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.

Source:
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.