High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

Digital Yiddish

Yiddish-Book-Center

(Photos by Howard Blumenthal)

Last week, we spent some time in central Massachusetts–we wanted to buy t-shirts at Hampshire College, and maybe a few children’s books at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We’ve traveled in this area before. Although we’d noticed the shetl-style architecture of the Yiddish Book Center on the same campus, we never visited. It was a picture-perfect summer day in New England, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend any time indoors, but I inside “just for a few minutes.” I could have spent all day. In fact, I spent the next two days reading Outwitting History, written by Outwitting Historythe center’s founder and leader, Aaron Lansky. The book’s subtitle provides only a glimpse of what Lansky, and the Center, has accomplished, and will do: ‘The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Jewish Books.’

Much of the book is devoted to Lansky, his friends, co-workers, and friends collecting the inheritance–the books collected by Jews who had brought their culture from Eastern Europe, and other places, often overcoming obstacles before they landed in their small apartment in Brooklyn, the Bronx or New Jersey. Getting to know these people one by one, Lansky would load his rented truck with shopping bags and cartons of books, often from people whose next step was a retirement home. Just about every visit came with an obligatory range of dishes “cooked special for you” so “you shouldn’t be hungry.” In a typical spread, there would be onion bagels and lox, kasha varnishkes, potato latkes, and lokshn kugl (noodle pudding), plus herring, chopped liver, and other traditional dishes. And conversation. Lots of lots of stories, one about every book, the times, the culture, the memories. In time, Lansky learned to travel as one of a team of three people: “two do do the shlepping and the third to be the Designated Eater. the latter was the really hard job. While the others carried boxes, you had to sit with the host at the kitchen table, listening to stories, sipping endless glasses of tea, and valiently working your way through a week’s worth of dishes cooked ‘special’ just for you…”

Over two decades or so, Lansky and his colleagues accomplished the impossible–they collected a million copies of Yiddish books. The best ones are now safer than they have ever been; they’re housed in a carved-out mountain that was built as a military facility (remarkably, it’s less than a mile from their Hadley, Massachusetts headquarters). The Center has supplied about 500 university and research libraries with Yiddish book collections (before the Center, only six such collections existed anywhere in North America). If you’re in the area–between Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts–you can look at any of thousands of books, and you can buy most of them (there are more than enough extra copies around). Some titles are Yiddish translations of popular works by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Poe, Dickinson, and other popular writers. Many are original Yiddish works of fiction, plays, poetry, history books, cookbooks, children’s books, and more. And if you can’t make your way to Massachusetts, you can visit the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online collection of more than 10,000 Yiddish titles, with each book page scanned (most of the original books were published on pulp paper, and some tend to disintegrate with each page turn, so digital technology saved the day).

New Yiddish Library's most recent title: Moshe Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

New Yiddish Library’s most recent title: Moshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

There is, of course, one problem. The books are written in Yiddish, and must be read in the original language. The Center has a deal with Yale University Press, and some titles are now available in English translation, in book form. More are on the way, but this solution is a minor one.

The major one, of course, is that role of Yiddish has changed, and the people who knew, know, and can claim literacy in Yiddish has been greatly diminished. At one time, more than eleven million people spoke, read, and communicated in Yiddish. That time was 1939, a year before the devastation by the Nazis, and a decade before the the shift into modern times, suburbia, and beginning the end of the old Jewish neighborhoods that once defined so much of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and other cities where Yiddish was common currency.

When Lansky was a graduate student in search of a few Yiddish books for graduate school, when he traveled by truck to collect books from crumbling old publishing warehouses and Jewish community centers in the neighborhoods where many Jews once lived, his focus was saving books. Now, the agenda for the Center is even more compelling: books continue to arrive, but the people who can translate them, with appropriate cultural context, are few. It’s one thing to translate the words, quite another to present the story in ways that are both true to the original sensibility and sufficiently interesting to contemporary readers. Yiddish was always a people’s language, informal and spoken at home, never the official language of state affairs or religious ceremonies. As Lansky points out, time and again, all of his scholarship, all of the scholarship gathered by his many friends and associates, all of it pales in comparison with the ninety-year-old man who is sitting in his small Newark apartment, sharing tea and Entenmann’s crumb cake, shopping bag full of books at his side, ready to part with his lifetime of favorite Yiddish novels, books he loves because they were so much a part of his life.

His books are safe now. They will be treated with loving care. They will find a new home. Some will be translated into English so that even those of us who cannot read Yiddish can understand the basics of what they have to say. The work will be done by human translators, and in time, perhaps, by digital translators, too. The love, the sense of what the world was like, the passion, the feeling for the characters and situations created by the great Yiddish writers, poets, playwrights, stage performers, radio performers, singers, these will be more difficult to capture and store inside a mountain in Massachusetts.

yiddish-book-shelvesAt the very least, Lansky, his friends, his co-conspirators, the Center’s network of scholars and friends and donors, the network of zammlers (two hundred people who collect books worldwide for the Center) have taken the first step. We now have the books, and nobody is going to take them away from us. And they’ve taken the second step: the books are now available, through various re-disribution schemes, to people everywhere. The third step is the mind-bender. How to republish the works, maintaining the integrity and magic of their original words and ideas in a world where (a) the whole book publishing industry is trying to figure out its digital future and path to thrival (my made-up word that goes beyond survival into thriving); (b) few people read Yiddish; (c) Yiddish culture is becoming  historical fact rather than a cultural reality; and (d) as interested as I may be, I don’t think I have every read a single Yiddish book, and apart from Sholom Alechem (whose work was the basis for Fiddler on the Roof), I don’t think I can name a single Yiddish author.

That will change, of course. Shame on me for missing this part of my cultural education.

Thank you, Norman Temmelman of Atlantic City, Sorell Skolnik of the Mohegan Colony, Mr. Kupferstein, Marjorie Guthrie (Woody’s wife), and Sam and Leah Ostroff, for helping Aaron Lansky. And thank you, Mr. Lansky for opening the door for me. As I read the books, I will pass them along to friends, to my father and my sons, and attempt, in my small way, to be a link in the chain. I suspect there is a Yiddish proverb beneath all of this, or, at least, a few Yiddish words to describe what’s on my mind, but those words are lost to me. Perhaps I will find a few of them along the way.

yiddish-type

Learning from Woody

On July 12, 2012, Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old. This poster commemorates a life well-lived, and a voice that has never rested. You can support the Woody Guthrie Foundation if you buy this poster. You can learn a lot from Woody. I did, as explained below.

“Hey kids, want to sing a song? Some of you might know this song, but the words can be hard to remember. Here’s a sheet with the lyrics…”

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

Singing “This Land Is Your Land” as a group exercise begins an exploration of surprising dimensions. Note how broad, deep and wide Woody Guthrie’s river of highway manages to travel.

Just as most people’s knowledge of Martin Luther King begins and ends with an “I Have a Dream” speech and a murder in Memphis, most people’s knowledge of Woody Guthrie begins and ends with one popular song. Turns out, there was a lot more to Woody, and, a lot more to this particular song. Here’s a lyric that you might not have heard Woody sing:

 There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property.

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

Woody sang this song (and many of his songs) with different verses (see note 1 below). Among folk singers, and storytellers, this remains common practice (also, among jazz musicians, but rarely among the commercial performers whose recordings are usually the definitive versions of their songs). In fact, Woody’s own life story can be difficult to follow because he often recalled his own life as a storyteller might– with different details depending upon his audience.

As I think about Woody Guthrie, and about how people learn, I envision a different kind of education than most people find at school, an education based upon individual learning and ideas that connect with one another, and with the heart and soul. I think that’s a better way to learn, or, at least, i think that’s the way I learn.

Turns out, Woody’s full name was Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, and he was named for a presidential candidate, then president of Princeton University. By age 14, Woody was living pretty much on his own in his hometown, Okemah, Oklahoma; his mother had been institutionalized with the Huntington’s Disease that would later take her life, and his father was living in Texas (see note 2 below). Woody becomes a street musician, then leaves for promise of California, one more Okie whose life was shaped by the Dust Bowl tragedy. In Los Angeles, he sang hillbilly music on the radio as part of a duo, but spent lots of his spare time thinking about, and writing about, working class people who could not find work. Woody wrote protest songs, and, for a few months, wrote for a Communist newspaper (though he was never a member of the Party).

Learning about Woody in the 1930s leads the interested student (me, among them) into the plight of real people during the Depression; ways in which creative people somehow earn a living; why creative people sometimes find traditional work difficult to do; the importance of unions for the working man; the story of the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River; socialism and communal living; the blacklists of the early 1950s; life in a singing group; writing an autobiography; the usefulness of cartooning (Woody drew cartoons); the work of the Library of Congress in preserving the nation’s heritage; the slow demise of Coney Island and Brooklyn in the 1940s; deportation of immigrants; the emergence of Bob Dylan and 1960s folk singers in Greenwich Village; the life of Leadbelly, an ex-convict (doing time for murder) who sang his way out of lifetime in prison to become a popular folksinger (he was Woody’s friend; “Goodnight Irene” was one of his songs); Sacco & Vanzetti and questions regarding fair trials; the concept of an artist’s legacy; a son carrying on his father’s work and then finding his own way as an artist and a man; a granddaughter finding her way through the music industry, too.

Clearly, Woody’s music and Woody’s story appeals to me. In writing these two pages, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m certain that I will follow up. That’s how I learn. I wonder whether most people learn this way. I suspect they do.

Notes:

1 – An interesting question for aspiring musicians: when is a song “finished?” Is a song a continuing work of art that should be malleable, or is it final at the time it is recorded. This conversation quickly leads to another about copyrights and how they work: which version of the song would be protected by copyright, and why?

2 – Later, Woody Guthrie would die from the same hereditary disease. This leads the student to a study of genetics, family trees and genealogy, and diseases of the nervous system. George Huntington’s 1872 discovery of the disease is an interesting story about how diseases are identified, and how medical research has evolved. Back further, one theory of the “witches” burned in 1672 in Salem, Massachusetts connects the women involved with symptoms associated with Huntington’s disease. Playwright Arthur Miller told this Salem story differently when he wrote his play, The Crucible, to get people to think more critically about anti-Communist campaign waged by the dubious Senator Joseph McCarthy.

3 – Further encouragement: I’m not the first to see the value of Woody Guthrie’s life and art as a platform for further learning in a many related areas of knowledge. Guthrie curriculum materials can be found here.

Bye Bye Bookstore (Mea Culpa)


I love bookstores. Also, record stores, art supply stores, just about any kind of store where creative work defines the merchandise.

And, I’ve been fortunate because there are three good independent bookstores less than a half-hour from my home: one in the county seat, one in a town dominated by tourists, and one in a university town that’s also an easy drive (plus, several more that sell used books).

Unfortunately, this month, we’re losing the neighborhood bookstore that’s just five minutes from home. They didn’t make it. They cite e-books, internet bookstores, and the nearby Barnes & Noble (the nearby Borders closed a few years ago). The economics confuse me. Maybe you can make sense of it all.

My family buys a lot of books: probably 40 or 50 books each year. We buy more books, for personal use, than anybody we know. Assume 50 books at $20 per book, and that’s $1,000 in retail business per year. I would be proud to say that we’ve bought all of them from our local independent booksellers, but I can’t say that because it’s not the truth. It would be fair to say that we’ve bought about 1/4 of those books while traveling (we especially like Toadstool Bookshop in New Hampshire, for example), and half of them online because of the convenience, price, or quick delivery. The other 1/4, we probably buy locally.

One good example: a biography of the old superstar, Will Rogers, priced at $24.95 in paperback from a local bookstore, available for $16.47 from Amazon (with free shipping). We’re smart consumers–we saved $8.48 because we bought from Amazon. In a year, we make this decision maybe 20 times, so maybe we save $200 per year by buying this way. As I said, we’re smart consumers.

But we’re stupid citizens. Our extra $200 per year matters to a local bookseller. If 100 customers paid the higher price instead of saving the money, that’s an additional $20,000 per year for the local bookseller. If 1,000 customers, the additional revenue nears a quarter-million dollars.

So here we are, all of us, the book lovers and the book consumers, happily saving money by shopping late at night and taking advantage of super saver shipping and the deep inventory that online booksellers provide… all the while forgetting about our neighbor, the small business person, who is spending every late night trying to figure out how to keep the local bookstore’s doors open.

When I think about this, I feel stupid. As I said, I really like bookstores, but just this morning, I ordered two books from Amazon, and I saved $7.33 on one of them and $15.78 on the other. This afternoon, I thought about visiting my local bookstore, the one that has been five minutes away from my house for the past few years.

It was closed.

I feel foolish. Why didn’t I do more to keep a community institution in place?

Power of the Press

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/11/911-september-11-newspapers_n_957297.html

Admittedly, I am writing and you are reading on a device that is rapidly destroying print media.

Still, it’s worth the time to browse the ways that today’s remembrance was visually presented on newspaper front pages in US cities and throughout the world. There are so many lessons here: about journalistic priorities, visual communication, heart and soul, and more.

No other medium can do this.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 219 other followers