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Dreaming The Perfect Library, with Alberto Manguel

The Library at NightThe Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

My Rating★★★★☆

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

The Quest & The Question

The starting point, Manguel says is a question. Few today can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.

And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Admitting from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, Manguel embarks on it for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest, “an account of my astonishment”, as Manguel says — and it is an astonishing journey for the readers as well.

“Surely we should find it both touching and inspiriting,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson over a century ago, “that in a field from which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.”

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

THE LIBRARY is a lot of things. And since it is quixotic by definition, this reader will now follow a future dream Library as Manguel traces his past, real libraries.

THE LIBRARY AS MYTH — It should be capable of eliciting in this reader the loftiest of all possible sensations, the sense of the sublime.

Manguel talks of the two great information-gathering projects of Mankind: The Library of Alexandria and The Tower of Babel. These two tower over the rest of the book, constantly reminding the reader and the writer about the magnificent and utile quest that mankind loves to keep re-embraking on.

THE LIBRARY AS ORDER — can a library ever have any meaningful order?

Subjects upon subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom or frustration, this geometrical progression might stop. But the possibility of continuing it is always there. There are no final categories in a library.

For this reader, the only consolation is that a private Library, at best, unlike a public one, presents the minor release of allowing a whimsical and highly personal classification. That is enough.

THE LIBRARY AS SPACE — Space is never enough a books never stop coming in

Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted. This reader wishes for a Library designed on The Brain, using folds and infolds to enfold a million books.

In the second chapter of Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll dreamt up the following solution: “If we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.” 

His companion objects: “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” “They would,” the narrator admits. “Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”

THE LIBRARY AS POWER — The invested power of the written word, thrills this reader. Empires can’t stop building libraries and people cannot stop authoring memoirs. They are the only real sources of lasting power. The Library left behind and the books written, they shall define this reader’s legacy.

THE LIBRARY AS SHADOW —  If every library is in some sense a reflection of its readers, it is also an image of that which we are not, and cannot be.

Every library is a shadow, by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.

This reader imagines a Library where the censorship is total and the reader is a dictator, a benevolent one.

(This chapter includes a sad tour of The History of Censorship.)

THE LIBRARY AS SHAPE — “Every librarian is, up to a certain point, an architect,” observed Michel Melot, director of the Centre Pompidou Library in Paris. “He builds up his collection as an ensemble through which the reader must find a path, discover his own self, and live.”

This reader has already said that his Library will be modeled on The Brain.

THE LIBRARY AS CHANCE — A library is not only a place of both order and chaos; it is also the realm of chance. Left unattended, books cluster around what Henry James called a “general intention” that often escapes readers: “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” Isaac Asimov, anyone?

This reader imagines a Library where the books are left to cluster by chance and then picked up cluster-by-cluster and put back with their intellectual soul-mates.

THE LIBRARY AS WORKSHOP — The place where you read, and the place where you work. A history of the ‘study’.

This reader imagines a cozy nook, nudged within the Library, form where the grandeur is glimpsed but not enough for intimidation. At reach, still far enough away.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf published her now famous lectures on “Women and Fiction” under the title A Room of One’s Own, and there she defined forever our need for a private space for reading and writing: “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.” And she added, “Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn.” As if it were night.

A study lends its owner, its privileged reader, what Seneca called euthymia, a Greek word which Seneca explained means “well-being of the soul,” and which he translated as “tranquillitas.” Every study ultimately aspires to euthymia.

Euthymia, memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time — This reader can hardly imagine a more perfect Paradise.

THE LIBRARY AS MIND —What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice.

This reader too will generally know the position of any book by recalling the Library’s layout.

The remembered order will follow the patterns of my mind, the shape and division of the Library ordered just so by me — and the Library will in turn reflect the configuration of my mind.

THE LIBRARY AS ISLAND — The Library, each book in it will be a newly discovered island.

To be the first to enter Circe’s cave, the first to hear Ulysses call himself Nobody, is every reader’s secret wish, granted over and over, generation after generation, to those who open the Odyssey for the first time.

This reader accepts that Libraries are not, never will be, used by everyone. Even in the most fantastically educated and cultured cities, the number of those for whom reading books is of the essence has always been very small.

