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Shelf Life

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For the past thirty years, a prejudice has been haunting the United States and parts of Europe. In a public lecture last October, the historian Tony Judt observed that when "asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive?" This prejudice, Judt explained, is rooted in the "propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss--economic questions in the narrowest sense."

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John Palattella
John Palattella is literary editor of The Nation. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications,...

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Judt labeled this prejudice "economism" and proceeded to sketch its origins. With Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (Norton; $27.95), Joseph Stiglitz has written an indispensable history of the emergence of market fundamentalism (or "economism") in the United States and its pernicious social consequences. Freefall is primarily an autopsy of the financial crisis. Stiglitz details in layman's terms how financial deregulation encouraged the banking sector to favor maximizing private revenues over managing social risk: economic growth was based on exorbitant debt that fed a consumption binge. But Stiglitz also dissects the relationship between the two major economic shifts of the past three decades--globalization and financialization, or the transformation of the financial sector into the primary engine of economic growth. Decades of prosperity and economic interconnectivity bred by bad ideas about the inherent virtues of free markets resulted in a stunning economic collapse--and the bankruptcy of market fundamentalism.

Ours is an era of severe economic and social insecurity. Stiglitz's response to the crisis is Keynesian: to save capitalism from itself. In the short term this would involve a bigger and better federal stimulus package, one committed less to tax cuts and more to plugging holes in state and local government budgets, and to making high-return investments in technology. In the long term it would demand nothing less than a reinvigoration of economic thought to eradicate the endemic rot of economism and to equip ourselves to discuss economic goods in the broadest sense. Freefall is an excellent place to start.

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"And there in the distance, nothing./A line of houses one can hardly make out/through the white of snow and sun." These lines from "The Fog," by the Cuban poet Eugenio Florit, could double as a sketch of the view from the north, and from within Cuba itself, of recent Cuban literature. The US embargo has corrupted our view of the island, and Castro's censors have stifled the publication of writing that departs from state-sanctioned optimismo. I found "The Fog" in The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, edited by Mark Weiss (California; paper $29.95). Not since the 1982 publication of Paul Auster's Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry has a bilingual anthology so effectively broadened the sense of poetic terrain outside the United States and also created a superb collection of foreign poems in English. There is nothing else like it. Weiss presents generous selections of work by fifty-five poets from Cuba and its diaspora; though ostensibly an anthology, The Whole Island is a gathering of individual voices (among them those of the twenty-two translators who contributed to the project). In "On Three Photos of Mella," Francisco de Oraá offers a riposte to Julio Mella, a founder of Cuba's Communist Party and a disapproving superego: "I only know that, deep down, I would have wanted to be let loose in the garden,/and that the garden would grow and become the whole world." Seeing through the fog (what Damaris Calderón calls this "sad business/this playing at being perfect"), Weiss has located the whole island's many imaginary gardens.

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When Amazon was developing its electronic reader, it hired a design firm to brand the gadget. The designers recommended the word "kindle" as a name for two reasons: its etymology is rooted in the Old Norse word for "candle" (kyndill), and it has a literary lineage dating back to the Enlightenment. "The instruction we find in books is like fire," wrote Voltaire. "We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others and it becomes the property of all." But the Kindle has sparked millennial anxieties. Among those who fear for the fate of reading and print in a digital age, the Kindle may evoke not the Enlightenment but Fahrenheit 451. This is no surprise: books have long been central to stories of apocalypse. Revelations are disclosures of truth. Revelation is also the name of an old book in which the image of a closing scroll symbolizes the end of the world.

Robert Darnton's expertise is in the history of the book in Enlightenment Europe, and his knowledge of how the age's writers and publishers fell short of establishing a Republic of Letters--an egalitarian society committed to the free flow of ideas--makes his essay collection The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs; $23.95) a worthy guide to the tremors created by the Kindle and electronic reading. Darnton has found in physical books essential clues about the history of publishing, so it's no surprise to hear him admit that experiencing a digitized version of a book is not "comparable to the excitement of contact with the original." Yet he is excited about how digital technology enables libraries and scholars to "publish" their holdings and writings in the truest sense--to make them public and to foster intellectual exchange. This enthusiasm dims when Darnton discusses Google's book digitization project, Google Book Search. He argues persuasively (and has continued to do so in the pages of The New York Review of Books) that Google has created a "monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information," a fair amount of which has been provided to Google by public libraries. Fitting names for Google Book Search might be the Dwindle or the Swindle.

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