Friday, April 21, 2006


That doesn't make much sense, I know, but it should be interpreted this way--mass o' lit(erature).

Don't blame me--I didn't make it up.

About five years ago, we enrolled J. in some karate classes. On the first day of his class, we were driving around the city trying to locate the building where the classes were to be held. As we drove on a street unfamiliar to me, I noticed a sign that said "English Books"--like that, in English. That was a real attention-getter, and I immediately resolved to investigate, so after we found the karate class and dropped off J, we went back to check it out.

It was truly a wonderful surprise to discover Massolit--a bookstore that sold used English books and American desserts (things like muffins, pie, and brownies). This cafe has a truly interesting atmosphere--they play music from the 30's and 40's, furnish the cafe with vintage (probably cast-off) chairs and tables, and cram as many books as possible onto their floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.

Now, if I were to say that the folks who run this bookstore are left-leaning liberals it would be an understatement. Their bias is shown in many ways, from the snarky cartoons about George Bush on the walls, to their choice of periodicals, and to their sections on "Gay and Lesbian Studies." However, in spite of their bias, I have to appreciate the quality of the books they carry. So many used bookstores are packed with cheap best-sellers, pulp romances, and the latest "thrillers." This is not true of Massolit. They carry serious books--books on philosophy, books on culture, books on art, books on history. In short, books worth reading. Yes, there are plenty of titles I wouldn't bother with, but that's true of Barnes & and Noble and Amazon, too, and it doesn't stop me from buying and reading books that I do want to read.

One whole hallway is designated the "wall of classics," and is, as its name promises, nothing but titles of "classic" literature in the English language, along with a few foreign titles. There is a section of modern fiction, a section for children's books, and even a few "better" authors in the mystery and science-fiction genres. You are welcome to browse as much as you want, and even buy a cup of coffee or a muffin and sit and read all day. I love the fact that this store is here in Krakow! I was a little afraid that it might have closed during my year in the states, but no! It is still a going concern, and now they even have a website so you can check them out.

This is one of my sources of English books here in Poland, and any day I have the time to spare browsing among their books is a good day for me.

Some things are the same; Some things are different

I went into the city yesterday and it was just lovely. I wore a sweater, but had to take it off because it was so warm. How pleasant to walk around in my shirt-sleeves! I saw other people dressed in winter coats, scarves, and hats, and one girl in a tank top, but most everyone else was like me--in light jackets or shirts, enjoying the long-delayed arrival of warm spring weather.

The forsythia is finally blooming, and I saw a few--just a few--trees with their first blush of spring green. I saw one magnolia tree in full bloom, and another only covered with buds. But spring is definitely here and not a moment too soon!

Nice weather aside, I saw two things yesterday that really struck me.

As I hopped off the tram at my favorite outdoor market (Hala Targowa), someone handed me an "ulotka" or flyer. Little printed ads are often handed out in the streets this way--it's a very cheap method of advertising. This is the phrase that caught my eye:

"kredyt konsolidacyjny"

Even if you don't speak Polish, you might be able to make out that the ad is referring to credit consolidation. I was truly astonished. Credit hasn't really been available in Poland for very long. Most business is handled with cash. For as long as we have lived here (nearly nine years), we have conducted all business in cash, although we occasionally use our debit card to make purchases. But rent and utilities are always paid in cash, and we don't even have a bank account in this country.

I've seen advertisements offering credit at different stores, but I am amazed that enough people have sunk themselves into debt so that a business is offering consolidation loans. This is a very bad sign, and another indication that everything Poland has adopted from the west isn't really in the best interest (no pun intended!) of the Polish people. And you know what's really scary? This loan business has three locations in the city!

You may see plenty of ads for consolidation loans, but the second thing that caught my attention is something that you aren't very likely to see in the US. Huge posters have been pasted up around the city with this attention-getting banner: Stop the influence of homosexuality in Krakow! That was interesting. I'm not sure who is responsible for putting up those posters, but I suspect they engender more support from the general population here than they would in the States. In the smaller text below the headline, homosexuality was called a sin outright.

What would happen in the US of someone posted banners like that all over a city? I bet it wouldn't be pretty. But Poland is a very religious country, and any kind of disturbance by the handful of people who might protest those posters would be quickly squelched.

Some things are the same. Some things are different.

At least we are all enjoying the spring!

The cost of being a reader

Okay, this is going to look at another aspect of how expensive it can be to read, even when you buy books cheaply.

I am in the process of reading _Teacher in America_ by Jacques Barzun. I'm enjoying the book immensely, and I may have more to say about it later, but here is a book that you might think was a good deal. I paid only 50 cents for this book at a flea market, after browsing through about 30 boxes of fascinating books that had obviously come from the library of one person, and that person was probably a teacher, or at least someone very interested in education. (The seller offered to let me have all 30 boxes for $30, too, and if it had been possible for me to get that many books home to Poland, I'd have jumped at the offer, but unfortunately, this was a month or so before we few back to Poland, and I already had more books than I could fit into my luggage.)

