ToddSeavey.com Book Selections of the Month (February 14, 2009)
The “stimulus” bill should have been horror enough for one week — spending an amount about equal to a twelfth of the entire GDP, which is a bit like just announcing that every dime in the country will simply be moved three inches to the left (except worse because that shift will move many of those dimes into the pockets of government and its inefficient, failure-prone buddies).
However, this week also saw a children’s book holocaust, since ludicrously stringent anti-lead regulations, if anyone cares, have just made it illegal to sell or even loan to children any item produced before 1985 unless it goes through expensive lead testing. The result is that huge numbers of old children’s books and toys were simply discarded this week by devastated secondhand book and toy stores (but then, books before 1985 do not have Leader Obama in them, so they can’t be very good — more on that next week at Lolita Bar, though).
The crazy regulations (which my co-workers have been warning people about for months) are like something out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — so now’s a good time to look at Bradbury and some other items that touch on the tension between building a future and too-hastily discarding the past — a dozen such texts altogether, in fact:
•The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays is a collection of three smart, fanciful plays by Bradbury, reminding me a bit of the smart-but-fanciful (albeit less mid-century and more postmodern) short plays of Lynn Rosen (or the surreal verse plays Richard Ryan likes to produce). In the title entry, we get a simple, Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like look at the solidarity and divisions that can be produced by poverty, as six men decide to purchase and time-share a fabulous-looking suit with the potential to change their lives (an idea rooted in Bradbury’s real experiences of youthful poverty, lest anyone think he’s merely slumming).
“The Veldt,” a better-known play, comes closer to hitting on the conservative message Bradbury intended to convey in 451 — not simply that censorship is wrong, Bradbury says, but that we are in danger of losing our culture if we forget the works of the past in favor of shallower entertainments and shallower emotional relationships. “The Veldt” depicts children who are largely ignored by their well-meaning but lazy and high-tech parents — and so take revenge by using their highly-realistic video screen playroom to depict their parents’ repeated killing by lions.
Most philosophically satisfying from my perspective, though, is the Postman-like play that completes the Bradbury collection: “To the Chicago Abyss,” in which an old man in the future is the only person still crazy and rebellious enough to speak of the things the impoverished society has lost. As Bradbury notes in his introduction, the play deliberately does not merely celebrate aristocratic high culture or the hopes of the downtrodden proletariat but simple, everyday, bourgeois, American pop-culture/trash pleasures that we have every right to enjoy and take pride in, such as candy bars and portable radios and canned foods — all things prior centuries would have envied, though we are often guilt-tripped into forgetting that by the hateful intellectuals and cultural gatekeepers of both right and left (and are forgetful about it because of our own ingratitude).
As the old man rants: “Let one man want wine, another lounge chairs, a third a batwing glider to soar the March winds on and so you build even greater electropterodactyls.”
I am reminded of a movie project Pat Dinizio told me he was thinking about, in which nostalgia-loving hipsters would have to become the rebuilders of society. As I’ve said before, we need both memory and imagination, and neither is very interesting alone.
•Even things that are completely imaginary have history to them, by the way, which makes it interesting to read Skeptical Inquirer’s Jan./Feb. 2009 UFO retrospective issue. If it weren’t obvious enough (from the lack of hard evidence) that the UFO phenomenon is likely all in our heads, this issue’s article on the different, faddish phases of the phenomenon (for sixty-two years now) helps make it obvious that the things people see in the sky, lurking in ambiguous shadows at their windows, or abducting them in their dreams pretty obviously follow the aesthetics of the time: enemy saucers in the 1940s, creeping infiltrator-beings in the 1950s, messianic messages in the 1960s, then abductions, New Age spiritual missions, and government conspiracies.
And I recall noting in the Brown Daily Herald way back circa 1990 that there were also unmistakably gendered elements to UFO and supernatural stories, with men enjoying stories of dangerous invaders or government cover-ups and women liking tales of spiritual uplift — a point confirmed by the Skeptical Inquirer article and parodied in an insightful scene on X-Files a decade ago, when paranoid Mulder was chastised by Scully’s New Age sister for (rather hypocritically) looking down at New Age claims, telling him, “Just because it’s happy doesn’t mean it’s stupid.” Of course, in the real world, people who make the sorts of claims they do might both be considered stupid.
But then, maybe I’m wrong about both spirituality and UFOs. We’ll get a chance to debate these things at Lolita Bar, too, since after our Feb. 19 debate on the state of conservatism and our March 4 debate on sci-fi, we’ll move on to an April 1 debate on religion and, if all goes according to plan (after a May 6 debate on animals), a June 3 debate on, yes, UFOs — during which I promise to be a polite and neutral host, skeptic though I am (incidentally, the religion-defender on April 1, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, like the Ray Bradbury book described above, was sent to me by Dawn Eden, so my thanks once again to her).
•A starkly fantasy-free look at the past can be gleaned from the fascinating book The Good Old Days — They Were Terrible! by Otto Bettmann, best known as the founder of the Bettmann archives, from whom so many people like me in writing or journalism have rented archival photos over the years. Tired of seeing people rent and talk about the most glowy and lovely aspects of the Gilded Era in particular, Bettmann decided to write essays built around marvelous photos and cartoons of the real century-ago world Americans lived in, from the crowded tenements to New York City streets full of horse dung and wandering pigs, the inefficiency and waste exacerbated by machine politics and rampant hucksterism. Thank goodness I am not living in — or smelling — the New York City that once was. No summer heap of garbage bags today can rival the foul rendering plants and soot of just a few generations past. And one can’t help, like Bettmann, taking on a bit of a Mr. Burns/Herman T. Zweibel tone in discussing it all.
•I should confess to not having read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, though he (a) is cited heavily in the Bettmann book, (b) is easily read online, and (c) was praised to me by a nice older woman named Rose Marie — who apparently lives in my building, eats and drinks occasionally at Dresner’s across York Avenue, and tells me (seconded by building super Albert, who was also at Dresner’s that night) that our building is quite historic. Our block, just north of virtually-unknown Cherokee Place on the Upper East Side and south of diminutive East Side Drive, was built a century ago precisely to be improved housing for workers, a high-minded and progressive retort to the tenements of the Lower East Side, down near Lolita Bar. I’ve said before that the Upper East Side and the Lower East Side are two of my favorite places, representing an important yuppie/punk dichotomy in my character, and now I know that my building is almost literally the Anti-Lower East Side.
•But if you want new reasons to fear the Lower East Side, consider checking out comedienne/performance artist Rev. Jen’s new ReallyCoolNeighborhood.com site, advertising her periodic performances based on the DIY “art star” scene down there, and giving you just a tiny, somewhat sanitized glimpse of why I really worry about a lot of Rev. Jen’s friends and hope they don’t all end up in asylums or with serious dope habits, except in onstage sketches, of course.
•Ensuring that we will not long have to suffer deprivation and poverty even with the government doing nigh-apocalyptic stupid things like the bailout/stimulus bill, the inventors celebrated at Popular Mechanics‘ annual Breakthrough Awards are a great injection of hope for tomorrow in a world full of pessimism. With a little guidance from helpful co-host Seth Porges, attending last year’s Breakthrough Awards was enough to remind me that no matter how many things go wrong, humanity is still capable of experimenting and dreaming its way toward inexpensive hand-operated machines and mini-mills for use by people living in the Third World (to take the most-honored project, by MIT’s Amy Smith, as an example), microchips capable of circulating through the body detecting tumors (chips created by Harvard’s Mehmet Toner), the Pur water-purifier additive so effective you can drop it in water with fecal matter in it and turn it clear and drinkable, or the Pulse Smartpen that records audio while you take notes and correlates the resulting scrawls to the audio recording for later playback. The world will be OK, I suspect, no matter how low our stocks drop in the next few years.
•After all, people still managed to have fun even circa 1940, which is around the time the bizarre Fun Encyclopedia that girlfriend Helen gave me for Christmas was created (and I hope she likes what I gave her for Valentine’s Day today — we cannot live solely on a philosophical love of past or future). The Fun Encyclopedia is a poignant and often unintentionally self-parodic reminder of just how little there was to do back then: a thousand pages of frankly lame, somewhat desperate, and often almost offensive party-game suggestions such as throwing a Hardluck Hobo Party (at which not everyone is given an apple), a Slum Party (at which two performers speak in mock-Irish accents and are then symbolically victimized by crime through the use of cap-pistols), a strangely dry description of inviting someone to try and hit a target with his finger while blindfolded but arranging to have someone bite his finger, boulder-throwing, brain-teasing “conundrums,” and a “Jim Crow Is No Mo’” party guaranteed to bring laughter unless “your friends are hopeless,” plus a brief essay on the pro’s and con’s of “nonsense,” which modern experts apparently say is OK in small doses.
•I showed the bizarre encyclopedia to both professional puzzle-maker Francis Heaney and Todd Zuniga, editor of the literary journal Opium, the latter of whom, as I predicted, liked it so much he was tempted to reprint sections in Opium. This should make perfect sense to anyone who has read that journal, since there is an unmistakably game-like quality to many of the stories and poems in it. Very literary yet at times delightfully and self-consciously juvenile, it often contains stories about something whimsical happening with a “serious” twist, such as waking up to find out your dog can talk — but that he only talks about the Holocaust (I made that one up, but just barely). In the first issue, Zuniga — who, fittingly, has worked for Rockstar Games (the videogame manufacturers behind such classics as Grand Theft Auto) — sets the pace with a tale of a boyfriend so giving that he eventually starts losing body parts to his needy girlfriend. That’s a talking dog story but also (unlike some cutesy-for-cutesy’s-sake exercises) a disturbingly plausible metaphor for some relationships (not mine, though — Helen’s a trooper). Another piece in that first issue I loved was created by the simple but brilliant game-like means of corresponding with a series of spam e-mail senders as if they were engaged in serious, thoughtful, emotionally-significant bonding, climaxing with an angry denunciation by our author/correspondent of his penpal’s poor grammar and spelling in one missive that reads, says our author, as if his new friend has thrown his keyboard down a staircase or something.
•And it was at Opium’s most recent New York event that I saw a talk by the founder of the stripped-down but literarily interesting site TheRumpus.net, which should serve as another reminder that we need not take this whole collapse-of-the-economy thing lying down. Go out and create on the cheap — as our ancestors certainly did — or you have no one to blame but yourself.
•In fact, the aforementioned Rumpus founder noted that part of his inspiration was hearing Arianna Huffington tell him she loved the idea for his site — but then admitting to himself that she was too busy with more lucrative ventures to pay much attention to it. That’s ironic, since it means that blogs like HuffingtonPost.com are now the quasi-mainstream media that younger, fringier bloggers in some sense aspire to become. And they’re in luck! Because whatever its political crimes, and they are indeed severe, HuffingtonPost has done the world a favor by publishing The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, which is indeed thorough, informative, and useful — and just happens to include among its contributors writer Laura Vanderkam, one of my fellow Phillips Foundation Fellows, who perhaps will join us this coming Thursday at Lolita Bar, when our fellow Fellow Heather Wilhelm will be one of the speakers, before Silber and Sager duke it out about the prospects of conservatism (Vanderkam also had a great piece about self-employment in the recent issue of Manhattan Institute’s City Journal).
One amusing bit of tangential, very cautious advice from page 15 of the Huffington guide, by the way: “The term ‘weblog’ was coined in 1997 by Jorn Barger, the editor of Robot Wisdom (itself a blog, albeit one with some nasty anti-Semitism bopping around on it, so we don’t recommend you humor him by visiting the site).” Rocketry, Volkswagens, blogs, summoning Hellboy — is there anything those Nazis can’t do?
•Seriously, though, people who really want to build a better culture know that a strong central state is no way to do it — more often an impediment, as I was reminded by the dry but informative tome Overcoming Barriers to Entrepreneurship in the United States (edited by Diana Furchtgott-Roth). Want to know how the young or the Latino are faring in starting businesses? You’ll find stats and charts on such questions in here (another reminder things aren’t as completely awful as they used to be, in some ways). As it happens, Helen won this book, and I won a copy of Ryan Sager’s Elephant in the Room, in the raffle at a recent New York Young Republicans Club party, and so we traded (she may get Sager to autograph the book Thursday at Lolita). I swear the raffle wasn’t fixed.
•In conclusion, since I’ve been contrasting the old days and new throughout this month’s Book Selections, let me dip back into the recent past — to my own Book Selections from December — and note again the book The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb. Like me, you may differ with some of his ultimate conclusions, which are rooted in religious and strongly-traditionalist conservatism of a sort that even most Republicans these days would not understand, modernists that they are — but you might still benefit from hearing his very thorough outsider’s perspective (as it were) on the entire liberal order of modernity — the whole assumption that efficiency, statistics, pleasure, and equality are good things. Few books I’ve read do a better job of enabling you to step back and see as if for the first time a modern world that previously seemed just commonsensical and natural, with all its implicit, rarely-questioned assumptions. I dare say bulk purchases for polisci classroom use might be called for.
Of course, at times, Kalb frankly sounds as embittered (albeit much more reserved in his rhetoric) as the right-wing, quasi-anarchic superhero/narrator Rorschach from Watchmen — railing against the filthy, meaningless lives of average New Yorkers. Ah, but more about Rorshach in next month’s Book Selection(s) entry, gentle reader…