Thursday, December 31, 2015

ON THE AVENUES: My 2015 in books and reading.

ON THE AVENUES: My 2015 in books and reading.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit.
-- Vaclav Havel

As it pertains to my year of reading for pleasure, this pig admittedly will countenance no lipstick. In terms of books, 2015 was absolutely miserable for me, primarily because local politics remains the single best way known to man to disfigure the life of the mind.

John Gonder just might agree with me.

As such, having declared my candidacy in February as an independent candidate for mayor, it quickly became obvious that I needed to “bone up” on the classic texts of municipal governance, embracing such masterworks as the “Unexpurgated and Periodically Referenced New Albany Storm Water Master Plan,” and volumes 1 through 160 of “Collected Non-Enforced New Albanian Ordinances.”

The latter isn’t so much a “whodunit” of epic dimension, as a “willtheyeverdoit,” as experienced while standing in an alcohol-free queue which has existed since the city’s founding ... in 1817.

Happily, there was time in 2015 for one good book bearing relevance to the trials and tribulations of our emerging one-party New Gahania, which I undertook to read precisely because so few members of the ruling nomenklatura (Shane thrashes in mute nostril agony) are capable of grasping it.

I’m reading Michael Shuman’s “The Local Economy Solution,” primarily because David Duggins isn’t.

The first thing to understand, Shuman says, is that the traditional “economic development” model of chasing after large companies with huge taxpayer subsidy deals is absolutely the wrong way to revitalize a crippled or stagnant local economy. Indeed, he says, “economic development today is creating almost no new jobs whatsoever." In support of that conclusion he methodically dissects and refutes the “eight myths of [conventional] economic development.”

So long as “The Erotic Adventures of Mama TIF” remains on Duggins’ night stand, Shuman is destined to be ignored hereabouts.

But: I have no complaints.

My absorption of non-fiction essays and articles reached a new peak in 2015, and one of my objectives in contesting the election was to provide myself with a better understanding of a broad range of issues, which in turn informs an ongoing advocacy of policy, and better enables me to write about these topics for casual readers.

Now, in 2016, I’m hoping there’ll be a chance to adjust the balance and return to recreational reading.


It won’t take long to describe the books I read in 2015, seeing as there were so few.

The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples, by David Gilmour

This book has been in my possession for years, but it was moved to the top of the stack only after I struck up a Facebook friendship with Fabio, owner of a good beer bar in Arezzo. To summarize: From afar, we look at Italy as a place uniting Italians, but even today, 140 years after modern Italy was created, it isn’t nearly as simple as that.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I, by Fernand Braudel

If you’re not a history buff, stay away. It’s a mid-20th century text of epochal dimensions, in which Braudel rejects the usual narrative of great men and their events, and instead pioneers the examination of systems, both natural and man-made, from a grassroots perspective. No detail is too small. The book is excruciating, exhausting and highly informative – and someday down the road, there’s always Volume II.

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

A quick re-reading following the election, as intended to bring me back to earth in a far-off age before canine aquatic parks.

The authors take something called the Julius Work Calendar, a medieval reminder of work and faith with wonderful illustrations at the bottom of each month's page reproduced at the beginning of each chapter of the book and explained in the following text, to illustrate life in Anglo-Saxon England.

Enough of the appetizers; now for the main courses.


Two books, a novel and a biography, defined my year of reading.

Havel: A Life, by Michael Zantovsky

A column was devoted to this one.

ON THE AVENUES: In Havel I trust.

 ... Havel the star playwright now became Havel, the acknowledged leader of the opposition. He was harassed and frequently imprisoned, and yet managed to formulate a doctrine of principled dissent, focusing on matters of conscience and consciousness, which he perceived as vital at a fundamentally human level.

Václav Havel was a complex figure, both personally and historically. Zantovsky’s biography whets my appetite for a return to the source material: Havel’s plays, essays and letters.

2666, by Roberto Bolano

As for Bolano’s fictional tour de force, author Stephen King has this to say.

This surreal novel can't be described; it has to be experienced in all its crazed glory. Suffice it to say it concerns what may be the most horrifying real-life mass-murder spree of all time: as many as 400 women killed in the vicinity of Juarez, Mexico. Given this as a backdrop, the late Bolaño paints a mural of a poverty-stricken society that appears to be eating itself alive. And who cares? Nobody, it seems.

While I’m eternally delighted to report that I care not one solitary jot about Star Wars, there remains a measure of personal sensitivity to the plight of those prone to the decidedly First World Problem of becoming enraged by the “spoiling” of plot twists. Consequently, I’ll stick to the barest of bones in describing the broad outline of 2666.

Four European academics, whose university sinecures depend on perpetuating the weird cult following accorded a reclusive and mysterious European novelist, track him to a troubled city in Mexico, where they briefly encounter an aging university professor relocated from Spain, who is losing track of his own mind's narrative.

The professor’s daughter may or may not be consorting with the wrong crowd, and what’s more, numerous women in their city are being murdered in a serial crime spree that has completely overwhelmed the capabilities of local police.

The daughter then meets an American magazine writer assigned to cover a prize fight being held in the city, and ultimately he takes her with him to America, though not before becoming personally interested in the serial killings, which subsequently are recounted in painstaking detail. The murders don’t end, even after the police finally arrest a suspect.

We learn the identity and back story of the reclusive novelist, and the novel concludes. As with Eleanor Rigby, no one was saved, and Stephen King is absolutely right: 2666 is surreal, and it must be experienced, but possible side effects include cynicism and jaundice.

That’s because the notion of a society “eating itself alive” is never quite as relevant as during the months preceding a presidential election year. In this context, a New Year’s resolution to visit the gym strikes me as far less important than the imperative to spend more time in the library -- but this is America, and it isn't necessary for me to "spoil" the probable outcome for you to know which of these two choices is the likeliest.


Recent columns:

December 24: ON THE AVENUES: Fairytale of New Albania (2015 mashup).

December 17: ON THE AVENUES: Gin and tacos, and a maybe a doughnut, but only where feasible.

December 10: ON THE AVENUES: Truth, lies, music, and a trick of the Christmas tale (2015).

December 3: ON THE AVENUES: Who (or what) is New Albany's "Person of the Year" for 2015?

November 26: ON THE AVENUES: Faux thanks and reveries (The 2015 Remix).

November 19: ON THE AVENUES: Beer, farthings and that little-known third category.

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