VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Richard Nixon: The Life (2017) by John Farrell

Richard Nixon presidential portrait.jpg
Richard Nixon, President of the United States
Book Review
Richard Nixon: The Life (2017)
by John Farrell

   This 2017 Richard Nixon biography won the Zalaznick Book Prize- given out by the New-York Historical Society for the best annual work in American history or biography.  Richard Nixon: The Life was also a Pulitzer Biography finalist in 2018, losing out to Caroline Fraser's Laura Ingalls Wilder bio.  I've been thinking alot about Richard Nixon in the context of the Trump presidency- there's the Roger Stone connection- Stone was part of the CREEP group- Nixon's sleazy re-election committee, and a long time friend of Trump.   Trump also used lawyer Roy Cohn for decades- and Cohn was McCarthy's chief counsel during the Communist-hunting era, and Nixon first rose to national prominence alongside McCarthy in that period.

  So when I saw mention of this recently published prize winning biography, I checked out the Audiobook from the library.  It clocks in at 30 hours, roundabout, and that is without the endnotes, which I would guess would run hundred of pages.  The paperback version is 750 pages.   The argument must be that if you only have to read one book about Nixon, then this is that book. 
The Richard Nixon story is very much an "only in America" biography.  Nixon, the second oldest of five sons born to a Quaker couple living in the wilds of rural Southern California, was smart and ambitious enough to make it to Duke University for law school, but failed to find a job and ended up returning to Southern California, where he was a below-average lawyer before being rescued by World War II.  He served in a logistics capacity in the Far East, and returned to take a government job in Washington DC, before being recruited to run for Congress.

  He started running for Congress at the age of 35, and took office after defeating Jerry Voorhis, your typical hapless liberal stooge that Nixon spent a lifetime eviscerating.   Nixon the Congressman was young, energetic and fiercely anti-Communist.  He connected with the small town electorate that was heavy on returning World War II veterans, and had a pro-business outlook that convinced the monied oil interests and Los Angeles based Republican operatives that he had a shot. 


    Only three years later he ran for Senate against Hollywood leftist actress Helen Douglas, labeling her the "pink lady" and running the kind of bare-knuckled campaign that earned him the sobriquet "Trick Dick" and the lasting enmity of leftist California elites in Los Angeles and San Francisco.   Throughout this time he continued his leadership of the anti-Communist wing of the Republican party, although he gradually distanced himself from Joe McCarthy.    It was the combination of youthful energy, fierce anti-communism and geography that drew the attention of Dwight Eisenhower, drafted for his succesful 1952 Presidential campaign.

   That campaign was mostly notable for being the backdrop to Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech," an early use of television by a political candidate to end an incipient scandal.  Here, the scandal was the (then standard) use of a "slush fund" by Nixon for his own benefit during political campaigns.   Defying Republican leaders who asked him to use the television appearance to resign from the ticket, he instead appealed directly to the audience, asking them to write the Republican Central Committee in his support.  It was an audacious, and succesful move.

    Then he lost to Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential race, and then he lost to Edmund Brown in a race for Governor of California two years after that- before settling down to a comfortable exile in New York City, where he networked and waited.   He sat out the 1964 campaign (seeing Goldwater get slaughtered by Lyndon Johnson) before returning and winning in 1968, winning re-election- by a landslide in 1972 and then resigning in disgrace two years later.

   It was... a wild ride, for a self-appointed square.   Despite a reputation as a conservative it is clear that as a President, at least, he was a center-to-liberal force, going so far to introduce wage and price controls in his second term, a WTF moment that puts him slightly to the right of the Soviet Communist party, but well left of any contemporary Republican or even Democrat.  Nixon opened China, a crowning achievement, and presided over a decrease in global nuclear tension with the Russians.   Nixon enforced the liberal Warren court's rulings on school desegregation- muscling southern governors even though he had run a "southern strategy" in his presidential campaigns.

  But ultimately you get to Watergate, where Nixon ended up taking the fall for a half-century of government spying on it's own citizens.  Nixon, like all the political elites, was aware of this secret chicanery, and it is clear that he viewed it as permissible for a President to engage in the same behavior on his own account.  His ultimate justification that "if the President does it, it is lawful" has been echoed by President Trump in his own defense, but ultimately Nixon resigned rather than face an impeachment trial that he knew he would lose.

  Trump has clearly learned from that lesson- Nixon alienated his base in such a way that they were glad to abandon him when push came to shove.  Contrast that approach to Trump's base first governing which has seemingly ensured that he will survive the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Around the World in Eighty Days (1895) by Jules Verne


Image result for around the world in 80 days
Map showing the route taken by Phineas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days 

Book Review
Around the World in Eighty Days (1895)
by Jules Verne

   When I read Around the World in Eighty Days back in 2012, I was marching through the end of the 19th century in the 1001 Books list.   Around the World in Eighty Days is a marginal pick for the canon- Jules Verne, he's already got Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth- both of which helped establish the genre of science fiction.  Compared to those two tales, Around the World in Eighty Days is a quotidian adventure, an homage to progress and the power of the steam engine, with nary a hot air balloon in sight.  It was, in fact, the absence of a hot air balloon, which is ubiquitous if you do a google image search for this title, that obsessed me this time through.   Fogg does take a kind of land sail buggy across the American midwest, but that is as close as he gets to flight.   I presume the hot air balloon was inserted by a golden-age Hollywood movie version that has since become synonymous with the source material.



Image result for around the world in 80 days
Phineas Fogg in his non-existent hot air balloon, an example of the Mandela effect in the context of the Jules Verne story, Around the World in Eighty Days.


Review from 2012

BOOK REVIEW
Around the World in 80 Days
by Jules Verne
p. 1872
Ipad/Ebooks

    Jules Verne is best known as an early practitioner of Science Fiction, but Around the World in Eighty Days, arguably his most popular, enduring work, is more like an Action-Adventure movie than Science Fiction.  In it, Phineas Fogg, London gentleman, sets off on a round-the-world-trip after making a bet over dinner at his Gentlemen's club.  The Wikipedia entry for Around the World in 80 Days basically says this book has been critically disrespected due to a combination of poor translation and a critical lack of respect for what is commonly called "Children's Literature."

     But as I reviewed recent coverage of the opening of Hunger Games, it couldn't be more clear that the BEST way for an Author to establish an enduring Audience is for he or she to write a commercially successful series of Young Adult Fiction- whether it be boy wizards, post-apocalyptic game shows, vampires OR A COMBINATION OF ALL THREE.   That is probably due to a fact that the "average" reading level for most adults- and adults who read books and buy movie tickets- is "Young Adult."   The Audience for the "serious" novels that have the same status of being included on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list (2006 ed.) is minimal by comparison. Has anyone read The Enchanted Wanderer by Nicolar Leskov? Published the same year as Around The World in Eight Days by Jules Verne?  I'm guessing that is no one.   No one has read The Enchanted Wanderer by Nicolai Leskov, because he's an obscure Russian language author who doesn't write adventure stories for children.


   It is pretty clear to me after reading Around the World in Eighty Days, as well as other mid to late 19th century Adventure titles by Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Ridder Haggard, that there is not better advice to a young writer then, "Write a children's adventure book and include a supernatural element."    If people find the universe engaging and like the main character, the rest can just fall into place.

  So in that way- Around the World in Eighty Days is a seminal title in that the pacing approximates the contemporary pace for a work of young adult fiction- even if the idea is less appealing and the original text as written in French as it ever was.    Within the DNA of Around the World in Eighty Days is the foundation of every Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, James Bond,  Spy Novel,  Airport Thriller every written.

  Let's put it this way- if your favorite novel of all time is The Enchanted Wanderer by Nicolai Leskov, the odds of developing an Audience for your fiction is about one in a million.  If, on the other hand, you are emulating Jules Verne in Around the World in Eighty Days, you are up to a 1 in 10,000 level of success, just because you are writing something that has an established Audience and a proven track record of appealing to the broadest possible Audience.

  Also,   Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne is available for free on any Ereader device of your choice:  KINDLE, IPAD- wtvr.   Check it out, especially would be writers of fiction.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Book Reviews: 2010-2011



Art: A New History
by Paul Johnson
p. 2003
Harper Collins

    Paul Johnson is a conservative, Roman Catholic English writer/journalist.  I imagine he's well known in the UK, but here in the US he's just a guy.  That probably explains why I found this list price $40 handsome hard cover, full color 800 page books selling for five bucks in a thrift store in Spring Valley.  You can buy it at Amazon for one dollar.  It's not like he's particularly out of date- 2003 is not that long ago when you are talking about writing a history of art over the course of 5000 years of human history.  I mean, this book must have just been a flop, likely because people in the US do not give two shits about popular art history.  Lewis and Clark expedition? Sure.  Civil War- endlessly.  Do you know how many history books have been written dissecting the Civil War?  Check that subject out on Amazon.

    Art: A New History professes to be a history of all art,but it's more like a history of western art and it's antecedents.  Johnson is pathetically weak on anything that does not deal with the Western European tradition.  He has the artistic taste of a 90 year old, as indeed he was when he wrote this book.  For Johnson, ancient Persian art is "grandiose and repetitive,"  pre-Columbian art is "sinister and demonic,"  Hindu temple art barely rates a mention.  On the other hand, you get more then 200 pages on 18th-19th century landscape and water color.  HOLY SHIT?  200 pages?  On water colors?  #fail.

    Two facts might influence you to either give this book a shot or take a pass:

1.  There are beautiful full color works of art on almost of every page, many of them by minor masters of images I'd never seen before.  Personally, I think that makes the dollar price on Amazon a bargain- you can't find many of these image anywhere else because they come from small museums.  Johnson- or more likely his staff- did an amazing job in this regard.

2.  There are no footnotes or bibliography of any kind.  I guess Johnson can get away with this because he writes popular history, but he is clearly basing his opinions on recent trends in art history scholarship.  For example, the discussion of the inter relationship between the Italian Renaissance and Northern "Gothicism" is ripe with the latest in scholarship on the subject, noting a more complex, two way relationship.

        To the extent that there is a "conservative" aspect to this book it is Johnson's promotion of the person of the artist as the critical feature in the history of art.  Maybe that is uncontroversial to the general public, but such a thesis goes against much of art history scholarship in the last half century.  I agree with Johnson- and I would also add that even with his bizarre affinity for land scape painting Johnson creates an art history that is more useful then 95% of the specialist monographs that come out of the academy.

     Personally, I think if you're going to write a 800 page popular history of art in 2003 the thing to do is contrast non-western art to western art and try to inter-relate and differentiate the two areas while trying to get to the deeper commonalities, intertwining that with a deeper philosophical discussion of the role of art in human society throughout history.  That's what I was hoping for here but instead I got 200 pages of water colors and landscape painting.



  The distinctive Interaction Rituals of intellectuals are those occasions on which intellectuals come together for the sake of their serious talk: not to socialize, nor to be practical.  Intellectuals set themselves apart from other networks of social life in the act of turning toward one another.  The discussion, the lecture, the argument, sometimes the demonstration or the examination of evidence: these are the concrete activities from which the sacred object “truth” arises….
    The basic form of intellectual communities has remained much the same for over two thousand years.  Key intellectuals cluster in groups in the 1900s much as in the 400b.c.e.  The personal contacts between eminent teaches and later to be eminent students make up the same kinds of chains across the generations.  And this is so even though communications technology has become increasingly available, and the numbers of intellectuals have increased enormously from on the order of hundreds in Confucius’ China, to the million scientists and scholars publishing today….
       Intellectual discourse focuses implicitly on its autonomy from external concerns and its reflexive awareness…
    .This, then, is the intellectual ritual.  Intellectuals gather, focus their attention for a time on one of their members, who delivers a sustained discourse. That discourse itself builds on elements from the past, affirming and continuing or negating.  Old sacred objects, previously charged up, are recharged with attention, or degraded from their sacredness and expelled from the life of the community; new candidate sacred objects are offered for sanctification.  By reference to texts past and texts future, the intellectual community keeps up the consciousness of its projects, transcending all particular occasions on which they were enacted.  Hence the peculiar guiding sacred object- truth, wisdom, sometimes the activity of seeking or research—as both eternal and embodied in the flow of time.

    Collins, Randall 1998.  Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change Cambridge: Belkap/Harvard University Press


OOK REVIEW

EMPIRES OF THE WORD
A LANGUAGE HISTORY OF THE WORLD
NICHOLAS OSTLER
p. 2006

   An English speaker/reader of 2010 could be forgiven for a spot of triumphant jubilation. Though English may not be spoken by the most people on Earth, it's status as a "lingua franca" or international trade, science and culture is unmatched.  How could English disappear from the face of the Earth, joining extinct but in their time important languages like Sanskrit and Latin?  Nick Ostler writes this very interesting book from the perspective of a modern English speaker.  It's no secret that his Language History of the World ends with a Chapter on the extraordinary career of modern English.

   However, Ostler holds his hand on English- other then the last chapter, the rest of Empires of the Word is a straight forward "language history of the world."  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the language families of North and South America prior to Contact, and the history of Sanskrit and it's progeny in South Asia.  Ostler builds up to the big Western Languages towards the end of the book and then starts asking the big questions like "Why did German never take off as a World Language?"  Ostler seems to maintain the position that English's run as a world wide lingua franca is bound to come to the end, but I'm hard pressed to see what will succeed it on the world stage.  It seems to me that the internet might create some polyglot machine translation influenced successor language to English.  I don't know.




BOOK REVIEW
Ad Infinitvm
A Biography of Latin
by Nicholas Ostler
p.  2007
Published by Walker and Company

       I like author Nicholas Ostler because he is one of those folks trying to write about academic subjects in a popular way.  So far I've read Empires of the Word, which was basically a history of the world from a llinguistic perspective.  Then I read the Last Lingua Franca, his most recent book, which focused in on the historical career of English.  Ad Infinitum is his biography of Latin, and it was published in between the first two books.  Like the other two, the idea is to bring a historical sense to bear on a specific language.  Here, the language is Latin.

       Ostler starts off with a bang, showing the great extent to which Latin was influenced in it's infancy by its northern neighbor, Etruscan.  Ostler even illustrates that point with an appendix which contains a glossary of Latin words that came directly from Etruscan.   From then on it's a familiar history written from a novel history.  Basically, Ostler tells the story of the rise of Europe through the eyes of its common language.    The split up of Latin into the descendant languages of French, Italian and Spanish is perhaps the best attested example we have in all of human history of that the process by which one language becomes many languages.  Ostler, both int his book and in the last Lingua Franca, uses this example to illustrate what might happen to English in the future.  Of course, the split up of Latin was contemporatenous with nasty events like barbarian invasions and a general break down in civilization, so the possibility of the same thing happening to English is not a particularly positive prospect.

    As the story draws closer to the present day, Ostler shows the ways in which Latin lost its role in the world, a process which was still being completed during the 20th century.  Today, Latin is an archaic relic, it's use limited to arcane fields like botany and it's influence more likely to be demonstrated through the use of its descendant languages than Latin itself.

   Perhaps Ostler's main point is that Latin speakers always had a somewhat unique viewpoint that saw the limits of Latin and the Roman Empire as the limits of their world.  This perspsective: That of the Latin speaker as the only meaningful agent in world history, has been transmitted quite directly to successor cultures around the world.

BOOK REVIEW
The Triumph of Music:
The Rise of Composers and Their Art
by Tim Blanning
p. 2008
Belknap/Harvard University Press

    I don't like to start book reviews by quoting a paragraph from the introduction, but I think it's the best move here:

    Status, purpose, places and spaces, technology, and liberation- these are the five categories I will explore to explain music's march to cultural supremacy.  What follows is an exercise in social, cultural and political history, not musicology- no technical knowledge of music is required.

      Often when I read a good book, I'm unsure whether I find the thesis convincing because I already agreed before I read the specific book (the book just reinforced pre existing belief) or whether the argument was just objectively convincing.  In this case, i can firmly declare that both are true- first- I totally agreed with the above stated thesis before I picked up this book AND that Blanning- the Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge University- writes in such an objectively pleasing fashion that is hard not to get swept up in his five stage analysis of "the triumph of music."

   When this book begins, musicians are servants and slaves.  The examples selected are the German composers of the 18th century.  At the beginning of Chapter one, musicians like Handel, Haydn and Mozart are writing their masterpieces at the bequest of various German princes, and for them alone.  Over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th century, this model of musicianship is overwhelmed by the now familiar idea of musicians as cultural celebrity.  A recent still-relevant example is Liszt- whose "demonic" piano playing inspired the kind of swoons a modern associates with the Beatles.  This initial transformation from musician/composer from court servant to celebrity is  embodied by Wagner.  Wagner's triumph in German culture remains largely unequalled, at it is to Wagner that all subsequent musicians must look for a benchmark of "how far you can go."

   The role of the purpose of music in the march towards triumph is the focus of the second chapter.  Here, the point is embodied by a sub chapter heading "The Secularization of Society, the Sacralization of Music."  Blanning described- in matter of fact fashion how music moved from being an Assertion of Power on behalf of a specific monarch, to an instrument used in worship, to it's more or less present state as a good to be consumed by the public in the form of concert.  Along the way, music audiences were convinced to take music very seriously, a process referred to by Blanning as "Sacralization"(i.e. making something sacred) at the same time, the movement of music appreciation out of the court and into the bourgeois and working classed meant that the audience for music exploded.

   Then he is on to the role of physical space (an interesting summary of work about how places to hear music became more 'church like' and how the number of places to hear music expanded to included venues for the middle and lower classes (specifically pleasure gardens and music halls in the late 18th century and 19th century.)

  Finally, Blanning handles the role of technology- a subject I've written about so often here that I found his writing duplicative of books I've already read and a final, weak, chapter on the liberating power of music for disempowered minorities.  On the whole, it's an excellent, recent summary of the ways in which music is a social project composed of composers, performers and audiences.  Blanning assumes that music does not actually exist without all three individuals- music is a social experience, no matter what romanticists and their followers may claim.  I recommend this book for anyone looking for a cogent  thesis about the role of music in modern society.

BOOK REVIEW
Popular Music In England
1840-1914 A Social history
Dave Russell
McGill-Queen's University Press
p. 1987


  One of the cool aspects of reading about history is that it has a tendency to stay the same over time.  By understanding wider swaths of time, events in the present look less confusing.  A difference between the production of knowledge and the production of a product is that the market for knowledge has no motivation to move on to the next idea.  In fact, given the limited number of people who care about acquiring knowledge in more esoteric areas, an idea needs to stick around for 20-30 years before it can make a dent.

  Popular Music is not an area that lends itself to history for two reasons.  First, people who wrote books were not sure that Popular Music was intellectually important until the middle to late part of the 20th century.  Second, those who wrote about music in this time period were largely people who talked about the relative aesthetic value of different types of music and musicians (musicologists) rather then people who talked about the social nature of Popular Music as a phenomenon.

  Popular Music In England is a great example of an early attempt to shift the dialogue about music out of musicology and into the realm of history.  It's right there in the sub-title "A Social History."  The place and time period chronicled is important because it really represents the best documented place and time of the emergence of  Popular Music as a widespread phenomenon.   The word "popular" pre-supposes wide spread, and the difference between "Music" and "Popular Music" is the existence of a narrow or limited audience for the former and a broad audience for the latter.

  Popular Music in England is useful because it clearly and simply illuminates the emergence of Popular Music in the mid 19th century.  All the changes outlines happen as a direct result of the industrial revolution and the changes it made in England at the time.  One of the most indirect, but significant changes was the move by the Victorian Middle and Upper Classes towards being interested in the welfare of Workers.  This shift increased at the same time as the wealthy were themselves increasing demand for Popular Music, largely in the form of religious songs.  A third shift was the growth in people who were interested in profiting from the sale of music: performers, song writers, bar and theater owners.   These shifts were set against the back drop of a working class that was gaining outlets and time for leisure, and music was a popular choice, as indeed it always has been in rural, pre-modern communities.

  At the end of the time period surveyed (1914) the outlines of the modern Music Industry have been sketched.  The only major piece missing is the mass media, and that is a story well told.

BOOK REVIEW
Music & Society: Since 1815
by Henry Raynor
p.  1975
Crescendo Publishing

  This is volume 2/2.  Volume 2 covers the time from 1815 to "the present" which for this author seems to be sometime in the mid 1950s.  After 1815 the social history of music begins to take on it's present shape.  You get the story of Liszt: A very modern seeming pop star of the mid 19th century.  Raynor discusses the commercialization of Opera in terms that prefigure the rise of popular culture.  An interesting chapter discusses the rise of the symphony orchestra concert as a manifestation of industrial society.

  However, in my mind the most intriguing chapter was Raynor's first chapter- on the impact that the decline of court patronage had on composers in the mid-19th century.  To my mind, it that situation bears parallels to the contemporary situation where digital culture has destroyed traditional forms of artist revenue without providing replacement.  In the early 19th century, it was a situation where royal patronage was dissapearing but the mass market had not yet appeared.  It was tough sledding for a few decades, and helped give rise to the idea of the unrecognized tortured genius artist tha has been regerttably with us ever since.  For the record, the first guy to pull that routine.. Schubert.  Schubert.

BOOK REVIEW
The Use of History
by A.L. Rowse
p. 1946
Collier Books Edition

   Why know history?  It's a fair question.  We live in an age dominated by hard science, the so-called "social sciences" are almost at the point of losing their status as "science."  So while, genetics tells us more about who are as human beings, the American Anthropological Association is squabbling over whether to use the word "science" in their mission statement.  It's no wonder that many people graduate from college without ever taking a serious look at history as a discipline or interest.

   And yet.... I've found history particularly relevant to my own path.  Among all the sciences: be they hard or soft, none is so accessible as history- everyone knows something about history and people talk about history all the time.  Rowse makes this point, among many others.  One of the best chapters discusses how the purpose of education is to teach people how to function in society and that history, with it's study of people, their motives and their actions, create an ability in students to make judgments about people they encounter in real life.

     Rowse adopts a smart stance in between the economic determinism of Marxism and the lockstep schematics of Positivism:  History consists of facts, and these facts have reality because people agree of the existence of those facts.  However, it is not possible to extrapolate from generally agreed facts to the presence of historical "laws" that mirror the laws of hard science.  Rowse, writing at the end of World War II was smart enough to rebut the ideas of Social Darwinism and anticipate the flaws of French Post-Modernism.

   History is relevant, because it shows us how people acted in the past.  All other things being equal, humans will tend to act in the same way, even if we can't predict how an individual will act in a given situation.

BOOK REVIEW
Media and the American Mind:
From Morse To McLuhan
By Daniel J. Czitrom
p. 1982
University of North Carolina Press

    This is a book I've had lying around for half a year- I know that because when I went to look it up on Amazon, Amazon kindly informed me that I ordered it in July, 2010.  One of the problems with reading books as supposed to listening to music or collecting stamps is that reading books takes time and mental energy- they really can stack up if you aren't careful.

  Media an the American Mind is an interesting attempt at explaining the way new media were received by the public and by intellectuals- the first part discusses the reception of the telegraph, motion picture s and radio.  The second part talks about the ways intellectuals interpreted these advances in communications technology.  In the second part,  Czitrom discusses the theories of Charles Horton Coole, Joohn Dewey, Robert E. Park, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.  Of those thinkers, I was only familiar with Dewey and McLuhan, so it was interesting to read about the lesser known communications theories of Cooley, Park & Innis.  Innis in particular comes off as the real inspiration for McLuhan's vogue theories of the 1960s.

  What comes across clearly in Media & The American Mind is the paralyzing fear that most intellectuals felt about the prospect of mass media.  Perhaps a more interesting book would have been on the methods by which businesses convinced the public that Mass Culture was something to be valued.  Oh wait- that book was written, and it's called Land of Desire by William Leach.

  Ultimately, Media and the American Mind felt dated- very "Media Studies" very 80s- I'd much rather talk about audiences than media.  McLuhan: I just want to punch him the face, what a doof.

BOOK REVIEW
Dickens: His Private Life And Public Passion
by Peter Ackroyd
p. 1991

  If ever there was a writer who deserved an eleven hundred page biography, Charles Dickens is that writer.  His output was prolific, and you can say things like "most popular novelist in the 19th century."  His Amazon page hardly does him justice.  What is striking about the life of Charles Dickens is that he was a celebrity in the most modern sense of the word, but be was a celebrity in the UK, Europe and US in the early to mid 19th century.  Certainly you can say that his work defined his generation.

  What most stands out about the life of Dickens is first, his extraordinary energy and productivity,  and second, his life long concern with his audience.  It was an audience that took different shapes.  There was his readership, of course- people who subscribed to the periodicals he edited and the ones which carried his serialized novels.  But there were also the people who watched him as an amateur actor in plays that were put on before aristocrats and wealthy literary folk.  For the last part of his life, his primary source of income was money earned on tours where he would read from his hits.  He spend a considerable amount of time just perfecting his live performance so to speak, and it's interesting to contemplate the way Dickens novels were influence by older forms of art in the UK like Elizabethan Theater.

  Ackroyd points out that even though Dickens was a man who defined the Victorian Era, he himself was closer to being an "early" or "proto" Victorian in that he was a man who believed in strict, racially based imperialism and wasn't afraid to laugh at cripples on the street. Dickens was also similar to modern celebrities in that he was obsessed with what people thought, and thought people were always trying to find out what he was doing.  For example, when he divorced his wife of 22 years so he could take a much younger mistress (unproven but obvious), he wrote a public letter where he denounced her because he thought everyone was talking about his young mistress, when in fact, nobody gave a s***.  The obsession with negative feedback seems endemic to artistic feedback and celebrity going wayyyy back.

Other Posts About Charles Dickens On This Blog

Book Review:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens11/20/14
Book Review: Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford. 3/25/13
Book Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 3/17/13.
Book Review:  Dickens Worlds by Humphrey House, 3/8/13
Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 9/21/12
Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 8/23/12
Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 7/17/12.
Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, 6/19/12.
Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 6/7/12.

BOOK REVIEW
THE DESERT WORLD
by Alonzo W. Pond
p. Thomas Nelson and Sons 1962

   I bought this book when Wahrenbrock's Book House was going out of business.  I bought maybe three, four boxes of books at rock bottom prices, but I'm discovering why some of them went unsold.  This was one I picked out based on it's "cool" factor.  It's a well maintained hard back with the cover and the cellophane wrapper still intact.  The back flap has a picture of the author that makes him look like an extra in Wes Anderson movie.  Even though this book was published in 1962 it has the technique and approach of a late 19th century adventure yard mixed with quasi-academic observations in the area of anthropology and sociology.  The author was a scholar who also worked with the United States army, and it's clear he spent a lot of time in the deserts of the Middle East on the Government's dime.

    Pond's claim to cover the entire Desert World is a little specious, but he does have a wealth of observations about the geography, geology and sociology of the major world desert areas: Sahara, Arabia and the Gobi/Mongolian.  His chapters on the American deserts are sad and useless.  The strongest work is in the fields of geology and geography, as he gets into human relations Desert World is more likely to show its age.

   The single most interesting chapter in a book of more or less disconnected chapters about different deserts and desert peoples is his chapter about the Tuareg, a Berber speaking people who are famed for their fierceness and veil-wearing.  Pond was with the 1923 French military expedition that discovered the tomb of Tin Hinane, the "Mother of Us All" of Tuareg legend.  Hinane's grave was found to contain the bones of 4th century AD era woman of Mediterranean ancestry- in her grave she had a coin from the Eastern Roman Empire and a household god of the kind associated with pre-Indo European civilization in Europe.  So that's a pretty interesting chapter.

   I feel like keep these particular books alive helps to maintain the memory of Wahrenbrock's Book House.  I, for one, don't think that the Kindle and Ereader will destroy the market for printed books, but like the effect of mp3s on the music industry, all that is now here will be destroyed.  See, for example the closing of the downtown San Diego Borders.  The main thing that book store's need to do is adapt to the realities of the role of buying and selling books on the web, and use their physical store front as a way to purchase books that can be resold on line.

 
BOOK REVIEW
How To Kill A Dragon:
Aspects of Indo-European Poetics
by Calvert Watkins
Oxford University Press
p.  1995

    The "indo-european" language family covers just about all of Europe, North and South America, South and South West Asia and Australia.  English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Farsi, Hindi and all of the Baltic's, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  The language from which all these languages came is unknown, but scholars call it "Proto Indo European."  The Indo European language family has received more attention from philologists and linguists over the last century then the rest of the world's language families combined.
    One of the more interesting issues surrounding Proto Indo European is the extent to which we can reconstruct the shared culture of Proto Indo European people through language as manifested in religious ritual, myth and poetry.  How To Kill A Dragon is an attempt to work back to the primal Indo European myth- the HERO SLAYING THE DRAGON.  The first portion of the book is devoted entirely to setting up the idea of a shared Indo European poetic vocabulary.  Watkins looks at the use of alliteration, oppositions and "merisms" (the use of two individual terms to compromise a larger whole- like "men and cattle" to refer to the sum of earthly possessions.)
   Unfortunately, I couldn't follow of all of it because I CANT READ THE GREEK ALPHABET but the analysis that included languages written in a Latin script was convincing.  The Indo-Europeans had a common vocabulary of ritual and myth that is simply impossible to ignore.  The argument goes into the folder of "we are all one human race."
   The second portion, concerning the formulation of the foundational Indo-European myth "HERO SLAYS SERPENT" is again- very convincing.  Watkins then moves the clock forward and shows the way that this poetic language manifests itself in Homeric Epic Poetry, Scandinavian Epic Poetry  and the Rig and Artha Veda.  Perhaps the most interesting and novel portion of his argument is the analysis of the Hittite version of the myth, which Watkins straight forwardly claims is the direct inspiration for the Greek versions.  In fact, it in his analysis of little known Hittite tablets where Watkins really, really shines.  If I were to follow up on one aspect of this book (which, after all, was published in 1995) it would be what else scholars have learned about the relationship between Hittite ritual and Greek myth.

BOOK REVIEW
The Interpretation of Cultures
by Clifford Geertz
p. 1977
Basic Books

      When I'm reading some complex bit of social science theory, I have to remind myself that no matter what discipline, ANY social science didn't exist 200 years ago- they are recent inventions.  It also pays to consider that 99% of the material for ANY social science has been rendered irrelevant by developments that have occurred since the late 1960s.  Specifically, the introduction of ideas outside of the "positivist" "social science as hard science" school of thought- larger known as "relativism."
     The idea that social sciences were an analogue of natural sciences foundered on the rocks of the complexity of human interaction, and attempts to revise various social sciences have in turn been dashed against the entrenched interests of the older generation of social science mandarins.   It's a bit of a sticky wicket, I suppose, but in day-to-day existence it means that you can't count on ANY of the social sciences for ANY insight into human behavior.
      It's a sad state of affairs, and I analogize the state of social sciences to the state of the music industry: Rendered largely irrelevant by updates in technology, and not sure what to do about it AND free falling into oblivion in the mean time.
       One of the revolutionariness in the shift away from positivism into an arena of "relativism" was Clifford Geertz.  Geertz was a trailblazer in the social science of Anthropology, introducing sophisticated ideas about human interaction that had been developed by European philosophers like Wittgenstein, sociologists like Max Scheler and linguists like Saussure into the contemporary american discipline of Anthropology.
      Writing mostly in obscure specialty journals until his Interpretation of Cultures was published 1977, Interpretation of Cultures was itself a collection of the articles he had written up that point, interspersed with bridging chapters.  I think it's fair to say that the implications of Geertz's arguments vis a vis anthropological theory are still being addressed in the realm of professional scholarship, but I don't think he's really been absorbed into the "general reading public" in the way that he should be.
        Unfortunately, Interpretation of Cultures is far from being a good book in and of its own right, and in a sense it contains a symbolic relevance that mirrors Geertz's own discussion about the role of symbols in religion. (now a "sub-field" of Anthropology called "Symbolic Anthropology.")  I actually ended up skipping his 100 page discussion of the idea of ideology and it's relationship to the newly emerging nations of the 3d world in the 1960s- but his "thick description" trailblazer "Notes from A Balinese Cock Fight" and his chapters describing the role of symbols in religion seem as fresh today as they were then.
        Interpretation of Cultures also contains a spirited anti-relativist tirade against his own predecessors: Ruth Benedicts "Patterns of Cultures" comes in for harsh criticism for being too mushy-mushy about describing the relationships between cultures as well as her description of cultures themselves.  Geertz champions the deep, fully descriptive essay at the expense of making universal judgement about the whole of human kind based on observations of one culture.
     Maybe this is why these ideas haven't really penetrated into the genpop: They don't provide any facile or easy answers about explaining human behavior, just suggestions on a method for making observations about phrasing the questions.

BOOK REVIEW
The Recording Angel:
The Experience of Music From Aristotle To Zappa
by Evan Eisenberg
Penguin Books
p. 1987

   Now that I'm actively writing my own book, I'm becoming more interested in the rhythm and structure of other people's books.  I'm generally interested in books that make use of specialized knowledge ("discourse") in the course of writing a general interest book.  All this writing about artists and audiences makes me all the more aware of similar precepts in the world of books.

   Here are a couple of principles that seem to apply:

  1)  A general reader does not want to read a book longer then 300 pages unless it features wizards and/or dragons.
 2)   Books that try to convey specialist knowledge to a general audience need to convey it the way you convey medicine to a dog:  Take a piece of hamburger and stick the pill inside, hope the dog doesn't notice as he wolves down the meat.
 3) If you are going to reach a general audience with a book about ideas, you need to convince book industry professionals, and the smaller audience of people who read magazines like the new yorker and the atlantic monthly, or read the Wall Street Journal, or watch Fox News:  I'm talking about members of the general public who are interested in ideas.  These are the folks who get regular people buying off of Amazon.

   The Recording Angel clocks in at a spare 250 pages and has no footnotes or bibliography: Principle 1 is certainly satisfied.  Principle two is more ambiguously realized.  "The Recording Angel" is the musing of a journalist on what he considered a quasi academic subject, "the impact of recording technology on the social experience of Music."  Also, he is writing in the mid 1980s, during a time when the vocabulary for describing the social experience of music was itself limited, let alone the vocabularly for talking about the impact of recording technology on the social experience of music.  Here, however, the proof is in the pudding, or rather, the proof is in the handsome revised edition that was published in 2005.  Clearly, Eisenberg succeeded in writing a general interest book about music drawing upon specialist knowledge, particuarly in the disciplines of history, musicology and philosophy.

    The About the Author foreword says that Eisenberg, "writes about music, culture and technology for the Nation, Saturday Review, The Village Voice... and other publications.  He studied philosohy at Harvard and Princeton."  He is an intellectual, writing for a general audience (book is published by Penguin Books.) In The Recording Angel, Eisenberg convicingly synthesizes the history of popular music in the 20th century with the history of "serious" music during the same time span and the ideas intellectuals have about music during a longer time frame.

   What is less convincing is his ability to make a larger point about what it all means.  Writing about the relationship between music and technology prior to the arrival of mp3s is a bit like writing the history of the Jews in Germany and stopping in the 1920s: It would be an interesting book, but not the complete story, and your thesis might change were you to include the next bit.

   Eisenberg does do an excellent job of explaining how recording technology, specifically, the shellac record, changed the relationship between Artists and Audiences in the 20th century.  The primary change appears to be the introduction of "an audience of one."  Before the shellac record of the early 20th century, listening to music mostly meant listening to music WITH OTHER PEOPLE.  The record replaced that prerequisite with new possibilities.

   Readers of this blog might be interested to read his chapter of the Invention of the Record Producer, whom he refers to a Phonographer (as supposed to a Musician.)  This is a person who simply did not exist until the Recorded Music Industry summoned him into existence.   Examples existed before the Rocknroll era: John Hammond of Columbia Records is a prime non-rock example.  However, Eisenberg identifies Phil Spector as the first "auteur"(in the sense of a film director auteur) and likewise tags Zappa as the first Artist/Phonographer: An artist whose entire identity is equivalent with the technology he utilizes to record his music.  To his eternal credit, Eisenberg does not exclude the important development in electronic music happening mostly in Europe in "serious Art Music" circles at the same time that Spector and Zappa were doing their thing.

   I'm seriously considering picking up the 2005 version to see what he has to say about Mp3 and the collapse of the Major Labels, but the original edition stands alone- worth reading.

 
 

BOOK REVIEW
The Seventh Stream:
The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music
by Philip H. Ennis
Wesleyan University Press
p.  1992

    A note on vocabulary- Ennis uses the term "Rocknroll" to refer to the formative period of "rock and roll."  He distinguishes rocknroll from the later period of "rock."  Basically, rocknroll is what happened before 1965 and "rock" happened afterwards.  It's not a usage that has caught on in any significant way since the publication of this book in 1992, and perhaps that is unfortunate, because I, for one, happen to agree that "everything changed" in the mid 1960s, and that the changes weren't for the better.

  Eninis' main thesis is that rocknroll was the synthesis of the six pre-existing "streams" of American popular music:  Pop (Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building), Black Pop, Country Pop, Gospel, Jazz and Folk.  In the first section of The Seventh Stream, Ennis focuses on the "assembly" of the six distinct streams against the back drop of technological change between 1900 and 1940.  His insightful, distinct division of American Popular Music into six "streams" is paired with a turgid, obvious recitation of the pre-World War II struggle between the publishing industry and the broadcasting industry.  To his credit, Ennis does clearly demonstrate how this struggle influenced the development of the "six streams"  (In a nutshell, the rise of radio favored Black Pop and Country Pop at the expense of Traditional Pop.)

  The lasting contribution that Ennis makes to "rock history" comes in his tour-de-force of a second section, where he describes the emergence of rocknroll in the post World War II period.  Perhaps his most important insight is the manner in which he describes the reflective relationship between Charts and the Record Labels who sought to profit from that information.  The concept linking the two is the "crossover" i.e. a song that appeared simultaneously on two or more of the three major post War charts: Pop, Country & Rhythm and Blues.  Ennis makes the case that it was the goal of the actors in the period immediately preceding the emergence of rocknroll to CREATE a sound that would "chart" on all three charts at the same time.
  This was certainly the goal of Bill Haley, whose "Rock Around the Clock" was the first rock "hit" in 1955.  Haley, a long time musical journeyman, had been tinkering with different stylistic combinations in a concentrated attempt to "cross-over" BEFORE he recorded rock around the clock.  This was also the case for the man who would embody the emergence of rocknroll: Elvis Presley.  Before Elvis arrived, Sam Phillips was LOOKING for someone LIKE Elvis- a white guy who could sing like a black guy.  It's an analysis that very much gibes with my own reading of the same books that Ennis relied on.  In this analysis, the technological changes that preceded rocknroll's emergence (the 45)) were a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence.  Rather, it was the effort of specific individuals to "solve the problem" of cross-over appeal, as based on their analysis of the Billboard/Cashbox charts.  This effort was largely undertaken by the independent effort of small scale record label owners- not- repeat- not- by the major labels of the time.
    Like other books about rock that were published prior to the mp3 revolution, Ennis' section covering the mid 60s to the "present" suffers from the absence of the internet. Certainly, one is reminded of the "End of History" type books that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and failed to anticipate the rise of Islamic radicalism.
     One theme that emerges from the Seventh Stream is the way in which dominant streams become creatively "exhausted" and then look to outside influences from less popular streams.  Ennis also tips his cap to the importance of demographics- it's hard to divorce the emergence of rocknroll from the post World War II "baby boom" and concomitant rise of "Youth Culture."  All in all, the Seventh Stream is easily the BEST book I've ever read on the roots of rocknroll.  It's a must read, especially for young musicians or would be cultural critics.  GO GET IT.

Book Review
The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700
by Roderick Floud, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong
New Approaches to Economic and Social History/
National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Economic Development
p. 2011

    I suspect that this book will be considered notable for a number reasons. Perhaps the best shot Changing Body has for immortal glory is the coinage of the term "technophysio evolution" as a short-hand for the tremendous changes in human body dimensions in the last 12-15 generations (the "since 1700" of the sub-title.)  The POINT of Changing Body is to PROVE that human beings have gotten bigger and healthier over the last 400 years as a result of better nutrition and public health improvements (i.e. sanitation.)  It will perhaps disappoint many "obesity epidemic" obsessives that Changing Body does not focus more on the problem of 'over-nutrition' that has risen to prominence in public health debates in the United States over the last few years, but this book is more about showing the long trend, a trend which is overwhelmingly positive as measured by any possible metric.

   Changing Body does not lack for statistics or metrics.  In fact, the main reason that you can read this 350 page book in a couple of hours is that HUNDREDS of pages are occupied by the kind of statistics that you need an undergraduate degree in statistics or a professional degree in statistics based social sciences to fully comprehend.  That ain't me, though, so without the statistics you are left with the discussion of statistics and the summary.

  So, without further ado, here are the money observations:

1.   The most effective way to improve the health of the population as a whole is making sure pregnant women get fed properly, that they give birth properly and that the resulting children get fed until they are about five years old.  After that: pffft.  Fuck em.   Off...to...the...factory.

2.  Governments are useful in solving large scale public health problems like 'lack of sanitation' and "chronic diseases caused by swamps."  On the other hand, "private enterprise" is mentioned prominently in regards to public health challenges like "smoking."

3.  Human height and weight is determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but the experience of the UK, Europe and United States all point to the fact that positive environment can overwhelm any genetic input within two to three generations.  This is most specifically illustrated by the weight and height gains by immigrant populations in the United States within the past fifty years.  In contemporary debate this fact often is taken from a negative perspective (i.e. in the childhood obesity dialogue.) but the tenor of the discussion in Changing Bodies is that this has been a hugely positive event, with "over nutrition" being a problem of very recent vintage.

4.  TECHNOPHYSIO EVOLUTION is an alternative way to describe the recent changes to the human body being more attributable to environment instead of genetics.  Based on current genetic theory, 400 years is too short a period for genetics to be altered significantly by Darwinian concepts like "natural selection."  Indeed, one of the main aspects of technophysio evolution is that it takes effect WITHIN a specific age group or "cohort."  One of the outstanding aspects of the statistics in Changing Bodies is the way they show that a single age group will improve on different measurements as they grow older, like they are larger at birth, they are taller at adult hood, they are healthier as seniors and they stay healthier for a longer period.

5.  Changing Bodies does not wholeheartedly subscribe to a "Whiggish" (progressive) historical viewpoint, even though the long time horizon biases the authors towards positive observations.  The authors seem to point to an "optimal" average height as about 6'1" for men an 5'9" for women: After that point health statistics do not demonstrate further improvement.  The maximum "average" human life time is stated as 130.  Obviously there are a lot of issues with establishing an upper limit to human life time since we haven't reached it.


BOOK REVIEW
A History Of the Ostrogoths
by Thomas Burns
p. 1984
Indiana University Press

   The Ostrogoths are best known for being the briefly in charge of the Italian part of the formerly Roman Empire in the very "Dark Ages" in the 5th and 6th century AD.  They were eventually dispatched by the Greek-led Byzantine army in the mid 6th century, and they left little behind except a well known Gothic language Bible that has become a cornerstone of Indo-European comparative linguistics.

  The Ostrogoths are often compared to their better known cousins, the Visigoths- the Visigoths were the conquerors of Spain until the Muslims wiped them out after the Ostrogoths lost Italy to the Eastern Roman Empire.  If you look at a chart comparing the various branches of the Germanic language family (which includes English, yeah?) the Ostrogoths are in the "Eastern Germanic" branch.  By Eastern Germanic linguists are not referring to the 20th century East Germany, rather the Goths had their roots in the Steppes of Russia.  The general consensus is that they came west as part of the Hunnic armies, and probably first entered the Roman Empire during the great western raids Attila of the Hun.

  After the Hunnic Emprie collapsed, the Ostrogoths perambulated about the Balkans, unable to settle down and farm (which is what they probably wanted to do) until their great leader Theodoric (one of several Gothic Theodorics who were running around at the same time.)  Theodoric managed to unite a bunch of related Gothic tribes into the "Ostrogoths" and they stormed into the Italian peninsula, eventually establishing their capital in Ravena.  The Ostrogoths settled inside of Italy, and Theodoric spent the next thirty ish years (490 AD-526 AD) trying to establish the kind of Indo-European Kingdom that is familiar to readers of the Rig Veda: a military elite ruling over a pre-existing domestic population.  Theodoric was mostly a failure in this regard, but the fact that the conquered peoples were in the heartland of the Roman Empire means that we know a fair deal about Theodoric, his empire and Gothic society.

   One of the main points that Burns makes is that the Ostrogoths were uncomfortable with what we moderns call "institutions."  Loyalty to government was family and personality based: Most often both attributes needed to be embodied in a single individual for Ostrogothic government to actually exist in any substantial form.   The Ostrogoths practiced the Germanic/Indo-European custom known as Comitatus, wherein a leader is supported by a small group of warriors (King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an English remnant of the larger Germanic concept.)  These Warriors were bound to the LEADER, not to the "state" or "nation."  Such was their loyalty that the death of the Leader meant the death of the remaining members of the Comitatus.

    The Comitatus was remarkably successful both inside and outside Indo-European speaking traditions.  For example, the Mamalukes of the Ottoman Empire (a Turkish speaking state) were as pure an example of Comitatus as any Indo European version.  Another example is the so-called "Slave Empire" of the Mughals.(another Turkish speaking group)  The Mughal Empire was called the "slave empire" because the Mughals had been in the Comitatus of the Persian speaking armies of Islam during their conquest of Central Asia.

  The Establishment of Ostrogothic rule in Italy is one of the better documented transitions from "barbarian" Indo European traditions to the "civilized" Mediterranean/Greek/Roman model of government.  Unfortunately, this book does little to explore that interesting development, being content to lay out the history, customs & culture of Ostrogoths in more or less conventional fashion.  Honestly though, I couldn't find anything better. Not written in English, anywa

BOOK REVIEW
Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300
by Romila Thapar
p 2004
University of California Press

   Here is something I've learned about Indian history: It is pretty controversial to write anything about Indian History.  There is very little you can actually say or write about Indian history without angering someone who cares very passionately about the subject your are speaking or writing about.  Undoubtably, the single biggest factor in aggravating the debate on Indian historical subjects is the "Hindu Nationalism Movement." People in the US who are even aware of this phenomenon typically describe it in political terms, for example, when writing about the actions of the  BJP or "Bharatiya Janata Party" but it should surprise no one that Hindu Nationalist ideas extend directly into historical research, writing and debate.  Hindu Nationalism inspired ideas take many forms in the discussion of Early Indian History.

  First, there is the debate, now largely won, by the way, over whether the initial Vedic migration into India was an "invasion" or not.  Obviously, Hindu Nationalists would rather have it be said that there was no invasion, and many would further argue that India is the home of ALL Indo European Languages.  Well, the good news: No Aryan invasion, more like small scale migration over many years.  The bad news: There is no way that the Indo European language family originated in North West India, so call that one a draw.  Even finding a "neutral" source on this subject is difficult, but Romila Thapar does a good job of presenting the current historical facts in a non-inflammatory fashion.

   Another major area of dispute colored by Hindu Nationalism are the pre-Mughal Turkish led raids into Western India, which allegedly resulted in temple destruction and the building of a mosque over said temple location.  These disputes have resulted in back and forth terrorist activity as well as the occasional mass killing.  Here, Thapar notes that the raids seem not to have bothered the locals at the time, or rather they didn't see it as anything "out of ordinary" and that any later mosque building was done with the consent of the native community, not at the behest of an "outside" Muslim ruler.

  In addition to the controversial subjects, Thapar does a solid job bringing the reader up to date on current "hot topics" in the field of Early Indian History, like "Did the medieval Indian state formation process constitute a variation of European defined feudalism?"  She also does a remarkably thorough job of discussing the caste formation process in ancient India- I confess to say that it's complexity, even at this level of generality, somewhat escaped my comprehension, but the writing is so clear and concise that I will likely revisit her discussion in a few months.

  All in all this was a solid introduction to the field of Early Indian history- worth a read for someone seeking a foundation in the subject.


Rhetoric, Memory, Violence:
The Medieval Theater of Cruelty
by Jody Enders
p. 1999
Cornell University Press

   This is a book that achieves profundity almost in spite of it's stilted, heavily-influenced-by-french-cultural-theory style of writing.  Enders, a Professor of French and Medieval Studies at UCSB (Santa Barbara) comes close at times to a major contribution to the field of "history of ideas," but she's so caught up in her own specialty (French medieval manuscripts) and the "rules" of 90s era academia, that the interesting points of Rhetoric, Memory, Violence are almost hidden from view.  Certainly, reading this book was no pleasure- quite a chore, actually- it was so bad that I had an index card with the main theses written on it, and would then pull the card out every time I got confused and had to remind myself what the f*** Enders is going on about.

   The essence of Ender's argument in non-academic-jargony English, is FIRST: that the study of Rhetoric is embedded into the minds of recent scholars and influences their writing in both subtle and not-so subtle ways. SECOND: That the relative decline of the importance of Rhetoric in recent centuries has served to mask the important role that it played in justifying TORTURE during the middle age.  THIRD: That the link between Rhetoric and Torture continues to shape our thought processes, to the point where we, as a society, basically enjoy torture because it helps maintain (intellectual) order.

