Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 08, 2011





Monday, December 05, 2011


Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture
by Eric L. Jones
p. 2006
Princeton University Press
The Princeton Economic History of the Western World, Joel Mokyr, Series Editor

  I almost certainly read this book because it references Tyler Cowen's In Praise of Commercial Culture, with the same level of respect & admiration that I feel for the same work.  I ordered it on September 28th of this year, and I already finished it- pretty good turn around time, shows I'm interested in the subject matter which is best described as.... I would say a history of ideas.  A cross-disclipinary work, though it's hard to ignore its inclusion in the Princeton Economic History of the Western World series.

  That series features heavy, heavy titles like, Quarter Notes & Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the Eighteenth and Ninteenth Century, by F.M. Scherer.  And who could forget the immortal classic by Timothy W. Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914.   That's SNOOZE CITY, BAYBAY.

  Unlike some of the tedious sounding titles that share the Princeton Economic History of the Western World designation, Cultures Merging is a breezy little book, without so much as end notes (foot notes, often to news publications, dot the text in an unobtrusive fashion.  The fact that the Author, Eric L. Jones, has read Cowen's work is key, key, key to animating Cultures Merging.

  Whereas Cowen is very mild about the implications of his argument in Praise, Jones is less so:

    In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998) came as a shock to conventional anti-market wisdom.  Cowen demonstrates that government agencies and public monies are not essential to creating an active and original world of the arts.
   Some of his most intriguing observations are directed at the way individuals form their taste, devise their judgment, and erect their (mis)perceptions about cultural products.

   However, Jones' restatement of the positive impact the Market has on artistic creativity is worth noting, "Markets relax the constraints on internal creativity.  The great thing is to evade single buyers- patrons or Arts Councils- since these are likely to cramp one's style, like that of poor Velasquez, who had to paint eight-one portraits of Philip IV."  Cultures Merging is appropriately sub-titled as a "Critique" of the meaning & impact of Culture, but it's a sensitive, well-reasoned critique that was obviously to sophisticated for the public to grasp.

  All I'm saying is that you take Cowen's critique and then add Jones' stuff and rename it "The Psychology of Culture" instead of trying to pitch it as history or economics. Truly no one gives a shit about history (unless it's the Civil War or World War II) and truly, truly, no one gives a shit about economics, but psychology books are all over the place, and selling.

Zombie Apocalypse As Literary Genre

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
p.  2006

Brad Pitt in World War Z

  I think you could make an argument that Max Brooks and his Zombie Survival Guide deserve credit for single-handedly kick-started the surge in Zombie related literature and popular culture.  The Zombie Survival Guide was published in 2003, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, was published by the same author, Max Brooks, in 2006, and continues, in its airport novel edition, to sell strongly- #230 in books overall and in the 10 ten in three different sub-categories of "Horror" over there at Amazon.

  Clearly, the Zombie is a metaphor for contemporary alienation and economic anxiety that is perfectly- PERFECTLY- in tune with the mood of this country over the last five years.  When will our fascination with Zombies end?  Probably when the economic climate improves.  The role of "horror" in literary and genre fiction is as old as novels themselves- Gothicism was one of the first identifiable stylistic trends in the Novel itself.

   However to call World War Z a "novel" is to do it a wee bit too much justice, I think.  World War Z is more like a property, in the same way that the preceding Zombie Survival Guide was something you bought at Urban Outfitters...not Waldenbooks.   World War Z takes the form of an "oral history" a format familiar to readers of such magazines as Spin and Esquire.  The writing is casual to the point of detracting from the over-all merit of the work, but no one is very much concerned with critical acclaim.

   The airport novel version I read was released in September of this year, so you can see a long gestation period at work between initial publication and full-on hit-for-the-ages status- which is where World War Z is right now- five years between initial publication and version suitable for sales in our nations airports and hotel gift shops.   If I was going to right an airport Zombie novel, I would festishize the locations and clip around the world, but keep the focus on one central Zombie Killer- a special forces type or post-apocalyptic anti-hero.

  Historically, the Zombie film was all about the claustrophobia and solitude that budgetary limitations dicatated.  Half a century on, the Zombie novel has merged with the post-Apocalypse fantasy genre, but its appeal in an era of anxiety is all too obvious.  My sense is that World War Z was a hit, first of all because it was published in 2006- after his own 2003 Zombie Survival Guide raised interest levels, but way before The Passage, Zone One, 28 Days Later, etc.  Brooks was first on the ground with the expansive combination of Zombies/Apocalypse.

  Brooks is not much of a prose stylist- both Cronin's The Passage and Whitehead's Zone One run circles around Brooks clumsy magazine speak, but Brooks is laughing all the way to the bank, and considering the gap of time that elapsed between World War Z being released, and the subsequent timing of the books by Cronin and Whitehead, you could argue that they were directly inspired by the success of World War Z.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


Champlain's Dream: The European Founding of North America
by David Hackett Fischer
p.  2008
Simon & Schuster

  I don't know if there are more then a handful of history professors who can swagger into the office of a major US publishing company and say, "Seven hundred page biography of the french dude who founded "New France" in the 17th Century... with about 20 color prints... GO!"

  But the fact that Champlain's Dream exists is a testament to the weight that David Hackett Fischer carries in the academic/popular publishing industry.  For example, his last couple forays into historical biography concerned what I would call two "red meat" subjects for American History fans: Washington's Crossing (2006) (Part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series) and Paul Revere's Ride(1995).

  Those are the type of subjects that move units in non-fiction publishing, as witnessed by their continuing sales strength. (1)  On the other hand Champlain's Dream is about a French guy from the 17th century, which is way, way, way outside of the interest field for most of the people who would pick up Paul Revere's Ride paperback at the local Barnes and Noble.

  The fact that Fischer chose to write this book is a testament to his strength as an intellectual.  An effective purveyor of ideas is someone who conveys those ideas to an audience forcefully and with style, and by both measures, Fischer has to be one of the primary operators in the field of academic history.  In this book, Fischer doesn't just write a 500 page biography of the man, he provides a 50 page Appendix concerning the 400 year  historiography of books about Champlain and another fifty pages of End Notes citing many of the books discussed in the historiography appendix.

   Throughout Champlain's Dream Fischer shows himself at the top of his game: combining an understanding of narrow technical literature with an interesting ethical perspective and a mesmerizing command of narrative.    Fischer's break out hit was 1989's, Albion's Seed.  Albion's Seed persuasively described colonial America as the combining of several regional cultures with their roots in different geographic parts of England.   Champlain's Dream represents a kind of extension of those themes into Canada.   Champlain's Dream is different from Albion's Seed in that the technical discussion is cloaked in what is putatively supposed to be a straight-forward biography of  a Canadian "Founding Father."

   Towards the end of this 500 page plus biography, Fischer describes the result of Champlain's Dream as the creation of 3 francophone cultures,  Quebecois, Acadian and Metis.   The Quebecois are the main-line French settlement line, the Acadian's were originally in the coastal area of Canada, the east coast, and they were more from South Western France- and ended up migrating into Louisiana (Cajuns.)

  Finally, and most intriguingly, there are the Metis, a combination of French and Indian cultures, language and customs.  This is a culture that is less studied/understood then the other two- and they were certainly hanging out on the Great Plains and Great Lakes period for the first couple centuries of the United States.  It's fair to say that the Metis have gotten the shaft from American historians.  

  Champlain himself shows many admirable qualities, particularly in his relationship with Native Peoples.  New France was a disease free, almost conflict free oasis in North American for at least a century and Champlain deserves that credit.


(1)  For example, Washington's Crossing, published 2006, is 17,000 over-all in "books," #11 in the sub-sub-category of "Books About George Washington," and #40 in History/Americas/United States/Founding Fathers.  Paul Revere's ride is 40,000 over all and #45 in that same Founding Fathers sub-category.

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