Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Primer for Buying Used, Rare and Out-of-print Books on Amazon (Part I)

Every now and again it hits me what technological babies we all are. In the pre-internet 1980s, I wrote my graduate school work on a Commodore 128. The only thing it was good for was word processing -- it may have been able to do other things as well, but I didn't know what those might be.  Just before I finished my dissertation, its keyboard failed -- in particular, the letters 'J' and "M" virtually stopped working -- and writing my dissertation about a quarterly journal that was published in January, May and June became something of a challenge. (Since the Commodore hardware wasn't compatible with anything else, and since the model I owned had been phased out, getting just a new keyboard was out of the question.)

I think about the infantile state of our human species vis-a-vis the world of high-tech every time I see an grossly-inappropriate tweet, receive a too-hastily-sent email, or hear of someone who has been scammed by a 17-year-old Ukranian claiming to be his or her "soul mate" ("And won't you please send me the money it will take to enable us finally to meet and be together forever: bail, hospital fees, insurance bonds, court costs, $10,000 for a new passport, etc.?") We are so new to this world (even those who grew up with it) that we just haven't yet acquired enough technological 'life experience' to avoid the pitfalls with any regularity.

This brings us to the subject at hand: namely books. The other day we had a call from someone who lived in our village and who knew that we were booksellers. Could we find her a particular book for her, please?

So we asked the usual questions. But our first question was: "Have you looked on Amazon?" After all, it's what most people do these days when looking for a book, or anything else for that matter.

Her reply is one we've had in response to the same question, asked of many other callers requesting that we find scarce books for them over the years. "I'm afraid to go on Amazon to find old books. It's too confusing. It's hard to know which sellers to trust on Amazon." And we can sympathize. Amazon is great for buying new products, including recently-published, in-print books.  But out-of-print, used or rare books are something else again.

Actually, Amazon.com  can be a great place to buy used, rare and out of print books. It is easy, quick, and the range of choice is astonishingly vast. Books you never knew existed can be found there, and books you have spent years hunting for are there, too. Amazon began its corporate life as a book-selling site, and is still the "World’s Largest [Books] Marketplace."

But at the same time, book-buying on Amazon can be something of a challenge, especially when it comes to uncommon or hard-to-find books. Many sellers, both professional and amateur, inhabit the site, with different ways of doing business, different levels of professionalism, and different methods for describing and merchandizing their books. Like any online platform, getting the things you want in the condition you want in the timeframe you want is a matter of savvy shopping and the ability to look for warning signs when they appear.

In this 2-Part series of blogs, we'll quickly go through what to watch out for as you navigate the minefield that is Amazon used-book buying, so that you and the book you want can be happily united.

The Basics:

1. As almost everyone knows, Amazon as a corporate entity sells books themselves. These are usually the ones associated with the headlined, one-click ordering options. In-print books fall into this category, and when you purchase from Amazon itself you will receive a new copy from one of their many US warehouses.

2. Out-of-print, used, and rare books are sold almost-exclusively on Amazon by Third-Party sellers (3Ps). These are businesses (like us) or individuals who have a relationship with Amazon, and who are permitted to sell on the Amazon platform for a fee.

(Of course, 3Ps can also sell in-print books on Amazon as well. In the example above, the $4.11 copy is sold by Amazon itself, and the "154 new and used copies" under "More Buying Choices" and starting at $0.01 are being sold by 3P sellers.)

3. 3P sellers have to follow Amazon's rules on things like returns, the condition-grading of items for sale, quick turnaround of orders, and delivery deadlines, but can set their own rules about some other things (pricing, the content and format of their book descriptions, shipping methods, and their standards for packing books). Amazon also does its best to 'police' 3P sellers to ensure that Amazon customers will have a good buying experience. (More about that in Part II)

4. Amazon 3P sellers may be based in the USA or may be operating from somewhere overseas. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which. (Again, more on that later.)

5. Although many 3P sellers store their books on their own premises or at nearby locations, many others ship all their merchandise to a centralized Amazon warehouse, and orders are packed and sent to you from that warehouse (in these cases you will see "Fulfilled by Amazon" somewhere in the Seller's listing).

5. You can message 3P sellers with questions before you buy using Amazon's "Ask a question" option. Amazon expects all 3P sellers to respond to messages promptly (the rule is a response within 24 hours) and courteously.

