May 22nd, 2009


This usually doesn't happen ...

I think this is the last of the books that I got at that $5/bag sale at AfterWords books a year or so back (although I haven't reviewed them all, I'm pretty sure I've read them all at this point). This was the "prize" of that, a big beautiful book, in very good condition, and I was very pleased with myself scoring it for as little as it worked out I paid for it.

You can imagine my embarrassment, when I logged Charles A Goodrum's Treasures of the Library of Congress into my LibraryThing catalog, that I found that I already had a copy in my library! Now, I have a lot of big "coffee table" books that I bought "back in the day" when I was a Public Relations exec pulling down six figures, and this must have been one of the books I added back then, but I had NO recall of it as I read through this ... suggesting to me that I probably had it sitting around more for "looks" than anything else at the time.

As it turns out, I was missing something, because this was quite the interesting read ... both from the standpoint of the history, mission, and changing priorities of the Library of Congress, and the details of the specific collections. The book must have been a daunting challenge to develop, as the LOC holdings are so vast ... some of the choices seem odd (for instance, tracing the development of the musical Oklahoma!) but are put in there to show how the various elements that are in the Library can work together for research, etc.

Generally speaking, however, the book is set up on "themes", many of them not books, it covers maps, and art, and photography, it looks at science, and "Orientalia", and historical documents, and musical instruments, and archival materials relating to Presidents, etc. At every turn there are superlatives, the most this, the most that, the most complete other thing, and the remarkable ways that many of these items found their way into the LOC.

Needless to say, as a former publisher, I was aware of one of the main ways the collection was built, as "back in the day" (I believe the requirement has been lifted, but I'm not sure) one had to submit two copies of everything one was getting copyright filed on to have the application processed. So, everything that was going to have an official US copyright registration ended up at least passing through their hands (a lot of ephemera, like, I suspect, my "chapbook" poetry collections got discarded).

This came out in 1980, and given the subject, does have a slightly dated feel, as computers were only just developing past room-sized leviathans at that point, and the cataloging of the collection was still very much a cards-in-a-drawer system when this was being written!

Treasures of the Library of Congress does appear to be out of print, but I was shocked to find that it is available for very little (especially given the substantial weight and size of the book), with the Amazon new/used vendors having "very good" copies under a buck and "new" copies for as little as $3.25 (plus shipping, of course)! Given what it would cost to mail this, even at book rate, I'd think those guys (who have to agree to a flat-rate shipping fee) are selling it at a loss.

Anyway, this is a remarkable look at a remarkable institution, filled with amazing photos of amazing stuff, and held together by some very well-crafted prose. Especially given the prices that this can be had for, I'd highly recommend it as a great addition to anybody's library.

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So, dat's your story, comrade?

Ah, the mysterious joys of digging into my "to be read" cases of books ... this one could very well have been sitting around for over a quarter century, as it's a "book club edition" (that was likely a throw-in with another order) with a publication date of 1983!

The Russian Version of the Second World War: The History of the War As Taught to Soviet Schoolchildren, edited by Graham Lyons, is a window into (as one would gather from the subtitle) how the Soviets defined the war to their youth. The material in this book is taken from two standard Soviet text books, aimed at highschool-aged students, one which focuses on the military history, and one that focuses on the political history. These materials were developed in 1956, following the death and official denouncement of Joseph Stalin. Prior to that, what few Soviet military histories there were, were "all about Stalin" and he only gets mentioned in passing a few times in these texts.

This was very much like reading an "alternative reality" book ... where the general outlines of events were familiar, but all the detail and framing had changed. There were multiple points that just seemed strange. The one that most stood out to me was the constant inclusion of political operatives in various military operations ... as though nothing could happen unless a Communist Party functionary was on hand and making sure that everybody was in a "revolutionary fervor" ... sort of like a union foreman on a job site or something! It was also odd seeing the term "Hitlerites" when referring to the Germans ... of course, when these texts were written, half of Germany was a Soviet puppet state, so I guess they didn't want to smear the German people with the Nazi acts, but also didn't want to use "Nazi" as that would besmirch Socialism!

The other notable aspect is the flip-flop of how we tend to view things ... the Allies are seen as collaborators with the Nazis in the case of Finland, the Soviet annexation of much of Poland is framed as just "neighbors moving through to fight the Germans". The book constantly harps on how "easy" the Allies had it, how the Germans hardly fought at all on the Western front, and how there was a Big Huge Conspiracy to have the Nazis and the Communists pretty much destroy each other (OK, so that's not so far-fetched). The Japanese (and Pacific theater) are scarcely mentioned unless in context of their being a threat on the far eastern edges of the Soviet empire, and the Allied campaigns around the Mediterranean are pretty much just dismissed. Now, admittedly, the Soviets did fend off the Germans, and broke the power of the "Nazi war machine", but the book plays it out like they did it unassisted, or even with one hand tied behind their back.

And, as one would expect, none of the Soviet atrocities are even alluded to ... while the "Hitlerites" were painted with that brush at every opportunity. Frankly, reading this was a little bit like watching The Sopranos ... it's a look inside a system where brutality, suppression, and the like are just part of the furnishings, and only get brought up when one of your guys gets whacked; a look into a world where totalitarian communist dictatorships are needed to be installed in every corner of the planet, and anything that goes against that is somehow criminal. Hmmm ... sounds like a faculty lounge at most universities!

Anyway, The Russian Version of the Second World War is, understandably (after so many years) out of print, but "very good" copies can be had from the Amazon new/used vendors for under three bucks (plus shipping), and there are even some "like new" copies kicking around out there for a bit more. Again, this is sort of a trip down the rabbit-hole, so will appeal to a wider range of readers than one might think, if any of the above sounds like it's for you, it'll be a fascinating read!

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A different angle on Gurdjieff ...

I've read a lot of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky/Bennett/etc. books over the years, and I'm frankly amazed at how many "angles" there are from which one can come at the Work. Admittedly, as the years roll on, there's less authenticity in the material (as it seems that none of their students ever got to the point of having something systematic, beyond the core books themselves, to pass on to the next generation), but it is interesting to see where it goes (like the "corporate enneagram" crap that totally has lost the concept of "outside shocks" essential to the model's functioning!).

This book, Views from the Real World: Early Talks Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago as Recollected by His Pupils, attributed to Gurdjieff (but, obviously at one remove) is fascinating as it's the first step away from the his direct teachings (in that these were produced by memory by their transcribers, as Gurdjieff would not allow note-taking), but are also one of the clearest views into his teachings.

I really need to get over my hesitancy to mark up my books ... I had a half a dozen slips of paper stuck in this marking places that, as I was reading, seemed to hold particularly apt bits to quote in a review, however, out of context of the book, these are frequently hard to discover ... perhaps I need to move to sticky notes where I could "bracket" the section in question on the note! In this case, these appear to have been particularly lucid expositions of such things as Gurdjieff's concept of "octaves", of bodily postures (the area that his famous "stop" exercise was intended to highlight), the above-mentioned "shocks", the production of intentional non-subjective art, the various "centers" and "foods" of the being (and how the phrase "I wish to remember myself" triggers various of these in sequence), and subjects such as morality, suffering and consciousness, etc. I guess if you're interested, you'll have to get the book!

This is structured oddly, with sections based on the opening phrases of a talk, or just on their subject, with some being long (the whole of Section I is "Glimpses of Truth" which was in circulation early enough to have been mentioned in Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous) and some being just a few paragraphs. In all cases (as I recall) they are anonymous, leading me to wonder who collected them for publication, as these are from far-flung sources (as noted in the lengthy sub-title) and over a fairly wide span of years. After all, if Gurdjieff did not want his students taking notes, these would very likely have been "kept in secret" until after his death, or shared in very limited groups which were more interested in the literal exposition of the teachings than the Teacher's wishes about the teachings. It is also odd that, as far as I've been able to research it, this was published in 1973, while the materials in it range from 1917 to 1930, with Gurdjieff dying in 1949. Was this collected before his death, soon after his death, or much later?

Anyway, the material here is of specific interest as it's first-hand reports of Gurdjieff's teachings, even if those reports had to depend on the student's memory. Each is a moment in time with Gurdjieff, and most provide fascinating glimpses at nuances not necessarily present in the "canon" of what he wrote.

Views from the Real World is still in print, so would be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, although Amazon has it at just over ten bucks, which is a pretty good deal (the new/used copies start at $2.50, so with shipping that's almost there anyway). Some have suggested that this is a "good introduction" to Gurdjieff, but I disagree, as this is something that opens up parts of the teachings to students of Gurdjieff's written material, and it would be better to start with that (perhaps Meetings with Remarkable Men) and then pick this up after absorbing some of the materials that he intended to convey to a general audience. However, if you're interested, this should not hold you back from getting a copy of the book.

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