Saturday, June 24, 2017

Free Range Reading

“Literature, as I saw it then, was a vast open range, my equivalent of the cowboy’s dream. I felt free as any nomad to roam where I pleased, amid the wild growth of books.”
Larry McMurtry

Adam Gopnik loves reading cookbooks, collections of letters, and James Bond novels—pleasures, but not guilty ones. “If you can tolerate one piece of advice,” he says, “it’s don’t segregate the great continuum of reading. “”To be a good reader, paradoxically, doesn’t mean being a discriminating reader, it means being an omnivorous reader,” he explains. “You never know what will grab you.””
Danny Funt in Columbia Journalism Review

I'm a free range reader, as Larry McMurtry describes.  I love Adam Gopnik's phrase "the great continuum of reading," but though I wander I'm not exactly an omnivorous reader. I have my interests, which vary from time to time, but I don't read everything.  My selection process is a mixture of idiosyncratic searches and serendipity. In particular I've learned to believe in serendipity.

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is in part a memoir of reading by novelist and legendary book scout and book seller Larry McMurtry.  I'm reading it now, and it is resurrecting and focusing memories of my own reading history that I'll probably be boring you with later in this space.  But I am reminded that before serendipity was either a research technique or a selection process, it was a necessity.  In the ignorance and restrictions of my early years of reading, I had to choose from what I happened to come across.

Since my retirement from, among other things, book reviewing, my reading has changed somewhat.  Just for fun I've assembled books I've read (in whole or part) since January, to see where I've been roaming this year.  (There are a few more books than pictured.)

The non-fiction books are fewer than fiction, which is itself a change.  Jerome Kagan's On Being Human is the second newest book in this pile, and the only one I got from the publisher as a review copy.  Kagan had a long career as a research psychologist but is also thoughtful and erudite on larger issues of mind and the human spirit, as well as a trenchant critic of psychological research as it is practiced today.  The first time through this book was to find those chapters and pages that most interest me, to which I will return.  It's also one of those books that quotes other books that I immediately want to read.

Kagan is himself sort of retired now, and writing from that perspective.  I'd read and reviewed the book before this, which dealt more specifically with the practice of psychology, as well as an earlier book.  So I was sure to read this one eventually.

Man and His Symbols is a classic work with a long essay by Jung (the last he published) and other essays by mostly first generation Jungians.  This volume stands in for several others of Jung's I read parts of since the election, notably a volume of his collected works called Civilization in Transition, with essays from between the wars and after World War II.

I had an old mass market sized paperback copy of Man and His Symbols, and I carried it in my backpack on our Christmas trip to Menlo Park.  What a great relief and pleasure it was to leave an awful attempt to make mechanistic and poorly designed psychological experiments into a theatrical experience, to sit in the sunny patio of a cafe, drinking coffee and reading Jung's chapter.

But after carrying it around with me since, the book's cover fell off, and its small size couldn't do justice to the many illustrations, reproduced in smeary black and white.  So more recently I located a gently used hardback copy on Amazon and ordered that.  It's one of those books that's probably going to disappear in a few years, so I just acquired some plastic book covers to preserve it.  I'll keep the paperback--I like to open it at random at odd moments when I'm out and about, and usually I come upon something that strikes a spark.

Apart from memoirs, the only other nonfiction books I've read in the past few months are by digital revolution analyst and prophet Jaron Lanier, particularly Who Owns the Future?  Very smart, pretty dire.

This is a change from recent years, that I'm reading more fiction than nonfiction.  It's also different from the preceding months as there are no plays in the pile, though I did read and enjoy a memoir by playwright David Hare, The Blue Touch Paper.  The trail I followed to that one was not entirely new--I got the DVDs of Hare's tv trilogy Worricker starring Bill Nighy (films I'd seen before), and so looked at Youtube videos of interviews with Nighy and Hare that I hadn't seen the last time I'd searched.  In one of them, Hare mentioned The Blue Touch Paper. So once again, Amazon Marketplace.

Hare explains a number of things in this book but I came away still not knowing what "blue touch paper" means (had to google it.)  I can tell you however that by far the dominant color in the Worricker trilogy (clothes, walls, landscapes) is blue.

The last time I committed to reading big long novels was in the 1980s, and they included Gravity's Rainbow.  It was however the only one I didn't finish then.  I happily completed Moby Dick, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But this year I did it--all the way through Gravity's Rainbow, even following the plot.   The style of Pynchon's sentences, his wonderful descriptions, were always attractive--I'd often read a few restorative pages over the many years since this novel first landed on my desk at the Boston Phoenix, when I assigned a reviewer for our first books supplement.  Finally reading the novel whole was an accomplishment and a pleasure.

The other really big book this time was Dickens' Bleak House, which I wrote about here already.  I got it off my own shelves, obviously bought used.  I'm re-reading David Copperfield and will go on to Tale of Two Cities (which I may or may not have read before) before tackling the massive Our Mutual Friends, once I've had the adventure of acquiring a copy.

The newest book is Kim Stanley Robinson's New York: 2140, a science fiction novel about surviving the climate crisis which I hope to write about in the future.  I interspersed these and other more weighty volumes with some old science fiction written in the 1950s for teenagers, a genre which (again) I plan to write about here soon.

Also a Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz, who created and mostly wrote the Foyle's War UK television series about World War II in the homefront.  House of Silk is a classic Holmes novel in style and subject, though with crimes Conan Doyle probably couldn't write about.  I'd recently acquired the Foyle's War DVDS with Horowitz interviews. It was mentioned that he published novels, so I looked him up on Amazon and found this one.

Flyover Lives by contemporary novelist and critic Diane Johnson is mostly about her childhood in a part of the country near where I lived for a time--Moline, Illinois, on the Mississippi River.  I learned more about that area than I knew, and found similarities as well as differences in our childhoods and backgrounds.  I got this particular hardback book at the local Dollar Tree--not the first or last I'm glad I scouted out there.

McMurtry laments the collapse of the antiquarian/used bookstore business.  I've seen evidence of it--all the used bookstores (I remember 3) and the two or three new bookstores I knew on Murray Avenue and Forbes in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, were gone in the first few years after I left in 1996, apparently done in at least in part by the big Barnes and Noble store that came in.  Then the last time I was there, the Barnes and Noble was gone.  (However, the Squirrel Hill Public Library on Forbes was greatly expanded, with a lot of computers but also more stalls of used paperbacks for sale.)

In Arcata in the late 90s there were four used bookstores; now there is one.  The owners of two of the others continued to sell but only on the Internet. But there are other places now to find books, especially the thrift stores, of which there are many in Arcata and Eureka.  I bought McMurtry's book at the Arcata thrift store run by the Humboldt Hospice organization.

There are still two used bookstores in Eureka, one of them also antiquarian.  I trade books at the Booklegger in Eureka--they make the fairest trades--for credit on books there.  That's where I found Sebold's The Emigrants, which I'm now reading.  I looked for it after seeing it praised in several different places within a week or two: serendipity.  I'm glad I found it.

I heard Roy Parvin read once at Northtown Books in Arcata, when he lived in a nearby town and had recently published this volume of novellas In the Snow Forest.  I enjoyed the reading but couldn't afford the book at the time. I found a used copy later on and never got around to reading it until this month.  The stories are well written and unlike anybody else's.  I liked the first novella the best, although the second was the title story and the third--which includes a evocative description of a long train trip in 1957-- got made into a movie in Europe.  So this one is an argument for keeping a library.  Still, there was a certain serendipity in finding it---when I relocated a pile of books with little in common but that I'd long meant to read them.

My library held another interesting surprise.  Before taking another look at Ford Maddox Ford's World War I saga Parade's End, I thought I should read his more famous novel, The Good Soldier (which has nothing to do with any war.)  I looked in my tumbled fiction section and sure enough, next to several novels by Richard Ford, was a paperback copy of this one.

One of the delights of acquiring used books (including old library books) is the hints that previous readers leave.  Not the manic highlighting--I can live without that.  Sometimes just a name, a few notes, or a telling bookmark.  I once had a first edition of Gravity's Rainbow but sold it when I left Pittsburgh.  Here I bought a used quality paperback--previous owner Joshua Wolf not only signed it, but left his United Airlines boarding pass stuck in between pp. 344-5.  So I celebrated not only getting further into it than I had before, but far past Joshua as well.

With The Good Soldier, this time the previous owner was known to me--an old girlfriend who evidently read it for her high school College English class, several years before I met her. (Along with her name and her familiar home address, she'd carefully written the name of the class and its teacher.)

 That I had it in my collection--evidently for years--was a complete surprise.  I haven't been in touch with her in decades but through her handwritten notes--probably based on what her teacher was saying--I found myself oddly communing with her teenage self.  I was also reminded of how many of my college classmates had attended better high schools than I did.  We didn't get literature beyond Silas Marner and Great Expectations at mine.

This pile of books doesn't include several I started but abandoned.  One was a paperback from my shelves by Anthony Burgess, the English novelist with whom I once shared a deliriously liquid lunch.  But the narrator was a man in his 80s, and I wasn't in the mood.  However, the book's previous owner (Matt Hinton) left a wonderfully enigmatic message on the flyleaf: "The pelicans are flying in groups of seven today." Maybe he took "flyleaf" literally? That and his signature were all he left me.

