Thursday, October 25, 2007

Community and Choice: The Lost City

I came across Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City: Discovering the virtues of community in the Chicago of the 1950s (New York: Basic Books, 1995) by accident. I was actually looking for books about the 1968 Democratic convention. The title and cover were intriguing, so I checked it out.
Ehrenhalt looks at two Chicago neighborhoods: St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on the Southwest Side and Bronzeville, the center of Chicago's black community, along with the western suburb of Elmhurst, to show us the sense of community all these neighborhoods had in the Eisenhower Decade. He takes great pains not to romanticize life in the 1950s, showing us the negative as well as the positive. But he concludes that even in the tenements of Bronzeville, there was a real community which has since vanished. (In fact, much of Bronzeville has vanished, having been torn down to make way for high-rise housing projects, which have since been demolished as well. )

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that we have lost our sense of community because we have too much choice. It sounds rather silly at first, but Ehrenhalt makes a strong case:

In the Chicago of 1957, most people believed, as most of us have ceased to believe, that there were natural limits to life. They understood, whether they lived in bungalow, tenement, or suburb, that choice and privacy were restricted commodities, and that authority existed, in large part, to manage the job of restricting them. Most people were prepared to live with this bargain most of the time. And they believed in one other important idea that has been lost in the decades since: the existence of sin. The Chicago of the 1950s was a time and place in which ordinary people lived with good and evil, right and wrong, sin and sinners, in a way that is almost incomprehensible to most of us on the other side of the 1960s moral deluge.
The book tells us of the businesses, politicians. and religious leaders who were the authority figures in the three communities. In St. Nick's Parish, we have the Tallman Federal Savings. the machine politicians, and the priests and nuns of St. Nick's. In Bronzeville, Ehrenhalt introduces us to the black-owned banks and insurance companies, the Chicago Defender, Congressman William Dawson (who ran Richard J. Daley's machine there), and the Reverend J.H. Jackson of the Olivet Baptist Church. Elmhurst is the least authoritarian of the three communities, but even there we see a a very regimented high school. Because Ehrenhalt focuses on the new developments in Elmhurst, there is more sense of choice. The newcomers establish the Elmhurst Presbyterian Church largely because the existing Yorkfield Presbyterian Church "had a fundamentlist tinge." But in all three communities, people accepted the "limited life."
At the end of the section on Bronzeville, Ehrenhalt writes:
"Could a dream," Gwendolyn Brooks had asked years before in her poem, "Kitchenette Building," "send up through onion fuemes its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes/And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall?...We wonder." But the answer to her question, as she knew, was yes.
Ehrenhalt's choice of the three communities strengthens his point. St. Nick's Parish did not experience the racial "blockbusting" of the late 1950s and 1960s, where the movement of a few black families into a neighborhood would cause a panic among the whites, who would then be pressured to sell their houses at a fraction of their value to unscrupulous real estate agents, who would then sell the properties to blacks at a substantial markup. And his example of Bronzeville, in spite of the dire poverty of most of its residents, was the cultural center of the city's black community.
Had Ehrenhalt studied a neighborhood such as Old Town, a haven for nonconformists, he would have, I suspect, found many of the same virtues of community that he found in St. Nick's, Bronzeville, and Elmhurst.

