Aug 31, 2007

A Pack of Dogs

We have been foster parents with a group called Planned Pethood for some time now, and we received calls twice this week for dogs. Pictured are the five dogs who will be inhabiting our house for at least the next few days, and for one very brief moment in time they stood still for a group picture.

Temporarily joining our household are Chachi, who is the white dog at twelve o'clock, and Percy, the rust-colored dachshund to Chachi's left. Chachi was abandoned by a breeder, while Percy was a lost dog who was picked up by the Fulton County dog warden.

Both dogs are well-behaved, good-tempered companions who are looking for a good home. We will be bringing them to the Planned Pethood Adoptathon tomorrow, which will take place at the Rossford PetSmart: 27161 Crossroads Parkway.

For more information on adopting rescue dogs, see the Planned Pethood website.

On Episodic Memory and Empty Spaces

A friend from long ago contacted me today, having located me through this website. In the course of our emails my friend brought up a philosophical discussion that occurred some twenty-plus years ago.

The topic was Bobby Sands, the IRA activist who died in a 1981 hunger strike. My friend recounted the debate in which we once engaged, specifically referring to a political science professor I quoted as making the argument that "only extreme suffering can justify suicide."

Unfortunately, I can remember none of what must have been a lively debate. There is an empty space where this episodic memory ought to be stored.

Now, I might chalk this incident up as evidence of my own latent senilty were it not for the fact that a similar incident occurred with another friend, only I was the person in possession of the clear memory.

We were sitting around one day listening to music and engaging in spirited discussion over bands that contributed to the genre of swamp rock. I scoffed when my friend suggested The Hollies on the basis of the song "Long Cool Woman."

Several decades went by, and I heard the song on the radio a few years back. As I listened, I recalled the 1985 swamp rock debate, and sure enough I heard the song in a new light. While The Hollies themselves might not have been swamp rockers, "Long Cool Woman" was clearly a song that could be tagged as swamp rock.

My friend, however, was completely oblivious to such a debate.

Thus, I am musing about the exact determinants to what gets saved and what gets chucked in the human memory. Neither of these anecdotes was particularly life-changing, or even noteworthy, yet in each case one participant remembered the event clearly, while the memory of the event had long since been discarded by the other party.

Why should my brain retain a clear memory of some youthful conversation about swamp rock, while at the same time being seemingly incapable of recalling a similar debate about Bobby Sands? Better still, where did I put my car keys?


Aug 30, 2007

Department of Legal-but-Stupid

Left: Might be legal, but it sure ain't bright

You get ready to make a left turn at a stop light, and there is a car ahead of you with its left turn signal on. Both of you begin your turn, and then SCREECH! The idiot in front of you hits the brakes and decides to make an immediate right turn into a gas station or convenience store.

This happens far too often for my liking, and I put forth the proposition that such vehicular stooges are self-absorbed, Neanderthalic twits who cause quite a few preventable accidents with their impulsivity and lack of awareness of traffic flow.

And invariably there is a second or third driveway to the business that suddenly catches our subject's attention. The likelihood of a rearend collision would be significantly reduced if these dweebs would simply put on a right turn signal and use the next entrance.

But these nitwits drive around unaware of their fellow motorists, often with a cellular phone glued to their heads, seemingly itching for an accident with their oblivious manner. And the worst part? The person who will eventually smite one of these passive-aggressive dolts will probably be the recipient of the failure-to-yield ticket in such an accident.

Book Review: The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808

The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move by A.J.R. Russell-WoodRussell-Wood, A.J.R.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 290 pages

Russell-Wood is the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in pre-Columbian and colonial Latin America and the Portuguese seaborne empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 reflects the author’s desire to create a synthesis of the history of Portugal’s imperial rise and decline that captures the global nature of the Lusophonic empire, avoiding the historiographical tendency to examine narrow geographical segments or short temporal pieces of an empire that at one time nearly circled the planet. The book’s subtitle - "A World on the Move" - illustrates a theme that Russell-Wood skillfully weaves throughout the text, as the Portuguese seaborne empire was indeed a world in which people, merchandise, conveyances, flora, fauna, and cultures moved across oceans and - through the process of exchange – created new structures in their wakes.

One of the problems historians face in explaining the unparalleled success of Portugal as an early modern imperial power lies in the fact that the population of the Iberian nation was only about one million people by the end of the fifteenth century. Russell-Wood argued that a number of factors explain this meteoric rise, and chief among these was the ability of the Portuguese to identify “strategic and key points” in commerce and geopolitics that coincided with imperial interests. In addition, argued the author, the Portuguese exhibited a knack for determining the precise military strength needed for a particular engagement, rarely finding themselves overstaffed or undermanned for a battle. Finally, Russell-Wood maintained that the success of the Portuguese as imperialists owed much to their ability to readily adapt to the needs of a given commercial or military situation; Portuguese officials might opt for outright territorial possession, or they might instead settle for alternatives such as forts, feitorias (merchant warehouses), or strategic alliances in lieu of acquiring extensive territorial holdings.

Map of the Portuguese empire at its heightLeft: Map of the Portuguese empire at its height (click for larger image)

Rather than a chronological approach to the topic, Russell-Wood chose to develop thematic chapters that focus on specific topics in the history of the Portuguese empire. A chapter on transportation illustrates how the Portuguese were able to develop innovative, hybrid ship designs that combined European and Arabic features in vessels like the nau and the caravel. Russell-Wood composed a lengthy chapter that described the wide range of people who left Portugal to serve the empire – including migrants, settlers, Crown officials, soldiers, missionaries, and traders – as well as the reciprocal “reflux” of indigenous peoples emigrating to Portugal. This two-way exchange of peoples, noted Russell-Wood, also led to the exchange of diseases between continents, and the arrival of Eurasian diseases in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa were matched by the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and yaws among Europeans. Moreover, argued the author, the mutual exchange of goods, plants, animals, and ideas changed the Portuguese as well as their imperial subjects, allies, and enemies. Whether they landed in “Africa, India, or Brazil,” argued Russell-Wood, “the Portuguese put an indelible urban imprint on those places they settled.”

Scholars, the learned general public, and non-specialist historians will find Russell-Wood’s work to be a thorough overview of imperial Portugal. Accompanying the text are several sections of paintings and photographs that provide readers with visual representations of the textual analysis. The author provided detailed – though somewhat limited - endnotes, as well as a 21-page bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a six-page chronology, and a number of useful maps to help readers unfamiliar with the history of the Portuguese empire. The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 could best be described, though, as an essential starting point for understanding the rise of the Portuguese as an imperial power, as well as a text that helps explain the period in which Europeans became dominant players in globalization.

Aug 29, 2007

Molecules with Bizarre Names

Left: chemical structure of munchnones

For those of you with waaaaaay too much time on your hands, I came across a website that collects and describes molecules with silly or unusual names.

On this site you can learn about such compounds as arsole, bastardane, and cummingtonite.

I am not sure, though, that simply knowing the chemistry behind these compounds will prevent teachers, bosses, or spouses from being offended by your use of these terms.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Don't gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don't go up, don't buy it. -- Will Rogers

Aug 28, 2007

On Home Sales, Consumer Confidence, and the Credit Crunch

News that U.S. home prices fell 3.2 percent in the second quarter of 2007 - the steepest rate of decline in the nationwide housing index since 1987 - could not have arrived at a worse time for the American economy. Coupled with record foreclosures, a tightening of the credit market, and worries over the continued viability of major credit lenders, the plummeting housing market could be the bellwether of even worse economic conditions to unfold in the U.S.

Add to this the report just out showing that consumer confidence fell in July to its lowest level in a year, and you have all the markings of a recession in the making. Even worse, July 2007 home sales were down 9% from July 2006, suggesting that the fallout from the credit crunch is starting to take a deep toll.

Historically a decline in new home sales has been associated with a coming recession. This was the case in the 12 months prior to the start of the 1991 recession, and it does not take an Ivy League economist to figure out that people will cut back on their largest purchases - especially a new home - when they sense that economic conditions are deteriorating. While July 2007 showed a slight increase in new home sales, the trend over the past year has been sharply downward.

Left: New home sales, 1989-1991

My wife and I are fortunate in that we refinanced our mortgage at a favorable fixed rate last year, and that we should have enough of a cushion in equity should prices continue to fall. Many over-leveraged borrowers are getting in trouble when the value of their house drops, which triggers lenders to call in mortgages that exceed established debt ratios.

Other borrowers, of course, have used attractive rates and low-fee offers to refinance their homes while continuing to spend beyond their means. These folks will likely contribute to escalating rates of bankruptcy filings in the coming years. Business and consumer bankruptcy filings are up almost 50 percent over comparable periods in 2006, and show no signs of lessening.

For those of you with high debt loads: this is the time to get a second (or third) job, start paying down debt, and cutting your expenses. I see too many friends and acquaintances running up credit card debt, buying flashy new cars, and pursuing the acquisition of expensive consumer goods like Skagen watches through variable rate charge accounts.

Despite the fact that my income has dropped in the last few years after I took the graduate student vow of poverty several years ago, our efforts to eliminate consumer debt have paid off. We now have little debt beyond our mortgage and some student loans - no car loans, no credit card balances, and no outstanding balances. Life is much easier when you can miss a few paychecks and not have to worry about the imminent collapse of a financial house of cards.

Aug 27, 2007

Profit, Providence, and Politics: Explanations for the Rise of European Imperialism

American cartoon (1888) depicting John Bull (England) as the American cartoon (1888) depicting John Bull (England) as the "octopus of imperialism;" click for larger image

Traditional Explanations for Imperialism

The traditional historiography of colonialism and imperialism focused on providential and Euro-supremacist explanations for European hegemony, and it was largely centered on noteworthy Europeans and military exploits. Traditional historians believed imperialism to be a divinely-inspired mission for Europeans to bring technology, Christianity, capitalism, and European political systems to foreign lands. In short, the traditional historiography tended to support European beliefs in the need to bring civilization to peoples considered inferior by Europeans. Typical of the Victorian-era historians who upheld these ideals was Richard S. Whiteway.

Whiteway was a British citizen who entered the Bengal Civil Service in 1866, after graduating from the University of London. He served in a variety of roles in the northwest Indian provinces, from tax collector to magistrate. He retired in 1893 and began to write, completing this work in 1899. His decades in India provided him the opportunity to understand the subcontinent by experiencing it first-hand. His 1899 book The Rise of Portuguese Power in India 1497-1550 contained rhetoric typical of the Eurocentric cultural superiority that passed for historical writing in the 19th century. Whiteway wrote at the height of British imperialism, when the Empire spanned the globe and colonized every continent. He managed to disparage and stereotype, in a proper British fashion, nearly every group that he mentions in the text. One can almost envision Whiteway sitting in a velvet-covered wingback chair, sipping a glass of 40-year vintage port, and twirling his waxed moustache as he intones in a pompous voice not unlike that of the late Winston Churchill:

Arabs: “They had a large admixture of Semitic blood in their veins, and had at least one peculiarity of that race very strongly marked- they were not producers, but traders.”
Africans: “On the African Coast, [the Arabs] had to deal with savages with no fixed form of government…an invading horde of negroes would at times sweep away their settlement.” “On the African coast the natives were mere savages…”
Catholics: “In an age, however, in which the spiritual head of the Christian Church, the Pope himself, was in treaty with the Sultan of Turkey…could not have been one in which religious aims took a very prominent position.”
Non-aristocracy as leaders: “There is nothing to show that the waste of such a body [non-elite civil servant] in an adventurous career could be made good from a lower stratum of the people.”
Portuguese: “Whatever the Portuguese were in Europe, once in the East there was nothing to improve their character or soften their defects... Among the causes [of Portuguese decline in Asia] partly moral, was the deterioration of the Portuguese race caused by intermarriage with native races. From this intermarriage… a loss of vigour and a loss of prestige."
Multiracial peoples: "This mixed breed [Portuguese and subcontinental Indians] the result of these unions, never invigorated by contact with the sterner race, some of whose blood was in its veins, approximated more and more to the type of the country where it originated. That it should have been unable to hold its own with hardier races is quite consonant with experience."
Thus, to historians of Whiteway’s ilk, the admonition by Kipling to “take up the white man’s burden” was the highest honor that elite Europeans could undertake. Langer argued that the literature of adventure itself was a driving force in the rise of the high imperialism, and he noted that books “on the accomplishments of British rule in the far corners of the earth rivaled stories of adventure and war in popularity.” The “cult of the sea,” as Langer termed this urge, was a primary force in the development of modern forms of imperialism.

