Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Power of NO! - Closing Doors

John Tierney has an interesting article in the February 26th, 2008 New York Times, The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.

He is reporting on the incapacity of even some of our brightest and most intellectually accomplished people to focus on what is most important to them. What the article highlights is an instinctive desire on the part of most people to keep open options, even past the point where the cost of keeping those options open becomes material and reduces the rewards of what we are actually trying to accomplish.
"Most people can't make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren't even asked to burn anything).

The experiments involved a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go. In the real world, we can always tell ourselves that it's good to keep options open.

You don't even know how a camera's burst-mode flash works, but you persuade yourself to pay for the extra feature just in case. You no longer have anything in common with someone who keeps calling you, but you hate to just zap the relationship.

Your child is exhausted from after-school soccer, ballet and Chinese lessons, but you won't let her drop the piano lessons. They could come in handy! And who knows? Maybe they will."

This last of course hits close to home. Having lived abroad many years, one of the many things we see that distinguishes the US from most other countries is just how over-scheduled people here become and I think it is a function, partly of culture (Americans are notable for always trying to improve things) but also, simply, of raw wealth.

Even the poorest quintile of Americans have more possessions and wealth than the middle classes of most countries in the world. With this wealth comes a surfeit of opportunities and choices and I think to some degree we become seduced by this cornucopia, we reach for just that one extra thing that might be fun, we try to squeeze in just one more event. And suddenly, everyone feels over-scheduled, stressed and wondering how they can be so well off and yet so overwhelmed.

For those of us trying to foster of love reading among children it does mean, almost as a corollary, choosing to accept a slower, less crowded life. And I think that is a good thing, but very counter to everything that is going on in the environment around us. I know our kids love having quiet time where they can just kick-back and enjoy a good read. But that means there is some club, some sport, some other activity which they could do, and which they might even enjoy doing, but which they (or we as parents) have elected not to do in order to have the time to savour reading.

It is one more of those duties/burdens of parenthood, particularly for parents wanting to foster a love of reading - giving our children one of the most precious gifts of all. Not a gift of toys, or TV, or clubs or sports. The gift of time to themselves to discover an even wider world where they are in command, a world where time is their own. And of course the books that open up that magic door.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The constancy of a bibliophile's love

I think one of the special privileges accorded to the condition of being a bibliophile is a certain constancy in one's literary loves and passions. It is not always the case. Sometimes one returns to a well loved book only to discover that the reader has moved on and the excitement or significance no longer resides in the dead pages.

More often though, a bibliophile returns again and again to the magic of a particular tale or author and is rewarded with the same elixir of wonder, enchantment, excitement or fascination that first captured them. In a world of such unremitting progress and change, this constancy is a magical treat. Vincent Starrett (1886-1974), veteran journalist and Sherlock Holmes scholar, captured this special state of captured enchantment:
"Shall they not always live at Baker Street? Are they not there this moment as one writes? Outside, the hansoms rattle through the rain, and Moriarty plans his latest devilry. Within, the sea coal flames upon the hearth and Holmes and Watson take their well-won ease. So they will live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Awards as predictors of quality

Here at Through the Magic Door, we are always playing with different ideas about how to identify books that are likely to be of lasting interest to children. Recently one of the questions that arose was: How good are the mainstream awards at predicting lasting interest in a book?

So we decided to look into it.


We settled on a handful of awards based on their longevity, consistency of application, availability of the information, etc. We included both primary winners (Medal) as well as runners-up (Honor awards). Based on these criteria we used the following awards:
Bank Street (and its later specializations)

Horn Book Fanfare
Kate Greenaway

We used "ready availability" as a proxy for "lasting interest", recognizing the drawbacks associated with that definition. "Ready availability" we defined as available through a major distributor in a standard format. In this instance we used Baker & Taylor. We excluded from ready availability those books only available; through used book venues, as on-demand print versions, and those through high-end/very specialized publishers. We recognize that there is a capriciousness in equating lasting interest to only those being available at this particular snapshot in time but think that it is as viable an approximation as the many alternatives and has the benefit of being readily determined in objective fashion.

