The Web has democratized the reviewing process, of everything from washing machines to widgets to, of course, books, where Amazon started the trend. Alas, the reviewing landscape has gotten a bit wild and woolly, what with fake reviews, both positive and negative, meant to drive up or down reputations. Leaving those problems aside, reading reviews of one's books yields a fascinating range of experiences, from inspirational pleasure to exasperated hair-pulling. Some blithe souls review not the book but the delivery service. "Received in good condition, thanks!" Then, too, what am I to make of this comment on Amazon, about my college-level text in history? "It's pretty small and compact unit. The instructions are quite informative and easy to read and understand. The projector casing feels like it's made from a strong durable aluminum. The unit seams very sturdy and robust."
Then there are those reviews that are not particularly favorable, yet bring a smile to the author's face nonetheless. In an earlier blog entry I noted the student who gave five stars to my college text (oooh, five stars, great!) only to discover the air being let out of my balloon in his comments. "Man, I love college! Passing class with A and haven't read a page!" Then there was the review, on Goodreads, of They Say, my book about Ida B. Wells and her campaign against lynching. "I probably wouldn't have read this if it wasn't for school," the reviewer noted, "but for a non-fiction historical book, it didn't make me want to put a hole in my head, and I feel that's always a plus."
Wow! That would grab your attention as a blurb on the dust-jacket. "Didn't make me want to put a hole in my head!"--Dolores, from Goodreads.
Contrasting reviews demonstrate the wide range of human tastes and desires. For some readers, A Little History of the United States hits the sweet spot in terms of length and coverage: "...good at being able to talk about the various things/people/ideas that have made America what it is today. And all without getting bogged down in side stories, tangents, or extraneous details." For others, the book seemed almost painfully short: "It flows at breakneck speed and because it is a potted history of a long period and of a diverse and huge country there are things left out, alluded too and not quite covered..." (True enough, although actually, he still liked the book.)
Similarly, Great Heart (co-authored with my paddling partner John Rugge) tells the story of three expeditions across Labrador. The first, launched in 1903, ends in starvation and death. The follow-up, in 1905, involves two rival expeditions, each seeking to complete the work of the original trek. In addition, a love story becomes part of the tale, as one of the main characters, a Scottish-Cree Indian guide, falls for the widow leading one of the trips. Some reviewers resist that aspect:: "I really liked the first half of the book. The second half started out strong but there was a romance that was intimated and it was too much of a focus and took away from the story." Other readers feel that the romance adds to the interest: "One of the best books I've read in a while. A true adventure... with a great love story at the center. Very touching. If you like expeditions, this is the book for you."
For me, though, the reviews that most satisfy are not measured by praise or blame but reveal readers' life experiences. People engage with their books intensely, for better or worse. Great Heart was emphatically not the ticket one reader was seeking, as the review below reveals—though it's a bit hard to say whether the reviewer's dissatisfaction arose from the book itself or from her own life experiences. Who is this Brandon and where did he go?
More positively, I've found that the first book John Rugge and I wrote over forty years ago, The Complete Wilderness Paddler, has become an intimate part of many readers lives:
And finally, a Goodreads review by a woman named Sally, which touched me greatly—not so much for the praise as for her own pungent story-telling and the help the book provided for her own adventures:
Wonderful recollections, wonderful writing—evocative, imaginative, poignant!
Trump continues to take us into uncharted territory. But the latest bombshells, relating to the FBI's secret counterintellligence investigation into whether Trump was an agent working in the Russian interest, are often mischaracterized, sometimes intentionally. Jeanine Pirro of Fox News asked the president, with a bit of a smirk on her face, if he had ever "worked" for the Russians. To her, the answer seemed beyond obvious. Trump a spy for the Russians? Ridiculous. In one sense, she was right.
The proper question is not whether Trump "worked" for the Russians as an agent within some formal arrangement; it's whether he was a Russian asset—someone over whom the Russians have been able to exert hidden influence. As one commentator put it, Trump is too undisciplined, impulsive and irrational for the Russians ever to even consider trusting him as a spy. But those same qualities, along with greed and a disdain for ethics and the law, make him a perfect candidate for a Russian asset. Over the past decades, he has surely provided them with plenty of kompromat.
Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, put the issue with waspish clarity. All the public evidence points to Trump being a Russian asset. The question is, is he participating wittingly, unwittingly or half-wittingly?
One of my distinct summer pleasures is returning each year to our Adirondack camp. Here one finds the usual outdoor pastimes, from canoeing and hiking to just sitting on the dock listening to the calls of the loons. But the pleasure I’m referring to now is accomplished indoors, a process of turning the clock back in time. That is to say, browsing through the various camp libraries, whose volumes reach back a century and more.
I use the plural because there are several small-scale libraries here, tucked away in different buildings, each with a different identity. Where I’m sitting now, in a boathouse overlooking the lake, four bookshelves are crammed with paperback mystery and suspense novels, collected over the past thirty years. Some are familiar to me, such as Elmore Leonard’s Swag or P. D. James’ Devices and Desires. Other authors’ names ring a bell, though I’ve never read their books, including Sara Paretsky and Lawrence Block. Still others I’ve never heard of, yet clearly prolific creators whose volumes populate these vast sub-fields of idle diversion. There is “Edgar Award-winner” Sharon McCrumb, also Stuart M. Kaminsky, creator of “the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mysteries,” and Diane Mott Davidson (no relation), a writer who specializes in a “unique blend of first-class suspense and five-star fare,” and whose back covers boast such gastronomic encomia as “a delicious whodunit” (Bon Appétit) and “a rich feast” (Publishers Weekly).
I am usually good for about one volume a summer plucked from these shelves, though never more. Back in the 1940s critic Edmund Wilson wrote two classic screeds bemoaning the quality of detective fiction; and as the years go by, I find myself increasingly in agreement with his acerbic assessments. Still, these shelves yield up occasional treasures.
In the main living room, however, the selections are much more unpredictable and engagingly odd. Each side of the fireplace boasts a glass-protected shelf filled with volumes acquired by various camp owners beginning sometime after 1911. The great majority are hardbacks, though great literature most are emphatically not.
As a historian, I enjoy the encounter with the popular predilections of decades gone by, where the questionable taste of readers is not merely dull, as Edmund Wilson might have it, but unpredictably exotic and strange. I wandered in this morning and, running my finger across the titles, pulled one book off the shelf that I had never noticed before:
I have no idea who Grace Denio Litchfield is. The book was published in September 1904 and the title page informs us that she was also the author of “In the Crucible” and “The Moving Finger Writes.” That volume ought to have been titled “The Moving Finger Writes Tremulously,” judging from the first page of The Letter D:
I could not bear to read further, but did flip the book open, at random, to page 109, where I found a fellow named Robert walking with Ruth on an April afternoon, a wind “chill with the memory of March...sweeping down the street.”
Well? Wasn’t this worth a tug off the shelf? I confess that, upon reading these words, a rose tint suffused my pallid cheeks as I felt the shadow of Grace Denio Litchfield hovering o’er. And then the shade of another creature—destined, decades later for a Boris Karloff picture—in which Dr. Frankenstein, like Robert, brays those immortal words, “It’s aliiive!!”
All right. As one writer to another, I owe Litchfield an apology. We authors should be humble about the bookshelves our works are likely to end up on, to be taken out decades later and trod upon with glee. Grace Denio Litchfield made an apparently satisfactory living from her output. (Yes, I googled her after I began writing this, and discovered that she published at least a dozen novels and poetry collections. In the Crucible is her account of being nearly crushed to death during an earthquake in Italy.) The hilarity derived from her pages gives proof of how fickle popular tastes can be, including our own. What will future owners of this camp, pulling books off the shelf, derive perverse pleasure from? Will they include sentences which, today, strike us as discerning prose but decades hence will seem trashy or horribly overwritten?
“The little I have read has been only of the best,” Robert assures Ruth. Our goal is the same. Yet a little voice whispers that our notion of what truly lives, moves, and “is the real thing,” may prove as ephemeral as Robert’s or Grace Denio Litchfield's fancies.
Two postscripts. As I began posting this entry, my eye lit on something on the cover of The Letter D. Scroll back and see if you notice it. It's the letter F! Tucked in the lower right corner of the six inscribed letter D's on the cover. What can it mean? It's the only wiggle in the novel that has thus far aroused my curiosity, and it tempts me to skim further to see what the title means and what that subversive F is all about. But I could not quite bring myself to haul the book home and continue to delve. If there are any Litchfield devotees out there who can provide an answer, drop me a line! Otherwise, I'll see how strongly I'm drawn to return to the puzzle next summer...
Finally, when I began this post, I intended to talk about two other books that caught my eye, but for now they must wait. The Letter D was where the moving finger, gliding along the dusty shelf, abruptly landed. That's the fun of this odd time machine tucked away in a wilderness camp.
In earlier posts I've noted that Yale Press has licensed various foreign editions of A Little History of the United States, most recently an edition published in the People's Republic of China. Yale had sent me a copy of the edition, so I knew what it looked like, but only recently have I received word of its actual presence on the mainland.
From time to time I have corresponded with a Chinese citizen, William Wang, from the city of Xi'an in central China—originally the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road, if my information is correct. Mr. Wang found his way to this website after happening upon a copy of a college text I've collaborated on, Nation of Nations. (Alas, only Volume 2 was available to him.) For the last year or two we have exchanged emails from time to time on various subjects. But a recent communication, including the photo below, brought word that he had finally connected with A Little History:
No disappointment that he didn't buy the book—one must be thrifty and Mr. Wang prefers to work on his English by reading books in their original format. It was very good of him to send along a photo.
In addition, I am pleased to report that in the past few months, Yale has also licensed Japanese and Thai editions of the work. Not out yet, but they will be added to the queue along with a promised South Korean edition. Delighted to see the Asian market spreading!
Easter morning here, and I spent part of it reading the Sunday Times. (In my younger years, I liked to jibe that Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, whereas in this more secular era, the Sunday Times is the opiate of the middle classes.) Opiated or not, I was struck scanning the lead stories on the front page that a striking change had occurred over the last couple of decades. I went back and hunted up the Easter Sunday front page from twenty years ago, and sure enough... Take a look at a listing of the primary front-page stories two decades apart. (The fact that it's Easter has nothing to do with it!)
April 12, 1998
Political Interests Arouse Raging Debate on Census
Steven A. Holmes
In W.N.B.A., Hope for Union of Their Own
Can-Do American's Patience Paid Off With an Ulster Pact
A Straight-Arrow Policeman Turns Loose Cannon at C.I.A.
Evidence Is Scant that Workfare Leads to Full-Time Jobs
April 12, 2018
Years of Claims of Harassment in Justice Dept.
Extortion or the Price of Freedom? Bail Bondsmen Accused of
Exploiting Poor Clients
Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan
Taliban’s Move into High Tech Puts U.S. in Bind
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Jawad Sukhanyar
Cuomo Budget Sticks Thumb in Mayor’s Eye
Vivian Wang and Jesse McKinley
Catching a Whiff of Faded Ballpark Memories
Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?
Notice anything? This is not an earth-shattering revelation, but out of the five main stories fronting the 1998 paper, four look to be done by white males. Compare that with the by-lines of 2018. The diversity of the reporting staff has increased sharply, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. My admittedly impressionistic sense is that same diversity extends through the paper as a whole; and the OpEd section has gained a much wider and more diverse line-up as well. All to the good.
I graduated over fifty years ago from The Harley School in Rochester, New York and was delighted to receive the above snapshot from Karen Saludo, who works at the school now. "I was walking down senior hallway and saw your book!" she reports. "You can see it has been used quite a bit."
In fact I knew that, having corresponded with Sandy Foster, who teaches American history there. He assigns it as summer reading to help students get up to speed before they take his class there in the fall, and reports high student engagement, which I'm glad to hear. This specimen seems well thumbed, certainly, which would seem to indicate a dogged devotion to the work!
The following just came up as a review on Amazon for one of my college texts:
So I guess the philosophical question is, do I prefer that he loves the book he didn't read or would I rather he hated the book he did read? Maybe it's a perfect fit. But I'm thinking either he's a jock at a Big-Ten school where his real job is on the football field; or years from now he's going to wish he had challenged himself with a school or a set of courses that actually encouraged the exercise of his cranial appendage.
I should add a brief note, apologizing for my online absence. A book deadline, on the one hand; but on the other, a terrific trip to Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland, about which I hope to post more soon.
I’m pleased to report that a new edition of A Little History of the United States is available in the People’s Republic of China. The book is published by CITIC Press Corporation of Beijing. It sells for RMB 49, approximately $7.50 in today's US dollars. The edition is handsomely produced:
Beneath the dust jacket the hardbound cover is elegant too
And the endpapers take two more of Gordon Allen’s excellent drawings to make a distinctive, contrasting pattern:
English editions of the book, like other volumes in Yale’s Little History series, do not include footnotes, so I was surprised to discover that this edition does! I don’t read Chinese so I can only guess, but the notes appear to be helpful annotations of people and places likely to be less familiar to Chinese readers. A very nice touch.
Many thanks to all who made this possible!
The summer solstice went by almost without my wife and I noticing it. But we felt it. We’re up in the Adirondacks, in camp, where we sleep on a porch screened on three sides. The sun comes up at about 5:30 on a lake where the call of loons is a regular occurrence. The stillness that morning was crystalline. Lying with eyes half closed, I heard the ripples of an object moving through water, really close by. We have a friend who loves early morning paddles and it sounded just like her wooden blade dipping into the water as she quietly worked her way around the edge of the bay.
But our friend wasn’t in camp yet, so I knew it couldn’t be her. Perhaps another early-morning paddler? Possible, but unlikely. Most folks aren't on the lake this early in the season.
And then I heard it again—along with a little splashing noise. No one would paddle so close to our spot at this hour. I sat up, got out of bed to have a look.
It proved to be a family of Mergansers, mother and about eight baby ducks who were being remarkably quiet—none of the quacking or gabbling I’m used to hearing. Though only days old, the young ones were already exhibiting personalities and moods. Most of the babies obediently lined up beside their mother. But two were playing tag, whooshing back and forth in ten-yard bursts, making the sounds I’d heard.
I love this time of June. The long day’s light seems bluer, more transparent than other times of the year. Perhaps it’s only the spring green of the new leaves creating the airy light, but I suspect that, because the sun’s arc is higher at summer solstice, the color temperature leans toward the blue, with less atmosphere to pierce. Whatever the cause, the light on these days, accompanied by a light summer breeze, is delectable.
A few hours after the encounter with the Mergansers, I caught the sun’s rays reflected off the water onto a breezeway ceiling which faces the lake, along with the sounds of a loon or two. If you want to listen, it’s on YouTube here. Happy solstice!
Paul Krugman at the New York Times had a column on the contempt of Donald Trump for his blue-collar supporters—worth reading—in which Krugman recalls Trump's boast that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Krugman goes on to point out how much Trump is carrying out that boast, metaphorically, with the destruction his proposed programs would wreak upon his supporters.
But I was taken as much by a reader comment, posted from Teheran, citing an Iranian proverb I had never heard. Remarkably apposite!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors