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Paine's heirs

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Let them call us rebels, writes Harvey Kaye--because we are the heirs of Thomas Paine. "As yet, we do not have our own pamphleteer for these soul-trying times," he writes, "But we still have Thomas Paine's ever-timely words:"

We do not yet have a writer who can as magnificently express our outrage that a man whose character Paine would deplore is about to become president after losing the popular ballot by nearly 3 million votes. We do not yet have a writer to encourage us to not only resist the ambitions of both the man who would be king and his Tory allies in Congress, but also to turn our outrage into a sustained struggle that will fulfill the promise of democracy. Nonetheless, we have the words that burned like fire in the breast of a man who believed that to be an American in his time meant being a radical.

Kaye suggests that we "Pick up Paine's writings and prepare for Inauguration Day by immersing yourself in them:"

Carry his works with you. Give copies to friends and family. Read them aloud just as yeomen and farmers and artisans and merchants did in the fields, workshops and taverns of 1776. Drink deeply from his Common Sense. Relish his attacks on kings and would-be monarchs. Delight in his belief that working people can govern themselves. Listen as he embraces America's ethnic and religious diversity. And note well his plans for establishing an inclusive, prosperous and expansive American democracy.

Until I find a better option--a doubtful proposition--I'm sticking with the Library of America edition of Paine's Collected Writings.

The idea of an aspirational home library and a conversation between Kris and Khloe Kardashian prompt Ruth Graham to ask a few questions:

Is it acceptable to treat books as decor, a representation of one's aesthetic aspirations rather than one's intellectual biography? What is the normal approach to displaying books in one's home?

"An informal survey of 50 friends and Slate colleagues suggests," she writes, "disappointingly for the cause of grand pronouncements, that everyone is different and moderation is key:"

I'm semi-organized, with separate bookcases for fiction and non-fiction; non-fiction is further grouped loosely by subject matter. On a few shelves, I've stacked coffee-table books horizontally with knick-knacks on top, a trick I picked up working at a home-decor magazine. I aim for a loose kind of honesty in what I keep around, too: I long ago banished my college copies of Kant and Hegel. But I do keep cooler, smarter books at eye-level, and I shunt the trashy and random up toward the ceiling.

Some survey-takers took this squeamishness so far that they were incredulous at the very concept of "displaying" books. "Do people really keep books to display them?" one colleague asked. "A private library is a promise to yourself, not a premise about your personhood." But I say that's purist nonsense. Books have always played both roles. They are not just stories and information, they are badges of identity and, yes, ornamentation. A book on a shelf faces inward and outward at the same time.

As such, they can be both reminders of the past and motivators of the future.

textual displays

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In examining whether book collectors are real readers or cultural snobs, Frank Furedi asks, "Is book ownership still a sign of public cultural distinction in the digital age?" His answer is informed by history, and he notes that "to this day, many readers regard books as a medium for gaining a spiritual experience:"

Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.

He mentions Seneca's remark that "many people without a school education use books not as tools for study but as decorations for the dining room:"

Seneca's hostility towards the ostentatious book collector was probably influenced by his aversion towards the public reading 'mania' that appeared to afflict the early Roman Empire. This period saw the emergence of the recitatio: public literary readings conducted by authors and poets that many wealthy citizens regarded as an opportunity for self-promotion. Seneca looked on these vulgar performances of literary conceit with contempt...

In the present day, Furedi worries that "21st-century toddlers might abandon the showy display of reading a book in public and adopt the habit of regularly checking their smartphones:"

If Seneca or Martial were around today, they would probably write sarcastic epigrams about the very public exhibition of reading text messages and in-your-face displays of texting. Digital reading, like the perusing of ancient scrolls, constitutes an important statement about who we are. [...] Young people sitting in a bar checking their phones for texts are not making a statement about their refined literary status. They are signalling that they are connected and - most importantly - that their attention is in constant demand.

With the rise of digital technology, the performance of reading has altered. The contrast between a woman absorbed in reading a book in an 18th-century portrait and a teenager self-consciously gazing at her smartphone illustrates the different ways that individuals construct their identity through reading.

Another Aeon essay, this one by Michael Schulson, discusses the addictive nature of the Internet, and I think it's worth discussing the two pieces in tandem. Schulson's "hypothetical example [is] Michael S, a journalist:"

Sending and receiving emails are important parts of his job. On average, he gets an email every 45 minutes. Sometimes, the interval between emails is only two minutes. Other times, it's three hours. Although many of these emails are unimportant or stress-inducing, some of them are fun. Before long, whenever Michael S has an internet connection, he starts refreshing his email inbox every 30 minutes, and then every five minutes and then, occasionally, every two minutes. Before long, it's a compulsive tic - the pecking pigeon of web usage.

Should we blame Michael S for wasting hours of his life hitting a small button? We could. He does have poor self-control, and he chose a profession in which email is an important form of communication.

Then again, would we blame Skinner's pigeons, stuck in a box, pecking away until they get their grains and hemp seeds, while a pioneering researcher plumbs the glitches in their brains?

"Psychologists have been discussing the possibility of internet addiction since 1996," Schulson writes, "just three years after the release of the first mainstream web browser... for millions of people, the internet is often understood in terms of compulsion:"

So should individuals be blamed for having poor self-control? To a point, yes. Personal responsibility matters. But it's important to realise that many websites and other digital tools have been engineered specifically to elicit compulsive behaviour. [...]

Tristan Harris, an ethical design proponent who works at Google. (He spoke outside his role at the search giant.) Major tech companies, Harris told me, 'have 100 of the smartest statisticians and computer scientists, who went to top schools, whose job it is to break your willpower.'

In short, it's not exactly a fair fight.

