Spare time

H. G. Wells is usually credited with having invented the time-travel story in the 1895 classic The Time Machine. In his book Time Travel James Gleick does a good job putting Wells’s invention in context, though I still wonder why such a rich idea lay mostly unexplored until the twentieth century. Clearly we weren’t waiting for science to catch up to our imaginings, because it still hasn’t (and likely never will).

The novel has been freely adapted on film at least twice, by George Pal in 1960 and again, less successfully, in 2002. I would definitely recommend the Pal version, but if you really want a treat you should look for Time After Time, which has Malcolm McDowell playing H. G. Wells zapping forward to 1970s America in a hunt for Jack the Ripper. It’s a movie that’s not very well known these days but it’s very good.

Broken promises

From The Day of the Locust (1939) by Nathanael West:

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

From Notes of a Native Son (1955) by Richard Wright:

In America, though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe and each generation is promised more than it will get: which creates, in each generation, a curious bewildered rage, the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.

Books of the Year 2019

Well, the end of the year is upon us, which means it’s time for another one of those best-of lists that everyone seems to like so much.

Best fiction: Two books stood out for me this year. I liked Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me a lot, and was a little surprised it didn’t get more press coverage. It deals with a couple of important contemporary social issues by way of a well-tuned thriller plot. But I’m giving the top prize to Michael Libling’s Hollywood North, another terrific thriller with a lot more going on than meets the eye. I love books that work on different levels and Hollywood North does that and more.

 

 

Best non-fiction: Last year I picked a book on Napoleon here because I was looking for something outside of the avalanche of books on Donald Trump. This year I’ll stick with Trump and pick Tim Alberta’s American Carnage, which presents a pretty thorough accounting of how Trump took over the Republican Party. An important story, and well told.

 

 

 

Best SF: Overall I’d have to rate this a down year in SF. But I have no trouble recommending Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Redemption, which is the final part of his terrific Wormwood Trilogy. As a columnist, I usually try to stay away from series of novels but I’m glad I gave this one a try.

Public language

From Age of Folly (2016) by Lewis H. Lapham:

The familiar story (democracy smothered by oligarchy) has often been told – long ago by Aristotle, more recently in our American context by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – but it is nowhere better illustrated than by the reversal over the past half century of the meaning within the words “public” and “private.” In the 1950s the word “public” connoted an inherent good (public health, public school, public service, public spirit); “private” was a synonym for selfishness and greed (plutocrats in top hats, pigs at troughs). The connotations traded places in the 1980s. “Private” now implies all things bright and beautiful (private trainer, private school, private plane), “public” becomes a synonym for all things ugly and dangerous (public housing, public welfare, public toilet).

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.

Our new literary overlords

From Who Owns the Future? (2013) by Jaron Lanier:

What will books be like once Silicon Valley has had its way with them?

A lot of people will pretend to be commercially successful authors, and will put money into enhancing the illusion. Most of these will rely on family support or inheritance. Gradually an intellectual plutocracy will emerge.

From World Without Mind (2017) by Franklin Foer:

Our great writers cared about money because they needed it. They needed it to feed their families, and so that they could devote themselves to fulfilling their creative selves. Without pay, they would have been consigned to day jobs, unable to fully apply themselves to their prose. Apologists for Amazon like to sneer at the writerly caste, a hermetic club that dismisses outsiders who aren’t part of the gang. Yet history shows the alternative to professionalized writing. A few geniuses from the lower rungs of the class structure would manage to produce lasting art, despite the distant odds. But writing would largely survive as a luxury for those who could afford it, a hobby for the wealthy – for the trust fund babies, the men of leisure, those with resources to follow their economically irrational passions.