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Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day: Rhetoric versus Reality

We had a little gathering for Earth Day (not on the actual day but an observance nonetheless) with impressive student attendance.  There was a healthy string of speakers and some music and a wide screen documentary about "Climate Change," otherwise known as Global Warming, and various other monikers.

It was an interesting setting and I was glad to see so many people there.  The provost got to the microphone to start the event and her simple, declarative and dry opening statement left me thinking the rest of the gathering and feeling ashamed I can't remember a single word any of the speakers said.

University provost: "Mother Earth is dying."

Me, for the next two hours and more: "No, I think Mother Earth finds a way to rejuvenate herself every once in a few billion years or so... we are the ones who are screwed."

And thus began one of the most convoluted stream of consciousness to-date.  I have to admit that I have an inclination of taking everything literally.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a collective blindness when it comes to rhetoric versus fact.  I don't proclaim to have the "facts" about the environmental changes going on--although I could recite on call some of the historical events that have led us here.  I am simply thinking of how little people seem to notice about rhetoric.  Case in point: "We are taking action in Libya in order to avoid civilian deaths."  I have to admit I have no love for Qaddafi or any of his cronies, but the aforementioned statement sounds like one of the most absurd sentences to come out of the Vietnam conflict: "It became necessary to destroy the village of Ben Tre in order to save it."  Rhetoric, both in politics and in academia, has a tendency to rear its "distinguished" head ever so stealthy that even the most seasoned political journalists (or political science professors) seem in awe of it.  I remember one of my undergrad biology professors constantly saying, "If you want a value statement, go talk to the philosophy department."  It was his catch phrase, or at least I thought it was.  However, Prof. M's insistence was on facts, facts and facts.  You could love biology and have a passion for it; when it came to results, however, you either had the facts or he'd send on your way to the philosophy department. I think I took his advice, again, literally.

Again, I don't presume to have the facts, and, really, since I actually DID go to the philosophy department, I am inclined to make a value statement here.  While the United States and other western countries implement recycling programs, some of which--to some extent--have been very successful, the truth is that all the summits on the environment seem to overlook the amount of pollution in countries like China and India.  Both of these countries are expanding economically.  Their respective industries are churning day and night.  I can't speak on India because I have never been there, but since I visited China in 2009 (for far longer than I would have wanted to) and the pollution there was beyond reason.  Of course, after a few days one gets "used" to it, but I remember stepping out of the station after an all-night train to Changchun, in the Jilin province (China's Detroit or Motor-city) and my eyes (the same eyes that survived Kuwait oil fires in 1991) becoming so irritated I could barely see beyond my nose.  And this is one of the many examples I could site here.  My other favorite: nuclear plan reactors (a la Three Mile Island) across the street from major residential areas.  Japan notwithstanding, the whole thing looked to me as an accident waiting to happen.

At any rate, here's to our dear provost and her thought provoking statement.  After all, it yielded this blog entry.  Happy Earth Day.  Recycle and Reuse (sounds like rhetoric to me)... Mother Earth will thank you.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

International Book Day -- April 23, 2011 -- Book Love: A Celebration of Writers, Readers and the Printed & Bounded Book

An important and timely book is being promoted by Tandem Literary and I feel the obligation (both as a book lover and writer) to promote it here.  Book Love: A Celebration of Writers, Readers and the Printed & Bound Book, by James Charlton and Bill Henderson brings to light the important issue of the future of the printed word in a world gone seemingly amok with technology.  I believe we've gone a little soft when it comes to that argument.  "Books will always be around," I hear people always say when the argument of e-readers arise.  Will they?  What will happen to public libraries, some of them facing tremendous financial cuts or closing altogether.  If an e-reader can hold 3,500 books, could the home library be in peril.  Believe me, I am not a Luddite at all, quite the contrary.  I promote books among my students regardless of whether they are traditional or electronic, but the romantic idea of the bounded paper, the permanence of ink and the conveyance of ideas have been around for so long, it would be a misery to have them be in peril and us not notice.

Several years ago, I purchased a volume titled "At Home With Books" (ironically the link is for the Kindle edition) by Estelle Ellis and Caroline Seebohn.  This book was originally published in 1995 and has quickly become a classic favorite for book collectors.  Let's hope "Book Love" become as such.  I wish you good luck and anticipate the publishing date with much excitement!!!

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

John Steinbeck's "Journal of a Novel" Brilliant Bantering

There are reasons why some of the "not for publication" things authors leave behind are better left, well, unpublished.  The publication of "True at First Light" by Ernest Hemingway in 1999 is such an example of what I mean.  I believe it is the only book of Hemingway's I had to put down and not ever pick up again.  I submit as another example of this phenomenon "Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters," by John Steinbeck.  The volume contains letters the author wrote to his editor and friend Pascal Covici.  The idea came to Steinbeck as he began on January 29, 1951 to sketch his next novel, "East of Eden."  He had a notebook and while using one side of the notebook for sketches of plots for the novel, in the opposite page he would pen a letter to his friend about the novel and about just every topic under the sky.  Steinbeck refers to the letters as if he were "getting [his] mental arm in shape to pitch a good game."  

I had great difficulty getting into the letters/journal style of this book.  The task of writing these letters seemed (at the risk of being sacrilegious) tedious to me.  Of course I understand the premise, but the content of these letters deal very little with the novel and the process of sketching the plots and characters.  On the contrary, they are filled with ramblings dealing with everything about worries over his oldest son, Tom, to venomous criticism of General Douglas McArthur.  There's also quite a bit about Steinbeck's fondness for wood works and inventions.  The rest seemed to be hard to relate to and lacking the engaging power of good journal narratives.

There were, however, a couple of spots I had to laugh at because the amount of detail that goes into making a writer (the little things) were present in this book to the extent that the reader might be tempted to think, "well, at least I am not the only one who is this crazy."  Here's a couple of passages where Steinbeck writes about his preference for specific pencils.

"You know I am really stupid.  For years I have looked for the perfect pencil.  I have found very good ones but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me.  A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day.  For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully.  So this morning I try the same kind.  And they crack on me.  Points break and all hell is let loose.  This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.  So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while.  I am using some that are numbered 2 3/8.  I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days.  Only sometimes it changes in the middle of the day, but at least I am equipped for it.  I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them.  And I am not often that way.  But when I do have such moments I am prepared.... Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it.  I buy them four dozen at a time.... My pencils are very short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out twelve new pencils.  Sometimes the just pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention.  We shall see.  It means I will have to have more pencils before long though.  Would you send me another box?  They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 F round."

This long passage helps me remember something I read in a Natalie Goldberg book ("Writing Down the Bones") about buying expensive notebooks or pens, etc.  If that's what's going to get you to actually write, then do it.  If one develops some sort of attachment to a specific pen and/or notebook, so much the better.  I know I am guilty (excessively so) of such pleasures.  People don't understand why I do it... but at least I have Steinbeck in my corner of "eccentric" traits.  We all have our private peccadilloes--embrace them before it is too late.

The research work I am doing is going well.  I have little time to work at home and much less at the office.  Nevertheless, the amount of information and things I've learned for the first time is truly wonderful.  I am enjoying it very much.

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