Archive for October, 2010

Daniel Ellsberg and the American Doomsday Machine

October 29, 2010

 Last week, I finished negotiating  a contract with Bloomsbury Press  for a memoir by Daniel Ellsberg  tentatively titled: The American Doomsday Machine.  There is a good article announcing the deal in The New York Observer.  This is the story that Dan wanted to tell at the time of  The Pentagon Papers affair. But he felt that the Viet Nam War took precedence.

 It is a pretty shocking story, never before told, of the American nuclear plan developed in the early Sixties; a plan  that the Department of Defense knew by their own calculations would kill 600,000,000 people. It was a fairly inflexible plan that, in fact, came rather close to being implemented.   The DOD’s estimates were probably low. There was no understanding of nuclear winter back then. And the  numbers did not take into account any additional deaths that might be caused by a retaliatory attack.

 At the time, Dan worked at the highest levels of the national security system as a nuclear planner. In 1961 he drafted the top secret guidance from the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the operational plans for general nuclear war. As you may have read once or twice over the last 40 years, Dan’s access to the national security apparatus has become, well—uh—somewhat attenuated.

 Most of us have a feeling that we already know  all this. But we don’t. We take it as conventional wisdom, because we all saw a movie that has become a classic. It was called: Dr. Strangelove. It turns out that movie was more a documentary that a work of artistic imagination. It turns out, in fact,  that it was actually a little restrained.

 I love to read history. I studied it in graduate school. And I am always looking for  book projects on historical subjects. Dan’s book is a lot more than that. Yes. It is history. But also a book that will change our whole understanding of an historical period.

 

 

How Independent Stores Can Succeed in the Age of the E-book

October 16, 2010

(Note: The following was an opinion piece  I wrote that appeared in the October 11 issue of Publishers Weekly.)

With all the news about book publishers’ and chains’ struggles to adjust to the digital juggernaut, I’m wondering, possibly counterintuitively, whether this may be a real opportunity for independent booksellers.

For the past 20 years, the book chains have had a marketing strategy that emphasized huge stores with a vast selection of titles and discount pricing. The stores were primarily in high traffic stand-alone locations or in regional and big-box malls that would draw on a large body of shoppers needed to support the overhead.

By the year 2000, the chain superstores’ title selection had been trumped by Internet booksellers. It was also a particularly bad time for independent stores. They did not fare well in a world dominated by media-driven blockbusters, by mass merchants skilled at selling these kinds of books, and by well-financed Internet retailers who offered formidable competition in price, selection, and service. The indies that now seem to be the most robust are the smaller stores that are situated in neighborhood centers serving discrete audiences. What they offer, and what has always been the singular virtue of independent stores, is the uniqueness of the bookseller’s sensibility and taste, the devotion to a very personal kind of customer service, and the vision of the bookstore as a community center.

In the age of the mass merchant and the big-box retailer, these values were often eclipsed. But with the rise in popularity of e-books and the struggles of the huge superstores to adjust to this new model, the smaller independents will reap benefits by serving those customers who will always exist to buy traditional books. And let us not forget that ineffable, even sensual,  experience of browsing that will forever be lost in the marketplace of e-books. As e-books become the dominant platform, which now seems all but inevitable, those virtues will become all the more apparent and valued by comparison.

But there is possibly even more good news for independents. Let us also hope that the economic paradigm that seems to be emerging is one where the big Internet companies are not able to compete by ruinous price competition, a strategy that has always served them well, and a game that independents can never win. When the retail price is determined by the publisher, as it is in the new “agency” models, for the first time the independents can compete in price on a level playing field and, at the same time, offer comparable selection and superior service.

Colin Robinson, publisher of OR Books, wrote a brilliant article in the July 14 issue of the Nation. He pointed out that the huge proliferation of choice engendered by Internet bookselling and by the growth of POD self-publishing has had the paradoxical effect of reducing the ability of the book buyer to make his or her own informed evaluations and choices. This is made manifest in book publishing by the tragic decline of the midlist, which has been caught between the Scylla of the commercial blockbuster and the Charybdis of the undifferentiated mediocrity of self-publishing. (Begging your pardon. There are also lost masterpieces in the self-publishing world. But they tend to be just that – lost.)

And in this environment as well, the independent is in the strongest position to profit from this development by being uniquely positioned to offer informed guidance to the book buyer.

People in the book business have always had and still have a sentimental attachment to the independent bookseller as the “heart and soul” of the business. But with the coming of the e-book revolution, it just might be possible that the indies will again become an economic force to be reckoned with, and the idea that bookselling is a vocation, not just a business, will gain a new life and a new stature, and will again be a virtue to be valued in the marketplace as well as in our hearts.

 

Jeff Masson on the 40,000 Year Romance Between Humans and Dogs

October 5, 2010

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson first gained attention as projects director at the Freud Archives.  Jeffrey’s research led him to the conclusion that Freud erred in turning away from his insight that human misery was fueled by childhood sexual abuse.  Masson speculated that Freud gave in to peer pressure rather than acknowledge a truth that would have harmed his career.  Jeff accused the psychoanalytic establishment of covering this up for decades. For such heresy, he was excommunicated from the psychoanalytic profession and treated to numerous public burnings by its members. Since then, Jeff’s  insights have become conventional wisdom in psychotherapeutic circles.  In spite of some important contributions to our understanding of the human psyche, Freud has been discredited for his therapeutic ideas in no small account because of Jeff’s work. And Freud’s thought has been relegated primarily to the intellectual dustbin of literary critical theory.

For the last 20 years, Jeff has turned his formidable intellect to the study of emotions in animals and in animal rights. His newest book on this subject: The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving: How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years, has just been  released. Today Jeff and I are going to talk about this very special human-animal bond.

Andy:   We are in the same family as the great apes.  We share 98% of our DNA with them.  We are not remotely related to dogs.  So how can you claim we are more like them than like chimps, for example?

Jeff: We may resemble primates physically, but when it comes to certain emotions, I think we have more in common with dogs than with the great apes.  The ability to reach out to other species, for example, is pretty much unique to humans and dogs. 

Andy: Why are we so attached to dogs, and so much less attached to, say, pigs or cows or sheep?

Jeff: Partly because we can read their emotions so easily.  We know when we do something they like.  How do you know if a cow finds you loveable?  Dogs tell us.  They rarely have a reason to fear us.  Pigs, cows, and sheep are simply food for us.  That is why I am a vegan!

Andy: You say dogs are the only animal who has benefitted from domestication by humans.  What about cats, though?  We don’t eat cats or otherwise exploit them.  And they, too, seem to have chosen us.  So what is the difference?

Jeff: The difference is that in spite of domestication cats have not changed their nature to the extent that dogs have.  Dogs want to spend all their time with us, cats only occasionally.  If they decide we are doing something they don’t like, they simply walk away.  Dogs try to find a way to interest us.  They are obsessed with us in a way that cats rarely are. 
Andy: How old do you think the connection with dogs is?

Jeff: Well, this is a hotly debated point at the moment.  I am no geneticist, so I can only answer in terms of what seems reasonable in the many conflicting accounts I have read.  The range is very wide:  from 15,000 years, to 125,000 years.  Most scholars seem to think that somewhere in the middle, around 40,000 is a good compromise.  I would agree.  But the important point is that dogs have been with us longer than any other domesticate, animal or plant!
Andy: Do you believe that barks are an attempt to communicate with us?

Jeff:  I do.  And I believe in the next ten or twenty years we will have deciphered their meaning.  There is already work on this. 
Andy: Are pit bulls different?

Jeff:  Different than other dogs you mean?  In their aggression?  I have not lived with a pit bull, but when I see them on the street, I am always a tiny bit nervous.  When I tried to analyze why, I realized that I was nervous of the “owner”, not the dog!  Dogs pretty much give us what we want.  If we want them to be sweet and gentle, they generally are.  If we want them to terrify our neighbor, they do.  But it does seem true that pit bulls have been bred to feel no pain and to fight.  I would not recommend them to a family with small children, but, you know, my ignorance is beginning to show here!

Andy: Do dogs display temperament differences from birth?

Jeff: They do.  Whether that can be changed completely over time through socialization is an open question.  I tend to think it can. 

Andy: Are some dogs “naturally” aggressive?

Jeff: They can be bred that way.  Are humans naturally aggressive?  We can certainly become that way.  But I don’t believe that a dog raised in a happy gentle home from birth will remain aggressive even if born with that temperament.  I could be wrong!

Andy: Do dogs have any kind of moral system or ethical beliefs?

Jeff: Yes, I would say they do.  They have codes of honor; you can see it when they play.  You do not attack a dog who has submitted for example. 

Andy: Do you believe dogs have any sense of death?  

Jeff: Yes. Think of dogs in a shelter waiting to be euthanized (if not adopted).  They seem to know that you are their last best chance.  Also, they definitely get depressed (or if that word is too strong, deeply sad) when a companion, human or otherwise, dies.

Andy: Why are some dogs able to attach to just about any species, not just humans and other dogs?  Does any other animal do this in the wild?  How about domesticated animals?

Jeff: That question is at the heart of my new book.  I think humans and dogs are the only two animals who consistently make friends across the species barrier, and I wonder if this is merely a coincidence, or if this is something we have taught each other?  I think the latter.  We reinforce a certain tendency in one another until it becomes a trait.  So it is an example of mutual domestication.  Other domesticated animals only rarely exhibit this gift.  Cats, from time to time, but not reliably and consistently, the way dogs do. 

Andy: Do dogs have any moral qualities we lack?  

 

Jeff:  Yes, dogs have a greater sense of friendship than we do.  They are also able to enjoy life in daily events to a greater extent than humans:  their joie de vivre is unmatched.  They attach for life: have you ever heard of a dog divorcing his human companion?  As for loyalty, well, I rest my case.  I do feel that in the future we will learn about some emotions dogs have that are beyond humans. 

Andy: Do you believe dogs can be exploited?

Jeff: Yes, and it is one of the saddest things to see an animal who wants nothing but love treated with cruelty.  Without believing in an afterlife, I believe there is a special place in hell reserved for humans who do this. 

Andy:
  Have you ever met a dog you did not like?

Jeff:  Yes, but usually I look up from the leash and see the source. 

Andy:  Is our relationship with dogs unique?

Jeff:  So much so, that I would argue that dogs make us who we are.  We are human in the way we are human because dogs have been our companions for thousands of years.  We would be a totally different species without them.  I cannot imagine life without dogs. 

Andy:  Have dogs taught us to love?

Jeff:  Yes.

Pat Cody — Rest in Peace

October 1, 2010

I just learned that Pat Cody died peacefully in her sleep  on September 30.

Pat was a remarkable woman who inspired me during my 30 years at Cody’s.  Pat and Fred Cody founded the store in 1956. Fred was an incredibly charismatic man and a visionary. But it was Pat who conducted most of the hard business at the store.

Pat always thought of herself as a tough minded business person. She used to say that she learned it from studying at the London School of Economics. But I think she would have been pretty shrewd even without that advanced degree.

When I bought the store from the Cody’s in 1977, I was 30 years old and didn’t know all that much. Pat was always available for advice, but was extremely sensitive about imposing her ideas  on me. She usually said that it was my store now, and I should run it my way. But she was always there for Cody’s milestone events.

I made the decision to close the Telegraph store in the spring of 2006. (The last day of business for the store was July 10 of that year, a day after Cody’s 50th birthday). Everything happening  at that time was hard for me, but the hardest thing was having to tell Pat  that the store would be closing. I’d been in the book business  long enough  not to have to seek Pat’s approval. After all, I had owned the store many years longer than the Cody’s had owned it. I was older than Pat was at the time that she left Cody’s. But when I called her, I felt like a kid who had just cracked up the family car. When I told her  we were closing, Pat was silent for about  two seconds. (It felt like an hour.). And then she said:  “It’s remarkable  you were able to keep it going as long as you did.”  Typical of Pat, this was not a ponderous pronouncement about Cody’s place in history. It was a very commonplace observation. But it was the one thing that I needed to hear at that time.  And it gave me a feeling of consolation. That was a very important moment for me. And characteristic of Pat’s decency.
 
After Cody’s closed in June, 2008 Pat had a party at her house for Cody’s employees. About 30 of us showed up. We sat around in Pat’s back yard. We told a few stories about old times, but mostly we just hung out drinking beer  like old friends who had once shared something important in our lives. I remember that it was a nice afternoon. 

Leslie and I will think good thoughts about Pat. We offer  condolences to her children: Anthony, Nora, Celia, and Martha.

There will be a memorial service for Pat at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on October 30 at 2:00.

Here are some photographs of Pat.

This is a picture of Pat and Fred at the store. It appears to be from the early 70s.

Pat and Fred with me at the time I became the owner in 1977.

Pat at Cody’s Fiftieth Birthday celebration in 2006. It was a bitter-sweet event. Cody’s on Telegraph was closing the following day.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 515 other followers