Archive for the ‘political writing’ Category

Essays on Obama: America the Beautiful

November 6, 2008

obamaAs I’ve posted before, regardless of one’s politics or feelings about the outcome of our 2008 Presidential election, there’s one thing that can be said about President-elect Barack Obama: the man can write.

The first sentences of his remarks on election night, as people screamed and sobbed and hugged each other, gave the inspiration that so many of his speeches have evoked:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It surprised me not one whit to be moved by his speech on election night. But what has pleasantly surprised me is how many essays I have read since Tuesday night that have equally moved me. All of the excerpts that follow invoke the same pride, inspiration, and love of country of Obama’s speeches:

The Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, in his essay “Morning in America,” wrote:

Yet something changed on Tuesday when Americans — white, black, Latino, Asian — entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. I always meant it when I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I always meant it when I sang the national anthem at ball games and shot off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But now there’s more meaning in my expressions of patriotism, because there’s more meaning in the stirring ideals that the pledge and the anthem and the fireworks represent.

Garrison Keillor had this to say in his column for The Chicago Tribune, “Advice for the Happy Couple”:

A golden November day under a blue sky and an air of sweet amiability at the polls and at the end of the day, we elected the right guy, no doubt about it. Yes, we can and we did. A nation spread its wings and achieved altitude.

Maria Niles, in her PopConsumer blog, wrote:

My 21 year-old niece voted in her first presidential election.  She will never know a different possibility – a time when only white men could lead this country.  Where black people where considered anything less than fully and completely American even though this country was built on our backs and with our blood.  My 94 year-old grandmother, our matriarch, who has been the keeper of our family’s oral history of slavery and escape is alive to see this moment.  My cousin who traveled from the north to the south to be a freedom fighter in the civil rights movement is witnessing this history.  My mother who spent days and months volunteering and making phone calls to participate in democracy and help make history is witnessing this moment.  My father who fought for the country he chose to become a citizen of has been transformed and electrified by this campaign and he is witnessing this moment.

Perhaps Roger Cohen of The New York Times best expresses in his essay “Perfecting the Union” what I am feeling as I read these essays, as well as the words of President-elect Obama: that words matter:

America can mean what it says. It can respect its friends and probe its enemies before it tries to shock and awe them. It can listen. It can rediscover the commonwealth beyond the frenzied individualism that took down Wall Street.

I know, these are mere words. They will not right the deficit or disarm an enemy. But words count. That has been a lesson of the Bush years…

Obama will reinvest words with meaning. That is the basis of everything. And an American leader able to improvise a grammatical, even a moving, English sentence is no bad thing.

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SNL Palin/Clinton Skit: When Satire Hits the Bullseye

September 14, 2008

I am jumping on this bandwagon as surely as the leaves are gonna fall, but I cannot help myself. In the past 24 hours, there have been a flurry of Twitter tweets and links to last night’s Saturday Night Live opening skit, even on the NPR website itself. So, in the event that you, like I, are happily dreaming on Saturday nights like the good nerds we are, I refer to you SNL’s spot-on national address by Sarah Palin (Tina Fey) and Hillary Clinton (Amy Poehler). In a Presidential campaign that seems to be deteriorating before my very eyes into mean-spiritedness and outright lies, it is so refreshing to be able to take a step back and laugh at the whole thing.

Here’s the thing about satire. In the political arena, it can be more potent as a tool to expose the truth about the fictions that the parties and/or politicians are trying to feed us than any other form of writing. I don’t know if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wrote this particular opening skit (and they well may have), but props to the writers of this address for highlighting some of the biggest absurdities of the campaign to date.

Political Writing: Raging Against the Semantic Machine

September 9, 2008

Y’know, I just haven’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for all the political rhetoric this season, even after (especially after) the DNC and RNC. It’s all “Sarah” this and “Biden” that, people having Obasms everyone – and in public, mind you. And to me, it just sounds like the teachers in the Charlie Brown television specials – “Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.”

