We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction

I never imagined I’d love a book so much about women trying to break into the construction industry. In the early 1990s, Susan Eisenberg (also a tradeswoman) interviewed thirty women about their experiences across ten states as the first women in their union locals in the five trades: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters, and plumbers. 1978 was a watershed year, where President Jimmy Carter set goals and timetables for hiring women on federally funded construction project. These goals (never mandated) suggested the workforce should include at least 6.9% women within three years. I believe it never got above 2.5% and has remained there due to crushing unwillingness, terrible and unsafe work conditions, lack of encouragement, hostility, harassment, and lack of real economic opportunity. Women were selected for federal jobs and then let go, just so they could check the box. This book is filled with great interviews of what it was like to tap that sexist ceiling with their hammers, to try and “infiltrate” a man’s world of construction. Fascinating stuff.

The Sea, The Sea

Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by Iris Murdoch, whom I’ve avoided all my life for some reason thinking that she only wrote terrible romance novels. I stand corrected, Iris Murdoch is an awesome writer. This book is a treat, with lyrical descriptions of the sea that laps near the cliff-side cottage that the narrator, Charles Arrowby, purchases as a retreat for his retirement from the London theater business. He settles in to write his memoirs, his memories of the theater, only he digresses into character sketches of the lovers and friends he’s had over the ages. “Before I lit the lamps tonight I spent some time simply gazing out at the moonlight, always an astonishment and a joy to the town-dweller. It is so bright now over the rocks that I could read by it. Only, oddly enough, I note that I have had no impulse to read since I have been here. A good sign. Writing seems to have replaced reading.”

Odd things begin to happen to Charles– spotting a sea monster out on the water, mirrors and vases smashed by a supposed ghost in his house (turns out to be via Rosina, the jealous ex-lover who fumes that he cannot be with anyone if he is not with her). Adjusting to life in the sleepy village is a bit difficult for the Londoner, finally having to ask for his mail at the post office and hearing that it’s being put into the dog kennel near his house just like the previous tenant always liked. He finds he must order wine through the Raven Hotel, disliking the sweet cider served up at the Black Lion, the local pub where conversation hushes as soon as he comes in the door and loud prolonged laughter follows him as soon as he leaves.

He continues to mention his first and only love, a woman he grew up with who discarded him when he went to become an actor in London. Suddenly, people begin arriving to visit from his previous life, he has apparently tried to rekindle a romance with Lizzie who is living comfortably in an arrangement with Gilbert, a gay actor. They both arrive, involving a dramatic scene as inevitable with theater folk. Then Charles spots an old woman in the headlights of Rosina’s speeding car– it’s Hartley, his first and only love, turned old woman. Turns out she lives in the village with her husband, is slightly curious about him but has no idea the passion that Charles believes is simmering beneath the surface. He ends up pseudo-adopting their son Titus (who was also adopted, suspected to be Charles/Rosina’s son), then kidnapping Hartley, then finally releasing her after cousin James brings him to his senses.

It’s all very dramatic and madcap. One of his friends attempts to kill him by pushing him down the cliff but James summons superhuman strength and saves him. His first love, apparently, is cousin James, who ends up dying and leaving his enormous property to Charles. “I remembered that James was dead. Who is one’s first love? Who indeed.” Very dense, complicated, magical story worth every twist and turn.

The main history ends with four seals swimming close to the rocks as a benediction. Charles continues in the postscript: “That no doubt is how the story ought to end, with the seals and the stars, explanation, resignation, reconciliation, everything picked up into some radiant bland ambiguous higher significance, in calm of mind, all passion spent. However life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after…”

His thoughts in the postscript on the journal: “Perhaps it is a sign of age that I am busy all day without really doing anything. This diary has trailed on, it is company for me, an illusion of occupation… Of course this chattering diary is a facade, the literary equivalent of the everyday smiling face which hides the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure.”

O Pioneers!

Can someone please hook me up to a catheter of Willa Cather? Such a great introduction with this slender novel of Alexandra Bergson’s conquering the prairie of Nebraska. We begin in tough times, deep winter and a sick father who tells his sons to pay attention to their sister (Alexandra) when he’s gone. She manages the farm in his absence, going through lean years and after investigating and talking to other farmers, buying up as much land as she can to her brothers’ dismay. Her childhood friend Carl’s family goes bust, sells her their farm as they flee for Chicago for work (he becomes an engraver). Everything booms wonderfully under her guidance, she makes her brothers rich and her own success far overwhelms theirs. She sends younger brother Emile off to college, and he eventually returns a polished man, desperately in love with their married neighbor, Marie. Carl comes back and stays a month, Alexandra suffers at the hands of her brothers who thinks it looks improper. After a tongue lashing by them, Carl flees to prove his fortune, to return a few years later to comfort Alexandra in her mourning of Emile’s death (shot with Marie by her husband). Beautiful depictions of the prairie, along with a mournful look at city life described by Carl:

When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

Top Picks of 2015

It is utterly insane that I’ve read 214 books this year, a 55% increase over last year. Reading has become more of an obsession than ever, my near_daily trips to the library to dump armloads of books off and load up armloads to devour. It’s almost impossible to pick out a top list from that many books. So instead, major highlights.
* Discovering Gertrude Stein _ lots of examples but Lectures in America blew me away… Gail Scott’s My Paris turned me towards GS, along with providing me with inspiration for a writing project.
* Charlotte Brontë’s Villette!
* Fanny Fern!
* Terrific forgotten gems written by women: The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy), Cousin to Human (Jane Mayhall), Who Are You? & Ice (both by Anna Kavan), Daughter of Earth (Agnes Smedley), Mothers and Daughters (Catherine Grace Frances Gore), The Moonflower Vine (Jetta Carleton), The Time of Man (Elizabeth Madox Roberts), Fortunes Of Richard Mahony (H.H. Richardson), Testament of Youth (Vera Brittain), Dangerous Ages (Rose Macaulay), Put Off Thy Shoes (Ethel Voynich), The Narrow House (Evelyn Scott), Picture Frames (Thyra Samter Winslow)
* Greatest hits from the Second Wave: Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, a bunch of Andrea Dworkin, Tillie Olsen’s Silences
* Along the general theme of things moving too fast, inattention, etc.: Journal of Solitude by May Sarton, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
* Amazing new or newish: Citizen (Claudia Rankine), Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis), The Visiting Privilege (Joy Williams), The Turner House (Angela Flournoy), Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)
* Great collections of essays: The Essential Ellen Willis, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum, Forty_One False Starts (Janet Malcolm)
* Since I’m reading fewer male authors (23% vs. 77% women authors), the ones that sneak in are usually worth it. The best dudes I read in 2015: Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, How I Read Gertrude Stein (Lew Welch), Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes), and The Odd Women (George Gissing)
* Ongoing series: I read all the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante (not worth it), and Book 4 of Karl Ove’s never ending struggle (better than book 3)
* Non-fiction: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

Journal of a Solitude

Published in 1973 as a way of tempering the imperfections of her previous book, Plant Dreaming Deep, to show the reality of solitude. A single woman in her late fifties, struggling to find time alone to write poetry with waves upon waves of visitors washing up onto her New Hampshire home, with a garden to water and weed, with stray kittens to feed and birds to watch and raccoons/woodchucks to battle with late at night as they forage in her kitchen for cat food and bird seed. She’s also inundated with letters, requests to read manuscripts, and random visitors who pop in to ogle the famous writer.

I feel as if I have stumbled onto a secret club– learned about this book after reading Writing a Woman’s Life by Heilbrun. In this journal of solitude, Sarton mentions meeting Heilbrun, is excited that a critic is coming to visit her, a professor, finally someone paying attention! They have a lovely visit, but after “Carol” (not Carolyn) is gone, Sarton rejects some of the criticism she’s been given, she doesn’t feel the need to be the perfect beyond reproach beyond feeling woman that Heilbrun wishes for.
I love seeing cries for help from 40+ years ago that life is moving too quickly. Surely we are spinning out of control by this time?

It is troubling how many people expect applause, recognition, when they have not even begun to learn and art or a craft. Instant success is the order of the day; “I want it now!” Machines do things very quickly and outside the natural rhythm of life, and we are indignant if a car doesn’t start at the first try. So the few things that we still do, such as cooking (though there are TV dinners!), knitting, gardening, anything at all that cannot be hurried, have a very particular values.


It is harder than it used to be because everything has become speeded up and overcrowded. So everything that slows us down and forced patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.

Simple and perfect:

“How does one grow up?” I asked a friend the other day. There was a slight pause; then she answered, “By thinking.”

On the loss of delight while traveling, the disappearance of “think-time”:

Travel has become more and more difficult. I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it. What used to be a gentle passage by train, that beautiful ride from Boston along the shore line, a good diner, a peaceful think-time, has become a matter of waiting and enduring, of carrying bags long distances, of cross taxi drivers, of battling to get a means of conveyance over the shortest distance. One arrives through the uproar of one’s anxiety and panic, exhausted at the start.

Apparently Sarton was an acquaintance of Virginia Woolf’s:

When I was young and knew Virginia Woolf slightly, I learned something that startled me– that a person may be ultrasensitive and not warm. She was intensely curious and plied one with questions, teasing, charming questions that made the young person glow at being even for a moment the object of her attention. But I did feel at times as though I were “a specimen American young poet” to be absorbed and filed away in the novelist’s store of vicarious experience.

Related, a dream she had about VW being still alive:

Many years ago I had a vivid dream after Virginia Woolf’s suicide. I dreamt that I saw her walking in the streets of a provincial town, unrecognized, unknown, and somehow guessed that she had not committed suicide at all, but had decided that she had to disappear, go under as her famous self, and start again.

Interesting to note the reaction of “ordinary women” to the movement:

(from a letter to Sarton): I am grateful to all the crazies out there in the Women’s Liberation; we need them as outrageous mythical characters to make our hostilities and dilemmas really visible. As shallow as my contact with the Women’s Liberation has been, I have really seen something new about myself this year; the old stalemated internal conflict has been thrown off balance and I am surprised to understand how much of my savage hostility is against men.

On the need to tell the truth about oneself:

My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life–all of it– flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other and we have to be wiling to go naked.

On attention:

Simone Weil says, “Absolute attention is prayer.” And the more I have thought about this over the years, the truer it is for me… if one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like a revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self.

The most perfect birthday gift= a day alone:

There was no time yesterday to write of my best birthday present. Anne Woodson was to have come for lunch today, the only “free day” I shall have for some time to come. When I got back from Cambridge on WEdnesday I walked into a house full of surprises–a hanging fuchsia, two marvelous rose plants, a little bag of brownies, and a note from Anna to say that she was giving me a day’s time. (She had come on purpose while I was away.) This is the day she has given me and I have two poems simmering, so I had better get to work.

My Paris

I lingered long over the 140 pages of Gail Scott’s tremendous My Paris, sipping sections cautiously, trying not to wind up anywhere near the end. Alas, all books must end, and the book that accompanied me throughout the month is appropriately finished on the last day of April. It’s a book you have to be open to, to prepare your mind for by turning over some of the peaty ground, accepting the stretching that comes from the deliberately provocative style. Chopping sentences into fragments, present participling her way through the book. Causing you to be more aware, making you present. I’m trying to resist, but must insert the words: experimental, avant guarde. Any book that causes you to look up the difference between present participles and gerunds deserves a gold star in my book (verbs vs. nouns, for the curious). Scott says her technique is more “in between. They’re an attempt at moving backwards and forward at the same time in the sentence.”

This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that got me off my ass and produced pages of writing, using as an exercise her technique. Inspirational how things look from this different perspective.

So what’s it all about? The narrator is a Québécois who’s scored a “leisure lottery studio” in Paris for a few months to write. She retreats to bed reading Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, gives updates about the building concierge, obsessively watches the display windows across the street, notes the worker demonstrations below her window, and sprinkles in weather reports from Bosnia where the war rages on. She meets up with friends, jumps into bed with ladies, comments on the terrible treatment of immigrants from “the south” (Africa) while nervous about her own lack of visa. Circling around, becoming a flâneur (“maybe already less a traveller. Than a sort of flâneur (of interior!) Though Benjamin saying flâneur already hawking observations. Like simple journalist. By time of Baudelaire.” p10), coming back to the same themes consistently, even little themes like wanting to ask “C” if her mother would be jealous. Balzac’s Girl with Golden Eyes. Trying to sell a book on murdered women wanderers.

Dealing with the reality of Paris vs. the Paris she was expecting. “But. Loving this state of absolute unfeeling. Putting ‘one’ in total posture of receptivity. Why shouldn’t the flâneur be stoned.” (p 34). Quoting Rilke: This is what I want: to float on the waves/ Unattached to time then “38. It occurring to me — state of feeling-less. Precursive to state of floating. Possibly problematic. Because in hovering/observing. ‘One’ passively absorbing little external details. Arbitrarily pre-selected. By Paris ‘one’ expecting.”

“So much formal public space. Seeming impossible. Under late capitalism.” (p 10). “Chic small boutiques. Suffering capital’s latest conspiracy. Globalization.” (p 16) In conversation with S: “Art Equals Commerce. Plus que jamais, more than ever… I saying nothing. If art equals commerce. There is no artist.” (p 16)

A similarity to San Francisco: “She and I pointedly bemoaning. Quantities of tourists. For benefit of houseguest. One hundred thousand daily. Television saying. Germans. Brightly dressed Scandinavians.” (p 36)

“To charm requiring anecdotes.” (p 16)

“6. The marvelous is to be had. I thinking at 5:30a. Looking out a window. Pale blue sky beyond anarchy of chimney pots. You just have to pierce the smugness of the surface.” p 10.

63. Waking. Happy. Thinking relationship to Paris. Now one of vague familiarity. Albeit people complaining letters not describing streets. As they used to. Clothes. Facades. In every little detail. I being increasingly caught up. In rhythm of trajectory. As if sentences. Like steps. Driven not by predicates. But by gerund. Or back-and-forth gesture. Possibly befitting subject. With foreign queen on dollars. E.g. walking down Saint-Germain. Thinking marvelous surely to be had. Simultaneously fearing 19th-century buildings. Over shoulder. About to dissolve into dust. (p 70)

After C argues with film critic about misogynous movie:
“Under glass canopy of metro she blurting. Homos worse than heteros these days. Meaning critic. I saying nothing. Wanting to stay afloat. To stay out of categories. Moving back and forth. Across comma of difference. A gerund. Or gesture.” (p 91)

Continually nervous about lack of visa, she sees on TV that there was a police raid at the metro she was just near, 350 checked for papers and 16 arrested. “Though I likely safe with DUNQUERQUE entry stamp. Unless nervous tic of physiognomy. Giving away. The trick being with dealing with cops. Or any authority. Hiding all capacity for disobedience. By keeping eyes empty.” (p 93)

On cover Fifteen Leading Intellectuals. Derrida. Lyotard. Deleuze. Etc. All worriedly reflecting on growing entrenchment of Right. Which Right they having spent lives striving to philosophically defeat. By en principe displacing. Deferring. Huge Western I. Casting unecological shadow. Over earth. Malheureusement issue not including Kristeva. Weil. Arendt. Irigary. Buci-Glucksmann. Collin. Witig. Nor any other woman. (p 105)

Projecting: 19th century subject. Waking post-Commune. Doubting reliability of species. Which doubt fostering “modern” psychiatric ward. Wherein master himself pacing. Narrating someone else’s dreams. They being someone else’s: impossible to pin down. Resultant shock. To ordered 19th-century mind. Ultimately spawning surrealism.
And “one” walking there near cusp of 21st. Mid countless objects representing point of convergence. Between 19th and 20th. Feeling certain — with hindsight — of genius. It being task of museum to make “one” feel lucid. Grizzled feast having been laid out for “one’s” unique consumption. Each item. Tagged with orchestrated (unconscious) association. By aura-conjuring hand of curator. Therefore — racing towards Champ-Elysees. In dark. (Days being extremely short now.) Feeling certain marvellous to be had. (p 109)

She leaves, flies home to Québec, overhears young architects talking about career opportunities post-war zone. Bosnia again. The final section of the book is cordoned off as “Le Sexe de l’art”, 5 additional pages perhaps of journal wherein she returns to Paris a few years later. Lots of dashes — and strikethrough orgasms. Not a fan of this last add-on section and still scratching my head over its inclusion. What does it amplify or provide? Is it there just for us to see her further confidence? — Drifting — Sauntering — Mist — Drifting — Drifting.

Discovered via Zambreno’s Green Girl where she quotes “Why shouldn’t the flâneur be stoned.”

Top Picks of 2014

My reading pace became frenzied in the last months of the year as I read 35% of the 132 books in November and December (26 books this month so far!). But it’s not about quantity, it’s about immersing yourself in the work and coming away with deeper knowledge or appreciation of writing. The range of books consumed was wide this year, so I’ve broken the list into categories, limiting to top 3.


  • Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
  • Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) by Breanne Fahs
  • Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Art and Poetry

  • Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt
  • Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth

Short Stories

  • Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupisyn
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel

Contemporary Lit

  • A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett) – Book 1 was also good, but Book 3 a disappointment.


  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman – no really, read it.
  • Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing


  • The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861
  • The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by T. Bailey Saunders
  • A Philosophy of Walking by Gros, translated by John Howe

Society and Culture

  • Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald
  • The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
  • The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine by Henry Giroux


  • Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
  • Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran
  • SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas


  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson

Top Picks of 2013

It seems like I barely read anything over the last year, and yet I have an oversized list of favorites.
1. Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
This one takes top place because I have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
Caro’s epic achievement of an in-depth profile of LBJ marches on.
3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Historical fiction at its finest
4. Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck
A woman on her 40th birthday hires a concubine for her husband? Yes, please.
5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m dumb for never having read this before.
6. Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value by Irving Singer
Nibbled at this one for months, great great stuff.
7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
8. Tenth of December by George Saunders
9. Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles
10. Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes by Agnes Replier
11. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
12. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis
13. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
14. Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell by Auguste Rodin
15. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
A perfect complement to living in NYC at the beginning of 2013.
Best in Kids’ Literature I read in 2013:
16. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
17. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class

A serendipitous outing at the California Historical Society put me onto MacCannell, after I heard his lecture on how San Francisco has become stale as it rigidly defends its tourist front, how the best parts of the city are those you stumble upon, like the Poem House, or murals in the Mission, or great street art. After some searching, I also found him mentioned in the excellent Reclaiming San Francisco as one of the merry pranksters that took visitors on an un-tour of the city, unleashing them on the casting pools in Golden Gate park to imagine what they were. Some bits I learned from the lecture: the “Mish” dialect in the Mission from the Irish immigrants that was very similar to Brooklynese, the “embalmed palm” bragged on by the Las Vegas architect who stressed palm trees then dunked their root balls into epoxy, the plant sucks the epoxy to its very tips and embalms itself. Also the nature of transitory art, street art that is no longer there, but you can take a visitor to the spot and tell the story of what was, and everyone leaves with a full belly of stories and experiences, chronotopic attraction.

The book is at times painfully packed with everything you’d expect from a PhD dissertation (“The more I examined my data, the more inescapable became my conclusion that tourist attractions are an unplanned typology of structure that provides direct access to the modern consciousness or “world view,” that tourist attractions are precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples”). He argues that tourism is a useful lens through which to understand modernity, noting the transition from valuing the fruits of our labor by the time it takes to produce something to valuing the experience of the product more highly, searching for meaning in life through experiences yet surrounded by the clutter of souvenirs that drive deeper appreciation for the experience. He analyzes the idea of tourism through perspectives of Marxism, semiotics, ethnomethodology and structuralism, and the net result is a deeply thought-out, analytical social criticism of tourism. Below are some tangled quotes and thoughts that struck me.

Cultural productions are powerful agents in defining the scope, force and direction of a civilization. It is only in the cultural experience that the data are organized to generate specific feelings and beliefs. Cultural experiences, then, are the opposite of scientific experiments – opposite in the sense of being mirror images of each other. Scientific experiments are designed to control bias, especially that produced by human beings, out of the result, but cultural experiences are designed to build it in. The attitudes, beliefs, opinions and values studied by sociologists are the residues of cultural experiences, separated from their original contexts and decaying in the minds of individuals. p29

He quotes Max Weber, but I’ve added emphasis where my skin crawls, p33:

No one knows yet who will inhabit this shell [of industrial capitalism] in the future: whether at the end of its prodigious development there will be new prophets or a vigorous renaissance of all thoughts and ideals or whether finally, if none of this occurs, mechanism will produce only petrification hidden under a kind of anxious importance. According to this hypothesis, the prediction will become a reality for the last men of this particular development of culture. Specialists without spirit, libertines without heart, this nothingness imagines itself to be elevated to a level of humanity never before attained.

MacCannell notes the removal of leisure and culture from everyday life and working life, producing “the central crisis of industrial society,” then quotes Edward Sapir (my emphasis, p35):

The great cultural fallacy of industrialism, as developed up to the present time, is that in harnessing machines to our uses it has not known how to avoid the harnessing the majority of mankind to its machines. The telephone girl who lends her capacities, during the greater part of the living day, to the manipulation of a technical routine that has an eventually high efficient value but that answers to no spiritual needs of her own is an appalling sacrifice to civilization. As a solution to the problem of culture she is a failure – the more dismal the greater her natural endowment.

There is an interesting correlation between the removal of culture from work and the huge interest in tourists to see people at work, in authentic situations that are removed from their own daily experience. While the author jokes with a shoeshine man at O’Hare, a mother and son pull up within earshot while the mother points out “Look, he’s working.” Tours of factories, engine rooms, you get the feeling that you are backstage, but in reality you are in a sanitized version of backstage made suitable for the public.

The tourist has no difficulty deciding the sights he ought to see. His only problem is getting around to all of them. Even under conditions where there is no end of things to see, some mysterious institutional force operates on the totality in advance of the arrival of tourists, separating out the specific sights which are the attractions. In the Louvre, for example, the attraction is the Mona Lisa. The rest is undifferentiated art in the abstract. Moderns somehow know what the important attractions are, even in remote places. This miracle of consensus that transcends national boundaries rests on an elaborate set of institutional mechanisms, a twofold process of sight sacralization that is met with a corresponding ritual attitude on the part of the tourists. p 42

…resulting itineraries rarely penetrate lovingly into the precious details of a society…, peeling back layer after layer of local historical, cultural and social facts, although this is the ideal of a certain type of snobbish tourism. Such potential exists in the structure of the tour, but it goes for the most part untapped. Attractions are usually organized more on the model of the filing system of a disinterested observer… the tourist world is complete in its way, but constructed after the fashion of all worlds that are filled with people who are just passing through and know it. p 51

I was unaware of the insanity that happened in 1911 when the last surviving member of a California Indian tribe was brought to live out the remainder of his life in a University of California museum. Ishi, the Indian, excited such interest of people wanting to shake the hand of the last wild man in America, that the museum suggested putting Ishi in an exhibition case during visiting hours to protect him from the crowd.

In highly developed tourist settings such as San Francisco and Switzerland, every detail of touristic experience can take on a showy, back-region aspect, at least for fleeting moments. Tourists enter tourist areas precisely because their experiences there will not, for them, be routine. The local people in the places they visit, by contrast, have long discounted the presence of tourists and go about their business as usual, even their tourist business, as best they can, treating tourists as a part of the regional scenery… In the give-and-take of urban street life in tourist areas, the question of who is watching whom and who is responding to whom can be as complex as it is in the give-and-take between ethnographers and their respondents. p106

This quote struck me as apt, considering what is happening to San Francisco, as the quirky parts of the city are pushed out by high rents. (With regards to London building high-rise hotels to accommodate the millions of tourists): “The irony is, they are destroying the very character and scale of the city their customers are coming to see.” (p 126).
His final paragraph of the 1998 epilogue is worth quoting in full:

It is important to recall that most things that are now attractions did not start out that way. In San Francisco, there was a time when Mission Dolores was just a mission, when Fisherman’s Wharf was just a fisherman’s wharf, when Chinatown was just a neighborhood settled by Chinese. What transformed these places into the centerpieces of the enormous tourist industry of the City of San Francisco? In the beginning it was not hype. The key I have been suggesting is that the place became something more than a spatial coordinate, something more than a spot of protected intimacy for like-minded individuals. It became, in addition, the locus of a human relationship between un-like-minded individuals, the locus of an urgent desire to share – an intimate connection between one stranger and another, or one generation to another, through the local object. It is the “you have got to see this,” or “taste this,” or “feel this” that is the originary moment in the touristic relation, which is also the basis for a certain kind of human solidarity. And it is precisely this moment that has become depersonalized and automated in commercialized attractions – the reason they are at once both powerful and dead. But “the touristic” is always being displaced into new things as cause, source and potential. All that is required is a simultaneous caring and concern for another person and for an object that is honored and shared but never fully possessed.

Top Picks of 2012

This year’s winners are a mixed bunch. A few re-reads from previous years (Naipaul, Kesey), a multi-read within the year (Seneca), a conversion to believer in the cult of DFW (Wallace), deep historical research (Caro), philosophy (Schopenhauer and Belloc), and great story telling (Mistry).

1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell
This one takes top prize because I read it twice in 2012 and have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc
3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
4. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
6. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
7. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Top Picks of 2011

Well into Spring of 2012, I’ve neglected my annual wrap-up. Here ’tis, in all its corroded memory glory. Lots of re-reads made the list, and I went deep into the classics this year.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
3. Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
4. The Notebook by Agota Kristoff
5. Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

Honorable Mentions:
1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
2. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
4. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Worthy Contenders:
1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
2. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
4. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
5.1984 by George Orwell
6. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Top Picks of 2010

Over the last year, I read sixty-two books, and want to mention twenty-four of them here. That means more than one out of every three books I read was worth telling you about. 2010 was a good year!

1. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Best of Roald Dahl
4. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
5. Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Honorable Mentions:
1. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
2. Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
3. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
4. Stoner by John Williams
5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
6. Spooner by Pete Dexter
7. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
8. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
10. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
11. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
12. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Worthy Contenders:
1. I am not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
3. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
5. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Top Picks of 2009

I forgot to do the annual wrap-up of favorites from the previous year. Halfway through 2010 already, and 2009 is a dimly-lit corridor with titles I barely remember. That said, here’s what I can conjure from the haze for books I enjoyed reading the most in 2009:

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
2. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
3. The Tanners by Robert Walser
4. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
5. Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
6. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
7. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
8. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

1. What to Eat by Marion Nestle
2. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
3. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
4. Awesome by Jack Pendarvis
5. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
6. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Top Picks of 2008

It’s that time of year again, when space heaters are on full blast, and I’m looking through the archive to remind myself of all the juicy reading I did in 2008. For your convenience (aw hell, and mine too), here’s my list of the best stuff I read this year.
The Winners
1. The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
2. What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
3. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
5. Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
6. Bad Money by Kevin Phillips
7. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
8. The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
9. Slumberland by Paul Beatty
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
11. Resource Wars by Michael Klare
12. The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

Top Picks of 2007

By request, for those extremely lazy folks out there who let me do their reading for them. Here are my top picks for last year (not that the books were published in 2007, but that I consumed them then). It’s all about me, you see.
The Winners
1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
2. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
3. Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
4. Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
5. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
The Honorable Mentions
1. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
2. Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas
3. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Down & Out in Paris & London by George Orwell
5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
6. The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss