Monday, December 10, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012: An Eclectic List

At this time of year, there's only one thing more inevitable than the Mayan Apocalypse: Top 10 lists of books.  Best Books of the YearBest young adult fictionBest children's books. Or (a personal favorite) the 10 Most Frequently Banned books of 2012. But somehow, most of these lists all seem drearily similar; their purpose is usually not to attract interest in the extraordinary, but to anoint the significant, and as a result most of them are filled with the usual suspects.

I'll confess here and now that I don't read a great number of new books in any year. As a professor of English, my annual reading contains much more of the familiar -- the books I'm teaching, often for the fifth, or tenth, or twentieth time. I'm not interested in following (or breaking with) literary canons as such; what I require are durable books, books that can take constant repeating and still disclose unexpected treats: Hamlet, Our Mutual Friend, Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, The Haunting of Hill House, Selected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. But of course I have every opportunity to talk about these, and to a  (relatively) captive audience.  In between teaching and grading papers and my own writing, there's only a narrow space for the new, and I tend to be picky -- I hate disappointment, and don't want to spend any more time than I must with mixed bags and mediocrities.  Why, I often wonder, would someone write at all, if not to finely hone every sentence, and tell a tale whose urgency is equal to the art?

So my list of favorites from 2012 is a rather odd one -- new editions of the classics amplified by the editor's and printer's craft, unexpected posthumous memoirs, and nonfiction which illuminates something little-known or unjustly forgotten.  That's about it in a nutshell.

And so, in no particular order (I hate ranking things as though a book's good qualities could be gauged along the lines of a "Nutrition Facts" sticker -- they can't) here are my top ten. I'll put them in pairs, because quite often it's how books speak to each other that's most vital to their virtues.

My Friend Dahmer and Harvey Pekar's Cleveland. Yes, I'm from Cleveland -- and therefore I am entitled to love it and grouse about it at the same time. And, I like to point out, it's the home of two darkly brilliant figures: Pekar and Derf. Pekar's posthumous production, brilliantly brought to life by Joseph Remnant, aims to do for Cleveland what Joyce did for Dublin. Of course, being Pekar, he never quite gets there, and you realize somewhere along the way that one story will just always lead to another, blotting out the larger picture like a blizzard's worth of 'lake effect' snow. And that's, so very -- well, so very Cleveland. Derf, always a personal favorite, first told the tale of his high-school acquaintance with Dahmer n a 20-page B&W comic format book in 2002; I still love that version, though it's wonderfully extended and complicated by this new, far more substantial meditation on the origins of Dahmer's madness, and the mad mix of naiveté, angst, and long-haired buzzards that was the 1970's in northeast Ohio.

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure and The Annotated Frankenstein That Arthur Conan Doyle's first experience abroad was as a ship's surgeon on an Arctic whaling voyage would seem at first to be as fantastical as one of his wilder tales, but here we have the facts in the case: a beautifully produced facsimile of the diary he wrote and illustrated on the voyage (I've reviewed this book more fully in The Arctic Book Review). And, remarkably, this diary, which opens with drafts of letters home, is particularly reminiscent of that of the fictional Captain Walton of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, now made available in a gorgeous new annotated edition from Harvard University Press. Remarkably reasonable in price ($29.95, but around $20 at many online sites), this handsome volume puts Frankenstein back in the rich historical contexts of its origins, from Arctic sea-voyages to half-abandoned Swiss chateaux, to the intense and fiery relationship between Mary and Percy, and includes numerous fine-reproduced full-color illustrations.

Col. William N. Selig, The Man Who Invented Hollywood and John Walker's Passage These two books stand at opposite ends of film history, but are complementary nevertheless. Erish's study of Selig is, in my view, the most significant and exciting new book on early US film history in many years. Selig was the first to move his studios to Hollywood, the first to create his own stable of animals for use in films, the producer of the first multi-reel blockbuster (The Spoilers), and the man who managed to convince the Pope himself to lift the church's ban on movies. He also shot the first all-Inuit-cast, Inuit-written film ever made, 1910's "The Way of the Eskimo."  Ninety-eight years later, Canadian filmmaker John Walker travelled to the Arctic to shoot his fascinating part-documentary, part-dramatic film Passage, highlighting the efforts of Dr. John Rae in bringing the difficult Inuit testimony of cannibalism among the last survivors of Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to England; Varga's study gives an succinct account of Walker's career, as well as illuminating the details of the production and reception of his film.

Cairns: Messengers in Stone and In Search of the South Pole David Williams's remarkable little book, which I've reviewed in full here, was the best surprise of the year for me: a book about little piles of stones that managed at once to be philosophically engaging and historically detailed, quite literally reading in those stones histories untold anywhere else. And, in a season of books about Amundsen and Scott, there was no better and more visually engaging treatment than Lewis-Jones and Herbert's sturdy volume, which combines beautifully-reproduced photographs of the expeditions and their gear (as well as illustrated ephemera from the era) with  compelling blend or original testimony and engaging historical commentary.

The Last Holiday and Waging Heavy Peace I've been a fan of Mr. Gil Scott-Heron since I saw him perform "Johannesberg"on Saturday Night Live in 1975. His strident but always elegant political messages and personal tales were muted in the 1990's and early 2000's due to personal problems of many kinds, but when he surfaced, as in 1994's Spirits and 2010's I'm New Here, he still had all the verve and sharpness of old.  Both these qualities are richly displayed in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday, most of which details a national tour he was on with Stevie Wonder, with tantalizing snippets of what came before and after.  It's a shame he didn't live to complete a fuller and more continuous story, but I'm grateful for what he managed and only wish there were more. And then, from another eclectic soul, we have Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace -- Young, of course, was around to look over the final version of this volume, though you might not know it -- it's a rambling, scrambling, twisting, turning series of hideaways in which the author always seems to have moved on before you get there -- but immensely entertaining and fun along the way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Better Light Bulb

I'm going to miss the old incandescent bulb.  After all, it was the invention that started young Tom Edison on his way to becoming Wizard of Menlo Park, the bulb that appeared in a bubble when a character in a comic had a great idea, the kind of bulb that epitomized the old slogan that General Electric "brings good things to light."

We're about to enter, kicking and screaming of course, the post-incandescent era.  And that's as it should be -- it's an era that my Dad, Dr. Ralph M. Potter, who spent his career in the lighting research department at GE, saw coming a long time ago.  After all, as he was fond of pointing out, most of the energy from such bulbs was thrown away as heat.  Back when he worked for the company Edison helped found, there really truly was a constant search for a better light bulb.

My dad worked on new kinds of illumination whose efficiency and durability would eventually far surpass that of any incandescent light of its day, such as the light-emitting diode or LED.  In the laboratory furnaces at GE's Nela Park facility in East Cleveland, he oversaw the forging of immaculate crystals of gallium arsenide, crystals which -- encased in plastic -- would emit light in the visible spectrum.  Red was easily obtained, and he and his laboratory colleagues were among the first to develop yellow, green, and color-changing LED's.  They also worked on a new sort of lamp for large outdoor lighting, the "Lucalox" high pressure sodium arc lamp whose coppery golden color was remarkably close to the Sun's natural spectrum.  This kind of lamp is now so common that, when you fly over any large city from Boston to London to Tokyo, the cityscape below you is outlined in their pinkish glow.

LED’s and high pressure sodium arc lamps are also, as it turns out, extremely efficient, although General Electric wasn't initially interested in efficiency. It wasn’t until the energy crisis of 1973 that the demand for a more efficient light gained ground, and not until 1975 that GE management asked their researchers at Nela Park to quickly come up with a more efficient light that could replace the traditional incandescent bulb.

My dad was one of the key people on this team, and I vividly remember the prototype lamps, which we had in our living room.  They used both a low-wattage coil and a series of tiny arcs coated with different metallic halides that -- eventually -- produced a lovely warm white light.  The only trouble was that the halides were triggered in sequence as the light got warmer; when you turned on one of the test bulbs, a glass of milk placed beneath it would first turn blue, then pink, before assuming its proper white coloration.  These lights also required an electronic ballast, which back in the 1970's was thought to be ungainly and a sure loser with consumers -- which shows you how little anyone anticipated the compact flourescents of the future.

Still, despite all these issues, GE pressed ahead with the new bulbs, setting up a plant to manufacture them and putting together a marketing campaign to convince home consumers to use them.  The bulb finally debuted in 1981, but by then the energy crisis had passed, and no amount of marketing was going to convince your typical American to replace their 69 cent incandescent bulbs with newfangled $15 ones, even if they had been ten times as efficient.  And there was the blue milk to consider as well.

This past fall, my daughter and I went to a special exhibit on the history of lighting at the Smithsonian.  I was thrilled to see a mention of the Lucalox light, and I searched for my dad in the photos of the GE researchers that were included in the exhibit.  And then, quite by surprise, I saw my dad’s bulb -- under the heading “The Halarc Adventure: When Promotion Fails.” There was a quote from a GE engineer at Nela Park, Gilbert Reiling, who though he believed in the principle of the new bulb, regarded the results as “a disaster.”  At the end, a placard reminded the museum-goer, “as Edison often said, failure is part of the learning process.”