With these definitions, we then went back and looked at the award winners from 75 years ago (1932, 7 titles receiving awards), 50 years ago (1957, 15 titles receiving awards), 25 years ago (1982, 31 titles receiving awards), 10 years ago (1997, 40 titles receivng awards), and 5 years ago (2002, 29 titles receiving awards).

We then looked at which of those were still readily available at all (in any format such as paperback, hardback, library binding, etc.), those that were only available in a single format (such as only in paperback or only available in hardback), and finally those that were out-of-print.


The results of this analysis were as follows:

Out-of-PrintSingle FormatMultiple Formats
5 Years8%32%60%
10 Years20%25%55%
25 Years55%19%26%
50 Years53%7%40%
75 Years86%0%14%

Two or three things leap out at me.

Attrition Rate is Pretty Steep

75 years after their recognition, 85% of the winners are out of print. In this instance, among the seven Newbery Award winners of 1932, only Rachel Fields' Calico Bush is still in print. Of the other winners that year (Marjorie Hill Allee's Jane's Island, Mary Gould Davis's Truce of the Wolf and Other Tales of Old Italy, Dorothy P. Lathrop's Fairy Circus, Eloise Lownsbery's Out of the Flame, Eunice Tietjen's Boy of the South Seas, and Laura Adams Armer's Waterless Mountain), several sound interesting but I don't recognize many/any of them and don't see them among the many lists of favorites that I routinely review. Calico Bush I do recognize, know it is still read in schools as assigned reading but is also read by children under their own volition and is generally well liked by those that have read it. So, it sounds like the Newbery folk got it about right seventy-five years ago.

None-the-less, there is, to me, a surprisingly high attrition rate such that more than half the award winners just a generation ago (1982, 25 years) are out of print.

Data Anomaly Regarding Awards from 25 and 50 Years Ago

Bucking the general trend of steady declines in availability at different points over the seventy-five year period, there is a plateau at the twenty-five and the fifty year mark where approximately 45% of the original winners remain in print. I think the anomaly here is the fifty year mark and my specualtion would be that there is a false high level of in-prints owing to publishers marking "50th Anniversary" type milestones with re-releases. This is perhaps coroborated by the fact that there is a steady decline in the number of books in single formats but there is a reversal of the trend in the number available in multiple formats at the fifty year mark, which is what you would expect if publishers were re-releasing special edition hardbacks in addition to the available paperbacks.

Increasing Message Density

There seems to have been a break point between twenty-five and fifty years ago where the "message density/sophistication" of children's books suddenly took a leap forward. Among the eleven winners (even restricting it to Caldecott, Newbery, Greenaway, and Carnegie) in 1982, you do not find any real counterparts in 1957 to Chris van Allsburg's Jumanji, Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn, Aranka Siegal's Upon the Head of the Goat or Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. You might argue that some of those are darker books but there were some dark winners in 1957. It strikes me that the distinctive difference is that some are darker in a different, more primal way but more than that, they are visually more sophisticated, they imply an expectation of a greater level of world knowledge than earlier winners, and that there is a much more subtle/nuanced perspective in the stories than is prevelant earlier.

Author/Illustrator Gender

Not really sure what to make of it but it is notable that 100% of the author/illustrators that were winners seventy-five years ago were female. From the fifty year mark onwards, the proportion of author/illustrator award winners that were male has varied up and down at each milestone between the ranges of 35 and 45%. Was there a sudden flood of men into the field of children's literature? Were the awards captive to a gender bias for a while early on? Was 1932 just an anomaly? Interesting questions.

The dog that didn't bark

When analyzing data, you always look for what's not there. In this instance, we know the numbers and titles for the books that were given awards and which of them have lasted. But what about other books published in each of those years that might not have received awards but that are recognized as enduringly popular?

That's quite an exercise in data analysis which I will put off for another day. Just as a quick reality check though, there are some interesting highlights. I have aggregated the bibliographies of a dozen or so 20th century children's authors/illustrators and done just a quick spot check.

For 1932, even with this tiny sampling, there are a couple of books that probably ought to be noted as more persistent in popularity including Kurt Wiese's illustrated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and certainly Walter R. Brooks' Freddy the Detective.

Looking at fifty years ago we see John Langstaff's Over in the Meadow as still being available, along with Walter R. Brooks' Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans, and Rosemary Sutcliff's The Silver Branch.

Down the road then, we will construct a database that lets us look at books published in the respective years and will then capture those that are still in print and are readily acknowledged in hindsight as being superior books whether or not they ever received an award.

Next Steps

We will at some point, as described above, look at what books printed in the past, escaped the attention of award programs but which have endured and won popular attention over time. With this information we will then be able to see the balance effectiveness in the past of identifying great books that would last over time.

The other project we will pursue is to collate the winners of the various awards for 2007 and invite TTMD community members to identify which of the award winners will last how long into the future (using the degradation map we have already developed) as well as which non-award winning books might most likely remain popular into the future.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Almost too good to believe

From Robert Hendrickson's The Literary Life and Other Curiosities.
In promoting Simon & Schuster's children's book Doctor Dan and the Bandage Man, publisher Richard Leo Simon decided to give away six Band-Aids with each copy. "Please ship half-million Band-Aids immediately," he wired a friend at Johnson & Johnson. He soon received the reply: "Band-Aids on the way. What the hell happened to you?"

Genius at a discount

The Spectator (of the UK) has a review by Sam Leith of Peter Ackroyd's new book, Poe: A Life Cut Short (not yet available in the US). Referencing Poe's always present financial problems, in the review he mentions that:
It was calculated, says Ackroyd, that the total income from all Poe's books, over 20 years, was $300.

About $8,500 in today's money. One more case of worth not being recognized when it would have been useful to the author.

Gotta love those kids

From Tom Stanton's forward to his Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America.
In the early months of the 1973 baseball season, when reports surfaced about the odious mail souring Hank Aaron's home-run pursuit, something stupendous happened. Tens of thousands of children - from San Antonio, Texas, to Salem, Oregon, from Marshfield, Wisconsin, to Mt. Vernon, New York, and myriad places in between - set out individually to lift Hank Arron's spirits. This earnest, youthful army, raised on Brady Bunch do-good and swayed by the words of Top 40 philosophers like Bill Withers ("Lean on me . . . I'll help you carry on"), rallied to Aaron's side.

Through the eyes of these children, it seemed a simple morality play, the line dividing right from wrong as sharp and crisp as the one separating fair territory from foul on the ball diamonds of our youths. The solution seemed just as simple: Write a letter. That it occurred to so many of us at once testifies to something universal in the unjaded heart. That we thought our letters alone could eradicate the evil heaped upon our hero affirms our age and naiveté.

I sent my letter that spring, in the twelfth year of my life, decorating the white envelope with red and blue markers, the patriotic colors of the Braves. In summer, a note of thanks came from Atlanta, Georgia, accompanied by a postcard signed, "To Tom. Best wishes. Hank Aaron." Of course, given the quantity of mail, there was no human way for Aaron to have personally answered my letter. But I was convinced he had, and his words endeared him to me. It's not a unique story. That year, Hank Aaron received more mail than anyone but the president.
There is a common adage, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.' - Wonderful seeing children instinctively standing up to evil in its various forms.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Peacocks and Pagodas

Barry Rubin in an article dated February 13, 2008, in PajamasMedia, captures several strands of thinking with which I agree; the importance of historical perspective, dealing with the facts as they are rather than the theories as you wish them to be, the serendipity surrounding the life of a used book, and a skepticism of faddish intellectual indulgences.
Sometimes to understand one's own era you have to immerse yourself in another. I pick up my copy of Paul Edmonds' Peacocks and Pagodas as an example. This — though you've probably never heard of it — seems the best-regarded book ever written on the people and society of Burma. You may know it as Myanmar. What could be more esoteric, and yet profoundly revealing, about much broader issues?

My copy is a first edition from 1924 and in its long life and travels it once belonged to T.N. Jayavelu, Antiquarian Bookseller of Choolai, Madras, India. But now it resides on a low rickety table in Tel Aviv, at the top of the pile of books I am reading. My text for today's sermon comes from the first three pages only. We are nowadays used to the notion — or at least used to having it pounded into us — that Westerners were historically racist and imperialist, only recently having become enlightened in the age of "political correctness."

And, to paraphrase the Rudyard Kipling poem (and well-known song) about the road to Mandalay, it suddenly dawns on you like thunder that the contemporary conventional wisdom about how people in the West thought about the rest of the world just isn't true.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Churchill and Free Will

Here is an interesting aside from Churchill. Ever the English pragmatist, he has an interesting analogy for the conundrum of Free Will and Predestination. This arises in part from his reflecting on his third attempt at the entrance exam for Sandhurst when he was tested upon some obscure (at least obscure for Churchill) equation to which he had just coincidentally been exposed to the prior week.

From Winston S. Churchill's My Early Life, page 28 in the Folio Society edition.
Which brings me to my conclusion upon free will and predestination; namely - let the reader mark it - that they are identical.

I have always loved butterflies. In Uganda I saw glorious butteflies the colour of whose wings changed from the deepest russet brown to the most brilliant blue, according to the angle from which you saw them. In Brazil as everyone knows there are butterflies of this kind even larger and more vivid. The contrast is extreme. You could not conceive colour effects more violently opposed; but it is the same butterfly. The butterfly is the fact - gleaming, fluttering, settling for an instant with wings fully spread to the sun, then vanishing in the shades of the forest. Whether you believe in free will or predestination, all depends on the slanting glimpse you had of the colour of his wings - which are in fact at least two colours at the same time. But I have not quitted and renounced the mathematick to fall into the metaphysick. Let us return to the pathway of the narrative.

Churchill and Courteously Rigid Discipline

From Harrow, Churchill managed to gain entrance (after repeated effort) to Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point.

From Winston S. Churchill's My Early Life, page 50 in the Folio Society edition.
I learned several things at Sandhurst which showed me how to behave and how officers of different ranks were expected to treat one another in the life and discipline of a regiment. My company commander, Major Ball, of the Welsh Regiment, was a very strict and peppery martinet. Formal, reserved, frigidly courteous, punctilious, impeccable, severe, he was held in the greatest awe. It had never been his fortune to go on active service, but we were none the less sure that he would have had to be killed to be beaten.

The rule was, that if you went outside the college bounds, you first of all wrote your name in the company leave-book, and might then assume that your request was sanctioned. One day I drove a tandem (hired) over to Aldershot to see a friend in the militia battalion then training there. As I drove down the Marlborough lines, whom should I meet but Major Ball himself driving a spanking dog-cart home to Sandhurst. As I took off my hat to him, I remembered with a flash of anxiety that I had been too lazy or careless to write my name in the leave-book. However, I thought, 'there is still a chance. He may not look at it until mess; and I will write my name down as soon as I get back.' I curtailed my visit to the militia battalion and hastened back to the college as fast as the ponies could trot. It was six o'clock when I got in. I ran along the passage to the desk where the leave-book lay, and the first thing that caught my eyes were the Major's initials, 'O.B.', at the foot of the leaves granted for the day. I was too late. He had seen me in Aldershot and had seen that my name was not in the book. Then I looked again, and there to my astonishment was my own name written in the Major's handwriting and duly approved by his initials.

This opened my eyes to the kind of life that existed in the old British Army and how the very strictest discipline could be maintained among officers without the slightest departure from the standards of a courteous and easy society. Naturally after such a rebuke I never was so neglectful again.

Churchill and Harrow

Harrow is one of the ancient (1572) public (i.e. not run by the state) boarding schools of England. Along with Eton, it is immensely rich in history and tradition. Harrow has produced nine of the UK's prime ministers, including Winston Churchill.

From Winston S. Churchill's My Early Life, page 15 in the Folio Society edition.
I had scarcely passed my twelfth birthday when I entered the inhospitable regions of examinations, through which for the next seven years I was destined to journey. These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in history, poetry and writing essays. The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to Latin and mathematics. And their will prevailed. Moreover, the questions which they asked on both these subjects were almost invariably those to which I was unable to suggest a satifactory answer. I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.

This was especially true of my entrance examination to Harrow. The Headmaster, Mr Welldon, however, took a broad-minded view of my Latin prose: he showed discernment in judging my general ability. This was the more remarkable, because I was found unable to answer a single question in the Latin paper. I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question '1'. After much reflection I put a bracket around it thus '(1)'. But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in paticular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle: and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations. I have always had the greatest regard for him.

Churchill's introduction to Latin

I am reading Winston S. Churchill's My Early Life, published originally in 1930 when he was 56 years old and his best and most historic roles still lay a decade ahead of him. The edition I am reading is from the Folio Society.

There are a series of vignettes that are such wonderful exemplars of his deft wit or are so evocative of an era that is now so completely vanished that I will be making a number of Thing Finder posts.

The first relates an incident attendant to his new (and first) boarding school to which he was sent when he was seven.

From My Early Life, Folio Society, page 12.
. . . and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown covered book filled with words in different types of print.

'You have never done any Latin before, have you?' he said.

'No, sir.'

'This is a Latin grammar." He opened it at a well-thumbed page. 'You must learn this,' he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. 'I will come back in half an hour and see what you know.'

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the first declension.

Mensa a table
Mensa O table
Mensam a table
Mensae of a table
Mensae to or for a table
Mensa by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.

In due course the Master returned.

'Have you learnt it?' he asked.

'I think I can say it, sir,' I replied; and I gabbled it off.

He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.

'What does it mean, sir?'

'It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the first declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the first declension.'

'But', I repeated, 'what does it mean?'

'Mensa means a table,' he answered.

'Then why does mensa also mean O table,' I enquired, 'and what does O table mean?'

'Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,' he replied.

'But why O table?' I persisted in genuine curiosity.

'O table - you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table.' And then seeing that he was not carrying me with him, 'You would use it in speaking to a table.'

'But I never do,' I blurted out in honest amazement.

'If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely,' was his conclusive rejoinder.
Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

I have no idea why . . .

but I find this tit-bit from Bernard Wasserstein's new book, Barbarism and Civilization and reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, to be oddly intriguing.
. . . Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania, whose favourite authors were Goethe, Kipling and Jerome K. Jerome.

Who knew?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Book Bitten

Here is a new children's books blogger with a nice entry about the pleasures of a used bookstore. Hooked on Books.

Measuring Up

As is so often the case, interesting facts, when acknowledged at all, often get buried under political spinning and invective. But there are antidotes and grass-roots efforts and much that can be done at a personal level to strike some balance.

As an example of the first situation, an interesting fact overshadowed by how it is presented, please see the article by Catherine Shock and Jay P. Greene, Adding Up to Failure, in the Winter edition of the City Journal. The authors did some research which turned up an interesting fact: among top ranked education schools, nearly twice as many courses are offered around multiculturalism and diversity as are offered around math.

Interestingly they lead and end the article with perfectly sound propositions.

A good education requires balance. Students should learn to appreciate a variety of cultures, sure, but they also need to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

and then
The issue isn't whether we should be teaching cultural awareness in education colleges or in public schools; it's about priorities. Besides, our students probably have great appreciation already for students from other cultures—who're cleaning their clocks in math skills, and will do so economically, too, if we don't wise up.

One could quibble with their methodology as outlined in the article but I suspect that their key finding is materially correct. It certainly maps to experiences we have had with the teachers of our children, individuals who as a group are broadly well intentioned, motivated and effective teachers but frequently light on the analytic/scientific side of things. And I don't think this is unique to the US, we experienced it with our kids in school in the UK and Australia as well.

This hits one of my hot buttons. I view mathematics and numeracy in general to be part of a continuum with reading - they are all part of the symbolic representation of an external reality. Literacy lends itself to a fine nuanced comprehension of reality, particularly non-quantifiable aspects of reality (such as beliefs, feelings, etc.) while numeracy at the other end of the scale, lends itself to more testable aspects of reality.

So a finding such as this, that our educators are being over-exposed at one end of the continuum and underexposed at the other is a fair issue to raise and debate. The authors of the article ought to be commended for the effort to shed light on the issue.

It is unfortunate then, that the body of the article is laced with derogatory or mocking comments (e.g. "professors are a self-perpetuatiing clicque") and with belittling comments (e.g. "prospective teachers haven't cried out for more math courses because such courses tend to be harder than those involving multiculturalism".) That tone tends to overshadow the real research they have done and the validity of the point they have raised.

Fortunately, regardless of how things get reported, there are things that can be done. It is someone else's fight to figure out whether teachers in education programs need to be better trained in rigorous and analytical thinking. I leave that to them.

As parents though there is plenty we can do through the books we choose for our kids. The nonficiton wing of children's books has long been sort of a red-headed step child. None-the-less there are great books out there that stock the minds of our children with useful information and help develop the capacity for observation, measurement, analysis and constructive skepticism. TTMD is slowly beginning to build a set of book lists to that end (for example see the book list, Teaching Children to Observe.)

There is a new children's book blog as well that was just launched this month, I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) that is aimed at bringing attention to the quality books in this genre that can enhance the lives of our children.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Don't mess with Librarians - "They also abandoned other volumes, later, while fleeing from the librarians."

Oh, this is a good one. Here is a US Court of Appeals decision concerning an attempted theft of rare books from a university library collection. The story is on pages two through five. The rest is the legal reasoning behind the judges decision and while it is interesting it is not as laugh-out-loud as the summary of the actual facts.

Hooray for Mrs. Gooch, Ms. Brown and the other librarians, front line defenders of our book heritage.

From the judges summary of the facts (my emphasis added)
Mrs. Gooch had realized that, due to the department's security measures, Lipka and Borsuk could not re-enter the Special Collections Department from the elevator, and she had begun to free herself to call for help. She yelled to Susan Brown that they were being robbed, and Ms. Brown wheeled around to pursue the robbers.

She caught up to them in a stairwell where they were attempting to open the emergency exit and, surprised by her arrival and aggressive confrontation, they dropped several objects - specifically, the two remaining volumes of the Birds of North America four-volume set (they had left two volumes atop the pink bed sheet in the Special Collections Department) and the two volumes of the Quadrupeds three-volume set (one of the three volumes had been left behind, stuck in its drawer in the Special Collections Department). Lipka and Borsuk fled through the emergency door carrying five objects (Hortus Sanitatis, the 20 pencil drawings, Synopsis of the Birds of North America, Origin of Species, and Illuminated Manuscript), with Ms. Brown and other librarians in hot pursuit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays

Indian Giver

Indian giver - one that gives something to another and then takes it back or expects an equivalent in return.
One of those childhood school-yard taunts whose meaning is relatively clear. But where did it come from? Why an Indian giver?

I came across the answer in The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde. It is one of those little vignettes that illustrate all the pitfalls of communication that bedevil even the most well-intended travellers - miscommunication arising not from the words we use or misuse but of the assumptions that we carry without being aware of them.
When the Puritans first landed in Massachusetts, they discovered a thing so curious about the Indians' feelings for property that they felt called upon to give it a name. In 1764, when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, the term was already an old saying: "An Indian gift," he told his readers, "is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected." We still use this, of course, and in an even broader sense, calling that friend an Indian giver who is so uncivilized as to ask us to return a gift he has given.

Imagine a scene. An Englishman comes into an Indian lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, ask him to share a pipe of tobacco. Carved from a soft red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated among the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as is only polite among their people, give the pipe to their guest when he leaves. The Englishman is tickled pink. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on the mantlepiece. A time passes and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonist's home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe, and his translator finally expains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property. The opposite of "Indian giver" would be something like "white man keeper" (or maybe "capitalist"), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum (or, more to the point for captialism, to lay it aside to be used for production).

The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away. As it is passed along, the gift may be given back to the original donor, but this is not essential. In fact, it is better if the gift is not returned but is given instead to some new, third party. The only essential is: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps moving.

Just Communicate - Coping with the Caveman in the Crib

There is an intersting article by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times on February 5, 2008, Coping with the Caveman in the Crib. Not a panacea for a wailing child but an interesting insight.
Dr. Karp tries to teach parents the skills to communicate with and soothe tantrum-prone children. In doing so, however, he redefines what being a toddler means. In his view, toddlers are not just small people. In fact, for all practical purposes, they're not even small Homo sapiens.

Dr. Karp notes that in terms of brain development, a toddler is primitive, an emotion-driven, instinctive creature that has yet to develop the thinking skills that define modern humans. Logic and persuasion, common tools of modern parenting, "are meaningless to a Neanderthal," Dr. Karp says.

The challenge for parents is learning how to communicate with the caveman in the crib. "All of us get more primitive when we get upset, that's why they call it ‘going ape,' " Dr. Karp says. "But toddlers start out primitive, so when they get upset, they go Jurassic on you."