine that he saw his job as managing Britain's decline as gracefully as possible. The United Kingdom certainly declined on his watch, though not terribly gracefully. In last Monday's debate, Newt Gingrich revived the line and accused by implication Mitt Romney of having no higher ambition than to "manage the decline." Running on platitudinous generalities, Mitt certainly betrays little sense that he grasps the scale of the crisis. After a fiery assault by Rick Santorum on Romney's support for an individual mandate in health care, Mitt sneered back at Rick that "it wasn't worth getting angry over." Which may be a foretaste of the energy he would bring to any attempted course correction in Washington.

Newt, meanwhile, has committed himself to a lunar colony by the end of his second term, and, while pandering to an audience on Florida's "Space Coast," he added that, as soon as there were 13,000 American settlers on the moon, they could apply for statehood. Ah, the old frontier spirit: I hear Laura Ingalls Wilder is already working on "Little House In The Crater."

Maybe Newt's on to something. Except for the statehood part. One day, when America gets the old foreclosure notice in the mail, wouldn't it be nice to close up the entire joint, put the keys in an envelope, slide it under the door of the First National Bank of Shanghai, and jet off on Newt's Starship Government-Sponsored Enterprise?

There are times for dreaming big dreams, and there are times to wake up. This country will not be going to the moon, any more than will be the British or French. Because, in decline, the horizons shrivel. The only thing that's going to be on the moon is the debt ceiling. Before we can make any more giant leaps for mankind, we have to make one small, dull, prosaic, earthbound step here at home – and stop. Stop the massive expansion of microregulatory government, and then reverse it. Obama has vowed to press on. If Romney and Gingrich can't get serious about it, he'll get his way.