Map detailing European partitioning of AfricaLeft: Map detailing European partitioning of Africa; click for larger image

Economic Interpretations of European Imperialism

The first challenges to the orthodox Eurocentrism of Victorian-era imperialism apologists came from historians and economists influenced by Karl Marx. J.A. Hobson, in his landmark 1902 book Imperialism, argued that “the modern foreign policy of Great Britain has been primarily a struggle for profitable markets of investment.” This foreign investment, according to Hobson, benefited a select wealthy few in British society, and this elite class used its power to influence foreign policy so as to maintain the influx of profits from abroad. Any altruistic justifications for imperialism, argued Hobson, should not be recognized as anything other than primarily self-serving, for businessmen “are primarily engaged in business, and they are not unaware of the utility of the more unselfish forces in serving their ends.”

Hobson’s "Little Englander" approach seemed to spark a new generation of thinkers who saw fit to dissect the modern forms of European imperialism that spread across the globe in the late 19th century. One of the theorists who joined this vanguard was Lenin, who expanded on the writings of Marx, especially Das Kapital. Lenin argued that imperialism was the manifestation of capitalism in its highest form, and that the unique feature of imperialism – as contrasted with other capitalist systems – was that it took advantage of “the export of capital.” Thus, by expanding the sphere of influence, the financial elite were able to control larger and larger portions of the globe.

One of Lenin’s most blistering critiques involved the financial elites, which he characterized as the “stratum of rentiers…who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness.” He noted the irony that the nation (at the time) richest in capital – Britain – also exhibited signs of decay. Imperialism, according to Lenin, exacerbated the contradictions of capitalism, and represented the dying gasps of an obsolete organization. Lenin’s intense focus on economic forces to explain European imperialism, while groundbreaking, is unfortunately an exercise in tunnel vision, as the work ignores social, political, and sociological aspects of European hegemony.

Left: Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein argued that there were four different categories to describe a region’s relative position in the emerging transnational world economy: core, semi-periphery, periphery and external. These categories also described particular characteristics within the region itself, particularly as they related to labor. Wallerstein’s work is broader in scope than that of Marx and Lenin, although he is usually categorized in the Neo-Marxist camp.

Wallerstein developed the category of “the core” to describe the regions that most profited from the rise of capitalism; the first core, according to the author, consisted of England, France, and Holland. These states developed strong central governments, bureaucratic machinery, and mercenary armies with which to exert control over their interests. The switch from feudal obligations to money rents in the aftermath of the feudal crisis encouraged the rise of yeoman farmers, but forced many other peasants off the land. With few rural opportunities, these impoverished peasants often moved to urban areas, which provided a ready source of inexpensive labor necessary for the growth of manufacturing.

Wallerstein envisioned the category of “periphery” to describe regions that lacked strong central governments (or were controlled by imperial states), exported raw materials to the core, purchased manufactured products from the core, and relied on coercive practices for their labor needs. Wallerstein argued that Eastern Europe and Latin America fell into the earliest manifestation of periphery in early modern Europe.

Labor systems in peripheral areas differed from earlier modes in feudal Europe because they were established to produce goods for a capitalist world economy and not merely for internal consumption. In addition, the peripheral aristocracy grew wealthy from their relationship with the world economy, and could draw on the strength of the central core region to keep the population under control. The term “semi-periphery” described regions that, according to Wallerstein, were either in decline from or ascension to the core. Wallerstein argued that these regions served as buffer zones between the core and the periphery.

Wallerstein postulated that Spain and Portugal were examples of declining core states, since they lost their position of preeminence during the sixteenth century. These states, while participating in the emerging world economy, nonetheless did not benefit as much as core states from capitalism. Finally, “external” states - such as Russia and Japan - were those nations that did not directly participate in the emerging world economy.

Wallerstein ignored the role of individuals to effect the directions in which history unfolds, and his model does not explain the cases where European nations engaged in colonial activity that was highly unprofitable. Moreover, world systems theory considers the missionary impulse only in the context of supporting larger economic aims. The category of “external nations” seems to be a convenient way to account for nations that do not fit Wallerstein’s model. As a stand-alone paradigm, Wallerstein’s work is inadequate to explain the complex web of causal and prolongational factors that influenced European imperialism. Wallerstein, the sociologist-turned-economist, can be contrasted with another multi-disciplinarian: Joseph Schumpeter.

Left: Joseph Schumpeter

Sociological Explanations for the Imperial Impulse

While ostensibly an economist, Schumpeter incorporated an interdisciplinary approach to his 1918 work The Sociology of Imperialism. On one level Schumpeter challenged Marxist interpretations of imperialism, arguing that “it is a basic fallacy to describe imperialism as a necessary phase of capitalism, or even to speak of the development of capitalism into imperialism.” The capitalist age, argued Schumpeter, “has seen the development of methods for preventing war, for the peaceful settlement of disputes among states.” Schumpeter believed that the version of capitalism that evolved in the United States possessed fewer of the “precapitalist elements” that fueled the imperialist drive; one wonders how Schumpeter might rethink his assessment of American imperialistic tendencies in light of the current growth of US military bases around the globe.

Schumpeter argued that one of the precapitalist elements that lurked in the psychosocial memory of Europeans was the vestige of the medieval feudal aristocracy, which he described as the “war-oriented nobility.” The rise of merchant capitalism failed to displace the ruling elites of Europe, and these warrior-nobles still yearned for power and prestige; Schumpeter claimed that this “atavistic” impulse manifested itself in the form of imperialism.

Max Weber argued that expansionism possessed two characteristics that may or may not be in confluence. The “pacifist” tendency toward expansion is exhibited in the classical liberal desire for free trade, while the “imperialist” tendency seeks monopoly conditions that produce a maximum profit. For Weber, the struggle between groups in a particular society determined whether imperialist or pacifist expansion would occur in a capitalist system. Weber also believed that he lived in an era in which imperialist expansion had triumphed over pacifist expansion:
The universal revival of imperialist capitalism, which has always been the normal form in which capitalist interests have influenced politics, and the revival of political drives for expansion are thus not accidental. For the predictable future, the prognosis will have to be made in their favour.
Weber also believed in the power of state bureaucracies to help perpetuate the imperialist drive. The colonial administrative machinery, in Weber’s view, was an organization unto itself, with its own evolving collective sense of self-preservation. This argument predated that of a pair of British historians, whose controversial work turned upside down the world of the historiography of imperialism.

“The Official Mind” and Imperialism: Robinson and Gallagher

Robinson and Gallagher (along with Alice Denny) created a firestorm of controversy with Africa and the Victorians, a book that created a new model for understanding European imperialism, which broke from tradition by adopting a more Afrocentric perspective. The authors discounted the idea of a “high imperialism,” arguing that European imperial designs possessed continuity throughout the 19th century; that the “official mind” and strategic concerns were more important than economic forces in the rise of imperialism; and that indigenous peoples played crucial roles in the ability of Europeans to exert informal and formal control over colonial territories.

Robinson and Gallagher argued against the traditional historiographical focus on formal empires, which ignored informal means of asserting imperial will. Gallagher believed that this was akin to “judging the size and character of icebergs solely on the parts above the waterline.” Ignoring informal empire, contended Gallagher, was a failure in recognizing that “the difference between formal and informal empire has not been one of fundamental nature but of degree.” Gallagher and Robinson also argued that the partition of Africa in the late 19th century had more to do with African politics than a rise in European imperialist mentalité, and that “what drove it on was the Suez crisis and the repercussions of that crisis.”

One of the primary objections to the Robinson and Gallagher model revolves around their theory of a mid-Victorian “Imperialism of Free Trade.” Platt, for example, argued that Robinson and Gallagher relied too heavily on the writings of colonial administrators to support the concept of the primacy of the “official mind.” Shepperson, while acknowledging the value of the model for its fresh insights, nonetheless argued that Robinson and Gallagher understated the importance of scheming entrepreneurs such as George Goldie and Cecil Rhodes in the partition of Africa. Stokes and Rostow took issue with the authors’ seeming lack of credence given to the effects of falling prices and the European economic depression that arrived in 1872 and lingered for two decades. Brunschwig argued that the continuity of imperialism claimed by the authors did not recognize the political drive among the European powers to develop spheres of influence, which he likened to a horserace among the imperialists.

British colonialist Cecil Rhodes stands astride Africa in 1892 cartoon from British magazine PunchLeft: British colonialist Cecil Rhodes stands astride Africa in an 1892 cartoon from Punch

Though not without its faults, Africa and the Victorians is a book that forced historians to reexamine long-held beliefs about the nature, manifestation, and causes of European imperialism. The authors moved colonial and imperial discourse into a new, Afrocentric direction, and opened the way for later generations of historians.

Political Fragmentation as a Cause of Imperialism

Woodruff Smith argued that the dominant causal factor in the rise of high imperialism was the phenomenon of political fragmentation, which he defined as a nation’s inability to “achieve consensus about national politics and to undertake consistent political action.” Smith argued that the late 19th century was a time of social upheaval and economic unpredictability, and these conditions created a wide range of problems that required political solutions. Such solutions, however, required political factions in Western European nations to pay heavy prices no matter which course of action they chose.

One area of political commonality, argued Smith, for Victorian-era politicians was the expansion of colonial and imperial activity. He provided numerous examples of European political factions that, on the surface, might be expected to disagree about their respective nations’ roles as participants in imperial schemes. Smith argued that British conservatives, such as Disraeli, embraced imperialism as a way to unite disparate groups. The working class would be attracted to the possibility of increased employment through imperial overseas commerce, financial leaders would embrace colonialism as a tool to secure foreign investments, and industrialists would welcome both the new markets and the possible economic stability that imperialism might bring. For British liberals, imperialism represented the “next stage” in human social organization, and they embraced imperial activity as a sign of progress.

Smith’s argument, however, places far too much weight on the role of the politician in the imperialist drive. Political leaders react to, and can enact policies that influence larger forces, but they have little ability to stop or control the powerful social and economic forces that swirl around them. Very often the results of their policies have effects that are quite different from their intentions, much like the flapping wings of the proverbial butterfly that set in motion a chain of events leading to a hurricane half a world away.

Advertisement for Pears' Soap entitled Lightening the White Man's Burden (McClure's Magazine, Oct. 1899)Left: Advertisement for Pears' Soap entitled "Lightening the White Man's Burden." (McClure's Magazine, Oct. 1899); click for larger image

Another View

The late-19th century phenomenon known as “high imperialism” - despite the respective pet theories of an esteemed group of historians, economists, and sociologists – was the confluence of a wide variety of factors. In addition, the disparate European nations had different motivations at given points in this artificial periodization; thus, the development of explanatory models must rely on assumptions about the uniformity of imperial European nations.

Western-style capitalist nations (which now include nearly every sovereign entity in this emerging globalized economy) have become components in what I call an evolving hierarchy of states. This system relies on the competition inherent in capitalist economic structures, but hierarchical competitiveness is also manifest in political, military, and cultural spheres. In short, nations want to avoid lower rungs on the metaphorical ladder of state hierarchy, and act out of a sense of national self-interest, which changes in response to the individuals, factions, and corporate interests that control the machinery of state at a given moment. States possess a degree of hierarchical inertia, and require the imposition of internal and/or external forces to change positionality.

The leaders of individual nations, no matter what their size, can be likened to captains of ships. In the manner of skippers, their crafts are subject to a wide variety of forces beyond their ability to control, and even the most capable of leaders cannot avoid the element of chance. Imperialism, though, offers our hypothetical captain a degree of self-determination; if he chooses the path of empire, he may gain the title of “pirate,” but he nonetheless secures for his crew and vessel a greater share of resources and security. One may decry the fact that the laws of the seas have been broken, or pontificate on the immorality of imperialism, but I believe that the desires to maintain and improve hierarchical positionality in an era of global competition were as deep-seated in the late-19th century as they are today.

Quick Blog Note

I am behind with my correspondence, in both emailed and post comment form. I apologize for those of you who have written and/or commented, only to be faced with silence.

I have accepted a few adjunct teaching positions that have cut into my free time as I prepare to educate tomorrow's leaders on the finer points of history. The courses I am teaching are new to me in terms of lecture prep, and I have been up to my eyeballs reading texts and planning lectures, and not spending time browsing through Scottsdale real estate brochures.

At any rate, I should be back to my semi-reliable self in the coming weeks, and I promise to get caught up on your emails in the next week, assuming, of course, that your letter was not of the "DEAR BELOVED FRIEND I AM BARRISTER JAMES P. OGLIVIE AND I AM TRUSTING TO SPEAK WITH YOU ABOUT 17.25 MILLION DOLLAR U.S. I DESIRE TO REMOVE OUT OF IRAQ WHICH WAS THE LATE SADDAM HUSSEIN"S HIDDEN TREASURE" variety.


The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value. -- Charles Dudley Warner

Aug 26, 2007

My Fantasy Football Addiction

Left: fantasy football draft board

I have long been an afficianado of the game known as fantasy football. For those of you unfamiliar with this addictive activity, participants act as team owners and draft NFL players, and points are awarded on the basis of the player's performance in real games.

