We buried my grandfather last spring. He had died in his sleep in his own bed at 95, so, as funerals go, it wasn’t a grim occasion. But it was a historic one for our small rural community. My great-grandparents were early settlers, arriving in 1913 and farming the land throughout their lives. My grandfather continued that tradition, and now rests next to them on a hillside overlooking the family homestead.
If you’re a part of the roughly 99 percent of the North American population that doesn’t work on a farm, you might guess at what comes next—many a lament has been written about the passing of the good old days in rural areas, the family farm’s decline, and the inevitable loss of the homestead. But in many respects, that narrative itself is obsolete. That’s certainly true in my family’s case: The Freeland farm is still being cultivated by my father. And it is bigger and more prosperous than ever.
My dad farms 3,200 acres of his own, and rents another 2,400—all told, a territory seven times the size of Central Park. Last year, he produced 3,900 tonnes (or metric tons) of wheat, 2,500 tonnes of canola, and 1,400 tonnes of barley. (That’s enough to produce 13 million loaves of bread, 1.2 million liters of vegetable oil, and 40,000 barrels of beer.) His revenue last year was more than $2 million, and he admits to having made “a good profit,” but won’t reveal more than that. The farm has just three workers, my dad and his two hired men, who farm with him nine months of the year. For the two or three weeks of seeding and harvest, my dad usually hires a few friends to help out, too.
New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll’s last two books, Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens, were, as he puts it, big projects about closed institutions—the Central Intelligence Agency and the Middle East’s most famous family, respectively. His latest peek behind tightly drawn curtains, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, is a detailed examination of the influential Irving-based oil corporation. ExxonMobil is famously reticent about its operations, and, as Coll explains in this interview, penetrating the company’s official PR line proved challenging, even for an experienced reporter.
Reporting on Exxon can be so difficult—the company is famous for being secretive and cultish. Can you talk a little about the difficulties of reporting this book?
I found Coll’s Ghost Wars to be an excellent read.
In his classic “Twenty-Seven Articles,” published in the Arab Bulletin in August 1917, the renowned British Army officer T.E. Lawrence advised beginners to use prudence when working with Arab armies. “Do not try to do too much with your own hands,” he warned. “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”
It was sage advice from a seasoned warrior who traipsed around the Middle East wearing local garb, speaking several Arab dialects and living with Arab irregulars during their struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Since that time, the United States and Europe have engaged in dozens of interventions across the globe, from occupied Germany after World War II to the soft, limestone cave complexes of Afghanistan after 9/11. In some cases, as in Germany and Bosnia, these interventions have achieved impressive results. But in others, as in Somalia in the early 1990s, they have gone gravely awry.
Read a book with your laptop thrumming. It can feel like trying to read in the middle of a party where everyone is shouting
In the 20th century, all the nightmare-novels of the future imagined that books would be burnt. In the 21st century, our dystopias imagine a world where books are forgotten. To pluck just one, Gary Steynghart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story describes a world where everybody is obsessed with their electronic Apparat – an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn – and have somehow come to believe that the few remaining unread paper books let off a rank smell. The book on the book, it suggests, is closing.
I have been thinking about this because I recently moved flat, which for me meant boxing and heaving several Everests of books, accumulated obsessively since I was a kid. Ask me to throw away a book, and I begin shaking like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and insist that I just couldn’t bear to part company with it, no matter how unlikely it is I will ever read (say) a 1,000-page biography of little-known Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. As I stacked my books high, and watched my friends get buried in landslides of novels or avalanches of polemics, it struck me that this scene might be incomprehensible a generation from now. Yes, a few specialists still haul their vinyl collections from house to house, but the rest of us have migrated happily to MP3s, and regard such people as slightly odd. Does it matter? What was really lost?
Not so much, though, as to get in the way of treating China as an indispensable element in any stabilisation of perilous situations in Korea and Afghanistan. Without China’s active participation, any attempts to immunise Afghanistan against terrorism would be futile. This may be a tall order, since the Russians and the Chinese are getting a “free ride” on US engagement, which contains the jihadism which in central Asia and Xinjiang threatens their own security. So was it, in retrospect, a good idea for Barack Obama to have announced that this coming July will see the beginning of a military drawdown? The question triggers a Vietnam flashback. “I know from personal experience that once you start a drawdown, the road from there is inexorable. I never found an answer when Le Duc Tho was taunting me in the negotiations that if you could not handle Vietnam with half-a-million people, what makes you think you can end it with progressively fewer? We found ourselves in a position where to maintain … a free choice for the population in South Vietnam … we had to keep withdrawing troops, thereby reducing the incentive for the very negotiations in which I was engaged. We will find the same challenge in Afghanistan. I wrote a memorandum to Nixon which said that in the beginning of the withdrawal it will be like salted peanuts; the more you eat, the more you want.”
Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, sits in the lobby of an austere five-star hotel here. Soft-spoken and down-to-earth, the 64-year-old wears a gray dress shirt with dark-blue trousers. He has trimmed gray hair and silver glasses, but his amiable face still hints of the youthful, long-haired traveler featured in photos from the 1970s.
Mr. Wheeler doesn’t need to stay in budget hostels anymore. When traveling to big cities, he checks into luxury hotels. And why not? He founded Lonely Planet travel guides with his wife, Maureen, nearly four decades ago. Since its launch in 1973, Lonely Planet has sold more than 100 million guidebooks to far-off lands, from Antarctica to Zambia and everywhere in between. And this past February the Wheelers sold their remaining 25% stake in the company to BBC Worldwide for £42.1 million (about $69.5 million) after selling 75% in 2007 to the same buyer for £88.1 million. The Wheelers don’t have official roles in the company but will continue as de facto ambassadors for Lonely Planet.
Early in January 1939, the precocious German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, age thirty-two, learned that all males in his age cohort had been ordered to register with the military. A dedicated opponent of the Nazi regime, he might have responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, but there were two problems with such a course of action. The first was that Bonhoeffer, although pacifist by inclination, was not opposed to violence under all conditions; and he would later play an active role in the conspiracy led by German generals to assassinate Hitler. The second was that his fame in the Confessing Church (more on this below) might encourage other religious leaders critical of the regime to do the same, thereby bringing them under greater suspicion and undermining their efforts to prove that Nazi policies, and especially their rapidly intensifying Jew-hatred, were contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The solution was provided by America’s most illustrious theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Nine years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spent a year in the United States as a free-floating exchange student at Union Theological Seminary, arriving not long after Niebuhr had moved there from Detroit. He had made such a positive impression on Union’s faculty that Niebuhr jumped at the opportunity to bring him back. If we fail to offer him a job, he told Union’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, Bonhoeffer will wind up in a concentration camp. This was not the stuff of run-of-the-mill letters of recommendation. Union extended the offer. Grateful to have a way out of his dilemma, Bonhoeffer booked passage, and in June 1939 found himself safe in America.
In 1992, virtual eons before the Kindle and the iPad, Bob Stein created software that let a reader flip through an electronic book on a laptop computer.
To demonstrate the program at conferences, Stein would lie down on stage as if reading in bed.
“Publishers would see this and they would think it was cute, but they didn’t think it had anything to do with them,” he recalls.
Now that the revolution is here, Stein says publishers should embrace what he sees as the inevitable result: the evolution of reading from a solitary pursuit into a communal, electronically networked activity – something he calls social reading and writing.
In 1467, Peter Schöffer and Johann Fust published a translation of St Augustine’s The Art Of Preaching. They were old colleagues of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of modern printing. But their true claim to fame is that they were the first commercially successful printers, and this success stemmed in part from their relentless innovation with the world’s newest communications technology: the book.
One such innovation appeared in the 1467 edition, which was the first printed book to include an alphabetical index. Schöffer and Fust were not only competing by releasing new titles. They were changing what it meant to use and read a book.
Some of the first book advertisements – and indeed some of the first modern adverts anywhere – talked up their “better arranged indexes” as a selling point. The publishers of the The Art of Preaching claimed that their indexes, along with other new cross-referencing features, were “alone worth the whole price, because they make it much easier to use”.
The phrase sounds like it could be from an advert for some 21st-century gadget: “Our books aren’t just informative. They’re also user-friendly!” The echo of today’s marketing language is no accident. Thanks to a series of interrelated technologies – but especially the web, the Kindle and the iPad – we are living through a radical reinvention of the tools and techniques of reading.
They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.
In the opening minutes of Future Shock, a 1972 documentary based on the book of the same name, a bearded, cigar-puffing, world-weary Orson Welles staggers down an airport’s moving walkway, treating the camera like a confidante. “In the course of my work, which has taken me to just about every corner of the globe, I see many aspects of a phenomenon which I’m just beginning to understand,” he says. “Our modern technologies have changed the degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and time of stress. And with all our sophistication, we are in fact the victims of our own technological strengths –- we are the victims of shock… a future shock.”