E-book Sales Are Down

The ever-alert and bookish among you probably have seen this item already, but sales of e-books in England are down 17% over the last year.

That’s a notable decline, one worthy of several comments.  First, the decline, though striking, is likely a one-time event.  Consumer sales of any non-essential item (that is, any item not called “soap,” “toilet paper,” “toothpaste,” “razor blades,” or “laundry detergent,”) are subject to swings and cycles like the stock market.  As I have remarked before, the markets go up and down, but they go up over time.  The ease with which e-books may be purchased and  the convenience of reading them are powerful factors in their business models, factors which should sustain them throughout difficult times like the past year.

That said, the relative low price of an e-book–more or less half of what we’d pay for the physical copy of the book–has contributed to what’s being called “screen fatigue.”  It’s just too bloomin’ easy to buy an e-book.  Speaking only for myself, I try to be selective in my purchases; I try to buy only good, interesting books.  Even so, I have to rein myself in every month from clicking on  a purchase I don’t really need to make.  Despite that discipline, I have many more books on my Kindle than I can read in the near future.  In a way, that’s good (potentially more posts than I ever thought possible for Books Here And There)*, but in a way that’s bad, because I could read myself blind, if I’m not careful.  The analysts are calling the phenomenon “screen fatigue”; it’s more “card fatigue.”  We tend to take for granted those things which are cheap and easily available, and yet there’s only so much we can spend on books of any kind.

There’s another factor, too, one that e-book developers are highly aware of:  reading a physical book is an inherently-sensuous experience:  the appearance of the typeface; the feel of the paper on our fingers; the rustle of the pages as we turn them; the heft of the book as we hold it; the attractiveness of the book’s cover.  E-book manufacturers have tried to make reading those books as easy and as pleasant as possible, but they know that no matter how many e-books are available, they’ll never be able to match the experience of reading a physical book, especially a well-made physical book.  The bibliophiles I know cherish both kinds and read both kinds.  Each has its usefulness and its pleasures, and the more modern of the two isn’t going anywhere, despite last year’s decline.

[*Books Here And There began in the spring of 2014.  After the initial post of May 22 of that year, I sat down and drew up a list of ten topics I wanted to write about.  After that, I had no idea where the blog might get its material.  It wasn’t like writing a baseball blog or a current events blog, both of which have an inherent structure to buttress the content.  If you told me I would still be writing about books today, three years later, I would not have believed you.]


Independent Bookstore Day

According To Twitter, it’s Independent Bookstore Day.  I hope you’ll support it by going to one of those small, locally-run shops we all know about and buying a previously-hidden treasure.

That’s one of the values of such places.  One can often find little-read but wonderfully-done books like Arnold Williams’ The Common Expositor lying around, and bookish souls can often meet other bookish souls there, too.  That may be one of the most important values of the independents.  Those who run them are all-too-aware of how risky and thinly-profitable they are, but payment also comes through being connected to a community through the circulation of ideas and human good will.  They aren’t just selling, and you aren’t just buying:  both of you together are creating a social web that helps keep the whole of us together.



The Zen Master Becomes One With The Universe

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the seminal works of my generation, has died at the age of eighty-eight.

The subtitle of the book says far more about the content of the book than the momentarily-catchy title:  An Inquiry Into Values.  On the surface, it was the account of a motorcycle trip across the American West by a father and son.  Beneath the surface, it was a painstaking, and often painful, search for the meaning of life, and an attempt to discover how to live in harmony with nature in an increasingly mechanized world.

There are other books of philosophy written by warm human beings:  Abraham Maslow’s Toward A Psychology of Being comes to mind; so does Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Notations and The Examined Life.  But no other book of its day connected the old philosophical truism, “Man’s search for meaning”–the stuff every philosopher swears she’s interested in–so firmly to the lives that millions of us actually live.  The tension is often palpable in Zen between father and son as their motorcycles move down the roads; they love each other so much it hurts.  The book is at its best in many of those real moments.

What Pirsig tries to do in all of his philosophical asides, however, is show us that people have been there before.  Our suffering, while it is often acute, is not exactly unique.  When the pain comes, as it did for the elder Pirsig when he was a diagnosed schizophrenic, we seldom think of the common bonds of suffering, but they are there.  We are held by them whether we want to be or not; and the knowledge of that shared suffering may bring us some comfort, if we let it.  If.  That’s where the Zen comes in.  The Western mind is conditioned to believe that suffering must be fought and overcome.  Even our religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–are rooted in this idea, even as they point toward a life after death.  But the Eastern way, the Way of Zen, is grounded in the acceptance of life in all of its twists and turns, and suggests that the survival of all we value is best accomplished by remaining lightly-rooted in the earth under our feet, as we sway in the winds of whatever storms may come.

Pirsig’s attempt to examine Western and Eastern philosophy and his attempt to harmonize them within the framework of a quintessential American adventure confused a hundred publishers, each of whom rejected the book.  They did so because their minds were not young enough to receive it.  The generation to whom Pirsig was speaking was the same generation that read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and responded to its evocation of an earlier green and undying age of our own world with a growing contempt for mechanized things.

Pirsig knew we had to find a way to preserve the one and live with the other.  He knew that we ourselves had to make peace with the shortness of our lives and our own inevitable deaths.  He also knew, however, that the efforts to do so might bring us an illumination we would not otherwise have, and a calmness we would not otherwise possess.


The Statues Come Down

I see in the news that the city of New Orleans has begun to remove some of the statues commemorating the Confederate states–by night, and under guard.  Here’s a background piece on the lengthy efforts of citizens and government officials to get the statues removed.  Not much in there on what the city plans to do with the statues, but I have read–and am comforted by the thought–that the statues will be stored and ultimately displayed somewhere.

That is as it should be.  Symbols of white supremacy though they may be, the statues also stand as symbols of a shared, painful past.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we can erase that past by simply removing those statues and destroying them; nor can we teach future generations lessons from that past if there are not tangible objects to point to  from that actual past.

There is one thing that cannot be removed with the statues:  the pain and degradation and suffering caused by the centuries-long folly of our ancestors.  That will remain as long as there are any of us with a knowledge of our history, as long as there are any of us with a conscience.


Shakespeare, The Seer

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together:  our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.”  All’s Well That Ends Well (IV.iii)

Whether he is dealing with frivolous comedy, epic tragedy, or a tale that acknowledges the troublesome blend of good and evil in all of us, no one has exceeded Shakespeare’s gift at seeing the contradictions in the human character and expressing them in such highly compressed and beautiful language.  In many ways, Shakespeare always had that gift:  even in the early comedies, we find him seeking ways to sum up human nature and express its value.  As You Like It, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet–all have encapsulating speeches that reflect the character’s desire–and possibly Shakespeare’s–to take the measure of humanity.  Because Shakespeare’s gift for summation occurs so early in his career, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the descriptive term “problem plays,” as applied to those plays like All’s Well, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest, wherein the mingling of virtues and vices in people is readily apparent.  The “problem” of the “problem plays” was always there from the start.  The problem is in us, not necessarily in Shakespeare’s fiction or in him.

And yet, it also seems clear that something happened, or deepened, in Shakespeare, as he approached mid-career.  I do not know what it was.  Scholars usually point to the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet at the age of eleven, and perhaps that was it.  But tragic as the event was, the death of the young in Renaissance England and Europe was a commonplace.  Families steeled themselves against it.  We know this from demographic data about the period and from what those who survived said about such deaths.  So, other scholars have sought not to place much weight on Hamnet’s death, and have looked for other possibilities.  Hamnet’s death may have given Shakespeare a deeper, more profound perspective on life; or it may simply have forced him to draw upon perceptions that were already present in him.  I would not be surprised either way.  Events happen in life, and life does change us.

