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by Rachel Balik

18 Jun 2009

Beowulf on the Beachby Jack MurnighanCrownMay 2009, 374 pages, $15.00

Beowulf on the Beach
by Jack Murnighan
Crown
May 2009, 374 pages, $15.00

That’s my hundred-character introduction to what I hope will be a regular installation on Re:Print looking at the way books are changing in form and content. If art reflects zeitgeist what do we do when the zeitgeist seems totally unartistic and computerized? This question as it pertains to books is particularly pressing because the going attitude seems to be that we’re incapable making it through a thousand-word magazine article.

If that’s really true, who is going to read Middlemarch? Well, possibly you, says Jack Murnighan in his recently released Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits. Murnighan offers a reading guide to what he, a writing professor and doctor of English literature, believes to be the 50 greatest pieces of literature in the Western canon. He starts with the ancient Greeks and works his way to Toni Morrison. The concept calls to mind the description of a shelf filled with books so ubiquitous in our culture that we can pretend we’ve read them in Italio Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Of course, this book will help the reader keep pretending. Each section begins with the buzz, a few pages that describe and summarizes the book, its greatest assets and pitfalls. Then he provides his opinions on “best line”, “what’s sexy”, and “what to skip”. In short, these aren’t your average Cliff’s notes. From example, he introduces Henry James by calling him the most constipated writer in history. Emily Bronte, on the other hand, is a “bushfire waiting to blaze”. And by the way, don’t feel bad about skipping the first few acts of

, they’re kind of irrelevant. And the first ten chapters of Jane Eyre are skimmable.

One thing is clear from his writing style and content: his book is written for modern consumption. It’s funny, you don’t have to read it in order and you can walk away from it feeling and sounding smarter based on a minimal time investment. And it’s also a way for the writer to flex creative muscles. Murnighan is personable, crafty, and genuine. But I did wonder what his true intentions for the book were. In an email interview with the author, I was able to conclude that Murnighan genuinely believes there is an important task at hand. At the same time, in keeping with our intensely autonomous culture, it is the readers who ultimately determine the book’s value and meaning.

PM: Who is it written for?
JM: Mostly it’s written for anyone who still has a lingering interest in reading some highbrow lit—or feels guilty for not doing so. It’s actually a larger percentage of the population than you might think.

PM: Did you really intend for it to be reading guide, or does it (can it) stand alone?
JM: Both. I wanted to make sure you enjoyed reading each of my chapters, but I also really wanted it to be useful. What I didn’t want was to read like Harold Bloom: stuffy, and not particularly helpful for non-academics.

PM: You don’t seem to think the book is a substitute for reading the classics, but isn’t there a chance that your readers will?
JM: That’s okay, though of course Melville and Toni Morrison are much better writers than I am. But at least I’ll give you some of their great lines that you might otherwise never know.

PM: [In terms of the] section “what to skip?” There are people who argue that some of the experiences the brain has while reading are dependent on continuity. Your thoughts? Is this section just meant to be funny?
JM: No, I take it very seriously. It’s unrealistic to think that people will be able to read a lot of these works, so I tried extremely hard to isolate the parts that really are expendable. I don’t believe in condensing books, just in leaving out the weak and unnecessary stuff.

PM: How do you see this book fitting in with the zeitgeist—i.e. The whole world compressed in 140 characters. Why/when did you decide to write it?
JM: In 138 characters: Bloom wrote a book How to Read and Why that to me simply wasn’t good enough. This is my How to Read the Classics and Why. People need it.

by Sarah Zupko

18 Jun 2009

Earlier in the week PopMatters’ David Smith raved about the Maccabees’ new album, calling Wall of Arms a “tremendous sophomore set that suggests a bright future for British indie. “Can You Give It” is the record’s new anthemic single and the video features a documentary style.

by Sarah Zupko

18 Jun 2009

The new MGM remake of Fame releases September 25 and the studio has just put out a new trailer. I must confess to loving the original show and movie… yeah, I was a kid at the time, but still it was great fun. Not so sure about the remake and the trailer doesn’t even include the classic song. Undoubtedly, I’ll be seeing it though given that I’m a sucker for musicals, but some classics are perhaps better left alone.

by Rob Horning

18 Jun 2009

The Obama administration, thankfully, is making a serious push to reform the absurdly inefficient U.S. health care system, which is currently and pointlessly tied to employment status. And private insurers have every incentive not to insure individuals who may perhaps have the effrontery to become sick in the future, leaving those who get laid off doubly screwed over. In America, private nsurance appears like a racket whereby the companies collect premiums and then seek to deny coverage when the opportunity arises. If you don’t already hate health insurers, read these posts about recission and see what you think. Recission is when insurance companies respond to a customer needing health-care services by trumping up some error they made in filing paperwork as fraud, which then justifies the insurers in denying claims and dropping their coverage. And when questioned about the practice in Congress, the CEOs of several health insurers refused to consent to limiting the practice to, in the Los Angeles Times‘s words, “only policyholders who intentionally lie or commit fraud to obtain coverage.”

