1491: Peculiar Shopkeepers

Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers’ used socks—almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper’s peculiarities.

To the colonists, Massasoit could be distinguished from his subjects more by manner than by dress or ornament. He wore the same deerskin shawls and leggings and like his fellows had covered his face with bug-repelling oil and reddish-purple dye. Around his neck hung a pouch of tobacco, a long knife, and a thick chain of the prized white shell beads called wampum. In appearance, Winslow wrote afterward, he was “a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.” The Europeans, who had barely survived the previous winter, were in much worse shape. Half of the original colony now lay underground beneath wooden markers painted with death’s heads; most of the survivors were malnourished.

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I wrote in a previous post that the history of first contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans is part of my mixed Spanish-Mexican Indian DNA. Reading this passage in 1491 reminded me that the other half of my DNA is connected to this history too. I am one of the many descendants of John Alden, the hired cooper on the Mayflower, who is said to be the first member of that company to set foot on North America. Since I am here, he obviously survived the first winter at Plymouth and he must have been a sturdy fellow because he lived to ripe old age of 88.

It is a little odd to read these rather pathetic descriptions of a group of people that included one of my relations. Since I grew up in Canada I know next to nothing about the history of Plymouth (though I gather from 1491 that much of what U.S. schoolchildren are taught is wrong). Until I read the Wikipedia article just now I did not know that my ancestor features in “The Courtship of Miles Standish” by Longfellow. I am amazed that my bout of bookish synchronicity has led to a famous poem about one of my ancestors!

Some water, a candle, a hardcover book and an old piano

I grew up in a house with a piano. This was not because my parents were musical; they were not. In my family music skipped a generation and descended directly from my grandmother to me (guitar) and my sister (piano). My sister’s early experiences with grandma’s baby grand led to a Yamaha upright appearing in our living room. Alas, I never took lessons, but I’ve always loved the full, rich, transcendent sound of the piano. When my sister left home and took the piano with her, I asked for one of my own and got an electric organ. It was not the same, not even close, and it did little more than gather dust.

As soon as I got an apartment big enough I started casting about for a piano that needed a home. I eventually became the proud babysitter of a nice old Young Chang belonging to a wandering friend. I have yet to make much headway in learning to play it—a couple of Bach minuets are as far as I’ve gotten—but that’s OK. As David Dubal in “Let’s tickle the ivories” says, its the journey that matters.

Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adults should take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children should be given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’t serve the ego’s craving for recognition.

According to that Dubal, the piano’s popularity was at its zenith when my grandmother was growing up, but collapsed along with the stock market a generation later. But what of all those old pianos? Some of them end up at Fournitures Generales Pour le Piano, a tiny Paris shop stuffed to the rafters with old piano parts that can no longer be had from the manufacturers. The only way to get them is to take them from other pianos, which owner Marc Manceaux likens to organ donation. One sacrificed piano can keep many others alive. His business is in decline, but Manceaux says that as long as he has some water, a candle, a hardcover book and an old piano, he will continue to live. The short film La Mer de Pianos, below, is a beautiful tribute to Manceaux and to all who love pianos.

Before I got to practice some scales I’ll leave you with Dubal’s call for a global piano revolution:

The piano is a shrine to the human spirit, an instrument so perfect that it has permeated the lives of the great composers. In its literature are compositions for every level of attainment. It is said that in China thirty million people study the piano. That’s quite a good start. Let’s go country by country. I actually believe that playing the piano may save the world. But forget about the world and save yourself.

via The Rolltop Manifesto and The Guardian

Censorship: Coming to a blog near you!

A few days ago when I blogged about Twitter’s new country-specific censorship capability, I did not know that the platform I was blogging on had already initiated a similar program three weeks earlier. Apparently the only indication of this fact was a new help article published on January 9th. There was no official announcement, and no attempt at transparency as there is from Twitter. Google does not say what will happen to censored blogs. Will they simply be invisible or will there be a notice saying they are censored? Will Google be publishing the take-down orders they receive the way Twitter will?