Yet my experience suggests he may be right, at least in part. During most of the 1980s, Kathleen and I lived in the Village of Oak Park, a suburb bordering on the West Side of Chicago. (Even though it has over 50,000 residents, it's legally a village.) During the 1960s and '70s, much of the West Side, including the Austin neigborhood abutting Oak Park, experienced the Chicago pattern of resegregation, with white businesses fleeing along with the residents. And of course there was no time or opportunity for black-owned businesses, like those of Bronzeville, to replace them. Virtually all the urban sociologists assumed that Oak Park would folow the same pattern.
But Oak Parkers refused to accept what appeared to be inevitable. They decided to welcome blacks to the community, but to impose strict rules to prevent resegregation. They banned for-sale signs, which often led to panic selling. They established the Oak Park Housing Center, which steered whites toward apartments in the eastern part of the village (closest to Austin), and blacks to the central and western areas. And it worked. Today, Oak Park is stable and integrated. And it's more of a community than most suburbs. When Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass refers to it as "the People's Republic of Oak Park" (meaning that most of its residents are liberal and Democratic), he's defining it as a community even though he doesn't like it.
The success of the Oak Park Strategy depended on people accepting limits. Real estate agents could have successfully challenged the regulations in court. They never have. Apartment building owners could have fought the Oak Park Housing Center and challenged its reverse steering. They haven't. Oak Park thrives today because people have accepted limits. But they chose to accept limits, which is different from believing in a "natural limits to life."
Rejection of what Ehrenhalt calls "the limited life" is only one factor in the decline of community in America. But it is certainly a major one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Imre Nagy, Alexander Dubček, and "Socialism with a Human Face."

As SzélsőFa reminds us, today is a national holiday in Hungary. October 23 marks the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which led to a brief restoration of a moderate socialist governmnent under Imre Nagy. The rebellion, which began with peaceful student protests, ended with the brutal suppression of the rebellion by Soviet troops. A hard-line Stalinist government followed.

A little more than eleven years later, moderate Communists in Czechoslovakia displaced the Stalinist regime there. The "Prague Spring" of 1968 did not begin with student demonstrations, but with a decision in the nation's Politburo to oust First Secretary Antonín Novotný and replace him with Alexander Dubček . Unlike the Hungarian revolution, the Czech reforms began at the top. Dubček tried to reassure the Soviets that he was still a loyal Communist and a Soviet ally. He did not withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, as the Hungarian government did. (Actually, Hungary withdrew from the Warsaw Pact after the Soviets decided to invade, so that didn't affect the outcome.) And for a few months in the spring and early summer of 1968, Dubček's "socialism with a human face" promised a new birth of freedom for Eastern Europe. But it was too much for the Soviet Union's leadership. This time, the invaders were Warsaw Pact troops from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Dubček urged people not to resist the invaders, and the suppression, though brutal, did not result in the heavy casualties of the Hungarian uprising. And Dubček continued to serve in the government, as ambassador to Turkey. Later he was expelled from the Communist Party and worked in the forestry service. He had a better fate than Nagy, who was executed after the Hungarian uprising was put down.

As the Eastern European nations broke from the collapsing Soviet Union, it seemed there might be a rebirth of "socialism with a human face." Dubček was rehabilitated in Czechoslovakia (which later broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), while Nagy was reburied with honors in Hungary.

But with the rise of the European Union and the Euro, the ideal of socialism with a human face has faded. While most of Europe has more of a social safety net than the United States, Europe seems to be moving toward more privatization. American-style laissez-faire capitalism seems to be the goal. And American corporate capitalism has no human face.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Serendipitous Internet Adventure, In Which I Find I'm a Wikipedia link

If it hadn't been for SzélsőFa, I wouldn't have known that my blog was linked to Wikipedia. I found her by way of Charles at razored zen, whom I found through Lisa, at eudaemonia. I discovered Lisa's blog through Karen of Beyond Understanding (sustenance scout). SzélsőFa is a Hungarian woman who has two blogs on Blogger: --The Copper Moon Project about her efforts to write a short story in English, and Gondolatok az erdőben (not to worry--it's in English). In the latter blog I found a post about the Hungarian revolution of 1848-9. There were quite a few revolutions in 1848. All of them failed except one: the French deposed their good Citizen-King Louis Philippe, and installed the foolish and pompous Louis Napoleon, who called himself Emperor Napoleon III. America benefited from these failed revolutions, as many well-educated Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and others had to flee, and quite a few of them landed on our shores.

