Oh Idiot! What should I want more Children for?

One of the less well-lit areas of human history is the history of children. Today, there are television channels, endless videos and photographs, schools of every description, as well as the occasional well-publicized story of a child who built a business or a charity. Our contemporary view of childhood is very different from the views held in the past, but I’ve always been insecure about the details.

Looking for a good book about childhood’s past, I waited for the new Second Edition of A History of Childhood, written by a Professor Emeritus from the University of Nottingham named Colin Heywood. Although written with scholarly correctness, it’s accessible, and it turns out to be a pretty good story, too.

He gets started in the Middle Ages, “a society which perceived long people to be small scale adults. There was no idea of education… and no sign of our contemporary obsessions with the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. The ‘discovery’ of childhood would have to await the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then would it be recognized that children needed special treatment, ‘a sort of quarantine’, before they could join the world of adults.” These early years are complicated because religious belief dominated; Puritans, for example, “did not necessarily have a high opinion of infants, the more zealous brethren assessing they were born as ‘filthy bundles of original sin’…

The Age of Innocence by painter Joshua Reynolds, circa 1788

By 1788, there are lovely paintings of innocent children, representative of romantic view, if not of all children, then certainly the fortunate upscale among them. She seems to be the perfect child, but parents remained conflicted about just what they were raising. There were constant ideological conflicts between innocence and depravity, superb and dreadful behavior, honorable and horrifying treatment, nature and nurture, independence and dependence.

To begin his fourth chapter, Professor Heywood begins with a provocative question, “To begin at the beginning, were children wanted?” Happily, the answer through the ages seems to be yes… but not too many! There were critics opposed to the whole idea, including the fourteenth century poet Eustache Dechamps, who write “Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety.” In the throes of motherhood, Hester Thrale (1741-1821) wrote in her diary, “this is a horrible Business indeed: five little Girls, too. & breeding again, & Fool enough to be proud of it! Oh Idiot!’ What should I want more Children for?”

After leading us through history of delivery, naming, godparents, and other ceremonies, we’re faced with the unfortunates, the unwanted children and their unhappy parents, and deepening the despair, the common death of infants and young children, no less a tragedy then.

Still, children survive and thrive. There are more and more of them, especially after we determine that they are better educated than put to work as small versions of farm hands and factory workers. In fact, they thrive, leading first to the astonishing 3 billion people on earth by 1900 (just as public education is beginning to take shape), then (beyond the scope of the book), taking us to 8 billion by about 2025.

As we begin toward the modern age, fathers have more time at home, so childcare, and the love of children, shifts from primarily a mother’s role, to an increasingly common model of shared parenting.

Heywood provides much more than a historical overview. He takes us into the room with the child as he or she grows up. Example: learning to walk, children were discouraged from crawling. Why? Indoors, floors were often shared with animals, and there was a certain discomfort in seeing one’s offspring propelling himself or herself in the same manner as a pig. There was also the cold of those floors, and the filth. Better to walk up on two legs–but not too soon, lest the child become crippled or otherwise deformed, as so many others seemed to be.

There have always been toys, and games, and nursery rhymes, too. And questions about gender stereotypes. “In antebellum America, for example, many girls preferred outdoor activities such as skating and sledding to playing with dolls. Toward the end of the century…three quarter of boys studied [were] playing with dolls, while girls sometimes acted more aggressively than their parents might have hoped.”

For those with mobility, some money and parents who would take them, there was “an impressive array of entertainments designed to instruct as well as amuse in eighteenth century England in the form of ‘exhibitions of curiosities; museums; zoos; puppet shows; circuses; automata; horseless carriages; even human and animal monstrosities.” Working class families made do with “cheap and cheerful entertainments such as dancing on the streets to a barrel organ or enjoying the hustle and bustle of a street market.”

There is evidence of children’s books in England as early as the 1470s–before Columbus visited the Caribbean. By the 1770s, there were plenty of children’s books, along with enough literate children to make good use of them.

Along the way–and beyond the frame of this article–we determine that children are worthy of their own education on a large scale, and that health care specific to childhood is a good idea, too.

Of course, I want to time travel, to talk to children and teenagers at the time they lived, in the places they lived. Even the best book on this subject–and this one is quite a good one–provides only snapshots and excerpts from earlier descriptions or diaries. Considering the great progress we have made on their behalf, I can only hope that someday, through some miracle of human genius, we’re able to travel back and understand the story more completely.

 

 

 

 

The Success of Smaller Cities

Traveling the world, I find myself drawn not the megapolis, but to the smaller cities where life seems so much more reasonable. The year 2018 included travel to Bulgaria, where I enjoyed Stara Zagora, an old place in the less-traveled center of the county, and in Slovenia, the charms of wandering around Ljubljana made me want to spend more time in sidewalk cafes along the old river bed. I really enjoyed my time in both Sheffield and Manchester, England, too.. And in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Certainly, the charms of London and Paris, and New York City (we’re exploring Brooklyn like tourists) are abundant, but there is something hopeful and forward-thinking about smaller cities that have found their way in the faster-paced, deeply complicated, economically confounding 21st century.

Given endless time and money, I would explore every small city I could, and maybe that’s what I’m doing. Along the way, I’ve become quite jealous of James and Deborah Fallows, who managed not only to do the trip by traveling in their own small plane, but also visiting about two dozen small cities and writing a popular new book about their adventures. It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

What have I learned from my travels? What did they learn from their travels? Did we learn any of the same things?

  • Most of these cities have a bona-fide downtown district where people shop, visit and hang out during the day, on weekends, and even at night. There are cafes, restaurants, retail open into the evening and sometimes later. I love finding the bookstore/cafe/bar that used to be a bank, the place where Tuesdays are open mic night, and people just sit around on comfy couches. One such place, the Book and Bar in Portsmouth, used to be a customs house and post office. It’s now open until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and until 1AM on Friday and Saturday nights. And it’s a great place to buy books. Food and drink are good, too.
  • They are very open to people from other places, and welcome these people as neighbors. Yes, this runs counter to the nationalist thinking that dominates the national conversation. Fallows: “Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington (VT), and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. Greenville (SC)’s mayor asked us to listen for how many languages we heard spoken on the streets from residents or from visitors.
  • There is a research university nearby. Often, but not always. Why does this matter? The international students and faculty, which leads to international restaurants, and smart families demanding more from the community and local schools, too. This is usually tied to an appreciation of the importance of public libraries, children’s programs, and similarly positive activities and enterprises. In Manchester, there is a substantial university community. Ditto for Rochester, NY, which struggles with a proper downtown (it faded away in the 1970s, and never returned), but benefits from several neighborhoods that may qualify because of the restaurant, music, club and other activities nearly every night of the week. In this category, I would probably add a good independent film theater that sometimes shows foreign films, and, a good vinyl record store (or, several good vintage clothing shops, I guess).
  • And a good community college, too. In the words of the Fallows: “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college…Just about every other world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential housing patterns, and the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people from welfare and prepared them for jobs in nearby factories that pay twice as much as local median household income. Fresno City College works with tech firms and California State University, to train the children of farmworker families (among others) for higher-tech agribusiness jobs…we saw a number of such schools that were clearly forces in the right direction. The more often and the more specifically people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”
  • They support several innovative schools. The specific approach or content associated with innovation seems to matter less than the imagination and bold decisions that make the school possible and allow it to thrive. It may be a specialty in technology, or mental health, or a maker culture, or it may celebrate the richness of local traditions, or global competence. The important idea here is the willingness of the community to take the time and the initiative to understand its responsibilities to the next generations, and to play an active role in their education. The Fallows celebrate “the intensity of experimentation.” As I spend time in schools throughout the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that want to stand out. For them, there is no crisis in education. There is opportunity and often success–accompanied by tremendous community involvement and authentic civic pride. You can see it on the children’s faces, you can easily observe it by watching behavior in the hallways and listening to the chatter, and, almost always, you can measure it (even with the over-the-top evaluation tools that many schools must use, regardless of their relevance to the ultimate goal of raising empowered kids).
  • People share a common mythology, and most people tell the same story about their town. I first noticed this in Bulgaria–every school child knew all seven of their city’s previous names (Bulgaria has been ruled by the Turkish and other peoples for a very long time). They know the history. They use the same words and phrases to describe what is meaningful and beautiful. It’s a delightful sort of local propaganda, but it certainly builds unity and identity in a way that feels authentic. I saw this in Ljubljana, in Manchester, and in so many other places. Big city folks may treat these stories with skepticism as they point out inconsistencies and ironies, but these local belief systems are very important, and often guide small cities to do the right thing.
  • National politics is over-rated, overwrought, and less interesting on a local level than national news would have us believe. In this country, coverage of ordinary people is lackluster and spotty. When you spend time in a cafe, or another public setting, you find good and decent people who care about one another and about their communities. They are concerned about what’s happening in the nation’s capital (I visited Whitesburg, Kentucky on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was a concern, but hardly the overriding concern of the day).
  • A small number of people “make this town go.” They may or may not be politically ambitious. They may be educators, or religious leaders, or people in the community who care. So they build fire department buildings, make sure the hospitals are well-funded, and help people in need. They also make sure the community is engaged, and see one another at events that are both fun and meaningful. I met some of these people. The Fallows met a lot of them. We both saw the same thing–and this is probably a small city phenomenon, more difficult to achieve and sustain in a larger city. Often, the strength of partnerships between private companies and public service providers is just plain normal–not special, so it doesn’t get much attention. But it works.
  •  They drink local craft beer. Increasingly, according to James Fallows, the local craft brewery and its popularity is a useful indicator of city pride and city progress. Not sure I agree because we’re now seeing remote ownership of these enterprises–maybe ten or fifteen years ago, he was right. And in the places where local beer in a local brewpub is owned by, managed by, and lovingly nurtured by local dreamers, he’s spot on. Me, I look for a local maker culture, a local music culture, a local food culture (farm to table, etc.), and anything resembling a new independent bookstore. I want to see the old city bar transformed into an extremely popular and fairly priced breakfast place where college students, day workers, and politicians all order muffins, pancakes, fresh juice and fresher coffee from the same blackboard menu. That’s the place I ate breakfast in Cumberland, Maryland, a city whose history was so captivating, I spend over $20 on a picture book about its history, even though my time as a visitor was under four hours.

