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Eventually Let Me Go

Somewhere on the hard drive of my old laptop is an unfinished blog post praising the Kazuo Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day, which I read over Canadian Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas two or three years ago. It was brilliant and heartbreaking. I never actually posted about it, though.

Somewhere in one of my old notebooks is a page or so of scribbled thoughts about Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, which I read over American Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas last year. When We Were Orphans hit me even harder than Remains of the Day, which is saying something. I powered through the book in two flights and a layover, then walked around in a daze for most of the next week. But I never did get around to typing those scribbles into my computer.

So this year I’m going to get this down before I forget to do it: We went up to my parents for Thanksgiving this weekend, and in between the big dinner and the hike up Foley Mountain and the all-camp Cranium championship, I was lost to the world in Ishiguro’s latest novel, Never Let Me Go. There must be something about his tragically deluded narrators and slow sickening reveals that goes with turkey dinner like cranberry and stuffing. Which is not to say that the big reveal to the reader is the point—in all three books, it’s the moment when the narrator figures everything out that kills you. And what’s worse is the subsequent realization that they’ve probably always known.

There are lots of other things I could be posting about on this Thanksgiving Monday. Lots of bigger things to be thankful for. But my little shoutout to Ishiguro’s sparse little masterpieces of delusion and grief has been postponed long enough.

Edit: How topical am I? The Booker Prize for 2005 was announced today, and Never Let Me Go was on the shortlist. OK, it didn’t win, but Ishiguro already has a Booker—and my little blog post will no doubt mean just as much to him as Britain’s most influential literary award.

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Math and Unicorns

On the day before school started this September, I got a haircut, something I’ve probably done on or around the day before school started for the last thirty years. But as I’ve just moved to a new city, I didn’t have a regular place to go. It is no doubt a sign of my advancing years, and my imminent ejection from the coveted “white males aged 18-34” demographic, that this year I sacrificed hipness for familiarity by going to a national hair-cutting chain.

The woman cutting my hair asked me what I do for a living. I told her I was about to start a brand new job as a history professor. I still grin every time I say that. No doubt the thrill wears off in time, but after mumble-mumble years of grad school and three consecutive bouts with the job market, I gotta tell you, it feels great to be a professor. OK, assistant professor, whatever. It’s faculty, baby, and that’s fine by me.

“Wow,” the barber said. “A history professor. You must be really good at math!”

That threw me. “Math? Why do you say that?”

“Oh, because of all the numbers you must have to remember.”

I don’t mean to make fun of her. The haircut I got was pretty good. And my comments about cutting hair probably sounded just as off base to her. But that conversation reminded me that what we do as historians is not what most people probably imagine we do.

I’ve been thinking about that again as I read Sam Wineburg’s terrific Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts
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News and Jews

The New News

It’s been a busy week, but a good one!

  • Sunday: Lisa and I put our condo on the market.
  • Monday: Lisa and I sold our condo.*
  • Tuesday: I gave my end of the year talk at the Academy; it was very well received.
  • Wednesday: Lisa and I drove to London to look for a house.
  • Thursday: Lisa and I looked at about a dozen houses. Also, we got approved for a mortgage.
  • Friday: Lisa and I looked at another half-dozen houses. Also, we bought a house.*
  • Saturday: Lisa and I drove back to Boston.
  • Also: Lisa got accepted with funding to the PhD. program in Education at Western.
  • Also: My dissertation is one of four nominees for the Herman Krooss Prize, given by the Business History Conference to the best dissertation in business history written that year.

*Pending inspections and renegotiations and whatever else could transpire between now and closing. But you know. Offer accepted. Knock on wood.

The Old News

So like I said, it’s been a busy week. To keep this blog limping along, I shall continue to cannibalize old posts from my LiveJournal. Today (last night, technically) is the start of Passover. Last year at this time, I meditated on Douglas Rushkoff‘s very interesting book, Nothing Sacred. Here’s what I said…
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Guinness is Good For You

I had some time to kill on campus the other day, so I parked myself in a comfy chair in Lamont Library and read A Positively Final Appearance, by Alec Guinness, in one sitting. It’s Guinness’ journal for the last few years of his life. I recommend it; like him, it was funny and wise and occasionally laser-sharp and only a little bit sad. The 80-something Guinness was, as we all know, weary of his unshakeable association with Obi-Wan Kenobi, but still plugged in to the popular culture: he was addicted to The Simpsons and had good things to say about the Leo diCaprio / Claire Danes version of Romeo and Juliet. There are lots of funny stories in there, in the Peter O’Toole-esque raconteur vein. In fact O’Toole and Guinness were buddies, from the same generation of gin-soaked British actors up to absolutely no good. Highlights include:

The story of a scandalous stage production of Peter Pan in the 1930s in which Nana contracted syphilis from an affair with Smee. (NB: Nana was the dog.)

The fact that Marlene Dietrich used to drive out into the California desert every New Year’s Eve for a date with “a well set up gentleman from outer space”—when Guinness asked Dietrich what the spaceman looked like, she said, “Handsome, darling, and dressed all in silver.”

Some nice, unfashionable fondness for the Royal Family, and impatience with the beatification of Princess Diana.

And, of course, the following oft-told tale:

A refurbished Star Wars in on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

‘I would like you to do something for me,’ I said.

‘Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

‘You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

‘Anything, sir, anything!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor child away. Maybe she was right, but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

“A fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” Ouch.

I love that story. I’m going to start telling it, and end with the punch line, “… and that boy grew up to be … me.”

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Philo Philes

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. It’s a novel about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in much the same vein as Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s only, say, 75% as good, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is the real life Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine in the 1940s, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked with the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) screwed Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column (saying “interesting Malcolm Gladwell column” is usually redundant, IMHO) about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.

But anyway. Mad props to Philo T. That’s all I really wanted to say.