Tag Archives: material culture

Thoughts on Shopping and Lost History

This afternoon I was reading Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks, and of course I found the depiction of her relationship fascinating, but something else that struck me was her description of the various shops she and her lover visit on the weekends. The book takes place in the mid-1970s, and they go to all sorts of (generally high-end) businesses, most of which no longer exist.

I’ve thought about this before in thinking about how cities and towns change (when I lived in DeKalb, Illinois, the only business in photographs from thirty years ago that was still around was the town’s adult bookstore), and every time I think about it, it makes me a little sad, and it fills me with questions. What happened to these businesses and the people who ran them? Did they retire and simply close the business, feeling satisfied that it had run its course? Did the shifting economy claim the store as a victim, leaving its proprietors bereft? My guess is that this was primarily the case with the various department stores which McNeill names.

Change is inevitable, but the amount of history that gets lost as the memory of all of these mostly small shops fades is terrifying. The human element of our purchases often gets forgotten in light of the excitement surrounding the objects that we’ve bought. Thinking about this is a good reminder for me of the importance of shopping at local businesses rather than at faceless chain stores.

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My Grandfather’s Diary

My maternal grandfather died peacefully two weeks ago, and going through his things the family discovered that he had kept a diary for much of his life. It is surprising that he lived to be 96 and no one knew that he engaged in this practice. He wasn’t being secretive about it; he was just a humble man who didn’t realize that other people would be interested.

Last night I read through the volume which describes his time living in Boston while he completed his Master’s degree in Public Relations at Boston University in the late 1950s. Reading this document was fascinating not only because I learned more about his life, but also because it was interesting to hear about what life as a graduate student was like fifty years ago.

His wife and children were living in Virginia while he studied up north during his sabbaticals from Eastern Mennonite College (now University), so to make money for his living expenses in Boston he worked various odd jobs. These included typing up other students’ dissertations (he was an excellent typist and typed everything, including the check he gave me for my high school graduation), packing boxes of Christmas ornaments, and selling his blood. He got paid between $15.00-$30.00 for this last activity—an excellent rate when one takes inflation into account. For a while he lived at the YMCA, and later rented a room in a boarding house. He also rented a typewriter instead of bringing his own from home, which I found puzzling considering that it was such an important machine for him. He admits to skipping a class every once in a while in order to get a paper or project done for another class. I guess that bad student habits are timeless!

My favorite detail from his time in Boston is that he planned to go to a Celtics game against Philadelphia during the 1959-60 season just for something to do even though he was not a sports fan. I love that he tried to take full advantage of all of the experiences that living in a big city offered him when he had the chance (up to that point he had only lived in small rural communities: Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a brief time in rural Kentucky, and Harrisonburg, Virginia). If he had attended the game, he would have seen two of the greatest players of all time, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, engaging in one of the best one-on-one rivalries of all time during the season in which Wilt (one of the first NBA stars to achieve “first name only” status: Wilt, Oscar, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron…) averaged over 37 points per game as a rookie. My grandfather almost certainly did not realize the importance of the matchup, but it is neat to think about him going to the game, anyway.

However, in looking up the game in question, it appears from evidence in the diary that he did not actually attend the game. The entry for “Thursday, December 3 [1959]” states that he “Got ticket for Boston Celtics-Philadelphia basketball game next week.” The only time the two teams played the following week was on December 9 (here is the boxscore). The entry for that day reads in part that he “Got telegram saying Papa was seriously ill. Called Gladys [his sister who was still living on the family farm] in evening. Worked part of evening. Sent card to Papa and took a walk.” So apparently the news that his father was ill (he died on January 17, 1960) concerned my grandfather enough that he did not use his ticket. This decision is, of course, understandable, and it was special to read his entries from the time of his father’s illness and death while I spend time with my mother as she continues to grieve his death.

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Paul Lukas’s Fascination With Interesting Things

I’ve written here before about Paul Lukas’s Uni Watch site, which is a daily stop in my internet wanderings. One of the reasons I love Uni Watch is that Lukas’s material aesthetic is very close to mine: he’s obsessed with fine craftsmanship, enjoys older objects, and has an eye for fine detail (and, like me, is a Mets fan and likes Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine!). Today’s column is one in a series where he answers questions from readers about himself, and it’s worth checking out because it epitomizes what a thoughtful, intriguing person he is.

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Paul Lukas’s Permanent Record Blog

I just got around to checking out Permanent Record, which is a blog written by Paul Lukas of UniWatch fame. Here is the address: http://www.permanentrecordproject.blogspot.com/.

As someone who is also fascinated by print culture ephemera, I think Permanent Record is fantastic! The blog’s description mentions writing about topics including “things left inside of old books,” which is a subject near to my heart. I sometimes intentionally leave a variety of paper objects in my books, including receipts (especially if I bought the book at a memorable bookstore), plane ticket stubs, business cards, cut-out New Yorker cartoons, and so on. That way, whenever I die (which is when I will get rid of my books, no sooner), some of my books will have interesting things in them for their new owners to discover.

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Thoughts on the New Site Photo

About a month ago, I changed the cover photograph (to appropriate the Facebook term) of this blog, but I didn’t provide an explanation for the photo, so I thought I would do so now. I decided that it was necessary to have a photo of books from my personal library rather than continuing to use the WordPress photo (which was nice but generic) that had been there since the blog’s beginning. I then decided that I wanted the photograph to be authentic–a picture of the books as they are on the shelf instead of a hand-picked collection of my favorites–and I also wanted it to be visually interesting, if not also aesthetically pleasing. These criteria soon led to the decision that, although I primarily read fiction and it is my favorite genre, the photograph would have to be of one of my nonfiction shelves because I tend to have multiple books by fiction writers (when I like an author, I often read more [if not all] of their work, and because I am a book-buying addict I acquire the books rather than getting them from a library), and I wanted the photo to include as many different authors as possible. The photograph that I chose does include multiple books by two authors, but this is better than a picture of, say, a shelf that solely consists of works by Samuel R. Delany or Philip Roth. I settled on a photograph of the second shelf of my “general nonfiction” section, which includes a selection of books that do a pretty good job of representing the values, subjects, and ideas that are most important to me.

Here is a bit about each book in the photograph:

A History of Modern Latin America–This is one of my old college textbooks. I keep it around mostly for sentimental reasons. If I ever need to look up the date of Peru’s independence, it would be easier to do so online than to flip through the book, but it is important to me to have my Latino heritage (I am half Puerto Rican) represented in my library.

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver–I used this book in two chapters of my dissertation, and it was one of the books that gave me the idea for my dissertation, so it is very important to me even though there is a good chance that I might never read it again.

Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl–Dahl’s two memoirs are vivid, engaging reads, especially Going Solo, which tells of his experiences in the R.A.F. during World War II. It is one of the best adventure stories I have ever read.

Heavenly Breakfast, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, The Motion of Light in Water (original edition), and 1984 by Samuel R. Delany–Delany is my favorite author, and I have all of his books except for The American Shore (which is quite rare). They are split between three shelves: one in the fiction section, which is all Delany, one at my office that contains all of his literary criticism, and the shelf in the photo with his other nonfiction.

Having Our Say by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany–This is a memoir by two of Samuel R. Delany’s aunts. I bought and read it because of my love for his work, but the book is quite good in its own right.

Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane Di Prima–This is one of my favorite memoirs because I love reading about late-1950s/early 1960s New York City. I was happy that a Penguin paperback with its instantly-recognizable orange-and-white design made it into the photograph.

Sex for One by Betty Dodson–This is an excellent book about the importance of masturbation and sexual fantasy. Perhaps it belongs in the “gender studies” section of my library, though I’ve had it in “general nonfiction” for a while.

Autobiographies by Frederick Douglass–Douglass is one of my favorite African American authors to teach, so it makes me happy that his book made it into the photograph, albeit just barely. This edition was published by the Library of America, whose books I love.

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Some Random Sunday Thoughts

As I sit in front of my computer on this lazy Sunday morning that has now meandered into the afternoon, these are three of the things I am thinking about while I procrastinate working on revisions to an essay:

I am glad that Manchester United finally converted a penalty kick after missing their last three, with Robin van Persie scoring against Liverpool earlier today. I haven’t watched the match yet (it was on at 6.30 a.m. this morning and I was out celebrating a friend’s birthday until 1.30, so I didn’t get up for it), and thus haven’t seen the apparently controversial foul that led to the penalty, but it is a huge relief that the kick was converted whether it was deserved or not.

One of my favorite activities is looking at someone’s books when I visit their home for the first time because it reminds me how beautiful books are as objects, and it also teaches me something about the person–it is a window into their mind’s life. I got to do this at the aforementioned birthday party last night. My friend’s library was too small for my liking (We are friends even though she is an ereader adherent. She’s even a librarian! She should know better!), but I judged it favorably nevertheless because her literary tastes are similar to mine (ha!), and it was clear that the books she did have were treasured objects.

Fall is my favorite season; I love the cooler temperatures and the way the light changes. There is nothing better than sitting on the couch reading and looking out the window at the turning leaves while smelling a hearty fall meal cooking. This evening I am going to make a pork-and-vegetable roast, which should provide some delicious aromas to accompany the reading I will do once I finish my writing for the day.

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Chess Again

In my previous post I wrote about having a chess dream last night, and how I love chess’s material culture. Then this afternoon I ran across an article on grantland.com by Dave McKenna about a recent chess cheating scandal in Virginia (here is the link: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8362701/the-evolution-cheating-chess). First off, regarding the scandal, in which a player used a computer that was supposedly just for keeping score to access a program that fed him moves, there is no reason that amateur players who do not have some form of physical disability that makes it difficult/impossible for them to write by hand should be allowed to use electronic scorekeeping devices rather than paper scoresheets. Secondly, what an odd coincidence that grantland.com should happen to publish its first ever article about chess on a day that I was already thinking about the game. I’ve written here before about how every once in a while I will encounter a subject or personage several times within a very short period of time, and this feels like the same kind of thing going on. Weird.

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