As any sane person would point out in response to this, the U.S. needs a public option—an insurance plan offered by the state that doesn’t seek to profit at the expense of the sick, one that is reasonably affordable and doesn’t rule people out entirely based on the risk they represent. Of course, in order for such a program not to explode the budget, health care costs would need to be brought under control. On that point, Atul Gawande’s recent article in the New Yorker about wasteful Medicare spending in McAllen, Texas, offers a lot to consider. It turns out that doctors’ overprescription of expensive tests leads to worse outcomes for patients.

. In 2006, doctors performed at least sixty million surgical procedures, one for every five Americans. No other country does anything like as many operations on its citizens. Are we better off for it? No one knows for sure, but it seems highly unlikely. After all, some hundred thousand people die each year from complications of surgery—far more than die in car crashes.
To make matters worse, Fisher found that patients in high-cost areas were actually less likely to receive low-cost preventive services, such as flu and pneumonia vaccines, faced longer waits at doctor and emergency-room visits, and were less likely to have a primary-care physician. They got more of the stuff that cost more, but not more of what they needed.


Gawande shows how hospitals and physicians, caught up in a for-profit medical world, have metrics that show them only whether they are making money, not whether their practices are making their community any healthier.

Local executives for hospitals and clinics and home-health agencies understand their growth rate and their market share; they know whether they are losing money or making money. They know that if their doctors bring in enough business—surgery, imaging, home-nursing referrals—they make money; and if they get the doctors to bring in more, they make more. But they have only the vaguest notion of whether the doctors are making their communities as healthy as they can, or whether they are more or less efficient than their counterparts elsewhere. A doctor sees a patient in clinic, and has her check into a McAllen hospital for a CT scan, an ultrasound, three rounds of blood tests, another ultrasound, and then surgery to have her gallbladder removed. How is Lawrence Gelman or Gilda Romero to know whether all that is essential, let alone the best possible treatment for the patient? It isn’t what they are responsible or accountable for.

This dynamic, along with a prevalent ideology that holds that what markets provide for is best, leads some doctors to conclude that maximizing profits is in some way guaranteeing that the appropriate amount of health care being administered. To do anything else would be socialistic “rationing.”

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, punctures that conservative talking point: “The noise about rationing is not really a courageous stand against less medical care. It’s a utopian stand against better medical care.” He notes that we are always already rationing (nobody gets their medical care without sacrificing something, even if it’s only a couple bucks), only we don’t call it that when richer people reap its benefits.

The high cost of care means that some employers can’t afford to offer health insurance and still pay a competitive wage. Those high costs mean that individuals can’t buy insurance on their own.
The uninsured still receive some health care, obviously. But they get less care, and worse care, than they need. The Institute of Medicine has estimated that 18,000 people died in 2000 because they lacked insurance. By 2006, the number had risen to 22,000, according to the Urban Institute.
The final form of rationing is ... the failure to provide certain types of care, even to people with health insurance. Doctors are generally not paid to do the blocking and tackling of medicine: collaboration, probing conversations with patients, small steps that avoid medical errors. Many doctors still do such things, out of professional pride. But the full medical system doesn’t do nearly enough.

Professional pride is a thin thread from which to hang the health of a country, particularly one as enamored with “rational self-interest” as the U.S. is. And the AMA—which boos Obama and decries the public option because it might deprive them of the opportunity of bilking insurance companies—does not give me much faith in the “professional pride” of doctors, though as one doctor notes here, the AMA is losing membership quickly. (It not represents less than a quarter of practicing physicians.) Clearly, the legal and social framework should be changed to align incentives with that professional pride, to make it easy for doctors to do the right things, help patients and overall healthfulness, rather than make it easy for them to rationalize doing the wrong thing and buy an extra Lexus or two. Gawande recommends that communities adopt a Mayo Clinic model in which doctors are paid a salary, rather than charging per visit and procedure, and work together to determine the course of a particular patient’s care, serving as a check on one another for unnecessary tests and such. I suspect the AMA does not concur.

by Matt Mazur

18 Jun 2009

Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) returns in this timely feminist tale set in Iran.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Double Take: 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' (1969)

// Short Ends and Leader

"The two Steves at Double Take are often mistaken for Paul Newman and Robert Redford; so it's appropriate that they shoot it out over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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