Monday, November 20, 2017

Keeping On

"Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth — an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do."

Annie Proulx's National Book Awards Speech

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bill Thompson 1946-2017

Bill Thompson in 1968, on the back porch of the
Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.  The pose
was a kind of joke--we were riffing off the rural
cover of Bob Dylan's then new album "John
Wesley Harding."  BK photo.
Not hearing from Bill for months wasn't unusual.  Although I was a little surprised he didn't email me or comment on the Sergeant Pepper post that mentioned him (I was with him when he bought the album and we listened to it straight through for the first time together the week it came out) I knew he was reading this blog, because he always did.

But it turns out he never read that Sergeant Peppers post.  About a week after his last email to me, and a few days before that post appeared, Bill Thompson died suddenly, as his obituary says, while fly fishing.  He was 71.

I knew Bill in college, especially in our senior year of 1967-68 when we shared a great old Victorian Gothic house on West First Street in Galesburg, Illinois, that Bill dubbed the Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.

When I learned of his death only recently, from the Knox College alumni magazine, memories both specific and vague spun through my mind.  Fried chicken and Riesling wine, Vietnam teach-ins in the Gizmo and silent vigils in the windy town square, ceremonies of the weed in the attic alcove we called the temple,  the party we had on the night of the 1968 California primary to celebrate whoever won (Bill backed Eugene McCarthy, I backed Robert Kennedy), which ended with the news of Kennedy's assassination.

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, we tried to figure out whether I had been with him when he first crossed into Canada the summer of 1968.  I know that Mike Shain and I had at least driven a trailer of his stuff to his new home, though my only real recollections of that trip are of a stop at Stratford on the way back, to see a couple of plays.  But thinking about it since, it seems maybe we did drive him there.

In the subsequent half century, Bill established a life in Hamilton, Ontario.  I visited him there in the early 1970s, but lost touch with him later in that decade. We missed connections when I had a speaking engagement in a nearby Ontario town in the 1980s. Which is by way of saying that there's a lot of his life I missed and know little about.

a more recent photo he sent me,
wearing a cap a friend brought back
from Albania.
 Exactly how we reconnected in 2002 or so I'm not sure, but it had to do with my blogs.  I was one of the first bloggers, and now am one of the last, and Bill was a devoted reader and occasional participant for all of those years.

 When I created the blog that became American Dash, I invented the Dash family of brothers to represent different facets of writing (Gabriel the poet, Morgan the fictionist, Christopher the playwright, Phineas the philosopher and Theron the political pundit), partly so I could have arguments with myself.  Bill became a fan and a participant, so that I soon made him a cousin of the brothers, and called him Lemuel Dash,  after the hero of Gulliver's Travels, though I'm no longer sure why.  Bill was delighted and was still signing comments and emails as Lemuel (which he spelled Lemmuel.)  He was the official Canadian correspondent for this blog.

In what turned out to be his last email to me, on May 24, he wrote that he was mentoring young people.  "I believe I provide value by sharing my experiences, coaching, and acting as a 'living relic' to show that you can have a life in modestly radical politics and still have a moderately sane and healthy family."  These young people, he added, "provide me with a great gift: hope."

Bill was a local official in the New Democratic Party of Canada, and had been considered for nomination as a candidate to the federal legislature.  His activism in the NDP and otherwise led him to be an official witness to the dismantling of some nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union.

More recently, he helped build a community coalition of labor, environment and business people that built the first offshore wind power assembly facilities in North America, and spoke at the dedication.

He managed a training program for unemployed workers and their adult children living at home, and helped build a local coalition to push city government to use property tax to finance energy-saving refits of low income housing, hiring unemployed youth to do the work. The last project he mentioned was a cooperative credit union for the working poor.

He started on this road in college, where he organized Citizens for Independent Politics that ran several Vietnam teach-ins, where faculty and students exposed facts about the war and the region's history.  (At one of these in the campus coffee shop, I recall reading from Frank Harvey's Air War: Vietnam until I found myself choking back tears.)  Though at different times, Bill and I were editors of Dialogue, the campus discussion magazine edited jointly by faculty and students.  He wrote a satirical piece for that magazine about privacy invaded by technology, which has taken on new relevance.

In these decades our email exchanges tended to be about political matters, so we didn't discuss much about our personal lives.  In consolation over the 2016 elections, he wrote:" My wife Shelley is from Manitoba and is of Scottish background. Her advice would be 'lye thee down and bleed awhile then rise up and join the fray.' Your voice is needed."

But he told me enough that I knew that he had succeeded in family life.  In recent years he accompanied his daughter to her cancer treatments (and noted that his daughter and son-in-law received upwards of a million dollars worth of medical treatment, thanks to Canada's single payer heathcare system) and he gloried in his granddaughter.  I hope I made it clear to him how much I admired him for this.

Bill liked this blog's emphasis on the future, and integrated that perspective into his commitment to "think globally, act locally" and "all politics is local."  That he was actually doing things that I was only writing about seemed to be the necessary other half of the process, and I was grateful to know he was doing that.

50 years later, maybe the same hat?
Years ago, when I was in a particular career funk, he invited me up to Hamilton to do some fishing. I couldn't make it, but it was clearly something he loved. That's what he was doing on May 31 when he passed away.

Apart from the shock of learning this, especially so long afterwards and in an almost accidental way, it's hard for me to believe he's not out there reading these words.  He was always one of the people I thought about when I wrote for this blog, and I don't think that is really going to change for as long as I keep writing it.

I can pretty much name the day in 1990 when I realized that the quality in friends likely to be most important to me for the rest of my life--and most important for me to return in my relationships-- would be loyalty.  Bill Thompson was a consistently loyal friend for all these years.

I'm sure Bill's family, friends and colleagues were devastated, and I can only offer my belated condolences. May he rest in peace.  His work lives on, not only through his projects and accomplishments but through them-- his family, his friends and colleagues, and those young people he mentored, who gave him hope.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Climate Crisis: From Resistance to Rebellion


The first major international summit on the climate crisis since the 2016 election is happening now in Bonn, Germany.  Reports coming back indicate that resistance to the current US administration's suicidal idiocy on climate is not only widespread, but is morphing into revolt.

The rebellion is both political and actual--that is, action to address the crisis that the US officially denies.

International resistance has been unanimous, as no other country has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords.  The pathos of the US position became even more pronounced by the announcement that the hateful regime in Syria was joining the accord, leaving the US the last nation on planet Earth not to at least pretend it is defending planet Earth.

That's the resistance.  Apart from the presence and efforts of activists, the rebellion made its first news when US leaders showed up to say the official US government position didn't represent them.  Democrats took the early stage.  As Politico reported:  A handful of Democratic governors and scores of other lawmakers and mayors are mounting an insurgency at the United Nations climate conference here, orchestrating a highly choreographed campaign to persuade world leaders that President Donald Trump doesn’t speak for the United States on climate change."

The rebellion was somewhat bipartisan, with Michael Bloomberg and particularly when mayors, regional and local officials joined it--and some big American-based corporations.  The Guardian reported:

A US Climate Action Center has been set up for delegates in Bonn, representing the climate change priorities of several thousand US cities, states, tribes and businesses. Corporate giants Mars, Walmart and Citi are expected to push for action on climate change. The center is in lieu of an official US presence – for the first time, the US government won’t have a pavilion at the annual UN climate summit.

The leader of the pack seemed to be California Governor Jerry Brown, or as  Politico called him, President of the Independent Republic of California.  In fact California has entered into international climate crisis agreements on its own (including one that predates Paris), as well as leading the US in efforts to address the crisis.

In Bonn, Brown made a case for the practical as well as political rebellion:

“This is not just a top-down structure that we have in the United States,” the governor said. The small crowd burst into applause when he added, “Over time, given the commitments that we’re seeing in this room today, and what we’re seeing around the world, the Trump factor is very small, very small indeed.”

In an interview, he outlines the stakes in a way that few politicians do. "The climate, he went on, “is fundamental. It’s not like dietary requirements. It’s not like a tax measure, or a school curriculum, or many of the issues, even a crime bill. It goes to the essence of being alive, living things. Whether it’s humans or fauna, flora, the basis of life is embedded in this chemical structure, biological structure. And it’s threatened.”


The rebellion on view in Bonn is taking those stakes seriously--and Brown is not immune from that rebellion.

 When the current Washington administration tried to use Bonn as a p.r. opportunity for so-called clean coal, it met with vocalized anger"The Trump administration's effort to pitch coal at the international climate change meeting backfired on Monday, drawing heckling and booing at White House officials and energy industry representatives at a U.S. event."

But Jerry Brown got booed as well, presumably by some of the same people. More than 500 NGOs support the "managed decline" over time of fossil fuel extraction and production, but (as Bill McKibben reports) few political leaders will go even that far.  That includes Brown, who "has so far declined to curtail even fracking and urban drilling, the dirtiest and most dangerous kinds," as governor of the third-largest oil and gas producing state in the US.

He is hardly alone in this--Justin Trudeau, the young Canadian p.m. with an heroic image in the US, supports exploitation of western Canada's tar sands oil, which  is enough to just about sink all prospects of  lowering CO2 emissions.  All this is even more urgent with the news that after several years of decline, global C02 emissions are projected to have increased this year.

Update: Moreover, according to this informative history in the Atlantic, Democrats have no clue on how to advance the efforts to address the climate crisis with federal law or policy, should they get the keys back.

The rebellion is fueled by climate crisis news that has very little new about it.  It continues to be mostly piling on proof and confirming that consensus projections are being fulfilled in the real world.  The only news is that reality is beating those projections in speed and severity, which at this point is also not new.

Yes, a major US study which is so not new that this administration actually allowed it to be issued (to resulting indifference), affirmed that the climate crisis is real, is getting worse and is due to human-caused greenhouse gases.

Yes, the climate crisis is fueling disasters and disease "in possibly irreversible ways," as predicted.  Yes, the climate crisis is making mega-storms like Harvey more likely, frequent and violent--and because more global heating is inevitable due to past and ongoing emissions, all this will get worse.

There are plenty of revisions to come, and some unknowns, but basically the stark outlines of the climate crisis and the related but more general prospect of environmental apocalypse have been known for at least a generation.

 This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists updated their warning of precisely this situation that they first issued 25 years ago in 1992.  Some 15,000 scientists from 184 countries participated.

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write. This letter, spearheaded by Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, serves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

That's another consistent message--that soon it will be too late.  Expert opinion these days may vary on what constitutes "soon" or whether it is already too late but it's not very polite to say so.

As I've said before, I have to factor in my age when offering the opinion that it does seem too late to save everything, and maybe to save anything.  But even if we can't in the end save something, what kind of person won't even try?  Do you want to be that kind of person?  That's going to be the test for younger people for now and the future.  It's a life's work.

Once resistance and anger and commitment are expressed, that's really going to have to be the core of the rebellion.  In the end it will be need to be a quieter, more peaceful, consistent, dedicated rebellion through positive actions, many of them small and repeated.

Such actions--such vocations--include those implied by the 12 steps outlined in this U of Concerned Scientists letter.  Not in order of priority--and translated from geek speak-- they are:

1.Create protected reserves for a "significant proportion" of habitat for land, water and flying life. 2. Stop destroying such existing habitats.  3. Restore forests and other large-scale plant communities. 4. "Re-wilding" of regions with native species. 5. Stop poaching and the threatened-species trade.  6. Promote shift of human diet to plant-based foods (presumably partly because beef production leads to forests destroyed for grazing land, and cattle adds a shocking amount of methane to the atmosphere.)

 7. Reduce human fertility rates through education and voluntary family planning. 8. Increase outdoor nature education for children and everyone else.  9. Shift investments from what destroys the environment to what supports it.  10. Devise and promote new green technologies, phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. 11. Revise economies to reduce wealth inequality and to count the true cost of environmental damage by consumption as well as production.  12.  Estimate a human population that the planet can sustain and rally the world to make staying within it a vital goal.

All of those are large-scale goals, ranging from big projects to stupendous changes.  But similar kinds of projects and changes, as well as others not directly covered in this list but which are needed and will emerge as crucial, operate on the very local and even individual level, wherever people find themselves.

Sarah Van Gelder writes about such efforts now beginning and ongoing--for example, in response to hurricane damages in Puerto Rico.  She quotes Albert Einstein: "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” She calls for a reimagining, but one based on confronting local and personal realities and crises, but in a new way:

"Obsessing over Donald Trump’s latest tweet or the misdeeds of the powerful keeps us within that old mindset, distracting us from work that might actually save us, the work of reimagining the world we want, and creating it.

I’ve come to believe that this work of reimagining is humble, small, often taps feminine energy, is fundamentally indigenous — and local. One way to learn what that means is to ask people who are rebuilding after a major collapse, like those now living in Puerto Rico."

The efforts she briefly describes in this article are effective, responsive and also fulfilling.  The language at least may strike some as other-worldly, or more fashionably (and often politically) as "touchy-feely", etc.  And there might well be some self-deception involved in the practice, though the efforts are positive.  But in general, she's got a very perceptive and relevant point:

"Building together locally is a no-regrets strategy. It releases joy at a time when so many are stressed — just the company of others, engaged in a common purpose, satisfies a deep soul yearning. And if there’s a natural disaster, we’ll need each other to rebuild. Same thing if civilization cracks under the stresses of the climate catastrophe (or from one of the other possible disasters — global or local). If we muddle through with the old power structures intact, local power will prevent the worst abuses, relieve isolation and increase prospects for a society that works for all.

Through this long, hard — but also joyful — work, we may indeed find more and more of our communities becoming more just and ecologically sustainable and maybe even more filled with compassion. And from this foundation, we can build a better country and a better world, rooted in authentic relationships where we live."

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Regarding Wave: It's the Vote, Stupid

The chief reason for the 2016 election outcome wasn't who voted or why they voted as they did.  The overriding problem was who didn't vote.

That's becoming the lesson of the 2017 elections as well.  It appears that Democrats won because their voters were motivated to vote.  And because they are increasing support among new voters, especially women, Latinos and racial minorities.

Ryan Lizza's column in the New Yorker suggests that Homemade Hitler is showing signs of becoming the Prop 187 of today, first of all of Virginia, and perhaps of many states.  Proposition 187 was the California measure that temporarily created lawful discrimination against Mexican immigrants in the early 1990s.  It resulted immediately in sweeping Republican victories, but ultimately in the self-immolation of the R party, which almost doesn't exist in California anymore.

The difference, Lizza writes (and others have made this analysis as well) is that Prop 187 energized Latinos and drove them away from the Rs (towards which they tended) to the Democrats.  It took a little while to develop their own candidates and political infrastructure within the party.  But once it changed, it changed big time. Meanwhile, overt racism became more and more repugnant to other voters, including whites, who responded to these candidates and issues.

Lizza notes that the R candidate in Virginia ran a particularly racist and anti-Latino campaign. It was overwhelmingly rebuked.  Instead:

"In northern Virginia, six older white Republicans in the House of Delegates were swept out of office by a group of candidates that included a transgender woman, two Latinas, an African-American woman, and an Asian immigrant. These victors were part of a wave that, pending recounts, may hand the Virginia House to Democrats. The one white male candidate among the new Democratic winners in the region is a self-described Democratic Socialist (and, as some observers, commenting on the rainbow-like quality of the Democratic candidates, have wryly noted, a redhead)."

Moreover these new candidates ran grassroots, community outreach campaigns.  This is in a sense old fashioned politics, in which local campaigns--inherently more face to face--are more important than top of the ticket races.  But eventually in those races the lower level campaigns matter.

Local races are also harder to analyze except one by one; even statewide races can be determined by factors not apparent outside the state.  But in general: it's the vote, stupid.

A Politico poll out Wednesday finds that 85% of those who voted for the dictator apprentice would do so again.  Their story on Johnstown fleshes this out with notable paradox.  While attention should always be paid to their problems (especially the growing effects of what is inadequately called income inequality,) it's useless to spend too much time or much energy at all trying to convince these voters or change their vote.  Similarly it's going to take organization and mobilization of non-white voters to change the South.  It would be surprising if today's controversy over charges of molestation will derail Roy Moore in Alabama, though it won't do the national Rs any good.

What can and must happen is potential voters voting.  Beyond the strategic and tactical mistakes of the 2016 campaign, Hillary lost because in a few key states people who should have voted for her did not vote at all.  That's the problem (though the potent factor of overwhelmingly favorable polls that turned out to be spectacularly wrong that discouraged lazy voters is unlikely to be repeated.)

Some of that is down to the candidate, who should have been able to motivate women to vote with the sense of history (the first woman) that compelled so many to vote for Barack Obama (the first African American.)  But Obama was a much less divisive and much more compelling candidate.  Plus, the return to familiar white politicians after 8 years of President Obama may have caused some letdown among black voters who stayed home.

It's the vote, stupid, which is why the forthcoming Supreme Court decision on gerrymandering will be important, as are state vote suppression efforts (responsible for losing Wisconsin in 2016.)  But most important will be community-level efforts to deliver votes to candidates who deserve them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Regarding Wave


On the day that marked one year since the notorious election of 2016, results from elections on Tuesday showed impressive gains for Democrats and their issues, from coast to coast.  Some call it a Blue Wave, and why not, we need the rush.

For some, it suggested re-thinking conclusions based on 2016 results.  Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post wrote that pundits, like the DNC, underestimated how unpopular and polarizing a figure Hillary was, which doesn't account for other R victories.  Nevertheless one of her conclusions seems borne out by results Tuesday:

Jennifer Rubin:
"...the mood of the country a year after Trump’s victory may not be as anti-government as some thought. Instead of unrelenting hostility toward government, verging on nihilism, we see voters going for pro-government candidates, even ones seeking to expand health care. You never know what you stand to lose until you look into the abyss and see the loss of a politically sane and functional government."

Health care was the top issue in Virginia, guns was second.  These victories in Tuesday's elections aren't the only evidence on healthcare.  Despite the worst efforts of this administration to incrementally destroy Obamacare and discourage participation, new sign-ups are surging.

Analysts also pointed to the educated white vote, which flipped from R to D in Virginia.  More broadly:

New York Times:

The American suburbs appear to be in revolt against President Trump after a muscular coalition of college-educated voters and racial and ethnic minorities dealt the Republican Party a thumping rejection on Tuesday and propelled a diverse class of Democrats into office. From the tax-obsessed suburbs of New York City to high-tech neighborhoods outside Seattle to the sprawling, polyglot developments of Fairfax and Prince William County, Va., voters shunned Republicans up and down the ballot in off-year elections."

At Slate, the emphasis was on the importance of women, as candidates as well as voters.

In Washington, an ebullient E. J. Dionne saw a sea-change:

Forget those repetitious tales about some piece of President Trump’s base still sticking with him. It’s now clear, from Virginia and New Jersey to Washington state, Georgia, New York, Connecticut and Maine, that the energy Trump has unleashed among those who loathe him has the potential to realign the country.

In droves, voters rebuked his leadership, his party and the divisive white-nationalist politics that was supposed to save Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race, the centerpiece of the GOP catastrophe...

The gun issue was supposed to hurt Democrats whenever it was salient. It was the No. 2 issue in Virginia, after health care. But in a historic rebuke to the National Rifle Association, voters who said they cast ballots on gun policy split narrowly. Sane gun policies are no longer a political third rail. It’s time for fearless opposition to the NRA’s extremism...

Republicans take note: You can demean yourselves all you want by trumpeting Trumpian themes. It won’t buy you gratitude, and — except in the most deeply red parts of the nation — it won’t buy you victory. The leader of your party is a boor, an ingrate and, as Northam declared in his effective Democratic primary advertising, a “narcissistic maniac.”

Dionne wasn't alone, though John Cassidy's  analysis was more tempered.  The most salient observation to me in terms of electoral futures was the impression that since 2016 Democrats recruited good candidates for the kind of offices up for election in a non-presidential, non-congressional year.  This has been a longstanding problem, and is reflected in the apparent dearth of clearly superior candidates for higher offices, including president.  That a not great candidate like Northam could win such a convincing victory in Virginia is fine in the short term, but for years Ds have not matched Rs in creating infrastructure for identifying and supporting candidates.

Another measure of the D wave is that the current internal strife over the 2016 campaign, especially related to Donna Brazile and her book, didn't deter voters.  Her own analysis of the results was: Tactically, Tuesday was nothing short of a blue wave, which proved that grassroots campaigns are the key to the Democratic Party’s success next year. Democrats must no longer cherry pick which states and which dates to invest in the grassroots. We must go everywhere. And we plan on doing that."

This was President Obama's veiled critique of 2016 and advice going forward, which he made shortly after that election.  It seems key to future elections.

Though D leaders anticipate 2018, at least one analyst says prospects are still difficult.  Of course as this tragic anniversary suggests, the damage to the country and the world at a very delicate time will continue and could very well get worse, because Homemade Hitler is still in the White House, and even if it does nothing else, Congress enables the destruction to continue through policy reversals and appointments of the profoundly ignorant, rigidly ideological and thoroughly corrupt.

Monday, November 06, 2017

What's New?

What's New?  The inevitable answer is: not very much.

As human beings we're alert to the new: the new threat, the new opportunity, as we have been for thousands of years.  But we have huge enterprises dependent on the illusion of the new, and the news media aren't even the largest.  "New" is the hue and cry of advertising, for instance.

What makes the news is often comparative, a new notch on the scale.  The church shooting with the highest number of casualties is a particularly noxious and ultimately absurd example, a measurement of our failure as a society when none is needed.  But each of the deaths we read about is a real person really dead, leaving behind a hole in families and family members, and in communities.  We bow our heads in mourning and our own common shame.

A different case: Washington Post columnists measure the latest poll: the current US chief executive "has an approval rating demonstrably lower than any previous chief executive at this point in his presidency over seven decades of polling. Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans — 37 percent — say they approve of the way he is handling his job."  Insofar as this is at all meaningful, it's scary on several levels; perhaps the scariest is that it bears no immediate relationship to limiting what this presidency is doing or abetting, like withdrawing from essential international agreements and otherwise risking the future, dismantling healthcare and enabling the imminent threat to totally dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

Other comparatives do seem to leap from differences in degree to differences in kind.  For example, the openness of widespread corruption in the current administration.  On the other hand, the Paradise Papers may "only" be temporary revelations of entrenched practices by the world's wealthiest.

In the larger sense, the passions (for evil and for good) that rule headlines and Internet memes have been described in texts from the beginning of writing, a body of literature all too easily and much too stupidly ignored in the daily astonishment, as well as by self-styled experts who should know better, like the "psychologists" who grab their own headlines with their ill-conceived or perennially known findings.

But on a more historical scale, we can see today's developments in context and as interweaving patterns, instead of headlines so repeatable they could exist as already set type off the shelf, if anybody set type these days.

I am prompted to this thought by the experience this past weekend of finally attacking my old file cabinets.  In them are files of laboriously selected, cut, dated and categorized newspaper clippings and magazine articles, as well as sheets of my own notes and prose on the subject.

Apart from evidence of the jobs I did for the past ten years, the files I went through and largely discarded were mostly from the 1990s and early 2000s.  These bulging folders had subject categories like "income inequality,"  the privatizing of public functions, the heathcare wreckage and various references to political polarization and the onrushing darkness.

There were lots of clippings chronicling the largely forgotten role of Newt Gingrich in representing the kind of politics with which we are now familiar.   There are articles explaining the rise of the new conservatism, the religious Right, and residual racism.  

My own notes were in support of my thesis of a public/private reversal going on, which included sending the unmediated, uncontrolled unconscious outside to work in the public realm.  I collected a lot, and wrote about the enveloping darkness.

Relegating these clippings to the recycling bin is not a rueful recognition of the Internet's transcendence, for retrieving and organizing these clips would still involve serious library time.  (And one set of articles I wish I'd saved are all the paeans to the emerging Internet Utopia by Kevin Kelly and other Wired folk, before international hacker armies, trolls, bots, phishing, viruses, disruptive advertising and widespread identity theft etc. turned the Internet into the Inferno.)  It is rather a recognition that I will not be writing this particular history.

Some of these clippings support another unexpected (or largely unanticipated) consequence of the internet.  In 1995 (which was largely pre-internet) Anthony Lewis wrote a NYTimes column called "An Atomized America."  The idea expressed there and elsewhere, clustering around Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, was that America was becoming a nation of loners.

 In the 1850s the then-journalist Frederick Law Olmstead wrote rapturously about all the associations Americans in cities and towns belonged to, that performed useful services like planting trees, building bridges, creating libraries, starting volunteer civic organizations and debate clubs, as well as engaging in organized recreation such as ball teams and boat clubs, glee clubs and theatricals --all elements helping to build what he called "commonplace civilization."  (All this is from a 1997 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik.)

Later as a park-builder, Olmstead designed New York's Central Park to accommodate many different kinds of people engaged in many different pursuits. Often they would find themselves playing ball or ice skating or otherwise pursuing recreation in their own group but face to face with people in other groups.  They wouldn't see each other whole, necessarily, but they would see each other, and they had something in common.

This sort of thing still goes on, though it is not so fashionable.  Insofar as Americans are more often bowling alone--and not at a bowling alley but at home on a device--they are less frequently eye to eye.  Though some engage in what seems like overexposure on social media, the medium favors creating a persona, which favors one dimensional interchange, especially in politics.  Atomized becomes polarized.  People become icons and one dimensional stereotypes.  They are their politics.  But you know, actually they aren't.  What they share, what they have in common, gets lost.  And that makes commonplace civilization much more difficult.

These clips in general do support the impression that we are approaching the apotheosis of these patterns, along with other more elongated trends.  But I'm not sure that's new either.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Paperback Reader




This is the last in a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in  his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are  on the Book House books, Library Days , Hardy Boys  and other Boy of Summers books, and how books came to be Books in Our House.

Books came into my life as hardbacks. (Even my Golden Books would qualify.) Without necessarily being conscious of these impressions, I learned to love the feel and heft, the quality of print and paper, the smell of the hardback book.

But into my early teens, the cycle of the book experience was incomplete.  I got to choose books from the public library, but I had to give them back.  The books we got in the mail stayed on our shelves, but I mostly didn't select which books came into our house to stay.

I couldn't buy a book at a bookstore because there weren't any.  And they were too expensive anyway.  But when I was in sixth and seventh grade, things began to change.  I was sent to the Cathedral School on North Main Street in Greensburg, which meant I had more opportunities to be downtown.  I also got my first paper routes, and though they were closer to home, I went frequently to the offices of the Greensburg Tribune-Review, which were also on North Main.

Paperboys didn't just deliver papers and collect the weekly fee (42 cents for 6 days.)  We were also the newspaper's largest sales force.  We were continually encouraged to get new subscriptions (or "starts") on our routes or anywhere.  There were always contests and prizes, including trips (I earned my first train trip, to Chicago, this way.)

So there were frequent meetings at the newspaper office, where we learned how to sell.  (There were usually inducements for attending, like a free movie ticket.)  I became such a fixture and favorite in the circulation department that one of the staff gave me her "start" so I could qualify for a trip.

The combination of a little pocket money from the paper routes and my boy-about-town range of activity, especially downtown, meant that I was increasingly a customer for paperback books.  They didn't need bookstores to sell them--they were on shelves and racks in the little confectioners and drug stories on and near my paper routes, and in various stores downtown.

This in fact is how the modern paperback industry was born.  For Greensburg was not unusual--lots of places didn't have a bookstore.  The same was true in England where the Penguin line became the first paperback to prove the market for cheaply priced books sold almost anywhere, and set the example in the 1930s.  American paperbacks followed soon afterward.

Drug stores and neighborhood stores might have a rack or two of paperbacks, but the actual paperback wonderland in Greensburg was located in the two newsstand/tobacco stores off of Main on Otterman Street, below the two movie theaters, the Manos and the Strand.

This photo from years earlier reflects my memory: on the
corner to the left of  Manos movie theater was the
tobacco and news shop with racks of paperbacks.  That
it was once a billiards hall accounts for its size and shape.
Both stores were deep behind their storefronts but the larger was probably the tobacco store next door to the Manos.

It was a forbidding place at first, with old men, some slightly disreputable.  I may have been warned about it, because I don't remember going in when I first started trekking to the Saturday matinee movies at the Manos.

I learned later that there was a reason for any reputation it might have.  Along the inside wall that bordered a side street was a long row of telephone booths.  They were well kept, as I recall, all in a single polished dark wood structure.  There was a door to the street beside them.

Directly across that side street was a bar, which at one time was the center of illegal numbers and other gambling for this side of the county.  (The bar became famous among mystery fans for its frequent appearance in K.C. Constantine's "Rocksburg" series of police procedurals.)  Not too much of a stretch to imagine that the phone booths were convenient for bookies.

But aside from the tobacco counter along the other wall, with rows of newspapers and magazines, much of the rest of the space was taken up by rack after rack of paperback books.  Getting up the courage to enter the place was one thing, but actually browsing the books was another.  I wasn't entirely comfortable doing so until I was in high school.  That was partly because a lot of those paperbacks would be classified as pulp fiction, or worse.

You get the idea.
For shortly after the advent of paperback reprints came the paperback original, often genre fiction--westerns, science fiction, romance, war stories, mysteries, the occult and various combinations.  These were mixed in with reprints of recent hardcover books and classic or at least older books, which is (as the subtitle to Louis Menand's New Yorker piece says) "how Emily Bronte met Mickey Spillane."

Moreover, it was a bit tricky to distinguish the Brontes from the Spillanes because all the cover illustrations tended towards the lurid (Menand describes examples in this excellent review of paperback history.)  A woman not entirely dressed was a common feature.  None of which would have met the nuns' approval.  (My mother would have simply called them vulgar.)

At first my youth probably made the proprietors nervous.  While not actually pornographic, a lot of their books--or their covers--could bring irate parental attention.  I probably felt unwelcome, as well as daring the near occasion of sin, and suspicious eyes watched me.  But I risked it, to find books.

At least this scene is actually in
the book, sort of.
So it wasn't until I knew more of what I was looking for--titles, the names of authors or a particular subject matter--that I overcame my embarrassment for browsing among these covers, and undertook my searches.  They pretty much were all jumbled together--there was no order by category in any of these places. But the price was certainly right: at a time when a regular comic book was a dime and the larger ones were a quarter, a paperback book was anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents.

Eventually I became a persistent searcher, and there were lots of places to look once my eyes were opened.  That tobacco store was prime, and sometimes the newsstand a block or so down Otterman. (By the time I was high school age, the proprietors became indifferent to my presence.)  But also drug stores, the bus station, and increasingly, the new supermarkets.  They didn't often have those spinning racks but they did stock paperbacks in shelves below the magazines.

 It took a lot of spinning, staring, crouching, picking up, thumbing through, to find the gems.  But they were there.  It amazes me now that they were there.

I know I bought paperbacks before eighth grade, but I don't remember any titles.  They were probably few--my main source of reading outside school was still the public library. But a lot of the books I remember buying in eighth grade and high school I still have--often the very same paperback.  They're the ones I took with me to college.  Any others I left behind disappeared, one way or another.

I started in earnest in 1960 with an enthusiasm for the candidacy of Senator John F. Kennedy for President. I bought Profiles in Courage (for 35 cents) and a biography, John Kennedy: A Political Profile by historian James MacGregor Burns (50 cents.)  I did some work for the local Citizens for Kennedy, and was given a larger paperback copy of Kennedy's Senate speeches, The Strategy of Peace.

These were the first books it was important to me to have bought and to own.  They were the beginning of at least partly conscious self-definition through books.

When JFK was elected, I bought every related book I could find, including one called The Kennedy Government, which was basically a set of bios of his cabinet. (I could then--and still can--name every member of JFK's cabinet, just as I could--and can--name the starting lineup of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.  I can't do either for any other cabinet or team.)

 Later I got a book of JFK's speeches from his first two years (To Turn the Tide, fifty cents), and The Quiet Crisis (a big 95 cents in 1963) which is an early book on ecology by his Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, still worth reading.

(I continued collecting Kennedy administration paperbacks in college, including Point of the Lance, a higher-price paperback about the first years of the Peace Corps by its first director, Sargent Shriver.  When I met soon-to-be U.S. Senator Harris Wofford in the early 90s, we got to talking about the Peace Corps--he'd been one of its first officials.  I thought I'd scored major points by remembering the title of this book about it, and even the color of the cover.  But it turned out to bring back mixed memories, for he claimed that the actual uncredited author of that book was him.)

Through his interviews, Kennedy was a kind of tutor on the presidency for me, so I bought a book he recommended (and is still a recognized classic in political science), Presidential Power by Richard E. Neustadt (60 cents.) Later I bought Decision-Making in the White House by JFK's assistant and speechwriter Ted Sorensen.  I found a similar kind of book but about the Eisenhower years: The Ordeal of Power by Emmet John Hughes (75 cents.)

The early space program was part of the Kennedy excitement, though I would have been very interested in it anyway.  So one of those early purchases was First Americans into Space, profiles of the Mercury astronauts by science fiction writer Robert Silverberg. My "Collector's Edition" (as it says on the cover) was 35 cents.

These were all interesting and a bit exciting, but they led to two books that made a big difference to me in high school, as my reading in public affairs areas increased with magazines etc. in connection with speech club and debate.  One was The Other America by Michael Harrington, a startling analysis of poverty in America that surprised and enlightened a lot of people, including President Kennedy, who spoke highly of it.  It's come to light since that JFK was going to make poverty his top domestic issue in the 1964 campaign, and LBJ's subsequent War on Poverty was in part a consequence, and a consequence of this book.

The other was The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.  I believe I came upon the book before I knew much about him--he was soon to be featured on the cover of one of the newsmagazines I was getting, as the Civil Rights movement was forcing questions about prejudices and racial injustice into public debate. The essays in that book, and in the earlier collection Nobody Knows My Name that I searched out (each cost 50 cents) were stunning and enlightening, the work of intelligence and artistry.  They gave depth  to my empathy as well as the recognition of immoral injustice, and were major contributors to my eagerness to participate in the March on Washington in 1963.

There were other books around the house in those years that grabbed me and led me further on parallel paths, like the paperback of Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders that my father brought home, or the anthology of English literature I found in a trunk of books left behind by my uncle and aunt in my grandmother's attic.  There were several poems of Shelley in there that became important to me at the time, especially his elegy on the death of John Keats, which I read several times as I struggled to come to terms with the assassination of President Kennedy. And I explored more in the library--I remember reading my first Sinclair Lewis, for instance.  I also received hardback books as Christmas and birthday gifts (usually from my mother), like a volume of then-recent poems by Robert Frost, In the Clearing.

But most of the books that defined me at that time, as I prepared for college, came from my paperback forays.  I'd obviously become interested in politics, but I had always written.  (It was a play I wrote about a political subject which won a national award and got me access to a couple of college scholarships.)

I loved comedy and satire, and had written it, from the third grade onward.  I bought Mark It and Strike It by Steve Allen, I remember, and a couple of books that used real political photos but with cartoon-like captions.  I still remember some of the jokes (Fidel Castro swinging a baseball bat with the caption: "Quick!  Nationalize the outfield!")

I also got a copy of The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber, which introduced me to a different kind of written comedy.  I also read Thurber's book about his years knowing Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker (The Years With Ross.)  That made an impression, as I wondered about what a writing career was like.

I had a subscription to the New Yorker at some point, probably my senior year. (In fact I read Dwight MacDonald's long review of The Other America there.) Among other writers, it introduced me to the short stories of John Updike.  I found two paperback collections--Pigeon Feathers (75 cents) and The Same Door (50 cents.)  I devoured those stories, and this began decades of reading Updike. His writing about small towns and particularly adolescence (I especially liked the story "The Happiest I've Been") was important. Whatever other styles and attitudes I absorbed in later years, there was always a respectful place for Updike.

It was then that I fell under the spell of J.D. Salinger. Perhaps it was through the New Yorker (for I remember the much later thrill of coming upon the last story he ever published, after years of silence, in an ordinary issue that had just come out, and I was reading on a bus or train station bench) or in some other way (like his Time Magazine cover).  But it was major.

I searched all his books out--all available in these inexpensive paperback editions--and read them in a kind of holy frenzy: The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.  Finally, the hardest one to find, Nine Stories.  I have a vivid sensory memory of getting to the last story ("Teddy") and being too excited to sit still, so I started walking, and I read as I walked.  I have that memory of reading "Teddy" as I walked quickly, blindly up Hamilton Avenue.

Catcher in the Rye was intensely popular in my generation--most of my friends read it, and it was a point in common when meeting strangers (for instance, on debate trips.)  That voice got into the heads of young writers, and was hard to shake. (I recall one story by a teen writer which was about precisely that.)

But I didn't know anyone else who had quite as seriously internalized Salinger's tales of the Glass family in his other books as I had.  Though there was a lot of Christian imagery and message, these stories more or less introduced me to some ancient philosophy (I got a friend's sister to take out a volume of the Greek Stoic Epictetus from her college library for me) and especially to Eastern approaches. I'd pick up that thread in college and later with my interest in Zen and Buddhism.

By the time I was off to college, I had some other paperbacks as well as a few hardbacks to take along.  I had the pocket anthology of Robert Frost's poems.  I had Conrad's Lord Jim and a few others.  But mostly I was flying blind, with just these hints and indications.

I was going to college to enter a writing program, after nothing but ordinary English courses in high school, if Catholic school courses can be called ordinary. But I did find this one paperback: Writing Fiction by R.V. Cassill, which had two sections of instruction (The Mechanics of Fiction, the Concepts of Fiction), and between them a section of short stories by various authors, mostly contemporary (though also the first Chekhov short story I'd read.)

One of those stories, and (apart from the Chekhov) the only one I remember was "The Best of Everything" by Richard Yates.  Several years after I'd read it alone in my room in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, I met Richard Yates when he spent a few days at Knox College, where I was in a writing class.  I told him how important that story had been to me, and how I had come to read it.

He was astonished that I'd read Writing Fiction all on my own, just because I saw it and could afford to buy it.

"Where did you find it?" he asked.

I guess I was surprised at his surprise.  "At the supermarket.  Or maybe it was the tobacco store."

In more recent years I've come back to hardbacks, which when purchased used or remaindered are often cheaper than new paperbacks.  With larger print and a reassuring permanence, they seem more comfortable at my age.

But beginning with those high school years, paperbacks began to define "books" as I knew them--as I read and handled and bought them, and talked and wrote about them.  That acceleration began in college, where assigned books for lit classes and other classes, and even many textbooks, were paperbacks.  And my purchases in the college bookstore were overwhelmingly of paperbacks.

My voracious forays into the bookstores of Chicago, Iowa City, Boulder, Berkeley, Cambridge, New York, Pittsburgh and--with the advent of mall chain bookstores--even Greensburg, were for paperbacks.

Paperback began to have a wider definition, with different sizes and quality (indeed, a category was born of the Quality Paperback.)  But the classic paperbacks of 7x4 inches or so, remained central to my reading, and to my memories of books and authors: from Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Vonnegut, Catch-22, Orwell, Donleavy, McLuhan etc. etc. in college, to Kerouac, Henry Miller, Burroughs, Mailer, Hemingway and onward to Marquez, DeLillo, Pynchon, McMurtry and back to Austen, Melville, Tolstoy, Conrad and over to Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Bester, etc.  

Larger paperbacks of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thoreau, Calvino, Beckett, Stoppard.  Several volumes of James Wright and others in the Wesleyan poetry series.  All of these summon specific sensory memories of those paperbacks, their context in time and place, their aura:

Absorbed in paperbacks of A Separate Peace and, years later, The World According to Garp through long train trips.  Reading Stendahl's The Red and the Black in line at the Cambridge unemployment office.  Pound's ABCs of Reading on a bus. Dorothea Brande's Becoming A Writer on a plane. Calvino's Cosmiccomics at the coffee shop. Long nights with Pynchon's Against the Day.  For example.

(Not to mention Larry McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers.I spotted a paperback of it one Sunday afternoon in the Boston apartment of a young woman I had mixed feelings about. I never saw her again, but I bought the book and read it several times in succession. It was astonishing, even if I started out slightly annoyed that the title was close to one I had designated for my own use.)

There was a romance to the plain cover editions of Balzac etc. that Antoine Doinel read in various Truffaut films, and to the original plain cover Penguin editions.  These covers said that good books (however funny they might be) are deadly serious things, and they don't need garish introduction. The paperback said they aren't for only the rich.  Together they also and especially said: this reader is serious.

  A popular paperback like Catch-22 could be identified from a distance, its blue cover showing on a coffee shop counter, peeping up from a back pocket, indicating a definite cache.  The books you carried defined you, and occasionally, the books you read.  They informed your forming soul.

And so this journey continues, as it began in the public library, the living room, the drugstores and newsstands, the building blocks of this lifetime house of books.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

All Souls Day


Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) on October 31 is the big holiday, and All Saints Day on November 1 is the big holy day.  But November 2 shouldn't be forgotten.  It is All Souls Day, dedicated to the remembrance of all the dead (not just the saints), especially family members.  It's a Christian tradition, but many cultures and countries commemorate the dead in the autumn months on the threshold of winter.  This year at our house we have particular reason to remember one of the departed today.  Rest in Peace, Devona.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

All Hallow's Eve


(At Least) Another Year of Living Dangerously

I was determined never to degrade this site with an image from this administration, but this one of Paul Mantheforts used for a New Yorker story on Monday is too good to pass up.

On reports that indictments were handed down, I surmised the following: Paul Mantheforts, money laundering, mostly before the campaign.  Somewhat more than that actually ensued, including one step into the campaign, but basically what's been in the cards.

I'm convinced this is still going to be a long, long road. Despite these indictments the situation is pretty much summed up by Jonathan Chiat, and Amy Davidson Sorkin ( quoting Paul Ryan saying he wasn't interested in the indictments because he's working on solving peoples problems in Congress, she observes: "These are questions that go to the heart of the integrity of our electoral and legislative systems... Whose problem, one might ask, does Ryan think they are?") and David Frum. 

And for the full doom and gloom, there's--who else?--Andrew Sullivan, whose analysis nevertheless it is not prudent to ignore.

Despite the carnage to come, it's highly unlikely that there will be an opportunity to derail this administration until the elections in a year's time.  The apprentice dictatorship will continue to consolidate power, or try to, until then.  Depending on results in November 2018, which are far from certain, things may change for the better, or (yes, it's possible) the worse.  And even then, it's going to take years to undo the damage done in just these nine months.

I seem to have successfully disengaged emotionally from all this (I dare not call it transcendence, though).  I can't control anything about it but the application of my own time, energy and well-being.  Which I am directing elsewhere.

"...One walks easily
The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture.  Good-bye,
Mr. Papadopoulos, and thanks."

Wallace Stevens (mostly)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Books in Our House

This would be my view leaving the public library, walking
north on South Main St. in the 1950s.
When I was growing up just beyond the city limits of Greensburg, PA, its Main Street and the two parallel blocks on either side of it constituted the commercial center of the town and the surrounding township, and in some ways of the entire county.

The two most prominent destinations of my downtown world were near either end of this district: the two movie theaters to the north, the public library at its southern edge.  Between them were three department stores, plus a J.C. Penney and a Sears.  There were a number of specialty shops, for womens' fashions, shoe stores, men's suits, and Joe Workman's for work clothes and bargains.

the five and tens made it into the 70s,
a bit further north on Main  St.
There were two "five and tens," both large and with bare wooden floors.  During a particular period, I got my model airplane kits in Murphy's basement, $1.01 with tax.

Both Murphy's and the other 5&10, McCroy's, which were across Main Street from each other, had a lunch counter and soda fountain.  Sometimes they strung balloons above the counter and a slip of paper inside each one told you how much you would pay for your banana split.

 Several drug stores also had lunch counters and tables or booths, with those little juke box machines at each.  There were other restaurants, quite large ones like Lee's, but other smaller places, more like diners, some of them with entrances below street level.  There was an Isaly's with a meat counter but also lots of ice cream, including their skyscraper cones, and of course, their now famous Klondikes.

There was a camera store, a record store, and a store selling Singer sewing machines. What there were not were bookstores.  The shop selling Catholic items had some books, and maybe one of the department stores.  But basically there were no hardback books on sale on Main Street, or anywhere in Greensburg, or anywhere I knew of.

Neither of my parents attended college.  When they were married, the US Census described them as factory workers (they met in a war plant.)  Soon afterwards my father went to work at that Singer store on South Main Street (its phone number was 409), and my mother was a 1950s homemaker until I was 12 or so, when she worked the night shift in billing at the Westmoreland County Hospital, and over the next decades worked her way up into management.

Greensburg had its rich people, some of whom were probably well educated, and it had a professional class.  But most were like my parents, in the working middle class, with no more than a high school diploma. And the culture was pervasively working class and very local.  I can't remember ever seeing books on display in any of the homes I visited in my childhood. There wasn't much of a market for bookstores.

The only exception I saw was our home, where there were always books. Here's a photo I'm pretty sure was taken in my first residence, an apartment on the top floor on College Avenue.  I'm not yet two years old.




A bit later we moved into what everyone called "the foundation."  It would be the basement of our house, once the house was built on it.  In our neighborhood at least, many families lived in the foundation while they saved for the house.  There are photos of my parents and some relatives there, that show the painted concrete block walls, and again, a small shelf of books.

Eventually the house built above it would have bookshelves in the living room.  My mother expanded this area several times.  There were bookshelves in my room, and after I left, the room became a den with the upper half of a wall of books.

