Bob Schwartz

Category: Books

Belated Record Store Day Post

When I saw that a number of readers have been viewing my Record Store Day posts from years past, I realized that I had missed this year’s celebration (April 22).

So here’s a message: If you think that the diminishing presence of record stores, and their cultural sisters book stores, is not a problem for civilization and society, you are wrong. That is not nostalgia; it is the truth. The world is a better place with lots of music lovers hanging out together in record stores and lots of book lovers hanging out together in book stores. If you are a music lover or a book lover, and you have never hung out with your kindred live in a lively non-virtual space, you are missing something. Seize the experience.

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World Book Day

Today, April 23, is designated World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)—a day to promote reading, publishing and copyright. (In the UK, World Book Day is recognized on the first Thursday in March, but strangely World Book Night is tonight.)

UNESCO says:

World Book and Copyright Day is an opportunity to highlight the power of books to promote our vision of knowledge societies that are inclusive, pluralistic, equitable, open and participatory for all citizens.

The UN says:

It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.

It was a natural choice for UNESCO’s General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those, who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity. With this in mind, UNESCO created the World Book and Copyright Day.

So today, read a book, write a book, publish and copyright a book. If you’ve already done any or all of those, start doing it again. Appreciate those who have done any of those things. And give a book to someone or read a book to someone, particularly to children.

Note: I know Cervantes, Shakespeare and Nabokov, but I admit that Garcilaso de la Vega, Maurice Druon, Haldor K. Laxness, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo are new to me. Among the things I learned is that Laxness received the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, and that George R.R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) said “I think Druon is France’s best historical novelist since Alexandre Dumas, père.”

All of which serves as one more reminder of what great authors and books remain to be read, and as a reminder that World Book Day is a good time to get started.

Philip K. Dick, Now More Than Ever

Philip K. Dick color

Pretty much every day now, my head spins, just a little. My head does not usually and chronically spin, but it does these days. I find myself not so much trying to make sense of some things, but trying to determine whether there is or will appear some appropriate and constructive response. So far, nothing.

Today, however, I did think about Philip K. Dick. I wrote a little about Dick a while ago. To say he was just a science fiction writer is not nearly enough. Some of his many books and stories have been turned into a number of successful movies (Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc.) and now into an excellent TV series (Man in the High Castle).

The reason for his books being so adaptable, and for his loyal and committed readers, is that Dick was a visionary, some might say a prophet. He was also psychologically and cognitively different. The two parts often go together.

The reason I’m thinking about Dick is the possibility that those of us who are confused about what is going on are being far too rational and far too narrow about all of it. Maybe what we need is a much bigger and stranger vision. Maybe to understand madness, we all have to try to be a little mad ourselves, or pretend to be. Just a thought.

Anyway, Dick suffered through some mental illness and/or religious experience late in his life. Some would say Dick was a bit of a madman. Or a visionary or a prophet. In any case, if we want to know what the future might look like—or for that matter what the present looks like—we can do no better than look at it through Dick’s eyes.

Writer Jonathan Lethem has written some fine appreciations of Dick. This is from Lethem’s Introduction to Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick:

Dick’s great accomplishment, on view in the twenty-one stories collected here, was to turn the materials of American pulp-style science fiction into a vocabulary for a remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation. It’s a vision as yearning and anxious as Kafka’s, if considerably more homely. It’s also as funny. Dick is a kitchen-sink surrealist, gaining energy and invention from a mad piling of pulp SF tropes—and clichés—into his fiction: time travel, extrasensory powers, tentacled aliens, ray guns, androids, and robots. He loves fakes and simulacra as much as he fears them: illusory worlds, bogus religions, placebo drugs, impersonated police, cyborgs. Tyrannical world governments and ruined dystopian cities are default settings here. Not only have Orwell and Huxley been taken as givens in Dick’s worlds, so have Old Masters of genre SF like Clifford Simak, Robert Heinlein, and A. E. Van Vogt. American SF by the mid-1950s was a kind of jazz, stories built by riffing on stories. The conversation they formed might be forbiddingly hermetic, if it hadn’t quickly been incorporated by Rod Serling and Marvel Comics and Steven Spielberg (among many others) to become one of the prime vocabularies of our age….

If Dick, as a bearded, drug-taking Cal-i-fornian, might have seemed a candidate for Beatdom (and in fact did hang out with the San Francisco poets), his persistent engagement with the main materials of his culture kept him from floating off into reveries of escape. It links him instead to writers like Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Arthur Miller (the British satirist John Sladek’s bull’s-eye Dick parody was titled “Solar Shoe Salesman”). Dick’s treatment of his “realist” material can seem oddly cursory, as though the pressing agenda of his paranoiac fantasizing, which would require him to rip the facade off, drop the atomic bomb onto, or otherwise renovate ordinary reality, made that reality’s actual depiction unimportant. But no matter how many times Dick unmasks or destroys the Black Iron Prison of American suburban life, he always returns to it. Unlike the characters in William S. Burroughs, Richard Brautigan, or Thomas Pynchon, Dick’s characters, in novels and stories written well into the 1970s, go on working for grumbling bosses, carrying briefcases, sending interoffice memos, tinkering with cars in driveways, sweating alimony payments, and dreaming of getting away from it all—even when they’ve already emigrated to Mars….

Whether or not he was ready for the world, or the world ready for him, he longed for a respectable recognition, and sought it variously and unsuccessfully throughout his life. In fact, he wrote eight novels in a somber realist mode during the 1950s and early 1960s, a shadow career known mainly to the agents who failed to place the books with various New York publishers. It’s stirring to wonder what Dick might have done with a wider professional opportunity, but there’s little doubt that his SF grew more interesting for being fed by the frustrated energies of his “mainstream” ambition. Possibly, too, a restless streak in Dick’s personality better suited him for the outsider-artist status he tasted during his lifetime….Here, from an introduction written for Golden Man, a collection of stories assembled in 1980, Dick reminisces:

But I think you should know this—specifically, in case you are, say, in your twenties and rather poor and perhaps becoming filled with despair, whether you are an SF writer or not, whatever you want to make of your life. There can be a lot of fear, and often it is a justified fear. People do starve in America. I have seen uneducated street girls survive horrors that beggar description. I have seen the faces of men whose brains have been burned-out by drugs, men who could still think enough to be able to realize what had happened to them; I watched their clumsy attempt to weather that which cannot be weathered. . . . Kabir, the sixteenth-century Sufi poet, wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.” So live through it; I mean, go all the way to the end. Only then can it be understood, not along the way.

Cigarette Ads Circa 1960: Size Matters

TV Guide - July 9 1960

Above is an ad from the back cover of TV Guide from July 9, 1960. It is for Parliament cigarettes. The image shows a man (judging by the hands) measuring a cigarette with a ruler, while a woman looks on with a mysterious, Mona Lisa-like expression. Is she thinking about taste? About how “your lips and tongue never touch” the filter? She is also holding a cigarette. Hers is lit and smoking.

In 1957, journalist and social critic Vance Packard published his groundbreaking bestseller The Hidden Persuaders, “the first book to expose the hidden world of “motivation research,” the psychological technique that advertisers use to probe our minds in order to control our actions as consumers.” Chapter 8 is entitled The Built-in Sexual Overtone.

Since then, discussions about the role of psychology in advertising have continued unabated. Setting aside those discussions, it can be said that sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, a ruler is just a ruler, etc. On the other hand, every picture tells a story. So what’s the story here?

The Weird Randomness of Life

The Catcher in the Rye

I went to the gym this morning for my regular morning workout. The TV was on, but nobody was there. I saw that the remote control was gone. I climbed on a chair, pushed the power button and turned the TV off.

On further search for the remote, I discovered a handbag on the seat of stationery bike. I didn’t want to pry, but I peeked in to see if the remote had ended up there. Instead, I saw a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Are people still reading The Catcher in the Rye? They should and apparently they are. It is a great and famous novel. Once upon a time controversial, when it was published in 1951, because Salinger included the word “fuck” multiple times.

After this novel, another novel, and a book of stories, Salinger disappeared, like the remote control. He is considered the most reclusive and mysterious of contemporary fiction writers. W.P. Kinsella included a character based on Salinger in his novel Shoeless Joe, which became a character in the movie version Field of Dreams. The character in the movie is played by James Earl Jones, a big black man with a booming voice. Salinger was a white Jewish man, as far as we can tell regular size and regular voice.

In high school, I wrote a book report on The Catcher in the Rye, one that was supposed to be read aloud. The English teacher was one of those young, hip women, so I thought it would be alright. I was a little concerned about some of the quotes, specifically the ones that included the word “fuck.” In that class was a girl who was a friend, not a girlfriend, who read it before class and urged me to read it just as it was. She was a popular and cool girl, but mostly I wanted to seem cool to her because she was pretty and had really big breasts.

