Aug 27, 2023

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Debby Hudson/Unsplash

Bad information abounds these days, thanks to mass and social media and a nasty breed of public figures.

That makes "not judging books by their covers" a particularly apt idiom, or is it a proverb? The online Grammarist, Danielle McLeod, said "a proverb is a short phrase recognized in general use that offers good advice," while "an idiom is a word or phrase that has taken on a meaning other than its literal use," and in this case of book cover judgments, "both phrases are correct." This is of little interest to bookworms — the insect variety rather than bibliophiles — even though "bookworm" is pure misinformation. Worms don't eat books, but the wormy-looking larvae of moths, beetles, and cockroaches sure do, preferring books’ covers and bindings, especially the glues, cloth and leather, and that's why libraries don't want food inside. Booklice, by comparison are tiny wingless insects (usually less than1 mm) that dine on microscopic molds found inside books that flourish in libraries with bad climate control. Mold spores are everywhere in the air, and used books usually contain some since books "breathe" by absorbing humidity and, as those levels rise and fall, mold can flourish inside books. While I was librarying in the town, the Corsicana, Texas, school superintendent decided to save money by turning off the air conditioning in the high school during the hot, humid summer while classes weren't held. The teachers and staff returned to find about an inch of mold growing on every single surface in the school, even inside drawers and throughout the HVAC system, which had to replaced.

Insects are about the only creatures who can enjoy the insides of fake books. In "Go Ahead, Judge This Book by Its Cover. There's Nothing Inside," a NY Times article by Anna Kode, she describes how "Fake books come in several different forms: once-real books that are hollowed out, fabric backdrops with images of books printed onto them, empty boxlike objects with faux titles and authors or sometimes just a facade of spines along a bookshelf.

Fake books have long been employed in movies and TV, and they’ve become more popular in homes, thanks in large part to people working from home and wanting to impress onlookers while Zooming from home during the Covid shutdown. However, fake books expect to be judged by their covers alone, or just their spines. For instance, DecBooks "specializes in creating fake tomes, by a special molding process that captures even the smallest of details from antique books" in a textured wallpaper.

Discussions of "fake books" should include the touchy subject of fiction vs nonfiction. A dear friend refuses to read fiction because it's only made-up compared to the reality of nonfiction. In "The Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction," an online article by Matt Grant, he wrote that "fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people. However," he added, "the difference between these two genres is sometimes blurred, as the two often intersect." Once I read that the best fiction can be more real than truth, or as Albert Camus put it, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth."

Or as novelist Khaled Hosseini wrote, "Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth." Reading a good novel is a powerful inducer of empathy and understanding. As reported in the Harvard Business Review article, "The Case for Reading Fiction by Christine Seifert, "When it comes to reading, we may be assuming that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book. Research, however, suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction. For example, reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people's motivations."

Still, it's incumbent upon readers to sift facts from a blizzard of misinformation and disinformation. Macmillan Dictionary defines "fact" as "a piece of true information," and, according to the very dependable League of Women Voters, misinformation espousers are "inadvertently sharing false information without the intent of harm," while disinformation comes from people "creating and sharing false information with the intent to harm." The LWV added that you can spot online disinformation by considering the source since "disinformation intends to sow division by getting us angry or sad through images or memes." Ask "does the URL look strange? Check the "About" page on the website." See if the information is no longer current. Cross check the information with other reliable sources, see if the headline matches the content. And always "question emotionally charged content."

Disinformation's nothing new, as Prince Grigory Potemkin's enduring reputation as a faker proves. Potemkin's best known for the artificial houses and buildings he had constructed to impress Catherine the Great when she toured "New Russia" (i.e., Ukraine) in 1787, which she had awarded to Potemkin to rule over for his military accomplishments, and for aiding the coup that made her empress. The Britannica succinctly described him as a "Russian army officer and statesman, for two years Empress Catherine the Great's lover, and for 17 years the most powerful man in the empire. An able administrator, licentious, extravagant, loyal, generous, and magnanimous, he was the subject of many anecdotes." Posterity knows him as the namesake of a famous Russian battleship during the Bolshevik Revolution, as the instigator of "Potemkin Villages," and most recently for having his bones relocated for the 9th time, as described in "Why Russia Stole Potemkin's Bones From Ukraine," a NY Times article from last fall by Marc Santora.

The bouncing around of the prince's bones began with Catherine's successor (and Potemkin's ardent despiser) Paul I, who ordered Potemkin's crypt unearthed and his remains pounded and placed in an unmarked grave. They wound up in a cathedral crypt in Kherson, and, with Ukrainian forces closing in on Kherson last October, Russian special ops soldiers broke into the crypt and stole "the small, black bag" containing the prince's few surviving relics and a bunch of statues of other historical Russian military figures.

Why were Potemkin's scraps kept in Kherson, and why did Putin want them? First, "among Kremlin loyalists, the belief in what they view as Russia's rightful empire still runs deep." Secondly, Kherson was one of a string of real Ukrainian cities founded by Potemkin when he had wrested the territories north of the Black Sea from the Ottomans. For that Catherine had him named Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Grand Hetman of the Black Sea, and Guardian of Exotic Peoples, for she was certainly a friend with benefits; her letters revealed that their intimacy continued off and on after his two-year stint as her main bed partner, and that the two had secretly though unofficially married. So, when Catherine traveled south to tour her new domains, he strove to make everything perfect, including having facades built for some buildings in his new cities. The expression, "Potemkin villages," was coined by a highly critical German biographer, Georg von Helbig, who accused Potemkin of "using painted façades to fool Catherine into thinking that the area was far richer than it was," according to Wikipedia, which added, "It seems unlikely that the fraud approached the scale alleged. The Prince of Ligne, a member of the Austrian delegation, who had explored on his own during the trip, later proclaimed the allegations to be false."

This brings us to "Why We Must Read Fiction Even as Terrible Times Loom," a Washington Post article by Hugh Hewitt, who wrote "China threatening Taiwan. Russian President Vladimir Putin's ongoing destruction of Europe's peace and Russia's future. The addition of Iran's pro-terrorist regime to the Chinese Communist Party's anti-Western bloc and burgeoning Brazil's flirtation with China, too. These are unmistakable signs of an accelerating world crisis. Measured in terms of dangers posed by nation-states, we are in the most perilous time since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan … At such a perilous time, many of us turn to novels … Reading fiction in a time of urgent facts boils down to four points. First, fiction can keep anxious minds from chewing themselves to bits." He cites Winston Churchill, who, even during the Battle of Britain, awoke, took his pulse and then "escaped into a collection of ‘Captain Hornblower’ novels, ‘Moll Flanders’, ‘Phineas Finn’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’."

"Second, reading can give a sense of proportion, which our distracted age needs most urgently. Algorithms and attention-seekers conspire to inflate every shooting star of a story into an event of historical significance. Reading teaches us that dogs have barked and carnivals passed from time immemorial … Third, reading can take us into unfamiliar worlds and better prepare us to live in our own … Fourth, and finally, time spent with a worthwhile novel is not "time sucked away and spat out. It is time, and the lessons of time, brought into focus." Nevertheless, like author Amy Tan said, "I’m open to reading about anything — fiction or nonfiction — as long as I know from the first sentence or two that this is a voice I want to listen to for a good long while."

Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. He can be reached at [email protected].

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