What varies is not the proportions of these two groups of humanity, but the way in which different societies regard the book and the art of reading. And here the distinction between the book enthroned and the book read comes again into play. This reader’s Library will have no books enthroned, but all arrayed to be read.

THE LIBRARY AS SURVIVAL — On the destruction of books, by burning, drowning and other means. And On Survival

This reader likes to envisage his Library as a magnificent ark that will sail across the ocean of forgetfulness that embraces humanity.

THE LIBRARY AS OBLIVION — Oblivion through enforced illiteracy; Lost books, lost libraries; Displaced

This reader rejects this possibility.

THE LIBRARY AS IMAGINATION — The collecting of imaginary books is an ancient occupation.

This reader is sure that his Library will have as many imaginary books as real ones.

THE LIBRARY AS IDENTITY — Library can be more than a reflection of just personal identity.

In a similar fashion, the identity of a society, or a national identity, can be mirrored by a library, by an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves as our collective definition.

This reader’s Library should be a pride for the community and beyond.

THE LIBRARY AS HOME — A library can be as nourishing as a loving home.

For this reader, his Library is his umbilicus mundi, the navel of his world, the landscape that feeds his imagination, if not his body.

The splendidly cosmopolitan Library of this reader will, in turn, also ensure that the whole world is present right there. He will be at home in his Library and it will also be his World-at-Home

To be One With The LIBRARY

 The conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language—all this finds its material manifestation
in that self-portrait we call a library.
And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.

Dreaming of the Perfect Library can be therapeutic. Try it.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆

 

The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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War is Boring: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My Rating★★★★☆


War is Boring

Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and apparent objectivity the things that happen around him and to him – practical and prosaic and always pragmatic about everything. People die and bombs explode in the same paragraph as the one where breakfast was considered with equal interest, and he takes it all in his stride.

As best as I can tell, the action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916 and before the end of the war. Place references and political references come and go without troubling the narrator too much – he is not to be bothered with such details. His context is not simply this war, but all wars and the notions of honor, heroism and patriotism – all of which he looks at with pristine incomprehension.

War always generates backlash, even from the Mahabharata and the Iliad to the many anti-war epics over the ages – the honor and glory that war is supposed to provide is questioned in its aftermath. The bloodlust and the fever-pitch cries of honor precedes war and then they calm down into searching questions about what those terms mean or into scathing parodies.

I am not entirely sure whether Farewell to Arms is a sober questioning of these virtues or a shambolic parody of them. It is never quite clear whether Hemingway is making fun of war or just expressing profound ennui. Especially when he combines Love with War, and both seem to get the same treatment, it becomes even harder to deduce whether Hemingway is ridiculing war and its virtues or life and its delusions in general and including love also into it. After all, the famous ending doesn’t leave us with much to pick up the pieces after.

The narrator tells the often ugly truth about war, without even trying to be anti-war in any way. By depicting daily life, he achieves it without an effort. It is the prosaicness of action, the utter lack of drama that becomes the most significant force in the narration – even his injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti.

All this combines to show up war as a hideous game, but one entirely not worth the bother. There are so many subtle ways in which he trivializes war, always retaining the impression that it is not a conscious effort, as if he was not even telling us anything about the war, letting it remain in the background as a boring humm.

“The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else’s college.”

We are not even allowed particularly intelligent characters to liven up the drudgery of our reading, the novel is full of the Ordinary, the exceptional striking in its absence – and the readers are left disoriented, repeatedly trying to remind themselves that they are in the midst of the greatest and most destructive war humanity had yet known.

In the end, war is exposed as not only meaningless but boring. Usually war writers exploit the Pathos of war, Hemingway walks right inside, shows us around and escorts us out after having shown us the utter blandness of the ‘heroic’ exercise.

Even the “Love Story” is constructed out of the boring bits and of repeated bland conversations that seem almost never-ending and droll. Here Hemingway is probably playing us again: instead of the usual technique of showing the pleasant bucolic scenery of distant daily-life and contrasting that against gory war scenes and thus asking the reader to thirst for the war to end, Hemingway places both the personal and the public sphere next to each other, exposes both and yet somehow derides war through this. I am not yet sure how he does that, but my feelings wherever I encountered this tells me that he does it well.

Hemingway’s notorious fault is the monotony of repetition, and he has always been considered a better short story writer than novelist – the short form plays into his prowess for portraying ironies in short staccato beats. In A Farewell to Arms, he brings both his strengths and weakness as a storyteller and makes them both work for him masterfully. He converts the act of boring the reader into an art form and into an exercise in supreme irony. Very effective. Almost as effective as comedy, if you ask me.

While it is hard to interpret A Farewell to Arms as hopeful, to me it was so, though in a subtle way. It leaves us the hope that if only more soldiers could be like the Tenente and just walk away from all the boredom, even though only boredom awaits in normal life, things could be better.

To me the most striking impression of all, in a work filled with unforgettable impressions, was the sheer acceptance exhibited by the narrator: The hustle of the war, his own life, and the entire world even seems to move past the stoic Tenente who is left a mere spectator, but who never seems to question the events that unfold.

This captures the spirit of the war and also of the times.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

 

How do books succeed?

By getting into the Bestseller lists? By making a few millions? By winning the most prestigious awards of the day?

Wrong.

These are very narrow views on what constitutes success for a work of art, especially literature or serious non-fiction. If we redefine success, we might find that these very things that confers ‘success’ in the short term might be hurting the artist/author the most in the long term. This applies to prestigious prizes such as Bookers as well, as we will see. We might even get an idea of why so few of the Booker winning books seem to be good enough a few years after their moment of glory. (Spoiler: (view spoiler))

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Let us illustrate this by taking an example from this very book. This reviewer has to warn the reader that the example is originally invoked in the book for another purpose though it has been adopted more or less verbatim here, but we need to get into that now. (By the way, the careful reader should also be able to divine why this small essay is can also serve as a review for this book in particular and to all of Mr. Gladwell’s books in general.)

Let us go back to 19th century France. Art was a big deal in the cultural life of France back then. Painting was regulated by the government and was considered a profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a profession today. The Professionals who did well would win awards and prestigious fellowships. And at the pinnacle of the profession was The Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.

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Every year each of the painters of France submitted two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts, bringing their work to the
Palais de l’Industrie
, an exhibition hall built for the Paris World Fair between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on each painting in turn. Those deemed unacceptable would be stamped with the red letter “R” for rejected. Those accepted would be hung on the walls of the Palais, and over the course of six weeks beginning in early May, as many as a million people would throng the exhibition. The best paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated and saw the value of their paintings soar – became ‘bestsellers’. The losers limped home and went back to work.

There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. In short, for a painter in nineteenth-century France, the Salon was everything – the Booker Committee and the Bestseller List rolled into one.

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And now, the twist:

In spite of the all the benefits, the acceptance by the Salon also came with a large cost: for the truly creative and path breaking (let us take for example the Impressionists such as Monet, which is the case study taken up by the book):

1. It required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful,

2. & They risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’ work. 

Was it worth it?

The Salon was the place where reputations were made. And what made it special was how selective it was. There were roughly three thousand painters of “national reputation” in France in the 1860s, and each submitted two or three of his best works to the Salon, which meant the jury was picking from a small mountain of canvases. Rejection was the norm. Getting in was a feat. “The Salon is the real field of battle,” Manet said. “It’s there that one must take one’s measure.”  It was the place where “you could succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.

But the very things that made the Salon so attractive—how selective and prestigious it was—also made it problematic.

No painter could submit more than three works. The crowds were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond. But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little Fish.

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Night after night, the rebels (the Impressionists) argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The problem for the rebels such as the Impressionists was The Salon’s attitude: it was cautious, traditional. It had a reputation to uphold for being the voice of approval. It could not afford to make mistakes.

“Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions,” the art historian Sue Roe writes. “Light denoted high drama, darkness suggested gravitas. In narrative painting, the scene should not only be ‘accurate,’ but should also set a morally acceptable tone. An afternoon at the Salon was like a night at the Paris Opéra: audiences expected to be uplifted and entertained. For the most part, they knew what they liked, and expected to see what they knew.

The kinds of paintings that won medals, Roe says, were huge, meticulously painted canvases showing scenes from French history or mythology, with horses and armies or beautiful women, with titles like Soldier’s Departure, Young Woman Weeping over a Letter, and Abandoned Innocence.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, had an entirely different idea about what constituted art.

They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct. To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais, their work looked amateurish, even shocking, and was repeatedly turned down. They had no hope of making waves in the Big Pond of The Salon.

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The Big Fish–Little Pond Gambit

Pissarro and Monet were smarter. They conjured up an alternative to the shackles of the Salon.

They thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond. If they were off by themselves and held their own show, they said, they wouldn’t be bound by the restrictive rules of the Salon, where the medals were won by paintings of soldiers and weeping women. They could paint whatever they wanted. And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because there wouldn’t be a crowd.

In 1873, Pissarro and Monet proposed that the Impressionists set up a collective called the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. There would be no competition, no juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an equal.

The Impressionists’ exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The entrance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on display, including three Cézannes, ten paintings by Degas, nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Alfred Sisley—a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the Salon across town. In their show, the Impressionists could exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them in a way that allowed people to actually see them.

This was the first exhibition of “Impressionism”. It was here that Critic Louis Leroy took the title of a work by Monet, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ to deride exposure and then went on to qualify these artists, quite skeptically, as “Impressionists.”

The name stuck.

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This historic show brought the artists some critical attention. Not all of that attention was positive: one joke (in addition to the name ‘impressionism’ itself!) told was that what the Impressionists were doing was loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas.

But that was the second part of the Big Fish–Little Pond bargain. The Big Fish–Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.

We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worrying about opinion.” He was right. Off by themselves, the Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new creative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to sit up and take notice.

In the history of modern art, there has never been a more important or more famous exhibition. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a billion dollars.

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In the end, the Impressionists were lucky to make the right choice, which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world. But this same dilemma comes up again and again, and often the choice made is not as wise.

Their story should remind today’s top artists and authors that there is a point at which money and mainstream recognition stop making them and start breaking them. The story of the Impressionists suggests that when the artists/authors strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the Bestseller lists and Booker Lists, rarely do they stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether this is always in their best interest:

1. One of the important lessons the Impressionists could teach the modern artists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all.

2. Another important lesson is that what counts in the end is if you let the Big Pond define you, or if you were brave enough to invent an alternative. The answer might not always be a Little Pond, but it sure can’t be meek acceptance of the current status quo path either.

Think of all the great artists of the modern age who could hardly be defined as mainstream during their own lifetimes, who would never dream of writing for the approval of a committee, who were as far away from honors and awards and money as only exiles could be.

Think of all the books with prestigious honors and the #1 bestseller mark that seem like jokes now.

Think about how so many of our best authors seem to end up producing the same sort of exceptional trash – very well written, but hardly the real deal that would last a century.

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What then can be an alternative for the ones who want to break free? We can talk about one option that our case study suggests – it might not be the only option, and the creative ones can always come up with better option, but the exhortation of this reviewer is a simple one: that the really ambitions artists and authors need to start thinking hard about the best use of their own abilities and efforts.

(Added here from the comments section, for clarity):

To restate, in our day the artists have three options –

1. Satisfy the Bank
2. Satisfy the critics (or impress)
3. Or satisfy their own genius (or impress)

The last being the most risky and perhaps most important one.

So what is the winning option again? For one thing, examples abound of niche novelists’ groups pushing the boundaries of literature, slowly attaining cult status and eventually becoming part of the canon itself. Just as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne weighed prestige against visibility, selectivity against freedom, and decided the costs of the Big Pond were too great, it is time for the really serious to make the same call, of rejecting the conventional trappings of ‘success’ that only serves to limit their possibilities.

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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate ChangeThe Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Yoram Bauman

My Rating★★★★☆

From the back cover of the book:

“Can’t wait!” —Godot

 

“Stand-up economist” Yoram Bauman wants us to learn more about climate change, and he intends to take us there laughing all the way. After all, climate change is serious business and the best comedy is provided by the most morbid of human fears.

Yoram and Klein’s aims are laudable, and by creating this cartoon introduction (which also throws in a good Big History lesson, to sweeten the pot), they make the ‘gloomy’ topic not only more accessible but also fun to learn about. And that could be an important first step, especially for kids (or those childish adults that run after the shopping carts).

Based mainly on the IPCC reports and statistics, this book is as hard-hitting as any other, but might find itself more digestible even by the nonbelievers. Of course, coming from an economist, there is a marked bias towards ‘market is the Answer’, running throughout the book. It is simplistic and doesn’t put forth any great ideas and the last section was, quite honestly, a waste of time. But the first three educational, non-policy-prescription sections are really worth your time and money.

See here for a quick video guide through the book (you can also donate to the project there): https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/…

You can also get an early b/w peak of a draft of the Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change via this 15-meg 2-to-a-page PDF.

I think this would be a good book to donate to your neighboring school’s library or suggest for your kid’s school, or even stock up for yourself – and hey, it is real eye candy too!

 


This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability

State of the World 2014: Governing for SustainabilityState of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability by The Worldwatch Institute

My Rating★★★★★

We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.

~ Lester R. Brown, Plan B (2008)


MOVING THE IMMOVABLE OBJECT

The State of The World Report 2014 focuses on Governance –  “the most powerful obstacle to creating a sustainable future.”

It is clear that things cannot continue as it is the. The modern caisson of hell is ‘Business As Usual”. That is why the core of the Environmental Movement is Change – but change has three aspects to it:

1. Change has to be initiated

2. Change has to be controlled and directed

3. Transformational change, always brings side effects – they have to be mitigated or hedged against.

Dealing with these three aspects requires good leadership, motivated citizenry and capable institutions – Good Governance, in short.

We need to recognize this and break out of our apathy or even revulsion towards governments. True, governments have not ben responsive, true they have not lived up to their empty promises, and true they have deliberately sabotaged environmental movements – but the answer is not rejection, but reform.

Long before the climate crisis was “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” it was a massive political and governmental failure.

This Report is a call for action for this reform. It asks us to get around the idea that “government is the problem,” propagated by the odd alliance of ideologists, media tycoons, corporations, and conservative economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which has only lead to the sad present condition where the public capacity to solve public problems has diminished sharply, and the power of the private sector, banks, financial institutions, and corporations has risen. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the number of failed states with tissue-thin governments is growing under the weight of population growth, corruption, crime, changing climate, and food shortages.

This is why we need to re-look the role of governance – The Report asks us to start to make concerted efforts to create the kind of local, national and international governance structures that will take us through the ‘Perfect Storm’ we are sailing into.

The Irresistible Force of Environmental Concern and Activism has to Move the Immovable Object that is the current atrophied Governance structures.

The Coming Tide

The massive ecological changes that are predicted, and already underway, is going to change the landscape of human existence and civilization. We are living a pipe-dream if we expect magical technological bullets to stop this. The effects of our rapaciousness are already upon us and the effects will last for centuries, perhaps millennia, and no society, economy, and political system will escape the consequences. That is where we are headed.

Many challenges loom ahead:

Soon, millions of people will have to be relocated from sea coasts and from increasingly arid and hazardous regions of Earth. Agriculture everywhere must be made more resilient and freed of its dependence on fossil fuels. Emergency response capacities everywhere must be expanded. The list of necessary actions and precautionary measures is very long. We are like a ship sailing into a storm and needing to trim sails, batten hatches, and jettison excess cargo.

Without proper governance structures, can we realistically expect to confront and survive changes on this scale? 

What we do know is that citizens, networks, corporations, regional affiliations, nongovernmental organizations, and central governments will all have to play their parts. The twenty-first century and beyond is all-handson-deck time for humankind. We have no time for further procrastination, evasion, and policy mistakes. 

We must now mobilize society for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future. The longer we wait to deal with the climate crisis and all that it portends, the larger the eventual government intrusion in the economy and society will necessarily be, and the more problematic its eventual outcome.


Prioritizing Responses; Avoiding Disaster

A second and related priority will be to reform the global economy to internalize its full costs and fairly distribute benefits, costs, and risks within and between generations. By most reckonings, majority of the costs of economic growth has been, and will be, offloaded on the poor and disadvantaged.

In the face of governmental inertia and corporate capture of many decision-making processes, strong and persistent bottom-up political pressure is needed more than ever, and it should be a directed and strategic pressure, aimed at well thought out reform towards much-needed new economic, political and social governance structures.

Whether we can avoid capsizing the frail craft of civilization or not will depend greatly on our ability and that of our descendants to create and sustain effective, agile, and adaptive forms of governance that persist for very long time spans.

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ADDENDUM: A SUMMARY OF CHAPTERS

All in all, this year’s Report is a very good compilation of the leading thoughts on an important issue, as usual presented in a focused and concise, yet hard-hitting format.

While it is easy to say “Good Governance” is the answer, the more difficult question concerns what is needed to drive the governance process for sustainability forward. The chapters in this book examine not only the obstacles to this process, but also the multiple ideas and possibilities for needed change at different scales – from the level of individual ethics to the minutiae of international policy making.

Here is a quick summary of core ideas from some of the chapters, since the ideas themselves are worth thinking upon and acting upon:

Chapter 1: Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet

Introduces the main themes and sets the stage.

Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual.

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Climate and other sustainability questions cannot be seen solely through the prism of environmentalism. The fight for sustainability needs to incorporate dimensions of social justice, equity, and human rights.

Chapter 2: Understanding Governance

Sets out the core principle so ‘good’ governance, especially for our changing times.

Taking inspiration from Elinor Ostrom’s (2009 Nobel Prize in economics) work, Conor Seyle and Matthew King, while admitting there is no ‘one-size-fit’s all solution’, makes a case for stronger and more involved bottom-up local governance to flourish.

Elinor Ostrom, drew on her experience in small-scale societies around the world to identify eight principles for the successful management of common-property resources:

(1) a strong group identity,

(2) fairness in distributing costs and benefits,

(3) consensus decision making,

(4) effective monitoring of effort and rewards,

(5) graduated sanctions,

(6) rapid and fair conflict resolution,

(7) sufficient autonomy when the group is part of a larger system, and

(8) appropriate coordination between groups.

Ostrom and her colleagues identified these principles, which, when are in place, local communities do a remarkable job of protecting their resource bases even under intense outside pressure.

Chapter 3: Governance, Sustainability, and Evolution

In this chapter, Governance is explored from the perspective of evolution, which makes  a lot of sense when governance is so divorced form nature – it helps to put it back in perspective. Governance systems are the formal and informal ways that humans manage relationships with each other and with the natural world.

John Gowdy, in this chapter, argues that there is in fact an evolutionary basis for the worst forms of governance mistakes and suggests that failing to devise institutions that can mitigate our worst genetic tendencies will take us down nature’s pathway to sustainability, with whatever costs and disruption to human civilization it sees fit to inflict.

Chapter 4: Ecoliteracy: Knowledge Is Not Enough

Monty Hempel asserts that teaching ecoliteracy, while necessary, is not enough to get people to respect the mimics of the planet and operate harmoniously with the natural world; it will need to be combined with ethics training, developing emotional connections to the natural world and appeals to action.

Much attention in environmental education and risk communication has been devoted to the “knowledge deficit” theory of social change, when the real issue appears to be a behavior deficit.

Chapter 5: Digitization and Sustainability

Richard Worthington debunks the idea of  “technology is legislation, ” and cautions that we cannot rely on the digitization of everything to solve the problems we face –  digitization has not increased the number of politically engaged citizens. What we need is concerted action in other, especially political, spheres.

Digitization and media access widens the information and engagement gap. At one end of the spectrum are a relatively few highly informed and active citizens, whose information sources are more biased toward their views than was the case before the advent of digital systems. At the other end are the vast majority of citizens, who have relatively little information or interest in politics, and whose views are subject to the messages emanating from an increasingly concentrated mass media.

Chapter 6: Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual, or Compassionate Retreat?

Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt urge us change the basic approach towards the future, way from a blind hope in technology that reaches extremism like geoengineering and to instead to  opt for an ”ethics first” approach, that would seek reduce human impacts on planetary systems.

 

Our task within the Anthropocene is to re-learn what it means to be a citizen; not just of our earthly community, but of the universe. And it raises sharp questions about whether geoengineering is the latest version of the Faustian bargain struck by a wealthy minority who have brought life’s commonwealth to an unwanted and undeserved, yet fateful, choice.