When you see a seller's name in the list of books for sale, simply click on the name and you will get a window that looks like this:

Click on the yellow "Ask a question" button and write your message to the seller. Your email or other identifying information will be masked, and will not be available to the seller.

Complaints after buying are directed through the Your Orders page.

6. Some 3P sellers have earned what is called the Amazon "Buy Box," which is located at the righthand side of the screen as a yellow "Add to Cart" button.

Add caption
This enables one-click ordering from that buyer, even though there may be several other buyers with the same book on offer. (The Buy Box is actually one of 'Amazon's Great Mysteries.' Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away, and no one knows why.) Although clicking on the the Add to Cart link is a convenient way to order, there maybe other copies in better condition for lower prices available,

7. The only performance metric that the buyer sees for any given 3P seller is the Feedback score (calculated and shown as  between 1 and 5 yellow stars underneath the seller's name), a positive percentage rate, the lifetime number of feedback ratings, and actual buyer comments by clicking on the percentage rate link. In the screenshot below, this seller has a 4.5-star feedback rating from buyers rating with 94% positive comments, and over a million individual comments from buyers.

But there are other 3P seller metrics that Amazon itself uses to keep 3P sellers in line (overall order dissatisfaction rate, slow shipment time, the percentage of valid tracking attached to an order, fast response to buyer messages, and so on) that buyers do not see. These metrics are Amazon's way of determining whether a particular seller retains selling privileges on Amazon, and (probably) whether the seller is eligible to win the Buy Box.

That means that when you have a choice of sellers -- sometimes a choice between many, many sellers -- for an old book that you want to buy on Amazon, you have to do some added detective work.  Even reading and interpreting the Feedback scores that you CAN see is something of a challenge.

And hints for meeting that "challenge of choice" will come in Part II of this seres.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Healing powers

Unless we were very saintly children (which I was most decidedly NOT), we all remember our own particular variation of "The dog ate my homework." And so it is here. Over a year ago, and quite unexpectedly, we added a puppy to our household, and I can state with some certainty that "The puppy ate this blog."

She has been, and continues to be at the age of 22 months, a joy and a delight. We named her "Jiva," which is the Sanskrit word for the Elemental Life Force [जीव], of which she is possessed in abundance. (In her early days, some people mis-heard her name and, having seen her in action, thought we had named her "Shiva," the Deity also called "The Destroyer" in the Hindu tradition.) As our own grasp on the elemental life force seems to be a bit feeble at the moment, she has been just the tonic we have needed. But I regret that she has been such an effective excuse for months of inattention to my writing.

The other regretful thing that has effectively stopped me writing has been the incessant pounding of the 2016 political campaign and its aftermath, which seems to have begun sometime back in the Jurassic Period. This is no place to air my particular political proclivities. But as the culmination of a trend toward the diminishment of civility (and even to the diminishment of any conviction that civility is a virtue), the presidential campaign absorbed a great deal of my mental and emotional energy.

As a result, I decided to take a 'media sabbatical,' which lasted longer than I expected.

But puppies -- now even mostly grown-up puppies -- are good for the soul, and after this unexpected hiatus I have returned to this forum.

The other things that puppies are good for is nursing.

In November I fell on the ice on our front steps early in the morning and broke my leg in three places. Jiva barked and barked from inside the house, and The Spouse repeatedly told her to 'Shut up' and went back to sleep. After 40 minutes, someone on a neighboring street heard me calling and came to my rescue. The Spouse felt (and continues to feel) terrible.

All is (mainly) mended now, but I realized in the healing process how necessary a dog is to my general well-being.

Sometime in the winter someone gave me a copy of Mary Oliver's Dog Songs (Penguin, 2013). It was a healing gift -- and I had so many healing gifts last winter as I recovered -- and since then I've been giving it to everyone with very little excuse.

So, in honor of puppies, and of the Bright Succession of our old dogs now gone to their eternal rest, I finish with Oliver's hymn to her dog Luke:


I had a dog
  who loved flowers.
    Briskly she went
        through the fields,

yet paused
  for the honeysuckle
    or the rose,
        her dark head

and her wet nose
    the face
         of every one

with its petals
  of silk,
    with its fragrance

into the air
  where the bees,
    their bodies
        heavy with pollen,

  and easily
     she adored
        every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
    that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
  the way we love
     or don’t love—
        but the way

we long to be—
  that happy
    in the heaven of earth—
        that wild, that loving.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Productive Stupidity

When I was a child, there were whole classes of people who possessed an almost-Drudical power and eminence: parents, doctors, the clergy, teachers, scientists, civic leaders. Part of their power rested in the fact that everything about their lives was a mystery. The idea that my 4th grade teacher, for example, might have a life outside of the classroom, or that Mr. Justice So-and-So might vacation on Cape Cod with his spouse, quite simply never entered my mind. And even though one would occasionally hear the phrase, "Just remember, we all put our trousers on one leg at a time," no one ever seemed really to believe it.

Today, by contrast, the young know almost everything about their parents' lives, the clergy are all-too-often in the news for various indiscretions, doctors are just another cog in the machine of the medical-bureaucratic system, teachers are more and more likely to "share" stories of their off-duty experiences with their students. Even the world's royal families have not been able to preserve the shroud of mystery that had kept their power unassailable for centuries.  The exact disposition of the trousers of many of these is rarely left to the imagination.

And, all too often, our authorities have let us down. This, of course, is nothing new. With the centenary of the 1914-1918 War, the image of the British generals leading hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths at the Somme, Ypres, Verdun, the Marne is before us. The generals planned it, the clergy blessed it, the king told us that every death was noble, the press refused to report it, the politicians funded it; and after 1918, when the men in the trenches began to tell their stories, the underpinnings of the whole structures of authority started to crumble.

In his wonderful book No Sense of Place (Oxford University Press, 1986), Joshua Meyrowitz talks about this process, and about about the role of the media in pulling off the "invisibility cloak" that had allowed authority to maintain its mystique, and hence its power over us. Meyrowitz, professor of communications at the University of New Hampshire, argues that mass media have broken down the established concepts of roles, hierarchies, and identities by showing us the intimate details of the lives of authority figures, and by closing the social distance between us and them. (The number of people who said they would vote for George W. Bush because "he seemed like a guy I could sit down and have a beer with." is just one example of this.)

All of this has been brought to mind in the past week or so by the furore surrounding the vaccination of children for measles. In the past, physicians and scientists simply told us that we should be vaccinated -- for polio, for measles, for rubella and whooping cough -- and we happily complied, largely without hesitation. Many of us had seen the terrors of polio, my mother had had whooping cough as a child, her father had had smallpox. We had as a part our common memory the devastation of infectious disease, and the high-priests of science had finally conjured up our salvation from it. We were grateful. We lined up for injections. It didn't matter that we didn't understand how they worked or why they worked. The "experts," the "authorities" told us that they would work, and we believed them.

But the world has turned, and the words of one anti-vaccination mother are shared by many: "You just have to follow your own heart when it comes to medical decision-making.” In other words, we may not understand science, but we know what we like. Or perhaps because we don't understand science, and don't trust the authority of scientists, we are left with "what we like" as the ground of our decision-making. Part of our retreat from scientific authority is that, as the chemist-poet Carl Djerassi (who died at the end of January at the age of 92) says: "The talk is heavy and the words are long." And so in matters related to science, whether the science of infectious disease, or climate change, or Ebola, or the risk of the earth being hit by a meteorite, we are left to the panderers of alarm (and the anecdotes of the alarmists) to tell us what to think and believe.

Perhaps part of it is that we have begun to feel with real intensity the disjuncture between the waning authority of those who engage in scientific pursuit on the one hand, the their immense power over our lives on the other.  Carl Djerassi provides a good example. Most people, it is safe to say, had never heard of him, although among his peers he was honored and respected, not least for his work over such a wide range of scientific disciplines: from marine biology to artificial intelligence, from the structure of steroids to pest control.

But Djerassi's most lasting impact on the lives of ordinary human beings was through his groundbreaking work on oral contraceptives, which gave women control of fertility and family planning, and re-ordered the balance of power between men and women. Our lives and the life of our planet has been immeasurably and irrevocably changed by the work of this one man working in his lab on things that can only be described by "heavy talk" and "long words." (Anyone with allergies or hay fever should also be grateful to Djerassi, whose work led to the development of the first commercially-available antihistamines.)

I despair the generalized scientific illiteracy of my fellow citizens. But it is not very surprising: there is simply too much to know, and things move too fast, and even the simplest explanations, precisely because they are simple, get it wrong. The "authorities" can't explain it to us, and even if they could the underpinnings of their authority are unsound, and our trust is weakened. The group to which we belong, whether we are a "crunchy Mom," an  evangelical Christian, a vegan, or a GMO activist, has far more power to interpret the world of science than those who are actually doing the work, "the experts." Our group latches on to anecdotes about MMR vaccines and autism, or outlier studies about "the myth of climate change," or the Biblical view of the age of the earth, and we know what to think. It has become simple.

Do I have a solution to all of this? Do I even have a suggestion? Not really. I do know that as an immune-compromised person, I am really frightened that don't-know anything-about-science-but-know-what-they-like anti-vaccination people are putting me and lots of others at risk. I do know that I am really frightened by people who are not concerned with climate change because the Apocalypse is coming and God will rapture all the righteous off the planet before anything bad happens. I do know that I am really frightened by politicians who think that women can't get pregnant if they are the victims of "legitimate rape," and that LGBT people can be "made straight" with the right kind of psychological counseling.

But while the human consequences of these kinds of beliefs are indeed frightening, even more frightening is the certainty of those who hold them. No argument, no amount of new information, no evidence that their hypotheses are off-base, will shake their conviction.

In The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research (Journal of Cell Science, 2008)Martin A. Schwartz, Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Yale, talks about the role of ignorance and failure in the scientific pursuit. He says:

“The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.”

The anti-science crowd will surely use this as a further nail in the coffin for scientific authority. "They don't know what they are doing: they're just blundering around." But Schwartz is talking about a particular kind of stupidity here, a "productive stupidity," a joy in getting things wrong because you know you are on the way to getting it right, a willingness to wade into the unknown without fear.

That indeed may be the best way of approaching the work of science. But it seems to me that it is also the best way of approaching life in general. And if we could just understand that, if we could just embrace the power of "productive stupidity" (as opposed to just plain old implacable stupidity), we might not be quite so dangerous as a species.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Waiting for the Barbarians

Someone once said that "poetry is the best defense against prose." And at the beginning of a year when we will hear, read, and produce more prose than is probably good for us, I thought we should begin with a poem. The Greek poet C.F. Cavafy (1863-1933) published a fairly large body of work, but the only poem of his that I know is Waiting for the Barbarians (1904). So, with the a new Congressional year upon us, and with news of acts of terror and mayhem across the world in mind, I will reproduce here in full:

             Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
            The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

In Cavafy's poem the barbarians never do come, leaving the politicos with nothing to do and no one to blame.

But in our case the barbarians have come, and they have been very, very busy. And this week has been marked by a series of particularly barbarous public acts. For me, the most difficult image to come to grips with was of the little 10-year old Nigerian girl, strapped up to an explosive device and sent by the men of Boko Haram into a local marketplace. There they detonated the bomb by remote control, killing her and 19 others. And in this first half of the first month of the new year, there have already been too many stories like this. I feel fear and despair when I hear them. Worse still, I feel my heart slowly turning to stone.

Fear and despair and hard-heartedness are, of course, the barbarians' stock-in-trade. And in some sense they have already won: we are afraid so we don't travel and we put bigger locks on our doors, we despair so we give up on peacemaking, our hearts are hardened so we torture and we build walls between ourselves and The Other and we buy lots and lots and lots of guns.

But it is the beginning of a new year. And there is still something about the beginning of the new year that primes us for fresh starts and a future of possibilities that we intend to grasp with both hands. And we are deeply cheered, deeply moved, by the sight of millions of people filling the streets of Paris with placards: Je suis Charlie, Je suis, Ahmed, Je suis Police.

We are cheered by the growing trend in Pakistan, where for the first time young people are willing to post calls for the end of Taliban and, even in the face of the threat of reprisal, are brave enough to give their names and show their faces on social media. We are cheered by stories of medical personnel from the West traveling to West Africa to treat the victims of ebola at great personal risk. We are are cheered by acts of courage, we are cheered by visions of hope, we are cheered by signs of faith in the future.

