An American Editor

July 21, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (IV)

After my recent post about too many books in my to-be-read (TBR) pile, one would think that I would wise up and simply stop adding to the TBR pile. Alas, books are an addiction for me. I truly believe that every book I obtain I will read in the not-too-distant future, but the rational part of my me knows better.

So, I’ve decided to base my acquisitions on a new rationale: I will be going into semiretirement when I’m 70, which isn’t that far away, and my income will decrease while my time available for pleasure reading will increase. A decreased income will mean less money available to purchase books, so I best build up my collection of reading materials now. Increased time for reading means I will get through more books more rapidly. Seems like a good rationale to me :).

No matter how I cut it, however, I love to read. I read all day for work (after all, it would be tough to edit a manuscript without reading it), and when the workday is done, I like to read for pleasure. I don’t watch TV, the kids have moved out, and there is only so much time I am able to spend puttering around the house. So my escapism is books.

Since my last On Today’s Bookshelf (III), I have added these hardcover books to my TBR pile:

  • Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne Heidler
  • Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove
  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
  • Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla R. Miller
  • Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris
  • A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad by Robert S. Wistrich
  • American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by T. H. Breen
  • Imager’s Intrigue: The Third Book of the Imager Portfolio by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

In addition, I have added the following ebooks to my TBR pile on my Sony Reader:

  • Brechalon by Wesley Allison
  • A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
  • Amsterdam 2012 by Ruth Francisco
  • Last Legend of Earth by A.A. Attanasio
  • The Quest for Nobility by Debra L. Martin
  • Amber Magic by B.V. Larson
  • Fall of Thanes and Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley
  • Call of the Herald by Brian Rathbone
  • Merlin’s Daughters by Meredith Rae Morgan
  • Miss Anna’s Frigate by Jens Kuhn
  • The Orffyreus Wheel by David Niall Wilson
  • Truitt’s Fix by Rex Evans Wood

I believe I have said this before, but perhaps not. One advantage to my ebook reading device (i.e., my Sony Reader) is that I tend to read both more books and more quickly on it. I have yet to understand why this phenomenon is true, but other ebookers have told me that they, too, experience the same phenomenon. Many ebookers have also said that where they bought 1 or 2 books a month when they were reading print books, that number has tripled and quadrupled with ebooks — and the ebooks are getting read, not just piling up! Consequently, I expect I’ll be able to get through many more of the ebooks — that is, once my wife returns my Sony Reader to me (assuming she does; she has fallen in love with it) — than I will of the hardcovers.

Of the hardcovers in the above list, the only one I have managed to get through is Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius. It is an interesting history of antisemitism and well worth reading if you have any interest in the subject matter. I will warn you, however, that I found it to be a bit dry of a read. It was quite detailed and focused, although long (approximately 850 pages) but in comparison to A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad by Robert S. Wistrich, which is sitting on my bookshelf, a short read (A Lethal Obsession comes in at approximately 1200 pages). Julius’ book was reviewed in the New York Times earlier this year by Harold Bloom. Subsequently, Edward Rothstein did a comparative review of the Julius and Wistrich books in the New York Times.

Currently, I’ve turned my attention to American history and am reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne Heidler. I find this to be a well-written book about a fascinating American. One tidbit that I learned: The reason why the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is so powerful is that Henry Clay, upon ascendancy to the position, found himself frustrated by how powerless he was as speaker and decided to change things. His innovations changed the speaker’s position from essentially a parliamentarian’s role to the powerhouse it is today. If you like biography, I’d recommend this book, even though I am only about a third of the way through it at the time of this writing.

As I have noted before, free time may be more precious in the summer months when the outdoors beckon, but there is nothing like a good book to stimulate the mind — and a good ebook reader on which to read.

July 20, 2010

The Labor Market Keeps on Revolting

Recently I wrote about the labor problems at Foxconn’s China factories and my thoughts about the possible future consequences for editors (see Striking Workers and American Editors). But the news doesn’t seem to end as regards labor problems in China (see Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves In on China).

Although none of this is directly related to editors, as workers become more literate and able to compete for better-paying jobs, all wages will rise. I think this is the singular lesson of the industrial revolution, because the educational revolution was (and is) the mate of the industrial revolution.

Yes, it will be many more years before the “revolution” meets editors head-on, but then again, perhaps not. American editors suffer from the effects of offshoring to developing countries. It is a tidal effect in that it is the publishing jobs that require less education and lesser skillsets that enable offshore companies to package services for American publishers at a lower price than publishers can get onshore. (Take a look around: The higher the literacy the higher the wage structure throughout the society, and this is true historically.) But as wage pressure mounts from the bottom up in these offshore companies, something will have to give. I believe what will give is the significant price advantage that currently favors offshoring editorial work.

We must remember that editorial work, to be done competently, needs to be performed by literate people with higher-level skillsets. And as those on economic rungs below this level of literacy and skillset gain both literateness and skills and demand higher compensation, the pressure to maintain the distinction between the levels will increase, causing a rise in the compensation of the editorial level workers. I believe this is the singular truism of the marriage of industrialization and education, a marriage that is required to move from developing to developed.

Obviously, in the publishing world, my reference is to packagers who can underbid a panoply of services because the starting base for the most expensive portion of the package of services in the United States is so low. But just as America faced competition from China because China was able to underbid its services, China is now facing competition from less developed countries that are able to underbid China. And the reason, as noted in the New York Times article, is literacy — that marriage between education and industry.

It is the illiterate who form the low-wage backbone of the industrialization of developing nations. Yet to grow and compete, industry needs increasing literacy in its workers. Workers need to be able to comprehend computer instructions, for example. But as literacy rises, so does the demand for better wages and work conditions — and so the groundswell begins. Bangladesh, the competitor to China discussed in the New York Times article, has a 55% literacy rate, a rate that is comparable to China’s rates of the 1960s and 1970s when manufacturing began to move from made in the USA to made in China status. Now China’s literacy rate is 92%, which is giving rise to demands for socioeconomic parity with similarly literate countries, which means the developed countries of Europe and the United States.

Soon these trends, I predict, will hit India, which is currently the offshoring capital for American publishers. As Indians increase their literacy rate, the demand for better working conditions and higher pay will be felt. And as was (and is true) in western industrialized nations, the current literati will want to maintain their economic supremacy and so will also demand higher wages. At some point in the not-too-distant future there will be no financial benefit to offshoring. (As it is, I am seeing a trend away from offshoring editorial services among the companies that first thought it would be the answer.)

One other matter worth noting: With an increase in literacy comes an increased demand for reading material; books and magazines are the purveyors of knowledge, which is needed to keep moving forward. When that pent-up demand surfaces in a developing country like India, the local packagers will face the same problems American packagers face — competition for the local market.

Within the next decade, I predict the tide will turn and offshoring by American publishers will become onshoring because there will be no cost advantage to the offshoring. (We must not forget that even under the best of circumstances, offshoring is not problem-free.) I also predict that we may well see India and countries like India who currently are benefitting from the offshoring by American companies, offshoring themselves — to the United States.

July 9, 2010

On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept

Over the past few months, you have read my praise for the Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson several times, beginning with the original review (On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) and then as an example of quality ebooks in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Once again, I am compelled to discuss these books.

But first, because I do not want you to think I am shilling these books, let me issue my denials upfront: I do not know the author; I have never met the author. I have exchanged a couple of e-mails with her through MobileRead, an ebook discussion forum, which she initiated to ask me to perhaps edit a comment slightly I had made about her books on the forum because she thought perhaps I was giving away a surprise to those who had not yet read the quartet (in the end, it was agreed to leave the comments as they were because the books aren’t mysteries). I receive no remuneration of any kind in exchange for these mentions. Have I covered all the bases?

Okay, now to why I feel it important to reiterate praise for these books.

My wife and I are avid readers. Every time we go to a bookstore, she walks out with as many books, if not more, than I do. I suspect her to-be-read pile challenges mine if we ignore ebooks. Why ignore ebooks? Because my wife doesn’t own an ebook reader and doesn’t buy ebooks. She has consistently refused to share my reader, saying that she bought it for me and can see how much I enjoy it (all of which is true).

Our taste in reading material differs greatly. Although we discuss books we have read and recommend some of them to each other, we both recognize that it is the rare book that we would both enjoy and with our to-be-read piles growing weekly, the likelihood of one of us picking up, reading, and enjoying a book recommended by the other is slim. She likes what I call do-good nonfiction, e.g., the story of a school built in a poor remote area, and Maeve Binchey-type fiction. I prefer nonfiction books about hard subjects, e.g., wars, both ancient and modern, and my fiction rarely ventures from the scifi/fantasy genres. Even so, we do discuss books and what we have read.

Nevertheless, after I finished reading the Promises to Keep quartet, I insisted that Carolyn borrow my Sony Reader and try these books. After a bit of coaxing, she did and now things are different at our table — all because of the Promises to Keep quartet. First change is that I haven’t had access to my Sony Reader for nearly a month. Second change is that where we tend to read our magazines at the lunch table, she now reads one of the quartet books.

The third change is probably the most telling change: Carolyn is an excellent painter (visit her website to see what I mean) whose paintings are in collections worldwide. So she often spends her evenings (along with her days) in her studio working on the newest painting. Her habit has been — and this has been true for the many years we have been together — to watch an hour or so of TV at the end of the day as her method of unwinding before bed. But not long after she started the Promises to Keep quartet, her habit changed: now the TV is silent and she unwinds by continuing her reading of Parkinson’s quartet.

The fourth change, and perhaps equally significant, is that we now have regular discussions about the books in the quartet and about the characters. Neither of us had previously felt a desire to discuss more than once or twice a particular book, and certainly not to engage in speculation about fictional characters.

The final change is that Carolyn is actively recommending these books to friends. In the past she would mention a good book to a friend, but that would be the extent of it. With the Promises to Keep quartet, she is repeatedly recommending the books and providing links for her friends.

All right, you’ve got the picture about how much both of us like these ebooks, how outstanding we think they are. Well, just to reinforce the notion, let me repeat some words Carolyn has used to describe the books: “outstanding characterization,” “fascinating and compelling story,” “can’t stop reading” (how true this is — she struggles to stop reading when the clock chimes 1:30 a.m.), “can’t wait to find out what happens,” “mesmerizing,” “compelling.”

Why is this important, this exuberance for these ebooks? Because it proves that self-published, independent authors can produce high-quality literature, that not all self-published authors are simply trainwrecks in disguise. But it takes care and effort, both of which are evident in this quartet. (I asked Carolyn how many errors she has noticed in the books she has read so far. She answered 2 or 3 in total over the first 3 books, none of which were major or distracting.)

My questions are these: If Shayne Parkinson can maintain such quality over 4 books, why can’t most authors maintain it over 1 book? What is Parkinson’s secret? Isn’t the lack of quality evidenced in many self-published ebooks what causes self-publishing to have such a poor reputation? Why are the problems outlined in articles such as I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors, Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers, On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! unresolved?

In Promises to Keep, the promises are kept! Here are exceptional books that are well edited, well written, and well produced. So, again, I encourage you to give the Promises to Keep quartet a try. By reading and buying books of this quality, and by mentioning them repeatedly when we like them, we encourage other authors to reach for the stars, too. (And for those of you who love fantasy, I recommend Celina Summers’ The Asphodel Cycle, also a quartet, reviewed in L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast and mentioned in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Summers’ quartet is of similar quality as Parkinson’s quartet and also an excellent read.)

July 6, 2010

Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance?

I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.

One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.

Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?

Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.

Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?

Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.

To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.

What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.

eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.

One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.

June 29, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 2

Below are the second round Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. These are all the nominees I have received since posting Hall of Shame Nominees 1. If you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1. Star Trek (movie tie-in) by Alan Dean Foster

  • Format: print
  • Problem: poor editing
  • Samples of errors: Captain Kirk’s father, under attack, discovers he’s restricted to “manuel control.” This is right after the word “manual” has been spelled properly.
  • Solved: No, the current run of this best-seller still contains the error.

2. The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

  • Format: print (Princeton University Press)
  • Problems: poor copyediting and proofreading
  • Samples of errors: (1) inconsistent spelling: Sea of Azov/Asov, Damogoras/Damagoras [in the same paragraph!], Lucullus/Luculus [same paragraph], Heniochoi/Heniochi; (2) typos or misspellings: ensuring [ensuing] months, unable to chose [choose], tassled [tasseled], seige [siege], Bibliotheque National [Nationale, several times], artemesia [artemisia], ro [to] become invincible, vistory [victory], putrify [putrefy], Mithrdates [Mithradates], A.E. Houseman [Housman]; (3) faulty past tense: everyone … spit [spat] on the memory; (4) missing word: caused it [to] fill; (5) wrong word: staunched [stanched] the flow of blood, enormity [enormous size, vastness] of the land and sky; (6) faulty punctuation: Mithradates’ died
  • Frequency of errors: occasional
  • Overall quality: neutral

June 21, 2010

On Books: A Savage Conflict

I am slowly whittling away at the books on my bookshelf. I have now finished reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland.

If you have any interest in the U.S. Civil War, this is a must read book. Although we learned a little bit about some of the more infamous guerilla raiders in our history classes, A Savage Conflict is a comprehensive look at not only the raiders but how they came to be and their true role in the Civil War. There is little glossing over of what these raiders — both Confederate and Union — did, especially in Kansas and Missouri.

Although guerilla warfare was first authorized by the Confederacy virtually simultaneously with the attack on Fort Sumter, the original concept was for them to be attached to more traditionally formed armies and under the control of the regular armed forces. This “control” did not last long on either side. In too many cases, the guerillas were simply bands of outlaws, not believers in a cause.

Confederate and Union leaders worried that reliance on guerilla warfare would do more harm than good and would serve to undermine military discipline. This ultimately became a major problem for the Confederacy. As the guerilla war progressed, two types of guerilla bands developed: the official and the independent. Towards the end of the conflict, little governmental control over either type existed.

Sutherland takes us on a journey through the wasteland of guerilla warfare. He describes how Southern sympathizers formed guerilla bands originally with the idea of protecting their homes, especially in areas were the Confederate army was missing or lacked control, which led to Unionists, that is Union sympathizers, creating their own bands to protect themselves from the Southern bands, all of which led to what seemed to be a never-ending cycle of escalation.

These problems existed in virtually all of the border and deep south states, but was most evident in Missouri and Kansas. Sutherland makes clear that the guerilla movement existed as much in Mississippi as it did in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri. He tells us about the leaders, their motivations, and their activities, and he clearly distinguishes between those with a sense of duty and honor and those who were simply gangsters.

With so many guerilla bands to cover, this book could have been a book of rote entries — dry but encyclopedic; instead, it is well written and easy to read. This book does suffer from the endnote problem, but in this case, I was able to ignore all the endnotes. For the most part, they were simply citations, not explanations. However, the book would have been enhanced if it had not had the endnote callouts or at least had a prefatory author’s note saying that they could be ignored by the average reader. (For my view of endnotes and footnotes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.)

Because guerilla bands came and went, especially as leaders were captured or killed by various forces, Sutherland’s approach is to address the guerilla war by years. Although I was skeptical at first about approaching this topic in this fashion, it turned out to be a sound approach, enabling me to better follow the story.

Anyone with an interest in the Civil War and the effect it had on the average citizen should include A Savage Conflict in their readings. The guerillas made a particularly bad war even worse, especially for the Confederacy, and an understanding of the guerilla war and its backlashes enhances one’s understanding of the U.S. Civil War and the reasons underlying some of the decisions made during the postwar reconstruction era.

June 7, 2010

On Books: The Hebrew Republic

One of my recent book purchases was Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. I purchased the book because I saw it advertised by Harvard’s Belknap Press in The New York Review of Books and thought, based on the title, that the subject would interest me.

Nelson’s thesis is that modern political thought — the thought found in 18th and 19th century political documents and thinking — arose not from excluding religious discourse from political thought but from the embracing of religious thought, particularly Jewish political thought through the renewed interest in study of the Hebrew Bible that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nelson notes that many of the leading writers and thinkers of those times learned to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language and then read the commentaries on the Bible written by leading Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides.

Nelson explores three thought transformations that arose as a result of the study of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries: (1) that the only legitimate government form is the republic; (2) that the state must coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property (but not that the state must redistribute property); and (3) that a republic that followed god’s laws would of necessity tolerate religious diversity. These notions led to an attempt to create new social constructs, new covenants between individuals and society, based on what was perceived as a constitution designed by God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic interpretations.

It is Nelson’s argument that these transformative thoughts were what lead to the notions of “liberty, equality, fraternity” that dominated political thought beginning in the 18th century and continuing on to today. He shows the influence of the Hhebraic thoughts on theorists and writers such as James Harrington, Hugo Grotius, John Milton, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes.

The book is short, approximately 230 pages cover to cover. This is not a bad thing but I mention it because of what I perceive to be the critical flaw in this book, aside from the question of the validity of his thesis: the book is written and reads as if it is a doctoral dissertation or a master’s thesis.

The book also suffers from one other significant flaw, at least to my way of thinking, although it is far from alone in this regard: It uses endnotes rather than footnotes. I’ve discussed this before (see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses), but I consider this a major defect in a book because of the constant need to switch between the beginning and the end of the book. If the endnotes are not intended to be read, then don’t have them; just have a bibliography. But if they are intended to be read, then use footnotes, which are less disruptive.

The constant switching degraded significantly the reading experience of this book. They made it hard to follow the argument Nelson was making. At first I tried to ignore them and just concentrate on the text, but I failed — I was afraid of missing important information. And I discovered that had I ignored the endnotes, I would have missed some important information. A couple of examples are notes 99, in which Nelson elucidates how one group read and understood certain words; 105, which discusses Rousseau’s view of the distinction between “sovereignty” and “government”; 106, which identifies sources for the role played by “the Hebraic exclusivist argument I have sketched out in the wholesale delegitimization of monarchy during the American Revolution”, which lead me to note additional readings I need to pursue; and 198, in which Nelson identifies his position as being between that of Martinich and that of Collins as regards Thomas Hobbes’ religious beliefs.

Ultimately, the question is does Nelson have something valuable to say. Yes, he does. And his ideas are worth further pursuit, although I am not convinced by this current work that his view of events is correct. What is important is that they are thought provoking. Now if he only had written his work so that it was more accessible and less like a doctoral dissertation whose emphasis was on meeting the peccadilloes of a degree-granting committee than on expounding a new way to look at the roots of modern political thought.

Should you read this book? If you are interested in the origins of modern political theory and want to know more about what influenced the critical thinking of the 18th and early 19th centuries, then yes, you should; otherwise, probably not.

May 19, 2010

On Words: Politics, Political, and Their Progeny

Okay, I know this is dangerous territory, but I heard a speech by Robert Reich recently in which he amused his audience by defining the origins of politics. Professor Reich noted that poli is from the Greek polis and polites, or city and citizen, respectively, and that tics are blood-sucking insects. Although I found his definition amusing, and perhaps a bit accurate in our current state of political partisanship, I began to think about politics, political, and their various progeny. So here goes a look at the words and a political rant.

One source says politic is a late Middle English word derived from the Old French politique, via Latin from the Greek politikos. A different source traces its roots to a borrowing in 1427 from the Middle French politique. In the end, the birth is the same — from the Latin politicus and the Greek politikos.

But deviant forms also appeared. Politician appears to have been coined in 1588 and meant a shrewd person (and today we might mean a shrew person). One year later the meaning had morphed to a person skilled in politics. And today, when we say someone is a political animal, we can thank Aristotle and a translation from the Greek of his words politikon zoon, whose literal meaning was “an animal intended to live in a city.” Interestingly, polecat, a possible term of endearment for a politician, doesn’t have the same roots as politics.

Politics as the science and art of government dates from the 16th century. Political science first appeared in 1779 in the writings of David Hume. Political appeared in 1551 and was the English formation, believed to have its roots, again, in the Latin politicus with the addition of the English al. Politics is one of those few words that is both singular and plural, depending on context and usage.

In American English, politician originally was a noun that referred to the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). In Wilson’s American Ornithology (v. II, p. 166) published 1804, the vireo was described as: “This bird builds a very neat little nest…of…bits of rotten wood,…pieces of paper, commonly newspapers,…so that some of my friends have given it the name of the Politician.” Could this have been the first linking of rotten and politician? (Okay, perhaps a bit harsh.) In 1844, Natural History repeated Wilson’s association. And it was repeated again in 1917 in Birds of America.

In 1914 the Cyclopedia of American Government defined political bargain as “an agreement, usually corrupt, between contending political factions or individuals….” Seems like nothing has changed in 100 years.

Today, politician and political are simply synonyms for stalemate, for corruption, and for abuse. Alright, that’s cynical, but I’m tired of politics and politicians as usual because that is what it generally amounts to — the grinding to a halt of the country’s business to satisfy the egos of those who wield the political power and those who can buy it — especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given license to unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns. I can see it now: Goldman Sachs will spend $500 million — probably 1 day’s profits — to buy the next Congress, against which my paltry $500 contribution will be like a single grain of sand thrown at the Rock of Gibraltar as my attempt to influence the crumbling of the Rock.

America is quickly becoming the land of the extremes, a place where centrists, which is what most of us are, wield little to no influence, and a land where doublespeak is the language of the day. (I’m still waiting for my Tea Party neighbors who rail against socialized medicine to give up their Medicare [can I suggest a Burn Your Medicare Card rally?]. The day I see that happen will be the first day I really believe that the Tea Party is a semi-honest political movement. Until then it looks like a “me first and only” movement.)

Group greed is what seems to move America today. In my local school budget vote, my city’s school budget was soundly defeated by a 3:1 margin. I admit that for the first time in my life I voted against a school budget — and that’s a lot of votes cast over many years. The final straw was when the teachers refused to make any sacrifice whatsoever, claiming that they needed their raises and continued free benefits because their living costs have been rising. Are they so naive as to think no one else’s living costs have also been rising, that they are unique?

I know that in reality nothing has changed. Today’s group greed is the same as yesterday’s, only the groups have changed. But somewhere someone besides me must recognize the lack of equilibrium between lower taxes and maintaining or increasing government services. Something has to give. It’s like the demand for electricity to power our summer air conditioners — we want more without brownouts but we don’t want to build the infrastructure to provide more; we want less reliance on foreign oil but we want ever larger and powerful automobiles; we want our children to breathe clean air but we oppose cap-and-trade legislation.

Makes me wonder who the children really are!

May 18, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (III)

As always, I keep expanding my to-be-read pile. Since my last report, I have added several books, including these hardcover books:

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaind MacCulloch
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam by Fred M. Donner
  • Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court by Jeff Shesol
  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
  • Secret of the Dragon (Dragonships of Vindras Series) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
  • The Shadow of Saganami (Disciples of Honor Series #2) by David Weber
  • A Mighty Fortress (Safehold Series #4) by David Weber

David Weber is one of my favorite scifi/fantasy authors and so when I get a new book from him, I drop all else to read. Weber continues to entertain me and I enjoyed both of the books in the above list.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman used to be favorite authors in that same genre, but their last two books have ended that relationship, particularly the one listed above — that one, I couldn’t even finish, I found it dull and boring.

The remaining 6 books are nonfiction (you probably guessed that from the titles) and just recently arrived. I haven’t broken any of them open yet, as I’m still reading through earlier purchases (hardcover novels tend to get read immediately because they are quick reads for me; nonfiction takes longer, especially if the author has a lot of footnotes, as I often get sidetracked checking out books cited to see if I want to purchase them for my library).

I recently finished reading For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown (see On Today’s Bookshelf (II)). I have a particular interest in the Dreyfus Affair. I admit, however, that For the Soul of France was not a particularly engaging book — I struggled to get through it. Another book that was on my first bookshelf that I struggled to read is Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning. The writing style simply didn’t resonate with me. I should have known that I would find the book difficult because I also had difficulty getting through his book The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. It isn’t that the books are poorly researched — they’re not; they are well researched. It is simply the style of writing that I found difficult.

I am currently reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland, which is a well-written and interesting book from my first On Today’s Bookshelf list. I plan on reviewing the book in the future, but for anyone interested in the Civil War, here’s an advance thumbs up recommendation.

But, as I’m sure you may know, I also read a lot of ebooks. Up to this point, all of the books I have cited in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles have been hardcover pbooks I have added to my collection. Beginning with today’s article, I will also mention some of the ebooks I have purchased.

eBooks for me are a different being altogether. Rarely will I buy a nonfiction ebook. The few I have bought have been problematic, including foot-/endnote links that don’t work, not-well-reproduced illustrations and figures, and the like. Consequently, nearly all of my ebook purchases are fiction. Unfortunately for you, my taste in fiction runs in cycles (cycles that last many years) and the current cycle is science fiction/fantasy. Someday it will switch to mystery or action or some other genre (alas, never romance or vampires for those who like those genres).

In addition, because the traditional publishers tend to cripple their ebooks by overpricing them, I often buy from unknown authors, many of whom have provided me with hours of enjoyment, others of whom either bored me or annoyed me with poor everything (spelling, grammar, character development, plot, etc.).

Rather than give you a list of what I’m waiting to read, I’ll give you a list of a few titles or series that I have already read and that I enjoyed. None of these are great literature — all are good reads and inexpensive. All are available without DRM and in multiple formats from either Fictionwise or Smashwords.

  • The Chronicles of the Necromancer (a 4-book series) by Gail Z. Martin
  • The Asphodel Cycle (a 4-book series) by Celina Summers
  • Lord of Wind and Fire (a 3-book series) by Elaine Corvidae
  • To Find a Wonder by Jennifer Carson
  • The Lords of Dus (a 4-book series) by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • The Demonstone Chronicles (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Sword of Heavens (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Forgotten Legacy (an 8-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Targa Trilogy (a 3-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Promises to Keep (trilogy plus sequel) by Shayne Parkinson

The last listed series by Shayne Parkinson is neither scifi nor fantasy — it is the story of a New Zealand family in the 1880-1910 era. It will be the subject of a separate review. It is not normally a genre I would read, but this is one of the best written series of books in fiction I have read in several years. I highly recommend it. It is available at Smashwords and is comprised of these 4 books: Sentence of Marriage, Mud and Gold, Settling the Account, and A Second Chance.

With summer coming, reading time may become more precious, but there is nothing like a good book to stimulate the mind.

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

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