The actor Jimmy Stewart was known early in his career for movies that blended comedy, drama, and romance (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; The Philadelphia Story).  After World War II, however, in which Stewart served with distinction as a bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, his choice of movie material became darker, grittier.  Even the splendid comedies It’s a Wonderful Life and Harvey have darkness about them (go back and look at the scene where George Bailey berates Thomas Mitchell’s character for losing the bank’s money and exposing them to ruin and disgrace; realize how close Elwood P. Dowd is to a place in the loony bin for believing in a six-foot tall rabbit); the dramas are all dark (Broken Arrow, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Greatest Show on Earth, Vertigo).  In part, the changes came about because Stewart aged; but Stewart himself admitted that the war changed him.  All of the people he killed on his many bombing runs altered his idea of human beings were capable of, and he could not go back to a lighter, gayer attitude toward the human experience or toward himself.

Something similar happened to Shakespeare.  To his everlasting credit, he does not give up on life, but he contends with it, sometimes lovingly, sometimes harshly; but always with the aim of understanding it, of expressing its full complexity.  Our passions, and our efforts to control them, as expressed in our morality, have been the stuff of drama going back to the Greeks.  They are the subject of our deepest novels (Pride and Prejudice, War And Peace, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick).  But no one has said so much about them so  thoughtfully using so little space as Shakespeare has.  At times, he sees with a clear and steady eye (as in The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra); at other times, the illumination comes like lightning (as in King Lear) or the glow of sunset (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but in whatever form it comes, it’s always amazing to discover again how much he has seen, and how well he is able to reveal to us what he knows.


Why I Love Charlotte Bronte

Yesterday was the birthday of Charlotte Bronte.  This is the 170-year anniversary of the publication of Jane Eyre, so the history of her life and the history of the book have both reached significant points.  I didn’t forget her birth, but there was no time to write anything about it.

Garrison Keillor and the minions who do research for him have this to say about her:

“She and her sisters published a volume of poetry in 1846, under the masculine-sounding pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. She wrote, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”

Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847, and in it she drew heavily upon her boarding school experiences and her early career to tell the story of a plain and penniless orphan governess who falls in love with her troubled — and married — employer. It was a best-seller, but critics called it “coarse” and “un-Christian,” and the criticism only increased when it was revealed that Currer Bell was really a woman.

Within a year of the novel’s publication, Charlotte’s three remaining siblings died: Anne and Emily of tuberculosis, and Branwell of alcohol and laudanum abuse. Charlotte remained close to home, caring for their father, and in 1854 she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She became pregnant soon after, but died of complications of pregnancy in 1855.”

I lock in on that phrase, “the weapon of personality,” and its converse, “a flattery, which is not true praise.”  The word and the attitude of heart and mind that Bronte assails here is condescension which, in its original meaning in Middle English, meant “to defer or yield” to loveliness or excellence, but which, since Bronte’s day and into ours, has declined into “subtly expressing the belief in one’s superiority.”  Bronte couldn’t stand such condescension when she heard it, and she’s not alone.  Millions of women the world over have put up with the sound of it for centuries, but Bronte’s voice was among the first to penetrate the irritating barrier of all the other voices in the lower register to say, “NO MORE!”

She didn’t just shout it, either.  Jane Eyre is not a polemic.  But for God’s sake, what else could you possibly want if you called out for a work that explains and justifies in a forthright and compassionate way the need to treat women as the human beings they are?  I claimed less than a week ago that the sexes actually know each other pretty well.  I stand by that claim.  We do know each other well.  But we can always improve our relations.  We always need reminders of what to do and say to express our love and respect for each other.  Jane Eyre stands as such a reminder.  It is a guide book for how to treat the opposite sex.  There are very, very few novels we could put in that class, but in my opinion, it belongs there.

