February links: DevonThink Pro, advice for novelists, dull global English, and more

* DevonThink Pro 2.0 came out today. Read about it at the link; I’m a regular user thanks to Steven Berlin Johnson’s Tool For Thought.

* TSA arrests a student for having Arabic flash cards. Something must be very, very wrong with that institution.

* Mark Sarvas is writing on The Elegant Variation more often again; this post on the lessons of reading a bunch of first novels is compelling for its advice, although that advice feels somewhat vague without specific examples in it.

* “The Real Danger of Debt: The United States is deep in the red — and doesn’t have the political tools to get out.”

* “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” The answer might be “not as much as you think,” at least monetarily. Still, according to the article,

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

But the article doesn’t deal with a) how much different majors earn and b) what students gain outside of mere earning power, which might not translate directly into money. The first is particularly significant: hard science majors tend to make way more than liberal arts majors like me. The headline might better state, “college is what you make of it, and if you don’t make much of it, don’t expect a huge amount of money on the other end.”

* On foreign currency reserves as a metric of wealth.

* What readers think they want writers to know. There are a lot of questionable assumptions and comments in it, like this: “Readers are what every novelist really wants […]”. Many novelists want readers, but since the Modernists many literary writers have considered scaring away readers to be a sign of success.

The pleas for story also reminds of what James Wood called “the essential juvenility of plot” in How Fiction Works. Although I disagree with Wood’s comment, I think it’s indicative of the fact that different readers have different demands: highly sophisticated readers who’ve experienced thousands of novels probably look for somewhat different things than those who haven’t.

* The Dull New Global Novel:

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

* The value of cities, and note in particular the value of New York, which reflects how the city is organized more than anything else. Metropolises like Phoenix, Tucson, and those in Texas should take note.

* Almost no one knows anything about North Korea, including me, despite having opinions on nuclear sanctions and so forth against the country. Two new books try to remedy that: Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Both those links go to good Slate articles about the books in question.

* Jason Fisher on the online Literary Encyclopedia.

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