Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Auditing the Review: January 18 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 17, 2009 03:33 pm

It's terrible news that Book World, the Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement and one of the New York Times Book Review's few remaining near-peers, may quickly cease to exist. Like the equally important Los Angeles Times Book Review last year, Washington Post Book World does not appear to be able to generate enough ad sales to justify its editorial and production costs.

This one hits close to home for me, because the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area has been my secondary residence for the past several years. The Sunday Book World really doesn't compare to the New York Times Book Review in terms of quality, influence, star power or reach, but it has provided me with good reading on many a lazy Sunday, and many I'm sure countless citizens of the Capital District would consider this a tragic loss. Is it all over for Book World? Critical Mass asked Marcus Brauchli:

Responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, "We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas."

This is what's called a bullshit response, an answer that doesn't answer, and I wish Critical Mass had rendered their paragraph accurate by the addition of a single three-letter word:

NOT responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, "We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas."

Brauchli's refusal to answer the question points to the obvious conclusion: Book World is probably gone. So, is the NYTBR in trouble too? I really don't know. I scoffed at the idea last July, but I've also been tracking the diminishing number of ad pages in weekly issues since December, and the situation keeps getting worse. Yet again, this week's issue is an anemic 24-pager. Every issue in January has been a 24-pager. I know that book publishers are cutting costs, but I don't think I've ever seen a NYTBR so completely devoid of industry support. Not a single ad of any size appears between page 5 and page 21. The opening and closing pages include a few partial page buys from Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt, Vintage, Hyperion, Other Books and the Annemarie Victory Organization, and there's not one full page buy other than the usual Bauman Rare Book back cover. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this must represent a historical low point for ad sales at the Book Review.

The conclusion is clear: despite its exalted position in the American book marketplace, the New York Times Book Review is probably in trouble. I can't imagine that our big New York publishers (who love the Book Review) will let the publication wither and die. I don't understand how they could. But, yeah, they're not buying ads, so they obviously see it differently, or else they simply can't get their acts together to support an important publication that has long helped them.

Unfortunately, the articles this week are exactly what we don't need: lots and lots of Obama. It's an "Inauguration 2009" special, but I stopped watching inauguration chatter on TV about three weeks ago (which means I've mostly stopped watching TV news, since they talk about nothing but). I'm very interested in and enthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but I'd rather wait for him to do something before I read all about him. I'm also just not in the mood for a NYTBR that reads like a Week In Review section. Despite appearances by the likes of Gary Hart and Alan Brinkley, nothing in this special section compels me, so I'm just going to take a quick look at the fiction offerings today and then make a paper airplane with the rest.

Fiction? Kathryn Harrison loves Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite. I can't remember Harrison ever giving a novel a bad review, so this fact alone doesn't mean much, though her explication of Phillips' book is appealing and piques my interest. Sylvia Brownrigg's summary of Hugo Hamilton's Disguise is probably as close to Hugo Hamilton's Disguise as I'll ever get. I'm very interested in the archeological milieu of Barry Unsworth's Land of Marvels, in which historians and oil-minded geologists mingle in the land now called Iraq, and Christopher de Bellaigue's summary makes the book sound pretty good.

At least a translated novel (by acclaimed translator Edith Grossman, no less) called A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Milona shows up in this NYTBR, though Colin Fleming doesn't much like it.

Finally, there's an endpaper by Ross Douthat titled "When Buckley Met Reagan" about which I can only say: not William F. Buckley again. The ship is sinking around him, and Sam Tanenhaus is still stuck on the good old days at Yale.

Will Sam Tanenhaus be the editor who presides over the demise of the New York Times Book Review? I sure hope not. Maybe I'll have a chance to ask him myself this Wednesday at a Tribeca NYTBR live event also featuring Joseph O'Neill, Liesl Schillinger and Dwight Garner. The topic is "Best Books of 2008" but I hope the conversation will stray to more interesting areas, like whether or not we can rest easily about this publication's future. I hope Tanenhaus will say something at this event to put the obvious fears to rest.

