Highs and lows

Every year I go to the annual Friends of the Guelph Public Library Giant Used Book Sale. Three years ago I posted some thoughts on the experience where I referred to the sale as “both fun and a bit depressing.” That was my feeling again this year.

The fun part was the same. It really is heartening to see so many people, especially so many young people, lining up to buy books. I know that in the grand scheme of things these crowds don’t add up to much, but they still give one hope.

The depressing bit was something new. For a while now I’d been hearing of cellphone apps that allow you to scan the bar code on a book and pull up prices, either from some online bookseller or price aggregator. This year’s book sale, however, was the first time I’d seen these in action. At the table where I was spending most of my time there were three individuals simply going through everything: pulling a book out, scanning the bar code with their phones, looking quickly at the screen, and then either putting the book in one of their boxes or tossing it back on the table. They worked very quickly, able to do all the scanning and scrolling functions on their phones with one hand while pulling the books with the other.

I get that the used book trade is a business and that this is what apps are for: making things quicker and more convenient. Still, the way these guys worked a table, like the filleters working on the line at a fish processing plant, was depressing. Here was the digital economy moving in, jackal-like, to further cannibalize the remains of our culture. Its foot soldiers were robotic. Quite obviously they didn’t have any interest in the books they were methodically scanning. I’m not sure they could have told you what section of the sale they were working at the time. They were just doing data entry.

But while whatever program they were using to get a quick price check might serve as a rough guide, the fact that they didn’t really know the merchandise meant they were probably missing out on a lot. A couple of years ago I found a book at this same sale that I picked up for a dollar. I later saw it advertised online for over $800. And it wasn’t a copy in as good shape as the one I got! (By the way, it really was just curiosity that led me to check out what it was going for online. I didn’t resell it. I still have it sitting in my “to-read” pile.) The thing is, I found that book on the third day of the sale, after the book scouts and used-book buyers had already been through.

The same thing was happening this year. I thoght the book scanners were missing a lot, whatever their app might have been telling them. This made me think of something David Mason, a veteran used-book seller, had to say in the most recent issue of Canadian Notes & Queries:

Supposedly the great equalizer, the internet is in fact the worst offender against informed judgment . . . An experienced dealer looking at internet entries nowadays often finds five to ten copies of a book offered by dealers they’ve never heard of before they see names they know and credible prices. It takes just one ignorant fool putting a ludicrous price on a book to give other ignorant fools something to copy. They usually price their own copy ten percent or so less, assuming they’re being clever, when what they’re really doing is adding to the general ignorance. The blind lead the blind into the bog of imbecility, all of which makes the internet a dangerous cesspool.

Sadly, I don’t think anyone cares about the internet being a cesspool as long as it’s a profitable cesspool. The question is how well, in a business like this, such an approach really works.

Like hell

France, 1916.

One of the most common comparisons you’ll hear made by reporters and commentators on news programs is that some natural or human disaster is “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” I don’t think the people invoking Dante like this have actually read the Inferno, or are familiar with the illustrations by Gustave Doré that have done so much to shape the way we visualize the poem. Instead, what is usually meant is something hellish. Meaning lots of flame, and possibly dead bodies. This despite the fact that the lowest levels of hell in Dante are actually frozen over.

It was not always thus. In World War One, during the battle of Verdun, an American aviator could be more precise:

During heavy bombardments and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. Countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré’s picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante’s “Hell.”

Now this is the way a classical analogy is supposed to work. Dante’s Inferno actually varies quite a bit between its different levels, in terms of the landscape and the punishments meted out. Here, however, the comparison being made is exact: to the sixth circle and the flaming tombs of the heretics. If one knows Doré’s illustrations one can understand, can see, what the airman is talking about.

Today hell is just hell, whether Dante’s or Doré’s or whoever’s. It’s become more generic. This is both a cultural leveling and a leveling of the imagination. We’re poorer for it.

What is womanhood?

As this year’s federal election draws nearer I’ve been receiving campaign literature in the mail. This week I got something from the Christian Heritage Party candidate that was all about protecting women from various forms of “insidious abuse.” It includes an essay written by the candidate himself where I found this: “I will work to strengthen the dignity of females of all ages and womanhood through offering courses to empower women.” I have to say I pulled a total blank on what he means by womanhood here. It’s hard not to think he has something specific in mind, but what? What are the degrees of womanhood?

Don’t know much geography

Whose flag?

It was an oft-repeated criticism of American involvement in Vietnam that the U.S. was waging a war in a country that few of its citizens would be able to find on a map. That was a zinger, then and now, though, in the American public’s defence, at the time Vietnam was only twenty years old (it had most recently been French Indochina).

