An American Editor

May 25, 2011

On Books: Hearts Touched by Fire

A few days ago I was in my local Barnes & Noble checking out new nonfiction books. I came across Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer. This book is different from other books in many ways (not least of which is its size — 1230 pages), and one of those differences is what drew me to it. (It is available in both hardcover and as an ebook, and is one of the few new releases I have seen where the ebook is actually less expensive than the hardcover.)

Let me say upfront that I have not read the book in its entirety. I have read snippets. Yet let me explain what this book is and why it is worth buying for anyone interested in the U.S. Civil War.

In July 1883, on the twentieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, the 19th century magazine, The Century Magazine, entertained an argument regarding which was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Opinions differed and the discussion led to this: Why not invite Confederate and Union generals, or if dead someone who could speak for/from the dead general’s view, to write articles about various battles from their own perspectives. For example, getting the perspective from both sides of the battle for Fort Sumter, which is recognized as the opening battle of the Civil War.

Apparently the magazine had great success with this concept, as it led to the publication of a 4-volume set titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Hearts Touched by Fire is an edited and merged-into-a-single-volume version of that 4-volume set.

Hearts Touched by Fire also adds to the discussions year-by-year introductions written by eminent Civil War historians such as James McPherson and Craig Symonds. I’m sure there are other books of a similar structure, but none that I am aware of for the Civil War. It is fascinating to read the differing perspectives of, for example, the first battle of Bull Run written by P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnson. Ever wonder what the common soldier thought? The volume includes “Going to the Front: Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss.

If you are interested in the U.S. Civil War, Hearts Touched by Fire can provide unique insights into the thinking of each side. I highly recommend the book.

May 18, 2011

On Books: Honor Killing & The Thousand Autumns

This time it is a two-for-one review: one nonfiction, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard, and one fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Let’s begin with Honor Killing.

In the annals of American jurisprudence, one lawyer stands above all other lawyers in popular mythology: Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the most successful and popular lawyer of the 20th century. Every move he made was followed by national press. His legal exploits covered the gamut of supertrials, including the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of a cousin, in which Darrow’s clients pleaded guilty and he spoke for several days to save them from the death penalty. Darrow was also noted for representing union members at a time when union busting was a government policy. And he was most famous for defending the Tennessee school teacher, Scopes, in what was billed as the trial of the century — the great Monkey Trial of evolution vs. creationism in which his opponent was the great orator William Jennings Bryan.

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard discusses Darrow’s last major case. Darrow was desperate for money, having lost his fortune in the bad investments and the collapse of the stock market, and so when he was approached in his retirement to defend Thalia Massie in Hawaii, he hemmed, he hawed, he accepted.

Thalia Massie was the daughter of penniless socialites who lived off the charity of relatives. But a socialite she was. And she was married to a U.S. Navy officer. The incident occurred in 1931 Hawaii. On the U.S. mainland, also in 1931, the racial prejudice was directed against blacks and an accusation of assaulting and raping 2 white women was made against 9 young black men, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys. In Hawaii, the prejudice was against the native Hawaiians, by the oligarchs who controlled the economy and by the U.S. Navy.

Until I read Honor Killing, I admit I was unaware of the extent and depth of the prejudice against the Hawaiians. Honor Killing was an eye opener. The Massie trial was the culmination of a concerted effort by the white community to convict a group of native Hawaiians of raping Thalia Massie, a rape that never occurred, and the killing of one of the Hawaiians when a conviction was not gotten. Darrow was hired to represent the whites in the murder trial.

Honor Killing is a well-researched and well-written book. For my taste, too much time was spent by the author laying out the social, political, and economic environment in which the trials were held, but that was not enough to deter me from enjoying the book. Essentially, the attempt by the white community to convict the Hawaiians was largely politically motivated and was the Hawaiian Scottsboro Boys trial. Although the prosecution of the Hawaiian defendants preceded the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, you could easily substitute the participants in one trial for the participants in the other.

Honor Killing is a 5-star book and worth reading to get a better understanding of how racial prejudice in the early decades of the 20th century manifested itself and the expectations of the white citizens to be believed even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. As one person noted, evidence doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet takes us to late 18th century/early 19th century Japan and the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. At first I had trouble with the writing style, but after spending 15 minutes reading the novel, the style grew on me — so much so that I had difficulty putting down the book. Jacob De Zoet is one of the best novels published by one of the Agency 6 (Random House) I have read in years.

The story takes place in Dejima, which is the location of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor. De Zoet is a young man who has agreed to give 5 years of his life to the Dutch East India Trading Company in hopes of making his fortune and being able to return to The Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. The story is about his rise and fall, along with the rise and fall of Dejima and the Dutch East India Company, between 1799 and 1801.

The book provides an insight into Japan’s self-imposed insularity and the how Japanese society functioned at the time. In addition, it well illustrates the European attitude toward Asians.

The cast of characters is varied, covering the spectrum of who one may well have encountered at the time. De Zoet’s original plans are altered, however, after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is also a pupil, by special dispensation, of Dr. Marinus, who is part of the Dejima personnel. This encounter changes everything for De Zoet and ability and inability to deal with the intrigue and social customs that surround him forms the basis of the story.

Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction at its best. This, too, is a 5-star book and one worth spending the inflated price that has been artificially set as a result of the agency pricing scheme. It has been my policy not to buy Agency 6 ebooks except for rare instances, and this was one of those rare instances. I made the plunge because of the many positive remarks the book generated on an ebook forum. Well-crafted and well-written novels are becoming scarcer, but David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet demonstrates that such books are still available.

Both Honor Killing and Jacob De Zoet are books worth buying and reading in any format.

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

February 16, 2011

The Demise of Borders, Blockbuster, and Choice

I admit that I’m not crying too hard over Borders’ troubles. I once worked for Borders Group (a lot of years ago) and even then I couldn’t figure out how it planned to survive. It has survived a lot longer than I expected.

I am crying a little bit harder over Blockbuster’s demise. My movie watching habits come and go in spurts, which is why I haven’t joined Netflix — why pay a monthly fee if I don’t regularly watch videos? And it is true that I have through Verizon’s FiOS video on demand, but I never use it. My current bill for Verizon landline telephone, Internet, and TV is already in heart attack country — the last thing I want to do is discover that I’ve added $30 or $40 (plus the fees and taxes) to an already outrageous bill.

But the demise of these two 20th-century behemoths got me thinking, especially when combined with the daily reports of another indie bookstore closing, another art gallery that didn’t make it, the lack of record stores, about how consumers are changing the cultural landscape.

You’ve heard me opine before about how I think the growth of the behemoths like Amazon are rally not good for consumers, and as each day passes, I become more convinced of the truth of that belief. I know that many of you, if not most, will talk up Amazon’s low prices, which is the short-term view to consumer well being. This short-term view is so pervasive that it extends from the consumer to our politicians who are deciding what budget cuts should be made to Wall Street’s emphasis on quarterly profits. Instant gratification with the least muss and fuss is the consumer-politician-Wall Street mantra.

Yet if we look objectively at the long term, we can see that we are only destroying the diversity and cultural norms that we say we value. When we oppose Walmart building a new store in our community because it pays low wages and its prices are so low that local stores can’t compete, we send a message that we value local businesses and community members. Yet we make that protest then shop at Amazon or the nearest Walmart because we value the low prices. The message and values are contradictory.

This is the problem with Borders’ demise. On some forums people are posting about how they miss browsing in their local bookstore, but then end their comment by stating that they never bought there — they would just browse, find what they wanted, and then order it online because it was cheaper. Then when the bookstore closed and the staff couldn’t find other jobs and began collecting unemployment, the complaint arose about how our taxes are and we should cut unemployment benefits.

It is a vicious cycle. We choose among our competing values and inevitably most of us choose cheap over any other value.

In my youth, many decades ago, we always bought locally. We knew the store owners and the employees — we went to the same schools as their children, to the same worship house, to the same cultural events, to the same social gatherings. Not today. Today, we rarely know the store owner or anything about him or her, let alone their family. And even if we do know the owner, we want to avoid paying sales tax and pay the lower price we can get from places like Amazon. The fact that Amazon simply takes our money from our community and never returns any of it doesn’t register — price is what registers.

In the brick-and-mortar retail world, Walmart has competition from Target and Costco and other discount retailers. But with the demise of, for example, Borders and indie bookstores (who would have thought that Powell’s, a bookworld icon, would need to lay off staff because of 2 years of losses?), competition in cultural venues is declining and local communities suffer — both culturally and financially. I find it distressing that young people will be within talking distance of one another yet prefer to communicate by texting or twittering. Or that their idea of a social gathering where they can interact with peers is an online game or Facebook.

Humans originally migrated to create clans, then villages, then cities, then nations, places where they could interact with other humans and develop what we euphemistically call civilization. We are beginning to see the cultural rollback to where each human stands alone in a world of their own. When we forsake local culture for price, we chip away at one of the pillars of civilization because those nonlocal places don’t give back any of what they take away.

The Internet age has its pluses, but it also has its minuses — minuses that we are only beginning to see and of which the demise of local, indie stores and outfits like Borders and Blockbuster that have a local presence are symptoms. The forsaking of choice for price as a value will come back to haunt us.

February 7, 2011

On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe

The politics of 2010-2011 is simply history repeating itself. The presidential election campaign of 1799-1800 is nearly a twin of the politics of today. The lack of comity shown today by the right, especially the pundits on Fox network, is similar to that of the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1800 campaign.

Today we revere Thomas Jefferson. But to read the Federalist newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson was everything we despise — he was a deist rather than a Christian; he was a “Jacobin”; he was the white Barack Obama.

The story of the campaign, the struggle between Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson for political supremacy is the subject of Edward Larson’s A Magnificient Catastrophe (2007). The election of 1800 was so bitter that it ended with Jefferson and Burr tied in electoral votes (in those days electoral ballots were not separately cast for president and vice-president), leading to the election having to be decided in the Congress. It took numerous ballots over many days and weeks before a moderate Federalist cast a deciding vote in favor of Jefferson.

Larson’s book is the story of the campaign, the bitterness and acrimony between the key players, and, ultimately the congressional balloting. It is the story of Hamilton’s and the High Federalists plotting against their own candidate, John Adams, who was running for reelection, having defeated Jefferson in 1796, and trying to swing the election any which way except toward Jefferson.

A Magnificient Catastrophe should be read for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the story of a presidential election that was decided by Congress and thus of historical interest. It should also be read to gain an understanding of how American politics and Americans haven’t changed in 200 years. We need only substitute labels, Republican for Federalist and Democrat for Jeffersonian Republicans, and the campaign of 1799-1800 is magically transformed into politics of 2010-2011.

Today we call Jefferson a great man and a founding father; in 1800 he was called a traitor. Today we have “news” organizations and commentators who fabricate “facts” just like was done in 1800.

For those interested in where we have been, where we are now, and where we are likely to be in the presidential campaign of 2012 (and probably campaigns well beyond), A Magnificent Catastrophe is the place to begin. A well-written, concise look at an ever-recurring political scene, A Magnificient Catastrophe should be on every American’s must-read list. Perhaps if we understand where we came from and with hindsight see the excesses, we will gain the fortitude to change our current political stalemate.

December 24, 2010

A Boost to My Pocketbook, But a Pain in My Heart

Filed under: Politics — Rich Adin @ 8:14 am
Tags: , , , ,

The recently enacted tax extension compromise was good for my pocketbook but bad for my children’s future and thus worries me greatly. It also makes me worry about the backbone of our Democrat politicians.

Why does it make me worry? Because of the 2% reduction in the employee Social Security contribution.

Let’s consider history a moment. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt introduced Social Security legislation, it has been under attack from the conservative right. The reasons have varied but ultimately it boils down to what distinguishes Republicans from Democrats: Republicans believe that the only safety net that government should provide is for the wealthy, a class they dream of joining, whereas Democrats believe there should be a safety net for those who are not wealthy and never will be wealthy. This is a fundamental philosophical difference and one that will become a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon in the Congress soon to be seated.

Over the years the right’s attack on Social Security has been thwarted. The most recent defeat was the plan to privatize a portion of Social Security. Can you imagine the mess most of us would be in had that plan come to fruition a few years ago? But now the Democrats have helped drive the first nail into the coffin of Social Security as a safety net. If there is one thing that can be said about Democrat politicians, it is that they are clueless.

Remember when the Bush-era tax cuts were enacted by the Republicans? What was the key to getting the tax cuts passed? It was the assertion that the cuts were temporary and would expire. The U.S. treasury would not lose those hundreds of billions of dollars forever. I suppose another key was the fanciful and fantasy belief that by giving the wealthy more money to spend, it would all trickle down to the middle and poor classes. Trickle is not what I would call what occurred; I feel more like a Robert Maplethorpe exhibit than the recipient of wealthy largesse.

So here the tax cuts are set to expire and what is the Republican hue and cry? To not extend the tax cuts would be a tax increase and they are adamantly opposed to a tax increase — even if just on millionaires and billionaires. I have to tell you how glad I am that the Republicans fought so bravely to maintain the wealthy’s ability to have both winter and summer homes and a Tiffany Christmas. But that is beside the point.

The point is that 42 Republicans stood together, united in refusing to do any of the countries business unless the wealthy got their tax cuts extended, with the preference that they be made permanent. What do you think will happen next year when the Social Security tax cut is supposed to expire?

It is like a perfect storm in the sense that the Republicans, with the help of Democrats, can accomplish two goals in by casting one stone. How better can they destroy Social Security for the future than to deprive it of finding, just as they plan to do to the health care reform measures. And when Democrats howl about how Social Security will be under financial threat, the Republicans will stand tall and united yet again in opposition to anything that smacks of a rise in taxes, which returning the Social Security tax rate to its 6.2% level would clearly be.

Of course there is the possibility that Republicans won’t object because basically the tax is a regressive tax on the middle- and low-income classes, not on the wealthy, but I doubt it. I expect that at some point the Democrats will realize they have been snookered yet again and my generation will be the last generation to collect Social Security as a safety net in old age.

I am always amazed at how ruthless Republicans can be and hapless Democrats are; I keep hoping that Democrats will suddenly get hit over the head with the frying pan and it will jostle their minds sufficiently to see that if they really want to be champions of the middle and lower classes, they need to give Republicans a dose of their own medicine. Alas, I expect that will never occur because Democrats tend to be leaderless.

This year was the 75th birthday of Social Security; I doubt we will celebrate its 100th.

October 25, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My book buying has been a bit slow since the last On Today’s Bookshelf. I’ve been trying to get through my to-be-read (TBR) pile, especially my ebook TBR pile, which is much too large, nearly 250 ebooks. But that hasn’t wholly stopped me from buying new books to read — someday (it’s an addiction).

New hardcovers, including those on order, include:

  • Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • Above His Proper Station by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • EPUB: Straight to the Point by Elizabeth Castro
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

New ebooks include:

  • The 7th Victim by Alan Jacobson
  • The Novice and The High Lord (2 books) by Trudi Canavan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan
  • Tales from the Green Book One: The Magic Flute and Book Two: The Wizard’s Tome by S.D. Best
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
  • Sleight Malice by Vicki Tyley
  • The Sword and the Dragon by M.R. Mathias
  • Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore (trilogy) by Brian Rathbone
  • The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Last week I finished Brian Rathbones’s trilogy, Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore. With the first book being free and the second and third being 99¢ each (available at Smashwords), it is hard to complain about the books. In fact, there isn’t much to complain about as regards these books. The biggest problem is that the characters are single dimension. Unlike what I believe to be the gold standard for self-published novels, the Promises to Keep quartet (see, e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept), where the characters are such that they drew me into their lives, Rathbone’s characters have some interesting characteristics, but don’t rise to the level of my much caring about them one way or another.

