Sunday, January 30, 2011

To Download or Not to Download


I've heard a good deal of discussion lately about E books. Many people I know are quite concerned about the recent revelation that downloaded books are outselling the traditional variety. It's no wonder, they are certainly less expensive. Even paperbacks are moving towards $20. these days. Most downloads go for half that price. But that's hardly the issue. It's really about the real thing as opposed to an electronic version.
Lately, all the electronic versions are looking more like paper books; some even have a simulated turning page. (That's hysterical, isn't it?) But many people I know are completely unwilling to give up their books. Some are quite worried about all this. I think it's a moot point. What will be, will be. And, believe me, it is going to definitely be. So much so that many college "bookstores" will no longer sell books. That's right, it's happening right now. Students either download or rent books. Lots more room for sweat shirts, bumper stickers, and all sorts of rah rah paraphernalia.
I wonder if other generations dealt with the oncoming technology in a similar fashion? We could no more stop the development of the computer, the automobile, or the camera that we will or want to stop what's happening to our literature. To my friends I say relax. Keep your books, buy your books, hold you books, sleep with your books, worship your books. I do. You should be able to live your live comfortably assured that the "book" as you know it will always be with you. Do I think that something huge is going to be lost when all the world downloads. Absolutely. But neither you nor I can do anything about that. We can only go with what works for us and sit back and enjoy the sweep of evolution. It is, however, fascinating to think about a time centuries in the future when humanoids will discover books. I'm sure there will be stashes discovered just like ancient tombs. Pages and pictures will be fondled. The tactile wonder of it all!
I wonder what those books will be worth?

Oh by the way...I found my original copy of Hesse's Siddhartha the other day. One of my student teachers will be using it in a class he's teaching very soon so I thought I'd give it a re-read. I was prepared to buy a use copy for 6 or 7 bucks if necessary, but, as I suspected, I kept the one I used in college. I'm the original owner. I noted that the price I paid for this "new" copy was $1.25.

Monday, January 24, 2011

It's True, I Swear It is


Last Friday I watched the first episode of Portlandia, the new tongue in cheek parody of life in Portland, Oregon, my fair city. Funny? Yes, in parts. A little over the top? Definitely.
Today I read a bit of a review from Newsweek which contained the following:

There are certain things every Pacific Northwest native knows:
* You must love the outdoors.
* You must eat local and organic.
* You must brake for pedestrians, even when you’re in the middle of an intersection with a green light.
Now here’s what a Pacific Northwest native who returns home after living in another city knows:
* You will hold back your frustration after 45 minutes in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s, because the cashier will insist on having a conversation with everybody coming through the line.
* You will experience uncontrollable road rage, because in the Pacific Northwest, there is no difference between the right and left lanes.
* You will spend 10 minutes standing in front of a row of trashcans, trying to decipher which of the five recycling bins and three compost piles your candy wrapper should go in.

Trust me when I tell you I agree with everything on this list. On the eve of my 5th year living in the city of roses, I find all of the above to be the absolute truth.
Why, just yesterday I went to my local New Seasons grocery store. You know, the one with the row of trashcans referenced above. I had only a few things and found a checkout line with only one person in front of me. She was right out of the casting call for Portlandia in appearance, but that's no big thing, especially in these winter months. Currently I'm seeing all manner of colorful winter leggings under skirts which are over pants. This 20 something in front of me was only purchasing one thing, a small jar of some henna hair product with which to treat her raspberry colored hair, no doubt. I waited until the conversation between the clerk and the customer ended. That's what we do up here. Our grocery clerks ask how our day is going, what we have planned, if we have tasted one of the newer products we may have placed on the counter, the weather, and any number of other possibilities.
Not everything depicted in Portlandia is a stretch. Ask anyone.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

As Others See Us



Some years ago I went to an Italian festival in San Francisco. I'm not Italian, but being a Bay Area resident at the time, this yearly event featured great music, art, and of course...FOOD. The festival back then took place near Fisherman's Wharf on a roomy pier that featured both indoor and outdoor attractions.
After sampling some lovely garlic infused pasta and a robust red wine, I wandered into a nearby display of photographs. The history of the Italian community in San Francisco was on display. I found myself engrossed in a few of the photos more than others. Perhaps it was because of their size. They had been enlarged to life size and covered large portions of the makeshift walls used for their display.
One particular photo that caught my eye was of a 1926 milk truck. It beautifully captured all the detail of what was then a state of the art motor vehicle. I was fascinated by the tires, the bumpers, the detail of the upholstery, and the steering wheel. Then I noticed what appeared to be a group photo. On closer inspection it was just that. Only this group of people, about 15 in number were posing in front of a large wooden vat. The description next to the photo explained that the picture was taken near Daly City just after Prohibition began. The photo featured a wine maker selling his contraband to the local Italian community for use at their Sunday dinners and special occasions. One of the men in the photo had a burlap bag over his head. He was the winemaker! (Hiding his identity)
So I'm standing there looking deeply into these 15 faces that range from children to middle-aged folks, when two people join me in scanning the photo. A man who is at least 80 and a woman in her 50s are enjoying the historical photo as much as I am. The older gentleman begins to cry, slowly at first, and then breaks out in wailing sobs. I turn to the woman, who it turns out is his daughter, and ask what happened?
"He sees himself as a young man in this photo." She points to a dark swarthy young man standing in the rear almost hidden by a tree and says, that's my dad in 1927."
That moment has remained fresh in my mind. What must that have felt like? Was his reaction normal? What's normal? ow many emotions might be captured in seeing a former self? There is something about this experience that won't leave me alone. It's become a Zen Koan for me. Are we only who we are now? Are we always who we were? Sometimes, when I read an obituary I see pictures of the deceased at various ages. Seems somehow fitting. A more complete picture, I guess.
Seeing ourselves as we once were can be a profound experience.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Time for a Kenneth Patchen Poem


Sometimes, nothing else will do. I have enjoyed sharing Patchen's work with some of my Portland poet friends this week. He remains a profound influence. Now
More than ever,
I think the saying goes...

There Are Not Many Kingdoms Left

I write the lips of the moon upon her shoulders. In a
temple of silvery farawayness I guard her to rest.

For her bed I write a stillness over all the swans of the
world. With the morning breath of the snow leopard I
cover her against any hurt.

Using the pen of rivers and mountaintops I store her
pillow with singing.

Upon her hair I write the looking of the heavens at
early morning.

-- Away from this kingdom, from this last undefiled
place, I would keep our governments, our civilization, and
all other spirit-forsaken and corrupt institutions.

O cold beautiful blossoms of the moon moving upon
her shoulders . . . the lips of the moon moving there . . .
where the touch of any other lips would be a profanation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Healthy Choice


How deep does a culture of violence go? Apparently deep enough that we have varied ideas when trying to sort out the rantings and ultimate assault of a psychotic young man in a Safeway (irony not lost) parking lot in Tuscon, Arizona. Yes, our airways are filled with hate speech, intolerant sound bytes, all manner of pseudo commentators with agendas as transparent as Saran wrap. Yes, actions have consequences, so that when Sarah Palin uses gun crosshairs on a map to target members of Congress we don't really believe she intended them to look like a surveyor"s view. Yes, over the top video game graphics and content desensitizes people to violence. How could it not? But other, less apparent ironies abound.
One has only to look at the smiling face turned mug shot of this troubled young man to know that his "elevator does not go to the top floor." While the media interviews former classmates and teachers, while the shooter's mother cries for days, while the detectives review everything on this disturbed young man's computer...where are the concerns about mental health? Ironic that Congressperson Giffords, who fights for her life, also fought for health care. Crucial, too that the onset of schizophrenia occurs most often between the ages of 17-25. If you look at the ages of school shooters, political terrorists, those who commit hate crimes, those fascinated by the politics of perversion, a strong correlation exists.
I wonder how many of those stone colored Arizona strip malls have those big box sporting goods stores that sell weapons of crass destruction. Could Jared Lee Loughner have purchased his gun of choice in any number of Sporting stores easily found on any number of streets in any number of cities? No doubt. There will be calls for gun control, calls for city ordinances, state laws, maybe even a Constitutional amendment. Always are. Perhaps Rep. Giffords, herself, will one day take on this issue becoming the living poster child of the cause. We've seen that before too.
But will anyone take note of this tragic incident in the context of U.S. foreign policy. The irony of homegrown terrorism. The way we parse the killing of human beings depending on place, culture, political objective, natural resources, vindication. Are the images of war from Iraq and Afghanistan really any different than a shooting in a parking lot?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Then You Are Not


2011 is turning out to be a big year for Mark Twain. Go into any bookstore and you'll see his telephone book sized autobiography for sale. Twain cleverly left notice that it was not to be published until well after he and anyone mentioned were no longer around. It's not surprising that someone as perceptive as Mark Twain would take great care to insure that the truth would hold sway over anyone's attempt to alter anything he might have wanted us to know.
So it is with equal fascination that Twain's work has again come under scrutiny and truth is on trial. This week, New South Publishing announced a new version of Huck Finn which replaces the n word with slave. Some see no difference. I get that, but I beg to differ. School boards have already tried to censor writers who use the n word in historical context. Richard Wright's Native Son comes to mind. Is this being too PC. Are we that sensitive that we can't handle the truth?
I argue that we can have it both ways. No, I'm not referring to changing anything. We can (and should) avoid censoring or changing great literature while still being able to handle the context and time crucial to its understanding.
Is it a supreme irony that the U.S. Congress this week in it's opening session tried to censor the reading of the Constitution? The timing couldn't have been more perfect. How long before it takes that the majority of citizens are unaware of the 3/5 clause, relating to African Americans held as slaves, or the precise wording about who is and is not a citizen of this country. These are not minor issues. How long before someone decides that another novel needs word substitutions? Will that slope be sufficiently slippery to glide on over to history books. After all, gas chambers for human beings do not conjure up pleasant thoughts.
We really ought t protect ourselves from ourselves on these matters.
I would be the first one to line up in support of the power of the written word. Language matters, words do hurt. Read Toni Morrison on the power of language if you need a refresher course. But censorship hurts just as bad, and it comes in various disguises.

James Baldwin once said, "If I am not who you think I am, then you are not who you think you are."
Wonder what Mark Twain would say about that?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Who Cares?



I've been reading about a new study that finds a correlation between reading and empathy. Apparently as people abandon reading, I guess that means books, they are also turning away from the innate human characteristic of empathy.
Empathy is what makes us human. It's our ability to feel the emotions of another. Moral emotions is what child psychologist Jerome Kagan calls them. Best definition of empathy I ever heard was, "The ability to feel the whip on the other person's back." Now we know what happens when a person has no empathy. It's like having no conscience. Feeling nothing, no remorse, no moral emotions. We usually call these folks sociopaths because they are a danger to all (society) with whom they come in contact. They were formerly called psychopaths, but that term psycho tends to have media buzz and is best replaced by socio. The study says that as empathy declines, narcissism rises. A real me-first mentality, I guess. I see this kind of human desensitization all over now. I see it in the behavior of people, I see it in how younger people react to one another,though it's not excluisve to age or generation. I see it in what passes for entertainment, music, and in many cases literature.
Case in point: Dexter. After reading some reviews about this Showtime series about a serial killer who turns his fixation and obsession on other serial killers, I agreed to give it a look courtesy of Netflix. New Year's Eve we watched the entire first season. Well produced, if not bloody. A great premise, and lots of cognitive dissonance when you find you empathize with a killer. There's the rub, huh?
When I think of studies about who and how much is and is not being read these days, I also think of the fight many educators are putting up just to have their students read "whole books." In much of the near-sighted school reform efforts of the past decade is the belief that anthologies with excerpts of certain works of literature will suffice for an educated person. I recall, with pride, the waning days of the 2004-05 school year when I joined some of my colleagues and a few student teachers at the time in demonstrating our disapproval with removing entire books from the curriculum. Taking our cues from a teacher in Santa Rosa, Ca. whose name eludes me, we staged a public reading of the novel Ferinheit 451 as a way of drawing attention to both our plight and the ridiculousness of any reform effort that would privilege only excerpts over the whole book. Before long we were joined by students who took turns reading aloud the novel about banning books. As you may recall, 451 degrees F is the temperature that paper burns.
Which begs the question about the use and popularity of E readers. I don't know if people or students who use the burgeoning array of E readers are included in the data of that survey. Could it be that the transition to downloading books will increase the frequency of reading. Perhaps people are abandoning books in favor of web pages/sites? New research pending, I'm sure.
A final caveat: We who would hope that the book survives, that the love of literature endures, need to do more than just condemn. We need to work toward building time and skills and places friendly to reading. Do you care about the alternative?