This is why I love Charlotte Bronte.  She produced a work of fiction that can actually help us live.  Jane Eyre is a loving and sometimes erring woman, but she is nearly always honest and compassionate.  She puts St. John Rivers in his proper place, and though she could have destroyed Rochester had she chosen to do so, she does not.  She will fight with him, yes, as a loving, intelligent human being will do, but she fights with him to make him her ally, not her enemy.  Sometimes, that male-female struggle costs us our lives, as it does in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and as it does the couples who trudge wearily into the divorce courts after twenty-five years of trying to see eye to eye.  I prefer, however, the happier ending of those who have learned to live together, who have learned that, within the deepest human relationships, there is always this choice to make:  to win the argument or to do the right thing; and the only choice to make when those circumstances arise is the latter, rather than the former.

Given the shocking hardness of the lives of the Bronte family, the last thing any of us should expect out of them is love or tenderness, but those who have traveled the hardest roads often have surprising gentleness within, and they will express it to those who listen to them or read their words without judgment in their hearts.  The last thing we should have expected out of Charlotte Bronte was Jane Eyre.  But she gave it to us anyway, and it stands as a novel far ahead of its time.  The critics were right:  it is an “un-Christian” book, because it shows us that those who believe that the Kingdom of God is within us ought not to seek dominion over another.  We are, all of us, better for that lesson, and we will continue to be better the more of us there are who learn it.


Steve Ballmer Does The Public A Service

Former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer has done a good work of public service by making freely available a 140-page digest of current USA budget and demographic data.  He did so because, like millions of other citizens, he could not find that data years ago when he made a search for it.

His response was to create the website USAFacts.org to make the data easier to find.  Users can search by specific data that interests them, or they can do as I did and download all of the current data in PDF format.

Not everyone believes that Ballmer’s project will do much good.  Andrew Cunningham, over at Ars Technica, sits firmly in the camp that believes “facts don’t change people’s minds.”  Those who believe that way usually cite, as Cunningham does, psychological studies which do suggest that, when confronted by facts, people do tend to stick to the facts and the mere notions they had received before.

My response to Cunningham’s argument, however, is to disagree with it, mostly because those studies measure short-term views, not long-term thinking.  I disagree with it also because, over the long term to which I refer, changes in our thinking as a whole do occur, and they occur because people do, finally, accept the truth of a set of proffered conditions.

How many examples would you care for me to cite?  Every major step in human advancement has come because those who had once opposed the facts eventually yielded to them:  the operation of our solar system, the flatness of the earth, smallpox vaccinations, evolution, segregation laws: the facts that gave us the truth about each of these propositions were deeply opposed by millions of people until the weight of the factual evidence became so overwhelming that the verifiable truth could no longer be ignored.  Facts do change people’s minds, but it takes time for them to do so, and resistance to those facts will always be offered.  Resistance does not invalidate those facts.  Confirmed scientific fact is true whether one believes in it or not.

Cunningham is, I believe, one of those millions of distressed millennials who, because half the electorate did not accept his set of facts in the last Presidential election (the set of facts that supported the nomination of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders), has given up on the use of facts at all.  I hope I am wrong in that belief.  To give up on the effort to accumulate facts and to broadcast their meaning through public channels and debate is an act of intellectual suicide.  We can afford a few intellectual suicides among individuals (good-bye, Bill O’Reilly; farewell, Keith Olbermann), but we dare not take that course as a part of humanity as a whole.  And we haven’t.  Billions of people the world over still rely on facts to get them through their days, and they are open to the acceptance of new facts as those come in.  Many of those people–in Europe, in China, and in India, to name only three large places–have a much firmer grasp on the facts than we do in every field I could name.  Ballmer’s website is a small but worthy effort to foster a more informed and enlightened American public.  I hope you’ll take the time to study at least a little of the data he has collected for any field of government that interests you.

[Postscript on paragraphs three and four above:  the main reason people are not immediately convinced by the “facts” of a case is “facts” often stand as the accumulated data related to a set of conditions.  The data may react to those conditions and it is the result of the reaction that persuades people, not the facts themselves.  Yet, the facts have to be there, and we have to keep searching for them, or the reaction won’t happen.  For example, in the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner could explain the effects of his smallpox vaccine until he was blue in the face (and he did), but it was not until people actually saw their children and their neighbors recover from the disease that they accepted the facts that lay behind his treatment.]