How many “best” books have you read

What books should you have read by now that you haven’t? This guy got a list of 100 from what is obviously Amazon, and feels a bit like a loser that he’d only read 11 books on the list. First of all, I can only imagine what claptrap is on that list; and second, you’re only a loser if you’ve only ever read 11 books, not 11 of someone else’s list. There are plenty of books I’d read if given the gift/curse of immortality, but frankly, I’d rather have a good time while I’m here. Plus, I can fake it most of the time at a party. When someone goes, “Ah, Hillary Mantel…” I just nod, tip my glass as if in a Gatsby-toast, and murmur, “Right: Cromwell.” Then I cock my head appreciatively and bring up Tolkien or something I CAN talk (at staggering, obsessive length) about. Voila: I don’t have to read three books about some old dude who ISN’T a wizard. A friend of mine once was on a pundit book panel on TV and faked his way through a discussion of Ulysses. Another friend did a PhD in American lit and teaches Moby Dick every year without having ever read it. It’s much more common than you’d expect.

What I hadn’t expected was the encroaching fog of loserdom that seeped into my brain. There were more than 100 books on the list. I had only read 11. Loser McFadyen. What had you been doing all your life? What’s more, I hadn’t heard of some of the titles. Not just one or two, but many. What world did I inhabit, or more to the point what world did others inhabit who might have known about all these books?

Tuesday Newsday

On the White impulse to try reading our way out of being a dick

Speaking as someone who just read The Skin We’re In and has How to be Antiracist on the go, this all hits home. Learning is hard in part because so much of it involves making mistakes over and over.

There is a long tradition of white people thinking they can read their way out of trouble. Examples abound, from sentimental novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)—which engaged white antebellum readers through appeals to sympathy and Christian sentiment—to sociological readings of race novels by mid-twentieth-century middlebrow book clubs, the formation of “U.S. ethnic lit” during the canon wars of the 1980s and ’90s, and the explosion of “global literature” in recent decades. As Jodi Melamed noted almost ten years ago in Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (2011), “The idea that literature has something to do with antiracism and being a good person has entered into the self-care of elites, who have learned to see themselves as part of a multinational group of enlightened multicultural global citizens.”

It comes as little surprise, then, that antiracist reading lists are proliferating like weeds in the wake of the 2020 uprisings, sending antiracism books to the tops of the best-seller charts. This is the literature of white liberalism.

On memorizing poetry

I’m a big fan of the Poetry in Voice program that holds a recitation contest for Canadian highschoolers every year. Amazing program and I’ve been lucky enough to see video of some great kids reciting one of my poems. This article at Book Riot lightly covers the history and vitality of the endeavour. Mostly I linked to this separately to get a plug in for PiV.

Memorizing poetry is my way of life. Poetry uplifts our darkest days, and it’s natural to retain our faves to memory. In my younger days, my mother and I spent hours memorizing passages for exams. We would not rest until I could say the entire piece by heart. If I missed a line, we would start over! While these study sessions were exhausting, it helped me remember my class material!

Fast forward to 2005, when I met my poetry therapy community. Month after month, I would visit and share valuable poetry. Memorization reentered my world, but now through an artistic lens. As a result, I made many valuable friendships with people I still (virtually) gather with! Learning by rote shifted to a more approachable way of comprehension.

Woe to the fall book

Did your book get pushed a season? So did almost everyone else’s. So the efforts to avoid the Covid sinkhole pushed you into the overcrowded Hellscape that is the fall 2020 book season. If you’re starting to hyperventilate, just try to release your inner poet: none of this really matters in the end. I mean, yes, you might be looking for a new day job to fund the writing of your next novel instead of a fat advance, but welcome to the fucking club.

The main sellers since lockdown have been the big names, the “bankers” everyone already knows about (JK Rowling, David Walliams, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, et al), and the main beneficiaries have been the big multinationals – sales are up at Bloomsbury, for instance, by 28%. Small presses have struggled to survive, while lesser known and new authors have been published with little fanfare. Shopping for books on Amazon or in the supermarkets (where publishers pay for display space, an advantage independents can ill afford) simply does not allow for the serendipity of stumbling on an author one hasn’t read before. Bookshops in big city centres are still seeing low footfall and are wary of taking risks.

