Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Remembering Henry Noll aka Schmidt

[gary daily col. 32 September 1, 2002]

“In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”
Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1911To the public his name was Schmidt. In 1911 he was the most famous common laborer in the world.

Although mechanization entered the factory workplace prior to the Civil War, the work of the common laborer was still strictly muscle work. Large and heavy lumps of goods and materials were jostled about, huffed into warehouses, and sweated onto wagons and trains. Schmidt set a standard for this kind of work. In doing so he played a major role in making all work a part of “the system.”

In his magnificent book The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin argues that “Efficiency” which begets higher productivity is what American industry in the twentieth century was all about. Frederick Winslow Taylor formulated theories for packaging work into efficient units of time in the quest for higher productivity. Taylor always put an emphasis on that most magic of twentieth century religions, “science.” The laborer Schmidt was held up to the world as one of Taylor’s marvelous converts, a model scientific and efficient unit.

In 1899, Taylor rounded up a dozen workers in the Bethlehem Iron and Steel yard, showed them a pile of “pigs” (gray iron bars weighing ninety-two pounds each), took out his stop watch and ordered these laborers to work as hard as they could picking up the heavy bars and carrying them up a ramp into a railroad car. They loaded one car, 16 1/2 tons total, in fourteen minutes. Extrapolating from this forced-march demonstration, Taylor calculated an optimum of 71 tons per day for each laborer. Normally these hand-picked workers might load a car in 54 minutes; a ten hour day’s work came to around 24 tons per man. Many at Bethlehem loaded less than this each day. All were paid $1.15 per day.

After Taylor had this raw calculation of 71 tons per day in hand, in a very non-scientific way, and without comment in his final report, he upped this figure to 75 tons! Now he was ready for the next step, a piece rate pay schedule. For reasons never explained, and again departing from anything resembling the rigors of science, Taylor set 45 tons per day as the standard stint of work for what he termed the “high priced man.” Laborers reaching this level would be paid the munificent sum of $1.70 for the day’s work. The pay for what now was arbitrarily designated a “normal day’s work” of 24 tons would receive $1.15. Those able to wrestle only 13 tons of iron from pile to rail car (and previously this was the historical average in the yard), would be paid fifty cents for their day’s work.

Ten men defied orders to work under this system. On Taylor’s authority they were discharged.

Robert Kangiel’s definitive biography of Taylor, The One Best Way, describes what happened next. Seven men were specially recruited to work under the Taylor pay system. They worked individually, no longer as a gang. One man, Schmidt, loaded 45 3/4 tons of iron. The others all fell short of the “high priced man” standard Taylor had set through his “scientific” investigations. They quit. Over the next ninety days loaders would come and go. Some lasted a few days, some not even a day.

Kangiel quotes from the report issued on this scientific experiment in “Efficiency”:

“We found that [Gruen] was not fitted for such heavy work.”

“Roth on this day loaded 43 tons, earning $1.63, but after this day did not return”

“Koch and Howarth [claimed] that they could not earn a fair day’s wages at this work.”

In the end, a total of forty workers took part in Taylor’s peculiar scientific study of work rates and pay levels. Only Schmidt stayed on to work the next day and the next and the next. And only Schmidt, joined by two others later in this experiment, qualified as a “high priced man.”

Today Taylor is lionized in management texts assigned in schools of business. An example at random: Ricky W. Griffin’s Management (7th edition), a course text currently assigned in a Indiana State University course, includes a picture of the stern scientist of management with this caption:

“Frederick Winslow Taylor was a pioneer in the field of labor efficiency. He introduced numerous innovations in how jobs were designed and how workers were trained to perform them. These innovations resulted in higher quality products and improved employee morale. Taylor also formulated the basic ideas of scientific management.”

Kangiel’s research found “Schmidt” to be the scientific stage name Taylor hung on a worker whose real name was Henry Noll. In his The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor describes Noll as “a man of the mentally sluggish type . . . his mental make-up [resembling] the ox rather than any other type.”

Henry Noll the man, not Taylor’s management science unit, was twenty-eight years old at the time he was running slabs of iron from pile to box car in Taylor’s experiment. He was a jogger. Every day he ran a mile or so to and from work. Native born of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, he could read and write. Noll was a volunteer fireman. It was said of him that he was trustworthy and a good saver. He looked to the future. In 1960 a small one-and-a-half story clapboard house with a failing foundation in Martin’s Lane, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was torn down. Henry Noll had purchased the land this house stood on in 1899. He built this sturdy house alone on time he managed to squeeze from his long and arduous days of work.

Congratulations and happy Labor Day to the workers of America.

You know who you are even if the Frederick Winslow Taylors of the world do not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Will Bush Face Down the Velcro Heads? Nah. Won't Happen.

[gary daily col. 31 August 25, 2002]

Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less.”
-Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Revolution (1868)

Tomorrow is “Women’s Equality Day, 2002."

This day of recognition marks women’s enfranchisement. With the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1920, the long struggle for women’s rights in this country took a giant step. There is plenty to read in conjunction with this significant moment in the history of representative democracy, but what I’m really hyped about is hearing President Bush’s official proclamation on this auspicious day.

In his 2001 address on this event, Bush had this to say:

“In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London. They, along with the other women there, expected to join in the anti-slavery proceedings, but male delegates refused to allow them to participate. Thus rebuffed, Mott and Stanton began a journey that would lead to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. There, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments called for women's equality, including the right to vote and to take part in our Nation's great moral debates.”

The president went on from there: “Tremendous advancements have been made in the fight for equality. But we must remain diligent in enforcing our Nation's laws. And we still have work to do in this area.”

Until I read this speech, I had no idea Bush was such a student of women’s history and such a watchdog and advocate of women’s rights. I guess those campaign ads of solitary, square-jawed Bush striding through west Texas, kicking up dust, and some highly questionable appointments and challenges to Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 gave me the wrong impression of the man.

Well, thanks be to Ma Barbara, or to the well read Ms. Laura Bush, or simply to intelligence trumping ignorance, here’s “W” singing the glories of the free-thinking Stanton and the peace loving Mott. But above all, here’s our Skull and Bones Yalie and Harvard MBA, moving toward a full-blown endorsement of that famous radical feminist manifesto of 1848, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. I hold my breath waiting to hear what the president will have to say this year. It makes you wonder just how long “W” has been a cross dresser on women’s rights, a closet feminist!


I can personally report on strong reactions to this word even after Bush's Presidential proclamation last year. In bar rooms and classrooms, during town and gown functions, or while striking up an innocent conversation while standing in a supermarket line, the mention of feminism turns some perfectly good brains into a hollow organ lined with velcro. I call them Velcro Heads. Their thinking on advocacy for women consists of grabbing anything and everything in the news conceived of as being threatening, other, not us, dangerous, irreligious, different--and let’s not leave out those old standbys-- “extreme” and “radical” and attach it to the f-word.

And this is why I am in awe at “W’s” wandering so close to the edge of enlightenment during last year’s Women’s Equality Day. Will this be the year he fully embraces feminism?


Can you remember how this term helped to create that cover boy of a few years back, the Angry White Male? Men were taking to the woods in packs. They were smearing themselves with mud, 30 weight motor oil, bean dip or anything they could get to stick to their sweaty bodies that might keep the testosterone from leaking out. Through long nights forests throbbed with the sound of beating drums. All of this in a frantic effort to ward off the insidious power of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and other assorted female types who were bent on weakening Manhood. Action of this intensity had not been seen since the skies of Old Salem Village were darkened by soaring feminists.


There’s a demographic out there that has trouble distinguishing demonology from democracy. For them, grudgingly, votes for women has become acceptable. They feel the pace leading to that radical change was just about right-a 72 year struggle to win the vote followed by an 82 year trial period. But now Velcro Heads are asking: Who could have possibly stamped an “OK” on Bush’s August 26, 2001 speech? They feel it’s one thing to sniff tolerantly at the agents of radical change, but let’s not encourage “them.” So tomorrow is Women’s Equality Day. And Velcro Heads will be reading President George W. Bush’s official 2002 Proclamation with as much interest as feminists.


In the meantime, and anytime, I recommend reading the primary source cited in President Bush’s 2001 shocker, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. It famously begins with a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” goes on to state details of man’s tyranny over woman, “submit [s these facts] to a candid world,” and concludes with a dozen resolutions that feminists have been striving to achieve in letter and in spirit since 1848.

