Overweening Generalist

Thursday, April 23, 2015

World Book Day/Night 2015: "Dangerous Books"

Happy birthday 451st (probably?), Billy Shakes!

23 April is World Book Night.

I'm on record here as not only defending oddball and "dangerous" books and literature, but I've also been a champion of the idea that books indeed do have the potential for "danger" in all its forms...or as much as we can wring from the term vis a vis books. Of course, it's the yoga (orig. Sanskrit derivation of the woid) involved: no book, residing on some shelf somewhere, can do any damage. (Unless someone has hallowed it out and placed a ticking time bomb inside it...has that ever actually been done?) It takes the book PLUS the reader PLUS action to do any damage. Methinks the human(s) has/have the lion's share of the blame here, but still: what was it about that book that led to that building being blown up? We have the First Amendment in Unistat. And: ideas can have consequences. This seems to me at the core of one of the hottest ideas we have. We want a dynamic culture, and this set of ideas is a powerful engine.

                                          money shot of some of my shelves

Of course, most books, having been read and cogitated upon, chewed, swallowed and digested, will not lead to bloodshed or death. It seems safe to say that most well-read books will change their readers' interiors. You know how that book you read last month affected you; your friends might not notice any changes in your behavior. But according to neuroscience, your experience with that book literally changed neural circuitry in your brain, at least a little bit. And so, in this way, books are like very powerful drugs. This may be an unconscious reason why some people are scared of some books. They don't want anything to change. Like the moronic idea that white heterosexual Christian status is "the best."

Aye: other books scare some people who haven't even read them. Possibly they've "heard" about what's in the book and they don't like what they've heard, so they must take action. These idiot souls are working with lousy brain software programs, but they - the idiots - will always be with us. Oh, but they are priestly types, these idiots: it's not enough for them to be scared of what they've found in a book (some ideas they don't like). They will not have that book in their household. Their children will not read it. But that's not enough for them: these priestly idiots take it upon themselves to try to stop those scary ideas from getting into your brain. How? They harass librarians and booksellers. They burn books. They steal them from the public libraries.

Here's an idea that scares the hell out of me: sometimes they succeed. (Because they know better than us, know what's good for us, do it from Brotherly Love, etc?)

The American Library Association recently reported that "Young Adult" books and graphic novels by people of color and writers who are comfortable with sex have been under siege by the idiot priestly types in all areas of Unistat. I took a look at that list and, as always, was forced to make a decision: which of these do I read first? Hey, it's not out of spite (well, maybe there is a little of that), but from something I learned in my early teens: if some book is being banned (or some idiots are trying to get it banned), I want to read it. It usually pays off. I find it fascinating to read and learn about ideas that scare other people. I tend to find "controversial" books fascinating, because I get to read on another "meta" level: I read and interpret the text using my strategies AND all the while I'm also reading and thinking, "Here's what riles up some of the more fearful and ignorant of us." There's the ideas in them (some of which are very olde news to me); then there's the idea that others are so intolerant and mentally impoverished they think these ideas are going to do "harm" to society, or to the "good" people in their own imagined society. "Know thy enemy"? Here's one solid way.

Of those Top 10 from the ALA, I'd already read Morrison, Alexie, Satrapi and Hosseini. So I've put on hold in my public library The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Chbosky and Telgemeier's Drama. Nothing human is alien to me. Also: apparently YA fiction is still not alien to me, even though I'm technically old enough to be a grandpa-pa.

Alice Dreger's Recent Book
Titled Galileo's Middle Finger, it's ostensibly a plea for free scholarly inquiry and evidence-based science as one of the healthiest aspects of a democratic society. And I couldn't put the book down. Dreger's an academic with activism in her blood. She takes Galileo as her heroic source and gets into some ultra-nasty squabbles with ideologues (close cousins of the priestly idiots in every state who want to burn Harry Potter books for the "satanism" they think those books promote) who don't want questions about their picture of how the way things ought to be. The issues Dreger gets involved with go from how we treat "intersex" children, and lead her to other areas of academia, most notably sociobiology and Napoleon Chagnon, "humanist" anthropology and Margaret Mead, and the great debunker of "recovered memory," Elizabeth Loftus. Scientists Thornhill and Palmer's book A Natural History of Rape were not read very closely (if at all) by their very very vocal detractors. There's a lot of interesting ideas about sex and identity in Dreger's book, and Dreger changes with each of her encounters. She's always learning, always questioning herself, standing up for marginalized groups against the State and official establishments, and quite the peripatetic one.

