Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Man who Loved Books Too Much

During the Christmas holidays, I read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much:The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. The book centers on John Gilkey, a petty thief and con artist who steals rare books, and his nemesis, Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who makes it his mission to catch Gilkey. The book brings the reader inside--at least to the peripheries of the inside--of the world of rare books.

For Gilkey, the appeal of rare books, which bit him hard, resided in his conviction that they lent him a patina of class and education . To own a library of rare books was to be Somebody, perhaps even an English country gentleman. Since the San Francisco-based Gilkey had no money, he used stolen credit cards, outright theft and bad checks to finance his purchases, as a result revolving in and out of prison as he pursued his collecting.

After spending much time with Gilkey, Bartlett backpedals swiftly away from him, fearful of being manipulated, and anxious, perhaps over-anxious, to identify herself with the "decent" people in the book, the defrauded booksellers. The moral issues Gilkey present disturb her, and Barltett is concerned not to be complicit with Gilkey's self-presentation as a populist bibliophile entitled to expensive books. Her strategy, however, is possibly counter-productive, for in her haste to stampede to the "good" people, she leaves the reader to defend Gilkey. Better to have told the story and trusted the reader to pull out the moral: that a life of petty fraud is difficult and tawdry; that books used merely to enhance status are no different from any other consumer good, be it a high-end car or designer clothes, and no less likely to provide more than an ephemeral fix.

Gilkey is a sleazy character, yet the nature of his self justification is not unique. His arguments are: Rare books are overpriced; the average person should have a shot at them; the only way the average person can have a shot at such books is to steal them. I've heard--actually more before the economic crash than after--variations of that theme fairly often from individuals who were highly compensated by the standards of our society and living with little or no chance of suffering the least want, and yet who complained of being underpaid and deserving more. Who do they compare themselves too? Wall Street CEOs, of course. The mind-boggling pay and bonus scales of the few leave some of the rest feeling entitled to more--and sometimes with the mentality, like Gilkey, that they should get more any way they can. Add to that the sense that many of the rich at the top of the heap accumulated their vast fortunes immorally, and the "why not me?" mentality becomes easier to justify. If the game is rigged, you take what you can. The point is, for all Bartlett's black and white morality, Gilkey, while sordid, didn't seem to me to be particularly "other" in his thinking. Neither are he (nor the people who compare themselves to CEOS) entirely wrong in an innate sense the pie is not divided fairly in this culture.

Gilkey seemed fairly typical too in that he fell into the common belief that ownership is everything. However, while the rich, by definition, will always be able to buy things the rest of us can't, another form of wealth we can all take joy in is appreciating beautiful and rare objects without having to own them. This is what museums--and behind museums, the belief in a civic, public, shared space in society--are all about.

Finally, we get to the Quaker testimony of equality, and excerpts from a book I am reading in my Conflict Resolution class called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. No matter how, wealthy a society, if disparities between rich and poor grow too wide, trust evaporates and the differences between people, not their commonalities, become accentuated. This makes the poor more desperate and alienated and the rich more anxious and stressed. While Gilkey is not entitled to rare books, all of us as a society would arguably do better if people like Gilkey had more access to society's fruits.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Serendipities and Coffeepots

I had no sooner finished my last post, Coffee Party, part II, when I was meandering about the web (I never do "surf" it) and landed on a YouTube video of Michele Bachmann, tea partier extraordinaire, explaining that she became a Republican after reading Gore Vidal's novel Burr. Up until that point, she had been a Democrat, and her first trip to Washington, she said, was to attend Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball.

Who knew?

All that changed as she read Burr, which Wikipedia describes a "a [1973] historical novel challenging the traditional iconography of United States history via narrative and a fictional memoir of Aaron Burr."

According to Bachmann, she was offended that Burr "ridiculed the Founding Fathers."

This aligns exactly with what I discussed in the last blog: Tea Partiers have a vision that wants to pull the good from American history, and they are repelled by the seemingly endless negativity progressives appear to display toward that history, a negativity I believe most progressives understand as an attempt to articulate what the American experience was like to oppressed classes. But as I mentioned in the last post, to some extent it grows distasteful to many people.

Of course Bachmann is playing politics, but her Burr story rings true, and it seems clear in the video that she is heartfelt (or a very good actress) when she identifies her reaction to the book as a defining moment. Her distaste for its denigration of historical figures she "revered" led her to question her political allegiances, and she switched parties. The book's point of view clearly offended her at a deep level. It rings true to me that a visceral moment that shakes a person's deep held convictions would lead to the kind of change Bachmann describes.

That the book is fiction didn't matter. The aesthetic was offensive to her.

Wikipedia contends that the novel was meticulously researched and based on fact: "Vidal did meticulous research of hundreds of documents to come up with his alternative reading of history. In an afterword, the author maintains that in all but a few instances, the characters' actions and many of their words are based on actual historical records."

Bachmann doesn't argue that the book is inaccurate. She argues that it's vision was repugnant to her.

The question comes back to: Can the progressives create a vision that more people find compelling?

Coffee Party, part II

One of the reasons I don't pursue political action is that I never know what is going on. This is true. I'm usually happily oblivious to whatever the latest trend is.

But I stumbled onto the Coffee Party in my usual Mr. Magoo way, which was to think, hey, we need a coffee party. Ok, the world has been there and done that. A year ago. Well, I have been thinking about this for a year too. ... my tendency to mull makes me a much better scholar than political activist ... :)

I went to the Coffee Party website, which is connected with Movement for the People (or perhaps Movementforthepeople). I agree that we need a government that works, an end to misinformation and a reexamination of the Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited campaign spending. Corporations aren't individuals. I agree. But it doesn't say much. What is a government that "works?" What is "misinformation?" Tea Partiers also want a government that works and an end to misinformation. Do we need another group to stand for these abstractions?

I am thinking about coffee and coffeepots in a concrete, tactile way as symbols of a particular period in American culture in which the country pulled together and became a powerhouse while promoting equalitarianism. This is the period from the start of the New Deal to, let's say, the Arab oil embargo. What images from that period give us the "warm fuzzies?" What are the sensory images that conveys prosperity with decency, community and equality? I would argue the coffee pot (or cup) is a good starting point. People used to sit around the kitchen table and drink coffee and talk. People used to gather around the coffee pot at work and drink coffee and talk. What is more American that the coffee break? Does anyone have time for a coffee break anymore?

For 30 years now, people on the right have been imagining themselves in a better world--the world of McGuffey readers and Little House on the Prairie schoolhouses with desks all lined up in a row, the 3R's taught and nothing else, and they believe a bloated government has overcomplicated and corrupted us. This vision of simplicity and self-reliance powers the Tea Party movement on a visceral level, I would argue. (Obviously, I'm reducing a huge amount of complexity, but this is a blog.) Much as progressives would like to delude themselves that those "not-very-bright right wingers" are being brainwashed by a flood of corporate money, no--they're a grassroots movement that grew under the corporate radar, isn't stupid, is sincere and goodhearted and has a vision. I know this, because having traveled in Christian circles in the 1990s, I was plugged into it. The corporate world is now trying to ride this horse politically, having to some extent ridden it economically, and should be worried. I think they are worried.

But my point is that there's an aesthetic vision that drives the small town, small government, personal relationship and responsibility group, aka the Tea Party, and it is a vision with a concrete, tactile quality that harkens back, as Glenn Beck says, to the pre-1912, pre-income tax era. It may be an idealized picture and we may say, but, but ... pre-1912, look at the racism, look at sexism, look at lives broken by the "Panics," the exploitation of the immigrant, the 60-hour work week, but the point is, people are culling out the best from the past and using that as an ideal.

I think what some on the right hate about progressives is the tendency to always react to history with negativity. I think progressives are simply trying to right the balance and speak for the once voiceless, but that can get tiresome without an alternative.

So, while the period from 1932 to 1974 was fraught with severe problems: economic depression, war, a war economy, racism, sexism, pollution, corruption etc,, that should not deter us from finding the good. Every period is fraught with many bad somethings. But why not use the coffee cup or coffee pot as a symbol of what was admirable in that period? Good things happened. People shared sacrifice--just about a week ago, my mother-in-law showed me a ration card she'd saved from World War II. People endured rationing for the common good! Ordinary people owned nice but not oversized homes and bowled together and attended low cost colleges, and were able to find decent-paying, secure jobs ... these things did happen, if imperfectly. People paid higher taxes and prospered.

Well, I'm not a politician, and yet I think we can all agree that our country seems to be suffering and that we need to do something about it, which starts with a vision. More lives have been moved by the Peaceable Kingdom than the laws of Deuteronomy, at least imho. I think, too, especially at this cultural moment, we need to create a vision for the future by pulling from the past.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Coffee Party

I keep thinking that we need to start a Coffee Party, as a robust alternative to the Tea Party.

The Coffee Party would support a strong and growing middle class, deficit reduction, an adequately funded government ( is it not shameful that we are letting our infrastructure fall apart?), and most of all, especially, if we are going to return to a pre-World War II mindset, a significant reduction in our military presence around the world. As a Christian, I would want peace on earth and full, loving care for the poor, but I am trying here to be pragmatic.

What do you think? For those of us raised on stories of 1950s coffee clatches and for those of us who need that morning cup of coffee to get through the commute to the office, or who drink a cup of coffee while looking through the want ads--for those of us regular souls who simply want some assurances that the middle class will survive and grow to embrace the underclass, for those who want the dignity and equality that a cup of coffee represents, especially if it is the fair trade variety, how about the Coffee Party?

Coffee is a "can-do" drink. It's not about "we can't afford it, we can't, we won't, we have to shrink and get smaller and shrivel all up." It's about finding resources we didn't know we had, revving up our energy and making things happen that are good for everyone. It's just so American.

OK--I have to say it: a Coffee Party "would be good to the last drop."

What do you think?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Thirteen months a vegetarian

Shortly before Thanksgiving, 2009, I became a vegetarian. It was a step I had been thinking of for many years and I finally asked myself: What are you waiting for?

I have never been much of a carnivore, so giving up meat was not a huge sacrifice. (Giving up chocolate would be harder.) However, there were moments during the past year when I found myself fantasizing out of the blue about a tender roast chicken or a juicy hamburger or even a steak.

Overall, however, the relief of giving up a practice that was making me uncomfortable vastly outweighed any momentary pang of longing for a meat dish. I will continue as a vegetarian, with shrimp included now and again. (I recognize this is a process.) Veganism at this point doesn't seem realistic, as I think I might become crazy if I had to worry about whether there were eggs, dairy or bits of bone in my food. I would definitely have to take my own food everywhere, and I'm often unwilling or unable to engage in that level of planning.

But I wonder if I could give up chocolate? Now THAT would be hard.

Back to School/ the Feminine Divine

I am in Richmond for a two week intensive at ESR. I had a wonderful Christmas holiday and didn't want to leave Barnesville, but I no sooner arrived here than I was delighted to be back in my cozy little apartment with the old house smell. I am also very much looking forward to my class in conflict resolution.

I have completed a year of the Mdiv program, and so far it has exceeded expectations. It has been such a pleasure to be here. The classwork has kept me busy, and I have very much enjoyed the intellectual stimulation. As I have mentioned before, I love the balance between intellect and creativity that the school offers, not to mention the spiritual framework and the opportunity to do a writing as ministry emphasis.

There's almost too much to comment on from last semester. One of the highlights was the focus on reclaiming the female divine within what we (or I) tend to think of as the patriarchal "Father" God of the Bible. Of course, it would stand to reason that an omnipresent, all-knowing God would contain the female as well as the male, but we so often learn to think of YHWH as solely masculine that we can lose sight of the references in the Bible to the feminine attributes of the divine. Last semester, in both Hebrew class and Women in the Old Testament, we looked at explicitly female imagery used to describe Jehovah, such as womb, mother, breast, child bearer, or mother bear. It is easy to forget images of God giving birth or nursing the young. Also, as women are more than wombs and breasts, we wondered if images typically ascribed to men can also be female attributes--the warrior God could be female, for we saw in the Bible examples such as Deborah of women as military leaders, and the shepherd (ess) God could also be female, as women herded sheep in Biblical times. We found that in Jeremiah, women were condemned for worshiping the Queen of Heaven, but recast this to understand that perhaps a more overtly feminine side of Jehovah was once celebrated as a Queen, and that this side was later suppressed.

It made my heart leap to think of the Judeo-Christian God in inclusive ways that valued the feminine aspects of the godhead. As a Quaker, I appreciated how Biblical imagery, by being so inclusive, can support women's equality with men. I dearly wish we could talk about this more in the culture in general, as I believe many, especially women, turn away from what they (often rightly) perceive as the misogyny in Judaism and Christianity led by a judgmental man on a throne. And yet there is so much in the Bible that points to a richer and fuller God.