A Memoir In Progress

by Levi Asher on Friday, January 2, 2009 01:51 am

I was a frustrated software developer and unpublished novelist working at a Wall Street bank in 1993 when I first heard of a strange and exciting new phenomenon taking place on our computer networks: email, Usenet newsgroups and the World Wide Web. A new communications technology was about to change the world, and I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to be part of the change.

I left the banking industry to join Time Warner's new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous disaster known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan's website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it "rich", cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind. This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way.

Black Wednesday in Publishing-Land

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 09:52 pm

1. It won't make the evening news, but this was a rough day of historic proportions in the book biz. Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson all announced layoffs, top-level firings or, in the case of Random House/Doubleday/Alfred A. Knopf/Dial/Bantam Dell/Crown/Nan Talese/Broadway, major consolidations that will affect the future of book publishing in America.

In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.

2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".

3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.

4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.

5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.

6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:

"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

All your base are belong to us, Nixon.

It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.

7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.

8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.

9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

10. Jay-Z gets typographical.

Reviewing the Review: November 30 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 30, 2008 02:25 pm

I learned about "thick" and "thin" during the years I worked for Time Inc. When an unusually heavy issue of Time came off the presses, executives and others in the know would smile and augur good things for the company (and, by extension, for the American economy). A particularly slender magazine brought scorn, bowed heads and concern for our job security. However, the magazine contained the same amount of editorial content each week. The difference between a thick and thin issue was the amount of ads the sales team was able to sell that week.

At 24 pages, this week's New York Times Book Review feels mighty thin. Doesn't anybody besides Bauman's Rare Books, AuthorHouse, Bose Audio and Penguin Young Readers Group have something to advertise? Can't somebody get Knopf or FSG or Simon and Schuster to take a phone call? It's three and a half weeks before Christmas, so I don't think we can blame the downturn on the season. Let's just say that, as much as I often criticize this frustrating but important publication, I really hope the New York Times Book Review will weather our current economic problems well in future months. This is a forum we cannot afford to lose.

Of course, that doesn't mean we should accept sub-standard writing. Here's how Caleb Crain begins his review of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America by Ann Norton Greene:

Once upon a time, America derived most of its power from a natural, renewable resource that was roughly as efficient as an automobile engine but did not pollute the air with nitrogen dioxide or suspended particulate matter or carcinogenic hydrocarbons. This power source was versatile. Hooked up to the right devices, it could thresh wheat or saw wood. It was also highly portable -- in fact, it propelled itself -- and could move either along railroad tracks or independently of them. Each unit came with a useful, nonthreatening amount of programmable memory preinstalled, including software that prompted forgetful users once it had learned a routine, and each possessed a character so distinctive that most users gave theirs a name. As a bonus feature, the power source neighed.

If I live to be two hundred years old, I still won't need to see this tired, tired opening device used again in a book review. Since we already know from the book's title and the review's subtitle and illustration that we are reading about horses, this whole thing feels like a long joke with a well-known punchline.

There are better articles today: Noam Scheiber summarizes Robert J. Samuelson's The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath and Richard Holbrooke adds a personal touch to Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Virginia Heffernan is simply vicious to Sarah Vowell's chatty rumination on our Pilgrim heritage, The Wordy Shipmates, which she considers marred by "sarcasm, flat indie-girl affect and kitsch worship". I doubt this review will cost this book any sales -- in fact, it makes me curious to evaluate the book myself. But Virginia Heffernan does express her feelings amusingly well.

Today's best article is David Gates' clear and admiring cover piece on Toni Morrison's A Mercy. It was only two years ago that I finally read Beloved, and liked it very much. A Mercy also dives into America's primitive history and appears to be a short and bracing read. I guess I'll check it out too.

There are also competent considerations of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers by David Leonhardt, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies by Gaiutra Bahadur and David Vann's gloomy Legend of a Suicide by Tom Bissell. This last review is illustrated, for some reason, by a photo of a crushed Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Maybe sardonic product placement is the Times' ad sales team's last chance.

Too Literary to Fail? Houghton Mifflin, Writers in Trouble

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 24, 2008 10:56 pm

This is not good news. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing group with a literary legacy dating back to 1832, is temporarily not buying new manuscripts, and apparently no longer accepting submissions from either agents or individual writers.

