Overweening Generalist

Friday, April 29, 2016

World Book Day/Night 2016

[Apparently World Book Night came again this year, and I was busy doing other things, totally oblivious. Yesterday I logged on to "surf the Net" - which fogies like me still say, by the way - and kept noticing all these new articles about Shakespeare and wondered, "wha?" Then it hit me: World Book Day/Night was April 23rd, so here I am, a mere six days late. - OG]

Fore-Words: Set the Tone
Here's part of a dialogue between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

Moyers: Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today? Who are our shamans? Who interprets unseen things for us?

Campbell: It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn't simply a sociologist with a program for you.

Moyers: What about those others who are ordinary, those who are not poets or artists, or who have not had a transcendent ecstasy? How do we know of these things?

Campbell: I'll tell you a way, a very nice way. Sit in a room and read - and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don't say, "Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did" - and don't bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. -  The Power of Myth, p.99

Short Note on Books and Revolutions
My writing on the visceral thrill I get from reading "forbidden" or "dangerous" books, books with some purported "demonic" power, books linked to infamous crimes, etcetera, has appeared at this blog and in other places. Currently I've been reading in books about other books on the topic of what books can/might/did "do" to certain readers, and, oh, all kinds of fallout in human history. For those who want to look at some choice academic research quite readable about books and revolutions, two that I've recently found of surpassing interest are Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, and John V. Fleming's The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War.

Darnton - one of the great scholars of books in our time - breaks down the forbidden best-sellers during the 20 year period before the ancien regime turned to guillotine-time (a much different time than the time Joseph Campbell warned us about; I tend to agree with Campbell about best-sellers under the current dispensation); Darnton's sleuthing is marvelous, teasing out the many "underground" forbidden books from roughly 1769 or so to 1789. These books get classified into three categories: 1.) "Philosophical Pornography"; 2.) Utopian Fantasy; and 3.) Political Slander. Darnton writes a chapter on each. Later, Section 3 of Darnton is titled, "Do Books Cause Revolutions?" and this section constitutes a marvelous contribution to the sociology of knowledge.

Fleming writes at length about four books that influenced the Cold War: Koestler's Darkness At Noon (1940), which was the only one of the four I'd been familiar with. The others are Out of the Night (1941, but really only a few weeks after Koestler's book came out), by "Jan Valtin" AKA Richard Krebs, a supposed autobiography and the best-seller in Unistat by the end of the year; I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko (1944). The last anti-commie book for Fleming was one I'd known of, but that was the extent: Whittaker Chambers's Witness (1952), which Fleming calls "perhaps the greatest American masterpiece of literary anti-Communism," and a book which greatly benefited by the Cold War being then in full swing, and even more so by Chambers's nailing of Alger Hiss. At the end of last year I read a cracking good just-off-the-presses book about the history of today's Unistat right wing, Right Out of California, by UC Davis History professor Kathryn Olmstead. That book - which argues persuasively that the origin of the Unistat Right began in Depression Era California, where the migrant farmworkers were not considered under The New Deal, because FDR needed the South - foreshadowed a lot of the information in Fleming's book, and extended the boundaries of my own historical imagination vis a vis the refinement of propaganda techniques by Unistat spy agencies and the military/industrial/entertainment complex. Juxtaposing Fleming's book on mid-20th century political books that the State "likes" vs. the underground sales of books forbidden by the State in Darnton made me feel like 1789 was more like 500 years ago.

Darnton and Fleming and Olmstead (oh my!) also reminded me of Frances Stonor Saunders's must-read, The Cultural Cold War. Get a load of this:

"'Books differ from all other propaganda media,' wrote a chief of the CIA's Covert Action Staff, 'primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader's attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium [such as to] make books the most important weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.' The CIA's clandestine books programme was run, according to the same source, with the following aims in mind: 'Get books published or distributed abroad without revealing any US influence, by covertly subsidizing foreign publications or booksellers. Get books published which should not be 'contaminated' by any overt tie-in with the US government, especially if the position of the author is 'delicate.' Get books published for operational reasons, regardless of commercial viability. Initiate and subsidize indigenous national or international organizations for book publishing or distributing purposes. Stimulate the writing of politically significant books by unknown foreign authors - either by directly subsidizing the author, if covert contact is feasible, or indirectly, through literary agents or publishers." -p.245, Saunders, who is quoting from the Final Report of the Church Committee, 1976. Saunders quotes a NYT article published on Christmas Day, 1977, about the investigations into the CIA's history: "The New York Times alleged in 1977 that the CIA had been involved in the publication of at least a thousand books."

When I first read Saunders, I noted a CIA-backed book I had read that no one I personally knew had read. And I'd liked the book: The New Class, by Milovan Djilas. E. Howard Hunt, working for the CIA admitted he helped get that book published. Was I a dupe? I guess any one of us who reads books at this level will be reading "propaganda" at some point, unwittingly, or possibly quasi-wittingly. Chomsky has written many times that the intellectual class is most subject to this sort of thing, simply because they read so damned much...So there's another reason to embrace those rebel writers you love, the outre and declasse ones that never get reviewed by the New York intellectuals?

To return to our Big Q: do books cause revolutions? I'd like to think so. My oblivious reading of Djilas's CIA-backed book led me to read a wonderful book by the renegade "outlaw Marxist" Alvin Gouldner, and his The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Gouldner turned Socrates and interrogated Marxism from within, walking the perimeter of "the dark side of the Dialectic," which I still find thrilling. I find the intellectual stimulation so bracing I return to this slim volume every few years. In it, Gouldner says that Marxism is a product of bookstores and libraries.

Thirdly, and really a bald non-sequitur, I will state a personal strong esthetic preference for reading "dead tree" books over reading them on any digital gadget, and that replacing paper books with e-books is - and I'm not the first to float this analogy - like replacing real cut flowers with plastic ones.

Dead Tree Books, Despite the Peril of Paper
Oh, okay yes: the "real" cut flowers will wither in a week or so, while your plastic flowers look the same year after year, so there's gotta be something wrong with this analogy. But I will throw in a monkeywrench and say that with cannabis and hemp legalization more publishers will probably want to use hemp for paper because it last many, many, many times longer than pulped paper.

And our diminishing world forests get a break. Lousy quality paper: have you ever picked up an old paperback novel produced in the 1950s at a yard or library sale? I've bought ones where the paper is increasingly sort of brownish-rusty near the edges, the paper itself has a rough fuzzy feel to it, and the pages are likely to break if you bend them. Lamentable books like this - even if you read 'em and they're great - are not the ones you'd give to someone else, "You've got to read this! It's fantastic!" Then you hand them the book and a couple of pages fall out, having detached from the spine during the apparently rough drive over, when you hit that pothole. Sad. What an overall lugubrious-evoking state of affairs, indeed.

40 years after a book rolls off the presses ready for the bookstore, it's literally disintegrating in your hands! (I first noted these books in the 1990s.)

In the bargain basement pulp paper era (BBPPE), which lasted into the 1980s, according to one source I probably just made up, publishers of paperbacks sought to save money by buying the cheapest pulp paper they could find, then "extend" this pulp by throwing in some acid.

No, that's cutting corners. It's more like this: when you use wood to make paper there's this stuff called lignin, which went into making the cell walls of wood and bark and helped make up the vascular structures of a plant. This is odorless, mostly colorless, and I imagine fairly tasteless. (Ever get one of those old crappy paperbacks that actually have a big fleck of wood embedded in a page? This I count as one of those Things That Ought Not Be in my world.)

You get rid of the lignin when you're making the paper by adding acid, particularly something called peroxycetic acid. It's more complex than this (of course!), but adding the acid is part of the delignification process. We worry about old Ray Bradbury paperbacks - or at least I think we should -  but documents and artworks, if not delignified, will break down and deteriorate, and even faster if exposed to light and heat. And don't we do some of our best reading under light, with adequate heat? To get the pH level of your pulp back to something closer to the 7 of alkaline/acid balance, you need to go through another process or two, but that costs money. Just take the acid-riddled pulp and print that dimestore novel on that. Take the money and run...

To cut to a less technical aspect of this spiel, hemp has lower lignin content. If treated just right, it's fairly inexpensive to produce paper for books from hemp that will last 500 to 1000 years before it noticeably starts to deteriorate. Robert Anton Wilson cited an article in a February, 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics about a hemp harvesting machine that would make farmers rich and allow us all to have the most fantastic paper in our books, no cutting down forests either. The male (you don't get high off it) cannabis plant: hemp. Easy to grow. Here's RAW's bit:

"Well, kiddies, the wonderful invention was a device that made it possible to harvest hemp more cheaply than ever before. Hemp was the chief ingredient in paper throughout most of history (our Declaration of Independence was written on it, for instance) and paper made of hemp lasted a good long time compared to paper made of wood pulp. Ever notice how 19th or 18th century books, or even 17th century books like the original folio of Shakespeare's plays, printed on hemp, are still around, while modern books printed on wood pulp fall apart in only decades?"
-p.178, "Deforestation," Email To The Universe

Wilson then goes on to link this to the War on Drugs, including pot. The Unistat gummint found out people were getting high, so sorry: millions of lives must be ruined, forests chopped down, and books must fall apart. I wish I believed in "hell" so I could imagine someone like Harry Anslinger paying for his part in all this, but he's probably just food for worms.

The Good News: we have good reason to believe we'll get lots of hemp in our paper in our books, soon, the cultural winds finally having shifted. And I'm sorry, but we cannot extend the life of our cut flowers indefinitely, and I'm sure someone's working on it. (Then where will the florists be? Uber drivers? Oy!)

I love the story about Ts'ai Lun, who made paper out of hemp and mulberry bark and tried to convince the Chinese bureaucracy to adopt his invention, paper, in 105 CE. The stuffed shirts wouldn't give Ts'ai a decent hearing, so he pulled the old shamanic stunt of burying himself alive and then returning to the living. He used a hollow reed to breathe, and his friends burned a bunch of his hemp-paper over his grave, which caused Ts'ai Lun to miraculously come back to life. Quite a trick! The bureaucrats were impressed (jeez, the shit The Suits put you through before they'll listen to a new idea!), and his paper was adopted, and Ts'ai became a palace favorite. But political winds shifted after a spell, and Ts'ai faced a trial, which he wasn't up for. So, as Dale Pendell writes, Ts'ai Lun "dressed in his best robes and drank poison." - PharmakoPoeia, p.183

Coda: A Future?
So, we're all used to the print/dead tree/dead hemp plant "codex" book vs. the book read on some electronic gadget argument. Well, Google is working on a combination of the two, but as I read about it, I had mind's eye trouble: an "augmented reality" pop-up book that adds sound, lighting elements, and video projection? And it interacts with other personal information you had stored on your other e-gizmos? You can add content? I'm not sure if I understand what these visionaries want to do, but I guess there are some areas in all our lives and - I'll speak for myself here - I think I already add that stuff to my reading of the plain old paper-bound book. I do it in exercising my imagination. For what the wizards at Google and Apple want to do, I'll just watch a fucking movie, your mileage may vary. See the article I'm getting all reactionary over HERE. What am I missing?

On second thought: this could become the next great art medium, and you know what? I hope it does...

I wish you all a Joseph Campbell-ian "nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time" in your reading, chums.

                                          fantasztikus grafikus Bob Campbell


Eric Wagner said...

Yet another terrific piece. I found it interesting that many people noted the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death last week on April 23, but I didn't see anybody noting the 400th anniversary of Cervantes' death. I imagine folks did in the Spanish speaking world.

Your piece made me think about the challenges accessing some of the material in the Miskatonic (er, Arizona State University) library. They had stuff like de Sade, William Burrough's personal papers, etc., but I had to jump through hoops to read them.

michael said...

Eric: Speaking of Cervantes, apparently the Spanish haven't honored him as their own in any way close to how England honors Shakespeare, and I recently saw this:


It seems coincidental you mentioned Sade; I was going to write about his reading, but it got crowded out.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I always like to read about books, so I especially enjoyed this.

I know you don't like ebooks, but my main Christmas present this time was a Kindle Paperwhite, replacing my older Kindle ereader, and to me it seems like a really good way to read. But the majority of books I read are still paper books.

As a mild synchronicity, before I spotted your blog entry I began reading a book that reminds me of you. "The Core of the Sun" by Johanna Sinisalo, apparently a big deal writer in Finland, is a novel about a repressive society that bans hot chili peppers. The heroine has just managed to score a "fix" of fresh habanero peppers and her mouth is on fire. She is happy, but her boyfriend asks, "Are you all right?" It reminded me of your blog entry about deliberately eating Thai food that's as hot as possible, and your wife asking if you were all right. The book is pretty good so far.

michael said...


The Health Authority can have my capsaicin when they can pry my cold dead, chili-stained hands, etc.

As I see it, the MAJOR drawback to dead tree books is they accumulate, and then when you have to move the decisions forced (about what to jettison) and sheer heft of the damned things are a pain in the ass.

In the absurd off-chance anyone wonders about me and the really spicy thai curry incident, it's in this episode of the OG: