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.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Year of the Jerk and Other Notes

I'm cleaning up my bookmarks for the month, so in no particular order:

A Stanford professor promoting his book speculates on why 2017 is the Year of the Jerk, and other Peak Asshole observations.  At the very least, an entertaining read and another pressure release from overboiling outrage.

The recent fuss over the current CIA director claiming erroneously that the "intelligence community" believes the Russian interference in 2016 had no impact on the outcome, can be viewed in the context of an earlier observation made in late September by the former director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the current White House incumbent: "Our intelligence community assessment did, I think, serve to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory in the election."

Dan Rather reflects on the practice of journalism and his journalistic career, particularly in covering segregation and the Civil Rights movement, in this interview.

Department of Ignorance: An eye-opening expose of scams against seniors;  a description of the role of social media bots in the 2016 Russian cyberspace invasion, and bots as an ongoing problem.  Not sure I still understand it all.

Other tech: another of several recent apocalyptic pieces on smartphones.  That was the Guardian, here again is the Atlantic's, which has been on its top five most popular pieces for weeks.

The Atlantic also has been following the Russian invasion through social media angle--in this story and more recently in this one.  Meanwhile, while denying Russian influence, Homemade Hitler himself bragged that social media won him the 2016 election.

But it wasn't just social media. A more recent and largely overlooked study that more than suggests the state of Wisconsin swung R in 2016 directly due to that state's successful voter suppression.

While the first attempt to force enforcement of the constitutional emoluments clause moves towards court consideration, more evidence surfaces of corruption in the current administration, in the cabinet, and once again, the White House incumbent.

Meanwhile, On Planet Earth:

Everybody has their sensitive spots, their areas most prone to denial.  One of mine is the fragility of the ocean.  The news there (such as this latest study) is so ominous that it undercuts any long term hope for the human future.  The impacts of the climate crisis in heating the oceans as well as effects of unbelievable pollution (including garbage) are stuff I really don't want to think much about, it's so impossibly sad.

Add to that mix speculation on the effects on the ocean of an H-Bomb explosion, as North Korea is threatening to do.

While the media and public officials struggle to come to terms with future sea level rise etc. that so far are happening slowly, there's the ongoing evidence of changes promising an ominous future.  Earlier this month there was this report on the effects of carbon pollution in reducing nutrients in food plants--an invisible but ultimately scary effect.  I suspect there are other factors involved as well, such as the heavy use of pesticides in industrial agriculture.

More recently, there's a study on flying insects.  Declines of bees and butterflies have alarmed people, but it's apparently worse: a study conducted across Germany shows a nearly 80% decline in flying insects from 25 years ago.  You can't lose more than three quarters of flying insects and maintain ecological balance--not to mention the food supply--for very long.  Here's one take on that, here's another.  Here's the study itself--it seems quite extensive.  And here's an evaluation on the study's dire significance in context of other studies that tend to confirm it.

Cultural notes:

Nice to see an update on the activities and whereabouts of David Kippen, who was my first editor at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and a much missed book columnist in the city.

Article about this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, who--more than incidentally--is the first winner of that prize to have ever taken a creative writing class.

A surprise Nobel Prize in psychology for researchers studying biorhythms--the human "body clock."  I did a piece for New Times magazine in the 1970s on biorhythms, specifically the Lark and Owl (morning v. night people), which the accompanying image by Dick Palulian illustrated.

 Amazing that 30 years later, this research is still obscure and underfunded, as this story suggests.  It seemed to me then and still does that this research is far more robust and relevant than much of the more publicized of what passes for psychological or brain research these days.

Among the deaths of the once well-known registered recently, one went by very fast.  Connie Hawkins was both a virtuoso and pioneer of how basketball has been played for the past forty years or so, especially from the 70s through the 90s.  Though he finally made it to the NBA, his is also another story of some of the best years taken away by racial discrimination.

