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Friday, April 23, 2010

A Hundred Years from Now

By John MacBeath Watkins

I like reading old books. For one thing, the bad ones have been forgotten, so through the winnowing of time, the average book written a hundred or more years ago and still remembered is better than the average book published today. Sometimes a book has to wait for its time; Moby Dick initially received a cool reception when it was published in 1851, but its theme of obsession, scenes of violence and kaleidoscopic style made more sense to audiences after WW I. The book had its fans before that, which is why it kept getting reprinted, but few recognized it as a masterpiece until then.

I do wonder about the future of the book. I don't think the book is necessarily an artifact of its medium; after all, the Iliad and the Odyssey are both about the length of a novel, though they were originally epic poems in an oral tradition. To some extent, I expect the internet to originate its own forms, but some ways of telling a story are too appealing to die out. A story we can get lost in for about 100,000 words or so seems to be one of them.

It seems to me that the books that last have to function on the level of myth. The currently popular book that will most obviously be read 100 years from now is Lord of the Rings. While the writers who most wanted to be recognized as great were playing with modernism and social realism, Tolkien was writing an epic. Like Moby Dick, it was a book not dictated by the fashion of its time.

I suspect Kurt Vonnegut will stand the test of time better than Norman Mailer or John Updike. It is easy for critics to undervalue humor, and his was Swiftian, illuminating the absurdity of things we've taken seriously.

Catch-22, like Slaughterhouse 5, displays a feel for the absurdity of what has come to be regarded as the sacred war of the 20th century, the only one we can look back at with some certainty that it was right and justified. No doubt some earnest books about that war will also be read a century from now, but Heller and Vonnegut found ways to view it that seem to speak about all wars, so theirs are less bound by time.

Now, we can't know how our culture will change as time passes, or what overlooked masterpieces will reach prominence in the future. But what is being read now that will still be read a hundred years from now? Books created for the moment don't stand much of a chance, so I don't think The Audacity of Hope has much of a hope. Dreams from My Father stands a better chance, but its status will have much to do with Barak Obama being our first non-white president. However history judges the man, the story of him struggling with his identity will be important to historians. Had he not at least won the Democratic nomination, I doubt this would be on the hundred year reading list, though it would be just as good a book.

Often, a book matters in part because of what the author has been through, even if it isn't autobiographical. Had Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) not grown up with slavery, could he have written The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with such power and humanity? Slavery was about treating people as objects, and the book is about humanizing the slave Jim. No matter how much historical research an author does, it seems it would be a poor substitute for actually knowing slaves and slave owners. Huck knows that he will go to Hell for helping Jim escape, with the kind of certainty that comes from growing up knowing something rather than having to be convinced. In the world of Huck Finn, the problem is not the evil slaveholder, it's the good people who obey the laws that established slavery, because that's what it means in their world to be good people. Huckleberry Finn's greatness is his willingness to help his friend, Jim, even though it will send him to Hell.

It is a world someone who hadn't grown up with the peculiar institution could not have portrayed with such depth.

But Clemons was well known in his day. Herman Melville was reasonably successful, but not considered a great writer, nor was Jane Austen. Who, in the early 1800s, could have guessed she would be more avidly read in the 21st century than in her own lifetime?

And who are the Melvilles and Austens of a century from now? It's a game for quiet afternoons, useful for forgetting the fashions of the moment.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tolkien and ...Lincoln?

By Jamie Lutton

For the reader who is bewildered by the mania over Tolkien, here is why he is read, and reread, by legions of fans.

1. He spent 12 years on The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, writing it on old student's papers, as he was too poor to buy extra paper.

2. He showed the manuscripts to some very smart, and critical friends in a club he belonged to, who made him rewrite it, again and again - The Inklings.

3. He was one of the most important linguists of the century, and he created the languages in the book, as the core of the books, so the book had structure.

4. He was inspired by real myths, like the epic myths of the Finnish and other northern people, and used words.

5. The hero of the book (Frodo or Sam, depending on who you ask) is the poor s.o.b. swept up by events in history, not the Hero with The Sword. This is the mistake made by most fantasy writers; they make the Hero with The Sword the focus, instead of an everyman or everywoman.

