Mimsy: Books

Temple Public Library Book Sale—Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022
Temple Library Sale September 2021

My latest haul is also relatively small; it’s quality, not quantity, alright, man?

Today is the first day of the Temple Public Library Book Sale in Temple, Texas. As I write this, however, I have just returned from their September 1, 2021, sale. It’s held twice a year, and it’s a very nice drive from Round Rock to Temple, perhaps stopping off at Country Donuts on the way up and Johnny’s Steaks and BBQ on the way down1 or one of the many nice restaurants in Temple.

On my first visit, I picked up several books I already owned, or used to. I read Tarzan long ago, and have several of the sequels in my to-read shelf. But I’ve somehow managed to lose my copy the first book. I’m pretty sure I didn’t just throw it out, as I distinctly remember reading it several times. Now I get to read it yet again. I also bought replacement copies of three cookbooks I already owned: hardcover editions of the amazingly eccentric Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes, Beatrice Trum Hunter’s wonderful Whole Grain Baking Sampler, and a boxed set of the Middle Eastern Cooking volume of Time-Life’s Foods of the World series. I don’t use Bull Cook very often, but I thoroughly enjoy browsing through it. Herter’s eccentric rants prove more true, sadly, as the future unfolds.

Hunter’s book, on the other hand, is one of my favorites, and the main reason I keep whole grains on hand. She wrote her book before whole grains were meant as an end in themselves and when the point was making nutritious food that tastes better. She includes simple advice such as to measure oils first and then syrups, because that way the syrup doesn’t stick, and to use honey instead of sugar because it keeps breads fresh longer.

My Year in Books: 2021—Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Man looks for patterns in everything, but I don’t think I could have chosen a better opening quote for the first review of the year:

…man is born to trouble, and it is best to meet it when it comes and not lose sleep until it does. — Louis L’Amour (The Daybreakers)

But then, Louis L’Amour is a great author to start any year with. I followed The Daybreakers up with Shalako and Conagher with a little detour through The Iron Marshall. I ended the year with Radigan.

L’Amour continually surprises me by coming up with very different takes on the Western hero. His heroes in each of those stories are very different. They run the gamut from wild men coming in from the desert, to big city gangsters on the run, to (almost) backwoods lawyers defending their ranch.

And then, in June in Nashville, I discovered his autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man. He lived a fascinating life, and it’s not hard to see where he got his ideas for such varied characters when you see what a varied life he’s led!

I also finally read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I’d read the first book long ago, but never the series. I picked up a boxed set of the trilogy at a yard sale back in 2017, but it looked like a dense read and it took a while to commit to reading all three.

It was a dense read; there is a lot of weird retro psychology going on. It’s fascinating both as a well-written story and as a glimpse into the mindset of one class of science fiction author in the golden age. Asimov took what most authors, and most people, would regard as a nightmare: a benevolent dictatorship rewriting history down to the contents of your brain, manipulating people into false insights, conspiracy, and even a deadly galactic war, all for their view about how the tide of history should flow.

It’s not at all surprising that Foundation became influential. There are many people who would like to believe that they can predict the future with such accuracy, and who do believe that they are smart enough to guide humanity and lift it out of chaos.

Optimistic pessimism, or utopian dystopias—Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
Meet George Jetson

It’s not surprising that a show like The Jetsons would have been overly-optimistic. It was meant to be.

Happy New Year! As we head into a new year, we are always inundated with predictions for the future. Among the most fascinating topics for me, however, is predictions for the future, from the past. And as we head further and further from both the books of my youth, each year brings a new milestone in either science fiction or science fact.

One of the most influential science fiction shows of my youth wasn’t Star Wars or reruns of Star Trek. It was reruns of The Jetsons on Saturday mornings,

The Jetsons debuted in 1962, a cartoon situation comedy meant to mirror the very successful Flintstones. The Jetsons was set in 2062. The main character, George Jetson, was 40 years old. In the fictional world of the futuristic Jetsons, George Jetson will be born this year.1

The Jetsons featured flying cars, cities in the sky, and domestic robots. It also featured home computers, video conferencing, and a vast interconnected knowledge store that could be queried at leisure. Not too bad for a cartoon that was based on a stone age family that itself was based on a fifties show about a Brooklyn bus driver and sewer worker and their families.

And who knows? They may still be right about the cars, cities, and robots. While we are, today, far closer to the year the Jetsons is set than we are to the year it debuted, we still have forty years to catch up to their technology.

That The Jetsons would be overly-optimistic about the world of the future isn’t surprising. While it wasn’t utopian, it was an optimistic show. What’s more amazing is how many pessimistic science fiction stories remain exceedingly optimistic about the rate of technological progress in the future.

Technology futurists such as Alvin Toffler were very pessimistic about their optimism. They recognized that technology would advance quickly and complained that all these newfangled ways of doing things would destroy us. Toffler even recommended government bureaucracies tasked with forbidding the advancement of technology unless a panel of experts approved it.

In the January 1979 Omni Magazine, there’s a fascinating review of Dr. J. Peter Vajk’s Doomsday Has Been Canceled which, from the description, is almost the anti-Omni book. His basic idea is that most of our problems are clearly going to be solved technologically; the world isn’t going to run out of power and we’re not going to deplete its resources.

Satire in the vineyard: The parable of Lolita and the sheep—Wednesday, December 29th, 2021
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s The Wolf and the Lamb

This encounter does not end well for the lamb.

The morning gospel, as I write this, was the parable of the good landlord—the vineyard keeper who hired men in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, and again in the evening, and paid everyone a full day’s wages. This got me thinking about the New Testament’s “opposite parables” where Jesus tells stories that were obviously wrong to the people of the time in order to make a point about how different the kingdom of God is.

At the risk of calling ever more literary types satirical, Jesus uses a technique very similar to satire: taking an absurd situation and using it to tell a story about truth. The lessons of Jesus’s parables are a lot like the lessons of good satire: they progressed slowly into greater and greater absurdity to make a point about a truth that transcends the superficial story told.

On the surface, the parable of the workers is not clearly an opposite parable. Superficially there might be reasons why it was important to get the harvest in before nightfall. Maybe there was a storm coming, for example, and what didn’t get harvested tonight would be destroyed. But that doesn’t really make sense. Even with a storm coming, the harvest that a worker can bring in with one hour’s work needs to be worth far more than a full day’s wages for the parable to make sense in the real world that Jesus’s listeners inhabited. If it is, then the landlord is vastly underpaying his workers, and the next day they’re going to work for a different landlord who pays them up to twelve times as much.

But the most obvious way in which this is an opposite parable is that the landlord isn’t going to get any full-day workers next time. Who is going to work a full day when they can wait until evening, work one hour, and get paid the same amount? The people listening to the parable knew this. They knew how unappealing it was to do hard outdoor work throughout the day in the area around Israel. Which means that Jesus had something to say about the workers and/or the harvest that went opposite to the way the real world works. The harvest is worth more than money, or the workers are bringing in more than grapes. Or there is no day after.

Which is almost certainly the point of the parable. The harvest of Heaven is a vineyard that does not operate by the rules of this world. Not by any earthly wealth can the redemption of souls be measured, nor is the work of a single day comparable to the work of a lifetime.

Jesus’s “single day” was a metaphor not just for one man’s life, but for the life of the world. There is a storm coming, and the harvest is worth the extra effort it requires to bring in before the storm breaks.

Time is not fungible for writers—Wednesday, November 17th, 2021
Underwood Champion

Some of this photo is a joke about writing stereotypes. The typewriter is serious.

Often, ambitious young men or women write, wanting to work for me or assist me in my research. What they do not understand is that it is a labor of love, and I would relinquish no part of it at any price. I do not need help; I need time.

Louis L’Amour wrote that in his autobiographical Education of a Wondering Man. It seems contradictory on its face, but I can understand where he’s coming from. Time is very important for writers, and not just the time spent butt-in-chair. I get some of my best ideas during the twilight between sleeping and waking, or when I need to be out the door five minutes ago. I don’t have time to wait for a computer to wake up, or for an app to start up. In those few seconds, the dream-thought is gone, or I am already on the move and my attention has left the great idea and focused on the road.

If you’re following the geeky hinterlands of this blog, you know that I use a TRS-80 Model 100 and a manual typewriter for a lot of my writing. I am not a Luddite: I pretty much always have an iPhone and an iPad available. But when I need to write quickly, I use devices that start quickly.

The boot-up time for a Model 100 is less than a second. The boot-up time for a typewriter is taking off the cover. I keep paper in it at all times. Compare this to the time it takes to unlock a tablet, open the app, and navigate to the appropriate document—possibly also to pair a keyboard with it.

My memory has always been leaky when preparing to write down what’s in my memory. And if the tablet has decided that this time I need to enter my password… I’m screwed. The great idea will be gone by the time I get to where I can write it down.

The Thrifty Peanut in Shreveport—Wednesday, November 10th, 2021

Shreveport, Louisiana, is a great place to stop for a rest and walkabout while driving east or west on I-20. And if you’re a fan of used bookstores, you should definitely make time to browse The Thrifty Peanut while you’re there.

The first time I browsed The Thrifty Peanut, I had Robert Aickman on my want list. I found two of his short story collections, Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils on the Peanut’s shelves. Aickman is a very subtle horror writer, and these were elegant hardcover editions with covers by Edward Gorey. The stories are about hauntings that aren’t quite there, slightly twisted realities seen obliquely. Things just on the edge of remembrance, jus tout of reach of the senses.

I have often noticed in life that we never really learn anything—learn for the first time, I mean. We know everything already, everything that we, as individuals, are capable of knowing, or fit to know; all that other people do for us, at best, is to remind us, to give our brains a little twist from one set of preoccupations to a slightly different set.

On my second trip, William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water was on my list; it had been recommended to me in an offline forum so I didn’t know what to expect. Sloane turns out to have strong similarities to Aickman. He blurs genre as much as he blurs reality and the supernatural. The Edge of Running Water is a ghost story with science fiction elements (vaguely similar to the much later Hell House), or perhaps science fiction with horror elements a la Lovecraft.

The Life of Stephen A. Douglas—Wednesday, September 29th, 2021
Stephen Douglas campaign

Materials from Douglas’s 1860 campaign. The note underneath Douglas’s photo was a lie to undermine Lincoln’s legitimacy. Lincoln won by enough to have won even with a unified opponent.

Throughout President Lincoln’s life, Stephen A. Douglas appears as a sort of master villain. After reading Lincoln’s Life and Writings it seemed like a good idea to read about Douglas. James Washington Sheahan considered him a great man and a hero. Sheahan wrote The Life of Stephen A. Douglas on the eve of the 1860 election season, ending with the assumption that Douglas would be the next president:

At this day he [Douglas] occupies the most extraordinary position of being the only man in his own party whose nomination for the Presidency is deemed equivalent to an election. Friends of other statesmen claim that other men, if nominated, may be elected—a claim that admits of strong and well supported controversy; but friend and foe—all Democrats, unite in the opinion that Douglas’ nomination will place success beyond all doubt.

Not only did this not work out in the general election, but Douglas had a hell of a time even getting the nomination. As they do today, Democrats had a more stringent primary process than Republicans, one designed to keep insiders in control. In 1860, they required a two-thirds majority to nominate a candidate. While it was standard practice for a candidate who received majority support to get further support in subsequent rounds, slave states were so strongly against Douglas that they did not do this. Douglas continued to get the majority, but never two-thirds.

The reason slave states were against Douglas is not because he opposed slavery, but because he didn’t support it enough. He supported allowing slavery to spread into new territories and states, but did not support forcing slavery into new territories and states.

Anyone thinking that slavery was not the major reason for slave states seceding after Lincoln’s election would do well to read this biography. Once past Douglas’s young life and into his political life it is almost entirely filled with Douglas’s arguments in favor of allowing slavery. There are a few sections about how railroads and ports should be funded but by far the major portion is about the spread of slavery into new territories and states.

Even when Douglas appears to be talking about crimes against property, he is talking about slavery:

The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln—Wednesday, August 4th, 2021
Stand firm

George Eliot wrote that history is apt to repeat itself with only a slight change of costume.1 This is very obvious when reading about Lincoln and reading what Lincoln had to contend against from his opponents. From hate speech to socialism, the tactics of the Democrats don’t seem to have changed much over the years. They’re still using the same logic, and…

They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of kingcraft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people—not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. — Abraham Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln)

As the intellectual force for the cutting off of slavery at its roots in the 1850s and the man most responsible for leading the United States through the incredible sacrifices needed to restore the Union and to end slavery, Abraham Lincoln deserves more than adulation. He deserves to be read. Philip Van Doren Stern’s book is a great summary of both his life and his writings, as the title promises.

The book also ends up being a de facto history of the beginning of the Republican Party. Lincoln in 1860 was the second presidential candidate for the party and the first Republican president.2 You can see the pattern of contested elections hardened into the body politic even in 1860.

Those who could not look past appearances complained that the President was uncouth. “He brought to the White House the unvarnished manners of the frontier and the small town,” writes Stern.

Government officials opposed to the incoming President worked hard to undermine him—even sending war materiel from military installations in the north to military installations in the south3, so that if war broke out over secession, the South would have them and the North wouldn’t. Officials who opposed Lincoln, who would normally have resigned, remained in their offices to hinder him at every turn, and even to send information to the South.

Older posts