The intellectual trap of exploring a new place — whether through actual travel or by reading a book set there — is the practically unconscious assumption that we can generalize. Having just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for example, I'm needing to remind myself that I have no fast, reliable way of verifying whether Stieg Larsson's absorbing fictional depiction of Swedes and Sweden matches up even slightly with reality. Part of Larsson's premise, though, is verifiably real: There are places, including Sweden, where journalists can be brought up on criminal charges for defaming someone in print.
Some of these places are in the U.S. As a former American newspaper reporter, I should have known this. Let me just stipulate to being ignorant and provincial, so we can get back to looking at Sweden.
I hope the New York Times will do a follow-up story on Friday's "G.I.’s in Iraq Hope to Heal Sacred Walls." The story — like an NPR broadcast in 2007 and a Smithsonian piece in 2008 — doesn't answer a question that hovers over the U.S. troops trying to restore Iraq's oldest Christian monastery: By caring about St. Elijah's Monastery, by devoting themselves to its resuscitation, are the Americans also painting a bull's-eye on it?
Times reporter Steven Lee Myers seemed to nod in the approximate direction of this question with a single phrase in Friday's story: "... before the last American troops leave the monastery to an uncertain fate."
The Good Soldiers is nearly unbearable. Relentlessly so. Commendably so. Whether you're a combat veteran, a soldier's mom, an Iraqi, the 43rd U.S. president, an ordinary American, or some pundit who likes to make bold, loud, baseless, unshakeable declarations about the glory or evil of war, reporter David Finkel's intimate chronicle of the troop surge in Iraq could — and should — anguish you. I won't even try to replicate the book's impact. Instead, let's just look at a telling passage about garbage in eastern Baghdad.
The passage about garbage interests me because it fits with the overall aim of this blog. It's a look at one — just one — of the small details that add up to define a place.
In a recent NPR interview, National Book Award finalist Daniyal Mueenuddin spoke with arresting candor about Pakistan, using the word "feudalism" to describe the structure of life in the Indus River Valley where his family owns land.
This exchange between Mueenuddin and NPR host Steve Inskeep especially struck me:
David Quigg is a writer and photographer. Before quitting newspaper journalism in 2003 to stay home with his newborn son and toddler daughter, David covered the World Trade Organization riots, politics, local government, and all things Seattle for The (Tacoma) News Tribune. In addition to Big Think, he now writes for The Huffington Post and his own blog, which he describes as "an undignified glimpse of the scattershot passions that, with any luck, will conspire to prevent me from ever serving as an expert panelist." He is the author of an unpublished novel, Void Where Prohibited.