I couldn’t resist adding the hyperlinks to the kicker of today’s most excellent Howard Troxler column, defending the St. Pete Times against the haters:
“As for the whole Not the Newspaper It Used To Be thing, I do agree, except for a couple of things, including: Two reporters using satellites, computers and two years’ time to show the destruction of Florida’s wetlands; dogged scrutiny of the state pension system; the single-handed uncovering of the Ray Sansom scandal (which was true even if the charges didn’t stick); investigations of the pharmaceutical industry and pill mills; the amazing coverage of the Dozier School for Boys; equally amazing stories of the Church of Scientology; the here-is-why-we-need-newspapers reporting on chemicals at Camp Lejeune; ongoing local investigations of everything from the Jim Smith land scandal in Pinellas to the Buddy Johnson circus in Hillsborough to the cracks in Tampa Bay Water’s reservoir; with our friends at the Miami Herald the most in-depth coverage of state government in Florida; the must-read Buzz for political news; the story of double-dipping public employees that led to a change in state law; the exposure of the “Taj Mahal” courthouse in Tallahassee; ongoing investigations of the mortgage fraud industry; the brilliant exposure of the scam called the U.S. Navy Veterans Association; one of the nation’s best sports sections; award-winning design, photography and visual presentation; the single-handed invention of a new kind of journalism called PolitiFact, which is spreading across the country, and which, in 2009, along with some of the best feature writing you will read, won the newspaper two Pulitzer Prizes in the same year for the first time in its history. I am leaving out a few hundred things. Other than that, it’s a rag.”
I wrote this book talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell. What is a book talk? It’s a short presentation a librarian gives when she’s suggesting books for recreational reading. I learned how to give book talks in the Adult Services class at the University of South Florida’s library school, a class taught by the exemplary Dr. Kathleeen de la Pena McCook.
I don’t work in public libraries now, so I don’t have cause to write many book talks, and I wrote this one only because I liked the book so much and would like others to read it. Librarians, steal this book talk!
Book Talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell (paperback)
David Mitchell is one of those authors who seems to enjoy defying easy categories. In the course of a single book, he can go from historical adventure to detective mystery to science fiction. Or, he might write an autobiographical novel of a boy growing up in England in the 1980s against the backdrop of the Fauklands War. And then there are the literary critics who love him: He’s written five books, two of which have been finalists for the Man Booker Prize. They praise his unorthodox approach to narrative and timeline.
His latest book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is a traditional historical novel. It takes place on Dejima, a trading island off the coast of Japan at the end of the 18th century. Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives at the island charged with rooting out corruption at the trading company. His job is to reconcile the books between the Dutch traders and their Japanese hosts, keeping a special eye out for embezzlement and thievery. While working on Dejima, he falls in love with a young Japanese woman, Orito Aibagawa. Orito is studying with the island’s physician in order to become a midwife. She’s a smart, independent young woman who lives in a culture that admires conformity and submission.
Of course, any sort of relationship between the Japanese and foreigners, aside from trading, is forbidden. A romance between Jacob and Orito is impossible. But about halfway through the book, another plot reveals itself: There is a great evil hidden on the Japanese mountainside, in a shrine ostensibly devoted to the prayers of monks and nuns. Orito and Jacob must find a way to oppose that evil and bring it to an end. This struggle propels the rest of the novel forward.
So this is a very literary author taking a different tack and writing something that is essentially historical fiction. Still, most critics gave the book a rave. And well they should have, because “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is an engrossing read that like its author seems to enjoy crossing boundaries. At its heart, it’s a love story, though an unrequited one. It’s also a masculine adventure story, much like “Master and Commander,” told from the point of view of men seeking fortune and pursuing acts of bravery. It’s also high literary fiction, with lush and intricate descriptions of 18th century Japan, the land of a thousand autumns, from which the novel gets its name. Consider immersing yourself in the world of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”
This novel is a deceptively charming slice of life at an English-language newspaper in Rome. It cuts back and forth between profiles of the people who work there today — the obit writer, the copy editor, the Paris correspondent — and a history of the paper’s founding to its hey-dey to its current decline.
If you have a nostalgic love for newspapers, you should read this. The characters are fascinating and funny, from the wheedling business reporter who’s a fool for love to the obit writer who decides to claw his way to the top. But know that things will not end well. The newspaper doesn’t even have a website, and the owners are tired of pouring money into a hole.
One thing that nagged, though, is I felt like the author had a slight mean streak toward his characters that seemed to become decidedly more cruel as the novel moved toward its end. Not to give away too much, but the chapters got darker — a girlfriend’s betrayal, the macabre death of a dog — as things went along.
Then later, I was thinking, maybe that meanness is meant to parallel the demise of the newspaper. Maybe the author’s making the point that it’s a mean world that no longer has a place for an eclectic, old-fashioned expat newspaper. At least that was my interpretation.
One of the perks of being on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize is getting asked to do cool things … like give the commencement address at your old high school. That would be my beloved Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts (LSMSA) in Natchitoches, La.
Here’s what I had to say to the students …
Thank you, Dr. Widhalm, for that very generous introduction. I’m so happy to be here today. Let me begin by saying: Congratulations to the class of 2010. I’m sure the past few years have been a long journey for you. I’d like to especially welcome your families and everyone who has supported you here along the way. Today is a day you will always remember.
I’d like to thank the faculty and staff for all the work they’ve done this year to help you get to this day.
Finally I’d like to greet the other students here, the classes of 2011 and 2012. It won’t be long before your sitting in the front rows yourselves.
I can tell you, it feels like not long ago at all I was sitting where you graduating seniors are. But the truth is, last night, I joined my classmates from the sixth class, the class of 1990, for our 20 year high school reunion. Twenty years have gone by so fast — and graduates, it will go by fast for you too.
I love the Louisiana School very much, so being invited to speak to you today is truly an unexpected honor — much like winning the Pulitzer Prize for national. I could go on and on about my days at the school and my hope for YOUR future. But I don’t want to hold up the festivities for longer than is necessary — your festivities or my festivities. So I’ve condensed years of thinking about the school down to three pieces of advice. Three things that I hope you’ve started to learn at the school, and things that I hope you will continue to learn as you go into the future. I’m still learning these things even today.
The first piece of advice: Learn critical thinking
This is the ability to look at a statement of fact or an argument and take it apart — examine its premises and assumptions, how it moves logically to a conclusion. You can learn critical thinking in any class — English, History, Science, Business, even the Arts. It’s a mandatory skill for journalism. And it’s even more important, for my job, fact-checking. Our website PolitiFact is motivated by the question, Is that really true? And how do we prove it.
I remember my first history class at Louisiana School. Dr. Bill McBride entered the classroom, greeted us warmly, and then started talking about the pertinent facts of the first pilgrims in North America. We just sat there looking at him, listening attentively, until he stopped about 10 minutes in and said, very nicely, “You know, you might want to take out your notebooks and take some notes.” That was my first lecture class. Now I know, take notes.
I’m still learning new techniques for recalling information. The Internet puts so much information at our finger tips, but a lot of it is not useful, or alternatively it’s hard to find. I’m always looking for new ways to keep on top of information, and I think that’s a task that never ends.
So how do we learn critical thinking? One answer: By always challenging ourselves. So don’t be afraid to take college classes that you think might not so so well in. If you’re a science person, take an art class. If you’re an English major, try a biology class. And I’ll tell you this, a lesson some of you may have already learned: It’s OK to make a B, or even — horrors! — a C. Learning is more important than grades
Why do we need critical thinking? It’s only through critical thinking that we can seek truth — for whatever purpose necessary, in whatever field of study, or even truth simply for its own sake. I’ve come to one conclusion after writing literally hundreds of factchecking reports and seeing how people respond. The conclusion is this: There is something in the human heart that loves the truth, that seeks constantly to understand reality itself better or more fully. That’s why we need critical thinking.
Don’t be fooled into thinking critical thinking is something you’re born with. You learn critical thinking through hard work. When I went to Columbia University for journalism school, I had a teacher who said he didn’t think I was that good, that I was tough enough, and that I should seriously consider dropping out of the program. For about 15 seconds, I thought maybe he was right. But then my common sense kicked in and said, don’t be ridiculous. So I stayed and graduated. And I got one job in journalism, and then another, and then another. And I got a lot better than I was that day in his office. I think about that day now and I get a tremendous sense of accomplishment that I didn’t quit, I worked hard to get better.
So don’t you quit either — work harder when someone tells you you can’t do something. Listen carefully to the criticism — think critically about — see if you can learn anything, then move on. I write fact-checks about political leaders on both the left and the right, who have faithful supporters who like to post to the Internet whenever they feel like us fact-checkers aren’t getting it right. And that’s fine. Actually, I try to learn whatever I can from their comments.
One of my favorite writers, Clay Shirky, said if you do anything interesting in life, people are going to criticize it. You can avoid criticism by never doing anything interesting, or you can do something interesting anyway. I vote for do something interesting anyway.
Which leads to my second piece of advice: Do what you love.
When I was considering coming to Louisiana School, the thing that closed the deal were the wonderful class offerings — foreign languages like German and Latin, advanced Calculus, specialized classes in literature and history. Some of my fondest memories included a Romantic Era poetry taught by Dr. Art Williams, and a history class on the French Revolution taught by Dr. Jim Findley.
When I got to college, my program, called Plan II at UT, had many required classes, some of which were less than thrilling. But I made sure that one class every semester that just seemed like great fun. So when you’re in college, make sure some of those classes you’re taking are things you love — and even major in them.
Now don’t get me wrong, not all of college is fun and games. I believe in being practical, and always keeping an eye out toward graduation day and what you’ll do to be gainfully employed. One of the great joys of adulthood is making your own money and paying your own way. When you pay your own way, you can very sweetly and respectfully tell other people to mind their own business. So do think about work and careers.
But at the same time, don’t choose your profession or course of study based on money alone. Life is too short. If you do something you love, you’ll never feel like work is a drudgery or boring. So think critically and do what you love. My husband and I like to tell each other, just do the next right thing, and trust that tomorrow will take care of itself.
My final piece of advice: Treasure your friendships
One of the reasons we’re here on this planet is to be in relationship with each other. So take care of your friendships. I’m so happy to come to the Louisiana School 20 years later and see so many people I’ve been keeping up with over the years. Even the faculty members who seemed so lofty can become our friends if we stick around long enough.
So how do we treasure our friendships? The most concrete answer is to make sure you don’t let too much time go by without seeing them. Connect with the Louisiana Schoolers you end up going to college with. Get together with your old friends at Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. Come back here to Natchitoches for your class reunions. Seniors, come back next year to see your juniors graduate, then come back at the five year reunion mark, the ten year reunion mark. Join the alumni association or the Louisiana School Foundation, and work with other alumnae to help the school grow.
There’s that old saying that half of life is just showing up. Well, half of friendship is just showing up. You’ll make new friends after Louisiana School, and the same advice goes for those. Make the extra effort to go to weddings and special occasions, even when they happen in far-off, rather impractical places. Like upstate New York, where I traveled last year for a friend’s lakeside wedding. Eight years ago, when I married my dear husband, I had friends travel to Mobile, Ala., from places like Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; and San Francisco. All of those friends are here in Natchitoches this weekend.
Today, I look at my Louisiana School classmates after 20 years, and I’m so pleased to remember and recognize my friends. They are good-hearted people who are so smart and doing amazing things with their lives. My class has attorneys, scientists, English professors, stay-at-home parents, novelists, teachers, doctors, engineers. They’ve used their critical thinking and they’ve followed their passions, and I could not be more proud of them. I’m also proud of you graduates, and I have no doubt you will follow similar, interesting paths.
So in conclusion, thank you, graduates, for letting me speak to you today. The rest of your journey begins right now. Make it together.