Okay, so this was a bargain book, right?


Maybe not.

Really good books often suggest further reading, either because you want to read more books by the same author, or on the same topic, or because the book itself mentions other books, or because you peek into the bibliography and find another interesting title or three, or even just because when you pick up the book in question, you notice a couple of other interesting books nearby on the shelf at the library or bookstore. If you read, the list of books you want to read will just grow longer and longer.

This particular "bargain book" has been unusual in the number of titles it has added to my "want to read" list. I've already ordered another title by the same author from the states, for which I will have to pay overseas shipping. One of the most desirable titles is practically impossible to find. Very few copies are available, and the absolute cheapest one I could find was through an ebay store for $20. (I'm postponing that purchase--perhaps a less expensive copy will surface, and I don't really have the the time to read that book yet, anyway.)

Among the titles I've added to my "want to read" list because of Jacques Barzun are:

Kipling's "Regulus" in the "Stalky" series
Lional Trilling's "Of This Time, of That Place"
Lewes's _Biographical History of Philosophy_
Charles Singer's _Short History of Science_
Plus a few more titles by the author himself, and the "most desirable" book mentioned above.

And I'm only halfway through the book.

I haven't taken the time to find out how much those books (plus postage!) might cost, but I am reasonably certain that my original 50 cent investment in this book is going to cost me a lot more than that.

And then there is the issue of buying shelves to house all the books...

Reading is a costly habit, and as far as I know, there is only one cure.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Something just doesn't seem right

A few months ago, I purchased a book. (Okay, I purchased a lot of books, but I am talking about once specific book.)

The printed price on the cover of the 600-page paperback is 95 cents.

There are two second-hand prices written inside the front cover. The first, in bold felt-tip pen, is 10 cents.

The next price is penciled in, along with a catalog number of some kind, and at that time, the book cost $6.50.

I paid $10.00, plus shipping, for the same 600-page paperback, which is now over 50 years old, by the way.

Some things improve with age, but paperback books are not among them. Why does my 50-year old book cost ten times as much as it did when it first went on sale? I did a little research, and a little math. If I were earning an average weekly salary in 1944, when the book was printed, it would have cost me 3% of my salary to buy the book. If I were earning an average weekly salary today, the current price is 1.4% of that average salary. So, while the actual cost is ten times the original price, the book might be considered to take only half as much of my available funds as it would have 50 years ago. But still. You'd think after 50 years, you'd get a better bargain than that.

The book in question is _A History of Education in Antiquity_, by H.I. Marrou. Originally written in French, this book has been considered a "classic" in its field since it was published. It is still considered the authoritative work on this, admittedly obscure, area of interest. Every modern book on classical education that I have read has made reference to this work. So I am going to read it. And I already know that what I am going to learn from this book is going to be worth more than $10 to me. So maybe it was a good deal, after all.

I won't be selling it.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A flicker of the curtain

I really need to dust off this blog and write about living in Poland, but the truth is, I've been so busy living in Poland I don't have time to write about it. We've been back for just under two months, and I'm already so immersed in the culture again, that I sometimes can't remember what it is about living in Poland that is different from living in the United States. Everybody speaks Polish of course, but everyone knows that and it doesn't make for interesting blogging.

And yet, it is Easter time, and there are some Polish Easter traditions that are worth noting. I missed Palm Sunday, but I have to write about that first, because you really have to see a Polish palm to appreciate one. "Palms" are made of woven stalks of wheat and grasses, and dyed in bright, pretty colors. They come in every size imaginable, from a few inches long, to over five feet tall. The tradition says that you carry the Palm to the priest on Palm Sunday to have it blessed, then keep it in your home all year to bless your family and protect them from illness.

A Polish Easter basket is much different than the ones we fill in the States, too. Special items for the Easter meal are placed in the basket, and it, too, is carried off too the priest to be blessed (usually on Saturday before Easter Sunday). I wish I had the time to elaborate and share pictures, but I guess I will have to save that for next year.

Spring is coming very late this year. The trees have not the slightest blush of green on them yet, and only a few brave crocuses have dared to bloom. But we have hope that spring wil actually arrive, sooner or later. And when it does, I will be able to find out what color peach trees bloom. There are two in my backyard, but we moved into this house in October, and live here only a few months before returning to the states for a full year. The buds have swollen so much that I check every day to if something is there, yet. I don't think I've ever seen a peach tree in bloom. What color are the flowers? White? Pink? Peach-color? We want to know!

Tomorrow is Easter, and we celebrate the resurrection of Christ--the true miracle of life. All the new life that thrills our hearts in spring pales beside this. He is risen!