Receiver

Being a writer (I can’t claim to be an author since I don’t make a living at it) is like being a radio receiver.  You pick up signals, or so it seems, and it’s your job to try to make sense of them.  That’s why I always carry a notebook.  Specifically a Moleskine volant extra small plain notebook (I can’t abide lined paper).  I’ve been using them for years and I’ve got quite a little stack of them in my writing nook, battered, taped, and well-used.  There’s part of my soul in those little things.  But they’re getting increasingly difficult to find.  More than once I’ve come to the last page only to have searched in vain all the local bookstores and speciality shops without finding a replacement.  (Big boxes like Staples appeal to the lowest common denominator and writers demand special treatment.)

Tools of the trade

Sometimes they’re not even available on Amazon, surprising as it may seem.  You see, I’m particular about where I store my thoughts.  People have suggested to me that I use my phone, but by the time I get it out of my pocket, turn it on, type in the passcode, and open the app, the thought is gone.  They travel quickly.  My notebook, always with me, has a pen companion.  It’s refillable and I take great care to buy refills that write instantly, without having to scribble to get them going.  I keep careful note of the brands that are reliable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a great thought flee as you’re furiously scribbling to get your pen to capture it in your Moleskine.  No, this is an area where there can be no compromise.  If only notebook sellers saw it that way!

The trouble with being a receiver is you have no control over when the signal comes.  You wouldn’t know it from my publication record, but I have many, many unpublished pieces.  Most of them, regrettably, have to be reduced to electronic form so they can be submitted and rejected via email or Submittable.  I would have nothing with which to build, however, if my zibaldone were absent.  After my brain this is the first filter.  And when they’re full it’s time for another.  The next time I find them in my favorite indie bookstore I’m going to buy them out.  I’ll store them in the attic—I can find space up there, along with my pen refills—against a time of need.  Somethings a writer just can’t do without.

Common Tyrants

“Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled to obedience from their subjects.”  The words aren’t mine, nor are they from this century.  That, however, makes them no less true.  Jonathan Mayhew was an eighteenth-century clergyman arguing that Bible’s admonition to obey government officials did not apply to those who abused power.  In reading these words I felt a sense of loss in a very basic way.  No, I’m not a fan of turning back the clock—it can’t really be done anyway—but when the word of a single book was not disputed those tempted to follow tyrants could be made to justify it with a Good Book that could also be used to refute it.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, but tyrants still exist.

Shouting matches have been substituted for discussions because those who support tyrants can’t see how they are also being oppressed.  It’s one of the ironies of history.  This internet age has only found a way of magnifying people’s differences on the political scale, even as it has brought us to the common marketplace of culture.  Who doesn’t use Amazon?  Tyranny, by definition, is the arbitrary use of power.  One might think of, oh, declaring a national emergency when none exists just to get what one wants.  One might think of surrounding oneself with criminals against the nation just to get what one wants.  One might think of business practices meant to ruin others just to get what one wants.  There seems to be a common theme here and it’s one on which the Bible has a great deal to say.  The only Scripture that gets quoted is that which supports tyranny, eh, Mayhew?

When the debate was about the Good Book we were largely all on the same page.  Not all colonials wanted to break with King George III.  Some profited from the connection.  Others thought Holy Writ prevented revolutions rather than inspiring them.  Tyrants have always been with us.  You’d think that with all the media we have these days that we’d be able to spot one fairly easily.  The camera, however, has a way of giving the lie to the Good Book.  Anyone can say they read it.  Or claim they obey it.  Its own test seems to be “by their fruits you will know them.”  The words aren’t mine.  They’re from a distant century past.  But it seems the fruit is dying on the tree, even as spring begins.

Not Quite Thursday

I discovered Jasper Fforde, as these things so often happen, at the recommendation of a friend.  A writer of rare talent, he’s conjured a few meta-worlds where fiction is the subject of fiction.  Probably best known for his Thursday Next novels, the premise is that fiction can be distorted by malevolent sorts within the Book World, which is like the Outside (our world) only much more interesting.  The sole problem with series is that in order to follow the storylines, you need to be able to recall where things were left the last time.  That’s complicated when you don’t read the books in order.  I haven’t followed Thursday Next in sequence—I find Fforde’s books sporadically and pick them up when I do (I prefer not to buy fiction on Amazon, for some reason).

The latest installment I found is One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  It’s a bit more convoluted than the last plot I recall, but the writing is still good.  In this story, which mostly takes place in Book World, the written Thursday Next has to find the real Thursday Next (who is, of course, also written, thus the “meta” I mentioned earlier).  This is probably not the best place to start the series for neophytes.  There was an interesting aspect, however, that I feel compelled to share.  The majority of this novel takes place on an island dedicated to fiction, divided into different “countries” by genre.   Just north of Horror and east of Racy Novel is Dogma.  It’s just southeast of the Dismal Woods.  This plays into the plot, of course, but the placement is interesting.  As Thursday tells it, the full name of the region is Outdated Religious Dogma.  Then I realized something.

