Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Bookstores make me happy

January 8, 2009

I’ve been on winter break for the past month or so, during which time I’ve observed a few things about myself.

First, I tend not to be terribly constructive with my free time!

Second, I like bookstores.

Discounting the recently (and tragically) defunct Olsson’s Books & Music on 19th St., there are three bookstores within a 3 block radius of each other in Dupont Circle. Now say whatever you like about DC, but a bookstore a block is a pretty impressive ratio if you like bookstores! And while you would be quite right to suppose that Dupont is not a representative sample of the entire District, it turns out that DC is a pretty bookstore dense environment over all. The city occupies number 12 on the list of US locales with the most booksellers per capita. Of course we’re lagging behind hippie hangouts like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland…no surprise there I suppose…but there are some wildcards in there too. Cincinatti? Louisville? Scottsdale, AZ?? Hmph.

At any rate, I worked in the Dupont area on and off for much of the past semester and I’ve noticed that each of the three bookstores in question have a particular style to them. Kramer’s Books and Afterwords is, of course, the most tasteful and expensive of the three. I usually take visitors there because it’s like getting a little whiff of the nightlife without having to actually socialize or buy drinks. The staff must spend a lot of time choosing books for the front display section specifically for people like me, since I always want to read everything I see whenever I walk in there. The problem — the fatal flaw of Kramer’s — is that, much as I want to read these books, they don’t provide me with anywhere to get busy doing so! Unless you buy a coffee or a dessert or other value-added item, you are barred from sitting down. They even look askance at you if you stand there too long, there being little room for loafers in the Kramer’s universe.

So I go to Second Story Books on P st, which is a completely different vibe. They house an enormous collection of used books, prints, and other dust covered items in amusingly haphazard piles. They have so many books that there’s a handwritten divider denoting an entire section on the history of Thailand. Not that Thailand’s history is a narrow topic, but it’s certainly not a broad based category either. And the fact that the category label is handwritten reinforces the sense of flux, like nobody really cares about these books because the stock is always changing. Second Story is like one of those library clearence sales, where the books seem desirable because they look kind of kooky and worn and because they’re so cheap — so you buy them, but you never actually read them. There’s no place to sit, but nobody will object if you sit on the floor whittling away at a pile of obscure volumes…the general attitude is that if you’re actually interested in this stuff, then you have a right to be there.

Now my favorite of the trio is Books-a-Million. It’s a spacious, florescent-lit, basement store peddling mostly best seller swill and possessing neither the trendiness of Kramer’s or the bookworm appeal of Second Story. Like the Crown Books at the airport, it’s honest about being second rate. And it’s not independent — it’s corporate capitalism to the bone. My inner Anthony Hopkins from 84 Charring Cross Road is angry at me for hanging out there. (I remind him that this would only be an issue were I to actually spend money there.) Still, it has a decisive advantage over the other two, i.e. a good number of comfy chairs. In all of its soullessness, the corporate machine works in my favor because the staff have all seen the mandatory customer service video and they won’t harass me for sitting in said chairs and reading comics for however long I please! Much like Dunkin’ Donuts in the world of coffee, Books-a-Million is reliable, it’s pedestrian, it’s not half bad. Bookstores make me happy, and one where you can sit and unabashedly enjoy Sandman or whatever else, makes me particularly happy.


Bookstores and Behavioral Economics!

March 7, 2008

So I was hanging out in the Park Slope Barnes and Noble all day on Wednesday, thanks to a hilarious “Reach out and Read” fund raiser which I could pawn off as work. ROR is a literacy program based around giving out books and reading to children in hospitals and doctor’s office waiting rooms– community outreach for anything to do with health care should count as work, since I’m a Sunset Park Community HealthCorps member. Anyway, what’s hilarious about it is that we all got dressed up as books and wandered around outside giving out book vouchers in the bitter cold, to promote family literacy. The Community Programs director at B&N, who bore the ridiculous name of Peaches, shoo-ed us away from fund raising in the store or directly outside of it. (When one of our crew went in to B&N without removing her book costume, I was forced to admonish, “Wait dude! Take off your book! Peaches is going to get pissed off!”) In the afternoon there were a couple ear-splitting performances by the Harbor Hill Senior Center Chinese Choir; Believe me, there is nothing quite as amusing as 20 enthusiastic eighty year olds bleating Chinese songs in a key so improbable that dogs will come running.

While taking a break from all the RORing, I picked up a book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely entitled, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions”. Why would a book like that warrant any level of excitement? Because it’s perfect fodder for blogging my debate with Bill!

The topic of the debate is this:How do people make choices?

The common sense idea that people decide things based primarily upon their preferences is the cornerstone of free-market economic theory, my understanding of which goes *a little something* like this:

In an effort to become better off, people constantly make choices concerning what to buy from and sell to others. The collective sum of these choices is known as the market. Given that possible choices are many, resources are scarce, and people are unencumbered in their choices, the market tend towards an equilibrium based on mutual satisfaction.

The mechanism which guides this tendency is called price. Price has very powerful and predictable effects on the choices of both producer and consumer: The Law of Supply states that the higher the price of a good or product, the more the producer will supply. Meanwhile, the Law of Demand says that the higher the price of said good or product, the less the consumer will demand. This is known as the Supply and Demand model. The result in this model is that markets tend towards equilibrium prices, a point such that both consumers and producers are satisfied.

Of course this only holds true in a situation of “perfect competition,” in which producers compete against each other and consumers have many possible choices.

Because firms are competing with each other to make production cheaper and more efficient, an unfettered, perfectly competitive market encourages creativity and innovation. It also elevates quality of life for the consumer, who is always provided with goods of competitive quality at a competitive price. Indeed, since the free market stimulates the growth of industry and the economy in general, which is good for everybody, the role of government should be simply to allow the market to thrive.

Shout outz to Prof. Richie Adelstein for your Econ 101 class, as well as to Bill and to the anonymous authors of Wikipedia for filling in the gaps in my memory.


So Ariely challenges this model by saying that what consumers are willing to pay can be easily manipulated; consumers don’t necessarily have a good handle on their own preferences when it comes to making decisions. This is because human decision-making behavior is often influenced by hidden forces. Now, sociology/anthropology types might think that when Ariely mentions invisible factors that cause you to make decisions contrary to your preferences, he’s referring to the myriad pressures arising from social structures like class, race, gender, etc. BUT NO! He’s talking straight up psychology.

Like the goslings in Konrad Lorenz’s famous work on imprinting, humans are suggestible. We are susceptible to all kinds of cues. Not only that! We are creatures of habit. So once we’ve accepted an idea, no matter how arbitrary, we’re inclined to believe it and base decisions upon it, like the baby goslings who accepted Lorenz as their mother and subsequently followed him around everywhere. We have a desire for coherence, even if it’s not based on anything rational; Ariely calls this “arbitrary coherence”.

Ariely provides a wide variety of examples of human behavior subject to arbitrary coherence, all of which are based on his own research. There’s one experiment in which students are asked to write down the first two digits of their social security number, then asked to give an appropriate price for a set selection of products. There was a strong correlation such that the kids who had the higher numbers as “anchors” put down higher prices; lower SSN’s went for lower prices. So choices are often affected by random initial anchors, rather than pleasure according to preference.

Because of this arbitrary coherence behavior, people are very susceptible to advertising. They also will adapt to higher prices in a way that the Law of Demand wouldn’t predict, as in the classic case of Starbucks– coffee goes from $1.00 a cup to $4.00 but people are OK with it because of plush couches, fancy french presses, and “hip” music. The point is that, according to Ariely, market prices readily influence the consumers willingness to pay rather than vice versa.

Free-market economic theory is based on the idea that we are in touch with our preferences such that we can estimate the amount of pleasure a trade will give us vs. its price. If we can’t accurately compute these pleasure values, then it is not clear that having the opportunity to trade is going to make us better off. Policies should take the fact that human behavior is irrational into account!

(Eventually I’ll continue to blog on this train of thought and critique capitalism for a variety of other reasons, including the following: corporate dominance, ignoring biodiversity, and encouraging so-called one-dimensional thinking.)

Brooklyn books

January 29, 2008

“They took the I.R.T. Subway to Brooklyn Bridge, got out and started to walk across. Halfway over, they paused to look down on the East River. They stood close together and he held her hand. He looked up at the skyline on the Manhattan shore.

