I'm making a push to finish Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness so I can say I read a classic novel in '16, in conformance with my New Years resolution of 15 or so years ago. (MarkB and several others recommended that I pick a short book and try to cram for 2016. I'm game.) Kindle says I'm 34% finished, so I have some reading to do today.
The Kindle e-book I downloaded cost nothing, like many classic texts in the public domain. There were a number of choices. I downloaded one that said it was "Illustrated."
It also said it came with a "Free Audiobook." I wasn't able to manage the convoluted series of steps and signups and downloads it would have taken to extract the allegedly free audiobook from the tubes of the internets, but it doesn't matter because apparently the audiobook was an "abridged" version. I always liked that word; I visualize readers bypassing the ravines and chasms of the boring parts of books with the aid of bridges. But abridged...really? Heart of Darkness is a novella, barely longer than a long short story. Faulkner wrote sentences that were longer.
Okay, he didn't really.
And the Kindle book is "illustrated," all right...with JPEGs of what look to be Frederic Remington paintings of American Wild West scenes. (Heart of Darkness is about colonialism in Africa.) They're illustrations, all right—generically, anyway—but they have zero to do with the book. I read almost nothing but e-books these days, but e-books, it must be said, still have quite a bit of evolving left to do. There is a great deal to be said for printed books, which are highly evolved and sometimes rise to the level, even, of art. I'd love to know the process by which these particular illustrations got added to this particular book file. How did that whole process break down so badly?
But what can you say? Things go wrong.
Things go wrong, all right. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely keeping up with entropy. My four-and-a-half-year-old washing machine has broken down, and will cost more than half the price of a new one to fix. (Its motherboard went bad. Are you getting that? My washing machine has a motherboard.) It's been broken for two weeks; the part has arrived—the new motherboard—but my next service appointment is on January third.
And not only that, but at the same time, my water heater, which also dates from 2012, went kerplooie and needs to be replaced altogether. You're getting the part about four and a half years, right? Fortunately, the water heater, unlike the washing machine, is still under warranty, so it will be replaced for only a $50 upcharge. (The upcharge is because they don't make 52-gallon tanks any more; the new ones are 50-gallon tanks. A direct replacement would have been free, but they can't make a direct replacement. Another way of looking at that is that it's $25 to me per gallon of diminished capacity, but let's try not to look at it like that.) Counting the plumber's labor charges, I might get out from under that one for less than $300 if I'm lucky. But in the meantime, I haven't been able to wash clothes or sheets for two weeks, and now I can't take a shower or run the dishwasher either. Looks like my little annus horribilis (Latin for "lousy year") is ending with a few little twists of the knife, just to put a cap on things. One last little flourish.
A pox on planned obsolescence. The washing machine vendor wants me to buy an "extended warranty"...for $49 a month. Yes, it would cover all my appliances, but fer Pete's sake. Who do they think they are, Adobe?
You have to put things in perspective, though. A photographer friend who lives in New York City had a gas leak, and the repair has to be approved by City inspectors before his gas can be turned back on...and City inspectors are working on a two-week backlog. So my friend's gas leak is fixed, but he doesn't have heat or hot water until the inspectors get around to him. He says he's taking it one day at a time.
All I have to do is sit at the launderette reading Joseph Conrad illustrated with cowboys and Indians on horseback. Could be worse.
It's almost as if business in general is morphing quietly into an art of gentle, legal extortion. I almost hesitate to mention this, for fear of creating a jinx, but I really hope camera manufacturers aren't sitting around large tables this very minute plotting ways to extract more cash from us with manipulative schemes involving planned obsolescence, extended warranties, service plans, and monthly service fees. Because, really, it's bad enough that I buy a new camera every three years when there's nothing wrong with the old one; but, let's admit, it could be worse.
My e-book copy of Heart of Darkness. It's illustrated!! What a bonus.
The White Whale...and the White Dog
This post should end right there, but, speaking of reading plans, listen to what I did yesterday: I found a serviceable free e-text of Moby-Dick (did you know the actual title includes the hyphen? True) on Kindle-for-the-Cloud, or whatever it's called, and also sampled more than a dozen audiobooks of Moby-Dick on iTunes. I downloaded an audiobook version narrated by a voice actor called Anthony Heald (this process took an hour and a call to Applecare tech support, and the tech support guy was flummoxed too at first, and proud of himself when he finally figured out what had gone wrong—did I mention that things go wrong?). So I've set myself up so that I can display the text of Moby-Dick writ large on my 27" screen, while at the same time listening to Anthony reading it to me. It's quite nice.
Things do go right sometimes. For example, I needed a new rug for the living room, and for half a year I had my eye on one I liked that was too expensive for me. Finally it disappeared from the website—sold out. Rats. Lost my chance.
But then I got a big idea, and did a reverse image search on the catalogue picture. I found the same rug at Overstock for almost but not quite half price! And it was the last one they had! I ordered it, feeling smug, like you feel when you score what you think is a bargain.
Trouble is, the rug they sent looked quite a bit different from the JPEG in the catalog. Not just a different color; it had different design elements, too. So after another hour or so with Customer Service, Overstock agreed to send a UPS call tag for it, pay return shipping, and give me a refund.
So far so good, right? Well, then Butters threw up on the rug. Twice.
So of course I couldn't in good conscience return it after that (even though it cleaned up nicely), so I had to call off UPS and cancel the return.
So what's good about this story? Well...the plumber liked the rug.
So there's that.
By the way, the two most famous printed editions of Moby-Dick (besides the first) are the three-volume Lakeside Press Edition of 1930, with illustrations by Rockwell Kent, limited to 1,000 copies; and the splendid Arion Press Edition of 1979, with illustrations by Barry Moser, limited to 265 copies. I believe, although I am not certain, that each is considered the masterpiece of their respective illustrators. But both are unquestionably masterpieces of bookmaking and highly prized, and command prices of many thousands of dollars when they are available at all (my ambition would be just to lay eyes on them, once). Both have been reproduced in diminished trade versions that reproduce the masterful typography and illustrations. Even the Folio Society edition with the Kent illustrations is getting up towards a grand now. At least the illustrations in both these cases actually relate to the text.
So I have plans to finish Moby-Dick in 2017. Isn't it fitting that the book about the White Whale is the metaphorical white whale of my minimalist novel-reading program? Voyaging to the bitter end with Mr. Heald in my ear is definitely one of my resolutions for the coming year.
I shall end here with that. Please check back next year at this time, to see how I did.
(Thanks for all the swell book recommendations yesterday.
You got me enthused and energized.)
P.S. By a wonderful coincidence, Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote a popular nonfiction book about the only real-life sinking of a whale ship by a whale (it was called In the Heart of the Sea), has a sort-of new book out called Why Read Moby-Dick? Maybe my timing is okay after all.
P.P.S. Longtime readers will recall my former epic obsession with "The Great White Squirrel." (I see I've repeated myself somewhat in recent days, but oh, well.) I never did get a good photograph of the white squirrel. Wildlife photography, it turns out, is hard.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Geoff Wittig: "I own three books from Andrew Hoyem's Arion Press, the best being his lovely Shakespeare's Sonnets, but can only dream about his Moby-Dick. Hoyem's books over time have tended toward more modernist literature rather than hoary classics, so there'll never be anything like it again. I was fortunate enough to stumble across a copy of the limited edition University of California Press slip-cased facsimile of Hoyem's Moby-Dick at a used bookstore in Rochester. I think I paid $150 for it, which my wife thought insane. But it now goes for $1,250–$1,650, so I tried to persuade her that it was a good purchase. Her reply: 'That just proves all you book collectors are insane.'"
Mike adds: Speaking of that insanity, Geoff knows, but maybe some others do not, that Nicholas Basbanes' great classic about book collecting is called A Gentle Madness. It's a great nonfiction read if you like books, a comprehensive window into the world of rare books and collecting, which has a rich lore and a vivid history. Warmly recommended.
Here are a few photos of the UC Press facsimile Geoff mentions, probably the most desirable edition of M-D for ordinary people to aspire to, provided by Mike Plews, who also owns a copy:
Bob Keefer: "Anthony Heald is a veteran actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in the small southern Oregon town of Ashland—which is kind of a world capitol for audiobook narrators, since so many very good actors live there. So no surprise you picked his version. He was, if I recall, Eliza's father a couple years ago in a great production of 'My Fair Lady.'"
Jarle Vikshåland: "Regarding Moby Dick—check out the Moby Dick Big Read—each chapter read by a diffrent person. Tilda Swindon reads Chapter One, and one of my absolute favorites—Chapter Nine, 'The Sermon,' is read by Simon Callow—it's just over 20 minutes long and has Jonah and the whale as its theme. Each chapter is illustrated by a different artist. Well worth a listen."
Mike adds: Terry Letton points out that the 21st Annual Moby-Dick Marathon is just about to get underway at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Peter Conway: "I sympathize with you. My four-month-old Sony alarm clock went off, as requested, at 7 a.m. this morning. I hit the snooze button, as usual, but the alarm didn't snooze. Tried again, with no luck. I hit the button to turn off the alarm, but it kept going. I unplugged it from the wall, but—wait for it—it kept going, thanks to battery backup. Flipped it over to remove the battery, but it requires a Phillips-head screw driver to open, and I don't happen to sleep with one nearby.
"By this time the dogs were looking mighty agitated, so I stumbled down two flights of stairs to the basement, tossed the clock into a room, shut the door, and went to start my day. On the one hand, the alarm certainly did its job—I was WIDE awake—but the user experience left a lot to be desired."
Alan Farthing: "Mike I said, in response to another article, that I hike several days a week. Today was meant to be one such day. However I shall be 'enjoying' the day repairing our washing machine instead. So yes I really do feel your pain!"
Thomas Paul McCann (partial comment): "Re planned obsolescence, I seem to recall Ralph Nader in Unsafe at Any Speed saying that General Motors calculated that the average mileage of their new cars before replacement was in the region of 30,000 miles. Not giving a fig about the secondhand buyer, they downgraded certain parts that were lasting way beyond 30,000 miles to save money."
Mike replies: I understand the principle, but what's the benefit to washing machine manufacturers of having the machines break down right at the holidays? Alan and I have better things to do, like hiking and reading Heart of Darkness.
I remember reading in the '70s or '80s that Porsche developed a prototype of a "20-year car"—an automobile designed from the start for a 20-year service life. All the parts were overbuilt and understressed, all the known problem spots addressed. The bean counters, of course, killed it. The problem was that it would have had incrementally less performance and incrementally more cost (I think something like 20% or 30% in both cases) and the marketers determined that people wouldn't pay for mere longevity if it came with those penalties.
On the other hand, years ago I knew a guy who had a Honda Prelude with 420,000 miles on it. When his car payments ended, he determined to take an amount equaling one-third of his former payments and to devote that amount to annual maintenance—telling the mechanics to do whatever needed doing and replace whatever needed replacing. The car looked quite shabby, but he said he still liked it and it still drove fine. He told me something like, "Now I have to keep it, because I have to find out how much longer I can keep it going."
The opposite of planned obsolescence (one of the few words I have trouble spelling, by the bye, another being "ophthalmology") is the story of M. Allen Swift, who was given a Springfield Rolls-Royce Piccadilly P1 Roadster by his father in 1928 as a graduation present, and drove it until his death at age 102, putting 170,000 miles on it. It's instructive that these days, the value of "luxury" cars tends to plummet quickly, because excessive ongoing maintenance costs overpower their utility as cars quite quickly—in other words, there's lots to go wrong and what does go wrong is dreadfully expensive to fix. These are truly cars built for their first owners only—and thus flagrantly wasteful in a number of ways. At his death Mr. Smith bequeathed $1 million and his Rolls to the Springfield Museums, AKA the Quadrangle, in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I'm told the car is on display today.
Chas: "I hope that this note doesn't count as hubris and bring down the wrath of the gods on my washer and dryer, but as I sit here in my library I can hear, in a distant part of the house, the sound of my 1976 Maytag washer working on part of this week's laundry. The washer and dryer were bought forty years and three months ago. They have both needed some service in that time, but nothing that couldn't be done with a screwdriver and a wrench. Original cost $1,025, cost for parts over the forty years about $300.
"I have a generally low opinion of extended warranties, but if your $49 per month had started in '76 the total cost would have been $24,000. Even if it had been half that it would be far beyond exorbitant. I am not looking forward to the day when our units fail and we have to join the current repair/replace cycle. Happy New Year!"
Mike replies: That's what gets me. I left one of those '70s Maytags, still working fine, in my first Wisconsin house. Somebody should build a replica! This was a solved problem. We had this problem solved with those Maytags and their ilk. We made it into a problem again so that more people could harvest more money off us. Bah.
Happy New Year to you too.