Thursday, May 19, 2011

For Pleasure: Winter Into Spring 2011

Winter here on the North Coast is the rainy season.  This year it began late, in February rather than January, and dripped into April.  It was a busy winter for me, but it took on a new character when I caught one of the variety of bugs that were going around--a flu, a virus, whatever it was.  I haven't gotten so much as a cold in several years, but this was a double-dipper: it started with a cough, became a sinus cold, went away, came back and went through it all again.

So being sick sent me back to sick days reading.  I finished the Pynchon novel (Inherent Vice) which is not his most demanding, but after that I was up to nothing more complicated than a couple of Star Trek novels, which I normally save for airports and similar situations. They are plot driven yet thoughtful, in a story universe I know and feel comfortable in. They are the closest to audio books I can come to by actually reading, since I can hear the Star Trek characters in my head.  (And I'm not big on actual audio books--I'm too sensitive to the voice of the reader.  If I don't like it, the book is over.)

Actually, this spate of Star Trek did begin in the airport, on my November flight to my niece's wedding in Pennsylvania, when I read one of William Shatner's Trek novels (only to find it was Part 1--fortunately I had the second part at home, which I read upon my return.)  But in my February binge I at least read one by Greg Bear, a science fiction writer I admire (and who I met--at the 40th anniversary Star Trek convention in Seattle.)  Corona was a Kirk-Spock era story, so I balanced it with a Next Generation novel.

I also re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's climate crisis in Washington trilogy, for the third time, and I may read it again this summer and "blog it" on my Dreaming Up Daily site, because it focuses on the issues so well.  Sixty Days and Counting in particular should be required reading in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

But I did manage some other reading, apart from new books for review. I got a used copy of Margaret Atwood's latest book of essays, reviews and forewords, Writing with Intent.  Very impressive in the perfect match of style and substance on each topic and occasion. I picked Jonathan Lethem's short novel, as she climbed across the table from my own shelves. It was just what I was hoping for.

Then just last week when I was in the university library, one of those serendipitous coincidences that involved a seemingly random selection on a sale table hit me.  In this case, it was a shelf of books the library was giving away.  Among the outdated computer manuals I picked up two.  One was an astonishing (and scary) find: a free copy of Randall Jarrell's Complete Poems, hardback first edition with dust jacket intact.  In book value I suppose it doesn't quite measure up to my biggest find--a first edition of Wallace Steven's first book--for 10 cents at a public library sale.  But I knew immediately this find meant something.  When I took it away, the first three poems I read at random were stunning, and did mean something to my current state of mind.  I really know very little about Jarrell--he was a name, but not a poet we read much in college.  But I have collected a few of his other books: a volume of criticism, a volume of childrens stories, and a volume of letters.  Now as I read more, I am more curious.  I'll have to go back to the library to see if they have books on him, they haven't given away.

The other book was a coincidence of another kind.  I'd just received Harold Bloom's new and announced as final book, The Anatomy of Influence (Yale.)  I've learned to mine Bloom rather than read him--he's not my kind of critic.  I've never been comfortable with his "anxiety of influence" approach.  He writes out of a sensibility or tradition he identifies as Jewish that isn't mine, though I recognize it.  But I respect him and his work, and I admire him for doing it.  I celebrate his life, which is so much a part of this book.  And I expect to profit from this book, especially since we admire some of the same writers, from Shakespeare and Emerson to Joyce and Ashbery.  Even though he reads so much more knowledgeably and with greater literary complexity that I possibly could.  I mean, I didn't lead that life. Had I been of  his generation, or lived in academia maybe, but probably I don't have quite his kind of intelligence.

In any case, Bloom begins by staking out critical territory with the distinction between the "Longinian" and the--well, the non-Longinian I guess, the New Critic and its progeny, if any.  "To be a Longinian critic is to celebrate the sublime as the supreme aesthetic virtue..." from Longinus' essay.  If my college teachers made this distinction, I don't remember it.  (They were mostly New Critics, and one of them moved on to the New Cynicism as Bloom aptly calls it.  I didn't.)  I don't recall running into it since.

But I picked up another book off that free shelf at the library, called Literate Culture: Pope's Rhetorical Art, by Ruben Quintero (U. of Delaware Press, 1992.)   I don't have much interest in Pope, but I opened it, and saw that it, too was literary criticism of the old kind--still my kind--before Theory, etc.  But what grabbed my heart was the inside cover, signed by the author, with a note to his "dear friend" "with fond regards."  I don't know why the dear friend gave this book away--maybe he died.  But I couldn't just leave it there.  It obviously was going to be thrown out (I've seen this library's discarded books in the big dumpsters out back.)

So I took it home, and was rewarded almost immediately with a discussion of the Longinian approach--for the second time in a few days.  This seems a gracefully written book, and informative about and beyond Pope.  So now it has a home next to Bloom.  I don't know what any of this means.  But it seems, if not sublime, right.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Common As Air: Revolution, Art, And Ownership

by Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lewis Hyde is one of those non-famous writers who is eagerly and profitably read by the famous with bigger audiences (ecologist Paul Shepard is another.) So as a kind of preview of ideas that others will eventually repackage, here’s the undiluted original.

Calling Hyde original is ironic, given one premise of this book, which is that almost nothing is really original: everybody “stands on the shoulders of giants” (as Newton famously said, though he stole the phrase.)For Hyde, that idea is both a premise and the desired outcome: that after being expressed, ideas are no longer the sole property of anyone. They are for the good of all—for others to use and build on.

This, Hyde reminds us, is the Constitutional reason for copyright—to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” It is to encourage innovators, but also to make things available for what Hyde calls the cultural commons. His support for this is in a kind of Zinnian alternate history, especially in the views of—tea partiers beware!—the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin in particular. Hyde shows how to them the free flow of information and invention was not abstract—access was often subject to monopoly in the 18th century, but it was necessary for the commonwealth they intended to make of America.

In his prized earlier book, The Gift, Hyde liberated writers and other artists from feeling that if they didn’t write solely for money, they are blockheads. Talent is a gift, and the fruits of talent are gifts to others and to posterity.

In this book he looks at this from the public point of view. This book is especially relevant now because of new complexities: on the one hand, the Internet enables file-sharing as well as cutting and pasting anything, and computers enable sampling of other people’s original songs and art. And on the other hand, big corporations have pursued tighter copyright protection over more things (like genes, and even elements of somebody else’s body) while courts increasingly interpret law to favor absolute private rights, leading to the virtual abandonment of “fair use” protections.

Not surprisingly, he looks with favor on the Creative Commons licenses, which use claim-and-release (claim your copyright, but release the rights under circumstances you define) to “allow millions of works to circulate without the permissions-and-fees aphasia that automatically attends all over copyrighted material.”

Hyde provides examples of what he considers egregious misuses and unintended consequences of today’s copyright practice, and I find I agree with some but not all. I look at this from both sides now. As a writer who is exploited enough thank you, with way below par pay and my-way-or-the-highway demands for rights, I am suspicious of attempts to modify copyright as yet another capitalist plot. But I’m a blogger, too, and obviously I’m not in it for the big bucks. I’ve always been inspired to create by making it a gift, and I believe in the value of the commons.

Further, as a writer I’ve run into frustrating Catch-22 situations (wait, is that copyrighted?) in (for example) writing a play about real figures in recent history, in which I wanted to accurately portray them by quoting from their books in dialogue. It’s such an uncertain area that copyright holders don’t know what to do, and producers don’t want to take the chance of being sued. So, in sum, it’s a real mess right now.

Even as a book reviewer I've seen the effects.  Hyde mentions the example of the James Joyce estate, notoriously greedy and litigious, and their demands on Stanford scholar Carol Shloss, who was forced "to remove 40 percent of the citations in her book about Joyce's daughter Lucia (whereupon reviewers criticized the work for lacking evidence.")  I was one of the reviewers, in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.  Though I made references to the legal and other problems with the Joyce estate twice in the review ("Objections by James Joyce's grandson forced Shloss to delete hard-won material and rewrite this book several times. Among those she thanks in her acknowledgments are several lawyers." " Many of the problems this book presents to readers are probably due to the dearth of data and coyness created by legal action"), in the end I had to review the book as published, and though I praised much of it and called it a heroic enterprise, I did fault its narrative clarity, organization and "a daunting quantity of her own speculations, surmises and unconvincingly supported suppositions."   The moral of this story, besides the perils of publishing under these circumstances, is Hyde's own--apart from privacy concerns, the public is poorer for information withheld.

Hyde doesn’t deny writers etc. the right to make a living from their work. He is arguing essentially for balance, which today is about as radical as you can get. All of this forms the topic, but the pleasures of this book are in the journey—the history, the stories (like the “folk tradition” Bob Dylan got many of his songs from) and simply Hyde’s unique writing voice. Along the way you will learn how Franklin studied the Gulf Stream, the meaning of “lucubrations” and why James Joyce is in danger of disappearing from literary history (I think I've given that one away.)

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest
By Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown and Cary C. Collins
University of Oklahoma Press

This is also an important reference work that includes up-to-date information that changes the story it tells.  Part of the invaluable Civilization of the American Indian Series at University of Oklahoma Press, this third edition is substantially different from the 1992 second edition, with references as recent as 2010.  It is still organized as descriptions of all known tribes of the present states of Oregon and Washington, plus some with origins partly or wholly in British Columbia, and partly in other states such as California.

The history sections were drawn from oral accounts by elders of the tribes involved (where possible) as well as standard sources.  These have been refined for this edition, as there is more to say in the contemporary life and culture section for many tribes.  While some of these sections sound as if they were pasted in from tribal publicity, it's undeniable that both contemporary cultural awareness--grown over the past generation especially--plus the financial resources from gaming have made substantial differences.

