The State of Freedom 100 Years Ago

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

If you think terrorism and war is bad now, just study how things were one hundred years ago. We think of America as the land of the free, but during the 1910s people were being jailed for printing words and jokes about things we commonly see in sitcoms. Language we’d consider G-rated would get you jailed back then if you used it in a literary work that was sent through the U.S. mails.  Writing about contraception, condoms or abortion could also get you thrown in the slammer. Using phrases like “snot-green” or “old fart” would get you labeled as a horrible lower-class person. And it sickened and horrified cultured people when James Joyce wrote about Leopold Bloom eating organ meats, even though everyone ate organ meats. One hundred years ago people just didn’t like facing up to the gritty details of life, details we embrace today.

Because of laws regulating decency, sedition, sexual practices and other moral issues, most of 21st century writers, movie makers, publishers would be jailed if their work appeared a hundred years ago. This doesn’t mean the common people didn’t say anything they wanted, but state and federal governments tried very hard to control what people printed and shipped through the mails. If liberals think conservatives are controlling now, just read about the history of censorship in America. We’ve come a long way baby.

The Most Dangerous Book - Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham thoroughly entertained me with his history of censorship and legal battles to publish what is now considered the best novel in English literature. Even if you have no interest in James Joyce, this book is fascinating history. It does deal with Joyce’s immense struggle to be an artist, and to push the limits of literary expression, but it’s also about why and how our society wanted to rein in artists. It’s about the editors and publishers that risked jail to publish writers like Joyce. In 1920, the year my father was born, Jon Stewart would probably have been sentenced to ten years in jail for each episode of his show, if they could have seen The Daily Show back then.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Book to prepare me to listened to Ulysses. I keep trying to get into Ulysses but I always fail. Ulysses is an almost impossible book to get into, very tough going, but not because Joyce was so intellectual and learned. Joyce wrote about ordinary events and people, but used new writing techniques to show how people actually thought and felt.  Since we often think about sex and bodily functions, or feel thoughts about people we’d never express, our minds are chaotic tangles of incoherent phrases and perceptions, and Ulysses tries to capture this stream of consciousness. In the 1910s and 1920s, readers found his experiments startling, offensive, unnerving and threatening.  Some European and American government officials thought Joyce’s apparent nonsense could be coded messages of espionage. Even his most ardent admirers struggled to decode his prose.

Joyce set the stage for comic observations about humanity that armies of standup comics still mine today. Yet, a hundred years ago, this so horrified government officials they did their damnedest to erase, and keep from the public. Their paranoia over strange ideas was fueled by radicals and anarchists who promoted conflict, disorder and social unrest. There were hundreds of terrorists bombings back then each year. The government associated anything Avant-garde with radicalism.

We have practically no censorship now, and a lot less social unrest and terrorist bombs. Strangely, the lingering forms of censorship we see today often come from terrorist bombers who want to revert our freedoms. The Comstock Law of 1873 was a kind of American Sharia Law, and the people who terrorized the literary world back then was the U.S. Post Office.

The founding fathers made free speech legal, but they didn’t understand what that meant. We’re still exploring the social implications of real free speech.  Kevin Birmingham’s book is a stunning history of the fight for free speech in the early part of the 20th century. He focuses on an array of literary freedom fighters who were directly or indirectly connected to helping James Joyce get his book published. Whether or not you’re interested in literary history hardly matters if you love history itself when considering reading this book.

History is like a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. A great history book is one that helps you put hundreds of pieces together to reveal the big image of the past. A great history book also helps connect its images with pieces of images you’ve assembled from other great history books. The Most Dangerous Book helped me see a lot more of 20th century American and European history.

I still find listening to Ulysses hard going, but I’m making a greater effort because of The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham explained the tremendous struggle by Joyce to write his book, and why. Birmingham gives a great deal of background facts that interpret each chapter in Ulysses. But most important, he testifies to the valiant effort so many people made that allows us to read Ulysses and books like it. I’m very grateful to those people. I think we all should be.


Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.


How Many Pre-1950 Artifacts Do You Own?

Our book club recently read A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1960 collection of three related stories about a future that barely remembers our 1950s civilization.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is set 600 years in the future after our civilization destroys itself in a nuclear war.  The stories are about the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, where a future Catholic monastery works to preserve the relics of a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.  They do not know what the relics mean, and even illuminate one of Leibowitz’s engineering blueprints.


This got me to thinking about how many things I own might be preserved in the future.  And how many things from the past I own.  Making the cutoff date 1950, I quickly realized I have damn few relics from the past.  All I can come up with are photographs, and a few knickknacks Susan and I have inherited from our parents.  If I move the date up to 1960 I can add an old wooden radio cabinet, more photographs, some LPs, a handful of books, and our house, which was built in 1957.  If I jump to 1970, we add many more photographs, a few more LPs, and a fair amount of household items.

None of my older possessions are particular durable.  None will become antiques worth collecting.  The items I find the most meaningful are photographs and twelve hardback Heinlein juveniles I bought in 1968 with my first paycheck when I was 16.  I assume when I die my wife will give the books away to Goodwill and the photographs to my sister or her sons.

Our throw-away society doesn’t lend itself well to being remembered.   However, the sense of wonder generated in A Canticle for Leibowitz is because civilization collapses so thoroughly that most everything is destroyed, and what’s left is cherished.

I don’t think I own a single thing that would be worth preserving 600 years, but if I did, what one thing do I own that I would like to represent me and the 20th century to future people?  I would have to pick my hard back copy of Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.  I used to own a very nice slide rule from the 1950s, and if I still had that, I might have chosen it.  But the Heinlein book really does represent me well.  But what would people a millennia from now think of such a story?  Would their daily language even allow them to read it?


And if I’m honest, I know future people won’t give a  damn about our junk.  They won’t give a damn about what we think or believed.  Some of our crap might make it to museums of the future, and a few eccentrics might collect 20th century doodads, but really, how many people in the year 3013 will even think about us?  Just how much daily life from 1013 do we know about now?  The Al-Hakim Mosque was finished about a 1,000 years ago.


Things that really last are usually buildings, artwork, monuments – works that people create to last.  I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if we all built our houses with the intention they will last a very long time – so every home becomes a museum.  Would that stifle innovation, or stimulate creativity?  Most of the stuff we own ends up in landfill, so psychologically, doesn’t that mean we’re living with garbage and not art?

Imagine a world where the smallest house lot is one acre, and each house owner builds a home intended to last centuries, if not thousands of years.  That everyone lives in the equivalent of an English mini-manor house.  Picture manicured gardens outside, and beautiful art collections on the inside.  How would society change?  Would we still want cars and roads cluttering up the countryside?  Or visible power lines, phone cables, satellite dishes?  Would we design houses to withstand tornadoes and hurricanes?  Could we design roofs that could go 500 years without maintenance?

Homo sapiens have been around for tens of thousands of years.  History, not so long, say five thousand years.  Unless we destroy ourselves, homo sapiens, and their descendants,   AI robots, could be around for millions of years.  How long will we continue to process the resources of the Earth into landfill?  At some point we need to make things that will last, and yet, leave room for new art to evolve and be added.

If I was young I’d buy a plot of land and design a house to last.  I’d furnish it with antique scientific equipment, beautiful electronics from the 20th century, and as much art as I could afford.  I’d want it solar powered.  I’d want enough land to make an interesting landscape. 

It’s a shame I didn’t think of this sooner.

JWH – 10/14/13

The Ghosts That Haunt Me

Most people are haunted by dead relatives – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings – but the ghosts that haunt me the most, are people I never knew.  Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in real visitors from the other side. I don’t expect my Jacob Marley to come calling on Christmas Eve.  On the other hand, there are a number of dead people that won’t leave me alone.


I am mostly haunted by literary figures.  The first one to do this, starting when I was a kid was Samuel Clemens.  For some reason, reading about Mark Twain was always more powerful than reading his fiction.  It started with his autobiography.  I was a kid with my life in front of me, reading about a very successful man writing about his life behind him.  Samuel Clemens led both a charmed and tragic life.  His wife and two of his three daughters died before he did, and Clemens took this very hard.  Clemens always had a sharp tongue for the human residents of Earth, but towards the end, his writing turned bitter to the point of viciousness.  I was born naïve and became a skeptic by twelve, and Clemens writings fueled my conversion to disbeliever.  I have never experienced the tragedies Clemens experienced, so I’ve yet to become bitter, a burden I hope to avoid.

Twain didn’t finish an actual autobiography, but two versions of an autobiography appeared after he died that were heavily edited collections from his voluminous autobiographical writings.   Over the decades the University of California Press released various collections of Twain’s writings, with more and more material that hadn’t been published in his lifetime.  I first got a taste of Twain’s unpublished writing as a teen with Letters from the Earth, coming out in 1962 that I didn’t read until 1968 or 1969.  Over the decades many biographies about Twain have appeared and he would haunt me again and again.


Jack Kerouac was the next literary specter to haunt me, beginning in my twenties.  Jack died in October 1969, the fall I started college, the same year as the first Moon landing and Woodstock.  That was around the time I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  I can’t remember if I read that first, which led to reading On the Road, of if reading On the Road led to reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kerouac was a character in Wolfe’s book.

Kerouac was a writer like Proust and Thomas Wolfe (not Tom), who wrote books that were thinly disguised accounts of their own life.  I didn’t know this until I read the Ann Charters Kerouac: A Biography in the early 1970s.  That’s when Kerouac really began haunting me.  I’d read his books, then another new biography, and then reread the novels, and then another biography.  Kerouac became a 10,000 piece puzzle that I’ve never finished.

Even before Philip K. Dick died in 1982 he was a legendary character.  I remember reading about his paranoid theories in The Rolling Stone magazine, and stories about him in science fiction fanzines.  My college roommate even had dinner with Dick and his wife at a convention in the 1970s.  As soon as the biographies came out, I started reading them.  Like Kerouac, no matter how many puzzle pieces I found, the image I had of PKD was always shifting.  Like Twain and Kerouac, Dick was another troubled soul.  Why am I so haunted by people so torn up by their lives?

There is a book of conversations with PKD called What If Our World Is Their Heaven?  That title captures PKD’s kind of spookiness.


I read a biography of Louisa May Alcott before I read her famous book Little Women.  I started off reading about the American Transcendentalists, and found Louisa.  I read two Louisa May Alcott biographies before finally getting to Little WomenLittle Women was my mother’s favorite childhood book.  She tried to get my sister and I to read it when we were kids but I didn’t want to read a girl’s book.  But I was willing to watch Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson play Jo in the movie versions.  Over time Louisa May Alcott started haunting me too.  Another troubled soul.

Other writers haunt me too, Heinlein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wells, Lawrence, Huxley, but so far I’ve only read one biography each for them.  Writers don’t appear truly ghostly until I’ve read several biographies and start reading their letters.  I have read many books on Wyatt Earp, but his appeal is different.  He doesn’t haunt me – maybe because he wasn’t a writer.  Or maybe he wasn’t a troubled soul like Twain, Kerouac, Dick and Alcott.  I’ve always loved biographies, they were among the first type of books I learned to read.  But most subjects of the biographies I read never lingered in my psyche like these four.

Interestingly, the lives of Clemens and Alcott overlapped, as did Kerouac and Dick.  Clemens and Alcott both became successes after the Civil War, becoming famous for writing about their childhoods.  Kerouac and Dick both wrote a lot of books in the 1950s that affected readers in the 1960s counter culture.  All four of them have had their share of film success – with their fictional work, and as characters themselves.  I am not the only person they haunt, not by a long shot.

There is a 1968 Burt Lancaster movie called The Swimmer based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever.  The story begins when a man at a pool party tells his friends that he thinks he can swim all the way home because there’s a pool in every yard across the suburbs to his house.  I think a wonderful account of American history could be written by just writing a series of biographies of all the American writers that span the centuries back to colonial times.  We’re used to history being about politics and war, conquest and invention, economics and industry, but I think there are many ways to look at the evolution of our culture, and the lives of these writers give a much different, and for me, a more real insight into the living through history.

I believe these writers haunt me more than the memories of my ancestors is because my relatives never wrote down their thoughts.  If my dad had written about his life, I think it would be a whole lot like Jack Kerouac’s.  They were both restless men and died miserable drunks.  I’m sure my mother and her mother loved Louisa May Alcott because their lives seemed much like hers.

For some people, the promise of prosperity never lives up to their unfolding lives, and that’s very hard to take.  Ambitious idealists usually have a long way to fall.  I’m currently reading The Unwinding by George Packer.  For all its shiny glory, the American Dream is hard to achieve.  Packer chronicles many Americans who have succeeded or failed, or both, in the last four decades.  What’s amazing about this book is the diversity of the people it presents.  Every American has a different American Dream.  I think we’re all haunted by past Americans.  I think we’re all inspired by our personal ghosts.

JWH – 9/4/13 – Happy Birthday Janis

Rethinking the Great Books of History

I am listening to “Books That Have Made History:  Books That Can Change Your Life” from The Teaching Company, taught by Professor J. Rufus Fears and I’m wondering if the “classic” books of history are being oversold.


I’m a life-long bookworm.  I got my degree in English Literature.  I study books about books, such as those by Harold Bloom, and I even study the Bible as literature although I’m an atheist.  I wish I had the time to master the great books.  And I started listening to these lectures expecting to expand on my knowledge of the great books of history.  However, Dr. Fears is making me think otherwise.

Books That Have Made History is a popular course for The Great Courses, but I think it has a fatal flaw.  And I’m not the only one to criticize this series, just read the customer reviews at the site.

Dr. Fears approaches these 36 lessons with the assumption the greatest books of history have great moral lessons to teach.  He expects great books to explore and answer four questions:

  • Does God or do gods exist?
  • What is fate?
  • What do we mean by good and evil?
  • How should we live?

Dr. Fears teaches these books with a firm belief in the answers.  He teaches each title by fitting them into his own theological beliefs.  In his opening lecture he discusses Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and hanged on April 9, 1945.  Dr. Fears said Bonhoeffer and the judge that sentenced him to die both read and studied the same classic books of history, and asks:  How did they come to such morally different conclusions?

Dr. Fears assumes the great books of history have answers to the great questions of history.  I think he’s wrong. 

Dr. Fears assumes there is a God, there is good and evil, that we’re expected to live by definite rules, and we have a fate or destiny in our lives.  I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears refuses to believe that the universe is accidental, that there is no good or evil, that there are no moral laws embedded in the universe, and the universe expects nothing from us.   I think he’s wrong.

Dr. Fears advocates The Iliad was the Bible for the ancient Greeks like the Christian Bible is for the western world, and that Homer was a singular real person.  I disagree.

Dr. Fears believe Moses was a real historical figure and there’s amble historical and anthropological evidence to support his story.  I disagree and even think many Jewish scholars disagree.

Now my point is not to say I dislike this lecture series because I disagree with the professor.  I’m asking why we should read the great books of history?  If they exist for the reasons Dr. Fears suggests, then I say, let’s forget them.  I’m dead tired of trying to puzzle out truth about reality from ancient thinkers.  I’m willing to read their books to understand the evolution of mankind and its history, but I have no interest in acquiring their beliefs.

Dr. Fears believes studying these books are valuable and relevant to teaching modern people how to think and act.  I think that’s wrong.  I think that’s why our world is confused and full of conflicting belief systems.

Great books make you think about life and reality, but they should give no answers.  Explicit answers are dangerous.  We live in the 21st century and we need to study the moment.  Now it’s actually impossible to study the current “now” in books, since books take years to write.  But for example, if you are studying cosmology, anthropology, or geology, or another other science, you really need to be reading books written in the last five years, and no more than 10 year old.

History and biographies can have a trailing edge of maybe 25 years, but that’s because some topics don’t get written about all that often.

If you’re studying the great books of history, I believe they should be read as primary sources to supplement current historical research.  Your research efforts should go into studying how and why they were written in context of their times, and not use them for acquiring personal beliefs.

This represents a schism in approaching reality.  If you believe that science has been the only consistent human endeavor to answer questions about reality, ancient knowledge will only be superstitious beliefs and endless philosophizing.  If you believe in God, then ancient writings are a goldmine of potentially revealed secrets.  Books That Have Made History falls in the later category.  My thinking falls in the former, so these lectures have little value to me.

However, they do make me ask:  Should or can we write current books that summarize good and ethical behavior for people to study?  If people are wanting to read books about how to live their lives in a “proper” manner, can’t we come up with something a little more current and based on contemporary knowledge?

JWH – 9/12/12

Are You Naïve, Delusional, A Rube, A Chump?–The War On Science

Do you believe everything you read?

Can you verify everything you know?

How much of what you know is wrong?

People believe what they want to believe, and they always think they’ve right.  Would you even know when you’re wrong?  Does it matter, or would you really like to know the truth?

The reason I ask these question is because we’re in the middle of a war on science.  Like the rulers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are people who want you to believe what they want to believe and they know what they believe isn’t scientific, so their battle plan is to confuse people by attacking science and making it very hard to know what’s true and what’s not true.  Like those rulers in that famous dystopian novel, they’re willing to rewrite history and invent newspeak to fool people into believing their version of the truth.

Why trust what I have to say is the truth?  Well, you shouldn’t.  Never trust anyone.  The important thing is to learn how to verify facts for yourself.  It’s also important to learn how information is presented to you.  It’s very easy to be persuaded.  People are quick to believe anything.  It’s surprisingly easy to convince people to believe false information.  It’s devilishly hard to be logical.  People aren’t rational, even though we believe we are.  We’re geniuses at self-delusion.  Don’t trust yourself either.

Absolute truth is elusive in this reality.  We don’t live in a black and white world, but one with infinite shades of gray.  One of the biggest misconceptions about science is its knowledge is one hundred percent certain.  We know with absolute certainty that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Our knowledge of celestial mechanics is good enough that we can launch a satellite to Saturn and years later and billions of miles traveled, we’ll hit our target perfectly.  This is while the Earth, the satellite and Saturn all move independently tens of thousands of miles an hour in different directions, and the gravity of all the bodies in the solar system come into play.  This is fantastic knowledge that correlates to many decimal places.

Science is far less sure about the causes of breast cancer or global warming, but scientists know far more about those topics than you think.  The trick is, if you are worried about getting cancer or impending global warming, is to understand just how much they do know.  Evolution is closer to the fact of the Earth orbiting the Sun than the causes of global warming, and what we know about global warming is massive, but millions of people are fooled otherwise.

Now I can’t prove that in this essay.  It would take more words than I have time to write.  What you need to learn is how to examine news about science, and to do that I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.  Oreskes and Conway examine several public scientific debates that have occurred since the 1940s and they show how science works and doesn’t work, as well as how anti-science forces are corrupting science in the United States.


After World War II scientists began to tell people that smoking cigarettes was not safe.  Now the tobacco industry didn’t want people believing that, even though their own scientists told them it was true.  When the tobacco industry realized they couldn’t refute the actual science, they discovered they could confuse the public by attacking science in general and sowing doubt.  Oreskes and Convey show a history of how big businesses have refined these techniques to fight one scientific discovery after another that threatened livelihood.  And they use the public as their dupes.

Oreskes and Conway examine these battles like a court case carefully weighing all evidence presented by science and the anti-scientists.  One thing big business learned quickly was to hire scientists to attack other scientists, and Merchants of Doubt presents several men  and women who have made careers of being anti-scientists.  Oreskes and Conway try hard not to vilify these individuals, but I can’t help seeing them as evil.

But who is to say I’m right?  The point of Merchants of Doubt is to learn how scientific issues are studied and decide for yourself.

We all get email with a political agenda.  These emails have carefully crafted stories designed to convince us to believe something specific about reality.  It might be that global warming is a myth, or Obama isn’t a natural born American.  Why believe what you read?  Why be skeptical?  Because there’s a war going on and each side is recruiting.  One side wants you to be their chump.  It’s like computer viruses that convert your computer into zombies used for organized crime – someone wants to use your mind, and they want you to act for them.

Don’t get brainwashed.  Learn how to think for yourself.  Learn how to think scientifically.  Be skeptical.  Seek good evidence.

