Recent book reviews – October 2010

An inspiring set of books this month! Though it would appear I am on a Lewis Hyde and physics kick, my reading schedule is completely at the mercy of the Los Angeles Public Library holds system.


Title: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
Author: Lewis Hyde
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

The Gift comes with strong recommendation from artists and authors including Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith, and I came to the book with high expectations. All told, I enjoyed Hyde’s thought-provoking reflections on scattered topics, but didn’t find my sense of ‘art’ reflected here.

The first half of the book deals with the interaction of market forces and art through the examination of a variety of traditional gift societies. The second half examines the lives of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, and their approaches to art. The progression is anything but orderly, however, and the book jumps among a variety of loosely-connected topics. While I found the diversions interesting, I’ve come away from the book without a cogent sense of its intent, and can only piece together this review from the notable passages I marked.

“When trade is ‘clean’ and leaves people unconnected, when the merchant is free to sell when and where he will, when the market moves mostly for profit and the dominant myth is not ‘to possess is to give’ but ‘the fittest survive’, then wealth will lose its motion and gather in isolated pools. Under the assumptions of exchange trade, property is plagued by entropy and wealth can become scarce even as it increases.”

“My grandfather was a bricklayer.
My father was a bricklayer.
I am a bricklayer.
How come I don’t have a house?”

“… ours, was the age of monopoly capitalism, an economic form whose code expected and rewarded the conversion of gift wealth to market wealth (the natural gifts of the New World, in particular — the forests, wildlife, and fossil fuels — were ‘sold in perpetuity’ and converted into private fortunes). In a land that feels no reciprocity toward nature, in an age when the rich imagine themselves to be self-made, we should not be surprised to find the interior poverty of the gifted state replicated by the actual poverty of the gifted. Nor should we be surprised to find artists who, like Whitman and Pound, seek to speak to us in that prophetic voice which would create a world more hospitable to the creative spirit.”

I regularly struggle between the market and gift economies in my work as a musician and found Hyde’s exploration thought-provoking. Hyde’s exploration gives the market a fairer shake than the above quotes might suggest, and I agree with his basic assumption that artists must be very careful that the market not undermine their work. I try to limit my material needs for happiness and limit my income to sustaining only that lifestyle. I want to charge the least possible amount for my time and services.

I also appreciated Hyde’s interjections on gender and his scepticism of the institution of marriage.

“This last is what is onerous to us in the idea that a woman may be given in marriage… For where men alone may give and receive, and where women alone are the gifts, men will be active and women passive, men self-possessed and women dependent, men worldly and women domestic, and so on, through all the cliches of gender in a patriarchy.”

“And to break the system that oppresses women, we need not convert all gift labor to cash work; we need, rather, to admit women to the ‘male’, money-making jobs while at the same time including supposedly ‘female’ tasks and forms of exchange in our sense of possible masculinity.”

“The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market. He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

I found myself thinking about On Ensemble’s pay system, which now pays members per day, and for both rehearsals and performance. I often worry that by monetizing our rehearsals, we are doing damage to our creative sphere and interpersonal relationships. But how else to pay ourselves?

Unfortunately, I found the author’s underlying sense of the artistic spirit to be essentially flawed. Hyde seems to believe in a sort-of mythical, mysterious creativity, and to believe that art is somehow separate from science and logic.

“…another form of evil: the use of the will when the will is of no use… At times when the will should be suspended, whether it is good or bad is irrelevant… For when the will dominates, there is no gap through which grace may enter, no break in the ordered stride for error to escape… and for an artist, no moment of receptiveness when the engendering images may come forward.”

“Where an inner gift comes from, what obligations of reciprocity it brings with it, how and toward whom our gratitude should be discharged, to what degree we must leave a gift alone and to what degree we must discipline it, how we are to feed its spirit and preserve its vitality — these and all the other questions raised by a gift can only be answered by telling Just So stories. As Whitman says, ‘the talkers talking their talk’ cannot explain these things; we learn by ‘faint clues and indirections’.”

These kind of statements are very off-putting to me. I don’t feel an internal struggle between the logical mind and the creative self. I think such distinctions belie a misunderstanding of logical thought and a romantic view of creativity. Inside the creative human is no mysterious spirit. There is no magic. There is the enormously complicated and beautiful brain reacting to the world. Discussion of creativity as “magical”, is lifeless, un-empowering. What is a would-be artist to do with a statement like, “I open myself to the creative spirit…”? How do we talk about the “muse”? We don’t. There is nothing to be said in response to “God gave me this gift”.

Instead, as artists, we need to push ourselves to speak concretely about our work and about the creative process. A statement like, “I wrote this song inspired by memories of my childhood home…” does little to spur artistic discussion. On the other hand, the statement, “I chose this tempo because I thought it feels equally ‘exciting’ and ‘controlled’…”, invites exploration. The listener can say, “Hrm… I would have thought 90bpm would have been better, because to me…”

Art can be evaluated with the same values we measure an apple, a map, or a bridge. Is this thing, all-told, good for the world? That is the essential question, and it is only answered by hard thought.


Title: Decoding the Universe
Author: Charles Seife
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

This is a fantastic overview of information theory and its applications to cosmology. Seife guides the reader through the current scientific definition of “information”, and how information is an essential quality of matter. I particularly enjoyed learning that entropy is a measure of information, that DNA values its own interests over those of its host, and that the universe may well be in a long, slow death; the death of all information. Great stuff!

Indeed, the terms entropy and information are terribly confusing and seemingly unrelated. How can information, the answer to a question, be tied to entropy, the measure of the improbability of the arrangement of stuff in a container? As it turns out, the two are much more tightly bound than even Shannon suspected in 1948. Information is intimately related to entropy and energy — the stuff of thermodynamics. In a sense, thermodynamics is just a special case of information theory.