So I read the report out loud. This is one of the passages I read. The confused and questioning adolescent Holden Caulfield says:

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.

I wasn’t particularly confused, but I was punished. Someone in the class took offense and told the principal. I was called down to his office, and despite his liking me a lot and despite my record as a star student, he believed some sort of sanction for my indiscretion was necessary. The sentence was that my entry into the National Honor Society was to be delayed one year.

If I had it to do all over again, I would know that none of this mattered. I read the book, still love it, and maybe my book report led someone else to read it. If I was somebody else, then or now, I might have said something to the principal that was clever and super-meta, such as “Go fuck yourself.” I didn’t and wouldn’t.

On the other hand, if I go down to the gym tomorrow, and still can’t find it, I might say to myself—only to myself and not out loud—“Where’s the fucking remote?”

Books: It’s Ramadan, Curious George

It's Ramadan, Curious George

Something can be significant and cute. It’s Ramadan, Curious George is that.

Published this past May, the book is a way to introduce little ones to the possibility that others believe differently, that there are other religious and cultural traditions than their own. In this case, a Muslim holiday is introduced through the antics of that famous playful monkey. (George distracts his hungry friend by playing checkers with him.)

Day of Fasting

H.A. and Margret Rey, the creators of Curious George, were German Jews living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940:

Knowing that they must escape before the Nazis took power, Hans cobbled together two bicycles out of spare parts. Early in the morning of June 14, 1940, the Reys set off on their bicycles. They brought very little with them on their predawn flight — only warm coats, a bit of food, and five manuscripts, one of which was Curious George.

The Reys made it to New York with the manuscript. The first Curious George book was published in 1941 (this is the 75th anniversary). The rest is history, and a part of the lives of millions of kids (and their parents).

It is possible to help make the world better one book, and one monkey, at a time.

Books: W.P. Kinsella

The Essential W.P. Kinsella

The writer W.P. Kinsella has died at the age of 81. He is most famous as the author of the novel Shoeless Joe, which was turned into the beloved baseball movie Field of Dreams. (The book is infinitely better.)

That was only a small part of his work. He wrote many other books and stories, some about baseball, some about indigenous Canadians on the reserve (reservation), and others. All his work was by parts unique and charming and funny, filled with a lot of magic, because Kinsella was such a gifted literary magician.

I looked for an obituary to quote that didn’t spend most of its time talking about Field of Dreams. Not many of those. I also looked for an obituary that didn’t mention his personal life, which seems to have been untidy and ragged in some ways, as he apparently could be a difficult person, as talented artists are wont to be. He may have been difficult, but reading his work is easy, so what does it matter, at least to readers?

Many of his books appear to be out of print, as interest in his work has faded. His death has brought him more attention than he had for years, which is the way it goes. The good news is that last year a collection of his stories was published. Here is the publisher’s description of The Essential W.P. Kinsella:

This career retrospective celebrates the 80th birthday of baseball’s greatest scribe, W. P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), as well as the 25th anniversary of Field of Dreams, the film that he inspired.

In addition to his classic baseball tales, W. P. Kinsella is also a critically-acclaimed short fiction writer. His satiric wit has been celebrated with numerous honors, including the Order of British Columbia.

Here are his notorious First Nation narratives of indigenous Canadians, and a literary homage to J. D. Salinger. Alongside the “real” story of the 1951 Giants and the afterlife of Roberto Clemente, are the legends of a pirated radio station and a hockey game rigged by tribal magic.

Eclectic, dark, and comedic by turns, The Essential W. P. Kinsella is a living tribute to an extraordinary raconteur.

And from a starred review in Publishers Weekly:

The career of the incomparable Kinsella is beautifully represented by these 31 short stories, including, of course, “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa,” the haunting tale of a baseball fan’s obsession with a long-dead star that was developed into a bestselling novel and then the film Field of Dreams. Other charming baseball fantasies include “The Night Manny Mota Tied the Record,” in which a fan agrees to sacrifice himself to bring back the recently dead Yankees star Thurman Munson, and “Searching for January,” which concerns an encounter with the deceased Roberto Clemente. Alongside these stories are several more realistic and mostly gentle satires, such as “The Fog,” that present the escapades of several indefatigable members of Canada’s First Nations. “The Grecian Urn” concerns a couple who can inhabit the interior worlds of great works of art. “K Mart” is the touching tale of three boys who use baseball to escape from their unhappy lives. Kinsella is a masterly writer of short fiction.

If you love good writing, please give W.P. Kinsella a read.

Aesop’s Fables: Defending a Demagogue

Aesop's Fables

I just began reading Laura Gibb’s excellent and highly recommended Aesop’s Fables. With almost 600 fables, beautifully translated, that’s less than a penny a fable. Please read it for fun, education and enlightenment.

You may or may not have grown up on these tiny tales from this famous real or apocryphal Greek storyteller, but they have been streaming through civilization for millennia. You certainly know some of them from our common culture: the tortoise and the hare, the ant and the grasshopper. Each includes a moral (e.g., slow but steady wins the race), which is how they came to be seen as lessons for children, but they were originally for adults, and you might look to their value as teaching stories for everyone. Also, if you are a writer or other creative, they can provide instant inspirational spark.

When I read this fable of the fox and the hedgehog (Fable 29 in the Gibbs numbering), I couldn’t help thinking of current events:

Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life, when he told this story: ‘A fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn’t get out. Meanwhile, there were ticks swarming all over the fox’s body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the ticks, but the fox refused. The hedgehog asked the reason why, and the fox replied, “These ticks have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these ticks away, others will come and those hungry new ticks will drink up all the blood I have left!” And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!’

A Heschel Haggadah

 

Heschel Stamp

Each Passover is an opportunity to craft a special theme and text for the seder meal and celebration. The haggadah is the guide to the seder. It always incorporates the traditional order and elements that have been a part of the seder for centuries—most especially the retelling of the exodus story. Beyond that, one can follow the same exact text year after year, or can get creative. In recent years, creativity has been a hallmark of Passover and the haggadah.

It is a happy struggle for me to determine which haggadah to use for seder. Happy because it is a way to deeply consider Passover, the seder, and the group of guests joining us at the table. Our library has haggadot from years past, both those in published book form and those made up of pages printed and compiled ourselves. (I am a little partial to the one that includes scenes from The Ten Commandments movie.)

After weeks of study, and with a previous suggestion about using FDR’s Four Freedoms as a possible theme, I’ve decided to make this a seder featuring the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog (and mentioned his daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, too). I’ve run out of superlatives to recommend his work. So as I’ve said before, he is the great Jewish thinker and writer of the 20th century, and that is only the start. He is also a model of enlightened religious thought in action. He marched with Dr. King in Selma—as can be seen in the famous photo, Heschel looking every bit the bearded biblical figure. And it was to Heschel’s seder that Dr. King planned to go in April 1968, when he was gunned down in Memphis.

In that same vein, here is a message that Heschel sent to President Kennedy in 1963:

To President John F. Kennedy, The White House, June 16, 1963

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Now begins my review of Heschel’s volumes, looking for small excerpts that will convey the essence of Heschel and the holiday, but won’t make the seder too long. For me, if we just took part in the seder, ate a great meal, and read Heschel aloud all night, it would be fine. Let’s see how that goes.

For an introduction to the words and works of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Wisdom of Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

Record Store Day

Record Store Day 2016

Today is Record Store Day.

Record Store Day was conceived in 2007 at a gathering of independent record store owners and employees as a way to celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture surrounding nearly 1400 independently owned record stores in the US and thousands of similar stores internationally. The first Record Store Day took place on April 19, 2008. Today there are Record Store Day participating stores on every continent except Antarctica.

This is a day for the people who make up the world of the record store—the staff, the customers, and the artists—to come together and celebrate the unique culture of a record store and the special role these independently owned stores play in their communities. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day. Festivities include performances, cook-outs, body painting, meet & greets with artists, parades, DJs spinning records,  and on and on. In 2008 a small list of titles was released on Record Store Day and that list has grown to include artists and labels both large and small, in every genre and price point. In 2015, 60% of the Record Store Day Official Release List came from independent labels and distributors. The list continues to include a wide range of artists, covering the diverse taste of record stores and their customers.

Next to Independent Bookstore Day —coming up on April 30—this the most important cultural retail event on the calendar.

Independent Bookstore Day

Find your local record store and buy something—CD, vinyl, or whatever format you play that they sell.

And in two weeks, find your local indie bookstore and buy something there too.

 

Hey kid, rock and roll
Rock on, ooh, my soul
Hey kid, boogie too, did ya

Hey shout, summertime blues
Jump up and down in my blue suede shoes
Hey kid, rock and roll, rock on

And where do we go from here
Which is the way that’s clear

Still looking for that blue jean, baby queen
Prettiest girl I ever seen
See her shake on the movie screen, Jimmy Dean

(James Dean)

Jimmy Dean
Rock on

David Essex, Rock On