Monday, December 15, 2008

Hard Times Books

While I was in the midst of writing my Balzac entry, it struck me that there are many books appropriate to a recessed/depressed economy, books that either take place during America's Great Depression or where money and its machinations play a central role in the plot. Hence, my books for Hard Times (more appropriate to these times, perhaps, than the top 10 or top 100 now making its rounds in the remaining book review sections nationwide).

1. M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Written during WWII when food rations made gourmande treats impossible, when even every single egg was cherished, Fisher gives the full details on how to make the most out of every small piece of beef, every egg, the slightest bit of butter and cream. Until such dire times again arrive, we can read this book and relish each egg with its pat of butter.

2. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, photographs over multiple volumes
While Walker Evans is best known for his collaboration with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I admit my ignorance of Agee's text. Instead, when I think of the worst of the Depression, the images of American men, women, and children as captured by Evans and Lange during their work for WPA flood my mind. The legs of a child lying down with a piece of white cloth thrown over the upper part of the body like a hasty shroud, the gaunt cheeks of a woman...such images speak of earnest good people trying to face the hardships that a national economy in turmoil has brought to their daily lives.

3. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Not having read Agee, I naturally people the American epic, Grapes of Wrath, with the faces of those who appear in Evans' and Langes' respective photographs. In many ways, things have not changed much since Steinbeck wrote this call to arms for the poorer folks. Corporations would still prefer to throw away goods rather than give it away to those without; profit still means more than a social responsibility to see one's fellow human beings clothed, sheltered, and fed; hypocrisy and machinations of profiteering are still what rules the country. But, in reading Grapes of Wrath, one is gratified to learn that there might still be the hope to become better people.

4. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
Almost any novel by Charles Dickens will suffice as all of them are interested in a character rising from poverty to prosperity, or vice versa. One of my favorites is Little Dorrit, one of his lesser-known novels but accomplished than many others. Like Dickens himself as a child, one of the main characters has a parent in Debtor's Prison where people lived perpetually in England until their debt was paid in full. BBC recently did a movie-series of Little Dorrit which I haven't seen yet but which I hope to see. In the midst of new publicity for the movie after the movie was announced, the Mail did an interesting article on the original real-life woman on whom Little Dorrit was based, a woman abandoned by her common-law husband turned prostitute to support her child. Furthermore, the Mail article talks about a house Dickens helped found to turn wayward girls into women who could respectably marry. All such real-life facts aside, I always find Dickens tremendous fun during dreary times, even while he writes about poverty. I remember once reading a part in Anne of Green Gables where Anne has to stop eating Dickens to eat because there's always so much eating going on in Dickens. I prefer the Oxford edition with an excellent introduction by Lionel Trilling.

5. Hard Times, Studs Terkel
If you want the real deal, the way the Great Depression was actually survived by real people...the best source is the primary source. And no one does it better than Studs, the one-person chronicler of American lives who detailed the Depression whether it be factory workers, bankers, or politicians. One co-worker whose parents lived through the Depression was telling me how her parents told her there were always men passing through the neighborhood asking for handouts of food. It's scary to think about it.

6. Buddha, Osamu Tezuka
I am up to Volume 4 on the life of Siddharta as depicted by Osamu Tezuka. This series makes it onto the list as we may all want to aspire towards an inward light with less consumption as we will have less money for consumption.

7. Lost Illusions, Honore de Balzac
As with Dickens, it was hard to pinpoint one novel for Balzac which should make this list as so much of Balzac's novels involve the fall and/or rise of wealth for an individual. Yet, Lost Illusions might be considered an encapsulating novel for Balzac because it contains vivid scenes of Paris as well as provincial life along with portraying the lives of aristocrats, writers, and inventors. While few will be tempted to read the ninety-nine volumes that make up the Human Comedy, no one should pass up the seven hundred some odd pages that make up Lost Illusions. The Modern Library edition, translated by Kathleen Raine and with an introduction by Richard Howard, is superb.

8. What Work Is, Philip Levine and Eunoia, Christian Bok
Very soon after 9/11, one bookstore buyer told me that he tries to keep his poetry section fully stocked as he considered it an important way of feeding the mind with other ideas besides current events. While What Work Is is mostly about Levine's own reinterpreted events of the Depression, it also has a somewhat inspirational tinge. Besides What Work Is, I would recommend Eunoia by Christian Bok, a poet singularly up to the tradition of Oulipo (whether he be professed as one of them or not). There's no greater joy for a lover of poetry than reading this accomplished piece of whimsy, genius, linguistic rules, and frivolity rolled up in one.

9. Theory of Moral Sentiment, Adam Smith
While Smith is better known for the Wealth of Nations and his metaphysical invisible hand, we are the worse off that Theory of Moral Sentiment is not as well read by American capitalist. While Wealth of Nations might detail the mechanisms of economics which has been reinterpreted to suit our current ideas of how finances should be jigged, Theory of Moral Sentiment details the relationships between human beings. In such notions, Smith shows an idealistic and humanist side that would have allowed for a more humane interpretation of his Wealth of Nations. Such a reinterpretation might be called for after the fall of capitalism in its current form.

10. Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
If there is one flaneur who daily interpreted culture and the effects of capitalism on culture, it is Walter Benjamin whose essays on every aspect of culture was shot through with the understanding that all of culture was being changed in front of his eyes by "Modernity" as enforced through manufacturing and technology. He understood that his very life was under such forces, that the cultural values that he esteemed would no longer be esteemed by societies that were being reshaped, where folk cultures were dying out, and objects that testified to history and its place in time were being eradicated. Even while questions about our economics and the financial underpinnings of the nation might need to be reassessed, will such things happen? Instead, will we all just want to be reassured that things will return to the way it was a few years ago?

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