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Birnbaum V.

Tony Horwitz

Our man in Boston sits down for a frank accounting with Tony Horwitz, author of beloved works like Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War. Here they chat about his new book on John Brown—still a divisive figure in America, particularly in these days of terrorism—and the hazards of politicians reading too much.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Author Tony Horwitz began his career as a newspaper reporter in Indiana, later working as a foreign correspondent and also winning a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

His works include Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, Baghdad Without a Map, and A Voyage Long and Strange. His latest opus, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, published in 2011, received numerous accolades, including the 2012 William Henry Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography. 

As you will learn below in our conversation, Midnight Rising fully explores John Brown’s anti-slavery crusade all the way up to his ill-fated attack on the U.S. Army arms depot at Harper’s Ferry—an event glossed over in many history books despite its significance. As Horwitz has done with his previous books, he breathes life into his bio’s subject matter and makes Brown and his followers vivid and understandable. 

In the chat below, Horwitz and I also discuss 9/11; historical fiction; Russell Banks and Cloudsplitter; John Brown’s sanity; the writing of accessible history; teaching; anti-intellectualism; the value of a college education; and, of course, more.

At one point, I ask Tony if he’s tired of the John Brown story. He responded that he wasn’t, but to check back with him after the book tour. I have; he still isn’t. Additionally, he informed me that Fox Broadcasting has optioned the book for a dramatic miniseries. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Are you also a speaker?

Tony Horwitz: Not officially. Sometimes people will pay me to speak at conferences.

RB: Herman Cain gets paid for speaking engagements.

TH: I’ll tell you who pays well—doctors. I am speaking at some medical convention next year. They pay a lot. Some private schools, like fancy prep schools. Yeah, so I don’t pursue it.

RB: It’s not a career for you?

TH: No, no.

RB: Are you making a career out of writing?

TH: (laughs) So far. You never know. I’m hanging in there.

RB: Why don’t you have two Os in your name, H-O-R-O-W-I-T-Z?

TH: I don’t know—it is a slightly unusual spelling. I am sure I am related to all the Horowitzs out there with two Os. But for whatever reason, Ellis Island or whatever, they lost an O.

RB: More seriously: you wrote an op-ed comparing John Brown to the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 plot. What was the feedback from that stance?

TH: I got quite negative feedback from what I would call the John Brown fan club. There is a strong, passionate group of people out there—some scholars, independent scholars, who are devoted to John Brown’s memory—and they were not happy with it. I didn’t mean to liken Brown exactly to a terrorist but it was in the context of the court case and whether they were going to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

RB: It seemed that you were careful not to compare them. In fact if I remember correctly, you disclaimed their similarity.

TH: Right. There are some very striking parallels between John Brown’s raid and 9/11, but I didn’t mean to indicate that Brown was a terrorist in the way we have come to think of terrorists.

RB: It might have helped to cite another example of a small event triggering a larger event.

TH: Yes. So I did get some kickback from those folks. But other readers thought it was interesting.

RB: You wrote that piece as you were writing this book?

TH: Yeah. I was thinking about this issue a lot, and even though my book stays rooted in 1859, I couldn’t help reading the newspapers and being struck by this question of whether Mohammed should be given a public trial in a civilian court. They did with John Brown and Virginians probably came to regret it. They gave him a platform, really.

RB: A military trial would have been out of public view?

TH: Yeah, they could have had a summary execution. He and the other survivors could have been lynched at the scene.

RB: They beat him to a pulp, didn’t they?

TH: Yeah, they beat him up pretty good. And then they chose, in their minds, to do the right thing. It wasn’t necessarily a fair trial by our standards, but he was tried in a civilian court, for criminal charges, with a jury, etc. What they weren’t aware of was how John Brown would use that occasion to really broadcast his message.

RB: Meaning they were not familiar with his prior activities?

TH: Absolutely. He already had a national reputation and was quite infamous in the South. What they didn’t know was what a powerful speaker he would be. He had done some fundraising in the North but he wasn’t known to be this eloquent and powerful persona.

RB: Had he been? You refer a number of times to instances when Brown was incoherent.

