Exchanging peasantries

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!

25 people are having a conversation about “Exchanging peasantries

  1. I love these posts about everything. They are an intense pleasure to read – and re-read – with a cup of tea. As good as a book.

    I was sure you were going to say that you put your encyclopedia through the paper shredder and added it to your compost. Read and inwardly digested, indeed.

    These days I almost only read through my ears. So many books are unavailable to my on audible’s UK site that I’m constantly thwarted, and often reduced to yet another Anthony Trollope. Loved Wild Swans. My only other Chinese reference point is Pearl Buck, but what a writer! And, as far as I know, not responsible for any mass famines.

  2. When I was a kid (in the 80’s) we inheritied an old set of encyclopaedias. I especially loved the pre-history section on space travel, where the gleaming silver rocket shot towards the moon.

    But now as I type, boxes of books site behind me, still packed in our new house (of 2 years). Nor were they unpacked in our previous house (of 2 years). I can’t bring myself to throw them out, yet I don’t really want them either. Do I really need “Maths 203 Linear Algebra” course notes? ‘Course Not. But I can’t throw it out either.

    I’m still in two minds about e-book readers. We have some in our house, but I’m still buying paper books. It’s the feel of the paper, the smell of the print, classical typeography, the sensual slickness of the cover. An e-book has nothing on this… yet somehow the price is just the same.

  3. Ah! Maybe this is the hoarder in me, but I think first hand entertainment goes ‘hand-in-hand’ (get it?) with first hand food. Let’s say you lose power for a time, no google! Keep the books 🙂 I don’t think there is any replacement for a bound book. On my list of modern things I deplore, ebooks/kindle are second only to stemless wine glasses. I’ll wait to explain my stance on those until you have a post where it may be remotely relevant…like when your dandelion wine is consumed.

    • Stephen, I love the Kindle, and I don’t even mind stemless glasses. I suspect I’ll give you an opportunity to expound in the near future, though … stay tuned.

  4. I went through a phase where I collected old encyclopedias. I know that sounds odd, but I have this theory that in order to understand a particular period of history, you have to try to see facts the way the people of the time saw them. I’ll never forget reading an article on the Maginot Line from a 1937 set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. An impregnable defense, you see. No force on Earth could possibly conquer it.

    I’ve kept a set from 1917 and that one from 1937, but the rest I had to trash. The Thomas Library already takes up all four walls of a rather large room in our house. One room of books was deemed sufficient.

    Oh, and some of the audiobook players (I use Audible.com) have a setting buried deep in a submenu somewhere that allows you to speed up playback, but it downshifts the tone so the speaker doesn’t sound like a chipmunk. It’s a very effective way of speeding up your audiobook consumption.

    • Excellent Audible tip! I’ll look for that.

      My father, below, has the same slant on old Britannicas. The old ones tell you about the age they were written in.

  5. in elementary school, a salesperson came to the house and my parents bought the whole kit and kaboodle. the whole shebang. all of it. the encyclopedias, the complete “annals of america” and then, a bonus… you could request a certain number of articles each year on whatever topic you want.

    i read all of the annals. there was a time where i tried to start at “a” and read all the encyclopedias. I got to “aardvark”.

    the bookshelf they sat on.. the one they came with…. while those encyclopedias burned in a housefire, the shelf remained. and i’ve kept it. cookbooks sat on it in almost every house I lived in. it was one of the items that went in that very last move…. you and i left it in the garage as a place to put things. reading this….

    well. reading this… i miss them alll.

    I sort of wish you’d kept them and cut a box out of the pages out and turned them into art projects:) how fascinating it would be to fill the middle with ideas about what was actually in the pages that are no longer there.

  6. I could have thinned the bejeezus out of those radish seedlings, but to throw out a set of encyclopedias takes mettle. Brittanica is out of print now, too. Once the current edition is gone (yours for only $1700!), poof.

  7. Myrna Bowman says:

    So sad to have to part with beloved books, and encyclopedias ate among the best. We had the “Book of Knowledge” circa probably 1952 as I remember it before starting school. I loved it, it being read to me then reading for myself! I HATE reading on a screen. Give me paper and ink any day!!

  8. The ’63 is long gone, along with its special cabinet that also held the atlas. When we moved to NYC I gave it to someone who would give it a good home. I now have a ’29, however, and I find the historical articles have more bite than the pap in the later versions. And yes, I use the index.

  9. Hoosier Girl says:

    I had a scruffy old set from the early 60s (already 30 years out of date) that were eventually replaced by a set from the late 90s, plus Annals of America. I set them out by the side of the road with a free to good home sign, and a grateful if somewhat harried mother picked them up for her kids. Maybe I have just been scarred by Ray Bradbury and Orwell at an early age, but you can pry my real books out of my cold, dead hands. Maybe someday I will find the mother lode, a full set of the unabridged OED waiting for me, forlorn, at the side of the road. Now there is something I could get really cozy with!

    I agree with Dad that they are a fascinating historical reference tool. He raised you right, didn’t he!

    • The OED is a different story — can’t get that online. Kevin gave me one (the one-volume version with the teeny print and the magnifier) for my birthday many years ago.

      As for my father raising me right, the stories I could tell!

      • The OED should be available online, and free, at your local library webpage. Or, use the one at NYPL. You don’t need to be a resident of NYC to use it. In fact, you don’t need to be a resident; homeless people can use the library. All you need is a library card.

        The Beatles had much the same response to young people who carried or wore pictures of Mao. Like most charismatics (Max Weber), he remains a controversial figure. The innocence and idealism of American young people is charming, but easily exploited. One thinks of Mao II. And, thinking of writers and Maoists, farmers and pigs, I am reminded of Orwell’s Farm and of the dictionary in 1984. No need to bury (Huxley’s BNW) or burn the books (Bradbury’s F 451), if the state technopoly can newspeak the language into sound bites and mumbo jumbo. Not sure if agriculture dumbs us down more than the metropolis. Lots of folks, Melville comes to mind, grew smarter after they said goodbye to the yellow brick roads of NYC and took to tilling the fields and harvesting ideas from nature.
        Not that you’ll ever get me pitching pig’s poop. Not literally anyway.


  10. When my husband and I moved in together I had 10 rubbermaid tubs (the big ones) of books. Some from college, mostly my treasure trove of endless reading. It was so difficult to go through them. Now, 8 years later I have one tub, and a fat stack of those books I can read countless times. My husband recently asked if I really needed the tub which is now tucked away on a shelf in the garage. I told him if he wanted to toss a rifle, and a few rods I would go through my books. That was the end of the discussion. (BTW Tamar, I finally got my chicks, coop is being built this weekend. We even purchased two royal palm turkeys! I also enjoyed reading the CCD post recently, it always intrigued me. Your blog is still the one I check with coffee in hand well before the ass crack of dawn on my clinical days, and look forward to reading it every single time.)

    • Brooke, I’m glad to hear about the chickens and turkeys! And I’m also glad you haven’t gotten tired of me yet. Please let me know how you progress!

  11. Have you tried http://librivox.org/? “LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books.” You get a fascinatingly different collection there ….. I sometimes have to get my ear in tune with a reader – Jane Austen in an north east coast accent was an odd one, in my head she speaks in received english with maybe a softening of of south of england – but where else could you get Rossetti poetry, against horror stories and otto of the silver hand and trollope …. in a range of languages?

    • Madcat, thanks for a great link. A long time ago, I thought about hiring out-of-work actors (hey, they’re a dime a dozen) to read public domain books.

      I look forward to trying some of these, but I’ve been spoiled by a couple of really good professional readers. If Simon Vance decides he wants to read a tool catalog, I’ll listen.

  12. Once, while watching Billy Connolly on TV, he told the tale of a sign he had seen outside a house somewhere in Australia. It read “Complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica for sale. No longer needed as wife knows everything.”

    I like my Kindle as a recently acquired blind spot on my right eye makes reading paper books quite irritating and when I am tucked up in bed “turning” the page requires pratically no movement. I’m still buying books too and my sister has learnt to ask if books we are talking about are real or Kindle as you can’t lend books that you buy on a Kindle. Don’t we own them if we have bought them?

    Ken Thomas, thanks for the tip about speeding up books on Audible, I will search out that function as I like to listen when I walk and sometimes the readers are just too slow!

  13. Yeah, it’s hard, isn’t it, getting rid of books? Sounds like we all struggle with it. I even know some young kids — the 20-something kind — who have an attachment to books. As my mother says, our libraries represent our intellectual history. Throw them in the dumpster, and what does that say about us?

  14. I was raised by a family of scholars – teachers abound on both my father’s and mother’s sides, and most everyone has at least a bachelor’s degree. We were raised to never, NEVER break the spine of a book, always use a book mark, never put an open book face down, never dog-ear pages, never eat or drink while reading (scoff law that I am, that rule is one I never followed), and never mark in a book. It has been engrained in me that books have a semi-sacred place in our world, and that protocols for disposing of an out of commission American flag are nothing compared to those for laying a book to rest. Even though I now know that there are many books that are not worth the paper they are printed on and destroying a book is not the equivalent of murdering nuns and small children, I balk at getting rid of the stacks and boxes and bins of books I have collected over the years. One reason I love my Kindle is that I no longer have this internal conflict. I can take the book off the Kindle and it still exists, AND I do not have it collecting dust in the corner of my bedroom.

    Tamar, you are a stronger woman than I to be able to throw away books.

  15. Man. I can’t believe you tossed books. That’s like chopping trees down. One small paperback costs a hundred US here. In my travels I have frequently had to toss stuff to lighten the load. I gave away kitchen equipment, furniture, even clothes but I always hung on to my books. Now they are all housed in a wriggly tin shack next to a river by the sea but you want to see how excited Alex and his mates are when I say, no cartoons, I am not switching the generator on, I am going to read to you and I fetch some of the books out, give them one each and say, no scribbling on the pages, and then read to them from a first ediition of The Age of Reason or we pour together over an old encyclopedia with me explaining the pictures. Or I get my globe out and a torch and explain to them the seasons.

    And there is the tragedy. Few of us can afford to DHL boxes of books around the world so in the US, you are chucking them out and here, we need them desperately. Kids will soak anything up and we can always bring them up to date once they have grasped reading and comprehension.

  16. Yours is the one blog where I actually read the comment threads, because they’re as interesting as your posts. I hope you know that’s a compliment to both you and your readers (and not a slight on you). There are a lot of thoughtful people communicating in this space.

    • Eileen — I would never in my wildest dreams take that as a slight. I am profoundly grateful to my commenters, for precisely the reason you cite. They make this place WAY more interesting. Without all y’all, it’s just all me, all the time.

  17. I have boxes of books from when we moved almost 4 years ago. Going through them is so hard. Lee and I LOVE books. I got a kindle last year. I thought I would hate it but (I can’t believe I am saying this) all our friends had one so I decided to give it a try. I really like it though. All the How-To books will still be in the book form along with some others that won’t translate well to the kindle.

Converstion is closed.