Want to Read Something Really Depressing About America?

Journalist George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, has been compared to the U.S.A. Trilogy, the novels in which John Dos Passos used experimental techniques to capture the state of our union in the early 20th century. Except that The Unwinding is nonfiction.

To quote the publisher:

American democracy is beset by a sense of crisis. Seismic shifts during a single generation have created a country of winners and losers, allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown … (Packer) journeys through the lives of several Americans, (interweaving) these intimate stories with biographical sketches of the era’s leading public figures … and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics….The Unwinding portrays a superpower in danger of coming apart at the seams, its elites no longer elite, its institutions no longer working, its ordinary people left to improvise their own schemes for success and salvation.

Packer summarizes his view of the past 30 years in the newspaper column below: “Decline and Fall: How American Society Unravelled”. He doesn’t meet Marx’s challenge in these few paragraphs to change the world (not merely understand it): such as explaining how to get more people to vote intelligently, how to overcome the power of money in our democracy, how to avoid a race to the economic bottom in a global economy. But maybe more of us need to clearly understand what’s happened before we can do something about it.

(Or should we simply get out of the way, relying on our children and their children to do what needs to be done? Like the man said: “Your old road is rapidly agin’, please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin’ .”)

When we talk about America’s decline, it’s tempting to wonder if the situation is as bad as it seems. Packer’s book and the column below are honorable attempts to counter that temptation.


An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought

The principal speaker at our son’s graduation yesterday was Vermont novelist Chris Bohjalian. He was excellent. He got a deserved standing ovation. Aside from advising the graduates to “stay here!” (that was a joke, but not a completely bad piece of advice), he argued for, among other things, the importance of reading.

As a reader, I didn’t disagree with what he said. Not everyone, however, is of the same opinion.

It’s always bothered me that I’d often finish a book and shortly thereafter not remember much about it. So when I retired a few years ago, I started writing a brief response to every book I finished on a blog I called Retirement Reading. Now I had a semi-permanent record of the books I was reading.

Keeping a record of what I’d read reminded me of a summer long ago when I kept a list of books I’d finished in order to win a prize or something. (Several of the terrific Doctor Doolittle and Wizard of Oz  books appeared on my list that summer.)

Last week, I decided to move the contents of Retirement Reading over here to WordPress (goodbye, Google). Trying to think of a good title (since it’s never been a blog about Medicare or where to retire), I looked through some quotations regarding books and reading. Some famous authors had some surprising things to say on the topic:

“Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” — Albert Einstein

“Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“Learn as much by writing as by reading.” — Lord Acton

“Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.” — Sir Arthur Helps (who? — 19th century author, politician, etc.)

They weren’t all negative, of course:

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sir Arthur won:


Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry has written at least 40 books, mostly novels, but he apparently prefers reading, buying and selling books more than writing them. While writing all of those books and reading many more, he became an antiquarian or secondhand bookseller. He currently operates a giant bookstore in Archer City, Texas, that holds roughly 300,000 volumes.

There is apparently a difference between running a used or secondhand bookstore and running an antiquarian one. At one point, McMurtry refers to a “low-end” book as one costing less than $500. He is primarily interested in locating (“scouting”), buying and selling the ones that aren’t low-end (e.g. $50,000 for a first edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

Books tells the story of McMurtry’s life with books (and magazines too). But it is a strangely written book. 

The chapters are almost all one or two pages long. He rambles. He frequently refers to buying this or that book from this or that bookseller while occasionally noting that not many people will want to read a book about buying books: “I’m aware that this kind of prattle is exactly the kind of prattle I ought to be avoiding, lest this become a narrative that is of interest only to bookmen”. 

And 50 pages later: “Here I am, thirty-four chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common reader — and yet why should these readers be interested in the the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy?”

I kept reading, because he is such a good writer and there are enough interesting stories and observations in the book to make it worthwhile. 

This is my favorite anecdote. McMurtry came upon an English edition of Moby Dick that had belonged to an English author named Charles Reade. Mr. Reade once had an assignment to edit Moby Dick for English readers, making it shorter and easier to sell. The copy that McMurtry found had proposed edits written in it: “Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic. He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael'”.

Aside from so many references to books and authors I’ve never heard of, the most striking thing in Books is its account of McMurtry’s amazing productivity. He casually mentions that he has read a certain 12-volume set of diaries several times, in addition to reading apparently vast numbers of other books, many more than once. He did this while writing his own 50 or so books and screenplays. While traveling around the country looking for books to buy and owning and operating his own store.

It’s true that he has had a partner in the book business. But I don’t understand how one person could do all of this. It’s like a story from another age. Maybe he skips a lot of pages when he reads? And never sleeps or takes a shower?  (7/28/12)

Fixing “Moby Dick”

Larry McMurtry, the author of The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and much else, has had a parallel career as an antiquarian (used) bookseller. He recounts his experiences in Books: a Memoir.

One day, while looking through someone’s extensive personal library, McMurtry came upon a copy of Moby Dick. It had belonged to an English author named Charles Reade, who once had an assignment to edit Moby Dick for English readers, making it shorter and easier to sell. The copy that McMurtry found contained a number of proposed edits. In McMurtry’s words:

“Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic. He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael'”.