 For example, after a complex and often dismal post-contact history, the reconstituted Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde became the wealthiest tribe in Oregon, with a net worth of $100 million in 1998, due to the most successful casino in the region.  This has enabled not only employment for some 1700 people, but a number of other companies such as Spirit Mountain Environmental Services, as well as a health and wellness center, tribal archives and library, language classes, active attempts to reclaim cultural objects, and millions of dollars in charitable donations.

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians of Washington State and northern Idaho have established the Indigenous Learning Company, the first Native-owned Internet publishing company that published web-based educational materials--just some of what gaming has helped finance.  But even those tribes without their own casinos have established thriving cultural and environmental programs, and nurtured college graduates and professionals in many fields.  The persistent problems on Indian reservations in every part of the country are well known, but this part of the story isn't often told, especially in a total context of tribal history (which includes summaries of relevant treaties, court cases and government activities.)

In the late 90s I spent several days at a Seventh Generation Fund conference in Seattle, in the company of representatives of some of these tribes (as well as from elsewhere.)   It was an amazing experience for me, so naturally I looked up the tribes of the people I remembered most, such as the Makah and the host tribe, the Skokomish--in their section I saw a photo of the flamboyant Bruce Miller and reference to the comparatively low-key Vi Hilbert, both cultural leaders who were major figures in that conference.  Vi Hilbert was one of the most impressive people I've ever met.  It was like meeting the Dalai Lama.

But while I missed hearing more of the voices of such leaders and elders in this book, surely the book's value is a great deal in bringing together in one volume these succinct summaries of all these tribes, including the many that no longer exist as tribal entities.  Just to sense the scope of Native life in this region is a major effect, and now to see the stories move into the twenty-first century.

I think perhaps the cover is a little deceptive, though.  A number of the tribes most associated with this style of carving--the Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Coast Salish, Westcoast, etc.--are outside the scope of this book, being located farther north in Canada and associated islands.  This also makes the title a little deceptive, although these tribes are often referred to as Northwest Coast.

Otherwise, the accounts in this book are individually and cumulatively powerful.  It is an outstanding reference book, that builds upon the impressive achievements of the first edition and is inspiring not only for the stories it tells, but for the dedicated scholarship and years of effort that went into making it.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Atlas of Oceans: An Ecological Survey of Underwater Life
by John Farndon
Yale University Press

We live on land, but our civilization and even our lives would be impossible without healthy oceans.  Because we live on land we at least seem to know more about it, and discussions about climate change tend to concentrate on land-based effects and causes.  The main topic involving the seas is their level and the effect on coasts.  But some of the most profound and least understood climate threats involve the depths of the oceans.

As the title says, this book is an atlas, and in layout may remind you of other print atlases and even geography books.  But it does emphasize ecological issues, so while it has information that's fascinating and useful beyond those issues, it is directly relevant to today's most pressing concerns.  But it doesn't just name "overfishing" as a problem--it explains what industrial fishing is.

The writing is crisp and clear.  There are lots of photos (with good color especially for the remarkably colorful creatures of the deep) as well as maps and charts.  I find the layout pleasing to my eye and easy to navigate.  The range of subjects seems comprehensive and yet not overwhelming.  You can learn about endangered species but also the different kinds of life in different oceans, and the nature of different kinds of seashores.  The book is a nice size--big enough to do justice to the pictures and allow for this layout, but not so thick that you can't carry it around.  It's impressively published as well as well-written and thought out.  It's excellent and important.

I do have caveats.  I found one big error: A section midway through the book titled "Dead Zones" is actually about "the dark zone"--two quite different things. The dark zone is the very deepest ocean where amazing discoveries of unknown lifeforms have been recently made.  There is a correctly titled section earlier in the book about Dead Zones--huge regions without enough oxygen to support ocean life, due to poisoning by fossil fuels and fertilizer runoff.

Some people (like me) may get Dead Zones confused with other huge areas of the ocean choked with garbage--miles and miles of swirling plastics and other refuse.  These are called the Garbage Patches, but the section about them in this atlas is titled Plastic Soup. There isn't even an index entry for "garbage."  This lack of functionality, at least in this one instance, is always a problem for a reference book, but of course a much bigger problem when people are used to the ease of searching on the Internet.

These problems, as well as some (for me) unenlightening maps and charts, are drawbacks for a reference work.  But reference works often suffer from less than reader-friendly texts.  That's not a problem with this book--in fact, it's a strength.  You can read this book as a single story, a history of the planet from an oceanic point of view, as well as an explanation of current threats and exploration of the latest discoveries.

 The text has what so few reference books have: a voice.  The visuals illustrate this text as well as piquing a browser's interest and satisfying a roving eye. It's absorbing and satisfying reading.  I would  recommend it for young people in particular, especially because they may learn about what good writing is while they learn about the great waters, three-quarters of the planet, three-quarters of ourselves.