Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kultura's Books Goes Out of Business

This evening I saw that Kultura's Books is having a closeout sale, everything 50% off. The store remains open until Sunday, I gather. I took a hardbound copy of Eimi by E.E. Cummings, and may get back to see what else is left..

Kultura's always had something interesting to see--a decent stock of poetry, philosophy, and fiction, books in French and Spanish, now and then in other languages. Browsing could require some work, for many of the shelves had two ranks of books on them, the back visible a handful at a time. I kept noticing curiosities such as a bilingual Homer--Greek and German, the latter in the old Fraktur type--or a complete and quite pricy St. Beuve.Over the years I may have bought half a dozen or a dozen books there.

Kultura's is located at 1728 Connecticut Ave. NW, a few doors down from S St.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The JFK 50 Miler

In today's Washington Post, the columnist Lenny Bernstein recounts his efforts at the JFK 50-Mile run last weekend. He had the misfortune of running the last two thirds or so with a broken hand and sore ribs from a fall. This was the 50th running of the JFK 50, named in honor of the president who challenged Americans to get back into condition and try such challenges as 50-mile hikes.

In 1982, I ran in the 20th running, and discovered what somebody could have told me: 50 miles is a long way to go. A friend had suggested a try it, so I sent in the application. Another reckless friend signed up, and another came along as "handler" for the two of us. I believe that the field must have grown over the last 30 years, for Bernstein writes of two waves in the race, some runners leaving at 5:30 from Boonsboro, and another, larger, presumably faster wave leaving at 7 am. In 1982, there was that I know of but one start. Those of us issued race numbers under 100 had the privilege of starting about 20 yards ahead of the rest--a nice gesture, but one that seemed eccentric for a race of that distance.

By now, I remember only so much of that day. There is poor footing on South Mountain, which one runs north to south; I thought one would have better footing running north. One covers a marathon distance on the C&O Towpath, having arrived about 15 miles in, and leaving with 9 miles to go. The roads between the towpath and Williamsport were somewhat narrow, and traveled by large pickup trucks. I made a friend in the last couple of hundred yards, a young woman who was truly suited to long distances, and came into her own at 50 miles and beyond; we ran together several times a year until she finished law school and left the area. I acted as her handler at one 100-mile race, and my brother and I handled for her at another running of it.

What I chiefly remember was the locker room at the junior high school in Williamsport where the race finished. I had to wait in the halls until my friend the handler showed up with my pack. With that in hand, I went to the locker room, where I noticed a man leaning up against the wall, with the shower running down his back--this being a junior high, the shower heads were at about shoulder height for a grown man of average stature. I undressed very deliberately, took a long shower, and then dressed and repacked very deliberately. As I turned to go, the man was still leaning there with the hot water running down him. I understood.

I did reasonably well in the run. As I remember it, my number was 26, and my finish was 25th or 27th. I was impressed by the excellence of their seeding, until I got the race report and found that those of us in the first 100 were issued numbers in alphabetical order of name. But that was it for me and 50-milers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Those who take politics to heart yet do not engage in the day to day details of it seem to me to be subject to a mild variant of bipolar disorder, call it political bipolar disorder (PBPD). The victims interpret any election as either proving that history is marching inexorably on their side, or that a new dark age is here. That there are external, usually economic, factors at work does not seem to occur to them. So a Democratic sufferer will have read 2008 and now 2012 as demonstrating that America is at heart left-liberal and does believe in that change you can believe in; he will be forgetting that in 2010 the Morlocks walked the land, cutting down the Eloi. The Republican sufferer had his moments of euphoria in 2004 and 2010, and is now sure that the end times are at hand.

To say to the Democrat that 2008 did not prove that the world was made over new, but rather that a lot of the electorate was furious at the disappearance of their (apparent) wealth was to waste your breath. To say to the Republican something comparable about 2010, why bother?

The disorder is subclinical. Yet it makes conversations with persons on the other phase impossible, with those on the same phase unprofitable, and with those not suffering from the disorder difficult.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Would You Read Aloud?

ZMKC notices an account persons reading aloud, and wonders whether the custom has lapsed. Probably it has, but why did it have such a long run? I can think of a number of cases where it makes sense
  1. The audience cannot read.
  2. The audience can read, but is occupied in work that leaves enough attention free for listening to what is read.
  3. The audience can read, but there is light enough for only one reader.
  4. The reader is accustomed to reading to others, perhaps in a liturgical setting, and the audience is accustomed to its role.
  5. Reader and audience simply enjoy one another's company.
  6. The reader and the audience particularly enjoy words, and this offers a chance to reflect on the work read, and to share their impressions of it.
Case 1 may be the most common now, as parents read to small children. In the ages before widespread schooling it must also have been the most common.

