Friday, December 27, 2019

Going Material: The Recklessness of Not Being Mistaken [2019]

As 2019 draws to a close, I look back over the year, my 72nd birthday year, and take stock. 

It was a busy year, mostly devoted to my book business, with this one big project, undertaken at the end of 2018, and completed in July. 

I've always had an ambiguous position with respect to publication. As an aspiring poet in the early 1970's, I was often disappointed that the works I got published were invariably those which I felt least represented who I was as a writer. Of course, the act of publication is as much a process of self-discovery as of pure intention and will, as you are always finding out what your work means through the projection it creates in a variety of settings. 

When I took Harry Duncan's typography course at the University of Iowa in 1970, I was attracted to the aesthetic and physical qualities of type, paper, binding--those manifestations of "literature" that both are and are not the essence of language art. At the same time, I was influenced by the poetic innovations that my teacher Robert Grenier was making in textual space. The underlying implication of his presumption was that a writer must be willing to claim the spatial and physical limits of his medium, lest he cede part of his creative impetus to typesetters, editors, publishers and book designers. Though I've always been generally traditional in my apprehension of the book, I eventually came to believe that the more control I could wrest over a text I made--its final realization as material text--the better I would feel about the finished product. 

I started this blog, The Compass Rose, in January 2009. Over the course of the next 9+ years, I'd compose over 900 entries, covering a wide range of subjects and preoccupations. It wouldn't have occurred to me when I began, how many there would be, or how much text I'd eventually generate. And it didn't occur to me until somewhat later, that this growing body of essays might comprise something like a meaningful whole, a statement of something like a consistent point of view. People who write diaries certainly share the same kind of accrual of material as a regular blogger does. Indeed, the diaries of famous writers constitutes a whole segment of literary remains (think of Virginia Woolf).  

As a professional bookseller specializing in rare first editions and desirable collectible copies, I routinely see elegant and custom printings and bindings. There are kinds for every taste, though paper and leather and cloth and glue are not, in and of themselves, magnetic objects, even if cleverly put together. Though I well appreciate the true antiquarian item, perhaps bound in sheepskin vellum or treated kid, my taste also extends to contemporary book art. 

When it first occurred to me to make a selection of my blog essays for publication, I imagined that the resulting volume would be perhaps 500 pages. That seemed to be a fitting dimension, and I set out to edit the 900+ essays I'd posted online over the years. I had vague notions of order and preference, but as this process progressed, it became harder and harder to whittle it down. That single volume grew to 700, then 800 pages, but in due course it became clear that a second volume would be necessary. There are some 200 essays in the set, about 20% of the total number posted online. I was somewhat astounded at the number of pages (or words) this represented. If someone had suggested to me when I was a younger man, to set out to make a ten thousand page document--of any description--this would have been daunting. Yet the actual work, spread out over a decade, was not taxing.      

Just as I had known when I started the blog, that I wanted to extend its range of subject matter broadly enough to encompass many different aspects of culture, I wanted the book version to reflect that same eclectic mix. The Compass Rose was not a literary blog, per se. It had no specific target audience, though those who shared my history as a sometime contemporary poet, would clearly find things familiar or of interest. 

What major New York, or secondary literary house, would be interested in publishing a collection of casual essays by an unknown blogger living in the San Francisco Bay Area? I had thought a great deal about this question over the years, even before the digital age began in earnest. Popular book markets have undergone some changes over the last half century, but the presumption of official taste-making still hangs over our literary culture. I've dealt with this question in one of the essays included in this set, "Vanity, Saith the Preacher, Vanity"--which addresses the question of private, author-generated publication. Indeed, the internet itself has opened a whole sphere of "publication" beyond the control or approval of the old publishers' establishment of printers, editors and agents. My blog is one manifestation of that new window, the World Wide Web of media transmission. Is it self-delusion for any writer or artist to believe that fronting the presentation of one's work, without the intercession of a professional publisher or exhibitor, might be a worthy exploit?

How many deserving toilers have been discouraged by the army of editors and agents, overcome by a wave of rejection? How many works of genius have fallen into obscurity or disposal through misguided or naive criteria? Perhaps such questions are really defenses fronting the armies of mediocrity which are constantly striving for acceptance or legitimacy.     

While the writings contained in this 1500 page collection are for the most part traditional in manner and subject, their medium is not.  I'm unaware of any other books of blog essays on the market. Certainly there are non-fiction collections of works that appeared first as newspaper or magazine pieces--I'm reading one right now by Janet Malcolm. What strikes me about many of these more "public" efforts is their marked similarity to what I've been doing online. The internet has been, as much as anything else, a democratizing influence upon the culture, allowing thousands, if not millions of "ordinary people" to "publish" their speech or writing out in the open, where anyone with a computer can access them. It's leveled the playing-field of what was once a closely monitored game.   

You could describe this publication as a proprietary entity, as it's limited to just 200 copies, 5 of which are hardbound (the rest paperbacks as shown here). The binding is an hybrid black cloth-facing stiff paper, which is resistant to wrinkling or curling. I had originally planned to print the titles and so forth directly on to the acetate dust wrappers, but that became impractical. The edition was printed by Edition One in Berkeley, on coated paper (which enabled me to reproduce the illustrations (many in full color) with complete fidelity. This meant heavier volumes in the hand, but a high quality art book feel. 

Distribution will essentially be private. I'll give copies away to those who may have expressed interest, or whom I think might find it diverting. Nominally priced at $100, I doubt anyone would seriously consider paying for it. Which is all fine with me. It's an act of pure indulgence. One thing I noticed in the editing process, is that the contents as a whole tells enough about my life that it might be described as a back-handed autobiography, especially the introductory preface "As if the World Made Sense." 

As I say in the preface, I've always liked books--the material text--as opposed to recorded speech or digital display. Ironically, the book couldn't have been as efficiently (or reasonably) produced without the contemporary digital printing technology. That made the production of my book of photographs* possible, as well as The Recklessness of Not Being Mistaken.  People ask me what the title means. It's taken from a poem I wrote over 45 years ago, a series of line fragments written in a disconnected sequence. To me, it's another way of saying that no matter how sure you may be about something, there's always the possibility that you're wrong--a kind of conscience, I guess--and that you may embarrass yourself with excess presumption. 

We can never be 100% convinced of anything, so it pays to reserve some modesty for the time when you may be proven wrong. Was it a mistake to publish this collection of casual, occasional blog essays? Maybe. But the pleasure I derive(d) from the exercise more than makes up for the risk of making a fool of myself. Go, big book.  


*See my blog announcement for my previously published book, Photographs 1986-1996, Compass Rose Books, Kensington, 2017.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

So Much For Sentiment

It was reported this morning that Giants' pitcher Madison Bumgarner has signed a 5-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which keeps him in the same division with his former team. He's reported to have been offered a 4-year deal by the Giants, for equivalent annual salary, but he chose to take an extra year.  

As early as way back in 2009, comparing Bum to Tim Lincecum, I predicted that long after Lincecum's career was history, the Lefty would still be pumping out 200 innings a year, and winning games at a Hall-of-Fame clip. 

The Giants' decline since 2014 has been the result of the inevitable aging of key players. I probably wouldn't have expected this to happen to Posey, but catching is a grind, and Buster didn't posses the big, sturdy body the classic squat position requires for durability. Bumgarner, on the other hand, despite some recent injuries, had the kind of durability that almost guaranteed a long career. 

MadBum's unexpected injuries in 2017 and 2018 certainly changed the picture significantly--lost years in which his typical season number (16-8, say) would have continued. Undoubtedly, the decline of the team's fortunes boded ill for veterans still hanging on five years after their last title. I'd expect Belt, Crawford and Pablo all will leave before long, though Posey might be gone too. Baseball is a business, and there are no guarantees in professional sport. 