Thinking about Hungarian history reminded me of my favorite song by the Malaysian singer-songwriter Pete Teo: "Budapest, " with the explanation, "inspired by Krudy, 1896." Gyula Krudy was a Hungarian journalist and novelist who is not well-known outside his home country--it's amazing to me that a Malaysian singer would have read him, But Pete isn't just any Malaysian singer. (I haven't read him, though I'd like to. I only learned of him because of Pete Teo. ) While looking at Pete Teo's Wikipedia site, I clicked on the link, "The Music of Pete Teo," and found myself back on my own blog. Since my post about Pete Teo is a Wikipedia link, I updated it to include his latest video on You Tube. Thanks, SzélsőFa, et. al.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Radical Vision of St. Luke

“Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus….and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in [peaceful] order…with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…herefore the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23…and the first month shall…be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”

-Decree of calendrical change on marble steles in the Asian temples of Rome and Augustus, quoted in John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

October 18 is the feast day of St. Luke the Evangelist. Eusebius, in his fourth-century Ecclesiastical History, writes, “Luke, who was born in Antioch, and was by profession a physician, being for the most part connected with Paul and familiarly acquainted with the rest of the apostles, left us in the two inspired books the institutes of that spiritual healing art which he obtained from them. One of these was his gospel in which he testified that he recorded ‘as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word,’ delivered to him, whom also, he said, and he had in all things followed. The other was his Acts of the Apostles, which he composed, not from what he had heard from others but what he had seen himself.”

Eusebius, writing at a time when Christianity had become Rome’s official religion, does not hint at the radical vision of Luke’s writings—a direct challenge to the mightiest empire the world had seen. The calendrical decree, which would have been familiar to anyone in the ancient Near East, bears a striking resemblance to a familiar passage in Luke, announcing the birth of a different kind of Savior: “But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV). While Matthew draws parallels with the story of Moses in his infancy narrative, Luke is purposely declaring that his Savior is greater than the "god" Augustus.

Luke's Christmas story, beautiful as it is, is not literally true. There was a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but it took place several years after Jesus's birth--that is, assuming Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. But Luke isn't writing history as we know it today. He shows Jesus as the child of a poor family. Dominic Crossan points out that in the first century, artisans like Joseph were people who had lost their land, and thus were lower in status than the land-owning peasantry. Mary and Joseph can't find anyplace to stay in Bethlehem, so Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough. And the angels don't proclaim the good news to kings or princes, but to shepherds.

The adult Jesus is a radical defender of the poorest. Take the Sermon on the Plain. Unlike Matthew's Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke's Jesus does not add the ressuring "in spirit" to :

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom
of God.

(Luke 17:20)

While it's hard if not impossible to live the kind of life Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Plain, Luke's Jesus is forgiving to sinners who admit they are sinners--the classic example being the unnamed woman from the city, who is most likely a prostitute. (Even the Catholic Church has admitted that this woman was not Mary Magdalene.) He even promises the man (probably a Jewish rebel) crucified next to him that he would be with him in paradise.

In Acts, we have a Christian community which is, in fact, a socialist commune. We see the conflicts in that community between the Aramaic speakers and the Greek speakers and the ordination of the first deacons. The deacon Stephen, after giving a fiery oration against the Jewish hierarchy, becomes the first Christian martyr.

We meet Saul of Tarsus, who may have participated in the stoning of Stephen. He hears the voice of Jesus after being struck blind on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. Luke tells the story of the division between the Jerusalem Christians, who continue to worship at the Temple, and Paul's followers, who are both Jewish and Gentile. And when Paul begins his journeys, Luke switches to a first-person plural narative, and gives us some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament.

Christianity has been an established or pseudo-established religion for so long that its radical challenge to the status quo is hard to imagine. Kierkegaard famously said that "when all are Christians, ipso facto, none are." But in the first century, its message was revolutionary. If we take Luke seriously, it still is.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tagged Again

Lisa, of eudaemonia, tagged me for another book meme. I’m glad she did because one of my answers reminded me of a mystery story that had planned to write many years ago. More about that on No. 7. Here goes:

1. Hard cover or paperback, and why?

Audio-especially if there’s a good reader. Jim Dale reading Harry Potter, James Marsters’, reading of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, and Barbara Kingsolver reading her own work are examples of excellent readers. Otherwise, I rarely buy hardbacks unless they’re used or somehow special. I bought Patry Francis’s The Liar’s Diary in hardback, for example.

