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by Lara Killian

13 May 2008

Do you own more than one copy of a certain title? Was it an accidental purchase - you didn’t realize you already had it in your collection - or did you pick the spare up because it was more special - newer, fancier, hard-bound - than your first copy?


I’ve always been a Jane Austen fan, and Pride & Prejudice holds a special place in my heart. A few years ago for my birthday I was surprised to receive a beautiful red hard-bound copy with gilded edges and gold embossed print on the spine. Printed in my birth year, no less. It was gorgeous, and brand spanking new, by the look of it. The same day, I was doubly surprised to receive a lovely used copy of the same book, bound in green with marbled endpapers and a perfectly fitted box that held the book tidily inside. Suddenly I seemed to have a small but growing collection of Pride & Prejudice, and I didn’t mind at all!

I’ve never sat down and read either of those beautiful copies, preferring to use a beat up paperback version if I want to reread it. Having them on my shelf, however, is comforting in some odd way, like keeping love tokens around even after a relationship has ended.

More recently I seem to have entered into a different sort of affair. I’ve been on the lookout for a complete set of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). I’ve picked up a couple of battered paperback copies of the first installment, ‘Swann’s Way’, but never managed to find a complete set without shelling out for a brand new one. I was much more interested in a used edition – especially as most readers don’t admit to getting past the first section without superhuman effort.

In the library where I work we have been culling the collection, and every week I lug a box or two of fresh withdrawn books to the High School teacher’s room to be picked over and eventually carted down to the Middle School office in hopes that some of them will be taken by folks who can continue using them; this also cuts down on how much I have to eventually carry out to the recycling dumpster.

Early on in the effort, I brought a new batch up to the teacher’s room and noticed that the previous week’s box was gone entirely. An enterprising teacher had nicked it to be used as a doorstop down the hall, and also I suspect she hoped her students might be interested in some of the titles. Looking around the room, I spotted a random box on top of an old rundown fridge in the corner, and it looked like it might have books in it. Lifting it down from its perch I found that it was a box of withdrawn books from the previous school year’s rejects, neglected and un-recycled.

After a moment’s perusal I spotted the first volume in a two book edition of Proust’s masterpiece. Though I already possessed two paperback copies of mostly the same material, and was missing the second half, I was elated. Minutes later when discussing the contents of the box with my fellow librarians I was astonished to flip over an unidentified volume and find that it was the second book in the set. A matched hard-bound pair!


For several years I’ve been looking out for a complete set of Proust. Finally it was discovered, withdrawn from the High School collection for the sin of not being checked out in a decade and not being a part of the current curriculum, only to sit in a hot stuffy school teacher’s room for an extra year, and finally to be discovered by accident by someone willing to take them home and dust them off and cherish them. The icing on the cake was the price: free.

Do you have a book collection? What is the best find you’ve had?

by Nikki Tranter

13 May 2008

The National Post links an interview with the late Nuala O’Faolain in which she wrenchingly discusses cancer and death:

In my time, which has mostly been the 20th Century, people have died horribly, billions of people have died horribly. When I think of people dying in Auschwitz or dying in Darfur, or dying of starvation or being raped in the eastern Congo, or dying like that, I think, look how comfortably I’m dying. I have friends and family. I’m in this wonderful country. I have money. There’s nothing much wrong with me except dying ... you know what I mean? When I think of how privileged I am. I had two brothers who died of drink, and they died miserably and underprivilegedly, and here I am, as usual, the lucky one in the family.

The New York Times remembers Nuala O’Faolain here.


by Rob Horning

13 May 2008

David Remnick of the New Yorker offers this list of 100 essential jazz albums. Note that many of them are not albums but mammoth multi-disc retrospectives covering vast spans of time. It would be interesting to see what a list like this would look like if you decided to only include actual albums of original material: i.e., all things like “Dexter Gordon, Our Man in Paris (Blue Note, 1963)” and no “Django Reinhardt, The Classic Early Recordings in Chronological Order (JSP, 2000; tracks recorded 1934-39)”. Is there a case to be made for a jazz album qua album? Probably a better one than can be made for rock records.

by Rob Horning

13 May 2008

Yesterday in the New York Times, Paul Krugman opined that oil prices are high not because of speculation but dwindling supply: “A realistic view of what’s happened over the past few years suggests that we’re heading into an era of increasingly scarce, costly oil.” He’s not panicking about this, but seen in light of our looming problems with global warming, and reports of fertilizer shortages and the possibility we have maxed out our food production capacity, it makes one wonder if the developed world is ready to give some consideration to John Stuart Mill’s idea of the “stationary state,” an economy that dispenses with growth and works to achieves intensive rather than extensive gains for its populace.

It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would. extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population. I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity. that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.

In his 1976 book The Limits to Satisfaction, environmental studies professor William Leiss updates that ideal and bills it as the “conserver society” that rejects the “doctrine of the insatiability of human material needs”—a postulate of neoclassical economics—and the idea that “nonhuman nature is ... nothing but a means for human satisfaction.” (This reminds me also of Michael Pollan’s argument from a few weeks ago that we should garden to lose out “cheap-energy mind” and dreams that someday “not having things might become cooler than having them”—I am not holding my breath for that.)

According to Leiss’s diagnosis, our wasteful society emerges from a process which has systematically confused people about the nature of their needs—not by implanting false needs (as it is so tempting to argue when we see what other people are buying, or we contemplate the goods in the average 99-cent store) but by making them ever divisible and ever more ambiguous. “Each aspect of a person’s needs tends to be broken down into progressively smaller component parts, and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for that person to integrate the components into a coherent ensemble of needs and a coherent personality structure.” We lose our moorings as needs are refined by the persuasion industry, with the consequence that “personal identity becomes a supple mold reshaped daily by the message mix.” (Thus, I am a product of my RSS feeds.) Individualtion doesn’t guide us to our particualr preferences; rather, an awareness of our individuality is itself a product of our consumer practices. Leiss argues that “the integration of the components tends to become a property of the commodities themselves”—we become reliant on consumer goods to integrate our self-concept: “The fragmentation of needs requires on the individual’s part a steadily more intensive effort to hold together his identity and personal integrity. In concrete terms this amounts to spending more and more time in consumption activities.” 

Then the problems incipient in the “attention economy” come into play. It takes time to use the goods we are amassing, but time is limited. So we will be motivated to choose activities that allow us to use our goods over ones that don’t require things. We won’t want to walk in the park when we have a stack of DVDs to watch. Incidentally, This problem is exacerbated immeasurably by the ability to download massive amounts of media for “free.” Of course, it’s not free; we pay in time, which we seem ill-equippped to properly value in relation to consumption. That is economist Staffan Linder’s insight in The Harried Leisure Class, what Leiss calls a Gresham’s Law of consumption—“wants for ever greater numbers of commodities tend to depreciate all types of desires that are not dependent upon the consumption of things.” This erodes “craft knowledge” (in Leiss’s terminology) or what I think of as a kind of happiness biofeedback—we lose touch with how to use goods efficiently to satisfy ourselves and concentrate instead on simple maximization. Hence iTunes library with 10,000 songs, many unplayed. Nothing rings more true for me than this comment of Leiss’s: “The simple want for larger and larger numbers of things means that the individual must pay correspondingly less attention to the particular qualities of each want and ech thing itself. In other words, the individual must become increasingly indifferent to the fine shadings and nuances of both wants and the objects which he pursues in the search for satisfaction. (Explains a lot about pop culture, I think.) And this process of trying to achieve “increased goods intensity” (as Linder calls it) entices us to incorporate more and more gear into any activity, so that use of the gear preempts the activity itself—we go camping to make use of all our camping supplies, not because it’s fun to sleep in a tent.

Contemplating the situation we find ourselves in, Leiss sounds a lot like Al Gore before the fact: “There are some tolerance limits in the biosphere; the industrial production systems of the developed world are now testing those limits; we do not know what these limits are at present; it is unwise to continue along our present path until we reach or overshoot these limits, since by that time it may be impossible to mitigate the adverse effects or to do so only at the cost of catastrophic social disruptions.” He then suggests we might limit our economic development by extending legal rights to nonhuman life and considering the “needs of nonhuman nature,” to my mind a terrible way of putting the important concept of considering externalities and the mounting problem of environmental destruction. The phrase suggests I should care about environmentalism because the trees have feelings too, and despite what some believe about the secret life of plants, I remain skeptical. The reason it is imperative to reform our environmental practices—the only reason that can resonate universally—is the debt we owe to one another, to other humans who inevitably suffer from the damage we cause and to posterity. A tree can’t advocate for itself; only humans can do so on its behalf, and that’s when it becomes especially slippery, because who is to say that what the human advocate does is not simply on that specific human’s behalf, at the expense of other humans.

by John Bohannon

13 May 2008

“Louisville is death you’ve got to get up and move, because the death do not improve” – Silver Jews “Tennessee” from the album Bright Flight

In a recent interview I conducted with David Berman, renaissance man of the Silver Jews, he was thinking of changing the aforementioned lyric for the upcoming tour. He also claimed he’s never been able to play it in Louisville, obviously. But this is a lyric that needs to be heard by the people of Louisville – and they need to be confronted with it directly. Mr. Berman beating around the bush is going to do no good as far as a songwriter goes – because during his near two decade career and many one-liners – this is one of the most prominent lines, one which struck home with a lot of people (including myself) in the town.

If you’ve never spent a decent amount of time within the city, than this line may just be another bundle of words that sound meaningful coming out of Berman’s growl. But let me let you in on a little secret – Louisville, as Berman claims, has had a “dark star” hanging over its head for quite some time now. Not quite as bad as it did back in the ‘90s, but it’s still dangling in sight. The town is full of a never-popping bubble of musicians that attract a wider audience for a local show than a national show – some may say this is a good thing, but by alienating themselves from the rest of the musical world, it only hurts a musical community. This mentality has kept a lot of musicians within the city from getting widespread acclaim. The one’s that have made it generally dispersed to outside cities such as Nashville and Chicago to get in with a different crowd of musicians, such as Tortoise and David Berman himself.

With this said, Louisville has somewhat detached of this clique mentality over the past several years, mostly because so many different genres are coming out of Louisville and bands find themselves not working on common ground. The town needs to take to heart Berman’s words and not fall inside the hole they once created.

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