Not really a literary item, but I thought some folks might be interested in a Web site I found recently. Postcrossing is a postcard trading site. When you sign up, you get the address of a randomly selected Postcrossing member. You send them a postcard, and when they receive it and enter it into the system, you get put into the queue to receive a postcard from another member. So far I’ve sent a postcard to Portugal and received one from Finland. For those with an interest in faraway places and/or postcards, Postcrossing is an extremely low impact but rewarding hobby. I’ve always liked getting postcards, but it seems like a somewhat rare method of correspondence these days given the ease and immediacy of electronic methods. In my travels I’ve often picked up postcards, not necessarily to send, just to have as keepsakes. I’m something of a map person, so I’ve often been drawn to postcards with maps on them. I’ve got a small stack of them filed away somewhere right now, but I’ve had this idea that one day I might display them all on a wall of cork in collage form.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can’t stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here’s your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai’s second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it’s available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” (actually four books), which begins with Murakami’s first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There’s a well and a cat. While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here’s a link to a PDF of Birnbaum’s translation of Murakami’s Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
I’ll be on Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning tomorrow (Thursday) for a discussion of newspaper book sections and blogs. Also appearing on the show will be former LA Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman. The segment starts at 11am Eastern and I’m told that I’ll be on from 11:30 until noon.Those of you not in Minnesota can listen in online here. Hope you enjoy it.