Last year, the big debate in the world of books was over the question of whether or not a novel has to feature "likeable" main characters in order for readers to identify with them or make us want to stick with their stories. The debate had a sexist tinge to it: Female characters seemed especially burdened with the need to be pleasing. (In fact, the whole issue was ignited by reaction to Claire Messud's novel, The Woman Upstairs, which features as its protagonist a rather glum elementary school teacher in her 30s.) This year in books brings us a new novel that, to my mind, shoves the "likeability" issue into the dustbin of beside-the-point literary debates where it belongs.
Brian Morton's novel Florence Gordon features a 75-year-old woman — an icon of the Second Wave Women's Movement — as its heroine. She's a self-described "difficult woman"; even those who love her regard her as a "pain in the neck." Don't think of Florence Gordon as some egghead version of Betty White; Florence is not cute or sentimentalized in her crankiness. She's more in the intimidating Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, "Lioness-in-Winter" mode: someone who doesn't suffer fools (or most anyone else) gladly. You wouldn't want to be her friend or family member; rather, you're deeply grateful — at least I was — to meet her in the best way possible: in the exquisitely crafted pages of Morton's witty, nuanced and ultimately moving novel.
Florence lives in Manhattan (where else?) and on the opening page of the novel, we find her at work on her long-deferred memoir. Here's how Morton's omniscient narrator introduces this woman: "Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual. And who on earth, she sometimes wondered, would want to read a book about an old intellectual? Maybe it was three strikes, because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist. Which meant that if she ever managed to finish this book, reviewers would inevitably dismiss it as 'strident' and 'shrill.'"
That passage, by the way, constitutes practically the entirety of Chapter One. Morton toys with the length of chapters throughout his novel, mimicking the rhythms of life: some chapters are one paragraph long and end abruptly (like many of Florence's conversations); others are a bit longer and more lyrical (like the one in which Florence's daughter-in-law falls slowly and regretfully in love with a co-worker while they go bowling together).
Florence's writing is interrupted by a visit from her nice adult son, Daniel, who's a cop living in Seattle. Florence has always been bored by Daniel and what she thinks of as his "cottage-cheesy politeness," as well as by what is (to her) his bizarre career choice. Also intruding into Florence's precious time are Daniel's restless wife of 23 years and teenaged daughter, Emily. Emily dislikes her semi-famous grandmother — especially because Florence can't seem to remember her name — and, yet, as weeks go by, she's intrigued by Florence's grit and by what Emily thinks of as "a rather different model of how to be human."
An even bigger disruption enters Florence's life in the form of a glowing Sunday New York Times review of her last book written by the eminent philosopher, Martha Nussbaum. (Morton's novel, by the way, frequently drops the names of thinkers like Katha Pollitt, Raymond Williams and Tony Judt.) Suddenly, Florence is embarking on her first-ever book tour, dealing brusquely with fawning female fans of a certain age, parrying with some patronizing younger feminists, and, along the way, sensing the chill of mortality on her skin.
Why spend time in Florence Gordon's severe company? Well, as one of her simpering admirers who's just been verbally assaulted by Florence tells her, "You're brutal. ... But I appreciate it." Florence Gordon is one of those extraordinary novels that clarifies its readers' sense of things, rather than cozying up to our conventional pieties. Morton's ending is straight out of a Chekov story: It's up in the air and brave; a closing vision of a life in all its messy contradictions, just limping down the street.
The story of how the digital age came to be involves a cast of more than 40 people, ranging from a 19th century English countess to California hippies. In his new book, The Innovators, Walter Isaacson profiles many of those characters, focusing on how their collaborations helped bring us into the digital age.
Isaacson has long held an interest in creative minds. He's written highly regarded biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. But, as he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, his latest book is an attempt to shift away from writing about one person's creativity.
"One of the things we biographers realize is that we distort history a little bit," Isaacson says. "We make it sound like there's some great individual in a garage or a garret who has a light-bulb moment and all of a sudden innovation happens. But when you look at innovation, especially in this day and age, it happens in teams — creativity is a collaborative effort in the digital age. I wanted to get away from writing about the singular individual."
On early computers
They were big ol' things with vacuum tubes, so they glowed and they let off heat. They looked like things in those old movies with the blinking lights. They took up ... the room and most of them were used for wartime uses. ... Colossus was used to break the German codes; ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer] did missile trajectories, but then a group of women helped reprogram it so it could do atom bomb tests.
On why the Internet is decentralized
The people who were designing it decided for two reasons not to centralize control of the Internet. One ... given by the colonels in the Pentagon is they wanted to make sure that the Russians couldn't send a nuclear attack on some hub and destroy our communication system. So they wanted a system that was distributed.
But the people who were actually building this system, they weren't really thinking about Russian attacks. They were kind of rebellious anti-authoritarian types — they wanted power to the people. They called it "computing power to the people." And so they created a system in which every node on the Internet has the ability to store, to forward, to originate information. ... This decentralized system made it hard for the Russians to blow it up, but it also made it hard for the government or corporations to control the Internet. ...
The Internet could've been designed by the Pentagon or some big corporation. ... Instead, nobody really wanted to build this thing, so it was done in sort of an ad hoc manner. ... It sprang out from the ground up, as opposed to being dictated from the top down — which is the way it could've happened, in which case we would have an Internet that would have a lot of on and off switches that our politicians could control.
On the public's feelings about government involvement in computer development in the '40s and '50s
[Like today], a lot of people believed it was sinister back then. ... This is of course when George Orwell's 1984 is coming out. It was published in 1948 and people thought that computers would lead to Big Brother-like government. But the people who were developing both the Internet and then the personal computer realized that you had to make it personal — you had to give access and power to each of the individuals and that would help the system from becoming Orwellian.
On how San Francisco Bay Area culture gave birth to the personal computer
What you have in the Bay Area of California in the 1970s is a cultural brew that is very anti-authoritarian and it becomes sort of a caldron in which the personal computer can be born. Out in Boston, near MIT, and in Philadelphia, where they did ENIAC, there wasn't this ferment. [The] companies there never thought, "Oh, we're going to want to have personal computers." They were just building office computers that people would share.
But out in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, you have people who have been part of the anti-war movement. You have hippies who've [read Tom Wolfe's] The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with [protagonist] Ken Kesey and others who are rebellious and believe in power to the people. You have people following Stewart Brand who read [his book], Whole Earth Catalogue, which has as its philosophy access to tools; and they want to take back this computing power and really make it something that they can use personally and use it as organizing tools and rebellious tools. This is where the personal computer comes out of this brew in California.
On the sealed-up nature of modern technology
One of the things that bothers me is that we used to be able to solder our own circuits when we were making our ham radios. And nowadays, when you have an iPhone or iPad or, for that matter, even a laptop, you're not supposed to open it up. You don't know what goes on inside. So that ability to tinker and solder and to even know what a circuit is, why an on/off switch — which is basically all a transistor does is flick things on and off — why on/off switches can make logic happen. Those are very important things. So I would hope that there would be a way in the future where we wouldn't just understand the software, but we would have a better feel [for it]. ... Certainly if you look at all the great people of the digital age ... they loved that hands-on imperative, to be able to take it apart, to be able to fiddle with it. I fear that our machines these days are a little too sealed up.
Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors, and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:
Lena Dunham On Sex, Oversharing And Writing About Lost 'Girls': Dunham says when she started writing HBO's Girls, she was drawn to characters with "a bit of a Zelda Fitzgerald lost, broken woman quality." Her new essay collection is called Not That Kind of Girl.
'All The Truth Is Out' Examines How Political Journalism Went Tabloid: Matt Bai says that while voters have always cared about candidates' characters, some news used to be off limits. His new book looks at Gary Hart's 1987 affair that destroyed his political ambitions.
You can listen to the original interviews here: