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Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

Photo by west_point

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

MORRISON

No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it.

-Toni Morrison, in a 1993 conversation with Elissa Schappell at The Paris Review. Morrison turns 86 on February 18.

Here’s Morrison with Charlie Rose in 2015:

Read the interview

John Oliver on the Media’s Struggle to Confront Disinformation

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Did you share the general shudder when Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of “alternative facts”?

It’s just a framing device, an ear-catching phrase, but it’s nothing new. The content of what she’s wrapping a bow on is something that everyone has been bearing witness to. We’ve had 18 months of feelings over facts. The only thing that’s remotely new about it is the location that it’s coming from.

Is interviewing her essentially pointless?

In general, it’s very dangerous to keep the old campaign architecture around with this presidency, to have an eight-person panel on CNN debating whether or not he said something. “Did he or did he not do this thing we watched him do?” There’s actually serious harm in that discussion. And, yeah. I really don’t see the point of talking to Kellyanne Conway because her language jujitsu is so strong. You know she can look you in the eyes and tell you the opposite of what you just saw happen, and she will be more confident in her answer than you are in your question.

-John Oliver, in a wide-ranging Rolling Stone interview with Brian Hiatt, on how his weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight will need to adapt to the chaos of the Trump Administration. His season four premiere attempted to tackle the question of Trump and reality:  Read more…

The Early Principles That Guided the Makers of LEGO

Legos in space

In his 2013 book, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines the early successes and failures of the Denmark-based LEGO Group — from their early experiments with plastic, to their decision in the late 1990s to finally strike licensing deals with movies and characters, starting with Star Wars.

Robertson describes a pivotal moment in the company’s history, when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, met up with a toy buyer: Read more…

‘Elephant and Piggie’ Author Mo Willems on the Importance of Teaching Kids to Fail

We are in a #longread!

Over the past eight years, when I wasn’t reading Pamela Colloff or Ariel Levy, I was probably reading Mo Willems. The children’s book author made the world giggle with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the Elephant and Piggie series, and reduced every parent to tears with Knuffle Bunny Free, the final installment in the Knuffle Bunny series that is making me cry again just thinking about it. Darn you, Mo!

In Rivka Galchen’s wonderful New Yorker profile of Willems, we learn that Knuffle Bunny’s real-life main character Trixie (Willems’s daughter) is now 15, that Willems couldn’t write another Pigeon book (“He’s a monster!”) and that he’s particularly focused on kids learning to embrace the “f” word:

Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.

The feeling would appear to be transient. When I asked him if it felt strange to no longer be writing Elephant and Piggie books—I was still working on a way to break the news to my daughter, who had been using the Other Titles endpaper as a field of dreams—he said, “Well, at least now I have my obituary.” Shortly afterward, he said, unprompted, “I think ‘What are you working on next?’ is the worst question. It’s such a bad question. I hate that question. Everyone asks that question. I want to say, ‘Isn’t this good enough for you?’ ”

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What the Thousands of Calls Against Betsy DeVos Say About American Public Schools

An Iowa public school. Photo by photolibrarian

Congress was inundated with thousands of phone calls from people urging their representatives to vote against Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Given her poor performance during confirmation hearings, her lack of experience, and her history of supporting attempts to dismantle traditional public education, Americans had visceral, negative reaction to DeVos. But this defense of our schools comes after years of anti-public education rhetoric by our country’s leaders about “failing schools” and teacher accountability.

Dana Goldstein’s 2015 book The Teacher Wars seeks to understand how America’s relationship with its public school teachers became so complicated. It goes much farther back than the battles of the past few decades: Read more…

Robert Caro on Understanding a President Through the Rooms He Occupied

Photo: AP Images

There are facts in journalism, but there are other truths hidden in the room. In this 2016 Paris Review interview with James Santel, Robert Caro, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, gives a masterclass on how to report on a subject’s behavior, his environment, his breath, and the cushiness of his couch:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.

That’s especially true when it comes to describing Johnson, whom I met only once, only very briefly. With Johnson, if you went around on my interviews with me, in every interview probably, I’m asking—let’s say Joe Califano, one of Johnson’s aides—So if I were standing next to you in this scene in the Oval Office, Joe, what would I see? They never understand. They kind of hesitate—they don’t know what I mean. And I would say, Was he sitting behind the desk or was he getting up to walk around? And they might say—and this actually happened—Well, he jumped up from that desk all the time because he had the wire tickers over there. He had these three wire tickers, and he’d go over to them every few minutes to look.

So I would ask, But what were you seeing? How would he look at the wire tickers?

“Well, you know, it was interesting, it was like he couldn’t wait for the next lines to come, so he’d open the lid, and he’d grab the paper with two hands, as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine.”

So you keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get ­angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again.

If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people. Eventually, a lot of people tell you about his bad breath. And the couches—if he wanted something from you in the Senate cloakroom, Johnson would take you over to sit on the couches. So I’d ask, What was it like sitting on those couches? And people would say something like, He’d be towering over you, leaning over you.

Read the interview

Further reading:

The New Yorker Releases a Powerful New Cover

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The illustration is called “Liberty’s Flameout,” and it’s by John W. Tomac. “It was the symbol of American values,” Tomac says. “Now it seems that we are turning off the light.”

The New Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek Reminds Us: Businesses Can’t Thrive Amid Chaos

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The reason the U.S. is a good place to do business is that, for the past two centuries, it’s built a firm foundation on the rule of law. President Trump almost undid that in a weekend. That’s bad for business.

-From a scathing short column by Matt Levine about businesses waking up to a harsh reality under President Trump.

 

What the Boston Globe’s ‘Make It Stop’ Front Page Says About Moral Outrage in Journalism

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Nothing is normal right now, so it makes perfect sense that journalists should reconsider what objectivity means in 2017. Facts are now up for debate, the president is treating the media as “the opposition,” and readers are looking for both trusted news and better information on how they can get involved in the political process.

My Facebook feed is now a running stream of “action items” and congressional phone numbers posted by friends, imploring everyone to make their voices heard on cabinet nominees and executive orders. I wonder if news organizations are missing a big opportunity to serve their readers in this same way, as opposed to the traditional hands-off “we give you the news and you figure out what to do about it” stance. Read more…

Who Is Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch? A Reading List

Photo: AP Images

“Echo of Scalia.” “Originalist.” “Hostile to women’s health care.” These are some of the descriptions of President Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee following the announcement Tuesday night. But The New York Times Editorial Board argues this morning that Neil Gorsuch’s resumé or temperament is beside the point: The Supreme Court seat was stolen. Read more…