He also played a year for the Pittsburgh Rens in the ill-fated ABL in the early 60s, and won the league MVP, then for the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA in the late 60s, leading them to a championship. These were the only two pro basketball teams ever in Pittsburgh, and neither was well supported, especially the Rens.

I saw Hawkins play once in person, in what turns out to be the only pro basketball game I've ever seen live.  And it was only because our high school played the warm-up game before the Rens at the Civic Arena.  There were more people there for the high school games than stayed or came to see the pros, including one of the all-time greats of the game of basketball, Connie Hawkins.

An intelligent exploration of the music and career of one of the best songwriters and best voices of our generation, too often overlooked: Joni Mitchell.

I was much amused by this article about listening to one of the rare performances of Eric Satie's "Vexations"--rare because the same short piano passage is repeated for 19 hours.  I was present for such a performance in 1970 at a summer artists colony in Cummington, Mass. I attended.

 A tag team of pianists played in the main hall, as I recall.  The stage was just the piano and some candles, which added to the strange solemnity, the holiness, of the event.  Listeners came and went, and though we sat in chairs, I retain a feeling they were church pews.  I wasn't present for the entire 19 hours though I was for the beginning, some of the middle, and the end.  It was an experience I am grateful I had.  Not quite on an LSD level, but of that order, like prolonged meditation.  Also one of the few community moments in a fractious summer.


On those old news broadcasts I used to watch, they tended to at least try to end on an upbeat note.  So as counter-evidence to suggest we're not all jerks (at least not all the time) and that social media might be good for something, there's this New Yorker story about a cover image--a painting of three female faces peering down at a patient undergoing surgery-- that inspired a Twitter hashtag to collect photos reproducing the image but with real medical people--women and minorities.

There are photos in the hundreds on there now.  I suppose there might be some dubious people among them, but just looking at most of them inspires confidence in their kindness and competence.  That their faces can be seen around the world now is a decent counterbalance to what is commonly shoved in our faces.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

All Hail

It must have been 1987 or so when I was in Cleveland visiting with friends at that year's national convention of the International Downtown Association that a few years previously had started me on my brief run as a popular speaker.  Local movers and shakers were usually at such events and I met one from Cleveland, who was all enthusiastic about a project to create the international Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right there in Cleveland, a city--among other incongruities--that had no obvious association with rock and roll.  I almost laughed at him.  Good luck with that, I said, but more politely.

Joke was on me for sure.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland has succeeded wildly, bringing in its biggest stars for induction ceremonies and tribute concerts that often feature other major rock stars.

Inducted this year was the Electric Light Orchestra.  They were introduced by an emotional, nervous Dhani Harrison--George's son--indicating the relationship that grew between ELO's Jeff Lynne, who produced the last Beatles singles as well as George Harrison's last album together with Dhani.

That kind of relationship is not unique anymore, nor has it been for awhile.  There are many videos on YouTube with ad hoc groups of superstars playing each other's songs.  Sting and Paul Simon have toured together.  And so on.  Together with more sophisticated electronics and concert sound, it's the reason that, while new pop music has moved in other directions, some of the best rock and roll ever is being played now.

Though George got most of the credit for forming the great but brief run of the Traveling Wilburys,  Jeff Lynne was at its center.  He'd already produced (or was at the time producing) records by members Roy Orbison and Tom Petty as well as Harrison.  Now they're all gone, and only Lynne and Bob Dylan remain from that group.  That's the other inevitable aspect of these superstar get-togethers.  Mortality.

But it's great to see so many of these performers and groups still at at, some of them still playing concerts and touring.  Sometimes their children--like Dhani and James Taylor's son--are likely to keep their music alive for yet another generation.

  This ELO performance of their version of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" that starts with a bit of Ludwig van done with authority by a string trio of three beautiful players (cause they really are an Orchestra), is kind of a perfect tribute to rock and roll itself.  What's rock and roll?  Take the blues and add rhythm and joy.  All hail!