What GE learned, apparently, was that it wasn’t worth their while to keep a laboratory full of high-paid scientists dedicated to making a better light bulb. They decided that it would be cheaper to close the old lab and outsource the work to a bunch of low-paid Hungarian Ph.D.'s; my dad was among the first to take the "golden parachute" and retire.  The ivy-covered brick walls of the "campus" at NELA Park turned into a mausoleum of sorts, and GE even moved the making of its trademark bulbs overseas.  They could, had they wanted, have made more efficient bulbs much sooner -- but they had started too late, rushed the process, and ended up with a product that nobody wanted.

My dad died twenty years after the Halarc debacle, the victim of a variety of Parkinson's disease that he came to believe might have been triggered by some of the chemicals he worked with.  And now, seeing the last small displays of incandescent bulbs dwindling away in the corner of my local Home Depot, I almost feel like crying -- once for the better bulbs that lived in my father's thought-bubbles, and once for the departure of our old and warmly incandescent friend. But after all, most of its energy was thrown away in the form of heat -- it was past time for it to go.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Every Day I Hype the Book

I have to confess, I'd reached the point where I actually had started feeling sympathetic with Barnes & Noble. Haunted by the ghosts of Borders past -- it's hard to drive past any mid-size American shopping plaza without seeing the faceless hulk of one of their stores -- and realizing that, compared with the evil Amazon empire, B&N's market share was small. I'd become persuaded -- in part by a recent article from the New York Times --that perhaps yesterday's big-box Goliath was today's David, and might in fact be -- gulp! -- the "Bookstore's Last Stand."

But this morning, when I checked my e-mail and found yet another of the almost-daily promotional missives from B&N, I fell out of all sympathy. Under the dual headings of "Our Picks" and "The Books Readers are Talking About," I was treated to a virtual version of the same old Barnes & Noble bestsellers-first front table. Ken Follett, a name that always appears in 'all caps,' topped their list with Winter of the World, hyped as "a brilliant, page-turning epic from a master of the form." Fair enough, I thought at first, B&N has to make a living -- it's a business after all -- and scrolled downward. After a second "shelf" of bestsellers -- Sandra Brown, Joel Osteen, Salman Rushdie (I suppose he gets a pass), and the immortal 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging, there followed a few themed categories -- "New in Fiction," "Reads for Teens," "Best New Kids Books" (Lego Batman? Really?) The one that stuck out for me was "Discover Great New Writers" -- under which they offered Zadie Smith (why White Teeth and not NW?), Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and Mark Danielewski. All I can say is, if you haven't "discovered" these authors by now -- they've been writing for a collective 48 years -- I'm not sure you're actually much of a reader.  And, dismally, that's still who Barnes and Noble has in their sights -- people who are not actually, well, readers.  Maybe it's because their new CEO, William J. Lynch Jr., by his own account in the NYT article cited above, never sold a book in his life until 2009.  But I think it runs deeper than that.  Lynch is just the latest in a long line of bookstore chain management who don't, primarily, come from a book background, or realize that selling books isn't at all like selling shoes, cellphones, or sportswear.  Lynch, in the same article, happily declares that B&N is, in fact a "technology company." Ouch.

I began my post-college career as a bookseller, working the floor in the late great Yale Co-Op in New Haven, which we called, accurately, the "largest independent bookstore between New York and Boston." We carried 80,000 titles, more or less, and in those heady pre-internet days we did our own homework: we knew who'd just been on Oprah, which was the most anticipated cookbook of the season, and who'd just died.  And we had their books, or if we didn't, we'd nip over to the microfiche reader, check the Baker & Taylor inventory, and get it to you in three days. We sold books, as a manager at San Francisco's Books Inc. described it to me recently, "by hand." Of course, we also sold our share of bestsellers, but we didn't make the mistake of thinking that they were why most of our customers were there.

And then it started.  I'd moved on to grad school, but my friends in the bookstore trade -- Borders, as it happened -- saw the writing on the wall: those who really knew and loved books were passed over for promotion, while managers were hired from outside -- from TJ Maxx, PayLess Shoes, or Pier I Imports -- or trained in programs run by the chain's home office. Books, the gospel ran, were just like other retail products: have a lot of 'em, have the top brands and new products everyone is excited about, and they'll sell.  What matter if you misspell "Louise Erdrich" as "Erdich" and wrongly tell a customer you don't have any books by that author?  They probably really wanted Ken Follett, anyway.

So I'm officially out of sympathy with Barnes & Noble.  They haven't learned from the mistakes of the past, they're just repeating them frantically in hopes of a different outcome.  And, like most vendettas, mine has a personal element -- the old Yale Co-Op bookstore closed some time ago, and is now -- you guessed it -- a Barnes & Noble.

UPDATE JULY 9th 2013: Lynch is out. Many have blamed him for mismanaging the very part of B&N that he supposedly was best at managing: its Nook reader and digital products. But in the meantime, the retail stores are in free-fall ...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Meme

What a difference a day makes -- in the life of a meme, that is.  Meme (coined from the Greek mimesis, or "imitation"), was a term within aesthetics and evolutionary biology long before it was appropriated by the Internet; some credit its use in Richard Dawkins' widely-read The Selfish Gene as its most immediate source. In this context, it carries multiple meanings -- to imitate, surely, but also to mimic, and finally to mutate into a thousand variations, each competing alongside the other for resources -- in the case of the Internet, attention.  And while Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will have "15 minutes of fame" may now seem too generous an allotment, Internet memes do seem to have a sort of life cycle of their own.

Take the image above, for instance.  At first, it looks as though DaVinci's "Last Supper" has been taken over by a bunch of clones of "Alice the Goon" (a figure invented by E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye).  But of course, as with most online memes, there is an antecedent image, one you'd have to have seen to 'get the joke': the image of a fresco of Christ in a church in Borja, Spain, "Ecce Homo," which had been "restored" -- that is, "ruined" -- by the apparently well-intentioned efforts of an elderly parishioner, Cecilia Giménez.  It seems that Giménez had already, with the priest's permission, been retouching Christ's tunic on the fresco; the trouble started when she tried her hand at his face.  The meme got underway quickly, given the grotesque awfulness of the effort; some early efforts pasted the face of (respectively) the Pink Panther, Alf, and Michael Jackson.  This was only the beginning: soon the goonish face appeared on a piece of toast, a reference to the "Christ on Toast" apparition (here as reported by the BBC in 2004); as the face of DaVinci's Mona Lisa, superimposed on a DEVO record cover, and painted over the screamer in Edvard Münch's "The Scream."  Then came the texts: "Viva La Restoration!" (in Che Guevara-like high contrast black on a red tee), "Paint me like one of your French girls" (a nod to Kate Winslet's line in James Cameron's Titanic), "A Star is Born," "It's Cool. I Fixed it," and the somewhat cryptic "I Pray to Potato."  But it wasn't until I saw "The Last Supper" version that I laughed.  And then I couldn't stop laughing.

Why?  Because of the artful symmetry: Cecilia Giménez had been trying to fix a damaged fresco; DaVinci's Last Supper survives only in a damaged state; the Goon head is funny on Jesus and thus, perhaps, it's 12 times funnier on all the apostles.  Actually, it is.

As one would expect, there are already several websites -- Memebase and  Know Your Meme among them, that do nothing but track and evaluate memes -- the Spanish Fresco is still a bit new for them ("currently being evaluated") but already well over 600 variations have been tracked, and groups on Pinterest and Facebook formed. Want to make a meme of your own? Drop by the Meme Generator. Some of the more impressive sites, such as, are geared toward verbal memes only, but offer vivid visualizations of their rising and falling trends.

But why?  And why do we care? When I think of this phenomenon, I think of the word cliché, which originated with the "clicking" sound made by a pre-cast piece of type containing a common set of words.  Of course we always had clichés, but we didn't know what they were until the printing press, and then the linotype machine, made them so readily visible to all of us.  Before that point, in oral traditional terms, one might be forgiven for thinking that an oft-repeated phrase was somehow truer or richer for its frequent repetition.  But the printed page showed us: what was common was cheap.

Now the Internet is performing the same miracle, only multi-media style.  After all, simple visual editing tools are readily accessible; all of us can cut and paste and some of us have Photoshop and Illustrator at our command. And we can quote -- that is -- repeat -- these images and texts on our own, using any of many social media platforms.  The path from originality to dead letter has never been faster.

A few months ago, I stumbled on one meme -- a text, but graphically represented as though on a poster: "BEWARE OF ARTISTS," the text declared, "THEY MIX WITH ALL CLASSES OF SOCIETY AND ARE THEREFORE THE MOST DANGEROUS."  Nearly 90% of these images had a text attached to them, claiming that this was an "actual poster" (always a suspicious way to make such a claim -- one might call it an "authenticity cliché") issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.  Needless to say, most of the people who liked this image the most were self-identified as artists.  After all, they need to feel that people care enough to be suspicious of them.

But the words rang false to me.  I tracked them using Google Books and other tools, and found that, in the age of printed memes on paper, this same phrase had often been attributed to Queen Victoria.  That sounded, if anything, even wronger (as Blackadder might say), but I gave a Google e-Book edition of the Letters of Queen Victoria a try.  And there, I found the meme's source -- a letter from Victoria's cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, written not by but to Her Majesty:
Dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis — Leopold to Victoria, 10 October 1845
Delighted with my find, I eagerly posted a mimetic "correction," and a few sites, such as this one, picked up on this.

But really, I needn't have bothered; no one who shared the original version really cared; they had all moved on after the purported poster had done its all-too-brief work.  And that's the way it goes, with memes, at any rate.  Their power isn't in their truth, but in their infinite replicability.  One might as well criticize a piece of DNA.