Monthly Archives: May, 2016

Origins of book geekdom

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This Facebook meme from Buzzfeed caught my attention over the weekend, leading with the tagline “Your dream was to have a gigantic library in your home when you grew up.”

Now, I have to admit that I was not a classic child bookworm. In fact, my reading tastes as a kid were far from being “literary,” and once I got beyond the storybooks our parents would read with us, I resisted just about any type of fiction. In grade school, I preferred books about history, trains, planes, tornadoes, and science. As I went into high school and then college, books about sports and politics appeared on my radar screen. In college I would discover horror, mystery, and suspense novels.

It wasn’t until well until my adult years, in any case, when I started referring to my book collection as a personal library. This was due in part to the fact that the (then cheap) Brooklyn apartment shares I lived in didn’t lend themselves to the use of such lofty labels. But as the dozens of books grew into the hundreds of books, a library they were becoming.

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These memories were tapped the other day when I received the latest catalog from bookseller Edward R. Hamilton, a company that has been in business for many decades, specializing in sales of remaindered books. When I was in college, I would pore over their book catalogs in search of bargains that would stretch the dollars I saved up from working at a local drugstore chain. Several times a year, I would make my selections ever-so-carefully, write them down on the order form, and mail it away. I then eagerly waited for my books to be delivered.

Growing up in northwest Indiana, there wasn’t much in the way of bookstores. A major shopping mall had these tiny, hole-in-the-wall B.Dalton and Waldenbooks stores, but their selections were limited. Mail order booksellers like Edward R. Hamilton and Barnes & Noble (then exclusively based in New York City) were a revelation. I would actually feel my pulse race when their hefty catalogs arrived.

Of course, today it’s all different, with book buying options galore. And now that I live in Boston — a city tailor made for book lovers — the local choices are plentiful, even in this era of decline for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Watching a show within a show: “The Day After” on “The Americans”

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If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.

During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)

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In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:

On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.

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In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:

As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.

Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.

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The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.

The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.

I save way too much stuff. I should've been an archivist.

I save way too much stuff. I should’ve been an archivist.

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A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!

In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.

Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.

Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.

Year two at Hogwarts

Last week I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series. A few days ago I started in on book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve never been one for fantasy literature. But I’m now comprehending what the Harry Potter hype has been all about. J.K. Rowling is a brilliant, clever, imaginative, and socially intelligent story teller. And going from book one to two, I am bearing witness to her growth as a writer.

Of course, I may be biased because the stories are placed in a school setting. Hogwarts is basically a junior high and high school boarding institution, albeit a quite unusual one. But because of ongoing references to specific books and courses — a wonderfully imagined “curriculum” on Rowling’s part — it also feels like a sort of Cambridge or Oxford for junior apprentice witches and wizards.

I don’t know if I’ll read the entire series straight through, but I’m betting that I will finish the books by sometime in the fall. It’s fun to lose myself in that world, so I’ll savor the stories rather than speed through them. No need for a Nimbus two thousand here.

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I may be just embarking on year two at Hogwarts, but in real life I’m finishing another academic year. Grading final exams and papers isn’t nearly as bad as taking them, but nevertheless I still manage to summon the procrastinatory habits that served me so well steadily in college and law school. This has been an exhausting semester for reasons that have little to do with my courses or students — let’s just say that the internal politics and drama of academic institutions can be very draining and unnecessary — so I will be happy to close it out.

On a local note, we’re finally seeing some real spring weather here in Boston. I shot the picture below on late Wednesday afternoon. It’s right outside my subway stop in Jamaica Plain, and after exiting the station I sat down on one of the benches and did a bit of reading and catching up on e-mails. For a while I forgot about the pile of exams and papers awaiting me!

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Will I ever again be a Mad Scientist?

One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.

With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!

Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.

I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?

Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.

The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.

I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.

For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.

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