He breaks down the design process of trigger-action-reward [from Nir Eyal's book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014)] that leads to user investment, and suggests some partial remedies--which is a useful analysis. My preference, however, is for something far simpler: a pot of tea and a comfortable chair amidst my bookshelves.

super-power bottom

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Charles Pulliam-Moore discusses the latest events in the Midnighter and Apollo series:

At some point between rinsing plates and hanging them up to dry, the couple take advantage of the fact that they're finally alone and get down to having sex right there in the kitchen. The moment's spontaneous and intimate and reflective of the fact that Midnighter and Apollo have been on-again, off-again soulmates in various comics for nearly 20 years.

Though this isn't the first time that Midnighter and Apollo have been depicted being sexually intimate with one another, this particular scene of the two raised a number of fans' eyebrows because of the not-so-subtle implication that Midnighter, a hyper-violent, über-butch Batman analogue, is a bottom.

The event in question, as delineated by Fernando Blanco, looks like this:

20161012-powerbottom.jpg

Pulliam-Moore continues:

Last night, during a panel about representations of race and sexuality in comics at New York Comic Con, Midnighter & Apollo writer Steve Orlando described how a fan of the new book came up to him and said that he'd scored one for the bottoms.

Once the clapping and cheering died down a bit, Orlando insisted that sex scenes like this are an integral part of creating honest stories about queer people in pop culture. Considering the fact that we've seen characters like the Green Arrow performing cunnilingus on Black Canary, Orlando said, seeing Midnighter and Apollo getting down shouldn't really shock people.

Not in the civilized world perhaps--but the Bible Belt might be a different story.

Even in more complex, nuanced depictions of gay culture, bottom-shaming--the mockery of men who prefer to be the receptive partner during intercourse--is still fairly common. Like all forms of homophobia, bottom-shaming is tied to the idea that gayness and gay sex are feminine things and that feminine things are less-than.

In showing Midnighter as a bottom (though he could very well be versatile), Midnighter & Apollo is inviting its readers to broaden their understandings of gay men, gender, and homosexuality. Butch guys can be bottoms, feminine guys can be tops, none of that defines their masculinity.

...and comics can be sexy without featuring scantily-clad women.

20160410-comicbookapocalypse.jpg

Hatfield, Charles & Ben Saunders. Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby (San Diego, CA: IDW, 2016)

From my reviews of The Comics Journal Library, Vol. 1, Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics, Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire, and Maximum FF, my love for Jack Kirby should be obvious. The Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders book Comic Book Apocalypse is essentially a second edition of the catalog from last year's exhibit at Cal State Northridge. Demand for the catalog was high, and apparently wasn't dampened (at least not on my behalf) by the delay from last August to the present.

I was initially disappointed to see the page count was only 168, but the book's 8"x12" size helps to add a bit more visual grandeur to Kirby's art--much of which is presented as full pages or double-page spreads. As is appropriate, the art is mostly shot from the original art instead of the printed pages--the better to appreciate Kirby's artistry. The essays (twenty of them) are on the short side, and touch on various facets of Kirby's creativity. They are both interesting and informative--and well-illustrated, of course. These two passages from the Introduction help to set the tone:

Then, in the '60s, deep into his career, and in the wake of a period of contraction and hardship within his industry, Kirby found himself at the company that would become known as Marvel Comics--where, in an extended burst of creative energy that must count as one of the towering achievements in American popular art, he returned to the idea of the superhero, forging a new visual template for the genre while simultaneously laying the foundations of Marvel's teeming story-world. Central to his method now was a yen for mythopoesis: the building of personal mythologies, replete with secret histories and menacing futures, global, all-encompassing conflicts, and the apocalyptic revelation and potential destruction of whole worlds. (p. 11, Introduction, Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders)

No comic-book artist has come close to matching Kirby's imaginative reach during this peak period, which he would sustain well into the '70s, month after month, displaying an astonishing ability to invent and populate new visual worlds on the fly. (p. 14, Introduction, Charles Hatfield & Ben Saunders)

Kirby's collaborators are acknowledged as well. Mercifully, his frequent inker Vince Colletta doesn't get slagged here as he often does elsewhere. There is praise for others, such as longtime Kirby inker Mike Royer, mixed in with the adulation for Kirby. This passage is a gem:

Look at the energy, the black-and-white oomph packed into these two pages [Forever People #8, pp. 24-25], comprised of a mere eleven small panels. Kirby had one tool, a pencil, and one mode, flat out. Here, with chopping, slashing, confident lines (beautifully inked by Mike Royer) and a clearly worked-out visual rhetoric, Kirby conjures young faces, muscles, tendons, hair, clothing, rocks (and rocky faces), metals, energy, fission-blasts, "rays," invisibility, and a final big bang--not to mention anger, menace, surprise, fear, introspection, low comedy, and evil majesty. (p. 87, Tony Puryear, "Kirby's Megaton Touch")

Here's a nice discussion of Kamandi #8, pp. 2-3 (below):

Kirby and his inker, Mike Royer, were perfectly suited, since it was the team's natural tendency to lend everything, even rugged, crumbling concrete, a polished sheen. Royer captured Kirby's tendency to emphasize stark shapes and distinct areas of light. There are no gradients here--no crosshatching--just forms locked together in perfect order. In fact, without color, it's impossible to tell the difference between a loincloth, a floor, and marble statuary. This is actually an advantage, for Kirby and Royer's approach unifies the page and moves it away from illustration and into world-building. (p. 129, Dan Nadel, "Kirby's Monuments")

View image

The pair of two-page spreads that feature Kirby's "Dream Machine" painting (pp. 48-49 and pp. 50-51) were a nice surprise (see here), although one wishes that it had been done as a fold-out instead. (Even better, this image would make a great poster--hint, hint!) While I'm dreaming, along with a Jack Kirby: Conversations book as part of the UMiss series, I'd love to see traveling exhibitions of Kirby's work, perhaps focusing on different eras of his career. There is certainly enough artistic variety to support several options. Long live The King!

Here are some tidbits about the book, from an interview with Comics Reporter about last year's exhibit:

HATFIELD: The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now. [...]

I put the book together with my colleague and friend Ben Saunders. Of course one of our goals was to commemorate and deepen the exhibition experience, for those who get to see the show firsthand, but we also wanted to create something more: what we call a "catalog-plus" or companion book of lasting value. The idea is to do deep analysis of Kirby that allows lively voices and personal quirks to come through -- to model a kind of scholarship that preserves individuality and acknowledges how deeply Kirby hits us, as fans, readers, thinkers, makers. We wanted this book to be personal and at the same time solid, documented, smart stuff.

The following sentiment is one which I can agree completely:

SPURGEON: What do you think the average pop-culture consumer should take away in terms of knowing about Kirby and his legacy?

HATFIELD: That Kirby was one of 20th century America's gutsiest, strangest, and yet most influential graphic artists and visual storytellers. That the familiar things of pop culture today -- the Marvel movies, and all that -- came from a drawing board, and from a man working his damnedest to earn a living for himself and his family. That Marvel was just part of Kirby's amazing career story. That Kirby not only designed Marvel but took comic books a step further, toward a quirky and wonderful way of representing mythology through superhero conventions and SF. That he was a nonstop idea generator. That he dreamed of past and future, of new worlds and new gods, and did so in an ecstatic graphic style that distilled everything wild, unrepentant, and delightfully crazy about American comic books.


links:

Print did a piece on the show, with excerpts from the book

Charles Hatfield blogs at Hand of Fire

Dissent's Timothy Shenk writes that "Americans revere the Declaration of Independence, but most of us don't read it:"

The iconic opening has been dulled by repetition, and it's followed by a lengthy recitation of forgotten crimes George III allegedly visited upon the colonists. Danielle Allen resurrects the document's power in her latest book [Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality], turning a historical relic into a philosophical inquiry with profound relevance for how we understand liberty and equality today--along with the country whose founding document commits it to ideals that still remain out of reach.

Here's a passage from the interview:

Shenk: As anyone who has paid cursory attention to American politics in the last year knows, inequality is back on the agenda. Just last month, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that two thirds of Americans believed wealth "should be more evenly distributed among more people." But in these discussions, "inequality" is often conflated with "economic inequality." Both in this book and in some of your other writing, you're concerned with a broader interpretation of inequality. What do we miss when we view "economic inequality" as identical with inequality itself?

Allen: First, I take the existence of meaningful opportunities to participate in politics to be a fundamental human right. Protecting this right requires focusing on political equality as such. Thinkers who focus exclusively on economic inequality are sometimes willing to sacrifice that participatory right in favor of material distributions. Second, I take it that ensuring that meaningful political participation is as broad and egalitarian as possible will in itself be a force for ensuring that political institutions are more likely to direct economic policy in egalitarian directions.

CBR has a preview of the new edition of Jack Katz's magnum opus The First Kingdom [no Wikipedia page], which is calls a "long-lost treasure:"

Remastered and packed with exclusive features, this sumptuous volume collects the first part of a tale for which the term 'epic' was invented! After nuclear armageddon devastates the Earth, the survivors become playthings of resurgent 'gods'. As civilisations rise and fall, as loves and lives are lost, the future of humanity will be won by uncovering the secrets of the past.

The First Kingdom is presented here in a complete collectors' library for the first time, replete with cleaned and restored art taken from high-resolution scans of the original art pages, and completely relettered throughout.

The six sample pages accompanying the article should serve to whet everyone's artistic appetite. September can't come soon enough!


update (11:09am):
Comics Spectrum is quite laudatory as well, which I hope will spur interest in Katz's epic tale.

Boing Boing enthuses over IDW's MAD Artist's Edition:

IDW's Artist's Edition series is a line of enormous (15" x 22") hardcover art-books that reproduce the full-page, camera-ready paste-ups used to create classic comics, from Groo to Spider-Man, offering a rare look at the white-outs, annotations, corrections, and pencil-marks that give tantalizing hints about the hidden workings of these amazing pages.

A recent and most welcome addition to the series is MAD: Artist's Edition, a spectacular tribute to the early years of the magazine and especially to the brilliant satire of Harvey Kurtzman, one of the great heroes of satire, which features an introduction by Terry Gilliam himself.

MAD: Artist's Edition isn't just an amazing book, it's an amazing object, a massive and weighty presence that drew me magnetically to it as soon as I got it back to my office.

It's a well-illustrated piece, and I particularly enjoyed the use of the adjective "Wolvertonian."

Melville House discusses the difficulties of reading Persepolis in Chicago:

It has been over a week since the Chicago Public School system made a move to restrict student access to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's coming-of-age memoir which describes her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s and 80s and the war with Iraq. [...]

Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the book was being removed because "It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use."

Although Persepolis is "no longer going to be required reading for grades 7-10," the article continues, "the book will still be taught in grades 11 and 12 and in Advance Placement classes."

remembering Hitch

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The Daily Mail has some words from the afterword to Christopher Hitchens' upcoming posthumous memoir Mortality:

His widow Carol Blue, writing in the Daily Telegraph, described her husband as 'dazzling' and how his charisma never left him 'in any realm.' [...] She said he was an 'impossible act to follow' and revealed that her husband 'insisted ferociously on living.'

Her piece is supposed to be here, but isn't. Google didn't cache it, either. I guess I'll have to wait until it hits bookstores.


update:
Her reminiscence has been posted here.

comics lit

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In comics as literature, part 1 GeekDad's Jonathan Liu is assembling a list of graphic-novel classics:

In the world of comics, just as with novels or kids' books, there are some stories that transcend the realm of "hey, it's just entertainment" and become Serious Literature. I'm not saying that they can't include a few laughs (though some are solemn), but that you can tell there's something under the surface, whether through the subject matter or the language or the artwork.

And here's the best part: there's a lot of them. I'll share some of my old favorites and recent discoveries with you over the course of a few posts, but I guarantee you that there are so many more that I haven't read (or even heard of) yet, and I'm counting on you readers to fill in the gaps on my own shelves.

He ventures a few of the classic graphic novels: Maus, Sandman, Watchmen, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics trilogy. It's tough to disagree with any of those choices, but I'm curious to see what books he adds in future installments.

Salon asks if literary classics are obsolete, and looks at Dartmouth professor Daniel Rockmore's study "Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature" (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences):

The Dartmouth study analyzed multiple works by 537 authors who wrote English language texts published since 1550. Comparing them to each other, they found, not surprisingly, that authors from a given historical period have more in common with each other stylistically than they do with authors from the past (or future). They also found that the more recent a work is, the more "localized" its stylistic brethren are in time. [...]

Where the Dartmouth article makes a big leap, however, is in claiming that contemporary authors are less "influenced" by authors of the past than they are by those of their own time. Furthermore, they propose a reason: The explosion in the number of published books in the past century or so. Titles by contemporary authors are in the (vast) majority. By this logic, with "even more authors to choose from and selection dominated by contemporaneous authors," writers, like everyone else, are less likely to read the classics.

Then the author moves in for the kill:

There are so many wobbly assumptions built into these interpretations that they could be used as an illustration of the dangers of empirical hubris: Having a lot of numbers and equations is not the same as knowing what they mean, especially in such a complex and meaning-rich field as literature.

classic

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From the Twitter feed of Daniel Mendelsohn, I became aware of his 2009 Berkeley commencement address. After a pre-collegiate conversation with his mother about his desire to study the classics, he writes:

She took a deep breath and wearily ended with a sentence that--as she could not possibly guess, that May afternoon 30 years ago--would give me the title of a book I would write one day, a book about her vanished world, and how it vanished. "Plato, the Greeks," she muttered. "In a thousand years, it will all be lost."

Mendelsohn asks "what can it mean to devote oneself to a discipline that likes to think that it is timeless, that it has cheated the centuries, the millennia?" and uses Virgil's Aeneid to ruminate on the many losses along the way:

And even to think of the poem and everything it has produced over time is to be reminded, inevitably, of all the songs and stories and poems that didn't make it to the safe shore of "classic": the nine books of Sappho's lyrics, of which a single poem remains; the 75 lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 vanished works of Sophocles, the 70 of Euripides; Aristotle's early dialogues, the banished Ovid's lost verse drama, Medea, the love elegies of Cornelius Gallus, the bosom friend of Vergil, which once comprised four whole books and of which 10 lines now survive; so much else.

Classicists, he writes, "bear the responsibility of being as aware of what we have lost as we are of what has survived to be studied by us." Mendelsohn later segues into discussing an "old Jewish woman [whom] I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust:"

"So what happened when the war was over?" I asked softly. "What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?"

The old lady, whose real name had disappeared in the war along with her parents, her house, and nearly everything else she had known, was now called Mrs. Begley. When I asked her this question Mrs. Begley looked at me; her weary expression had kindled every so slightly.

"You know, it's a funny thing," she told me. "When the Germans first came, in '41, the first thing they did was close the theaters." [...] And I'll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal-the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles' Antigone."

He concludes "that was the story, and here is what I think it means:"

A lot of life gets lost--almost everything, in fact. [But] what remains means something--something very real, to real people, to people whose knowledge of suffering is derived from more than a book or a night at the movies. And so, I would ask you this: when you think of what it means to be a classicist, don't think only about your deconstructive readings of Homer, or post-structuralist approaches to Plautus, or Freudian readings of the Euripidean romances, or Marxist interpretations of the Peloponnesian War, the iconography of red-figure vases or the prosopography of the late Roman Republic. Think about Mrs. Begley; think about the people in Kraków, who, when they had very good reasons to believe that civilization had ended, felt that the first thing they needed to do was to put on a play by Sophocles.

Daily Beast's Marc Wortman asks, are books becoming too long to read? At a mere 630 pages, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is nearly the shortest of the recent tomes he uses as examples:

Those weighty 11 printed books and the two linear feet or so of valuable shelf real estate they take up amount to an advertisement for compacting them into an e-book. [...] All 11 were produced by reputable writers, scholars, and thinkers. They almost certainly merit a careful read. But the same could be said for many other recent very long BIG books, often books that come out nearly simultaneously on the same subjects, from biographies to policy issues to histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, all this reading is only for those who have the leisure or professional obligation to read at length.

He asks exasperatedly: "Why do so many writers feel compelled to write big books?"

In part, it seems that big now equates with importance and value. That substitutes form for function, and frequently evidences a writer's ego--or perhaps an editor's laziness--and indifference to a reader's limited time and attention. Life is a busy place, but don't tell that to those who write big books.

The opportunity cost of massive tomes is exemplified by Slavoj Zizek's 1000-page, $70 opus on Hegel, despite paeans to the philosopher like this:

"In the first 30 pages, Žižek free-associates his way through Alan Turing, Hans Christian Anderson, Hercule Poirot, Kafka, Kant, Wittgenstein, and God. We couldn't put it down."

See Verso's description of the book and this excerpt on Buddhism and the self for more. If one can't put the book down, though, perhaps one should avoid picking it up in the first place.

Slate looks at how the design of printed books will evolve in the digital age:

Luddites can take comfort in the persistence of vinyl records, postcards, and photographic film. The paper book will likewise survive, but its place in the culture will change significantly. As it loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book's other qualities--from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty--will take on more importance. The future is yet to be written, but a few possibilities for the fate of the paper book are already on display on bookshelves near you.

From illustrations by William Blake and Gustave Doré to modern formal experiments like Tree of Codes and Nox, the author makes a great case for books as art objects as opposed to commodities:

...the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves...are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually--the scrapheap.

loving books

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In why I love books, technophile Mark Pack proudly proclaims "I like my gadgets, but I love my books. There is no e-book reader in that monument to technology on the table." He praises their reliability, usability, and searchability, lauding books as "a permanent format for permanent ownership:"

No worries about future legal changes or technological discontinuities suddenly depriving me of books or making them unreadable. No fuzziness about whether you own or are just renting a book. Purchased and mine; simple and easy.

