Books: Today’s Haul & Writing Update

(Working on that How Airlines Finance Their Planes essay, but, in the meantime…)

Yes, I know I’ve got piles of books still to read cluttering up my desk, my Kindle and the floor near my bed. Yes, I have even more books that I’d really like to reread.  But how could one pass these beauties up?

Books

From right to left: The Forest of Time had been in my Amazon cart for a while, couldn’t put it off any longer; speaking of Mike Flynn, he quoted from and recommended R. A. Lafferty’s Fall of Rome here, and it sounded so good I had to; and finally, I don’t remember who recommended the Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, but most likely it was that Flynn guy again. It, too, had been sitting in the cart for ages. Once you order one book, the next ones get much easier…

Meanwhile, I am so close to finishing this short story I started about a month ago! For the last week or so, I’ve tried the whenever-you-get-bogged-skip-ahead-and-keep-writing approach, and it has proved very helpful. Last night, couldn’t sleep, so sat up until I’d written the ending. Massive relief – I now know where everything is heading, and so, filling in the spots I’ve skipped and doing one and only one quick revision is proving much easier so far (woke up early and put another hour into it).

I’m going to put it aside for a few days once finished, give it another once over, then inflict it on my poor family. Hey, anybody want to read a story and give me feedback? It’s only maybe 6,000 words, not too big a deal…

Also, found the latest partial draft of a story I started a couple decades ago, which I liked enough to write it twice so far, each time deciding I didn’t like the draft, start a third time, and – it’s been there for a couple years now. Sheesh. But I really like the story, so, as soon as this one is done, I’m going to finish that other one. The good news is that I know exactly where it goes, lack of which knowledge has been the source of my petrification on many, many occasions.

THEN it’s back to the Novel That Shall Not Be Named, which – you’ll be shocked to hear – I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and so have become frozen in place. AND I’ve got to get back to Hegel and all that education reading I started.

Sure hope I live, and keep my eyesight and mind (such as it is), to at least 80 – because I’m booked (ha!) through then at least.

Publishing & the College Bookstore

The college bookstore is not like Barnes & Noble.  The economics are different.

Publishers and book sellers often operate under some peculiar economics. Sarah Hoyt got me to thinking some more about this, after first going there after reading comments on John C Wright’s blog. The following is some informed speculation on the economics of Tor and Barnes and Noble, and the book publishing and selling business in general, based on a few minute’s of web research. I have no background in this in particular, but a lot in business in general.

Image result for books & money
Not…really. 

Many people, with great justification and on the side of the angels, would like nothing more than to boycott Tor books into bankruptcy and oblivion. I wrote in a comment on John C Wright’s blog on why that’s unlikely to happen:

Think of it this way: Your purchases of Wright and Wolfe are not going to keep Tor afloat. There’s even a (theoretical) possibility of humiliations galore. In a free market, when the forced liquidation of Tor takes place, and the bankruptcy valuation people are pouring over the books, they’ll determine positive value – meaning, they think real people would pay real money – to the Wright, Wolfe, and Flynn rights, while counting all the money Tor spent on rights to almost all other current SFF authors as unrecoverable sunk costs to be written off. Tehe!

At least, in the real world, something like this is what would happen. In the phoney world of publishing – and here I speak only of the business model, not of any other fantasies that may be clung to by the people in the industry – Tor is owned by MacMillan, which makes a good chunk of its money by selling wildly overpriced textbooks into a completely rigged market. Tor is a pimple on the hindquarters of the beast. The ‘buyers’ are ‘educators’ immune to market forces (market forces = normal people behaving normally). Educators have open contempt for classics or even merely competent literature, and hold math and science to be social constructs of the Patriarchy. No, really. The publisher works hand in hand with the educators to produce ‘good’ books into a gamed market that forces purchases on the ultimate customers.

Further – and here it gets even murkier – MacMillan is owned by a privately-held German company, so I’m not sure how available or reliable overall revenue numbers would even be. I’m guessing that it’s far, far more profitable to sell $175 psychology books that will be outdated and need replacing in three years by the thousands to colleges that then force their students to buy them than to sell one novel at a time at $20 to people who can spent their money as they please. At the very least, it’s easy to see why a textbook publisher would try the same approach to bookstores: we’ll produce ‘good’ books full of right-think, and you make the students/customers buy them.

Just as a poser such as myself can support my writing Jones with my day gig, the owners of companies can support their publishing hobby – publishing books that make them feel good, but don’t make money – with other activities that do pay. A certain sort of billionaire will buy sports teams to be cool; literary imprints can be owned to stoke the egos of a different sort of rich person. That a particular publisher within the holdings doesn’t make money may just not enter into it, especially if it is a tiny part of the whole enterprise.

Further, as mentioned above, if I can sell expensive textbooks to college bookstores by the dozens or hundreds at a pop, and have the purchase decision made by one or few people who then push down the ultimate purchase to a captive audience – students – I’ll do that. For one thing, sales are almost perfectly predictable. Then, once I’ve got that model up and running, I’d try to see if I could expand it to other markets. Thus, big chain bookstores were treated largely like college bookstores, where numbers of books were ordered and shipped based on the assumption that the middlemen could then force them upon a captive audience. This approach could kinda sorta work – until an Amazon comes along. Once that happens, you need to sell single copies of relatively inexpensive books to one person at a time. That’s a different mindset altogether.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the current Big Five from a business point of view. (source)  (and another source)

Hachette Book Group (or Lagardère Publishing)

Hachette Book Group (HBG) is a division of the second largest trade and educational book publisher in the world, Hachette Livre. Hachette Livre is based in France and is a subsidiary of the French media company, Lagardère.

Financial: 2015 sales: 2.21 billion EUR; #4 in the US. Wholly owned by Lagardere, with had 2015 sales of  7.19 billion EUR.  So: its entire publishing arm accounts for less than a third of annual revenue. Less than 13% of revenue comes from the US – didn’t see how much of that is books, I would assume much less than all.  Arnaud Lagardere, current family member leading the group, has a net worth of about $2.4 Billion

Education sales accounted for 16% of total sales, illustrated books comprised 17%, Partworks represented 11%, and other sales were 16%. This only adds up to 60% – the other 40% isn’t publishing? Couldn’t tell from the available info.

Conclusion: financially, selling non-educational books in the US is not a significant enterprise for Lagardere, which is a media conglomerate. The subset that is SFF is a line item on the scale of office supplies, only smaller.

HarperCollins

HarperCollins Publishers is a subsidiary of News Corp, the global media company led by Rupert Murdoch.

Financial: News Corp, Murdock’s holding company, had 2015 revenues of $8.633 billion; Harper Collins piece was $1.67 billion, about 20%. Murdock’s net worth is estimated at $13.1 billion.

Conclusion: SFF is, again, some tiny fraction of the activity of News Corp. Murdoch probably spends more each year on yard care.

Macmillan Publishers

Macmillan is a global trade publishing company, which is owned by the German Company Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, with imprints in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, and around the world. Macmillan publishes textbooks, journals, monographs, professional and reference works in print and online. Oh, yea, and some other books, too

Financials: As a privately-held company, Holtzbrinck doesn’t have to tell you much, and so doesn’t. 2014 revenues were 1.73 billion EUR; surprisingly, of that 1.64 billion EUR came from publishing, with 39% from North America.

Conclusion: Again, while books make up a bigger piece of the pie for Holtzbrinck than for others, it’s still unlikely SFF rises to anywhere near the top of their concerns – they’ve got that locked-in textbook/technical journals market to think of first.

Penguin Random House

Penguin Random House is owned by Bertelsmann, a private company, controlled by Germany’s Mohn family. It publicly discloses some financial data. It is one of the world’s largest mass media companies and also active in the service sector and education, worth about $30B by my rough estimate.

Financials: Didn’t come up with any hard numbers after a couple minutes of googling around, but it’s safe to say that SFF is not a major source of revenue for this gigantic company.

Conclusion: Elisabeth Mohn is worth $4.4B, and sits on the board of the Bertelsmann Foundation, which controls about $20B more. She ain’t sweating SFF sales.

Simon and Schuster

Simon and Schuster is currently the publishing arm of the media company CBS Corporation, and does adult publishing, children’s publishing, audiobooks and digital books. CBS has interests in commercial broadcasting, publishing, and television production, with most of its operations in the United States. (Aside: this curiosity: “The stories swirling around Sumner Redstone these days make Rupert Murdoch look like a boy scout.” Nope, not gonna bite. Nope.)

Financials: CBS had $13.88 billion in revenue in 2015. Google was not being very cooperative in digging  up Simon & Schuster info in the limited time I had to search, but it appears they have annual revenues in the $750M-$800M range across all their businesses – not bad. I would imagine a comparatively tiny portion of that is SFF.

Conclusion: Sumner Redstone, the major owner, is worth $5.5B. He’s not sweating SFF sales.

A logical cool-headed business person would be thinking of dumping traditional publishing investments, as the long-term prospects of even the education/technical side are grim. Selling may not be possible for any reasonable price – it’s a buyer’s market, which is another way of saying that there are not very many potential buyers, and those who do exist are looking for a bargain. Crunching the numbers might suggest – and I suspect it does – that simply running the current publishers into the ground and writing off the wreckage is the least bad solution, financially.

Meanwhile, a prudent business person will be asking: What’s next? Can we get in on it early? Problem is it seems Amazon is what’s next, and they own every desirable piece of real estate they’ve noticed, and are well equipped to buy any they spot in the future. But hope springs eternal – you don’t get into business unless you are an optimist.

Mostly put this together so that I’m not completely ignorant of the topic, as it is a big deal in one way or another among several authors and commentators of some blogs I follow. The only thing left to say: eventually, in an open market (however imperfect) what cannot go on will stop. Hemorrhaging cash is not a viable long term strategy, although it can go on for a long, long time if it is a) small enough, and b) important enough to the owners. I will say with little fear of rebuttal that millions have been and are being spent by business types in order to figure out how to work this new state of affairs.  So far, the evidence suggest they have not got a clue: Amazon is eating their lunch, indie writers and small presses are doing well, and the last of the big chain bookstores is watching the pretty trail in the sky left by that asteroid heading for the Yucatan.

Oddities & Things I Don’t Understand: A Sampling

Emile: W-w-wait. You… read?

Remy: Well, not… excessively.

Emile: Oh, man. Does dad know?

Remy: You could fill a book – a lot of books – with things Dad doesn’t know. And they have. Which is why I read. Which is also our secret.

Image result for ratatouille movie Remy Emile

  1. Been reading Paolo Freire and Gramsci (Beginning to suspect reading Marxists is asymptotic to being hung, drawn and quartered. Nice Lenten project.) And: people fall for this? Or – a suspicion I’ve long harbored – run of the mill Marxists don’t actually read any Marxists beyond the Cliff Notes. And they skim those. I’ll write more later, perhaps, if my confessor, Fr Torquemada, assigns it. Basic complaint: after you’ve grasped the fundamental set of insane, self-contradictory and laughably stupid dogmas ‘validated’ by the usual cherry-picked ‘history’ and apply it to your chosen topic and vomit forth Marxist ‘analysis’ – once you’ve been through that processes once, reading more Marxists becomes like playing tic-tac-toe after you’ve Image result for princess bride to the painfigured it out. Same old same old. The only fun, such as it is, is in seeing Marxists come up with new ways to explain the utter failure of reality to live down to their theories and excuse their bloodthirsty violence. Not much fun.
  2. The USPS tried to deliver my nice hardbound copy of Mike Flynn’s epic The January Dancer to my place of business – on a Saturday. Once. They are now bent out of shape enough, evidently, to threaten me with a trip to the post office to pick it up. Sheesh. Planning to wait a couple days, hoping that, in their incompetence, they will slip up and just deliver the darn thing, so that I can place it on the stack someplace. Still have the rest of the Firestar series to read.  [update: yep, got here today.]
  3. At WordPress’s suggestion, set up a Twitter account to publicize this blog. Working the Twitter angle does seem to increase traffic – on Twitter. Makes no difference for traffic here. Unless Twitter owns WordPress, this makes no sense.
  4. We had to – I mean, like HAD TO – get the choir out of the choir loft, since adding beautiful music to the liturgy isn’t PARTICIPATION, whereas putting a rock band in the sanctuary is. Yet, somehow – and who could have predicted this? – putting people up in front, as if on a stage, invites such people to perform. I imagine most such folks aren’t actively thinking ‘I’m on stage, must perform!’ – it would just be all but impossible for anyone who grew up in America to see it any other way. Thus, the very nice man with a solid singing voice who leads the music at one of the local parishes can’t really help himself – probably can’t even hear it – from adding schmaltzy glissandos and molto rubato to every. darn. song. Thus, the congregation, some observably small fraction of whom might be willing to try to sing along with the modern pop tunes on offer, are pretty much shut down: how can you follow such a performance? I, punk that I am, sing along vigorously, right on pitch, right on beat. It doesn’t help, there is no help for it, other than owning that maybe some degree of performance is acceptable – and should be done out of sight somewhere, like, you know, up in the choir loft.
  5. Hegel’s criticism of Aristotelian logic really and truly boils down to: it’s old, and hasn’t improved like everything else.  (The gimlet eyed criticism of the criticism is: yep, and if it remains valid, you, Hegel, are blowin’ forest-fire level smoke.) See the introductory chapters of his Logic if you doubt me. There really isn’t any other objection, and Hegel even acknowledges that classic logic is necessary for scientists, mathematicians, technologists – you know, the little people, who produce all that stuff that has made the world better, on the whole, than it was in Hegel’s time. But logic is a total buzz kill for Hegel’s speculative philosophical high, and places limits – logical limits – on what syntheses a dialectic can arrive at. So it has to go. People fall for this?

Brownson’s American Republic: Last Thoughts (for now)

As mentioned in the last post, over the last 20% or so of The American Republic, Orestes Brownson changes from description and apologetics to prophecy. He moves from fleshing out and defending a position he attributes to Lincoln, that the United States as a nation precedes the Constitution and even the Declaration, to describing what he sees as the all but inevitable spiritual and political destiny of America.

Image result for orestes brownson
Brownson: Proof one does not need to be a Marxist to have a righteous beard. 

Brownson has great faith in Providence. He sees nations not as glorified tribes run by flawed and feeble men, but as acts of loving Creator, meant for some higher goal. The United States, as brought into focus and matured by the Civil War, are Providentially destined to absorb into their beneficent arms all the remaining states in the Western Hemisphere, not by conquest, but by nations one after the other coming to realize the mutual benefits of Union.

There was no statesmanship in proclaiming the “Monroe doctrine,” for the statesman keeps always, as far as possible, his government free to act according to the exigencies of the case when it comes up, unembarrassed by previous declarations of principles. Yet the doctrine only expresses the destiny of the American people, and which nothing but their own fault can prevent them from realizing in its own good time. Napoleon will not succeed in his Mexican policy, and Mexico will add some fifteen or twenty new States to the American Union as soon as it is clearly for the interests of all parties that it should be done, and it can be done by mutual consent, without war or violence. The Union will fight to maintain the integrity of her domain and the supremacy of her laws within it, but she can never, consistently with her principles or her interests, enter upon a career of war and conquest. Her system is violated, endangered, not extended, by subjugating her neighbors, for subjugation and liberty go not together. Annexation, when it takes place, must be on terms of perfect equality and by the free act of the state annexed. The Union can admit of no inequality of rights and franchises between the States of which it is composed. The Canadian Provinces and the Mexican and Central American States, when annexed, must be as free as the original States of the Union, sharing alike in the power and the protection of the Republic—alike in its authority, its freedom, its grandeur, and its glory, as one free, independent, self-governing people. They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.

“They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.” This is the key feature, the one that did not survive 3 years after the Civil War: that states would retain all rights and powers to manage themselves after a fashion suitable to the local customs and traditions and the nature of the people therein, while only those rights and powers proper by nature to the Union would be surrendered. Mexico, to stick with Brownson’s example above, was destined to see the harmony and prosperity and benevolence of the U.S., note their lack of interest in, indeed, abhorrence of the very idea of imposing non-Mexican government on them in regards to all local matters. Defence, interstate commerce, settling disputes between states – those powers would be mutually shared and exercised through the federal government. The Mexicans would gain much, and lose nothing.

Except that the ink was not yet dry on this book when the spectacle of the North forcing passage of the 14th Amendment on the Southern states as a condition for reentering the Union showed the world exactly how wrong Brownson was. This, on the heels of a bloody war (of conquest, it would look like from the outside and the South), would certainly cause Mexico or anybody else to have serious doubts about the harmlessness of intentions of America. The Civil War preserved the Union, or at least something visually similar to the Union, and freed the slaves, but it did not advertise peace-loving American benevolence.

Brownson assumed the Reconstruction would be swift, fair and relatively painless, and lead to an economic boom. Brothers welcoming prodigal brothers home. He didn’t quite get that one right, either.

I almost think I hear a man horrified, as so many were, by the Civil War, trying to make sense out of it by appeals to destiny and Providence. Rather than the death of the very American ideals he so fervently hoped to see realized, he sees a renewal, a Phoenix rising. All the blood and wealth Lincoln describes as spilt and dissipated in Divine Retribution over slavery in his Second Inaugural Address Brownson believes rather paves the way to a glorious future.

A contemporary critic accused Brownson of arguing vehemently for ideas he wished he, himself, could believe in. I’m wondering if that critic didn’t have a point. Brownson ends the American Republic:

But the American people need not trouble themselves about their exterior expansion. That will come of itself as fast as desirable. Let them devote their attention to their internal destiny, to the realization of their mission within, and they will gradually see the Whole continent coming under their system, forming one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.

Micro-Review & Brownson Reading Update

From the ridiculous to the sublime:

1. Read, as in listened to, the audiobook of, The Adventures of  Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, a Larry Correia joint, read by an enthusiastic and amused Adam Baldwin – yes, that Adam Baldwin. (Audio of this was offered free about a year ago, so I took it. Not really an audio guy myself. Mr. Baldwin’s fine work made it all special.)

Image result for The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentHilarious. Correia’s pacing is so fast and humor so thick that you never get bored even when, as I suspect is case for me, a lot of cultural/gamer/pop references are flying right over my head.

The conceit: an insurance agent, possibly the dullest, least inspiring white-collar job in this iteration of the multiverse, might be, through dogged dedication to superior customer service, a mech-driving, attack-nanobot-wielding, cyborg-kung-fu-master superhero. In a Men’s Wearhouse suit. Tom Stranger, of Stranger and Stranger Interdimensional Insurance, lives for positive customer satisfaction survey responses, and is willing to brave any horror and almost certain death to get them. He gets stuck with possibly the lamest intern in history, a slacker with a gender studies degree, by what appears to be an administrative oversight. Tom tries, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to keep Jimmy the Intern alive while providing superior customer service to his clients in various dimensions as they suffer attacks by the likes of zombie hordes and flying purple people eaters, all while Tom’s arch-nemesis, Jeff Conundrum, tries to ruin the party.

How epic is this? Chuck Norris shows up and kicks an evil alien’s head so hard he turns him inside out. Yikes.

If you need a quick, fun diversion from this vale of tears, highly recommended.

2. My regular readers, who by now may number well into the double digits, like maybe 12 or even  13, may recall my partial reviews of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic, some of which can be found here and here. What happened is that the book got weird, I had to think about it, shiny objects intruded into my field of visions, and, well, here we are.

Over the last 20-25% of the book, Brownson lays out his vision of America’s future. In retrospect, Brownson’s views seem either wildly optimistic to the verge of delusional, or, from another political perspective, dangerously theistic.

Brownson was an adult convert to Catholicism. He was raised among kindly Calvinists, but found their beliefs too dark and dreadful, even if the rural Presbyterians held them were personally kind. Before he was 20, he’d parted ways with the church of his childhood, and proceeded to ping-pong around between various flavors of Unitarianism and even quasi-atheistic theism (if that makes sense – and it sort of does). After a couple decades of this wandering in the desert, he comes to the conclusion that only a church that ‘teaches with authority, and not like the scribes’ could be the true Church.

His almost pugnacious enthusiasm for theological disputes, honed as an editor and writer for various Unitarian-leaning publications, never left him – his brand of apologetics is often bracing, especially in these be-nice-so-you-don’t-offend times. I can’t imagine it was much less so even in the mid-1800’s.

Brownson believes that the Civil War has settled some issues about what, exactly, the United States are. Writing immediately upon the conclusion of the Civil War and prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, Brownson never fails to refer to the United States as a plural, as was always done by earlier writers, a practice that soon passed out of useage after the Civil War. That War, and the 14th and subsequent Amendments,  impressed upon the minds of all the primacy of the Nation as a whole over the States as ever more subservient parts.

Brownson’s arguments in the American Republic support this view to a large extent. He argues that nations are formed naturally when a people in a territory recognize their common destiny and begin to act together. This commonality is usually but not always seen in language, religion and culture, but always includes a territory. Thus, the Swiss could be a single natural nation, while English-speaking Anglicans in South Africa, England and the US could not.

Therefore, Brownson argues that the United States were already a single nation when the Constitution was ratified – they must have been, since there must already be a nation to create a constitution for it. The people already recognized their common fate, and acted to best preserve and promote their common interests and protect the Republic which that common wealth brought into being. He writes at some length disputing the notion that a document could bring a nation into being, and cites the futility of such efforts throughout history. If a natural nation does not already exist, efforts to create one by fiat through a written constitution will always fail. (An Empire is another beast altogether.)

Brownson, writing in that thin slice of time right after the war and before the full intent and misery of the revenge of the North upon the South became obvious, could still believe that the States were being preserved more or less intact, that the war had been, as Lincoln always said, about preserving the Union. The states were still, in his view, sovereign, each within its proper realm, only surrendering to the United States those specific powers which by nature devolved to it. He thoroughly believed that there was and could not be a conflict between the federal and state powers, now that the War Between the States had so dearly and emphatically made them clear.

The state of affairs, whereby the greatest common wealth held by the Commonwealth that is the Nation that wrote the Constitution, are the recognition of the divine origins of Man’s rights and duties, and of the state’s existence to foster the growth and fruition of that divine order and as the expression of the divine fruitfulness. After the manner of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in the secular realm, political life flows from the state and is ordered to it. Here he stands Fichte on his head: the sovereignty flows from the People to the State, which is informed and acts by virtue of the virtue of the People, thereby reinforcing their sovereignty and virtue.

Since the Nation is a natural thing, an outpouring and maturation of human nature, then, as human nature is a divine creation, so, too, is the Nation, at least potentially.  Here is where Brownson’s optimism is given full reign. Since the Catholic Church is the guardian and source of truth – of natural law, in this case – then a properly constituted natural nation must needs reflect and manifest the teaching of the Church. Brownson believes that, now that the war had forced America out of its long adolescence into mature statehood, we as a nation would more and more adopt the teachings of the Church on human nature, rights and duties both individual and societal, and, in short, convert. Any other route would take the nation further from reality, creating friction and issues that would soon be corrected – the great forward momentum of the now-mature American Republic would see to it.

He answers the Church and State issues in the same way he answers the Federal and State questions: there will be no conflict because the role of each is clear. In this, he echoes Dante, who yearned for a world in which the church and the state had separate, clear roles and stayed out of each other’s way. All the problems of the past were due to less perfect realizations of the idea of a Nation, leading to corruption of both church and state. America was poised to become Catholic and avoid all church and state problems as it realized the small ‘c’ catholic roots of all its founding principles, and moved toward the large ‘C’ Catholic Church as a result.

Finally, for now, in the midst of all this optimism and enthusiasm, Brownson despairs of Europe and the rest of Christendom. He notes that all contemporary Catholic states have got the Church on a short leash, and hate it even when they cannot -yet- do without it. Only in America, as a properly constituted Republic, would the Church be free to be itself. By being itself, it would convert the nation.

Brownson died in 1876, 11 years after writing the American Republic. I wonder if he recognized how far by then the nation had departed from the path he laid out for it, and where its true path would lead.

Just wow. I’m planning to retire in about 7.5 years – maybe then I can do the proper chapter by chapter review of this fascinating book.

 

 

Book Review: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Why am I reading a 150 year old children’s fantasy/fairy tale book? Because:

Certain magazines have symposiums (I will call them ‘symposia’ if I am allowed to call the two separate South Kensington collections ‘musea’) in which persons are asked to name ‘Books that have Influenced Me’, on the lines of ‘Hymns that have Helped Me’. It is not a very realistic process as a rule, for our minds are mostly a vast uncatalogued library; and for a man to be photographed with one of the books in his hand generally means at best that he has chosen at random, and at worst that he is posing for effect. But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald, the man who is the subject of this book.

G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald

If G. K. Chesterton praises The Princess and the Goblin like that, I had to read it. Of course, you should read all of the above essay. In a way, this review here is a review of both the book and Chesterton’s views of it.

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is a fairytale, but with a difference: the daily lives of the 8 year old Princess Irene and the young boy hero Curdie are drawn so as to seem familiar, cozy and normal. Irene is a princess, yes, but a perfectly acceptable little girl living a good but somewhat lonely life. Her mother has died and her father, the king, has business that takes him away most of the time. Her situation is sad but perfectly real. The people in the castle are – with one exception – also perfectly normal and decent human beings. Irene’s governess Lootie is fussy but good-hearted; other characters – the Image result for the princess and the goblin book coverking’s guard, cooks – are but lightly sketched but also ring true.

Curdie is the young son of a miner, who is brave, honest, enterprising and kind, and works side-by-side with his father. His mother and father, briefly but convincingly sketched, are solid, familiar people.

The castle is a real castle, the mountain a real mountain, the mines where Curdie and his father work real mines. And all are full of magic.

Magic happens in the course of usual events. Irene goes exploring the many rooms of the castle, and meets her namesake great great grandmother in a room high in the castle. Chesterton points out that the castle seemed to him not unlike his own childhood home, with a cellar and many rooms, so that Irene’s explorations and discoveries were like what he, himself, might have experienced as a child exploring his own house.

And that’s the difference: the adventures here take place at home, not in a far-away kingdom or in the clouds. You don’t need to go to an enchanted forest, for the forest right here is already enchanted, and the goblins really are under your bed, and your fairy godmother lives upstairs.

In keeping with this mood or setting, MacDonald blurs the lines between royalty and commoners, nobility being not so much about birth but about character:

All this time Curdie had to be sorry, without a chance of confessing, that he had behaved so unkindly to the princess. This perhaps made him the more diligent in his endeavours to serve her. His mother and he often talked on the subject, and she comforted him, and told him she was sure he would some day have the opportunity he so much desired.

Here I should like to remark, for the sake of princes and princesses in general, that it is a low and contemptible thing to refuse to confess a fault, or even an error. If a true princess has done wrong, she is always uneasy until she has had an opportunity of throwing the wrongness away from her by saying: ‘I did it; and I wish I had not; and I am sorry for having done it.’ So you see there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well. Many such instances have been known in the world’s history.

Superversive, even. And:

‘Lootie! Lootie! I promised a kiss,’ cried Irene.

‘A princess mustn’t give kisses. It’s not at all proper,’ said Lootie.

‘But I promised,’ said the princess.

‘There’s no occasion; he’s only a miner-boy.’

‘He’s a good boy, and a brave boy, and he has been very kind to us. Lootie! Lootie! I promised.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have promised.’

‘Lootie, I promised him a kiss.’

‘Your Royal Highness,’ said Lootie, suddenly grown very respectful, ‘must come in directly.’

‘Nurse, a princess must not break her word,’ said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stock-still.

Lootie did not know which the king might count the worst—to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation. But, as I say, the nurse was not lady enough to understand this, and so she was in a great difficulty, for, if she insisted, someone might hear the princess cry and run to see, and then all would come out. But here Curdie came again to the rescue.

‘Never mind, Princess Irene,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t kiss me tonight. But you shan’t break your word. I will come another time. You may be sure I will.’

“…being a gentleman, as many kings have been…”

After a number of increasingly dire adventures and challenges, involving goblins, mines, magic thread, narrow rescues and escapes, Curdie saves the day and the princess and she, as her approving father looks on, gives him a kiss. The story is not sappy, but beautiful.

Any reader of Chesterton will soon run into one of his core convictions: that the world is fantastical and magical, full of wonders and the inexplicable, it’s just that we are most often too dull to see it.  The Princess and the Goblin shows just such a world as ours.

Chesterton gets the last word, as he almost always would in a better world:

When I say it is like life, what I mean is this. It describes a little princess living in a castle in the mountains which is perpetually undermined, so to speak, by subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars. She climbs up the castle stairways to the nursery or the other rooms; but now and again the stairs do not lead to the usual landings, but to a new room she has never seen before, and cannot generally find again. Here a good great-grandmother, who is a sort of fairy godmother, is perpetually spinning and speaking words of understanding and encouragement. When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not essentially unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars. This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies. I have always felt a certain insufficiency about the ideal of Progress, even of the best sort which is a Pilgrim’s Progress. It hardly suggests how near both the best and the worst things are to us from the first; even perhaps especially at the first. And though like every other sane person I value and revere the ordinary fairy-tale of the miller’s third son who set out to seek his fortune (a form which MacDonald himself followed in the sequel called The Princess and Curdie), the very suggestion of travelling to a far-off fairyland, which is the soul of it, prevents it from achieving this particular purpose of making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.

Mini-micro Review: Mike Flynn “Nexus” & More Weather

A: Review: Michael Flynn’s Novella Nexsus in this month’s Analog

A reconstruction(1) of a conversation taking place around 12:30 a.m. last night, as my wife is entering the bedroom where I am just putting down the latest issues of Analog:

“Reading Mike Flynn?”

“Just finished. It has about every ridiculous pulp science fiction idea you’ve ever heard of in one place: time travel, appalling space aliens, space aliens that can pass for human, telepathy,  faster than light travel, transporter beams, androids…”

“What’s it about?”

“Aristotelian causality.”

There is a woman who can’t die, a weather balloon cover story, ninja space cops, weird alien necrophilia (PG-13), alien invaders, aliens working under cover to protect earth from alien invaders. There’s Theadora the hooker-Empress, conflicting time-lines, the need to keep the cops and the military out of it, and super-ninja space cops.

Trying to remember if Area 51 gets a shout out.

And, yes, it all hangs on what Aristotle would call in Greek a ‘walking together’ – a series of coincidences – the component events of which are most definitely caused (they literally could not not be) but the walking together itself is just Fate, which takes the blame but is not, strictly speaking, a cause.

To sum up: Totally awesome. Mr. Flynn has made no direct comments on the whole Pulp Revolution stuff of which I am aware (wise man) – but, based on this, he’s down with it, at least conceptually .

B: Cows home yet? No? Let’s talk about the weather!

Here’s a sloppy picture of Mt. Diablo, elevation 3,849 feet, as seen looking east from the road on my drive home:

Mt Diablo
Mt. Diablo. North Peak to the left, main peak to the right. 

That white stuff is snow! It’s really not unusual for there to be snow on Mt. Diablo, happens probably every other winter on average. What is remarkable is that, with all the epic-level precipitation we’ve been getting this year, this is the first batch.

For the first time this rainy season, we got a classic Gulf of Alaska storm. All the other storms have been either pure Pineapple Express ‘atmospheric rivers’ pulling tropical moisture from the ocean around Hawaii and therefore too warm to leave snow at as low an elevation as Mt. Diablo, or some blended Alaska/Hawaii storm, which tend to be in the middle, temperature-wise, and still not cold enough.

We end up with a very pretty situation: all the grass is green, the cherry blossoms are out, the first tips of green are on the trees – and there’s snow on the mountains. Lovely.

3. But how about those CCC Water District rain gauges? 

I thought you’d never ask. Last we checked, all but 5 of these gauges had already received more than an average rainy season’s worth of rain. Three have since reached their annual totals (overall, the gauges average over 150% of their annual average total), leaving only 2 that are registering less than their average annual amounts of rain. (2):

2017 03 06 Rain Gagues
A piece of my little OCD rain gauge spreadsheet.

Unlike the earlier storms, this last storm hit the Concord Pavilion and Kregor Peak gauges as hard or harder than any of the others. Why would that be?

The winds accompanying Pineapple Express storms tend to blow from south to north. Gulf of Alaska storms, on the other hand, tend to strike our stretch of coast pretty much west to east.My theory is that the generally south to north direction of the previous storms put these 2 gauges in the rain shadow of Mt. Diablo. This last storm hit them as squarely as any of the other gauges. Thus, they started to catch up.

Concord Pavilion will probably reach its annual total, given anything like normal March rain. Kregor Peak is more iffy – an inch and a half is a lot of rain for these parts. Possible.

I promise to lay off the weather stuff – unless something really interesting happens.

  1. The conversation went something like this, but perhaps not so tidy.
  2. Don’t know how I missed this before, but: except for a few of the very oldest gauges, the annual averages are suspiciously round numbers, suggesting they are just guesses, not actual averages. Makes sense – I’d want a century of data before giving any weight to averages. As guesses, they carry much less weight than even the little weight they’d carry as 40 year averages.