TH: I don’t think he was a powerful public speaker—one of the things I point out in the book. So even the people who heard him in the courtroom weren’t necessarily wowed. But because of the telegraph and the rise of newspapers, in print this was one of the first breaking news stories in the nation. His words were instantly broadcast. They had a kind of simplicity and force in print that perhaps they didn’t have [in person]. Same thing with Abraham Lincoln. He was apparently not an impressive public speaker, but you read his words and you go, “My gosh!” Brown was similar in that respect.

I don’t read much fiction because I have to be reading what I need to for my book research. Your mental universe does close down, but for me, not the news. That’s one thing that gets through.

RB: You said something that caught my ear. You said that in the process of writing the book you couldn’t help but read the newspapers. When you are writing how much do you close off the outside world?

TH: Every writer is different. Even though this was a historical subject, I chose not to weave in the present. I am a former journalist. I am a news junkie. I read the newspaper every day. I listen to NPR. So I am certainly aware of the news. My wife [the novelist Geraldine Brooks] is a former journalist, and it is a constant topic. So in that sense, my life doesn’t close off. I don’t read much fiction because I have to be reading what I need to for my book research. Your mental universe does close down, but for me, not the news. That’s one thing that gets through.

RB: Speaking of fiction, I am of the belief that I have learned more American history from writers like Gore Vidal, your wife, and any number of other people than from reading historical monographs. On the other hand, recently there have been more and more accessible and well-written histories—you, David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, Dan Okrent. Did you read Russell Banks’s novel about John Brown, Cloudsplitter?

TH: Yes, I did. I loved it. I am a big fan of Russell Banks. I think it’s a wonderful historical novel and really illuminates aspects of Brown’s character that are very, very important and true. On the other hand, he would be the first to say it’s fictional. There are things that happen in that book that didn’t really happen. I think historical fiction is wonderful, but I think it depends on the reader. Some people want to know the true story. On your other question—I didn’t consciously set out to write accessible history. But without being disrespectful to academic historians, increasingly over the last several decades there has been a trend for scholarly historians to write more for each other than for a general audience. There is a hunger out there for history told through character and with plot. So it’s a good era for that. But that being said, we are all feeding off the hard work that scholars have done. I do sometimes feel like a bit of a parasite.

RB: I think of Edward Jones’s book The Known World in this context—

TH: Wonderful.

RB: He had intended to read a long list of books, which as it turned out over the 12 years he took to write the book, he never did. Anyway, I read Cloudsplitter and I read your book and each gave me the same overarching sense—what a dark, grinding, depressing life John Brown led.

TH: Yeah, he had a very difficult life. I complain about having two kids and when I can’t get cell phone reception as if these were hardships. This man had 20 kids, nine of whom died before the age of 10. He lost a wife in childbirth. He went bankrupt. He had countless setbacks and a harder road than most, but people were tougher back then. He was this tremendously resilient figure. I came to admire his ability to bounce back from events in his life that would crush most of us, or drive us to drink. I don’t think he would say that his own story was depressing because while it had plenty of darkness in it, he had this burning passion that sustained him through all these Job-like trials. In that sense, there is an uplifting quality to it. He was determined to take on the great moral issue of his day. He would probably find us depressing: doing nothing to change the world, sitting in comfortable cafes, living our—for the most part—comfortable lives, and not being awake to the evils of our day.

RB: Well, mentioning his judgment, is there not the issue of his sanity?

TH: I tried to tread delicately around this issue. Diagnosing someone at 150 years’ distance is dicey. Also, the insanity issue is ultimately a side issue or a way to dismiss him, both then and now. “Oh, he was crazy, so we don’t really have to pay attention to this man.” “Yeah, he was American but he was crazy.” Well, I don’t believe he really was crazy. And certainly his followers were not. In biographical terms we need to explore that issue. He certainly was an obsessive personality—almost an Ahab—but I don’t think he was insane in a clinical sense. He knew exactly what he was doing.

RB: Well, usually calling someone crazy is not a clinical diagnosis.

TH: Right. Or in the legal sense. He knew what he was doing. So in the important respects he wasn’t crazy—perhaps unbalanced. Was his behavior erratic at times? Yes, but that doesn’t explain away his mission, and certainly not the devotion of the people who went with him.

RB: Additionally, he seemed to welcome his martyrdom. He would have hated being given a long-term prison sentence.

TH: Right. It’s a question that is still relevant today, the appropriate way of punishing someone. At the time, even Southerners told the governor of Virginia, “Pardon him, don’t hang him. Don’t make a martyr out of him. Let him rot in prison, or put him in the insane asylum.” They considered that and decided not to, and in purely practical terms it was probably a mistake. They were scared that alive he would continue to be this rallying point, “Free John Brown.” Instead, in death he really triumphed. He embraced his death sentence. That was his genius in the end. He turned death sentence into a victory. He said, “I may be guilty under Virginia law but under the higher law of God and the ideals of this country what I did was not wrong. It was right. If I am to hang for that, so be it. Let it be done.”

RB: How did you explain that he allowed himself to be trapped in the garrison? Suicidal?

TH: Right. This is one of the many questions about Brown that we can’t answer for sure because we don’t know exactly what was going on in his head. He gave a lot of interviews and wrote a lot of letters but like all people, his story changes. It’s hard to know. My own suspicion is that he hoped this very ambitious and somewhat wild scheme of his for slave liberation would succeed. But he was fully prepared to die there and be a martyr. He expected to die in battle, not the way he did. It was quite miraculous that he survived. I think more than anything he wanted the shock value of this attack—whether it succeeded or not. He would have shaken the nation and forced it to confront this great issue.

RB: I am not sure if you were referring to your son’s history text or your own education, but you say John Brown was not given much attention, maybe a paragraph or two.

TH: I’d have to dig out my junior high textbook, but I don’t remember learning much about him in school, and when I looked at my son’s ninth grade history book it was pretty much the same. A few paragraphs in the rush to the meatier stuff of the Civil War. It’s one of these events in American history we have all heard of—we may vaguely know the song and have an image of this long-bearded man—but we don’t know the real story. I guess that’s one reason I wanted to write the book. There is a lot to it.

RB: What about the John Brown fan club or society?

TH: It’s not a formal thing, but there is a group called the John Brown Society. I don’t think it is so formal. There are conferences, there are remembrances all around the country. He had a very large family, so in any given week there might be some memorial to his wife, the 130th year since her death or some such event. There are a number of people who are devoted to John Brown’s memory and his family. It’s part of what is interesting about Brown. He is a very divisive figure. There doesn’t tend to be any middle ground with Brown. There are worshippers and haters. He is troubling for us.

[John Brown] would probably find us depressing: doing nothing to change the world, sitting in comfortable cafes, living our—for the most part—comfortable lives, and not being awake to the evils of our day.

RB: Is there a significant memorial built and dedicated to him somewhere?

TH: They are scattered. The main shrine would be his family home in upstate New York, the John Brown homestead where he is buried along with several of his sons and many of the raiders. I would say that is the principal shrine. In Kansas, his memory is very alive. You’ll see statues of Brown and remembrances. In West Virginia, he is a little too hot. All of Harpers Ferry is something of a memorial to him. But nationally, he is not held aloft in that sense. There are memorials, but they are more local.

RB: How much time did you spend writing this book?

TH: Writing and researching, three years.

RB: Are you John Browned out?

TH: No, actually. I have to confess, I have written five books previously and usually by the time you get to the book you are good and sick of it and ready to move on. But I am still fascinated with the subject. It’s not that I am dying to do more research on him. But I feel like I was able to put my arms around this story—it’s not so vast that you can lose yourself in it. (Although people have—some for 10 years.) I am still interested, but ask me again at the end of my book tour and I may be good and sick of it.

RB: There are some unresolved issues and there are parallels to be drawn, so it’s not really a conclusively defined story.

TH: It’s not a dead story. We will continue to debate this man forever because the issues he raises, religious fundamentalism, violence, they are all still with us. He is not some distant musty figure from our past that you learn about in school and never want to hear about again. At least not for me. He still haunts us. Even though I finished this book, in my own mind I feel certain things are unresolved, and I left the reader to form their own opinion about it rather than tell them what to think. In some ways I am still not sure either.

RB: What is your sense of how history is taught in the U.S.?

TH: I am not out there in the schools, so it’s hard for me to say. I guess what distresses me is all the emphasis on testing in recent years. I don’t think there is as much teaching in depth. For instance, the John Brown story is a great teaching tool. Was he right? Was he wrong? Is violence ever justified in the pursuit of freedom? Do ends justify means? All those meaty questions are good for the classroom, but the teachers simply don’t have the time to do that in most classes. You got to get right through all that American history to make sure you get students through the tests. That’s one problem. I don’t know if it’s new, but also memory has become quite politicized. Maybe less in schools than in museums. You may remember a few years ago the Enola Gay exhibit and others. Everyone wants to lobby for his or her version of history. Yeah, history has always been shaded, but it distresses me that we can’t explore these touchy issues in as factually as possible and then debate on them. And frankly, the ignorance of our political candidates when they talk about history—it horrifies me when they get up and just mangle the history.

RB: Candidates and politicians today seem lackluster and deeply flawed in comparison to ages past.

TH: What distresses me, looking at it from the historical angle, is that there is a certain pride in the ignorance. Almost the old anti-intellectual tradition—Herman Cain gets up and says, “Ubeckastan or whatever it’s called.” He makes a joke out of not knowing anything about an important country at the other end of the world. There is a bit of the same with American history. We use it to serve our own needs, proclaiming something about it without knowing the facts, instead of digging into it and finding out what the framers thought about a particular issue.

RB: Is there a Republican presidential candidate who knows American history and how our system is supposed to operate?

TH: What distresses me is that I think some of them do but that it would be a deficit to show it, just as it would be to say, “I am reading Cloudsplitter.” You have to say you are reading some middlebrow book because it would make you suspect as a candidate, being too much of a wonk. Clearly, Obama is a deep reader and student of American history. I am not sure it’s done him any good politically. Perhaps the opposite.

RB: He has greater problems.

TH: Yes.

RB: How might we reverse this know-nothingness?

TH: Oh god. I don’t know. The education system has to be one place, but it does also reflect the culture. So I don’t think it is all the fault of schools.

RB: I don’t see any talk of making history interesting to students.

TH: We have to think of how to engage young people, many of whom are not naturally interested. On the other hand, we can go too far the other way. I see this with one of my sons. He has a very poor grasp of dates and geography. He’s a good student and a bright kid, but you do need a framework of facts. There is a lot to be said for actually knowing dates and places. I agree that doesn’t have to be all you learn. This is the test issue, memorizing all these names and dates. So it’s a tricky thing. Somehow there has to be a cultural shift towards seeing that history is important to understanding who we are today. People say that all the time, but I am not sure they get it.

Clearly, Obama is a deep reader and student of American history. I am not sure it’s done him any good politically. Perhaps the opposite.

RB: The George Santayana quote is trotted out: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

TH: Yeah, I’m not sure how you turn it around.

RB: How do you feel about your children’s education?

TH: They have a great education. Both my sons are in public schools on Martha’s Vineyard. They get a fabulous education. The teachers do a great job. They are covering so much, so it’s difficult. The schools there are better than most places, but history is still a challenge. Particularly in the younger grades, to cover the material you have to cover but also find a way to really engage kids. And parents have to do it too. I am not sure I have succeeded. It’s a challenge, and there is also so much competition for kids—well, for all of us—for reading time. To settle in with a history book when you could be checking your email or Facebook or watching a video on your device is hard.

RB: The quality of history as represented in movies and via television is much improved.

TH: In terms of documentaries, they’re fabulous. On any night on PBS you can see something wonderful. I am not as big a fan of Hollywood’s treatment of history. Yet I love that it sometimes gets people excited.

RB: Didn’t you think Glory was a good one?

TH: Which one?

RB: Glory?

TH: Glory is about the best, but I think it makes it hard for people to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. I think of Pocahontas and the more adult version The New World. I wrote a book that was partly about John Smith and Pocahontas and I’m sorry, I am here to tell you, there was no romance. She was 10 years old at the time. There is absolute fidelity to the look of the place and the language, but when it comes to the old romantic story they can’t resist once again telling incorrect history. In a lot of nonfiction writing there has been this bleeding between fact and fiction, and I think readers don’t know what’s for sure or don’t expect it to be all true. That bothers me—there should still be a firewall. I’m all for historical fiction, but you know it’s fiction. I don’t like to read nonfiction and not be sure whether what I am reading is true.

RB: Are you referring to the new kind of memoir, or Ron Suskind’s recent book?

TH: I am thinking of a book like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, one of the most successful nonfiction books of the last 20 years. He essentially admitted that he rearranged the order of events. He has someone speaking in the beginning, who was deceased at the time, as if he is there in the room—a real manipulation of the facts. And if you find it out at all, it’s in the afterword. That’s a trend I don’t like. It raises the bar for the rest of us. Not all stories end in a nice, tight, neat, dramatic way.

RB: Remember Edmund Morris’s Dutch?

TH: Yeah, he goes inside in Reagan’s head. I’m uncomfortable with it. I see that it makes things more intimate and dramatic, but if you are doing that you need to signal the reader. There are times in my book when I will say I am speculating, and I make it clear that this is my best guess of what Brown was thinking, but I don’t enter his head as he is standing on the gallows and imagine his last view of the universe.

RB: Do you intend for your sons to go to college?

TH: If they want to go, absolutely.

RB: Do you think they should go?

TH: Yeah. It has a value to life, whether or not it has a clear value to your career. Although studies consistently find that in hard times like this better-educated people do better economically, I think it’s more for life. We all know once you get out there in the world and you are working at whatever your chosen job is, you don’t have the time or the opportunity to sit in a lecture hall, to read as deeply as you do in college, or to explore some area that you may or may not be interested in.

RB: That sounds like the academy 20 years ago, not today.

TH: I disagree. I spend some time at universities and have sat in on classes, and I am still a big fan of liberal arts education, or science and math, or whatever your chosen field is. I wish I could go back to college because as we all know, you have a lot of distractions when you are 19 or 20. But I would like them to go to college. It’s a gift if you can afford it. Why not?

RB: I expect that most parents see college as a catapult to a career. That’s not currently true for many graduates.

TH: I do think if you are a middle-class family trying to send a kid to a private university that’s 40 grand a year, I think you have to think long and hard. If that’s your mission—is this a reasonable investment? I really can’t answer that. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to send your kids to school and let them explore that way, it’s a wonderful gift.

RB: Perhaps we ought to drop the lockstep approach—college immediately after high school graduation.

TH: Yes, they are likely to come back much more motivated. A lot of kids do that today. Obviously it’s also social experience—it’s not only what happens in the classroom. It’s also your peers. I think we’re fortunate to live in a country that has great universities and colleges, and actually a high percentage of students do go to college. They may not get the quality education they would like, but compare it to the U.K., where it’s a privilege for the very few top students and everyone else is weeded out before they get to college.

My wife is from Australia and she came from a lower middle-class family. Her education right through university—never paid a cent. Coming from that perspective, it does seem a little crazy that we make it so hard for people to afford college. It should be a right.

RB: I was just reading about the way student loans are structured.

TH: Terrible, terrible.

RB: It’s predatory.

TH: Education is like health care. My wife is from Australia and she came from a lower middle-class family. Her education right through university—never paid a cent. Coming from that perspective, it does seem a little crazy that we make it so hard for people to afford college. It should be a right.

RB: Are you entertaining ideas for your next project?

TH: There’s normally a nine-month or a year lag time when you finish a book before it comes out. I didn’t really put the finishing touches on the footnotes and the maps until early August.

RB: Of this year?

TH: Yeah, this year.

RB: I guess that is happening more—the acceleration of the book-publishing process.

TH: It’s much easier to do than it used to be. So I haven’t had that long lull, which is good now that I am out touring. The book is still fresh to me. I am still interested and haven’t moved on to the next thing. So I have really kind of delayed that until I finish this round of talking about the book. I’d like to do another American history book, but it’s hard to find topics that are important but haven’t been done to death. Do we need another book on Lincoln? I don’t think so.

RB: Lincoln rivals Jesus as a book subject. Adam Gopnik wrote an interesting book—Angels and Ages.

TH: About Darwin and Lincoln. There are always fresh ways, but I don’t want to write something that’s been done a million times. Nor am I the kind of writer—though I have admiration for people who do it—to research some very unknown thinker for five years. That’s wonderful, but I tend to be interested in slightly bigger stories that still resonate. I would find it challenging to devote years to something so obscure that it would also be a challenge to attract readers. And to figure out in the middle of the night what am I doing with my life. There is some of that, too.

RB: You know the time frame required for a book project?

TH: No, three years seems to be about right for me. Some of my books have taken longer. Couple of my early ones that I was writing around my job as a newspaper reporter—if you have other things going on it can take longer. Three years fits my attention span. You reach a point where you begin to read through things and say, “I already know that.” You feel like you are getting to the bottom—there has to be a hunger and a curiosity to sustain your writing process, and if it starts to get stale on you that’s the time to wrap it up. Every writer is different. Again, I admire people who can dive into a topic for 10 years.

RB: Why were some words underlined in the finished copy? I noticed in the advance copy and thought it was just about editing.

TH: That was something I debated with my publisher, and I am not sure we made the right call. Brown underlined ceaselessly. And he had a kind of quirky writing style for that day—unusual punctuation. I think it kind of gives you a sense of his voice, this very emphatic voice. I wanted to communicate that and in changing it to italics, which is what printers usually did, I felt something was lost. So I am reading these original letters and thought, “Why don’t we keep the underline?"

I tend to be interested in slightly bigger stories that still resonate. I would find it challenging to devote years to something so obscure that it would also be a challenge to attract readers. And to figure out in the middle of the night what am I doing with my life.

RB: Is that explained somewhere in the book?

TH: In the back of the book, in the notes. I probably should have had a little author’s note up front. We only did it with Brown’s writing. Not with others. It was kind of a judgment call. I thought it was kind of a neat idea to be true to the original, but I think it confused some readers.

RB: You’ve done this book-touring thing before.

TH: About my fourth time out. First in ‘98,

RB: Have you noticed any differences along the way?

TH: Oh yeah, absolutely. Initially you would go to a town and read at an independent bookstore at night. During the day there would be interviews like yours, maybe go to lunch with the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, let’s say, and have an interview that would also be published. There would be this whole network. Many of those bookstores are gone. Most of the book editors are gone, if the newspaper is even still there. There are fewer and fewer shows, but there’s a lot more online. So there’s less of the traditional book media and of the traditional bookstores. Also, of course, publishers have become more cost-conscious. It’s not clear to me that book tours make dollar sense in terms of costs. But it’s something they like to do, so tours have gotten shorter and fewer authors are touring. Many more of your readings are at offsite events, which means not at a bookstore. This tour is about half and half. So it’s changing and dwindling. I’d be surprised if I am still going on this kind of book tour 10 years from now, so I enjoy it. Also ebooks —a lot of it is people like to get their books signed. I’m sure they’ll find a way to sign the Kindle, but with there being fewer physical books, that will change the book tour. So all these forces—book tours are a lovely archaic institution.

RB: Are all your books in print?

TH: Still in print.

RB: Are they all e-readable?

TH: I think so. I don’t have a reader. I’d have to check. I’m sure the last four are. The two I did in the early ‘90s I am not sure, but probably.

RB: Is it too early to ask if you noticed any uptick in sales?

TH: It is too early. The theory is that since the books are more affordable and easier to order, people will buy more of them. My concern is—we recently got Netflix—”Oh great, we can order up that movie.” Suddenly you have 20 movies in a queue and haven’t seen any of them. I worry that ebooks might be the same—it’s a novelty right now.

RB: I can’t see a disappearance of books—

TH: They aren’t going to disappear, but they are going to diminish. They already have. My concern is more about reading itself. When you have a device where you can toggle over and check your email or read a newspaper—I know how hard it is to just stick with a book. I worry that reading a book on a device where you can do so many other things and have that constant temptation—it may diminish book reading.

RB: E-reader users have told me that when reading a number of books in succession, they have difficulty remembering what they read.

TH: Huh! They all look the same. I like to keep my books on a shelf. That’s not for everybody, and I can see if you travel a lot that it’s a great convenience. So it’s with us, and we have to go with it.

RB: E-readers seem to fuel an incessant declinist view of literature and books, in the face of the creation of a number of new creditable literary venues.

TH: Yeah, there’s been doom and gloom for decades. People are still reading and they will continue to read. There are definitely some challenges—bookstores and publishers are very challenged because they have essentially become middlemen. It will be interesting to see where we are five, 10 years from now.

RB: One good thing seems to be the niches that these small presses and journals occupy.

TH: Exactly, and also the bookstores that have survived. Things have changed so rapidly, who knows what’s next.

RB: I will probably go through any number of different appliances in the coming years, but the books will still be on my shelves.

TH: Through no effort of my own, I feel writers are the lucky ones. Whatever the device or medium, they still need content, and that can’t be outsourced or technologically simulated and put us out of existence.

RB: You don’t think 40,000 monkeys could eventually write one of your books or Das Kapital?

TH: It wouldn’t surprise me.

RB: Well, thank you very much.

TH: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum