Island books, entitlement, and memory

Walking composition, freezing my face off composition

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” —Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is cold. Like the first time I’ve ever seen the ski report almost outright say, “Maybe it’s a good day to stay home” yesterday kind of cold. Which is weird because it’s colder today and despite projected -38F (-38.89C) wind chill at the summit, they’ve opened most of the chairlifts.

The snow has the squeaky feel and sound of pure cold. It’s a beautiful thing. I was just texting with friends this morning about how I had to put aside Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy last year because I can’t seem to read books set in warm places. What is this craving for cold and snow and ice, even in fiction? Do I just want everything to stop for a bit, let us catch our breaths?

That sounds a lot like a Twilight Zone episode I saw once. They never end well.

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Last summer I received the first of the palm-sized books pictured above, Isolarii, in the mail. It’s a subscription from a publishing company and I have no idea how I got on their list but it’s a delightful surprise to see in my mail box a few times a year. I mean really delightful. The size to begin with (I put coins in the photo for comparison), and then they come firmly wrapped in waxed paper like I’ve just purchased something at an old-fashioned apothecary’s shop. I’m reading the one on the right, Purple Perilla, right now, a selection of three short stories by avant-garde Chinese writer Can Xue.

The Isolarii website says that this form of tiny one-author book was popular during the Renaissance, and that our times ask for a revival of the form, declaring on their mission statement that:

The humanism of the past five hundred years is dead. Believing man was exceptional, it opened the abyss of extinction. A new approach is needed to re-enchant the world and establish the commonality of all life on Earth. This is not just the task of politics and philosophy. It requires the effort of all those who tear down convention in order to preserve what is meaningful. That is, the preservation not just of environments, but myth, irrationality, autonomy, and joy—whether by direct or poetic means. New islands—of thought, literature, art—are already emerging. They are the necessary minimum for this re-beginning. We find these points of orientation, mapping a scattered community that spans continents and disciplines. To represent a world of many worlds, not a globe.

I don’t know whether any of that is true but I enjoy the tiny “island books,” as they’re described, more than I thought I would when Salmon: A Red Herring first appeared unexpectedly along with a circular from a furniture store and the community college’s fall course offerings.

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I was thinking more about my previous post on entitlement. Two things I think I could have clarified better:

a) To repeat myself, being wealthy is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for feeling entitled (or self-entitled, thank you for the grammar correction!), even though they often correlate. As I’m sure everyone does, I know rich people who aren’t self-entitled and self-entitled people who aren’t rich. One of the books I loved most in the last few years was Joe Wilkins’s novel Fall Back Down When I Die, and one of the reasons I loved it was that he managed to excavate so well the feeling of self-entitlement that comes with being descended from homesteaders, with having been gifted land that was stolen from others and feeling that that fact somehow makes you deserving not just of that land itself but of the unfettered use of everything around you—land, animals, trees, water, people. And his characters are most definitely not rich.

b) What I see in the upper middle class Trump supporters isn’t just that Maurice Minnifield describes them; it’s as if they’re stuck in that era and that identity. They never managed to adapt or move on. When someone came along who said it was not only fine but good to be a circa-1992 well-off white man living the good life immediately after the hyperactive pro-capitalism Reagan era, it makes sense that they gravitated to him, especially with the racism and homophobia thrown in. There are people who never wanted to change their worldview or self-perception anyway, so why not have someone in power who validated the sense that the Maurice Minnifields of the world should have stayed at the top of the food chain? Especially when it’s so scary that a lot of us are suggesting that maybe structuring society as an unmoveable* hierarchy might not be such a good idea in the first place. Being Maurice is a lot safer than trying to figure out your place in a world where hierarchies are fluid or collapsed or based on values and achievements you no longer understand.

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I just finished reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, which I devoured fast. It was eerie, atmospheric, and left me horrified and somewhat anxious the further I get from it. The plot and facts are clear, but it’s the kind of book that people could probably take from it what they brought into it. For me, I got a strong allegory of authoritarian society, a sense of the morals and values we lose when those things cease to matter as much as survival does. And it made me think ever more strongly of what it took for my grandparents to hold onto their commitment to honesty in a society—Stalin’s Soviet Union—that would have been content to kill them for it. They managed to survive, but only barely. In The Memory Police, I saw the people who managed to maintain memories of disappeared things as akin to those who hold on to the humane qualities that exist outside of our socio-political systems. When they’re found out and taken away, the rest of the population is sad but they don’t know how to relate. They’ve long since accepted their own capacity to forget.

*Auto-correct kept trying to turn the word “unmoveable” into “unlovable.” I am absolutely delighted with that idea.

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Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • Another unexpectedly riveting interview from the Futures podcast, this time with science journalist and vice-chair of WWF Canada Ziya Tong about her new book The Reality Bubble. There was so much in here that appealed to me about ownership and the ways in which we’re tricked into perceiving the world in certain ways that I might have to read that book. “We believe that we’re better than all the other species on Earth. . . . Fundamentally, the belief that we have the right to own everything around us . . . except our own waste.”

  • Piloting community-owned real estate in an Atlanta neighborhood that has seen decades of disinvestment and neglect by absentee landowners. One of the many interesting models around the world for people working to create the futures of the places they live in.

  • An eerie and beautifully written piece in The American Scholar by biochemist and biologist Catharina Coenen about the question of epigenetics—as she overcomes a lifelong fear of trains, is she battling a fear passed down from her mother’s childhood terror on the platform in Stuttgart?

  • This one was a bit of a gut-punch for me. Shortly after I lamented our country’s resistance to some kind of public health care while barely blinking at a $700 billion Pentagon budget, this piece from the Daily Montanan was republished in my local paper, about the $100 billion being spent on outdated and unnecessary nuclear weapons, many of which will be housed in Montana’s missile bunkers. It’s worth reading the full report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that informed the article, which gives a comprehensive history of nuclear weapons and why rural regions’ economic dependency on them makes them hard to get rid of (socialism? of course not). The penultimate paragraph is quite a kick: “What if rural Montana could have high-quality roads without the Air Force? What if a military base weren’t the only route to a dignified living? What if the range of choices available to Americans wasn’t so narrow that building a weapon of mass destruction can come to be seen as an essential paycheck?”