31. Personal Libraries

I have a confession to make: I am an addict. I cannot help collecting ever more books.
I have been bringing books into the house for decades so some volumes are  now crammed three deep into the bookshelves  of every room.  My study (to which no one is invited) now resembles the redoubt of a recluse with books stacked to waist level. Questions arise: How did this come about ? What was I trying to prove? Is the digital age now threatening to change  such compulsion?

Let’s make it clear from the start that I do not consider myself a bibliophile like
Chris Foyle. Nor do I collect books for the rarity, for their bindings nor as an investment.
Books which were originally seen by me as a research tool have come to represent a
kind of mind/life support system as well as a bizarre form of elitist exhibitionism.

All of this goes against the digitized, Wikipedia spirit of our times.Kindle makes me
wonder whether my collection  which I consider as a testimonial to the breadth of my
interests  as well as a backstop to my convictions, simply brands me as antediluvian?

I grew up with a book-loving heritage: a steady stream of books entered the
New York apartment of my European parents. The fabulous Widener Library at Harvard,
with its millions of volumes, was to become my baptismal fountain of books. I was
permanently converted to purveying endless alphabetically arranged shelves.
Roaming through the then “open” stacks was an excellent way to broaden my perspective. Today when I search for Emily Dickinson in my small poetry section I note that she is nestled between Dante and Duncan.

My first “real” job when I graduated  was to sell books at the B.Altman
department store in New York. Their prestigious bookshop specialized in
leather-bound sets which were much sought-after by interior decorators.
They were eager to buy by them by their shelf  length and color. It was there
that I met a young student who came looking for a set of John Locke and
who later became my wife.

A home full of books was never my dream. It just worked out that way.
As a writer and foreign correspondent living in England, I chose to live
near the Cambridge University library where I could do my research.
However, I did not like their stacking system and bit by bit began to acquire
research volumes in my study. The rest is history. My eclectic collection is now
divided into a number of categories including: architecture, art, biography, biology,
classical (Greek and Roman), economics, fiction, genetics, media, Melanesia,
philosophy, photography, poetry,  psychology, reference, sculpture, sociology,
the UK, and the U.S.

I find physical objects such as books extremely satisfying and the new electronic
technology challenging. Amazon advertises its latest ereader by claiming that its
“pages are virtually indistinguishable from a physical book.” The virtuality of such
salesmanship immediately becomes a matter for contention. Silicon valley is
eagerly re-imagining the core experience of handling a physical entity. Many of the
new digital formats mimic features of classic book formats as we have known them.

Under frontal attack from digital screens, the printed word on paper is shrinking.
For me the bound book remains my touch-stone to both the worlds of pleasure
and knowledge. I sometimes think that without my books I would be a
mental cripple, I also wonder what might happen if a solar flare were to
wipe out most of our electronic communications. Perhaps small libraries
would then become temples of worship?

Living room bookshelves may be on the way to becoming relics of bourgeois
affectation and coffee-table exhibitionism. However it is likely that collections
like mine in the age of digitized books will soon be irrelevant. For the untold
masses who will have unlimited and immediate access to hundreds of thousands
of volumes as well as the latest  information on every imaginable subject,
this  hopefully will mark a huge leap forward.

A dozen or so books of 2013 I would recommend  for 2014!

SOMEONE (fiction)by Alice McDermott
THE CIRCLE (fiction) Dave Eggers
OUR ANDROMEDA,( Poems )  by Brenda Shaughnessy
THE FLAME ALPHABET (fiction) by Ben Marcus
ANSELM KIEFER STUDIOS .(Sculptures.) by Daniele Cohn
MUSIC AT MIDNIGHT, The life and Poetry of George Herbert ,
by John Drury
THE BULLY PULPIT, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and the Golden Age
of Journalism by Doris Kearns
THE UNWINDING, An Inner History of the New America by
George Packer
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, the lives of American veterans on
their return from conflict, by David Finkel
GABRIELE D’ANNUNCIO: Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy
WHEN THE MONEY RUNS OUT: The End of Western Affluence by
Stephen King

30. 21st Century Sexual Mores

The extraordinary rapidity of change in our lives over the past two generations has not left our sex-lives unaffected. A handful of factors reign supreme: The birth control pill, the Internet, our extended life spans, greater sexual equality, and the resulting openness on our sexual behavior — although not necessarily in that disorder. In 2013 both the social concern and the changing outlook have led to massive over-exposure as evidenced by the stream of daily media coverage: features on gay marriage, sexting, restrictions on prostitution, paedophilia and pornography are complemented by the exploitation of sexuality in advertising.

One of the foremost challenges facing the older generations is how to deal with the sexual education of the young. It is said that Internet pornography has become the leading educator for children between the ages of 10 and 15.1 The effects of this are evident when a vast number girls in the UK between the ages of 13 and 16 shave their public hair because they think boys expect this as all women in porn films are shaven. Alas, for many youths spending hours on end glued to their screens, life on the Internet is their first life and real life comes second.

Many parents find it difficult to acknowledge that sex is an aspect of the process of maturing for which they deserve to be educated. Few can admit that sex begins even before birth: In the womb unborn males may experience erections. Both genders often masturbate while babies and toddlers harbor a natural interest in their genitals as they do in all other basic activities.2 It is impossible to deal with the sexual education of children by sweeping the facts of life under the carpet as the Victorians attempted to do. We are all sexual beings — the product of mating. To accept this means recognizing the various forms our sexual drives may take. It also demands open-mindedness and understanding which many religions have denied.

Acceptance is not always easy. Even Romans struggled with the problem of incest, for example. My descriptions of father-daughter incest in the Augustan age proved painful for many readers. Yet it mirrored this recurrent theme in Ovid some 2000 years earlier!3. The promiscuity of the Roman gods was driven by the sexual desires and drives of the creators. Divine communion was often portrayed as sexual intercourse between gods disguised as animals and humans. Romans were also fascinated by sexual duality. When gender identity is ambiguous, as in hermaphrodites, it challenges our conceptions of who we are writes psychiatrist Coline Covington.4 In part this is because it can also “trigger anxieties about our own unconscious homosexual fantasies.”

Rapidly many of us in the western world are catching up with the Romans in the acceptance of homosexual relations. This has certainly been one of the most reported advances in the United States and Europe in the past few years. Even the new Pope is bravely trying to cope with the complexities this problem presents for the Catholic Church. Here the younger generation has been much more open than their elders.

There is now far greater tolerance of sexual experimentation than two generations ago. The recognition of the elements of bisexuality in our being has become more widespread. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Life Styles has revealed that in the UK the population has become increasingly accepting of sexual diversity. For example, Growing numbers of women in the UK have had some kind of homosexual experience.5 Censorship of sex scenes in motion pictures has also become far more relaxed. Even sexually explicit S&M in the film being shot of Fifty Shades of Grey is most likely to pass censorship.

The desire of large numbers of both men and women to express themselves through exhibitionism has become evident on the internet. Some would seem far more eager to display their private parts than their faces!  Pushed by the glamour of the young film stars, many women, desirous of being admired for their bodies, are having their lips, breasts, buttocks and even their labia enhanced. But there is also protest here from the older generation. (I receive dozens of unsolicited emails every week for male enhancement!) The still youthful actress Lynne Segal writes: I see the media’s endless production of eroticized young female flesh as feeding a sense of shame attached to older women’s bodies.”6

The extended lifespan of both men and women has created its own set of sexual challenges. Many women in their seventies and eighties still have strong sexual yearnings but fewer opportunities for relations with men. A discouraging 70 percent of women over 65 in the UK now live alone. I did not come across a figure for the number of men over 65 in a similar position.

All too many members of society sit uneasily with the notion that when it comes to sex, “anything goes.” The extreme levels of narcissism are increasingly matched by the practice of sex without attachment. Sexual mores no longer seem be keeping up with the unprecedented advances in communication. The rapid decay of any sexual boundary in the 21st century disturbs both editors and readers. They see pornography with its often brutalizing images as dehumanizing the pleasurable vistas of sex.

So where is sex going? The institution of marriage is suffering in part because of the greater economic and social equality for women. They have become bread winners as well as wives, mothers and lovers. A fundamental change has been the equalization of desire between women and men for sexual satisfaction. Women have become open about their wants and sexual needs. The “cougars” of tomorrow are likely to be far more public. However, excessive exposure could swiftly lead to boredom before turning into fatigue!

It is likely that marriage rates will continue to decline for a while before the sexes reach a truer equality and the decision to have and raise children will become steadier. For the destiny of sexual desires resides with our children. Those now in the ages between 25 and 50 look back on their divorced parents and grandparents with their serial or “open” marriages and their sexual betrayals and say: “No, thanks. We don’t want more of that!”

The “Bad Sex” awards by the Literary Review (UK) are getting more tawdry with very passing year. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future there finally will be a “Good Sex” award … and a reward for its many joys to all of us as humans.

1See Cindy Gallop in a TED talk promoting her web site www.makelovenotporn.com
2Hannah Betts, “We can’t shelter kids from sex completely,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, p.19
3Yorick Blumenfeld, The Waters of Forgetfulness (2009)
4Coline Covington, Shrinking the News (2013) p.115.
5“Love in a cold climate,” The Economist, November 30, 2013
6Lynne Segal, “Growing old erotically,” The Guardian, December 16, 2013


This is a contemporary match between apostasy v. faith:  Of pronouncements on greed (acquisitive desire beyond reason) by the Mayor of London and a disparagement of capitalism by the new Pope. Francis’s teachings on faith and morals were in direct opposition to Boris Johnson’s (hereafter to be referred to as Borisconi) rather unexpected entry into the ranks of “The Good Book” revisionists. According to Borisconi, such basic sins as envy and greed are now to be hailed, along with the avaricious billionaire bankers of The City who have prospered in dubious ways and have skillfully avoided most of their taxes through multiple offshore accounts. I could not have been more surprised if Borisconi had declared his unstinted admiration of the bunga-bunga parties of Italy’s former prime minister.

Pope Francis, in marked contrast to Borisconi, goes back not only to The Bible for his perspective on the importance of human values and virtues but also very much to Plato and Aristotle who viewed the greatness of the human soul as based on absolute and supreme non-earthly values. Greed and envy are most definitely not in good standing in The Bible nor in the Pope’s heart. Ovid, writing at the time of Christ’s birth, described envy as “the meanest of vices, creeping on the ground like a serpent.” That is close to how the Pope views envy as well.

In his first written apostolic exhortation The Pope urges Christians to pay attention to the poor — which capitalism largely ignores. The Gospels have little to offer the free-market capitalism which Pope Francis describes as “tyranny.” The Pope does not mince his words in denouncing the greed and envy at the heart of the economic system now dominating not only the world but even our souls. In capitalism “profit” is the driving motivating force.  The enormous social inequalities which this system is producing are of no direct concern to such capitalist enthusiasts as Borisconi.

In his lecture, the mayor said: “I stress — I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spurt to economic activity.”1 While his admiration for the hedge-fund kings was unabashed, he claimed it was “futile” to try ending inequality.2 According to this wannabe leader of the Tory party, the pursuit of material gain is an essential contributor to our basic values.

Borisconi’s approach to poverty is to take a rather mean-spirited approach towards the “undeserving poor.” The Victorians had a motto: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.” This outlook has been brought up to date by the mayor’s first dabbling into the field of genetic inheritance: “It is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2% have an IQ above 130.” To be fair to Borisconi, he added that more aid should be given to help that 2%. But his reference to “our species” aroused loud hoots in the British media.

Pope Francis counters that wealth and income inequality tend to soar where capitalism has triumphed. The Pope bewails the moral disgrace of so many children living in abject poverty. Alas, the plutocrats of the world, so applauded by Borisconi, are making headway in preserving the rules of an economic system that is rigged in their favor in this winner-take-all casino.

Having lost his bearings on both values and meaning, Borisconi has steered his career by polls and economic verbiage which serve as pseudo-values. Ironically by hailing the greed, selfishness, envy and competition which capitalism encourages, the mayor undermines the very values of the community which elected him. One must ask why the Mayor urges his electorate to admire those working in The City? These suited laborers spend endless, stressful and joyless hours in front of screens exploiting not only others but also themselves (and ruining their vision in the process) for the sake of accumulating paper profits which exceed any they may ever enjoy.

A politician of historical worth, President Theodore Roosevelt, warned that “Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do to ourselves when we let the vice of envy and hatred enter deep into our own nature.”3 Today’s politicians, when funded by billionaires, would not dare to utter such words. But to be honest, when it comes to defining evil and morality, Borisconi would not know one from the other. Worshiping the god called money is apostasy. 4 Pope Francis openly deplored the fact many believers have come to value profit above faith.

To turn greed and envy into human values is heresy of the first order of magnitude and contrary to the teachings of all the major religions and philosophies of the past.5 We have passed the era of ex-Communication, but Borisconi’s mental lapses certainly are sufficient to dismiss him from the ranks of those concerned with our humanity and exile him to serve as a clown in the court of Rupert Murdoch!

1Boris Johnson, The Margaret Thatcher lecture, (London) November 27, 2013

2Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz states that “Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.” Joseph E.Stiglitz, “Inequality is a choice,” New York Times (Intl.) October 15, 2013

3August 23, 1902.

4“Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate by turning desire for gain into the sole motive. It easily manages to outweigh all other motives because the effort it demands of the mind is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and so simple as a row of figures,” wrote Simone Weil many years before computers entered our lives. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, (1952) p.42

5The New Testament states: “You may be certain that no one who is immoral, indecent or greedy ( for greed is a form of idolatry) will ever enter the kingdom of Christ and of God.” Ephesians 5