Some of these books were discrete reading experiences, while others will likely lead to other books--by their authors, or mentioned in their pages, or on a similar subject, which in turn will branch in other directions.  I picked out the Diane Johnson book because I recognized her name, and got it mostly because of Moline, but also because last year I read a couple of excellent memoirs that included childhoods in isolated areas of America--which started with the serendipity of finding one of them in a "free box:" cardboard boxes of stuff exiting students and other transients left behind on the sidewalk.  (In another free box, I found a vintage paperback of the Isaac Asimov s/f classic, I, Robot, which I hadn't read--but I will now.  A book in the hand is worth two on Amazon.

In my free range reading, I don't know how much content I retain, but that's not as important to me as the reading experience, and the sense of things, the added depth and breadth, the connections and inspirations, the interplay with memories, of events and people and feelings.  

So this is an account that suggests ways that books are in my life these days. (I wrote more about it now and again over the years, especially at my Books in Heat blog, which by the way, has some paragraphs about a book in this pile I haven't mentioned--Don DeLillo's outstanding novel Zero K.)

 It probably isn't your typical twenty-first century story, but perhaps someone out there might be reading this and thinking, well I may be crazy but at least I'm not completely alone.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

First, Do No Harm

Among the first to react to the suddenly revealed Senate "Kill Obamacare and the People It Helped" bill was President Obama.  His statement in full is on Facebook and at the Atlantic.  Quoting:

"I recognize that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act has become a core tenet of the Republican Party.  Still, I hope that our Senators, many of whom I know well, step back and measure what's really at stake, and consider that the rationale for action, on health care or any other issue, must be something more than simply undoing something that Democrats did.

We didn’t fight for the Affordable Care Act for more than a year in the public square for any personal or political gain—we fought for it because we knew it would save lives, prevent financial misery, and ultimately set this country we love on a better, healthier course."

"The Senate bill, unveiled today, is not a health care bill. It’s a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America. It hands enormous tax cuts to the rich and to the drug and insurance industries, paid for by cutting health care for everybody else. Those with private insurance will experience higher premiums and higher deductibles, with lower tax credits to help working families cover the costs, even as their plans might no longer cover pregnancy, mental health care, or expensive prescriptions. Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions could become the norm again. Millions of families will lose coverage entirely."

Simply put, if there’s a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family—this bill will do you harm. And small tweaks over the course of the next couple weeks, under the guise of making these bills easier to stomach, cannot change the fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation."

"To put the American people through that pain—while giving billionaires and corporations a massive tax cut in return—that’s tough to fathom. But it’s what’s at stake right now. So it remains my fervent hope that we step back and try to deliver on what the American people need.

"After all, this debate has always been about something bigger than politics. It’s about the character of our country – who we are, and who we aspire to be. And that’s always worth fighting for."

On the bill itself, most news outlets agree.  The New York Times:

Obamacare raised taxes on high earners and the health care industry, and essentially redistributed that income — in the form of health insurance or insurance subsidies — to many of the groups that have fared poorly over the last few decades.

The draft Senate bill, called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, would jettison those taxes while reducing federal funding for the care of low-income Americans. The bill’s largest benefits go to the wealthiest Americans, who have the most comfortable health care arrangements, and its biggest losses fall to poorer Americans who rely on government support. The bill preserves many of the structures of Obamacare, but rejects several of its central goals."

Passage of this program will not only mean fewer Americans will get the health care they need as it makes healthcare more expensive, a new study says it could cause an economic recession:

A new report from the Commonwealth Fund and George Washington University researchers," writes the Atlantic, found that the very similar House version  "would slash total jobs by about a million, total state gross domestic products by $93 billion, and total business output by $148 billion by 2026. Most of those jobs would be shed from the health-care industry, which would contract severely over that frame. Most of the losses in economic activity would come in states that have expanded Medicaid to low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act."

It's about cutting taxes for the wealthiest, and let the others suffer and die.

That's the Republican credo.  Their greediest supporters see the opportunity in holding Congressional majorities and the White House: more bucks for us.

"Follow the Money" was the catchphrase of Watergate, and it is again for the Russian connection investigation.  But more than that, it is the first place to look for anything Republicans in Washington do.

It's there in the generous donations from fossil fuel corporations, and so on.  As for our apprentice dictator, it is all summed up in his allegiances--in the Middle East and elsewhere, he loves whatever country his companies do business in, and any country that doesn't want his businesses is America's enemy.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Read All About It

To his surprise, the election of a president with zero apparent interest in books seems to have inspired a surge in reading nationwide. It’s good news, of course. “But,” he told me, “if it takes a brutally divisive election and concerns over American authoritarianism to get you to read, maybe you could have started earlier.”

Carlos Lozada, nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post, quoted by Danny Funt in the Columbia Journalism Review

Sunday, June 18, 2017


It's been 45 years this weekend since the break-in that led to Watergate, although for many months, it didn't get much attention.  Woodward and Bernstein began reporting on all kinds of questionable and criminal activity involving the Rs 1972 campaign.  At roughly the same time there were various other stories suggesting dark doings by the White House.  But few people--and certainly not voters--dared to heed any of it.

The famous movie version of their  book All the President's Men lays it all out, but remember what the final scene is: Woodward and Bernstein continuing to type away, while on the TV there begins the second Inauguration of Richard Nixon.  They'd already reported much of the corruption and crimes we know as Watergate.

I was a writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix at the time (though for at least part of this time it was still called Boston After Dark.)  Though my work was mostly in the arts section, I did cover 1972 campaign events in Boston, and wrote  a series of reports on the Nixon revelations.  Apart from the Cover-Up to come, a great deal of what we call Watergate--and the activities that were the basis for several articles of impeachment--were already known, they were in my articles based on mostly widely available information.

I wrote one article focusing on the Nixon White House attempts to intimidate the news media, which went beyond claiming that Woodward and Bernstein and other major newspaper and TV network reporters were politically motivated, unpatriotic, dangerous and (sometimes even) inaccurate.  I recall that my editor gave it the headline "Beat the Press."

So much was known by November 1972. On the basis of all these stories, the Democratic candidate George McGovern called the Nixon administration the most corrupt in history.  He was criticized for political hyperbole.

Nevertheless, Richard Nixon, who was elected by a razor thin margin in 1968, was re-elected with the largest electoral majority in history.  He won 49 states.  Only Massachusetts resisted (as did DC.)  For years I carried a bumper sticker on my guitar case: "Don't Blame Me: I'm From Massachusetts."

With that electoral mandate, there was even greater pressure on the news media. The Nixon White House was able to basically destroy at least one career I know of.  Later it was confirmed how far this pressure went: the Enemies List, the ordered tax audits, the threats to take away broadcast licences, and attempts to intimidate newspapers through pressuring their advertisers, stockholders and/or owners.

That's one difference from Deja-Vugate.  The news media has been much quicker to this story, partly because (I suspect) people in government aren't nearly as afraid of being sources for information, partly because this regime is perceived as incompetent and dangerous, partly because of the Watergate precedent, and basically because they are freaked out.  Then again, everything about this is accelerated.

What isn't really known yet is how the public is perceiving this.  Polls suggest that it's just like everything else, split according to political affiliation.  Nixon and his minions could demonize the Washington Post, and for awhile a lot of voters apparently believed them.  The belief systems are even more entrenched now.  There is a hefty percentage of people for whom the major news media are irrelevant. The criteria for evidence most people would accept is narrow, if they exist at all.

The reporters who quite courageously got the stories of Watergate, along with the patriotism of individuals like Eliot Richardson who refused Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor, the Supreme Court in ordering that the White House tapes be released to the special prosecutor, and the courage of a number of Republicans in Congress to investigate and judge the evidence rather than just the politics--they all went down in history as heroes (although of course there are those who probably don't accept that history.)  We have yet to note any Republican profiles in courage, but the media and the courts have so far stepped up pretty well.

And yet, an outcome that ends up with the Republic somewhat wounded but intact, which happened in 1974, is not at all guaranteed this time.  This weekend a number of analysts and commentators were floating a dire scenario.

 It starts with the firing of the special counsel, especially if Deputy AG Rosenstein recuses himself because he might be a material witness in the investigation.  But one way or another, the ax will get into the hands of the next in line, and though she has some reputation for integrity she is also basically a political ideologue with little experience in constitutional law.

Without a special counsel able and willing to follow all the many lines of investigation, there will be little proven substance.  All that remains is obstruction of justice, as a basis for impeachment.  Or, even if Mueller remains, gathering evidence and making a case will take months if not years, and so far the assumption that a sitting president can't be charged with a crime has not been tested.  So again, it's impeachment if anything.

Update: As if to emphasize this point of the long haul, Politico notes that on the Sunday shows, Senator Angus King said the Senate's investigation into campaign collusion with Russia is no more than 20% done, while Dem Rep and ranking House Intel committee Adam Schiff  confirmed that the special counsel investigation is "just getting started." 

