Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thursday exploring Heffers

I ran into the fellow living upstairs (but not for much longer) who told me he was thinking of retiring. What are you going to do? I asked (a question for myself as well, considered late at night). He shrugged. “Hobbies, I suppose…” What sort? He vaguely describes work that he started, then abandoned, years ago; aspirational things that he isn’t sure he’ll enjoy. Stuff. Another shrug. Maybe more reading? I offer. He brightens, “Yes, certainly more reading.”
I've found that expatriate living is surprisingly hard on reading. Few English-level books, little time to spare: I’m reduced to digesting the weekly Economist on the bike, nibbling a few pages of technical books in bed, or sniffing at paragraphs of Dutch in the morning. But serious literature and high philosophy…it’s been years.
With an uncommitted day in Cambridge, I decided to spend an hour in Heffers, the local academic bookshop. It's a delight: vast areas devoted to literature, religion, arts, and language. Nothing like the institutional Barnes and Noble stores, these shelves challenge and inspire.
I wandered the stacks, gathering impressions.
Physics hasn't changed at all: like many of the traditional maths and sciences, the basics seem fixed. The presentation changes, the equations loook timeless. I feel as though I could still pick up the Classical Mechanics and ElectroMagnetics books and continue where my studies left off.

There is a gratifyingly huge philosophy section. I read a fair amount in graduate school for rrecreation and really came to enjoy the interlay of ideas and arguments, the alternative ways of looking at everyday experiences. It seems a waste that philosophers in our century have withdrawn from the popular discourse, leaving the void to be filled by psychology and pundits. I tried to pick up the trail a couple of months ago, searching the internet for philosophy sites, loooking in academic departments to see what philosophy professors were doing, seeing if text I'd enjoyed had been updated. Nothing. It's like it died out 50 years ago.

As might be expected Keynes owns the Management and Economics section. A Cambridge graduate, he earns the right to have his own display shelves. Gratifyingly, the usual suspects like (the still quite-mad) Richard Branson are on the markdown shelves to one side. There is a well-stocked marketing section that had solid books on process and content rather than the big-type / one-idea titles that dominate airport bookshops.

The travel shelves are recognizable from a distance, with colorful spines that contrast with the earth tones that dominate all of the weightier sections.
The history section had absolutely no Dutch history: nothing except the tomes dedicated to each of the major western european powers. I was reallly surprised. There were a half-dozen Dutch language books, and even a woman buying a grammar book for her courses, but the Low Countries were really under-represented. I'm never shure whether the Dutch take this neglect as an irritation: my impression has always been that, as a culture, theey enjoy flying under the radar where they can chooe their own way.
In contrast there always seems to be yet another computer language to learn, with no particular justification for bothering.


Textual Healer said...

Whenever I go back to the UK I go to the local charity stores and stock up on novels. I must be ahead of he game ans i have six or seven unread ones one y shelf.

Keynes has only just come back into fashion since bankers and private enterprise have so obviously made mess of running the world.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks, Nick: 'good to hear from you again. It's really tempting to stock up when I pass the tables of fiction and shelves of textbooks, but I'm usually tempered by the weight restrictions and the available space at home. I probably should just give in: I always find something unexpected and good when I browse and independent bookseller and don't want to see them disappear. I can't have this experience on Amazon.

I agree that the crisis has driven the marketing of Keynes generally. Cambridge went over the top for their favorite son, though: a full column of shelves with books laid face-out. Policymakers are probably using him more as a metaphor than a prescription: while his theories emphasize government participation in markets, we've surely advanced the ideas with experiences since.

'Hope that business and family are doing well!