In fact, the information in each of our cells is riddled with fossil, hitchhiking genes. Our bodies reproduce these human endogenous retroviruses, HERVs, because the code has been inserted in our genome, not because it has any beneficial effect on the organism itself. Millenia ago, the virus genes procured themselves a free ride; as humans reproduce, the virus genes reproduce as well. We get no apparent benefit from the hitchhiker, and there is some evidence that it can do harm…

This leads to perhaps the most powerful argument that the information in our genes — not the organism that protects that information — is the fundamental element that’s reproducing and surviving in the game of life. That argument is immortality. The information in our cells is essentially immortal, even though every single one of our cells, even those not yet born, will be dead in less than a hundred years. Much of the information in our genes is billions of years old, passed down from organisms that floated in the primordial ooze that covered the Earth when it was still young. Information not only can survive the death of the individual it resides in, it can also survive even the extinction of its host organism. This may be the answer to the eternal question, Why must we die? We don’t. We are immortal. The catch is that the “we” in question is not our bodies or our minds; it is the bits of information that reside in our genes.


Title: Very Special Relativity
Author: Sander Bais
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Very Special Relativity is a unique look at Einstein’s Special and General Relativity theories, utilizing simply geometry to elucidate common thought experiments. Some readers online have decried the book’s writing as too terse, and I agree that some of the explanations are completely buried in dense, technical jargon. But while I didn’t understand all of it, I found the expectation of competence refreshing, and felt confident I could parse out the details with more dedicated study if so inspired. I was content to get the gist of it, and the gist is an exciting glimpse into what it must have felt like to be Einstein piecing together his theories. A fun read!


Title: Common As Air – Revolution, Art, and Ownership
Author: Lewis Hyde
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

Common As Air is an examination of the modern, “second enclosure” movement, in which knowledge is separated from the commons through copyright and patent laws. Like The Gift, Hyde’s writing style here is a bit disjointed, with frequent asides and leaps across topics. Hyde’s creative energy and his unique perspective on the topics, however, more than make up for the bumpy ride.

The beginning of the book describes a dangerous, “second enclosure” movement, which seeks to divide the public domain into owned, controlled parcels, like the conversion of common land in Europe to private ownership. Through a variety of examples, Hyde shows the dramatic over-reaching of current copyright and patent law in the United States. The book goes on to explain a more traditional version of copyright, including the opinions of Benjamin Franklin, and how we might protect the commons in the digital age. The following were what I considered thought-provoking quotes.

Another of Bremer’s decrees, Order 81, amends Iraqi patent laws no less boldly. For the first time in Iraq’s history, it adds “the protection of new varieties of plants” to the list of patentable things and it prohibits farmers from reproducing patented plants without permission of their owners. Most striking of all, it prohibits farmers from “re-using seeds of protected varieties.”

Among the many ironies of Order 81, as an essayist for The Ecologist pointed out, is the fact that Iraq lies in the original fertile crescent of the Tigris, Euphrates river system, where humankind first domesticated wheat ten thousand years ago.

It should be added that copyright law in the United States historically assumed a similar primacy of the public domain. A 1988 review by a committee of the House of Representatives concludes with a typical summary:

Under the U.S. Constitution, the primary objective of copyright law is not to reward the author, but rather to secure for the public the benefits derived from the author’s labors. By giving authors an incentive to create, the public benefits in two ways: when the original expression is created and … when the limited term … expires and the creation is added to the public domain.

“The greatest lesson Dante left us,” Montale wrote, is “that poetry is always in the nature of a gift, and that it therefore presupposes the dignity of its recipient.”

… we need only turn to Jefferson’s most famous statement on owning ideas, his 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson.

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it… That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…

… access to knowledge without regard to rank …

… scientific claims do not depend on particular scientists; the more personal the origin of the claim, in fact, the more likely its errors.

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond … It is difficult to begin without borrowing. — Thoreau

Once the decision has been made that the human genome is worth mapping, the best way to make sure that the whole thing gets done is to treat the project as pure rather than applied science. Pure science explores, rather than exploits

Witness the first time Dylan recorded songs for Leeds Music, his earliest publisher. The day he went to the Leeds offices, he writes,

I didn’t have many songs, but I was making up some compositions on the spot, rearranging verses to old blues ballads, adding an original line here or there, anything that came into my mind — slapping a title on it … I would make things up on the spot all based on folk music structure.

… Seeger remarks in another context, “In a social system where everything has to be owned …, to leave something ‘un-owned’ means to simply abandon it and allow it to be mistreated.”

The law is collective; it belongs to all citizens, and consequently we ask that its practitioners present themselves as public persons with copyduties rather than copyrights. In this context, to sample someone else’s brief is a favor, not a theft; it helps a lawyer be a lawyer.

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2 Responses to “Recent book reviews – October 2010”

  1. Margaret says:

    Re Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Haven’t the stamina to plow through rarefied musings about Art in market vs. gift economies, but the Atwood mention reminded me of two books I liked that might interest you (assuming LA public library hold system cooperates). (1) Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth – covers more facets of the concept of human obligation in five short chapters than you can shake a bachi at, from social transgressions to planetary overload. Like Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, a small book deserving a long afterlife. (2) Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work – sparky discussion of what constitutes creativity, intellectual challenge, self-reliance and mastery, from a motorcycle mechanic and former Washington think tank director w/ a PhD in political philosophy.

    Cheers Kris & thanks as always for sharing your reviews!

  2. Kris says:

    These are great recommendations, Margaret! Thank you!

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