A freeramblin’ read

A Freewheelin’ Time, Suze Rotolo. In some ways, this book is great — far better than it could have been given the author’s involvement with Bob Dylan during his critical first years in New York City. Of course Rotolo writes about Dylan and takes the book’s title and cover photo from the Dylan album cover on which she was pictured with him. There are some nuggets of information about Bob and his writing, leaving me with some fresh thoughts about the thinking behind Dylan’s early songs, his attitude toward his career in those early years, the real struggles he and Rotolo and other friends had dealing with his skyrocketing fame, and just how damn young they all were throughout these years.

But the book is much more than a recounting of Rotolo’s memories of Dylan. I would guess most of the audience for this book are Dylan fans, and none of them would read it if it were not for Rotolo being his girlfriend at the start of his career, but there is more to the author and more to this book than Dylan. This is her life, her story, and Bob is simply intertwined in a lot of it. Rotolo had plenty of amazing experiences of her own during the years described here, including publicly testing a newly enacted Cuba travel ban. Her struggle with life in a male-dominated world, no doubt made worse because of her relationship with a budding male rock star, is a recurring theme. Her recounting of life in Greenwich Village during the ’60s is worth a read on its own merits.

However, the book suffers from a severe lack of focus. Time jumps around enough that I found it impossible to keep track of what happened when. Rotolo leads into the book stating it is more a recollection than a statement of known facts, but that does not excuse this huge problem with the book. Stories begin, are cut off, and then are picked up again and told in full. Wider topics come up several times throughout the book, little new being added each time. I want to imagine this is the result of an editor taking the manuscript, knowing it will sell to Dylan fans in any condition, running spell check and sending it to press. Rotolo’s recollections deserve more attention and better presentation.

Okay, I give up

I have been holding on to paper copies of books and avoiding moving to an e-reader of some variety for a few reasons: 

  • I am waiting to see how the competition sorts out and avoiding first- and second-generation devices without the features that are sure to be added;
  • I am hoping the major players will give up on DRM or, at least, come to an agreement about file format for DRM and non-DRM e-books;
  • I love used bookstores; and
  • I hate that, with too few exceptions, there are no provisions for selling a used e-book or lending an e-book to a friend.

The first point is still somewhat valid. Sure, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have flipped out a few generations of their respective devices, but Amazon still doesn’t have a book-lending feature or the ability to open ePub files without conversion, and Barnes & Noble is going away from E Ink with their new, color-screen version. One thing for which I am not waiting, however, is a bunch of features to be added: I want a lightweight e-book reader with an E Ink screen, not an iPad.

On the second point, I think everyone would prefer that the Kindle open ePub files. Also, everyone hates DRM, and the music industry has been down this road. Other than teenagers (who tend to pass their paper books around to their friends anyway) and possibly college students, people will purchase non-DRM materials for their own use. People that want free or non-DRM e-books already make use of the many online sources of cracked, free copies. However, I am not holding my breath for the publishing industry to be more forward-thinking than the music industry on this issue.

My third reason is loving used bookstores. There is something about wandering the stacks of musty books and buying something for which you were not looking. Despite Amazon’s excellent website, it cannot replace used bookstores for the sheer pleasure of book shopping. But, I could use an e-reader for new or purpose-bought books and still visit my neighborhood used bookstore for random gems. Further, if used bookstores are going to fade away due to online shopping and e-books, my insistence on paper books isn’t going to keep them alive.

Finally, I purchase paper books and keep them on my shelves for years after reading them because of my expectation that I will be able to grab one after a related conversation and hand it to someone to read. This does not happen. No one wants to read my damn books, so they pile up on my bookshelves and move around the city with me (requiring many boxes and great effort). Certainly, there are some books I keep because I will read or refer to them again, but that is the minority. If I haven’t reopened a book five years after reading it, it is likely, given the number of unread books on my list, that the book will never be opened again. Even the used bookstore in the neighborhood doesn’t want most of my books, despite my impeccable literary tastes.

I am left feeling that a recent, fairly well known book, whether in digital or paper format, is now an expendable item. The paper copy of a book has little or no value to anyone after I read it. The most sensible and sustainable way to read, then, is to buy e-books. The used bookstore market will be good for a long time for finding out-of-print books, but why would the Kindle version of a book ever go out of print?

Plus, how awesome would it be not to have to hold the pages open while reading in bed?


Fraud, David Rakoff. I try to read slowly. I occasionally remind myself to slow down, to appreciate the inflection, the word choice, something beyond the basic tenor of the story that I normally grasp as I tear through a book, reading interrupted regularly by people, television, the phone or sleep. But especially with this book — thoughtful essays, written by someone to whose voice on CD I delightedly listened a few years ago as he read aloud a follow-up, Don’t Get Too Comfortable — I know the meter, the tone, the voice I should hear in my head as I read along.

But I can’t do it, and writing like this is wasted on me for that reason. There are some delights among this collection of essays, and I recommend reading it. But for a real treat, check out any book-on-tape version you can find of Rakoff reading his own work.

The ongoing fascination with Chomolungma

I am home from work again today, slightly feverish with a cold, so I hesitate to try to write anything, having my doubts as to whether or not it will be at all comprehensible or grammatically correct. However, I cannot sleep any longer, so I shall continue the backlog of completed reads.
Lost of Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine, Peter Firstbrook, is the first book upon which I stumbled on the topic of the 1999 climbing expedition to the north side of Mount Everest in a successful bid to locate the body of George Mallory. Mallory, of course, is the English climber who disappeared while leading the less experienced Andrew Irvine in a 1924 attempt on Everest’s summit. No one knows if they made it or not, because they did not return. Regardless, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to make it to the top and survive.

Firstbrook was the producer of the BBC documentary of the same name, which should set the tone for this read. He does a good job giving an overview of Mallory’s climbing history as well as his obsession with reaching the summit of Everest. He recounts the 1921, 1922 and 1924 British expeditions and, to a lesser extent, the 1999 recovery expedition. Too little time is spent on the found evidence and various theories. And is a climb on Everest now so commonplace that the details of the trying, oxygen-starved efforts to get there are something to be passed over in favor of cutting the book short?

Lost on Everest is a good introduction to the topic, but it ends poorly, disintegrating into a confusing jumble of statements of fact about the various unknowns of the last days of Mallory and Irvine. Irritating comments such as the one Firstbrook repeats early and often about the climbers definitely being on their descent when they perished may play well in a succinct documentary, but they do not in black and white to a reader looking for proof.

I will watch the related documentary, but for a book on the topic I am now looking for The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest, by Conrad Anker and David Roberts. Anker is the one whose off-track searching found Mallory’s body and whose free climb of the Second Step solved one big question. Roberts is a well established outdoors writer: True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna is among other books to his name. This is an amazing story, and I’m sure it can be told better than it is in Lost on Everest.

Coal and anthropology

Reckoning at Eagle Creek, Jeff Biggers, is the third of the books I have read over the past five years about the coal industry’s less than positive contribution to our lives. I have yet to see a pro-coal book interesting enough to pick up, but what is there to learn? Coal is cheap and plentiful to one degree or another, and most of us do enjoy our electrically powered computers, appliances, climate control, etc.

This book is different from Big Coal and Lost Mountain because Biggers has a personal, ancestral connection to the area around Eagle Creek that has now been strip mined for coal. This book is as much a recounting of his search for the past as it is a treatise on the problems of coal mining and burning. Yet, it is not without its insights: notably, Biggers exposes the links between coal and legal or tolerated slavery in Illinois long after the state was declared “free,” and he discusses with disdain the history of this idea of “clean coal” (FutureGen is not the first technology described as such).

Personally, I do not believe I will ever buy into the idea of clean coal. My love of mountains and the coal industry’s love of removing mountaintops to get to the coal underneath in the least expensive way possible do not seem compatible, nor am I impressed when hiking around a strip mine “reclaimed” into a half-assed state park. Illinois coal is supposed to be pretty uncontroversial other than its high sulfur content (which FutureGen will supposedly solve), but Eagle Creek shows that coal mining does not need to involve mountaintop removal or carbon dioxide emissions to be disturbing and harmful.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Where do I start? Read this book. Read this book, read this book, read this book.

Something is wrong with human romantic relationships as generally defined in the western world. We say one thing, but we do anything but that. Starting with the pair-bond myth, we justify the preeminence of institutionalized marriage, yet most marriages fail. That same myth leads some to say homosexual relationships cannot be natural. The idea that the pair bond is the earliest and therefore the truly internalized form of human sexual relationship is wrong.
Ryan and Jethá offer another explanation, one based on observations of earlier societies and closely related primates that have, in their opinion, been conveniently overlooked in favor of the standard myth. Though a good number of their references to anthropological research are ones I recall from early anthropology classes, the authors put their combined talents (Ryan a psychologist and Jethá a psychiatrist) to good use, compiling this body of sources into a flowing, readable progression to the inevitable conclusion: humans developed in groups, lived in groups, shared sexual partners within and among these groups, and raised the resultant children in groups. Anything else, including the pair bond, is a much more recent regression in response to the start of agriculture, the inevitable shortage of land and the new structures that developed in human society to support agricultural (and later industrial and post-industrial) life.

As I was reading, I had picked out a few parts of the book to quote here, but looking back I do not believe I can provide adequate context for any of them. The authors say something similar in the intro to Part III of the book. About to delve more deeply into anthropology and away from what may be more interesting to the casual reader, they state: “We hope readers primarily interested in sex will bear with us because what might at first seem a detour is in fact a shortcut to a clearer vision of the day-to-day lives of our ancestors, a vision that will help you make better sense of the material that follows, as well as of your own world.” That sums up why, if you pick up this book on Dan Savage’s recommendation and get bored halfway through, you should read the whole thing: you will better understand yourself and the world around you.

Sex at Dawn puts together a convincing picture, but what about it? If you subscribe to the book’s very compelling conclusions, you learn that the myth inherent in society, government and religious norms and precepts regarding sexual relationships does not reflect the truth about the roots of human behavior as you were led to believe. But, living in a highly structured society — with land ownership, accumulation of wealth and the practical importance of conclusive paternity — what can or should be done about it?

My personal feeling: Not much can or should be done about it until more people know something other than the pair-bond myth. So, again, please read this book. It is completely fascinating.

Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee, Pamela Druckerman. This book has been on my shelf for the past couple of years, and I picked it up right after I finished Sex at Dawn. If that book describes in detail the roots of human behavior in this area, Lust in Translation describes the ways people express those behaviors in several societies. The books are on different planes and for different audiences, but I read them together.

This is an entertaining read, and there are some surprises here: the first is that Americans do not generally have fewer affairs than the French or Europe in general. One would assume so from our relatively Victorian reaction to an affair being made public, but the numbers do not lie. In that vein lies probably the most potentially instructive portion of Druckerman’s writing: the two choices in response to an affair in America are a permanent severing of the relationship or a lifetime of distrust, therapy and support groups. This is fairly unique, and it sounds pretty ridiculous when contrasted with the reactions of cuckolded partners in other societies.

This is worth a read, and it has some insight to contribute to learning more about the world around us. However, if you are going to read one of these books, make it Sex at Dawn.