Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lies We Are Told: The Untold History of the United States

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

The reality exposed in this essential book by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, a companion to their documentary series on Showtime, is that  the United States of America is a typical rapacious and predatory imperialist power: typical in its racism and arrogance—expressed in the term “American exceptionalism”—while its technological killing capacity dramatically exceeds that of prior imperialist powers. One of the book’s great values lies in cataloguing chronologically the litany of crimes committed by the USA, although, in my view, it would have been more accurate to start the narrative with the colonization of North America rather than with the Spanish-American war.

No matter; the revelations in the book more than suffice. From a purely historical perspective, I suppose the most heinous crime must be the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Everyone “remembers” these events, but their meaning has been obscured by the associated atrocities of that war. The book reveals what is generally recognized by historians but remains unspoken in the mass media: that these bombings were totally unnecessary to effect the surrender of the Japanese government, which repeatedly sought a cessation to fighting while balking at the US demand for “unconditional surrender,” fearing it implied the elimination of the Emperor.

Of course, as history has subsequently revealed, the restoration of a stable capitalist economy required an ongoing Japanese emperor. However, the USA needed an excuse to explode the newly developed atom bomb, warning the world and especially its new rival, the Soviet Union, of its extraordinary and unique (if only for a limited time) capability. If anyone doesn’t believe this version of events, I suggest they read the book as well as the referenced literature. Actually, I recommend this book for everyone interested in current affairs.

The manufacture of consent, that Machiavellian art so perfected by the Nazis through use of the Big Lie (a falsehood so massive and bold that the public believes it must be true), is an essential ingredient of US foreign policy. The anti-communist preoccupations of the entire US post-war political machine are expressed in the recorded racist and chauvinist epithets of its various presidents, who draw on the image of the Western gunslinger even while perpetuating the myth that USA does not seek an empire. Cold War crises were repeatedly provoked by the US state and military community, policemen for global capitalism, in belligerent contention with the Soviet Union for world domination.

The actions of the Kennedy administration in triggering the Cuban missile crisis are particularly instructive here. The installation by the US of medium range ballistic missiles in Turkey in 1961 was the direct antecedent to Khrushchev’s placement of similar weapons in Cuba, which was reckless but legal under international law—unlike Kennedy’s subsequent naval blockade. The real but totally unknown (at least to me) reciprocal disengagement by both sides as a resolution of the Cuban missile crisis speaks to the truth of this interpretation. If you don’t believe me, read The Untold History! That the US power elite, both individual actors as well the media, should contrive to keep these historical facts hidden from the American people for decades speaks to the Big Lie technique.
The current jingoist and pusillanimous nature of the American people testifies to the success of this disinformation program as much as to the selective amnesia of its citizens. The working class’s identification with the objectives of the ruling elite is a sure road to fascism and war. Anyone who doubts the military-industrial complex’s overarching control on US foreign policy need only look to Barack Obama’s expansion of Bush’s “war on terror” through targeted assassinations by drones and his articulation of the USA as the “one indispensable nation.”

With Oliver Stone involved, I suspect the Untold History will be as compelling on TV as it is in print. And for a left analysis of global capitalism, see also Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s recent book The Making of Global Capitalism. Panitch and Ginden recently spoke at the Bookshelf. While their book assiduously avoids mention of US postwar military adventures, it details how the US state apparatus has transformed global economic and social relations to serve the needs of international Capital, creating a “world after its own image.” It is not a pretty picture.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness

I'm experiencing a real bookseller's conundrum as I begin this review. I love this book, but who is the right person for it? It is the story of Conor, a young man whose mother is sick with cancer, maybe even dying from it. Her illness has dragged on for years but she keeps a brave face, telling her son again and again that she will be okay. He feels a growing distress which manifests as intensifying trouble with friends and school. Then one night just past midnight the large yew tree from across the way pulls up its roots and strides towards his bedroom window. The yew is an ancient, wild presence like the Green Man who is wise about the deep things, light and dark.

He tells Conor that he will visit three times, and on each occasion tell a story. In return, he expects Conor to tell him his true story, which turns out to be a recurring nightmare. A Monster Calls is a strange tale that at some times feels quite magical and at others grittily realistic. It is emotionally poignant and doesn't shy away from the suffering wrought by serious illness, and yet there is solace here too. Who is going to read it--an emotionally mature young adult, an adult who has a penchant for magical YA fiction, maybe even someone who does hospice work? Strongly recommended for the right person.

P.S. The beautiful pen and ink artwork throughout the book by Jim King really enhances the overall impact of the work. It is a novel with illustrations, not a graphic novel.

P.P.S. The story was originally the idea of Siobhan Dowd, a human rights campaigner and author who died at 47 from breast cancer.

- Ken

Friday, January 25, 2013

Zero Degrees of Separation

A couple of days ago I read, with more than my usual interest, an article in Publishers Weekly about the Digital Book World conference. Publishers Weekly is THE American trade mag for librarians, booksellers, publishers, and agents. The reason for my unusual interest was that one of our ex-employees was a keynote speaker. For those of you who shopped here in the 90s, Michael Tamblyn was our magazine guy. He had long dreds and an even longer and insatiable curiosity. At the time, he was studying music at Waterloo and we all thought that he would become a famous composer. When it was time to make that decision, reality and perhaps an addiction to bookselling overcame him, and he was scooped by Indigo.

Michael is now chief content officer for Kobo. Kobo is now partnering with independent booksellers in the United States to provide them with a way to sell ebooks. The American Booksellers Association had an agreement with Google to do this but after charging independents an arm and a leg Google pulled its support after a year. Bad karma. This is a very smart move for Kobo. If you are unaware of Kobo’s history, it was started by Chapters/Indigo and then sold to a Japanese conglomerate.

So what Michael was talking about at the conference was the problem of discoverability in the digital world. Very hard to browse books on the Internet. Statistically, a large part of Internet book sales come from people browsing in real bookstores and then ordering  their books, usually in real time, after scanning a title on their cell phone in a real store. I call this espionage but people in the digital world call it discoverability. I think that Michael knows the value of independent bookstores. Let’s hope that everyone else does too!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism

My last major move five years ago had me putting my "must keep forever's" into storage. What I remembered being about four boxes ended up being twelve, and man, was I happy my ride had a truck. Getting home and slowly unpacking these time capsules alone with some wine was one of the funnest/ funniest things I've done in a while. I kept saying to myself, "Why the hell did I keep this?!" as I unwrapped hideous tchotchkes and trinkets, as well as a full collection of old birthday cards from thirteen onwards, old blankets, volleyball jerseys, backpacks, and a full piggy bank. My perma-grin continued well into the night as squeals of laughter poured out of me, especially when two boxes of high school love letters were found (I re-read them and then blue-bagged them).

The heaviest box, which I assumed was books, ended up being a massive VHS collection, with old tapes thrown in as well.

Why did I keep these things around? It's funny to imagine myself packing them in the first place, gingerly wrapping all those ugly tchotchkes in blankets: "I will for sure want this later in life." "Definitely going on my mantle wherever I am." Nope.

Around this time on the news there was a story of a man found buried under his belongings out in B.C. As someone who has never watched the show Hoarders, I thought, how bad could it be? Well, it took the fire department hours to cut tunnels into the home to find him.  
It also made me think about why we keep the things we do and what exactly is the opposite of hoarding? After a few searches many different terms came up: fear of stuff, fear of untidiness, and then Obsessive Compulsive Spartanism, which the site WiseGeek.com described in this way:
Many people enjoy sifting through old items in the attic, garage or basement and having a yard sale to earn a little extra cash. Discarding old possessions can often create a sense of satisfaction. People who habitually throw things out, totally opposite of hoarding, bring a new definition to the term neat freak. Obsessive-compulsive spartanism describes a syndrome in which people feel compelled to rid themselves of belongings.
Ding. Ding. Ding.

It could just be I like different tchotchkes and trinkets now, to tell you the truth. But after all my purging and donating, I have one small box and a handful of books. Tag 'em and bag 'em.

- Ashley

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two thousand followers--wow! We are so thankful to everyone who has showed us how to use Twitter, followed us, and supported us over the past couple of years. It's been a really interesting time to be a bookseller, and social media has become an integral part of the job.

To celebrate, we are offering Dinner and a Movie tickets for two to the first person who can correctly answer a historical question about The Bookshelf.

This year, the Bookshelf is in its fortieth year of business. We have a lot of exciting events and happenings planned throughout 2013. We considered a few different questions that we could ask, but eventually came up with this:

The Bookshelf has been in Guelph for the entirety of its life. It has not always been in the same place, though. What are the three streets in Guelph on which The Bookshelf has been located? The first person to answer this question correctly will win Dinner and a Movie tickets for two. Please direct message us with your response (@bookshelfnews). 

Thank you so much for your support, for collaborating with us, and for being good folks.

Stay tweeting  for an interesting 2013.

- Ben

Monday, January 21, 2013


Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief
Lawrence Wright

I don’t know anyone who is a Scientologist. Do you? What I do know is that Scientology is considered by many to actually be a religion and that it is a twentieth-century starter. Years ago we did stock a book called Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard, which was supposed to be the Dianetics holy book. It had a really ugly yellow cover that divulged nothing except for the fact that it was a bestseller. We sold none. Nevertheless, as Scientology grew, more and more of its acolytes were celebrities. Even one of my favourite actors, John Travolta, seemed to have "drunk the kool-aid."

When the movie The Master came out this year I looked forward to learning more, as rumour had it that it was loosely based on Scientology, and I guess Hubbard. The Oscars loved the main actors, all of whom have been nominated for academy awards. Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed a stunning master and Joaquin Phoenix his tortured disciple. The movie did not deliver any kind of historical perspective and concentrated on one technique used by the master, which seemed like psychoanalysis to me, with constant transference and counter-transference.

Last week a new book was released by Lawrence Wright titled Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. I was looking forward to reading it. But a very strange thing happened.  Random House of Canada, who has distributed all of Wright’s books, has stated that this book will not be available in Canada. The reasons are hazy. Hmmm…could it be that Scientology is a known litigation monster? What’s going on? The book is available in the U.S. Is this fear-inspired self-censorship or just a case of not enough Canadians being interested in this tempestuous religion?

- Barb

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Making of Global Capitalism

Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin

Capitalism has become like the air we breathe. Its logic and operational requirements so dominate everyday life that many cannot conceive of an alternative way to organize our economics and politics. Even the Chinese Communist Party has been converted.

Capitalism and its human agents have been busy trying to penetrate every corner of the globe for centuries. But the project to fashion capitalism into a truly integrated global system has only come close to realization under the stewardship of the United States in the period following the Second World War. In The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch provide us with a rich history of how the architects of our new world order have used frequent and endemic economic crises to deepen the commitment of economic and political elites everywhere to institutions and policies that broaden and further entrench the system.

Far from resurrecting the catastrophic national rivalries unleashed by the Great Depression and subsequent march to war, the United States has been highly successful in coordinating unified responses to post-war crises across all core capitalist countries. Consensus of economic and political elites has been achieved through US leadership in the G-7/G-20 process, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, as well as the US Federal Reserve's status as de facto central bank "lender of last resort" for the entire system.

Of course, if all else fails, the American military is also ready to assume the role of "defender of last resort."

Conventional analyses use public versus private sector or "small government" paradigms to interpret neo-liberal assaults on government programs, but Gindin and Panitch argue convincingly that economic and political elites everywhere rely on ever-stronger state support to manage the capitalist system's crises and contradictions. As anyone dealing with issues of economic or environmental justice knows, it's income redistribution programs and industrial regulation policies that are under the gun, not government subsidies for tar sand development, military "essentials" like the F-35, or programs for buying up toxic mortgage assets from world-class banks.

Gindin and Panitch also reject political analyses that portray finance capital, whose unregulated, greed-fuelled excesses caused the 2008 financial meltdown, as simply a parasitical drag on the real economy. To be sure, the incessant development of innovative financial products, such as the sub-prime mortgages at the center of the 2008 meltdown, increases the volatility of the system. At the same time, however, finance is such a necessary component of global investment cycles, including government debt recycling, that states have little choice but to accept the volatility and periodic crises that go with financing and to focus their activities on "failure containment" rather than "failure prevention."

Of course, in the absence of strong oppositional social movements and working-class political organization, that failure containment, as we have seen with the current crisis, can have massive social consequences. The associated "too big to fail" costs are "socialized" and passed on to those who had no responsibility for crisis in the first place and who also lack an effective means to protect themselves.

It is often said that knowing the rules of any game makes you a better player. And perhaps that knowledge might also encourage some players to periodically rethink the rules or invent a new game altogether. The Making of Global Capitalism is not an easy read. But it is an important one for anyone interested in combatting everything from growing income inequality to climate change.

Gindin and Panitch will be at the Bookshelf Cinema for a Building Common Ground - Guelph public conversation about their book on Sunday, January 27 between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. It should be a stimulating afternoon—we hope to see you there.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend." I'd always thought that this was one of those ponderous Machiavelli quotes. It turns out that it is ancient and Arabic, and it certainly had me in its grip when I read many of the articles this week on the poor December sales at Barnes and Noble. Retail sales from its bookstore and website are down 11%. Sales in its e-reader Nook division, in which they have invested many millions, are down 12.6%.

Now you might think that I would be happy to hear that one of the preeminent box stores was in trouble. Barnes and Noble has led the charge against independent bookstores in the last 15 years. But no, this is a disaster. You see, Barnes and Noble has been in a war with Amazon, and to be in the war you have to duel with prices, and of course you have to bully your suppliers. The race to the bottom price is perhaps good for consumers, but when Amazon finally demolishes everyone, including publishers, they will be the only game in town. A world in which Amazon is the only seller and publisher is kind of scary, don’t you think? Of these two enemies, I think that Barnes and Noble is my friend. And I hate to say it, but good luck to them!

- Barb

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bent Reflections

Last August publisher Thomas Nelson pulled David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson because a number of Jefferson scholars pointed out that the book was inaccurate. Jefferson, one of the many U.S. founding fathers who was a deist rather than a committed church-goer, is a splinter in the craw of evangelical Americans who claim that America was conceived as a Christian nation, and Barton’s book is part of a concerted campaign to re-cast Jefferson as not only sympathetic to Christianity but a committed evangelical. Thomas Nelson found—much later than they should have—that the facts got in the way of the book’s argument, but that didn’t prevent Barton’s work from doing very well while it was on the market. Now that the rights have been returned to Barton, no doubt it will soon be for sale again, this time with a marketing blurb that says something along the lines of “The facts mainstream publishers tried to suppress!”

When I taught rhetoric courses, I used to do an exercise with my students, asking how many of them had actually met Stephen Harper, how many had been to China or Afghanistan, how many had actually witnessed the lunar landing, and so forth through a series of commonplace facts, events, and people that “everybody” knows. Of course, though the commonplaces were central parts of everybody’s knowledge, nobody in the class had firsthand experience of any of them. The upshot of the exercise was that of the vast mental picture of the universe each of us constructs, only a tiny sliver actually comes from personal experience. In the information-saturated global village, almost everything we think we know comes from the texts and media around us, and that makes everybody vulnerable, especially now that most of our information sources are concentrated in the hands of a few corporate owners or, increasingly, conveyed through unverifiable digital files that are changeable with a click of a button (See, for example, the infamous shift in the New York Times’s online coverage of how Occupy protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge).

For Renaissance thinkers, the imagination was a kind of mirror that reflected an image of the external world to the rational mind. If the imagination was warped, the decisions of the will would be unsound even if they followed reason, because they were based on false images: GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Our media are our mirrors, and there’s no doubt that various interested parties are struggling to shape those mirrors to their particular ends. Of course, within the narrow bounds of our own personal worlds, our views even of first-hand experiences are subject to our own predispositions and biases. But if we’re fortunate life grinds away at the distorting bumps and pits in the mirror of our imagination, polishing it so that it offers a more accurate reflection. But as the personal is crowded out by the vicarious, that corrective is becoming harder to find.

- Bruce

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Flavor Thesaurus

The Flavor Thesaurus
Niki Segnit

Glancing through the cookbook section every so often, I'm drawn toward covers with bold colours, delicious, plump produce covered in morning dew, or something that's bubbling over fresh out of the oven.

People say, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Deny all you want--it happens, you do it, I do it. And If I judged a book by its cover all of the time, most of the young adult novels I've seen (blurry girl in dress) wouldn't have been read. Covers are there to draw you in, to entice you to pick a book up and hopefully buy it.

Cookbooks, on the other hand, have another test to pass with eager foodies: one of the biggest criticisms people have when it comes to cookbooks specifically is, "not enough pictures." We want to see what our culinary efforts will produce and what things should look like when all is done. Big glossy pictures not only break up the sometimes-stiff cookbook monotony but also give the cook some hope.

Ironically, it is the classics like The Joy of Cooking and the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (I get childhood flashbacks to my mum's tattered copy) that hardly have any pictures, other than the dated recipes of the time a la fondue and punch-bowl party surprise. My friends and family members to this day are unmoved by new, hip, colour-paged cookbooks and refer to old faithful. Though they dabble of course!

I own my fair share of cookbooks and can honestly tell you I hardly use them. I'm what you would call a freestyler, a tweaker. As hard as I try, I always change something. If I do need assistance I will take a peek at cooking times, but more often than not I indulge in adding and subtracting on a whim. Maybe it's due to what I have on hand? Or that I love spicy everything, or my intense love of trying new things? Who knows? But things usually turn out great and I would even say I'm a damn good cook.

One of the coolest cookbooks to recently come out for a recipe-breaking girl like me is The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, by Niki Segnit. Initially I was drawn to the book's bold colour wheel cover while shelving it. It's a book for rule-breaking adventurers in the kitchen. Open the cover and you have a pie chart broken up into flavours like " mustardy," "marine," and "creamy fruity,"  and then Signit breaks it down even more by showing you 99 foods that fit into these categories.

Segnit explains her methodology with wit and humour, informing the reader that, yes, there are some limitations with categorizing. She says, "The flavour of cabbage, for example, is mustardy when raw, sulfurous cooked. The flavour wheel, in short, is by no means intended to be an inarguable, objective framework for understanding flavor--but it does provide a stimulating and intriguing means of navigating your way around the subject."

Each pairing has its own little story and reference, whether it's a small history lesson, travel story, chef pick, or cheeky recipe. Have you ever thought about pairing cauliflower and capers? I'm intrigued and trying it out this week. Says Segnit,

Cauliflower is broccoli that can't be bothered. Where its dark-green cruciferous cousin is frisky, iron deep and complex, cauliflower is keener on the quiet life, snug under its blanket of cheese. It needs to be livened up a bit, which is where capers come in. You don't so much add capers to cauliflower--you set them on it. Cook a chopped onion in olive oil until soft, add some chili flakes and chopped garlic and stir for a few seconds. Add some blanched cauliflower florets, breadcrumbs and raisins and cook until the breadcrumbs are browned. Finally, add capers and parsley, warm them through and serve the mixture tossed with rigatoni.
Take a peek through and be adventurous!

- Ashley

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson

It was late December, the end of a muscular holiday season for print books. I had a little bit of holiday downtime and I was without anything to read. I had been gifted with In Praise of Messy Lives by essayist Katie Roiphe, which I was enjoying to a point, but Roiphe lacked a certain passion I was looking for, and while I certainly agreed with many of her observations, I was in the mood for something more poetic--something that challenged convention, for sure, but that had more heart. I took home Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson and found what I was looking for.

In this autobiographical work, Jeanette Winterson discusses her life with her adoptive mother (whom she refers to as Mrs.Winterson), tracing the neurosis and pain that filled the two up, two down home she lived in during her childhood. Mrs. Winterson, a newly minted pentecostal evangelical living "beyond the provinces" in northern England, had adopted Jeanette at the age of 37. Young, battered, spirited Jeanette is unveiled through a bare-chested style of divulgence reminiscent of Ian Brown, and Winterson here displays the incredible wordsmithing that distinguishes her other works.

Winterson does not out of hand reject the religiosity of her upbringing, touching here and there on the human need for meaning and purpose beyond material accumulation even as she details the humiliation and heartbreak brought to her by the exorcism she endured when her preference for the fairer sex was revealed. Her father, while never joining with her mother to punish her, also never stood shoulder to shoulder with his daughter, instead picking up a couple more shifts at work when things got intense. Winterson suggests that the pain afflicting her father's generation is enough of an explanation for his withdrawal, and does not appear conflicted about her relationship with him.

Mrs. Winterson is a completely different story. Jeanette had to hide the most generous and inspired parts of herself away, tucked under mattresses or in the back seat of a borrowed mini. Frequently locked out all night on the steps while her mother read about the end of the world, Jeanette in great defiance let books and the words of others nurture her. For me, the bravery of the book is in those musings--the parts that reflect this dazzling, fierce, engaged woman who was raised in the dark. In spite of her love affair with life, she writes about what a terrible partner she was; love, as she says, is the simplest of things and the most difficult. But again, it was her words that came to save her, the coiled imagination latent and powerful.

- Hannah

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shteyngart Blurbs

The jacket blurb's a weird tradition, when you think about it. For me, it's kind of become like a word said in such repetition that all meaning and intent get lost, rendering said word--or the act of blurbing--some weird, standalone thing. Blurbs are ostensibly there to recommend the book for you, to describe it for you in a far-flung fashion that doesn't quite describe anything, in case the paragraph-or-more description on the back of the book hasn't sufficiently ensorcelled you. And I think these blurbs actually do work. Most of us need nudges, I think, confirmation that our choices will be the correct ones. More often than you'd think, I've had customers ask me to look up a certain book on Amazon and recite the customer reviews for it.

But here's the secret of blurbs: more often than not, they're written by the author's buddies, or former teachers. If you're feeling idle one day, pick up your favorite book of literary fiction and do a contrast and compare between the acknowledgements and the blurbs. Feel free to go so far as to circle the similarities.

The above documentary, which speaks clearly while having its tongue in its cheek, exposes one of the most prodigious blurbers, Gary Shteyngart, author of everyone's favorite, Super Sad True Love Story. I noticed the prominence of Mr. Shteyngart a while back, and this collection of his blurbs along with the documentary wonderfully confirmed my suspicions.

- Andrew

Friday, January 4, 2013

Big Data, Little Data, Reality

Big data is the big thing with big corps. Walmart, Target, Amazon, Shoppers, and Facebook know more than you think about what you buy and therefore who you are. They are hiring mathematicians in their marketing departments. The ads on your Google page are tailored to wherever you roam on the Internet. It’s not Big Brother anymore, it’s little mouse. But lately, there have been whisperings that these mathematical models are not as sophisticated as purported. Remember the hedge fund debacle? Perhaps the shaping of your behaviour is more complicated than the math moguls predict.

I’ve had my own experience with small data. We have an elegant and efficient in-house inventory control system for the 30 thousand or so titles that need to be manipulated. In a normal month the algorithm that is used works just fine. What we have sold is invisibly crunched to tell me what we need to order. But this does not work at Christmas because, as you know, the sales velocity in the week before Christmas is too quick to allow us to reorder in time. So I have to predict, and the only way to predict is to look at what’s selling daily and make some intuitive decisions. Now, those decisions aren’t just intuitive; I study our sales every night and try to keep abreast of who is going to be on the CBC for the week, what Chapters is out of, what a certain bookseller is handselling. It’s a lot of work but actually keeps my brain in the game.

But here’s the rub. It’s extremely hard to predict buying patterns. In the ten days before Christmas, one day our bestseller might have been I’m Your Man, the new Leonard Cohen title, the next day we might sell none of it and the top buy might be Dear Life by Alice Munro. I sometimes feel that there is an unseen principle in the world based on the fact that if you prepare, what you thought would happen won’t, and if you don’t prepare, it will. There must be a name for this. Perhaps this is the same thing that is causing all of those mathematical minds to shake their heads. And that is a good thing!

- Barb

Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Open Bookshelf

I'm packing for a move overseas and finding that one of the hardest things to do is to try and fit my life into a piece of luggage with a 25 kg max restriction. It's even harder to dismantle and sort the large collection of books that fill every nook and cranny in my place. My pile of "keeps" is far too big and I have to keep telling myself to be ruthless.

It's hard.

Bookshelves can tell a lot about a person. Curiosity piqued, visitors in new places find that the gravitational pull toward browsing bookshelves is almost comparable to that of glancing into bathroom cupboards, but out in the open. Don't ask me what I'm searching for. Commonality? An equal love or hate? If anything, a great conversation starter. Internal dialogue runs rampant: "Whoa, what's that doing there?!""I never knew so-and-so liked fill in the blank." "Ooh, that's a good one." " Er, nope...."

Every book tells a story and everyone's shelf tells one too.

I think of John Cusak's character, Rob, in the movie version of High Fidelity, when he's come undone and is re-arranging his record collection:

Dick: I guess it looks as if you're reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological? 
Rob: No... 
Dick: Not alphabetical... 
Rob: Nope... 
Dick: What? 
Rob: Autobiographical. 
Dick: No f*#%ng way.

An intriguing new-ish release entitled My Ideal Bookshelf, illustrated by Jane Mount and edited by Thessaly La Force, is a reveal of book picks by famous authors, musicians, and artists, giving you a peek at just one shelf and the stories it represents. Each exquisitely illustrated spine answers questions that an observer could never truly answer: What is the book that inspired you to follow your dreams? The first book that made you cry? Your favourite book? etc.

One of my favourite excerpts is by novelist Pico Iyer: "The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside."

Cross legged on my floor I go through my "keeps" pile another time, trying to be firm. It's not happening.

- Ashley

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Winner's Brain and You Are Not a Gadget

The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success
You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

There are some people who can recite the whole Koran. A few memorization prodigies can perform all of Shakespeare's soliloquies. But the rest of us have probably been seduced by speed dial and bookmarks.

The memory centres of our brain are caving in and Mark Fenske, a professor of neurology at University of Guelph, can tell you how to save yourself from the fog of memory. In an article in the Globe and Mail he proclaims, "Gadgets are making us stupid!" He has also written A Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success. You've heard the proverb "Use it or lose it." Now's the time!

But memory isn't the only loser in today's techno-culture. The brilliant Jaron Lanier, who was one of the pioneers of virtual reality, warns of the dark side of the Internet in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Once an optimist about the possibilities of creativity in digital culture, he now warns of cyber-totalitarianism, homogenization of thinking, and pack mentality.

He decries, "We have repeatedly demonstrated our species's bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good." That's why he's spending a lot of time these days playing ancient instruments. You are not a gadget!

- Barb