August 6th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Taking a couple of days off to do other things, back in a bit.

I know it's kind of a shabby thing to do after I accidentally broke the 400 readers mark, but I was in serious danger of getting stale -- and worse, repetitive. And besides, I've got a lot of catching up to do on something else that's (if such a thing were possible) even more time-consuming than writing. I will say a word about that.

I mentioned the other day that I bought the new DVD complete set of The Adventures of Brisco County, you may recall? 8 discs at 3 hours per disc takes some catching up with, but my god is it great catching up on the gaps in the story from the episodes that I missed. I mentioned when I ordered it, but didn't mention when I got it, the boxed set of the first half of season 2 of Gargoyles which I also needed to watch -- somewhat promptly, actually, because I was eager to loan season 1 and the first half of season 2 to some friends. I hadn't gotten around to mentioning that I also bought the complete Alien Nation TV series on DVD, or that it's costing me all of my self-control to keep from doing the same thing with the complete boxed set of Gerry Anderson's old British SF series, UFO.

I realized when I was moving into the RV that I had a serious issue with book hoarding. Moving into an RV, even one as big as the old Libertalia (a 37-foot class A motorhome with full "basement" storage bins) and with that many built-in bookcases, proved the perfect excuse for me to confront the fact that I had a lot of books in the collection that I simply had no rational reason to own. They were books that I was glad to have read once, some of them maybe twice. Some few of them, even I admit in hindsight, I hadn't even liked that much the first time. I just couldn't bring myself to give away, sell, or throw away a book. And when I had to pare my library down to something that could comfortably ride around the country with me, it ended up feeling oddly liberating, the way I'm told it feels when you lose a lot of physical weight, the way that many men feel after an ugly divorce -- thank God I don't have that dead weight hanging around my neck any more. So I've had a lot of time to think about why in the aitch-e-double-toothpicks I was carrying them around, from move to move for all those years, in the first place.

I thought I had a big chunk of the reason when I thought of the first things to come to mind. I knew that on one level, looking around me at the carefully shelved remains of the vast majority of the books I'd ever read felt warm and comforting and reassuring. I described it on a couple of occasions to people admiring the library at the old Brad Davidian Compound, by saying that I liked the feeling of looking around and seeing reflected, on the walls, so much of the contents of my mind. The other clue is that phrase, "people admiring my library," and that's an idea that's fresh in a lot of people's minds now that LibraryThing.com has ignited something of a competition, nationwide, over whose library is bigger. I derived a certain amount of ego-boo from having a big library, from the occasional admiration it got from people who were envious, who wished that their libraries were that big.

But you know what? I've had a lot more years to think about it since then, and I've come to think that there may be more to it than that, something a lot bigger that I wasn't confronting: scarcity thinking. I've had a lot of examples of it, in the broader world, to think about. As someone who self-identifies as a priest of Dionysus, I've tried to educate a lot of people about how to actually enjoy drinking. As I had occasion to say to someone online today to whom it (depressingly) came as news, the object of drinking alcohol is not to puke and pass out as fast as humanly possible; the person who pukes and passes out first didn't "win" anything. And yet, even more in Generation 13 than in even previous generations, that behavior is rampant -- why do you think that those born between 1960 and 1979 are such fans of straight shots? It's because they hit their teenage years at an age when America became fanatically obsessed with trying to keep alcohol out of the hands of teens. And when there is only a certain amount of it around, you really do have a powerful incentive to treat it the way starving people treat food, to scarf down as much of it as you can get your hands on, as fast as you can before someone takes it away from you or takes more than their share. After all, who knows when there'll ever be any more?

When I saw the movie biopic of The Notorious Bettie Page, it was a vivid reminder of a not merely pre-Internet, but even pre-VCR world I grew up in: a World Without Porn. OK, there never was totally a world without pornography. But even as late as my teenage years, even adults in the most permissive parts of America faced extraordinarily difficulty trying to obtain anything other than grainy, heavily censored photographs. The Miller Test, the court case that made it nearly impossible for prosecutors to get convictions for all but about a dozen specific kinds of pornography, wasn't litigated until I was 13, and the boundaries of what juries will tolerate under the 1973 Miller v California standards were still being litigated case by case as late as the Reagan era, under Attorney General Ed Meese's war on pornography. Even it left print publishers, who had so much to lose, extraordinarily hesitant to go right up to the edge of what the law allows, for fear of ending up on the wrong side of a jury. And, of course, the Miller Test plus subsequent case law left some appetites for porn unmet in the US ... and it was in this context that hundreds of thousands, then millions, of Americans got access to anonymous porn distribution over Usenet and less anonymous but more convenient porn via the worldwide web and ubiquitous DVDs. Now you can find porn everywhere ... and yet, your average computer user's hard disk has at least hundreds, and frequently thousands, of pornographic images. And probably every single one of you knows at least one guy with a collection of porn DVDs that's the size of my old library for science fiction books, more porn than he could possibly watch in a lifetime, even on fast-forward. Why collect so much porn? Because on some level, American porn consumers who remember a World Without Porn are afraid that if they don't consume as much of it as possible, as fast as possible, and hoard as much of it as possible, they'll have to go without. They're acclimated to scarcity, and it's driven them mad in the same way that starvation in the concentration camps drove some survivors of the Holocaust mad.

I grew up in a neighborhood where my parents' library of perhaps a 100 books marked them as a little weird, as suspiciously intellectual. I grew up in a world where probably no more than 2000 science fiction books had ever been published in all of history, of which fewer than a quarter were in print anywhere, of which a bookstore with a good science fiction selection might have a hundred titles. It took me less than 4 years, once I started, to read every science fiction novel in the county library, plus every book in any bookstore in town, new or used. It left me jonesing for more for so long that I developed a gluttonous habit of hoarding, a compulsive addictive behavior. And that's got me wondering if my appetite for science fiction TV series on DVD is just as irrationally powerful. You see, for all that there have been more of them than most of you know, there probably have been fewer than 300 science fiction TV series every produced. I don't pretend to have seen every episode of all of them, but I will say this. I saw every episode available to me a long time ago. Before they started selling them on DVDs, I might go a long, long time between new "fixes." Now, with those habits of scarcity thinking, with my brain yelling at me that I'd better grab any of it I see whenever I see it because it might be decades before it's offered again? I know that I'm going to have to budget myself hard, and watch myself like a hawk, and not trust myself any farther than I can throw me, or I'll turn into a compulsive hoarder of SF TV series. Heck, I've already got a bigger backlog of unwatched DVDs than I have of unread books.

Scarcity thinking in a world of sudden abundance is a problem that can ruin your life in ways that don't even begin to involve food, liquor, drugs, or porn. I'm going to have to be more than a little bit careful not to let it ruin mine.