Category Archives: Arts

Books, Jerry

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Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, I like to read books:

ELAINE: Kevin and his friends are nice people! They do good things. They read.
JERRY: I read.
ELAINE: Books, Jerry.
JERRY: [pause] Oh. Big deal.

My public library’s Twitter account—not surprisingly—promotes the value of reading for reading’s sake. (“No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.”; “You always hit a homerun when you read!”)

That’s great in itself, of course. But I think the books I read should benefit me and the people around me. I want someone to believe that I read a lot because things like these are true about me:

  • Broad knowledge
  • High level of curiosity
  • Active imagination
  • Open mind
  • High tolerance for uncertainty
  • Low stress
  • Good memory
  • Strong analytical thinking
  • Great concentration
  • Deep trust
  • Large vocabulary

If so, then the time I spend reading books is a good investment in myself and others.

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They’ve Taken Care of Everything

A few years ago, I asked my college-age son how his friends organized and stored their digital photos. He said, “They put them on Facebook.” According to George Dyson in his 2012 book Turing’s Cathedral, one of Facebook’s founders described the goal of the company as, “How much human life can we absorb?”

In 1976, the Rush song “2112” portrayed the rulers of a dystopian future society who claimed to have achieved the end of that goal:

We’ve taken care of everything
The words you hear, the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

Melodramatic? Perhaps, but also poignant, prescient and a strong warning against blindly handing over my personal information without being mindful of how it’s being used. Brands don’t ask me to “like” them because they “like” me, but because my information is their capital and currency.

Algorithmic analysis of my personal data—captured and stored in corporate and government networks—can spawn spurious comparisons, equate correlation with causation, and project self-fulfilling prophecies.

Networks and devices can be intoxicating and insistent (the web never sleeps!), and it’s easy for real-life relationships to be crowded out by virtual connections which provide no emotional depth. Social media do offer some benefits, but only as my slave, not my master.

When is it rational and beneficial for me to cede control of my personal identity to faceless entities in exchange for convenience and indirect interaction? Only when I retain control and am aware of “how and why” they “take care of everything” for me.

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Could I Have $17.50?

Just when it seemed that the last worthy “life lesson” had been squeezed from the 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, here’s one that doesn’t involve any talking stars, stodgy angels or warping of the space-time continuum.

As the newly-wed George and Mary Bailey are about to depart on their honeymoon, they’re told that Bailey Building and Loan customers are panicking and trying to withdraw all their money before losing it to a crash. George averts disaster by jumping behind the counter and convincing most of them to settle for $20 to sustain them until the crisis passes. When her turn comes, one customer—Miss Davis—instead of taking the $20, says, “Could I have $17.50?” George replies, “Bless your heart,” and gives her a big kiss on the head.*

Now, what lesson can be taken from this scene? When closing time came that day, how much cash did the Building and Loan have left? Two dollars. And that only because Miss Davis refused to take more than what she needed. Would it allow someone else to get what they need if—more often—we chose not to take all we can get?

  1. What if—more often—businesses sought the profit they need rather than all they can get? Would it allow them to provide a better living for more of their employees?
  2. What if—more often—people took what they need from government programs and insurance claims rather than all they can get? Would it allow more people to receive benefits?
  3. What if—more often—neighbors sought the possessions they need rather than all they can get? Would it reduce feelings of inequality and break down barriers between them?

Idealistic? Of course…and? What’s wrong with attempting to live according to our ideals? And leaving some for the next guy when we can.


*Before shooting the scene, director Frank Capra fed Ellen Corby (Davis) the unscripted line without telling James Stewart (George), so he would be genuinely surprised. He was, and the grateful kiss was an in-character ad lib by Stewart.

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What Else Is On TV?

FCC Chairman Newton Minow

Television had become public opinion’s most powerful influence when Newton Minow spoke about it in his first speech as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in May 1961. Minow’s intent was to highlight the responsibility broadcasters had to “serve the public interest” by demonstrating “a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell.” But what is remembered most from the speech was his description of television programming as a “vast wasteland.”

Viewers, Minow said, were being presented with “a procession of game shows, formula comedies…blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder…private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

Wait, he was describing what was available in 1961, right?

“Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America,” he told the broadcasters. And he insisted, “History [will] decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”

Minow’s words for the television industry are as relevant now as then, but the personal challenge is to be selective about the “broadcasts” we receive and embrace.

Like any other form of communication—radio, magazines, Internet—the television shows we choose to watch say more about us than they do about the medium. Sometimes, we put television down for having a lot of junk even as we consume more and more of it. Other times, we simply wallow in the junk like a pig in mud. Either way, it’s not fair to condemn an entire medium for our poor choices in the way we use it.

Television can allow us to be places we will never visit (outer space, a feeding ground for sharks, ancient Rome), to view events we couldn’t attend (the State of the Union address, a Beatles concert, a NASA press conference), and to understand things we wouldn’t without it (movie special effects, the differences between men and women, the neutral zone trap). Trouble is, very few of these topics ever come up in sitcoms or reality shows.

No one is holding a gun to our heads, forcing us to watch Dancing with the Stars, and there is no lack of outstanding alternatives. It’s a matter of what turns us on, and what we turn on. Let’s make sure the “vast wasteland” isn’t in our heads.

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Finding Connections

In 1986, the cover of Time magazine called David Byrne a “singer, composer, lyricist, guitarist, film director, writer, actor, video artist, designer, photographer.” It’s now been almost forty years since he began his artistic career as the front man for the band Talking Heads and his dissemination of challenging, insightful ideas has not waned.

A friend recently gave me a signed copy of Byrne’s 2006 book, Arboretum. For almost anyone else, it might be pretentious to publish a book that consists of nothing more than some pencil sketches and the musings that inspired them, but when your mind is as fertile as Byrne’s, you’ve earned the attention and the book is worth it.

According to Byrne, Arboretum is “faux science, automatic writing, self-analysis, satire and maybe even a serious attempt at finding connections where none were thought to exist.” He admits that creating the drawings might have been “self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.”

At the risk of being trite, Byrne sees things in a different way:

The 18th century Scottish theologian and philosopher [Francis Hutcheson] believed that there was an intimate connection between the perception of beauty and increased morality. The more we see beautiful things, the better people we become…Imagine then what divine moral creatures museum guards must be!

His way of seeing has had a profound effect on me more than once. I immediately stopped reading his book, Bicycle Diaries when I couldn’t handle his comparison of East Germany’s delusions of its people to our two biggest self-deceptions: “that life has a ‘meaning’ and that each of us is unique.” On the other hand, I often resist an impulse toward cynicism by remembering his contention in the Time article that he’d “discovered that it’s more fun to like things” than to be overly critical. When I finally was able to see him perform live in 2013, it affirmed for me that he is at once—as he describes his drawings—“scary, fascinating and lovable.”

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More Than a Critic

A milestone in musical criticism, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music by Greil Marcus is a demanding read. But for all that is packed into its 177 pages (without the still-expanding “Notes and Discographies” section), it is worth the effort.

Alternately provocative and off-putting, the book polarizes online reviewers:

“The ur-text for those who like to plug their music collection into their book collection.” “Tends to sink under the weight of its own self importance and lofty language at times.”
“This book established the possibility for me of thinking deeply and knowledgeably about rock and roll as a cultural form.” “Ponderous and overwrought, and oh. so. pretentious.”
“Made me think differently about not only music, but all art and life in general.” “A dense difficult book to read.”

Marcus says the book “is an attempt…to deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.” He considers “the compromise between fantasy and reality that fills most of this book” to be the essence of America and being American.

Six performers–Harmonica Frank Floyd and Robert Johnson (“Ancestors”); The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley (“Inheritors”)–are featured “because they are more ambitious and because they take more risks than most. They risk artistic disaster (in rock terms, pretentiousness), or the alienation of an audience that can be soothed far more easily than it can be provoked; their ambitions have a good deal to do with Robbie Robertson’s statement of his ambitions for The Band: ‘Music should never be harmless.’…Their records–the Band’s Big Pink, Sly’s There’s a riot goin’ on, a few of Randy Newman’s tunes, Elvis Presley’s very first Tennessee singles–dramatize a sense of what it is to be an American; what it means, what it’s worth, what the stakes of life in America might be….Their stories are hardly the whole story, but they can tell us how much the story [of America] matters.”

These artists–among, but more so than, many others–struggle to balance the contradictory and complementary desires and fears of American society through their music.

“Cultural history is never a straight line,” Marcus writes, “along with the artists we care about we fill in the gaps ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, all over again…trying to create a world where we feel alive, risky, ambitious, and free.”

Marcus links familiar American forms in mind-blowing ways. In the first chapter, he unforgettably compares Harmonica Frank Floyd and Lyndon Johnson to Captain Ahab and Huck Finn.

“Of all the characters who populate this book,” he says, “only Harmonica Frank did more than keep the legend of Huckleberry Finn alive–he lived it out….His humor, his cutting edge, came like Twain’s from that part of the American imagination that has always sneered at the limits imposed by manners….It is a revolt against the hopeful morality of Twain’s aunts and the tiresomeness of Ben Franklin doing good and being right.”

Predictably, Marcus spends the most time on Elvis and his relationship with American music and audiences. Last June, at Sun Studio in Memphis, I first read Marcus’ poignant description of how Presley’s original take on an old blues song made Sun the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll:

“That’s All Right” was one of three Arthur Crudup tunes Elvis recorded….Elvis reduces the bluesman’s original to a footnote. He takes over the music, changing words and tightening verses to suit himself…. he turns Crudup’s lament for a lost love into a satisfied declaration of independence, the personal statement of a boy claiming his manhood. His girl may have left him, but nothing she can do can dent the pleasure that radiates from his heart. It’s the blues, but free of all worry, all sin; a simple joy with no price to pay.”

When I read that description again in Mystery Train, the story had another context almost as rich and appropriate as Sun Studio itself.

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Watson, Conductor of Light

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, Sherlock Holmes, is a legend of literature, film, radio and television. In the past two years, I’ve read the four Sherlock Holmes novels, and have now begun to read some of the best short stories as well.

I’m no expert in the legend, so it’s hard to know how to add anything useful or even articulate an impression of the stories I’ve read. But the Sherlock Holmes Society of London makes an interesting point about how the legacy of Holmes’ character has benefited from Doyle’s decision to tell us about Holmes through his constant companion and aide, Dr. John Watson:

“The characteristics that make Holmes attractive to readers: his integrity, trustworthiness, sensibility, rational decisiveness, lack of emotionalism, and intellectual superiority are measured and reported by Watson. Watson (a doctor like Doyle), brings humanity to Holmes, who without Watson’s sympathetic telling, would come off cold, inaccessible and unpleasant. ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous,’ Holmes tells Watson, ‘but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.'”

How many relationships do I have that help me come off better than I would without them? How many people come off better because of me than they would without me?

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