At any rate, this ate up a chunk of our day. So well just post a few book items before returning to that hard work tomorrow.
THE SAYINGS OF CHAIRMAN SCOTT MCCLELLAN: We dont know what President Bush has been reading. To be honest, neither does Elisabeth Bumiller. But thats where the similarity ends. Bumillers willing to fake it.
Today, in her weekly White House Letter, Bumiller says that Bush has been reading a new biography of Mao. Indeed, she even reveals what he thought of the book. How does she know what the president thinks? Easy! A favorite source told her:
BUMILLER (1/23/06): Asked why Mr. Bush liked the book, Mr. McClellan said he would find out, then reported back on Friday that Mr. Bush had told him that ''Mao'' ''really shows how brutal a tyrant he was'' and that ''he was much more brutal than people assumed.''In best court stenographer fashion, Bumiller types up the statements shes handed. Meanwhile, she shows off her own knowledge of the bio in comical fashion—by quoting its opening sentence! Chairman Bluto could hardly do better.
Mr. Bush also said, Mr. McClellan recounted, that ''millions upon millions were killed because of his policies.'' On that score, the book is both sweeping and specific, with a first chapter that begins with this sentence: ''Mao Zedong, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th-century leader.
Of course, Bush has weighty reading habits—and Bumillers willing to tell us about them. Just in the past year, for example, he has also read Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks and When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, by Patricia O'Toole. And how does Bumiller think she knows that? Perhaps you can track down her source:
BUMILLER: Over the past year Mr. Bush's reading has also included, Mr. McClellan said, ''Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women,'' by Geraldine Brooks; ''When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House,'' by Patricia O'Toole; and ''1776,'' by David McCullough.Meanwhile, to make sure that her column is perfectly fatuous, Bumiller even quotes Doris Kearns Goodwin, who explains why presidents read books. But heres the part of this piece we like best. Try to believe that she typed it:
BUMILLER: American scholars say that Mr. Bush was no doubt drawn to the narrative but also to a book that is in effect an argument for the president's second-term agenda of spreading democracy around the world. One major revelation of the book, for example, is Stalin's powerful role in Mao's rise.That is top-rate, best-in-show clownistry. These unnamed scholars have no way to know if Bush even glanced at the volume in question. But so what? According to Bumiller, theyre willing to say why he no doubt found it moving.
Over the years, weve rolled our eyes at Bumillers weekly letter. Does the scribe really know what Bush had read? Does she know what he thought about it? In fact, she only knows what the White House staff told her—and surely, anyone can see why Bushs staff might want to see these claims put in print.
In the early 1960s, the sort of silly caddy journalism was performed for the handsome young JFK. Today, Bumiller caddies for Bush. And her hapless editors—no scholars they—just keep on choosing to print it.
SLOWLY SHE TURNS: For the record, we also chuckled when we read Gail Collins railing in this lead editorial. Collins thought it was just bizarre that a certain story received so much coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/13/06): If Judge Samuel Alito Jr.'s confirmation hearings lacked drama, apart from his wife's bizarrely over-covered crying jag, it is because they confirmed the obvious.Surely, Collins knows why that crying jag got so much coverage. Indeed, we recall the days when Collins herself would bizarrely over-cover such matters. Ah, how quickly they forget! More on this topic tomorrow.
EINSTEIN IS HARD—ABSOLUTELY: Lets face it. We had expected to touch off a fierce debate with our controversial comments about physics best-sellers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/21/06). But you thought our pal Deborah Howell had problems! One of our readers even dared to suggest that we had gone stark raving mad:
E-MAIL: I think you've lost it on this one. You blame the difficulty in explaining modern physics upon the poor communication skills of the writer. Instead the real problem is the inadequacy of the English language to describe physics. The language of physics is mathematics. I don't think that if you combined Shakespeare and Einstein together could you get an easy to understand yet deep explanation of modern physics.As a general matter, we semi-agree with those remarks—but its the writers and reviewers we gently chided who claim that Einstein-made-easy books produce an easy to understand yet deep explanation of modern physics. Meanwhile, one reader didnt think we had lost it at all! Expressing his gratitude for our efforts, he agreed with every word that we said!
E-MAIL: Thanks for this item you posted on the "readable" tomes of our modern physicists. I'm a well-read and well-educated man of eclectic interests, yet I put down Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" at page 60 many years ago and never got any farther. It was also hailed as a layman's guide, and I was lost by the time he explained light cones—wasn't sure what he was talking about any more. I did back up and get to page 60 again a few times. Always thought I just wasn't getting it. Maybe Stephen just wasn't giving it in layman's terms after all. I feel renewed.Weve dealt with that Hawking fellow before, so well only say this about that: For our money, if our e-mailer got all the way to page 60, he had failed to see the dread confusion infecting the book early on.
As we noted last week, Brian Greene obviously knows the math and the science of modern physics (we dont), and he has worked very hard, in several formats, to make them more approachable. But some of the problems in The Elegant Universe belong to Greene, not to the English language. For those who want to read ahead on this critical topic: Thumb to pages 31-33 in The Elegant Universe (The Speed of Light) and note the way he tends to conflate the following terms:
SpeedThe English language didnt cause those nightmarish conflations—which well precede this books page 60. For our dime, Greenes explanations would be much more clear if hed go back and sort those terms out.
The speed with which it approaches you