Bookshelf voyeurism, Pilgrim Edition

After a peek in the medicine cabinet, what could be more appealing to a home voyeur than a good judgmental crawl of thy neighbor’s bookshelf? It used to be that the proprietor’s record collection afforded a similar opportunity, but of course music has long since disappeared into the aether. We can no longer admire a battered old Dylan album or turn our noses up at a Flock of Seagulls LP. But for now, books still exist as three-dimensional artifacts.

Recently I came across a tweet that made me realize that bookshelf voyeurism extends across the centuries too:

Decided to put Myles Standish’s library into @LibraryThing this p.m.

LibraryThing is an excellent service that helps you keep track of your books. You can, by extension, keep track of other people’s books too, so they introduced Legacy Libraries. Want to know what Thomas Jefferson had piled next to his bed? Look no farther. That’s how it came about that the library of Mayflower magnate Myles Standish began to appear on LibaryThing. It’s fun to browse through it, and let me tell you, they knew a thing or two about making book titles back then. For instance, consider The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English. Neuer? That striketh me as vnlikely. But vvho am I to jvdge?

If you have your own books catalogued on LibraryThing (mine are here), then they’ll compare your libraries. Imagine my surprise to find out that Myles and I had two books in common. One was The eight bookes of Caius Iulius Caesar: conteyning his martiall exployts in the realme of Gallia and the countries bordering vpon the same (I may have read a slightly different edition). And the other wasn’t Ye Bridges of Madison Covnty: being chiefly a Meditation on Unnaturall Loue and the Corn of Iowa.

I’m comforted by the fact that even after books disappear as things you can hold, I’ll still be able to admire your bookshelf virtually on LibraryThing.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I can happily recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, although it did strike me as longer than it needed to be. The book, about our food economy, features reporting, analysis, and some self-indulgent introspection. I enjoyed the reporting, in which he details trips into the heart of America’s industrial food-making machine. I was surprised, for example, to learn that corn is not good cow food. It fattens them up nicely, but their gut, having been built for grass, is distressed and gassy as a result. “Corn-fed beef” sounds so rich; I had always pictured cows somehow luxuriating in their corn-based diet. Instead, they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own waste with a painful case of the frothy burps.

I found Pollan’s analysis less satisfying and more left-leaning than it needed to be. The facts he reports about our food economy, if taken at face value, are devastating enough, but he puts a political gloss on it that is sometimes irritating. For instance, he describes global capitalistic markets as an evil influence on food economies and the environment. By contrast, he describes a few enlightened organic farmers who are having small successes battling this malign force. But hey, it’s all capitalism. Markets learn and markets change. When organic practices become more widespread, as I’m sure they must over the long term, it will be because of a change in global markets. Ironically, it is precisely books like Mr. Pollan’s that educate readers, which is to say the market, about the true costs incurred by government-subsidized corn and confined animal feeding operations. Pollan also displays the annoying habit common among idealists of attacking the moral flaw in otherwise sound improvements to the status quo. Thus modern “industrial organic” practices aren’t free from sin. They may not use pesticides, but the labor-intensive practices of organic farming still require liberal amounts of petrochemicals to run machinery and transport the product. They still employ poor and easily exploited immigrants. Well, of course they do. But surely half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. Make the gains you can this year, and we’ll improve on them next year.

But overall, it’s a worthwhile and eye-opening read. It was worth it just for the part about Joel Salatin’s eccentric and endearing Polyface Farm. And it’s already changed some of my purchasing habits.

I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!

Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America

Morgan Spurlock, the hefty man behind the fast food fright flick Super Size Me, has also written a companion book called Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. Spurlock takes a dim view not only of corporate fast food purveyors but also of the American public’s ability to make sound dietary decisions when confronted with fancy advertising.

This drives Matt Angiulo crazy. Angiulo is an aerospace engineer who takes quite literally the old adage of Sir Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Angiulo is also a natural contrarian. Whereas he would no doubt leave Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book safely on the shelf, a book commanding him not to eat it is as good as a double-dog dare to do exactly that. Thus: I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!, a web site dedicated to the slow consumption of Spurlock’s book.

