The joy of sharing

"Brother, Can You Spare a Room," my essay about Thomas Butler Gunn's 1857 book The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, appears in the 29 March 2009 issue of the New York Times Book Review. There's also a blog post about it on Paper Cuts. In buying the book itself, you have the option of the Cornell University Library facsimile, which has all the illustrations (browsable online here), or the Rutgers University Press reprint, which has an introduction, explanatory end notes, and a sample of the illustrations. The woodcuts featured with my essay in the Times illustrate (1) the joy of sharing a bed with people who lie "on their backs, with their knees making a pyramid of the bed-clothes . . . [and] moan all night like broken-hearted ring-doves," (2) German boarders, and (3) the Landlady Who Drinks.

History of the assembly line from below

A friend advises me that Faber Finds, the semi-automated paperback reprint series launched recently by the British publisher Faber & Faber, has just made available most of Mass-Observation's early works. (Mass-Observation was a British movement devoted to the study of everday life; I wrote about its history in "Surveillance Society," an article published in the 11 September 2006 issue of The New Yorker, and at the time posted an online supplement on this blog.) Some of M-O's books have been reprinted over the years, but Faber Finds is restoring more of them to circulation than ever, and some of the books are worth reading as literature. The most artful is May the Twelfth, a sort of distributed prose documentary of the coronation of George VI (skip the theoretical passages, which look a little algebraic and don't make much sense), and perhaps the easiest to enjoy is The Pub and the People, a study of drinking and other behaviors in Britain's public houses which makes its sympathies clear ("Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado are teetotalers. Baldwin, Marx, Engels, and the Duke of Windsor are not"). I was able to mention these and a few other M-O books in my article, however, so what most pleases me now is Faber's restoration of another title, War Factory, which I didn't then have room to discuss.

In 1943, a Mass-Observer named Celia Fremlin, a psychologist who was later the author of crime thrillers, wrote War Factory, a brief, gem-like account of petulance and vacant-mindedness on an assembly line, where Fremlin worked incognito. The first hours of the repetitive work, she observes, are "definitely pleasant, rather like knitting in a fairly plain pattern," and she is at pains to be just to this pleasure: "It is hard for anyone who has not tried it to realise the curious, almost exhilarating sense of the slipping away of all responsibilities that comes over people after a few days in this sort of work." In the end, though, she finds such mindless labor "quite unsuited to adult human beings," and she describes with novelistic flair the pettiness, grumbling, overeating, "lavatory-mongering," resentment, and general air of passivity it induces. Hilda, a heavyset woman, eats sandwiches made by her mother, stolidly, without knowing what's in them. Molly gloats over how much she's making. Sadie dawdles but shares her candy and cigarettes. There's an element of Pale Fire pastiche in the footnotes, which were written in rebuttal by the manager of the factory—a rebuttal for the most part obtuse.  The book is full of insights as subtle as its jokes; the management scientists of the world neglect it at their peril.

Just kidding

In the New York Times of 12 May 2008, Edward N. Luttwak made the dubious, inflammatory claim that if Barack Obama were to be elected President, Muslim religious leaders around the world would call for his execution as an apostate. Now Luttwak has written a letter published in the 4 March 2009 issue of the Times Literary Supplement asserting that he, nearly alone among moderns, finds the plays of Menander funny. A mystery is hereby resolved. Many were under the impression that Luttwak knew something about international relations. It turns out that his true capacity is for humor.

Fact-check the Leibovitz-bankruptcy meme now

There's a new meme going around, begun by a blogger named Julia Miranda and propagated here, to the effect that the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz's money troubles, which have forced her to pawn the copyright to her photos, were caused by inheritance tax she had to pay on property left to her by her late lover Susan Sontag. If lesbians were allowed to marry, the claim goes, Leibovitz wouldn't be in such trouble.

Scott McLemee points out that Sontag developed such an aversion to marrying after her first experience that it's far from clear that she would have taken advantage of an opportunity to marry Leibovitz. But there's also a factual problem: it doesn't in fact seem to be true that Leibovitz took out the loans to pay inheritance taxes. According to the Telegraph story that Julia Miranda cites, Leibovitz "declined to comment on the specific reasons for the loans." According to the New York Times article that first broke the news of Leibovitz pawning her copyright, friends said she planned to use "the money to pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses." A Daily Mail story claims that Sontag-estate taxes were to blame, but the story's anonymous author doesn't seem to have interviewed anyone who would know, and according to a squib in Trusts & Estates, Sontag actually left most of her estate to her son, David Rieff. Meanwhile, a blogger named Jason Cochran claims that Leibovitz's money troubles are more likely caused by her renovation of a Greenwich Village townhouse, which damaged the townhouse next door and brought on a costly lawsuit.

Putting all that to one side, of course, it remains true and widely unappreciated that the denial of marriage rights to gays and lesbians costs them money and trouble. It muddies the waters, however, to make claims that are probably untrue, and at best unverifiable.