So it should be, for a book is far more than a mere transmission mechanism for words. It is a memory, an entertainment and a form. [...] The look, the touch, the smell, the convenience, the memories - they make books lovable.

Nick Moran asks if "total eBook adoption [is] really an ecologically responsible goal," noting that "the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced:"

I used basic arithmetic and some minimal Googling to calculate the carbon footprint of the average American reading an average number of average novels at an average speed both in print and on an iPad.

I determined that it takes five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way.

Here's his graph:

20120501-greenreading.jpg

"If you live in a household with multiple eReaders," he writes, "your family's carbon emissions are more than 600-750% higher per year than they would be if you invested in a bunch of bookshelves or, better yet, a library card."

shared reading

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Clay Shirky's Interview on the subject of how we will read makes some interesting points:

The question isn't what happens to publishing -- the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn't one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers. [...]

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution. Now publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand. And that means that almost all innovation in creation, consumption, distribution and use of text is coming from outside the traditional publishing industry.

Shirky's response to this question

I know that you're very invested in collective action. How can social reading connect to activism?

makes the point that "Books are historically lousy calls to action because they tend not only to be produced slowly but consumed slowly:"

The number of people who've read, say, The Coming Insurrection is tiny. But it used to be impossible for us to find each other, and now it's easy. So -- if you go to Occupy, and if I go to Occupy, and we've both read David Graeber... that sensibility suffuses the crowd, and that crowd is better able to act than it would have been previously. And that synchronizing effect, not so much of time but of shared awareness, that's a big part of the present change, and one that's going to be amplified in the future.

The NYT breaks the sad news that DC plans to defile the memory of Watchmen, one of the few generally recognized classic graphic novels. A group of seven mini-series under the collective title Before Watchmen "will expand on the back stories of the costumed vigilantes like Rorschach and Nite Owl." (h/t to Comics Alliance for linking to the official DC announcement.)

Alan Moore, author of the original graphic novel, calls the plans "completely shameless" and adds that he's not objecting for pecuniary reasons: "I don't want money. What I want is for this not to happen." Similarly, Wired's Scott Thill laments that such artistic necrophilia "has become indispensable in an culture industry that long ago stopped calling derivative a dirty word."

This is all that I have to say:

20120201-watchmenprequel.jpg


update (2/6):
Dork Tower had the same idea:

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Maass, Alan. The Case for Socialism, Third Edition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010)

As if the title weren't obvious enough, Maass does indeed present a case for socialism as an alternative to capitalism; he specifies that this must be "real socialism" as opposed to "the hysterical caricatures of blowhards like Glenn Beck and others on the right:"

At its heart, socialism is about the creation of a new society, built from the bottom up, through the struggles of ordinary working people against exploitation, oppression, and injustice--one that eliminates profit and power as the prime goals of life, and instead organizes our world around the principles of equality, democracy, and freedom. (pp. 5-6)

His view on our current system is that "Capitalism does one thing very well--protect and increase the wealth of the people at the top of society in the short term:"

Meeting the needs of everyone else is secondary, which is why so many people's needs go unmet. From every other point of view--producing enough to go around, protecting the environment, building a society of equality and freedom--the capitalist system is useless. (p. 28)

"Socialism is based on a simple idea," Maass writes, "that the resources of society should be used to meet people's needs" (p. 73). This focus on people would work to "take profit out of the equation:"

Therefore, the resources of society could be commonly owned and controlled by everyone, with decisions made democratically according to what's needed and wanted, not how much money can be made. Instead of decisions about the economy being left to a few unaccountable people in corporate boardrooms, a socialist society would be one where proprieties and how to implement them are discussed, debated, and planned by all. (p. 77)

Thus, he continues, "Socialism will be far more democratic than capitalism." (p. 77) This emphasis on the foundational aspect of democracy echoes Howard Zinn's 'history from below' with its focus on the common citizen. Maass observes that "The socialist Bertolt Brecht crystallized the point in this poem:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

"Questions from a Worker Who Reads" (p. 115)

The fears that the overclass harbor about socialism (of mob rule, degenerated democracy) prompted Burkean conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution, and here Maass demonstrates his erudition:

Mark Twain gave the lie to all the pious lectures about violence in revolutions when he defended the French Revolution of 1789, with its principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, against those who dismissed it as a "reign of terror" incited by blood-crazed mobs:
There were two Reigns of Terror, if we but remember it and consider it: the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions... [...]

A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror--that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

(p. 128, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court)

This reminds me of the free-market fundamentalists' willingness to blame socialism (or communism, not that they know the difference) for the crop failures and famines of China and Russia in decades past--while simultaneously turning a blind eye to every person who starves under capitalism for lack of money. We need to be scrupulously honest about all aspects of whatever economic systems we advocate.


links:

Interested readers can find an excerpt at Socialist Worker.

Seattle PI's review comments that despite "eagerly and gleefully...laying out a case for the evils of capitalism in our world of scandals and war and starvation and pollution, Maass ultimately fails in presenting socialism as a viable alternative:"

The book appears to be put together like a series of pamphlets or even blog posts and it lacks cohesion, leading to an awful lot of repetition. [...] The book, in its Third Edition, also contains a fair share of simple spelling mistakes that prove distracting as well. This, combined with a rather unsophisticated presentation of socialist principles that only briefly and brusquely provides historical context, makes The Case for Socialism a less than enthralling piece of work.

