Book Review: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd
Eugene B. Bergmann
495 pages. Applause, 2004, $28.

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When I was around 10 or 12 years old – back in the late 60s and early 70s – I discovered Jean Shepherd’s nightly radio show on WOR AM in New York. Every evening at 10:15, Shep would come on the air, following his theme music (Strauss’ Bahn Frei), and talk for 45 minutes. He would just talk – there was no script, though people who knew him have suggested that he spent hours preparing for his shows – seemingly improvising, riffing on current events, his pet peeves, and telling stories. When listening to Shep, it always sounded like he was talking to me; like there was no one else listening to the radio. It was the stories that got me hooked, especially those about him growing up in Hammond, Indiana, a small town near Chicago. Shep talked about his time in the Army, and about the events of his childhood, which occurred between the age of about 7 and 17, events that happened to him and a few of his friends, such as Flick and Schwartz.

Shep and his friends were average kids, with the usual preoccupations of kids that age – my age – and the stories were bittersweet memories of their growing up in the Depression. Some of them were funny, others poignant, but Shep brought to these oft simple stories the true art of the storyteller. He always managed to make them last up until the final theme music, weaving threads and events until his time was up. I would be held in a spell for those 45 minutes, just before I went to sleep, as I entered his world.

I was a real Jean Shepherd fan back then. Not only did I buy his books (two books of stories, In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Great Disasters), his records (LPs of him reading from the books, or more scripted versions of the stories), and I even took up the instruments that he played on the show: the kazoo and the Jew’s harp.

Shep contributed greatly to my worldview, teaching me the power of stories and how the true storyteller could take control of the listeners’ minds, but also through the seemingly simple profundity of some of his observations.

Over the years, I had forgotten about Jean Shepherd – his stories were still someplace in that mushroom soup of memories that dated back to those pre-teen years, but they didn’t surface often. But recently, thanks to the Internet and a group of fanatics, I’ve been able to rediscover the joys of listening to this great artist.

And now (to finally get to the meat of this review), a new book examines Jean Shepherd, his art, his legacy, and his philosophy: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene Bergmann. This book, written by a true Shep fan and fanatic, is a compendium of thoughts about Jean Shepherd, his work, his life, and, as the title suggests, his enigma.

Because Shep was an enigma. Having created his own radio genre, he eventually got tired of all the advertising that the radio stations tried to squeeze into his show and left, gave up, walked away from more than two decades of radio. He was a trendsetter – and, in a way, a minor cultural icon in the early days – but he hated trends, and hated following them even more. He was a unique friendly voice, but could be, at times, arrogant and opinionated.

Bergmann’s book is not a biography; instead, it is a collection of chapters that examine different periods of Shep’s life and work. There is no attempt to rationalize the complex relationships he had with his family, nor his personal life, beyond some basic anecdotes. However, this book, with its many excerpts from Shep’s radio shows, gives the best overview of what Shep was like, and what his shows were about. While the book is a bit disjointed, so was its subject.

If you’re familiar with Jean Shepherd, you’ll know why you should buy this book; if not, you may want to buy it to discover one of America’s most unique comic voices (though comic is by far too simplistic a word to describe Shep). And if you want to hear him at work, some 1,500 shows are available for download at the Jean Shepherd Archive, or, to hear a few random shows, check out the Jean Shepherd Podcast, or check out the Brass Figlagee podcast on iTunes.

New Big Box Set of Bernstein Symphonies

There’s no details yet on the Amazon page listing this box set, but it contains 60 CDs of symphonies recorded by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic from Sony. My guess is that it includes the recently remastered Mahler recordings from the 1960s, along with many other key Bernstein recordings. At less than $100, this is a no-brainer. I’ll be getting this no matter what it contains, because there was so much great music that Bernstein recorded with the NYPO.

It’s getting to be the Christmas season, so all the labels will be releasing big box sets at low prices like this one to tempt music lovers. I’m looking forward to this year’s selection, as every year I generally find one or two that are worth getting.

Do You Think iTunes is Bloated?

One of the common tropes I see on the internet about iTunes is the fact that the program is “bloated.” A lot of people who know very little about programming or computers in general repeat this in forums and on blogs, and I’ve always wondered why people say this. Granted, iTunes has a lot of features, but if you don’t use certain features, why would they bother you? For example, Microsoft Word has lots of features, one of which is a set of reviewing features for tracking changes, comparing documents, and more. This is something I often use professionally, but most people don’t even know about it. Does this make Word bloated?

I’m planning to write an article about this, and I’m looking for input. If you’re one of those people who accuses iTunes of bloat, I’d appreciate your posting a comment here to tell me exactly what you mean. Do you mean the size of the program? (This is 2010, so it’s not about hard disk space or even the size of an installer or updater that you have to download.) Do you mean that it has features you don’t need? (Well, what about the people who do need and use those features?)

I’ve looked at this article, and I find it a bit surprising. Sure, iTunes installs QuickTime; it needs QuickTime to play back media files. It installs Bonjour for iTunes library sharing. Mobile Device Support is for, well, mobile devices. And Apple Software Update is to make updates easier. Is 200 MB really that big an issue in the days of terabyte hard disks?

I’m especially interested in hearing from anyone who understands Windows internals and any memory issues that may exist. I’ve read a lot of people who complain about memory usage on Windows, and, while I run Windows using VMware Fusion, I only use iTunes there for test purposes, and have never seen problems. I’m wondering how much any memory issues could be caused by iTunes, and how much they are simply due to people using old PCs without much memory, or old versions of Windows. (To be honest, the “iTunes bloat” meme seems to come only from Windows users…)

In any case, feel free to comment below. Pass this on to others, as I’m really trying to get to the bottom of this question. Thanks!

Book Notes: First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert D. Richardson

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Robert Richardson is a brilliant man, and an excellent writer. He is the author of three biographies that will stand for decades as the essential works on the thinkers he explores: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. (These are three of the four American thinkers I appreciate most; I only wish he would write a biography about the fourth, Henry James.)

Richardson is especially attuned to the prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who might be considered America’s ur-philosopher. In this diminutive book, Richardson looks at Emerson’s writing, and uses him as an example for a style that some other writers may want to emulate. (I say “may”, because Emerson’s style is not for everyone, nor for all types of prose.) Using examples from Emerson’s essays and journals, Richardson gives suggestions about effective writing, but this is not a how-to book. It is more a brief overview (in only about 80 pages) of Emerson’s writing and thought.

This is an essential read for anyone who writes for a living, whether they appreciate Emerson or not. Understanding why Emerson’s writing works can help better appreciate many elements of writing in English. And, perhaps, it may help those who are unfamiliar with Emerson’s work discover his wonderful words and thoughts.

Some Thoughts on the Future of Newspapers

I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the second time. For those unfamiliar with the TV series, the fifth and final season features two concurrent plot threads: one has to do with the police and their investigations, and the other has to do with the press, notably the Baltimore Sun, the daily newspaper in the city where the series is set.

Throughout the season, you see the difficulties that the Sun faces; even though this was made several years ago, and the Internet is not mentioned, it is clear that times are tough for that venerable daily paper. The Sun has a storied history, counting one of America’s most famous journalists, H. L. Mencken, as one of its alumni. But in season 5 of The Wire, you see the problems faced by today’s newspapers, and how they cope.

This made me think about how newspapers have changed in my lifetime, and how they may change in the near future. At first, I found the newspaper to be a sacred object. In 6th grade – and this goes back about 40 years – I recall our English teacher showing us how to fold the New York Times to be able to read it efficiently. As with any broadsheet, the right fold is essential to be able to read the paper in the subway or on a bus.

Over the years, as an adult, I bought papers most days, and skimmed the news. At a time when I watched little television, the newspaper was my only source of information about what was going on in the world. When I moved to France 25 years ago, I started buying the International Herald Tribune, and over the years, subscribed to it from time to time. This slim broadsheet, now owned by the New York Times, was a condensed version of the world’s news, and it showed up in my mailbox six days a week. Unfortunately, French newspapers are quite expensive, which has always prevented me from buying them regularly, but with the Internet, and my RSS reader, I keep up with what goes on in the world, much more than when I was reading a paper.

But now that’s all about to change. With Apple most likely releasing a tablet computer, I’m looking forward to a shift in the way we get news. Instead of reading unrelated articles with an RSS reader, we will be able to buy “newspapers” digitally, and read them on the Apple tablet. What seems likely is that we’ll be able to subscribe to a paper – local or national – and get it daily, via iTunes, on the device. This will renew people’s interest in newspapers.

Some people think this won’t work. They think that no one will pay for news when it’s free; or they’ll just download pirated copies of newspapers for their tables. I truly think that the Apple tablet will save newspapers, for two reasons. First, why go to the trouble of rounding up the news you want to read when you can get it all in one place? There are a few trusted newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde – any of which will give you a good overview of the news. Second, why pirate these papers when they’ll cost you less than a dollar a day? It’s too much trouble to spend the time necessary to find and download the files.

Journalism has power, and we can’t afford to lose it. From Henry Mencken (I recently read a biography of him), who, coincidentally, worked at the Baltimore Sun, to Woodward and Bernstein, by way of Albert Camus, journalists have kept people honest and kept us informed for a long time. Without good journalists, we would be a much poorer society.

I think the Apple tablet will change the way we get daily, weekly and monthly news. Because it will not only delivery daily papers, but also weekly and monthly magazines. This new way of getting news will be a paradigm shift for publishing, and will have a huge effect on the availability of free content. While you’ll still be able to get some news for free, the good news – that which is sanctioned by a respected newspaper or magazine, or the analysis that depends on the best journalist – will no longer be free, but it won’t be expensive enough to make you want to seek out free.

I hope that with Apple’s (still only rumored) tablet we’ll see a resurgence of publishing, because the news is too important to lose to free. What’s happened in recent years, because of the Internet, has endangered all of us, because we need the press to serve as a check and balance for government, corporations, and our own stupidity. Let’s hope that Apple’s tablet will pave the way for a renaissance of journalism.

What is WebKitPluginHost?

I’ve noticed a process taking up a fair amount of memory on my Mac mini, running Snow Leopard: WebKitPluginHost. WebKit is Apple’s HTML rendering engine; it’s used by Safari, Mail (for HTML messages), and many other programs that display HTML pages. But I never noticed it before as a process. In addition, it’s currently taking up more that 200 MB of real memory. Does anyone know what this is?

Follow-up: interestingly, though not surprisingly, the process disappeared after quitting Safari. I think I figured out where it came from: I was uploading a file to my MobileMe iDisk when I noticed it. Perhaps that “PluginHost” is something that is needed by the special window that displays when you make an upload. I’m surprised that it used so much RAM, but I was uploading a file that was around 190 MB. Maybe it takes up RAM corresponding to the size of the upload… More testing will be needed.

Follow-up: it’s a process used when certain plugins are called by WebKit, including the Flash Player plugin.