Thursday, June 2, 2011

By Guess and Golly

In the absence of a lens, a guess must do. After a lifetime of observing the essentially invisible Great Economy through the lens of statistics—and seeing that the numbers do indeed confirm what intuition tells me—it pains me that we lack a suitable census of vital cultural indicators. I’d love to have a census, for example, of the kind of books that bookstores routinely stocked in 1950, to pick a year, and stocked, later, in 2000 say.

I’ll tell you why. I learned yesterday that Robert Graves had translated Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, something of which I hadn’t been aware, and promptly ordered the Penguin edition from Had the same thing happened in the 1950s, when I lived in Kansas City, I would’ve gone to Brentano’s on the Plaza confident, dead certain, that I would find it there—or to my public library, ditto. But over decades I’ve discovered that such reliance would simply mean a wasted trip. Somewhere in the middle between the ‘50s and the ‘00s, I sometimes still found books like that in small, crowded bookshops, the kind once found sandwiched between a beauty parlour and a knick-knack shop—but these stores disappeared in turn. In this neighborhood they went from four to none; they stopped paying rent and started selling on the web. Meanwhile the chains got bigger, their footprints grew, the titles on offer increased enormously, but what they offered narrowed in proportion. Pop began to climb 50, 60, 70, 80 percent; culture declined and classics dropped to 20, 10, 5, 2 percent. Not surprisingly my own expenditures drastically dropped too. I’m personally responsible for Border’s bankruptcy no doubt.

Now having studied economic and social matters both by feel and by the numbers, I’m quite confident in my own powers of assessment. Thus, in the absence of the statistical lens—and left to my own guesses—I’m certain that cultural knowledge has shrunk dramatically. Indeed I’d venture to guess that booksellers mirror publishers. Hence more and more frequently Amazon, my last resort, still has the books I used to find in nearby stores, but Amazon finds them in the hands of the shrinking pool of used booksellers and acts only as an intermediary.

I wonder if a parallel exists between water and cultural resources. Seems so. China is now robbing southern Paul to quench the thirst of northern Peter. Living right next to the Great Lakes, I look with narrowed eyes at Texas, thinking: Don’t even think about it, amigo!


  1. Oh, but we will! :)

    My mother works for the Bureau of Reclamation which handles matters like dams and irrigations; and the politics of what state gets what water becomes very complicated very quickly. By the time you get down close to the Gulf of Mexico, the mighty Rio Grande is a fifth of what it once was. The Rio Grande is over-appropriated -- there are more demands on the river than the river can supply, and the fact that any water reaches the Gulf is largely due to the fact that it is replenished right at the end by the Rio Conchos; a bit before that at Presidio it's down to mud and trickles.

    It seems we may have to get used to over-appropriation of our cultural rivers, too.

  2. Not to mention changes to language. The Rio Grande becoming a dry bed, we shall have to abandon "wetback" for "dryback."


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