Jack Shafer

  • Imperfectly Clear

    Transparency is now such a venerated public good in America you’d suspect that—like the Grand Canyon and three-card monte—it has always been with us. But no, writes Michael Schudson in his learned history The Rise of the Right to Know. Transparency, it turns out, is only about as old as rock ’n’ roll (though, as is the case with rock ’n’ roll, its champions can point to historical precursors that gave it its form). Given this hint, you might then guess that transparency—and its bureaucratic manifestation, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—was conjured into being by the civil-rights movement

  • Written in Blood

    GO AHEAD AND CANCEL the asbestos-gloves order you placed with Amazon in preparation for reading Robert H. Patton’s luridly titled (and grandiosely subtitled) Hell Before Breakfast. You won’t need them. The book’s sulfur-and-perdition name oversells by a factor of about ten the levels of excitement, adventure, and journalistic history its pages actually deliver. If the truth-in-advertising provisions of federal law applied to books, its publisher would now be retitling it more accurately, perhaps 1860–1890: An Unhurried Account of Several Newspapers, a Dozen Reporters, and Five or Six Major Wars

  • As He Pleased

    We know from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four that he thought of the diary as a potentially seditious form. Diaries are not illegal in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four because nothing is—Airstrip One’s legal code has been abolished. But Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, understands the consequences of committing his private thoughts and personal observations to the page well before he lifts his pen to print the words “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.” “If detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp,” Orwell

  • The Iconoclast

    What do you call a revival that never ends? Over the past two decades, publishers have added three biographies of H. L. Mencken—Mencken: A Life by Fred Hobson, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout, and Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers—to the three or four that had already been released. Over that same period, Mencken, who died in 1956 at the age of seventy-five, has been more prolific than many living authors. We’ve seen the release of a volume of memoirs (My Life as Author and Editor), a journal Mencken kept between 1930 and 1948 (The Diary of H.