What does this mean? It's difficult to tell. Browsing online sources (including Houghton Mifflin's oblique website), I quickly got caught in amazing accounts of the history carried by today's Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose previous permutations and acquisitions include Harcourt Brace, Harcourt Brace and Javonovich, Henry Holt, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Houghton Mifflin and even the legendary Ticknor and Fields, which was merged into Houghton Mifflin in 1880. (No, not 1980. 1880.)

Books these publishers have been responsible for include Thoreau's Walden, Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Orwell's 1984. So is this company "too literary to fail"? I doubt that. I can't possibly guess as to the business implications of today's dramatic announcement, but the fact that a major publishing firm is closing its doors even temporarily is obviously bad news for writers, publishers, booksellers, agents and pretty much everybody else. Ironically, as we've pointed out here on LitKicks often, books remain a highly profitable business every year (current code word: "Twilight"), but our top executives don't seem to be doing a good job of keeping the financials under control even with all that money (yes, money) floating around.

You know, sometimes the book game reminds me of the bank game. I just had to say that again.

Anyway, this is especially galling to me because, as I told you many months ago, I am trying to sell a book. I finished a proposal this summer -- an absolutely kickass proposal for a non-fiction book on a popular topic -- and a top literary agent (who I am very proud to have representing me) began approaching publishers with the proposal in August. This agent, who appears to be a man of few words, delivered a status report to me recently which wasn't what I wanted to hear. The email contained two sentences:

not a lot of reaction to it. but i will keep trying.

I know this will be a great book and I seriously expect it to sell a hundred thousand copies, so I find this very frustrating (though I realize that it's only been three months and I am glad that my agent is still trying). But with companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt slamming their windows shut and going into fetal positions, even temporarily, I am that much more depressed about my chances.

Whether we are publishing professionals, writers or readers, these business developments will affect all our lives and the lives of our children just as much as developments in the inexcusably mismanaged financial markets will. I think we'd all better pay extra close attention to the publishing industry in the next few weeks. (If you need a starting place, here's one.) Let's just hope we can get through the holiday season with no more dominoes falling.

Long May You Run

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 17, 2008 07:57 pm

1. If you grew up ordering slim paperbacks in school from Scholastic Book Services, you'll enjoy this Flickr set as much as I do (via).

2. Neil Young has written an article for the Huffington Post about how the Detroit auto industry can radically alter its corporate culture by embracing green innovation. Young is clearly a transportation freak -- aside from his work with Lionel Trains and Linc Volt, he also once wrote "Long May You Run", a sweet love song about a favorite car. But I get the biggest kick out of the simple fact that Neil Young has written an article for the Huffington Post.

3. Judith Fitzgerald of Books Inq., responding to an apt appreciation by Billy Collins of a new Dylan publication, says that Leonard Cohen is a better poet than Bob Dylan. Levi Asher says Judith Fitzgerald has got to be kidding. Leonard Cohen wrote "Bird on a Wire" and maybe two other good songs. The album Blood on the Tracks alone outdoes Cohen's entire career. A midget can't play basketball with a giant.

4. "Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found that doctors interacting with literature were more willing to adopt another person’s perspective, sometimes after just four one-hour workshops." I believe it. More here.

5. A 4th Century Greek joke book anticipates Monty Python's dead parrot sketch. But what about the cheese shop?

6. OUP Blog presents William Irvine on desire, a topic of infinite mystery.

7. The Millions remembers Liar's Poker.

8. Neil Young is writing about cars, and Lexus is sponsoring original fiction. Participants include Curtis Sittenfeld and Jane Smiley. The collaborative novel's visual layout is a little too "Lexus" for my tastes, but the experiment is worth a look.

9. Joan Didion is writing a film for HBO about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who will forever be remembered as the subject of a Watergate-era John Mitchell prediction that didn't come true.

10. I caught PBS's broadcast of Filth, about 1960s British decency advocate Mary Whitehouse, last night. Very well done, and quite even-handed. (Note: the fact that I am praising the show has nothing to do with PBS buying a Filth blog ad on LitKicks, and the fact that I watched the show has everything to do with the fact that Roger Waters sang about Mary Whitehouse on Pink Floyd's Animals).

11. Wonkette is a good political website, but they clearly know nothing about The Godfather. Nobody told Tessio (Abe Vigoda) that he was going to Las Vegas before killing him on the way to the airport -- that was Carlo Rizzo. Jeez.

Reviewing the Review: November 16 2008

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 15, 2008 03:13 pm

There are two ways to talk about the new "Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $45), edited by Christopher Reid. The first is to approach Hughes's correspondence as an illuminating aesthetic record, the clearest insight we're likely to get into the mind of a poet viewed by some critics as one of the major writers of the 20th Century. The second way is to discuss, well, "It".

Here's a third way: what the fuck is up with a $45 price tag on a book about poets? Who does Farrar, Straus and Giroux think will buy this book? Have they not heard the news that we are in a terrible retail climate, that even Starbucks is in a crisis because customers are flocking for cheaper coffee to McDonalds? FSG can't possibly be oblivious to our economic problems, and so the outlines of the pricing conspiracy become clear: far from believing that general readers will spend $45 on this book, they have concluded that general readers won't even spend $27.50 (a more reasonable price) for it, and therefore they'll jack up the price to cash in on library sales, their only captive market. Nice scam, but as a taxpayer I object to severely budget-crunched public libraries falling for it.

If publishers aren't publishing books for people to buy, then why should the New York Times review these books? And why, I wonder, should I keep paying attention to the New York Times Book Review if they aren't reviewing books designed for people to buy?

Yeah, I really do wonder. Anyway, David Orr provides a tolerable review of the Hughes letters, focusing (of course) on the above-mentioned "It", that "It" being Hughes's marriage to Sylvia Plath. This biography-heavy NYTBR includes a condescending Sarah Boxer article on Jackie Wullschlager's Chagall ($40), which includes the surprising remark that Wullschlager "doesn't seem to like Chagall much". Boxer doesn't either. I understand her problems with the Russian-Jewish artist's late-career "blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows". Then again, Chagall's peer Pablo Picasso became just as banal -- no, worse -- in his celebrity years, and the New York Times Book Review put his late-career biography on the front cover. Whichever way the wind blows ...

I can't get caught up in Graydon Carter's excitement over Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.'s George Being George. Unlike Carter and much of the NYTBR's senior staff, I never got invited to one of George Plimpton's parties, so I feel left out. James Campbell's summary of A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam's study of Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" program, is worth reading, as is Ethan Bronner's consideration of A. B. Yehoshua's novel Friendly Fire: A Duet. Joe Queenan's endpaper essay on book reviews that over-praise shows this humorist's style to be improving.

The most enjoyable article in this weekend's Book Review is Jack Shafer on Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. We don't see a lot of books with semi-colons in their subtitles these days, and based on Shafer's appreciative highlights I very much want to read this one. We explore why rhyming nonsense words so often start with the letter 'h' ("hillbilly", "hippy-dippy", "hanky-panky", "hurdy-gurdy") and why terms of disapproval employ the letter 't' ("tut-tut", "tacky", "tatty", "twit"). I think many readers will find this stuff as appealing as I do, and the fact that the book is priced to sell at $25 indicates that the publisher actually has hopes for it (think: Eats, Shoots and Leaves) that aren't captured by the phrase "take the money and run". A book designed to be bought and enjoyed -- how refreshing!

Reviewing the Review: November 9 2008

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 10, 2008 01:57 am

It's a new day. The weather's nice, Barack Obama is going to be President of the United States, and Jonathan Lethem has written a superb article about Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the front cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review.

Steering clear of his dreaded coy side, Lethem constructs a frame of reference to help explain Bolano's dissembled philosophical narrative, and since everybody seems to be talking about Roberto Bolano these days, I sincerely appreciate Lethem's step-by-step walkthrough of this 898-page epic. Will I read this book myself? Sure, I'll give it a try, but like Sarah Weinman I feel some skepticism about this current Bolano craze. The Savage Detectives didn't pull me in, but I'll try again.