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Nichols, John. The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism (London: Verso, 2011)

John Nichols chronicles an impressive history in The "S" Word, showing clearly the intertwining of socialism with America from the very beginning. He proclaims that "this country, founded in radical opposition to monarchy, colonialism and empire, has from its beginning been home to socialists, social democrats, communists and radicals of every variation:"

Socialist ideas, now so frequently dismissed not just by the Tories of the present age but by political and media elites that diminish and deny our history, have shaped and strengthened America across the past two centuries. Those ideas were entertained and at times embraced by presidents who governed a century before Barack Obama was born. [...] ...to know America, to understand and appreciate the whole of this country's past, its present and perhaps its future, we must recognize the socialist threads that have been woven into our national tapestry. (p. xii, Preface)

Despite his observation that "One need not be a Socialist, nor the follower of any tendency or party of the left, to recognize the positive influence of social democrats, socialists, communists and their fellow travelers," (p. 15) recognizing our socialist heritage will surely get any American branded as one shade or another of pinko. Nichols calls Socialism "the one word that still has the power to frighten, inform and inspire Americans," (p. 258) and places responsibility for this on the media:

Since reaching Washington, Obama has been clearly wary of getting too near individuals--or ideals--that might be brushed with the scarlet "S." That has made him a lesser president, with fewer ideas and fewer prospects. It has, as well, given ammunition to his critics, who capitalize on the caution of Obama and the Democrats to denigrate ideas which not so many years ago, were being peddled by moderate Republicans as tools for economic renewal--such as increased education spending and infrastructure investment--and present them as Marxist shibboleths. (p. 255)

From Thomas Paine to Emma Lazarus, from Lincoln and Walt Whitman, from Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas to FDR's New Deal and John Randolph, it's difficult to spot any significant omission from Nichols' chronicle. Socialists' support for free speech throughout the McCarthy era, and support for labor (specifically as it related to racial discrimination and the Civil Rights era) are well represented, and Nichols takes care to note that "One need not embrace socialism ideologically or practically to recognize that public-policy discussions ought to entertain a full range of ideas--from right to left, not from far right to center right." (p. 260)

Here is my Quote of the Day:

"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time," Frank [Zeidler] told me in one of our last conversations. "Maybe that's true. But can't people be educated? Can't people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world." (p. 139)

links:
"How Socialists Built America" (The Nation) gives a nice taste of the book's flavor, and David Swanson of Smirking Chimp calls it "the best book yet by John Nichols -- and that's saying something!" He also exclaims that "Nichols' 300-page masterpiece...could, if widely read, lead to a different view of our country, our government, and our best course going forward."

"In the midst of the 2008 US Presidential Election," notes Pop Matters, "many voices on the right [alleged] the allegedly radical views of Barack Obama:"

It was a gambit as audacious as it was ridiculous, not only because it sought to cast Obama's brand of pragmatic, centrist liberalism as the stuff of bomb-throwing revolutionaries, but also because it attempted to promote the value of unregulated capitalism at the very moment capitalism's worst features were on display for all to see. Though the rhetorical attack on socialism ultimately had little effect on the outcome of the election, it persists as a meme among conservatives, who see socialist ideas as antithetical to American ideals and have made a hobby of trying to smear the legacies of figures like Franklin Roosevelt for having the temerity to rein in the rapacity of capitalism.

"His book," the piece continues, "is not merely a response to the anguished, ill-informed bleating of right-wing talking heads like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, it's a full-throated retort." After finishing the book, I dug into some of the historical socialist voices that Nichols mentioned--which functioned as additional retorts to right-wing ignorance. For example, Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891) proclaims that "Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism:"

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community.

"Private property has crushed true Individualism," he writes, "and set up an Individualism that is false:"

It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them. [...] With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

Abraham Lincoln's pro-labor speech should be widely read as well:

"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Albert Einstein's "Why Socialism?" (Monthly Review, May 1949) explains the corrosive effects of capitalism by observing that "The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil:"

We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor--not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules.[...]

Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

"Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor," he continues, and notes that "This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism:"

Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

The John Foster/Robert McChesney article "Capitalism, the Absurd System" points out that "libertarian fears of a totalitarian state imposing socialism by force, even to the point of annihilation, on an unwilling people, who are presumed to be capitalist by nature, are all too common:"

Perhaps nothing points so clearly to the alienated nature of politics in the present day United States as the fact that capitalism, the economic system that drives the society, is effectively off-limits to critical review or discussion. To the extent that capitalism is mentioned by politicians or pundits, it is regarded in hushed tones of reverence for the genius of the market, its unquestioned efficiency, and its providential authority. One might quibble with a corrupt and greedy CEO or a regrettable loss of jobs, but the superiority and necessity of capitalism--or, more likely, its euphemism, the so-called "free market system"--is simply beyond debate or even consideration. [...]

This prohibition on critically assessing capitalism begins in the economics departments and business schools of our universities where, with but a few exceptions, it is easier to find an advocate of the immediate colonization of Mars than it is to find a scholar engaged in genuine radical criticism of capitalism. This critical dearth extends to our news media, which have a documented track record of promoting the profit system, and a keen distaste for those that advocate radical change.

"Everything around us," they continue, "seems to function via Adam Smith's invisible hand," and "What we lose sight of is the reality of an alienated, commodified existence with its innumerable chains forged by class and property relations:"

Boiled down, U.S. politics under today's mature capitalism are not about the welfare of the demos (i.e., the people) as envisioned in classical notions of democracy, but rather about which party can best deliver profitability to investors and corporations. There are continuing debates between those who simply want to slash labor costs, taxes, and regulations for the rich, and those who want to do some of that but also use some regulation and government spending to encourage higher wages and demand-driven growth. Both sides, however, accept that making the economy profitable for the owning class is the sine qua non of successful administration.

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Lebowitz, Michael. The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Michael Lebowitz's previous book Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century led me to this volume, which proposes socialism as an alternative to contemporary capitalism. He handles the socialism-is-dead issue this way:

Drawing upon Marx, [István] Mészáros had argued the necessity to understand capitalism as an organic system, a specific combination of production-distribution-consumption, in which all the elements coexist simultaneously and support one another. The failure of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, he proposed, occurred because of the failure to go beyond "the vicious circle of the capital relation"... (p. 24, citing Mészáros, Istvan. Beyond Capital)

This leads to his broader point:

The threat of capital is that we should pay for schools (and school supplies), health services (and medical supplies and medicines), and, indeed, everything else that it is possible to commodify. In short, nothing for people in their capacities as members of society, everything for them as the owners of money. In contrast, the socialist alternative is to de-commodify. Everything. (pp. 145-146)

The misidentification of the USSR with socialism is dealt with by observing that "Soviet workers did not have...power to make decisions within the workplace:"

And they had no independent and autonomous voice: in the trade unions, which protected their individual job rights, the leadership was selected from above and principally played the role of transmission belts to mobilize the workers in production. (p. 62)

Another problem is that "people hardly think of communism as an economic system:"

Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system--in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people. (pp. 109-110)

Lebowitz can't solve such problems in a book this brief, but at least he can point in the right direction. He concludes:

In the struggle against capitalism, a system that destroys human beings and nature, we need a vision of an alternative. And we need to understand the only way that that vision can be made real. The focus upon human development and practice, the key link, offers a vision of a good society oriented toward the development of rich human beings. And that, after all, is the socialist alternative. (p. 166)

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Cohen, GA. Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

GA Cohen uses the example of a camping trip to demonstrate the principles of socialism on a small scale:

You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. Now most people would hate that. (p. 6)

Two principles are realized on the camping trip, and egalitarian principle, and a principle of community. The community principle constrains the operation of the egalitarian principle by forbidding certain inequalities that the egalitarian principle permits. (p. 12)

The sway of socialist equality of opportunity must therefore be tempered by a principle of community, if society is to display the socialist character that makes the camping trip attractive. (p. 34)

He mentions the 1994 book A Future for Socialism by Yale economist John Roemer:

Being an economist, Roemer is concerned to show that his system is not less efficient that capitalism. But suppose he is wrong. [...] ...inefficiency is, after all, only one value, and it would show a lack of balance to insist that even small deficits in that value should be eliminated at whatever cost to the values of equality and community. (p. 73)

Efficiency uber alles is not a very inspiring slogan, after all--and not one that the profit-making purpose of business demonstrates very well, either.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians looks at the question posed by Why Not Socialism? "Cohen's view," writes Jason Brennan, is that "capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people's limited knowledge:"

Cohen says there are two main questions about socialism. First, is it intrinsically desirable? He thinks it clearly is. Second, is it feasible? Here he is less certain. He thinks it might be feasible, but is unsure. He is not convinced that people are too immoral or too dumb to make socialism work.

Using the anti-Obama animus as a backdrop, SueZ explains to Michele Bachmann (speaking of immoral and dumb) this is what socialism is:

To claim that Obama's plan is Socialism is to be as ignorant as ignorant can be, in regard to understanding taxation. This is not spin, nor rhetoric. This is plain hard fact. Ignorance is no excuse, and you now have no excuse to be ignorant of the fundamentals of taxation. To continue to use the word Socialism as a pejorative term will result in the continuation of deliberate ignorance. The same thing goes for "Redistribution", "Spreading the wealth", or "Government giveaway". Don't be ignorant. [...]

Simply put, Socialism is the use of government to solve social problems. Conservatives usually consider them a worthless social safety net (unless it's privately funded), in favor of a "fend for yourself" mentality. But the truth is that these programs helped shape America, and it is why the allure of America is so great. All Americans share the ideal of a functioning society that can support the vision of the founding fathers.

Cohen, at least, sees socialism as part of that functioning society.

Kim Brooks' piece at Salon asking "Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?" contains my Quote of the Day:

There were courses I took in college, courses in Renaissance literature and the anthropology of social progress and international relations of the Middle East and, of course, writing, that will, in all likelihood, never earn me a steady paycheck or a 401K, but which I would not trade for anything; there were lectures on Shakespeare and Twain and Joyce that I still remember, that I've dreamt about and that define my sensibility as a writer and a reader and a human being.

Ted Rall posted a top ten comics of all time list, and asked for his readers' favorites. Over the course of several tweets, I mentioned a few that I have here categorized and alphabetized:

comic strips
Calvin & Hobbes (Watterson)
Dykes to Watch Out For (Bechdel)
Gasoline Alley (King)
Krazy Kat (Herriman)
Little Nemo (McCay)
Pogo (Kelly)
Prince Valiant (Foster)
The Spirit (Eisner)
Tarzan (Hogarth)

mainstream
Dark Knight (Miller)
Fantastic Four (Lee/Kirby)
Green Lantern/Green Arrow (O'Neill/Adams)
Nick Fury (Steranko)
Swamp Thing (Moore/Veitch/Totleben)
Walt Disney Comics & Stories (Barks)
Watchmen (Moore/Gibbons)

alt/indie/underground
American Splendor
Cerebus (Sim)
Cheech Wizard (Bode)
EC war comics (Kurtzman)
"Master Race" (Krigstein)
Maus (Spiegelman)
Moebius
Persepolis (Satrapi)
Raw
Ring of the Nibelung (Russell)
Zap

As with my favorite books, I'm lousy at making a list of n anything--my mind seems to gravitate toward a list of 2n items. I have a strong temptation to pull several anthologies down from the shelves, and spend the afternoon perusing them...

long reading

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Although I've never read any Joyce--quite an oversight, given my love of wordplay--I always thought that the public reading of Ulysses on Bloomsday was an intriguing idea. Long reads--not that kind of longreads...this kind--is apparently a burgeoning activity in academia.

Literature professors are tackling not just the obvious candidates such as Homer for these marathon reading events, but also works such as Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, Moby Dick, and even War and Peace. As long as such readings are focused on the text, and are more like events than stunts, this sounds like a great way to imbue students' lives with the classics.

marginalia

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Dirk Johnson's NYT feature on the dim future of marginalia rattled around my head for a few days until I came upon a sister piece. Sam Anderson wrote about wanting readers to be rolling around in the text. "[M]arking up books," writes Anderson, is "a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane:"

Today I rarely read anything -- book, magazine, newspaper -- without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is -- no exaggeration -- possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.

Writing marginalia never seemed quite right to me, so I took voluminous notes instead. Some books were only worth a single quoted sentence or a few paragraphs of copied text, while others required many pages. The act of copying the written word has led to the creation of a modern commonplace book (actually a collection of Word documents) that I can search through far more readily than the hundreds of books that have since been returned to various libraries or friends' homes.

Anderson writes later that "books are curious objects: their strength is to be both intensely private and intensely social -- and marginalia is a natural bridge between these two states." That's an excellent point, and one that need not be restricted to the physical instantiation of a book. My digital commonplace book is, unlike my home library, immune from fire, from weather, and from misfortune. If the thousands of books in my home were destroyed, I would still be annoyed by Augustine, intrigued by Russell, amazed by Jaynes, inspired by McDougall, puzzled by Pirsig, entranced by Feynman, daunted by Ginsberg, awed by Sagan.

Anderson has an "ultimate fantasy of e-marginalia [that]would be something like a readerly utopia:"

It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution -- not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself. Now, when the Coleridge of 21st-century marginalia emerges, he should be able to mark up the books of a million friends at once.


links:
See here for a selection of Anderson's marginalia

Andrew Sullivan discussed culling his personal library, and mentioned an essay on deep cleaning that contained this observation:

Clutter is about aspirations unmet; unspoken feelings of loss; relationships we can't let go; old injuries; and lack of self-esteem. For academics, four shelves of books, double-shelved, that you have never read says: "I'm worried I'm not smart enough!" Or, "Maybe if other people see these books, they will recognize that I am smart." Meanwhile, the books sit there looking at you, sending another silent message: "You bought us, now you are stuck with us. Before you get to your own writing, or any reading that would give you pleasure, you have to make good on the promise to read us. What -- you don't" (sniff!) "want us any more?"

Palmer would suggest that you sit down and have a chat with these books, thank them for the time they have spent in your house, apologize for not reading them and explain to them that you want them to go somewhere that someone will really appreciate them. Then box them up and take them to the library sale.

I nearly always try to find a good home for my unwanted books, but some volumes filled with exceptionally low-value content (e.g., religious apologetics, wingnut politics) that have found a temporary home on my shelves may do more good through recycling than through being read be someone else. (Yes, some authors deserve the insult that their books' paper is more valuable than their words.)

This series of what Dr Seuss books were really about is wonderful:

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Dean Karnazes: Run!

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Karnazes, Dean. Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss (New York: Rodale, 2011)

In contrast to his earlier books Ultramarathon Man and 50/50: Secrets I Learned from Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days, Dean Karnazes' new book Run! 26.2 Stories of Blisters and Bliss is--as the subtitle indicates--a pastiche of incidents rather than a cohesive narrative. A major portion of the book details his participation in the 4 Deserts race series (Atacama, Gobi, Sahara, and Antarctica), but there's more in here than just racing stories. Karnazes writes in Chapter 12 about training Topher Gaylord for the Western States 100, and Gaylord tells his WS100 story in chapter 15. In Chapter 14, Karnazes' wife Julie describes what it's like living with an athlete, and their kids Alexandria and Nicholas present their takes in Chapter 18.

Running Badwater for the eighth time while his father (nicknamed "Popou") recuperated from quadruple-bypass surgery, Karno had an early-morning revelation about "all the emotional deadweight we carry around with us." He and his running partner stripped down to their reflective vests (runners are required to wear them at night) and streaked down the road:

For the first time in days, nothing was chafing me. I had nothing but the shirt on my back (er, the reflective vest on my back), and it felt great. We come into this world bare, and we leave the same way. It would happen to Popou; it would happen to me. Such is the cycle of life.

The best we can do is cherish every moment. If we hold close those we love, their memories will live on within us even after they're gone. It was all about stripping away the complex layers we construct around us and accepting the truth. This revelation set me free. (p. 63)

This freedom makes our limited lifespan all the more precious:

There will come a day when Popou can no longer swing a golf club, just as there will come a day when I can no longer run. But, thankfully, today is not that day! (p. 66)

When a trip-and-fall incident at Leadville hyperextended his knee, Karnazes wrote about his encounter with an orthopedic surgeon at the UCSF Medical Center:

The doctor I was scheduled to see came highly recommended as a sports specialist. After all, he was the team physician for the San Francisco 49ers football squad. When I entered his office, he took one look at me and said, "You're a runner, you're going to have horrible knees."

After seeing me and taking some X-rays, he informed me that I had a torn meniscus. He gave me some pills and told me to stop running. He instructed me to schedule a follow-up appointment in two weeks. I walked out of his office, threw the drugs in the trashcan, and went running.

I never returned. (p. 105)

Whether this is foolhardy bravado or the justified confidence borne of repeated experience likely depends on the reader's own perspective on--and relationship with--running. Prompted by his previous books, Karnazes is sometimes quite eloquent when discussing his love of the sport:

The ultramarathon doesn't build character, it reveals it. It is here that you get an honest glimpse into the soul of an individual. Every insecurity, every character flaw is open and on display for all to see. [...] There is no hiding behind anything; the ultramarathon is the great equalizer. (p. 202)

What's next for Karnazes? He began a Run Across America last Friday, and estimates that he'll arrive in New York City on 9 May. At 2900 miles, this will be more than twice the distance covered in his 50/50 event, with only half again as much time...an average of about 40 miles per day. Next year's planned event is even bigger:

Starting in November 2012, I'm planning on running a marathon in every country in the world in a one-year period. Yep, to embark on a global expedition to hit every country on the planet in 365 days... [...]

There are currently 204 independent nations but there's only one world, and my desire is to have others join me along the way in a show of global solidarity. Regardless of the language one speaks, the god one worships, or the color of one's skin, we can all run together. Let's. (p. 256)

Running with Dean Karnazes may not be "like setting up one's easel next to Monet or Picasso"--as one NYT book review put it--but he seems like an interesting enough guy that I wouldn't pass up the chance to spend a few hours running alongside him.

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