In any case, what this means is that if I blog about human rights, for instance, my blog could be blocked in any number of countries, and I may never even know it. But I am even more concerned about bloggers in those countries. When WordPress was approached by China in 2006 to censor blogs, they were also asked to hand over user information. To their credit, they refused, and WordPress blogs are still blocked in China (though the blocks are easily circumvented). But consider the implications if China made a similar request of Google. Google, along with Twitter, has now committed to obeying local laws, even if they violate universal human rights, in exchange for permission to operate in that country. If a country like China were to make a law that a web service must not only censor but supply information on all violators, how can a web company with resources invested in that country refuse? Now add in Google’s new “privacy” policy, which amalgamates user data across almost all Google services, including Gmail, YouTube, Google+, and of course Blogger. It is conceivable that a blogger who violates some censorship law might end up having their email, the videos they watched, and their friends’ names on Google+ handed over to their government. Now a service that used to give ordinary people a voice will not only take away that voice but could potentially denounce users to governments that imprison, torture, and kill dissidents.

I was already thinking of leaving Blogger but this is definitely the last straw. I do not want my blog to be subject to censorship laws in other countries, nor do I want to support a company that carries out censorship for the sake of ever-increasing profits. I am inclined to move to WordPress, which has already refused to censor and so is blocked in several countries (though as I said above, it is easy to circumvent those blocks and indeed WordPress is popular in China). They even state explicitly on their website that they support freedom of speech and will not censor blogs (with the usual exceptions of spam, pornography and hate speech). The only question is whether to use WordPress.com or self-hosted WordPress. Since I left Typepad in 2009 I’ve gotten used to not paying for my blog, but free WordPress.com is somewhat limited in design and widget options. Moreover, with US media companies trying to clamp down hard on copyright infringement, I may be better off locating my blog in Canada. I do like the idea of owning (or at least renting) my own little piece of cyberspace, but I’m not sure I want to deal with the technicalities of running WordPress on my own. I will have to investigate the options, but I certainly will be moving this blog in the near future. Stay tuned…

Book Sale Haul

I really should not go to book sales, especially good ones. This one was so well-organized that they even had a table for Oprah’s books. I resisted as long as I could but I eventually gave up and just grabbed whatever struck my fancy.

Book sale haul

The highlight of this collection is the pristine Folio Society boxed set of Robert Graves’ “Greek Myths.” Pretty. Also:

  • Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
  • 1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham
  • The Romance of the Rose (new Oxford World’s Classics edition)
  • Fighting in Spain by George Orwell (also new)
  • Middlemarch (older Norton Critical Edition)
  • Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez (autobiography)
  • Tommy Douglas by Thomas H. Mcleod and Ian McLeod (about the father of Canadian health care)
  • The Best of James Herriot
  • I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (autobiography)

Now the problem is where to put them!

Books Read 2011

Jane Austen: A Biography (Classic Literature with Classical Music) by Elizabeth Jenkins Jane Austen: A Biography (Audio)
Elizabeth Jenkins
A Christmas Celebration compiled by Christina Hardyment A Christmas Celebration: Including “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (Audio)
Christina Hardyment, Ed.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited (Audio)
Evelyn Waugh
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Audio)
Bill Bryson
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali Nomad
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Martin Chuzzlewit (Oxford World's Classics) by Charles Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit (Audio)
Charles Dickens
The Dark Is Rising (Boxed Set): The Dark Is Rising, Greenwitch, Over Sea, Under Stone, Silver on the Tree, The Grey King by Susan Cooper The Dark Is Rising Sequence: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark Is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree [Audio]
Susan Cooper
The Warden (Oxford World's Classics) by Anthony Trollope The Warden (Audio)
Anthony Trollope
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Shadow of the Wind (Audio)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Great Classic Stories: 22 Unabridged Classics by Derek Jacobi Great Classic Stories: 22 Unabridged Classics (Audio)
Derek Jacobi
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (post)
William Deresiewicz
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Nina Sankovitch
Persuasion by Jane Austen Persuasion (Audio)
Jane Austen
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales (Audio)
Geoffrey Chaucer
Jude the Obscure by Hardy Jude the Obscure (Audio)
Thomas Hardy
Jeeves And The Tie That Binds by P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves And The Tie That Binds (Audio)
P.G. Wodehouse
Florence Nightingale: Library Edition by Laura E. Richards Florence Nightingale (Audio)
Laura E. Richards
The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else (post)
Christopher Beha
My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse My Man Jeeves (Audio)
P. G. Wodehouse
The Adventures of Sally by P. G. Wodehouse The Adventures of Sally (Audio)
P. G. Wodehouse
Moll Flanders (Oxford World's Classics) by Daniel Defoe Moll Flanders (Audio)
Daniel Defoe
Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Audio)
Elinore Pruitt Stewart
Freedom: The Story of My Second Life by Malika Oufkir Freedom: The Story of My Second Life (Audio)
Malika Oufkir
Recorder and Its Music (Eulenberg books) by Edgar Hunt Recorder and Its Music (part)
Edgar Hunt
The Story of My Life, with eBook by Helen Keller The Story of My Life (Audio)
Helen Keller
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker The Gift of Fear (Audio)
Gavin de Becker
Our Mutal Friend (Complete Classics) by Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend (Audio)
Charles Dickens
The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin (Library of Soviet Literature) by Maxim Gorky The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin
Maxim Gorky
Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer (Audio)
Duncan J. Watts
One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey (Audio)
Sam Keith


What a numerically pleasant year this has been. 2011 just does not have the same aesthetic appeal that 2010 does. Alas, we cannot delay its advent so now is the time to reflect on the year and partake of the annual foolishness of making resolutions for the coming year.

I can’t look back on 2010 without some disappointment at how I let my Mexico and Biodiversity reading challenges languish. I was quite excited about them in the beginning but my eternal foe, Procrastination, sedated the former and euthanized the latter. Mea maxima culpa. But overall it was not a bad year for reading, blogging, and buying books. First, here are some stats:

Blog posts: 111 (including post no. 1000!)

Comments: 481 (so far)

Books read: 47

Fiction: 30
Poetry: 1
Nonfiction: 13
Biography: 3
Audio: 28
Reviews: 7

Favourite books:  The Overflowing Brain, Dombey and Son, Caramelo, 2666, The Pickwick Papers, The Odyssey

Favourite book art: Little Library

Favourite music: Four Hands, Two Hearts, One Guitar

Favourite humour: Rory Gilmore, Bookworm 

Readalongs: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon, Odyssey Readalong

Best thrift store finds: Franklins (and more Franklins)

This year was definitely dominated by audiobooks, which I found very convenient to “read” before going to sleep at night. This included four works by Dickens and a binge of 10 very enjoyable novels by P.G. Wodehouse. I only read about eight classics in 2010 (depending on what you call a classic), and that is not very satisfactory. My plan to read the classics chronologically was entirely derailed, so my resolution for 2011 it is to get back on track with the classics, as well as Latin. I probably said the same thing last year, but hope springs eternal!

I didn’t buy many books this year but made up for it with a few significant acquisitions, namely the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford Companion to the Book, The Classical Tradition, and the Dictionnaire culturel en langue française. These are the sorts of books you evacuate in case of flood, fire, or zombie invasion. If you can lift them, that is. Together they weigh over 60 pounds and comprise over 16,000 pages! I am sure these splendid tomes will give me many years of perusing pleasure.

I like big books and I cannot lie

I can’t end this review without mentioning the non-book highlight of the year, which was of course the World Cup in South Africa. It was an exceptional tournament won by an exceptional team, and something that I will never forget. I especially had a blast tweeting with other footy fans during the games (to the dismay of my non-soccer-obsessed followers). If anyone out there is feeling nostalgic about the tournament, I definitely recommend the official 2010 World Cup DVDs available on Amazon. I have several of them and though I am savouring them slowly, what I’ve seen so far is very good. 2011 will also be a great year for soccer thanks to the Women’s World Cup, which starts June 26th in Germany. Mark your calendars!

I hope everyone had a good 2010 and is looking forward to more bookish (and non-bookish) adventures in 2011. Happy New Year!

Search and Serendipity

When I started this blog, near the end of the dark ages now known as Web 1.0,  I used to search for information about books. Google was my best friend, then as now, and through it I discovered many wonderful things and shared them on this blog. That’s really how blogging got started, according to some, with people trawling the internet and bringing together links that other people might find interesting. There was a name for that kind of blog: the filter.

That was all well and good when there were a few expert filters and lots of followers (not that I am an expert or ever had lots of followers; I speak in generalities). Now that web 2.0 is in full swing, everyone can be a filter. Sharing has become an integral part of searching, like exhaling after inhaling. It’s easy, it’s social, and it’s fun. Almost from birth we humans have a natural inclination to say “Hey, look at this!” whenever we find something interesting. For all we know that is how language got started. Given this propensity, web 2.0 was inevitable, and it’s no wonder it is so popular. We like to share and we like it when people share with us.

Serendipity is particularly delightful to us. One of the usual arguments in favour of shopping at bookstores and borrowing from libraries, as opposed to their electronic alternatives, is serendipity, the possibility of running across a book that you never knew existed but that has turned out to be wonderful. Essential to the pleasure of serendipity is that you weren’t looking, something just appeared in front of you, in the midst of a whole lot of other things you aren’t the least bit interested in. The more haystack there is, the brighter the needle seems to be. Web 2.0 is made for serendipity.

The problem (you know I was leading to this, right?) is that when everyone is a filter, more of the internet gets through until it is effectively the same as the raw web, that is, more than we can take in. But it’s not just the quantity that is the problem. Instead of searching specifically for what I want (and still having plenty of serendipitous discoveries, thank you very much), I now spend a whole lot of time sifting through shared content that I never would have encountered in my targeted searches. That’s not to say this stuff isn’t interesting—I find almost everything interesting to some degree—it’s just that the signal to noise ratio has gone down, and sometimes, with the quality of information out there these days, it’s even hard to tell the difference between the two.

So, is quantity or quality the problem? Clay Shirky famously questioned whether we are suffering from information overload or filter failure. He points out that there has been too much information for any one person to assimilate since the invention of the printing press. Somehow this didn’t bother me when most of it was tucked away in the libraries, archives, and museums of the world, but now that it is piling up in my various electronic inboxes I am feeling the pressure to address it somehow.

I think I might have to agree with Shirky that the problem is filter failure. Google is a good filter, and getting better all the time. You can ask for exactly what you want and zip through the results in a flash. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is a lousy filter. For one thing it is located in multiple places. You can do some aggregating with tools like Google Reader or Yahoo Pipes, but it still doesn’t compare with search in terms of one-stop-shopping efficiency. The other problem is that social media are, well, social. In web 2.0, information is attached to people, which gives it added charm but also makes it hard to opt out. Etiquette and affection complicate our ability to pick and choose information and information streams. It’s a problem we want to have—lots of friends sending us cool stuff—but it can get to be too much of a good thing.

One thing that concerns me is what effect this shift from search to serendipity has on us intellectually and personally. It’s a shift from active to passive engagement with information, from following our own internal impulses to being led by the flashing pixels before our eyes. Speaking for myself, I’m starting to feel like I’ve lost my way in cyberspace. I’m like Odysseus’ scouts on the island of the Lotus Eaters, who are enjoying the fruit so much that they forget they are supposed to be going somewhere. Where was I going? Oh ya, the classics! Where did I put my oar?

I really don’t know what the solution is. I try to cut back on blog subscriptions and Twitter follows, and then I find some great new people and I’m back to square one. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining—this is a “high class problem” if ever there was one. But at the same time I take my intellectual life seriously and right now it is definitely off course and drifting. I have long been concerned with respecting our planet’s finite resources but haven’t really given much respect to my own. The possibilities of the internet are limitless, but mine are not; I must learn to distinguish the two! I need to be my own Greek hero and drag myself back to the ship to continue my journey. I just hope the Skylla doesn’t get me!


1000th post!

Welcome to my 1000th post! After nearly 6 years of puttering around the blogosphere I have reached my first chiliad (thank you HTOED).  When I discovered blogging back in 2004 I knew it was for me, and the web hasn’t come up with anything since that fits me as well. My blog is my profile, my portfolio, my home online, my base station in cyberspace. I’ve never wavered on the subject matter either. I’ve always loved reading and learning, but since becoming sick with ME/CFS books have become a sort of vocation for me. With my career on indefinite hold, books give me something meaningful to do that is within my physical capabilities, and blogging is an integral part of that. Reading alone and keeping my thoughts to myself just wouldn’t be as much fun. Blogging not only helps me organize my thoughts about the books I read but it puts me in contact with all you wonderful bibliophiles. This blog would be a pretty dull place without your added wit and Amazon gift cardwisdom, so to thank my readers and commenters I’m giving away an Amazon gift card! Just leave a comment here and I’ll put your name the magic sorting toque (I am Canadian, after all). Good luck and keep reading!