I found a little book recently called The Story of a Piece of Coal: What It Is, Whence It Comes, and Whither it Goes (1910), by Edward A. Martin, part of the "The Library of Useful Stories" series (not to be confused with The Library of Useless Stories). A pocket-sized hardback bound in tan cloth and decorated with four illustrations of open books on the front cover, and one on the back, this book is a fine example of the charm of a physical book. It's darn cute. And so well-written!
From the homely scuttle of coal at the side of the hearth to the gorgeously verdant vegetation of a forest of mammoth trees, might have appeared a somewhat far cry in the eyes of those who lived some fifty years ago. But there are few now who do not know what was the origin of the coal which they use so freely, and which in obedience to their demand has been brought up more than a thousand feet from the bowels of the earth; and, although familiarity has in a sense bred contempt for that which a few shillings will always purchase, in all probability a stray thought does occasionally cross one's mind, giving birth to feelings of a more or less thankful nature that such a store of heat and light was long ago laid up in this earth of ours for our use, when as yet man was not destined to put in an appearance for many, many ages to come.
Just try reading that aloud. I'm happy to see a list at the back of the book of the other volumes in The Library of Useful Stories. I think I will get myself a copy of The Story of Books.
Once again, I am behind in recording what I've been reading. I read a novel by Irene Nemirovsky called All Our Worldly Goodsabout ordinary upper middle class French people whose lives are turned upside down by war. The novel is particularly poignant to read given that the author died in Auschwitz, and the book was first published five years after her death. I read half of A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, a novel I found to be too damn annoying to finish. The narrator is a twenty year old college student who gets a job as a nanny for a white couple who have adopted a black baby and rather than plot or interesting characters, the focus seems to be on the unbelievable, precious and quirky voice of this narrator. I read a book called The Sexual Century: How Private Passion became a Public Obsession by Tom Hickman. This was a companion book to a British television show, and is full of great color images and lots of proofreading errors (actually, it probably wasn't proofread) and typos. An amusing, fast read. And, as usual, I've been dipping into various past issues of Granta magazine.
I just finished reading Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence, an excellent and fine and very readable history book. In the first part of the book, Zinn addresses the root structure of political power in America and the world. Zinn then employs examples in history, often "alternative" history, and writes about the true nature of political change and how it comes about. The American political landscape is filled with a common language that is chuck full of truisms. Such as the very fact that we live in a democracy, that we possess certain inalienable rights, that we have a system of one man, one vote and that the ultimate power rests with the people, who can remove those from office who do not represent their interests.
But Zinn questions each of these assumptions and a great many others, clearly showing that representative democracy under a two-party system is not very representative at all, Our rights are subject to what the courts at any one time or in any particular state determine them to be. In example after example he shows that even when laws are clearly on the books -- often the result of huge battles to get legislation passed to protect or defend a people or an environment -- this offers no guarantee they will be enforced by authorities appointed by those whose economic or ideological interests they serve. There are not laws saying the law must be enforced, there are only people: the courts at any time or place to enforce them, and if they choose not to it's pretty hard to force the hand of power to act against what it considers its reason for being.
Do we live in a system of one man one vote when slaves and women got no vote, or when the top wealthiest 500 people control $200 billion and the bottom 60 million Americans have no assets at all?
In fact, Zinn argues, the entire system is rigged and behind it lies a class system that perpetuates itself largely by taking extreme measures in controlling what gets taught and what gets published and what gets recorded historically as constructive popular opinion in a giant effort to convince the rest of us of the legitimacy and inevitability of the status quo. But in fact this status quo rests in a very tenuous balance between the coercive institutions of our culture: the police, the prisons, the "intelligence" agencies and the military and the will of people who have historically determined they will no longer submit to an unjust rule and have taken the popular culture with them. These have been the abolitionists, the countless white and black workers of the civil rights movement, the women's organizations who have transformed the role of women and the gay rights organizers who have stepped up to the challenge of Stonewall all the way to winning recognition of domestic partnerships.
Zinn argues finally that the main force of these changes have not been through voting or lobbying our (non) representative government or by petitioning the courts but rather by non-violent direct action: by people deciding themselves what they want society to look like and then taking action, often against prevailing law and popular consent to bring it about. It is a view of history that does not worship great men, but lays bare the tenuous and often very fragile state of what is and how the particular present has come to be and encourages the reader to bring forth the vision of what freedom and justice may actually look like with the grit and power of one's own hands. It is an excellent read, that brings the force of history into and understandable and contextualized present.