On Transferring the Story’s Vision

June 13, 2010

Since the first person told his story around the proverbial campfire, storytelling has been an attempt to transfer one person’s vision to another. The technology of this keeps progressing, oral, written and film. But they are all trying to attain that one basic transfer of what’s in one person’s head into another’s.

The medium dictates how it is shaped, and also limits what can be transferred. The written word can go into much more detail than the cinematic experience, but leaves it to the reader to recreate his own echo of the vision. The cinematic experience (whether movies, or television, or online video) allows for a more direct experience of portions of the vision, but of course video isn’t something people put down and continue later. The smaller details of the story are lost in the attempt to give a gestalt version that can be viewed in one sitting.

This is the reason books haven’t gone away with the advent of film and television.  They overlap in their attempts to convey the vision, but their approaches are ultimately not compatible. The vision can be partially transmitted in both media, but they won’t be the same.

The next big jump in transferring the vision is going to be the virtual reality experience. Reliving the story from the viewpoint of one or more characters. Or perhaps from some godlike overview.  Immersion in the vision.  It’s closer than we think, it’s already nibbling at the edges of story already.  What will this do to the written word and cinema? Let me know what you think.

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On writing, or lack of it …

May 31, 2010

photo by Matt Namin

I’ve always wanted to be a writer.   I read constantly, I make my living selling books,  I am immersed in books, literally. Boxes of books totter over my bed threatening to collapse on me. I’m sure I’ll end up as one of those stories in the paper some day, ‘Recluse found dead under mounds of books’.  But for all the ingestion of the printed word over more than half a century, not much has been produced in return.  Occasional blogs, memoirs on the computer for my kids to find some day when they try to figure out who the strange person was that raised them, aborted stories and novels that never see completion.  It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say,  I’m a very opinionated person on almost every subject (though I do tend to change those opinions frequently).

So why aren’t stories and articles and scripts pouring out? What strange writer’s block has constipated the creative process for decades? I’m beginning to suspect that I have to stop reading much to start writing.  I think that the literary tunnel to my psyche is so flooded by the torrents of writing coming in,  that the struggling creations trying to work their way upstream to the outside are just swept away.

So to test this theory I am going to try to stop reading much.   This will probably prove to be much harder than giving up cigarettes or heroin, I have been reading probably an average of a book a day for most of my life.  I can’t envision what a life devoid of literary input would be like.   Has anyone else had these thoughts and tried to stop reading? Are there support groups where we can go and say “Hi, I’m Roger and I’m a reader”?


The murky history of J. C. Bancroft Davis and corporate personhood

January 21, 2010

     This is about a murky historical event most Americans are unaware of, when one man in a somewhat bureaucratic position changed the course of corporate history. Today’s Supreme Court decision on campaign contributions from corporations prompts this piece. You will probably never see me write about Constitutional Law again, but you never know what rolls through my mind, so no guarantees. A few years ago I came into possession of a really interesting book lot containing many early governmental books and documents. One that caught my eye was “Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States Transmitted to Congress, With the Annual Message of the President from 1874”   It was interesting in its own right, with the President at that time being Ulysses S. Grant. But what really caught my eye was the declaration printed on the cover that this was from the library of J. C. Bancroft Davis. My mind is an incredible mish mash of unsorted data, and something about the name sent me off into a flurry of research. Sure enough, he was from Worcester, Massachusetts which was the nearest city to where I grew up.  He led an interesting life in business and government, he was Assistant Secretary of State when this book was published. He also was President of the Newburgh and New York Railway (keep this in mind for later). He eventually became Reporter of Decisions for the Supreme Court and that is where he, singlehandedly in a headnote he wrote, gave corporations much of the “personhood”  that they enjoy today.

     Today’s Supreme Court decision on campaign contributions broadens the interpretation of corporations having many of the rights of human beings. There will obviously be much disagreement on whether this was ever intended under our Constitution. But what fascinates me is how one person at the right place and time really can alter the flow of events. The case that really called corporations ‘persons’ for the first time was a railroad dispute. This was in the 1880’s, full of robber barons such as Gould and Carnegie.  The case was ‘Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad‘ for those who want to delve into this further. It was basically about railroads calculating their tax as people would, and not as businesses normally do. It eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court writes it’s opinions on the case, it’s the job of the court reporter to write a short summary called a headnote which is a summary of the decision. Davis was the Reporter of Decisions at the time, and included in his summary a phrase that is nowhere in the opinions of the court, but is what much of the concept of ‘corporate personhood’ is based on. “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does”, in other words saying corporations enjoy the same rights as a person under the 14th amendment. Headnotes are treated with the force of law, and thus were corporations armed with one of their most potent legal weapons, personhood, not by the Supreme Court itself but by the court reporter who just happened coincidentally to have been a corporate railroad president earlier in his life.


And I Had Such a Great Anecdote for Reader’s Digest

August 17, 2009

     The News that Reader’s Digest was filing for bankruptcy hit me hard. I had been saving an anecdote for years I’d been meaning to send in.  As a bookseller I have very mixed feelings about Reader’s Digest, I loved the humorous anecdote sections when younger, something about their essential common man touch really appealed to me. Maybe they were a precursor to reality TV. But their condensed books filled me with loathing. ‘Here is a great book, we have shortened it for you!’ Ecccch!

readersdigest     Well, not to fear, they are just reorganizing, see this for more details ‘Readers Digest Filing for Bankruptcy, But Will Remain in Dental Offices’  from ChattahBox.com. But it made me realize, why tell the anecdote in Reader’s Digest, when I have my own blog!  So here it is!

     A few years ago I was looking to buy a twin bed for my daughter. We live in a university town, with people coming and going constantly, and I saw a used one advertised in our local on-line classified. So I called them, they didn’t speak English that well, they were a family from Korea going back home after the husband had obtained his graduate degree. They said to come over and see it, so I drove into town to see the bed. The husband proudly ushered me into a bedroom and said ‘Nice twin bed!’. The bed was not a twin bed, it was probably a king sized bed. I explained to him that this was not a twin bed. He insisted it was, called out something in Korean, and in came running his two 6 year old twin boys. He pointed at them triumphantly and said ‘It is very good twin bed!’


The Public Utility Responsibilities of a Monopoly

August 16, 2009

     There has been a lot of talk lately about the danger of  Twitter bearing so much of the traffic of micro-blogging, and in the past couple of weeks, this has been demonstrated by it’s being knocked off the Internet under several attacks. I’m more worried about a different problem of large monopolies that have grown on the Internet, and for once, I’ll actually talk about my field as an example, selling used books.

bookshelves      I list on several different book sites. If something happens to any one of them, it doesn’t tip the balance of my survival as a bookseller. Except one, Amazon. As time passes, the percentage of sales generated by Amazon increases, right now for me it’s somewhere around 75%. They are very successful at what they do, getting their name out there, and when people think book nowadays, they think Amazon. Now Amazon is a private profit-making company, and in general I support their right to do pretty much whatever they want. But what social responsibility does such a company have to people who make their living selling through them?

     This applies to Ebay, and social network sites also. They may be a private company, but they function more as a public utility. I’ve know several people who have, rather arbitrarily, been booted off Amazon. There is no real recourse, it is next to impossible to get re-listed with them. I’m sure this is sometimes justified, but Amazon considers the purchasers of their products the customer, not the person paying commissions that sells their product there. And the customer is always right, right? So in any questionable dispute, they tend to side with their ‘customer’, and this has obviously worked well for them. But the bookseller who is denied access to the largest medium by far for selling books is now either pretty much out of business, or hurt badly if they do manage to survive.

      I’m not sure what the right answer is to this problem, as I said earlier they are a private company that has assumed some of the cachet of a public utility. What are their social responsibilities when they wield that much power? I do think they should have a much fairer and accessible review process for getting re-listed. I would love to hear other’s views on this. Just in the interests of disclosure, I’m having no problems with them. In fact, they recently told me not to worry about a claim someone was making for a book order over 9 months old. But I do worry about the future of these private/public entities.