6. He first wrote a popular fantasy book - The Hobbit - for children 20 years earlier, thought about it, and decided to make it an adult book. His letters say that the book 'wrote itself': in particular the Black Riders, took the book away from him. This is the sign of a great book. (The same thing happened with the writing of The White Goddess by Robert Graves: he chronicles this in his account of how that was written in his collection of essays).

And of course these books are dated They reflect the world Tolkien lived in. When the movie adaptions were done a few years ago, for example, Sam was made a lot less servile. The movies did leave out the poetic and epic feel Tolkien was aiming at, and are only a faint shadow of the books. The Ents are far too shallow and silly in the movies, for example. I suppose an twentieth century director could not make a walking Tree that was thousands of years old truly vivid and terrible. In our century, we have killed too many millions of trees like the orcs in these books. Tolkien cuts a bit close here; that is one of the reasons I think he is so popular. We recognize Middle Earth's evils and virtues as our own, writ into fantasy.

Even if you don't pick up Tolkien, as it does not appeal, I suggest Gary Willis's Lincoln At Gettysburg. There is a connection between Tolkien and Lincoln that I noticed, last night. Both Lincoln and Tolkien are brilliant writers in very different areas, but the methods are similar. Both labored very hard, and evolved their work over time - with the help of their peers.

Tolkien would bring scraps of what would become Lord of the Rings to his friends at the "Inklings" - a group of professors and writers that included C. S. Lewis. They would discuss the bit of work at hand, and other things they had all worked on individually. And so it was with Lincoln, and his circle of friends.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Willis gives a history of Lincoln's circle and the evolution of his writing and thinking before he gave the Gettysburg Address, and the political climate of the 1850's that led to the Civil War.

I note the connection, as both writers have produced works that make the world blink, and many try to copy, and fail.

People who follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, and write fantasy fail, as they do not spend a decade on their book before they release it. And political figures who have followed Lincoln fail to write like him fail, as they do not evolve, and change, and listen to intellectual peers, and try to wrestle with their writing, to improve it. Only Winston Churchill wrote nearly as well, and there is much more to select from, to find his best, as he was very prolific.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was 30 years in the making. Gary Willis book on it and the Civil War is not to be missed. It is also a small, great refutation of the current argument that the war was 'just' about state's rights. It was about extending slavery to the North and the territories. Gary Willis, here, settles the question brilliantly.

(It's odd that there is controversy at all, since the declarations of the causes of secession issued by the Southern states say slavery was the cause of their secession.)

Nowadays, politicians and novelists have shortcuts. Politicians can hire speechwriters, and novelists have access to more resources. Both have word processors; But the genius is missing. I have not seen a politician rise who is as brilliant as Lincoln, or who can write as well.

Nor do I hear tell of fantasy as good as Tolkien, though writers arise who write nearly as well. Some writers, like Le Guin, who wrote first for the young adult market, has written some good fantasy that is not derived from Tolkien, that are quite good. But writers who are in the same class as Tolkien are very rare. The demands of the paycheck push writers to put out books that are half-baked. A Fantasy writer will usually put out one book that is good, and the rest are rushed, and pretty crappy. And most of it has direct lifts from Tolkien or earlier fantasy writers.

Tolkien had a day job teaching at Cambridge, which gave him time to work on Lord of the Rings. And he had also the royalties from the Hobbit, which he revised after he wrote Lord of the Rings to improve and make consistent with the later works.
Lincoln had jobs in various political offices that he held, so that he had time to refine his writing skills. Besides reading Lincoln at Gettysburg, pick up Lincoln's Speeches in the Dover edition, available at any large University book store, for about $2. This inexpensive edition is worth having on the smallest shelf, and chronicles the development of his style.

Reading about Forgotten Crimes, in the book Forgotten Crimes

by Jamie Lutton

Now I will reveal why I don't post that much. I am reading before publication, and offering remarks, on a book about the history of Genocide. This will take a lot of my time till the book is published at the end of the year.

This book is pretty personal for me, as the long arm of Eugenics reached into my own life, and the lives of people who influenced me.

The book I am reading recently, that I recommend very strongly, is Forgotten Crimes by Suzane, E. Evans. Published in 2006, this book documents the savage treatment by the German medical system, well before the rise of the Nazis, of persons who the medical system there deemed inferior. This treatment included forcing persons to be sterilized, and, later, murdering them. This was done in the name of 'racial hygiene', a concept that persists in modern medicine, and still persists in medical attitudes towards persons with disabilities today.

The author gives documented examples in her book.

Persons included people born deaf, born blind, with manic depression, dwarfism, or children that just looked frail.

I will come back to this post, later, when I have time. I also run a bookstore, and have to wait on people. But do pick this book up.

There is a old Latin saying, that I will translate, before I sign off. "Who will guard the guardians?". Who decides who dies? And when the medical profession goes down this path, and starts to kill the "useless" people, who decides gets on that list?

And who is useless? Steven Hawkings? Helen Keller? Me?

signing off on April 12, 2010 11 am

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Four history books on the early twentieth century I reccomend hightly

By Jamie Lutton

I was on my third reading of The Great Crash in late August of 2008, while on a brief vacation in Aruba, it was my beach book. One of my hosts, who had sprung for the trip, was complaining about the current dip in the stock market. I earnestly turned to him, and told him to liquidate his holdings.

I had seen the latest crash coming for years; all the literary presses like The New Yorker would run little worried pieces about the run up in the housing market; but only reading John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 gave me the historical context to help me understand what I was looking at, in the fall of 2008. I fortunately or unfortunately had suffered earlier reverses that had caused me to liquidate earlier, so when I watched the market plummet, it was not a personal blow. But I did get hit hard by the effect on retail sales in my business. For a good year after the crash, no one bought books; or not very many, and I nearly went out of business. This has been a frighning time. I do not think I will have very many more beach vacations in my future.

Reading history prepares for all sorts of life experiences. It helps to spot liars and lying institutions, first off, as history is full of them, the havoc they cause, and their downfall. History makes deep time more understandable. And makes the financial reverses we have all suffered more bearable.

The four books I recommend that my readers tackle, and read back to back, are William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, a history of the United States from 1932 to 1972. Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday, by Fredrick Lewis Allen, a History of the Twenties and the Thirties, respectively, of the United States. Last, but not Least, The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith.

If you had to read one of these books, and not the others, I would read Only Yesterday. It was published in 1931; so it is a fresh history book, written just after events it chronicles. This is important; it does not use annoying hindsight, or "what-we-know-now-isms". This is an historians telling people of the time what just happened, by an eyewitness who went through it with them. It is also considered good enough to be used as an original source by later writers, so it is not a fudged or lying account. It was a huge hit in its day. This book chronicles the history of the nation year by year, covering all the controversies, like 'The Big Red Scare', reflecting the revolution in Russia, the reaction and adaption to Prohibition, to womens clothing not only going from long skirts to very short, but losing 75% of its weight, in only a few years. This is the decade where America became recognizibly America, from drinking habits, political prejudices, to dating habits and mores. Americans may have gone into a higher or lower jobless rates, or been more or less tolerant of liberal ideas, but the basic pattern of American habits are set down in this decade. When you read this book, you will know these people, even if they are your grandparents.

Allen's book on the Thirties will reinforce this vision of the past, with the added shadow of the growth of fascism in Europe, so like our fear of the Muslim extremism now. And the the terror of joblessness and destitution is so like our fear of the future, with our fear of global warming and environmental collapse. With 30% of the population out of work in the thirties, with no real relief in sight, this fear was quite stark.

Galbraith's book is like a bark of dark laughter. His chronicle of the Great Crash can almost be read for laughs, if it was not so dense with facts and information. Each time I reread Galbraith, I struggled to understand the workings of the Stock Market of his day, as the Market of 2007 and 2008 was going wildly out of control. I reread it again before I wrote this entry. Gailbraiths dark, mordant wit seems more like a college lecturer trying to entreat and implore me not to make the same foolish mistakes these people made.

In this book, he goes back as far as the entire decade, spending a lot of time on the two years before the actual crash, showing the ugly underpinnings of the vaporization of value of the market. We thought the crash of 2008 was bad; from 1929 to 1932, the market lost over 90% of its value, as the public lost more and more confidence in it. This is an excellent book to read now, when the market skyrockets up, with no recovery in the economy to account for it. I would especially recommend this book to anyone doing any long range financial planning for his or her family. It is also good to note that it took the liberals who came to power in 1932 to straighten out the mess left by the powers that be in the 1920's and early 1930's. Over a trillion dollars lost, 1/3 of the work force thrown out of work, because of laisse-faire notions of the economy. We very nearly had a revolution like Russia and China, or fascism like Germany; there were that many starving people in America. Roosevelt and the hope he brought saved the country from ruinous overthrow of the constitution.

The Glory and The Dream is more of a political history of the United States, written by a non-American, and English writer noted by his long expert biography of Winston Churchill. This volume is very friendly; and starts out with a bang; the bonus "riots" - protests - by the World War One veterans in Washington D.C.

This book, written in the 1970's, draws heavily on the two books by Fredrick Lewis Allen; by reading all three, you can see how the material is handled by two different authors. Manchester takes us through WW II, and through the sixties, to the time close to the present, when other historians pick up the threads.

These four books leave out gritter matters that authors like Howard Zinn talk about, but they give a very good grounding on the period. Work through these four books, and then try Zinn and others to get the bits left by the contemporary historians like these. And if you can master Gailbraith's economics, you are well on the way to understanding what happened in 2008.

I plan to return to this essay later - but I wanted to get the word out on these authors now. April 12, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World

by John MacBeath Watkins

The sea and inland waters have given us some great writers. Joseph Conrad was a sea captain, James Fenimore Cooper a naval lieutenant, Mark Twain a Mississippi River pilot, Herman Melville was an able-bodied seaman on whalers and a Naval frigate, Frederick Marryat a midshipman at Trafalgar and a captain when he wrote his first book. Joshua Slocum belongs among them for his writing ability, though he produced only two books, and only one is famous.

In 1895 sailing for pleasure on long ocean passages was almost unknown. Such passages were the province of fully-crewed ships. When the owners of the schooner America wanted to race her in England, they crossed by steamer and left to professionals the task of sailing the vessel across the Atlantic. When the owners of the 54-foot sloop Alice, built in New Hampshire in 1866, wanted to cruise her in Europe, they hired Capt. Arthur Clark to sail the boat across, with a crew of three professionals, a steward, and two young amateur yachtsmen. Merchant ships invariably hailed her as a vessel in distress, assuming such a small yacht could only be so far at sea through misadventure.

Slocum sailed out of Boston, Mass., April 24, 1895, alone on a 37-foot oyster sloop he had rebuilt from a hulk, with the intention of sailing alone around the world. The enterprise seemed foolish. But Slocum was a life-long mariner, had once owned his own ship, and had been tried for murder after shooting two mutineers who came at him with knives. He'd been shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil with his family, built a sampan with a junk rig, and sailed it back to the U.S. His boat, the Spray, was not ideal for the journey. An oyster boat has to be shallow, and such boats can be capsized. Most mariners prefer a boat that can be knocked down on their beam ends and still recover, but this was the boat Slocum had, so it's the one used. He'd tried to find a ship to command, but he was a sailing-ship skipper, and steam was taking over. He'd rebuilt the Spray and tried to make her pay fishing for cod, but found he'd lost the touch for jigging. So he did what he knew, and set out to sea again.

His first wife had died, his second did not care for life at sea, so he sailed alone. He lacked a good chronometer, so celestial navigation was nearly impossible, though at one point he shot a lunar distance sight to confirm his longitude, a feat few modern mariners can do. He had two old alarm clocks he used for dead reckoning (if you reckon wrong, you're dead.)

At every port, he was wined and dined, invited to tell the tale of his voyage so far. Sometimes those dinners became tales themselves, as when a head of state corrected him, saying you do not mean you are sailing around the world, you are sailing around in the world, because he thought the world was flat.

There was no one with him to confirm his sea stories. He said that in the Mediterranean he was chased by a pirate felucca, which was rapidly overtaking him when a squall hit. He stopped to reef, but the felucca did not, and when the squall had passed the felucca was nowhere to be seen.

The tale seems fanciful, but that is largely because of peoples' misconceptions about piracy. Piracy is armed robbery at sea. Most acts of piracy are not committed by career pirates in special pirate vessels. The poet Shelley was killed by pirates, who were in fact fishermen who had decided to kill him and rob him. One of them confessed on his death bed. In 1895, feluccas would have been in common use as commercial and fishing vessels. Slocum would have known something was up when a vessel made all sail to catch him in dangerous conditions.

Or maybe he made it up. We don't know, and at some level, we don't care. He was a charming raconteur, and we accept his story on that basis rather than interrogating the work for its factual truth. He tells of becoming ill from eating bad plums, then hallucinating that Magellan's pilot sailed the vessel for him through the straits named after that explorer. Hey, it could have happened, and it's tales like that that got him wined and dined at every port.

When he finished his voyage in 1898, the country was at war with Spain, and few paid attention to his arrival. He wrote his book, which was serialized in The Century magazine. The war was over by the time the book was finished, and the country was ready to give him his due. His book was an instant best seller, and is still in print today. His imitators in making long offshore passages in small boats are legion. There is a Joshua Slocum Society devoted to chronicling such voyages, though many people prefer to just go, and not tell the society. People have even raced around the world singlehanded without stopping, which I think misses the point of Slocum's voyage. He wasn't testing himself against the sea. He had a lifetime of sailing behind him. Of course, part of the adventure was the voyage, but a big part was the arrivals in new ports, meeting new people, and being part of each new port in a way no mere passenger on a steamship ever could be.

Few people ventured offshore in small boats before Slocum. He showed it could be done, and his account of his adventures made others yearn for the romance of such adventures.

At age 65, Slocum set out for one more solo voyage, this time to South America. He was never seen again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

When all else is going wrong, what can you read? Suggestions from my misspent youth...

by Jamie Lutton

When I was fourteen, and I was thrown out of school for the second time (and for 18 months,as it turned out), looking for good escape fiction became a high priority. What with hiding from my parents scrutiny on one side, and really hiding from my peer group, I had developed my first list of trash, or escape fiction, that I have been building on ever since.

When the days are really black, you don't have to be a fourteen year old with a d- average and a bad attitude to need escape fiction (and nonfiction)like I was. I am a re-reader of books: books have been my solace since I was seven, and began to figure out that my value system was not in line with my peers, to say the least.

Some of my favorites from those very dark days - days that included hiding inside all day, and memorizing all the lyrics of Tom Leher - I developed a fondness for Robert Heinlein's books.

A Robert Heinlein title directly led me become a bookseller. I saved my paltry allowance for three weeks to buy I Will Fear No Evil by him, in 1974, when it was a new release. I think it cost about $1.50, which was a vast sum to me at the time. It fell apart in my hands the first time I read it. I was infuriated at the shoddy quality of both the book's construction, and the book's writing. I had encountered the dread Late Heinlein Phenomenon, when he was just reading the newspaper and phoning in his novels. No, not newspapers. Playboy or Penthouse.

So, started to ride my bike to yard sales, looking for books. Any good books, not just the ones I wanted to read myself, but ones I could trade in at the local used bookstore. I was also experimenting with capitalism, too, playing the local bookstore to get my fix of piles of books by bringing her trade-in I had found at yard sales.

But, I digress here - Here is a weird first choice, that I still reread, about once every five years, to put myself to sleep -

Edgar Rice Burrough's attempt to write a feminist anti-religion adventure story in Darkest Africa. Tarzan Triumphant. This is truly a weird little book for a author who was as racist and sexist (read his first Tarzan book, and tell me he is not racist) and conventional to write. He must have been inspired by the female aviators of the 1930's. Read this one, which is totally odd, yet fun. It has a few great characters that will surprise you. And if you want something totally mind-blowingly silly, read his Pellucidar novels. You can tell that Robert E. Howard was a fan, who must have read these, then refined the genre when he wrote the Conan books (which I could not read more than once.)