The aspect of academic postmodernism that says science is merely one of many narrative-truths gets shredded by Dreger. Why? Because human lives are at stake. The postmodern idea about science - that it's a potent set of narratives, but only one of many - seems to me to have its earned place in epistemology, but it fails miserably in ethics. Similarly, a variety of academic feminism gets skewered (roughly the same variety that Robert Anton Wilson had troubles with), and the academic community of Anthropologists receives some sunlight. The American Anthropological Association just looks embarrassing.

But early in the book, Dreger - a meticulous researcher, academic detective, activist, ethicist and engaging writer for the educated lay public - hints that perhaps the deepest problem we have is not only ideology, but a taboo against knowing who we are.

I highly recommend Dreger's book if only for the way she addresses this question. Capital enn Nature throws all sorts of things at us. We forgot we have reified comparatively narrow categories of the way things should be, naturally. And the human fallout is heartbreaking. A stunning point in the book is that right now, another possible DES or Thalidomide-like story may be taking place. Dreger tried her best to stop it, but it's SNAFU. Yep: this one's a winner. And in keeping with the motif of "dangerous books" the book is chock-full of books that set others off, sometimes toward making death-threats to authors.

                                           photographer unknown (anyone know?)
                                           lady unknown to me (cryin' shame!)

Hot, Controversial Books That For Some Reason Go Out-of-Print
Often, they almost disappear or become very expensive and difficult to hunt down. Some books just never find an audience, or their publisher didn't push the book hard enough, or maybe it's just not a very well-written tome. But I've always been fascinated and alarmed by missing books that don't fit any of those examples.

In leafing through Robert Anton Wilson's encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, Everything Is Under Control I noted two places where he notes that a good, vital writer or book is now unfindable. In the entry under "Federal Reserve Bank" we see this:

"Critics of banking rant so often against the Rothschilds and David Rockefeller because the Rothschilds Bank of London and Chase Manhattan (Rockefeller's own) are said, we know not on what authority, to own most of the Fed. Matthew Josephson, a conspiriologist of the 1930s-1950s, whose books are currently unfindable, insisted the real power was held by the Warburg Bank of Amsterdam and was part of the 'Orange' take-over of England and America, after the mildly illegal installation of the Dutchman William of Orange as King of England." Josephson had a best-seller in his day called The Robber Barons, about vast inequality in the 1890s. It's the only book I've read by Josephson; I had been working in a library and noticed the title on the shelf and found Josephson a wonderful Marxist-ish conspiriologist.

Now: Wilson published his book in 1998, just on the cusp of the ascendancy of Amazon and eBay and other digitized bibliographies and online vending outposts. Anyone can find most of Josephson now, and The Robber Barons can be bought used for a price in which you'd pay more for postage than for the book itself. Other books must be accessed via large public libraries or university libraries. (Try Interlibrary Loan! Ask your librarian!)

Again: in the entry under "Mary Pinchot Meyer" RAW writes the last paragraph:

"In 1979, Deborah Davis published Katherine the Great, a book about the Washington Post, which included some details on Mary Pinchot Meyer. The publisher printed 25,000 copies, but within a few days withdrew them from the bookstores and pulped them."

And...it later was re-published by smaller presses and I just now saw I can get a used copy from half.com for $1.33. Hardcover. Again, the postage would cost more. (Questions for Deborah Davis about her book on Katherine Graham.)

But: There are still some who are keeping track of this and trying to bring controversial books back into print...or as e-books, at least. One is Mark Crispin Miller. Of all those, I've only read Christopher Simpson's Blowback (fantastic!) and Bertram Gross's Friendly Fascism (prescient?). I want to read them all, but I wish Soft Skull Press or Feral House or another of those cool publishing houses would being them back as dead-tree books. I will probably end up finding most of those in university libraries.

For those interested in Miller's brought-back dangerous books (gee...dangerous to who?), see HERE, and this 7 minute interview with Thom Hartmann. And: here Miller talks about five books the Establishment doesn't want us to read, with the comely Abby Martin.

                                           the Severn Bay reference library

Eric Schlosser's Plays
His Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness and Command and Control  triumvirate constitute a counter-narrative to much of Unistatian history and feel like throwbacks to the Progressive Era muckrakers's books (like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle), but I recently found out he'd written a play titled America, in 1985. It was about US imperialism and Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley at the 1901 Pan American Exposition because of Unistat's colonial war in the Philippines. Czolgosz, usually written off as yet another nutty violent anarchist - as if they all are - saw himself as a patriot who wanted to warn his countrymen about imperial wars. It turns out Leon offed McKinley at the advent of Unistat imperialism, which hasn't stopped since. Leon: you tried, man. In 1985 Schlosser has Czolgosz saying:

"You are going to be punished for what your government is doing right now, and your children will pay for your outrageous vanity. And when this great nation of ours goes down in flames, when our cities are in ruins...don't say nobody warned you. When it comes, you deserve it, and I told you so."
(I'm quoting from the introduction to a chapter on Schlosser from Robert Boynton's book The New New Journalists.)

The Wikipedia page for Schlosser mentions that the play/book is unavailable in Unistat.  However, it was put on in London in 2003, to good reviews. If I want to obtain a copy from a library, the nearest one is University of Calgary Library, 969 miles from my city. There's a copy at Harvard, 2600 miles away. And then, it's Lancashire County Council Library, UK: 5100 miles away. But, BUT!: Say what we will about the drawbacks of Amazon: I just now looked, and it appears I can score a used copy for about $4. Still: why do I have to buy a Schlosser book? You'd think after his deep delvings into the drug war, migrant farm workers, and the insane missile defense system he'd have so many admirers some publisher would bring Americans (which contains America and another play, We The People) into accessible print. What am I missing here?

(Schlosser's 2003 plea to Londoners about to see his play, America: "Not All American Are Evil." Especially see the last paragraph.)

                             Alex Jordan, Jr's House on the Rock library in Wisconsin, Unistat

Opium For the Masses, Hit Man and The Anarchist Cookbook
These are just three books that feed into the Walter Mitty aspects of my bibliomania.

Jim Hogshire, one of my favorite authors in the so-called "marginals milieu" - a term I believe was coined by his nemesis in the milieu, Bob Black - wrote a book on how to go to the local nursery, buy the right kind of poppy seeds, and eventually make your own opiate concotions. It came out as Opium For the Masses. Read about what happened to him HERE. As far as I can see, the economic censorship has put Hogshire off to the book writing biz, and it's a big loss to weirdo Mitty readers like myself. Hogshire also wrote humorously and no-holds-barred about what you're facing when you go to prison. I also love his book Pills A Go-Go, a compendium of writing he and his pill-loving f(r)iends originally wrote on the early Internet. Let us not forget Hogshire's wonderful expose of tabloid culture, Grossed Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient, which should be read by anyone who saw Ken Burns's brother's documentary on Generoso Pope, Jr and his father. The doc is well-made but completely glosses over what I see as infotainment that plays into fascism. In Ric Burns's Enquiring Minds Pope's pop's Mafia ties are addressed, but a vague mention of Junior's work with the CIA in Italy in 1947 seems criminally overlooked, especially when we find out what the CIA did there, their first big covert operation to interfere with elections in other countries. And Hogshire writes no more, apparently.

("Author of Poppy Cultivation Cleared of Drug Charge")

Hit Man, ostensibly a how-to book on how to be a contract killer, was written under the name "Rex Feral" but was germinated as a crime novel by a Florida housewife. I get the feeling she was writing about her fantasy life, much as E.L. James did when she ended up with Fifty Shades of Grey. Anyway, for whatever she could imagine about being a hired killer, some actual killer offed three people, and said the book helped him out. The small Paladin Press was sued, lost and wanted to take the case to a higher court. (Wouldn't you?) But Paladin's insurers settled out of court, saying another case would cost too much. Paladin Press insisted on its First Amendment rights, but they lost out due to money. (Compare and contrast Hogshire with Paladin here. I know I found out about both Hit Man and Opium For the Masses from the wonderful old, now-defunct Loompanics Catalog.)

("FBI Releases Files on Controversial Booksellers Paladin and Loompanics")

So, yea: we have the First Amendment but Johnny Law's dough can trump that, sorry to see.

Here's a weird story about an author who wanted his own book banned: When I first saw The Anarchist Cookbook (get a load of the "From the Author" bit on Amazon here!) on a bookstore shelf I smelled a rat. "How to turn a shotgun into a grenade launcher"? "How to make TNT"? I perused the thing, didn't buy it. In more ways than one. I'm not interested in making bombs. I object to the idea that that's what anarchists do. I'm an anarchist like Noam Chomsky is an anarchist. Most of us don't want to hurt anyone. And besides, a lot of that stuff in William Powell's book looked made up, but who knew? I think if I had the money I'd have bought it anyway, for my Mitty purposes. (I have a few shelves of crazy stuff like this...just 'cuz. My own Mitty-mind!) Then, Mormon bomber Mark Hoffman was found to own a copy...but it stayed in print! (Paladin got reamed!) Then, after a Colorado high school shooting, Powell once again pleaded for the book to go quietly out of print. But the book has taken on a life of its own.

I've always thought this is a terrific example of a very good title selling books. An ironic example too.

Very good article on the life of Anarchist Cookbook and the mayhem that has ensued, by Gabriel Thompson at Harper's.

By the way: The Official C.I.A. Manual on Trickery and Deception fell into the hands of decent people; I wish I had a copy on my Walter Mitty shelf, but so far: no dice.

Well...I see I can write on this topic all day, but this is another one too long in the tooth, prolix, and trying, so I thank you for reading and till next time!

                                         artwork by the trippy Bobby Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece, as usual. It made me think of the Star Trek episode where they visit a library which will send them back in time. Also I think of some responses to students in my Finnegans Wake Club. One parent has forbidden their child to join. Two step-parents in different years have told the kids not to participate. An employee at Barnes and Noble tried to talk some kids out of buying the book.

Synchronicity: I had just read a little Alexie before I read your blog.

I vaguely remember reading a piece by Nat Hentoff about the hitman book. Hentoff, close to a First Amendment absolutist, agreed with the prosecution of that publisher.

I finally bought a copy of Oliver Neighbour's book on William Byrd. For years Amazon didn't have a copy under $30. A copy under $20 showed up and I splurged. I still keep an eye out for Guy Davenport's book on Pound which remained unavailable last time I checked.

michael said...

I'm trying to conjur up a reason why a parent would want to protect a kid from FW. Was there a reason given?

When looking for hard-to-find books, also try half.com

Anonymous said...

War on books? Unfortunately, sounds familiar. What I find staggering is WHO decides which books are "dangerous"! I think you describe those people very accurately and appropriately in your "dangerous" piece.

I have not read any of the "dangerous" books you mention. I should.

I have always perceived reading as a wonderful journey into the author's mind, conversation without loquacity, social connection, sociology of knowledge, "demonic power of books"!

Thank you for mentioning neuroscience and books as powerful drugs. Some took me on some trippy trips.

I'd like to mention one very thought-provoking book in particular that I recently experienced as a powerful memorable moment: Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. That was one of the books that took me the longest time to read. After a month of reading I was on page 131 of 266 pages. I was puzzled by reading this book so slowly and wondered if the reason was because the book is taking place in present time, right NOW as I am reading it. Even the subtitle suggests so: "When Everything Happens NOW". I did not panic. I just went with the flow but still searching for some confirmation and validation

And then, on page 264 Rushkoff kind of steps out of the book and explains: "I understand that just reading this book required you to carve out a big chunk of your time.......Likewise, although this is hardly the longest book I have written, it has been by far the hardest to complete. Meanwhile, in the years it has taken me to write this book I could have written dozens of articles, hundreds of blog posts, and thousands of Tweets, reaching more people about more things in less time and with less effort. Here I am writing opera when people are listening to singles."

How comforting that felt! I felt in sync with Rushkoff. And I paused and felt Rushkoff stepping out of the book just like the movie character that walks off the screen and into the audience in The Purple Rose of Cairo film.

What I like so much about Rushkoff's style is his directness and the ability to create a personal and intimate relationship with his reader. At least for me.

Now I wonder if I read the book too quickly?


Eric Wagner said...

I checked out half.com for two books on Pound - thanks for the recommendation.

At least two of the parents who discouraged their kids from reading the Wake worked as English teachers. I think the Wake goes against many ideas of what a novel does, and that upsets some people who care about books. Many people think novels should have clear characters, a clear plot, and a clear conflict.

By the way, I just finished The Man without Qualities. Now I plan to read some Ibn 'Arabi for about the next six weeks. If I teach Film History I this summer, I plan to read Elia Kazan's autobiography next.

michael said...

@Alex: Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Yes! _Present Shock_: your comments reminded me of a comment RAW made somewhere (Prometheus Rising? writing on about the Meta-Programming Circuit?), in which RAW addresses the odd feeling he's suddenly had when reading books on language and linguistics: here you are, reading about how language works, and many authors are dubious that language can perfectly express what we think. And suddenly, you realize you're reading words about words and language about language...and it feels strange.

Rushkoff sez to not always be plugged in. Did you ever get the Pavlovian shakes while reading _Present Shock_...you want to go check your email?

I love Rushkoff's books. He's my favorite living media theorist.

michael said...

@ Eric-

I haven't read Musil. I've dipped into him for 20-or-so pages, but haven't read _The Man Without Qualities_. Correctly if I'm wrong, but that book was sort of a big deal after it came out, then it faded, and it's come back significantly in the past decade. If so, why? Does it speak to "our time" in a way it wouldn't have in 1980?

I had a really bright guitar student last year. He soaked up theory. It got to the point where we got into a conversation about tertiary harmony: why we accepted or found pleasing the basic harmonic structure of music from the past 500 yrs because its based on triads, and not 4ths or 5th (quartal sounds, as were fairly "popular" before "common practice" set in.

So we challenged each other to write pieces based on Perfect 4ths and 5ths, and 2nds and 7ths, avoiding 3rds and 6ths as much as possible...and our experiments sounded more tonal than Schoenberg, but put us in very weird moods.

If you decide to write chord progressions based on the whole tone scale, with no semitones, you still have a major 3rd and a minor 6th to avoid. Octaves are verboten too.

I still find a lot of stacked 4ths and 5ths a good way to "fake" Debussy.

Lately I've taken the modes of the Harmonic minor scale, written them all out in their 4-note 7th chords, then wrote out their inversions, then drop the 3rd or the 5th. To me, it sounds like the harmony of a some session hotshots, like Mike Landau. Exercises like this are also valuable for me to show my nervous system how deeply imprinted it is with the major and minor pentatonic scales {1,2,3,5,6} and {1, flat3, 4, 5, flat7}, and the major scale and its 6 other modes.

Ibn Arabi: I seriously doubt Bill Maher has read him. I wonder what would happen if Maher, while stoned, read of the many exploits of Mullah Nasruddin, would his position on Islam get modified?

Eric Wagner said...

I don't think I even heard of Musil until three years ago. When i finished reading Proust Rafi suggested I dip into Musil. I got MwQ vol. 1 from the library and read about 80 pages. Rafi suggested reading the Diaries first, so about a year a half later I used a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas to buy the Diaries and vol. 1 of MwQ. (The library no longer had the book.) I read the Diaries and enjoyed them and started MwQ but got bogged down. Then last November I read Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, a great novel that also deals with oblivious people in Austria just before World War I. That made me want to finish MwQ, so my wife got me vol. 2 for Christmas last year and I finished the novel last Monday. (David Thomson also mentions Musil.)

I think the book speaks tremendously to our time, as does the Roth novel, in many ways. No one in those books seem to have a clue that their way of life will vanish in a few years. It makes me wonder what will happen in the next few years about which I have no clue.

Interesting harmonic discussion - it made me think of Stravinsky's experiments at the time of the Rite of Spring.

Bill Maher and Ibn 'Arabi. I think I like Maher more than you do. I think he reads a lot of journalism, but I don't get the impression he reads much fiction or mysticism. He might laugh at the Idries Shah versions of Nasrudin, but he would scoff at Shah if he researched him, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

I guess I was reading - Present Shock - on some "meta" level - "consciousness of consciousness" and felt some "strange loops". Sorry, I did not "get the Pavlovian shakes while reading _Present Shock_...you want to go check your email?" Of course, it is not good "to always be plugged in" - your computer screen may burn, your pricey Apple iPhone 6 may run out off battery, your face may burn on FB. Personally, it feels very liberating not to be plugged into FB at all, or Twitter, never owned iPhone, nor iPad, nor kindle. I am not against technology and digital devices. Maybe the solution would be some kind of compromise and balance?!

The dissonance between the digital devices and our analog bodies and brains concerns me. Troubling, to me: how easily so many people get themselves chained to various digital gadgets 24/7 and how easily they allow to be programmed and manipulated by technology into losing great deal of personal privacy. I find it grotesque when people camp overnight in front of the store to get yet another new electronic toy. Increasingly present death wish: people texting and crossing the street. Seemingly some last attempts to be connected with nature; people walking in parks being connected with the phone and disconnected with the nature, shutting down their sensory apparatus, but the phone is ON! And on, and on, and on....I think every User Guide should include under 'main attractions': activate mental hygiene.

I have more ideas..........