It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.
While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.
In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:
I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.
So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.
The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.
A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.
It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:
The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.
By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.
It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.