[A post-preamble to A Republic of Books, portions of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
This is my chance, then, to cast myself in the hero’s role. I’ve been a humble author and bookseller for all these years. (Allow me my hyperbole—at least I’m much humbled.) I don’t run into tall buildings to save women and children while other’s flee. (My knees have never been that strong, but do the women need the saving anymore?) My eyes are not good enough to fly jet planes or hit a fast ball. I sell old books and a few that are new, and write what I cannot sell. And though the writing has been much ignored, it is a witness to what I do and what I’ve done—that is, for sixty-eight years I have done pretty much what suited me. And here, at last, is a chance to do what is arguably better if not best. The argument is not settled. That I have waited until now, when I have so little left to lose, may be some mitigation of your judgment of all this, perhaps. Or that the overwhelming risk of failure at this point makes any effort romantically futile (and possibly planned that way). That I should have done more to prevent what has finally come to pass might cast me into the lower ranks of Dante’s hell, but at least I won’t be letting a good collapse of Western Civilization go waste. There is a story here to be written, and if it transpires that there is no one left to read it, so be it. That is at least consistent with all else. (The whine you hear is not self pity, but the wind in the gears.) I sally forth. My armor is the truth. I have a worthy truck for my steed. My companion is—well, we’ll work that out. read more…
an ongoing ramble
Oh, the incorporate me.
The ‘corporation’ as it has been recreated in modern business and law represents a large portion of our current problem and a significant cause thereof.
Oddly, interestingly, and contrarily, under our code of laws, you may not own a person. That is known as slavery. Yet you may own a corporation, or shares in a corporation, just as you may own a car or a house. However, a car is not currently entitled to vote. Nor a house. Nor a corporation, per se. A person is. A corporation is property. It can be sold. But according to the authorities, a corporation is a person . . . Got that. If you don’t it’s because you are not a sophisticated thinker—i.e., its your own fault. Most importantly, and included in this status as a human being, a corporation has limited liability. Now, if you run out of money, or are the cause of a misadventure, you are liable for your debts. If a corporation runs out of money, tough luck. You can read about this case law in many places, and this status has existed in our country for almost two centuries and has been upheld by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States in 1819 (Dartmouth College vs. Woodward), or here http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1818/1818_0/. read more…
I was just rereading the great Richard Mitchell essay, ‘Children and Fish,’ and thinking it was my favorite of all. It is a difficult choice to make, given my appreciation of the others, but certainly I have read it more often and find myself considering it anew with each reading. The subject of what we make of ourselves was the particular point that hooked my thoughts this time.
One measure of Mitchell’s depth and breadth is that he could read a turgid socialist polemic like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and find something edifying. In this case, it was in the clear representation of a negative: Bellamy’s ruthless idea of human rights. Wading through the weeds of such thought, tiresome and full of poisonous ticks, had kept me from ever finishing the book, but Mitchell, always the good teacher and likely made immune to such foolishness by the annual inoculation of live virus in sophomoric term papers, has extracted the lie that is the very linchpin of the socialist state.
Remember now that Looking Backward was a stunning bestseller in its day. Stunning in all the senses of the word. How this came to be is another subject for another time, but it explains the mind of a certain intellectual strata of the late Nineteenth Century and how the thinking of people as diverse as Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey and Eugene V. Debs might have developed. It was a ‘can do’ age and the idea that people could be educated to be good—as in, to act in a socially acceptable manner—was afoot as well as in a lot of heads. Never mind asking what ‘good’ is.
In the foreword to his excellent and now near classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that it was Aldous Huxley and not George Orwell who recognized the greater danger to our modern society. “But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think . . . What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no reason to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” I would accuse Postman of prescience, given the overwhelming onslaught of irrelevance in this age of the internet, if it were not already true, as he well documents, in those tamer times of television and the three major networks. Now, thirty years hence, I fear the damage is wholly done. The flea is with us.
The American dream may not be what it once was, but it is still there.
Entering small towns, from California to Maine, you may be struck by how similar they appear, displaying again and again the natural gallimaufry of a single culture that spans a continent. But this awareness is even greater when you stop and speak to the people themselves. Some of this continuity is frozen in the outward brass of the chain stores, of course, but it goes far deeper. The culture you can still find beyond the suburbs was not invented by Ray Crock and Sam Walton. Most of these people are conceived and raised to a behavior that is at once sweet and pleasantly sour, churned by the dash to butter as well as buttermilk. read more…
The matter is not that this place is now a Chipotle. The Old Corner Bookstore, as much as ‘Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe,’ was debauched generations ago and made to serve whatever interest was literally afoot at that moment in time. The iconic site, a beautiful vernacular Eighteenth Century brick building on a corner of Boston nearly across from the equally historic Old South Meeting House and about a block from where Benjamin Franklin was born, has long been shadowed on all sides by the assembled monstrosities of Nineteenth and Twentieth century architecture. The fact that a fairly decent chain of Mexican food restaurants has chosen to lease the physical space where Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow once argued the particulars of the New England Renaissance is incidental in the greater scheme. After all, where are the bones of Paul Revere’s horse now?
But Rhian Sasseen picked up the story for The Millions and there it is, photo and all, and in some visceral way the image begs for our attention. At least it does for me. The abscess of pain which is the cause of my frequent complaint about the death of the bookshop is instantly tapped. I could go on about the importance of the bookshop to our culture as the key to any sort of livable future as much as a touchstone to the past that has made us. But is that really the matter?