  If it sounds like something Foucault or Derrida would say, that's because Enders is obviously inspired by their work in the "archeology of knowledge."  From my perspective, she's on to something, but her omission of pre-Classic and non-written linguistics makes her final conclusions rather shallow.  At best, she's talking about a cultural trait that developed alongside the birth of Rhetoric in Greek/Roman times.  Surely, any link between order and violence in a modern state like America extends beyond the study of Rhetoric to the period when languages like Greek, Latin, German and Sanskrit were spoken, and not written.  Without integrating this piece of the puzzle, the insight that Enders can provide to,  "the roots of...cruelty lie in the language of some of the foundational narratives of Western Civilization." (p. 232.)

  Well, OK- but you didn't prove your point.

BOOK REVIEW

MADAME BOVARY ON TRIAL
Dominick LaCapra
p. 1986
Cornell University Press

  Here are a couple of things I hate:

 1. Books that are supposed to be about one subject and then proceed to not talk at all about the purported topic.
 2.  Specialist debates in literary studies from the 1980s and 1990s.

  I imagine there was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when tenured literature professors in major American Universities must have felt pretty smug about themselves.  Using French theory as a vehicle, they, as a group, managed to go 20 plus years without writing a single thing interesting to any audience outside their own graduate students.  This "French turn" was not limited to literary studies, but the study of literature in the 80s and 90s is the illustration of the French turn in American academic prose "par excellance."

   I bought this book simply because the title seemed to promise a description of the events surrounding the actual trial that took place after Madame Bovary was published for the first time.   According to LaCapra it's an event that has been neglected in Flaubertian studies because of the believe that the prosecution was simply a vehicle to go after the magazine that published Madame Bovary.

   Unfortunately for me, LaCapra only devotes a chapter to the trial- not even including the fifty page transcript in this volume- and then spends the rest of the book summarizing the lengthy history of Bovarian criticism by authors such as Sartre et al.  This book is so 1980s that LaCapra uses Paul De Man's translation as his preferred English version Madame Bovary.  You have to know who Paul De Man is to get that point, but trust me- he is a classic 80s literary studies guy and, as it turned out, a Nazi collaborator.  Put that in your deconstructionist pipe and smoke it.

  This book shows it's age like a suburban Mom shopping at Forever 21.

BOOK REVIEW

BECKONING DESERT: IMPRESSIONS OF THE SUNLIT LAND, ITS PEOPLE, ITS MIRACLES OLD AND NEW
BY EDWARD MADDIN AINSWORTH
PRENTICE HALL

  Have you ever had the experience of reading an old book and realizing like, half way through, that it is meant for school children, not adults?  I read this entire book about the Colorado Desert (it's in Southern California, named after the river, not the state.) without really getting that it was written for children, so I'll hold off on some of the gibes I was considering making.

   The fact is that it is hard to find books written about the Colorado Desert.  The Colorado is a portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, which encompasses much of Mexico and Southern Arizona.  The Colorado Desert is separate from the Mojave Desert, which is located to the north and encompasses the area traditionally known as "Death Valley."

  The author of this book is what you call an "old fashioned newspaper man" and it's quite obvious from his constant mentioning of the fact that he owned a vacation house in the city of Mecca on the North End of the Salton Sea in the 50s and 60s, and that he decided to write this book, probably earning himself a well deserved tax deduction for all the money he spent at his vacation house.  I especially enjoyed the chapter called "shit in my backyard."

 The Anecdotal style does not detract from the over-all merit of this book for being a font of information about a place that seems condemned to perpetual obscurity.  I'm not sure why, it's got all the elements: post-apocalyptic waste land, international border intrigue, interesting regional cuisine, a yearly music festival and plenty of nice spots to live, and yet it seems all we read about the area of the Colorado desert is how poor Imperial County is.  Boo on that.



Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, California

  So my favorite chapter in this book actually concerned Scotty's Castle in Death Valley (Mojave desert)- it is pictured above.  Basically there was this eccentric mid Western millionaire who thought it would be fun to "create" this character of Death Valley Scotty who did wacky things like gamble with gold nuggets and hire a train to take him from LA to Chicago as fast as possible.  This millionaire guy built this mansion for himself, but led everyone to believe it was for this guy Scotty, but really Scotty lived in a shack out in back.  It's kind of a cool story, see,

BOOK REVIEW

The Art of Memory
by Frances A. Yates
University of Chicago Press
p. 1966

   I purchased The Art of Memory in January 2010, so it was what you could call a "slow burner."  Basically, I bought it, read 20 pages and then put it on a book shelf for 18 month in order to occasionally look at it and go, "Nope."  However, my attitude was changed when I read Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, earlier this year.  Grimoires spurred me to think about the relation of magic and occult knowledge to the transition from the religion centered European Middle Ages to the Scientific/Mathematical based present.

    Understanding the relationship between Magic and Modernity requires a great deal of context.  Specifically, the mind-set or "mentalites" of people living back then, and how what we think today could possibly be related to how they thought then.

    The fulcrum point of this transition from "Middle Ages" to "Modernity"  was the Renaissance:  It was a point where old non Christian/Religious ideas were rediscovered AND new bodies of knowledge or "disciplines"  (or, if you are really lame "discourses.") were combined with the existing religious mentalite of the folks living in France, Spain, Italy and Germany (not England.)

   The Art of Memory was an aspect of Rhetoric, and as such had a "place" in the medieval scheme of 'higher education.'  Specifically, Rhetoric was a part of monastic scholars called the "trivium." (the other members were grammar and logic.)  The Trivium was a medieval equivalent of our modern "reading, writing and 'rithmatic."   Rhetoric, then, was "the study of the use of language with persuasive effect." (Wiki)

   An element of this study was the "Art of Memory."  In the ancient, classic sense, the Art of Memory basically consisted of memorizing a specific impressive place/location, identifying the distinguishing points of interest inside the building and attaching the parts of your speech to those features to cue your memory during the speech you are no doubt giving.

  Basically, what happened in the Renaissance is that people started building out this "art of memory" and turned it into something much more complicated and interesting by adding levels of detail and incorporating different influences "into the mix" as it were.   You could think of it like a modern musical category like rock music with all it's divergent paths, except here it's "types of art of memory."

   Over the course of the 16th and 17th century, the embellished Renaissance era rhetorical tradition went "psych,"  it went "straight" and it went "dark."   The Renaissance twist on Rhetoric didn't each England until well into the 17th century/Elizabethan era, so most of the Art of Memory takes place on the continent, with the area of interest shifting from Italy (first), to France and Spain and then to England and Germany.

     The psych tradition of Rhetoric incorporated Kabbalistic letter study, psuedo-Classical Egyptian Style Occultism and Astrology into the mix.  Readers, who were undoubtedly either Italian noblemen, Artists or Students or Parisian Students, were treated to convoluted metaphysical speculation and complex circular charts with wheels inside wheels.  This psych twist was to maintain the ability to inspire right down into the modern period.  In one of The Art of Memory's pay-off chapters, Yates makes the (convincing) argument that the Masonic Imagery of buildings and occultism descends from the last remnants of this psych Rhetoric style, specifically the writings Giordano Bruno.  Bruno was an author who was super obscure and elaborate, and he operated at the end of the period surveyed in France, England and Germany.  Yates makes the case that it is plausible that he could have been responsible for inspiring Shakespearean drama in England the Masonic movement in Germany.

  I think he makes a good case in that regard, and I think Modern Library agrees because it was named "One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century."

     The "straight" tradition of Rhetoric represented the integration first of the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, including his neo-platonism.  One of the main differences in the beginning of the split of Rhetoric between "psych" and "straight" is the effort to maintain and amplify the complexity of the art of memory while stripping it of it's more visual elements.  What starts in the Catholic church continues through the Reformation. Yates points out that the move by "straight" Rhetoricians to elaborate their own "Art of Memory" has an analog in the icon smashing paroxysms of the Reformation.   This branch of Rhetoric influenced early Modern Philosophers and Science, and was quite crucial in the crystallization of the idea of "Method" (as used in "THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD") in addition to being the obvious point of departure for modern Philosophy.

         The "dark" tradition of Rhetoric is largely ignored by Yates, but if you are interested in that wing, check out Davies Grimoires: A History of Magic Books.  I think that it's quite clear that modern ideas of witchcraft, devil worship, magic spells, witches etc is largely bound up in this "dark wing" of Rhetoric.  The overlap between the "psych" wing and the "dark" wing is substantial, but obviously the dark stuff was more controversial, and psych stuff was itself suspect because it incorporated occult materials via classical or pseudo-classical sources.

      All of these areas seem like fertile fields for inspiration, since they hover right at the edge of mentality, like a barely remembered folk tale.  The imagery itself is quite elaborate and the source material is not accessible to the general public.

Book Review
THE SEA HUNTERS
THE GOLDEN AGE OF WHALING
BY EDOUARD A. STACKPOLE

  One of the main advantage of our new palm springs vacation house is being able to get about seven boxes of books out of my storage unit.  They are mostly books I picked up when Wahrenbrock's Book House bit the dust: RIP.  Let me a share a consequence of the spread of Ereaders:  Books like this one, from a smaller publishing house and currently out of print, are going to disappear from the earth but everyone will be able to get the newist Harry Potter and Airport Novels.  Ereaders are for the proletariat.

  The Sea Hunters was written in the 50s by this guy Edouard Stackpole, who comes from Nantucket.  According to The Sea Hunters, the entire whaling industry basically came out of a handful of Quaker families who moved onto Nantucket in the 18th century.  From a modern perspective, the whole enterprise of Whaling seems rather déclassé,  rather like Mining.  Despite the decline in prominence, Whaling played a pivotal role in the development of American literature.  Three well known books are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, White Jacket by Jack London and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.   The American Whaling industry is also largely responsible for introducing Polynesian culture into the United States.  Because nothing has actually happened in the whaling world since the early 20th century, reading a book from the fifties makes sense.

   The actual history of whaling is pretty god damn epic.  These guys were going to the ends of the Earth before Steam Power and the Railroad made transportation cheap and accessible.  One aspect of Whaling that gets lost in the literary take is the fact that crew members got a share of the (substantial) profits from their voyages.  Also, African Americans were whaling crew waaayyy back and were generally treated as equals with whites and settled in Nantucket in the 18th century.

  Still it's hard for a modern reader to "get over" the matter-of-fact way Stackpole describes the wholesale destruction of tens of thousands of whales, seals and sea lions. FOR OIL.  I'm not trying to be all superior or anything, but humans essentially declared war on Sperm Whales in the 18th and 19th century, we killed about all of them, they killed maybe 30 of us, and when they did, a human (Melville) wrote a 600 page novel about it.  Sheesh.  Cut the whales some slack.  I can honestly say that I wish the Whales had killed more humans.

   Stackpole has a dated writing style that tends towards the anecdotal and entire chapters are devoted to the listings of islands that Whalers discovered in the Pacific, that is kind of a drag.  Ultimately though, it seems like Whales aren't being hunted to extinction anymore, and that should allow us to gain some distance on the more dated aspects of the Whaling industry, and maybe a more contemporary appreciation for this business that helped make the United States WHAT IT IS.

BOOK REVIEW

CORTES AND THE DOWNFALL OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE
Jon "Manchip" White
published by St. Martins Press
1971

   Here's another Wahrenbrock Book House Save. Like many of the books I bought at the end of that shop, it is dated, but actually a cool-looking book.  The cover is a lithograph outline of his head and shoulders, and imposed on top is 70s style stylized set of flames engulfing the lithographed head.  It's real cool looking.  I think that is one of the aspects of cultural products that is most "lost" in the transition from physical products to digital products: design.  A cultural product can have worth merely from having a striking appearance. I suppose liking an object for that reason might be considered "shallow" by certain people who live in their Mom's basement, but an appreciation for style and design is commonplace for furniture fans.

   I think that we could all use a little more conqueror mentality in our day-to-day lives.  You can say whatever PC bs you want about my man Hernan Cortes, but he was a baller.  There are lots of ways to diminish/denigrate/ignore the fact that Cortes conquered the shit out of Mexico, but it happened.  Amazingly, Cortes was trained as a lawyer at the University of Salamanca, around the turn of the 15th century.  Spain was militarily and culturally involved in Italy, so the Renaissance mentalite was transmitted to those in contact with the soliders and court members travelling back and forth.

        Cortes wasn't an insider- he was from the Extremadura.  The Extremadura is roughly analogous to being the "desert southwestern" state of Spain: hot, dry, not very fertile.   The Extremadura was conquered by the Romans, but they put up a fight- before the Romans came they were Celtic speaking people.  During the Reconquest of Spain, they were good soldiers for the Spanish monarch, but there was not a lot going on in the Extremadura, and the young men at that time did not have a whole lot of opportunity in the Courts of Europe.

       Thus, after his legal education in Salamanca, it was natural that he would gravitate towards Seville, which was solidifying it's status as the entrepot for Spain's colonial empire.  Cortes shipped out to the then-capital of new world Spain, Hispanola, where he served as an administrator.  He spent seven years on Hispanola and then moved to Cuba, where he helped subjugate the island.  During his time on Hispanola and Cuba, Conquistadors had been hitting out southward- in search of a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific.  They were also looking for Gold, but weren't having much luck.

       Cortes schemed and maneuvered to put together a little flotilla of ships with  horses, guns. cannons and men, got the Governor to agree to the expedition, and then took off before the guy changed his mind (which happened almost immediately.)  He went west from Cuba and hit the Yucatan peninsula, rested a bit, then landed on the main body of Mexico, south east of Mexico City (Tenochititlan.)   Cortes landed in the territory of a vassal people of the Aztzecs- fortunately for the Spanish they were not huge fans of the Aztecs themselves.  At this point Cortes probably figured out that a "divide and conquer" strategy a la Rome among the German/Celtic barbarians, would probably be a winner.  His hosts told him that the Tlaxcalans, who had what we would call an "autonomous ethnic homeland" within the larger Aztec empire, would make good allies.

    In fact, the Tlaxcalans thought the Spanish were some kind of Aztec trick and so they attacked the Spanish for weeks until they capitulated.  After that, the Tlaxacalans became his main Native bros.  They were independently motivated to defeat the Aztecs for the same reason that conquered people's everywhere are ripe for rebellion:  Being an Empire means your subject people are going to hate you.

    Cortes didn't actually storm into Tenochititlan and conquer- there was this strange interegnum where he and his cohort hung out inside Tenochititlan with emperor Montezuma II and pretended to be buddies.  Eventually, they heard that they were going to be killed, so they essentially kidnapped Montezuma and held him hostage inside a temple for a period of weeks.  Then they escaped, in what sounds like the bad shit craziest sequence of events in world history- replete with temporary bridges and sneaking around with an army of men in the middle of the night through the then biggest city in the world.

    After Cortes escaped, he rallied his Tlaxacalan buddies and proceeded in a circle around Tenocititlan, cutting off the Aztecs in their stronghold and either gaining allies or eliminating enemies. In what turned out to be a master stroke of genius, he built some attack boats in the mountains and carried them down to water surrounded Tenocititlan.  Montezuma II was killed during the escape from Tenochititlan and replaced by Cuatehemoc. The initial stage of the final battle was actually maritime, and here the Spanish "fleet" defeated the Aztec War Canoe's.  At this point the Aztecs were surrounded and it became a kind of Hitler in his bunker scenario with much carnage and cannibalism.  The Aztecs never lacked for spirit, but their tactics and weapons were just no match for Cortes and his combination of statecraft and warfare.

   It's fashionable to view the Spanish conquest of the New World as somehow without human agency- perhaps it's a form of cultural coping with an indubitably traumatic sequence of events, but it's very much clear that Cortes was a conqueror: That's what he did.  A Nation builder he was not but he conquered the shit out of Mexico.

  In conclusion, I would also note that the divide and conquer move is Rule #1 out of the conqueror's handbook.  It almost always worked in the past.


BOOK REVIEW

The Spanish Inquisition
by Cecil Roth
p.  1964
W.W. Norton
The Norton Library

   This is yet another book I have had kicking around for years, simply because I thought it looked like a good, durable treatment of an bona-fide interesting historical subject.  The Author is an English university Professor of Jewish descent, and the ghosts of Hitler haunt his account.   Despite the centuries long duration of the Inquisition, the numbers pale in comparison to the Holocaust.  It's a matter of 10s and 100s instead of ten thousands, hundred thousands and millions.  

      Something that the Holocaust and the Inquisition share in common is the use of genocide as a tool of state craft by nervous 20th century Dictators and 16th century Kings alike.  It just so happens that the Inquisition and Holocaust share a common victim, but it's not like Jews were the only victims of each event.  During the Inquisition, Muslims were co-sufferers, in the Holocaust, Gypsies suffered as well.   The fact is that a weak leader can strengthen his or her hand by targeting a vulnerable minority and taking all their property.   Also, Terror is useful for keeping a fractious, multi-ethnic population placid and compliant.   

   The tactic of obtaining Power by Terror extends beyond the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and beyond the West.  Your Assyrians, your Mongolians, your Turk.   The Inquisition itself was spurred by a Reconquest, of Spain, by Christian Kings against Muslim Caliphates. I was in Spain and Portugal in 2008, and as it turns out, I visited multiple locations that were used FOR CENTURIES to burn heretic Jews and Muslims. (not witches though- the Inquisition was cool about witches.)  Not that you would know it from visiting- I don't think I saw a single reference to the Inquisition in Spain or Portugal when I was there.   I would rank both those countries at somewhere in the middle of the table for "reconciling with their terrible national past."

    Ironically, the Inquisition didn't really get a bad rap until they started going after English and Dutch Protestant soldiers.  The Inquisition was also a victim of its own success, as people learned to keep their fucking mouth shut and heads down.   In fact, I think based both on my own experience there and what I've read in this and other books, the utter success of  Inquisition bears some responsibility for the mentalite of the Spanish today: haughty, close-minded, tightly-knit, orthodox.    Attempts to portray Spain as being "cool" and "forward thinking" are largely justifications put forward by 20th century Artists.

       The Inquisition had a unifying effect on the Spanish state and this method of unification had positive and negative effects.  A negative impact was killing off the smartest and most ambitious part of it's population.  A positive impact was taking all of their money and property.

   The Inquisition was not an "only in the Middle Ages" event- it lasted down to the 19th century.  As a general rule, I don't think you can judge living people based on the place where they're from, but you certainly don't get the feeling that Spain is "sorry" about the Inquisition in the same way the Germans are about the Holocaust. 

         Not to be macabre, but I think there is some interest in the role that Genocide plays in the mechanics of state craft and the emergence of the modern, legal-bureaucratic state.  The fact is that a lot of state effort goes in to legally murdering some small element of your population.  It's like the dark side of the emergence of the modern nation-state.  So, I'm not trying to justify the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust, but you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to the distinctive attributes of what it means to live in a modern nation-state.  

     It's not enough to just say "Oh this is terrible," you have to understand how these terrible events were successful from the perspective of the perpetrators.   It's like stopping crime, you can't stop crime without understanding the perspective of a criminal.   If you want to prevent events like the Holocaust and Inquisition, you have to understand why they happened. 

       Of course, the Holocaust didn't end well for the Nazis, but the Monarchs and Bishops who ran the Inquisition came out sparkling.   Total win from the perspective of the Inquisition itself.   But, I think the attribute that they share in common that can be avoided is an excessively legalistic approach to human life.  Perhaps a cautionary note where the application of the death penalty is concerned in America.

BOOK REVIEW
Biography of a Bank: The Story of Bank of America
by Marquis James and Bessie R. James
p. 1954

   One of the aspects of grad school level humanities culture that I find most amusing is studied ignorance about all things economic.  Occasional Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics style magazine articles aside, people who work in non-business related professions and non-business related academic disciplines- not to mention you average college graduate hipster, display a level of knowledge about economics equivalent to what can be placed as a caption on a Che Guevara bearing t-shirt.

  That's a pity, because the average Fortune 500 corporation is wayyyyy more important to our daily lives then the average book on 18th century British literature.  It's not really fashionable or cool to shine a bright beam of light at the history of our 20th century American Corporate Titans, but this book is one example- I literally found it in the back room of a crazy-ass cool book store in Yucca Valley, CA.

  Far from being a leftist expose of said Bank of America, Biography of a Bank is a bought and paid for hagiography of Bank of America's founder,  A.P Giannani, who is presented in this puff piece as a kind of Horatio Alger-meets-Homeric hero.  However, because it's so duecedly difficult to find ANY similar kind of narrative, interesting nuggets can't but help slip through the cracks.

    Giannani's vision of a single national bank ministering to every single US citizen has taken a starkly dystopian cast in recent calendar years.  Much of the underlying mortgage crisis and concurrent Recession/Depression, as well as the weakness of the recovery, can in some way be attributed to changes in our Banking system that would have no doubt pleased Giannani, but would also appear to this Titan of 20th century Business as a distressing development.  For example, Bank of America itself is now a national and international bank (good) headquartered in Charlotte North Carolina (bad.)

   Basically, the picture I got from Biography of A Bank is that banking is a pretty good gig but you have the Feds and State government up your butt every single minute.  In retrospect, Giannani had a lot of positive contributions to our Economy- especially in California- he was a pioneer in extending consumer credit, in funding single home mortgages, in bankrolling California based industries like Motion Pictures AND Bank of America was instrumental in financing the World War II manufacturing effort, which, more then anything, is responsible for the California we see around us today.

   Bank of America, with it's emphasis on accumulating the deposits of "the little guy" was a bank for it's time and place- California in the 20th century.  Undoubtably, decisions were made in more recent times that have damaged  BAC as it's now known on the stock exchange.  Biography of a Bank is a well written first chapter of a two chapter story.  I'm actually inclined to buy the stock at 9 dollars- seems cheap for all that tradition, even if it's tarnished.


BOOK REVIEW
Biography of a Bank: The Story of Bank of America
by Marquis James and Bessie R. James
p. 1954

   One of the aspects of grad school level humanities culture that I find most amusing is studied ignorance about all things economic.  Occasional Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics style magazine articles aside, people who work in non-business related professions and non-business related academic disciplines- not to mention you average college graduate hipster, display a level of knowledge about economics equivalent to what can be placed as a caption on a Che Guevara bearing t-shirt.

  That's a pity, because the average Fortune 500 corporation is wayyyyy more important to our daily lives then the average book on 18th century British literature.  It's not really fashionable or cool to shine a bright beam of light at the history of our 20th century American Corporate Titans, but this book is one example- I literally found it in the back room of a crazy-ass cool book store in Yucca Valley, CA.

  Far from being a leftist expose of said Bank of America, Biography of a Bank is a bought and paid for hagiography of Bank of America's founder,  A.P Giannani, who is presented in this puff piece as a kind of Horatio Alger-meets-Homeric hero.  However, because it's so duecedly difficult to find ANY similar kind of narrative, interesting nuggets can't but help slip through the cracks.

    Giannani's vision of a single national bank ministering to every single US citizen has taken a starkly dystopian cast in recent calendar years.  Much of the underlying mortgage crisis and concurrent Recession/Depression, as well as the weakness of the recovery, can in some way be attributed to changes in our Banking system that would have no doubt pleased Giannani, but would also appear to this Titan of 20th century Business as a distressing development.  For example, Bank of America itself is now a national and international bank (good) headquartered in Charlotte North Carolina (bad.)

   Basically, the picture I got from Biography of A Bank is that banking is a pretty good gig but you have the Feds and State government up your butt every single minute.  In retrospect, Giannani had a lot of positive contributions to our Economy- especially in California- he was a pioneer in extending consumer credit, in funding single home mortgages, in bankrolling California based industries like Motion Pictures AND Bank of America was instrumental in financing the World War II manufacturing effort, which, more then anything, is responsible for the California we see around us today.

   Bank of America, with it's emphasis on accumulating the deposits of "the little guy" was a bank for it's time and place- California in the 20th century.  Undoubtably, decisions were made in more recent times that have damaged  BAC as it's now known on the stock exchange.  Biography of a Bank is a well written first chapter of a two chapter story.  I'm actually inclined to buy the stock at 9 dollars- seems cheap for all that tradition, even if it's tarnished.


BOOK REVIEW
Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange From Antiquity To The Fifteenth Century
by Richard C. Foltz
p. 1999
St. Martins Press

   Central Asian history runs like an hour glass, with Genghis Khan at the center.  Under Khan, the Silk Road reached it's world-historical pinnacle, and thereafter went into decline.  The "centrality" of Central Asia in world history is a subject poorly understood in the West for a variety of reasons: inaccessibility of locations, lack of written texts and general lack of interest among the public.  I tell you, it shows- just trying to locate reasonably priced books about the history of Central Asia, let alone specialized subjects like archeology or linguistics, is near impossible.

   This book, on the other hand, was reasonably priced, though my hopes of finding a reservoir of reasonably priced tomes on the subject was dashed by bibliographical sources like the Bulletin of the Asia Institute.

  A big part of Central Asian history BEFORE Genghis Khan is the subject of this book, "religions of the silk road."  Central Asia was poly-ethnic, religious and linguistic from Ancient times.  The two main ethnic/linguistic groupings of Central Asia are Iranian and Turkic, with the Iranian speakers being more likely to be farmers, and the Turks more likely to be herders/nomads.

  At the beginning of the historic period- i.e. the Persian Empire, you can imagine a game board with two rows of three space each, different types of Iranians fill in the bottom spaces, and then a mix of Iranian speaking nomads and Turkic speaking nomads fill the top spaces- the northern part of Central Asia- modern Kazakhstan more or less.

  The Persians pushed their state sponsored version of Zoroastrianism out to the non Persian Iranian speaking people with some success, then Alexander came along, conquered the Persian Empire and wound up leaving Indo-Greek successor states among areas occupied by Iranian-speaking, non-Persian pastoralists.  Around the same time, Buddhist missionaries made a concerted effort to convert the people of Central Asia, and they met with great success in the Oasis of the Tarim Basin.

   After Alexander's Empire dissipated, Zorastrianism reasserted itself in the new Persian Empire.  This was a fertile land for the spread of Christianity, as well as the spawning ground for the weird faith of Manicheanism ("Mani-ism") of which most Authors of Central Asia find fascinating.   All this interesting  history sets the stage for the Muslim/Islamic conquering of Persia/Iran and the Central Asian littoral.  The Muslim invasion of Persian in the 8th century is a topic that is not discussed enough.  Talk about a traumatic defeat!  After Islam established it's control in the heart of the Persian Empire, the non-Muslim people pushed out along the silk road to the East, so that pockets of pre-Muslim religions maintained their existence as far East as China into the modern period.

   My sense is that the author has some inclination to say something important about the transmission of culture across time and distance, but he stops short on the threshold, and the entire book is barely 150 pages long.

   The Islamizing Process did not end with Genghis Khan, indeed, the Khanate was a tolerant place, but the remaining non converted tribes, mostly Turkic speaking people, either adopted Islam as a conquerers religion (Tamerlane) or because they were late to the party and "everyone else was doing it." (the Khazaks and Kyrgyz in the 16th and 17th centuries.)

   Central Asia becomes less interesting as history moves past the 14th-15th century.  It's significantly less interesting in the 16th century, and actually in relative and actual decline by the 17th, all the way up to today, where the situation shows little hope of improvement.

   One interesting note is that Central Asia was in ferment in the 7th, 8th and 9th century- a time of absolute darkness in Europe- and there were traders who went all the way from Gaul to Central Asia in pursuit of Slaves for European markets.  Even after the Muslim conquest of Persia, Central Asia served as a sort of repository for people "on the run" and it's not hard to imagine some of them heading west, like the barbarian tribesmen who had come west five centuries earlier as part of the Hunnic Horde. Europe in the Ninth century might have been pretty sedate for a Nestorian Christian monk from Mesopotamia.  It's hard to imagine that there WASN'T a whole lot of cultural transmission going on between one place and the other.


OOK REVIEW
The Pleasures of the Imagination:
English Culture in the 18th Century
by John Brewer
p.  1997
Farar Straus Giroux

   It's simply a fact that English Culture in the 18th century created our modern ideas about Art and Artists.  The 18th century is the time in which the idea of "high art" developed, the time when the modern traditions of literature, art and theater were established, and, most importantly, the time in which wide swathes of people in England gained the time and money to indulgence their fondness for "leisure."

   Recognizing the 18th century as an important time in the development of modern art is one thing, understanding the role it actually played is quite another.  Critical perspectives on the 18th century are often shaped by later developments distorting the vision of the critic- most especially the Romantic inspired cult of Artist as genius, and 19th century Marxism.  Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination serves as a stern, contemporary refutation of many mushy headed ideas about the development of Art in Modern society.

   Brewer's method is to survey 18th century developments in the Arts, in England and tie them to pre-existing and developing institutions in order to demonstrate what came before the explosion in Artistic activity during the 18th century.  The main sections of Pleasures deal with the rise of the novel, the development of 18th century painting, and the arts of "public performance": theater, opera and concert music.  After his survey of artisitic development in the 18th century, Brewer turns to the relationship between the center and it's periphery (London and the other area of England) in order to show the way in which "city culture" developed outside of the city.

  Perhaps the theme from Pleasures that would be most astonishing to readers of this blog (or perhaps not astonishing at all) is the manner in which, in all art forms, the AUDIENCE preceded the ARTIST.  Take the novel- a 18th century English invention if ever there was one.  Literature existed in 17th century England, but the novel did not.  What happened?  Well, at the end of the 17th century in London, there were people who made their living printing and selling books- let's call them "booksellers"- there were also people who made their living writing- let's call them "hacks."  During the first part of the 18th century, there was explosive growth in the population of London itself, and a corresponding rise in demand for printed matter: sermons, almanacs, information about public affairs, poetry.

   The early novel writers were ALREADY involved in the world of literature.  For example, Brewers uses Samuel Richardson, who might well, along with Daniel DeFoe might be considered the "inventor" of the novel.  Richardson was a succesful printer, who wrote his first novel at the age of 50.  The result, Pamela, was a work that Richardson knew there was an audience for- he knew because he made books for them.  Likewise, DeFoe was what you would call a "hack" and his early novel's were sensational in the vein of the criminal biographies and adventure narratives that people were already buying.

  Thus the novel, at it's very inception, was perceived as something that people should want to buy, and the audience for the novel already existed- they were just buying other forms of literature.  Once the value in the novel as a new form of literature was perceived by writers, they wasted no time establishing a secondary body of literature that we call "criticism."  Most of this criticism happened among writers themselves, with an uneasy and unclear relationship to the larger, buying, "public."  This pattern of development- happening early in the 18th century- was to occur again and again through the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

    Certainly, painting offers an even broader, more distinct example of Audience preceding Artist.  At the beginning of the 18th century, painting was something that, for Englishmen, happened in Italy, two hundred years ago.  Contemporary English painters were of little regard, and they were certainly not the peoe ple who decided what painting was worthwhile.  This task- the task of discrimination and of what we call "taste" was the province of the "connessiour" and later, the "collector."  Beginning in the 18th century, more and more wealthy English gentleman (and fewer ladies) took the Grand Tour, where they travelled to Italy with the express purpose of cultivating their artistic tastes.

   They returned to England, and acting like the powerful players in Society they actually were, went about disseminating their views about Painting in private and in public.  This took the form of clubs, journals and partnerships with the government to share their taste with the population.  All of this activity only gradually let to domestic painting being recognized as "worthy" on a level with the Renaissance masters, and even by the end of the 18th century, it was a battle that was far from over.  18th century painting is an example of an at times artist-less Audience and it provides a neat counter example to the more common pattern of working artists developing a new artisitc genre for an existing Audience.

    Finally, Brewer comes to the "performing" arts- Theater, Opera and Concert Music. Here, the argument of Audience preceding Artist is easy to make, simply based on the manner in which these forms were slaves to Audience opinion (even, when in the case of Opera, the audience was an audience of one: The King of England.)  Indeed, the great successes of 18th century theater and concert music were men (Garrick and Handel) who created works of art that had huge secondary associations among the wider population.  Garrick was the man who created the "cult" of Shakespeare, Handel the man who created the music for 18th century church going Britons.

  In all areas, the idea of the detached Aritst, living apart from society in some sort of self-imposed isolation is showng to be a false ideas propogated by romantic theorists of the 18th and 19th century.  False then, false now- without the Audience, Artists don't exist.

BOOK REVIEW
Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture
by William Barlow
p. 1989
Temple University Press


   The story of the Blues is interesting on a number of levels that have nothing to do with the fact that most white rock and rollers trace large portions of their style, music and performance on the Blues.  First, the Blues are interesting because it was one of the modern musical forms that emerged in tandem with the invention of phonograph.  Second, Blues are interesting because there was a thirty year gap between the first artistic and cultural flourishing of the Blues and the appreciation of that flourishing by the music industry, music consumers and music intellectuals.

   Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture is a well rounded look at the historical facts that trace the emergence of Blues as a genre.  The bare facts of that emergence should be known to almost all modern music fans: After the Civil War white planters moved into the area south of Memphis and cleared huge areas for cotton plantations.   Slavery was now unconstitutional, but Delta planters still used African Americans for field labor, and those laborers were kept in a state of quasi-slavery. BUT- and this was important- the economic circumstances of the Delta area meant that African American field laborers did pretty ok by the standards of the time, and there was mobility- the spread of plantation agriculture meant that labor was always in demand.

   From this new found mobility and relative economic well being, musicians were able to travel between plantations and ply their art form.  What is funny, and this is a fact that Barlow gives short shrift to, is that we probably wouldn't know ANYTHING about the Blues without the records that were released in the 20s and 30s.  This is because of the 30 year gap between the blues recordings of the 20s and 30s and the post World War II blues revival.  Basically, all Blues history consists of people listening to 30-50 year old recordings and then trying to reconstruct how it went down.  Make no mistake, Blues records sold before the Great Depression laid waste to the record business, but white intellectuals didn't hail Blues as a major new art form.  The records came out, black people bought most of them, and then everyone forgot about the Blues until after World War II.

     After World War II academics, intellectuals and fans wrote the history of blues based on the recordings.  From the recordings, these interested individuals were able to go back and locate the still living musicians and from there locate and name artists who either didn't record or whose recordings were "lost" from lack of attention.

  Most of the institutions that supported the spread of blues between 1890 and 1933 were either criminally owned night clubs, gambling dens, houses of prostitution or some combination.  Once the Blues became "known" outside of its historic home in the Mississippi Delta and East Texas, it spread via traveling musicians- generally moving in a band between Atlanta to Chicago, hotspots being Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.

   By the onset of the Great Depression, Blues had established itself as a down market alternative to Jazz, though with little of the white interest and critical acclaim that jazz generated.  And then... nothing.  No records, no books about blues- nothing- until the close of World War II. 


BOOK REVIEW
The Roots of Texas Music
edited by Lawrence Clayton and Joe Specht
Texas A & M University Press
p. 2003

  I think there is a fair amount of condescension about Texas in the Indie Music nation.  People living within the orbit of New York and Chicago tend to limit their definition of "cool" to those cities while making the occasional exception to representatives from the West Coast.  Outside of SXSW, most bands touring between the East and West Coast play maybe one or two dates in Texas, tops.   But uh, Texas has 25 million people and if you add that with California (37 million) you have just about 1 in every 6 U.S. citizens.  Unlike the other parts of the country, you can tour this territory year round, limit your dead zone to Arizona + New Mexico and skip the drama (and hard judging, and expenses of NYC.)

  The indie rock infrastructure in Texas markets like Dallas and Houston has grown to a level similar to that in smaller west coast markets like San Diego and Portland- this gives the touring band a strong thursday/friday/saturday segment to anchor the Texas leg of a tour.

  Despite popular conception, Texas has long been a fertile location for American music, as The Roots of Texas Music convincingly demonstrates.   Texas played a decisive role in the development of Blues and Country music in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as Blacks and White migrated from the East looking for work in the oil boom of the first part of the 20th century.  Texas's infamous criminal justice system was a direct inspiration for many of the classic Blues recordings and Blind Lemon Jefferson, by virtue of his early recordings, may be the most influential blues artist of all times.

  In the world of Country music ("Country and Western"= Western equals "Texas") Texas was key in developing the "honky tonk" song, with the now familiar tales of hard living that characterize much of the lyrical content of today's Nashville sound.  Texas was also the spawning ground for the "outlaw country" of Austin and the "bakersfield sound' of Buck Owens (born in Texas.)  Much of the country music produced in California was created by Texas immigrants.

  And of course, Texas played it's part in the rock and roll revolution.  Wolfman Jack broadcasted into Texas from a Mexican radio station across the border, and of course Buddy Holly came from Texas.

  So, it seems to me- if you are an Artist at a "DIY" level, and living somewhere between Seattle and Houston you're better off working the area between Texas and California- even outside of SXSW- then racing to get to New York City and wasting the opportunity.  When the time is right for New York City- you'll know.


BOOK REVIEW
Deep Blues
by Robert Palmer
p. 1981
Penguin Press

      Before I get started- a recent post of mine inspired some minor controversy on a social media website, and I'm not going to get into it, but generally, the point of view of this blog is meant to be difficult to understand, and describing my writing as "post-post-modern" or "sarcastic" shows that the person making that statement is pretty dumb and specifically DOESN'T understand my blog: My blog is neither post-modern nor sarcastic.  Saying that a specific blog post is "cryptic" or "confusing" is appropriate, and intended on my part.

    I've been reading about the Blues lately, Robert Palmer's 1989 opus Deep Blues comes highly recommended (Cover Blurb: "A lucid..entrancing study. - Greil Marcus.") and the fact that my mass market copy is in its tenth printing and is itself twenty years old is a testament to Deep Blues being a very successful book about the Blues, indeed.  The super-header to Deep Blues is "A Music And Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta"that super-header tells you all you need to know about where Palmer is coming from: He takes the Blues seriously and writes from a point of time well after Blues had been revived and adopted as a primary influence by million copy selling rock bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s (and 90s, and 00s and forever as long as rock existed as a popular music genre.)

    Palmer is participating in what Lawrence Levine described as "the sacralization of culture" in his pioneering work of cultural history, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.  The sacralization of culture is the process by which religious concepts are transferred to non-religious art forms so that the Art form becomes a new type of religion, with people who appreciate that art form becoming "believers" and people who don't appreciate the art form becoming "non-believers."  The sacralization of culture is a process at the heart of the opposing concepts of High Brow and Low Brow, and Deep Blues was actually published a year before Highbrow/Lowbrow, so Palmer must be forgiven his ignorance.

   The sacralization of blues was achieved only in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Blues emerged as a distinct art form only in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Importantly, Blues was one of the first new musical genres to emerge AFTER the invention of the phonograph and the associated playback technology.
 
      This is an important point, particularly in light of the fact that for 30 years after the emergence of Blues, it was widely considered "low culture" unworthy of the sacralizing treatment being given to Opera, Symphonic and even Marching Band music recordings from the same period.  The generational gap between Blues actually happening and the sacralization process being applied is what I would call the original sin of popular cultural studies.  Specifically, that while the entire intellectual universe of popular culture studies emerged in the middle part of the twentieth century, it steadfastly ignored one of the most artistically significant music genres of the middle part of the twentieth century.

    When it comes to the impact of recording technology on the Blues, Palmer adheres to a the conventional viewpoint of a sacralizer of culture: Records and Records Company are something between a necessary evil and a blood sucking parasite.  At the same time, many of Palmer's primary sources are interviews conducted in the 1960s and later by writers and intellectuals who traced the history of Blues with recordings that had been neglected for a generation.

   Does this sound familiar?  It certainly should to listeners and artists who perform "indie" music in the present day.   This dynamic of the 60s Blues revival, with both commercial and intellectual aspects: rooted in the recording technology that allowed this music to survive among communities of Artists and small audiences for 30 years, is something that lays at the heart of every indie band/label trying to produce music today.

   I certainly don't need to list any of the numerous post-punk cycles that ape this original Blues revival sacralization, but the original process- what happened to Blues, is the cycle that is most interesting.  A major move in the Blues specific sacralization process is the listing of pre-American African influences on the Blues.  Palmer fairly represents a state of the art take on this theme in Deep Blues- you get analysis of West and East African vocal and instrumental traditions.

   As Palmer moves closer to the roots of Blues, he appropriately talks about the social and economic conditions of the Mississippi Delta area, noting the fact that the Delta was a newly settled area, and after the Civil War it had a great deal of (relative) social and economic mobility.  That was also the case in the other geographic area where the Blues emerged: East Texas.  There, the petroleum industry provided a spur to African American migration and economic prosperity.

     In both the Delta and East Texas, writing about the Blues BEFORE recordings started being made is pretty impossible, because few people- Artists, writers, etc were paying attention.  In fact, I would wager that 95% of the pre-recording information about the Blues is derived from interviews of Blues Artists that took place 30-50 years AFTER the recordings themselves were made.

   This generational gap between the emergence of blues and the appreciation/sacralization of the blues is a phenomenon sorely in need of an explanation, but you won't find it in Deep Blues.  I have an explanation that I have derived from reading Highbrow/LowbrowDeep Blues and Looking Up At Down.   My thesis is that recording technology allowed Artists and Audiences to become self-conscious outside of the process of sacralization.  In fact, recording technology, and specifically the shellac/vinyl 78/33/45 record is at the heart of a process of culture creation that has particular power at the "Low" end of the High-brow/Low-brow continuum.

  For relatively well off but often illiterate African Americans living in the time between the invention of the phonograph and the beginning of the great depression, Blues records were a powerful cultural transmitter.  Before the Great Depression,  Blues Artists derived little financial benefit from recorded music, but the records were sought after by the artistic community itself, and helped create demand for Artists in other communities.  Almost all of the Blues artists interviewed in Deep Blues describe the process by which they learned about developments in their own art form- by a combination of listening to early blues records and seeing the artists perform.  The recordings created a consciousness among the Artists and Audiences that had been previously lacking.

    This a process that would be replicated among teenagers during the first flourishing of rock and roll, a period where emerging Artists were able to successfully assimilate both what they had seen live with what they had heard on recordings.  Like the Blues, it is unlikely to impossible that Rock and Roll would have emerged without recording technology creating a shared consciousness between Artists and Audiences.

   The creation and improvement of the phonograph qualitatively changed the relationship between Artist, Audience and Critics.  Specifically, it allowed economic success (number of sales) to replace artistic success (via critical approval) as a value criterion.  Recordings allowed specific Artists to persevere entirely outside of the realm of critical approval by creating a long term Audience for live performance.  After the Depression, World War II and thirty years of critical ignorance, recordings allowed Blues to be "revived" by white intellectuals and musicians.

  The positions of the contemporary Indie Rock Artist is exactly that of the Bluesman between 1933-1945, only instead of the twin shocks of the Great Depression and World War II we have the MP3/Streaming formats and our own recent Housing Bubble Recession.  It was 20-30 years in the wilderness, and the revival came too late for most of the original Artists, but Blues came back and today it's an integral part of Popular Music.  There are books like this one, indie labels like Fat Possum, and Artists like Eric Clapton are Knights of the British Realm.  Things worked out OK for the Blues, once it got sacralized, but the length of the time that the process took is proof that the critics who were developing modernist art theory had gaping holes in their field of vision.


BOOK REVIEW
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T.J. Stiles
p. 2009/paperback 2010
Vintage  Books

    The Vanderbilt family, to a certain degree, defines America.  Not only is there the founder and business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, there are all his descendants, down to Anderson Cooper (son of Gloria Vanderbilt) today.  Stiles 2009 biography of Vanderbilt was a certified hit, winning a National Book Award and meriting a classy paperback edition, the version I read.  I don't often criticize the manufacture of a book, but this one actually fell apart when I was reading it, something that never happens, and it has to be because the spine of the paperback book was poorly designed/manufactured.  I don't think you need to include all the ancillary material if you are doing a paperback version, that's all I'm saying.

   Throughout The First Tycoon, I was reminded of two other books: Alfred Chandlers, The Managerial Revolution and Alan Trachtenburg's, The Incorporation of America.  The former title describes, factually, how the American economy was changed in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th.  The later title describes how that change influenced American Culture and Way-of-life.

   Corneilus Vanderbilt stands astride both the change itself and the way this change effected everyone, since he was either the first or one of the first men to obtain Wealth and Fortune from his mastery of this new, corporate, way of life.  He also did, indeed, live an Epic life, born during the Presidency of George Washington, he lived to do business with John Rockefeller- truly bridging the time span of several life times. Vanderbilt's life unfolds like a three act play:

  ACT ONE:  BIRTH - LOCAL STEAM BOAT MAGNATE
ACT TWO:   EXPANSION- CENTRAL AMERICAN ADVENTURES
ACT THREE: RAILROAD KING

    Vanderbilt got his start in the Dutch populated farming villages on the islands off of New York City.  His father worked by ferrying agricultural products from Staten Island and it's environs to New York City.  Vanderbilt followed in his father's footsteps.  As a young "Merchant" Vanderbilt was on the ground when the Steam Boat arrived, and he was quick to combine his already existent knowledge about the shipping/ferrying business with the new technology.

   Vanderbilt's Steam Boat enterprise was not a modern business corporation, nor was the country ready for that step.  Corporations were very limited by the state- requiring separate charters and limited life times and purpose.  Despite lacking modern business structure, Vanderbilt developed a business that had many of the characteristics of the modern business corporation: it was large, spread out and delegated decision making power to local employees.

  At the Dawn of Act 2, the reader can imagine a scene from the discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill outside of Sacramento.  The California Gold Rush was a major impetus for people to want to take Steam ships.  Despite popular perception, most people got to California by taking a Steam Boat down to Central America, crossing and then picking up another Steam Boat on the other side.  Vanderbilt's life ended before the Panama Canal was built,  but he saw the California traffic as "the future" and spend the time between 1850 and 60 in a series of baroque political/military adventures in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

  Ultimately, Vanderbilt abandoned Central America and it's ceaseless turmoil.  He was helped towards this decision by the Civil War, which Vanderbilt participated in by giving his biggest steam boat to the Union for sub-hunting duty.  It was probably during the Civil War that Vanderbilt began to take on his mythic proportions in the minds of the American Public.

  During the Civil War, Vanderbilt got heavy into Railroads.  Railroads had existed for thirty years but they were kind of a mess from a business perspective, in that the owners would regularly play games with the stock and the capital in an attempt to benefit themselves.  Insider trading was not illegal at this time, so much of early "BIG BUSINESS" reads like the machinations of English Dukes during the War of the Roses.  Very few people had the strength and clarity of vision to develop the type of Railroads that did develop, and which now appear inevitable to the modern eye.

   Vanderbilt had the vision, and the money to implement it.  His big move was buying the Harlem Railroad, which had the benefit of being the only line that had track leading to downtown Manhattan.  On Railroad land he built Grand Central Station.  In the post Civil War era he engaged in a series of high finance shenanigans, often for no grander reason then spite.  As you would expect in a biography of Vanderbilt, he comes out better then his adversaries, but it's hard not to see a bit of the Simpson's Montgomery Burns in his elaborate financially based plots of revenge.

   Vanderbilt lived and was healthy long enough to conspire with John Rockefeller and Standard Oil in the late 19th century.  It's there that you can really see the outlines of "CORPORATE AMERICA" in grand, fully sketched out form.  Throughout The First Tycoon, Stiles shows a firm and capable hand deploying primary and secondary sources.  He is surely writing from the Corporate Appreciation school pioneered by Chandler, but he is versed enough to recognize the counter-thesis embodied in Trachtenberg's Incorporation of America.


  Much of the middle section involving Central America is less relevant to the modern reader.  Presumably one doesn't need to learn about American involvement in Central American politics in the 19th century from a popular biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, but if you do it's eye opening but not central.  Perhaps the one attitude that truly differentiates Vanderbilt from his successors is his utter lack of interest in the West past Chicago.  Despite the fact that he ran shipping lines to California, he never went there.  He never traveled between Chicago and California.  He was a man of the North East.

BOOK REVIEW
Popular Culture & High Culture
by Herbert J. Gans
"AN ANALYSIS AND EVALUATION OF TASTE"
p. 1974
Revised & Updated Edition p. 1999

  This book is a culture studies classic-but dated.  The attempt to update a quintessentially out-of-date book comes off badly, particularly since the time of the update is just before the internet brought about the hypothetical possible scenarios postulated by a generation of social scientists raised in the mass-media hey day of the 50s and 60s.

  Understanding Gans' approach in POPULAR CULTURE & HIGH CULTURE requires understanding the situation that Gans was addressing in 1974.  The problem is that the conclusive statement of the high culture/low culture/popular culture divide- Lawrence Levine's, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, was not published until 1988.  Gans is trying to do this very 70s thing of turning an essentially non-scientific analysis into a quasi-scientific analysis.  Useful for the organizational schematic, it sucks as a guide for actual scientific endeavor, because applying science to taste is impossible.

  In Popular Culture & High Culture, Gans identifies the key insight of the breakdown between high/low- that different people have different tastes and they are all fine and good as long as they 'function' for the Audience member.   Unfortunately Gans makes the now cringe-worthy move of constantly talking about people based on their membership in these, huge, vague, groups- "High Culture" publics/audiences vs. "Low Culture" equivalents- even as he makes a valiant effort to defend Low/Popular Culture, he continues to abide by the distinctions imposed by the "cultural hierarchy" described by Levine.

      The fact is, talking about taste means talking about art, and taking about art requires criticism and philosophy not analytic schematics and science experiments.   The main mistake that Gans, and this whole category of 70s era popular culture academics make is that they don't talk about specific ARTISTS/CREATORS and their specific relationship with their specific Audience.   All "taste" is simply shared opinions of Audiences about specific Art/Cultural Products and their creators.   This audience fragmentation may not have been clear during the years when a tv show could draw 70 million viewers, but it's clear now.  "Taste" can't be described in terms of "high" and "low" because no one sees the world that way (outside of academics.)







Blog Archive