I would like to see President Bush further bolster his sub rosa credentials as a feminist. He should read those famous twelve resolutions into his Women’s Equality Day, 2002 proclamation. He might also try saying out loud in public the word that ties so many minds into empty emotional knots--feminism.

An Occupation Once Called "just running around”

[gary daily col. 30 August 8, 2002]

Were we closer to the ground as children or is the grass emptier now? -Alan Bennett

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. -R. D. Laing

With summer coming to an end and the “Back to School” sales hoopla taking over the malls and mega-stores, kids are starting to feel the hot breath of formal education on the backs of their necks. And some of these kids are feeling and thinking, what’s the difference--schools are about adults and summers are about adults. Kids like these are not just showing signs of creeping cynicism, they’re reporting on the reality of their lives.

This thought was reinforced again while I was re-reading two favorite books, Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird and Robert Paul Smith’s less well known, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. Lee’s novel, serious and significant, is set in the southern Alabama town of Maycomb in the early 1930s; Smith tells funny, wildly exaggerated stories of his urban youth from the perspective of fifties suburbia. The coming-of-age theme is an important part of the Lee novel. Smith’s stories carry a not very subtle subtext of worry about how children are growing up in 1958, the year his book was published.

“Scout” is Lee’s child heroine. Her nickname says it all. She’s the curious, brave, tough, try-anything younger sister of Jem and the friend of a regular summer visitor to Maycomb, Dill. In brief, here’s a hint of their summer: “Routine contentment was: improving our treehouse that rested between giant chinaberry trees in the back yard, fussing, running through our list of dramas based on the works of Oliver Optic, Victor Appleton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. . . . But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”

No need to fill in any blanks. These kids amused themselves with kid games thought up by kids and carried out by kids. And that “fussing” hints at times filled with unsupervised discovery. As Lee amusingly and ominously puts it, when they grew tired of this they went looking for something more exciting to do.

Today the Apprehensive Adult Authority of the Universe would be quick to say Scout and company went “looking for trouble.” Motivated by a trust shattering mix of guilt and fear, a duly constituted Apprehensive Adult Authority Action Committee would create still another “summer program” or sports league or play circle. Firm in the knowledge that the devil has plans of chaos for youth with idle hands and inquisitive minds, these programs are designed to keep chaos at bay by providing the glue of schedules and the protection of supervision.

This is all an unfair caricature. But it’s a picture that does capture some salient truths. When Smith wrote his paean to unfettered youth in search of fun and “trouble” back in the good old days of the 1950s, the slope toward Palm Pilot child rearing practices was just showing up on the cultural screen of American life.

We should never take Smith at his word. But even discounting his tales by 90% for hyperbolic humor, he still leaves us with the impression that his childhood years were spent profitably pursuing activities few parents today can imagine, let alone tolerate. Some of these were building forts in vacant lots with scavenged and “loaned” building materials, engaging in a wide range of games that required no equipment and no insurance releases, cutting worms in half, dropping things down storm drains, spitting, playing mumbly-peg with knives bristling with many blades, and enjoying a game of baseball played with less than nine players on a side, no uniforms, and with a ball wrapped in friction tape. Smith candidly reveals, however, that time was mostly spent “pursuing the occupation called ‘just running around.’”

Mythic Golden Ages abound in history and especially in memories of our youth. All are true in a fashion; all are lies at the edges or the core. They are built through a selection process that delivers up pleasure rather than pain. We grudgingly grant this in recognition that we can’t turn the clock back to those innocent, interesting times that never really existed.

But still, we feel pangs of memory or longing when we read about the no-strings-attached seasons of play and discovery enjoyed by Lee’s “Scout” and Smith’s childhood self. Our kitchen calendars can underline this feeling. Have the days and weeks on it been transformed into a personal corporate-style flow chart on speed - filled beyond the margins with initials, times, and cell phone numbers? And what answer do we get from our children or grandchildren when we ask, “What have you been up to?” Do they say “fussing” with the assurance of that always curious keg of energy, “Scout”? Is their response edgy with self-reliance as Smith’s “just running around”? Or do they wearily point up to the calendar on the wall?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What Will $37 mil Buy?

[gary daily col. 29 August 11, 2002]

. . . the big fellas are being hydrated like petunias in every training camp under the blistering sun, so all must be well. -Selena Roberts, “In N.F.L., Wretched Excess Is Way to Make Roster”

Was it H. L. Mencken who wrote that Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy? In this sense, the following may come off as puritanical. But really, all I’m inquiring into are football fan’s powers of imagination, their ability to confront and deal with reality. So, as TVs prepare to blare each Monday night, “Are ya ready for some . . . (Q. & A)?”

Q. Can you imagine what it’s like to strap on the ol’ pads, those space age foam and fiber shock absorbers developed in high tech labs, fitted by computer body imaging, and all snugged into the sausage casing of 100% polyester dazzle cloth?

A. Only if you’ve done it yourself and haven’t suppressed the memory. Or, and this is a likely possibility, if you’ve watched more hours of TV football than there are chapters in a shelf full of books.

Q. Can you imagine crisp October afternoons on the ol’ gridiron when it’s August and ninety degree temperatures and an eighty plus humidity level turns the ol’ turf, that’s astro to you bub, into a 120 yard long by 53 1/3 yard wide heating pad?

A. Probably not. Most sports reports are long on statistics but weak on pain and suffering. And, while heat-related deaths on football fields are solemnly reported, like the “Injury List” news, this stuff is deflected as easily as 99 per cent of the “Hail Mary” passes thrown each season. Compete or die clichés cover it: “you have to play hurt” or “suck it up and get out there kid.”

Q. Can you imagine ol’ coach gathering the squad around him at the start of the season, fixing each and every player with that steely eyed look of his, telling them in his best God/Father/Friend voice that who they are in life, and what they can be in life, depends on what they do this very day, this very week, and this very season of their lives?

A. Probably, yes. You’ve seen the movie. Your chest swells involuntarily. This is character building. Strange how few seem to wonder why so many athletes, given all this special, very high-priced attention, turn out to be violent social misfits.

Q. Can you imagine ol’ Chicago Bear fans gathering at neighborhood taverns around the “city of big shoulders,” filling the trunks of their cars with beer and brats and hurtling down US 57 to Champaign-Urbana where the pros of the NFL will play on a field maintained by one of the pros of the Big Ten (sic)?

A. Sure you can. These lovable lugs became famous on “Saturday Night Live.” They love “Da Bears,” hate “The Pack,” and carry pictures of the sainted Ed Sprinkle in their wallets. They work hard for their money, and after Soldier’s Field is refurbished they will have to work even harder to afford the price of end zone seats.

Q. Can you imagine what a little ol’ $37 mil is buying the University of Colorado in Boulder?

A. No. It’s not a library or arts complex. It’s not a law school addition honoring ol’ Coach Fred Folsom for his decades of coaching the Buffaloes while, get this, he was also a law professor. That $37 mil will pay for 41 luxury suites and 2000 “club seats” at the stadium bearing Folsom’s name, at least until a corporate sponsor turns up.

Q. Can you imagine how much it’s going to cost a party of Colorado “Buffs” rah-rah fans to view football games from one of these luxury suites?

A. You’re way too low. Try $50,000 in long green. Probably three times what Coach/Professor Folsom earned his last year as a teacher/coach in 1944.

Q. Can you imagine what the ol’ Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has called expenditures such as these?

A. No. Not “obscene.” Their report calls it an “arms race of spending and building in intercollegiate athletics.” And as with all such races, who ever really wins an arms race?

Q. Can you imagine how many ol’ college sports programs are on probation? How many ol’ athletes end their seasons in court, on crutches, without degrees, or dead long before their time? How much of your ol’ tax dollar goes to paying the bills for sky boxes, luxury suites, and “club seats”?

A. Neither can I. Is anyone counting? Why not?

Q. Can you imagine any ol’ stories by fine writers that touch on any of this, especially on how it all might play a part in the large scheme of things or in the lives of individual athletes?

A. Not many? Try reading Irwin Shaw’s great short story, “The Eighty Yard Run.” Or look for the part on basketball in Rabbit, Run by John Updike. Not to be missed is E. L. Doctorow’s perceptive and moving take on turn of the century baseball in his wonderful novel, Ragtime. Most of all, promise yourself to read James A. Michener’s (yes, that Michener) Sports in America--a report from a man who loved sports enough to spell out its flaws and failings back in 1976.

Personally, I grew up on John R. Tunis’s sports fiction, Sport magazine’s  hagiological journalism, and the tall tales Bill Stern’s radio sports program dished out each week. That’s why I can’t seem to break the habit of talking and writing about ol’ this and ol’ that. It’s been the business of the sports business to not just create fans but to manufacture mindless myths, synthetic traditions, false loyalties.  They’ve done their work too well.

Cussed and Discussed

[gary daily col. 28 August 4, 2002]

"When I re-read 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' I was 45 and I thought I would have to hold my nose to get through it. But by chapter two, I was gawking, it was so interesting and terrific. By the end I was in awe.” -Jane Smiley

Do books change lives?

There’s no doubt they do when we speak of individual lives. Today I read a short account of a University of Virginia philosophy professor testifying to this Paul on the road to Damascus phenomena. The story of his adolescent years left me with the impression that he was doomed to a life of living off inflated memories of his high school football exploits and the proceeds from stolen hubcaps. Then he’s turned around. He reads Ken Kesey’s anti-authoritarian novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s goodbye bars and cars and hello Plato and Vico.

Why do I so often find myself involuntarily thinking “yadda, yadda, yadda” when I hear these accounts? I am pleased but never surprised by “reading saved my life” stories. I know full well there’s always some one individual flapping about in the flock of humanity who will go to his grave certain that reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull gave wing to his previously earthbound heart and spirit. I would never take serious aim at gulls wanting to be eagles.

That a book can change a person’s life is a profound reality; it is also a truism. But I suggest taking a different tack in regard to the power of the printed word between covers. Try this question: What book has had the power to grab an entire nation by the collective scruff of its neck and move a whole people to a different place in their minds and their actions?

In answering, please disqualify those sacred texts which abound in the world. Also exclude sacred secular works, including the dearly departed Sears and Roebuck Catalog and any and all biographies of NFL quarterbacks, Brittany Spears, or honest CEOs. The demonstrated power of these volumes places them beyond discussion.

Limiting yourself to American works, you might come up with titles such as Rachel Carson’s environmental classic, The Silent Spring; the book that sparked a war on poverty, Michael Harrington’s The Other America; Betty Friedan’s signal at the start of the second wave of feminism in American history, The Feminine Mystique; or Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, that safety beacon in the dark corporate night of negligence. These are all worthy and important works. But if your grasp of history allows, the one book that would appear on almost every list would be a 19th century novel--Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This book was published 150 years ago, in 1852. (Strictly speaking, it was first serialized in an antislavery newspaper in 1851.) It’s my guess that it would be impossible to find a history book surveying this nation’s history that does not mention Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War. Lincoln and Civil War buffs cannot pick up a study of the man and the war without coming across the story of the very tall Mr. Lincoln meeting the very short Mrs. Stowe with these very much unverified words of greeting, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year of publication. This would would work out to roughly 3 million copies today. It was translated into many languages and had a huge following in Europe. Lord Palmerston, who would later become the Prime Minister of England, read it “for the statesmanship of it”-- three times. It found avid readers south of the Mason and Dixon line, where attempts to ban the book failed. When Stowe met Lincoln in 1863, sales in the United States had reached 2 million. It is the all time best-selling book in proportion to population.

Important books can also be recognized by the rejoinders and enemies they foster. Fifteen novels were written by pro-slavery and southern apologists in response to Stowe’s work. An editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger” instructed a book reviewer to “have the review as hot as hell fire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats. . . .” When Langston Hughes wrote the introduction to a 1952 centennial reissue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin he called it “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.”

It is fair to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel had done its work. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the crime of slavery was a concern only to those dismissed as zealots and troublemakers. After her book exploded on the scene, masses of people found themselves sympathizing with, or enlisting for duty, in antislavery and abolitionist causes.

Stowe’s classic is not much read today. This is too bad. In recent times critics such as the brilliant novelist and essayist, James Baldwin, have asked new and probing questions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Baldwin’s reading, the book is “a catalogue of violence . . .leav[ing] unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her [Stowe’s] people to such deeds.” Stowe’s novel, sentimental and distant as it may seem to our ear today, can still speak to the country about slavery’s ugly offspring, racism. It is fitting that this book remains alive and vital, continues to be “cussed and discussed.”

Thursday, December 22, 2005

CROSSROADS COMMENT--Smoke Free Bars and Hockey Helmets

How long will Vigo County wait to establish laws banning smoking in public places, including all restaurants and bars? Will we be the last to limp onto this moving train?

Is it futile to review again the studies that support this action? The science is overwhelming. Let’s just say that if you work or regularly frequent a public establishment where smoking takes place be prepared to pay now and pay later. Pay now in cleaning bills and throat lozenges as you try to get the noxious fumes out of your threads and sinuses; pay later for inhalers, surgery and medications.

Everyone knows all this. Let’s add a different take to counter the mind set of bar owners and some public officials as they voice resistance to a health policy that is rational and socially conscious. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with this on my own. I’m using ideas from the book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. This is a work by the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, Thomas C. Schelling. And don’t let that title scare you away. The guy not only wins heavy medals, he can write.

Take a deep breath (if you’re a smoker, two short ones) and think about this.

You walk into a bar on Wabash Avenue. It’s the place to be. There are great murals by a local artist on the walls, the music is cooking, the crowd is hyped. But the air inside is chewable. It smells like King Kong’s ashtray after a night out with Fay Wray. Still, no one’s wearing a gas mask or one of those fancy Columbian kidnapper scarves across their faces. You might think everyone is oblivious to the free-floating carcinogens clouding the room. You notice, however, that there is more coughing than conversation going on.

Now it’s time to send in Nobel laureate Schelling to do his thing. First the “micromotives” part.

The Nobel man grabs a drink and picks his way through the crowd and the haze. He asks individuals how they feel about the lack of oxygen in this smoggy oasis. Many of the answers are a resigned, “No problem.” From the majority, who it should be noted are nonsmokers, there’s a self-consciously jaunty, “If they can stand it,” glancing around at the scattering of smokers, “so can I.” The wait staff and the bartenders glance anxiously over at their boss, they pretend to be too busy to respond to the Nobel man’s questions. The bar’s owner takes all of this in with a smug, just shy of obnoxious, “I told you so” look on her face.

According to Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand theory, customers mingling in Club Killer Fog make a decision and behave in the way they do because their choice to suffer a night of breathing toxic air gives them a reward–camaraderie, a chance to hear live music, the pleasures of seeing and being seen–outweighing other choices, say visiting a climate-controlled museum or any other non-smoking establishment. Adam Smith theorized that these individual market decisions add up to promoting the greatest good for all.

Taking note of all of this are Vigo County’s commissioners, Mason, Anderson and Bryan. They sit at the end of the bar, listening and taking notes, or at least two of them do. The Vigo County Health Commissioner, Dr. Enrico Garcia, makes a brief appearance. He sticks his head through the door and quickly retreats, gasping for breath. City Councilman Cummins, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Who Says No Man Is An Island?” sits alone, his back to the wall. He’s at a table playing solitaire.

But Schelling’s not through yet. Here comes the “macrobehavior” part.

Somehow, perhaps by jumping up on the bandstand, swinging his Nobel medal in a circle around his head, and rapping out a chorus of, “You’re Talkin’ Fine But It’s Macro-B Time,” Schelling manages to get everyone in the place to respond to a secret ballot on how they would feel about flipping this public watering hole into a non-smoking orbit. Following the lead of entire nations, states and a vast number of cities, they, smokers along with non-smokers, vote overwhelmingly in favor of a smoke-free environment.

So what’s happening here? And this is the part that helps win Nobel Prizes.

Through closely reasoned studies Schelling demonstrates that the individual pursuit of self-interest does not always reflect the common good. A famous example he cites is about hockey players and helmets. For many decades players in the National Hockey League did not wear helmets. Vanity, an edge in peripheral vision, and many other possibilities can explain this dangerous individual choice. Injuries were frequent and severe. In 1969 one player had this to say about wearing or not wearing a helmet: “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t–because the other guys don’t . . . But if the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” A number of secret polls among players confirmed this observation. In 1979 the National Hockey League instituted Helmet Rule 22.

OK. That’s a long way to go in order to underline the obvious–second hand smoke is very bad for your health. It’s wrong and should be illegal to expose people to this smoke in facilities that serve the public.

