Riapress Blog header image 1

From Lampedusa to the Magna Carta

July 29th, 2008 · 2 Comments

After sitting on my reading list for years, I finally got to The Leopard by Lampedusa (strangely for me, just after I finished the book, the NY Times ran two articles about Lampedusa and his 50 year old book). It was riveting, but in a way that was hard to explain to others - I lost most people around the time I said ”do you remember who Garibaldi was?”.

I couldn’t stop thinking that Lampedusa has relations still alive who knew him, and he knew the children of the Leopard character - there is a direct memory line today to Europe’s ancient feudal society. This train of thought is a slippery but fascinating slope to slide down; you start sorting out the history of Thuringia, reading the Venerable Bede and wondering whether we should pay our Marines with land grants. It’s a slippery slope.

The Magna Carta would be one of the seminal documents, or symbols at least, of the transition from the ancient ways to a post-feudal society. This might seem counterintuitive - the document essentially transitions power from England’s king to landed Barons, who were upset because King John was a wasteful king who was diminishing their common wealth. But its significance lies in reducing the artbitrary nature of monarchical power and in establishing basic rights for freeman. Like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta is ultimately a practical legal document - almost a memo. It is primarily a detailed, practical set of rules and guidelines, ranging from financial (such as how interest is handled on the estates of deceased debtors) to legal; in addition to establishing the principal of habeas corpus, it says “We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well.” Seems obvious, but maybe not back in 1215.

These old documents are interesting to read because it takes them off the pedestal, and allows us to think more critically about today’s politicians who inveigh them. Inevitably, these documents remind us of how expansive government is today, and how much more we expect from government.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Classic Books

Oil companies and forgotten books

July 5th, 2008 · No Comments

Forgotten books can be lost trails of thought with interesting and sometimes important lessons still to tell. Often those lessons emerge because a book is forgotten. I bought two books off the table at Green Apple’s outlet, for 50 cents a pound.

In the mid 1950s, Wallace Stegner, an unknown professor at Stanford, was commissioned to write a company history of Aramco, the American oil conglomerate developing the Saudi oil fields. The book, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, was eventually published in 1971 (and recently reissued) and, as published, celebrates Aramco’s achievements: “It was magical. The applied skills and power as well as the results are awesome . . . unwilling as a democracy may be to take its own side in an argument, and meekly as it may believe the worst interpretations of its own motives, American oil development in the Middle East has been, all things considered, responsible and fair.”

In 1987, Shell Oil subsidized the publication of an urban planning book by Michael Middleton. Man Made the Town’s pleasant pictures and quasi-coffee table layout hide a more serious, almost hectoring text that seems two decades ahead of its time in environmental conscience and urgency: “Society, as we do in our daily lives, has to make complex trade-offs between the options open to it. We have lived for a long time beyond our environmental means . . . By what right do we pile up problems of this magnitude for succeeding generations? . . . In truth, environmental quality is no longer, if it ever was, an optional extra. It has become fundamental to the very future of whole communities, whole peoples.”

Stegner’s book, ultimately, is a practically unreadable monograph of deal chronologies and the names of company executives, Saudi princes and local figures, but is remarkable as an early work of a award-winning eventual lion of the environmental movement. His estate has disowned the book, but as readers we should let it stand on its own as more or less reflecting Stegner’s beliefs - that pure business instincts from a democratic country could do another less developed country some good. Stegner emphasizes the extreme primitivism (I don’t think he would be afraid of that word in this context) of the Arabian peninsula well into the 20th century, and the changes wrought by the western oil economy as a step forward.

The Middleton book reminds us that Al Gore invented neither the Internet nor environmentalism, that responsible, long term environmental thinking has existed for decades, if not centuries, and that oil companies have been open-minded enough to fund such thinking.

With decades of hindsight, these books remind us of interesting things. Ideas such as profit motive are constant through history, but opinion of that motive varies based on time and perspective. Environmentalism is not always synonomous with anti-development. The closer one is to a materially poor, undeveloped state, the more one is likely to view materialism and development as positive. And, we collectively have known for a long time about the ill-effects of short term thinking. We have simply lacked the collective political will to act differently. Lessons, all from some random forgotten books picked up for about $2.

→ No CommentsTags: Classic Books

New edition of Childers’ Riddle of the Sands

May 18th, 2008 · 2 Comments

A new edition of Erskine Childers’ great proto-spy story, set largely in a small centerboard sloop, is now available.

The Riddle of the Sands

→ 2 CommentsTags: Authors · Childers, Erskine

New edition of Melville’s Moby Dick

May 8th, 2008 · No Comments

Moby Dick, our third most popular title, is now available in an edition via our new production process. Enjoy!

→ No CommentsTags: Authors · Chase, Owen · Melville, Herman

New version of Pride and Prejudice available

April 30th, 2008 · No Comments

Our second most popular title is Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which has nothing to do with nautical history, sailing narratives or imperialism. Unless you consider it a story of the homeland of the naval empire. But that’s stretching it. It’s just a good story. We’ll get more “new and improved” books up soon.

 And maybe a discussion about stories of the homeland of the naval empire could be worth having.

→ No CommentsTags: Austen, Jane · Authors

Miserable sailors

April 13th, 2008 · No Comments

Balcutha in heavy weather“Throughout human history, people who took to the sea in Britain, on the Continent or in North America, did so usually because there was no other way of life open to them.” - Basil Greenhill, The Life and Death of the Merchant Sailing Ship, 1815-1895, 1980.

 ”The creditors sued, as they will . . . In Albany: unremitting black weather for the Melville household. The widow and her children were forced to sell much of their furniture and other effects and to escape in ignominy to a cheaper town . . . Then, perhaps, we can say his true life began . . . In 1869, he signed on as a lowly cabin boy on the St. Lawrence, a merchant ship bound for a four-month trip to Liverpool.” - Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville, 2000.

Our genteel view of the nautical life is basically shaped by the yachting world’s reinterpretation of merchant and naval sailing. We use the vocabularly, boat part names, and flinty attitudes of what we imagine the old salts were like. But, just as a “forecastle” or ”bride deck” on today’s sailboat bears little resemblence to the ships of yesteryear, I suspect yachting attitude has only tenuous relation to the past. Yesterday’s sailor’s life was dominated by danger and poverty, and he entered the trade often out of desperation. Today’s yachtie inherits little from these men.

Melville captures some of the character, especially in Omoo and Redburn, and Richard Henry Dana illustrates the point almost by exception as the young scion seeking an education on the sea. By the time we get to humorous British author WW Jacobs, the transition from brutal fact to quaint folklore has begun.

I recently visited the Balcutha, a 19th century steel tall ship, one of the later types that survived the early years of steam by handling bulk low margin cargo hauled around Cape Horn.  Under-crewed, with little improvement to basic handling technologies from centuries earlier, and with commercial pressure to sail as fully-canvassed as possible through the most difficult passages in the world, the Balcutha and other ships like her would have been misery incarnate. And, speaking of forecastles, this one would not have provided much respite from slogging around the rigging above deck. With the innards of the windlass running through the middle of the low leaky space about the size of a small classroom, the crew of 20 hands would have only rested well beccause of exhaustion. They did each have their own bunk.

→ No CommentsTags: Authors · Chase, Owen · Classic Books · Dana, Richard Henry · Melville, Herman

New edition of Heart of Darkness available

April 8th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Over the last few months, we have been rebuilding our process for creating the PDFs and will start uploading new ones as we create them. We started with our most popular book, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We will continue to fine tune the process. The goal is to have the highest quality free downloadable books.

→ 1 CommentTags: Authors · Classic Books · Conrad, Joseph

Pragmatic imperialism

March 25th, 2008 · No Comments

The British Empire in 1897 

Continuing the thoughts about imperialism and Conrad, we just added a new title by Valentine Chirol, a British high imperialist, meaning he was unequivocal in his belief that “advanced” societies could uplift “primitive” societies. These pro-imperial arguments often focus on the benefits to the colonized, as opposed to the benefits to the colonizers which are certainly more obvious.  It’s interesting to realize that the term “Imperialism” itself, now so negative, was in a different time simply a descriptive if not honorific term.

This is real imperialism - an intellectual justification for the enterprise that, on the ground, is described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness and other titles. Knowing that Chirol represented the state-of-the-art intellectual support for imperialism (and its by-product, racism), Conrad seems an overt, contemporary refutation.

→ No CommentsTags: Chirol, Ignatius Valentine · Classic Books · Conrad, Joseph

Adding Jules Verne titles

March 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

It’s been a while since we’ve added titles to Ria Press (we’ve been working on some behind-the-scenes tools to make running the site easier). Over the last few days, we’ve added Jules Verne titles from the Voyages Extraordinaires series. This group includes an illustrated edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We’ll try to get to the illustrations for other titles in this series as well.

→ No CommentsTags: Classic Books · Verne, Jules

The true story behind Moby Dick

March 15th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Genius though he was, Melville didn’t make up Moby Dick. Rather, the real-life sinking of Nantucket’s Essex by a whale inspired him. Philbrick recently wrote about the Essex, but Essex first mate Owen Chase’s short but powerful first hand-account is now available on Ria Press. Most incredible is Chase’s matter-of-fact nature in dealing with the sinking and aftermath. Looking backwards a more than century and half later, we see that while a sinking by a whale was unprecedented, the need to take to a small boat to survive in the open ocean, with unthinkable conditions and decisions to ensue, was an occupational hazard.

After all, Chase returns to the sea.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Chase, Owen · Classic Books · Melville, Herman