Burroughs stole his best ideas from H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's Jungle Books, but he is great when you want total trash to read.

If you want to see literary influence, you can connect the dots by reading a Mowgli story back to back with a early Tarzan story, and see the direct lifts. Both authors are really racist, unfortunately, but it is educational to read good bad writing, and bad good writing back to back.

When you pick up Kipling, don't miss the short story Rikki-Tikki Tavi, a yarn about a mongoose and his pet humans. Unfortunately, Cobras get maligned in this story, the author gave the female cobra a great line; not to be missed:

"Son of the big man who killed my Nag. Stay Still. If you move, I will strike, if you do not move, I will strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!"

While you read this, you make you hand into a snake puppet, wherever you go, and recite the whole passage to your friends. You can do this cold sober, if you are serious enough. And they will be impressed. This works better than Shakespeare with most crowds.

So, so far, from my teen years, I reread

Tarzan Triumphant
Kipling's Jungle Books
Rikki-Tikki Tavi - (short story)

And a strong warning not to read Late Heinlein unless you have read early Heinlein, and decide to see where the old duffer decided to drift. The very best Heinlein book, if you are going to pick just one to read, that has to be

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is his only title that I could hand to a non SF reader, who is skeptical about this genre. Perhaps to someone who is a thriller reader. His future America and world is quite recognizable, and pretty nasty; his wit is pretty dark. You will love the heroes in this book, and his women are slightly less sexist than usual; and act heroically.

The best thing about the Heinlein vision was that he was pro-future, pro-space, long before Sputnik was launched in the 1950's, and was kind of witty. But with so much to read, and you have to pick one book, don't have it be Stranger in a Strange Land. It is good, but atypical of his style and dated now. If you are a grown up and pick it up, the sex utopia he describes is so yesterday. And not workable in the real world.

Other SF books I reread in the Dark Days of Delinquency include The Zero Stone, and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton. This author wrote nearly 100 books in her lifetime, starting at about 48, after owning a used bookstore. Thinking about that level of output makes me tired. They are all pretty good, but about 6 of hers I would gladly reread, and these two top the list. The other three are Secret of the Lost Race, and maybe the Time Travel titles of hers, or her Witch World books. She has a fast moving style, as she, like Heinlein, started out writing books for teenagers.

I tend to reread only The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars, as they are plot driven, and have the best alien of all time in them. Eet. Only Spock is a better alien, and he was on TV. I will take nominees, but I have never met an alien who made me laugh, and stuck in my head more than Eet did, when I first read these as a teenager.

Andre Norton was very influential on people like Marion Zimmer Bradley and the like, the endless fantasy novels written by 10 to 15 very competent women fantasy writers. Only Le Guin and Octavia Butler, who died recently, are not shades of this author. She may not have been as good as the women who followed, but she was more prolific, and she was the first.

So, here is the start of the list

Tarzan Triumphant
The Jungle Books +
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
The Zero Stone
Uncharted Stars

Next, I will add The Demon Breed, by James H. Schmitz. This book, which has giant ten foot long mutant otters in it, is a pretty obvious Vietnam allegory. It was written in 1968, and Schmitz was astute enough to see which way the war was going to go for the U.S. But is fun, fast, thrilling and who doesn't like giant ten foot long mutant otters that strike and kill in the dark? Schmitz's other books are sadly dated, even his Witches of Karres, but this one holds up. I have probably read this one 20 or 30 times. Go, otters, go.

this is just the short list, and includes only the teen books I still reread recently, and not the teen books that I cherished at the time, but have given up. I will conclude here and post this, but will add and post a list of all my compulsive rereads from this time in my life, that I still read, when I recall them. The list of books that I read over and over and over is very long now, and will take me a little time to recall and post here; but watch this space.

There was a lot of pleasant old trashy novels to read, and I made it my duty to find and consume as many as I could find, to avoid the reality of my teen years.

Watch this space for more memories. Next time, I will write about old mystery authors as well.