And pundits from former Republican speechwriter David Frum to New York Magazine's Jonathan Chiat and Andrew Sullivan believe impeachment, conviction and removal from office will not happen.

Andrew Sullivan: And so it seems to me completely plausible — even inevitable — that Mueller will be fired too at some point. More saliently, if his team’s work eventually exposes and proves Trump’s obstruction of justice, the only possible recourse, impeachment, will never happen. There will never be 18 Republican senators who will vote against the leader in this Congress or any other. We will have a criminal in the White House indefinitely, utterly impervious to sanction, and emboldened even further. And he will have brought almost half the country along with him, digging deeper in with every news cycle.

David Frum makes basically the same point about 18 Republican Senators, as conviction requires a two-thirds vote.

Chiat's piece elaborates on the headline:Trump Can Commit All the High Crimes He Wants. Republicans Aren’t Going to Impeach Him.  His reasons are political: the dictator apprentice is adhering to a far right agenda which will preserve his core political support among voters, the same voters that R members of Congress need to win their primaries.  The long version:

"Many conservatives opposed Trump during the primaries because they suspected, with good reason, that his conservatism was shallow or insincere. They worried that, once elected, Trump would abandon their priorities and pursue the most expedient course.

But Trump has not done that at all. The policies or talking points Trump has abandoned are the centrist ones: He would protect Medicaid from cuts, give everybody terrific coverage, hammer the big banks, spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, and cut deals with both parties. This week, Trump formally abandoned the last possible area of ideological compromise in infrastructure, “clarifying” that his plan relies on private industry, states, or cities ponying up the money. Trump’s budget actually cuts federal investments in infrastructure. He has positioned himself to the right of even House Republicans on domestic spending, and continues to push for their grossly unpopular plan to cut a trillion dollars from Obamacare. “The Never Trump conservative argument that Trump is not a conservative — one that I, too, made repeatedly during the Republican primaries — is not only no longer relevant, it is no longer true,” points out the popular conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager.

Trump is faithfully supporting the conservative agenda, so most conservatives faithfully support him. Their concerns are pragmatic ones about his effectiveness on behalf of their common agenda, rather than moral objections to the legitimacy and propriety of his actions. Trump may have committed impeachable offenses, but the impeachment clock has not even begun to move."

On the other hand, having lived through Watergate, I experienced how a president who won overwhelmingly in November 1972 could be forced to resign in 1974 because he had no political support, first of all in Congress, but also very little in the country.  Nixon's version of the populist/conservative base was called the Silent Majority.  They were especially reacting to the cultural as well as political turmoil revolving around race and Vietnam protests, as well as sex, drugs and rock & roll.

But at a certain point many of them turned on Nixon.  I spent several months back home in western PA during these years and I saw it happen there especially.  Nixon was right about one thing. People wanted to know if their president was a crook.  When they became convinced of it, they wanted him out of office.

The Saturday Night Massacre was a key moment.  Constitutional issues weren't so much the point.  It was that Nixon was acting like he had something to hide, like he was guilty of something.  People started admitting their doubts.

Another aspect of Dejavugate is that Nixon was also fond of the imperial presidency concept.  He said basically that if the president does it, it cannot be against the law.  He was an insecure autocrat, rather than a narcissistic one, but his behavior was similar: he ranted, he was vengeful, he demanded loyalty but showed little of it.  He was also very experienced and a lot smarter than Homemade Hitler.  But he seemed just as crazy.

What is called Watergate started with newspaper reporting that got amplified on the evening TV news.  But then there were the hearings: the select congressional committee, the House Judiciary impeachment hearings, broadcast in their entirety on all three networks, every day.  They were mesmerizing, and all consuming.

I probably learned a lot watching those hearings, though I remember very little.  I know I learned a lot reading All the President's Men: one concept in the book and the movie that is proving useful this year is the non-denial denial.

But basically I look back at the obsession to follow every nuance knowing that it's all time I'll never get back, and it was all time I didn't do work I might have done. And I've had painful assaults of obsessions with awful ongoing political disasters since.  On election night 2016 I knew I was probably going to be drawn into it again, and I didn't want to at all.  I still don't.  Wasting my time following all this and blogging about it is not going to make a bit of difference as to the outcome.  And yet here I am.

I also felt last November, and I expressed it here, that the way that election played out indicated to me that something well beyond politics was going on.  I still fear that's true.  And so even though Andrew Sullivan is an excitable boy, and a couple of major pieces will have to fall into place now for the apprentice dictator to become a real one, it still could play out that way.

Sullivan ends his piece: Over a year ago, in this magazine’s pages, I wrote the following sentence: “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.” We are about to find out if I was right."