Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

What I’m Learning From Thinning Out My Books

by James Wallace Harris, 9/22/22

I want a new stereo system for my bedroom. A higher fidelity one than what I described in “To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?” That was written back in July, well before I had my hernia surgery on August 29th. I used researching stereo equipment to avoid thinking about surgery before my operation and to ignore my physical discomforts afterward. I have a long history of using unpleasant experiences as justifications for buying myself new toys.

Two things have stopped me from ordering my new stereo equipment. First, my release instructions warned me not to pick up anything over five pounds while I recovered. Second, I have no room to set up new equipment. Making room will involve getting rid of stuff and rearranging furniture, all weighing over five pounds. So while lying around with pillows on my lap to protect my swollen private parts from cats, I’ve been mentally analyzing the best way to free up the most wall space while requiring the least weight lifting.

After much grinding of my mental gears, I’ve concluded the easiest solution is to get rid of two bookcases worth of books. My bedroom has four bookcases of books. For twenty years before I quit working I stashed away books for my retirement years. Well, I squirreled away too many. Way too many. And in the decade since I’ve had all my time free, I’ve learned that most of the approximately 500 books I’ve read over the last ten years were bought after I retired.

I’ve been trying to thin out my collection for decades. But whenever I try to pull volumes to give to the Friends of the Library I start reading and think, “Oh man, I’ll read this someday. This one is too good to give up.” I just can’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice because every book I hold sparks joy.

It’s either give up books or forget about that new stereo. Ouch! I’ve spent four hours this morning going through half a bookcase. With much agonizing, I’ve found 23 books to discard. That’s about one shelf of books. I need to clear off eleven more shelves.

This is so painful. But what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger – right? What I’m learning is each book is a little world of knowledge that I wanted to incorporate into my soul. And to decide not to read a book means deciding that’s an area of knowledge I’ll remain ignorant of.

By the way, did I tell you that all these books are nonfiction? I’m not ready to thin out my science fiction collection. That’s revealing too.

Some of the books I’m discarding I’ve decided would be better on audio anyway. I’m opening each book up and reading from it randomly. I realize that some books, particularly certain kinds of history books, I’d rather listen to than reading. I can get rid of those (unless I’d want to keep them for reference). Examples are Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

However, I’ve discovered another type of book I can part with, but the reason why disturbs and depresses me. I’m finding some books I thought I could read when I was younger are probably too difficult for my older mind or would require a level of concentration that I no longer possess. A good example is Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Her intellectual analyses are ones I’m no longer capable of handling, and maybe never was.

The final type represents an acceptance of resignation. I’m just not going to live long enough to get around to some books. These are the books I feel would be the last in line. I’d love to read Complete Collected Essays by V. S. Pritchett or Harlan Ellison’s Watching because I admire their commentary on pop culture’s past. But I have to decide what’s really worth learning in my fading years of life.

Another funny kind of realization is I’m torn between preserving my precious reading time for what’s relevant to the existential needs of my remaining years and books that offer the purest delightful fun. Two examples of what I’m keeping are Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes and Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles.

I know without a doubt I could give away all the books in all four bookcases and not really miss them. My eyes now prefer reading ebooks and I have over a thousand of them waiting to be read. I also have over a thousand audiobooks hidden away in the cloud. And I have six bookcases of physical books in my computer room. Yet, I just hate to part with physical books. I’ve thought about putting bookcases in other rooms of the house, but that would be unfair to Susan. She’s already bitching about how many books she’ll have to get rid of if I die before her.

With every book I hold to decide its fate, I mentally go through a gauntlet of emotions and thoughts. I should make a daily meditation of routinely going through my library. With each book, just reading a few paragraphs here and there inspires several ideas for blog essays.

JWH

Reading With My Eyes and Ears At The Same Time

by James Wallace Harris, 8/26/22

I’ve recently learned why it’s best to read with my eyes and ears concurrently.

When I joined Audible.com in 2002 it changed my reading life in several ways. First, it made me discover several things about my reading abilities. I always thought I was a great reader. I thought that because I was a bookworm. Listening showed me that was a delusion. I was really skimming books because I was reading too fast. Listening revealed that my inner reading voice was crappy at best. Listening made it all too obvious that there were nuances to fiction and nonfiction that I was completely missing.

When you listen to a professional narrator read a book you often get to experience the book at its best. Usually, the words are pronounced correctly, and the dialog comes across naturally, at a speed at which you’d hear it in real life. This enhances the dramatic effects of fiction, but it also has a cognitive impact on nonfiction.

I suppose good readers do all this in their heads, but I didn’t. I read to find out what happens. I did not savor the words or the writing. As a reader growing up I conditioned myself to read books with fast action prose. Either for fiction or nonfiction. I mainly stuck to science fiction and popular science books.

When I started listening I quickly learned I could handle other kinds of prose – especially longer, and denser books. For example, I listened to Moby Dick, not an easy novel. Listening opened up the 19th century to me. I never had the patience for old classics, but once I started listening I got into Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Elliot, and even Henry James. I also got into all kinds of nonfiction, including dry academic works, because hearing made them more interesting and accessible.

Over time listening helped me to read better with my eyes. Listening taught me to read slowly, and that made a big difference. I would switch back and forth depending on what format was the cheapest to buy.

However, there are still books I couldn’t get into – like Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherry. Her dense prose makes my eyes glaze over when I try to read that novel, and my ears tune out when listening. Because it’s one of a handful of novels I haven’t read on the Classics of Science Fiction list, I’ve been pushing myself to finish it. And I’ve learned a trick that will help me.

I can only listen to books if I’m doing something else, like walking, doing the dishes, eating, exercising, etc. I had to give up walking, and because of my back problems, I’ve been exercising less. That’s cut into my listening time. If I try to listen while just sitting I fall asleep.

However, I’ve found a trick to beat that. I listen to an audiobook while reading the book with my eyes. Not only do I stay awake, but I retain what I read better. That’s always been one of the drawbacks of listening to books. I don’t retain them as well when I read with my ears. I don’t get into them as well when I read with my eyes.

When I read with my eyes and ears at the same time I get into the most and retain the most. And it turns out, it lets me read some books like Downbelow Station that I previously couldn’t read with just my eyes or just my ears.

Isn’t that weird?

The trick is to follow along with the words as I hear them – and don’t let myself get distracted.

I listened to Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World and The History of the Medieval World but started listening and reading The History of the Renaissance World. I’m getting so much more out of this dual-reading method, especially retention, that I’m thinking about rereading the first two volumes with the new method.

There is a major drawback to dual reading – cost. I do subscribe to Scribd.com and they sometimes have both the ebook and the audiobook. They had the recent biography on Buckminister Fuller that I listened to on audiobook so I just had to buy the Kindle edition. With Downbelow Station I had the paperback I’ve been meaning to read for years, and I’ve had the audiobook I’ve been meaning to listen to for years. And sometimes Amazon will give you a deal on the audiobook if you buy the Kindle edition first. Sometimes I get the Kindle on sale for $1.99 from Bookbub announcements and then buy the audiobook. Or I buy a used copy of the book or get it from the library.

I’m not going to read every book with my eyes and ears. But for books that I want to study, or total grok, or can’t get into, I will try the dual reading method.

JWH

What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

JWH

To Go, or Not to Go — To the Bookstore?

by James Wallace Harris, 7/21/22

Each morning before I get out of bed I plan to do something with my day. It’s never very ambitious because of health problems, lack of discipline, and laziness. And things seldom go according to plan. Today I decided to donate ten books to the library bookstore. That impulse came from getting a new toy. I feel like Jerry Pournelle in his old columns for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor.” In those columns, Jerry would get a new computer which would cause a cascading series of problems. I got a new little tube amp, a cheap one, to set up a better stereo system in my bedroom. That single act has caused a domino-falling cascade of problems to fix.

The only place I have to put a stereo in my bedroom is on top of two bookcases. That’s okay if I don’t care about sound quality, but this new little tube amp sounds great — if the speakers are at ear level — but sounds like crap next to the ceiling. For me to solve this problem, will require moving two Ikea Billy bookcases and replacing them with a piece of furniture 72 inches wide and roughly 24-30 inches high.

“Ah-ha!” you might be thinking. “He’s finally getting to the part about going to the bookstore.”

Well, not quite. This is going to be a long story about getting old and how my aging mind and body affect my decision-making at seventy.

The quick and easy solution to my problem was to go into the dining room which we’ve converted into a gym and take the TV credenza and put it in the bedroom in front of the bookcases. That left the TV on the floor for now, but I had to give up exercising when my back went out a few weeks ago, so I can worry about it later. Since I’ve become semi-invalid the easiest solutions are the ones that work with the least effort.

If Susan and I had had the foresight to have children we could have gotten them to move the bookcases into the dining room, left the TV on the credenza, and then sent those kids to Ikea to get a cabinet for the stereo. Unfortunately, back in the early 1980s, we didn’t anticipate this need.

My back has gotten somewhat better. I can do a little lifting. I don’t want to do too much because I might screw it up again. I figured I could unload a shelf or two each day in stacks on the floor. There are two cases with six shelves each. You do the math. I could put slides under the cases and push them into the dining room, and then reverse the process of loading them back up. Ikea also offers delivery and assembly for a fee. Thus, without offspring, and if I’m patient, I can get the job done in a week or two depending if Ikea can deliver that quickly.

But is this the best long-term solution? Susan has long complained that she doesn’t want to deal with all my books after I depart this world — whenever that might be. I keep telling her she can just call Salvation Army or a book buyer, but maybe all those books are my responsibility?

This morning I decided I would start going through my books and weed out enough to empty two bookcases. I figured I could carry ten or twelve books to the library bookstore each week and eventually, I’ll donate two bookcases worth of books. So after doing my spinal stenosis physical therapy exercises I pulled the first book off the shelf I thought might be the first of ten I would part with today. It was The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan.

I opened it up to a random page and started reading. Whoops. There went my plan. Maeve wrote lovely little essays about living in New York City for The New Yorker. The first one I read was about seeing a young woman collapse on the street outside her restaurant window. The next was about an evening walk to see a farmhouse that had been moved from downtown to Greenwich Village. I bought this book after seeing a documentary, I think on HBO, about another writer who met Brennan before she died. That writer had discovered Maeve on the street after she had become homeless. I’d like to see that documentary again, but I can’t remember its title.

I’m afraid every book I pulled off the shelf had a story behind it, one that made me want to keep it. I have more books than I could read in another dozen lifetimes. It might take me years to find and decide which books I could give away that would free up two bookcases full of books.

That left me so despondent that I went to the library bookstore and bought five more books.

JWH

p.s.

The other night Janis and I were jabbering on the phone about all the hoarders we know. We felt horror at what has befallen our friends. Now I need to worry if that affliction needs to be added to my recognized list of afflictions.

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