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Though Hurricane Sandy hangs over us with power outages and flooding, we can’t forget we are in the final stages of a Presidential election, though we won’t know what variables played a role in the election until it is over. Meanwhile we, especially people in Ohio and other battleground states, are saturated with ads. We can retain our passion for public service and leadership if we look to history, where nothing is airbrushed. The richness of American history is captured in three recent books: two books on President Lincoln's leadership and a biography of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward help me savor and appreciate the challenges of leadership and public service. These books grip the reader from beginning to end as they fully explore new about the Lincoln Presidency—why it inspires, what challenges it faced, the obstacles Lincoln overcame, and what ones he didn’t.
Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union - Louis P. Masur (Harvard Univ., $29.95)
Louis P. Masur's Lincoln's Hundred Days presents a gripping story of the hundred-day gap between when the decision was made to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and its effective date on January 1, 1863. Lincoln educated his cabinet about emancipation through story and parable. “Stand patters,” mostly Democrats, pulverized Lincoln’s decision. “Maximalists,” who were also Abolitionists, thought Lincoln was a hesitant and compromised leader. The African American leader Frederick Douglass understood the Proclamation's import even if it did not free slaves in the states that hadn't seceded, the reason—according to Masur—that Lincoln strongly supported a constitutional amendment banning slavery. Douglass, sagacious advocate that he was, began publicly addressing the question of what would happen to the slaves after freedom, even before the Proclamation took full effect. Masur’s book also covers the period before the end of the Civil War when Lincoln visited wounded troops. (Remember the troops were an important part of Lincoln's electoral margin over the fired General McClellan.) Lincoln felt the power of the Emancipation Proclamation decision even as he walked silently in Richmond during the war. One woman proclaimed, "I know I am free for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him."
Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year - David Von Drehle (Holt, $30)
David Von Drehle's Rise to Greatness opens on New Year's Day 1862 with Lincoln greeting hordes of citizens, and takes us through the whole year. Each chapter follows one month, and discusses the complexities of saving the Union from McClellan's imperious caution and disloyalty to his commander-in-chief; the challenge from the British as Charles Francis Adams, our Ambassador to Great Britain, pushes for emancipation; and the official declaration of the emancipation policy. Von Drehle closes the book with the birth of freedom. What Von Drehle does so brilliantly is capture Lincoln's sense of history and how change is created and sustained. Of Lincoln, Von Drehle writes, "to him, human history was an inexorable current that sometimes meandered, sometimes raged, but ultimately found its own course." In Lincoln’s view, change required working through "his options with the most cautious initiatives" because as volatile issues were taken on—especially slavery—there was no going back. Von Drehle shows us that at the start of 1862 the nation looked backward, not certain that the Union could be preserved, but as 1863 began with the Emancipation Proclamation in place, the nation could look forward.
Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man – Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster, $32.50)
Carla and I once had the good fortune to visit the Seward home in Auburn, NY. Our interest was triggered by Gore Vidal's novel Lincoln (arguably his best work) and reinforced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. In Seward, Walter Stahr takes William Henry Seward to a deeper level with the story of a creative and forward looking political leader. Few politicians are themselves after a defeat yet Seward, in his mind assured the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860, loyally served Lincoln as Secretary of State. (Yes, Obama and Clinton appear to be a Lincoln and Seward parallel.) In this role, Seward had the courage to challenge the compromise Clay, Webster and Calhoun suggested of turning over fugitive slaves. When Seward is injured shortly before the war's end by a runaway horse and coach, he is visited by Lincoln. I wish the conversation had been recorded: Lincoln returning from a Richmond hospital after shaking hundreds of wounded soldiers’ hands and an ill Seward. Seward did not have the strength to speak at length but with the war at a near end you can imagine the discussion of the plans for the future—two politicians, two leaders, two patriots, looking ahead.
- David Cohen
This past weekend the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) held its annual conference in Washington. NAIBA gathers booksellers living on the east coast from as far away as Buffalo and from large and small cities in the region. Much of this year’s conference was about why words and books matter. Independent bookstores are the life blood for keeping words paramount.
Carla did lots to build NAIBA and, in its early days, served as chairperson of the group. NAIBA is a mature and lively institution most recently, and strongly, led by Lucy Kogler, owner of Talking Leaves in Buffalo, New York. Margot Sage-El of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey will succeed Lucy as NAIBA president and our own Mark Laframboise, who has served on the Board of Directors for five years, is now Vice President of NAIBA, an indicator among independents of the respect Mark holds in the independent bookstore community.
I arrived early to observe and talk to the meeting participants, a decision that filled the evening with joy and hope. Politics & Prose staff was everywhere talking with booksellers, editors and publishers. I met old friends from other independent bookstores as well as the editing and publishing communities.
My curiosity caused me to be a reporter. Why was everyone so upbeat? It came down to three core reasons:
1. People like coming to Washington because Washington is central to books. People felt they were somewhere that connected to their mission as booksellers, editors, and publishers.
2. Politics & Prose, under Brad and Lissa's leadership, provided a “behind the scenes” tour of the store. Visiting booksellers were broken down into small groups led by different staff members, so guests glimpsed the full range of what Politics & Prose does: the book floor, to be sure, but also the importance of receiving, the events and education programs, and children’s books, among others. People I met spoke about the tour enthusiastically. It was a clear highlight of the weekend.
3. There was energy about the importance of books, their sustainability, and the ability of independents to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. No sky is falling here in Washington or, as I like to say, "No cosmic oy vey." What Lucy Kogler, outgoing NAIBA president, wrote about the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against publishers is an understatement: Independents, she said, "chase the future, the local and independent are wildly present and healthy... [and] have the courage to recognize their power to change the course of the industry by choosing independence.”
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The NAIBA conference also presents the Carla Cohen Award, which goes to the author of a children's book that educates children about their rights by ensuring they will read books "that will allow them to question, imagine and dream" and thereby become actors in the essential ingredients of freedom. This year's winner of the Carla Cohen Award is MK Reed, author of Americus, a graphic novel about book-banning in a small Oklahoma town and the effort to overcome the ban. Jonathan DavidHill is the illustrator. The publisher, Roaring Brook, graciously invited me to attend the ceremony. I was impressed with how MK Hill captured Carla’s spirit. She spoke movingly and passionately about the First Amendment and the importance of encouraging a flow of ideas.
The obituary for former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger made the trenchant point that for the Times to meet its journalistic responsibilities it has to be profitable but also to spend time digging for news that's fit to print so that important stories don’t get buried. Similarly, independents have to be profitable so that they can educate others and make the free flow of ideas visible and audible. At NAIBA, I found a deep commitment to that goal. Independent bookstores are part of a community that includes book people, authors, readers, editors and publishers, all of whom are focusing on the present and the future.
- David Cohen
These closing weeks of summer has us absorbed with political conventions, rhetorical excesses and looking for that extra effort in behalf of our favorite candidates. Many of us will choose to register and canvass voters, and help overcome the obstacles placed in front of voters participating in this election. We want a genuine democratic election and have to worry that the self-styled voter fraud laws put a democratic election at a real risk.
Once the election is over, hopefully fairly and cleanly resolved, we have to make decisions, deal with urgent public problems and reach majority decisions in our legislative bodies, especially within the U.S. Congress.
During this this politically active period, three books help put us on the road to get things done with accountability. These books have energized me for future efforts to do our public work by being engaged citizens. So I suggest you read It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (Basic Books, $24.99); The Party Is Over, by Mike Lofgren (Viking, $25.95); and The Politics of Voter Suppression, by Tova Andrea Wang (Cornell Univ., $24.99).
Each of these books is accessible, crisply written and filled with practical steps to change our political and policy systems so that those systems are not captured by political extremism. Mann and Ornstein (Brookings and AEI) show us the way to restore majority
rule in the Senate and no longer have serious issues buried under the table by the harmful filibuster. They suggest ways of changing our political culture by attacking distortions, tribalism and fostering the give and take of public discussion.
Mike Lofgren, a Republican senior analyst for the House and Senate Budget Committees, knows the system from the inside. Lofgren's strength is that he has not been captured by the culture that allows extremism and mindlessness to dominate. Good examples for Republican Lofgren are the GOP presidential candidates' budget plans that are "math-challenged." Lofgren then shows how a majority the members of the House and Senate defense committees have been captured by the special interests.
Tova Andrea Wang shows why voter suppression, rooted in our history, is illegitimate. Yet we have a countering tradition that increases participation. Wang weaves the historic with the contemporary, the harmful and the positive. What I love about Wang's contribution is that she recognizes the value of citizens organizing to help people get registered and participate. Through organizing, and helping others, we navigate and overcome the barriers.
- David Cohen
June always brings an active month of legal decisions, and often these decisions are made by a sharply divided Supreme Court. I want to demystify the judicial branch to help citizens be more informed about the decision-making process. The Supreme Court is too important an element of our system of democracy for Presidents, Senators and lawyers to be the only ones discussing and debating these cases.
This year I have read three excellent books on the U.S. Judiciary. Each one would make an outstanding Father's Day or graduation gift.
On May 3, Politics & Prose hosted Andrew Delbanco for a talk about his insightful and stimulating book: College, What It Was, Is and Should Be (Princeton Univ., $24.95). Delbanco's scholarship is steeped in American culture and history - especially when it comes to the literary narrative. Lincoln, Melville and the legacy of the Puritans loom large in Delbanco's lifelong work, which has been animated by the ideals of equality, merit, opportunity, and hope.
Delbanco's lively and thoughtful presentation led to what amounted to a town meeting on the nature of college education, as participants raised their concerns about the astronomical costs of higher education, about the difficulties of preparing children for college, and about the infrequency of teaching that leads to critical thought and a passion to continue learning.
In the course of the discussion, several topics emerged: inter-generational educational opportunities, healthier older generations who are living longer and want to keep their minds stimulated and engaged, and citizens without formal higher education who read and discuss ideas and public matters as part of civic engagement. Our events staff recorded the discussion and you can download the mp3 by clicking here.
Recently, I participated in discussions at NYU on the nature of education; the principal speaker thought that on-line distance learning represents the future. While embracing it, he worried that imagination may be neglected, and while Delbanco's approach has a different emphasis, he also believes foremost in expanding a student's imagination.
In his The Real American Dream, Delbanco put the matter clearly.
As a teacher of the humanities, you do everything you can to help students expand their imagination, by which I mean to look outward, to see something beyond the consumer pleasures with which they are bombarded, to develop some sense of the complexity of the past and the diversity of the present -- that is the variety of ways in which human beings have tried to make sense of the world. Only then is it possible to develop some sense of alternative futures.
This theme resonates throughout College, What It Was, Is and Should Be. Steeped in a firm understanding of higher education's rich history, College is a call to action for more than a few to use their imagination to the fullest. Delbanco referenced a memorable quote by Judith Shapiro when she was President of Barnard - "You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life." That's our challenge at all ages.
- David Cohen
Passover brings to Politics and Prose a rich set of Haggadahs (Haggadot in Hebrew) on display in the front of the store. I am so pleased that Carla Cohen's bibliography, began many years ago, continues to be used and appropriately revised. Carla started the bibliography to assist families in choosing a Haggadah that would fit their Seder needs for family and friends.
In response to a New York Times article on new Haggadahs, a few days ago, a friend asked, “What's wrong with the traditional ones?” Haggadah means narrative or telling. Narratives change. As the essentials of the Exodus story are retold, different emphases are placed on the story.
The newer haggadahs certainly make use of tradition, but they adapt it to contemporary situations so that we increase our ability to experience the Exodus ourselves. And we do this by asking ourselves questions: What are we enslaved to? What forms of slavery continue to exist in our country? In other countries? What can we do about it? What plagues afflict us now? What can we learn from those who fought for freedom and resisted slavery. In our own Seder, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Hannah Senesh, Frederic Douglass, Chaika Grossman, and countless others have had active parts.
On February 26, Ira Shapiro celebrated his publication of The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis (PublicAffairs, $34.99). A standing room audience – which included former Senate staff members who helped produce important policy in the 1960s and 1970s, leading journalists, and people who care about the state of our governing institutions - participated in a lively discussion.
While I participated in many of the issues about which Ira Shapiro wrote - Senate ethics rules, the Ethics in Government Act, SALT II, the dismissal of Bert Lance as President Carter's Budget Director, approval of the Panama Canal Treaty, filibuster reform, and energy legislation - this informative book, filled with memorable stories, taught me how much I did not know. Details matter, and they are an essential part of Shapiro’s graceful and clear writing that captures emotion in his discussions of individual senators.
The well-received publication of Ayad Akhtar's debut novel American Dervish (Little, Brown, $24.99), caused me to think about the ongoing popularity of immigrant novels in America. Akhtar deals with the tensions between secular lifestyles and religious beliefs among immigrant Muslims (in this case -- from Pakistan). In his book, men who are religiously dominant experience tensions with a younger generation wishing to adapt to American culture, especially with women who resist male control.
Historically, each wave of immigration has produced outstanding literature that has examined its own generational conflict, retained and celebrated cultural identity, and embraced adaptation through its unique version of the American "melting pot." Literature describing the immigrant experience has included both women and men who have spoken for their compatriots' perspectives and have helped outsiders understand. And whatever the characters' difficulties, they demonstrate immigration as providing an advantage.
Politics & Prose continues to create a public space where emotional topics can be discussed in a robust and civil way. On February 12, we hosted Rabbi Fred Reiner’s Standing at Sinai (Authorhouse, $18), a collection of his sermons and scholarly writings. These are extraordinarily provocative essays dealing with hard issues, such as intermarriage, homosexuality, immigration, and Israel. Audience members raised thoughtful and emotional questions. Rabbi Reiner answered them forthrightly. The audience listened attentively. Both the questioners and Rabbi Reiner modeled the serious and respectful manner in which these matters should be addressed.
As one who strongly believes in Israel as a Jewish homeland and as a democratically religious and secular pluralist state, which includes Israel’s Arabs as equal citizens, I have been disturbed by ongoing efforts by some in America who wish to shut down debate in my religious community. Among many other reasons, Politics & Prose made Carla and me proud that it was a safe harbor for robust and civil discussion. That continues under the leadership of Brad Graham and Lissa Muscatine.
In recent months Politics & Prose has hosted Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel (Harper, $25.99). Gorenberg is a practicing Israeli orthodox Jew and an outstanding journalist. Gorenberg refutes the shrill defense of “Israel - right or wrong” and the equally strident attacks on the legitimacy of Israel. Israel is an imperfect democracy (as are all democracies.) Its imperfections do not make it undemocratic when vigorous voices challenge those imperfections within Israel.
P&P also hosted Jeremy Ben Ami’s A New Voice for Israel (Palgrave Macmillan, $26). Ben Ami comes from a family of early Zionists and is the founder and president of J St. He dismantles the notion that Jews are single issue voters on Israel and that only hard line policies can win their support.
In the fall, P&P hosted Gilad Sharon’s loving book about his father, the incapacitated former Israel Prime Minister and military leader Ariel Sharon. Gilad Sharon celebrated the publication of his Sharon: The Life of a Leader (Harper, $29.99) to a full P&P audience.
Last year we also hosted at 6th and I the courageous Palestinian whose children were killed by an Israeli attack in Gaza. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish presented I Shall Not Hate (Walker & Company, $15) with strength and courage to a packed and diverse audience.
Carla and Barbara were always proud of the Israel novelists who visited P&P. They represent a moral voice, who like the prophets of old, knew how to be loving critics of Israel. In the fall P&P hosted Amos Oz when he read from Scenes from Village Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22). Lissa recalled his searching autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness (Mariner, $16) and his novel Fima (Mariner, $18.95), both of which he presented at P&P.
I also remember David Grossman’s visits for his profound novels: To the End of the Land and The Book of Intimate Grammar. Meir Shalev came for his memoir My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner and his earlier novel A Pigeon and a Boy. Who can forget the earlier visits of A.B. Yehoshua for his novels: Mr. Mani and Friendly Fire. I will always remember the late Batya Gur presiding over her mysteries: A Saturday Morning Murder and Murder in the Kibbutz. Each of these novelists gave us rich portraits of Israeli society. They model what a loving critic should be.
That quality of discussion will continue at Politics and Prose.
- David Cohen
I had a wonderful experience last week appreciating two special recognitions authors made of Politics & Prose.
Last week, two close friends wrote to me about Doonesbury. In the strip, Rick Redfern’s son Jeff (a.k.a., The Red Rascal) was signing copies of the fictional version of Red Rascal’s War(Andrews McMeel, $19.99), Jeff’s imagined exploits as a military contractor and vigilante in Afghanistan, and where else but at Politics & Prose would he make an appearance?! (Only a year ago P&P hosted G.B. Trudeau for a stock signing of his collection, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective(Andrews McMeel, $100).) One friend commented how Carla would have loved the panel.
Another shared the news with the Tifereth Israel synagogue listserv. I quickly found Doonesbury in the newspaper so I could savor it myself. Click here to follow the week’s storyline.
Later the same day, while reading Blue Nights(Knopf, $25), I came across Joan Didion’s reference to her preparation for a reading at Politics & Prose. So twice in the same day, I noticed recognitions of P&P! Didion writes about memory and how one deals with death, about the loss of her daughter and the vulnerabilities of getting older. I finished Blue Nights on Saturday, and thought about the memories that I shared with Carla, the joy of reading and our impressions of various authors.
These thoughts led me to recall Carla’s excitement when in “A Scarf,” one of Carol Shields’ short stories in the collection Dressing Up for the Carnival(Penguin, $15), a novelist named Reta Winters goes on a book tour to DC and visits P&P. I pointed the story out to Carla again when it was included in the anthology of Carol Shields’ Collected Stories(Harper, $16.95). We both loved Carol Shields, and it meant a lot that she included Politics & Prose in her writing.
The next day I saw Carla’s brother, Mark Furstenberg, and we discussed the Doonesbury strip. I mentioned Didion and Shields. We both valued Trudeau’s acknowledgement as a real recognition for Politics & Prose and for what it means to so many of us .
- David Cohen