‘New York! I’ve always wanted to see it, and now I’ve seen it. It’s true what they say- it’s the most wonderful city in the world.’
‘Brooklyn’s better.’
‘It hasn’t got any skyscrapers like New York, has it?’
‘No…but there’s a feeling about it -Oh, I can’t explain it. You’ve got to live in Brooklyn to know.'”

-from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


Francie, Betty Smith’s thinly veiled characterization of herself as a girl, had it right. There is a feeling about Brooklyn, which seems to have persisted into the 21st century. But what is it exactly? Francie’s Williamsburg was a slum, roiled in poverty, the outskirts of civilization…presumably bearing no relation to today’s hipster-ized, yuppie enclave. Brooklyn in the 1910’s and 20’s was a completely different place. And yet not. Where does permanence of place, specifically Brooklyn-ness, come from? Is it just a sentiment, a projection, a phenomenon of feeling whose roots are ultimately socio-economic? Yes. But it’s still kinda cool how places can be so significant, grab hold of the human imagination so thoroughly.

“I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years and I remembered nothing. My parents had moved out of the city when I was three, but I instinctively found myself returning to the neighborhood where we had lived, crawling home like some wounded dog to the place of my birth.”

-the opening lines of The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster


The ensuing novel starts off in a plodding sort of existential mode but spirals into a quirky, rambling soap opera with the occasional philosophical moment. It’s not clear whether the protagonist’s residing in Park Slope actually *causes* the laughable and often perfectly timed plot twists, but, as in some of Auster’s other work, Brooklyn is key. Who recommended Brooklyn? We never find out.

Both Smith’s and Auster’s works are about the resilience of imperfect families. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about an Irish-American family struggling to live a decent life. Francie’s coming of age narrative is famous not only for its controversially frank portrayal of urban poverty in America, but also for its vivid imagery and humor. In Follies, a lonely, seemingly hopeless terminally ill insurance salesman-cum-writer is propelled by love, goofy characters and bizarre confluence of circumstance into forming a strange but powerful family bond.

The Brooklyn Follies contains an interesting anecdote about Franz Kafka that strikes me as memorable. Apparently, while Kafka was visiting Berlin, he came across a crying girl who was bemoaning the loss of her beloved doll. Kafka was so moved by her tears that he told her tenderly that the doll had simply gone traveling for a while, and wouldn’t forget her. Rather, it would assuredly write letters to the girl every day, which he could retrieve for her from the post office. Kafka then went home and worked for hours on a perfect letter from the doll, putting just as much energy into it as he would put into his serious work. When the time came for Kafka to leave Berlin he wrote a last elaborate letter in which the doll describes her wedding and the beginning of her new life, which delighted the little girl.

So Kafka used his literary talents to make this poor little girl smile again. I think the point of the story is how seriously he regarded this task. Moved by tenderness and love, he wrote these letters to produce a certain effect. Now, to read most of Kafka’s work is to be full of perplexity and anger, despair and frustration with the world and its moronic inhabitants. But even his writing these intensively negative feelings in such a powerful literary way must have been, above all, a labor of love.

Novels are emotional. They are structures of feeling, meant to evoke feeling. For all their intellectual depth, complexity, and fun, I think that novels are supposed to tug at the heartstrings first and foremost. And to this end, good writers invest a lot of emotional energy into their work even if it isn’t readily apparent, as with an author as baffling as Kafka.

Places are also emotional. Brooklyn, perhaps, has a certain feeling attached to it that Auster and Smith each picked up on in different ways. And that’s a crucial trick for a writer to have.

Oracle Bones

December 3, 2007

It’s getting to the point where I’ll pretty much read any book about contemporary China. I only brought a few with me to NYC, along with a whole slew of literary type fare, and I’ve noticed that all of my China books are by now exhausted while I’ve barely made a dent in the fiction. What is so interesting about China? Why can’t I just go back to having a non-China-related life?

Peter Hessler went a long way towards answering that question for me with Oracle Bones, his latest offering published last year. It’s a kind of meandering narrative about life in Beijing, interspersed with random threads of historical research and biographical material about the author and his friends. The book is so chock full of random information that the author resisted trying to organize it all in a linear fashion. This formal choice is also an expression of his belief that Chinese history has a kind of circular or perpetual quality. Ancestor worship, the endless alternation from one dynasty to the next, the arcane writing system…he does have a point.

Oracle Bones

Along with his vignettes, archaeological research, and sketches of current events involving the US, Taiwan, the Falun Gong, etc. Hesller indulges in a lot of speculation that resonates with my experience. One idea is that China is a book culture, in that so much of Chinese peoples’ self-re-generated notion of “China” has to do with literacy in the Classics, while America is a movie culture, in that, basically, we’re all about Hollywood movies. Like, these cultural forms are a vital part of social life. I think I dig that.

Another is that Chinese people have been generally discouraged from looking inside themselves and finding or seeking to understand their own individual histories. The idea is that they lack an understanding of personality and an appreciation of creative potential. The result is that you have a society just bursting to change in the 50s and 60s and it relapses into the excesses of Empire, what with Mao and the Cultural revolution.

Hessler is on record as saying that deconstruction is a bunch of hogwash and Post modernism is basically bullshit. But what he’s produced is a fragmented text, a lot of which centers around the properties of text itself in creating meaning. He also talks alot in a vaguely post-colonial vain about the plight of the indigenous folk in Xinjiang, the western portion of China most of which is wasteland. He writes about ethnicity and migration and the immigrant experience and he appears to be obsessed with blurring identities and the globalised nature of the consumer economy. On top of all that, every chapter begins with an “artifact”, like he’s leaving it to the reader to piece together a necessarily flawed historical narrative from the collected “artifacts”. Finally every artifact has a Chinese name, either mis-translated or deliberately re-named in English. (I’m only aware of this last point because of my own basic familiarity with Chinese characters, he never mentions anything about it.)

Can you say freeplay? What about this is *not* postmodern? Why are you so pretentious, Peter Hessler, you Princeton/Oxford bastard? And most importantly why is your Chinese so clearly better than mine? And why can’t I write like you? I am jealous.

community resources/resourcefulness

November 21, 2007

Working at a community or family support center as I do puts me in a weird nexus between the legal and illegal economies that function in our society. Alot of the people who come in here are undocumented, but they need to work to survive. So what do I tell them?

One of the social work interns I work with told me about a classmate of hers whose internship basically involves going around to crack dens and street corners and distributing clean crack paraphanelia, e.g. pipes and various ingredients. They do this to promote healthy and safe crack use (!!!)

Selling Crack in El Barrio

Read “In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio” by Phillipe Bourgois for a complete treatment of apartheid in America, social marginalization, and the gap between middle-class and street cultures. It turns out that the drug economy is, within the context of street culture, much more lucrative and socially rewarding than the minimum wage office work that would otherwise be available to the undereducated people of color who live in the urban ghetto.

So it’s clear that when you’re trying to help people negotiate the complex and unspeakably harsh world here at the margins of society, there isn’t any room for moral judgement. But where does that leave you?

I’m working with this one client who has some pretty grim physical disabilities and fairly low English level. We’ve talked primarily in Mandarin. (Because she’s from rural southern China, this would be her second or third language and she’s excellent at it.) I’m graudally finding out more information about this person and I’m realizing that she’s already been all around Brooklyn talking with people and using all the resources available to her. And she gets social security disability benefits from the federal government, so if she were actually able to find legal employment in her condition it would actually harm her financial situation.

SO basically I have to encourage her to (1) study English and (2) find some kind of illegal employment. And like I said she’s been all around town using all of the albeit flimsy community support structures that exist for people like her. You have to be real crafty if you’re unemployable!

Theoretically I guess I could just encourage her to become a crack dealer? I mean, if my sole purpose is to help people negotiate the world of employment, legal or illegal, then why not?

Further speculation: According to Sarah Kaufmann’s mom, a psychotherapist helps people figure out WHY they are the way they are. I think what I’m doing here is slightly different because I’m helping people figure out WHAT they need, or WHAT they need to do to live their lives. WHAT is your goal? WHAT is going on with you? WHAT do you want from me? Providing action plans, producing progress notes, making appointments…there’s very little room to think about causes. You never ask why (why did you come to America? why is it hard for you to find work? why do you experience racism?) even though the reasons are staring you in the face.