Baseball has increasingly become hard-hearted. Free-agency has played a part, and the new theoretical bases for moving players based on the exquisite statistical analyses such as those employed by the Oakland A's, together with the high-roller payrolls some of the big urban teams now carry, has meant a further erosion of the fan identification with key home-team favorites. After winning three championships in five years, the Giants knew the dream wouldn't continue: Dynasties can't be sustained as they once could be, no matter how much money there is to acquire the big-name players year after year. 

I suspect that Bumgarner will have a respectable career when it's all said and done. Rather than the 300 wins he might have gotten, he'll probably end up with about 215, a good number, but not in my opinion what he ought to have done. But inside that career, will always be those three World Series rings. General Manager Farhan Zaidi--I'll never get used to a name like that--seems to want to build a team out of younger talent, working through the farm system, and filling in with ho-hum journeymen while that talent matures. This would work if the farm system showed promise, but the team's rookies over the last five years have been anything but stellar. Lincecum, Sandoval, Bumgarner, Posey and Crawford were all developed from within, but that was a decade or more ago. 

Giving up a proven talent, popular with fans, over a one-year contract difference, for a pitcher still in the prime of his career, seems to me a stupid move. Bumgarner is the type of pitcher every team needs and wants, sturdy, competitive, committed, with a proven track record. He's a once-in-a-generation player for any team. And MadBum was ours, a kid who came up and immediately showed all the best qualities. 

Without strong young arms coming up, standing pat looks like stalling. Re-building is an inevitable trend in every pro-team's evolution over time. But turning squads over just for the sake of doing so, to show that hard realities are smarter than sentiment, looks like bad strategy. Zaidi won't be able to replace Bumgarner, and that will mean the team's fortunes will suffer. 

The Giants will regret having let their Ace go. You heard it first here. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Horse Training in Inner Mongolia 1979

Since the time of Genghis Khan, even as far back as 2000 years, traditional Mongol nomads have been living with their hybrid horses, using them for everything from transportation and racing or as warhorses, to a food source. The Mongol soldier relied on his horses to provide him with food, drink, transportation, armor, shoes, ornamentation, bowstring, rope, fire, sport, music, hunting, entertainment, spiritual power, and in case of his death, a mount to ride in the afterlife. Mongol horses made excellent warhorses because of their hardiness, stamina, self-sufficiency, and ability to forage on their own. The main disadvantage of the Mongol horse as a war steed was that it was slower than some of the other breeds it faced on the battlefield. Soldiers preferred to ride lactating mares because they could use them as milk animals. In times of desperation, they would also slit a minor vein in their horse's neck and drain some blood into a cup. This they would drink either "plain" or mixed with milk or water. A Mongol warrior's horse would come at his whistle and follow him around, dog-like. Each warrior would bring a small herd of horses with him (three to five being average, but up to 20) as remounts. They alternated horses so that they always rode a fresh horse.

Eve Arnold--check out her Wiki page here--went to China in the 1970's, which is when she made this photo of a young Mongol woman training her horse to lie down.

Horse Training for the Militia. Inner Mongolia. 1979

I'm not sure why I find this image so moving--probably the gentleness and devotion of the woman, patting the horse's side, perhaps comforting it or quieting it. The animal trusting, a companion. Posed against the limitless exposure of the barren landscape--endless grass-land, no cover, no concealment, no protection. The pastel pink of her outfit. Black boots. Wow.

The image suggests a culture, and a world, that has been in existence for hundreds--even thousands--of years, continuing right up into our present. Rather than embracing automobiles and televisions and computers and permanent structures, these people have held on to a way of life that still works for them. They've preserved their exotic, stubbornly old-fashioned ways because they work. 

Everywhere on earth, older cultures are crumbling under the advance of technology and the "liberation" of knowledge and change. We know we're losing valuable skills and sacredness that may never be recorded or rediscovered.

Do we really want to live in a world where everyone lives the same life, with the same tools, and the same dreams and expectations?

What a dull place that will be!

Map of Inner Mongolia