Chapter 8: Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations

Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke urge us to expand the circle of stakeholders to include the voiceless youth and the generations to come, especially in business calculation and the now infamous short-termism of the ‘discount rate’ – we can not longer afford to ‘discount’ the future!


Chapter 10: Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice – MUST READ

In what is the best written and most eloquent chapter in this Report, Aaron Sachs warns us that we cannot afford to lose sight of the injustices of today’s world when we worry about the apocalypse that is coming. Sachs invites us to instead view the Environmental Movement through a historical perspective and demonstrates why all successful social movements throughout history, have incorporated a strong sense of ethics – The Environmental movement cannot expect to gloss over the injustices of today if it hopes to succeed.

And this should start with what is increasingly derided by a disillusioned community – of taking personal steps and sacrifices towards an ‘impact-free’ life. Yes, all that tripe about switching off the bulbs and recycling is indispensable to a truly ethical approach.

We can be impatient for revolution but we cannot abscond our own responsibility to “Do No Harm”. 

This chapter made me proud again of my own small efforts such as cycling to office everyday. It is easy to question what these sorts of acts can really accomplish – it reinforces the ethical basis of the revolution, that is what it accomplishes.

It gives legitimacy to the rhetoric.

Even the best-intentioned young environmentalists, who often emphasize governance and “efficacy,” tend to scoff at my insistence that they read Thoreau: given the enormity of our problems, what does it matter if one more hermit goes off the grid? But the point of working one’s way through Walden and Thoreau’s other writings is not so much to dwell on his specific actions in the woods as to analyze his way of thinking and his resistance to certain elements of the status quo, to engage with his New England spirit of self-reliance and civil disobedience.

Chapter 14: How Local Governments Have Become a Factor in Global Sustainability

Extending the  the focus on Local Governance, Monika Zimmermann discusses that the current locus of activity on climate change and biodiversity preservation lies mainly within organizations of local and regional, not national, governments.

Over the last 20 years or so, pioneering local governments have stepped forward on the global stage to assert their relevance to sustainability initiatives, exemplify commitments, provide and share resources, establish concrete metrics, track progress toward goals, and help spur national and international processes to do the same.

Chapter 19: The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses

As Muhammad Yunus argues in his discussion on ‘Social Businesses’ as a way to end poverty, Colleen Cordes examines the parallel “benefit” corporations and their impact on changing the face of business and eventually of investment activity, I.e., finance. This still-new phenomenon of remarkable companies that orient themselves toward a broader array of stakeholders, including their employees and the local communities within which they operate, volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits.

Chapter 21: Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions for a Just Transition

Along with Sean Sweeney in Chapter 20, who argues in favor of greater “energy democracy” that gives workers, communities, and the public at large a more meaningful voice in decision making, Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue here for a fundamental reorganization of all unionization.

They argue that it is also the responsibly of the Trade Unions to protect their members through the coming changes to ensure a ‘just transition.’


Conclusion: A Call to Engagement

Ultimately, then, it is not ‘Government is the problem’, that we arrive at but concentration of power that is thwarting efforts to achieve sustainability. The theme that runs through much of this year’’s report is one of deconcentrating – devolving – wealth and power.

The concluding chapter, is a ‘call to engagement’ by listing out again the variety of political and economic means available to achieve that end.

Sustainability is a socioecological problem. It is a problem for each and every one of us to tackle personally, socially and politically – we need to tackle it on every field simultaneously.

People everywhere must strive to don the mantle of citizenship and commit to persistent engagement in the governing of their workplaces, communities, and nations. Only a steady popular commitment to engaged governance can prevent the future we seem to be headed towards.

The quest for environmental sustainability, social equity, and a deep, deliberative culture of citizen engagement are closely intertwined goals.

 If there is a common theme standing behind the policy ideas and reforms explored in this book, however, it is the necessity of citizen empowerment and citizen responsibility. Call it the first law of political physics: a body at rest will remain at rest until a force is applied to it. When promising governance alternatives are known and seem worth trying out but are not yet happening, then a force needs to be applied to encourage exploratory movement in a new direction. And when governments themselves are unable to muster that force and other actors (such as corporations) are pushing in the wrong direction, an opposing vector can come only from the people.

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This book was provided by Island Press as an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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