libraries


Whibley, Charles. “The Oldest Guide-Book in the World.” Book review of J.G. Frazer’s 1898 translation of Pausanius’s Description of Greece. Review appeared in Vol. LXXVII of MacMillan’s Magazine (No. 462), November 1897 to April 1898, pp. 415-421. Google Books has a PDF file of this magazine available for download.

Genial History Channel and PBS host Tony Perrottet is hardly the first person to stumble across this ancient tome, but his Web site makes it sound as if the Description of Greece, by the Greek author Pausanias, had lain dormant for 1,800 years until Perrottet unearthed it several years ago in the New York Public Library. His Web site also makes it sound as if the guide had been written by a Roman, or at least with Roman tourists in mind. But if you want to read some really savage critiques of Perrottet’s work, check out this Amazon page.

Enough of Mr. Perrottet. He has, no doubt, already laughed his way to the bank, bad reviews or no. And, I suppose, the profits publishers make off titillating, middle-brow pablum like his enables them to produce works of quality that may not turn a profit until the next millennium.

More than 100 years ago, reviewer Charles Whibley said that the Description had already spawned a cottage industry of European scholarship, the results of which “might fill a library.” Whibley takes a look at what was then the latest contribution to that library, J.G. Frazer’s six-volume, heavily annotated English translation of the Description. English majors like me know Frazer as the author of the foundation work on the modern study of folk tales, The Golden Bough. My English professor made it sound as if this earlier work would be harder to find than the Holy Grail, but I snagged a copy from the McKeldin Library without having to face so much as a single rude French castle guard or a trick question on the air-speed velocity of swallows.

Reading The Golden Bough filled in a lot of gaps for me on European history, and from Whibley’s article, it looks as if Frazer’s translation of Pausanias could fill in a few more. Pausanias began collecting accounts of Greek folk customs before Frazer was even a glint in his great-great-great-great…great-grandfather’s eye, and Frazer finds parallels for each account in the Description in cultures around the world, Whibley says.

Frazer’s work also quotes other ancient historians, whose writings indicate that the tradition of travel writing began long before Pausanias set out for the Greek Isles in the second century A.D., and some of them were Greek. One such predecessor practiced his craft with a lot more verve than did Pausanias, Frazer says. Dicaearchus, a contemporary of Aristotle, “was as jaunty a tourist as ever wore a tweed suit or slung a field-glass over his shoulder,” Whibley quotes Frazer as saying. For all its detail, the Description often comes across as dry, lacking a sense of humor or enthusiasm, Frazer says.

Dicaearchus slings barbs at the people of Athens and other Greek city-states with the same panache movie critic Davey Marlin-Jones exhibited in the 1970s when he trashed bad films, in the days before Hollywood’s p.r. juggernaut co-opted the business of reviewing movies, and now, books. Pausanias could never write the way his Greek antecedent did, Whibley says. “[H]e is, in truth, a Baedeker, body and soul.” I just saw A Room with a View on PBS, so I know that that means “a reliable but unadventurous guidebook that all the British tourists took with them to Italy at the turn of the century.”

Whibley admits he doesn’t know much about this elderly Greek (these links may help broaden our understanding), but he does know that Pausanias “belonged to that class which is born middle-aged…. Were he alive today he would tramp around Europe with a kodak and a green butterfly net, and if he were persuaded to write a book, the book would have to be hidden away for two or three hundred years before it attained its proper value.”

That’s pretty much what I’m hoping for with my work. I’m probably more like Pausanias than Dicaearchus. Somehow, somewhere at some future date some clever Tony Perrottet type may get rich and famous off my intellectual property, while I spend the rest of my life wearing the same pair of white Nikes I’ve had since 1998. I don’t care. I just want what I write to be good. Don’t get me wrong; I’d like the money, but I already have a nice wife, a nice house, a nice cat, and a nice family. Someday, I may even have a nice job again, in which case I’ll probably have to stop blogging.

“Gri-i-i-innn-go!” (Jornal de nossa viagem brasileira, pt. 1)

I said a while back I’d be writing a journal about our trip to Brazil in 2004. I never actually told anyone else, so I don’t expect anybody’s been sitting on pins and needles waiting for me to get started, but start I will.

This was the first foreign country (not counting Canada) that we visited. I, for one, am glad about that. Last year, we went to northern Italy—Venice and Florence, mostly. That was great. Venice was a floating, run-down, creaky amusement park for the super-rich, kind of like Santa’s Village with boats and better food. Florence was a gaudy, shiny thrill ride with tiny little cars shooting out at you. But I got the feeling in both places that they didn’t really need us around all that much. I felt in the way a lot of the time, a big, dumb American in the midst of all these impossibly beautiful people with perfect clothes, skin, hair, shoes, etc.

People seemed a lot nicer in the small towns, like Mantova, where we stayed with a family we met when they visited here in 2003. Mantova’s the same size as Hudson, Mass. (pop. 50,000), but culturally, it could kick Hudson’s ass around the block.

Europeans in general can take care of themselves now, thank you very much. Yeah, we saved their ass in the Big One, but what have we done for them lately? Our money doesn’t even go that far there anymore. Anyway, you can read all about our trip there and see the pretty pictures on our Italy Web page.

In Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, to be specific) I felt like people were glad to see us, mostly. One day, we went to a favela (a shantytown) in Rio de Janeiro. We were standing on the sidewalk outside some guy’s kitchen window. As he was fixing breakfast, I heard him saying in a low voice, Gri-i-i-innn-go! Gri-i-i-innn-go! I wanted to say “Sim, eu sou!” (Yup, that’s me!), but I decided not to. I felt like anything could happen there, which was part of the attraction.

Most of it, actually. Italy seemed a little predictable to me. It’s stable and prosperous. They’ve worked damn hard to make it that way. I hope they can keep it that way. I hope they can continue to preserve their art and architecture, their food and fashion, and figure out how to get through the economic difficulties they’re going through right now.

Italy’s becoming a nation of immigrants. After going through the kind of hard times Brazil is going through right now, Italy had a period of great productivity. Today, things are slowing down. I think the country will figure out how to weather the times ahead, but it may be rough. Some in the north (called Padania) want to secede from the south. They have their own party, the Northern League (Liga Nord).

Where Italy seems to be hitting some speed bumps, Brazil seems to be lurching forward. The country has become a major producer of crops like soybeans and sugar. They’ve converted their cars over to ethanol. They’re paying off their national debt. They just sent their first astronaut up into space

Anyone around here can tell you they work their asses off. Brazilians seem to own almost every Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in the Boston area. Our Brazilian housekeepers just bought their first house and are expecting their first child. They also paint houses and shovel snow. The husband is going for his electrician’s license.

Brazilians put me and my lazy white male ass to shame. Even when they were irritating me, I had to admire the cabbies in Rio who were also trying to sell us jewelry or take us to Sao Paulo. I had to admire their aggressiveness even when they couldn’t speak English very well. “You make visitation” to the H. Stern jewelry store, one cabbie said over and over. I almost broke down and bought a souvenir map off the guy who followed us for four blocks.

. . . to be continued . . .

Why People Die by Suicide.
Joiner, Thomas (author).
2005. 276 p. Harvard University Press, hardcover, $24.95 (0-674-01901-6).
Library call number 616.85 JOI.

Suicide isn’t something you want to rush into.

I really don’t mean to be flip in saying this, but it is one of the main points of this book by Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.

Suicide is something you work up to over the course of many years, Joiner says. It takes careful planning, preparation and conditioning; people who later take their own lives, or try to, may never realize they are taking the steps necessary to increase the likelihood that they will succeed at doing so.

Any incident that causes physical pain, intentional or not, makes the person who feels that pain more likely to attempt suicide. The likelihood of attempted suicide increases with each subsequent painful event. Joiner calls it “habituation to pain and provocation.” He explores the many ways people build up a tolerance to pain. The index lists some of them: substance abuse, violence, childhood physical and sexual abuse, tattooing and piercing, accidents, prostitution, surgery, keeping guns at home, and even being a physician. Having enough of any of these painful experiences makes it easier to withstand the pain of suicide.

Being able to commit suicide is only half of the equation, though. People must also want to kill themselves. To want to kill yourself, you must feel that you have failed in your attempts to belong to a social group, and you must feel that you have become a burden to those around you. Combine the ability to commit suicide with the desire to do so, and the likelihood of a serious suicide attempt goes up sharply.

Of the two halves of this equation, the ability to commit suicide responds much less readily to treatment than the desire to die by suicide. Joiner thus advocates that crisis intervention should focus on reducing peoples’ feelings of burdensomeness and social failure.

He has also created a technique for controlling negative thinking, which goes by the acronym ICARE. The “I” stands for identifying the negative thought. “C” stands for categorizing the particular type of distorted thinking the thought represents. “A” stands for assessing whether the thought reflects reality. “R” stands for restructuring the thought based on that assessment. “E” stands for executing the results of that restructured thinking. People can also reduce feelings of burdensomeness and isolation by keeping in touch with friends and family.

Many mental health professionals have personal reasons for entering the field. Joiner opens the book by talking about his father’s suicide. I am not a mental health professional, but I have personal reasons for taking an interest in the field. I have struggled for many years with depression and the feelings of burdensomeness and isolation Joiner cites in his book. I came close to attempting suicide once, about two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, I have worked hard to understand the reasons behind the feelings I still struggle with. I now realize many people struggle with these same feelings. Helping friends and acquaintances look for the roots of these feelings has helped me feel less burdensome and less isolated.

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century.
Pearce, Fred (author). Maps by Hardline Studios UK.
2006. 324p. Beacon Press, hardcover, $26.95 (0-8070-8572-3).

333.91 Water supply

If you take away nothing else from this book, please try to remember the concept of “virtual water.” Economists coined this term to describe the water needed to grow and manufacture products traded globally. It’s about as technical as this book gets. Author Fred Pearce is a journalist who can take complex scientific concepts and put them in terms that readers with perhaps a high school or college education should easily grasp. He writes for the New Scientist magazine, Time and the Boston Globe, among other publications. He has also written several other books on the environment.

As you read some of the horror stories of gross mismanagement that Pearce has assembled here, it might also help for you to know one technical term, “acre-foot.” Pearce uses the term but doesn’t define it and doesn’t mention it in his index. From my days editing and writing a monthly newsletter about ground water, I remembered that an acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with a foot of water. An acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons of water.

As an aside, I have my own horror stories of editing the ground water newsletter, and many other newsletters with no news or even any useful information in them. One person who edited the ground water publication before me described it as “an albatross around the neck of whoever gets stuck with it.” And for all of my troubles, there is almost no evidence on the Web that the publication ever existed. The only proof I could find were a few one-line mentions at various sites. Apparently, it was folded into another enviro pub before being sold to a competitor, traded like an aging shortstop with bad knees.

But that is another story for another time. Suffice it to say that the publisher of that sad little journal could not have cared less whether the water you drink is clean or dirty, or whether you even have any water to drink at all, as long as he could make money off of it.

Not so with Fred Pearce. He shows emotion and uses it to help make the argument that heavy-handed efforts to control nature usually fail, sometimes with horrendous consequences. He is aghast at the ways we humans have treated the rivers that sustain us—choking them off with dams and dykes; bending them to our will with artificial banks that try to redirect their flows or keep them from overflowing; poisoning them with industrial and human waste. In the process, we have destroyed or crippled many of the wetlands and inland seas these rivers used to nourish, as well as the human and animal communities that used to depend on them.

Pearce displays weariness at the ways in which cultures and governments through the ages have tried to fix the mistakes they’ve made in managing water. He cites the example of Los Angeles. The city, and much of the American Southwest, now depends largely on water piped in from the Colorado River. The salt content of the river is increasing. Evaporation is reducing water levels in the reservoirs created by the dams on the Colorado. So what should L.A. do?

In 2003, President Bush suggested that California and other states in the Southwest might turn to Canada to meet the needs of farmers, industries and private homes. For Pearce, the proposal had a familiar ring. In the 1960s, the Los Angeles water department devised a scheme that would have met the city’s needs by importing water first from the Columbia River, and then from several rivers in the Canadian Northwest. Pearce says that proposal is off the table, but water officials in Canada say they have fielded U.S. requests to export small amounts of water from the Great Lakes and elsewhere.

Russia and China have also toyed with the idea of transporting water over vast distances, from wet regions to arid ones, at costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In the U.S., the Middle East, and elsewhere, governments have invested in or are considering various techniques to take the salt out of seawater. Again, the costs are high. In addition, the process also consumes a lot of energy. It also leaves behind not only a lot of salt, but also a lot of chemicals used both during and after the desalination process.

And now for the happy ending: We have many low-cost alternatives to transcontinental pipelines and desalination plants at our disposal. Pearce saves this good news for last, after recounting in excruciating detail the slow death of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the water wars going on within and among nations, and the general folly of dam building. The cheap and simple methods Pearce outlines include many different ways to collect and store rainwater, building ponds to catch dew, and even using nets to collect water from fog.

In the final section of When the Rivers Run Dry, Pearce advises us to “go with the flow,” and stop trying to literally bend rivers to our will. He advocates redesigning urban areas to capture more stormwater runoff. We shouldn’t try to prevent floods, but should look more closely at natural ways to reduce their intensity, such as restoring wetlands.

We should also find ways to use less water for farming, which brings us back to the concept of “virtual water.” It takes more water to grow some crops than others. It takes 65 gallons to grow a pound of potatoes, twice that much to grow a pound of wheat. How much water does it take to grow a pound of rice? Up to 10 times what it takes to grow a pound of wheat—650 gallons. How much water does it take to grow a pound of coffee? 2,650 gallons.

If we keep going in this direction, pretty soon we’ll be talking about those acre-feet again. About a third of the 28 trillion acre-feet of freshwater on Earth is liquid. Most of it is very hard to get to, however, because it is either in dense jungles or in the Arctic zone. For that and many other reasons, we humans must get by on about seven billion acre-feet of river water at any given time.

Remember, I said an acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons. If each of the 6 billion people or so people on this planet needed about an acre-foot of water a year to meet their needs, we would be in relatively good shape. In fact, Pearce calculates that each of us would now have about 370,000 gallons per year to do with as we see fit. But, as a Westerner, he puts his own annual water consumption at between 400,000 and 530,000 gallons. “I imagine most of the world would like to live as well as I do,” he says. “So we have a problem.”

So we do. And right now, the solution is up in the air. Or maybe on the ground. Or maybe under it.

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