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Archive for the ‘Negotiable Affections’ Category

How to Live on Nothing

Friday, February 19, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

Since the collapse of the sub-prime market a year and a half ago, hand-wringing has become our nation’s most popular parlor game. The rules are simple: just watch the news and worry.

It’s still unclear if the government bailout of the banks, the economic stimulus package and the Fed‘s manipulation of interest rates have saved us from a worldwide collapse or merely forestalled an even worse downturn to come, and an extraordinary number of recent books, by eminent economists and armchair egomaniacs alike, have not settled the matter. What should we do when our nation’s economic prospects are uncertain and everything seems beyond our personal control?

Joan Ranson Shortney’s How to Live on Nothing offers hundreds of time-saving, cost-saving answers that bring economics back down to a personal scale. This guide, written in 1968, when “going green” went by the name “getting back to nature,” contains practical advice on everything from making healthy meals cheap, customizing vintage clothing, taking great vacations even when you’re broke and choosing doctors that make sense to your health and your budget. Because the book’s prices are in 1968 figures, the exact costs of furnishing your house on the cheap have to be recalculated, but the method of doing so is clever, sensible and still completely relevant (as are almost all of its tips and tidbits).

Most of the book’s charm comes from its gentle tone. As a time capsule from 1968, its analog attitudes contrast starkly with today’s digital disquiet, and it’s great fun to see how our approach to everyday living has changed in the last forty years and how it remains the same.

The great service of How to Live on Nothing, even beyond its countless nuggets of money-saving wisdom, is how matter-of-factly it humanizes the economy, giving you a sense of personal control—there are many things you can do right now to improve your life while saving cash—and Shortney advocates a philosophy that places time above money and family and friends above everything. As the Whole Earth Catalog said in its 1968 review, How to Live on Nothing could just as aptly be called Living for Something, and it reminds us that saving our sanity is as valuable as saving money, and the things we really care about retain their value even when the stock market doesn’t.

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Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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Today in the Holocene: Apple’s Tablet and the Future of Literature

Sunday, January 31, 2010 @ 06:01 PM  posted by Mark

By Daniel Akst, Los Angeles Times

Literature has always relied on technology. We wouldn’t have the Dead Sea Scrolls had the ancients failed to invent papyrus, just as we wouldn’t have “The Da Vinci Code” if Gutenberg hadn’t come out with movable type.

It is important to bear in mind that technology is not the sworn enemy of literature as Apple prepares to unveil its much-anticipated new tablet computer. Still, the collision of technology and literature in this case may well prove explosive.

A well-designed Apple tablet, embedded in the right business model, has the potential to blow up the book business as we know it, ultimately upending the whole rickety edifice of publishers, booksellers and agents, much as the digital revolution (and Apple) have done to the music business. These new tablets will give ink on paper a powerful nudge into history’s wastebasket, helping to remake not just books but newspapers, magazines and other material we’ve traditionally consumed in print.

The result will be a seismic change in the literary culture. Ubiquitous tablets will make books cheaper and more readily available, even as physical bookstores follow Tower Records into oblivion. The time is not far off when the typical 10-year-old will have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in her backpack.

It’s not clear how anyone will get paid for writing, or what will take the place of the existing commercial system. It may get our egalitarian juices flowing to think that the digital revolution will open up this world, but a literary culture in which everyone is a writer and no one is an editor is likely to leave all of us poorer.

Sparks always fly when technology and literature get together. We can expect that this time, as usual, they will burn down the old and light up the new.

Read the full article here.

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