On the other hand, the characterizations are not so terrible that I wouldn’t recommend the books, especially at the price (truthfully, however, if the books were $2.99 each, I wouldn’t recommend them at all). Out of 5 stars, I would give the trilogy 3.5 stars; but I have to reiterate that a significant factor in that rating is the pricing of the books — should the pricing go up, the rating would go down.

The story is interesting, albeit not compelling, and devoid of many of the spelling and grammar mistakes that are much too often seen in self-published novels. It is not to say there are no errors, just that the errors are few and are not distracting; they didn’t make me pause to decipher what the author intended. For a quick read at a very reasonable price, you can’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

In a previous On Today’s Bookshelf (IV), I listed Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris as a recent hardcover acquisition. I finally started reading it, and even though I am not yet finished with the book — I’m about two-thirds done — I can recommend it to anyone interested in the Dreyfus Affair or its surrounding events.

Dreyfus is well written and a fascinating read. Unlike many of the books I have read on the topic, Dreyfus delves into the emotional and cultural aspects of the affair. For example, Harris notes that many of the key characters were all Alsatians, and thus bonded by the same “tragedy,” which was Germany’s taking over of Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Each of these Alsatians, including Dreyfus, left their homeland and chose to become French citizens and joined the French military in hopes of someday regaining Alsace for France.

Harris explores what is really a fascinating question about the Dreyfus Affair: Why did so many of the foremost writers and philosophers and current and future French leaders become so involved in what appeared on the surface to be a proper carriage of justice applied to a junior military officer? The Dreyfus Affair occupied these people and the news for nearly a decade, yet Dreyfus was an insignificant person in the military scheme of things and an officer who was not all that well liked by his colleagues.

Harris also explores why so many of the anti-Dreyfusards continued to persist in their efforts to have the Dreyfus decision upheld even after it was exposed that the evidence was faked.

The Dreyfus Affair caused families to split — some members becoming Dreyfusards and some becoming anti-Dreyfusards — in bitterness, brought what had been a declining overt antisemitism back in full force, and nearly triggered a coup d’etat in the young French Republic. It was a story that was followed by the European and American press.

I think that if were to recommend just one book about the Dreyfus Affair, this would be that book. Harris does explore the Affair itself, as well as all the machinations that went on the periphery. What at first seemed to be an internal military affair, soon became the cause of the era. I find that it still captivates today and still has lessons to be learned by the world today.

October 20, 2010

The Strangeness of Politics

In a recent New York Times article, “Stand Against Earmarks Grows Lonely as Home State Sees a Need,” it was noted that South Carolinians are upset with their conservative senator, Jim DeMint, because he isn’t supporting a request for $400,000 of federal taxpayer money to conduct a feasibility study on the dredging of the Port of Charleston, which if feasible, would lead to a further request for federal taxpayer funds of up to $250 million to actually do the work. It seems that South Carolinians are willing to accept federal money when they are willing to accept federal money. Seems to me that South Carolinians want it both ways, which, of course, the rest of us would like as well, but which seems to me to negate the idea of the United States being a single nation.

Although I am what DeMint would characterize as a liberal, which is anyone a smidgen or more to the left of Jim DeMint, I have to applaud him for taking a principled stand — he is against earmarks, period! — something many of his coconservatives are not when it comes to getting handouts. Usually they want the handouts but without any strings attached. (And this is not to say that liberals are any less desirous of either handouts or restriction-free handouts — they aren’t! You can take the politics out of the money, but you can’t take the money out of the politics.)

South Carolina is opposed — adamantly — to federal bailouts and handouts, especially to items like mandatory health insurance that could benefit all U.S. citizens — except when they are not, which is hard to predict when that will be. I think South Carolinians should lead the way and simply refuse any and all federal money. This would tell the rest of us that they truly do mean what they say.

But with the recent revelations about the problems with the mortgage foreclosure documents, I wonder how quickly conservative and Tea Party tunes will change should there be a sudden raft of major bank failures that affect their pocketbooks? Bank of America, for example, has dealings with nearly half of Americans. Should it collapse, a lot of currently wealthy people would find themselves wealth-less. And retirees, who are a large portion of the Tea Party movement, would be in trouble as the ripple of such a colossal failure spread. Relying on having an FDIC insured account is problematic because the FDIC doesn’t have enough capital to cover that size failure without further government borrowing, which, of course, we just know Jim DeMint and the Tea Partyers would vehemently oppose, preferring to have all of their wealth disappear in the collapse.

Some economists, including conservative ones, say that the latest banking fiasco could result in a bigger financial crisis for the banks than the subprime bubble burst. Which makes me wonder —

Should we see a bank like Bank of America start to topple as a result of this latest crisis, will the conservatives and the Tea Partyers stick to their principles and filibuster any proposed bailout of the banks? I admit I’m not an economist or much of a financial expert, but even I can see that if banks like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America are allowed to fail, there are going to be a lot of formerly rich Republicans and Tea Partyers wondering what happened.

Of course, it would be an appropriate payback to all those corporations who are donating nondisclosed millions to the rollback-the-regulation candidates should their supporters let them fail. Isn’t it strange that the big Wall Street firms who were shored up by Democrat officeholders are now spending millions to kick the Democrats out. Grateful the bankers aren’t!

If the Congress swings to the right as expected, here are a few bits of legislation that the new right-wing majority should introduce: legislation to

  1. eliminate all Congressional pay raises until the budget has been balanced for at least 5 consecutive years and the national debt has been fully retired;
  2. do away with all taxpayer-funded medical and retirement benefits for all members of Congress and their spouses and families;
  3. return America to the days of the founding fathers by eliminating the filibuster — it isn’t in the Constitution — and bringing back majority rule.

There is nothing more impressive than seeing our leaders truly lead. And the cry to follow the intent of our founding fathers should be honored in the practice by recreating their work conditions. After all, they couldn’t have foreseen air conditioning, so certainly wouldn’t have considered spending taxpayer money on it to be constitutional — I see no air conditioning clause in the Constitution or even in the Federalist Papers. Perhaps if Congress had to work in the swelter of Washington without air conditioning, there would be less pompousness and more getting the people’s work done.

I grant that this seems silly, but it seems no sillier to me than the idea that we should revert to what the founders thought, especially when the founders weren’t of one voice on any topic, but were of hundreds of voices on every topic. The only single voice the founders had was that of compromise — they realized, which the “party of no” doesn’t seem to grasp, that the art of nation building is really the art of compromise. To their chagrin, the founders learned that confederation (remember the Articles of Confederation?) really doesn’t work and so compromised a different approach, the Constitution, which has worked — so far.

Compromise is the one lesson that Congress and the Supreme Court are in desperate need of learning, as are the South Carolinians who put out their hand to take but not to give. This disease — the lack of compromise — breeds the strangeness of modern American politics, which would even have been strange to the founding fathers as much as it is to the average citizen today. We all compromise everyday as part of our daily lives — unless we are politicians who can reap taxpayer largess while not accomplishing anything.

And if compromise really galls the Tea Partyers and the Jim DeMints of the American political scene, then I offer this bromide: Lead us to salvation by voluntarily giving up your Medicare, your Social Security, your exorbitant congressional pay and benefits. Be austere in your own lives first; go without medical insurance and demonstrate how the free market will take care of all your needs without government intervention. I, for one, am willing to be convinced that you are right; I just want to see you lead by example rather than by decree and platitude.

