A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

Return of the Teacher

uc-book
Scott McCloud is on my short list of heroes. If you work in media, or education, or you’re curious about storytelling, you should read Scott’s book, Understanding Comics, at least once every five years. And if you happen to notice that he’s speaking nearby, change your plans and spend the hour watching his on-stage presentation (he posts his schedule here). During the past several years, Scott has been phenomenally busy—we’ve gotten to know one another a bit. He’s been writing, drawing and otherwise building a rather massive graphic novel (487 pages long) called The Sculptor. This is one of those one-person creative enterprises that completely dominates a professional life, where the plan is clear but the day to day execution becomes a kind of parallel universe. It’s a remarkable life: to be completely wrapped up not only in story but in visualization, too. No other medium demands this level of commitment from an artist, and no other medium affords so much creative control.

ScottIn book, lecture and conversation, Scott McCloud has taught me a lot. But it’s one thing to be a teacher and another to be the creator of the material. The expectations become unreasonably high. The student wants to see every lesson incorporated in exquisite elegant prose and picture. The story must be perfect. The storytelling, better than perfect.

His new book is not perfect. That’s an unreasonable demand. It is a very good book, well worth the $29.99 cover price (a lot for a graphic novel) and the two-and-a-half pounds of paper and binding (it’s a heavy book, both physically and metaphorically).

At the start, we meet the character pictured on the cover, the plainly-named David Smith, an artist who seems to have burned out early, speaking with his favorite uncle, Harry. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. David is miserable. His life is not working at all. He says, “My dreams keep growing, Harry, even while my options keep shrinking. It’s like they’re demanding that I make them, demanding to be seen, demanding to exist…and now I’m scared that I’ll never finish a single one.”
sculpt-bookAs David tells his story, the evidence of Scott’s visual storytelling skill propels the sense of reality. There are extreme close-ups and wide streetscapes, frames without dialog that communicate more than those with words, and an interesting isolation technique in which David is fully inked against a world that is rendered only in sketch form. There’s a girl, of course, an angel of sorts, and as in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a difficult-to-fathom big city art scene (Scott and Stephen wrestle with some similar themes.) Main character David tells us that he hates parties and by extension, the whole scene, but those pages are among Scott’s very finest: a crowded multi-page sequence where you can feel the energy of a noisy large-scale party and the frustration in coping with the idiots who won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to keep some girl within your visual range, while you’re trying to chase her before she’s gone forever. (Gee, he does this well!)

In time, the world becomes malleable. David, the sculptor, can sculpt whatever he wants. He can reshape roads and bridges. He shouts, with truthful glee: “I am the master of the universe!” Physically, that’s true, and the graphic novel form is ideal for showing us what he can do. It’s not long before he reshapes everything in sight, and becomes one of our most prolific artists (the process is astonishingly fluid, and fast). The room is filled with sculptures of giant hands, strange totem poles, the girl (a girl, that girl, which girl?)—unbelievable creative output! But along the way, his soul may not emerge intact—a deal with the devil that every creative person somehow encounters and, to some extent, masters (or doesn’t). He may be running out of time—another deal with the devil (in this case, Uncle Harry).

If you’re getting a sense that Scott’s latest work is cinematic in the scope of its story and deeply personal in a way that only a hand-drawn graphic novel can be, then I’m interpreting what he did with a degree of accuracy. Sure, there are scenes of sex and violence, trippy explorations of time and space curving around one another, gut-wrenching sadness, extreme anger (nothing like a graphic novel to screech and blast anger with words, pictures, abstractions). And a ticking clock—actually, a ticking calendar marking the number of days that David has left in his life. Or so it seems. There’s no requirement for closure—the book is more interesting because it doesn’t quite lend itself to a complete understanding of what happened or why. It takes about two hours to read, maybe three, and after complete immersion, your mind is likely to be so connected to David’s mind, it’s okay to think in terms of possibilities, not a singular ending.

photo-texasFor me, that’s the treat, same as reading Understanding Comics, same as watching Scott lecture, same as spending time with him. We’re living in a world filled with stories and ideas, and clever ways of communicating. If it’s all as simple as A-B-C, then the magic isn’t so magical. Life’s more complicated than a straight series of logical events—and that’s the beauty of a well0-crafted graphic novel. No shopping mall cinema audiences to satisfy with a clearly articulated happy ending. No need for extreme helicopter crashes or uncomfortable explosions punctuated with graphic violence. The story can be personal, it can be told by a single storyteller (provided the storyteller is willing and able to spend several years writing and drawing his epic), and it can be somewhat nonlinear. With that, a reader’s note: do it in one day. That is, find yourself a good stormy day, turn off the cell phone, and just lose yourself. Don’t think too much—just allow the storyteller control your mind for a few hours. We do this for movies all the time—with this book, you don’t want to disengage. You want to pay attention, and grab the ideas as they’re unfolding, then return to study the craft. Last weekend, I read the book. Today, a Saturday, I returned to study the construction of the visual sequences, the use of characters, my favorite scenes and how they were put together.

My next step: start recommending The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to others. That process has now begun.

Unknown

 

I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

A Blended Book about Blended Learning

bookThere is no DVD sewn into the back of “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” a new book by Clayton Christensen’s acolytes, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker. Instead, there are QR codes and URLS. If I’m reading with an iPhone or an iPad nearby, and I happen to have a QR reader installed, I can watch Clip #15, which shows how the Quakertown Community School District produces A La Carte courses to provide students with flexibility.” Sometimes, the QR code reader doesn’t do it’s job effectively, so it’s helpful to have the URL printed below the bar code. In fact, I am writing about “Blended” on an iMac, which does a lousy job reading QR codes with its built-in camera (too hard to bring the book up to the camera, then focus, etc.) So: what we have here is a blended solution, a book that relies upon videos to tell its story in an era when books lack any means to display a video except via an external device. And a free chapter to read.

Add a whole lot of scale, and many more people, and the problem of blended schools begins to take shape. We still have school buildings and classrooms, and millions of students making their way through a traditional curriculum, but many of those students now use digital devices to pursue their own interests, and most of these pursuits are individual activities, not collective learning experiences. So we do the best we can with a hybrid situation that will probably last a long while. The authors attempt to classify, codify and otherwise organize what we know and what it means, but they’re fully cognizant of the strange situation they are describing. And they are trying to make the best of it.

Quite reasonably, they begin with the now-commonplace thoughts on “Why Factory-Model Schools Fall Short Today,” and “Why Schools are Reaching a Tipping Point,” the latter detailing desire for personalization, desire for access and desire to control costs as three significant discussion points. They describe four common K-12 blended learning models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual, then drill down on several Rotation models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. Huh? To explain this not-so-helpful taxonomy, they break a rule of book publishing. They follow each chapter with its own appendix! Brilliant! I flip the page at the end of the chapter, and there are more pages to explain the concepts in more detail.

After reading the definitions, I was unimpressed with the current state of the taxonomy. Pretty much, some work is done online, some is done in the classroom, some involves more teacher interaction and some involves less. Lots of diagrams attempt to explain these very basic ideas—which aren’t all that different from learning during the 20th century, as some students were allowed more or less freedom based upon their own initiative and the teacher or school’s flexibility. (Important not to overthink these ideas, and also, not to rely too heavily on what seems to be impressive technology circa 2015).

The authors are Christensen people, so they tell the best stories about innovation and obsolescence. My favorite one—clearly told to agitate the laggards—goes like this:

…seeing steam’s potential, the old sailing-ship companies that specialized in wind-powered transoceanic travel did not completely ignore the new technology. The only place they could even think about using steam power, however, was their mainstream market—to help them build ships that would cross entire oceans even more efficiently. They had little motivation to refocus on inland waterway customers, given that they had the opportunity to build even bigger, more profitable ships to cross the oceans. Not wanting to dismiss steam power entirely, however, sailing-ship companies searched for the middle-ground. They ultimately pioneered a hybrid solution, one that combined steam and sails. In 1819, the hybrid vessel Savannah made the first Atlantic crossing powered by a combination approach; in truth only 80 hours of the 633-hour voyage were by steam rather than sail… The wind-powered ship companies never made a true attempt at entering the pure disruptive steamship market—and ultimately they paid the price. By the early 19o0s, the steam-powered ships, which started in those inland waterways that looked so unattractive to the wind-powered ship companies, became good enough for transoceanic travel. Customers migrated from sailing ships to steam-powered ships, and every single wind-powered ship company went out of business.”

And so, the authors ponder, “What will become of schools?,” how to design teams to innovate, “The Cost of Getting It Wrong,” and so on. This is a practical book, a companion or “field guide” to a previous book called “Disrupting Class” that is filled with the theory that makes these practical approaches work. Both are worth reading, both for educators and parents, and for those in businesses or other situations that are not yet equipped with the large-scale change that the 21st century seems destined to spread to so many of aspects of daily life.

Six Good Ideas from a Former Supreme Court Justice


The book is entitled “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” and it’s written by a justice who retired in 2010. While it’s difficult to read the book without wondering why Justice Stevens didn’t magically bring about change while in office, I suspect that the article that I found in The Atlantic is unreasonably harsh in its pursuit of this argument. As in:

The retired Supreme Court justice would like to add five words to the Eight Amendment and do away with capital punishment in America. It’s a shame he didn’t vote that way during his 35 years on the Supreme Court.

Those words would have abolished the death penalty by constitutional amendment. The new eighth amendment might include the italicized words:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted.”

If you’re on death row, or if you care deeply about someone there, those five words make all the difference.

Similarly, Justice Stevens would add five words to the second amendment, forever clarifying the confusion about personal gun use as a constitutional right:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

So far, just ten words, and we end up with a vastly different free and criminal culture. And even if I am several months late in reviewing Stevens’ book and his ideas, I think every American citizen ought to be thinking about what we want from our amazingly effective governing document. Here’s another, this time about the practice of reorganizing election districts for political gain (“gerrymandering” dates back to 1812—it’s named for Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry). This is all new, and a bit dense:

Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.”

UnknownAfter reading this suggestion carefully, I’m left wondering how it would be enforced, and whether politicians would pay it any mind. Maybe it’s the wording, maybe its the concept, maybe its a matter of “giving up” on the political system. That last statement, about giving up, is the whole point. We’re giving up on a system that doesn’t work as it should, perhaps because it has been gerrymandered beyond reason or recognition. Maybe Stevens has the right idea or the wrong words.

Moving on to campaign finance…

Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.

New words, good idea, but we’re caught in the non-virtuous circle of politicians making rules for themselves and other politicians. Interesting article in The New York Times focuses on this issue, and on Justice Stevens’ book. (And yes, Stevens dissented on the Citizens United decision.)

One of the reasons I am writing this article is selfish. I want a good clean list of the former justice’s ideas, and I couldn’t find one on the internet, so I wrote it myself.

The last two are more complicated and require a deeper understanding of Constitutional law and government action. He would like to add “and other public officials” to

All debts contracted and engagements entered into, before the adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, and other public officials, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

The final item is entitled Sovereign Immunity, and it’s more difficult to understand than the others. His suggested amendment:

Neither the Tenth Amendment, the Eleventh Amendment, nor any other provision of this Constitution, shall be construed to provide any state, state agency or state officer with an immunity from liability for violating any act of Congress, or any provision of this Constitution.”

OUnknownn the surface, this is clear, but it’s made more clear by the Justice’s twenty pages of commentary. In that endeavor, I’m sometimes a fan—his historical and contextual understanding is, well, supreme, but his ability to connect with a broad audience sometimes falters. The history becomes too complicated, the issues too tangled, nods to other justices sometimes adding complexity. On the other hand, we’re talking about a book that’s less than 150 pages and contains a whole lot of provocative, clearly presented material.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if every Supreme Court justice wrote a similar book?

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Decisive Moment

Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Best known as a prolific street photographer (for whom color was a commercial concession, not an aesthetic option), HCB’s life story is no less compelling than his lifetime of images. His career and personal commitments were well-described last year at an extensive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Happily, the exhibition has been packaged as a coffee table book by Clément Chéroux and published by Thames & Hudson. It’s expensive ($75) and it’s worth the money, in part because Mr. Chéroux curated the 2014 exhibition.

Students of photography associated HCB with “the decisive moment. Just as Martin Luther King (okay, “MLK”)’s life work far exceeds the brief period of his “I Have a Dream” speech, Cartier-Bresson’s infatuation with the precise instant when a photograph ought to be made is only part of an expansive range of artistic and journalist expression.

Born in 1908, Cartier-Bresson grew up in a comfortable Parisian household; the family owned a large cotton and thread manufacturing company. 1908 was also the year that, in England, Robert Baden-Powell published “Scouting for Boys” to support his new progressive approach to education known as the Boy Scouts. The organization’s combination of an active life for boys, with ample freedom and discipline, was a good match. At age 14, as a Scout, Henri began to experiment with photography, but only as  hobby. The family’s plan for Henri was all business—he was sent to the best schools so he could, sometime, lead the large family business. Of course, things didn’t work out as planned. Instead, with the blessings of his family, he studied art. Mostly cubism. Which he found “boring” because it was “too systematic.” He preferred the more expansive world view offered by surrealism. In October, 1930, by now free from both his formal education and military service, Cartier-Bresson followed Europeans curious about “the Dark Continent.” He spent nearly a year in Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, the French Sudan, Togo, and along the Niger River, he photographed children on the streets and people at work—avoiding the exotic and tribal imagery, just focusing on the day-to-day. Over the next few years, his casual interest in travel photography became a passion, then, a career. He traveled to, and photographed street activities in, Paris, Marseilles, Milan, Florence, Sienna, Trieste, Madrid, various parts of Mexico, and more.

Along the way, he learned by copying the styles of Eugene Atget (streets of Paris, store windows); European photographers intrigued by the geometry of city life (mostly); the golden section that is key to classic composition; various less-than-compressible surrealistic sketches and distortions. In time, he worked out his own style. Before he turned 30, he had created enough distinctive images to display his work in a successful exhibition.

The story becomes more interesting as HCB moves from travel photography and street work (often one and the same) to work with a more specific purpose: often, related to his attachment to the ideals of Communism. Stories of the Spanish Civil War, Mussolini, and the utter transformation of Europe are among the best stories—supported by some of the best images—in this book. He becomes concerned about poverty and tells his visual stories so they will provoke attention. He attends to the facial expression and behavior of crowds, often ignoring (and needing to caption) just what they are looking at. He documents free time—a relatively new idea in 1938 France, at least for the working class—and this is probably my favorite selection of his work. For example, a Sunday on the banks of the Seine from that year:

sfmoma-hcb-03-near-juvisy-1938

In truth, what I love about this book is the arc of the creative story. It begins with a smart teenager who decides he likes art and photography better than college and business, who grows up quickly as he travels and makes stunning pictures. Then, he finds his political and social conscience, and plays a very active role, using his photography as a very effective tool. Then, he realizes that his political affiliations will become a career problem, so he co-founds Magnum, a journalistic photo agency with Robert Capa and several other extraordinary photojournalists, and becomes one of LIFE magazine’s active contributors. Then, he explores topics that interest him: the growing connection between people and machines (a project for the IBM of the 1960s, for example), icons of power (very powerful—and decidedly odd—image of a giant Lenin in front of the Winter Palace in Leningrad as a man and his small child stroll in the foreground), and the ways that crowds behave. And then, in this 60s, he begins to slow down, to take images that are more focused on the feeling than the moment. And he begins to draw, picking up on something he loved to do as a child. He visits art museums, and spends hours sketching great works. He takes pictures of the family with his legendary Leicas. It’s a lovely life story, wonderfully punctuated by his pencil on paper self portraits from 1987 and 1992. One of the better free bios on the web is here. And there are a lot of smaller books filled with specific HCB projects that you can find on Goodreads, along with the compendium Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, The Image and His World, also from Thames & Hudson.

Henri-Cartier Bresson was born in August, 1908 and died in August, 2004—he lived, and documented, the better part of a century. And nobody did it better.

On the left, a picture of an American woman in 1947. On the right, “Giant Effigy of Lenin” from 1973.

american_woman-and-lenin

 

 

More Thoughts on Digital Book Publishing

Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.

In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.

At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.

More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.

With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.

Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on  independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.

What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).

What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.

 

The Isaacson Paradox

isaacsonWalter Isaacson is one of the smarter people in the media industry. As a keynote speaker for this past week’s Digital Book World conference, he talked about the limitations of his most recent book, The Innovators. (You probably know him as the author of the spectacularly successful biography of Steve Jobs.) Nowadays, he’s the leader of the Aspen Institute, the latest in a series of senior roles that include, for example, the chairmanship of CNN and the various old and new media roles at TIME Magazine. Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the slow-moving book business, he encouraged the audience to think beyond the printed volume and its close relative, the eBook filled with the same words and ideas.

Fresh from a deep investigation into media and technology innovation, Isaacson told the story of Dan Bricklin, inventor of the spreadsheet, whose innovation story deserved more space and more attention than Isaacson’s innovation book could reasonably provide. Bricklin told Isaacson the story, and Isaacson was appropriately fascinated. Somehow, Isaacson wanted to extend the conversation with Bricklin, open the book (the whole concept of a book) up to to a broader discussion so that other innovators could tell their stories, and readers could gain a much broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter that so fascinates Isaacson. A book should be more than a book, it should be the beginning of a conversation, an interactive gateway to more information, a means to connect interested parties. Books don’t do that, but given the available technology and associated behaviors of the digital generation, maybe they ought to do more than they do today.

I like the way Walter Isaacson tells a story. I like to watch and listen to him on stage, and I enjoy reading his books. I enjoyed reading his biography about Einstein, and I know that I will read his book about Ben Franklin in 2015 (I bought it for my wife, as a birthday gift when it was new in 2004—so many books, so little time!). There aren’t many biographers or historians I would place next to David McCullough, but Isaacson is one of them. He is one of America’s finest authors.

Walter, you just published 560 words about innovators. You’ve made sense of the science and divergent thinking pursued by Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee and other technology heroes. The story is neither simple nor easy to tell, but you’ve managed to put the pieces together in a very appealing package that I can buy for 20 bucks (hardcover), or 10 bucks (Kindle). Two words for you: good job!

Seriously, you do a terrific job with every book. That’s why we buy your books. You’re a reliably strong author who finds just the right details, composes just the right stories, paints a coherent picture, and provides a satisfying experience. Not many people do the job as well as you do, but plenty of people try, and some come pretty close.

At the risk of typecasting, and at the greater risk of being accused of being stuck in the 20th (or 19th) century, I’m really happy with your work. If I want to know more about Albert Einstein and his world, I can pick up Ronald Clark’s biography, or read the scientist’s own books. If you suggest another book, or perhaps a documentary or a good museum, I’ll jot it down and follow it up. I don’t need or want an expanded version of “The Innovators.” I’m sure you’ve collected far more information than you could possibly corral into a single book, and if you feel there’s a follow-on book, I’m sure you’ll write it and I’m equally certain that it will become a best seller, too. But I would prefer that you moved on, as I will do. I’ve gotten a good and healthy dose of the innovators’ story. I want you to write another great book that illuminates a part of life that I don’t know I want to know more about. I’m sure you’ve got a list of a dozen new ideas for next books. You’re going to be 63 years old in March—and your pace tends to be a new book every 2-4 years (let’s say 3). Keep writing until your 93rd birthday, and we can look forward to perhaps 10 more Walter Isaacson books.

Better for you to explore the wild new worlds of digital publishing and invent some new forms? Sure, go ahead, but do not stop writing books, and don’t slow things down too much. We need more Walter Isaacson books.

So there’s the paradox. Although Isaacson is eloquent about the future, his great value to society is in the present (in fact, telling stories about the past). And if he spends too much time on the future, we lose something wonderful about the present and the past, which diminishes the future.

Same idea, different words: Mr. Isaacson is one of the best hopes in the publishing industry for credible, popular new directions for books. On the other, we simply want him to be a wonderful author. If the author’s job is to tell a great story, does it make more sense to mess with the medium or master the message? Or to just keep doing and allow the road to lead where it may?

Reinforcing the paradox: on the first day of Digital Book World, I learned about the new interactive exploration application that children’s author/illustrator David Wiesner is going to release through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s called “SPOT,” and I plan to write about it soon. Why am I so excited about a new interactive venture from one of our best children’s authors, but so conflicted about how I hope Mr. Isaacson will spend his next thirty years? ‘Tis a paradox.

 

The New Rectangle

The old rectangle turned out to be a pretty good idea. Take a stack of papers, imprint each one, on both sides, with words and pictures, bind it all up, and sell it at a reasonable price. Printed books for children date back about 500 years (a fine article from a January 1888 of The Atlantic tells the story of the early years). Today, children’s books account for 37 percent of all books sold in the United States. In survey after survey, reading books shows up as a top activity for children from one to ten or eleven years old. About 70 percent of children in this age group read books for pleasure—compared with about 20 percent of adults. For most American children, reading books is a wonderful part of childhood.

By age 14, many children find other ways to occupy their time. Out-of-date mandatory school readings don’t help matters—“A Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are dubious “must reads” for 21st century middle schoolers. Is the answer a newer rectangle? Perhaps a new style of novel with some sort of built-in social network? A book on an iPad with snazzy interactive features?

Roughly 1 in 5 books sold in the United States is an eBook. Parents are interested in seeing their children read—so they buy lots of books, encourage literacy at every opportunity, and justify investments in iPads because these devices could encourage children to read more books, and spend more time reading. For some parents, that may seem reasonable, but 66 percent of teenagers read for pleasure–and they strongly prefer printed books!

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether traditional books offer one type of experience, and iBooks / eBooks / digital books provide another. (The usual argument: when home video became popular, the movie theaters did not go out of business.) I love the idea of reading a non-fiction book and AFTER my time with the book ends, I love to do a bit more research to learn more about the concepts that the author failed to discuss in detail. Do I need all of that in one digital package? Not really—I am fine reading the book in my comfy leather chair, then meandering over to the computer, or picking up the iPad, to learn more. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of what a digital book experience might be.

scaled_OM-BookBeginnerCollection1-Screen0-w997L-(255,255,255)-iPad.jpgFor example, maybe a digital book is not a book at all, but a kind of game. Scholastic, a leader in a teen (YA, or Young Adult) fiction publishes a new book in each series at four-month intervals. The publisher wants to maintain a relationship with the reader, and the reader wants to continue to connect with the author and the characters. So what’s in-between, what happens during those (empty) months between reading one book and the publication of the next one in the series? And at what point does the experience (a game, a social community) overtake the book? NEVER! — or so says a Scholastic multimedia producer working in that interstitial space. The book is the thing; everything else is secondary. In fact, I don’t believe him—I think that may be true for some books, but the clever souls at Scholastic are very likely to come up with a compelling between-the-books experience that eventually overshadows the book itself.

And what of the attics of the future? Your child—a grandpa with a dusty old attic in 2085—ought to have a carton filled with Rick Riordan stories and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that he can pass on to the young ones. He ought not mumble through some lame excuse about how every one of his favorite books was digital, and how those books were zapped from the cloud during the great digital storm of 2042.

So do we leave it there? Children’s books ought to be printed and saved, placed on library shelves and in attic boxes for the ages? Not when there’s a new rectangle! Imagine a book that makes sounds and flashes pictures on command, that builds a bridge to the imagination in a way that enhances the experience of a parent reading a book to a very young child (or, an older one). Gee, this must be done carefully! We want to retain so much that is special and unique about the old ways—the ways that we have perfected over hundreds of years, and really managed to get right during the past fifty or one hundred—and yet, we’re raising a digitally native population. So far, 58 percent of children enjoy daily access to a tablet (often, an iPad). Much of what will be invented has been invented—at least until there is a massive new injection of innovation. Today’s tablet probably resembles the tablet of 2018, but it might be smaller, thinner, more flexible. What we have now is a reasonably stable rectangle. But what to do, for children, within its four digital walls?

Last week, I spent a day pondering this issue with a few hundred people in the children’s book publishing industry at a conference called Digital Book World—the special section being entitled LaunchKIDS. Mostly, it was populated by people who work within the old rectangles, but remain curious about the new. Here and there, we learned about newer ones. Blloon (yes, it is spelled correctly) is encouraging people 18-34 (typically, less bookish than other populations) to subscribe to their service by using the number of pages read as a kind of currency (consumers pay for a certain number of pages, and engage in social activities to earn more). Google wants to “massively transform” the space (Google seems to say that about everything it sees or smells). Amazon is trying to make sense of analog vs. digital books, comparing the paradigm to hardcover vs. softcover books, for example.

Of course, there are no easy long-term answers. Except one. Kids like books. And parents like to buy books for their kids. So far, that doesn’t seem to be changing very much at all.

The four most popular children’s books (based upon Amazon’s sales—bookstore sales may vary).

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And, a popular Scholastic books into multimedia project, Spirit Animals.

Spirit Animals

 

Ellen Rocks On

I am beginning to read what Ellen Willis wrote. Some of it is familiar, but I lost track of her sometime last in the last century. She wrote about the counter culture, and, apparently, continued on that path long after everyone else had moved on. Willisimage_mini was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter. That clarity, and her passion, and her just-plain-good writing are the reasons why I will spend the winter reading every one of about fifty articles and essays in a book that her daughter Nona put together. It’s called “The Essential Ellen Willis.” I’m guessing you won’t find it in many bookstores despite the best efforts of the University of Minnesota Press, but it’s certainly available online. For someone who enjoys smart writing with more than a small dose of social conscience, it’s an ideal holiday choice.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page. To go there, click on the picture.

Who was she? Ellen Willis was born in 1941 and died in 2006. She was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, a columnist who wrote regularly for the Village Voice, and an educator at New York University (she founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program). She was a feminist, and an authentic, long-term voice for what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement, and became, in the 1980s and 1990s, a reasoned approach to social outrage. Her daughter Nona, who caused Willis such consternation about her own feminist place as a mother, is the protagonist in one of this book’s best articles, a Voice column entitled “The Diaper Manifesto.” Grown up, Nona Willis Aronowitz is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, an author, and, now, the compiler and editor of her mom’s best stuff. (This is the second effort: the first collected Willis’s rock articles and criticism in a book called “Out of the Vinyl Depths” from the same publisher.)

I wasn’t sure where to start navigating 536 pages of a writer’s collected work, so I started with an article about Bob Dylan that she wrote for Cheetah in 1967. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” was a new release, nearly two years after his serious motorcycle accident. It’s been nearly fifty (!) years since she wrote the article. She starts at the beginning, assessing the emerging folk music scene and his place in it:

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s [Folk City] in the spring of 1961, fresh skinned and baby faced, and wearing a school boy’s corduroy hat, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he has been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie-cum-Elliot, Blind Lemon Jefferson-cum-Leadbelly-cum-Van Ronk, the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs—especially blues—were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and his cap, burlesquing his own mannerism and simply enjoying himself.”

From July, 1986’s “The Diaper Manifesto,” which begins with Willis exploring her conflicted feelings about hiring someone to care for her child so that she can continue to write…

Before I had a child, I had lots of opinions on the subject. Two years afterward, some of them have stuck with me: I’m still convinced that staying home full-time with a healthy, rambuctious kid would turn me into squirrel food, that child care should be as much men’s job as women’s, that communal child rearing in some form holds the most hope of resolving the collision between adults’ and children’s needs, as well as the emotional cannibalism of the nuclear family. But for the most part, figuring out what kind of care best meets my daughter’s needs has been—continues to be—a processing of disentangling prejudice from experience.”

Progress is made.

“In the end, we hired a Haitian woman who, as a friend drily put it, ‘fit the demographic profile for the job’ and quickly put to shame all my stereotypes. Without the benefit of higher education, middle class choices, or green card, Philomese had all the psychological smarts I could ask for and tended to the baby with love and imagination…Quite aside from our own needs as working parents, Nona was clearly better off having an intimate daily relationship with another adult.”

From September 2009, outrage and clear thinking about the drug war:

According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally,, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the 60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse….If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs. I can only argue that the cost of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question is which ones are worth fighting.”

 

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