Where did these books come from? (Apart from the little books for me, which I always had, and school books, etc.) Some seemed always to be there, especially the reference books.  I still have the thick Collier's yearbooks for 1946 and 1947 that must have come with a set of Collier's encyclopedias.  (Later I was given my own set of new encyclopedias.  They were relatively thin volumes, blue like the Americana, but "modern" with illustrations, and probably geared to younger readers. I used them for schoolwork.)

There were of course the Book House books. And there were probably a few old text books or required reading, as my mother's sister and brother had gone to college (my grandfather always was saddened about not being able to afford to send my mother, the first-born.)  My schoolbooks were mostly hardbacks, but they went back to the school at the end of the year.  Probably the most influential such books were volumes on astronomy and science I found on the shelves at the back of my fifth grade classroom when I sat at the last seat in the row.  I read them instead of paying attention to math.

There was a big old dictionary at home, with thumb indexes and a ribbon bookmark, like the big missal the priest used at the altar during Mass.  It could be my sense of words as holy came partly from this.

But as for other hardback books, there were chiefly two sources.  One was the book clubs, namely the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild.  These were advertised in magazines and Sunday supplements.  Usually you got several books for very little when you joined.  By joining you agreed to buy a certain number of books a year.  They sent you a brochure describing their next monthly main selection, and if they didn't hear back by a certain date, they would send it. Their monthly brochure also offered other books as substitutes.

I believe we belonged to both clubs at different times.  You could join, fulfill your obligation and stop, then later start a new membership and get that introductory batch of books for a buck each.  By the time I was in high school, I lobbied my mother to join the Literary Guild so I could get H.G. Wells two volume Outline of History as one of the introductory selections.  Eventually we got their special editions of several novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

I don't however remember specific books before that.  My mother got some new novels, like Marjorie Morningstar. She had a biography of Dwight Eisenhower before his presidency that I read.  I recall only two others, that interested me for different reasons.  One was a collection of single-panel cartoons, many from the New Yorker, that I pored over for hours.  That kind of wit was new to me.

The other was a collection of columns by war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a very popular columnist through the 30s and 40s, called Here Is Your War.  On the inside flyleaf my mother had recorded the date that he had died, during one of the last battles of World War II, on Okinawa.  That notation puzzled me, so I asked her if she'd known him, but she hadn't.  Still, it's why I remember it.


The other chief source of hardback books in our house was the Readers Digest Condensed Books, and I remember quite a few of those.  These were thick volumes that came four times a year, each with condensed (or abridged) versions of four or five new books, usually fiction but not always.  Apart from excerpts in the many magazines we got, they were the only way a home like ours was apt to get even that much of the new hardbacks.

These were substantial abridgements, though I'm sure they emphasized plot. They were usually by best-selling popular authors, not literary giants, though there were some outstanding writers among them, and they did occasionally include classic authors like Dickens.  The first titles I remember are from 1955, though that isn't to say I actually read them then.  Those books stayed on the shelves that I examined often, so I could have read them years afterwards.

From the 1955 volumes, I probably read (or tried to read) Good Morning, Miss Dove,a novel about a teacher, and The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop, a popular historian and journalist.  Two I'm certain I read were Run Silent, Run Deep, a novel about submarines, and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the novel upon which the musical Damn Yankees! was based.

I started it because it was about baseball, and I actually liked the Yankees.  But I vividly remember the passages about the middle aged narrator physically becoming the young ball player, feeling himself able to run.  I ran all the time, and it hadn't yet occurred to me there might be a time when I no longer could.  It was my introduction to how physical aging might feel.  (I also was a bit scandalized and scared by the devil aspect of it, being in Catholic school at the time.  For all I knew it was a forbidden book.  Certainly that "Damn" was suspect.)

As mediocre as much of this probably was, I was alert to things I didn't know from my oddly sheltered life.  We obviously had no Jews in Catholic school, but I caught some connections and some differences in immigrant cultures from a novel called Seidman and Son in which a character is a tailor, like my grandfather.

When I read Advise and Consent, homosexuality was such a forbidden topic that the subplot which involved a gay dalliance was so obscurely suggested that I couldn't figure it out, for I knew nothing whatever about homosexuality anyway.  Still, that was my favorite novel for awhile because it involved the U.S. Senate and a world of government I was getting keenly interested in.

By then--1959--I was catching up, reading the latest Condensed Books volume when it arrived.  Besides Advise and Consent, I also read The Ugly American that year.  Political fiction and nonfiction were becoming a popular trend, just as I started becoming interested in it.

These abridgements made it possible for me to read a book before it became a movie, whereas it had always been the reverse before. (Disney in particular sent me to books, from the Hardy Boys to Johnny Tremain.)  In particular I read To Kill A Mockingbird before I saw the movie, and so could compare the images in my mind (influenced by the illustrations) with the actors on the screen.

From these condensed books I got an overly romantic view of writing from Youngblood Hawke, and an overly romantic view of science from The Microbe Hunters.  I also went on from these abridged versions to eventually read the entire book, in particular Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 and John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent.  That Steinbeck novel also sent me to read several of his shorter novels in a single volume my mother had, probably from a book club.  (And I could have sworn I read Travels with Charley as a RD condensed book.  But I must have gotten it from the library shortly after it came out.)

We did get a lot of magazines--my mother got all the women's glossies (McCalls, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal), my father got Popular Science and Popular Mechanics (I knew all about the Edsel before it came out), and we usually had Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, and of course, Reader's Digest.

 By the time I was in speech club in high school, it was an overflow--the weekly news magazines, plus the New Republic, the Nation, the Reporter, American Scholar etc.   But I mention them in this context because they often referred to the latest books and authors.  Apart from what I could guess from context, I had the condensed books to place me in this ongoing stream of contemporary references, especially with topical books like Seven Days in May.

As I've mentioned in an earlier post or two of this series, and as must be obvious from this one, I was not a particularly precocious reader.  I wasn't, like Katherine Anne Porter, memorizing Shakespeare's Sonnets at age 13.  No, these were gateway drugs, as were the Classics Illustrated Comics I bought, that introduced me to Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine before I saw the movie and The War of the Worlds after it--both very different versions.  So that was something else I learned.

By the time I was in college I learned to denigrate such abominations as abridgements and "condensed" books of novels that were too bad to begin with.  My mother's bookshelves would be a middle class embarrassment.  I'm not embarrassed anymore.  There's no point in wishing I had a better education.  In some ways it's a miracle I had any experience of books and book culture.  All I can do is record the means, and frankly, remember them fondly.

 This is one of a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in  his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are  on the Book House books, Library Days , Hardy Boys  and other Boy of Summers books.