My friend Rob (one of the original Star Chamber gang) knows Matt’s brother and sent me the news about this fascinating site. To the email he added this

My review of his site would be: “Angiulo brings new meaning to consumerism as he literally digests the smarmy, self-righteous words of Morgan Spurlock in his postmodernist attack on Spurlock’s popular tome on so-called healthy eating.”

Every day he eats another page after reading and summarizing it for the site. No word on whether he uses liberal amounts of Miracle Whip. I’m afraid he is not a charitable reviewer. While he does swallow the arguments initially, what he does with them a few hours later is not fit reading for a family-oriented blog.

Self-publishing comes of age

One of my favorite books of all time, Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Cox, went out of print soon after it was published in 1989. A friend of mine happened to own a copy, but when I went to buy one for myself, only expensive collectors’ editions could be had. Recently the book was finally picked up again by South Mountain Books. The publishers of South Mountain Books were… Charles Murray and Catherine Cox. This book had rave reviews and a core of dedicated fans, but because of its position down the long tail of all books, no publisher would take it until the authors themselves took on the job. Go buy it now.

Most happily, publishing your own book isn’t so hard anymore. Murray and Cox may have a few more resources at their disposal, but you can use It’s hard to beat their value proposition: just-in-time vanity press. No need for expensive set ups and big speculative print runs. Lulu lets you publish and sell your book on a print-only-as-needed basis. Charge whatever you want; as long as you cover your per-book costs, the rest is yours to keep.

This kind of publication will change the world as surely as Gutenberg did. Even so, it’s only half of the print-on-demand problem. Lulu addresses books that have never existed before. We still need good solutions for the Apollos out there, the orphaned books that have gone out of print.

Enter the Homogecene Epoch

Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion

“I have seen the future, and it lives in Miami,” says Alan Burdick of Discover magazine. Burdick, author of the recently released book Out of Eden : An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, excerpted parts of the book for Discover in May’s The Truth About Invasive Species. Unfortunately the entire article is unavailable online, but here’s the gist: don’t worry so much about the importation of alien species. You can kill off species by killing them (pollution, habitat destruction), but it’s hard to kill them simply by mixing them together. Burdick’s comment about Miami concerns the fact that south Florida is the epicenter of a vast unplanned experiment: what happens when you dump hundreds of exotic plant and animal species into an unsuspecting and perhaps fragile ecosystem? Conventional ecological wisdom has been to predict disaster, but as always, nature surprises.

Man is a very efficient biological mixing agent, churning together everything he touches, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. The spectacular examples (hordes of hungry rabbits devouring Australia, proliferating Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, bird-eradicating snakes on Guam) are just a fraction of the biological chaos launched during this great era of human commerce, which some scientist have dubbed the Homogecene. Burdick has two messages for us: there’s no stopping it, and it’s not as disruptive as originally suspected. The ecological chaos of the Homogecene is real, but it’s surprisingly hard to put your finger on what the bad part is.

The intrusion of judgmental, xenophobic language into invasion science is particularly interesting. The whole notion of invasive species and the pristine habitats they ravage is built on the flawed idea of ecological stasis, that there was once a Golden Age in which God’s happy creatures dwelt together in harmony. Burdick deconstructs the loaded language used by some of the scientists: opportunistic aliens attack and destroy hapless natives. Natives? Since when? We all came from somewhere, and we’re all headed someplace else. It’s only a matter of when you baseline your time horizon. I’ve been a native of this chair for a good half hour, but now it’s time for me to go invade the bedroom. Good night.

I’m published!

The Yankees vs. Red Sox Reader

If you are interested in any of the ten thousand opportunistic books about the famous baseball rivalry between New York and Boston, I thoughtfully encourage you to consider The Yankees vs. Red Sox Reader. Happily, this particular instance of the genre includes a short essay by me. Check out the table of contents: there I am on page 259, just after a New Yorker piece by Roger Angell. I was just kidding old Roger about how I was batting cleanup for him. He laughed… he’s a big joker himself… but I could see it bugged him. Of course I only tease Roger because I love him.

Naturally you can always read my essay here, chez Star Chamber, but if you really want to read it on paper, you can either print it with your inkjet or send Amazon $10.85.

After oil, what?

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak

Ken Deffeyes, the author of Hubbert’s Peak : The Impending World Oil Shortage, has written another book on the same topic called Beyond Oil : The View From Hubbert’s Peak. Hubbert, a Shell geologist who, back in 1956, correctly predicted that U.S. oil consumption would top out in the early 70s, also foresaw 2001 as the peak of world oil production. That is to say, right about now. Clearly the end is coming some time, but how long can we put off the inevitable? You can find any number of optimists who swear there’s plenty more oil out there. Who’s right? I found this paragraph from a review of Deffeyes’s latest book to be a sobering assessment:

If the actions – rather than the words – of the oil business’s major players provide the best gauge of how they see the future, then ponder the following. Crude oil prices have doubled since 2001, but oil companies have increased their budgets for exploring new oil fields by only a small fraction. Likewise, U.S. refineries are working close to capacity, yet no new refinery has been constructed since 1976. And oil tankers are fully booked, but outdated ships are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.

Practically speaking, we’ve reached the climax of the Great Age of Petroleum. From now on we’re witnessing declining action. What comes next? Surely we’ll spend a lot of money on solar panels and windmills, but there’s no escaping the fact that nuclear energy is the next great source. Start getting used to it now.

Unrealized Christianity

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas

Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels is a book about vanished Christianities. The religion (and Bible) we know today took centuries to solidify and be codified into regulated Catholic practice. For a long time, there were a variety of groups, all calling themselves Christians, who believed a number of different things about this man Jesus. We might never have known the full extent of this variety were it not for the discovery in 1945 of some ancient texts, including the Gospel of Thomas, that had otherwise been completely suppressed.

What does the Gospel of Thomas say that is so dangerous? Essentially, it says the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, and to find it you must turn into yourself rather than to an orthodox clergy. Imagine a Christianity where Jesus is a more accessible role model, in the sense that any of us can become like him, or even surpass him, in becoming one in spirit with the Father. This is the promise of some of the suppressed books of early Christendom. If that sounds like heresy, it’s only because those who defined it as heresy won. A Buddha-like Jesus was appealing to many, but it presented a number of problems to the young and struggling Church. If anyone can claim equality with Jesus, how are unity and order to be maintained? How is one to distinguish charlatans from holy men? Best to draw the line at one Christ and be done. Of the four “approved” Gospels that got into the Bible, Pagels makes the point that one, the book of John, can be read as an explicit polemic against the Gospel of Thomas.

Final score: John 1, Thomas 0.

Racing to the Moon


This book is built around the very human stories of the engineers (we’ve heard enough about the astronauts) who built a machine that took men to the moon and back. In less than eight years, they built a great big machine that took people to the surface of the moon and back. The authors have a real flair for digging into the details that make the stories and the people come to life, underscoring this is how it really happened. All engineers should read this book; it’s immensely entertaining, but it’s also a real sourcebook of stories about how to get extraordinarily complex engineering projects done on time and on budget. Caldwell Johnson, one of the lead designers of the Apollo vehicle, sums it up well:

After a while, you really become appalled that you’ve gotten yourself involved in the thing. At first, it’s an academic exercise. And then the first thing you know, there’s people building these things, and they are really getting ready to do it, and you start thinking: Have I made a real bad judgment somewhere, and the damn thing is just not going to work at all?

Star Chamber reference: July 21, 2000.

Paris besieged

The Fall of Paris

This is the first of Horne’s trilogy about Franco-German mischief; the other two are about the World Wars. I hadn’t realized how much the Franco-Prussian war set up World War I. If the French are to be chastised for their harsh terms at Versailles in 1918, then the Prussians must answer for what they squeezed out of Paris in 1871. The triumphant unification of Germany actually happened at Versailles even as France was on the verge of surrender. The subsequent removal of so much territory in Alsace and Lorraine virtually guaranteed future conflict. Even an unphilosophical reader must feel a certain poignancy when pondering the endless misery that was being sown for future generations. Furthermore, the Paris Commune that followed the capitulation taught Karl Marx important lessons that were later applied with great success by Lenin. I didn’t know much about French nineteenth century history, but this weird little war is so singular it makes a compelling read.