My wife and I bought our first IKEA Billy bookshelf twenty years ago. We now have fourteen in various shades of sun-bleached faux yellow pine. Whenever we needed more book space, we could make a trip to IKEA, whether that was in Allaman in Switzerland, New Haven, Houston, Charlotte or Virginia Beach.
Not anymore. IKEA is apparently changing the design and materials of the cheapo shelf. Gone are the annoying finishing nails that might nick the shelves as you try to secure the flappy back. Gone, too, is the thin wood veneer glued to the medium density fiberboards (MDFs). Instead, IKEA will now use foil paper. There are other changes, but the point of the redesign is to make the shelves sturdier, easier to move and more ecologically “friendly.”
Fine. But I have become attached to the shelves. We have moved them all around the country, and it has been a point of pride to have kept them in usable shape for this long. They are among the few pieces of furniture we still have from when the kids were young. (When we had to throw away our leather couches a few years ago, I think some of the kids cried.)
Some people hate the shelves because they are so easy to ruin when you put them together or take them apart. I get it. Some people just hate IKEA. The furniture store is an emblem of everything that’s wrong with the West’s appetite for trendy, cheap, throwaway goods — from Tommy Hilfiger ready-to-wear suit separates (I own five) to Swatch watches (one).
But I’ve got a soft spot for plastics and fake pine. Everything comes from the same place anyway — the earth — and will go back to it when it is used up (some things more slowly than others). I have “real” suits, too, and furniture made from real wood. We have cheap knives and a silver spoon we have used nearly weekly for over twenty years to serve pasta. (The silver tray, which we got with the spoon at our wedding, is in a cabinet somewhere.) One is not better than the other, whatever argument you might drum up about “sustainability” and “quality.”
At least IKEA is waiting until 2024 to replace the original Billy in the States — plenty of time for me to buy a couple more.
In other news
Barnaby Crowcroft reviews Caroline Elkins’s “bombastic” history of the British empire:
Much of the book is given over to a plodding chronicle of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history, in which events are construed — and often misconstrued — to give the meanest possible interpretation. British “arch-imperialists” resemble cartoon villains, who wear “Hitleresque mustaches” and “racist coattails” and are awarded MBEs and OBEs according to how much harm they inflict upon colonial subjects. There is even an imaginative reconstruction of British pilots all but laughing as they machine-gun “defenseless women and children”; readers are invited to listen to their “screams of pain”.
On not writing in that New Yorker voice:
A couple of years earlier I had written some articles about the justice system for a national magazine. The voice I used in those articles, and the voice in which I had automatically begun writing my book, was a New Yorker sort of voice. It was the default voice I used for a general readership. (Like other academics, I was encouraged early in my career to “write beyond the academy,” to produce “cross-over” writing “accessible for the public.”) The New Yorker sort of voice — or rather, the New Yorker voice I was using — is one that sounds on top, or ahead, of the material under discussion. It is a voice of intelligent curiosity; it implies that the writer has synthesized a great deal of information; it confidently takes readers by the hand, introduces them to surprising characters, recounts dramatic scenes, and leads them through key ideas and issues. The voice narrates the material in the first-person and describes the researcher conducting the research, encountering people, reacting to situations, thinking thoughts. The voice is smart-sounding. It is an effective voice for a lot of long-form journalism (including many virtuosic monographs), but it was not for the book I was trying to write.
Silence is good for your brain, according to Justin Talbot Zorn and Leigh Marz’s new book Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise. I can say with confidence that this review of the book isn’t.
Ted Gioia identifies fourteen signs that we are living in a society without a counter-culture.
In praise of mowing the lawn: “There is the first lawn mowing of the season, all full of hopeful trepidation. Will the mower start up this year? Did someone leave it empty of gas? When was the last time we changed the oil? Sharpened the blades? And then, after yanking the choke to its full-on position and allowing the hibernating motor to sputter a few times over, it kicks into the I-mean-business, guttural whirr that becomes as synonymous a sound of summer as office air conditioning and evening crickets.”
In William Logan’s latest Verse Chronicle, he reviews books by Frank Bidart, Amanda Gorman, Anne Carson and Kevin Young, among others. On Gorman, he writes: “It’s not clear if we should be depressed by the attention paid to her work, the publicity and hard cash showered upon her, or should just throw up our hands and say, ‘That, that too, is America.’ She’s today’s answer to Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Rod McKuen.”
Gary Saul Morson on Stalin’s reading:
Americans usually presume that Stalin, as a mass murderer, must have been a semi-literate thug, as if intellectuals are somehow less capable of brutality. At best, they figure that Stalin, as his enemy Trotsky asserted, was a consummate intellectual mediocrity. In fact, Stalin was not only highly intelligent but also supremely well-read. When the Soviet archives were opened after the fall of the USSR, it turned out that Stalin had accumulated a personal library of twenty-five thousand volumes. He had selected the books himself and even devised his own classification system for his personal librarian to follow. In over four hundred volumes he left extensive pometki, marginal notes.