For Sale

Don’t worry, capitalism has not tainted the escutcheon of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. No money was earned in the writing of this post. But since I have already wasted the time collecting the links, here are some books for sale on the web very cheap, including a couple that I’ve written about lately, a couple that I happily possess, and a few I still covet.

Because Soft Skull Press is being sold to Winton Shoemaker in June, they need cash now, for reasons I have not tried to fathom but which you may exploit, because David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find, which I wrote about last week, can currently be had for $9.

As semesters across the country end, university press publishers are hunkering down for the long sales-dry summer, to survive which a number of them cut prices. If you don’t have tenure or an equivalent salary, this is the time to buy hardcovers at the price of paperbacks. (All of the following are hardcovers.) The University of North Carolina Press is selling American Heretic, Dean Grodzins’s biography of Theodore Parker for $19.95; I posted a killed review of the book back in February (somehow that phrase reminds me of killed-virus vaccines). Students of Transcendentalism might also want to look into the University of Georgia Press’s white sale, where they can obtain the Complete Poems of the divinely mad Jones Very for $17.50, and the Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, Waldo’s influential aunt, for $16.25. (At the University of Georgia website, you have to enter the special code “WS07” in order to get the discount.)

Meanwhile, Oxford will sell you the hardcover of Christopher Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse for just $15, and Yale will sell you Roy Porter and G. S. Rousseau’s Gout, a book I haven’t read but always wanted to, for $27.50, and Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861, a book I leaf through often, for $14.98. (With Yale, the secret code to enter is “YSALE”.) Finally, Labyrinth Books is offering many, many not-quite-new Library of America volumes for about $16 each. (These are the only sale books in my list that aren’t in fact brand-new.)

Pattern in Material Book Culture

Folk_culture_cover

I’ve threatened, at various times, to say unkind words about book design. But I realized recently that it would be better for my karma to say a few kind ones. In fact, there’s a lot of book design that I like, and it isn’t easy to choose which book to praise. It occurred to me that the purest selection would be of a book I haven’t actually read, so that any fondness I might have for content would be neutralized. And I haven’t actually read (not every page, anyway) Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), which, according to the back flap of the dust jacket, was designed by someone named Bud Jacobs.

As a rule I’m not wild about typographic covers, but I like this one, because the wood-block lettering nods to the book’s theme of handmade culture and to its time period. You know at once that this is a book about America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and that it’s a little nostalgic, but not fussily so. This is going to be a kind of playful remix. The size of the words corresponds to their importance: in descending order, Folk, Culture, United States, and Pattern. Also, no computer went near this cover. Every letter on it was manifestly kerned by eye and hand.

The page design for Pattern is a scholarly kind of beautiful. It geeks out, and it makes geeking out look lovely. The footnotes are at the feet of the pages, for one thing—not banished to the book’s end. This is important, because the notes are designed, as the author explains in his “Apology and Acknowledgment,” to “provide a loose bibliographical essay.” They’re a kind of anchor to the book’s text, which the author describes as an “impressionistic introduction.” The text meanders, while the footnotes march on, beneath, in an orderly regiment.

Stonewall

As a third design component, the book has many illustrations, one on nearly every other page, each of which comes with a leisurely caption, which in some cases amounts to a free-standing essay. In the layout above, for example, the caption discusses variations in stone walls, from New England to Kentucky, while the text focuses on the dogtrot house typical of farms in the Deep South, and a footnote directs the reader to descriptions of Alabama dogtrots in Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, among other sources.

Glassie’s book isn’t merely bibliography and synthesis, however. Some of the information comes from his own field work. He presents a photograph of a rabbit gum, a wooden box trap to catch rabbits. And he prints an interview with a man who used to “sting” fish as a boy; when he saw a fish swimming just under the ice of a creek, he would hit the ice with a mallet to stun the fish beneath, and then cut the ice and take the stunned fish out. An illustration displays the man’s sketch, from memory, of his fish stinging mallet, and a footnote assures the reader that “stinging fish is not a tall tale” by pointing to a similar recollection in print elsewhere. But I’m becoming distracted from pure design, so here’s another layout, which mixes line drawings, a photograph, and a caption to show you how to make a slingshot out of a coathanger, West Philadelphia-style.

Slingshot

There’s an index of fearful completeness, of everything from bacon-grease salad dressing to lobster pots. And one more clever touch worth mentioning, the book’s spine:

Folk_culture_spine

Spines

It’s a little hard to read, because the technology was no longer really up to spec for machine-made books in 1968, but Bud Jacobs seems to have tried to gild the book’s spine in the style of American books of the mid-nineteenth century. Jacobs stamped the spine with an indicator hand, the book’s title, and the press’s insignia. Back in the day, gilded spines were even more elaborate, in many cases, and the gilding was applied by hand. To the right are a few samples from the 1840s and 1850s, featuring a philanthropess, a waif, and a den of iniquity; a conductor; floral bouquets; the scales of justice; and an all-seeing eye.

Torture, novels, and contingency

Do novels spread human rights and discourage torture? UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt argues that they do, according to Gordon S. Wood’s review in the 8 April 2007 New York Times Book Review of her new book Inventing Human Rights: A History. In the eighteenth century, when novels were invented and became wildly popular, people became acutely sympathetic to the plight of others. Hunt believes that the first trend caused the second: "Novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings" (Hunt, qtd. by Wood in his review). As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity.

Wood is skeptical; he sees the correlation but not the causality, writing that "this heightened novel reading seems much more a consequence than a cause of the new feelings of equality and sympathy." Though Wood doesn’t have room in his review to name them, I imagine that he would point to underlying socioeconomic changes.

It does seem a little impious to find the cause of something as weighty as human rights in something as light as Tristram Shandy. But wouldn’t the spread of literacy into even one’s private pleasures count as a powerful socioeconomic change? I confess that I find myself attracted to Hunt’s thesis, and that I latched onto it when I saw it in Wood’s review, in part because I’ve been wondering if the recent decline in novel-reading in America hasn’t got something to do with the country’s new tolerance for torture and lack of concern about human rights. It is wildly speculative to suggest, so I’m only offering it as a notion, not even as a theory. But still: is the nature of people’s sympathy for others altered by the medium they turn to for imaginative reconstructions of the world? Do people respond to torture in books differently than to torture on screen?

Recent anecdotal evidence would suggest that they do. In December, A. S.Hamrah wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the unabashed pleasure that moviegoers have lately taken in filmed depictions of torture. And in February, Jane Mayer wrote for The New Yorker about the television show 24, and the way that its fictional  representation of torture has seeped into the real-life worldview of American soldiers in Iraq.

For another example, I would point to a series of subway posters last fall that advertised a television show whose hero was a serial killer. Each poster featured a close-up of a man’s face resting somewhat feyly on a hand. For the last half dozen years, New York’s MTA has allowed advertisers to purchase all the posters in a given subway car, in order to maximize their message, and so there were always several different versions of the poster in a single car. In each, the hand and the face were in slightly different poses. Only at a second glance did a viewer notice that the skin of the hand was paler than that of the man’s face, was blotched in places with what seemed to be blood, and was positioned, in some of the posters, at such an angle that it couldn’t have belonged to the man whose face was shown, though no other person was visible. In other words, the hand belonged to the severed arm of a corpse, with which the actor was clowning. I know I’ll sound like a lightweight for saying it, but these posters made me a little sick to my stomach. I’m not really inured to the sight of human body parts as comedy props, and I don’t really want to be. And yet once I had boarded the subway car, there was nowhere I could look and not see it. It’s telling that the television producers believed, accurately, that the posters would meet with little to no protest.

It seems then, that, we can see correlation, at least, if not yet causation. But why should perceiving torture on screen change how we think of it? Perhaps the human mind responds to the sight of torture differently than to the textual description of it. Perhaps the brain’s limbic system responds to the sight of violence without first checking with the forebrain to find out whether the image is fictional. In other words, a person who see a severed arm, or who sees Kiefer Sutherland shooting a Muslim prisoner, might become frightened, at some level, though perhaps not fully conscious of his fear. His limbic system sees a strong person harming a weak one; his moral faculties, meanwhile, are neutralized by his forebrain’s awareness that the sight is fictional; and the limbic system, finding that the forebrain doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, decides to side with the strong person. It’s the safer choice, after all. All things being equal, it’s always prudent to play on the team that seems to be winning. (If I’m right about this unconscious alarm, then it has a side effect that’s highly beneficial to box-office sales: The limbic system, incapable of knowing whether the violence is fake or not, pays intense attention, whether or not the film is any good.) I don’t have any cognitive psychologists on hand to confirm my speculation. I appeal therefore to common experience: Is it really possible to watch the famous torture scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs all the way through and remain identified with the torture victim? Not only is the man mutilated and terrorized, but his torturers have all the good lines.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a vividly imagined torture scene in written fiction where the reader sides with the torturer. Maybe this is because the novel’s heyday happened to coincide with a faith in human rights, but maybe it has something to do with the cognitive processes involved. In reading, one’s forebrain is fully engaged; when it disengages, reading stops. And to every part of you except perhaps your forebrain, reading seems safe. There’s nothing about holding a book and turning its pages to alarm one’s limbic system. In fact, nothing can be "seen" without first being imagined. In Martha Gellhorn’s The Stricken Field, there’s a long description of a man being beaten to death by Gestapo agents. The reader follows its progress by means of the sounds that reach the man’s girlfriend, who has sneaked into the basement of the building, out of a desperate wish to be near him. Gellhorn explicitly denies her reader any sight of the torture—even an imagined one. We are asked to imagine hearing it, but mostly we register how it makes the young woman feel. The emotions that gather in the reader are pity for the lovers and rage at the Nazis. And the reader feels these emotions even though he knows that the characters he sympathizes with are doomed to lose. The reader is too secure to fear the Nazis or to feel tempted to admire their strength. Nor is there any of the cynical humor that sugars such violence in movies—the little knowing touches that signal to the viewer that the director knows you’re still a little uncomfortable with this new-old pleasure. (Gallows humor for the hangman’s end of the rope, as it were.)

"In our time the harshest man, writing to the most insensible person of his acquaintance, would not venture to indulge in the cruel jocularity that I have quoted," Tocqueville wrote in the second volume of Democracy in America, after relating a seventeenth-century noblewoman’s mockery of a fiddler broken on the wheel, and then drawn and quartered, for resisting a tax.

And even if his own manners allowed him to do so, the manners of society at large would forbid it. Whence does this arise? Have we more sensibility than our fathers? I do not know that we have, but I am sure that our sensibility is extended to many more objects.

Manners and mores change, as Tocqueville liked to point out. Perhaps we now have less sensibility than our fathers. Maybe socioeconomic forces have something to do with it, by providing (or removing) the grounds for political equality. But sophistication doesn’t, as the philosopher Richard Rorty explains in a chapter of his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In a discussion of Owell’s novel 1984, which Rorty puts in the category of "books which help us become less cruel," Rorty argues that by making O’Brien, the novel’s torturer, "a curious, perceptive intellectual—much like us," Orwell keeps his readers from the mistake of thinking that our sort of person wouldn’t be capable of O’Brien’s mindset. In fact, sophisticated people can learn to take an aesthetic interest in torture and to withhold their sympathy from victims. Rorty concludes:

[I]ntellectual gifts—intelligence, judgment, curiosity, imagination, a taste for beauty—are as malleable as the sexual instinct. They are as capable of as many diverse employments as the human hand. The kinks in the brain which provide these gifts have no more connection with some central region of the self— a "natural" self which prefers kindness to torture, or torture to kindness—than do muscular limbs or sensitive genitals. What our future rulers will be like will not be determined by any large necessary truths about human nature and its relation to truth and justice, but by a lot of small contingent facts.

What if the decline of the novel is one of those contingencies?

NYRB has a blog

Verlaine_1

You probably already knew that Serge Gainsbourg ripped off Paul Verlaine’s "Chanson d’automne" in his song "Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais" ("I’ve Come to Say I’m Leaving"). In the poem, Verlaine remembers the old days and cries; in the song, the woman whom Gainsbourg is dumping does. (And maybe he ripped it off again in "Black Trombone," which, like Verlaine’s poem, rhymes monotone with automne; the idea of rhyming both words with autochtone, however, must be unequivocally credited to Gainsbourg.)

You may not, however, have known that the poem is painted on a wall in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was turned on to the wall poems of Leiden by a new blog, A Different Stripe, produced by the always-excellent New York Review Books (NYRB) series. Worth checking out.