Simply placing Dogma on this island plays into the idea that religious thought is fiction.  There are other islands in Fforde’s world, including non-fiction.  Dogma, of course, is not the same as religion.  The definition of dogma is something that is incontrovertibly true, by the authority that states it.  Problem is, nothing is inconvertibly true any more (if it ever was).  When Christianity ruled Europe, such ideas became highly politicized.  Indeed, parts of the world could well have fit into the Book World map.  Fforde’s novel is really just for fun, and Dogma doesn’t play a major role in the story.  That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being a legitimate point over which to pause and wonder.  Fiction can be factual, but not in a dogmatic way.

Russian into Things

It’s the holiday season.  The people I overheard at the bus stop the other day were discussing shopping on the bus.  It can be a long trip from here, and evening traffic out of New York (ironically) is quite heavy this time of year.  Bored commuters, sitting on the bus with their phones, shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one with the overhead light on during the fully dark ride home this week.  At one point the driver seemed to think it was a mistake on my part and snapped it off.  I carry a book light with me for just such eventualities, but I had that odd feeling one gets when everyone else got the memo but you didn’t.  In any case, I was reading a physical book, not shopping.

Then I read about a book I need for my research.  Problem is, I don’t have an institution, or a wealthy sponsor, so I often buy books used.  Back in my teaching days Amazon was new, and the idea of buying books online foreign and unfamiliar.  Now you can’t find a bookstore when you want one.  In any case, this particular book was on offer on eBay.  Now, I haven’t used eBay for quite a while.  I never think of it as a place to find reading material, but there it was.  Who would’ve thought research would ever lead in this direction?  The price was reasonable, so I signed in as a guest and placed my order.  With out of print books like this you run the risk of price-gouging or sudden unavailability—the independent researcher’s nightmare.

When the confirmation page came up, I couldn’t help but notice that the header was in Russian.  I wondered if Trump’s dream had really finally come true, or if the eBay on which I ordered an out-of-print book was really a trap.  How do you find out?  Who do you tell when your current government is completely at the beck and call of the Russian government?  I was in a brown study for a while.  The book, used, on Amazon was listed at over a thousand dollars, and this for a paperback published in 2009.  People will pay quite a lot for certain books, even if they don’t retain their resale value.  Ideas, it seems, are worth more than money.  But we no longer have a government to protect our interests.  Not even research, it seems, is safe any more.

If you squint, he could be St. Nick

Free Cookie

So, it started out as a freebee.  The way I looked at it, I paid enough for my computer to justify some free software.  We had Quicken on our desktop for years before we started to use it.  Then came the notice that it would no longer work on our system (which upgrades apparently every nano-second).  If we didn’t want to lose our financial data we would, the note cheerily said, have to upgrade.  You have to buy what once was in the land of the free.  We consulted about it—I still have an objection to paying for something made strictly of electrons; when I pull the blanket off the bed this time of year I get a healthy jolt of electrons without having to pay for them.  We caved.  Then the notice came again.  Upgrade time!  Only you can’t buy Quicken, you can rent it.  The one-time fee for buying software is now an annual fee.  Isn’t everyone happier now?

I don’t mean to pick on Quicken, although that is the most insidious offender since you can’t very easily transfer all that data back to paper.  Services withdrawn.  Welcome to the internet of thieves.  Bakeries worldwide know that a free cookie leads to sales often enough that it’s worth the small loss in profits.  But electrons are free all the time.  Shuffle your feet across the carpet in you stocking feet and test it.  Amazon for a while sent the Washington Post headlines daily, for free.  Now, Amazon ought to know me by name since I’m a book addict.  Then, just at the midterm elections, they announced this freebee was over.  I don’t know what in the world has been happening since.  I do hope someone will tell me when our currency converts to rubles.

Who wants a cookie?

Humans are susceptible to the myth of permanence.  Although change is constant and time never ceases to flow, we tend to think things will stay where we put them.  Technological change, however, has become so swift that we now pay for the privilege.  Unlike that cookie which lasts a moment and the choice of buying more is up to you, the internet has swept up our lives and you can no longer opt out.  We pay our bills online because letter carriers drop things.  We communicate online because who has the time to pick up and dial an actual landline phone?  The fact that the signal cuts out now and again isn’t a problem, even when we lose valuable information.  It’s only electrons, after all.

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.