But I have found a new hero, and his name is Leonard Pitts, Jr. A Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, he wrote an absolute pip of a column the other day on gobbledygook and intellectual dishonesty. Pitts rails against Mitt Romney’s speech given at the RNC in St. Paul on Sept. 3, in which Romney threw out the challenge to “throw out the big-government liberals.”  According to Pitts, this is pure gobbledygook, and he responds with his own:

I mean, baffle gab on the freak flake. Really.

That is my new favorite line ever. Seriously. Say it five times and tell me that you don’t feel better.

Anyway, Pitts defines intellectual dishonesty as arguing “that which you know to be untrue” and substituting ideology for intellect “to the degree that you’ll do violence to language and logic rather than cross the party line.” Now, I’m not certain I buy Pitts’ railing against the Republicans only; to me, it seems more a bipartisan effort, with each party throwing stones at the other’s glass houses. But what I love about the column is the passion and Pitts’ dedication to calling out intellectual dishonesty. He writes that people admire the words, not daring to pull them apart to see if the message holds. But not him:

Unfortunately, some of us are too plodding and earthbound, too blind to the seduction of art, too stubbornly wedded to some vestigial notion that intellectual honesty matters, to walk past a steaming pile of bovine excreta without calling it a steaming pile of bovine excreta.

By the way, “steaming pile of bovine excreta” is my second favorite new line.

Go read the column in its entirety, and then come back here and let’s have some discussion about intellectual honesty and politics. Do you think it’s possible for politicians – particularly in a campaign year – to break free of the ideological talking points and say something true?

Baffle grab on the freak flake.

Political Writing: Ghoulishly Good White House Ghosts

July 4, 2008

In honor of Independence Day, I was looking back at the Declaration of Independence, adopted on this date in 1776. I considered writing about that fine piece of work, the words that should be imprinted upon every American’s brain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It truly is gorgeous writing, meant to be uttered aloud, the words savored in the mouth like fine wine.

But then I thought about how, despite the primary authorship of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence is one of the first pieces of American political writing to emerge successfully from editing by committee (Jefferson might disagree as to its success). And that led me to thinking about an amazing book I just finished reading by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. This book covers the history of political speechwriters from FDR‘s administration up through the end of George W. Bush‘s first term. It’s WordHappy-worthy on two levels: first, Schlesinger himself does a beautiful job of laying out history in relation to a president’s relationship with his advisers and speechwriters. Secondly, the excerpts of the speeches themselves and some of the thoughts of the speechwriters quoted in the book make great reading as well.

As you read each chapter, it is fascinating to see how each president reacted differently to the challenge of communicating with the American people, whether it be on a campaign train, or via radio or television. Even more fascinating is how we learn that occasionally, being a good writer could be a detriment for a president. Jimmy Carter, for example, preferred to write his own speeches and did not use his speechwriters to their potential. But this proved to be his undoing – he did not have enough time to do his own speeches justice, and they were very badly received. [Note to Obama, who is alleged to write much of his own material: If you make it to the White House, sir, learn to delegate the writing.]

It is also fascinating to see how the process has evolved. In FDR’s tenure, he used a small stable of trusted advisers to write his speeches, that he then edited. The editing and clearance by committee apparently can be attributed to Gerald Ford‘s administration, specifically chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. [Please appreciate the strength of character it takes that I am not making any partisan comments about this dubious honor, nor about the writing of “shadow speeches” — speeches not written by the speechwriting department — by Ford’s second chief of staff Dick Cheney. Must. Bite. Tongue.] Schlesinger uses the words of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, to describe the process:

By Noonan’s estimate an insignificant speech would go to twenty people for approval, a major one to fifty. . . This process was “like sending a beautiful newborn fawn out into the jagged wilderness where the grosser animals would pierce its tender flesh and render mortal wounds,” Noonan wrote in her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution. “But perhaps I understate.”

This book is an absolute must-read in today’s political climate, for anyone who is interested in the leaders running our country and the extremely dedicated men and women trying to craft those leaders’ messages to the public.

Happy July 4th, everyone!

Political Writing: Obama Delivers the Goods

March 22, 2008

thmb_barack_profile.jpgSo I was quietly minding my own business this week when someone sent me a link to the text of Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union.” A speech that came from Obama’s own pen, according to many sources. I didn’t have a chance to read it until today, and I’m glad I waited, because it was good to be able to take my time and savor the richness of the writing.

