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The only Subject

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As a writer, right now I have, only one Subject. Which doesn’t mean I’m the only writer worth reading about the Subject (yes, I do have some remaining tattered shreds of humility).

Nor, it occurred to me, is the Subject the only subject that can provide insights into the Subject.

To that end, as I imagine you’re finding yourself with more reading time on your hands than usual, allow me to recommend Lynne Olson’s marvelous Citizens of London.

Even without its relevance, this book would belong on your reading shortlist. It’s history few of us know anything about — how three Americans — Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, and John Gilbert Winant helped save England before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers.

As we chafe at the self-imposed restrictions on our now-on-hold daily routines, it should be required reading: Citizens of London, as it relates the previously untold joint biography of Murrow, Harriman, and Winant, also tells the story of the Blitz in stark, unblinking terms.

Understanding the day-to-day stoicism, courage, and resilience with which the British dealt with two solid months of daily bombings should quell any sense we have of daily aggravation.

We find ourselves shopping on-line from the comfort of our homes. Our inconvenience is shortages brought about mostly because of shoppers who expect shortages. The British crowded into air raid shelters, wondering if this would be the time a German bomb turned their shelter into a mass tomb. And, it found them dealing with very real, painful, severe and constant shortages of food and basic commodities.

If, though, fiction is more to your liking than biography, and you’d like to read about the Subject without reading about it as daily … or hourly, or up-to-the-minute-breaking … news, get hold of the incomparable Connie Willis’s World War II duology, Blackout and All Clear. While not historically accurate in detail, Willis paints a vivid picture of Great Britain in World War II, and especially the Blitz, through the lens of time-traveling historians who find themselves caught up in it all.

If you don’t regularly read science fiction reader don’t be put off. The science-fictional elements don’t dominate the story. The everyday heroism of so-called “ordinary” people does.

Speaking only for myself, reading and thinking about the Blitz gives me something to aspire to.

Parallels between the Blitz and our current government-encouraged, self-imposed quarantines and isolation are, of course, inexact. Especially, the Blitz caused the British to crowd in together. They might have wished for a protective solution that let them isolate themselves, just as we wish for one that would let us congregate.

I will, by the way, allow you some escapism as you wait things out (no, don’t thank me!). While I’m touting Connie Willis, that means you should save The Doomsday Book — a grim and unrelenting telling of the bubonic plague — for more cheerful times.

Instead, seek out her utterly delightful To Say Nothing of the Dog. It’s about a time traveling historian’s (of course!) search for Jerome K Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),

Which is, if anything, even more delightful than Willis’s book about it.

Add it to your list.

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Those of us who write have, I think, a responsibility to make sure we rely on trustworthy sources of information; also to monitor ourselves to make sure the trustworthy sources we rely on aren’t limited to trustworthy sources who reliably tell us what we want to read (or hear).

Last week, while using the Subject as a springboard for writing about risk management, I highlighted a source of reliably untrustworthy information. Several subscribers objected to my bringing politics into KJR.

Interestingly, these same subscribers did not complain when I used the Democratic primaries as a springboard for writing about sexism in the workplace, even though I was less than kind in my comments about some of the candidates.

In any event, it’s fair to say that identifying trustworthy sources of information about the Subject is probably more useful than trying to list the near-endless sources of misinformation. Hint: if a source endorses bleach cocktails or homemade hydroxychloroquine, it’s untrustworthy.

Better to rely on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yes, the CDC’s early attempts at establishing a testing program were pretty ragged. No, that doesn’t disqualify it as a source of reliable information.

One more: while I’m sometimes less than complimentary regarding McKinsey & Company, its COVID-19 Executive Briefing for business management is quite good.

And, of course, there’s Snopes.

Comments (4)

  • Bob,

    Are you really not aware that you are and always have been a flaming, Minnesota liberal? Or do you just think you are so objective in your writing that your political preferences don’t matter? They do. We’ve known for a long time. Wouldn’t it be better to just admit it or would that make your writing so extreme you’d lose too many readers?

    • There’s a difference between a person’s political philosophy and their tribal affinity. By calling me a “flaming, Minnesota liberal” it appears you think about politics in tribal terms.

      I do my best to avoid tying my own affinity to a political tribe. There are other alternatives. Science and those who practice and follow it is one; journalism is another; the arts provide one more. I’d encourage you to try one of these, or another that suits you better. Just try something that doesn’t involve dividing the world into “us” and “them” based on which political party you consider to be “my team.”

      As for my writing straying toward the extremes … I confess to being curious as to exactly what you consider to be extreme.

  • For more escapism from Connie Willis, I recommend:
    . Bellwether (novel)
    . Impossible Things (short story collection)

  • Fact is facts.
    Our lives, and not just our livelihoods, will depend on whether we have a reliable source of facts that we can access in a timely manner. Ultimately, this is a principle of survival.
    We all must be held accountable for our actions. If it is a matter of policy, then there might be a political motivation. But, when it is a matter of competency or cause, a defense of political motivation is completely disingenuous and invalid.
    A tip of the cap to you, Bob, for drawing upon the core facts of this pandemic to delineate lessons for better management and governance of all of our organizations.

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