Category Archives: Reviews

Restricted Revivals

                                 wrongfootforward

Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

A new book that has created ripples this year is David Sax’ The Revenge of Analog (2016).  He discusses the revival of older media forms that have been eclipsed by all things digital.  Your old Pentax 35-millimeter camera is an analog device, as are the once-cherished vinyl records albums taking up space in your basement. In the case of these two forms, you can actually see what the medium was capturing in its mechanical ‘software;’ each frame of film carries a miniature impression of its content, as do the microscopic groves of a record.  A high sheen visible  on its surface means it carries lots of ‘close together’ grove wiggles representing higher sound frequencies.  A Mozart recording will have a brighter sheen than one that gives us a more bass-heavy Brahms.

By contrast, digital forms give us files made up of electronic imprints that are mostly invisible. We now take pictures with our cameras, never giving much thought to the storage media. And many of us get our music from a “cloud,” wherever that is.

Sax wants to make the point that there is a resurgence of analog forms. In the first three chapters of his book he points out the return of what we thought was gone: the modest rise in the number of bands that release their music on vinyl, and the rebirth of film manufacturing for a steadfast group of artists and filmmakers who like the look of images on celluloid.  He also notes that we still depend on the printed page. And for good reason. The book remains a supremely portable medium, though his argument that bookstores are popping up everywhere seems like a stretch.

Older Luddites are clearly not a sign of the rebirth he describes. The “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

I should be the kind of person most receptive to his argument. After all, I’m among those who have lamented the capture of persons by their digital screens. But I’m also in the class of “geezers” he mentions who still prowl the bins of used record stores.  He makes it clear that media-use habits of older adults do not represent the rebirth he sees. Sax wants us to know that the “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

Fun as it is, the book leaves me mostly unconvinced. In the case of film, he misses the best argument for its preservation: that it often looks better. Watch a movie in 4K-digital and it can create a one-dimensional look that others have described as the “soap opera effect.” Colors are bright but not rich. Sets and images often look flat. There’s something about the residual blur of passing light through a celluloid image that makes a projected film so watchable. No wonder directors like Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson still use film technologies that blossomed in 1950s.

Alas, vinyl records have not aged as well.  Many are fine, but among its residual problems, vinyl is a natural collector of dust, with individual particles played back as a small click. Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

Sax gets some things right, and never more so than in an opening quote from the Toronto theorist, Marshall McLuhan.  Some of the media insights from the media sage have not aged well.  But McLuhan was spot-on noting that “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”  Those of us who are interesting in such things avidly teach this lesson. Newer media don’t necessarily eclipse the old; most co-exist, evolve, and sometimes fade.

The Small Pleasures of Finding the Right Word

Christopher Buckley with his Parents
      Christopher Buckley with his Parents

 An only child who had to oversee the passage of his parents through their final “vale of tears,” Christopher Buckley also bore the role of keeper of their legacies.

Many of us who struggle with the task of finding ways to give heat to ideas can usually point to favorites: cases where a writer has put the perfect image together to make his or her point.  These passages are moments of rhetorical grace, sometimes represented by economy of style or an evocative image.  Writers read partly to experience these moments. They add more fuel for the long slog of putting words on the page.

One personal favorite is from an unlikely source on an unlikely subject. Christopher Buckley’s 2009 memoir of the last year of his celebrity parents is funny and wise on the demands of coping with the inevitable.  In Losing Mum and Pup we see the conservative gadfly William F. Buckley Jr. and his socialite wife struggle to the end.  An only child who had to oversee their passage through what his father often described as “this vale of tears,” Christopher also bore the role of keeper of the flame for their outsized legacies.

That the book could be characterized as a pleasure to read is a credit to his dry wit and effective storytelling. Humor and melancholy merge seamlessly.  Among other things, his dad’s ability to cope with the death of his mother produces the kinds of serio comic episodes that any caregiver with a sense of humor would recognize.

This is not just a memoir about wheelchairs and vacant faces. The younger Buckley has the good sense to understand the end of his parents lives mostly in terms of the consequential work done in their most productive years: Bill in publishing and politics; Pat, in the upper stratosphere of New York museums and philanthropies.

“Great men have too much canvas up.” 

Here’s a favorite passage seemingly about his father’s love of sailing, but also much more.  It contains a wonderful image.

Pup was an avid sailor. He had learned to sail as a child in upstate Connecticut, on a not very large lake. Now we live on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound and kept a thirty-eight-foot wooden sloop. It was named Panic, a name my mother found all too apt. . .  I now get that Pup’s greatness was of a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take great risks. It’s the timorous soul—souls like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for a snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill why are you trying to kill us?”

Great men are also impatient. This particular aspect showed up most vividly in my father’s manner of docking his boats. Most people, when guiding, say a ten or twenty ton vessel toward a dock, approach slowly. Not my old man. His technique was to go straight at it, full speed. Why waste time? This made for memorable episodes.1

“Great men have too much canvas up.”  It’s an apt image that seems completely faithful to the person who published the National Review.  Anyone who had observed  Buckley on his Firing Line broadcasts or his work as a conservative essayist could also see the literal extended to the behavioral.  Fearless sailing was typical of who the father was, even when he was heading in the wrong direction.

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1Christopher Buckley, Losing Mum and Pup, Emblem Books, 2010., pp. 121-22.