Bob Schwartz

Tag: books

“Books Smell Like Old People”

Denby - Decline of Teen Reading

David Denby in the New Yorker asks: Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

If reading means books or other extended forms of writing, evidence and anecdote say the answer is no.

Denby doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about the big picture and long term consequences of generations who are less interested in books than ever. This is an ongoing conversation that just gets more and more attention as digital demographics continue to roll over us all.

Still, it’s worth reading his piece as a reminder and, for some, a wakeup call.

Denby mentions the related ascendance of STEM education:

The Times reported on Monday that at least fifteen state governments were offering some type of bonus or premium for high-demand STEM degrees. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so,” Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, said. “They’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.” (Governor Bevin, as it turns out, graduated from Washington and Lee with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian studies. So much for the crippling effects of the humanities.)

Denby also mentions a recent book by media scholar Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:

Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” has written about the loss of self that this avoidance creates and also of the peculiar boredom paradoxically produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.

Denby doesn’t come off like a snobbishly literate dinosaur. He doesn’t over-idealize “the way things were” as being infinitely and generally better, which they weren’t. He is just an astute observer making the point that extended discourse, written and read, is an essential part of moving society and civilization along. How we reclaim that, if it is in fact getting lost, is a difficult but worthwhile mission.

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals

Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (1971), is a currently infamous architect of political change, demonized but also mostly unread.

His infamy comes from the revelation that Barack Obama had used Alinsky’s work as a sourcebook for community organizing back in Chicago. That was enough for conservative Obama haters, who took this as just one more sign of Obama’s anti-Americanism. Most of them had never read Alinsky, but were sure he was some sort of scary Commie/enemy of the state type, who in the right kind of America belonged in jail—if he hadn’t already been dead.

Rules for Radicals is none of that. It is instead an articulate and sensible outline for making political change—not by rejecting or blowing up the system or the establishment, but by first accepting the way things and people are and working from there.

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

Anything else, Alinsky says, alienates people by going outside their experience. Which is why, for example, he was so opposed to the tactic of burning the American flag as a form of protest.

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience.

Alinsky cites many political thinkers, giving special attention to the virtues and vices of those behind the American Revolution. Sam Adams, for example, made the case for revolution against the British, but once he was part of the established new regime, opposed rebellions within the new American democracy. This, Alinsky says, is a typical pattern.

Writing in 1971, after decades as an organizer, Alinsky hoped to guide a new generation of young radicals who seemed passionate but relatively rudderless. He laid out the practical lessons of his experience, especially the distinction between the rhetorical radical and the pragmatic radical.

This is the promise and the danger of what Alinsky saw at the time, and in a certain light, might still see today:

The “silent majority,” now, are hurt, bitter, suspicious, feeling rejected and at bay. This sick condition in many ways is as explosive as the current race crisis. Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness are mounting to a point of a political paranoia which can demonize people to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense. These emotions can go either to the far right of totalitarianism or forward to Act II of the American Revolution.

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

Winnie-the-Pooh

winnie-the-pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh is not only a children’s book, not exactly, though it should be read to and by every child. It wasn’t read to or by me as a child, but I found it later anyway, and have never let go of it since.

Pooh, as you know or might have heard, is a bear formally known as Edward Bear, but nicknamed by his friend Christopher Robin. He lives with his other friends Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and her baby Roo in the Hundred Acre Wood.

In this bit from Chapter 7, Pooh and friends are trying to distract Kanga so that they can capture her baby. Pooh recites some spontaneous poetry:

“Talking of Poetry,” said Pooh, “I made up a little piece as I was coming along. It went like this. Er–now let me see–“

“Fancy!” said Kanga. “Now Roo, dear–“

“You’ll like this piece of poetry,” said Rabbit

“You’ll love it,” said Piglet.

“You must listen very carefully,” said Rabbit.

“So as not to miss any of it,” said Piglet.

“Oh, yes,” said Kanga, but she still looked at Baby Roo.

“How did it go, Pooh?” said Rabbit.

Pooh gave a little cough and began.

LINES WRITTEN BY A BEAR OF VERY LITTLE BRAIN

On Monday, when the sun is hot
I wonder to myself a lot:
“Now is it true, or is it not,”
“That what is which and which is what?”

On Tuesday, when it hails and snows,
The feeling on me grows and grows
That hardly anybody knows
If those are these or these are those.

On Wednesday, when the sky is blue,
And I have nothing else to do,
I sometimes wonder if it’s true
That who is what and what is who.

On Thursday, when it starts to freeze
And hoar-frost twinkles on the trees,
How very readily one sees
That these are whose–but whose are these?

On Friday—-

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” said Kanga, not waiting to hear what happened on Friday. “Just one more jump, Roo, dear, and then we really must be going.”

Note to English and philosophy professors: Shakespeare is great, but if you are not including A.A. Milne and his Pooh books in your syllabus, you are shortchanging your students. As for philosophy, “what is which and which is what?” and “who is what and what is who?” are questions that could take up a full semester, if not a lifetime.

Note to parents and children of all ages: If you are not reading Pooh to your kids or you haven’t read the book yourself, just do it.

Note to lovers: This may not seem like very romantic literature. But it contains the sort of sweet nonsensical silliness that love, stripped down to its unserious basics, is all about.

WARNING TO ALL: The Disney version of Pooh is known and beloved by many, maybe including you. Sweet Christopher Robin and Pooh would never say unkind or harsh things, such as saying that the Disney version completely misses everything wonderful about the Pooh books and characters, and that it might be deemed a creative desecration. They would never say anything like that.

Broken Memory Card Books

Micro SD Card

The micro SD memory card I inserted into my tablet is now broken. Literally. Bent in two places. All the books, music and movies on it cannot be accessed. (How it got that way is another story. Also, all you cloud storage lovers can please be quiet about “This is why cloud storage is so much better.” I like my local electrons.)

This is not a tragedy in so many ways: compared to the rest of the world, the rest of my life, the rest of my digital life. None of the media was lost; it is simply a matter of loading a new card with any of them.

Micro SD cards are very small and delicate, but powerful. The size of thumbnail, this one had 32 GB (gigabyte) of memory. The average book is less than 1 MB (megabyte), a music track around 5 MB. One GB is about 1,000 MB. Not that I had a thousand books on that broken card (more like a few hundred), but I could have.

This is an opportunity. Rather than ask the memory card to remember all sorts of books that I might have loaded because I liked them a little or liked them once or thought them possibly interesting, but never actually got around to any more if at all, I will load the new card slowly and carefully, one by one, starting with those books that have meaning for me that is essential or nearly so. The moment I realized I was going to be starting over, I knew almost exactly which those were. Rather than desert island books, these are my broken memory card books.

There are metaphors about memory here, some pretty interesting ones, and you might have fun playing around with them. I might have time to do that too. But right now, I have put in a new card, and I’m about to load the first book. It won’t last forever as the only book on my tablet, but for now, it will be the center of my reading universe—a status it deserves.

Robert Stone

Robert Stone

Author Robert Stone (1937-2015) died a couple of weeks ago. You may not know of him, but do celebrate his career by reading a little of his extraordinary work.

If you write, and if you read (which you should do, often and well, if you write), you may find yourself reading certain authors and saying: wow, I wish I could sound like that. Stone was one of those who had a voice so good that even when one of his many novels didn’t hit the mark, you still wanted to listen.

His most celebrated novel was his second, Dog Soldiers (1974), which Time magazine named to its list of the Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It may be the best novel written about the Vietnam War in America. It is a short, sharp, and compulsively readable take on the craziness and morality of it all. Compare to Francis Ford’s Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, also great, but big and spectacular, taking millions of dollars to do what Stone did in a few thousand words. (Speaking of movies, the film version of Dog Soldiers, called Who’ll Stop the Rain, is worth seeing only as evidence of the how great novels can and do go wrong on screen.)

Stone was interested in politics and government, particularly in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when those seemed to become unhinged and unmoored. People were becoming unhinged and unmoored too, but Stone never used his characters as mere stand-ins for ideas. He drew full-blooded, complex people.

He seemed to genuinely love people, even as they, and he, were at loose ends. If you like cultural history, read the memoir of his life and times in the early 1960s, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. It is a sketch of his role as a writer and traveler in the early counterculture, and while it is a very small picture, his honesty and self-awareness are refreshing and appealing.

Back to novels, if you do read Dog Soldiers and want more, try A Flag for Sunrise (1981). While the general topic of this political thriller is turbulent military and foreign policy in Latin America at that time, the subtext is timeless and global—as in, none of the issues has gone away, or will.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.