In other news...

There is something I find dually terrifying and thrilling about my LibraryThing collection. I have been going through, trying to tag all the books in my childhood home and my apartment either "already read," "to be read," or "currently reading." What is disturbing is not simply the sheer number of books involved (bear in mind that this is the result of not only my lifetime of book hoarding, but also my parents'), but the ratio of unread to read books: I have (at this moment in time) over 1500 books labeled "to be read" and only about 750 marked "already read."

In other words, I have only read a third of the books in my library. And let's say that I read 100 books a year, without acquiring any more books or getting any books out of the library - which we know is an absolute impossibility. It would take me more than 15 YEARS to finish the unread books sitting on my shelves right now.

It's like I said: both terrifying and thrilling.

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This is International Blog Against Racism week, and an excellent time for both the blogging community and the general citizenry to which we belong to reflect on the pervasiveness of racism,
its insidiousness, and its multivalence (it is often not a simple unidirectional flow of either power or prejudice, but rather a complex web which partakes in many other prejudices about class, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.).

No one is immune from its workings, no one is purely subject or purely object, and self-awareness (even self-scrutiny) is a huge step towards minimizing the poison of prejudice in our culture and our world.

Ask yourself, when you talk about race and racism, "what do I have at stake in this argument that may shape my views?". This is the perfect opportunity to examine the roots of your opinions, and what their consequences and corollaries might be.

In honor of this very worthy and provocative project, I give you a link to a fascinating and disturbing article about America's prison system, and how our penal philosophy is in horrifying dialogue with the country's history of racial prejudice: "Why are so many Americans in prison?" by Glenn C. Loury.

Loury reveals some chilling statistics in this article. A few of them, including quotations from the article (I highly recommend the piece in its entirety!):

  • About my home town:
    "Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven rose from six to 31, the number of rapes from four to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent."
  • Our country is home to a QUARTER of the world's prison inmates, and the "corrections industry" employs more people than "the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country." In other words, we have a corporate and industrial (and thus political) stake in continuing to imprison a huge portion of the population.
  • Consider the responsibility of drug users for social problems, as well as drug distributors:
    Significantly, throughout the period 1979–2000, white high-school seniors reported using drugs at a significantly higher rate than black high-school seniors. High drug-usage rates in white, middle-class American communities in the early 1980s accounts for the urgency many citizens felt to mount a national attack on the problem. But how successful has the effort been, and at what cost?

    Think of the cost this way: to save middle-class kids from the threat of a drug epidemic that might not have even existed by the time that drug incarceration began its rapid increase in the 1980s, we criminalized underclass kids. Arrests went up, but drug prices have fallen sharply over the past 20 years—suggesting that the ratcheting up of enforcement has not made drugs harder to get on the street. The strategy clearly wasn’t keeping drugs away from those who sought them. Not only are prices down, but the data show that drug-related visits to emergency rooms also rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

  • And here, in one of a very persuasive article's most persuasive passages, Loury asks us to consider the long term consequences of incarceration for criminals who have made very bad (although not always violent) choices, but are nonetheless human beings who need to return to families, jobs, communities, and psychological/emotional functioning:
    So consider the nearly 60 percent of black male high-school dropouts born in the late 1960s who are imprisoned before their 40th year. While locked up, these felons are stigmatized—they are regarded as fit subjects for shaming. Their links to family are disrupted; their opportunities for work are diminished; their voting rights may be permanently revoked. They suffer civic excommunication. Our zeal for social discipline consigns these men to a permanent nether caste. And yet, since these men—whatever their shortcomings—have emotional and sexual and family needs, including the need to be fathers and lovers and husbands, we are creating a situation where the children of this nether caste are likely to join a new generation of untouchables. This cycle will continue so long as incarceration is viewed as the primary path to social hygiene.

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On a lighter, more literary note, Robert Peake had some interesting thoughts on the nature of a poem's title and its relationship to the poem itself, which he expressed as part of his post on the new Poet Laureate Charles Simic:
Titles are a kind of meta-line - a line that hovers from the very beginning over every other line of the poem, coloring it. It can be a key to understanding what's going on in the poem, a one-stroke scene setup, or even perform double-duty as the first line of the poem.
Ah, my meta addiction strikes again.

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Today's poem was Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck" from poets.org. It has been many years since I have read Rich's work, so I am glad to return to her with this poem about (well, putatively about) deep sea diving and narrative making. An excerpt (the whole poem can be found at the link above):
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
~~~~

As you have probably heard by now, the Booker Prize's long list has been released.
It is, as The Guardian notes, both shorter than it has been in recent years, and
filled to the brim with less established authors:
Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador)
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)
The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (Viking)
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Tindal Street)
Consolation by Michael Redhill (William Heinemann)
Animal's People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
Winnie & Wolf by A N Wilson (Hutchinson)

I have yet to read any of the long listed books, but it is definitely worth noting
that Gifted was one of the books that LibraryThing offered in the last round of
its Early Reviewers program. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is the bookies'
favorite right now, since he has by far the vastest reputation, but consider that
Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip was the first book in nearly 1300 reviews to receive
an A+ from The Complete Review. I am putting my (as of yet) totally ignorant
hopes behind a less well known author than McEwan taking the prize this year.

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I have fallen prey to some sort of lurking summer bug (or perhaps it is just
very aggressive allergies), so I have been moping about the apartment for the
last few days (well, moping more mopily than usual, I should say). Last night
I finished Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs..., and I hope to be done with
Robinson Crusoe
AND One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest later today. What
a perfect time this would be for my two elusive ARCs to arrive in the mail....

But there was an even bigger accomplishment yesterday -- I finally finished
the unbearably bad and immense The Ten Commandments! Huzzah! Rejoicing
in the streets! I would like to think that this means that I will have time to
address the increasingly dire TiVo overcrowding issue, but Nights of Cabiria
is supposed to come in today's mail.... [There is an awful lot of trailing off
meaningfully in this post, I notice, mostly because I am filled to overflowing
with poorly veiled hints for the postal service.]

8 Responses so far.

  1. Kate says:

    Re: LibraryThing - I know what you mean! I decided not to do a read/not read tag because I was scared of what it would look like. I'm just frustrated that I've got so little of my library logged in there. Really slow going...

  2. I have to admit, it is sort of dispiriting. But it is also nice to know that I will never run out of things to read! (Knock on wood.)

  3. Robert says:

    Re: meta - I can't help it! I'm part programmer. Everything abstracts upwards into more generalized forms. I wish there were a different prefix than meta to do the same work, like I wish "synergy" would stop short in the mouths of CEOs everywhere. But alas, there are only so many words.

  4. It's true - words like "meta" (and all its brethren) do ring hollow after a time. But it is at least considerably pithier and more elegant than "reflexive abstraction" or "ontological play" or any number of other jargony absurdities that I have been known to utter to describe the same phenomenon.

    Meanwhile, I think my fascination with meta comes from having spent a great deal of time as an actor - forced to consider a text on two ontological levels simultaneously (that of my identity/the space of rehearsal and that of the character/text).

  5. Carrie K says:

    John Sutherland (a former if not current Booker Prize judge) noted in his book How to Read a Novel that the sheer number of books being released annually means that we have a glut of reading material availabe.

    In some ways, fabulous news. In othes (my TBR shelves, acquisitive nature and paycheck limitations), not so good.

  6. I have to agree, Carrie K. I remember reading on a blog several months ago (I can't remember whose, alas) a meditation on whether it is a cause for self-pity or rejoicing that no one person could ever read all the good books in the world in a single lifetime. There is something about the striving of this idea that really appeals to me.

  7. Well, that makes me feel better about my 115 unread books! :)

  8. 115 sounds very manageable, Dorothy!

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