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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Rain and Deeper Questions

Thursday morning in Northport. So far it looks like Wednesday morning, pictured above. But let’s not complain. It’s good for those seeds planted in the garden, the transplanted trees, the morels we’re all waiting for, other field and orchard crops, and for generally recharging the water table. And as a friend pointed out yesterday, it’s good reading weather.

Ellen Airgood, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jim Harrison, and Christine Byron & Thomas Wilson—what do they all have in common? All people known and admired by your friendly bookseller at Dog Ears Books, for one thing. For another, all have Michigan Notable Books awards for 2012. Well deserved, friends!

On another literary front, National Writers Series in Traverse City scored another success on Wednesday evening with Harvard ethics professor Michael Sandel. A sold-out house was Sandel’s classroom for the evening, as he pushed audience members to think about two separate issues, immigration and motivating children to do better in school. The questions: Should citizenship be up for sale? Why not put it in the open market where it can be bought and sold? How about paying children to read books? What are the arguments for and against that practice? At the close of his talk, Sandel received a standing ovation. Here are some of the audience members leaving the Opera House on a balmy Front Street evening in May. Recognize anyone?

The best part of an evening like that is continuing to think and discuss the questions afterward, as David and I did on our way home and at our dining table before turning in for the night. One of my observations in the car was that the interesting present intersection of philosophy, psychology and economics has a lot to say about motivation. (For more on this topic, see my book review here.) David wanted the question of citizenship sales pushed harder. “Who owns my citizenship?” he asked. “Do I own it, or does the government?” One woman in the audience had objected to the idea of being able to sell one’s citizenship to a would-be immigrant on the grounds that the government has always been the arbiter of who is allowed into the country.

On my way to town this morning, it occurred to me that both questions might be put together in an overarching question about what sorts of “goods” (things we value, not necessarily limited to material objects) are properly seen as property. Is my citizenship something I own. With advertising, we can buy people’s attention, at least to a degree, but can we buy their caring, their commitment? I see that the question now splits back into two: (1) what kinds of “goods” does it make sense to think of as property, and (2) what kinds of “goods” have a market at all? What do you think?

Currently my reading is going in many directions as I make my way through several different books at once. One is David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, another a book on Hellenism, a third Portrait of a Jew, by Albert MemmiOne of the books that took much less time to read was Mildred D. Taylor’s Song of the Trees, a book written for young people. In all of these books (least on this topic in McCullough, but there’s some of it there, too) I find important questions of who can own what in different parts of the world at different times in history. Michael Sandel’s question is a different one—not whether some people are allowed ownership while others are not, but should everything we value be subject to the market? It is one thing, he says, to have a market economy, quite another to be a market society.

While rain waters my transplanted hemlock trees, the radish and chard seeds still sleeping in their coats, the healthy, green rhubarb and strawberry plants asking nothing more than rain, I will be in my bookstore in Northport. It’s a good place to be while pondering life’s deep questions.


Dawn said...

We got pouring rain all night last night...I think 2 or 3 inches total. Maybe more. Soggy here, still...everything is totally green now.

You ask difficult questions and I have no easy answers. I don't think I'd want to sell my citizenship, nor could I place a value on it. But I'd pay a kid to read a book...hmmmmm

P. J. Grath said...

The questions were Dr. Sandel's. On the question of paying kids to read, many argue that monetary rewards put the focus in the wrong place. More important than arguments, recent studies show that in some schools number of books read was not affected by monetary rewards, while third-graders in one Texas district read more books but chose shorter and shorter ones in order to make "easy money."

On the other question, you wouldn't want to sell your citizenship, but what would you think of someone else doing so? Okay? Not okay? Why or why not?