Monthly Archives: February 2008

Useful thoughts on my book problems

One of the frustrations of renting a house since we moved to California nearly three years ago is that we haven’t been able to unpack all of our possessions, particularly our books. We shipped 120 boxes of books from London to Berkeley, and most of those boxes are still in my sister’s basement.

Well, we’re hoping to buy a house soon, which would give us the chance to liberate all those books. But even in bookish Berkeley, the truth is that few of the houses we’re looking at have enough room to house our 4,000-odd books. So I’m taking considerable solace from Caleb Crain’s musings on pruning your bookshelves:

If you are an open-minded reader, you’ll end up with books you once intended to read but haven’t so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn’t.

Should you therefore throw them out? From the comments at the end of Scott’s essay, it transpires that an important and enjoyable perquisite to having a library of one’s own is deciding what belongs in it and what doesn’t, and that different people decide the question differently. I’ve never worried about displaying books I haven’t read. “Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask. I find the discussion fascinating nonetheless, because lately I have been Throwing Books Out.

This does not come naturally, but I have no choice. It’s a question of limits. A larger apartment is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, and I realized a few weeks ago that if I were to buy that one last bookcase that I’d been planning on, the feng shui of my study would abruptly become prisonlike. The stacks of books clogging my study floor have nowhere to go, unless other books exit. There have been half a dozen trips to the Strand in the last couple of weeks, and several totebags’ worth of books have been cashiered.

I used to think of myself as a kind of Noah’s Ark of books. If I hadn’t read a book, all the more reason to keep it, because probably other people didn’t want to read it either, and it was in danger of vanishing from human memory unless I saved it. Narcissistic and crazy, I know. I am happy to say that in my maturity I find it kind of liberating and fun to destroy my collection. Paperbacks of lesser-known William Golding novels purchased at the town library booksale during high school? Don’t even cart them to the Strand; nobody wants them. Just bale them up with last week’s New York Times, and try not to think about the fact that you carried these books around with you unread for more years than you had lived through when you bought them.

Also fun: Selling off scholarly books that one acquired out of a sense of duty and which one had excused oneself from reading but not from continuing to own. Can I say something candid about the poems that eighteenth-century America left in manuscript for the late twentieth century to rediscover and print in scholarly editions? Most of them are wretched. Also, there’s a limit to the number of sailor’s narratives that even the most hardened Melvillean needs to read. Such discards are tricky, of course, because there’s not only ebb and flow but also cyclicality to one’s interests over time. Or, anyway, to mine. This is probably why I’m a journalist and not a proper academic. I really enjoy forgetting. It has become almost second nature with me to kill Caleb Crain in order to become him. (I have killed the Czech translator, the science journalist, the literature professor. Who next?) So why not throw out his books? The trouble is that sometimes one is later tempted to revisit one’s earlier self, and it would cause expense and hassle to have to repurchase two dozen books about, say, the Anglo-American rhetoric of sympathy in the early nineteenth century if some day one were to decide that one had something else to say about it. But there are a few places that I will not be returning to, and it seems clearer each year what sort of places those are.

Best crossword clue ever?

“Frank had slightly more than Edith (7)”

That clue, in yesterday’s Guardian cryptic crossword, is one of the most delightful I’ve ever encountered. It took me a long time to get it, but when I did a broad smile spread across my face. The next morning, I’m still grinning. True brilliance.

I’ll provide the answer in a comment to this post in case you want to figure it out.

Elections as spectator sport

When I expressed my bemusement last week at an op-ed about Hillary Clinton in the Financial Times, a friend said to me, “You should understand that it doesn’t really matter to them. It’s a spectator sport.” That applies many times over to a wrong-headed piece in Prospect from the chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips.

Phillips, one of the most prominent black political figures in Britain, is underwhelmed by Obama because, as he puts it, “a man whose African ancestors never endured transatlantic slavery has become the standard-bearer for the black presence in the US”. That, in Phillips’ view, disqualifies Obama as someone willing or able to help erase the racial divide in the US.

In truth, Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America, and I think he knows it. If he wins, the cynicism may be worth it to him and his party. In the end he is a politician and a very good one; his job is to win elections. He may even beat Hillary to the nomination (though I’d be surprised). But the harbinger of a post-racial America? I don’t think so.

I think only a spectator of American politics and not a participant could be so wrong. I don’t think a post-racial country will emerge miraculously thanks to an Obama presidency. But will Obama in the White House help move the US that way? I think Phillips is utterly unconvincing.


I spent a good part of a rainy weekend immersed in a great novel: David Peace’s The Damned United. It’s a fictionalization of, bear with me here, the 44 days in 1974 when Brian Clough managed Leeds United Football Club. It may sound unlikely, but you don’t need to be a soccer obsessive or even sports nut to read a book that’s blurbed on its cover as the greatest novel about sports ever written.

Clough, or Cloughie as he became known to legions of television viewers in England, was the kind of character that wouldn’t last four days under today’s media microscope. He was a foul-mouthed drunk who was happy to neglect his teams to appear in some television studio. But he was also an undoubtedly brilliant football manager (soccer coach in the American parlance): he took a flailing Derby County team from nowhere to the English championship and the semi-finals of the European Cup. After his rapid falling out with Leeds, he managed Nottingham Forest for nearly two decades, most notably to two consecutive European Cup victories. Thanks to his unyielding personality and the conservatism of England’s Football Association, he never managed England.

Peace’s novel tells the story of his 44 days of failure with dirty, dirty Leeds in the voice of Clough. It’s gripping reading because of the emotional highs of triumph and lows of failure and the constant, pitiless pressure to perform game after game after game. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

David Peace’s most recent book, Tokyo Year Zero, was ecstatically reviewed by The New York Times, even if the references were slightly dizzying: “Peace’s masters would seem to be Dostoyevsky; postmodern collagists like William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker; and practitioners of the French nouveau roman like Alain Robbe-Grillet.” (Incidentally, reviews even in the Times obviously do little for book sales. Tokyo Year Zero currently ranks 47,589th on Amazon.)

Clinton concession

Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I get the sense from watching the debate that Hillary Clinton has all but given up. Going into the debate, it must have been clear she needed some dramatic change to the campaign dynamic. She’s being smart and engaging, but she seems content with supporting the line that the two Democratic candidates agree on most things. I think that’s true, but that attitude isn’t going to change the result of this race in her favor.

Maybe she read Graubard’s op-ed in the FT.

Watching the debate: no contest

I’m watching tonight’s debate between senators Obama and Clinton. I’ve already nailed my colors to the Obama mast, but one thing screams out from this debate for me. There is no contest — both these candidates are superior by light years to John McCain in their command of the issues and their ability to articulate solutions. When it gets down to Obama v McCain (or, however unlikely, Clinton v McCain) the gap in ability is going to be glaring.

The op-ed playpen

There are times when I’m truly baffled by newspaper op-ed pages. Today’s Financial Times has a trailer on the front page: “Bow out, Hillary. And help keep McCain at bay.” Turn to page 11 and you find a comment from Stephen Graubard, emeritus professor of history at Brown University, arguing for Clinton to do the right thing and surrender now.

Now, I’d like nothing more than for senator Clinton to withdraw from the nomination battle, and leave the field clear for Barack Obama. I don’t think it matters very much right now in the battle against McCain, although it might if this thing drags on to the Denver convention, and it certainly will if the Democratic contest degenerates into a fight about seating Michigan and Florida delegates. I’m reasonably confident neither of those things will happen.

I am certain, however, that there is precisely zero chance of Clinton pulling out before March 4. Depending on the results in Ohio and Texas on that day, there might be a slightly greater than zero chance of her withdrawing from the race before the Pennsylvania primary in late April. Graubard makes an eloquent argument about the greater good of party unity, and Clinton’s opportunity to become an enduring master of the Senate. But it’s truly an academic exercise.

So why do the editors of the FT publish something that is so speculative and meaningless? It’s not as though Graubard is a power broker whose views demand attention. I’m completely mystified.


Dave Winer: “Four years from now we’ll look back at this in amazement that there was a day when campaigns hid their words and ideas behind the filters of the press.”

Dave is on the warpath to get the presidential candidates to make MP3s available of their conference calls. It absolutely should happen and I’m sure it will absolutely happen in the not-too-distant future – Dave’s estimate of four years for it to be commonplace sounds right.

It’s an excellent, simple way for one of the campaigns to signal that they are in the 21st century.

By their blogs ye shall know them

I had an interesting experience with one of my passengers in the casual carpool this morning. First, he checked the traffic through Google Maps on his iPhone, which was nice but unremarkable. But then he pulled out his Kindle, which I hadn’t seen in person before. It was more covetable than I had expected, even if the page buttons are so clearly misplaced.

Naturally, we had a conversation about his experience with the Kindle. He said he’d subscribed to some blogs on it, as well as The New York Times. “What blogs?” I asked. “Ars Technica and GigaOm,” he replied.  Aha! That told me a lot about my passenger: technically aware and involved in what’s new. We traded blog opinions and through a process of mental triangulation I figured out a fair amount about his point of view.

Inevitably we had some acquaintances in common, and there might well be some business opportunities for us to collaborate on, I reckon. We’ll see — I’m meeting my passenger and his partner tomorrow to see if there’s a useful connection.  Isn’t the casual carpool great?

Berkeley erudition

My family is in the midst of a house hunt after nearly three years of renting in Berkeley. We have some very specific ideas of where our ideal house should be and the severe market disruption at the moment seems to be having two effects: first, prices even in our highly desirable target zone have moderated noticeably; second, there is very, very little supply on the market.

One factor that we hadn’t thought about originally, however, was proximity to highways (not that our desired neighborhood was that close in any case). But one of the readers of my wife’s housing blog pointed her to a Lancet study that makes a strong case for staying at least a third of a mile away from a highway if you have children. What I found fascinating, however, was the erudition of the replies to my wife’s post on the matter.

I know we should expect a better quality of comment when the subject is Berkeley (or, at least, when the bulk of the readers are Berkeleyites), but to my eyes “Toady’s” comments are of the level I’d expect in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s reminiscent of that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen pulls out Marshall McLuhan to clinch an argument about his thinking.