Tag Archives: books

How to write in your books (and other texts), part 2.

This morning’s Washington Post devotes an entire page to a marked-up transcript of a recorded conversation featuring Bob Woodward, President Trump, and Kellyanne Conway. Reporter Aaron Blake models critical reading: noting key passages and comparing them both to each other and other information he knows.

Conway: I said you tried talking to everybody? What about when you interviewed, like, other people? They all said yes? That they’d try?  BW: Yeah, well, about six or seven people. I tried. And I couldn’t have — you and I spent a whole lunch on it, Kellyanne. And I said, I want to cover the substantive issues in foreign policy and domestic policy. And you said you would get back to me. Nothing.  Conway: Yeah. So, I did. I presented it to the people here who make those decisions, but . ..  BW: Who are the people?  Conway: But anyway, I’ll give you back to the president. And I’m glad to hear that you tried through seven or eight different people. That’s good. You should tell him all the names. [Laughs] Thank you.  Trump: But you never called for me. It would’ve been nice, Bob, if you called for me, in my office. I mean, I have a secretary. I have two, three secretaries. If you would’ve called directly — a lot of people are afraid . . . Raj, I hardly have . . . I don’t speak to Raj."

In a particularly good section, Blake examines both internal tensions (Conway’s refusal to answer who denied Woodward’s request for an interview with Trump) and external tensions (Raj Shah’s position as principal deputy press secretary vs. Trump’s statement that “I don’t speak to Raj.”).

Note how Blake chooses a verb that signals the significance of Trump’s statement: “Trump admits Shah is doing that without talking to him.”

Also note how earlier in the transcript, Conway shifts to the passive voice to obscure responsibility: “I put in the request. But you know, they — it was rejected.” Woodward asks, “Who are the people?” in a failed effort to pierce the fog.

[Aaron Blake, “Transcript: Phone Call between President Trump and Journalist Bob Woodward,” Washington Post, September 5, 2018.]

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Bill Hayes has posted several photographs of books annotated by the late Oliver Sacks. Sacks not only flagged key passages; he also recorded his own reactions, turning his reading into an active conversation with the author.

See also, How to write in your books.

On Counterfactuals

Richard White ends his new book, Railroaded with an intriguing methodological claim:

Unlike economic historians, most historians have, until relatively recently, been reluctant to engage in counterfactuals on the seemingly incontrovertible grounds that what did not happen is not history. But I have come to think that the opposite is, in fact, true: we need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically. Considering only what happened is ahistorical, because the past once contained larger possibilities, and part of the historian’s job is to make those possibilities visible; otherwise all that is left for historians to do is to explain the inevitability of the present. The inevitability of the present violates the contingency of the past, which involves alternative choices and outcomes that could have produced alternative presents. To deny the contingency of the past deprives us of alternative futures, said for the present is the future’s past. Contingency, in turn, demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. So it is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still.

Ironically, Railroaded (though a very fine book in other respects) does not do a particularly good job fleshing out its counterfactuals, particularly the bit about “alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined.” Did Gilded Age Americans seriously consider trying to settle the West without any transcontinental railroads? Or with just one? Or with several under public ownership? Or without any public capital? White hints at all of these possibilities, but he does not explain whether there was a significant consituency behind any, or what the country would have looked like had they been pursued.

I do agree with White that we need to explore counterfactuals to understand what was at stake in any given debate. D. W. Meinig’s maps of a Greater and Lesser United States, for example, help me appreciate the gravity of the debates of the mid-19th century.