Barack & I Share Our Summer Reading Lists

The White House released a list of five books that Barack Obama will take with him on vacation this year. A couple of urban thrillers written by folks that worked on The Wire, the McCullough biography of John Adams, Tom Friedman’s book on the need for America to invest in green technology and a novel about life in rural Colorado by Kent Haruf.

How does that stack up with mine?

Fortress of Solitude–Jonathan Lethem
A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian–Marina Lewycka
Lord Jim–Joseph Conrad
Consider The Lobster–David Foster Wallace
Building a Bridge to the 18th Century–Neil Postman

I devoured “Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka in a day and a half of lakeside reading. A very funny and yet a disturbing meditation on the immigrant experience, as viewed through the prism of different generations. My favorite part–when a daughter confesses that she is disappointed that her father was not heroic in either WW2 or the post-war sorting of refugees, his comment is telling: “to survive is to win.” Yet, despite the rational/practical cast of mind of the older generation, the parents still exhibit more idealism about both the future and their past in Ukraine than their daughters, both raised in England, but pessimistic and lacking in all idealism.

I picked through the series of essays by David Foster Wallace like a chocolate assortment, over several days, even after returning from vacation. The meditation on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive (in the guise of a touristy piece for Gourmet magazine on the Maine Lobster Festival) is classic DFW: long, footnoted and totally unexpected. I can’t believe the yuppie/foodie mag actually printed the thing. My favorite essay was “Up, Simba”, writing about his experiences folowing the McCain campaign in 2000. DFW’s take was unhindered by any actual discussions with the candidate or his top staff and unpacks the chaos and inanity of typical press coverage of political campaigns. It is a nifty look at assessing a politician claims to leadership: “A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

The only other book I’ve cracked is Postman’s book on how the 18th Century (well, actually the age of the Enlightenment–so it spans both 18th and 19th) asked the questions whose answers will allow us to more successfully navigate our way in the future; especially since the 20th century was such a rot of holocaust, war, nuclear nightmares and general travesty. I’ve only finished the opening chapter–on the contest between rationalist/scientific belief in human progress and its critique by the Romantics and their belief in self-directed inner progress. The best line: Denis Diderot, the editor of the first encyclopedia and his exclamation that “man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Promising.

I read half of my list and my vacation was only one week–half of Barack’s. I’m going to keep at it. I think my list is better–but then, Obama may be slightly more in need of some light reading than myself.


On Newspapers

I’ve always been a newspaper person–I might have given up the coffee, but Sundays aren’t complete without a thick newspaper and a bagel. However, I’m not immune to the lure of the web. During the week, I will probably get more of my news online than on newsprint. My twitter account (which I have mostly abandoned) still brings me the links to the local paper’s breaking stories. Online, I also have access to the New York Times and many other news sources when I want in-depth coverage of an issue.

I’ve been motivated to write about this since I got back from my summer vacation–a beautiful cottage in Canada, steps away from a lake with a beautiful sunny deck, kayaks and canoes. There was no computer and I don’t have an iPhone either. If I wanted the news (and the increasingly disturbing Red Sox box scores) we had to drive several miles into town and pick up one of several newspapers–the Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen or the Globe & Mail. (And those are just the broadsheets–there were a couple of tabloids, as well as the more local papers–Kingston and Brockville.)

Despite the bucolic nature of the vacation and the plethora of newspapers available, I don’t think I’d want to go back to traditional newspapers being my only source of news. The web is too damn convenient, too comprehensive. I look upon my $25/month internet connection fee the same way I’d look at Netflix, for example. I have an infinite amount of news sources for a monthly fee. I’m not tied to a sole news provider and html links provide a much more in depth news gathering experience.

This, of course, begs the question about how the actual news gatherer will be paid. It is much less costly to produce an online newspaper than to produce a print newspaper. The only difference is the much larger ad revenues to be had in a print paper. Jon Taplin nailed the problem on the head:
The potential ad content on the internet is infinitesimal: billions of pages, all with Google ads and banners etc. . . so the value for any ad is reduced. The NY Times still makes more money on print ad revenue–because the premium nature of total ad content allows it to charge much higher rates, even though the NY Times has 20 million people reading its website each month and only a million reading its newsprint paper.

I Call Bullshit!

I generally respect Robert Seidenberg and Karen Decrow, both of whom have fought tirelessly for the civil rights of women in our society. But I have never read such unadulterated codswallop as their letter to the editor entitled “Like former President, boys lacking in literacy” published in the Post-Standard on Wednesday July 29th:

To the Editor: As economist Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column, we are in terrible fiscal trouble. It may be appropriate to point out that one reason is football. Research shows that most boys are not reading books. The main reason is not some wiring in their brains, as has been (foolishly) suggested. It is because they are spending their time on the playing fields, from elementary school on. They are exhausted by athletics, and have no time or energy to read. During an Al Gore-George W. Bush program at a religious institution, Gore mentioned that he had written a book. Bush replied that he read a book, the Bible. He got a great deal of applause. The bill has come in for his lack of wider literacy. We are now paying the price.

I call Bullshit! What is most upsetting is to read such tortured logic from such well-educated people: Our country has a financial crisis. Young boys do not read books. Boys don’t read books because they play sports. Therefore sports like football caused our financial crisis.

This is the classic logical fallacy ” Post hoc ergo propter hoc” (”after this, therefore because of this.”) Just because one thing follows another does not mean the first event caused the second.

Corey Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ, a rising star in the Democratic Party, was both a star football player at Stanford and a Rhodes scholar. In the most recent Rhodes scholarship class, Myron Rolle (a football player at Florida State) successfully completed his Rhodes candidate interview in Alabama and then flew to Maryland to play in the second half of his scheduled game. These are coincidences. Playing football doesn’t create Rhodes scholars–but it is equally fallacious to argue that playing sports causes young men to stop reading.

Secondly, even well into President Obama’s historic administration, the letter writers cannot resist a swipe at former President George W. Bush. That apparently never gets old. Move on. Obama’s in charge now–he reads, alot! He even writes his own books. He also played a lot of sports growing up. Oh, and by the way, the Bible is a dense and rich piece of literature. Saying that you have read the entire Bible is not evidence of poor literacy, but just the opposite.

I was moved to write this, as a Pop Warner Football and Little League baseball veteran, a four year varsity tennis letterman in high school and a pick-up basketball fiend for life. My family also instilled in me a lifetime appreciation of reading and I’m still the kind of reader with two or three books that I’m reading at any one time.


I just finished reading “Clemente: the Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero” by David Maraniss. He has written prior sports books on Vince Lombardi and the 1960 Summer Olympics, as well as a masterful biography of Bill Clinton: “First In His Class.”

This book provides just as marvelous insights into the character and career of Roberto Clemente, the 18 year veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates and member of the Hall of Fame.

Clemente’s career (1955-1972) spanned some of the most interesting times in Major League baseball’s history–from the “glory days” of 1950’s baseball, when the game reigned supreme as the national pastime until the 1970’s with expansion and multi-purpose stadiums.

Clemente was at the center of the two most important events in the development of the sport. As a black player, born and raised in Puerto Rico, he came into the league just eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He was also a victim of the reserve clause, the baseball policy that ensured that management had total control over a player’s contract for life. (Clemente was signed on the promise of playing in New York with the Dodgers, yet he was hidden in the minor leagues for a year before being assigned to play for Pittsburgh.)

In the end, Clemente helped mentor Latino players and helped to honor his heritage by using Spanish to speak directly to his parents and Puerto Rican fans in his live post-World Series championship interview in 1971. As a player representative for the Pirates, he helped authorize the union’s support for Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause–the first breach of the dam that finally broke in the mid-1970’s and resulted in free agency for players.

While the book is admirable on documenting his undeniable talent and also focuses on some interesting quirks in his personality (his interest and talent in chiropractic healing, for instance) the book is at its best when it shines a light on Clemente’s role in fighting the discrimination faced by Latino ballplayers, as well as his desire to help those less fortunate, especially children.

Clemente was undeniably one of baseball’s all-time best players (.312 career average, 3,000 hits 18 Gold Gloves for fielding), yet he was forced to deal with sportswriters questioning his commitment to playing hurt and writing his post-game quotes in racist phonetic approximations of broken English (despite his perfectly understandable English language skills.)

Like so many athletes who question the status quo of professional sports and its folkways, he was tarred with the brush of hothead, malingerer. Yet his personality away from the field was one of incredible kindness and service to the community. One would never know this from merely reading the press clippings.

The last part of the book deals with his untimely passing, dying in a plane crash on New Years Eve 1972, attempting to get food and medical supplies to the people of Nicaragua suffering from a massive earthquake that occured on Christmas Day. The reporting on this section is extraordinary. I had always assumed that the plane went down in Nicaragua. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff from San Juan airport–the victim of a plane that was unsafe, cargo that was stuffed to the gills and unbalanced and a crew that was inexperienced and sleep deprived.

What was also fascinating was the background on why Clemente was determined to accompany the aid mission. Dictator Somoza and his family were stealing most of the aid coming in to the country and Clemente reasoned that his superstar status would allow his aid to remain unplundered if he was there in person. What allowed Somoza to steal the supplies was the personal backing of Richard Nixon, who continued to see Communists behind every palm tree in the region. American troops guarded the Somozas and allowed the local police and army to not only steal supplies, but also shoot their own countrymen and women–most struggling to survive from medical injuries aggravated by dehydration and starvation.

The book’s thesis is elegantly stated at the end of the book. Not only was Clemente the last of the heroes from the glory days of baseball’s history, he was a fundamentally different kind of hero. Baseball heroes generally bask in the light of a pastoral nostalgia–back when dappled sunlight played off the rural fields and city streets, illuminating fathers and sons playing catch during a simpler time.

Clemente was the only hero whose influence was on the future. He alone represented what we wanted to become: a more diverse society that treated its players with respect, in its treatment of racial and linguistic differences, as well as a more progressive labor policy. Clemente dreamed of a future where children of all races and nationalities would be able to compete in athletics, transcending the problems of racism, poverty and poor health. His dream of a sports city for children in Puerto Rico has been brought to life by the diligent work of his surviving family. The dream of a more universal solution remains, perhaps out of our reach without the fame, vision and talent of Roberto Clemente.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

The novelist John Updike passed away yesterday. I liked the Rabbit books for which he is justly honored. However, he also wrote one of the the best essays ever on baseball, his chronicle of Ted Williams’ last game with the Red Sox and his home run in his final at bat: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu
My favorite part:

For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.

R.I.P. David Foster Wallace

Ok, I never read Infinite Jest, but at over 1,000 pages I’ll bet a lot of folks who think of themselves as bookworms didn’t read it either. What I loved was the non-fiction stuff of David Foster Wallace that I ran across in many different formats–mostly in magazines or on the ‘Net. I’m going to have to track down the collections of non-fiction that were published.

His article Roger Federer As Religious Experience in the New York Times was the most interesting thing on tennis I’d ever read, a sport I’ve loved and played since a young kid. His musings on animal cruelty and eating, in the guise of a review of the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet Magazine is astounding. Not only does Wallace write about the science and morality of boiling an animal alive for the pleasure of a meal, he uncorks this gem about modern American life, culture and economics:

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

David Foster Wallace suffered from depression and he took his own life on Friday. The loss is shocking and causes anyone who values good writing to ponder what we have lost. I guess what I take away from all such tragedies is that a great career, love of family and intellectual brilliance are often no match for the power and fury of depression. That is what is frightening to us all left behind, someone with everything to live for could not see beyond the pain.

So You Want To Be A Community Organizer

So you’ve been inspired by the Obama campaign (and abhorred by the Republican slanders) and you have decided you want to become a community organizer. What better job in the world can there be than helping others change their world? However, most people don’t really have an idea about what organizing is and how they could fit into that world. I’ve been an organizer for almost 15 years, but I still look for good writing about my chosen profession.

So, if you’re a bit of a bookworm like me and you want to figure out this organizing game, what should you look for? If you dig around a bit, you will probably run across Saul Alinsky and his two books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules For Radicals.”

Saul Alinsky is the father of community organizing, he created the Back of The Yards neighborhood power group in Chicago in the 1930’s, created a network of community organizations that still exists today (the Industrial Areas Foundation) and tried to develop the methods to teach others how to organize. His two books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules For Radicals” are considered the ur texts of organizing.

I also do not recommend that you read them right away. Reveille was written in 1946 and the more popular Rules was written in 1971. The books are important to read and once you start to get involved with an organization, both are inspiring and insightful. But the books are dated and do not give the kind of introduction to organizing I would recommend.

Instead, go with:

1) Altars In The Street by Melody Chavis.

This is a book that I tend to re-read every year. It was given to me by one of my leaders, the term organizers use for the resident/members of an organization. The story follows a woman who banded together with her friends and family in a low-income Berkeley, CA neighborhood to fight the increasing crime and violence that the crack epidemic brought to their street. The book details their victories, but doesn’t shy away from describing their troubles either. A strong community gardening program employing area children during summer vacations resulted from their work, however the author was forced to move from the neighborhood and crime continued to cause problems for families. The book gives great insight into the motivations of the people an organizer will work with and the problems facing organizations that rely entirely on volunteers.

2) Younger people should run, not walk, to pick up a copy of Calling All Radicals by Gabriel Thompson. This book is a flat-out recruitment pitch for organizing and has a lot of detail on the author’s experiences starting out as a young organizer in New York City. I was inspired by two facets of this book.. The first is Thompson’s belief in using the history of people’s movements to inspire people to action, as well as create bonds between groups that may otherwise view each other with suspicion.

The other is the cogent discussion on the role of political education in organizing. Since Alinsky started the Back of The Yards group, professional organizers have been trained to step out of the spotlight and help the members of the organization dedtermine the path they want to travel. But the very first community organizing group, started by Alinsky to help uplift the residents oppressed by their employers at the adjacent Chicago stockyards in the 1930’s and 1940’s, became a reactionary force in the 1960’s, fighting to keep blacks out of their neighborhood. Thompson argues in favor of groups educating their members about the poliical and ideological basis for their struggles.

3) At its heart, Community Organizing is about creating organizations of citizens whose collective power will allow them to be heard by politicians over the din of lobbyists and other influential folks. The best book about power and its effects on neighborhoods and everyday people is
Going Public by Mike Gecan.

Mike is the lead organizer for E. Brooklyn Congregations, a community group affiliated with Saul Alinsky’s original organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation. This group took a neighborhood that one visiting politician once called a “preview of the end of civilization” and transformed the area with the construction of over 1,000 affordable single family homes–all owner-occupied. This didn’t happen overnight, and the troubles aren’t all fixed, but Gecan gives a great introduction to the hard, person-by-person struggle to put together a powerful organization. By the way, check out the section dealing with Rudy Guliani and how he sought out the help of E. Brooklyn Congregations to help quell the tensions and potential for violence after the many instances of police brutality in N.Y.C.

Rudy does know what a community organizer does–they pulled his ass out of the fire.