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

August 17, 2010

Struggling with eBooks: To Read or Not to Read

Don’t get me wrong — I love my Sony 505 and read on it every day for at least a couple of hours. But what I read on it are novels, fiction that goes in one brain cell and out the other, rarely making a lasting impression. (There are a few exceptions, such as Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet [see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept] which I keep thinking about and wondering why no major traditional publisher has scooped her up, in contrast to Ruth Francisco’s Amsterdam 2012, which I have yet to review because it was such a disappointment, yet the storyline is intriguing and one I think about, but I keep wondering where to begin a fair review).

No, the problem is with the mainstay of my reading — nonfiction, particularly history and biography. I keep trying to read nonfiction biography and history in ebook form and I inevitably stop and return to the pbook version. This shouldn’t be; there is nothing inherently wrong with the ebook experience — or there shouldn’t be — to make reading of nonfiction so difficult for me. Yet, it is.

I have been trying to analyze why and have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Surely part of the problem is the way ebooks handle images, which is poorly. I admit that I don’t really care about studying the fake maps that some novels include for “informational” purposes. I’m not really looking to delve into the deep psychoses of the characters or the lands; I’m looking for easy entertainment after a day of reading and correcting manuscript. But in nonfiction books, I really do care about the maps and photos. I don’t want to commit them to memory, but they often provide an insight to the history being related. When told that an army marched 60 miles, I find it hard to imagine how long and hard a march that must have been 2000 years ago and a map helps. When describing a sarcophagus, a photograph helps. And these are weak points of ebooks — the ability to show such images clearly and in a readable form. The problems lie in how the ebook file was created and in the fact that I am trying to view the image on a 6-inch grayscale screen (although I’m not sure that a 6-inch color screen would be much improvement).

Perhaps another problem I have is that most histories and many biographies are riddled with footnotes (or endnotes) and references. (For my view of the use of these notes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.) I know that some readers, if not most, simply bypass these annoyances, but I admit I’m one who reads everything in a book, including the copyright page. I find myself compelled to check the notes and references — the notes because authors too often have some of the most valuable information tucked away in them, and the references because they often lead to other books I need to buy. (My to-be-purchased [TBP] list is probably as long as, perhaps even longer than, my to-be-read [TBR] list; usually what holds me back from buying a book on my TBP list is the cost. These books tend to be out of print and if I am going to buy an out-of-print book, I want to buy it as a first edition, first printing, in near fine or better condition — not a cheap undertaking in many cases.) Sadly, too many ebooks come with broken links to the notes and references because publishers and/or the converters of the books do a lackadaisical job of activating the links.

Consequently, I am always in a struggle when it comes to buying ebooks. I have little hesitation with fiction, it being difficult for publishers and converters to do a horrendous job (although far from impossible as many ebookers can attest) and because so much fiction can be bought so very inexpensively, but I hesitate, and hesitate, and hesitate when it comes to nonfiction. With one exception, For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz, the story of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and Clarence Darrow’s brilliant defense, which focused not on guilt or innocence but on the death penalty, my nonfiction purchases have been unsatisfactory and have resulted in my purchasing the pbook version. Some examples are Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti and Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Pillar of Fire, Parting the Waters, and At Canaan’s Edge. (If you haven’t read these books by Baatz, Watson, and Branch, put them on your list. It is better to read them as ebooks than not to read them at all.)

I keep trying, however, to read nonfiction in ebook form. I have purchased and tried reading in ebook form several books but nearly always gave way to finishing reading in the pbook form. Perhaps it is the ease of accessing the notes and images, perhaps it is easier to contemplate passages, reread them for deeper meaning or better understanding, perhaps it is just me. I’m not certain about the “why” but I am certain that authors, publishers, and converters have to spend more time and effort thinking about ebook design and how an ebook is read (or, in the case of nonfiction, how it should be read) by the reader. At the current juncture of development, ebooks are ideal for fiction, less so for nonfiction, but there is no reason why the ebook form shouldn’t be/can’t be ideal for any type of book.

(P.S. Some worthwhile nonfiction books I have bought in both ebook and pbook form are the following: On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker; From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by Steven Pinker; The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky; and The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. I recommend each of these books whether you read them in ebook or pbook form.)

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