This Month In Books: ‘How Thick Was the Cane?’ and Other Questions About Things

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

Dear Reader,

“The Senate committee asked as many questions about the cane as they did about Brooks,” Jason Phillips writes regarding the aftermath of the famous incident in which Congressman Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. Questions such as,

“‘Do you know anything of the relative specific gravity of a gutta percha cane or of a hickory cane?’ ‘How thick was the cane used by Mr. Brooks?’ Witnesses who owned pieces of the cane brought them to the Senate investigation in their pockets. They asked the doctor who attended to Sumner if repeated blows to the head with a stick ‘from one half to five-eights of an inch in diameter’ could kill a man. ‘It would depend upon the character of the stick’ the doctor replied.”

This fixation on the character of the stick, on the parameters of what is possible with the stick, becomes a cipher for Phillips’ entire project in The Looming Civil War, which is to understand how people thought about the Civil War before it happened — as it turns out, their thoughts are often most legible through how they regarded material things.

In a review of Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, an autobiographical novel of Geissler’s time spent working at an Amazon warehouse, Rebecca McCarthy asks her own set of questions about things: “Who is buying these mugs, stamped with George Clooney’s face? Who needs these pre-distressed Iron Maiden hats, already rags at point of purchase?” The answer, of course, is “Amazon customers, which is to say, all of us.” Or, as Geissler puts it, “It’s because of all the things that are here, which someone or another wants to buy, that you’re here in the first place.” Stare long into the shopping cart, and the shopping cart stares back into thee.

It bears remembering that Amazon started as a way to sell a lot of, and undercut the market for, books. “Everything exists, in case you were going to ask. Absolutely everything exists, and people can buy it all,” Geissler writes. But the ‘everything store’ started as a bookstore, and ‘everything exists’ sounds like something people would used to say about the limitless realities open to us when we read books, rather than about a bunch of actual stuff. It’s as though Amazon is the Borgesian library run amuck. Somehow, on his way to amassing an infinite collection of books in which everything possible is written — ultimately making it all unreadable and useless — Bezos ended up with an an infinite collection of junk in which every possible desire is rendered pathetically visible, making it all… well, I don’t know. Is a George Clooney mug useful? Can that desire ever be usefully satisfied? This, regrettably, seems to be the defining question of our time.


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The weight of the meaning of the things around us, of our material environment, becomes disturbingly apparent when reading Dorothy Butler’s Gilliam’s memoir Trailblazer. Butler Gilliam was hired as the first black woman journalist at The Washington Post, at a time when the city was inherently segregated; so racism manifested itself most obviously as the denial of access to things. Each deprivation would magnify the one that came before it, transforming everyday assignments into uncertain quests:

“My editors would assign me a story for the next day’s edition, and, like other reporters, I had only a few hours to get the story, return, and write it before deadline…. I would wave frantically for a taxicab, mostly driven by white men, but all would whiz past me…. When I eventually got to my assignment, I did my reporting, and I would again try to flag a cab to get back to the paper to type my story. As time passed, deadlines neared and no taxi stopped, I would start writing my stories out in my reporter’s notebook….”

And that was just the taxis! Many of the lunch places, the coworkers, and the subjects of her stories were racist, too. What a hellish job. “Many years later,” Butler Gilliam writes, “I discovered I had turned a lot of my anger inward in what became depression, and someone close to me at that time later told me, ‘you didn’t know how much bondage you were in at The Washington Post.’”

The ramifications of another type of material segregation are apparent in Rafia Zakaria’s review of The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, Sanam Maher’s biography of the slain Pakistani YouTube star. “Qandeel was not my daughter but she was my son. She provided us financial and emotional support,” her father lamented after her death. He accused her brothers of killing her for her money, or perhaps more accurately over the money, which it was unusual and unseemly for a woman to have so much of — especially so much of it that she was the child supporting her parents. One of the brothers confessed to killing her for ‘honor,’ blaming, among other things, some sexy selfies she took with a cleric. But Zakaria knows the score: “A woman’s economic empowerment can be anything from an existential threat to an inconvenience, but in any case, men believe they are entitled to stop it by stopping her life.” What’s lost in the telling of the story of Qandeel Baloch, Zakaria is saying, is that she was killed for doing her job.

Overall, it’s obviously the bigots who are the problem, but there’s something about the jobs, too, that stinks: “You’ll soon know something about life that you didn’t know before, and it won’t just have to do with work,” Geissler writes. “But also with the fact that you’re getting older, that two children cry after you every morning, that you don’t want to go to work, and that something about this job and many other kinds of jobs is essentially rotten.”

So this month, I offer you a blessing that is only a blessing until it actually happens, like for the furloughed federal workers, in which case it becomes curse: as Geissler puts in, “May every day be a day when shifts are terminated, ideally right after they begin.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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