Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold



Wisconsin’s Walden, and an ecological call to arms
Published in 1949,
A Sand County Almanac is a landmark book in the field of ecology and one of the seminal texts of the modern American environmental movement. The author, Aldo Leopold, was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin after having previously been employed for over two decades by the United States Forest Service.

The book is divided into three parts. The first section, A Sand County Almanac, is a nature-writing memoir similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold purchased a plot of land outside Baraboo in Sauk County (there is no Sand County in Wisconsin; the phrase refers to the region’s sandy soil). Leopold and his family spent their weekends on this farm and woodland, living in a shack that is now a National Historic Landmark. Leopold records a year in the life of this sand county land, describing the sights and sounds of each season and explaining the natural processes taking place. Amidst these empirical observations, Leopold emphasizes the holistic unity of all natural phenomena that comprise an ecosystem. He also frequently recounts the natural history of the region by discussing the changes in the biome over time. Leopold’s nature writing is some of the best ever written in the English language. He combines scientific objectivity with philosophical thoughtfulness, often giving the reader new insights into familiar species. Unlike Thoreau, Leopold doesn’t venture off into philosophical asides or literary flourishes. He sticks to the subject of nature, and his prose is quotably eloquent, articulate, and accessible to readers of all levels.

The second part of the book, Sketches Here and There, is a series of writings about places where Leopold lived, worked, or traveled, among them Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. The writing is similar in style and quality to A Sand County Almanac but starts to introduce more discussion of land and wildlife management. The highlight is Leopold’s vivid memories of two canoe trips he took through the Sierra Madre in Mexico.

The third section of the book, entitled The Upshot, consists of four chapters in which Leopold stresses the importance of wilderness, criticizes current practices of land management, and outlines his own plan for conservation. A lifelong hunter, Leopold does not object to recreational use, but laments the trend in outdoor sportsmanship towards gadgetry and convenience and away from traditional woodcraft and communion with nature. He proposes the formation of a land ethic where nature and its resources are not judged by their monetary value but by their value to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. To adopt such a land ethic, mankind must view himself as an equal participant in nature rather than a master with dominion over it.

Leopold died shortly after the completion of this book, but his call to arms has not gone unheard, and this book has proven very influential to the American environmental movement. He would no doubt be pleased at some of the developments that have taken place since his passing, such as the establishment of large national parks in Alaska and the reintroduction of predator species. One would also have to admit, however, that we are still a long way from living the land ethic of which Leopold dreamed. Nevertheless, Leopold’s insightful writing does succeed in changing the way one thinks about nature. Whether you are a hunter, a farmer, a birdwatcher, a tree-hugger, or just someone who enjoys a walk in the woods, there is much to learn from A Sand County Almanac, and much to enjoy.
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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Pictures of the Socialistic Future by Eugene Richter



From utopia to dystopia
Examples of utopian literature can be found as far back as Plato’s Republic, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that this category of fiction really ballooned into a full-blown genre. Because utopian literature predicts the future, there is always an element of science fiction to it, but most 19th-century utopias were more concerned with political and social change rather than scientific or technological advances. Many of the utopian novels of this era advocated socialism as the cure for mankind’s ills, among the most popular being American author Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Englishman William Morris’s News from Nowhere. In response to such rosy visions of socialism, Eugene Richter, a member of the German Reichstag (parliament), penned his novel Pictures of the Socialistic Future, published in 1891.


The story takes place in Germany, specifically Berlin at first, at an undetermined point in the near future. As the novel opens, Germany is embarking on a new socialistic path. Very little is said about the political turmoil that preceded this rebirth, but a scenario similar to the French Revolution is implied: The existing government has been overthrown, and it is now day one for the nation to construct a socialist society from scratch. All private property is confiscated, total separation of church and state is established, and policies are immediately rewritten to abolish class and implement total equality among the citizenry.

The beautiful thing about Pictures of the Socialistic Future is that for the first several chapters, it is difficult for the reader to tell whether Richter has written a pro-socialist or an anti-socialist narrative. The narrator is overwhelmingly in favor of the socialist transition and continually trumpets the egalitarianism and brotherhood promised by the regime change. In each chapter, however, a problem arises, and the narrator describes the socialist government’s solution, which often involves the rescinding of civil liberties. Early in the book, such difficulties include the confiscation of citizens’ life savings, workers forced into jobs against their will, and the splitting up of families for occupational relocation. At first, the narrator excuses these developments as unavoidable inconveniences necessary to bring about universal equality and social justice. As the novel progresses, however, the policies become more draconian, and the narrator starts to lose faith in the socialist ideology. Thus the utopia gradually devolves into a dystopia.

In many ways, Richter presents a worst case scenario of what could go wrong with socialism. For example, the chancellor of Germany resigns because he is too busy shining his own shoes and cleaning his own house to get any political work done. (He’s not allowed a housekeeper, because that would be elitist.) Most of the objections raised, however, are realistic, and some presage actual faults that materialized later in the Soviet Union and communist China. Though guilty of exaggeration at times, for the most part Richter keeps the plot well within the believable.

What truly sets Richter’s novel apart from so much of the utopian fiction of its era is that, in addition to all the political commentary and dead-serious satire, Richter also delivers a very engaging personal story about the narrator’s family. Unlike Bellamy’s and Morris’s novels, Richter’s is not the least bit boring. Prior to what would be more formally considered science fiction (George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ayn Rand’s Anthem, for example), Pictures of the Socialistic Future may be the perfect anti-socialist novel, just as Jack London’s The Iron Heel is the perfect pro-socialist novel. Like London’s masterpiece, Richter’s novel is an eloquent and thought-provoking read that provides a vivid look into the political climate of its era.
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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Professor Challenger Short Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



His two remaining adventures

It goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was the character that made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous. The Holmes adventures, however, only constitute a fraction of Conan Doyle’s literary output. Outside of the Holmes universe, the most famous recurring character that Conan Doyle created is Professor Challenger, the hero of The Lost World. Challenger is the world’s preeminent authority on all manners scientific, or at least considers himself to be so, and he has little patience for those who disagree with his theories. He is described as a large man with a “spade-shaped” beard and a quick temper and blustering manner of speech that make him intimidating to all but his closest friends and family. Outside of his study and his laboratory, he is a man of action who, true to his name, never shies away from a challenge.

Conan Doyle featured Professor Challenger in three novels and two short stories. The Lost World, published in 1912, is one of Conan Doyle’s most popular books and has undergone several film adaptations. The rest of Professor Challenger’s adventures, however, have not fared so well. The novel The Poison Belt, published in 1913, features the scientist and adventure hero in a tepid affair with very little science and no adventure. In this apocalyptic story, the Earth passes through a noxious nebula, and the characters are left with nothing much to do but sit around and watch the effects. The third Challenger novel, The Land of Mist (1926) is even worse. In this awful story, Conan Doyle unforgivably sells out his own character by subverting Challenger’s scientific skepticism in order to promote his own beliefs in paranormal activity.


Thankfully, the two short stories are an improvement over the second and third Challenger novels, though their brevity leaves one wanting more. It’s too bad Conan Doyle didn’t produce an entire volume of Challenger stories, because these two turned out pretty well.

“When the World Screamed” (1928) — 4.5 stars

Unlike the other Challenger adventures, this story is narrated in the first-person by Peerless Jones, an expert in artesian wells and an old rugby buddy of Challenger’s journalist sidekick Ned Malone. Challenger hires Jones to join the team of his latest project. Challenger has bored a deep tunnel into the Earth, roughly 8 miles deep, in an attempt to pierce all the way through the planet’s crust and ascertain what lies beneath. He theorizes that the planet is actually a living organism that shows signs of respiration and circulation in its natural processes, like a gargantuan sea urchin. Though the science seems farfetched, the important thing is that Conan Doyle treats it with a ring of authenticity, which results in a well-written and entertaining sci-fi yarn, even better in some respects than The Lost World, though less substantial. At one point in the story, Mrs. Challenger is mentioned as still living, thus chronologically placing this story before The Land of Mist. Challenger’s great borehole might owe a debt of influence to Frank R. Stockton’s subterranean sci-fi novel The Great Stone of Sardis, published in 1891.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

