19 February 2006

Remembrance of Books Past

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins, Bloomsbury: 2003

Sixpence House was one of those bookstore serendipity finds: a mis-shelved book that suddenly caught my eye, demanding to be purchased despite a strong possibility of being doomed to languish in the 'to be read' pile for months. I no longer recall when or why I decided to purchase this book. Perhaps it was the blurb claiming "a bookworm's answer to A Year in Provence"; it would have been the 'bookworm' that enticed, not the reference to Mayles' memoir. More likely, it was the idea of a 'town of books'. Having never heard of the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, I must have been intrigued by the idea of a small village with 40 bookstores.

Collins' memoir retells the story of his sojourn in Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Jennifer and infant son Morgan. It was a journey that began with a grand idea to live in an "old, old house with old, old books" in the countryside where one could live a writerly life. And buy books. Lots of them.

Collins is a good storyteller, but he doesn't so much tell the story of his life in Hay as much as he tells the story of books he has read. Interspersed with the tales of daily life in Hay -- being trapped in the lesser-frequented pub unable to make a polite exit without offending a lonely bartender, searching for an old house to buy, meandering through the many bookstores in Hay -- is Collins' homage to the many obscure books he has read throughout his life. There is an aptly quotable book suited for almost every occasion. A walk through a cemetery leads to a passage about 19th century burial practices. Peering in the window of a small, eclectic shop on the street takes the reader into a description of a novel about a man exhibited at a zoo. A visit to a bookbinder provides the opportunity for Collins to muse about books worth saving and books remarkable not for their content but for the stories of their existence -- the faked memoirs, the book made famous for the pornographic text bleeding through the marbled endpapers, the poorly written stories unworthy of the intriguing titles given by editors.

The books that populate Sixpence House are as much a part of the town as the people who live there. In describing a 'town of books', Collins lovingly describes a universe of reading and writes a book that many bibliophiles would enjoy.

05 February 2006

Neo-Con Bashing, or Are We at Peril of Losing Our Democratic Soul?

Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter, 2005.

Former President Jimmy Carter's latest book presents the argument that the effect of the current 'conservative' movement in American politics undermines the values upon which America was founded and is taking the United States on a radical departure from core democratic values. Carter states up front that political values cannot be separated from one's moral belief system. He is unapologetic about his Christian beliefs defining him; these beliefs, he explains, are the foundation of his political views. His traditional Christian view -- a perspective he argues is mainstream -- is very different from the minority Fundamentalist view that dangerously dominates today's political landscape. Rather than 'conservative', Carter posits, it is a radical attack on the beliefs the Founding Fathers presented in the guise of traditional values and righteousness.

In a series of essays Carter addresses the often volatile and polarizing political issues of our time: abortion, equality regardless of gender, race or sexual preference, separation of Church and State, terrorism, human rights, nuclear proliferation and the environment. In each essay he presents a traditional Democratic stance and describes how his personal Christian values support that position. Intertwined with summarizations of the religious values that constitute his moral center is discussion of relevant events from Carter's presidency and his humanitarian work at the Carter Center during his post-presidential years. After establishing his framework for each issue, he presents the actions and decisions of the Fundamentalists and Neo-Cons that are counter to this position. Rather than present the opposites as Republican or Democrat, he argues that his position is 'traditional' while the current Republican party has moved to a radical Fundamentalist position that is contrary to mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs. The difference between the two positions is clear.

While Carter at times writes in detail about the issues, presenting both facts and antidotes to support his argument, the book falls short of making its point fully. Too much attention is paid to events Carter has been personally involved with and how those efforts are at odds with political decisions being made today. While the contrast is evident, Carter's book fails to present the long view. The effect of this is that the book feels like merely an attack on the policies of the Bush administration and the efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, rather than an argument that the underpinnings of American democracy are at stake. The reader can't help but understand that this was Carter's goal, but he doesn't provide enough insight or historical perspective to convince a "non-believer" -- or maybe even a centrist who doesn't see all issues as Red State vs Blue State -- of the errors of the ways of the Neo-Cons. In an effort to make the book a readable, accessible work, Carter is often too superficial and thus seems only to present the liberal Sky Is Falling line that a few misguided ideologues are the source of the imminent downfall of America.

Carter's position is not flawed; it simply doesn't go far enough to pinpoint how our values are 'endangered' and that the consequences of current political decisions are not something that might be easily reversed by the next political wind to take hold in Washington.