I was thinking of this recently when preparing my notes on the movie They’re Watching, which was set in Moldova. This threw me. Before finding out this little tidbit of information, if you’d asked me if there was a country of Moldova I would have said there wasn’t. I associated the name with a province in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and thought that the filmmakers were invoking it as an imaginary place like Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But actually Moldova is a sovereign state, having been one of the Soviet Socialist Republics and gaining independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.

This was humbling. I thought I knew enough of the basics of world geography that the existence of a European country I didn’t know of came as quite a surprise. But as I went flipping through a pocket atlas recently I found other examples of my ignorance of how the world is divided up. Just as surprising to me as the existence of Moldova was the discovery that there’s a part of Russia that isn’t connected to any other part of Russia (what’s called an exclave). This is the Kaliningrad Oblast, the old Prussian Königsberg. Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people. But I didn’t.

Political boundaries are often in flux, which justifies the printing of new atlases. I found several such boundary issues in my browsing. Suriname, for example, claims big chunks of both Guyana and French Guiana (the countries to its west and east respectively). I have no idea how valid these claims are, but on a map they look significant. Meanwhile, Western Sahara has been administered since 1979 by Morocco, but is still considered a (huge) disputed territory. I knew nothing of this.

The upshot is that I don’t have the right to make fun of anyone else’s ignorance of geography. There are plenty of places I not only couldn’t find on a map but that I’ve never even heard of. I guess I’m not a man of the world.

Mistakes? I’ve made a few

It’s a testament to something that every time I happen to re-read a previous post I’ve made at one of my sites I find something that needs to be corrected. Usually this is just a typo or some infelicity. But in the last couple of weeks I came across a pair of glaring factual errors that were absolute howlers. One was in a review of a book and the other of a movie.

The nice thing about running a blog is that you can immediately correct your mistakes. And once they’re fixed you can pretend as though they were never made. You can’t do that with print. Still, I’m depressed to find so many goofs. I actually do try to make sure that a post is clear of errors before I publish it online. But still the fact is I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything, in over twenty years, that didn’t have at least one mistake in it. As I’ve said, I find them all the time. They turn up like stones in a field.

Perhaps it has something to do with writing for the Internet. Or perhaps it’s just my own carelessness. As for the nature of my mistakes, my opinions, I find, change less and less. But my expression of those opinions is always in flux. This makes a blog a perpetual work in progress. Thanks for bearing with me!

The dead zone

I’m an early to bed, early to rise kind of guy. Very early. In fact, I live close to a gym that’s open 24-hours and I often go there to exercise at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I usually have the place to myself at that hour, though there are a few other regulars. I’m never sure if they’re getting up as early as I am, or if they’ve stayed up late.

I’ve always been a bit this way. I enjoy the dead hours of the morning when there’s no traffic on the streets. When I lived in the country you could really feel like you were the last man on earth, though I had one farmer friend who would pass me on the road at 3 o’clock and mention wistfully how this was the greatest time of the day. A true kindred spirit.

The reason I bring this up is because this week I’m supposed to be filling out one of those TV viewing surveys. I told the survey company that I didn’t have a TV and they said that didn’t matter. I do, however, watch the TVs they have at the gym. So, being the responsible person I am, I figured I would enter this in the journal they gave me, in the column “Watched TV Out of Home.”

But no! You see, each diary page begins at 4 in the morning. And each day ends at 2 the next morning. So from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock is a TV-viewing dead zone. Which is the only time of the day, at least most days, that I watch any TV. I don’t even exist within a measurable viewing demographic, despite the fact that stations no longer “sign off” at the end of the day. Sure they repeat programming, but they’re not just broadcasting a test pattern.

This is what life is like on the other side.

Everyday rudeness #5: Not removing winter shoes and boots indoors

At the gym I go to the locker rooms (remember them?) are on the main floor, with a rather grand staircase leading up to the equipment and program rooms. During the winter months there’s a sign placed at the bottom of these stairs asking members to not go past that point wearing winter boots or outside shoes. You can’t miss the sign. You have to walk around it to go up the stairs.

Even if you didn’t read the sign, the effects of people not taking off their boots is evident. The stairs are often dirty and wet, and they have to put up signs warning how slippery the steps are. Upstairs, the carpeting is being ruined with all the salt brought in. The janitorial staff also have to mop the steps down several times every day because they are such a mess.

I spoke to one of the janitors on this detail the other day and mentioned how surprised I was that people didn’t take off their outdoor shoes before coming upstairs. He said that “Sadly (yes! he said ‘sadly’!) most people don’t read the sign.”

I don’t think that’s true. I think everyone knows the sign is there and what it says. And like I say, it’s obvious the mess they’re making. They just ignore it. In this they are following what I’ve described before as the essence of rude behaviour: a sense of privilege and entitlement that tells them that rules don’t apply to them. Such people are, in the favourite diagnosis of our age, narcissists. Or assholes. What this leads to is, as usual, a mess for someone else to clean up.