The classic example of case 2 is the cigar factory.: at one time, when cigars were hand rolled in the factories, the factories would employ someone to read to the cigar rollers. This case has largely been overtaken by radio or by personal audio devices. I remember spending a day in a warehouse where young men assembled computers, where the radio was going constantly. Now maybe they'd have earbuds in.

Jane Austen's family probably combined cases 2 through 4, maybe 5. Or if it takes as much light to embroider as to read, perhaps we can leave out case 3.

Case 5 pure and simple might be Paolo and Francesca. Does anyone read to seduce now?

Case 6 is probably in all times the rarest. I believe it covers the cases that ZMKC cites. Most people who read take small notice of how the words and the sentences work together, just as most of us who live in brick houses couldn't tell you whether the bricks were laid in Flemish bond or otherwise.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Numbers, Again

I have been reading The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians, a most interesting book. It has a couple of quirks that I have noticed. First, it is written in very short chapters, mostly of ten pages or fewer. Second, it has an uncritical love of numbers. The second may be hard to avoid when one is writing about Russia and comparably large places.

One can use numbers to inform or impress. This book tends use them to impress. The Bratsk dam held 200 billion cubic yards of water. Every year the Baikal-Amur Main line required four hundred tons of ballast for the roadbed, plus eleven million cubic feet of crushed rock, forty thousand tons of lime, and eighty million bricks for embankments, tunnels, and so on. This hydroelectric project was expected to provide so many kilowatts of power--how many Moscows or New Yorks is that?

The Bratsk hydroelectric station was built to produce 22 billion kilowatt hours per year, I read on page 380. On page 382, that project and several others produce 15 million kilowatt hours per day. At this point, I did a little arithmetic: 22 billion per year is about 60 million per day. How did the several dams produce a quarter of the output of one of them?

There is also no context given--what you you do with all those kilowatt hours? The UN says that household use accounts for 15 to 25 percent of energy consumption in developed countries. So taking the lower figure of 15 million per day for Bratsk, Ut-Ilinsk, and Krasnoiarsk, figure that about 3 million went to household use. At modern US levels of consumption (15 kWh per day) that would be about 200 thousand households (along with the industries and so on that employed their working members), but in the USSR at the beginning of the 1970s, presumably consumption was less--work out your factor and you can calculate on how large a population this supports.

And for the reader who wonders how much water 200 billion cubic yards is, other than "a lot", the cube root of one billion is one thousand; the cube root of 200 is a bit less than 6. So if we call it a cube six thousand yard on a side, we're in the ballpark. I haven't seen any  such cubes, but I have a starting place to work with the figures--if I reduce the depth of the lake to a hundred yards, I have a factor of 60 to distribute to the other dimensions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages is a fascinating book, and excellent hurricane reading. It covers the generations of medievalists who flourished between the 1890s and the 1970s, in chapters of about forty pages. Of those he writes about, I had heard of a handful--Maitland, Kantorowitz, Bloch, Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, Lewis, Tolkien, and Gilson--and of them had read only Le Roy Ladurie and Gilson on medieval matters.

His judgments are severe, here and there: on the Annales school he has many hard things to say, both about their academic politics and about their histories. On Oxbridge:
But intellectual innovators are severely rationed in British academia--one or at most two per academic discipline per half century. In this subtle way, the intellectual conservatism of the establishment is actually reinforced, since the grandees can point to a single unique innovator as the outcome of their own ambient wisdom and plasticity, and they then can go peaceably back for another generation to pouring the sherry before high table dinner and the port afterwards.
He judges that Etienne Gilson's work ultimately failed. He praises the histories of Percy Schramm and  Ernst Kantorowitz, but not unjustly titles the chapter on them "The Nazi Twins".

I cannot speak to his judgments on the writers. I do wonder whether a man born twenty years later would have so confidently applied the terms of Freudian analysis here and there to his subjects: ego, superego, Oedipal attachment, repression. If I had a spare year between now and Christmas, I could find plenty to read in his 125-book core bibliography (and I may yet read half a dozen of them, just not immediately).

I will add two frivolous complaints;
  1. There is a touch of mandarinism in the occasional use of "middle-class", for example in the passing mention of Barbara Tuchman as writing "suburban, middle-class prose". Now and then finds formulas such as "undergraduates and the educated public", as an audience able to read a certain work.
  2. A sentence such as "[Schramm's] book on Otto III was an intellectual revolution in medieval studies, and it is as exciting today as the day it was published (it has never been translated into English)." depresses me.
And one serious reservation: I don't see his prediction of a "retromedievalism" as likely to come about. Nor do I see that two aspects he identified as central to the project have that much to do with medievalism. Who could argue with "civil society"? Yet in the Middle Ages it existed as much in default of a powerful state as in opposition to it. And the "hard-edged sentimentality" one could locate in many other cultures.