There are a multitude of websites at this point where you can watch the speech and/or read the transcript. I read the text on MSNBC’s First Read. It is truly an inspirational piece of political writing. For those who haven’t read or heard it yet, one of the main purposes of the speech was to respond to the inflammatory comments made by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. And I thought Obama’s response was one of the most decent ways a man could respond to something like that:

As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

. . . As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

In this response, we see Obama’s immediate but measured response to a political controversy. But the speech transcends the controversy. By juxtaposing the conflicting elements within Rev. Wright and also his own grandmother, Obama exposes and juxtaposes his own loathing of racism against the love and loyalty of family. This side-by-side comparison of conflicting elements becomes a thematic motif of his speech, explicitly stated toward the beginning of his remarks:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.

It is, quite simply, a speech that I believe will be read long after the campaigns have been forgotten, that may one day even become as iconic as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Final disclaimer: I am commenting solely on this as a piece of writing. Should anyone wish to steer me toward a Hillary Clinton or John McCain speech that they feel is particularly amazing, I will be happy to give them equal time.

Political Writing: Maureen Dowd Bedazzles

February 28, 2008

Every once in a while, I read an op-ed column that is so entertaining, it could stand alone as a piece of great writing, even outside the context of the current events spurring it. Maureen Dowd‘s Op-Ed column today in The New York Times, “Begrudging His Bedazzling,” is one of those columns. Regardless of one’s politics, you have to appreciate the sheer fun evidenced in the wordplay of this column, which addresses the difficult time Hillary has had countering the Obama charisma (or “Obamisma,” as I like to call it). First, Dowd runs off a string of opposites in attributes, starting with “Sunny beats gloomy.” And to her credit, I think, these attributes are utterly free of gender connotations. But where she really starts to have fun with this piece is in her characterizations of the many voices of Hillary:

After saying she found her “voice” in New Hampshire, she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person -Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary, It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary, Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

That passage made me chortle with glee.

Now clearly, Ms. Dowd is no hack. She’s been an op-ed columnist for The New York Times since 1995 and won a Pulitzer for Distinguished Commentary in 1999. But I think she had some real fun writing this column, so for me, I’ll take her “bedazzled” and raise her a “bewitched.”

Political Writing: Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 21, 2008

MLK Jr. DayIt seems appropriate on this day to comment on the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I think about my gold standard for political writing, the writings of this man are what come to mind. Recall, if you will, in my earlier posts about the best political writing; I mentioned how truly great political writing talks about America in a global sense and in terms that inspire, often at the same time as they challenge.

Hopefully, everyone today will get to hear Reverend King’s “I have a dream” speech at least once today. And while it’s easy to let the words fly by if you’re not really paying attention or busy doing something else, or view it in a blase manner as just another day without mail, I urge you to take a moment and either listen once more to the speech, or to read the transcript. You can do either at the website American Rhetoric. But talk about inspiring and challenging – read these words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

Today’s speechwriters and politicians would be well served to study this speech, and deconstruct it for the writing lessons it provides. Its inspiration does not flow from some magical source. Reverend King used repetition to great effect, but not just repetition; he subtly wove in allusions and quotations from the founding fathers and The Bible. He interspersed these historical contexts with current day examples. He used metaphor and analogy and alliteration, all in a way that complemented the words he spoke from the heart. Truly, his writing will live forever.

Political Writing: The Best Writers of the Republican Presidential Candidates

January 13, 2008

MicrophonesWow, it was as if the political higher powers heard my cry — “Why, oh why, isn’t there one single location where I can find transcripts to speeches on a single topic by all the candidates? Why must I suffer through websites that have no place to pull up speeches?” (Yes, I’m talking to you, Rudy Giuliani and to you, too, Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter). But a quick Google search on “transcript 2007 Republican candidates” pulled up the answer to my dreams — the blog for the Family Research Council. In its “Washington Briefing” section, the blog offers transcripts of remarks of each of the Republican presidential candidates (McCain, Thompson, Paul, Giuliani, Romney, Hunter, Huckabee) given at the Voter Values Summit held in October, 2007 in Washington, D.C. Huzzah, I say!

Why am I so stringent about the point that I want to read transcripts of speeches rather than watching them on YouTube or the candidates’ websites? Because I am looking at the writing, not the presentation. As with their Democratic opponents, these men are all experienced public speakers, able to make you believe they are talking to you and you alone. There has been many a public speaker who has been able to finesse a poorly written speech simply by the sheer force of his or her speaking skills. Therefore, I want the words.

In case those of you just joining in to the conversation did not hear my disclaimer from the post on the Democrats’ writing, let me repeat it here:

  • I am not — repeat, not — making any candidate endorsement by telling you who I believe the best writer to be. While there have been great Presidents in our history who were also great writers, I do not believe there is any hard and fast correlation between one’s writing ability (or one’s speechwriter’s ability) and one’s ability to lead the country.
  • My criteria for judging the “best” writing from a speech was whether it was able to evoke a true feeling of community or vision. Now, speeches in the primaries are obviously different from presidential speeches for State of the Union or other occasions. We are not going to get “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Primary speeches must set forth the problems of the country and pose solutions, tell the voter why the opposing party or administration is cognitively challenged or morally bereft, and why the candidate poses the best solution.

And now, the envelope please. . .

In my opinion, the award for the Republican candidates for President with the best writing chops (or the best speechwriters) goes to both Sen. John McCain and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In John McCain’s speech, he ended his speech with a memorable, evocative story from his time in VietNam, about a cellmate of his who had sewn red and white strips of fabric to his blue uniform shirt to fashion a rudimentary American flag, and how he’d been beaten when it was discovered:

As I said, we cleaned him up as well as we could. I went over to lie down to go to sleep, and
as I did, I happened to look over, and in the corner of the cell beneath a dim lightbulb with a piece
of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his bamboo needle, with his eyes almost shut from the
beating that he had received of course was my friend Mike Christian sewing another American flag.
He wasn’t — (applause) — he obviously wasn’t doing that because it made him feel better, because
he knew how important it was.
Now today, we have another generation of Mike Christians who are over there, fighting for
someone else’s freedom, putting it on the line every single day. And I am most proud — I am most
proud to tell you that they are the best, they are the very best America has ever produced.

This story obviously serves a political purpose by reminding the listener of Senator McCain’s time in captivity. But it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the American spirit and was an ideal way to end a speech on an inspirational — if somber — note.

The only other candidate in his speech whom I felt referenced the America that I associate with the most stirring political speeches of history was –frankly, much to my surprise– former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his remarks, he stated:

I see a country that’s committed to building a more civil society based on a spirit of
mutual respect. I see a country that’s committed to restoring the social contract which
says for every right there’s a duty; for every benefit we have an obligation. And I see a
country that is truly committed to promoting a culture of personal responsibility.

and:

It’s been my experience that unless we work hard to reaffirm basic society standards,
civic decay starts to set in. Individual responsibility erodes. That’s why the next
president must work to restore this very basic idea; it’s a core idea of our government and
our society: For every right, there’s a duty. For every benefit, there’s an obligation that
goes along with it.

Finally, a little lighthearted comparisons:

No. of candidates who opened their speech with a lighthearted family anecdote: 2 (Thompson and Hunter)
No. of candidates who referenced the Founding Fathers in their remarks: 6 (all but Hunter)
No. of former Presidents quoted: 3 (Lincoln, Jefferson, and Reagan)

So, let’s have some lively debate. How do your favorite Republican candidates stack up as writers?

Addendum (1/19/08): I received a lovely email from Tracey deFrancesco of the organization Procon.org. She informed me that their website has a page dedicated to the 2008 Presidential election, including speech transcripts of ALL the candidates, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party. So hooray for Procon! And definitely check them out if you’re looking for information about all the Presidential candidates. I only wish I’d heard of them earlier. Sigh.

Political Writing: The Best Writers of the Democratic Presidential Candidates

January 9, 2008

SpeechI am getting very jazzed over the presidential primary elections. But it’s made me wonder — do any of these politicians have the writing chops to back up their views on the issues? So I decided to look at each of the remaining Democratic candidates’ websites (and before any people start hollering at me about fair play, just hold your horses — I’ll get to the Republicans later this week). As much as I would like to judge them using entirely objective measures, it simply isn’t possible from their websites. For the record, I looked the websites of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich.

Okay, I thought – I’ll look at a speech from each candidate as a representative sample of their work. Now, I’m not naive — I know perfectly well that a more appropriate title for this post is the Best Speechwriter Hired by a Democratic Presidential Candidate. But who, besides speechwriters, wants to read that? So be that as it may, I went trolling on the candidates’ websites for a speech, preferably one on a subject all of them had touched upon, like the economy. Much to my shock and dismay, I had to hunt for speeches. And in Dennis Kucinich’s case, while he has video of everything he’s ever said on his website, he blatantly discriminates against those who would rather read a transcript. So I Googled him instead to come up with a speech.

Was it possible to come up with a speech on a single topic that all the candidates had given? Heck, no. So instead, I viewed speeches on the economy (Clinton); restoring our democracy (Edwards); a personal message “You Can Help Me Win” (Gravel, whose website offered no speeches that I could find); reclaiming the American Dream (Obama); a new foreign and domestic vision (Richardson); and nuclear nonproliferation (Kucinich).

Now what kind of opinion-maker would I be if I didn’t back-pedal and offer some disclaimers? Before I give you my results, first the rationale:

  • I am not — repeat, not — making any candidate endorsement by telling you who I believe the best writer to be. While there have been great Presidents in our history who were also great writers, I do not believe there is any hard and fast correlation between one’s writing ability (or one’s speechwriter’s ability) and one’s ability to lead the country.
  • My criteria for judging the “best” writing from a speech was whether it was able to evoke a true feeling of community or vision. Now, speeches in the primaries are obviously different from presidential speeches for State of the Union or other occasions. We are not going to get “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Primary speeches must set forth the problems of the country and pose solutions, tell the voter why the opposing party or administration is cognitively challenged or morally bereft, and why the candidate poses the best solution.

And yet — within these speeches I did come across two candidates whom I felt gave some memorable images about America and its promise: Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinich. In Obama’s Nov. 7, 2007 speech, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” he stated:

America is the sum of our dreams. And what binds us together, what makes us one American family, is that we stand up and fight for each other’s dreams, that we reaffirm that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – through our politics, our policies, and in our daily lives. It’s time to do that once more. It’s time to reclaim the American dream.

Similarly, Kucinich was able to evoke a sense of real global unity in his May, 2005 speech given at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference:

As we work to create new models for enhancing cooperation between participants of nation states, a new model is evolving in the world of diplomacy. Wherever and whenever nation states fail to reconcile their differences, a new citizen diplomacy arises: Citizen diplomats summon the power of their own hearts and confirm their own humanity through reaching out and discovering their brothers and sisters speak other languages, have other colors and other religions and share a common desire to live out their lives in peace and tranquility. The work of nongovernmental organizations is equally urgent in saving this planet.

Both these candidates for me, at least, best typified the type of writing in a speech that can inspire as well as educate. But that’s just one writer’s opinion.

What say you all?

Addendum (1/19/08): I received a lovely email from Tracey deFrancesco of the organization Procon.org. She informed me that their website has a page dedicated to the 2008 Presidential election, including speech transcripts of ALL the candidates, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party. So hooray for Procon! And definitely check them out if you’re looking for information about all the Presidential candidates. I only wish I’d heard of them earlier. Sigh.

Political Writing: The Sequel

December 27, 2007

DonkeyElephantJust in time for the primaries, Valdis Krebs of orgnet.com has come up with another fascinating — maybe a little frightening — example of social network patterns and in this case, how they relate to political book buying. As I originally wrote about in the post “Has Partisanship Ruined Political Writing?,” book buying has split in a fairly straight-forward fashion into red and blue clusters, with only a few books bridging the gap between the schism. This latest network visualization shows the most influential books in each cluster using a “prestige metric” from social network analysis. Broken Government shows up as the most influential blue book, and An Inconvenient Book is the most influential red book, just beating out Power to the People.

Take a look at the visualization yourself. Which of the books, if any, have you read?