Real science works through peer reviewed journals.  A scientist will develop a hypothesis to test.  They will set up an experiment.  They will report their results in a paper and send it to a peer reviewed journal.   Fellow scientists in the same discipline will review the article and judge it for proper methodology.  If the article is accepted and published it doesn’t mean the results are facts.  Other scientists will read the article and devise new tests and go through the process again.  Topics under examination will be thoroughly researched over and over again until a statistical consensus emerges.  It takes a long time.  All too often one test result will be reported in the national news and causes a big brouhaha.  This is one reason why many people find science confusing.  They think one test result is suppose to tell the absolute truth and it doesn’t.

To further complicate scientific inquiry, people with a vested interest in a particular topic will make that topic newsworthy.  They will do everything they can to try their case in the court of popular journalism.  In peer reviewed journals only people who are specialists in the topic deal with the subject, but in regular journalism anybody can say anything.  You might get a food processing chemist proclaiming facts about climatology.  Or you might get high school dropout that just wants to get their opinion heard.

Don’t believe what you read about scientific concepts unless you thoroughly research them.  Few people are going to read peer reviewed science journals.  So what can you do?  Learn to read popular science books.  At least research Wikipedia.  Wikipedia can be untrustworthy, but many of its articles are a battleground between many points of view and a consensus often gets hammered out.

Another good realty check is   Snopes often reviews silly topics, but all too often people believe silly crap.  When you hear about something new check Snopes.  A large percentage of internet gossip is fabricated.

Like I said, I highly recommend reading Merchants of Doubt.  Instead of saying anything more about the book please read Global Warming Deniers and Their Proven Strategy of Doubt to get a bit of the flavor of the book.

This isn’t the only book on this subject.  Journalists, writers and historians are beginning to see a pattern.

JWH – 6/21/12

Anna Karenina–Translations

Every time we read a book we have to translate it into our mind, even when we’re reading a book written in the language we speak.  If the book was written in another language, we have to depend on another mind to do an initial translation for us.  Sometimes two or more people work on a foreign language translation.  Those translators must interpret what they read in the original language and refashion it into English for us.  They have to choose between a literal translation and one that reads well.  Many decisions have to be made.  If an old book is being translated, does the translator preserve the language of the past, or modernize it, do they translate the colloquial phrases, or substitute similar English sayings, should they improve upon the original authors writing, for example, and change a weak passive sentence into a strong active one, etc.

In our modern world books are most often translated to film, but every reader translates words into pictures when they read.


There are so many kinds of translations going on, more than just moving ideas from one language to another.  When we read a story we picture it in our minds, and we seldom picture it as the author pictured it.  How often have you read a book and then talked with someone about that book only to find they translated the book completely different.  The best illustration of this when movies are made from books.  Is Keira Knightley what you think when you imagine Anna?  Or is Aaron Johnson how you picture Count Vronsky?


If you’ve read a book about a poor person and have never been poor yourself, you will translate the book different from a reader who has been poor.  I have never been a woman, Russian, rich, dashing, beautiful, lived in the 19th century or been part of an aristocracy, so I have to imagine a lot when reading Anna Karenina and translating what it must have been like to been Anna or Count Vronsky.  I have studied American History, but is translating concepts about American slavery equal to Russian serfs?  I’ve seen Greta Garbo play Anna in a 1930s film, but is Garbo anything like what Tolstoy pictured when he was describing her with words?

Here is a portrait of Baroness Varvara Ivanovna Ikskul von Hildenbrandt that was painted in 1889, years after the book was published, but who people in Russia then used as a model for Anna.

PZ 401-038-753
Ilya Repin
Portrait of Baroness Varvara Ikskul von Hildenbandt, 1889
The State Tretyakov Gallery

Researching translations is fun.  That’s why studying the Bible is fun for me even though I’m a non-believer.  My friend Mike loves studying Homer and other Greek and Roman writers and comparing translations.  Readers have to constantly ask:  Is this a good translation?  Think of how many Christian creeds, sects and churches been created from reading one book.

I’ve always wanted to tackle Anna Karenina or War and Peace.  Well I’ve finally read (listened) to Anna Karenina, but how much of the story did I get?  Is one reading enough to make a fair judgment?  Did I pick the right translation?  Without doing any research I ended up with the Maude translation because I liked the sound of the reader of the audio book.  But I have to wonder, did I pick a good translation.

I’ve gone out and found four different translations.  Two of which I have on my Kindle, and two of which I did a screen shot of the first page off of

Here’ is the opening of Anna Karenina translated by Constant Garnett (1901):

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning.

Here is the same opening translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918), the version I listened to:

ALL happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was upset in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess, and declared that she would not continue to live under the same roof with him. This state of things had now lasted for three days, and not only the husband and wife but the rest of the family and the whole household suffered from it. They all felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that any group of people who had met together by chance at an inn would have had more in common than they. The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day; the children ran about all over the house uneasily; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper and wrote to a friend asking if she could find her another situation; the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned; and the kitchen-maid and coachman had given notice.

Here is another translation, from Joel Carmichael (1960).


And here is the more recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000):


This last translation was made famous by being picked for the Oprah Winfrey book club in 2004.

While listening to the novel I felt there were phrases that sounded modern, and wondered if Russians had some of the same sayings we did, or if the contemporary feel came from the translators.  Then my friend Mike called me to talk about his research on translations of War and Peace.  So I got to thinking about the translation of Anna Karenina.

I was very happy with the Maude translation, but it felt like I was reading Dickens.  But then Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina just after Dickens died.  It was also serialized like Dickens’ novels, so it had that episodic feel.  Plus, both writers are coming to grips with similar changes in society brought about by industrialization, science and technology.

If you look at these different versions you’ll notice they are different and similar.  So, does the translation really matter? 

In the old two, Oblonsky had an intrigue with the French governess, while in the modern versions he had an affair.  Why the change?  How long has “an affair” meant what it does now?  But look at some other phrases:

“The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days.” – Garnett.

“The wife kept to her own rooms; the husband stopped away from home all day;” – Maude, and it’s only part of a long sentence.

“Oblonsky’s wife refused to leave her rooms; he himself hadn’t been home for three days.” – Carmichael.

“The wife would not leave her rooms, the husband was away for the third day.” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

Notice, there’s even changes in facts.  In the first the wife had one room, in the others, rooms.  In the second, the husband had been away all day, but in the others three days.

Notice how we’re told the cook has left.

“the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time” – Garnett.

“the cook had gone out just at dinnertime the day before and had not returned” – Maude.

“the day before the cook had picked dinner time to go out” – Carmichael.

“the cook had already left the premises the day before, at dinner-time” – Pevear and Volokhonsky.

The Carmichael one doesn’t mention that the cook never returns.  And why doesn’t three of them mention that the cook is male?  I assumed the cook was female from my translation, but that’s my cultural spin on things.  I thought “walked off” was the strongest way of saying the cook quit.  “Left the premises” seems passive and not definite about why.

Well we do know why, the household is in confusion, upset and topsy-turvy.   Each of those words convey a different meaning to me, and none of them really convey the anger of a marital fight.  But then that might be Tolstoy’s failure.

Also, the famous first line is subtly different.  I wanted it to be more succinct.  Like “Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are distinctive.”  I don’t know Russian and would never be in the position to do a translation, but are the others translators like me, wanting to write the lines like they would want to read them?  If I had translated Anna Karenina it would have been a much shorter book, but is that translating or editing?

Then there’s Android Karenina, a parody mash-up of classic novel and science fiction – it’s another kind of translation.


Now many readers will be outraged by this particular translation of the novel, but really, is it any different in its extremes than the many film versions of Anna Karenina?  Most movie versions jettison the stories of Levin and Kitty, who appealed to me far deeper than Anna and Count Vronsky.  Just look at all these images from a Google search.  Each actress, or each painting for a book cover is an interpretation or translation.

How can modern readers understand Anna Karenina without understanding the social norms of the 1870s?  How much history do we have to know to really appreciate what Tolstoy is writing about?  I read AK at 60 and admired it greatly.  I could not have comprehended it at 20 or 30 or even 40, but even at 60 I’m sure I’m missing most of the story.  I don’t know Russian, but even if I did, I really don’t know much about life in 19th century Russia.  However, reading Anna Karenina is teaching me about Russia, like Dickens, Elliot and Trollope are teaching me about 19th century England.  Again though, through their translation.

History and fiction are constant mistranslations of reality, that change from generation to generation.

To see how we mistranslate history watch this little video “5 Historical Misconceptions Rundown" at YouTube:

JWH – 5/11/12