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A. L. Kennedy: Spasms of Grace (March 29, 2001)
In On Bullfighting, A. L. Kennedy describes the "death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear" that is the Spanish corrida.

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A conversation with Karen Armstrong, biographer of the Enlightened One.

Trezza Azzopardi: Out of Hiding (February 1, 2001)
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Louise Erdrich: An Emissary of the Between-World (January 17, 2001)
An interview with the author of The Atlantic's February short story, a writer who practices fiction in the "margin where cultures mix and collide."

Charles Simic: Seeing Things (January 10, 2001)
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Eric Schlosser: Unhappy Meals (December 14, 2000)
Eric Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist, talks about his new book, Fast Food Nation, and the "dark side of the all-American meal."

Eduardo Galeano: "Words That Must Be Said" (November 30, 2000)
Eduardo Galeano, the author of Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, is one of Latin America's fiercest social critics. Yet he insists that language—its secrets, mysteries, and masks—comes before politics.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Atlantic Unbound | May 10, 2001
The Gutenberg Purge

A conversation with the novelist Nicholson Baker, whose latest book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, makes the case for old news and the long shelf life of the printed page


Double Fold

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
by Nicholson Baker
Random House
288 pages, $25.95

n September 17, 1970, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article that included off-the-record remarks by Richard Nixon concerning the Middle East and directed at Russia. The President's staff called the newsroom so quickly and objected so strenuously that when the evening edition of the same day's paper rolled off the press, the quotes were gone.

Now they appear to be gone for good. Not one local library, it seems, hung on to its copy of the early edition. Nor is it in the archives of the Sun-Times, the Chicago Historical Society, or the Library of Congress. Jeffrey Kimball, the author of Nixon's Vietnam War (1998), has committed several years to an Ahab-like quest for the unabridged article, which Henry Brandon cited in his 1973 book The Retreat of American Power. All Kimball has been able to find are microfilmed versions of the muzzled evening edition. Those remarks, he told Nicholson Baker, the novelist-turned-newspaper-conservator, have "critical bearing" on his new project, a larger study of "smoking-gun documents." But the document has been effectively suppressed—and with a finality that Nixon himself would have envied.

"Editional differences" are one consideration librarians have failed to make as they've gone about exchanging original copies of old newspapers and books for microfilm facsimiles—one of many, Baker claims in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. In the middle of the past century, preservation administrators began looking to microfilm for "salvation," as a former director of the Ford Foundation's Council on Library Resources put it. They could save money, precious shelf space, and even the books and periodicals themselves, which were rapidly succumbing to their own "inherent vice"—the acidity of the paper they were printed on—and would shortly be crumbling to confetti. With the passion of the converted, the libraries began converting.

But the books weren't doomed, Baker argues (and he really does argue; researching the subject, he writes, awakened a "prosecutorial urge" in him), and microfilming could only cure the infirmities of paper the way death cures ours. Baker titles one of his early chapters "Destroying to Preserve," a phrase that is as much the Library of Congress's coinage as his. "[I]n order to film a file for preservation, it was necessary to destroy it," the chief of the Library's Serials Division wrote in 1975. For decades, the transfer of text from the printed page to microfilm involved a process appropriately, if gruesomely, called "guillotining"—slicing bound volumes along the spine in order to get a focused image of the page on film. "Once the volumes were cut for this purpose," the Library official went on, "it was impractical, and usually impossible, to restore them."

Baker wouldn't be quite so bothered by this if microfilming weren't, as he argues, such a poor substitute for other sorts of preservation. It's not cost-effective: converting a book to microfilm, he estimates, is twenty times as expensive as storing it in perpetuity. The preserved document is prey to microfilm's own assortment of inherent vices, including tendencies to buckle, blemish, and grow mold. The text is often poorly reproduced and incomplete. And watching microfilm scroll by can be a tedious and even nauseous activity. (Baker learned of a reading machine at the Archives of Ontario with an air-sickness bag taped to it.)

What galls Baker most is what he perceives to be the mendacity of microfilm's champions. In order to generate public support for their conversion campaigns, he writes, "librarians have lied shamelessly about the extent of paper's fragility, and they continue to lie about it. For over fifty years they have disparaged paper's residual strength, while remaining 'blind as lovers' (as Allen Veaner, former editor of Microform Review, once wrote) to the failings and infirmities of film."

It's not surprising that Baker takes a rather severe attitude toward this. He's not just a bibliophile but a semanticist—attentive, at times to the point of fussiness, to words. He prizes precision and minds the gap between what's said and what's meant, which makes him a formidable prosecutor. When he writes of "the enormity of the Library of Congress's print-purgation program over the past several decades," he intends both definitions of "enormity": "immensity" and "excessive wickedness." The title Double Fold, similarly, has a double meaning. It refers, literally, to a common test by which librarians determine the brittleness of a book's pages. But it comes with a little lexical kick. "One root of the word 'duplicity,'" Baker writes, "is duplicitas, 'double-foldedness.'"

Baker is the author of five novels—The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), and The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998)—and two works of nonfiction, U and I (1991) and The Size of Thoughts (1996). Since 1999, he has overseen the American Newspaper Repository, a not-for-profit organization he founded to ensure the preservation of newspaper runs that libraries would otherwise have discarded or sold to dealers. It occupies part of a brick mill in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, and is open to the public.

Baker recently spoke with me on the telephone from South Berwick, Maine, where he lives with his wife and two children.

—Eric McHenry

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker   

Because this is a polemical book, and one that takes a lot of its subjects to task, I'm interested in the sorts of issues you've had to deal with in terms of access—getting sources to open up to you. When talking to someone like Patricia Battin [a former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Commission on Preservation and Access], for example, were you forthright from the outset about your views and about what tack you were going to take in writing the book?

In doing the research for the book, my opinions weren't formed. I tried to find out what people honestly thought, and to do justice to what they had to say. But as I talked to more and more people, a feeling of indignation, a sense that something wrong had happened, grew, and I tried not to misrepresent myself. What I said in asking for an interview was that I was working on a piece on libraries and the preservation of paper, and I felt that the book really wouldn't be complete if I didn't talk to people like Patricia Battin, who was in a way the leading light of the brittle-paper crisis. She's the person who really, more effectively than anyone else, spread the fear that books were disintegrating, and I wanted to know what she actually thought about that. In the interview, I asked her what she meant when she said that books were "turning to dust," and I was kind of puzzled when she answered that she didn't really recall saying that. And then there was another moment when I asked why a book couldn't just be put back on the shelf once it had been microfilmed, as part of its preservation—since the idea of preserving these things is what raised all the money. First she said that saving space wasn't the motivation. And later on she said it was. So I just worked with what people said and tried to get at the truth and name the names.

I wonder if people's desire to conceal—and perhaps that's too strong a word—the fact that space concerns were driving the conversion to microfilm and the discarding of so much material doesn't betray a bit of a guilty conscience. As archivists, librarians don't want to have thrown things out simply because they didn't have room for them.

I think there's a lot to that. One way to explain it is that the proponents of microfilm, initially, were excited about microfilming as a space-saving method, and they tried to sell it to library users on those grounds. But library users disliked microfilm. So the library administrators who were gung-ho about microfilm learned that the way to sell it to the world was to create a kind of crisis—to say, "We are helping the world to preserve these things"—and leave out the fact that the originals were leaving the shelves. There's no question, when you examine the planning documents and the cost-benefit analyses that were behind the NEH's brittle-books program, that ridding the shelves of old books was a primary motive. If you make one microfilm of one book, it's going to stimulate five discards in American libraries, and that will save hundreds of millions of dollars in space costs. That's what the cost-benefit analysis says. The whole thing was built on that hope, and yet it was never presented to the public that way.

It's sort of a Catch-22, because the initial impetus was embrittlement. The books are so brittle; that's why we've got to copy them. But, well, we can really get the best copies of those books that aren't all that brittle.

Yes, there are so many bizarre contradictions in all of this, which is why I found myself kind of moaning and saying—typing—"It's worse than you thought." The Library of Congress was shooting 7,000 feet of microfilm per day in 1973. And it was a commercial program, in a sense, because they could sell copies of the film to other libraries. It was like the Library of Congress's catalogue-card printing program; it was a way of creating revenue. But once you run out of the saleable newspaper runs, the big runs, then you have to figure out what else to shoot. Microfilming creates its own momentum. It's like when a town owns a lot of paving equipment. The roads get paved whether they need it or not.

The $60 million microfilming effort was also a way of stocking the digital pond. The librarians of the 1980s who were digital futurists really thought they had it figured out. They could scare everybody into thinking that paper was doomed, raise all this money, and get this stuff on film, and then scan the film when digital technology had caught up with the resolution levels of traditional microfilm. In a way, you can see the attractiveness of the plan, because in their minds, everybody benefits. But the problem is that the scanning of microfilm is full of problems—if the microfilm is bad, or even if the microfilm is good, you have to scan at exceedingly high resolutions, and it turns out to be expensive, and the people who now want to create digital libraries spurn all the microfilm and go back and disbind more books in order to create really good digital facsimiles. I don't mind any of the copying, as long as it leaves the original intact. I don't want my book to be an argument against making pictures of things, because there are lots of beautiful pictures of the things that hang on museum walls, and they help us appreciate the original works. They don't stimulate people to throw out the originals.

What's an ideal scenario by which material that's in rare newspapers or books that really are deteriorating—albeit not as quickly or as irrevocably as people are saying—could be copied, so that there is either a digital or microfilm backup as a check against the material's disappearing altogether?

It's still difficult to take crisp digital pictures of things that are as large as a newspaper page or a newspaper spread. But assuming that you can take good overhead pictures of books and newspapers, then all you have to do is put the book down on the table, open it up, and take a picture of each open pair of pages. You have to live with a little bit of gutter-shadow, where the pages turn in the binding. If you're thinking of the digital image as a backup for the original, you're saying, "This is not going to be quite as good as the original copy, but in case the original copy suffers some kind of catastrophic disintegrational episode, which is unlikely, it will be here and people will still be able to read the text." But really, for the majority of books, the margins are big enough that you can get really nice pictures of the open pages without doing anything harmful to them at all, just turning the leaves. That's what Octavo has demonstrated, with their extremely fine, page-by-page photographs of editions of Copernicus and Milton and The Grammar of Ornament. I think that they are a model for a responsible and even artistically sensitive way of making digital copies.

At one point you quote Lynne Cheney saying, in reference to the NEH and its Brittle Books Program, "Our thrust at the Endowment has been on the intellectual content rather than on the book itself." And that points up one of the fundamental conflicts that's at the heart of your book. Are books valuable because of the words, the information and the knowledge, that they contain, or do they, as objects, have an inherent value of their own that includes but also transcends that information? You say elsewhere that libraries are throwing out what "we so desperately want them to preserve." Do you feel that that's really the case, on a broad scale?

Actually, most people look at old books as things that are valuable and worth keeping in themselves. It's not just scholars and researchers. It's everybody. It's people who wander into the American Newspaper Repository and look at these marble-boarded volumes. I'm thinking of a bus driver, in one case, who came in and said, "These are priceless." The volumes have such an immediate way of pulling you back into a past world. You can see from Antiques Roadshow and architectural preservation movements and that sort of thing that we have really gotten over the idea that everything has to be torn down and new Brasilias have to be put up every ten years. We understand now that there's a value to oldness in most things—in the design of cities and buildings and manuscripts. It's really only the experts, in this case, who are lagging. You could point to a given book and say, "This book has no artifactual value," which is a way of thinking that librarianship is built on, apparently. But you might well be wrong. There are so many strange twists of authorship, whereby some book on Brazilian rock formations turns out to be written by a guy who goes on to found a university, and therefore the book itself becomes a part of the meaning of that man's life and is important to the history of the institution. There are just too many ways in which things can take on meaning for us to waste time trying to decide whether or not they have artifactual value. They all, potentially, have artifactual value.

A library collection as a whole, in fact, is an architectural landmark. It is a creation. I'm not being a nut about this; I'm not saying "All libraries have to keep everything." But I do think it's worth saying that the libraries we count on—the major research libraries, the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale—own collections that are in effect public resources, and they have the responsibility to let us know, which they have not done, when they're going to start tampering with them.

It's interesting to consider the psychology behind the drive to replace. In Double Fold, when I first came across a reference to Herman Fussler, who was a major microfilm advocate early on and had also worked on the Manhattan Project, I didn't attach a whole lot of significance to it. But as the book progresses, suddenly everybody is a weapons specialist or some Department of Defense or CIA graduate now working on preservation. What's going on there?

It's just that libraries were hit very hard by the Cold War. The idea was that we had to keep up scientifically, and therefore the pressure was on libraries to move things around quickly but also securely. And to do that, things like microfilm, which is easily destroyed and which you can't read without the help of a machine, is very useful. So the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission and the military relied heavily on microfilm. It was extremely useful, and the CIA recruited librarians because it had all this stuff—all these countries sending in reports about factions and parties—and they had to be able to index it, and who are better at classifying and indexing than librarians?

So there was a real surge of energy, really, funded by the intelligence community, that helped along all kinds of experiments in indexing. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But it's not the kind of librarianship that's associated with traditional humanistic libraries, which keep things because it's nice to see an eighteenth-century poet in the original. It meant that heads of library schools and chief library administrators tended to be people who wanted to further the goals of the Cold War. There's no question that the toniest and most lavishly funded library organization, the Council on Library Resources, had a very pronounced CIA flavor, because it was run by Verner Clapp, who was, at the time, a CIA consultant. And his board of trustees were all, or many of them were, people who in one way or another had helped the CIA. This is bizarre, and I think interesting. It's not a conspiracy, because a conspiracy implies that all these guys are getting together and saying, "We're going to do something sneaky." I don't think so at all. I think they were just like-minded men who wanted libraries to move ahead quickly. They had this ideal that the collections could compress themselves ever more densely, and that the storage of a growing collection of books would become a thing of the past.

It occurred to me that maybe part of the impetus for many librarians to move toward microfilm is an aesthetic consideration. You've got an old book, and even if it's not literally turning to dust, you see that it's flaking and turning yellow, which is somewhat ugly when compared to its original color. And on the other hand you've got microfilm, which is slick, compact, and which seems indestructible, even if that's a misperception. Do you think it's possible, maybe at a collective subconscious level, that there's sort of a grooming impulse at work here?

I think you're absolutely right about that. When you open a drawer in a microfilm department, you see all those boxes, and they're all the same size. There is something pleasing about that. They all have the same label, and they all fit nicely in the drawer. The world of the bookshelf, by comparison, is chaotic. No books are the same size. This has frustrated librarians from the beginning. Fremont Rider, the head librarian at Wellesley, wanted to saw off the edges of books to make them all the same size. It's always been a problem. The paper changes color, and the bindings need work, and for too long, places like the Library of Congress just weren't interested in the idea that books need small amounts of repair. They had, really, a nonexistent book-repair program. Instead, they had two courses of action. Either send a book off to a bindery where it was bound inexpensively and too tightly—oversewn. Or microfilm it and throw the original away. There wasn't a middle solution, which is simply to have somebody who knows about book repair work on the book for half an hour and fix it. The sad thing is that the federal government, because it was sort of taken over by the microfilm lobby, aided and abetted all this by giving no money for book repair and giving many, many millions for microfilming. They encouraged these preservation administrators who had no hands-on training and who were, as you say, people who wanted to go to work neatening up the shelves.

You mention the difficulty of browsing microfilm versions of newspapers—I believe the modifier you used was "brain-poaching," the "brain-poaching activity" of browsing microfilm. It seems to me that if that's a problem for newspapers, it's got to be deadly for books. Who's going to sit in the library and read an entire book on page after page after page of microfilm?

That's why it was so important to invent a catastrophe. Because nobody, conceivably, would want to sit in front of one of those machines and read a 250-page book. And yet they were microfilming 250-page books. And in order to overcome a very reasonable opposition to that, they had to say that the books were going to turn to dust. But in the course of doing the research for this book, I did look at books on microfilm. I also looked at a lot of government documents on microfilm, and sometimes I used the original bound volumes. I think the point to be made is that each mode of reading allows for a different kind of serendipity—although some modes are inherently worse than others. It's certainly true with search engines; you can find stray tidbits that just fit in wonderfully with what you're looking for because of the quirk of a particular search engine. A bound book, in a way, is one search engine, and a microfilm of a book is another. Each one displays its results in a different order and pushes things to the forefront in a different way. So if you're interested in doing good research, you make use of whatever works best.

What's frustrating to people who do research is when a bunch of staff members at a library decide that one way of doing research is the right way, and one way is a waste of time, and they make it impossible for you to do it that way. This is really what's going on right now. Libraries have decided that if you've got the information on JSTOR, the journal storage database funded by the Mellon Foundation, then it's okay to get rid of the bound volumes. Well, in many cases, you can find great stuff on JSTOR, but I happen to know, from paging through year after year of Microform Review, that sometimes you find things you wouldn't otherwise find by reading the journals as they were originally designed to be read. I don't know why there always has to be this rhetoric of substitution. I thought we would have learned by now that AM radio continues despite the arrival of FM radio, that all these things layer on top of each other.

It's definitely your opinion, based on the preponderance of the scientific evidence that you've seen, that books and newspapers printed on this acidic paper do deteriorate, but that contrary to reports, their deterioration doesn't accelerate, and in fact it seems to decelerate after a certain point. So many or most books and newspapers, although brittle, will probably remain turnable and readable almost indefinitely.

Well, look. What have we got? We have a scientific experiment first performed at the National Bureau of Standards in the thirties, in which you take paper and you put it in an oven, and you heat it up to close to the boiling point. And you say that baking this paper for three days in this oven is equivalent to aging it for twenty-five years. That's really what the so-called "accelerated aging test" for paper is. And if you come up with a bunch of predictions based on that test—that a third of the books printed at the beginning of the twentieth century will be unusable at the end, which was one often-repeated prediction—then once the century is over and all the books are still usable except the ones that have been intentionally destroyed by libraries, you know that the scientific prediction was flawed.

The surviving newspaper and book collections amount to irrefutable empirical evidence that paper lasts for an astonishingly long time. One of the values of having a newspaper collection is that it makes this point. Even newsprint produced to last, say, two weeks, is around after 110 years. And it's not like it's around and you have to use special machines to turn the pages, either. I mean, I was looking at the 1902 New York Tribune today, simply reading it. And there are college students who come to use the collection who just page through and enjoy it. Of course there are gradations: there's very fragile newsprint, and there's somewhat fragile newsprint, and all that. But I've seen a lot of bound volumes, and I've never seen one whose pages have spontaneously disintegrated to the point where they were uncopyable. That's the crucial point.

So the fact that this stuff is holding up this well means—and you can also tell this by going to newspaper dealers—that the newsprint collections around the country that libraries got rid of were, in the vast majority of cases, in perfectly readable condition. That's why I think that a certain amount of indignation is justified. We weren't told the real motive for this clean-out. It wasn't disclosed. And it's time that people knew what was really pushing all this.

This is clearly a labor of love for you, not just because you've invested so much time and energy both in writing the book and in preserving the papers, but also because you're a novelist of some success. I have to imagine that you don't go into a project like this thinking, This is going to outsell all my novels. Could you comment on that a little, on your willingness to commit—how many years—to the production of this book?

Well, the book itself took, probably altogether, two years, but in there was also the founding of the nonprofit and the saving of the papers and all of that. Yeah, it was a lot of time. But I'm just as susceptible to the joys of sleuthing things out as anybody else. I loved working on this book. I think the chapters I most enjoyed working on were the deacidification chapters, because I liked finding out about all the untold uses of diethyl zinc—this strange substance that bursts into flame on contact with air and explodes on contact with water, which the Library of Congress wanted to use to neutralize the acidity in books. The idea that the Library was willing to spend decades and millions of dollars on this fatally flawed project is really an indication of how far astray the Library had gone, of how it was just kind of wandering. It was run by people who were not book people but people who liked managing development programs and who would have been happier, I think, if they had been working on a real missile-defense or tank-development program. So being able to call up bomb designers and guys who've done nothing their whole lives except try to measure how fast things combust was fascinating for me, really.

That's the other thing that makes working on a book like this a pleasure. It pulls you. I couldn't predict that the next thing I'd need to order by interlibrary loan would have to do with the sources of paper in the nineteenth century, and whether Egyptian mummies were imported to make a certain kind of paper. I couldn't predict that, and that's a point that the book itself is trying, by example, to make. You can't predict what will be luminously important to your research program. You can't say, "Okay, a humanist is going to need all of Shakespeare, Whitman, and Dickens." Because a humanist who is, for humanistic reasons, wanting libraries to make better decisions is ending up getting books on the early career of a completely forgotten guy who was a geologist who wanted to dig up mummies, unwrap them, and use the cloth to make newsprint. There's never a way to predict what will become interesting to a library user, and that's why research libraries have to be indiscriminate. It doesn't cost much, actually, to be indiscriminate. Right now, if the Library of Congress would change its policy and simply put on the shelf everything that it was sent, for free—no other library has the privilege of getting things for free—they would be acting responsibly. They would be doing what people think that they have been doing all along. But they would also stop wasting energy making the decision, which is going to be a wrong decision anyway, that certain things are never going to be interesting.

Why should they be going through saying, "Well, this book of poetry is a minor work, and therefore we won't add it to our collection"? They were sent it for free. They're supposed to be the national library. Put it on the shelf. It isn't that hard. If you've driven up and down I-95 you've seen warehouse after warehouse. America is fantastically talented at building warehouses, and it would only take a few of those hundreds of thousands of warehouses to hold all the things that libraries have mistakenly gotten rid of. That's another elementary point I'd like to make: looked at from a certain perspective, books and newspapers are miraculously compact. A year of the New York Herald Tribune or The New York Times during World War II takes up thirty-six volumes. I happen to know, because I've lifted many many of them. Thirty-six volumes. Compare that to the amount of paper backup that goes to the filing for a new antidepressant drug. The paper for one drug fills rooms. So we're talking about a very small amount of space when you consider the historical importance of the stuff that's in the space.

It seems that when some of the articles that became chapters in Double Fold initially appeared in magazines, they created a bit of a teapot tempest. Are you hoping that the book will provoke a wider debate—and perhaps longer, angrier, more detailed responses—if that's what it takes to make library preservation more responsible in the future?

I certainly won't be surprised if the people I criticize in the book attack the book. That seems entirely natural. I hope that the book, the sources and citations, are complete enough that people who are interested in this can make their own decision. They can say, "Okay, Baker says that the Arrhenius Equation is a flawed method of predicting the life expectancy of paper, based on what some scientists say." Then they can look up the scientists that I cite and make their own decisions.

The reason I criticize these people is just that I feel a great wrong was committed. It isn't something so abstract as wanting to provoke debate. I feel that what happened was not just a mistake but an intentional tricking of the American public that ought to be exposed. That's what led me to do it. And so it doesn't really matter one way or another how the people in the book respond. What I wanted to do was get it all down on paper. It's just as it always was. If you get it fixed, printed on the page, then it becomes a stable thing that people can look at and think about for themselves.

In the book, I cite a 1998 Library of Congress survey of nineteenth-century publishers' book-bindings. I was very interested in the study, so I called up a woman at the Library of Congress and interviewed her. But the study is not flattering to the Library of Congress, because it points out how many books are missing or not on the shelf. So, after I interviewed this woman, the study quietly disappeared from the Library of Congress's Web server. And it is not on the Alexa Internet Archive. It's nowhere. And in fact, when I said to the woman—she's a very good person—"I'm quoting from you. Where do I say this thing is, so that people can look at it?" she said, "It's gonzo." So there's this permanency to the printed page that is very useful.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Eric McHenry's essays and creative nonfiction appear in AGNI, The Baffler, and McSweeney's. He is assistant editor of Bostonia magazine.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.