When I was a retail business owner I joined one of these leagues that was created by one of my key employees, and there has been a core group of guys from my old business that still gets together each year at this time for the draft.

I have an annoying tendency to assemble solid teams that implode at playoff time. Over the past three years my teams have posted a .608 winning percentage, second best in the league over that span, but I have never won the fantasy Super Bowl in my league.

This year I drafted in eighth place in the 10-team league, and I luckily snagged San Francisco running back Frank Gore, who has been getting snagged somewhere around the third or fourth overall pick in mock drafts. Here is the 2007 version of the Brooks Bombers:

QB Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
RB Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
RB Brandon Jacobs, NY Giants
WR Chad Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
WR Javon Walker, Denver Broncos
TE Alge Crumpler, Atlanta Falcons
K Nate Kaeding, San Diego Chargers
Team Defense - San Diego Chargers

QB Eli Manning, NY Giants
QB Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota Vikings
RB Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns
RB Dominic Rhodes, Oakland Raiders
RB Chris Brown, Tennessee Titans
WR Santana Moss, Washington Redskins
WR Mark Clayton, Baltimore Ravens
WR Devery Henderson, NO Saints
TE Greg Olsen, Chicago Bears
Team Defense - Seattle Seahawks

Hope springs eternal on fantasy football draft day, and I look forward to feeding my addiction on these upcoming Sunday afternoons. Perhaps this will be the year that I take home the trophy and cash for winning the championship, but the league comraderie and the excitement of the game are certainly benefits that accompany this compulsion.

Book Review: Nationality and the War

Toynbee, Arnold J.
London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1919 (1915)

Arnold J. Toynbee was a prolific historian and philosopher best known for his 12-volume opus A Study of History, released over the course of three decades. Nationality and the War was the second book Toynbee wrote, and the first edition was published just after the outbreak of the First World War. For Toynbee, nationalism was “the dominant political factor in Europe,” and he argued that the key to preventing future wars was to “purge” the concept of nationality of the “evil elements in nationalism under its many names, ‘Chauvinism,’ ‘Jingoism,’ [and] ‘Prussianism.’”

Toynbee followed a thematic approach in this text, examining nationalism within the context of individual European nations as they existed at the start of World War I. Footnotes are provided on the pages in which the reference occurs, and the author developed a useful cross-referenced index for the book. Also included in the 1919 edtion were a series of fold-out maps that offer readers greater understanding of the material discussed. Interestingly, Toynbee’s map of “The Nationalities of Europe” depicts a minute territory for Poles, roughly between the Oder and the Vistula Rivers (with no Baltic Sea access), while groups such as the Cossacks and Ukrainians are lumped together under the category of “Little Russians.” Toynbee also included a group he referred to as “Nestorians” near present-day Azerbaijan, while all Balkan groups carried the designation of “Southern Slavs.”

Toynbee’s writing exhibits some decided biases and prejudices on the part of the author of which twenty-first century readers should be aware. There is a strong streak of anti-Semitism in Nationality and the War that – while not uncommon for an early twentieth century European intellectual – still manages to shock this review. A Jew, he believed, was a person whose cultural and religious heritage meant that he “cannot be assimilated” into a European national group. Yet despite Toynbee’s acknowledgement of the existence of millions of Jews in Europe, the author did not include suggestions for how Jews should be incorporated into post-war Europe, nor did he reckon in this book with the growing Zionist movement in Palestine that would play a role in the eventual creation of the state of Israel.

1911 map of EuropeLeft: 1911 map of Europe; click to enlarge

Similarly, Toynbee expressed thinly-veiled disdain for a number of other ethnic groups in Europe. Poles, he argued, constituted a particularly inferior category of ethnicity that did not merit consideration as an independent nation. In the following passage, Toynbee speculated on the relative merits of placing minority populations under majority governments in places such as East Prussia:
We shall probably receive the impression that the German would suffer greater disadvantage by being annexed to a community of Poles, whose standards would be lower than his own, than the Pole would suffer by enrolment as a German citizen, which would be a kind of compulsory initiation into a superior civilization.
Yet Toynbee’s anti-Polish bias might be forgiven were he better versed in the history of East Central Europe. The author argued that the Napoleonic creation of the short-lived Grand Duchy of Warsaw resulted in the Polish population being “rescued from the foreign yoke” and that “for the first time it [Poland] experienced the benefits of self-government.” This statement seems to indicate that Toybee was unaware of the long history of Polish self-rule, that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was arguably the most powerful state in Europe in the sixteenth century, or that the parliamentary innovations of the Polish Sejm were on par with the constitutional monarchism that so enamored Toynbee in his native England.

The author also mocked the national ambitions of the Lithuanians, who he described as “the most backward race in Europe” and a group that “have drawn their civilisation at second hand, instead of creating a national tradition of their own.” As evidence for this claim, the author noted that the Lithuanians did not convert from their “primitive paganism till the fourteenth century;” this is clear evidence of Toynbee’s avowed attitude toward the supposed superiority of Christianity - especially Protestantism - as a civilizing and foundational force. Toynbee argued that the Lithuanians were incapanle of self-government, and in post-war Europe should only be granted a limited amount of autonomy while remaining firmly within the subjugation of the Russian Empire.

1856 map of Persia and AfghanistanLeft: 1856 map of Persia and Afghanistan; click to enlarge

Toynbee, throughout the text, struggled to restrain his contempt for Islamic peoples in Europe and the Near East, and the book is filled with passages brimming over with disdain for the Islamic world. Toynbee called for the complete dismantling of the former Ottoman Empire, and he argued that Islamic groups in the Balkans and elsewhere would welcome new Christian rules, as “the Turk has found by experience that good government by the foreigner and the infidel is a happier lot than the Dark Age of his native regime.” Persia, he argued, should be considered “outcast from the legitimate family of Islam,” and intervention by the Russians and the British in the late nineteenth century “have already done more for strong government in Persia… than the Persian nation has accomplished for itself.” In Toynbee’s eyes, Persia’s vast petroleum reserves justified British oversight, as the “backward” Persians were incapable of exploiting this increasingly important natural resource.

Beyond its prejudice and racism, it is with his poor understanding of Russia that Toynbee’s work most suffers, as the author exhibited an almost shocking ignorance of basic Russian history. In Toynbee’s eyes, Russian history “began little more than two hundred years ago,” as if the thousand-year tradition of Muscovite monarchy were a mere myth. Seemingly unaware of the strong tradition of radical factions in Russian politics, the author wrote that Russian liberalism “is in the ascendant, and will prevail.” This was written a mere two years before the Bolshevik Revolution, and while one can forgive Toynbee for a lack of clairvoyance, his unabashed trumpeting of the virtues of Western liberalism blinded the author from considering other post-war possibilities for Russia.

Left: British historian Arnold J. Toynbee

Yet despite the limitations of this text, Toynbee foresaw the dangers in a defeated Germany being forced to pay onerous reparations after the World War I, and the author argued that the best strategy for the Allies would be to “beat her [Germany] badly and then treat her well.” Toynbee believed that the dominance of the Prussian military would continue in post-war Germany if the Allies pursued a policy of retribution against the Germans in the peace settlements:
If we humiliate her [Germnay], we shall stengthen the obsolete ideas in her consciousness more than ever – perhaps no longer the idea of “Plunder,” but certainly that of “Revenge,” which is much worse… Germany was led to pursue the policy which has culminated in this war, by the oppressive sense that her development was being cramped by the actions of her neighbours… One thing is clear: whether Germany’s feeling of constriction has good grounds or not, we must avoid deliberately furnishing it with further justification than it has already.
Toynbee’s text, despite its aforementioned flaws, also provides modern historians with insight in a number of other areas. As a work with considerable Whiggishness, Nationality and the War is exemplary of the sort of imperial apologia produced by late nineteenth and early twentieth century British historians. Setting aside the author’s ethnic and racial biases, the book delves deep into a root cause of the First World War – nationalism – that gets less attention from modern historiography, which focuses more on economic, diplomatic, and militaristic explanations for the Great War. Finally, Toynbee’s forward-looking methodology offered some prescient glimpses into the future, as evidenced by his prediction that the “fundamental factor in world politics during the next century will be the competition between China and the new commonwealths” (the United States, Canada, and Australia). One might convincingly argue that modern historians could follow Toynbee’s example and better benefit society by spending some time pondering the paths upon which humanity currently wanders.

Aug 25, 2007

Book Review: Nikolai Bukharin - The Last Years

Medvedev, Roi Aleksandrovich (Roy).
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, 176 pages

Medvedev’s book, as the title indicates, is a biography of the last nine years of the life of Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik revolutionary, Marxist intellectual, and Soviet politician. From a life of great acclaim as a theorist of socialism, Bukharin eventually wound up as victim of Stalin’s Great Purge; he was a defendant in the Trial of the Twenty One, was convicted, and shot to death by the NKVD. The author argued that Bukharin was not deserving of the fate of being branded a traitor to the Revolution, and that the “murder” (Medvedev’s term) of Bukharin was a crime influenced by Stalin’s paranoid fear of political rivals that ended the life of one of the most brilliant Bolshevik thinkers.

Medvedev was a prominent historian during the Soviet era who criticized Stalinism, and was purged from the Party after the publication of his book Let History Judge. The author’s writing presents a highly unfavorable view of the Soviet dictator, and this book is an especially critical condemnation of the excesses of the Great Purge. Using archival materials, personal interviews, and heretofore unpublished government documents, Medvedev skillfully wove a well-documented narrative that highlighted the nefarious campaign to discredit and destroy a much-loved leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The author argued that, whatever his deviations from the general Party line, Bukharin remained a loyal Bolshevik to the very end. Originally a member of the Left Opposition that opposed the Brest-Livotsk treaty in 1918, Bukharin later supported the moderate and right wings of the party in the post-Lenin debate over the NEP. Medvedev traced the growing hostility that Stalin demonstrated toward Bukharin to the period following Stalin’s political victories over the Left Opposition in 1925. The author argued that, in particular, Bukharin’s opposition in 1928 to Stalin’s plans for the collectivization of agriculture set the Soviet leader on a course to destroy Bukharin. Despite his loyalty to the Party and public support for Stalin, Bukharin increasingly found himself marginalized by Stalin’s public attacks on his purported anti-Revolutionary positions.

Left: Marshal of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov

The author’s account of Bukharin’s last few months is especially harrowing, and reads like scenes from Orwell’s 1984. Bukharin’s friends disappeared, both literally and figuratively; those not imprisoned went to great pains to distance themselves from the Bolshevik outcast. One such ally was Kliment Voroshilov, later to have a less-than-distinguished career as a Marshal commanding Soviet forces in the 1940 Finnish campaign. The author quoted a passage from a tersely worded letter that Voroshilov wrote in reply to a desperate Bukharin, in which the former friend siad: “’I beg you, Comrade Bukharin, never to approach me again with questions of any kind.’” Clearly conditions were such in the Purge-era Soviet Union that longtime confidants were forced to humiliating acts of self-preservation.

Medvedev’s book is written in accessible language, although the frequent references to obscure Bolshevik figures necessitates either prior knowledge of the period or access to suplemetary texts. The author’s research was groundbreaking, as Medvedev brought new material to Western historians. Medvedev, in his zeal to push for the rehabilitation of Bukharin, occasionally overstated his arguments.

One such example involves Medvedev’s examination of a document that Bukharin wrote, which had a decidedly pro-Stalinist viepoint. The author dismissed the writing as “clearly quite wrong,” instead of considering that Bukharin may have simply composed the article as a means to get back in the good graces of Stalin. In a passage describing the recollections of Ilya Ehrenburg, an associate of Bukharin, the author described the account as “clearly wrong testimony.” Nonetheless, these minor criticisms do not take away from the power of Medvedev’s narrative, and this book is an essential read for a microhistory of the Great Purge.

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I never cease being dumbfounded by the unbelievable things people believe. -- Leo Rosten

Aug 24, 2007

Dodging the Thunderstorm

(Toledo, OH) A powerful line of thunderstorms ripped through Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan this evening, setting off tornado sirens and turning the skies above into an eerie blend of black, green, and grey.

I was northbound on Secor near Dorr when I heard the sirens, and a National Weather Service bulletin came on the radio. I called my kids and told them to head to the basement. Unfortunately, every idiot on northbound Secor had his head out the window gawking at the arriving storm, and I found the trip home harrowing due to my moronic fellow travelers.

"$%!%$# !!" I hollered at the slow-moving vehicles. "$&!$&!$! !!"

I did manage to beat the storm to my house, but there were a few moments as the front edge of the storm arrived that I thought I would end up a storm statistic. Some early wind gusts had to be over 40 MPH, and there were already quite a few downed branches in my neighborhood.

Postmodern Essay Generator

One of the strangest (and subversively brilliant) websites that I have stumbled across in recent years is what is known as the Postmodern Essay Generator, which produces scholarly-looking essays that are entirely without meaning.

Anyone who has struggled through a text that is weighed down by the author's postmodern discourse will chuckle at this idea. The Essay Generator uses an application known as the Dada Engine, which generates random text from legitimate academic materials.

The Generator was inspired by a hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal, who submitted a completely meaningless paper in 1996 to the journal Social Text. Entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," the psudoscientific essay was accepted and published by the editors, sparking a fierce debate over the ethics of the hoax and adding fuel to the fire of those who dismiss postmodernism as a methodological approach.

Rapid Rhetoric: TEBBAD

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

tebbad (teh-BAHD) n. a cyclonic dust storm of Central Asia.

Derived from the Persian words for "fever wind," a tebbad is a frightful combination of high winds, low humidity, and high heat that can be lethal to humans and animals unless they seek shelter.

In the Arab world this meteorological phenomenon is known as a simoom, which translates roughly as "poison wind." Temperatures during these storms can exceed 130°F, and the humidity can dip below 10 percent.

Aug 23, 2007

On President Bush, Vietnam, and Doublethinkery

The announcement yesterday by President Bush that the Iraq War is similar to the Vietnam War is one of the most shameful examples of a politician doing a volte-face on an issue that I can ever recall.

This is the President who assured us prior to the start of the Iraq War that his administration had a plan for regime change, and that the "lessons of Vietnam" had been absorbed by the American military and his staff.

This is the President who consistently denied that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam in April 2004, as post-invasion Iraq began to sink into a sectarian civil war, telling us that the "analogy is false."

But now President Bush wants us to forget everything he has said in the past, arguing that post-invasion Iraq is, indeed, much like the Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s. The text of President Bush's speech to the VFW is an exercise in selective history; he somehow believes that Vietnam would have benefited from a longer U.S. presence, and then tries to blame the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia on a pullout of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

This is a President who wants to doublethink his way out of the bloody debacle he foisted upon the American and Iraqi peoples, and who hopes that short memories will help him cover up his earlier dismissals of the specter of Vietnam.

Mr. President: there is still time for you to admit that you made a grievous error and end this travesty known as the Iraq War. Unfortunately, I suspect that your demonstrated recalcitrance will continue, and you will leave your term of office with even more blood of innocent Iraqi civilians and American soldiers on your hands.

Aug 22, 2007

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I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things. -- Franz Kafka

On Dog Fighting and Michael Vick's Disgrace

He was once an inspirational role model for underprivileged youth, and an example of what hard work and a little luck could bring to a person who grows up in poverty. To Michael Dwayne Vick, though, financial and professional success could not provide enough excitement, and the result is the destruction of nearly everything he accomplished in his too-brief career with the Atlanta Falcons.

The young man from the projects in Newport News, Virginia began to associate with some unsavory characters after becoming a multi-millionaire following the signing of a contract with the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. Some like to repeat insipid aphorisms like "you can take the kid out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the kid," but I think Vick's troubles really began after he became a celebrity.

I have always felt that young sports stars and big money are an especially volaitile combination; while working for many years at Joe Louis Arena, I watched up close the self-destructive Bob Probert on his long odyssey of struggles with cocaine and alcohol. Michael Vick is just the latest young man with wads of cash to whom lowlifes are attracted.

Yet it is not my intent to paint Vick as some sort of victim, for the dog fighting operation known as "Bad Newz Kennels" had Vick's complete participation, even to the point of his killing poor-performing dogs. Vick's decision to accept a plea bargain - along with his half-hearted apology - are admission enough of his role as a player in the barbaric world of dog-fighting.

Facing a federal sentence of up to five years, plus the possibility of state charges of animal cruelty, Vick will now be relegated to the status of "has been," or perhaps "never was." At 27 years of age, the Falcons quarterback should have been entering his prime playing years. Instead, he will be spending time in a federal prison, and will likely face a post-release suspension from the NFL. By the time Michael Vick is eligible to play again - if ever - he will likely be well into his thirties, having wasted what should have been the best years of his career as a football player.

I am disgusted with Vick's behavior and complicity as a participant in the cruel torture and killing of canines, but I am equally saddened at the self-destructive personality traits that led to Michael Vick's downfall. Here was a young man with seemingly unlimited athletic potential who threw everything away on the debased thrills associated with betting on dogs who are trained to rip out each other's throats.

And in housing projects across the country, there are little kids wearing black-and-red jerseys with the number 7, passing footballs and wondering what happened to their hero. Michael Vick let down millions of fans with his shameful actions, and his rehabilitation should begin with by publicly apologizing for his disgraceful behavior.

Aug 21, 2007

An Accident Story

My oldest daughter, who is 19, finally got her license last week after a few delays, most of which involved a year of living at BGSU in which a car is not a necessary accoutrement. As the vehicle she was driving needed some work, she was not able to really get onto the road on her own until yesterday.

This afternoon, a mere 24 hours after driving, she had her first accident.

Now, such stories are not uncommon, as young drivers will make mistakes. But how many drivers can make the claim that their first accident was with one of their parents' cars?

Me, to be exact. I saw her driving on the University of Toledo campus today, and I followed her for a minute to say hello. She was about to pull into a parking place when she began to back up to give herself a better angle.

WHAM! She smited my rusty-but-trusty 1995 Hyundai, no doubt loosening some chunks of corroded frame, but otherwise not leaving a visible scratch. She was mortified, but I couldn't help but laugh at the scene: of all the people into which she could have backed, she nailed her dad in his clunker.

Thus, my daughter learned an important lesson about knowing what is happening around her as she drives, and I gained a humorous annecdote that I will be sure to drag out for the next few years at family functions as we sit around the teak outdoor furniture.

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Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity. -- Herman Melville

Aug 20, 2007

Creepy Wikipedia Word Verification

I am generally a person who maintains a level of skepticism as I go through my day, and I usually find conspiracy theories to be laughable.

Still, I could not help but get a bit creeped out by the textual verification I came across this morning as I logged into Wikipedia. Staring at me were the words: "serve atoms," which triggered a old memory of the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man.

Now, assuming that this is indeed a not-so-subliminal message: am I supposed to now be a slave in the service of atoms, or is this a demand that I participate in some form of nuclear terrorism? Are there reception desks staffed with physicists who can expedite the process of atom service?


Or could it be...SATAN?

On Days With Rain

A glance at the weather forecast indicated that the next seven days will be wet ones in Northwest Ohio. I am a person who looks forward to rainy days, and not just for the importance of precipitation for my gardens.

I take a guilty pleasure in waking up and seeing gray skies, lstening to the sound of raindrops on the roof above my bed. Rainy days mean that I am under no obligation to do any yard work, auto repairs, or anything of an outdoor nature. Moreover, if I choose to spend the day writing, reading, and meditating on such a day, my hangup that people will view me as lazy for such intellectual pursuits does not creep into my thoughts.

There is something liberating, then, on a rainy day: a freedom from the routine and a sense that one can putz about the house without concern for pressing obligations. Tomorrow will arrive soon enough, and the rain acts almost like free pass, or a gift to the weary.

For those who must head back to work today, and for whom the rain only means a longer commute and wet clothing, I hope that you are rewarded with a rainy day soon.

Unless, of course, you would prefer that your day of freedom be one with clear skies.

Aug 19, 2007

Video Promotes Shooting Mexicans to Stop Illegal Immigration

A video clip has recently surfaced on YouTube that reportedly features a member of the Mountain Minutemen training a gunsight on Mexicans standing near the US-Mexico border. During the clip, there are clear sounds of a shotgun shell being chambered and the discharge of the same weapon.

While watching the group of Mexicans in his sight, the unnamed vigilante mutters menacing words for the video's soundtrack:

“All right, come on across, motherfuckers. Yeah, go that way. I dare you to go that way. That’s my fucking trail, bitch!”

A virtual hat tip to Dave Neiwert at Orcinus for this disturbing video (warning - graphic language is present throughout):

While the producers of this film - which may or may not be a staged event - should not be classified as "typical" of the anti-immigration movement, the film does demonstrate the level of extreme nativism and racism creeping into the debates over illegal immigration.

In broken Spanish, the narrator warns away the Mexicans, who remain well beyond both shotgun range and the U.S. border:

"No entrada, puto...Estados Unidos es cerrado!" ("No entering, f**got. The United States is closed!")

Returning to his base camp, the anonymous narrator clearly enjoys his night of vigilante videography.

"And that's how you get rid of Mexicans," the knuckle-dragging redneck laughs to himself.

And yet many Americans simply shrug off the antics of mentally unstable buffoons like the narrator of this video, preferring to hold fast to the notion that anti-illegal immigration activist groups are really akin to neighborhood watches. My true fear, of course, is that these border vigilantes are a phenomenon similar to the rise of fascist political gangs like the SA that contributed to the fall of Weimar Germany.

But, hey - what do I know? I spend all of my time in historical texts, so it is no surprise that I see these parallels, right? Now go back to your blissful Sunday afternoon and watch a pleasant movie, and forget about all of this crazy talk, folks.

On Cooking Large Meals, Setting Extra Places, and Opening Hearts

Ours has long been the sort of home that our children's friends sort of gravitated toward. When the kids were younger, it was items like the trampoline and eagle's nest that made our house fun. As my children are now seventeen and older, though, our house still remains a place where we have "extra" kids who hang around.

And I'm fine with that. While at times the chaos of our busy house makes it hard to write (let alone think), I know that there is a reason why particular kids spend more time at our house than their own.

Yes, this means our food bills are a little higher, or that the television is running almost 24 hours a day, but I suppose this is our lot in life. We have long been foster and adoptive parents, and I think ours is a home that appears "safe" to kids who have problems at their own homes.

We don't ask questions of our extra guests (usually!), and we tend to cook for 8-10 people every meal. If that many show up, great. If not, you can bet that someone will be eating the leftovers late night, the uneaten food no doubt acting as nutritional supplements to the steady diet of fast food most kids consume.

And I think we are blessed in one sense: our children, despite their occasional teenaged crankiness, spend a lot of time around the house. By welcoming their friends and feeding those who show up unannounced, we have created something much more important than a kitchen sink that fills up 2-3 times a day.

The Quote Shelf

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If they were right, I'd agree,
But it's them they know, not me.
Now there's a way, and I know that I have to go away,
I know I have to go.

-- Cat Stevens , "Father and Son"

Aug 18, 2007

On Unexpected Treasures and Bibliophilia

Left: My library grows, as my bookshelves look on with trepidation

A regular reader of this site, who shall remain anonymous, emailed me to let me know about an opportunity to peruse through some books in the basement of her mother's home. As someone who is dedicated to addressing the plight of unloved books, I was eager to learn more after reading the message:
When Toledo went through its flooding last year, the basement at my mom's house took in enough water to ruin the floors and make it very musty. Unfortunately, the basement houses thousands of books and the moisture is doing them no good.
Now, I get quite a few unusual emails, and I was at first skeptical of the use of the word "thousands" to describe the literary cache. The words "free" and "books" always catch my eyes, though, especially when they are paired together: "free books."

What I saw in the basement of this home is beyond description.

This was a multi-roomed basement filled from floor to ceiling with books on every possible topic. I was awestruck at the endless rows of shelves of texts, and regretted that I only allotted myself two hours for the task.

I found such historical gems as the 3-volume set of Napoleon's Memoirs, and a 2-volume biography on William Pitt the Younger. I took home Bulgarian, Hungarian, Hawaiian, and Polish language dictionaries, as well as quite a few local history narratives with which I was unfamiliar. All told, five shopping bags helped me transport over 90 books to add to my already burgeoning shelves.

There were books in this basement that likely have significant resale value, but I have never approached the written word with an eye toward profit. In fact, it is rare that I even part with a book, unless I give one away to a person I think is "destined" to have it.

Two books come to mind that I find myself giving away repeatedly: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I occasionally run into people I feel must have one of these books for a particular reason, and I think I have given away each of these texts three times.

And yet another joy of coming into a trove of old books can be found in reading the inscriptions and bookplates that often accompany a nineteenth century or early twentieth century book. One book had the following pre-ZIP code address sticker:

Mrs. David F. Kalish
The Commodore Perry
Toledo 3, Ohio

For those of you too young to remember the introduction of the ZIP code, "Toledo 3" was what was known as a postal zone, and these postal zones were all the rage from 1943 until the late 1960s.

Pictured on the left is a character known as "Mr. Zip," who was supposed to help Americans feel better about switiching to the 5-digit ZIP code, and yes - I had a sudden pang of nostalgia when I saw this illustration.

But I digress, once again.

What started out as another busy-but-typical day has ended on a high note, thanks to my anonymous friend who so generously allowed me the opportunity to sift through the many thousands of books in a basement filled with textual wonder and limitless knowledge.

Once again, many thanks, friend. May your unselfish spirit bring forth equivalent karmic returns.

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Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future.
-- Niels Bohr