The books business can sometimes feel like fast fashion – pile ’em high, move ’em along a couple of weeks later to make space for the next new thing. This speed is inimical to the way in which books are actually read, and to the slow and unpredictable ways in which a culture is actually enriched. And in such a publishing climate, the window for making an impact already feels small.

From contact to contactless: on hybrid languages

Everything is about contact these days, or perhaps about trying to avoid it while trying to maintain it, if you follow. Anyway, what about language, Tiger? What happens when two peoples who speak separate languages butt up against one another? A new hybrid language forms: a contact language. Like the linguistic equivalent of a mule or a liger. The Atlantic looks at how we’re losing these rare and wonderful beasts.

When groups of people who speak different languages come together, they sometimes inadvertently create a new one, combining bits of each into something everyone can use to communicate easily. Linguists call such impromptu tongues “contact languages”—and they can extend well beyond the pidgin and creole varieties that many of us have heard of.

The origin stories of these linguistic mash-ups vary. Some are peaceful, such as when groups meet for trade and need a lingua franca: Nigerian Pidgin English, for example, allows speakers of some 500 tongues to communicate. But others were born of tragedy and violence—like Haitian Creole, Gullah Geechee, Jamaican Creole, and many others that arose during the Atlantic slave trade, when West African peoples combined several tongues with English, creating everyday languages often used among enslaved people.

Today, many of these contact languages are lost. Only 200 or so remain—and scores are at risk of extinction. Linguists and anthropologists who traditionally have focused on more formal languages are paying increased attention: studying contact languages with greater intensity and working with Indigenous groups, international agencies, independent nonprofits, academics, and others to preserve them.

This thriller has it all

Rare books and maps, theft, and… Well, that’s most of it. But it’s enough. How did $8M of rare books and maps disappear from the Carnegie Library over 25 years? I somehow picture the thief to be like the cat burglar from that episode of the Simpsons.

Like nuclear power plants and sensitive computer networks, the safest rare book collections are protected by what is known as “defense in depth”—a series of small, overlapping measures designed to thwart a thief who might be able to overcome a single deterrent. The Oliver Room, home to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books and archives, was something close to the platonic ideal of this concept. Greg Priore, manager of the room starting in 1992, designed it that way.

The room has a single point of entry, and only a few people had keys to it. When anyone, employee or patron, entered the collection, Priore wanted to know. The room had limited daytime hours, and all guests were required to sign in and leave personal items, like jackets and bags, in a locker outside. Activity in the room was under constant camera surveillance.

In addition, the Oliver Room had Priore himself. His desk sat at a spot that commanded the room and the table where patrons worked. When a patron returned a book, he checked that it was still intact. Security for special collections simply does not get much better than that of the Oliver Room.

In the spring of 2017, then, the library’s administration was surprised to find out that many of the room’s holdings were gone. It wasn’t just that a few items were missing. It was the most extensive theft from an American library in at least a century, the value of the stolen objects estimated to be $8 million.

Friday news

You are alive and it is Friday. The world is bad: as it’s always been in many ways, but better in some and worse in others. Go into your weekend with thoughts of how to make it more good than bad, even if many of those thoughts are brunch- and mimosa-based. Just try to have the occasional thought outside considerations of self-medication.

Thursday news dump

Okay, so unless Joyce Carol Oates’ foot decomposes and recomposes into a hallucinatory goo-demon that would put Tetsuo in Akira to shame, I’m probably only posting what’s below today for two reasons: 1) I saw my best pal last night for a deeply satisfying round of beers on a patio downtown, something we used to do once a week, but now do about once every 6 months, it seems, meaning I’m a lightweight who’s hungover, and 2) I have a tattoo appointment in an hour and a half and need to jam my entire day into that time because as I suspect the vast majority of you know, even a small scheduled event entirely ruins the day for work thereafter.