Sunday, August 15, 2021

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Book: The Stand, by Stephen King

King, Stephen. 1990. The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. Doubleday.

What better time to read a classic pandemic novel than at the tail end (locally at least) of a pandemic, albeit one much less deadly than that described in the book.

Post-apocalyptic tales have been a favorite of mine ever since I read Robert Silverberg's Time of the Great Freeze back in fifth grade (and the fact that it concerned too little warming rather than too much signals just how long ago that was). Back in the day I read classics like On the Beach and Alas, Babylon! and I have continued to read one or two post-apocalyptic tales a year (putting aside my general break from reading for pleasure during the second half of gradual school). They've been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.

If you poke around the internet for lists of the best post-apocalyptic novels, The Stand appears on most such lists, often near the top. So I have been meaning to read it for many years. I went "all in" and read the director's cut version with the idea that I might well never read another Stephen King book, and so I should read this one the way he meant it to be read. The director's cut has 1153 pages of text, though they are not dense and the book reads quickly in a pages-per-minute sense.

The first book-within-a-book  (of three) details the spread of the plague and the ensuing death and destruction. It was my favorite part of the book. The third book-within-a-book documents the great showdown (in which various people make a stand, hence the title) between good and evil. That was my second favorite part. My enthusiasm flagged (sorry, a pun too easy to resist but one you will only note if you have already read the book) a bit at times in the middle book-within-a-book. I suspect that most of the editor's cuts came from this part.

Some random thoughts: I was surprised by the Christian-ness of it; I suspect that feature explains some of its enduring popularity. I was surprised that one of the main characters is a sociologist. The book is very much of its time - in technology, gender relations, and so on. It emphasizes the way tough times can change people for the better and for the worse. And it embodies the sort of lightly paranoid anti-government stance that permeated popular culture in the years after Vietnam and Watergate.

Recommended but only for true lovers of the post-apocalyptic and/or of Stephen King. I will give it four stars on Goodreads, in contrast  to the five stars I gave to Station Eleven.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Book: Plenitude by Grant McCracken

 McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, Book 1. Toronto: Periph.:Fluide.

I had meant to read this for many years - ever since it became clear how much of an influence it had on two of my favorite reason magazine editors: Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel. Indeed, you can get a sense of the book from the corresponding article in reason in 1998. If you do a search at reason.com you will obtain a long list of citations to the book in the 20+ years since its publication, most of them by Nick.

The reason (cough, cough) for all this attention at reason is clear: McCracken documents and celebrates the technology-driven destruction of gatekeepers and decentralization of intellectual and social life that characterizes the past three decades. Cultural libertarianism marvels at changes that provide so much scope for individuals to live their lives as they please.

One choice bit:

"The fashion system does not work as it once did. Once, what came into fashion was obliged to go out of fashion. The old was forced out by the new. But fads and fashions no longer seem as thoroughly discredited by their fall from grace. Even platform shoes can stay in circulation. It's as if we are surrounded by the archaeological accumulation of all the styles of life we ever cared about. They can come again, and they do."

There is a wise discussion of the dark side of plenitude, which I think McCracken underestimated a bit in the relatively innocent days just prior to the Millennium. There is a most enjoyable takedown of the left's narrow and excessively political notions of diversity; sadly, the takedown defied my efforts to find a short quotation that truly delivers the punch. 

And, on page 40, one very poor prediction:

"Poor Donald Trump, once the "short-fingered vulgarian" so despised by Spy Magazine, is no longer emblematic enough to enrage or embarrass."

McCracken has a blog, called cultureby.com, and is an occasional tweeter @grant27. It will perhaps not surprise that he has a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

The book is out of print. I got mine on Abebooks. The first copy I bought had a printer error (!) and was missing some pages while providing duplicates of others. I am not sure if that makes it worth more (as it would with postage stamps) or worth less (or even worthless). Both copies are signed and dedicated - the one without the printer error to someone called Karal.

Highly recommended: a quick, fun, and surprisingly deep read.

A bit of Independence Day humor from our friends across the pond


 

4th of July

 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

Hell yeah. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book: Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Bythell, Shaun. 2020. Confessions of a Bookseller. DRG.

This book chronicles a year in the life of its curmudgeonly author, who runs the largest used bookstore in Scotland.

There are tales of his eccentric employees, eccentric townspeople, eccentric Scots with books to sell, and eccentric customers. A couple examples of the latter group serve to capture the book's flavor:

A young woman bought a copy of the Kama Sutra and offered to do a reading from it for Facebook. I thought it best to decline.

and

Just one customer by lunchtime, huffing and puffing his way around the shop. He managed to redeem himself by spending [50 pounds] and telling me--with no apparent sense of irony--about a bookshop in Cornwall that has a huge sign at the counter which reads `NO ANECDOTES.'

Another way to get a sense of the book is to watch a couple of the videos whose creation it describes, such as the "kindle fire" video and the "night before Christmas" video.

Amidst all this fun the reader also learns a lot about the business of running a used bookstore in the modern age - e.g. the number of online orders received is recorded for each day, along with the number of said books actually found in this shop, which is often less.

I enjoyed it thoroughly but I am a bibliophile and have some Scots hiding in my family tree. 

This is the other book I got at Kismet books in Verona a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Book: Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter

McWhorter, John. 2017. Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca. Bellevue Literary Press.

McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia and also a bit of a public intellectual. 

This sentence from the book's final chapter captures its main point:

"I have sought to help the reader actually hear Black English in a new way, to hear it as an alternate kind of English rather than as bad grammar and a lively slang." 

Put differently, McWhorter wants you to think of Black English in relation to Standard American English like you would Swiss German in relation to High German or Scots in relation to standard British English. It seeks to persuade intelligent and curious non-linguists to adopt this view by providing a gentle introduction to relevant aspects of the academic literature on the substance and history of Black English. I found the case it makes compelling. 

Along the way, the reader learns fun new terms like "diglossia", "monophthongization", and "variationist socio-linguistics" and receives a short lesson on the history of minstrelsy. I particularly enjoyed McWhorter's takes on Harry Reid's famous comment about Obama's speaking style and on the NFL's "who dat" New Orleans Saints t-shirt controversy. And what one might call his "third way" take on the n-word provides an elegant, linguistically grounded, and new (to me at least) way to think about an old issue.

I found McWhorter's prose a delight to read. The blurb from the New Yorker review on the back cover refers to his "intelligent breeziness" - surely a compliment we can all aspire to. McWhorter also does a fine job of deploying pop culture references. I laughed aloud on numerous occasions.

Finally, the most astounding thing about this book in this age of polarization and cancel culture is McWhorter's generosity of spirit. He assumes his reader is intelligent, reasonable, interested in learning and, perhaps, in being persuaded to change their mind, and proceeds accordingly. Amazing.

Highly recommended.

I ordered this from the soon-to-reopen-for-browsing Seminary Co-op Bookstore. You can too.