Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Around the Word

Today is the BloGG's history lesson, with a look at presidential memoirs and a speech that was never delivered (plus a fieldtrip to bibliophile heaven in L.A.)

Former President George W. Bush's Decision Points hits bookstores today, inspiring The Daily Beast's Josh Robinson to take a walk down presidential memoir-y lane. The genre saw its first commercial success when Mark Twain founded a firm dedicated to publishing Ulysses S. Grant's wildly popular memoir. However, the practice only picked up in earnest after WWII, when presidents also began collecting their papers in personal libraries for the sake of future historians. Since then, most Commander-in-Chief chronicles have been considered dull at best, self-serving at worst. In recent memory, Clinton's My Life (which he wrote himself, prompted by interview sessions with historian Ted Widmer) is among only a handful of bestsellers.
How will Bush's fare? While Michiko Kakutani notes that the book "gives the reader an uncanny sense of how personality...can affect policies that affect the world," the verdict is still out on how the marketplace—and the American public—will respond. If you've already picked up a copy of Decision Points, what are your impressions?

In 1969, as the world waited for Apollo 11 to land safely on the moon, President Nixon's speechwriter William Safire imagined Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming stranded there. He wrote a preemptive—and thankfully unused—memorial speech honoring the astronauts "mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown." For an eerie voyage into counterfactual history, read the transcript on the Letters of Note blog.
When it comes to imagining the worst, though, Safire's got nothing on the British. One of the Prime Minister's official duties is to compose the Letter of Last Resort—commands given to a nuclear submarine in case the entire British chain of command is wiped out in a nuclear attack. The letters are locked in a safe within a safe within a submarine, and are destroyed, unread, with each outgoing PM. The Daily Mail imagines the experience of writing the letter, while journalist Ron Rosenbaum discusses the custom on This American Life.

Dispatch from Lalaland: former director of the Big Read David Kipen is on a mission to free books from the shackles of attics and storage rooms. His new store Libros Schmibros in L.A. sells books for around $1 and lends them for free, with a due date determined by the book's difficulty and length. Interviewed by the L.A. Times, the ardent literacy advocate invites visitors to come during business hours or by "rapping on the glass." How will he stay afloat? Well, he explains, he's resisted the "siren song of solvency" so far because he takes joy in releasing books into the world: "These are books that had been in captivity, in a storage kit in Agoura Hills, in some cases getting nibbled on by termites," said Kipen. "And I wanted to let 'em out and walk around a little, to go into the neighborhood and maybe bring back stories."

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