Muffin and Friend, Cafe Mark, Cumberland, Maryland, USA

A Fresh Look at Classical Music

When I write “classical music,” you probably think Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, or maybe Chopin, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. Bach died in 1750, Mozart in 1791, Beethoven in 1827, Chopin in 1849, Brahms in 1893, and Tchaikovsky in 1897. If you think in more modern terms, there’s Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971), and two musical buddies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (both d. 1990). Will we ever see another famous classical composer? Or is all of this old news, overtaken by the expense of orchestras, the greying (whiting?) of the audience, the popularity of crossover music or orchestras playing Star Wars in concert, or the popularity of song-based (as opposed to album-based) streaming services?9780520283152

Yes. But. Classical music has been dying for centuries. If you’re seeking the new Beethoven, you’re on the wrong path. If you’re wondering how new ideas and new technologies have energized and blurred the definition of classical music, I’ve got a book for you. It was recommended by Alex Ross, whose own book, The Rest Is Noise, is probably the best book about 20th century music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a journalist, formerly the contemporary music editor at both Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, so his background is solid.Tim begins After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 before the breaking of the 21st century, and manages to place music in the micro-context of the times: this is a history book filled with very recent history, covering just short of thirty years.

Some of the contemporary composers’ names may be familiar. John Adams writes instrumental music and operas; you may be familiar with Shaker Loops, or Nixon in China. John Luther Adams has become quite famous for Become Ocean. (I am curious about his music, and will likely devote a full article to his work next year.) Thomas Adès is a British composer who has become quite popular. John Corigliano is both a popular conductor and a composer, perhaps best known for his post-2001 tribute, Of Rage and Remembrance. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered a new approach to classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Reich’s experimentation with combinations of sounds and music influenced lots of 21st century musicians (his influence is so widespread, and so much a part of contemporary culture, many modern musicians don’t quite realize that their music ties back to his work). These legendary 20th century  innovators are roughly the same age–an astonishing 81/82 years old.

Henryk Gòrecki passed in 2010, but his Symphony 3, recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with vocals by Dawn Upshaw, has been a tremendous commercial success. Its appeal overlaps the work of Arvo Pärt, also in his eighties, whose contemplative recordings with ECM New Series, and other labels, resulted in the Vice article, “How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music.” This past weekend, The New York Times published a somewhat similar article about György Kurtág from Romania, who is now 92. He finally finished his first opera, based upon the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame.

Add John Tavener (d. 2013) to the list, too.

Obvious question: are all of the new classical composers dead, or in their 80s or 90s? Nah, they’re just the ones who have enjoyed the last gasps of the recorded compact disc format. And there isn’t an easy way to promote a streaming thing, so you’re going to need to look beyond records to learn about the next-gen classical music. Or read the good advice provided by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. For example…

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

There’s the Kronos Quartet, a popular group that has long experimented with modern classical compositions, often in combination with music from many different parts of the world. In 2015, they released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (another contemporary classical composer from the 20th century), but their catalog includes work with or by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Sigur Rós (Iceland), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), Witold Lutoslawski (Poland), the familiar Henryk Gòrecki (Poland–they play on several of his most popular recordings), and also Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Thelonius Monk.

There’s Mark Turnage, who wrote a provocative, but accessible, opera called Anna Nicole (Smith–a former Playboy model “equally notorious for her surgically enhanced body and her marriage to a a billionaire sixty-three years her senior”). According to Tim, Turnage is “a brash yet accessible talent.” It debuted at London’s Covent Garden with Led Zepellin’s John Paul Jones in the band.

We are just beginning Tim’s tour. As music becomes less place-based, in part due to technology and in part due to a desire to perform in new ways, he considers The Silk Road Ensemble’s concerts which “blend Western and non-Western, art and vernacular” as the musicians play traditional (native) and nontraditional instruments– it is “built on the principles of cultural exchange, learning and understanding… more like a jazz group than an orchestra).

Messing with the expected is central to new ways of thinking about music. For example,, “(Brian) Ferneyhough’s more recent music disrupts the pathways of memory, overloading, thwarting, or redirecting them. Incipits [1996], for violin and small ensemble, for example, is composed of several separate “beginnings,” which draw the listener into a set of expectations they must keep having to drop and reboot [a musical parallel to Italo Calvino’s novel, If one a winter’s night a traveler). Memory here is activated, only to wiped clean.”

I found the two sections about “Loss” and “Recovery” especially interesting. Loss introduces the work of John Luther Adams in connection with “evocations of the landscape, the English and Latin names of birds and plants, poems in two Native American languages…Adams has sought to render aspects of the Alaskan wildness, drawing attention to specific places and their need for protection.” (The work is a “quasi-opera” called Earth and the Great Weather.) In Recovery, he describes the work of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh which “identifies a space between past and present, traditional and contemporary, and Asian and Western…Because it exists in gaps–deliberately not fixed to anything, the music of Ali-Zadeh, Kanchelli, and other composers of the former Soviet Union proved able to slip between stylistic boundaries…”

Of course, I could go on, but my curiosity is now well ahead of my listening experience. I need to catch up, to slide away from emails and websites so I can spend more time attending to the music that is being made all around me. This is made somewhat more complicated by my current (and growing) interest in music that precedes Bach, Beethoven and the rest–as I begin an exploration of a remarkable early music group from England called The Sixteen, whose CDs should arrive any day now.

As I look forward, I also look back. Inevitably, I stumble into strong connections between the present, the future and the deep past. That’s what I love about music discovery.

And it is endless.

Begin with a Single Step

“Hiking in the tropics is not everyone’s cup of mango juice. Here, humidity, sweat, jungles, mud, mosquitoes, and the possibility of meeting creatures ranging from jaguars to the venomous fer-de-lance viper are all part of the fun of attempting to cross Panama from its border with Colombia to its border with Costa Rica.” – TransPanama Trail, Panama

“Wallabies hop through the tall grass. A burrawong grasps a backpack zipper in his beak and starts to undo it. A snake slithers by: there’s a 100 percent chance it’s venomous.” — Overland Track, Australia

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that recreational mountain hiking was born in the Alps. Once the shroud of medieval superstition was lifted, the mountains exerted an almost magical pull on scientists and adventurers alike…. Some of the routes and passes have been used as corridors of transportation since the Middle ages, and even before, when they allowed people from one valley to cross over into the next.” — The Haute Route, France and Switzerland

“It is a network of trails, a funnel of routes that leads to the Cathedral…where a daily mass announces and celebrates the pilgrims who flow in, sometimes at a rate of thousands a day.” — Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

“The view from Mackinnon Pass is certainly up there in ‘the finest walk in the world’ category. If, that is, you get a chance to see the snow-covered peaks and the hovering clouds that create their patchwork of light and shadow…Waist-high water flooding the trail and waterfalls blowing sideways may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sheer power of the experience eclipses so many others. It’s the kind of adventure that sticks with you, years later, when you are spinning stories and mining memories. — Milford Track, New Zealand

Maybe it’s possible to everywhere you want to go in a single lifetime. Certainly, there is no shortage of great walks, pleasant strolls, and world-class hikes at our disposal. Getting there costs money, and it’s not as if you can limit your adventure to a day (often a week, or a month, is insufficient), but most of the great hikes of the world are free. Some require reservations because the routes can become overloaded, but only during peak season, which, of course, varies depending upon where you are in the world.

Karen Berger is one of the lucky people–she has hiked nearly 20,000 miles “including thru-hikes of America’s triple crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide). And now, I think of myself as one of the lucky people, too (armchair division) because I’ve studied the pictures and read her inviting prose in a terrific not-quite-coffee-table book published with the American Hiking Society. It’s called Great Hiking Trails of the World–and I love the sub-title: “80 Trails, 75,000 Miles, 38 Countries, 6 Continents.”

More than two dozen of the hikes are in the United States (which is a bit disappointing because I would have liked to see more in South America, Africa, and Asia). There are nine in England, Scotland and Wales, and someday, I hope to walk at least a few of them. The dream is the walk from northern to southern Europe, just because the transverse looks kind of cool, but the most interesting candidate is probably the Pyrenees High Route, one of the few wilderness courses in Europe.

As much as I enjoyed reading what Karen wrote, it’s the photographs that draw me in. The book is about the size of a vinyl record album cover, and most of the images are full-page (or two-page spreads), so the flowery valley and the distant mountains and the thick clouds on Sweden’s Kungsleden are full of life, and the cliffs of the Wales Coast Path are very much as I remembered them in real life. That path will soon be connected with the England Coastal Path, and together they’ll keep a hiker busy for 3,670 miles. If you’re hiking 2 miles per hour, that’s 1,835 hours–basically, a full year’s walk should you decide to devote a year of your life to nothing but hiking. Most people are day hikers, perhaps devoting a few days or as much as a week to a really good walk. (In case you’re curious, The Appalachian Trail publishes historical stats on its website–long hikes are gaining popularity).

Overall, this is a wonderful book about adventure–but it’s accessible, enjoyable and easily appreciated by anyone who dreams of where they might go someday. For that reason, I’ll nominate Great Hiking Trails of the World as one of the best ideas for a holiday gift this year. Second best gift: take somebody on a really long, spectacular hike. Maybe next year.

Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

The Tiger, The Hedgehog, and The Grand Decoration

The tiger is George’s Clemenceau, great friend of hedgehog Claude Monet, who turns out to be the last of the impressionists. The story picks up long after Monet had moved to his lovely garden home in Giverny, about halfway upriver from Paris on the way to Rouen. And may recall Rouen because that’s home to the ancient cathedral that Monet painted more than thirty times under all sorts of light. Monet was that kind of artist—obsessive, meticulous, perfectly happy to spend endless hours interpreting the London fog or wheat stacks (similar to hay stracks) not far from his home in the country. When author Ross King picks up Monet’s story, the artist is less enthusiastic about travel, but eager to serve and take healthy part in a lavish lunch before touring the beautiful Giverny garden, visiting the pond and lily pads, or showing off his latest work, most often very large paintings. By now, Monet is far more active than many men his age, still active enough to build a new studio adjacent to the house and fill it with new paintings. Cataracts and other health problems make seeing, and therefore painting with the specific colors he requires, a terrifying challenge. And there is a Great War on the horizon, so his life’s work may be destroyed by the German forces already notorious for precisely this sort of mayhem.

He is also an extraordinarily difficult, insecure, proud man who feels that he must do more for France, provided that doing more is possible on his own exacting terms.

Caught in the middle of what always seems to be a dramatic mess is his faithful friend George’s Clemenceau, who happens to be the nation’s top politician, the man who runs France’s war effort, and is, for much of the book, the only person in the world who can control (and at times, even speak to) the artist.

And so begins the tale of Monet’s oversized, overwrought, absolutely spectacular series of giant water lily paintings—and the custom-redesigned building, The Orangerie, their central Paris home. It is a struggle to the death… the extreme uncertainty that amonet’s temperament, and eyesight, would remain in good working order until the grand decoration, as he called the collective works, were complete.

It’s easy to marvel at Monet’s paintings, but the difficulty he endured in bringing these paintings to life, protecting his work and his artistic soul, and stubbornly insisting that the work be displayed in a very particular way is awesome in the true sense of the word. Is this the craziness and crankiness of an older man who knows the end is near? It would be difficult to argue against that assessment. But here we are, more than a century later, visiting Paris and enjoying the artist’s work in precisely the way he wished, and it’s not easy to claim that his approach was wrong. At the time, sure he was difficult. In the long term, perhaps he was right. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere, not for all, but certainly for some creative professionals. some of the time. Perhaps stubbornness is under-rated.

Author Ross King is both experienced and skillful in recounting the stories of great artists in their prime. One of his best titles is Brunelleschi’s Dome, another in the “is he a madman, or is he a genius?” genre that he handles so well. The best-selling Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a story that has been told in motion picture form–The Agony and the Ecstacy–but his treatment of the material is especially vivid. High marks to Leonardo and The Last Supper, too.

(You should certainly spend time at The Orangerie’s website. It includes a wonderful history, and a virtual tour so you can see all of the great decoration paintings.)

 

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

Happy Jólabókaflód

I think I’ve got the accents about right, but there might be a cross on that final d. In any case, we’re talking about an Icelandic book flood that occurs this time of year. A friend reminded me with this graphic:

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There’s a sweet article about the tradition here, on Treehugger. I especially liked this quote: “The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

If you’d like to know more, visit this NPR story from 2012.

With so many stories on the internet, I’m surprised this one has so few articles from news sources. I suppose that’s a very good reason to go to Iceland this time of year. To read books with the wholehearted encouragement of a nation of readers.

 

Something of a Retraction: Cleese letter to the U.S.

It doesn’t happen often enough, but this time, I went directly to the source. Or the person I thought was the source. Earlier this week, I actually spoke with John Cleese. He’s funny, smart and charming. And he told me that he thought the letter (below) was nicely written, and rather clever, but he did not write it. Nor did he write the other letter that’s making its way through the internet.

—–

Published on November 14, 2016

To the citizens of the United States of America, in light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective today.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II resumes monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Theresa May, MP for the 97.8% of you who have, until now, been unaware there’s a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America. Congress and the Senate are disbanded. A questionnaire circulated next year will determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid your transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. Look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check “aluminium” in the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you pronounce it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’. Likewise you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary.” Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up “interspersed.” There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you should not have chat shows.

2. There is no such thing as “US English.” We’ll let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’.

3. You should learn to distinguish English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). Scottish dramas such as ‘Taggart’ will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.You must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon.” If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1.

5. You should stop playing American “football.” There’s only one kind of football. What you call American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.1% of you aware there is a world outside your borders may have noticed no one else plays “American” football. You should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every two seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies) You should stop playing baseball. It’s not reasonable to host event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside of America. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders,” which is baseball without fancy team stripe, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

6. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns, or anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because you are not sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you need a permit to carry a vegetable peeler.

7. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday. It will be called “Indecisive Day.”

8. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left. At the same time, you will go metric without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

9. Learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t French, they’re Belgian though 97.8% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Potato chips are properly called “crisps.” Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat.

10. The cold tasteless stuff you call beer is actually lager. Only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer.” Substances once known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine,” except for the product of the American Budweiser company which will be called “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine.” This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

11. The UK will harmonise petrol prices (or “Gasoline,” as you will be permitted to keep calling it) for those of the former USA, adopting UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US gallon, get used to it).

12. Learn to resolve personal issues without guns, lawyers or therapists. That you need many lawyers and therapists shows you’re not adult enough to be independent. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, you’re not grown up enough to handle a gun.

13. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.

14. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).

END

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