Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

How Much Time Do You Spend Consuming Pop Culture?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 24, 2017

In past centuries, living left little free time. Survival was all time-consuming. Twelve-hour workdays were the norm once. Few people had time for hobbies or pursuing pop culture. And if we weren’t working we were raising families or maintaining our little castles.

Times have changed. The work week keeps getting shorter. More people choose not to have kids or even marry. Some people spend as much time watching TV as working. And a lot more people are retired or unemployed. Probably, if you’re not depressed, strung out on drugs, or chasing someone to have sex with, you’re consuming popular culture with all that extra time.

Pop culture

How many hours a week do you spend reading, watching television, going to the movies, listening to music, binge-watching the internet, looking at comic books, going to museums, attending plays, or any other popular pursuit reported on by Entertainment Weekly? And what about video games? Or VR? Are they pop culture or something new?

Are the hours starting to add up? Is mass consumption of pop culture good or bad? I really don’t know. As a retired person I realize most of my time is occupied with pop culture pursuits. I’d like to think I’m consuming art, that I’m psychologically imbibing in the most creative cuisine our culture offers. Is that true? I also like to believe I’m learning about the past through consuming popular culture from other eras. For example, how well can I understand the 1920s from reading Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wharton, Joyce, Lawrence, and Hemingway, listening to old jazz, watching silent films, look at art, and reading history books?

Would the time I spend on consuming pop culture be better spent on hobbies? TV watching and going to the movies are a big part of my social outlet. Music and reading are solitary pursuits. Hobbies are generally solitary too. I could get up every day and do something more productive than consuming art and writing about it.

Most biological beings spend most of their time looking for food, mating, rearing their young, and avoiding being prey to other biological beings. Isn’t it rather fascinating that humans excrete art and consume it? We used to say humans were the only animals that made tools – until we discovered a whole bunch of other tool using species. Then we said humans were unique because we have language. Well, we discovered that wasn’t true either. More and more we’re finding examples where animals play, have friends, and show curiosity. But do other animals create art? What about the bowerbird?

Satin-Bower-Bird-Nest

Is art tools we make to stimulate our minds? Or is art external remembrances we make for shared memories? Pop culture is art for the masses. Art used to be unique, a one of a kind piece. Pop culture depends on mass producing artwork that we like to share. Pop culture feels more nourishing to my soul than air, water, and food, although I couldn’t survive without them, and I could survive without pop culture.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the word soul. The soul doesn’t exist. It was a creative fiction of religion. (And couldn’t religion be the first pop culture creation?) Even though science cannot find any evidence for the soul, and philosophers have refuted its existence, we all feel we have one. Science shows we are not minds and bodies, but just bodies that are biologically programmed to react to our environment. So what is pop culture?

Pop culture is something we add to reality. Of course, we rearrange atoms and molecules that already exist to create art, but there is something new there. Yesterday I read “All the Animals that Love Touchscreens” and learned another way humans are not unique. Pop culture is something that even animals might perceive.

Pop culture is mass-produced art. But that also means it is art that can be saved and preserved. Pop culture artifacts remember aspects of our collective souls. There’s that word again. Religion is wrong about immortal souls. Nothing lasts forever. Neither we, our culture or our art will survive forever.

If you spend several hours a day watching television you’re consuming pop culture. Is it just a way to kill time. To distract you from life? Or do you value pop culture as an artistic achievement?

JWH

Wanted: U.S. Genealogy Database with Photographs

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 1, 2017

Friday, I attended my Aunt Louise’s funeral. She was the last living aunt on my mother’s side, dying at 94. One thing I like about funerals is seeing the photographs family members bring to the funeral. My mother was one of five sisters, and all the cousins have photographs the other cousins don’t. Especially photos of our grandparents and great grandparents. Plus each aunt & uncle had pictures of nieces & nephews some cousins have never seen. After the funeral my cousin Reed called and asked me if I had any photographs of our grandfather holding a corn cob pipe. He had a memory of seeing such a picture, but didn’t know who owned it. I only had three photos of our grandfather in my digital collection, and none were with a pipe.

Littles
[My mother’s parents probably taken in the 1950s. I’ve lost count of all their descendants.]

This got me to thinking. There should be a national genealogy database where people can upload family photos. I inherited my mother’s family photos. I have no children. There’s a good chance if I died, my wife would just toss them out. I will try to give them to my nephew, or his daughters, but I’m not sure if young people want them. It would be a shame for such artifacts of history to disappear.

Imagine logging into the U.S. Genealogy Database at the Library of Congress (it doesn’t exist) and looking up your great grandparents. What if besides showing when they were born and died, the names and dates of their parents and children – it showed photographs and documents with annotations. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. I doubt there’s been more than 1-2 billion Americans to ever live. A big number, but not for computers. Photography didn’t exist for most of our country’s history, but for the part that did in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of those photos have already been lost. We should try to save what’s left, especially while the people live who can identify the subjects in the photos.

If everyone submitted photographs of people they can identify, soon we’d have a large enough database that an artificial intelligence could begin identifying unknown subjects. Historians could go to flea markets, buy a box of old photographs, upload them to the system, and in some cases, the AI could identify them. Wouldn’t that be far out?

What if you logged into the USGDB and searched on your parents and discovered their friends had submitted photographs with your folks in them you had never seen before. Wouldn’t that be cool too? What if everyone you ever went to school, dated, or worked with submitted photos that you were in, and the AI linked them to you? What if the AI found every class and school photo ever taken of you and your family. Just before my Aunt Louise died she identify three people in this photo. If my USGDB system existed, it might eventually identify everyone. [Double click for larger view.]

1927 photo_600dpi

Goodbye Aunt Louise. She’s the redhead posing with my mother Virginia. We will all miss you.

img321

JWH

How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading

history

My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.

JWH

An Old Guy Tries To Catch Up With Current Feminism

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 11, 2016

I got started reading books on feminism at the beginning of the 1970s when I was required to read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Growing up male in the 1960s and 1970s was difficult because the females we chased were transforming. They told us we didn’t understand what it meant to be a woman and we should read the books they were reading, even though they also told us we could never understand. Since then I’ve occasionally read books on feminism trying to keep up. As a male, talking or writing about feminism, can be dangerous, so I’ve mostly kept this reading secret. Decades ago the women I knew often talked about feminism, but I seldom hear the topic mentioned by the women I know today. During the 1970s feminism was talked about as much as we talk about climate change today.

I assumed in the 1970s, before the ERA amendment failed, that all women would become feminists. Understanding why that didn’t happen is fascinating, but exceedingly complex. Reading Backlash by Susan Faludi gives one view. Feminism as a movement fractured, and became less public. It never went away, but retreated to rebuild in many different smaller movements. Trying to define feminism today is contentious. Like President Obama, males can say they are feminists, but I’m not sure what women think of that, especially by younger women who are pushing newer feminist insights. We live in very different times from the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s. Try to keep up with feminism is nearly impossible for men, but I think it’s even harder for women.

53% of voters in 2012 were women. If women voted together they could rule the country. Why don’t they? I’ve always wondered why all women weren’t at least feminists politically. Well, that’s rather naïve of me. How women think politically is just as diverse as how men think. Men don’t agree, so why should women. In fact, women disagree bitterly over the goals of feminism, and even its definition. As a man, I’m an outsider and have to be very careful how I comment on feminism. I’m hesitant to even write this essay, but as a bookworm I feel I must promote the books I admire. Liberal men have the duty of educating ourselves about gender issues, but without trying to lead. Our active role is to learn and follow, which is hard for us. The current issues of gender equality goes well beyond the old binary view of men and women. It’s hard for me to understand because I’m out-of-date, but I don’t think it’s any easier for the young and hip, of any gender.

Since I’m a life-long liberal, I want to keep up with current liberal thought, but knowing what’s happening at the front is difficult. Even trying to understand the subject of current feminism is a minefield, because some women believe it’s an outdated concept, and other women define the term with distinctions that cause conflicts. One way to understand how feminism is evolving is look at the past and study how the concept has changed over time.

Since prehistoric times there have been women who have rebelled against cultural enslavement. They weren’t labeled feminists, but they were. American feminists now talk of first wave feminists and second wave feminists, but those are inexact labels, although useful. Before the first wave feminists organized in the 19th century to get the vote, there were feminists who campaigned for equal education for girls. Even today we can see societies around the world that still don’t believe in this. After equal education, women worked for political equal rights. Most countries accepted this idea in the early 20th century. Then in the 1960s women pressed hard for equal career opportunities. We’re getting very close to electing a woman U.S. President, so this goal appears ready to be checked off, but that’s illusory too. There’s still plenty of inequality in the workplace, but our times are very different from 1960. That brings up the first book I want to recommend.

When Everything Changed by Gail CollinsWomen’s rights have transformed American society far greater than computers and smartphones. I hadn’t realized that until I read When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. I doubt younger people will believe that, but I’m old enough to remember life before computers, and before women had jobs like they do today . Many women now ignore current feminist thinkers, believing they already have all the rights and opportunities they want. That is far from true, but to understand why requires studying how things used to be. If you think old typewriters and dial phones are archaic, just study people from the 1950s.

When women got the vote after 200,000 years of oppression, you’d think they’d vote en bloc until they got complete equal rights. Yet, the Equal Rights Amendment failed in the 1980s – and maybe because of one woman. 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. So why haven’t women elected a president? Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President in 1872. Why have so few run since? Why isn’t every American woman voting for Hilary Clinton?

The easy answer is people vote for what the candidate promises rather than the candidate. Clinton is not campaigning on women’s issues, nor are women’s rights an issue in 2016. Many women feel they have equality, at least in education, voting and jobs. The reason why equal rights haven’t dominated elections since 1920 is because some women want other changes in society more than equal rights.

I highly recommend When Everything Changed. It’s a fantastic overview of second wave feminists. Collins doesn’t preach, but chronicles what happened, case by case, where laws were changed and society adapted. The book profiles dozens of women who fought legal battles proving one person can make a difference.

Will gender even be an issue on November 8th? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. Electing Hilary Clinton could psychologically uplift women everywhere. Or has that time past? Most white Americans never understood what electing Obama meant to African-Americans, and people of color around the world. Maybe we won’t know the impact of a U. S. woman president until after it happens. On the other hand, maybe the changes made by the second wave feminists have already permeated society, and that’s why so many women don’t feel compelled to vote by gender.

Other Powers by Barbara GoldsmithIf Collins’ book explains the huge changes in our lifetime, what was the impact of the first wave of feminists? We need to constantly remind ourselves how we used to think. For this, I highly recommend Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith to understand the first-wave feminists in 19th century America. (Sadly, it’s out-of-print except as an ebook and audio book.)

Gail Collins, a New York Times writer, gives a reporter’s chronology of events in her book. Barbara Goldsmith takes a different approach, by writing a biography of Victoria Woodhull, a prostitute, madam, medium, free lover, con-woman and women’s right advocate who was able to run for president in 1872 on a technicality (long before women could vote). Woodhull is the sex that sells Goldsmith’s story, but the heart of this book is Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I’ve read other books and seen documentaries about Stanton and Anthony, but Other Powers presents these two pioneers holistically alive, in ways that moved me the most.

Other Powers presents 19th century America like no other American history book I’ve read. It’s neither academic or idealistic. When Everything Changed is moving because the facts are powerful. Other Powers is powerful because it’s passionate. Goldsmith showed how women fought for three causes, often in conflict with one another.  Women fighting for suffrage had to compete with women abolitionists fighting against slavery, and with women in the temperance movement, who fought alcohol to save the family. Goldsmith fills in her portrait of the past with competing religious movements, politics, money, graft, corruption, greed, and forgotten 19th century pop culture artifacts, like spiritualism. It’s both a history of women struggling for their rights, and a dynamic story of life in United States during the time of my great grandparents.

One reason Other Powers makes the 19th century pop out, is not by revealing how the past is different, which it was, but by showing how the past is very much like now. We think our times are over-the-top exciting, but wait till you read this book.The base qualities of our souls never change, but our souls do evolve with enlightened insights, discovered in every new generation.

I’m still left wondering about the goals of modern feminism. Third wave feminism got very complicated, and fourth wave feminism may or may not exist. In developed countries, among all liberals, and probably most conservatives, there’s almost universal agreement that women should have the same educational, political and career rights as men. Third wave feminists work to stop gender violence, rape, and misogyny, but that means changing men. Evidently modern men are open to women getting an education, voting or pursuing careers, but convincing them to think differently about women sexually is an apparent impossible task. Second wave feminists transformed our society, but I think the work of third wave feminists is ongoing. We might need to wait another thirty years for a book like Gail Collins to know. The first and second waves were tsunamis. I’m sensing the next wave will be even bigger, if it happens.

Sex-Object-by-Jessica-ValentiThere are two books I recently read to recommend for third wave feminism, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti and Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. Valenti’s book is a memoir and confessional. She uses her own life as a piece of performance art to dramatize her title. Orenstein is a journalist, taking a social science approach by interviewing over seventy high school and young college girls. Even though Valenti is from an older generation, her life fits in with the data Orenstein collects, and I found a synergy to reading them back to back. The difference is we get to see Valenti as a grown woman, and mother. Most reviewers focus on Valenti’s early story, where she deals with the worst kinds of males and misogyny. But I found her later story of becoming a mother more moving, and revealing. Valenti shows how hard it is to be a feminist, but she also writes about how much harder it is to be a woman and mother.

Both of these books describe the problem of objectification without offering solutions. When second wave feminists identified these problems in the 1970s and tried to offer solutions, it caused deep divisions among feminists. Those feminists were labeled radical, and were often hated.

None of the goals of third wave feminists have found much political traction. There are no planks with the Democrats’ agenda in 2016. I don’t even try to describe third wave goals because they’re too complex to understand without reading many books. These two books only deal with sex objectification, and that’s only one puzzle piece in a complex picture.

Girls and Sex by Peggy OrensteinThe more I try to understand feminism, the more I read why one word, feminism, can’t represent all women. The complexity of gender could eclipse all old ideas about feminism. Time and time again, I’ve read accounts by older feminists telling their daughters about why they should be feminists only to discover their daughters have other ambitions. They are already seeing a newer world. Both Valenti and Orenstein have daughters, and of course they desperately want a better world for them. We all do, but finding out how to achieve that is more difficult than passing laws, organizing politics or voting. It requires men to think differently. But it will also require women to think differently. And it’s not something we can even make into political correctness. I wonder if that’s why some fourth wave feminists think a spiritual component is required, because we all need to evolve into a higher awareness of a multiplex gender reality.

I am reminded of a favorite science fiction story, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. His young protagonist leaves a simple home world to explore a diverse galaxy and is told there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex and multiplex. With all the problems humans are facing today, it’s time we start multiplex thinking. You’ll have to read these books to understand what I mean, and then keep reading.

JWH

Information Overload and Getting Old

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I was cleaning out old magazines and stopped to read about Empress Theodora in The New York Review of Books. Evidently much of history about Theodora comes from ancient gossip, and a new book puts things right. The past is like today. Procopius, an ancient writer we use to remember Theodora, would have loved Twitter and shaming. Trying to get an accurate picture of Byzantine court life, politics and actual events is extremely difficult. Real history is information overload, and most of accepted history are Tweets.

information-overload

Here’s the thing, I’m suffering from a monstrous hangover caused by information overload. I want to know everything and can’t. I don’t know why read magazines anymore, especially ones like The New York Review of Books, where their essays are comprehensive, written by extreme experts, that make me think I’m completely uneducated. Reading one issue feels like I’ve learned more history than all I studied in K-12 schools. And it hurts. Often I can only read one essay before my head seems like a fission bomb reaching critical mass.

But if I stop trying to learn, living feels like killing time watching television while waiting to die. I can’t win either way. I’m starting to wonder if internet reading isn’t shorting out my neural pathways. Mostly I headline graze. There’s got to be some kind of happy median between Ph.D. scholar and Tweet view of every topic.

Generally when I feel this way, I return to science fiction, a cozy little artificial reality I discovered in my youth. I used to think the science fiction universe was small enough to comprehend, but in the last week, I’ve discovered inflationary events have expanded it well beyond my limits of observation. Now I understand why people dwell on highly focused specialties. Being a generalist is impossible. That also explains why the human race is too stupid to survive. Our brains are too tiny to comprehend even a vague model of larger reality. Our politicians think in sound bites because that’s the limit of their ability. We disagree with them because our 140 character capacity sees the same reality differently.

Part of my overload agony comes from growing older and sensing my brain slowing down. I hate giving up on keeping up. Yet, I also realize to survive aging I must jettison what I can’t mentally carry. I have to discover a practical diet of information consumption. I need Marie Kondo to declutter my mind. And I need to stop beating myself up because I can’t lift knowledge I once easily pressed.

Dirty Harry revealed exquisite wisdom when he said, “A man must know his limitations.”

Since I’m retired I assume I have all the time in the world, so I should be able to keep up. But it doesn’t work that way. Every new fact requires time to digest. If I don’t think about what I’m learning I forget it immediately. And even when I do contemplate new insights, it appears my brain is erasing something old to squeeze in something new. I not getting ahead anymore. Reading an essay from The New York Review of Books gives the illusion I’m learning something significant, but it’s going to be gone after I go to sleep tonight. I hate that. I truly hate that. I’m living in The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

Currently, I can comfortably manage one book, one audiobook and two or three documentaries a week. I just can’t make myself finish magazine articles anymore, or even read longer news reports on the web. I graze web pages. I’m not sure if internet reading is good for me. I’ve learned it’s better to spend my mental energy on fewer topics. I waste too much time chasing too many subjects. Web surfing is a very pleasant diversion, letting me think that I’m keeping up with the world, but I’m fooling myself to believe I’m actually learning anything.

JWH

Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH