Wednesday, November 17, 2010


“The Bloomsbury Review”, a newsprint book review publication that I first picked up at the better bookstores in Portland in the Nineties, still survives and deserves to be celebrated as such, since so many of this category have died, groaning. Quarterly, its headquarters are in Denver, truly Western, unlike the faux-Western Lost Angeles that is only flipped Coastal. But it is not merely Regional. Rather it seems to gravitate to what some self-identify as “brown:” neither African-American nor European. Asian (including India), Arabic, Hispanic/Latino (you choose -- I get confused), American Indian, and many creoles (mixed). Bloomsbury was reviewing more American Indian writers earlier than anyone else. There is also a tilt towards academic, though not so much of the French political theory.

I suppose you could just say “ethnic” writing and yet there is another component, like the group of reviews in this issue about the Great American Experiment: “Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations About Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Milbrook and the Sixties” over against “Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstacy.” Gary Bravo edits the first book and Mark Christensen takes on the West Coast. A third book, “Beat Memories: the Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” is edited by Sarah Greenough. Together they describe a kind of visionary nation within the nation that has persisted for fifty years. A surprising number of the participants do indeed remember what happened and were changed by it.

The list of advertisers’ websites reveals the eclectic nature of this publication which, naturally, arises in part from a long-standing friendship networks and partly from their interests and value systems. In fact, some time a little later I’m going to google each of these entities. One is “Windbreak House,Linda Hasselstrom’s re-purposing of her ranch as a writer’s retreat for women. Feminism is another part of the complex. Another advertiser is “The Tattered Cover,” a major physical book store. Across the page is an ad for “The Gathering of the Forces of Light” from a proprietary website: it’s about space visitors. (Denver is not QUITE as spacey as the rest of Colorado.) Another (full page back) is for “Stones into Schools” by Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” about founding girls’ schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan even as we bomb hell out of their families. Education and art are usually represented among the categories. Peace is on the agenda.

In religious terms, there are two kinds of congregations: those that are based on the “parish” wherein the congregation is just “everyone around here,” and is most possible when there is a consensus culture. In terms of publishing, one could call it regional. But the other kind is “gathered,” that is, based on affinity, a commonality of ideas. Ironically, some Unitarian congregations are based on their aversion to traditional consensus-based religion. What draws them together is their experience of not fitting in the usual ways. In the past, an affinity-based group could only happen in a place like a city where there were enough of them to gather together.

But there have always been affinity-based groups with roots in publications, whether those were newspapers from the countries left behind, or specialty magazines, or books. Part of the intense love of loners for print books has not come out of immersive fantasies, but rather a passionate need to pursue dialogue with others who have the same interests. Might be science; might be poetry.

My old friend renewed has not so recently been part of the immediate living dialogue of academic listservs such as those listed on H-Humanities. It is a great treat to pull back the curtains and reveal, tah-dah! -- the immediacy of Internet affinity groups. We’re not quite to the point of posting essays that are then morphed by feedback right before your very eyes, but we’re way past journals that only come out periodically.

Clay Shirky
always has a little story to tell. Recently he’s been telling about a math problem that famously resisted solving -- the kind of thing depicted in movies by rows and rows of equations marching across a blackboard. A man thinks he has come close to solving this problem. (Shirky names him -- I’m sure you can find the YouTube vid.) He posts his solution online. Immediately other mathematicians began to critique it (which is welcome in that world) and soon have isolated a half-dozen problematic points in the work. More math-heads are attracted and some of them are able to resolve these or to look at things a new way. Finally even people less specialized are trying to grasp and improve this formula. In about two weeks there is a solid, nearly irrefutable version of it available to anyone interested. It would have taken years without the Internet.

What strikes Shirky is that about halfway through all this, the mathematicians and more peripheral people begin to ask each other, “Wait! Are we ALLOWED to do this?” They were used to journals whose experts policed ideas. “Peer review” they call it and it takes months and months, besides being riddled with political problems. But when the math folks looked around as they emailed back and forth, there was no editor or university president with the power to shut down this free exchange of ideas, to be gate-keepers. They had arrived at the Sixties and Seventies simply by affinity. The clunky mechanisms are falling away. Too bad for the people who made their livings from journals.

“The Bloomsbury Review” was started by a cohort of friends who shared values and loved books. It has survived because it has held true to its values even despite the loss by death of dear leaders and founders. Like congregations and opera subscribers, affinity groups are vulnerable to aging and unless they find new people to join them, they will simply dwindle and disappear. Because this particular cohort has been open to “edge” groups, they have an advantage, and because they have some academic roots, they are smart enough to brainstorm their way forward. So far they’re a little Luddite -- still printed on paper -- but at least they’re still printed in the USA.

Subscriptions: $20 a year. Send the check to “The Bloomsbury Review” or Owaissa Communications Company, Inc, 1553 Platte St., Suite 206, Denver, CO 80202. You could call them up at (303) 455-3123. I suppose you could hand-carry your check over there. They exist.

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