From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the PresentFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished reading this today, but I wish I had stopped about a hundred pages before the end. The first 700 pages have a historian’s distance and breadth and I found the chapters on the 1500s and 1600s especially fascinating. There was a heavy Western European slant, but that’s right in the subtitle and I was expecting that. What I wasn’t expecting was that the history of the years between 1945 and 1995 read like a curmudgeon’s “oh, these kids today” rant with a very narrow focus on the concerns and conflicts in late-20th-century American academia. If the book had ended when Jacques Barzun was a young boy in France listening to the German guns at the beginning of World War I, I would have had no problem giving this book five stars. The last hundred pages not only distract from those early pages, but they put some of the value judgments in those earlier pages in doubt.

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The Discontent over “Content”

Here’s the sentence of the day:

“…I don’t think we need to start speaking dystopian language before the apocalypse happens.”

It comes from this article by Benjamin Hart in Salon this afternoon: ” ‘Breaking Bad’ isn’t ‘content!’: ‘Original content,’ ‘quality content’ — this terrible word is the defining noun of our scattered media moment.”

Is “content” in this context anyone else’s pet linguistic peeve? I can remember thinking “word processing” was as bad as it got, but at least then we still recognized the fact that we were dealing with words.

TRIGGER WARNING: Survivors of Zeppelin Crashes Should Avoid My Book

Really, I’m not kidding! This is an official TRIGGER WARNING from the author!

If you have been a personal victim of anti-Nazi terrorism, traumatized by too many YouTube videos of the burning Hindenburg, or been otherwise affected by deeply contemplating the tragic cover image on Led Zeppelin’s first album while high, then the novel Fire Answers Fire could conceivably trigger something or other. Don’t buy or read my novel. Or maybe the decade of the 1930s or New York City or questions of suicide or ubiquitous radio waves or  family secrets trigger feelings of … well, feelings of something. Really, who would want to read anything that might trigger something?

As ridiculous and embarrassing as this whole new warning fad is at the university level, does anyone else get the feeling that bright red TRIGGER WARNING labels on books could be as effective a marketing tool for literature as ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers on CDs that use the word ‘fuck’ were for the music industry and ‘NSFW’ labels are for websites that feature celebrity wardrobe malfunctions? It’s certainly worth a try.

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The reason every book about Africa has the same cover—and it’s not pretty

R.D. Mumma:

But it makes it easy to color coordinate one’s bookshelves.

Originally posted on Quartz:

Last week, Africa Is a Country, a blog that documents and skewers Western misconceptions of Africa, ran a fascinating story about book design. It posted a collage of 36 covers of books that were either set in Africa or written by African writers. The texts of the books were as diverse as the geography they covered: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique. They were written in wildly divergent styles, by writers that included several Nobel Prize winners. Yet all of books’ covers featured an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both.

In short,” the post said, “the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”

BnCiZTvIQAAUIaWImage by Simon Stevens

What makes the persistence of these tired and inaccurate images even worse is that we’re living in an era of brilliant book design (including this lovely, type-only cover for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; her novel Half…

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Reading Thoreau Again

WaldenWalden by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that repays rereading, especially if it has been more than 40 years between readings.
Of course there are a thousand memorable and very quotable lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”; “…beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”; “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them”; and, finally, “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” When I read Walden in high school, I’m sure I concentrated on finding these veins of gold among what I perceived to be dross, but there are some beautifully written and very closely observed nature studies throughout the book. The detailed descriptions of pond ice in all its variations are priceless. I enjoyed taking my time this time and reading this classic at the slow pace it deserves.

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Pynchon In Public Day 2014

I’m in the middle of reading Walden on my Kindle and at the beginning of rGravitys Rainboweading Adam Begley’s Updike in hardcover, but tomorrow is May 8, which is — as everyone knows – Pynchon in Public Day, so I’ll also be carrying a portable mass-market Bantam edition of Gravity’s Rainbow that’s been read a number of times and which has its spine reinforced with tape. Once I start digging into one of my favorite books on the train tomorrow, I may soon have three books in progress.

On the second leaf of this edition before the title page is an excerpt of a San Francisco Examiner review from Geoffrey Wolff that has always stayed with me: “Forests have gone to the blade to make paper for this novel. Don’t mourn the trees; read the book.” As a fan of Thomas Pynchon and of trees, that line has haunted me since the 1970s when I picked up my first copy of this novel.

Gravitys Rainbow Review

I never doubted the use of trees to produce his book, but now with my own new novel published this month, I don’t need to even worry about making that choice. So far it’s only available in electronic versions.

A Soundtrack for Chapter 9

Last month I suggested a soundtrack for Chapter 2. Today, May 6, 2014 is the 77th anniversary of the burning of the Hindenburg over Lakehurst, New Jersey, so here’s a musical suggestion for Chapter 9 of Fire Answers Fire, “Under the Falling Sky,” the section of the novel during which that key event takes place.

This video is a live performance of Steve Reich’s Hindenburg, Act I from Three Tales:

This amateur video of a live performance in Novosibirsk jumps from the screen showing Beryl Korot’s video to the small orchestra to the Russian audience, but it may drive some of you to check out the 2003 CD/DVD version for the clean audio and video of this Hindenburg section of Three Tales as well as Acts II and III, Bikini (the atoll) and Dolly (the cloned sheep).

(Oh, and if you’re reading this on May 6, check out the Coupon tab up above for a special Hindenburg-day $0.99 coupon.)