Archive January 2013
|AUTHOR’S DEDICATIONS IN SECOND HAND BOOKS
What does an author do
when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking
about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of
As I can’t cover all
second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to
write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive
studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by
the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.
In a time of bookstore
closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their
revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write
those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you
might find of mine).
I have a few suggestions
for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of
I am positive that you
will come up with much better material.
The Wisdom of
Beer dedication list might include the following:
my dear friend, Donald Trump,
Thanks for the napkin from
A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am
sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should
The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place
it in the new edition.
Former New Yorker, Vincent
my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,
Thanks for writing to tell
me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible.
Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the
book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.
Best wishes from me and
all of my pack of six, CM
Your probation officer
gave asked that I send you The Wisdom of Beer to help keep you
out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better
You can reject beer or
wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a
majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to
rebuild your shattered life.
Peace, Fairness and Love
bring huge dividends, CGM
I won’t ever forget our
night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for
2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you
will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our
special time together.
General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,
I know you are new to the
job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring
that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to
mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party
member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all
orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the
Your Comrade in Suds, C.
You’ve made “The Cable
Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite
intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good
self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to
showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer?
The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost.
Face it. You need that. Have a beer.
The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of
Everyone author has a
muse. Along with painters, composers, dancers, and other performing artists. The
muse has a long tradition. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses, but the one
writers and artist are most fond of is called the Muse. An artist might be an atheist
when it comes to God and religion but the Muse makes the most logical and
skeptical of the bunch, into believers as to the intangible forces of creativity
and inspiration. Someday when neuroscience decodes consciousness, the neural
structure that creates the illusion of the Muse will be discovered. Until that
day, we are little ahead of ancient Greece.
The idea of supernatural
artistic inspiration had been around long before being co-opted into ancient
The Muses, the
personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and
music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory
You may recognize the
mother, Mnemosyne, as the term ‘meme’ for that idea that infects the minds of
others comes from her name. Mind mental or memory were born from
For crime fiction authors,
the Muse known as Melpomene was one of the nine daughters and assigned to
inspire works of tragedy. Before you set up your home altar next to your
computer and call out to your inner Muse, there are a few things to know about
Muses—their mother, Melpomene, has a past.
Melpomene is portrayed
wearing a tragic mask and the cothurnus, boots traditionally worn by
tragic actors. In another version, she holds a knife or club in one hand and the
tragic mask in the other. She wears a crown of cypress. Her father was Zeus and her
mother Mnemosyne. And if you wanted an inspiration for a lyrical phrase she was
the Muse you made offering to.
Words like ‘amuse’ and
‘museum’ derive from the original use of Muse. Many ancient writers paid homage
to the Muse: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.
Living in a culture like
Thailand where spirits are daily worshipped at small spirit houses scattered
throughout the land, and upcountry workers as well as city workers, give
offerings; the idea of the Muse is a natural fit. Spirit Houses erected on the
premises housing newspapers, publishers, media houses and advertising agencies
don’t yet display statues of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. But 2013
is young and the meme of Muse hasn’t gone viral in Thailand. Finding a Muse to
present at Government House and Parliament might ‘inspire’ if not poetry, some
new comedy and tragedy to retire the old tropes people don’t find of
I have a theory (or two)
about the nature of the Muse. When one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and
Zeus come to visit, pay attention. What kills creativity is distraction. What
ignites the imagination is found through focus and attention that seeks to find
a new pattern, a new way of seeing or thinking. That kind of thinking is
difficult. It takes lots of resources. You can witness the Muse indirectly when
you see a great painting, or theatrical production or read a great book. The
result of the best of the arts is the creation of something out of
Most of the time, our
attention is divided. We have too much on our mind, pulling it this way and the
other. We flit from problem to problem, image to image, from the past to the
future, like a bird hoping from branch to branch looking for the tree. But the
issue isn’t limited to the non-stop discontinuous internal mental streaming, we
also add to our distraction by the input streaming into our brain from the
exterior world. To call on the Muse to visit means a commitment to closing down
our random thoughts and to shut out stimulation from the outside world. TV off.
Internet off. Phone off. “Do not disturb” sign on the closed door.
Light a candle. Wait for
the Muse to deliver the right word, phrase, scene, and image that fit into a
narrative flow. That is my other theory about the Muse. It is another way of
describing the flow. Musicians, writers, dancers and painters know that space
where the notes, words, movements, colors appear as if from another place, and
create a narrative force that carries the creator along a path he or she would
never have discovered inside a mind cluttered with internal and exterior
The Flow is the space
artists seek to enter and never leave. When I write, I work to find that space
because in the Flow all the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne are manning the
oars on a boat that navigates itself around bends, and through rapids, and
delivers you to a destination you never would have discovered in a world too
full of noise.
|Counterfactuals and Fictional Worlds
What is it about reading a
novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the
characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like
to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of
fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the
choice made and the choices that weren’t made.
Fear elongates as faith in
the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of
heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail
civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the
authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to
play to our fears for their own benefit.
We are a product of our
times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was
written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George
Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead
of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or
Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham
Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he
stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in
Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his
mother the country judge.
I have lived for 25 years
in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of
their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I
thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was
flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where
Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was
the person of interest. I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a
copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets
andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack,
opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at
1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.
The police questions: “Do
you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you
go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in
Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I
point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)
Finally one of the cops
asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He
live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed
to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed
There would have been a
time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling,
upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has
become an ordinary feature of life.
Show me your papers. Right
out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa.
Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of
theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and
I’ve learned a thing or
two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and
walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the
aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone
silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough
to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when
fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t
like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably
If I’d stayed a law
professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at
Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote
about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a
version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version
also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does,
they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.
The stuff of writing that
is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone
chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering,
people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the
rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive
clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and
money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we
can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning
that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood
through the mind.
Nelson Algren was a writer
I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an
influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin
Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely
(Algren) pressed that refrain
throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best
captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge
on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the
writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the
idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he
believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved
Algren like Orwell never
sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money
and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the
The book I remember I read
when I was fifteen was The
Man with the Golden Arm. Asher nailed that novel in this passage:
If Golden Arm had a
purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an
individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that
lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly
erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as
meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as
What was congealing into
ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where
social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have
no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and
Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where
cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an
entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was
something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden
Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone
But if I’d stayed in my
university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have
never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite
number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality. That’s too much
like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort.
Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and
then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and
deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of
But before you write that
first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my
characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar
screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge
as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I
am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their
every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army
of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel
sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep
advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they
have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever