Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Merry Christmas

I think I’ll make the reposting of this an annual tradition:

What I Like About Scrooge

scroogeHere’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Oh, it might be slightly more complicated than that. Maybe when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined. But that’s fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.

Dickens tells us that the Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his 50 cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should—presumably for a houseful of guests who lavishly praised his generosity. The bricks, mortar, and labor that built the Mansion House might otherwise have built housing for hundreds; Scrooge, by living in three sparse rooms, deprived no man of a home. By employing no cooks or butlers, he ensured that cooks and butlers were available to some other household where guests reveled in ignorance of their debt to Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Happy Holidays

I’ll probably blog very little over the next ten days or so, in recognition of the fact that most of you won’t be reading. (On the other hand, if, say, the New York Times publishes something sufficiently egregious, I might not be able to restrain myself. Meanwhile, for your holiday pleasure, here’s the Christmas column I published in Slate in 2004:

What I Like About Scrooge

scroogeHere’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Oh, it might be slightly more complicated than that. Maybe when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined. But that’s fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.

Dickens tells us that the Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his 50 cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should—presumably for a houseful of guests who lavishly praised his generosity. The bricks, mortar, and labor that built the Mansion House might otherwise have built housing for hundreds; Scrooge, by living in three sparse rooms, deprived no man of a home. By employing no cooks or butlers, he ensured that cooks and butlers were available to some other household where guests reveled in ignorance of their debt to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Continue reading ‘Happy Holidays’

Ages of Innocence

Reading Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, it strikes me that this must have been the Mad Men of 1920. That was the publication date, but the story is set 50 years earlier, in a world poised on the edge of cultural upheaval. The characters are blind to how dramatically the world is about to change, and to how much better their lives might be if only they could break out of the social strictures of their time. They manage to be both charmingly quaint and tragically foolish. We care about them, but we also want to take them by the shoulders and shake them into something more like ourselves.

As Edith Wharton viewed the 1870s, and as Mad Men views the 1960s, so the fiction of the mid-to-late 21st century will probably view us. Which of our quaint but tragically foolish ways do you think it will emphasize?

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A Christmas Post

In the spirit of the season, I offer you one of the most popular of my old Slate columns. Merry Christmas.

What I Like About Scrooge

Here’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Continue reading ‘A Christmas Post’

The Times, They’ve Been a Changin’

I have recently finished reading Hunters and Gatherers, a (quite good) novel written and set in 1991, which includes the following plot elements:

1) A door-to-door saleswoman pitches (hardcopy) encyclopedias to customers who eagerly seek easy access to vast quantities of information.

2) A man is eager to read an obscure novel he’s heard about, so he scours used book stores, hoping to find a copy. In the meantime, he’s not sure what the novel is about, and has no way to find out.

3) A comedian stores his collection of jokes on notecards, filling two rooms worth of file cabinets.

4) A collector of sound effects stores her collection on cassette tapes, and has no cost-effective way to create backups.

5) A man is unable to stay in close contact with his (adult) children, because long distance calling rates are prohibitively high.

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