Thinning out the stacks

I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.

No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.

What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.

This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.

I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.

Borrowed DVDs

The discs were supposed to be indestructible. When CDs first came in (yes, I remember when) that was one of their biggest selling points. You couldn’t scratch them like an LP, or really do much to damage them in any way short of snapping them in two. I remember television hosts spreading peanut butter and jam on them and then scraping it off, wiping them down, and slipping them straight into the CD player. Technology!

DVDs shared this same magical power. VHS videotapes wore out on replay and were damaged by excessive pausing or rewinding. Anyone who rented a copy of Under Siege from Blockbuster in the early ’90s knew what that looked like when the girl jumped out of the cake. But with DVDs you could watch a movie as many times as you wanted, and freeze the action and play it back at any speed without any diminishment in quality. You could probably even spread peanut butter and jam on them too.

Of course now we’re living in the era of non-tactile media, streaming our music and movies directly onto our tablets and TVs. Or at least some of us are. I still borrow DVDs (no, not Blu-Rays) from the library and I also have a pretty extensive library of DVDs at home. Call me a Luddite or behind the times but I like the technology.

I also take care of the DVDs I borrow. I follow standard procedure in carefully removing the disc from its case, pressing the button in the center to release it and then only holding on to it by its edges. From the case to the machine and back again. That’s it. Such a disc may be indestructible, but why test it?

Well, discs aren’t indestructible. Which is something you soon find out when you borrow them from your local public library. While I have never had a problem with a DVD freezing or skipping on playback with a disc from my personal library, with borrowed discs it has become usual.

Now in itself this isn’t too surprising. We tend not to take care of things we don’t own but are just enjoying temporarily. People can be shit in that way. What never ceases to surprise me, however, is just how badly these discs have been treated.

I mean, while not indestructible the fact is you have to work hard to damage a DVD. When I remove a DVD that has frozen and flip it over to take a look at it I am shocked. What on earth are people doing with these things? They look like they’ve seen a tour of duty in a soldier’s backpack. They are scratched all over, as though they’ve been used as pucks in a game of air hockey or coasters in a bar. I’d like to say I’m joking but I think in some people’s homes perhaps they are being used to put drinks on. Because . . . what else can explain the state they’re in?

This truly puzzles me. Books get damaged because you take them everywhere. They get stuffed in bags and taken to the beach and are randomly tossed around. They have food dropped in them, and fall into tubs or sinks. Some people dog-ear pages to mark their place, or underline passages and make marginal notes. I can understand all that. But how do you do this to a DVD? I didn’t think there would be as many opportunities to be so destructive. Are they being used as coasters? Hung from trees and windows to keep the birds away? It seems weird.

We the Internet

The use of teasing headlines is well established as a hallmark of Internet news sites. The reasons for them are also pretty clear: they are designed as click-bait, which is a way of keeping viewers on the site while more ads are fed to them. That’s the point of making us click a link to “read more,” and it’s the whole point of writing headlines like this.

There’s another characteristic of Internet headlines that has become almost as common and that I find less easy to understand. This is the use of an inclusive point of view, usually signaled by the pronoun “we.” As in “We can’t stop talking about [whatever]” or “[Something] happened and we’re amazed!” Such headlines can also be prescriptive, announcing that “We need to” do this or “We need to stop ” doing that.

This is not the sort of headline writing that you see in print. In fact, I have a hard time even imagining such a headline in print, at least at any time before the current dispensation, when the boundaries between print and digital publication have blurred. On many online news sources, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous. Why?

Obviously it’s mean to be catchy. Every headline is meant to be catchy. But what is it about Internet publication that has given rise to this particular form of expression? I’ve called it “inclusive,” in part to set it apart from the “royal we.” I don’t think that’s how it’s meant. Instead, the author is apparently looking to adopt a sort of collective voice, expressing a common sense proposition that “we” would be foolish to disagree with.

Is striking such a note also meant to irritate? Like most Internet writing, there is a real value to pushing people’s buttons. So when your immediate response to such a presumptuous headline is to think “Speak for yourself,” then the headline has done its work. Perhaps you’ll even be drawn to make a comment!

At least I think that’s part of what’s in play. Perhaps another part of it has to do with the way that news sites on the Internet are so divided into political silos that the headline is meant as a bit of preliminary streaming. “We” all think this, and if you aren’t one of us then you probably shouldn’t be here. Or: This website is a community of the like-minded, and it addresses itself specifically, and exclusively, to those who identify with the sentiments expressed in the rest of this headline.

Whatever the explanation, I can’t say I’m a fan of these headlines. They seem to want to co-opt my agreement with whatever they’re going to say before they’ve even said it. At one point that might have been enough to get me to “read more,” but I’ve learned to ignore them. This leads me to hope that they may go away. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but I like to believe that at some point the Internet will start getting better.