“The Disintegration Machine” (1929) — 3 stars

A scientist named Dr. Nemor claims to have invented a machine that can break matter down into its individual atoms and then reverse the procedure to reassemble the disintegrated object—a process similar to teleportation but without the distance traveled. Assigned by his newspaper to investigate the matter, Malone takes Challenger along to meet the inventor. Nemor makes it clear that he intends to sell his device as a weapon to the highest bidder. This story is much briefer than “When the World Screams,” and it doesn’t delve very deeply into the science of disintegration. It is more of a Holmes-like caper in which Challenger and Malone must thwart a villain. The plot is pretty simplistic and the ending predictable, but Conan Doyle’s telling of it is still enjoyable and Challenger behaves in a matter true to his character.
Read the story online at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Journeys in Diverse Places by Ambroise Paré



Memoirs of a 16th-century medic
Amboise Paré
In the early years of Saturday Night Live, Steve Martin played a character called Theodoric of York, a medieval barber who performs surgery. Though that sketch is ridiculous, it does have a foundation in historical fact. Perhaps it was even based on the real-life memoirs of 16th-century French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré. In his book Journeys in Diverse Places, Paré recalls how he was employed as a medic by the King of France and other French nobleman, who often sent him on military expeditions to treat their wounded soldiers. Paré’s recollections of his medical career yield a very interesting historical document that provides a detailed look at both medicine and warfare during the Renaissance. 

Journeys in Diverse Places consists of 19 chapters, each of which details a different trip taken by Paré for medical purposes, often to the site of a battle or siege. These travels took place from 1537 to 1569. Paré wrote these accounts at the age of 70, in response to some criticism of his medical procedures by the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, whom he addresses in several chapters as “mon petit maistre.” Given the carnage that was going on all around him, Paré’s curative methods seem surprisingly advanced and humane for his era, with some barbaric exceptions, of course. In one notorious passage, Paré recommends boiling puppies in turpentine to create a salve for applying to gunshot wounds. On the battlefield, amputations and trepannings are frequent occurrences. Paré describes gruesome head wounds from which their victims surprisingly survived. In quieter times, however, Paré spends months living in luxury as he rehabilitates the shattered kneecap of a marquis, a case for which he describes his treatments in extensive detail. Paré even prescribes the creation of “artificial rain” to help his patient sleep.

Renaissance warfare as depicted in Paré’s account is every bit as gruesome and sadistic as today’s medieval action movies make it out to be. Tactics include dropping lime from castle walls to burn the enemy’s eyes, tying cats on the end of poles to taunt one’s opponents, or simply executing prisoners in cold blood. Of the book’s 19 chapters, almost all are quite brief except for three entries: The Journey to Metz, The Journey to Hesdin, and The Journey to Flanders. While the latter is the case of the nobleman’s kneecap, the other two are incidents of besieged castles where many died not only in battle but also of starvation. Rather than surrender to the Spaniards, Paré tells us, the French were “determined to eat the asses, mules, and horses, dogs, cats, and rats, even our boots and collars, and other skins that we could have softened and stewed.” In some cases there were so many thousands of dead littering the battlefield that their bodies were used as filler in the construction of defensive walls.

Given the title and the table of contents, I thought this was going to be a more traditional geographic travelogue describing the sites and people of 16th-century Europe. Had I known Journeys in Diverse Places was a book about battlefield medicine, I probably wouldn’t have read it, since neither military history nor medicine are subjects of particular interest to me. Once I got into it, however, this proved to be an engaging read full of fascinating historical detail. The fact is, warfare was a big part of Renaissance life, and here one really gets a sense of the horrors that faced the common foot soldiers, as well as the lifestyles of the dukes and marquises who sent them into battle. Journeys in Diverse Places is a relatively short read, and history buffs will find the education acquired is more than worth the time invested in reading it.
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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Confessions of a Collector by William Carew Hazlitt



Arcane anecdotes for book and coin experts 
As someone with an interest in book history and rare book libraries, I sometimes enjoy reading books about book collectors and their collections. This led me to William Carew Hazlitt’s book The Confessions of a Collector, published in 1897. Hazlitt (1834 -1913) came from a long line of men of letters. His grandfather William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a famous essayist and literary critic. William Carew Hazlitt’s published writings are mostly on literary history and bibliography. He was also a collector of books, coins, china, postage stamps, paintings, and furniture. The Confessions of a Collector is a memoir about his collecting activities in these various areas.


Hazlitt was an expert on early English literature (pre-1700) and wrote a muli-volume bibliography of printed books from that era. To support his scholarly endeavors, he worked as a personal librarian to wealthy book collector Henry Huth. While purchasing books on Huth’s behalf, thousands of rare volumes passed through Hazlitt’s hands. Unfortunately, the reader learns very little about those books from Hazlitt’s memoir. The text is basically a catalog of London book dealers and anecdotes about Hazlitt’s dealings with each of them. Hazlitt assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. He expects one to have read all the books he’s written, read all the books he’s read, and met all the dealers he mentions. The intended audience for the book seems to have been his closest colleagues in the London collecting community. Although he mentions famous early printers like William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, Hazlitt never discusses the exceptional qualities of the books they produced, other than their monetary value. In fact, he never expresses any sort of affection whatsoever for the books in which he’s dealing. The point of each anecdote is simply that Hazlitt bought such-and-such a book for five pounds and sold it later for fifteen. Of course, a century later, all the information on prices and the relative rarity of volumes will be obsolete to today’s bargain hunters, so Hazlitt’s tales of book collecting will likely only be of interest to museum curators or rare book librarians.

After nine chapters on books, there is one chapter on collecting china and one chapter on postage stamps and paintings. The remaining five chapters are on coin collecting. This latter section of the book is far more informative than Hazlitt’s thoughts on book collecting. On the topic of coins, Hazlitt does a better job of communicating his enthusiasm for numismatics (coin collecting) and his appreciation for the art form. I am not a coin collector, but Hazlitt certainly did pique my interest on the subject. He describes his decision-making process when examining and purchasing rare coins, which might actually prove valuable advice to a reader who is starting a collection of European coins. One wishes Hazlitt had approached the subject of books in the same helpful manner, instead of merely rattling off an assortment of random deal-making anecdotes.

Other than the division of topics into chapters as described above, there is little organization to the information that Hazlitt provides here. He simply meanders on each subject, often repeating the same points. If you were an avid collector of books and coins in the late 19th century, this memoir might have replicated the experience of a fireside chat in Hazlitt’s study (and perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, since he does come across as a bit of a blowhard). These days, however, only expert collectors, those privy to the most arcane knowledge in their areas of interst, are likely to find much use for The Confessions of a Collector.
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Friday, October 16, 2020

The Land of Mist by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



Prof. Challenger betrayed for spiritualist propaganda
Outside of his Sherlock Holmes stories, the most famous recurring character in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Professor Challenger, the bearded, blustering scientist who led the expedition to The Lost World. Conan Doyle featured Challenger in three novels and two short stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of The Lost World, none of them are regarded very highly. The Land of Mist, published in 1926, is the third novel in the Challenger series, which follows Challenger’s second adventure, 1913’s The Poison Belt. The two short stories were published later, but I believe they are prequels to The Land of Mist.

One of the things (among many) that makes this novel so disappointing is that Challenger is merely a guest star in this book and only present for small portions of the narrative. The story centers around Ned Malone, journalist and sidekick from The Lost World. Professor Challenger’s daughter Enid Challenger is also a reporter and plays a major role in the story. Malone and Enid are assigned by a newspaper to co-write a series of articles on the spiritualist movement. Though both begin as skeptics, they resolve to keep an open mind while investigating possible paranormal phenomena at a series of seances where mediums claim to receive communications from the dead. (Gee, I wonder if the two reporters will fall in love.) Lord John Roxton, another supporting character from The Lost World, also appears in a couple chapters.

Conan Doyle wrote many works on spiritualism and the paranormal, both fiction and nonfiction. He was a firm believer in the supernatural world and gave pubic lectures on the topic. Sometimes he even managed to craft an entertaining story around the subject, such as in The Parasite. The Land of Mist, however, reads more like one of his lectures than one of his entertaining stories. As Malone and Enid attend more seances and meet more mediums, they become more convinced of the veracity of spiritualist claims. Meanwhile, mediums are being persecuted in London for their beliefs. If they could only convert a confirmed materialist into seeing the truth and beauty of the spirit world, it would go a long way towards popularizing spiritualism for the good of the masses. Thus, Ned and Enid conspire with the spiritualists to convince Professor Challenger to attend a seance where he will see the light and become converted. By following this course, Conan Doyle betrays the integrity of his own character in order to push his spiritualist propaganda.

Conan Doyle was also a church-goin’ man, so he does not view spiritualism as a departure from the Bible. In fact, a few of the ghosts who appear in this story have actually met Christ, and the prophets mentioned in the Bible were nothing but mediums who received messages from the dead. The spiritualists’ belief system, as sketched by Conan Doyle in this novel, is an absurd house of cards built on convenient rationalizations. When a seance fails to achieve results, for example, it is because a skeptic in the room disturbs the energy. In addition to messages from beyond the grave, Conan Doyle asserts physical manifestations such as ectoplasmic apparitions, spirit photography, and poltergeists. Even those who believe in ghosts and TV mediums who speak to the deceased will find many of the Victorian Era spiritualist beliefs to be ridiculous.

Besides all the pseudo-science, this is just a poorly written story, boring for most of its length, that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an essay or a melodrama. Conan Doyle presents a dull catalog of dozens of paranormal occurrences he’s read about, which leaves room for only the thinnest of stories, every turn of which is predictable. Although Conan Doyle has every right to write about his supernatural beliefs, he should have left Professor Challenger out of it.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison



Tragicomedy of race and class in America
Any discussion of the most important works in African American literature is sure to include Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, first published in 1952. The novel depicts and comments upon the racial and social climate of its era, including the black nationalist movement, the American Communist party, and social conditions in the American South. This groundbreaking work of modern literature, however, goes beyond social realism to address more existential issues of black identity. While it often deals with heavy themes, Ellison eloquently mixes tragedy and humor to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking read.


The story is told by an unnamed narrator who grew up in a small town in the American South. He wins a school contest in speech-making, for which he earns a scholarship to a black college. Before he can collect his prize, however, he must first undergo a harrowing and brutal racist hazing ritual for the amusement of the town’s leading white men. As a college student, he is assigned to act as chauffeur and guide to one of the school’s wealthy white donors. When, at the donor’s request, he ushers the white man to some unseemly sites that display the harsher realities of black life in the town, he draws the ire of the college’s president, who expels him from the school. He then heads to New York, where he is recruited by a socialist group called the Brotherhood that ostensibly advocates reforms for the poor and working classes of all races. Due to his prowess as a public speaker, the narrator is assigned to be the Brotherhood’s spokesman in Harlem.

At least half of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s career with the Brotherhood, which is easily the narrative’s biggest fault. Way too much time is spent on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes strategies of this organization. The reader sits through a series of protracted dialogues in which members of the group’s hierarchy accost each other in accusatory tones without ever really saying what they mean. In the end this yields some interesting conclusions, but Ellison sure takes a long and circuitous route in getting there. Just as in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a novel about labor organizers among oppressed white farm workers, focusing so much on the supposed reformers often leaves the reader feeling one step removed from the problems they’re trying to reform. In both cases, the author is critical of these purported saviors and exposes the self-interested exploitation behind their agendas. Ellison’s criticisms of the Communists and their treatment of black Americans may be valid, but the 21st century reader finds himself wishing more time had been spent focusing on the realities of black life in Harlem. The beginning and end of the novel—the narrator’s life in the South, his time at college, the frenzied climax, and the thoughtful epilogue—are superior to what’s in between.

Those who prefer a more traditionally naturalistic social realism will find that Ellison ventures a little too much into a verbose, Faulknerian stream-of-conscious style that obscures his arguments more than it elucidates them. Thankfully, only portions of the novel are written in this manner. Despite my few reservations, Invisible Man is still a great novel and an enlightening read. Though published almost seven decades ago, many of the issues Ellison raises have proven regrettably timeless, thus Invisible Man still retains its relevance. For those receptive to what it has to say, this book still has the power to change one’s views on race in America.

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