…more on the disappearance of newspapers

I walked out to fetch the morning paper this morning, and the news hit me before I had even slid the thin paper from its plastic sleeve, for the paper was so slight, surely the headline would say something more about the disappearance of newspapers. Almost. The headline in today’s Oregonian heralds the coming forced disappearance of the city’s elderly elms. But the paper continues to waste away, this morning much thinner than my MacBook Pro, possibly a record for the thinnest Oregonian newspaper ever.

Related: The amateur spirit in writingWhat we will miss when newspapers disappear

Yet More on the Disappearance of Newspapers; or, Welcome to Spring Training!

I went out this morning to snag The Oregonian from its usual pitch somewhere across the front drive area, but it was nowhere to be found. It was a lovely, solid gold morning. The car windows were a bit frozen still, but the blue and yellow sky was promising the answer e. e. cummings suggested the earth provides to the “how often” questions posed by the “prurient philosophers…,” “science prodded…,” and “religions…squeezing…”: “thou answerest them only with spring,” cummings said.

So I took his answer and coffee cup and sauntered off into the back yard to soak up some morning rays. The grape I had moved yesterday from the back fence to the old patio looks like it likes its new home – more sun!

After a few Thoreauvian moments spent contemplating the grape, the sun, the greens, blues, and yellows of the fine print spring morning, I went back inside to report to Susan the disappearance of the newspaper. She of course, in her offline logic, accused me of cancelling it. I did not cancel it. I like the newspaper.

Susan tried the phone to circulations or delivery or somebody, got busy signals, but then, looking out the nook window, exclaimed, “There’s our newspaper!” “Where?” “On the car window!”

“Wow, what a pitch,” I said, “and Spring Training is underway!”

Related:

What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Where Richard Rodgriguez meets Bartleby, the Scrivener

More evidence of the disappearance of newspapers: page 2 of the “a&e” section of last Friday’s Oregonian contains a small announcement: “Regal Cinemas discontinued its movie listings, which were advertising, from The Oregonian.” Regal has a full menu website with links to Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, 200k likes on facebook, 24k tweeters…; what does it need The Oregonian for? Now playing: “What we will miss when newspapers disappear.”

What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Watching “Irma La Douce” last night, after reading “Out of Print,” Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece, on newspapers dying, we realized that Eric omitted what we will miss when discarded newspaper can no longer be found lying around the house.

 

In “Irma La Douce,” Jack Lemmon, playing Nestor, the defrocked, now homeless policeman, spending the night with Irma, hangs curtains, improvised from newspaper, across her bare windows to shield her from the possibility of being seen from the Paris street below. He has already described to Irma how he often inserted a folded newspaper under his uniform jacket to help keep warm on rainy beats. Dramatizing the practical uses of newspaper, Nestor reminded us of Red Skelton’s sleeping on the park bench skits, under and on blankets and mattresses of newspaper.

 

What else is throwaway newspaper good for? Wrapping for fish, and rolled newspapers, soaked in a tub of water, then dried, make efficient fireplace logs. The logs burn slowly and evenly with minimal smoke, stack and store neatly, and pack easily for camping trips. When we were kids, we copied the colorful Sunday comics onto pancakes of Silly Putty. Nowadays, we post our favorite comics, cut from the newspaper, onto the icebox. We rely on newspaper for kitty and puppy mishaps, bird cage lining, and party spills. Newspaper is an effective window wipe, for car and house, makes good fly swatters and fans, and comes in handy for arts and crafts, and for masking and painting jobs. We had an uncle who taught us how to make pirate hats from newspaper. Our spouse makes sensible use of newspaper coupons. The Op-Ed page, slipped unceremoniously under the commode door – bereft in a TP shortage, one wouldn’t treat even a week old New Yorker like that. In elementary school we used newspaper to cover our text books. Gone too, after newspapers die, the paper drive fundraiser.

 

Finally, we will miss the frap of the morning paper tossed onto the front porch, a reliable alarm clock, or sometimes we hear the paper sliding across the pavement of the drive, announcing rain (splat) or sun (long, dry skid). No doubt, others can add to our list of what will be missed with the dying of the newspaper, more mere memories added to the detritus of 20th century anthropological curiosities.

But newspaper is organic. It can be added to the compost bin, and after breaking down can be used as mulch to spread around the Web garden.  

Notes on Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow”

In spite of embedded Shakespeare and sundry 19th Century potential footnotes, Caleb Crain’s new novel, “Overthrow” (Viking, August, 2019), may remind readers more of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films that made noir comedies out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” than to Henry James (who, it might be argued, made drama out of living room comedy). The plot of “Overthrow” might also be said to parody the best of legal action writer John Grisham. Nick Hornby comes to mind, too, his “A Long Way Down.”

“Overthrow” is a protean novel. Ingredients of farce, satire and irony inform contemporary ideas of group-think, economics, media, conspiracy theory, identity and relationships, existential earworms. “The media” performs the role of Keystone Cops, as do the real cops, chasing the story controlled by puppeteers, whose rods and strings get crossed.

As essay, “Overthrow” might be subtitled: “Where we live and what we live for.” And when. The slow, slow art of the novel. Who remembers the Occupy Movement, which may now be recalled as more of a campout than a revolution? If (to) Occupy is the protagonist, who or what is the antagonist? But first, what does Occupy want? To seize? To have sex with?

Is overthrow of governance periodically necessary to maintain a balance of human nature? Has human nature improved over time, or are we no better than any of our ancestors? Or, indeed, were our ancestors better off than us: non-specialized, at one with nature, unpolluted, non-alphabetic. Did our ancestors, as we do, have a picture of themselves? If not, when were these pictures invented? Were the pictures they had of themselves the same pictures others had of them? Overthrow and revolution of the I, the me, subject and object.

Not what does revolution mean, but what does it mean to make revolution? Certainly not to write a novel. But, yes, that, too, as it turns out, particularly a novel about building relationships. Is human nature capable of democracy? Can we “rule ourselves”? The question is important to Michael Hardt in Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers,” which predates Zuccotti Park Occupy by a few years. And while many thought and still do that the Occupy Movement was a failure, its aims unclear, its results a discredit to the possibility of change, using Hardt’s thinking, it achieved a great step on the road to democracy: Occupy created relationships, corresponded directly to participant lives, illustrated (arguably) collective self-rule, or, at least, to go back and use Hardt’s words, it might have created “the terrain on which the training in democracy can happen – the training and the collective ability to produce social relationships” (149, The New Press, 2009).

And producing social relationships is what “Overthrow” is about, in its most serious reading, the goofy stuff aside. Why write a book no one will read? A poem no one will ever see? A song no one will ever hear? Similarly, why a pick-up? Why a one night stand, as if a relationship requires no more investment than a moment in a head, an hour or two on a couch, or a night in bed but easily forgotten? We aren’t in “City of Night.”

Crain’s sentences come alive, twisted and contorted as we find tree and bush limbs in nature, beautiful. Cultivated, maybe, by some unseen hands, and, at times, readers might think, they are overthrown. You can’t take a comb to them. But we don’t get quite as much of that as we did in “Necessary Errors” (Penguin, 2013). Maybe because “Overthrow” has more dialog. Still, consider this artwork, and note the consistent style that isn’t so much rococo decorative but the way the world actually passes by, in and out of the senses, projection and reflection. The description and detail of observation suggest total control, and objective correlative emotions appear and disappear, as nostalgic fits can sometimes be brought on by certain odors or sounds, but which can only appear at random and not be called up by will, only by suggestion, asides of a sort:

From “Necessary Errors”:

            They passed into the black water of the shade of the bridge. Out of the corner of either eye, Jacob watched the gray, triangular battlements slide up from behind and widen, approaching them on either side, in embrace. Then the bridge itself crossed overhead with its water-blackened stones. While it covered them, hands seemed cupped over their ears; all they could hear was the water’s eager lapping against the heavy walls beside them.

            “Are you fair to him?” Annie asked.

            The black stones lifted off, and the air was free and empty again around them. “It’s not like that.” He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed (391).

From “Overthrow”:

             After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up, into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable-stayed and a suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimension seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.

            They crossed the water; they descended into downtown (55).

What is overthrown remains out of reach. One of the themes circling through “Overthrow” concerns a kind of deontological question of the value of certain activity or action, of writing for example, of writing a poem or a book. The answer seems to rest in giving way to what it is a person might be fit for:

            This was something he could do, he told himself, as he kept dabbing. This was the sort of task he could safely spend his anger on. Even if he didn’t save the plant and even if the plant didn’t in fact need saving (298).

Substitute planet for plant in that paragraph. Matthew is looking for a way out of his cynicism:

He had written a note about Samuel Daniel, he remembered. But what if he was interested in Daniel and touched by Daniel’s devotion to his vocation only because he himself, in choosing to write literary criticism, was making a mistake like Daniel’s – giving his life to a kind of writing that was about to pass out of the world? To a modern equivalent of Daniel’s poeticized, aestheticized history?

            He picked up the forked paper, to read over the note, but the handwriting wasn’t his.

            “You can read it,” Lief said, appearing at the door.

            “I thought it was mine.”

            “It’s the devil,” Leif said. “It’s one of his voices.”

            “I don’t need to read it” (219).

What can be worse for a writer than to presume his writing won’t be read? The “Overthrow” working group, which Matthew joins but only peripherally, his object being Leif, and not revolution, is apparently under surveillance, yet the authorities miss that the group has maintained a blog. So much for blogging. Crain’s theme of what has meaning, purpose, and value against what is given exposure, watched, and chosen touches on every aspect of the characters’ lives:

            “She wondered if he would give permission. She wondered if he was still willing to fight, regardless of whether he still believed. The new order had revealed to them that poems didn’t have to be published in order to have meaning as poems, but apparently the same order was also going to require the publication of all the prose of one’s life” (377).

In Stalin’s Russia, one had only to think a certain thing to be accused and convicted of a crime. But how did they know what one was thinking?

Hardback copies with dust covers occupy the bookshelves of the conservative library. Conservative in lots of ways, but here in the sense that writers and readers want their books to retain their value, even increase in value over time. We want that piece of capitalistic system to succeed, and to ensure our own success. The economics of the body, the body of the book, its spine, sewn, its jacket, shield against the elements, nomenclature (either or fallacy of identity – “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’”). Is the hardback economically efficient? Books as collectibles. What does a book become without its dust cover? Its value diminishes significantly as a collectible. Aren’t paperbacks “cooler”? Is the hardback a middle class writer’s heyday? “Occupy” is a novel: this is not a book review. If we are going to spend $27.00 for a hardback book with a cool dust cover, shouldn’t we at least expect not to trip over any typos?

But if we think books expensive, consider the cost of obtaining legal help:

            “I know your parents are already being so generous.”

            “How much was it?”

            “About twenty-eight hundred dollars.”

            For a couple of days’ work. The side of town where Matthew’s parents lived was built on a hill, up which he and Fosco were gradually proceeding, a long, slow hill that, as was always explained to new arrivals in town, served as an objective correlative of the relative financial net worth of the households along it. Blocks ahead, at the top, were mansions with a view of the distant city. Matthew’s parents lived more than halfway down, where the houses were still faced with brick and perfectly respectable but not grand (209).

In other words, middle class, but “more than halfway down,” so maybe lower middle class. In any case, we are talking about a generation of a country’s youth who will not live even that high up the hill, except maybe as they are now, living in the garage or the basement, trying to pay off their student loans on the income of a barista, a fact checker, a literary critic:

            “Let me talk to my parents,” Mathew said. “Thank you for telling me.”

            Was he going to ruin them?

Mathew has already explained “reversion”:

            “There’s an old legal term, ‘reversion,’” Mathew began. “You possess something in reversion if another person has the use of it now but you’ll get it after they die. Someone from another branch of your family may be living in a manor, say, and it will be yours if you manage to outlive them. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the word metaphorically, to mean anything in your future, anything you’re looking forward to, but legally, technically, it’s something you might not live long enough to put your hands on. My thesis is that in the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the individual is no longer thinking of himself as the subject of a king but as someone who himself has a kingship in reversion” (43).

In other words, as Harold Bloom put it, the “invention of the human,” the creation of the I. Who will pay for that me? The King, in reversion, overthrown:

            Mathew demurred. “Representative democracy works a little differently….”

            “People don’t really want to be king anymore,” said Raleigh. “There aren’t even any lunatics in the asylums who want to be Napoleon anymore.”

            “Maybe they want to be reversionary one-percenters,” suggested Elspeth.

            “One percenters are too boring,” Raleigh objected.

            “They have no charismatic virtues,” said Mathew.

            “They have no charismatic vices,” Raleigh corrected him. “They would be charming if they would only let us see them being greedy and trivial.”

            “I wouldn’t find them charming,” Elspeth said.

            “Yes you would,” Raleigh insisted. “They’d be like the millionaires in screwball comedies” (44).

One thing Raleigh might have wrong in the conversation from “Overthrow” quoted above is the “lunatics in the asylums,” since asylums, like newspapers, have mostly disappeared, beginning with Reagan in California.

“I think another reason the notion of revolution has been discredited is its association with misery, as if revolution would involve giving up all of the pleasures that everyone enjoys” (Hardt, 153).

But the asylum is now the streets. And Hardt and Taylor, in “Examined Life,” are rowing in a boat on Central Park Lake:

“It’s such an idyllic and seemingly anti- or even counterrevolutionary location, one associated with old wealth and the stability of power, the leisure activities of the rich. Maybe, in a strange way, it will help us work through some of these issues like who can think revolution, who wants revolution, where we can think revolution, and who would benefit. Maybe this seemingly strange location can help us cast away what seem to me destructive limitations on how we think about this” (Hardt, 153).

If we think about it at all. And if we do, if we choose to read or maybe even to write about it, kings of our spirals, our unpublished napkins, our unread blogs. And then, frosting on the cake we’ve been let eat and chocolate in the latte we’ve been let drink, to talk to someone about it.

Irma La Douce

from “What We Will Miss When Newspapers Disappear,” April 8, 2008

In “Irma La Douce,” Jack Lemmon, playing Nestor, the defrocked, now homeless policeman, spending the night with Irma, hangs curtains, improvised from newspaper, across her bare windows to shield her from the possibility of being seen from the Paris street below. He has already described to Irma how he often inserted a folded newspaper under his uniform jacket to help keep warm on rainy beats.

The Amateur Spirit in Writing – Revisited

As The Coming of the Toads nears its 10th anniversary (our first post was Dec 27, 2007), we reflect on why and wonder what now.

The new book, “Alma Lolloon,” is out (“look inside” here). “Out” may seem hyperbolic – it’s now available. Others trying to write and publish will get the difference.

Most writers, excepting the besttellers, have to self-promote; yes, even when published traditionally by a standard house in the traditional manner.

It is, then, in the interest of shaking the bushes and the amateur spirit of writing, I invite readers of The Toads to subscribe to my TinyLetter notes.

Meantime, the amateur spirit in writing lives on at The Toads:

The amateur spirit in writing

on

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

Alma Lolloon – Work in Progress

Continuing from last Saturday’s installment, from chapter one of my work in progress titled “Alma Lolloon,” the first chapter titled “Casting On.” The book is finished, but I’m still proofing and editing. I hope to have it out in December. Meantime, I plan to continue putting up excerpts here on Saturdays:

from chapter one of the novel “Alma Lolloon”:

My first marriage was annulled within a couple of months. I never saw Mary or Gabriel again. We all signed complex legal documents sealing the moment. My second marriage was to a draftee. Joe wasn’t so much love or even a decision or a choice. But he adored Freddy and was a fun guy who made Freddy and me laugh and when we were together my bad thoughts vanished. Joe was a high school dropout, but he had a car, a 1953 Chevy, two toned, cream over turquoise blue. Joe walked off to boot camp, marched home and we married, and off he flew to Vietnam where he was fried up in napalm, his squad a straw basket of squids. Leaving me pregnant with Sally and a fragment of a family. My third husband drowned in a fishing accident, the sun that hot August day scalding, not a single blade of shade, the sand boiling, not a breath of breeze, and the rocks seething with seaweed and foam, Murphy’s body trapped in the eddies below the cliff, finally coming to rest atop a barnacled rock perch, the waves running on and on the tide coming in they couldn’t reach him and the water lifted him up and floated his body flotsam out to sea. My fourth husband took his own life. How could so many neurotic demons occupy one man’s mind? His head was an ant farm, ants like tiny cars digging tunnels through the clay. Wags was possessed by his corporate gig and rig and regalia and risk. He stuck a hose in the tail pipe in the garage, the other end through a wind wing, the car windows and doors all shut up, and Wags turned fifty shades of bluefish-purple. My fifth husband was shot and killed by a private eye, who mistook him for a wise guy at a poker game, shot him coming out of an outhouse between hands. Well, Jack was a bit of a joker, but not the kind the dick was thinking. Jack was a wild card.

Yes, and I told the knitting ladies I am writing a book, and they laughed. Rufa called to ask why I missed Saturday knitting group three weeks in a row and did I need a noise session. I told her I was writing a book. I went down to Lards Coffee to sit with them again, and they asked what I was up to, and I told them I was writing a book, and they all laughed. Why did they laugh? I’m not sure. Maybe they think I don’t have a story or a voice to tell it with. Or maybe they think no one reads books anymore, at least not one written by an old woman who has never traveled much, never finished college, never finished a marriage, a career part time waitress. But I’ve read a few books over the years, some over and over, the ones I really like.

But just because you can climb into a dress and maybe even look good in it, doesn’t mean you have any idea how to cut and sew a pattern together, Hattie said.

Hattie’s in a book club, Rufa said, so she reads books, presumably. I don’t recall her ever talking much in knitting group about the books her club reads. Do you think the rest of us can’t read, then, Hattie?

Who’s to say who should talk and who should keep quiet? Who should try their hand at a book or grow flowers, swing a bat, or go after the dogs and beer? Curly said.

Why are you writing this book? Hattie said. Do you not realize how difficult it is to publish anything these days? There’s a reading crisis in this country, newspapers disappearing, book shops closing up, kids born with a cell phone stitched into their palm, though there’s still a chance of some success with a children’s book, they say. So what are you writing, Alma, your memoir with all these husbands of yours? But I still don’t understand why. What do you get out of writing? Isn’t writing rather boring, actually, sitting, sitting, sitting? Oh, shit, I dropped a stitch. I never imagined you one with the imagination for it, anyway. So what is it? Memoir? Or some science fiction horror fantasy about these five husbands you’ve been through? And at that they all had another good laugh.

But why don’t you read it to us, Rufa said, on the installment plan? Saturday mornings with Alma.

Hattie laughed barkedly at that. Annie and Curly didn’t seem to get it.

How to Build a Bed

Readers of “Penina’s Letters” may recall Salty talking about sleep. In the short excerpt below, he would have us believe he can sleep anywhere, anyhow:

But one thing I had learned in the Army was the useful skill of how to sleep. I had written Penina I could now sleep in private or in public, in a bed or on a floor, with blankets, in a bag, fully dressed including boots or naked, amid noise or in silence, in the dark or under a light, stomach full or hungry, head to toe or hanging upside-down from a chandelier. I could sleep under water if ordered to. But what I wanted now was to curl to sleep with Penina. I didn’t know I’d soon be sleeping with Penina head to toe.

We awoke uncombed, our sleep disturbed, disrobed and distraught, un-wombed. We climbed downstairs. All the beds upstairs. Why not a bed in every room? Where the cats make their beds, now here, now there, anywhere.

Joyce’s Bloom’s bed is built with springs, like the spring, in Bloom’s description, used in a ring toss game. When did you last quoit?

No. She [Molly] didn’t want anything. He [Bloom] heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled. Must get those settled really.

Beds can be awfully noisy at times.

We used to make tables, desks, beds using the same, simple, two-by-four construction design. A 2X4 frame supports a slatted or plywood top. Tools needed: hand saw, hammer, and nails. Nails allow for quicker assembly, but screws allow for easier deconstruction – so add a screwdriver. Parts needed: 2X4’s, plywood, or slats, nails, screws. Sandpaper for very rough spots, but this is not cabinetry work, not furniture, but practical and economical and time-efficient. The pieces are made to easily deconstruct, an important feature in our nomadic days.

I made a futon frame bed this weekend. I made the base, or platform, in two parts, so easier to move up or down stairs, around corners, easily strapped to the roof of a car.

The wood used was purchased years ago, having previously been used in the making of an extra long twin bed, and a desk with bookshelves installed against a wall (not so nomadic, that project). I’m not sure what the wood cost new would be today, and it’s possible that you might be able to pick up a frame unit lighter and cheaper at IKEA or some such store. If so, the utility of this bed construction design is already disappearing, like newspapers. But there are several deconstruction and recycling stores in our area where one can pick up used wood materials cheaply – as well as used tools, nails, and screws.

Note that with a futon mattress, no box springs are needed (the lower mattress in the common, two mattress bed set). And the futon itself is much simpler than the standard mattress: it’s made of cotton, can be rolled up, smells delicious, conforms to your body’s sleep design. The futon also can be deconstructed, though it should last a very long time.

The wood may be hand-rubbed with coconut oil to soften, protect and preserve, and add a flavorful scent to the bedroom digs.

Things to Do in the Twenty-First Century

CapitalI had thought Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” would be one of those books I would continue to read about but would probably not read first-hand. At 685 pages, its great strength data, its cost new $39.95 (speaking of wealth and distribution), the French economist’s thick tome was not on my list of books to keep an eye out for, let alone add to one of the several stacks of books to read already piled about the house. Piketty’s book is a stack of its own.

In an Isaac Chotiner interview with Piketty at the New Republic , Piketty himself speaks to to the difficulty of reading such books:

IC: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?

TP: Marx?

IC: Yeah.

TP: I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

IC: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.

TP:The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.

IC: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.

TP: No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.

But I was wrong. First, fortune brought “Capital” my way. I was walking down to a distant mailbox (like newspapers disappearing, so too are the neighborhood mailboxes). On my way, I looked into our local library box. Only about five or six books. The Believer magazines I’d dropped off the other night were gone. But there at the end of the top shelf in the library box was Piketty’s “Capital.” I picked it up. Looked unread, brand new. Weighed about five pounds. Would it still be there in the box when I got back from dropping off my mail? I glanced through it. Couldn’t take that chance. Not with this kind of fortune. So I walked away with it, feeling a bit guilty though because I knew I might not actually read it, those stacks of unread books about the house already weighing upon me like a seven course meal when you’re not really all that hungry to begin with.

But I was wrong. Second, the book is not all that hard a read. While it probably won’t make anyone’s top ten common reader list, Piketty’s book is clearly written, concise, with well-wrought sentences, and full of remarkable insights and surprises. Consider this paragraph, the subject of which (experiential, anecdotal, or empirical data) revitalizes the current humanities in crisis folderol. Piketty says,

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives. Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.

Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing (p. 2, Introduction, A Debate without Data?).

And we learn on page 24 of Piketty’s book (Figure I.I) that income inequality in the United States (1919-2010) was at its lowest between the years 1950 to 1980. From 1980 to today, income inequality in the US has grown steadily, and is now higher than it was during the Great Depression years. Those 30 years of comparative stability (1950-1980) allowed for a sharing of accumulation of capital and knowledge unprecedented and not seen since. The US working class achieved a remarkable degree of middle class provisions, its children went to college in unprecedented numbers, without incurring today’s debt for education, but today nearing or in retirement may be returning to its roots.

 Today’s library box held only three books, none of which I picked up: “A Nun on the Bus”; “Jesus for President”; and “Bernie Sanders: an Outsider in the White House.”