2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it…

If I specialized in railroad books, perhaps "The Twentieth Century Limited." In Elkhart, I might call a general bookstore “The Cynic’s Book World,” a pun on Ambrose Bierce’s The Cynic’s Word Book, the original name for The Devil’s Dictionary. Or, perhaps, In the Midst of Life, the later title for Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Outside Bierce’s onetime hometown, “The Frigate,” from Emily Dickinson’s poem. In sailing days, the frigate was a fast, three-masted ship, used as the eyes and ears of the navy. When one could only locate the enemy by sight, frigates were essential for naval intelligence. Dickinson surely knew this when she wrote:

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Owning a bookstore is strictly subjunctive mood, though. I have less business sense than a two-toed sloth.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is:

I’m going to cheat a little bit on this and use a poem. The ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” is in many anthologies. I first read it in Seven Centuries of Verse, edited by A.J.M. Smith.. And in this quote, weird is a noun, meaning fate. The Queen of Elfland has just dared Thomas to kiss her:

“And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be.”

Thomas replies:

“Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunten me”
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be…

Bierce would probably bash me with the cane he carried for dealing with critics, so I’ll pass on him. I couldn’t count on Jack Kerouac to be sober, even in the next world. I’ll have lunch with Kenneth Rexroth. I’d love to talk with him about his childhood in Elkhart, Indiana, even though I can’t expect him to tell the truth.

5. If were going to a deserted island and could bring one book except for the SAS survival guide, it would be…

I’m going to cheat here, too. I’d take my HarperCollins Study Bible, (NRSV). That’s really a lot of books, as it includes both the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, and a few books, like 3rd and 4th Maccabees, that are recognized only by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Peter, of slow reads, often quotes amazing stories from the Old Testament, which I’ve never read.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…

Puts the due date on every book , tape, CD, etc that’s checked out of the library. In the days before computers, you had a card in each book that clearly stated when the book was due. Now you get a receipt for everything that’s slipped into one of the books, used as a bookmark, and promptly lost.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…

For some reason, I thought of a small storefront bookstore at the corner of Seventh and Division in Davenport, Iowa. It was in a building that had seen its best days when the Seventh Street trolley was running. Kathleen and I went in there once; the next time we were in Davenport, it was gone. But inside it were multi-volume editions of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine--all in that old German Fraktur type. At that time, both of us knew enough German to appreciate something like that, but we couldn’t afford it, even at the really low prices the store offered.

And that reminded me of a story I had conceived of back in those days. It was a mystery set in Davenport in 1916, before and after the referendum on woman suffrage. The amendment to the Iowa constitution giving women the vote failed because of opposition in places like Davenport and Dubuque, where the Germans and Irish associated woman suffrage with prohibition. My protagonist, Friedrich Teufel (German for devil; thus, the Devil of Davenport), is a reporter for Der Reform, a German-language newspaper, and a first-generation American. He and his unlikely ally, suffragette Clarice Barteau, the widow of a British soldier killed on the Marne, solve the crime. I’m fuzzy on the details of the crime, but I know that Teufel, after a lot of soul-searching, decides to support the amendment. (Aside: I took the heroine’s name from what I thought was the name of one of Kathleen’s ancestors. After doing some genealogical research, Kathleen found that the good woman was really named Clara Bartow. I like Clarice Barteau better.) The story’s on the back burner, but it’s simmering again.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…

Simon Morley from Jack Finney’s Time and Again. If you’ve read it, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, it’s a great read.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is…

I’ll risk being “left behind” and say the Book of Revelations from that compilation I’d take with me on the deserted isle. When the early Church was deciding on the biblical canon, Revelations almost didn’t make it in. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom argued against putting in the canon. A millennium later, Martin Luther said it didn’t belong in the New Testament; that it was neither apostolic nor prophetic. The Jesus of Revelations is not the loving Savior of the Gospels but a vindictive King who seems intent on throwing most of us into a lake of fire. It has some beautiful imagery, to be sure, but it’s caused more ill-will than any other part of the New Testament, save Matthew 24:25, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Of course, we’re stuck with Revelations in the canon, and with wacky interpretations of it such as those of Tim LaHaye and other “rapture” evangelicals. But I still think Martin Luther was right about this one.

10. I hate it when a book…

Is overly pretentious. I tried to read one of those long Robert Ludlum books once. The author miffed me right off the bat by having his hero take a compartment on the Rome-Venice train, the Freccia della Laguna. In the early 1980s I worked for the Midwest office of the Italian State Railways. I’ve ridden the Freccia della Laguna. (It was called the Marco Polo by then, but it was the same equipment.) It doesn’t have compartments. It’s set up like an American train, with open seating. O.K., getting trains wrong is pretty high on my list. But then Ludlum proceeds to quote a passage in Czech--untranslated. I’ll accept untranslated French, German, Spanish, or even Latin in a book. But Czech? Ludlum is telling most of his readers, “I’m smarter than you because I know Czech.” I didn’t finish the book.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A shameless, but, alas, profitless plug

It's always an ego booster to see your name in print. And I've just had an article published in Remember the Rock Magazine. It's a magazine for fans and former employees of the late lamented Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (better known as the Rock Island Line, or just The Rock).

Titled, "Time Passages: Reflections on the last train home tonight," it's the story of a trip I took in 1978 on one of the Rock Island's last intercity trains. The title, of course, is borrowed from Al Stewart's 1978 hit song, with its refrain, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight." I try to go beyond railroad lore. As my train passes the neighborhoods and suburbs of Chicago and the small towns of Illinois, I reflect on history, literature, and film. For instance, much of the Rock Island line across Illinois followed the Sauk Trail, used by Black Hawk and his followers in the early 19th century.

I'm proud of my work, and I encourage anyone interested to buy a copy. And I can say I won't profit directly from sales. Remember The Rock doesn't pay royalties. I'm hoping, though, that Classic Trains Magazine, which already paid me for two articles, will take notice, publish them, and maybe buy more of my writing.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

"Politics and the English Language:" a Must for Writers

I’ve been reading a lot of writing about writing lately. Peter at slow reads, Lisa at eudaemonia, and Charles at razored zen have written some very helpful posts. Because I've been thiking about writing, I’ve been thinking about George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” I wrote the following almost two years ago, but for some reason I never transferred it to my blog. Sadly, we’re still using such euphemisms as “extraordinary rendition.”

If we remember George Orwell at all today, it’s for his dystopian novel 1984 and the fable Animal Farm. Perhaps some of us have read Homage to Catalonia, the recounting of his days as a Loyalist soldier in the Spanish Civil War, in which he finds that Stalinism and Fascism are, in human terms, the same. Or Down and Out in Paris and London, where he writes of his days working in Paris restaurants and living in the workhouses of England. But there’s one Orwell work that every writer should read and reread regularly: the essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

I recently tried to find it at the Bloomington Public Library. Shooting an Elephant, the collection of essays in which it appears, was not in the catalogue, but I had hopes it might be in another collection. So I went to the reference librarian who mentioned that someone else had been looking for the essay. It was in the public domain and available on the Internet. She found a site, and printed a copy for me.

Orwell quotes a passage from the King James Version of Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

He then renders it into modern English: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

“This is a parody, but not a very gross one,” he wrote in 1946. Today, it’s hardly a parody at all. Compared to much of what comes out of government and business, it’s remarkably clear writing.

“In our time,” writes Orwell, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification… People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic labor camps. This is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

In other words, the “Newspeak” of 1984 was not much different from the political speech of 1946. Today we’re hearing the same kind of language in defense of torture. The Wall Street Journal, in its November 12, 2005 editorial opposing Senator McCain’s anti-torture amendment, refers to such practices as “waterboarding” (itself a euphemism for a making the subject believe he is drowning) as “aggressive interrogation.” Kidnapping a suspect and sending him to a country where he can be tortured without any constraints is called “extraordinary rendition.”

But Orwell does not just comment on political language, but also implores all of us writers to be more clear and precise in our language. Orwell has six rules for the writer, which are as valid today as they were in 1946:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word when a short word will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive when you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.

“Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” The same can be said for my own writing in this blog. That’s one reason I try to reread Orwell’s essay at least every year.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Tagged for the Book Meme

Karen, of Beyond Understanding, tagged me for the book meme that’s been going around. I’m honored, I think. As someone with sensitive eyes, I do a lot of “reading” by listening to a tape or CD while lying down with a cold washcloth over my eyes. So I’m going to include recorded books as well as recorded lecture series as “books.” For one thing, it’s the only way I can work Rick Roderick into my answers. And as I promised Karen, my answers will be a lot more long-winded than hers. Here goes:

Total Number of Books:

I’m going to assume this means the number of books I own. I probably have about 50 here at The Closet Over the Stairs in Bloomington. At the big yellow American Foursquare in Elkhart, we’ve probably got over 1000.

Last Book Read:

Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile. It’s the story of how a Cold War liberal from Texas almost singlehandedly made it possible for the mujahideen in Afghanistan to defeat the Red Army. Arming the mujahideen was a major factor in bringing down the Soviet Union, but it also paved the way for the Taliban and al-Qaida. Checking Wikipedia, I find it's been made, as they say, into a major motion picture. (I have yet to see "Now a Minor Motion Picture" on a book jacket.) This one really appears to be major, though.

Last Book Bought:

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. A brilliant and funny science fiction explanation of why Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a fragment. Ive also ordered a used copy of the cssette lectures, Self Under Siege: Philosophy in the 20th Century by Rick Roderick.

Five Meaningful Books:

An Autobiographical Novel, by Kenneth Rexroth. One of the most fascinating things about Elkhart, Indiana is the number of creative people who have lived there. Writer Ambrose Bierce, playwright Charles Gordone (first African American to win the Pulitzer for drama), and architect Marion Mahony Griffin are among many with Elkhart connections. While poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth spent only a few early years in Elkhart, his portrayal of his childhood there is spellbinding. Like many memoirs, it’s not always factually accurate. But his telling of life in 1910-era Elkhart, 1920s Chicago, and San Francisco in the ’30s and ‘40s is simply fascinating.

Philosophy and Human Values by Rick Roderick. The library finally discarded this one, but I’d check it out every few months. This four-tape set begins with Socrates, touches lightly on Roman and medieval philosophers, and then covers Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Nietszche, Kirkegaard, and Freud. Roderick intersperses his lectures with his West Texas humor and devastating critiques of America in the Reagan-Bush I era, when the lectures took place. Roderick’s courses are available over the Web at this site.

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. See below.

Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred Frailey. It wouldn’t be On the Slow Train without a train book in here. The 1950s Handbook of American Railroads helped maintain my childhood passion for trains, and Peter Lyon’s 1967 To Hell in a Day Coach was a big factor in my advocacy of passenger train service. For a positive look at the future of rail travel, Supertrains by Joseph Vranich is a good one. (More recently, Vranich has been seduced by the Dark Side, or perhaps frustrated by Light side, and is now an ally of those who wish to destroy passenger train service. Vranich will tell you he wants privately-operated super trains instead of quasi-public Amtrak, but his right-wing allies would no more invest in high-speed rail than in dirigibles.) But for an understanding of the American passenger train, Frailey’s book is ideal. He looks at the last days of privately operated passenger train service over pro-passenger lines like the Seaboard Coast Line and anti-passenger roads such as the Southern Pacific. Most passenger trains, Frailey says, actually made money or broke even until the late 1960s, when the Post Office eliminated the Railway Post Offices (literally rolling post offices where mail was sorted enroute).

The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. He's another onetime Elkhartan, though I discovered Bierce long before I moved to Indiana. Some of my cynicism has to be laid at Bierce's doorstep. And yet underneath Bierce's cynicism is a romantic idealist. But the Devil's Dictionary is fun. Even the most happily married person would sometimes agree with his definition of marriage:

"The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two. "

Five Pople to Tag:

I'll pass on this one. I enjoyed doing the meme, but I'm not comfortable sending it on. If anyone wants to do it, be my guest.