Local government officials should step up and do their duty. They should take action to protect the public’s health. I drag Schelling in to support them when someone comes up to one of these officials, drops an ash on their toe, and claims this smoking v. smoke-free business is about property, that it should be an individual decision. That that’s the only way, the “American way.”

When Mason, Anderson and Bryan hear this emotional non-argument, their response should be: No, the right way, the truly American way, is to protect the people of the community from individuals and business operations that do harm to the health of the community. And, they might add, that “individual decision” stuff in this case is about as worthless as a cigarette butt in a wet gutter. Haven’t you read Thomas Schelling’s “Micromotives and Macrobehavior”?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Mystery of the Missing Readers

[gary daily col. 27 July 28, 2002]

“Self-knowledge always requires conversation.” - Martha Nussbaum

Two discussions of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selection) took place this past week. The discussions were held on Monday, July 22, at Boo’s Crossroads Deli and on Tuesday, July 23, at Coffee Grounds. Local businesses (and I would be amiss if I didn’t add Harry and Bud’s and Java Haute here) that have provided space and promoted these discussions are to be congratulated, thanked, and supported for their civic and book-minded consciousness.

At a time when the business culture of America is taking deserved lumps for its clumsy venality, these local entrepreneurs acknowledge that reading and discussing good books creates intangible benefits that cannot be quantified by any accounting practice. It would be great to hear about discussions of the “If All” book being held during lunch and coffee breaks in work settings around town. If such a discussion is planned or has been held where you work, please let me hear about it.

Some disappointment accompanies these feelings of pride. Chris Schellenberg of the Vigo County Public Library Community Services Department passed along the depressing news that no one showed up for one of the last discussions she held. Readers who have not participated in a discussion should certainly make an effort to attend a future discussion. Those of you have attended a discussion might consider attending others in the future. Different groups of readers always give rise to new ways of thinking about what was once fast and settled in our minds.

And isn’t it strange that people in general and, ah yes, men in particular, do not read more books? (Sales reports indicate that women purchase close to 70% of the books sold in this country each year. And women also make up the vast majority of book club members.) “Profits” accruing from reading good books do not require Arthur Anderson accounting sleight of hand. So why not read and discuss demanding books--books that furrow the brow and make you think, books that entertain in simple and complex ways, books that focus creative anger, and books that make you feel like you’ve accomplished something very important? Missing readers are a mystery.

Mystery yes, but explanations do come to mind. An idea I am presently toying with isn’t very flattering, probably not fair, and certainly not conclusive. But we are four months into “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” and there is strong evidence that this wondrous, life and community enhancing program is behind schedule. It's worth delving into the mystery of the missing readers because they are so pervasive in our aliterate culture. You probably have ideas on this question. Wish you would pass these along to me.

In “The New Yorker” a few weeks back, Malcolm Gladwell published an essay on corporate America with the intriguing title, “The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?” Gladwell ends up thinking they are. He runs down the evidence of companies becoming blindly obsessed with a “talent mind-set” approach to hiring and compensation. At this point he couples this errant “star” system with the work of Carol Dweck, a Columbia University psychologist. She finds that on Wabash Avenue and Seventh Street, and across the land, people believe that intelligence comes in one of two flavors: it’s either a fixed trait or it’s malleable.

Then Gladwell notes the significance of the linkage: “the way we conceive of our attainments helps determine how we behave.” More specifically, the stars of the corporate world, those who sally forth on the hobby horse of “fixed intelligence,” those who hold the view that “talent” is innate, complete, and unshakeable--these "Fixed" types have serious difficulties with circumstances threatening to their self-image. (I might add the observation that a whole Workshop/Seminar industry has sprung up aimed at slipping a little empathic bend into the "Fixed" souls of the world.)

Wrenching all of this out of context and shifting to the murky mystery of the missing readers, I’m ready to propose that aliterates, those who own the skill of reading but choose not to use it, are of the opinion that intelligence is fixed.

Fixed intelligence types range from presidents of large countries to those who are academic superstars in their own minds, they can also be found working as insecure underlings holding down entry-level positions. Status achieved and amounts of power held is inconsequential. Behavior tells the tale. Wherever the believer in fixed intelligence is found, he or she is very careful to steer clear of anything that might indicate their fixed views and visions are deficient, flawed or incomplete. Personal encounters with intellectual dissonance have the pain producing potential of messing with their smooth world of assurance.

Reading and discussing challenging books can reveal intellectual weaknesses and blind spots to the self and to others. “Malleables” welcome this and call it growth; the “Fixed” view types ignore and deride reading books that are not a part of their narrowly defined fields of expertise and skills. As psychologist Carol Dweck puts it, those with a fixed view of intelligence “care so much about looking smart that they act dumb.” Hollow comfort trumps the benefits of new challenges.

Ouch! How’s that for a bald and baldly delivered judgmental analysis of a certain strain of aliterates? But how would you explain the unwillingness of aliterates to change their bookless ways?

Jackasses Loose in the Land of Opir

[gary daily col. 26 July 21, 2002]

“Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” -Ambrose Bierce

Does Enron’s and Haliburton’s energy shenanigans match or exceed Tea Pot Dome in the 1920s? Is it time to reissue Louis D. Brandeis’s Other People’s Money (1910), a classic book of informed muckraking journalism that called avaricious banks and insurance companies to task? Will tomorrow’s personal finance headlines shout: “Bernie Ebbers, the Robber Barons and Your 401(K)”? Is President Bush going to end up in the history books standing next to a cartoon image of an oil derrick embracing “W” while pumping money from sweetheart loans into his pockets?

Editorialists and political commentators are thrashing about searching for examples from the past that parallel or provide insight into the scandals, corruption, and manias wracking our economy today. Unfortunately, the history of our economy is regularly punctuated with corresponding circumstances.

It’s possible these references will miss the mark with the historically challenged. Take the example of “W” and the money pumping oil derrick. How many people know that Bush’s closest advisor, Karl Rove, has a favorite past president, William McKinley? Or, more to the point, that in McKinley’s day political cartoonists often depicted him standing next to a robust fellow with dollar signs covering his chest and stomach? This was “Dollar” Mark Hanna, the big donor bag man behind McKinley and the Republican Party in 1900.

One would suspect that Rove’s first job at the White House was removing all pictures and other evidence that Theodore Roosevelt ever came near the oval office. It was McKinley’s successor, the Republican Roosevelt, who railed against and regulated what he called the “malefactors of great wealth.”

But money movers and securities shakers need people to move and shake. That’s where the proverbial “little guy” comes in, sometimes by choice sometimes not. Examples of trying to jump on the gravy train and ending up with grease spots all over your financial statements go way back.

Though sometimes mentioned in the business press and used as a source for Louis Rukeyser type humor, I would guess that Charles McKay’s book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852) is rarely read today. It details some of the many occurrences in history of mob psychology, financial and otherwise. For our purposes, the chapter on the South-Sea Bubble in early eighteenth century England is particularly relevant for our times. The recent dot-com fiasco has nothing on the bubble schemes of this era.

As McKay tells it, hard-working Englishmen, along with the always numerous “I’m smarter than you” types, threw money at proposals tenuously tied to a treaty giving the British a monopoly in trade with Latin America. Before it was over fortunes large and small were depleted. Schemes attracting investors included the importation of Spanish jackasses to improve the stock of mules. There was also something described as a company “to discover the land of Opir and monopolize its gold and silver.” I guess this passed for what current day stock analysts call a “story stock.”

During our current troubled times of “War on Terrorism” and the ascendancy of the National Rifle Association, my creepy favorite from this earlier era of Bubble companies was the proposed manufacture of a firearm which could discriminate among its targets. This gun would have the capability of launching square bullets at infidels (and the expanding British empire had a lot of these to deal with) and round bullets at Christians. Perhaps armed airline pilots today could be fitted with a similar model, one that could distinguish between First Class and Economy Class passengers.

A final example editorialists might draw on is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). This book was a phemomenal best seller and much better known than McKay’s work. It examines the origins and workings of a utopian society in the year 2000 from the point of view of a time traveler who has arrived there from the year 1887.

I remember two striking things about “Looking Backward.” Bellamy rejects the “invisible hand” of the market place. His vision rejects random acts of selfishness and embraces an optimistic and highly rationalistic view of how life might be ordered. As explained to the time traveler, the utopia he finds himself in all came into existence because the true and noble nature of human beings was allowed to evolve free of the greed and grasping of capitalistic competition. You don’t have to look very far to notice that Bellamy’s hopes for the future ended, for better or worse, far wide of the mark on that one.

The other thing I remembered was Bellamy predicting the coming of the marketing behemoth of the western world, Wal-Mart. Here’s the prescient passage: “The great city bazaar crushed its country rivals with branch stores, . . . absorbed its smaller rivals till the business of a whole quarter was concentrated under one roof, with a hundred former proprietors of shops serving as clerks.” Wal-Mart execs are perplexed, they're not sure if they should sell this book or try to outsource it to a desert trench in western China.

So look for Brandeis, McKay, and Bellamy to come up in editorials, Op Ed pieces, and even in TV news commentaries. I wonder if “W” knows about any of this history or these books? Karl Rove does, but he’s not telling.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The “Nobody Is Us” Memoir

[gary daily col. 25 July 14, 2002]

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you--Nobody--too?

--Emily Dickinson

St. Augustine and Sammy Davis, Jr., Ulysses S. Grant and Ann Heche, they all sat down and decided history and the world deserved to have their life stories at hand. The personal narratives of the powerful, the rich, and the celebrated have always been a magnet for readers. Some serve us well while others are as edifying as The Jerry Springer Show.

But what do you make of memoirs of “nobodies”? Frank McCourt and Mary Karr kicked off this spike in the market for books emphasizing the gritty details of lives not yet famous. And the list grows monthly. I’ll label these the “Nobody Is Us” memoir. What’s this all about? Who can be certain, but even the casual reader of this fare can spot some common themes explaining the interest and readership they garner.

“As the twig is bent the tree’s inclined,” goes the old saw. The truth of this bit of folk wisdom is radically ratcheted up in these books. Childhood is remembered as one part dark family life and one part cloudy landscape. Mom and Pop turn out to be the damaged clones of “Martha” and “George” freshly escaped from Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” And the home turf is about as far from Mr. Rogers' neighborhood as you can get. Whether living hard in a slum or a trailer park, living light in a comatose suburb, or living fat in a glitzy urban high rise, the child’s community always carries the zip code of a circle from Dante’s “Inferno.”

Here, in the green turned gray childhood years, twigs are not so much “bent” by heredity and environment as they are psychologically and sociologically gouged and bruised. These scars on the memory remain prominent, displayed in disfigured growth rings far into the future.

Next up, it’s welcome to adolescence. These are the years no responsible “Nobody Is Us” memoirist can ignore or quietly pass over. How could they? Barring participation in one of the recurring wars obligingly created by our leaders, what else represents a “peak experience” in young lives? Starting at age thirteen (twelve, if MTV was available to them), teens storm about in a haze of hormones, idealism, need, and loneliness. This is the stuff that sells books. Readers become nostalgic voyeurs to the memoir’s nostalgic exhibitionism.

“Nobody Is Us” memoirs catch the wave of adolescence and work it into a frantic frothing frenzy. Who is not familiar with the angst-ridden and pimple-faced teenager negotiating the unfairness, ambiguous fullness, and confusions of life? Needless to say they are severely overmatched. The manic-depressive elements of what constitutes the “youth culture” of the day are explored in sweaty detail. If the driver’s license was obtained in the fifties up into the mid-sixties, we read of “first time” carnal initiations, alcoholic adventures, and what was hip and meaningful in the pop music of the moment. The late sixties to early eighties (Yes, twenty-somethings are writing their memoirs!) are more direct, it’s sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll time, baby!

These not-quite-coming-of-age life dramas resonate with readers. They depict a period in lives profoundly and indelibly, if not always accurately, inscribed in memory. When we tune the radio to a station with a “Classics” format, we are involuntarily transported back into those years. A singer or song recalls the exquisite and the excruciating with perfect emotional pitch. That’s our music we say; it’s the soundtrack to our lives.

When relating the span in life from 25 to 45 (recognizing that every generation has its late-bloomers, its delayed conversions), these memoirs reach for redemption. The scourges of childhood are healed and the sins of adolescence are cleansed.

But there are always final hurdles to be vaulted. Here we may meet the baggage of bad marriages and worse divorces, a searching for love in all the wrong places, the failure to find satisfying work or ditch work that does not satisfy, the requirement of dealing with friendships lost, betrayed, and thinned out. In the most didactic of these memoirs, this is all “necessary work” if one is to be “happy” or “secure” or “complete” or to finally “love oneself.”

It’s a satisfying miracle to most readers when the “Nobody Is Us” memoir ends on one of these notes of “transformation.” As William Dean Howells put it many years before Hollywood cast it in celluloid concrete, “what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Lives fated for ruin, ignominy and worse manage to right themselves through love, religion, or rehab. Surprisingly, luck and pluck, the good old nineteenth century deus ex machina, are only rarely called forth to clear away the psychological/historical underbrush hiding the yellow brick road to serenity and self-actualization.

Often floundering on sensational anecdote, or pushed along by strained coincidence, these memoirs can read like the script of a spiritless infomercial. And while it may be true that “everyone has a story to tell,” claims of authenticity cannot substitute for artful prose. But when they do succeed, when readers take away understanding not lessons, the personal memoir can be about more than Nobody, even about more than Us.

Ghost of Thomas Bowdler Walks the Land

[gary daily col. 24 July 7, 2002]
A May Gallup Poll showed that 71% of Americans still believe in hell but preachers are increasingly reluctant to preach about it. Some say hell is just too negative.
--Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2002

And still the ghost of Thomas Bowdler walks the land--scalpel in hand, scissors nearby, meat axe at the ready should the butchering require action of a more gross and dramatic nature.

In 1759, Bowdler was five years old when one Reverend Francis Gastrell decided a certain mulberry tree was blocking his view of the horizon, or was it his personal vision of heaven’s gate? He strenuously applied the blade of an axe to it. It turns out this tree was believed to have been planted by William Shakespeare, Stratford, England’s, favorite son. (And what did Reverend Gastrell know and when did he know it?)

I personally believe the legend that has Gastrell keening into the wind, “I’ll be back!” as he was “escorted” out of town by devotees of the Bard. And I assign credence to the story that a never-to-be-a-boy named Thomas was nearby as the good Reverend laid his axe on this famous fruited tree, and that he stood weepy and stern-faced by the side of the road as Gastrell took his leave.

As it turns out little Tommy Bowdler took up the profession of medicine. But ministering to the boils of the body did not satisfy his desire to do harsh good in the world. Purification--body, mind and soul--became his watchword and duty. This mission was first displayed in his concern for unsanitary conditions in various wine and cheese watering holes dotting the coast of France. He reported these conditions with relish and in some detail to what we can only guess was a grateful English public. The record is thin on how the level of English traffic to these quaint French inns was affected by his research.

Dr. Bowdler’s most ambitious foray into the purification business, however, was literary not sanitary. Sustained by the unfailing engine of unflawed righteousness, Bowdler took on the gargantuan task of cleansing the plays of William Shakespeare. Bowdler, being a modest but determined soul, always declared that he added nothing to the Bard’s works. Excision was the service he provided readers. As he put it, only “words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." His inspired eraser created the Family Values version of the plays in 1818. This ten-volume work was commercially successful and aptly named, “The Family Shakespere.”

Drawing on reserves of energy limited to those who carry Truth in their hip pocket, Bowdler went on to cleanse Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. By his report, this task involved, "the careful omission of all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency." I have not been able to find Bowdler’s own words on his modus operandi for one of his last projects, a purified version of the Old Testament of the Bible. You might take a look for yourself and guess which mulberry trees in that book Bowdler trimmed or removed.

Bowdler’s labors, as with similar exercises since, were momentarily popular successes but abject failures with critics, scholars, and serious readers then and now. His efforts, however, did insure a place for him in our vocabulary-he is now an eponym, a word based on a proper name. To “bowdlerize” in my dictionary is: “1. To remove or modify the parts (of a book, for example) considered offensive. 2. To modify, as by shortening, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. Given the chance, Shakespeare, Gibbon and the priests and prophets of the Old Testament might add to this definition.

Nevertheless, bowdlerize is a handy term to have within reach. Recent revelations in regard to the New York State Regents English exams presents us with a case, in these test crazed days, worth pondering. While going about their work the so sensitive test-makers rounded up the usual suspects--references to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol and modest profanity. In proceeding to bowdlerize creative and original sources, they left the very ingredients that helped to make these writer's works "original" on the cutting room floor.

Two examples of their work: Students were asked to write essays on doctored passages from renowned writers such as Anton Chekhov and Annie Dillard. In a Chekhov passage, a crucial section in the original dealing with a 19th century style strip-search of servants was omitted. Dillard’s story, “An American Childhood,” is turned into meaningless mush due to excisions. Her memoir tells of regular trips to a library in the black section of town where she learns early and important lessons about race and racism in America. All racial references in the Dillard work were inexplicably eliminated.

I am happy to report that in this case the ghost of Thomas Bowdler has been exorcized. Earlier this month the New York Times reported that the test making honchos in New York State had “announced [that] literary passages in state-administered tests would no longer be altered to delete unwanted words or phrases.”

But why is it I keep hearing a self-righteous, threatening whine: “I’ll be back!”

Scholarship Ain't Hip-Hop Sampling

[gary daily col. 23 June 30, 2002]

The footnote would seem to be the smallest detail in a work of history. Yet it carries a large burden of responsibility, testifying to the validity of the work, the integrity (and the humility) of the historian, and to the dignity of the discipline.
--Gertrude Himmelfarb

If you’re paying attention, you know the lowly footnote has been batted about in the press this past year in relation to the professional indiscretions, viz. plagiarism, of the popular historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

You do remember footnotes, don’t you? These nicely numbered lines of information come in two varieties. Basic source notes start with the names of authors or editors. What follows always includes italicized book and journal titles and publication data. This all may bristle with the barbwire of abbreviations in Latin and English. That “viz.” (it's Latin for namely) I hit you with in the first sentence being one example of the species.

Content or explanatory notes consist of the author stepping aside from the text and imparting information of a diverting nature. For example, Anthony Grafton reports in The Footnote: A Curious History that Edward Gibbon used one of his 383 footnotes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make fun of the too-literal theologian who castrated himself after reading the injunction to "disarm the tempter." That Gibbon, what a sense of humor.

Notes of this kind are about authors knowing more about the subject than they feel they can fit into their main text. Grafton, an unabashed champion of the footnote, insists all the good stuff is in explanatory notes. He calls footnotes "anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity." Grafton tracks down the first such note to Pierre Bayle, author of the Historical and Critical Dictionary (1696).

Still, many readers ask what good are they? They fill up space, distract the eye, interrupt the flow of the text. And besides, you may say, I know the person writing this book I’m reading is smarter than I am. Duh! That’s why I’m reading this book. Why rub my nose in all of this academic apparatus?

But not so fast. Here’s William H. McNeill, the distinguished University of Chicago historian on source notes.

“Citation of the source of a quote or idea or piece of information is surely the central role for responsible footnoting. And citing one's sources accurately is not a trivial matter. It holds erratic personal memory in check and acknowledges debts, while incidentally also establishing a scholar's claim to participate in a given universe of discourse.” In other words, This ain't Hip Hop sampling pre-1991, Jack.

Footnotes may not be engrossing to most readers, and they may not be appropriate in works of a general nature, or in books with no intention of contributing new information, ideas, or adding to an ongoing “universe of discourse.” However, the choice to cite sources, to use footnotes in a book, carries with it the responsibility to fulfill the letter and the spirit of McNeill’s views on footnoting. And this brings us back to Ambrose and Goodwin.

There is little use in rehashing the details of the Ambrose and Goodwin cases. They operated outside of the standards of scholarly procedure. They “borrowed” the words and research of others and, again in McNeill’s words, failed, “[to] hold(s) erratic personal memory in check and acknowledge(s) debts.” Both have admitted to this and they and their publishers have taken steps of a personal and monetary nature in restitution for these professional failings.

Given these disclosures and reactions, you would think these cases would be, not forgotten, but at least behind us. Unfortunately we now have David Gergen’s recent mewing defense of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. His “U.S. News & World Report” editorial of June 10, 2002, desperately seeks to excuse these two. This is a disservice to the reading public.

Sure, Gergen says, “both Ambrose and Goodwin were wrong, but their mistakes were inadvertent, born of haste, not intention.” He follows this non-defense defense up with comments lovers of history would not dispute. He nails Americans as an historically illiterate bunch. His notion that there is a great need for epic stories of the past that are engaging, accessible, and “entrancing” is unassailable. But is Gergen really saying that such history, history written with style and verve, cannot adhere to the long established practices of solid scholarship? I hope not.

Gergen’s argument is surprising and disappointing. He is someone you would expect to see leading the charge for “standards” and unadulterated scholarship. It would be a good idea for Gergen to check in with fellow conservative and historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, before he pronounces on this subject again.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

CROSSROADS COMMENT--"Reading at Risk" NEA Survey Is DOA

In 1933, Nazi’s piled books in a street in Berlin and set them on fire. Near that spot today is a memorial, a plaque and a window at ground level. Look down through the window and you will see a space lined with empty bookshelves.

Is it time to start building memorials in front of the schools and libraries of the nation similar to the burned books memorial in Berlin? If we did, peering through their plexiglass windows you would see well-stocked shelves of books on the edges of the cave space. But flickering light from highly polished television and computer monitors in the center of the space would reveal that the books on the shelves are covered in dust, unread.

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” is the title of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report issued July 2004. Among the conclusions in the report: “‘Reading at Risk’ is testimony that a cultural heritage is disappearing, especially among younger people [18-24].” Another finding: “The percentage of U. S. adults reading literature dropped from 56.4 percent in 1982 to 46.7 percent in 2002 . . . . ” “Reading is Routed” would better fit the significance of what is smothered in this timid report.

Timidity is infectious. What was the response in the public square when the storm flag of Risk was sent up the NEA’s very short flagpole?

There was an uninspired flurry of commentary, but nothing smelling of serious concern. From a few professional literary critics I read or heard, there was smug tsk, tsking of the “There always have been readers and non-readers and there always will be” variety. National Public Radio did a standard five minute summary and commentary. There were short mentions in a few of the newspapers I read.

The television news-entertainment shows did what television news-entertainment shows do best, they devoted thirty breathless seconds to the report. Ads for the latest over-the-counter wonder drugs “you should ask your doctor about” followed. Time devoted to the NEA "Risk" report was equal to what it takes to read a haiku poem; time allotted to the commercial was what it takes to read (though not comprehend or appreciate) a Shakespeare sonnet.

TV producers wouldn’t argue over this allocation of air time. Shakespeare’s genius may serve as a home remedy antidote for attention deficit disorder, but what did the Bard ever do for acid reflux or the botttom line? And no visuals!

But wait, it turns out that there are visuals. Open “Reading at Risk: A Survey . . . ” and you find page after page of charts and tables. By my count, forty-three tables and charts stomp around in the forty-seven pages of the report. Boxed graphics rise out of the text like a herd of pachyderms escaped from the circus. They’re a leathery species, all dusty and glaring. Like the readers of this survey, they are prone to wandering about in search of stimulating nourishment.

Please recall, the report is titled “Reading at Risk.” Most readers will feel very much at risk when they run across the strands of argument and fact tied to “Multiple Logistic Regressions” and “Correlation Analysis of Predictor Variables.” I guess the assumption here is that when a nation’s print culture is disappearing it’s time to put on our sleeve garters and green eye shade and get down to business. I grant that if you wrinkle your brow and stay with this report long enough you will conclude, yeah, looks like “Risk” to me.

Unfortunately, those clicking sounds you hear in the prose of this report are not ideas and facts making urgent connections. No, just computer keys tapping out another finely calibrated, bloodless calculation. Even dedicated supporters of reading will push this study aside, put off by its bland worship of statistical methodology and the resulting narrowing literalism. Needless to say, should aliterates randomly access “Reading at Risk” they will be reaching for their Game Boys, cell phones, and iPods faster than you can say “multicollinearity.”

Shouldn’t Risk be delivered with at least a modicum of pizazz? I’m not saying give us stand-up comedian bits or cliff-hanger coyness. But asking that a report on literary reading be written in prose, in an arresting prose style, doesn’t seem an excessive request.

Why was the job of awakening the public to the collapse of a heritage, the imminent dissolving of a habit of mind, the fast fading of a source of solace and fancy in our lives turned over to Barteleby the Scrivener’s compliant colleagues? Why was it assumed that the only kind of “hard” evidence worth placing before the public consists of numbers banked up, ranked into neat columns, filling pages like so many digital tombstones?

There was a time when poets, novelists and essayists at least helped to serve as our guides in matters of concern and feeling. Does anyone at the NEA remember when the crafted subtleties of language on the page guided understanding and motivation? Literary reading helps carry thought to reasoned conclusions, opens the imagination to the wondrous strange, and lifts the spirit to fanciful and deliciously dangerous heights. “Reading at Risk” does little in the way of carrying, opening or lifting anything.

Poets, Wordsworth’s unacknowledged legislators of the world, can do better than this. One poet in particular should do better, and soon.

Dana Gioia, the Director of the NEA, is a wonderful poet. The man can write. In the Preface to the report he says: “print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability–and the many sorts of human continuity it allows–would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.” Please note: Not a single multiple logistic regression formula was required to cast the shadow of the grave truths in these words.

Mr. Gioia’s NEA should be at work right now on a companion volume to “Reading at Risk: A Survey . . . .” We need something like “The Risks of Not Reading,” and it needs to be written with the conviction and heat literary artists bring to their craft.

Too Many Words

[gary daily col. 22 June 23, 2005]

“It is said that people are not as readily deceived by window display, but we all know better than this.”

-L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and founder of The National Association of Window Trimmers

Have you been to Philadelphia lately? It seems the “Cradle of Liberty,” home to historic structures such as Benjamin Franklin’s House, Carpenter’s Hall, the Second Bank of the United States, and the holiest of holies when it comes to Revolutionary era sites, Independence Hall, are going high tech. This “high tech” catch-phrase can mean anything from credit card enabled soft drink machines that work to Bush supported Star Wars systems that don’t. In this case, however, we’re talking about adding entertainment value to experiencing history by putting into place (use your best Ed Sullivan voice here) the really big “Lights of Liberty” show.

I haven’t personally experienced “Lights of Liberty,” though I have read a good deal about the American Revolution and the place of Philadelphia in the Revolution. Should I assume that listening to “MP-3 audio” of actors playing characters from the revolutionary period on headphones while, according to a New York Times report, “56 computerized projectors splash historical scenes on the facades of the buildings” would add a great deal to my understanding and appreciation of the Spirit of ‘76? Gosh, it sounds as good as a TV program. Only bigger.

It’s difficult to deny the reality of technology’s role in turning us into a visual, flash and splash oriented culture. This invariably pushes us away from a reading and thinking about words culture. We mistakenly, or lazily, believe that to see it is to experience it and to see it and hear it is to really know it. That “it” can range from the landforms along the Colorado River to the iconoclastic content of Rolling Stone magazine. As T-shirts and bumper stickers (almost) proclaim, “It Happens.” And “’it” happens in the neighborhood of the Liberty Bell and, even more distressingly, in local libraries.

I once paid a half-drunk entrepreneur in Moab, Utah, a saw-buck to take myself and a covey of flat-lander rubes on his smelly boat one night to see the “Lights on the Canyon” show. Does shining powerful floodlights on the rock formations along the Colorado River bank qualify as “high tech”? The next day I hiked up into those canyons, an experience which required some work and some sweat. I’ve told many people about that hike, you’re some of the few who have heard about my “Lights on the Canyon” fiasco. The ticket I bought to view those low tech created shadows is a heavy personal embarrassment today.

Moving from the silly trying to be sublime to the significant about to turn silly, it's reported that Rolling Stone magazine is in deep trouble. It seems this publication is suffering print journalism’s increasingly fatal malady, too many words. Long articles featuring the acclaimed (you choose) radical-activist-guerilla-new journalism-cutting edge-investigative reporting by people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson once made this magazine the must-read source of the “youth culture.” The latest edition of this audience now gets its news from joke TV news parodies and has traded ideology for attitude by making Eminem its guru of the season.

Poor out-of-step Rolling Stone. Cut loose by a generation lacking the powers of concentration once found among drug-addled fans of “The Doors” and “The Grateful Dead.” What to do? Here’s one take from an advertising executive: "It seems when people are trying to develop media vehicles for young people, they are going for the shorter attention span. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with that. I just hope that Rolling Stone keeps its heritage of being the source of great reporting on youth culture."

Uh, huh. Sure.

I look for Rolling Stone to go the way of People, US, and MAXIM. It will be filled with photos, charts, thumbnail bios, and . . . more photos--abandoning the need for people to actually read anything more than the captions under photos. When America’s youth says, “Get real!” increasingly they mean show me the pictures, slip me the pirated DVD, visit this chat room, and don’t ever tell me, “You’ve got to read this.”

If this aversion to the word on the page was limited to “entertainments” who would complain? After all, we’re Americans. We work hard and we play hard, so why read? But libraries, which once were the guardians and champions of the world of books, are increasingly being turned into video stores, media palaces, and attention deficit dens for the digitally minded. Book and journal budgets in public and university libraries are being cut or put on hold in order to pay for the high tech installations of computers, servers, software, printers, etc. and the uncounted support costs that invariably accompany such structural changes in mission.

None of this, however much money is spent wisely or wastefully, can ever replace or be a substitute for books. The vast and comfortable and demanding world of print can never be digitized out of existence. With the exception of the three people who believe Wired magazine ranks with the Bible, the Koran, and the lost commentaries on Zoroaster, who steps forward to say the future is a world of pixels and the age of print has passed?

And I’m still looking for a person who has, by uncoerced choice, read an entire book on a computer screen. The human experience of reading deeply can never take place through “interfacing” with a piece of glass any more than the history of liberty, the wonders the Colorado River landscape, or even a thoughtful Rolling Stone essay on Hip Hop culture can ever be translated into a high tech type light show.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Ben's Advice: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat."

[gary daily col. 21 June 16, 2002]

When asked, What man is most deserving of pity? Benjamin Franklin answered, “A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.”

Benjamin Franklin will soon be coming at us from all directions-- biographies of his life, anthologies of his writings, and most particularly the sayings from his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” This essential American was a printer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and, we should never forget, a very successful businessman. Successful enough in the demanding world of colonial commerce to retire at forty and spend the next one-half of his life engaged in scientific and public pursuits.

He was born in 1706. Do the math. In just three years we will be on the cusp of Franklin’s tri-centennial and there is nothing like 100-year chunks of time to oil the curiosity of biographers and grease the gears of the publishing commerce machine. Added to the torrents of print washing over us, there will be memorabilia ranging from tea towels to T-shirts. Cable television docu-dramas will reveal his French dalliances and PBS is certain to mount four to ten hours of film well-laced with learned commentary. And, need I say it?--there will be web pages.

It will all be wonderful because Franklin was so wonderful. I know this because in fourth grade I read Ben and Me, the story of Benjamin Franklin from the perspective of a mouse that lived in his tricorne hat.

But, as they say on the street, Franklin’s “The Man.” That’s not on Wall Street in the east or Rodeo Street (OK, Drive) in the west, but on Main Street. And how could he not be. Anyone can pick up Franklin’s 18th century maxims and find what needs to be said about life, society, and making a living. Try applying Franklin’s sharp and memorable words to the recent history of the U. S. of A. and you’ll see what I mean.

Take the yuppies of the late ‘70's. Ben has them to rights with his: "It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright." Or, if you’re in a more charitable mood (meaning you came of age in the 1970s) the following might better fit and assuage your soul for the sins of disco: "At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgment."

And you can pin down the rationalizing of the “Gordon Gecko” “Greed is good!” crowd of the ‘80s with: "God helps them that help themselves." It is more than likely that Franklin, always the practical moralist, would have counseled the fictitious Gecko along with the very real Boskey, Millken and the boys in the back room to: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat." Nah! They wouldn’t listen. They still don’t.

With the boom and bust of the 1990's the choices from Franklin’s “Poor Richard” are without end. For example there’s, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other." And for the hoopla surrounding the hollow dot-com companies and the ill-fated investors who had the temerity to invest in shares of something actually (and how Franklin would have enjoyed this) called “story stocks,” we have: "Well done is better than well said."

We are just into the first decade of the 21st century, but with Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco and who knows who’s next, it’s not too early to peg at least part of this fresh century on his observation that: "They that will not be counseled, cannot be helped. If you do not hear reason she will rap you on the knuckles." We can at least hope for “reason” and some “knuckle rapping,” can’t we? But don’t hope for too long, because as “Poor Richard” puts it: "He that lives upon hope will die fasting." And of course Ben “The Man” couldn’t be “The Man” without taking a swipe at the scapegoat profession of the ages: "A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats."

Personally, I will always go with Franklin’s, "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." I say this not because I have taken these words to heart, filled soul and sinew with their imperative, and turned living into that lobotomizing “24/7" materialistic limbo so much in vogue today. My fondness for this bit of wisdom is tied to a favorite seventh grade teacher who found an occasion to peal forth with “do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of” at least once a week. The other thing she thought “life is made of” was diagramming sentences. Demonstrating again that Franklin’s wisdom can be put to as many uses as there are Franklin readers.

Details--Vermin As History

[gary daily col. 20 June 9, 2002]

“Nothing capable of being memorized is history.”
-R. G. Collingwood

It’s a broad generalization, but a fair one: readers of history have a strong tendency to trust historians on details while holding interpretive analyses of the past at arms length. This tendency is in line with the national game of trivial pursuit called “surfing the net.” There is a passion for quick and easy factual information and a rushed avoidance of nuanced comprehension.

This schizoid-like reading and non-reading of history (defining history as a written account of the past) is probably due to how history is most often used by people today. There is much solemn nonsense stated in the public sphere about “history repeating itself” and “learning the lessons of the past,” but let’s pass along the word that rather than “searching for a usable past” the most common “use” of history is to settle something akin to bar bets. The variations this takes can’t be counted, but the form is recognizable to all.

“Do you know the name of Alexander the Great’s horse?”


“No, that was Robert E. Lee’s. I think Alexander’s was Bucephalus.”

“No. You’re putting me on.”

“Yeah, it was. Bucephalus.”

“Look it up.”

At this point the thickest unread book on the shelf is taken down and the index scanned. Or, in an increasingly likely scenario, this “historical discussion” is ended by putting trust in the pixilated pedantry of Jeeves, as in “Ask Jeeves,” the online search engine.

Historians, it needs to be repeated, do not comb musty documents to settle arguments and thrill antiquarians. The facts they mine in archives are witnesses they cross-examine. They attempt to better understand the past by using their evidence to answer the questions they pose about the people and events of the past. It is the rare historian who would hold that the facts speak for themselves.

People I talk to tell me: “I just couldn’t get into history in school. All those names, dates, and events. But I love history, now.”

I take this as a sincere and honest statement, regardless of the tone in which it is offered.

But it’s discouraging that general readers of history, and travelers to historical museums and sites, and even (some? most?) historical re-enactors “love” history in their maturity for the same reasons they found it intolerable in their youth. They now revel in the bountiful abundance of those self-same names, dates, and events. Significantly, many put their money where their “love” is and purchase the artifacts of the past--spoons to spittoons, bullets and belt buckles. Intolerable and boring details at fourteen are miraculously transformed into fascinating fare and sacred objects at forty.

My unease with all of this love and worship of historical detail is related to the public’s general indifference about putting these beguiling facts into wider, meaningful contexts. There seems little desire or curiosity to ask significant questions about the past. In other words, to think and act like historians. And, with few exceptions, professional historians have little interest and few incentives to change any of this.

In 1938, Alan Nevins, an enormously popular and respected historian of the day, called upon the American Historical Association to “revitalize” the profession by bringing the meaning and importance of history to general audiences. Today, some 75 years after Nevins’s appeal and fully 100 plus years into the professionalization of the craft, historians find themselves tightly tethered to universities where they must scramble to meet inflexible and formulaic requirements for tenure, promotion, research-based sabbaticals, and the crumbs of “performance” bonuses. With a reward system such as this, is it surprising that historians choose to write for each other, speaking to ever narrowing and specialized audiences?

On one level, the work of historians of the past generation has been outstanding by any measurement. But it is still fair to ask the university establishment, where are the books, articles, and contributions in the media which recognize and build on the public’s real but self-limiting interest in history? Relatively little that comes out of academia is concerned with bridging the gulf between the general reader and historical scholarship. Are the two irretrievably divided?

With Voltaire it’s easy to moan: “Woe to details! Posterity neglects them all; they are a kind of vermin that undermines large works.” But it’s significant how Voltaire got it wrong. It seems that for a swath of posterity, in the wide reading public and among narrow historical scholars, the details are embraced and the larger work of history neglected.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A gene for reading resistance?

[gary daily col. 19 June 2, 2002]

“He's like me, he doesn’t like to read either.”
--from a conversation about a son’s school problems overheard at a local coffee shop

Here’s a bad news-good news bulletin just in.

A survey reports: “The average reader spends 17 minutes a day reading a newspaper, compared to 11 minutes on a novel. . . . six minutes on non-fiction, five minutes with a magazine, and two minutes looking up things they don’t understand in a reference book.” The “good” side of this report is that the survey is for Great Britain and not for Vigo County.

However, I must admit to having a strong feeling that all of Vigo County still has not read David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars,” the book chosen as The Book “All of Vigo County” should read and discuss together. I enlist all of you to help get the word out to non-reading readers about “If All” and encourage them to read “Snow Falling.”

Here are a few ideas on how and how not to approach this delicate, but important task.

Just how do you reach someone who limits their print ingestion to magazines in doctors’ offices and claims that’s the worst part of their visit? What do you say to someone whose reading habits have atrophied to the point where they find it difficult to even skim the descriptions on the backs of video boxes? Where do you start with a friend or neighbor or co-worker who reasons that books can’t be worth opening because their friends or neighbors or co-workers never read books? Sticky problems, no?

But you should say: “I Don’t Say No to Those Who Just say no to books.” Always remember that the print shy in our society really want your help. That, given the right book at the right moment with the right words of enticement, even hard core book refusers will put down the TV remote and pick up a good book. Non-readers are in the throes of denial, but they yearn for the printed page. Aliterates sense that reading good books exceeds other forms of human communication-even cell phones!-- as a source of information, ideas, and insights.

Approaching this challenge, you might suggest to your bookless brothers and sisters that the book everyone is talking about, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” is Really Good. You must be certain that your praise for the book shouts, but the content of the praise is something bland such as “good,” or “real good,” or “really, really good.” This is the way movies are trumpeted.

Do not describe the book as “interesting.”

“Interesting” can be interpreted as a code word for “long,” or “filled with big words.” If the particular non-reader you are encouraging to rejoin the community of readers has a penchant for taking things personally, they might take the “interesting” ploy and turn it into your saying something like, “I know more than you do about long books filled with big words.” So, be careful. These are your friends, neighbors, and co-workers and you probably, at least on their good days, hope they remain so.

Along the same lines, it’s probably not a good idea to ask the innocent question: “What have you read lately?” As mentioned above, the last sustained assaults by many non-readers on a page of print may have taken place in a physician’s office. You cannot expect a reader who is not a reader to be comfortable responding to your query. After all, what is there to say about that article, “Botox for the Brain,” perused in the pages of a two-month old magazine on that last visit to the podiatrist?

Pointing out details from the book you are supporting can be a good strategy. From “Snow Falling on Cedars,” you might emphasize the World War II tie-in without being too specific. Everyone knows there was a World War II and that it was “good.” So, at least until they read and think about the book, you’re on safe ground. You might also note the love story in the book. But don’t wander too far. Don’t get lost in all of that Ishmael-Hatsue in the hollow tree business-you’re approaching the dangerous ground of “interesting” if you go there. And if your non-reading friend is a traveler, perhaps you can catch her interest by mentioning the setting of the novel, a beautiful island in the northwest.

Be forewarned that there are connections in “Snow Falling” one needs to use with care. For the outdoorsman with an outboard, be lavish about the fishing angle in the story. And for those who have been inspired to think about changing careers by the recent spate of forensic science TV drama, lay on the ghoulish details about the autopsy. But handle these special tastes with care. The landlubber who refuses to eat at Red Lobster can be turned off by Charlie Tuna details. And reality TV’s unimaginative, gross-out, endeavors will not prepare some for Guterson’s one thousand or so well researched words on the skinning of Carl Heine.

I’ve emphasized concerned subtlety and nurturing tact as the order of the day. This is daunting work, but as you strive to crack through to the reader within the non-reader, keep saying to yourself, “Scientists have not found a gene for reading resistance. Readers without books are made, not born.” And, if it helps, “This is Vigo County not Great Britain.”