Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Books (page 1 of 11)

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

Man’s Search for Responsibility

Finally got around to reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. In one part he talks about a hypothetical “Statue of Responsibility”:

Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Clever, I thought when I read it. But when I was researching Frankl after reading the book, I learned the Statue of Responsibility is (becoming) a real thing:

I like how it flips Liberty’s arm motif. There isn’t a permanent site for it yet, but I hope it comes together.

Some other quotes from the book I enjoyed:

  • “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
  • “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
  • “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
  • Prisoners looking at sunset: “How beautiful the world could be.”
  • “Self-actualization is possible only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

Favorite Books of 2017

Goodreads tells me I read one less book this year than last. Though always tempted to read ever more and more, I’ve become less concerned about hitting arbitrary reading quotas, so I’m able to better enjoy the books I do read. Here are the 2017 books I enjoyed the most, with links to reviews I wrote when I read them:

  1. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (review)

  2. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (review)

  3. High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel

  4. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

  5. The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World by Damon Krukowski (review)

  6. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (review)

  7. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (review)

  8. Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen (review)

  9. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (review)

  10. The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse (review)


Honorable mentions:

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries by Anders Rydell (review)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Theodore Catton

Tipsy temperance titles

Here’s a Christmas gift idea for the alcoholics in your life:

Working at a museum archives dedicated to the temperance and prohibition movements means I see books, pamphlets, posters, and other promotional/educational material like this all the time. I could put together an entire exhibit of temperance titles that are a) trying to be funny and hip in the youth pastor kind of way, or b) actually funny like this one.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

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“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’

I picked up a copy of Studs Terkels’ Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a sort of oral history of life and work in and around 1970s Chicago. I’ve kept it on my nightstand and slowly chipped away at it when I was between other books. It’s quite long and I’m not even halfway through, but it has some interesting pull quotes from a variety of subjects, like:

A copy chief at an ad agency:

“We’re all vice presidents,” laughs the copy chief. “Clients like to deal with vice presidents. Also, it’s a cheap thing to give somebody. Vice presidents get fired with great energy and alacrity.” …

“You become what you behold.”

A steelworker:

“Everybody should have something to point to.” …

“Automation? Depends on how it’s applied. It frightens me if it puts me out on the street. It doesn’t frighten me if it shortens my work week.” …

“You can be a fanatic if you had the time. The whole thing is time. That is, I think, one reason rich kids tend to be fanatic about politics: they have time. Time, that’s the important thing.”

And Terkel:

The science of medicine has increased our life expectancy; the science of the business frowns upon the elderly. …

It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

These are not yet automata.

‘Working toward the truth’ in “How to Think”

There goes Alan Jacobs being right again:

it would be better for all concerned if we were content to say that our political opponents are merely wrong. But that’s unlikely to happen, at least widely, because once you say someone is wrong you commit yourself to explaining why he’s wrong — to the world of argument and evidence — and that makes work for you. Plus, you forego the immense pleasures of moral superiority and righteous indignation. So speculation about our enemies’ motives will continue to be a major feature of our political life, which will have the same practical consequences as Old Man Yells at Cloud.

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This is something I wrestle with, especially after reading Jacobs’ excellent new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World At OddsRighteous indignation and moral superiority—the chief renewable energy source of cable news and Twitter—make for an intoxicating but lethal combo. They don’t negate the ability to think and explain reasonably, but they can easily overpower the desire to, and turn the tendency to emote first and think later into a destructive habit.

Jacobs is one of my favorite cultural and political thinkers. Clear headed, fair minded, intellectually rigorous and generous, his insights in this short book and on his blog are encouraging and timely: how to examine biases, how to reckon with cultural “others”, and how to engage in the hard labor of “working toward the truth” with a generosity of spirit and strength of character.

That last point is important. Lacking generosity and strength of character not only make us bad thinkers, but bad people. There’s a reason the book isn’t called How to Be Right:

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.

It’s especially difficult to engage with political opponents who are terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad thinkers. But the sooner we all realize how wrong we can be, and how good and healthy that realization is, the sooner we can become better thinkers and break the vicious cycle our unhealthy human tendencies trap us in.

Another thinker I highly respect is Andrew Sullivan, erstwhile blogger at The Dish and now weekly columnist. His latest tackles the danger of the “right side of history” fallacy:

No party, no cause, no struggle, however worthy, is ever free from evil. No earthly cause is entirely good. And to believe with absolute certainty that you are on “the right side of history,” or on the right side of a battle between “good and evil,” is a dangerous and seductive form of idolatry. It flatters yourself. And it will lead you inevitably to lose your moral bearings because soon, you will find yourself doing and justifying things that are evil solely because they advance the cause of the “good.”

Current events are bearing this out. Idolatry is one of the easier sins to commit because anything can be made into an idol, and we live in a culture that’s particular fertile ground for doing so.

Who are some current writers and thinkers you respect, and why?

Nothing to read here

This, from Andy Weir in his By the Book column at the New York Times, seems like an odd thing to say:

For the record, my stories are meant to be purely escapist. They have no subtext or message. If you think you see something like that, it’s in your head, not mine. I just want you to read and have fun.

#1: It’s not odd for an author to want his books to be purely escapist and fun. It is odd to insist that they have no subtext or message, and further, that if readers detect those things they are wrong.

#2: Not all subtext is intentional and not all intended “messages” are received by the reader.

#3: Authorial intent dies once the book hits the shelves.

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader

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I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Media of the Moment

I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.

So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.

Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.

The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.

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