Sunday, December 11, 2016

Please sign up for daily email alerts about posts on my new website

You are seeing this message because you are one of the generous, enlightened folks who have been following my blogs:  Barley Literate, History: Bottom Lines, and Magister Librorum.

Thank you for taking an interest in my scribbling, I hope I have informed and entertained you now and then.

I have switched all of my blogging and commentary to my new website.

to see a recent post and also sign up for daily email alerts from my website for my book reviews, my poetry, and my thoughtful insights about history and politics and human nature.

Thanks again! Your feedback is always welcome.

Rick Subber

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Rick Subber's new website

Here’s a sneak preview of my new website, check it out here:

It’s still under construction, but you can read samples of my poetry and my blog posts on books and book reviews, history, politics and some strange and wonderful stuff in the “Tidbits” category.

In the near future I will say goodbye to my three longstanding blogs—Barley Literate, History: Bottom Lines, and Magister Librorum—and do all of my daily posting on the website, where everything will be conveniently accessible from a single landing page.

I will manage the new website in tandem with my dedicated Facebook page, click here to take a look at it—and please “Like” the new Facebook page if you care to, I need 25 “Likes” to get access to some advanced Facebook audience measurements (all aggregate stuff, no personal or private information about individual persons, not even a little bit, not ever).

With appropriate humility and excessive excitement, I mention that in the near future I will publish my first poetry chapbook. Stay tuned!

Thanks again for your kind consideration in reading my daily scribblings. I try to write something worth reading every day.

Words, words, words—they can say so much if we choose them carefully, and if we choose to listen....


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Before comic books there were....


“Chapbook” is often the moniker for a smallish publication containing poems or perhaps short stories or other material, often cheaply published and/or self-published.

The word itself was introduced in the early 19th century, although the genre of chapbooks has been around since the 16th century, when printed books started to become affordable after Gutenberg invented the European printing press in the middle of the 15th century.

Scottish chapbook

Small books with modest (or no) covers, and perhaps up to 24 pages, circulated for hundreds of years, boosting the availability of almanacs, children’s stories, folk tales, poetry, and political and religious tracts.

In the early 19th century, in England, the books were distributed by peddlers or other salesmen known as “chapmen,” thus the books were “chapmen’s books” and you can take it from there.

Some modern chapbooks can be very expensively produced with handmade papers and such, but more typically they are modest publications with limited press run, produced by folks who want to publish but can’t find a commercial publisher.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

“Blood-and-thunder” for only 10 cents

There were “westerns” before John Wayne put his mark on them.

The men in blue and gray in the Civil War—the ones who could read, and the ones who had buddies who could read—were avid fans of the dime novel.

New printing technologies in 1860 made it possible to churn out an endless succession of the cheap (10 cents, hence “dime novel”) so-called “blood-and-thunder” stories, often about heroes of the American West like Kit Carson.

 These dime novels in the mid-19th century were the ‘westerns” before Hollywood invented the movie genre of the same name in the early 20th century.

The flood of cheap books was unleashed by improvements in the steam printing press and stereotype plates, the cast metal plates that used a reversed image of a full page on the press. The resulting increase in productivity and cost reduction permitted publishers to do huge press runs of the formula “western” novels that were written by assembly lines of writers. Some of the more respectable authors cranked out a new book every three months. Some of the hacks claimed to be able to produce a brand new novel in 24 hours. As you might guess, originality and quality weren’t the principal standards of excellence.

Jill Lepore, in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, notes: “Blood-and-thunders were ‘sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood,’ one contemporary reported. After the war, dime novel westerns cultivated a vast, largely eastern, and altogether male audience: they were the first mass market fiction sold to men and boys.”(1)

Dime novel readers who weren’t Kit Carson (1809-1868) fans must have been a rare breed. Between 1860 and 1900, the American frontiersman was the hero of more than seventy of the popular books.

(1) Jill Lepore, The Story of American: Essays on Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 212, 217.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The old blanket fort

Did you make one of these when you were a kid?

I did. Many times.

If you didn’t make one when you were a kid, you can make up for that by helping your grandchildren make one.


Or make one for yourself.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mindset: think about it

Book review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Dr. Carol S. Dweck, New York: Ballantine Books, 2006
277 pages

This is one of those books that knocks a hole in your head and then fills it up with startling knowledge.

Dweck wrote this rather chatty book about a very serious subject: the mindset that influences much of your life, and can literally play a critical role in your success or failure at work, at school, among your friends and at home with your family.

Here’s a simplistic summary of her findings based on years of teaching and research:

There is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A mindset is a frame of mind that enables you to interpret what’s happening in the world around you, and to determine how you will feel about it, and how you will act and react.

I’ll take a stab at briefly defining the two mindsets in my own words.

Fixed mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of whether it validates your static view of your own abilities and self-worth, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as confirming that you are talented and wonderful, or proving that you’re stupid and worthless. You can’t change, and you’ve got to grab what you deserve.

Growth mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of feedback about your motivation and your performance, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as part of your continuous quest to learn and achieve your goals and enjoy your relationships with others. You can change, and you can learn to do better.

Of course, it’s possible to have different mindsets in different circumstances, and it’s possible to have some mix of the mindsets.

Dweck says you can learn to have a more effective growth mindset, and you can teach others, kids and adults, to embrace a more effective growth mindset.

We can always learn, we can always build up our talents, we can always get smarter, and we can help ourselves to have more enjoyable lives.

This all makes sense to me.

I don’t think I learned everything Dweck can teach me, so I’m going to read the book again.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

“…somewhere hot…”

Book review: A Pirate Looks at Fifty
Jimmy Buffett (b. 1946)
Ballantine Books, New York, 1998

Full disclosure: I’m not a Parrothead, but I’m related by blood and marriage to gen-you-wine Buffett fans, so I take the liberty of using familiar language, even though “the king of somewhere hot” has never seen me and isn’t likely to in this earthly paradise….

A Pirate Looks at Fifty is a memoir-ish book by Himself, written almost 20 years ago, I spotted it in the local library’s discarded book sale bin and I did the right thing.

Seems to me, for starters, no one should ever discard a book full of Jimmy Buffett stuff, he’s just so much in love with life and he is a magnet for vicarious attention, I dare you to read Pirate without getting at least a fleeting urge to head for the islands and see the world through Jimmy’s eyes.

You don’t even have to read the whole book (I confess, I didn’t), just read as much as gets the juices flowing and then get on with your regular life, and you can dip into it again any time you want. Buffett’s music and Buffett’s style are a buffet—grab what you want, anytime, sing along as the spirit moves, and go back for more whenever….

You don’t even have to like margaritas to get the full, slobbering, belly laugh, hijinksed, hot damn but mucho mellow effect when you sing along with Jimmy about the Mexican cutie and the lost shaker of salt.

I dare you not to sing a couple verses and the refrain right now, you have to, really….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book review: The Sea Runners

Book review: The Sea Runners
Penguin Books, New York, 1983
279 pages

I want to be fair. This is a novel about dogged everything: determination, courage, loyalty, imagination, strength, stubbornness.

I’m bound to say there’s little excitement in Doig’s first novel. You’d think that death-defying action would add a little bunny to one’s pulse, but I couldn’t point it out. There is a relentless context that animates the characters in The Sea Runners, and swaddles all the environmental features of this story of men against the sea. It’s based on an actual event in the northern Pacific Ocean in the middle of the 19th century, so you know how it turns out.

Four Swedes escaped from a Russian work camp and paddled in a stolen canoe for a couple months on the open ocean to reach the American port of Astoria in Oregon. The story is more interesting than that simple summary, but it merely informs….it does not soar.

I thought of myself as an Ivan Doig fan when I began reading The Sea Runners, and now I understand that I must be specific: I like This House of Sky and I like The Bartender’s Tale, and such.

The emerald clarity of Doig’s stories about the West is a world apart from the drudging redundancy of this book. The character development is relentlessly obvious. It is also narrow and repetitive. Despite his intentions, I’m sure, Doig doesn’t resist running his characters through the same paces, over and over again.

The Sea Runners isn’t a bad story. The determination, courage, loyalty, imagination, strength and stubbornness are in plain view, there’s never any doubt about that.

In fact, there’s no doubt about just about everything in this story.

Nevertheless, Ivan, I love ya, man. I love some of your stories.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Here’s one for your reading list

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

I just started reading Junger’s new book, and I’m hot to pick it up again.

In his Introduction, the author says:
“Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word ‘tribe’ is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with…
This book is about why [treating someone like a member of your tribe] is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.”

It doesn’t take Junger long to get right to the point, quoting from a 2012 journal article:
“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment…that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being. In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Now, if you read that last sentence without saying some of the words right out loud, maybe twice, with feeling and with some awareness of despair, well, maybe you should go for the CliffsNotes version and save yourself some time.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2016, xvi-xvii, 23.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Book review: Orphan Train

Book review: Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train, New York: William Morrison, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishing, 2014
278 pages

The first appeal of this book was the historical context: the so-called "orphan trains" that carried as many as 200,000 orphans and homeless kids from the East Coast to most of the states in the interior of the country during 1854-1929.

The short version is: well-meaning social workers and benefactors (the Children’s Aid Society of New York and others) took kids ages 6-18 off the streets and out of institutional settings, and transported them to other states where families almost literally grabbed the children off the trains and took them into their homes, for good or ill. Some of the “orphan train” kids are still living.

Kline creates believable characters. Niamh Power, the Irish lass whose family fled Ireland in the early 20th century, is the hardiest of the hardy. One is tempted to say that her life of struggle, obstacle, and success is a fantasy of the novelist’s musing. Perhaps it’s more credible to suspect that Niamh’s trajectory is all too characteristic of many of the “orphan train” kids and the grownups who thought they were helping them and the grownups who didn’t think that….

Another character, Molly Ayer, the modern goth lassie who interacts with the nonagenarian Niamh, is a puzzlement. She’s a foil and an analog for Niamh—her story is a provocation in Orphan Train, it adds interest and it injects a diffusion of clarity. I assume that’s what Kline wanted.

This would be a more compelling story if it were a shorter compelling story. The point is clear: the child’s life was a succession of individually exceptional but dully repetitive episodes of joy, sadness, and degradation that, frankly, would kayo most kids, most people. Even at 278 pages, Niamh’s tale is overwritten and restated, time after time after time.

This is a respectable, perhaps a superior composition. There are simply too many notes.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The good old Dewey Decimal System

Betcha didn’t know that the Dewey Decimal System was invented in 1873 by an Amherst College junior, who was, mostly likely, a neat freak.

“Melvil Dui” was born as Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey. In his youth, the lad was obsessed with frugality, efficiency, and a “passion for order.”  He acquired a lifelong fixation on labor-saving devices and concepts.

There were some weird outcomes. In thrall to brevity and efficiency, he adopted the name “Melvil Dui.” Yeah, you get it.

He also persuaded the faculty at Amherst to adopt his revolutionary system for cataloging, using a numeric coding system which standardized the classification of books, created standard categories and could be expanded as needed to accommodate new titles without disturbing the orderliness of the system. Dewey was a student worker in Amherst’s library, and he was intensely frustrated by the traditional hodgepodge of library book classification and storage: a book could be shelved anywhere in a given library, and would be more or less randomly located in every other library.

By Dewey’s time, libraries had been around for several hundred years. Admittedly, in the early days there weren’t all that many books, but the Dewey Decimal System was long overdue.

I wonder why no one thought of it before the nerdy kid came along.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book review: American Crisis

Book review:
William M. Fowler, Jr., American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)
340 pages

American Crisis offers many teaching moments to students of American Revolutionary history.

The war didn’t end at Yorktown. British troops finally left New York City more than two years later.

Washington enters Boston, 1783
Some might speculate that the war effectively ended before that dramatic capitulation at Yorktown in October 1781, because the British never allocated the land and naval forces that were needed to force the colonials to give up. Certainly, the hostilities did not end when Cornwallis threw in the towel. Fowler weaves military, political and diplomatic details together in describing “the dangerous two years” between Yorktown and the official signing of the peace treaty in 1783.

It’s difficult for us in modern times, so accustomed to light-speed communications, to understand the frustration and limitations faced by military commanders, Congress, king and Parliament in the late 18th century. A round trip across the Atlantic could easily take two months or more. Washington could communicate with his officers and Congress only as fast as a horse could travel. British commanders in America were largely on their own in making tactical and strategic decisions. Parliament, the king and American diplomats negotiating peace had to act in perpetual ignorance of recent military actions in North America.

The feckless sloth and impotence of the Second Continental Congress, and (after 1781) the Congress of the Confederation, is a central theme in Fowler’s account. American troops went unfed, unclothed and unpaid for long months and years. The troops committed technically mutinous disobedience about 50 times, and Washington’s officers pushed close indeed to open revolt in their largely unsuccessful efforts to get paid as the end of the war draw closer.

The principal obstacle to forthright action in the congress was its inability to raise money: national taxes needed unanimous consent of the 13 states, which mostly never happened, and the individual states mostly refused to pony up funds from their own resources to support the army. Thus, “the dangerous two years”—if the British had had the military capability to defeat Washington’s army, likely it could have done so. Luckily for us, the king and his ministers never beefed up their army and navy enough to win the war in North America.

In effect, Washington held them off until they gave up.

Fowler says it much better than I can.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Another thought about biographies

The first book I can remember reading, in the 1950s, was a young adult biography of John Paul Jones.

That doesn’t mean I love biographies. Honestly, I don’t read them much.

My taste in history runs to chronologies, regional and epochal frames of reference, les longues durĂ©es of the French Annalistes….

Recently I jumped out of my comfort zone to read Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. I’m a fan of the blues, and original Delta blues is good times music for me. Muddy Waters and “Mannish Boy” are right up at the top of my list.

Robert Gordon, the author of this jam-packed Waters bio, offered this thought about his genre:
“Biography is the process of securing what is mutable. Undertaking the creation of one requires embracing the paradoxical: the writer is asked to create the skin and soul of a person, but not to inhabit it.”

That’s rather deep stuff, I think. It reminds me to mention that I’m no fan of the “great man” style of writing history, even when the great man is a great blues man.

Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Little, Brown and Company, New York: 2002), xx.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

“…two foolish children…”

And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house."
From “The Gift of the Magi” in The Four Million
By O. Henry

If you’re an O. Henry fan, you know the whole story of Della and Jim, the two foolish children who sold a beloved gold pocket watch and an entrancing fall of brown hair to buy innocently painful Christmas gifts for each other…even if you’re not an O. Henry fan, I’ll bet you know the story.

“The Gift of the Magi” is a signature O. Henry piece, with achingly real characters slip-sliding through lives shackled by just a touch too much hardship and garlanded with magnificently understated and oh-so-richly-expressed love, such love as never recedes or withers….

Mr. and Mrs. James Dillingham Young unselfconsciously give a master class in young love. The reader wants to be one of them despite their shabby flat and the narrow strictures of a tiny income and the endless prospect of a lesser cut of chops frying in the pan on the back of the tiny stove. The single-minded devotion—their profound and profligate endearment—of Jim and Della illuminates the power of O. Henry’s prose, and the delicacy of his imagination.

William Sydney Porter (1862-1910) used his pen name, O. Henry, for his published work. “The Gift of the Magi” was part of The Four Million, his second short story collection, when it appeared 110 years ago. He wrote nearly 300 stories.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book review: The First Congress

Book review: The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
By Fergus M. Bordewich, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016

Alec D. Rogers very capably reviews this new book at Fergus Bordewich offers a detailed look at how the leaders of the former American colonies started buckling down to making a government after the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. It was a tough job. We’re still hard at work on it in 2016.

Some excerpts from Rogers:
“By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government.  And while the concept of a two house legislature was not as alien as the Constitution’s article II President, there were many procedural questions that would need to be settled as the machinery began to operate.  Like President George Washington, its members were aware that virtually everything they did would set a precedent for the new government. They also knew that the eyes of the world were upon their republican experiment…

“Bordewich takes us through the battles that consumed the first Congress.  A new tax system was imperative yet controversial for its implications for federal-state relations as well as its distributions of burdens on different sectors of the economy and regions.  The creation of the federal judiciary similarly aroused concerns about an overbearing, costly federal government.  Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a national bank and the structure of the debt consumed considerable time and raised profound questions regarding federalism and separation of powers.  Even the title by which the President would be addressed turned into a deep philosophical question about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and the nature of the executive in a republic.”

Rogers also notes:
In 1871, John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams would observe that:
‘We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.’”

I’ll add that readers today should keep in mind that Charles Adams, grandson of the venerable John Adams, forgot to mention that the Founding Fathers never called themselves “founding fathers,” and they mostly weren’t buddies, and mostly they were affluent white guys (mostly lawyers) who were inclined to dabble in politics or who seriously sought political power.

Human nature doesn’t change in the short space of 240 years or so.

"Mannish Boy"....hold that thought

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

King George as a kid

This drawing of nine-year-old Prince George, the son of King George II of England, suggests he was an ordinary kid, given his circumstances in the mid-18th century.

Too bad he turned out to be King George III during the American Revolution, that is, a rather ordinary, unenlightened monarch who had the wrong long view.

Wonder what he was reading?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Take it or leave it?

Actually, there is no “take it” part in this library, and the “leave it” part is fairly obvious….

….and you never have to worry about overdue fines, either….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014 All rights reserved.