I’ve got a little list; II

There is a creeping competitive, credentialist aspect to this 100-greatest list business as well. The big daddy of these lists, The Guardian 1000 novels everyone must read, leads with the minatory question “How many of these have you read?”. (This aspect, of the 100-greatest lists as a test of character, is possibly related to the reading-is-good-for-you reason I identified in the previous post.) After working one’s way through this terrifying list, one could surely lay claim to being A Reader. Reading would then be something that one has objectively and verifiably “done”, and could tick off one’s list, for good! (Ah yes, as the uncle in The Cherry Orchard is fond of proclaiming, I went in for that a good deal as a young man.)

There has been a backlash against the whole idea of 100-greatest lists. An example is an article (also from The Guardian),”We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old“. Criticism of Robert McCrum’s The Guardian 100 greatest novels published in English list is also contained in the Wikipedia article about it. This centred around the under-representation of women and Irish authors — 21 and 9 respectively. (Incidentally, two Aussies got a guernsey — Parick White and Peter Carey.)

My main objections to 100-greatest lists are the arbitrariness of the parameters and the subjectivity of the selection. Take the parameters  first. These lists are usually, in practice if not explicitly, “100 greatest novels In English“. (Kudos to McCrum for being upfront about that.) But why limit the list to fiction written or published in one language? Okay, most native English speakers are monoglot. But why exclude fiction originally written in other languages, which has been translated to English? Can a 100-greatest novels list exclude Don Quixote, In search of lost time, Madame Bovary, The brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace, for starters?

The difficulty of the selection is more obvious when you set yourself the task of  designing an English literature curriculum from scratch. Who would you put in? Most people would say, Shakespeare. After that, there is less agreement. Milton? Oh, yes, absolutely — although no-one actually reads him, any more, do they? Dickens? Yes, OK. Henry James? Ah — righto. George Eliot? Bit stodgy, isn’t she? Hang on, you have to leave her in. Otherwise you’ve just got dead white males. The Authorised Version of the Bible? That’s a bit political. As you go past Shakespeare, there is less and less consensus, and everyone will have their favourite candidate to include or exclude.

The commodification of reading that underlies many 100-greatest lists is one reason to be uneasy about them. The links in The Postmodern Mystery Reading List (the first list in the examples I give below) point to Amazon. Does this represent a potential conflict of interest for the compiler? Would he or she include a title that, for some reason, wasn’t available on Amazon?

These things don’t have to be monetised. The assumption that this is the only way to do it is part of the neoliberal agenda. How much better would it be if these links pointed to the local library? Literature-oriented web resources like LibraryThing include a link to a resource called WorldCat on most pages. See this page for an example; the WorldCat link is in the right hand side bar. (If you have no interest in searching your local library catalogue, skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

WorldCat may require a one-off registration, in which one’s location is disclosed. There is no problem with doing this. OCLC has been around since I did librarianship about fifty years ago. As they stylishly explain, OCLC is “a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services, original research and community programs for its membership and the library community at large.” Clear as mud? Just give them what they are asking for. You won’t end up on someone’s mailing list. (A tip — to find your library, try putting in the name of your local government area, rather than your suburb or town.)

Once you are registered, put in a book title. If it is held in a library within coo-ee, you will — with some persistence — see a listing for it. WorldCat is clunky as to use. But, and it’s a big but, it gives a low-cost or free alternative to Amazon for getting your hands on a book.  You may have to use interlibrary loan, for which some less enlightened library services charge a few dollars. But that’s surely less than the book would cost to buy.

In having a shot at 100-greatest lists, I am not trying to be a literary snob, or implying that people should somehow just know what to read. The republic of letters is open to any literate citizen. I am fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of reading, and it is very important to me. People need to use whatever works for them to get the most out of their reading. If this includes 100-best lists, go for it!

“Great books” courses, to me, are another kind of 100-greatest lists. They are pretty popular in certain circles. Melbourne University is running a short course, 10 Great Books 2019. Wrong number, same idea. Sydney University was supposed to be running a Great Books program, funded by a neoconservative outfit, the Ramsay Centre. The article from the SMH traverses the culture wars controversy that accompanied the discussion about the course. My recollection is that the university and the Centre couldn’t agree on how it was to be done.  I found a Honi Soit article (imagine Honi being online!) that seemed to cast doubt on whether the program was to proceed or not. If anyone can cast light on this, make a comment, or let me know.

Below are some examples of 100-greatest lists. These all open in a new tab. None of the articles they point to is behind a paywall, to my knowledge; some may require free registration. (To find more, just do a Google search on “books to read before you die”.)

Other questions that could be asked of 100-greatest lists include

  1. What are the criteria for inclusion? Are they just books that the compiler likes?
  2. What expertise does the compiler have in the topic?
  3. What is the rating system by which books are assessed?
  4. What did the process by which the list was compiled, involve? For example, how many books were read?
  5. Are only books originally published in English considered? Why?

http://www.postmodernmystery.com/reading_list.html

http://www.greatbooksguide.com/ArtofFiction.html

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/100-books-to-read-before-you-die

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

From Agatha Christie to Gillian Flynn: 50 great thrillers by women

Top 10 books about angry women

Tales of the unexpected: 10 literary classics you may not have read

 

More of the same

I saw my oncologist, Philip Parente, this morning, for our regular six-weekly appointment. The big news is no news: my PSA is still undetectable. So everything is as it has been the last few times. (The appointment was followed by another at the oncology unit at Epworth Eastern for another Zolodex implant. This was similarly uneventful.)

Everything can now resume its formerly pleasantly mundane character. We are having our laptop fixed, the hard drive having pretty much died. Conveniently, there is a technician up the road from us. This will be a few hundred dollars, but cheaper than a new one would be.

Another issue is nearing completion. In February I ticked off another item on my bucket list (more on that later) and bought a pair of RM Williams boots. Because I have orthotics, they had to be a particular model, the Dynamic Flex, in the Craftsman range. This is the only model that RMW makes that has a removable insole. They are very well made boots, as you would expect for the price, but the fit hasn’t been quite right for me. I have been trying various combinations of insoles, including the ones that RMW supplies, and been getting occasional rubbing on my toes. (This might be due in part to my feet swelling up with the lymphedema.)

So OK, my bad for buying the wrong thing. However, I had been told when doing so that the Dynamic Flex only came in a G (normal) fitting. I subsequently found out that they also come in an H (wide) fitting.  Had I known this to be the case, I would have tried these on as well as the Gs. I looked up the receipt, and there was a link printed on there to send them my feedback. I found the online form, related the story above and sent this off, not expecting to hear any more.

Kudos to RMW, they replied, apologising for the incorrect information, and offering an exchange to the wide fitting, should this prove the better fit. I have been in touch with them and they are getting my size in in the H fitting. So I may swap to that, or stick with the Gs. Regardless, a company that stands behind their product like this is pretty rare nowadays. Not to mention one that makes it in Australia!

(Incidentally, I asked them how long the warranty was. They said that they support the product for as long as the owner keeps wearing it. I have heard of RMWs lasting twenty years or more, just getting repairs and bits replaced as required. The opposite of disposable fashion!)

Re bucket lists, I have been thinking about these, and other kinds of lists. (I might save the latter thoughts for another post.) The phrase seems to have originated in the last 10-15 years. There are various etymologies, most related to the colloquialism “kicking the bucket”. So a bucket list is obviously things you want to do before you cark it. The movie of the same name with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman probably postdated the phrase’s first appearance (although it undoubtedly popularised it).

There are some interesting articles about the concept of the bucket list. One, in The New Yorker, is perhaps a bit dismissive of bucket lists that focus on buying stuff, going parachute jumping, or whatever. (The article is not behind a pay wall, as far as I know. The title is “Kicking the bucket list”.) Their take? “What if, instead, we compiled a different kind of list, not of goals to be crossed out but of touchstones to be sought out over and over, with our understanding deepening as we draw nearer to death?”

I go both ways on bucket lists. I plead guilty to buying stuff — owning a red sports car and a pair of RMWs were on my list. However, I am also re-reading In search of lost time, in the newish Penguin translation. Maybe I can be driving the GT, wearing my now correctly sized boots, while listening to the ebook version of Proust’s oceanic sentences! (Does such a thing exist?)

 

Round and round we go

After some agonising, comparing, and general research, I took the plunge and got a new turntable — see below.

at_lp120_usb_1_sq@2x
Audio Technica LP120 USB

This is actually the fourth turntable I have owned. The first was a Dual. That was a rim drive (a technology I am not sure is still used), and had a fair bit of rumble. That was followed by a Sony direct drive. The Sony was incredibly reliable, as their products tend to be. It had some quite good features like a strobe band around the edge of the platter, so one could see whether the record was spinning at the correct speed or not. The platter itself was carbon fibre, supposedly, with funny little rubber mushrooms to support the record. That deck went through a house fire which buckled its dust cover so severely I had to take it off and throw it away. To my surprise, the deck still worked. It was still working when I reluctantly put it out on the nature strip over forty years later. So why did I get rid of it? I had no room in the stereo cabinet for a turntable.

It was succeeded by a much smaller Akai belt drive deck. This was a modest machine, sourced from Cash Converters for not very much money. I intended to use it just for ripping recordings from my few remaining LPs. I recently liberated the stereo from its cabinet and re-housed it in a new console, where I could now get at the back of it. I also got some LPs from the op shop, and a record cleaning machine. The limitations of the Akai were becoming more obvious as the quality of the vinyl improved. So when I saw the Audio Technica on sale online, I realised it would be a major improvement.

The major feature of this deck is the capacity to record vinyl records directly to a USB stick. However, I bought it for its other features:

  • direct drive (no messing about with drive belts)
  • S shaped tone arm (supposedly better for tracking toward the LP label)
  • prefitted cartridge
  • universal headshell, giving the capability to upgrade the cartridge
  • capacity to use
    • the deck’s inbuilt preamplifier, or
    • an external phono stage, or
    • the one in your amplifier. (The Luxman has a good phono stage with switchable impedance, and it seemed a shame not to use this.)
  • hydraulically damped lift control for the tonearm (although you need to lift the arm at the end of the record).

It even has a dinky little pop-up light so you see where to put the needle at the start of the disc. And, for members of the Illuminati (and the tinfoil hat brigade), one can actually play discs backwards. Yes, subliminal messages encoded onto The Beatles, David Bowie, and other such seemingly inoffensive artists, can be — ah — outed? Revealed? Whatevs.

The handful of Melodiya discs I picked up in a junk shop in St Kilda plays beautifully. I remember asking the assistant what the story was with these. Apparently no-one had picked them up from the dock after they cleared customs. Melodiya is the number one Russian record label; the discs I have date from the Soviet Union era. Material includes the Shostakovich symphony no. 5 (conducted by Maxim Shostakovich), four of the Sibelius symphonies with Rozhdestvensky, the Schumann piano concerto, and Schubert impromptus. The Russian orchestral sound is unique, particularly the brass playing — where else can you hear horns played with vibrato?

Other op shop finds, not all played on the new deck yet, include

  • Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Wagner Wesendonck Lieder; Strauss orchestral songs, with Janet Baker
  • a Nielsen symphony
  • Debussy: La Mer; Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe suite no. 2, Pavane, with Szell and the Cleveland (extremely well played)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade with Leinsdorf (pristine condition, very good performance, and a great recording — the trifecta)
  • Beethoven: Pastoral symphony with Charles Groves (pretty good, as I recall)
  • Verdi: Don Carlo with Karajan (mono, from Salzburg Festival)
  • Schubert: Unfinished symphony and Rosamunde excerpts, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra (from the 1950s, the glory days for that band — how could you go wrong?)
  • Marschner: Hans Heiling and Der Vampyr (a gift from a mate — a terrific discovery of a composer I hadn’t heard of, let alone heard. Private recording.)