Lethem is rapturous, of course, about 2666, whereas Akash Kapur's The White Tiger gets treated rather rudely in this issue by Aravind Adiga. I've read several bloggers who do not think The White Tiger deserved to win the Man Booker Prize, and I guess I'll have to see what I think of this book too. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Robert Kagan praises Carlo D'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, making no reference to the stunning case against the heroic reputation of Winston Churchill contained in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which was easily the most influential and widely-discussed history book published in the last year. For Kagan to pretend Baker's book didn't pop some pinholes in Churchill's legend is disingenuous. He approaches D'Este's book reverently, despite the fact that it appears to be a rather redundant biography (aren't there already about 40 in print?) designed to be bought for Dads and Grand-dads this Christmas. Since September 11, 2001 Winston Churchill has become just as big a cottage industry as Elvis Presley or Jack Kerouac, but Robert Kagan's review fails to provide critical insight on this point. Instead, he falls right for the gimmick.

This issue contains two decent poetry pieces, neither as good as William Logan would have written. Peter Stevenson likes Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall. August Kleinzahler likes James Merrill Selected Poems, and reminds us that James Merrill was of the "Merrill Lynch" Merrills (this fact takes on special resonance now that Merrill Lynch, an anchor of American finance, has just collapsed).

The endpaper delivers some serious shredded wheat for your Sunday morning, and in fact I appreciate the chewy heft very much. Richard Parker writes about an influential book about the economy, The Modern Corporation and Private Property written by Adolf Augustus Berle in 1932. I learned much I didn't know. I also learned a few things I didn't know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute's "Lifetime of Better Sex" video series ("Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!"). Well, if ads like this pay for articles by serious writers like Richard Parker, that's good enough for me. This was an excellent New York Times Book Review for an excellent weekend.

Finally, farewell to John Leonard, esteemed culture critic who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review back in the early 1970s. I hope to see new editions of John Leonard's collected writings, and I'm proud to have briefly had a chance to meet him at BookExpo in New York City last year. On that day I found him wiry, growly and certainly highly alert -- I imagined at the time that he had many more decades of good writing left to do.

Big Thinking: Mill, Taxation and the Individual

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, October 28, 2008 01:41 am

Taxation is an intense, emotional issue in the news and on the streets these days. I had an argument about it with a guy at work who advocated a flat income tax.

"But no politician, not even McCain, is calling for a flat income tax," I said. "The only person calling for a flat income tax is Joe the Plumber."

"Well, it's not fair," my friend said. "How is it fair that if I make more money than you I have to pay a higher percentage? Why should I be penalized for working harder?"

"Do the math," I said. "We spend money on things like roads and schools and defense. If we had a flat tax, there would be no way to raise our annual budget. No economist has ever been able to show how we could balance our budget with a flat tax unless we literally starved the middle class. So the only way to have a flat tax is to run up a big budget deficit, which by the way your damn Bush/McCain Republicans are very good at."

He pouted. "Well, it's not fair."

What this exchange and several like it have shown me is the intensity of feeling that taxation inspires. The American cry is "IT'S MY MONEY". Personally, I do not feel as concerned with specific income tax rates as many other Americans seem to. As a web developer, my annual earnings can vary greatly with the economic climate -- don't even talk to me about 2003 -- and my biggest concern is how much income I can earn each year, not the percentage I'll pay back in tax. I would rather a government that taxes reasonably to maintain a thriving economy than one that chooses frugality over common sense.

On the other hand, I do understand that many Americans feel very strongly that federal taxation is an inexcusable intrusion into their private rights, and I do even respect the fact that this corresponds in some way to the great American love of freedom that means as much to me as it does to any, say, tax-hating John McCain voter out there. I also think it must mean something that when Henry David Thoreau famously went to jail for a day, his crime was refusing to pay taxes.

However, it's also worth noting that Thoreau did not refuse to pay tax for selfish reasons, but rather for a public cause: he was protesting legalized slavery in America.

The intense public discourse about taxation within the 2008 presidential election calls to mind a quote from the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, founder of a practical and democratic philosophy called Utilitarianism that has inspired both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits. Mill's philosophy is that government exists to maximize the shared happiness of all individuals within a society. The individual is the basic unit of government's every purpose, and every question is resolved by examining the various possible individual benefits and costs. As Mill says:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

There is much to be gained from reading John Stuart Mill, but at the same time I don't think that political philosophy can stop here. Do we really exist only as individuals? I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a cousin and an uncle -- in all these ways I am committed to a unit of existence, a family, which is more than a collection of individuals but rather seems to be something alive in itself. I am also an employee of a company, a proud New Yorker, a Mets fan, an American and an ethnic Jew. In all of these ways, I am more than an individual, and nobody can tell me that I don't feel pain when any of my "groups" are hurt, or happy when any of my "groups" are doing well.

And yet altruism or group awareness does not play -- not even close -- in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Even Barack Obama, who in my opinion takes a much more practical and realistic stance on taxation than John McCain, will not suggest in public that wealthy American taxpayers ought to feel good about the chance to help their fellow citizens. The few times he's said anything along these lines, as when he mentioned "spreading the wealth around", his opponents have been able to roast him for it.

You know, I don't like paying taxes either. But it is worth stepping back and taking a deeper look at what the collective good -- the good of our own collectives, our families, our cities, our country, our world -- means to each of us, and why it does.

* * * * *
Photo above from the excellent Library of Congress photo archive

Big Thinking: Thoreau and the Economy

by Levi Asher on Thursday, October 2, 2008 12:21 am

In several posts between now and the end of the 2008 USA Presidential election on November 4, LitKicks is going to attempt a new meme, a new venture. How can we use the wisdom of classic literature to help illuminate the tough issues of the day? Many of us feel cowed by our surreal, hectic public dialogue, the never-ending "day's news", which we puzzle over and discuss with each other so often -- but with so little satisfaction. The news has us in a defensive crouch all too often lately, and in our shock and disgust we quickly react but sometimes forget to pause and think. The purpose of this LitKicks series is to examine one hot topical issue at a time through the viewpoint of one particular great writer, and to get your comments and ideas at the end of each post.

We'll start with undoubtedly the hottest issue of today: America's financial crisis, brought on by the inflation of mortgage-backed securities, now destined to be "solved" with a $700 billion bailout by the U.S. government. For commentary on this, our special guest is Mr. Henry David Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts.

The economy, in the broadest sense of the word, is a major theme in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who taught himself how to survive by establishing a harmonious but minimalistic private relationship with nature. The first chapter of his Walden, a memoir regarded by some as the greatest American book of all time, is called "Economy".

Here's a rather amazing paragraph from this chapter that depicts Thoreau's approach to business. It also includes one of the longest sentences I've ever read:

I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time -- often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; -- to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the tendencies of trade and civilization -- taking advantage of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; -- charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier -- there is the untold fate of La Prouse; -- universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man -- such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.

It's a funny thing that Thoreau advocates extreme economy in life, but luxuriates in words. Regardless, his constant argument throughout Walden is that an enlightened and happy person will remain highly attuned and responsive to his environment, and will avoid the traps of wealth, greed, competition and possession. Elsewhere in "Economy", the book's first chapter, Thoreau brags about how inexpensively he is able to live, and lists all the costs he incurred in building his cabin by Walden Pond ("Boards: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards ... Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00 ... Laths: $1.25 ... Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43"). He prided himself on spending little, working little and earning little, and he considered his hardworking Massachusetts neighbors to be no more free than the African-American slaves of the South (Thoreau, like the other New England Transcendentalists, was also an ardent opponent of American slavery).

Thoreau was also a master of sarcasm, and it's easy to imagine how he would respond to anyone who complained of losing a home during today's housing crisis:

Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.

But Thoreau would reserve even harsher advice for the lenders, bankers and businessmen who turned money lending into a source of obscene profit while leading our nation's finances over a cliff. He felt that popular American capitalism and materialism had humiliated and emasculated our society, and felt that working Americans lived as virtual slaves to their employers and debtors. For these reasons, I think it's safe to say that if Henry David Thoreau were alive today he would strongly advocate a return to financial simplicity and away from the culture of debt, and would definitely not support the $700 billion Wall Street/Main Street bailout that our government is debating right now.

Nor, however, would he despair for our future. Some shrink at reading Walden, a thorny but deliriously happy book about nature and society, but it does seem like a good text for anyone who'd like to think more deeply about what it means to have an economy, and what economy means to each of us. The book counsels creativity, hope and courage in times of change:

I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.

What do you think?

(photo on top of page by Steven Arat, who has many great photos of Concord, Massachusetts)


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