Yes, fear and despair and hard-heartedness are the stock-in-trade of the barbarians. But they are also, sadly, the storck-in-trade of the merchants, the sellers of bombs and guns and locks and walls. So I imagine that what used to be called the 'military-industrial complex' are intensly worried about these outbreaks of hope. I imagine they are asking, like the people in the Cavafy poem, "what's going to happen to us without the barbarians?" It is a hard combination to fight, the combination of those who incite our fear and those who profit from our fear. These days, it's hard to know which sort of barbarian is the more dangerous.

But it is the beginning of a new year. And we are primed to make a fresh start. But we know today, when the barbarians have indeed come, that the hardest New Year's Resolution we may ever have to make is a commitment to hope.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How to say a year . . .

To sum up a year is an impossible thing. This year has brought us joyous joys and heart-rending sorrows and the  host of ordinary, nondescript days that have stitched them together.

So I will let the words of others capture the spirit of this year for us. And because it is poetry most of all that has the power to compress and crystallize and and illuminate human experience, these words come in the form of three poems.

We lost our last two old dogs this year, in quick succession as the nights grew longer at the tail end of the year. From his volume Aimless Love (Random House, 2013) former poet-laureate Billy Collins offers us "A Dog on its Master:"

As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.

Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.

And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

(to hear Collins read this poem, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVc10aF7_gw

And I always remember the words of Martin Luther, incised on the tombstone for a dog named Spritz in a tiny German graveyard.

"Fear not, Little Dog, for in Heaven you shall have a tail of gold"

We also celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, with good food, glorious performances of Shakespeare's comedies of mis-aligned lovers, Love's Labours Lost and Much Ado about Nothing, and time spent on 'the remembrance of things past.'

Young poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kay (both b. 1988) are with others co-founders of Project V.O.I.C.E, which "uses spoken word poetry to entertain, educate, and inspire," motivating young people to find their own voices and to share the stories of their lives. (See the Project V.O.I.C.E. website at http://www.projectvoice.co/project-voice-our-program and Sarah Kay's TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_kay_how_many_lives_can_you_live)

Their own poetry gets something of the serendipity of love, its fragility and its strength. This, the last stanzas of  Sarah and Phil Kay's long poem "When Love Arrives"

Love is not who you were expecting, love is not who you can predict.
Maybe love is in New York City, already asleep;
You are in California, Australia, wide awake.
Maybe love is always in the wrong time zone.
Maybe love is not ready for you.
Maybe you are not ready for love.
Maybe love just isn’t the marrying type.
Maybe the next time you see love is twenty years after the divorce, love is older now, but just as beautiful as you remembered.
Maybe love is only there for a month.
Maybe love is there for every firework, every birthday party, every hospital visit.
Maybe love stays -- maybe love can’t.
Maybe love shouldn’t.

Love arrives exactly when love is supposed to,
And love leaves exactly when love must.
When love arrives, say, “Welcome. Make yourself comfortable.”
If love leaves, ask her to leave the door open behind her.
Turn off the music, listen to the quiet, whisper,
“Thank you for stopping by.”

In October Vermont poet-laureate and Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Galway Kinnell died (1927-2014). His work combines a love of nature, the destructiveness of cruelty and indifference, and a spare unwavering gaze toward the deepest human relationships. Our lives this year have been filled with books and authors and words old and new, and from his 1990 collection When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone, Kinnell's poem "Oatmeal" captures some of the delight we have found in our long-time literary companions:

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal -- porridge,
as he called it -- with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unsual willingness
to disintigrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion,
and that he himself had,enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund
Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the
"Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it -- those were his words -- "Oi 'ad
a 'eck of a toime," he said, more or less, speaking through his
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas,
and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they
made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through
a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move
forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas
of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there
is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field go thim started
on it, and two of the lines, "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their
clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours," came
to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him -- drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering
furrows, muttering -- and it occurs to me:.
maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and
simultaneously gummy and crumbly,
and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

So that is our year in three poems. As I write this, I hear of the death of Joe Cocker (1944-2014), whose gritty voice (someone said he was sure that Cocker gargled gravel every morning) was for many of us of the Woodstock Generation the sound that in an instant could bring so many memories flooding back.

And, like Cocker, we too "get by with a little help from our friends," this year and every year.

And for each and every one of those friends, at this the darkest time of the year, we are truly and everlastingly grateful.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Radio Days

Ok, I'll admit it. I'm a radio junkie. I have been a radio-lover since the 1950s, hooked for life by the first radio I can remember: a 1938 Zenith console which lived in an alcove in the house in which I grew up. To me it was a box of wonders. A flying carpet. In addition to a regular AM band, it also had multiple long-wave bands, each one designated by a faraway and exotic place-name: Moscow, Jakarta, Paris, Havana, London, Lisbon.

From about the time I was 8 years old, I was a sort of  latchkey kid. And upon arriving home to the empty house, I would grab a glass of milk and then I'd park myself in front of the Zenith. Fiddling with the dial, I would catch snatches of foreign languages on the long-wave bands until the time would come to tune in to the radio version of The Guiding Light, which came on each day just before my parents arrived home from work. This peek into the adult world in Selby Flats, California was both exhilarating and terrifying. That world, too, was a foreign country.

Even after the first television appeared in our house, I continued to be drawn to the radio. I would have completely agreed with the child who, when asked which she liked better, radio or television, answered, "Radio, because the pictures are better."

But before long, my radio-life would be transformed, because in 1957 I was given my first transistor radio, a Raytheon 8-TR-1. For the first time I could carry my radio-world around with me and, much more importantly, I could listen to the radio in bed, which has been unfailing my habit for nearly 6 decades now.

At every significant historical moment, it has been the radio that has brought me the news: the death of John F. Kennedy, routed from the office radio through the intercom system into my junior high school classroom; the death of Bobby Kennedy while driving from Massachusetts to Detroit;  the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island prison broadcast by the BBC to my table radio in Cambridge, England; the attack on the World Trade Center, heard through a sleepy haze first thing in the morning on the small Sony radio that lived under my bed-pillow in Fort Worth, Texas. And as I write this, National Public Radio is being streamed through my computer, and I am hearing about run-off elections, roller derby tournaments, newly-published novels, and monks in Tibet. As it always has been for me, the radio is a box of wonders, even when the box has become something else entirely.

Very few of us, I think, have much understanding of how the essential devices in our lives actually work, and it is no different for me with radio. My friend Howard Stone, an ardent collector of old radios and student of radio technology (http://www.stonevintageradio.com), seems to comprehend it all thoroughly, and has tried to explain it to me several times. Howard especially knows all about Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), the inventor and engineer who worked tirelessly on long-distance radio transmission. For this work, Marconi was awarded the Noble Prize in 1909 (with Ferdinand Braun), "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy."

It was Marconi who developed the system of antennas and receivers that were the underpinnings of wireless radio transmissions, who sent the first ever wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean, who developed radio systems for ships at sea, making travel by ship a much safer prospect that it had ever been, and it was Marconi who broadcast the first radio entertainment program.

With all of this to his credit, Marconi should be a genuine hero to me, given the impact of his work on the past 60 years of my daily life. But sadly, he presents something of a problem: it seems that the great man was a bit of a villian. He was active in the Italian Fascist movement and a member of its Grand Council (Mussolini was the best man at his wedding), he supported Italy's invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1936) during which the Italians bombed Red Cross field hospitals and used poison gas on civilians. (For more on Marconi the Fascist, see Mabel Berezin, Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy [Cornell, 1997]).

Marconi was also an ardent anti-Semite who blocked Jewish applicants from joining the Royal Academy of Italy, and was involved in  a series of fairly shady business ventures. Lest we think that this was just a matter of intellectual 'compartmentalization,' Marconi's radio work and his politics were clearly and inextricably linked: he often argued that the fervor with which one pursued the scientific enterprise should have the same intensity with which one pursued the Fascist enterprise.

So what do we do with our tarnished heroes? Of course this is not only our problem: it was a problem for the Greek tragedians, for those whose stories underlay all the world's Sacred Scriptures, for Shakespeare, for Cervantes, for Dickens, and it continues to be a problem for all the truly great creators of complex characters in literature, on stage, and on film and television. (Doc Martin, House, and Doctor Who all come to mind.) Much as we would like it to be different, the perfect hero is just not a very interesting hero.

But is there a tipping point? Is there a point at which our hero causes so much harm to others that any positive accomplishment is rendered null and void? When is the wounded-healer too wounded to heal? When is the tarnished hero too tarnished to shine?

Of course these are the questions that shape our lives, and sorting them out is our life's work. Conflict, ambiguity, uncertainty are necessary to that grown-up world that I glimpsed as a child in The Guiding Light. Our grown-up world is a world where the good characters are good (most but not all of the time) and the bad characters are bad (most but not all of the time), and the task of the whole and sane person is to negotiate all of this intelligently and fairly. Because to fail in this task puts so much at risk: our personal relationships, our politics, our interfaith and international relations, the future well-being of our planet.

So perhaps we must look upon Marconi as the "patron saint" of the Modern World: so many good things for which we must be ever-grateful, and so many dreadful things which we justly condemn. In himself, Marconi represents the modern predicament. And to find a way of allowing complexity and ambiguity to be what it is, without either simplifying it out of existence on the one hand, or collapsing it into a one-dimensional cartoon on the other, is the main challenge of being alive in the 21st century.

So: Salute, Marconi! (And shame on you.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Two Hundred and Thirty-Three!!

The town of Saint-Omer in northern France (current population 15,700) is back on the map. Of course it was never really completely off the map. But to whom it belonged was the subject of a long series of struggles, and from the late 10th century it was passed back and forth between France and the Low Countries several times, and was besieged, plundered and looted over and over again. Internally, disputes also raged, in this case between two rival monasteries, Saint-Bertin and Notre Dame, for 900 years.

the abbey of St Bertin

A few events have left a lasting impression on the historical record. The Jesuit Robert Persons founded a College in Saint-Omer 1593, which had as its mission the education of refugee Catholics after the English penal laws were put into place. And it was from Saint-Omer that Henry VIII imported an expert swordsman to insure that the execution of Anne Boleyn would go smoothly.

But things have been relatively quiet in Saint-Omer for the past 200 years or so; that is, until last Saturday. Last Saturday, Eric Rasmussen was in Saint-Omer to verify that a book found in the town library (the Bibliothèque Municipale) was indeed one of the few original First Folio editions of the works of Shakespeare (Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, 1623).

Rasmussen’s qualifications for this task are impeccable: professor and chair of the department of English at the University of Nevada, author (with Anthony James West) of The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), developer of the Internet Shakespeare Project and editor of the RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare series. No wonder it took him less than 5 minutes to determine the authenticity of the book!

The Saint-Omer First Folio was found by the Library staff during a hunt for volumes to be included in an upcoming exhibition of English-language books. It had been catalogued as an 18th century edition of Shakespeare works,”and it was just sitting on a shelf alongside other books by English authors,” the library’s Rare Books librarian Rémy Cordonnier said. The town library retains some of the books originally held by the Abbey of St Bertain, but this is likely from the library of the College of St Omer. The Bibliothèque Municipale also has one of the 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, although its copy is incomplete. (Were these deemed not worth moving when the College relocated to England in 1794?)

The newly-discovered Omer First Folio bears the name ‘Nevill,’ a Catholic family name with a rich pedigree in the highly-charged religio-polical world of the 16th and early-17th centuries. It was the Nevilles (along with the Percys) who had been at the center of the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569, which aimed to depose the Protestant Elizabeth and to replace her with the Catholic Mary. The revolt ended in disaster, and members of the Neville family fled into exile abroad. Like Shakespeare, the Nevilles had Warwickshire roots, and Warwickshire was known to be a hotbed of Catholic sedition. An Edmund Neville (1605-1647) is known to have been educated at the College. And members of the Scarisbrick family also adopted the alias 'Neville;' Edmund Scarisbrick (1639-1708) was also a student at Saint Omer.

One wonders what the network of spies in Elizabeth’s court, who were always looking for signs of religious treachery and who make the TSA look like rank amateurs, would have made of this First Folio in the collection of renegade Catholic institution? Would Will Shakespeare have had to answer some probing questions? 
"Jean-Christophe Mayer, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Montpellier III, France, cautioned against making too strong a connection, but noted that a library in the northern French town of Douai also owned some early transcripts of Shakespeare’s plays. 'It’s interesting that the plays were on the syllabuses at these colleges,' he said. The new folio, he added, “could be part of the puzzle of Shakespeare’s place in Catholic culture.'”  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/arts/shakespeare-folio-discovered-in-france-.html?_r=0

We await with interest the further insights of the serious Shakespeare scholars, but in the meantime we rejoice at this remarkable discovery. Check your attics, everyone!