Friday, July 9, 2010

Brooks, books and writing

Interesting column today by David Brooks in the New York Times. He points out that children who have many books around at home tend to do better in school. Unfortunately, this important observation is conveyed in a very sloppy sentence: "We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better."

• Question 1: longer and better than what? than dolphins? than mice? than adults who go back to school?
• Question 2: exactly 500 books? That's going to spell trouble for those poor kids who grow up in academic households (like ours) with thousands of books!

You'd think that someone who is trying to emphasize the importance of the written word would exercise some basic care with his own writing. Coincidentally, there is an interesting article in the New Republic this week about why David Brooks is a pretty poor columnist overall.

I'm also not quite convinced by Brooks' argument in his column that the world of printed books is hierarchical with some kind of logical flow from bottom to top (in quality), whereas the internet is not. One can use the world of printed books intelligently or poorly, just as one can use the internet well or stupidly. The main difference is that book publishers traditionally impose an initial filter, but of course with self-publishing this difference may well be shrinking.

(Unrelated note: also fun in the New Republic today, a collection of some of the most ludicrous political program items of state Republican parties. Some of those who drafted those programs would definitely benefit from some additional book- or internet-learning!)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

European anthem

As part of its continuing attempts to develop a European identity, the European Union has long had an anthem. It is the "Ode to Joy" movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony. In fact, this is not just the EU anthem, but a more general European anthem, as it is also the anthem of the Council of Europe.

Unfortunately, the "Ode to Joy" movement has words; more specifically, German words: the text is Friedrich Schiller's poem "An die Freude". This is problematic, since non-German-speaking EU members would of course protest at having to sing a German-language anthem. As a result, the European anthem is actually text-less. :-)

As I was watching the FIFA World Cup semifinal between Germany and Spain yesterday, I was thinking that there are other anthems around that are quite European. Take, for example, the Dutch anthem, which will be played at Sunday's final match between the Netherlands and Spain. The first verse of this anthem contains the lines "of German blood" and "I have always honored the king of Spain". So, regardless of the outcome of the Germany-Spain match, the Dutch were already assured that their opponents would be able to sing along wholeheartedly at least a little bit with the Dutch anthem.

This oddity is of course largely a result of the fact that European royal families are often quite "European" in the sense that their lineages trace back to one or more countries other than the country they currently rule. The British royal family is mostly German; the Swedish royal family is mostly French; the current Belgian king is a direct descendant of Swedish and Danish kings, and so on. To the extent that national anthems are at least partially royal anthems, some of this international lineage is bound to shine through.

Come to think of it, perhaps that's what the EU really needs: a royal family! We could draw up a list of adult members of European royal families that are related to current or previous royal families of at least 5 (or maybe even 10) current EU member states. They could be polled as to their willingness to take the job, and then we could have a Europe-wide election to create the queen or king (or both, if the winner is married) of the EU.

The new sovereign's main job would be to officially open all those infrastructure projects throughout Europe that are funded by EU money, as well as various other public functions. (And he/she could have a rotating residence, just as Charlemagne used to have, moving from one country to the next at 3-month intervals, say.)