It was probably twenty years ago, when I lived on the west coast, that I had some reason to be on the campus of San Francisco State University. I don’t remember why I was there, but I remember running into a protest of some sort, put on by a group of students wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Mao More than Ever.” Proto-communists, they were, with a Warholesque, or possibly a Warhol, portrait of their hero on their red (get it?) shirts.
Now, I’m always game for a good argument, and zealot-twitting is one of my favorite sports. I was tempted. I really was. Nice to see you college students supporting the greatest anti-intellectual who ever lived! How ‘bout that Great Leap Forward? I refrained, although I don’t know why. I was probably pressed for time. Why Mao has never really taken his rightful place alongside Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot in the Twentieth Century Genocidal Maniacs Hall of Fame I don’t quite understand.
It may be because China, to us occidentals, is a really strange place. The Chinese have had six thousand years to develop on a trajectory completely different from ours, and from here they look like a civilization of eccentric social customs, genius inventions, and truly outstanding vegetables. All this may color our perception of their occasional Genocidal Maniac.
In my ongoing effort to understand the inscrutable East, I’m listening to Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China. It’s Jung Chang’s story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself, and it’s fascinating. She came of age in Maoist China, when the Chairman was doing everything possible to ensure that he ruled an illiterate, dirt-poor population, thus minimizing the likelihood that his people could muster the resources to either understand or overthrow their Genocidal Maniac of a leader.
By the time Chang was a teenager, her schooling was limited to endless re-reading of the words of Mao, and it was standard procedure to suspend even that education and send children of intellectuals to farms in remote parts of the country. She left the city, and school, to do back-breaking work in far-flung rice paddies.
This past weekend, at our house, we staged a re-enactment.
When we moved here from New York, we gave away a lot of books, but still had about fifty boxes left. We have limited shelf space in our house, which is very small, and most of those boxes have been in the garage all this time, gathering dust and getting moldy.
I have resigned myself to the fact that books are over in this, the digital age. While I have some sniffling regrets about that, I have always thought that it is the words, and not the paper or the bindings that make books important. The words live on, but the paper and bindings are has-beens. I get it.
Still, it’s been hard for me to tackle the boxes. We need the space for Kevin’s House of Engineering Marvels, but I’ve been putting off the culling. For almost four years now. On Saturday morning, though, Kevin made me a deal. We’ve got two yards of pig poop that need to be combined with leaves and grass clippings to make a compost pile, and we’ve got thirty boxes of books in the garage. If I tackled the books, he said, he would tackle the poop.
I spent the morning going through a half-dozen of the boxes, and earmarking about 100 books for donation to one of our local thrift stores. There was history, there was science, there was drama. Politics! Medicine! Animal behavior!
And there was my 1973 Encyclopedia Brittanica.
I know I’m not the only one with an unreasonable nostalgic fondness for an encyclopedia. I grew up with a ’63 Britannica, and it was a staple of my primary-school research-related enterprises. It was also the Google of the day. My parents were constantly telling me to look up things I asked about, and I can still hear my father saying, “Use the index.”
The Britannicas up to 1973 (after which they changed the format) were outstanding works of reference. Many of the articles were smart, and interesting, and well-written. But a reference work that’s forty years old is of limited utility. Sure, lots of things happened in the six thousand years of human history prior to 1973, but we’ve also learned a lot about those things since 1973. If you read something in an old Britannica, you always have to double-check. With Google.
I can remember using my Britannica only once since we moved here, in a futile effort to understand the causes of the Crimean War. With that track record, I couldn’t justify the space it took up. I boxed it up and put it in the car with the other books.
But it turns out I’m not the only one acknowledging the limited utility – okay, the complete obsolescence – of the old-school encyclopedia. The thrift store wouldn’t take it. The Book Donation box at the dump wouldn’t even take it – there was a big sign saying “No Encyclopedias.”
And so I recycled it. I tossed it, a couple volumes at a time, into the big bin with the cardboard boxes, old newspapers, and junk mail. It was no fun. No fun at all.
When I came home, Kevin had gotten a start on the compost pile, but there was still a lot of work to be done. I picked up a shovel and started shoveling. We had mismanaged our pig poop, and unloaded in a place from which we would have to move it again – a decision that gives new meaning to ‘rank stupidity.’ I filled the wheelbarrow over and over, and Kevin carted it to the compost pile and mixed in the browns and greens.
Over and over. It took most of the afternoon.
I know that the fact that I threw away books and shoveled manure doesn’t make this a Maoist experience, but I do have a persistent sense that agriculture makes you stupid. I’m in favor of getting exercise, and tilling soil or building a chicken coop or shoveling manure – even for the second time – is certainly a constructive way to do that. But it often seems that the amount of time I’ve spent doing those things, reading about doing those things, planning to do those things, and doing those things again when I do them wrong the first time is absolutely unconscionable.
Part of what I like about our taking up this enterprise in middle age is that Kevin and I are doing a lot of new stuff – demanding, complicated stuff – at a time in our lives when lots of people are pretty much all settled in. At the same time, I miss reading. Reading something that isn’t by Eliot Coleman, or Storey.
I miss history, and science, and drama. Politics! Medicine! Animal behavior! (Okay, I get some of that last one.) Although I listen to books as I do some of that tilling and building and shoveling, it’s a slow way to go. I can read a book in the fraction of the time it takes to listen to it, but that means sitting down and doing nothing else. It’s still a little jarring to realize I live a life – voluntarily! – in which settling in with a book and a cup of tea is a luxury.
Mao More than Ever!