Some of the best of this bunch are World Record Club pressings. There is a story worth telling here — if only the business records from this enterprising outfit are still around. I had quite a few of their records in the 70s and 80s. Only two of these old-timers survive; a volume in the complete Haydn string quartets, with the Fine Arts Quartet, and the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a Russian soloist, Tossy Spivakovsky, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The latter is one I liberated from the music department at North Sydney Technical Boys High School. (I would return it, but the school closed down in the late 60s or early 70s.) This was the recording through which I got to know this work. I always liked Spivakovsky’s performance; it made me think of a soul wailing in frozen wastes. After a wash, the disc (although pretty worn) doesn’t sound at all bad on the new deck. I can hear now, however, that the soloist is balanced extremely close. Some things just ain’t the same forty years on!

A matter of judgement

There is a timely (for me) article in The New Daily: “How to be a great friend to somone with cancer“.

It makes some common-sense suggestions, which is always good. The major suggestion, reading between the lines, is not to feel as if you — the friend — have to do anything different. Stay in touch. Suggest outings and get-togethers, as you normally would. (Obviously, if your friend has mobility issues as a result of their cancer, you will bear this in mind.) Have a chat, as you normally would. Don’t feel you either have to talk about their cancer, or not talk about it. The tip about not feeling you have to make the big speech is a good one.

You may be surprised — or not — at what people can get used to. It is eighteen months since I was diagnosed. A cancer diagnosis goes from being a rock your life has run aground on, to just another category label. Male. Retired librarian. Likes cooking, gadgets, and cars. Cancer patient. They are all facets of my life. Obviously I give the cancer priority, but all these things are part of who I am. So I think the article is on the money with emphasising normality. Aiming for this is part of how I manage.

In this vein, cancer patients learn that not everyone is cool with talking about mortality. This is totally understandable. There is a time and place for all these things. We are not a society that encourages discussions about death. Some people need to talk about it. Others find it easier not to get into the deep and meaningfuls. There is no one size fits all approach.

I guess being friends with a cancer patient is like being friends with someone recently bereaved. As the friend, you feel awkward and not sure of what to say. So you don’t say anything. As the article points out, that is totally fine. A hearts and flowers speech is not required. What is not fine is if you avoid the person because you feel awkward around them. Then they have to deal with their friends not seeing them as well as with their loss.

Of course the bereaved person, or cancer patient, has responsibilities for keeping the friendship going as well. I’m not terribly good at these things. So I am saying this to myself — friendship involves putting yourself out there and taking a risk.

Cancer patients come in different shapes and sizes. We can be in quite different spaces according to the stage we are at in our treatment. I am in remission and don’t have a prognosis. Someone like me is not going to feel the same as someone who has a prognosis and receiving palliative care. But people whose lives haven’t been affected by cancer can’t readily make these distinctions. When they hear the word “cancer” they assume the worst. We, the patients, have to remind ourselves of this. Everyone is on the same journey, but all starting from a different place.

If you want an education, go to the library

I have just read an extremely interesting and encouraging article in the New York Review of Books called “In praise of public libraries“, by Sue Halpern. (I should add that, I am not a subscriber to the NYRB, and Halpern’s piece is not behind a pay wall, as far as I can see. The link provided above therefore should take you straight to the piece; let me know if not. As always, I apologise for cross posting.)

The title of her article may seem to promise a dusty and tedious motherhood kind of essay, as faded as those little baskets of pot-pourri one sees in an op shop. On the contrary! The article opens with Halpern’s pacy account of helping bring a public library to a small town in New York State, and how wildly popular this initiative proved. The body of the piece, however, is a review of a couple of books about American public libraries, Palaces for the people by Eric Klinenburg, and The library book by Susan Orlean. (The links in each title point to the Amazon entries.) She makes me want to read both these books — usually the sign of a good review.

One particular aspect of the review which caught my attention was the section devoted to Andrew Carnegie and his eponymous libraries. Public libraries would seem an unusual thing for a red meat capitalist like Carnegie to be interested in. The review explains how this came about. Carnegie, at the age of fifteen, was working as a telegram boy in Pittsburgh. A local iron manufacturer, Colonel James Anderson, allowed working boys to borrow one book a week from his private library. Carnegie’s experience of this philanthropy led him to write later in his Autobiography 

It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.

He put his money where his mouth was, to the tune of $1.6 billion in today’s dollars. This funded 2,509 libraries worldwide. Family members will know that one of these was in Mildura, where my family was living when I first saw the light of day. A voracious reader, Mum’s use of the Carnegie library was probably a factor in her enthusiasm for public libraries. This in turn doubtless contributed to my becoming a shelf monkey for over thirty years. (I am indebted to the Urban Thesaurus for this nomenclature.)

The NYRB piece sets the institution of public libraries squarely in the current climate in which libraries are being either closed, rationalised, or starved of funds. (This is happening here just as much as the United States.) Economic rationalists are sceptical that we need public libraries at all, now that we have Amazon, and Starbucks stores with free wifi. (I know — libraries don’t actually sell books — but apparently economics professors don’t know this.) Halpern provides the interesting figure that, in the Los Angeles County system, the annual per capita library funding figure is around USD$32, which equates to about nine medium-size Starbucks lattes. (In my local area, every $100 of rates revenue includes $6.68 of funding for libraries, arts and cultural services; about half of what is spent on emptying the bins and other “Environment and waste management” services.)

Rather than join the chorus bemoaning the irreparable damage being done to libraries in all sectors — municipal, university, and special — let’s concentrate on the positives. In the financial year 2016-17, the State Library of Victoria had more than two million physical visits, and over four million digital ones. More than a million people visited its exhibitions. A public appeal raised more than $500,000, a record for that institution. “Major gifts” raised another $25 million for its Vision 202 redevelopment plan (see “A year of records for Australia’s most popular state library”, media release 25 September 2017). Okay, that is one flagship library. But it shows that the public and funding sources — even when everything is supposedly available on the internet — are still prepared to support bricks and mortar libraries.

Where did I get the title of this post from? You are forgiven your overdue fine if you recognised Frank Zappa’s incisive words: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library” (Brainy Quote).

 

Keeping calm & not carrying on (too much)

I was sitting in the waiting room of my lymphedema practitioner yesterday, reading ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’. When she called me to come in, she asked what I was reading. When I told her, she said “That’s hilarious”. We established that she was referring, not to the book itself, but to the fact that she was reading it too. (We are reading it for our respective book groups.)

Why was I seeing a lymphedema practitioner? In recent weeks I have had a bit of swelling in the feet and ankles. This is quite often found in people who have had radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or lymph nodes removed. (Of course, I have had the trifecta.) The weather has been warm and pretty humid, which tends to make this condition worse. Anyway, I now have a lymphedema practitioner among the team keeping me in a well state. (Who knew that such specialised people existed?) Treatment involves wearing knee high compression socks, doing some lymphatic drainage (i.e. massage), and keeping the limbs elevated where possible. Walking (and exercise generally) is fine. Long periods of sitting with feet on the floor, and standing around, are not recommended.

Anyway, things are definitely headed in the right direction. (This is based on re-measurements of my feet and ankles.) Apart from this small inconvenience — with which there is no pain — I am still in remission and feeling fine. The last scan came up clear, PSA still undetectable, so I am continuing with the hormone treatment. (I get another implant every three months.)

Returning to ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’; when someone in my book group said they would like to read it, I knew nothing about it. Judging from the title, it didn’t sound like a terribly cheery read. I had just suggested ‘The narrow road to the deep North’, however, so I didn’t feel entitled to object to it on those grounds. I’m glad I didn’t — I am enjoying it more and more the further I get through it.

One reason is that, in spite of being set in Birkenau prison camp, the killings and assaults it records are never rendered very graphically. So although it is clear what is going on, it never descends into Holocaust porn. Another is the style, which is clean and unadorned, and propels the narrative efficiently. Doubtless Heather Morris realised that, with a story like this, no flourishes or literary devices were required. If so, she made the right decision. For such a book, it is quite a page turner. The steadiness of the narrative pulse, and the unbelievable ingenuity of the characters in just staying alive, makes you believe that they will get out. (After all, someone survived to tell her the story, right?)

I found this story, of people showing such resilience in unimaginable circumstances, instructive after the Christchurch killings. Everyone will react differently to this event. I have been trying to find a justification for being concerned with, and going on writing about, mundane things. Of course — and I apologise for the cliché — life must go on. Cars must be serviced, bills paid, meals cooked, washing washed. These things don’t stop just because some total bastard has rent the fabric of so many lives.

Of course people in Christchurch are not just getting on with their lives, but are showing great resilience and compassion as well. If the alleged killer was trying to inspire hatred and rejection of Muslims, he has evidently failed. So many people went along to mosques and Islamic museums last Sunday — here and, no doubt, all over Australia and New Zealand — to express their sorrow for these murders. There has also been tremendous support for the right of Muslims to practice their religion.

Taking a closer look at this: we might assume (as I did) that freedom of religion is guaranteed under Australia’s constitution. This actually isn’t so. Australia has no bill of rights guaranteeing the right to practice a particular religion. There is a number of  implied rights in the Commonwealth constitution; these rights are generally taken to include religious practice. However, this implied right only applies in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. So the states and territories are theoretically free to make laws restricting the practice of a particular religion within their jurisdiction. (See the interim report of the 2016  Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief (Australia. Parliament. Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade)). 

If these events brought about a bill of rights, or other instrument giving proper protection for freedom of religion, it would not be worth the lives lost. But it would be something positive.

Nothing to see here …

We saw Dr Parente yesterday morning. The PSA is still undetectable, and I remain in remission. After receiving this good news, we went to the oncology unit, where I had another Zolodex implanted. (You will remember that this is the hormone treatment — androgen deprivation — that is aiming to starve the cancers of what they feed on.) The implants are about the size of a grain of rice and last about 3 months. They just go in in the abdominal fat, of which there is still plenty, even after the gastro! There is very little discomfort. I booked in the next appointments with Dr P & the oncology unit, for the next implant.

My beloved is going to Paris in early April for a few days. She will be representing her work at an international transport meeting. We thought of me going as well, and tacking a cruise or other expedition onto the end of her work commitments. However, there is bugger-all happening in that line at that time of year (too cold, I suspect). So I am going to hold the fort. Of course this depends on nothing going awry in the meantime, but (touch wood) all seems to be quite stable. I have been going to an exercise class for oncology patients run by Lauren, the exercise physio, and this is pretty good! I will be going back to the gym soon as well (I stopped for a few weeks with the gastro).

My lovely old Luxman pre-amp has spat the dummy again and is only working on one channel. This is a real bore as I have to disconnect everything, pull it out, and run it over to the valve amp guru in Glen Waverley. He will have it for however long he needs to ponder its mysteries — could be weeks. (His workshop is like an Aladdin’s cave of amplifiers, many much more expensive than mine. So he knows whereof he speaks.) This is not my first pilgrimage there, however, and to be honest I am a bit over the vintage gear. Maybe I should sell it on Gumtree and get a nice, soulless, reliable, solid state integrated amp!