What book(s) I’m reading now and what I think about the subject, the writing, the book design and the author. Most of these are books by the bedside: books I read in the final hour or so before sleep each night. There is usually a stack of 10-20 books on the go at any one time.
There are all sorts of great stories, great tales of wisdom and enlightenment, to be found in Zen Buddhism. They often have that sort of eternal depth and universal meaning to our lives, regardless of your personal beliefs. The one below came back to me, last night, while I was walking my dog and pondering why some people remain so angry over little things, why they can’t move on. It goes like this…
Two Zen monks, a young and and old one, were walking along the road on the way to visit a monastery in the hills. They came to a river that was swollen with water from the recent rains, and the ford was deep under the muddy, rushing water.
On their side of the river was a young woman, dressed in a rich new kimono and sash, unable to cross, looking fearfully at the water.
The elder monk went over, spoke quietly to the woman, then picked her up, and carried her across the river while his companion struggled through the water behind him. The monk put the woman down on the further bank, bowed, and the two monks continued their journey. The woman went off down another path and they never saw her again.
After many hours of walking in silence, the two arrived at the monastery. They greeted the master, had dinner, sat in meditation, then retired to their cell to sleep. While they were preparing to go to bed, the younger of the two could no longer restrain himself.
He suddenly burst out angrily, “I can be silent no more! What were you thinking? You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with women. Yet you carried that woman across the river without a second thought. Don’t you know that’s against the rules? How could you do something like that?”
He railed on for a couple more minutes.
The elder monk simply stood still and listened. When the younger was finished, and had exhausted himself, the elder said, “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Wonderful tale, isn’t it?
This story comes from a wonderful collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I was given a paperback edition of this book in 1968 and I still have it, the same, somewhat battered copy, in my book collection. I have a couple of other editions, too, picked up over the years.
I have read the entire book many times over during the time I’ve had it, and probably will read it many more times. It’s the single, most-read book I own and one of the few I would always want to own.
You can read the tales online at many sites, including here, but I do recommend you get a printed copy for yourself. It’s a rich treasure trove of inspirational, educational and often entertaining material.
Okay, I embellished the telling a bit. The original tale is much shorter and has a few variants (you can read it here and here and here). Wisdom tales abound in all cultures and I have a few similar books from other lands and times. I think I will reprint a few more stories here in the future.
Been working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).
I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.
Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.
There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)
Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!
Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.
As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.
My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.
Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.
Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. That has to rank among the best opening lines in a novel, up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” opening in A Tale of Two Cities. This line, however, is from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, Scaramouche.
Yesterday, I was rummaging through my rather messy and erratic book collection, poking among books stacked upon books, and in piles on the floor, looking for a copy of Albert and the Lion that I wrote about recently. I didn’t find it, but I did find my copy of Scaramouche, a book I thought I had lost a few years back.*
What a delight it is to find a book you thought you had lost! I immediately pulled it out of the pile and took it to bed with me to read. Finished the first three chapters last night, before I picked up another book.
Mine is an old edition; a little rough, with lightly yellowed pages. No foxing, though, and the binding is fragile but still intact. My copy was published by the Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart, in 1923; the second Canadian edition – this one has six illustrations; photographs actually: stills from a silent film of the same name, also shot in 1923. I found out today, as I wrote this, that the film has been restored and is available from TCM.
There was also a 1952 film of the novel, starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The silent film follows the novel better, however.
The novel is subtitled “A Romance of the French Revolution,” and it’s a swashbuckling, sprawling tale of love, friendship, intrigue, politics, swordfighting – all the elements that Hollywood loves. Sabatini also wrote, among others, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both also swashbucklers and both made into movies. It’s along the lines of the books by the Baroness Orczy – the Scarlet Pimpernel and similar titles – written only a few years earlier – but with more politics, action and discourse.
You can read Scaramouche online or as an e-book today (I have not yet got myself an e-reader, and still like the tactile sense of actual books, but I do appreciate the technology). You can also down an audiobook at Librivox (I like to listen to audio books and courses when I drive long distances, or when I walk the dog).
It has some great lines, although the writing style is a bit florid for today’s standards.
He was too impish, too caustic, too much disposed—so thought his colleagues—to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration of mankind. Himself he protested that he merely held them up to the mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected there they looked ridiculous.
It starts in France in the years just before the Revolution and follows the hero as he joins the revolutionaries, but many of the comments and political descriptions sound remarkably like a metaphor for modern American society:
“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern—the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen…
“Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness?”
“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”
“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”
“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”
“The people can—the people in its might.”
“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”
There are many books weighing down my bookshelves into soft, drooping curves, but not many of them have the privilege of tenure. Only a handful have travelled with me for more than a couple of decades; a small selection of tomes that are read, perhaps infrequently, but more than once, and still manage to speak to me every time.
Most of my books have, over the years, been donated to libraries or sold to bookstores, to make room for the new ones always crowding in and demanding attention. Those that have escaped the culling so long are ones that mean the most to me. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is one of them. You may know it for this memorable verse:
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” 1st Translation: 51
Khayyam was a Persian mathematician, philosopher and astronomer. He wrote between 1,200 and 2,000 quatrains (depending on which researcher is counting.). He lived from around 1048 CE to 1122 CE.
I first encountered the Rubaiyat when I was in my pre-teens. I can’t recall today whether it was one of those gems buried on a public library shelf that I found (I waited in the library after school for my father to come home from work and collect me), or if it was among my father’s books I found tucked away on a bookshelf at home. Either way, it stuck with me. Since then, I’ve owned several editions of it. Two sit cheek-to-jowl on my shelves today.
“‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.” 1st translation: 49
Edward FitzGerald, a reclusive and somewhat odd scholar, first translated the collection of stanzas from the ancient Persian in the mid-1850s. Seventy-five of the quatrains were published anonymously in 1859. It took almost ten years for it to become well-known.Today it stands as one of the greatest works of English poetry.
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.” 1st Translation: 7
I wasn’t aware, at the time when I first found it, that there were several translations of the book, and that the number of verses and their order would change in each (starting from 75 in the first to 110 then reduced to 101 in the last three, but because he replaced some, the total unique verses in all editions is 114).
FitzGerald continued to work at his translation, adding and subtracting verses, from his original, re-ordering and tweaking the wording right until his death. Four versions were published in his lifetime, and a fifth was published after his death, based on notes he left behind.
My copies include a 1951 reprint of the first translation, with the stunning B&W illustrations by Edmund Sullivan reproduced. The other is a 1963 reprint of a 1947 edition, with the first, second and fifth translations, colourfully illustrated by cartoonist Robert Sherriffs. Samples of both are in this post.
While later translations may represent an improvement in the translator’s art, for me the first is still the best. It was the one I first discovered, the one I carried with me while hitchhiking around the country in the 1960s, and the one that still moves me most today. However, I find some of the later versions are sometimes slightly better, slightly more powerful or smoother. That’s why it’s good to have several editions.
For example, verse 7, above is rendered thus in the subsequent editions:
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter – garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.” 2nd-5th translations, verse 7
Which doesn’t strike as quite as lovely, or poetic as the first. I don’t like the change from “the” to “your” in the second line because it personalizes what I see as a more universal sentiment.. And I really don’t think the bird of time should “flutter,” which seems less potent and more random than “fly.” “Fly” scans better, too.
Fitzgerald’s work is overall, however, magnificent, beautiful, and problematic (it even spawned many parodies). It reflects the best of Victorian literary aspirations; flowery and rich without being saccharine, deep without being stodgy or moralizing, readable in whole or in part. It is rich in imagery and symbolism. His chosen rhyming scheme makes it easy to read and memorize – the AABA scheme has even been called the “Rubaiyat” method.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, on reading the Rubaiyat:
‘Like a sudden conversion – the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours’
However, it is not really very accurate, at least by today’s standards of translation. It’s certainly not literal. In fact, it may be considered more an interpretation than a translation. Wikipedia notes:
“…as a translation of Omar Khayyam’s quatrains, it is not noted for its fidelity. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to any one of Khayyam’s quatrains at all. Some critics informally refer to the FitzGerald’s English versions as “The Rubaiyat of FitzOmar”, a nickname that both recognizes the liberties FitzGerald inflicted on his purported source and also credits FitzGerald for the considerable portion of the “translation” that is his own creation.”
Fitzgerald himself recognized this, and wrote in a letter to a friend and fellow scholar:
“My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is.” (letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58)
Later he would write to the same friend,
“But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle” (letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59).
Scholars have reacted differently to FitzGerald’s work; some with scorn, others with understanding praise:
“…FitzGerald was faithful to the quintessence of the poetic message communicated by Khayyam: that while taking well-deserved liberties with the original text, he recreated the original poet’s message in forms and metaphors more familiar to his Victorian audience -hence his incredible popularity in literary circles of his time. The ‘Wine of Nishapur’ in this sense represents the intoxicating essence of the Quatrains of ‘Umar Khayyam, the fiery way of beauty and wisdom imbibed in Persian by Edward FitzGerald, then outpoured again in Victorian cups of charm and grace.”
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat can be read in many different ways: as a long poem with an overarching theme; a series of short poems with loose thematic connections; aphorisms about life and meditations on morality and mortality (like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius) a religious commentary (in particular a Sufi or Islamic manifesto); a non-religious spiritual guide (like a Persian Bardo Thodol but through life, not the afterlife), an intellectual exercise in translation, or in interpretation (like Witter Bynner’s or Ursula Leguin’s editions of the Tao Teh Ching), or as randomly chosen thoughts for today (like I Ching verses).
No matter how you approach it, it is both beautiful and potent, even more than 150 years later. The Telegraph noted that, by its 150th anniversary in 2009, Fitzgerald’s version had been printed in “650 different editions, with illustrations by 150 artists. It has been translated into 70 languages and set to music by 100 composers.”
Since FitzGerald (yes, he capitalized the G), many other writers have attempted to translate the verses into English and other languages. Whether they have equalled or surpassed FitzGerald’s efforts, is a personal choice. As Wikipedia notes, the tone of the translation depends on one’s own personal philosophy:
The nature of a translation very much depends on what interpretation one places on Khayyam’s philosophy. The fact that the rubaiyat are a collection of quatrains – and may be selected and rearranged subjectively to support one interpretation or another – has led to widely differing versions. Nicolas took the view that Khayyam himself clearly was a Sufi. Others have seen signs of mysticism, even atheism, or conversely devout and orthodox Islam. FitzGerald gave the Rubaiyat a distinct fatalistic spin, although it has been claimed that he softened the impact of Khayyam’s nihilism and his preoccupation with the mortality and transience of all things. Even such a question as to whether Khayyam was pro- or anti-alcohol gives rise to more discussion than might at first glance have seemed plausible.
FitzGerald himself seems to have been somewhat of a fatalist, or nihilist, albeit gently so. He grew increasingly disenchanted with Christianity, and eventually gave up attending church. His own outlook on mortality and the fleeting nature of life is evident throughout all of his versions, but it’s far from a pessimistic work.
The Rubaiyat.com compares versions by five translators (Fitzgerald – four editions – Brodie, Talbot, Sadie and Whinfield; Brodie is an ‘anagrammatic paraphrase’ of FitzGerald).You can also compare the first, second, fourth and fifth FitzGerald translations, as well as the Whinfield at Arabiannights.org.
It’s fascinating to compare how others have turned the original into their own words.It’s even fascinating to see how Fitzgerald himself struggled to refine the verses. For example, in his first translation, Fitzgerald wrote this:
“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.” 1st translation: 11
In the second edition, this became:
“Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” 2nd translation: 12
For the third to fifth editions, this became:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” 3rd-5th translations: 12
As the Rubaiyat.com shows, this is sometimes represented by more than one verse, depending on the translator:
“Some wine, a Houri (Houris if there be),
A green bank by a stream, with minstrelsy;—
Toil not to find a better Paradise
If other Paradise indeed there be!
In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought,
And thither wine, and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
Give me a skin of wine, a crust of bread,
A pittance bare, a book of verse to read;
With thee, O love, to share my lowly roof,
I would not take the Sultan’s realm instead!
So long as I possess two maunds of wine,
Bread of the flower of wheat, and mutton chine,
And you, O Tulip cheek, to share my hut,
Not every Sultan’s lot can vie with mine. Whinfield, verses 79, 84, 452, 479
If in the Spring, she whom I love so well
Meet me by some green bank – the truth I tell –
Bringing my thirsty soul a cup of wine,
I want no better Heaven, nor fear a Hell.
Whether my destin’d fate shall be to dwell
Midst Heaven’s joys or in the fires of Hell
I know not; here with Spring, and bread, and wine,
And thee, my love, my heart says “All is well.”
Give me a scroll of verse, a little wine,
With half a loaf to fill thy needs and mine,
And with the desert sand our resting place,
For ne’er a Sultan’s kingdom would we pine.
Let Fortune but provide me bread of wheat,
A gourd of wine a bone of mutton sweet,
Then in the desert if we twain might sit,
Joys such as ours no Sultan could defeat Talbot, verses 25, 40, 149, 155
Others translate it into a single verse:
A Poem, and Trees a-blowing in a Wind.
A Brew I’ll drink — base Needs of other Stuff
Ignore. Ah see here how we do behave;
Indeed for us a Song is just enough. Brodie, verse 12
Ah, would there were a loaf of bread as fare,
A joint of lamb, a jug of vintage rare,
And you and I in wilderness encamped –
No Sultan’s pleasure could with ours compare. Sadie, verse 16
You can read all of FitzGerald’s various editions, as well as at least half-a-dozen others online. But I recommend instead that you get a print version. It’s the sort of book you will want to read on a Sunday afternoon, over a glass of wine, or just before bedtime, when you can ponder each verse in the quiet of the night. Besides, every home library should have a copy. It’s one of those books, like Shakespeare’s collected works, you should not be without.
I try to read it, if not always in one sitting, at least in its entirety, every few years. It’s always worth the time to do so.
“Whether at Naishápúr or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.” 2nd translation, verse 8
When the books stacked beside the bed get tall enough to hold not only a cup of tea at easy reach, but a plate of toast with no threat of falling, then perhaps it’s time to cull the pile and put aside those books not being actively read. That takes some time to sort out the reading-right-now from the reading-now-and-then, and the reading-for-a-purpose from the reading-when-it-pleases-me books. There is at least a shelf of books beside my bedside, perhaps more.
I’m not sure how many of my blog readers have a bedside book stack, but it goes without saying that reading at bedtime is a practice of the civilized life. Books have a revered place within arm’s reach of the covers.
Under some circumstances, I might grudgingly accept an e-reader, as a modern accessory to permit reading in other situations (like travel abroad), but in a bedroom, a TV is a place where only Philistines cavort.
Or, actually, stare vacantly at their piece of furniture. TV does not encourage participation, discussion or engagement.
Susan agrees wholeheartedly with my prejudices against TV sets in bedrooms, and has her own book stack, albeit in a more tidy and shevelled* manor than mine.
TVs belong in public places, like airports, bus depots or family living rooms. They do not belong in intimate places like bedrooms where couples can shed their daily woes. Watching a TV is a passive, submissive act, an act of self-inflicted mental slavery.
Reading is an active act, a participation between reader and author, a sharing of ideas, an exploration of new worlds.
Reading is one of the few acts we engage in, in which we share the immortality of another, in which we get close to another’s thoughts. Reading is second only to sex for intimacy. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer is a time machine that allows me to visit a world that would otherwise be beyond my grasp. But it is equally so for Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mike Hammer and Emily Bronte. Doors open when you read, worlds are laid at your feet. Neurons fire up when you read.
TV, on the other hand, is about as intimate as any dentist’s office. That’s one reason it should be kept out of places like bedrooms. Doors close when you watch TV. So do minds. Neurons sleep when you watch TV.
My own reading habits and Susan’s are polar opposites. She reads a book, one at a time, cover to cover, word for word, then tackles the next. I read a chapter here, there, picking up books from the pile in no order, usually having a dozen on the go at any time. I have separate books in different bathrooms, books for travel, books for comfort, books for study, books for inspiration, books to argue with, books to teach. I read like a magpie, picking at bits and pieces.
A few years past, when we went to Mexico, I foolishly took a box of books as a separate item of luggage. In our two weeks, I got through most; at least those I wanted to complete or read the specific portions if not all (I took, for example, a complete works of Shakespeare, and read three plays). I can easily appreciate the value of an e-reader in these circumstances, since it can carry hundreds of works in one light unit.
Susan, on the other hand, took a few of her own books, read them, and then traded them for others from hotel guests and friends. Clever girl.
My reluctance to get an e-reader is based on three basic issues. First is that I am uneasy about paying for a digital book that doesn’t translate into something on my bookshelf I can handle, read in the bath, or lend to others. The sheer physicality of books is its own reward. I love holding one, turning the pages, feeling the heft, smelling the paper and ink. An old or vintage book is a sensual time machine. An e-book is… what? An electric charge in a machine?
The second is that I tend to read mostly non-fiction and most of what I read isn’t yet available in e-reader format, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. That may be changing for contemporary works, but my library also has a large component of older books that predate e-readers by a few decades, sometimes by a century or more. I can find books to read on Abebooks, but not in Kindle format.
Would I be able to get all of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs on an e-reader? Or my 12-volume edition of Casanova’s memoirs? The chess books I still have (gathering dust, I admit, but nonetheless beloved) from my chess heyday 30-plus years ago, but still pick up now and then to peruse?
My third sticking point is price. I am willing to pay for a physical book, but when I see an e-book version that costs almost as much, I fail to see the advantage of the investment. Years later, the physical book will still be on my shelf (assuming I have not donated it to the local library as I like to do), but the e-book? Gone, forgotten. Digital dust. Maybe even deleted by the seller after its limited licence runs out. What do you leave in your will of an e-reader’s contents?
For me, an e-reader will be great for classics – Darwin, Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Machiavelli – the authors in the public domain (thus free or inexpensive). But I would never purchase a new book that way without assurances that it would not be deleted without my approval, that it could be printed or text copied from it (for transmission by email if necessary) and that I had some price bonus like a discount when I decided to buy the physical version. But would it give me the same joy as when I open a volume of the 1930s’ collected works of Rudyard Kipling and start reading a story or poem at random?
Right now, beside the bed, I am reading a book on how Shakespeare’s first folio changed publishing, several books on etymology, language and grammar, one on the history of Christianity and another on biblical archeology (odd for an atheist, I know, but religion fascinates me as a social and historical topic and I read a lot about it), two books on demonology and the history of the idea of evil (for a novel I’m playing with), several books on marketing and public relations (for another book I’m writing), some books on Machiavelli and Renaissance politics (always learning about him), about Tudor history (with Jacobean, is a favourite topic of mine), about CSS and HTML (to improve my coding skills), a few novels (Christopher Moore, Michael Quinn and a Tom Clancy, plus a couple of fantasy and scifi novels), some books on technological changes and developments (for another book), an annotated Municipal Act (for council), a book on emerging viruses, another on the history of vaccines (and one on the emergence of “fear” cultures including the current New Age anti-vaccine mania), a book on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Nazi connections in the 1930s, a revised history of the fall of Rome, a book on creative design and architecture, a book on urban startup communities, a book on gambling culture in Canada, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero’s speeches, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and a few others I can’t recall because I pulled them off the bookshelves to look something up and will put them back in the next day or two. Plus, of course, an Oxford Dictionary, and a thesaurus, which are ever-present.
I can’t imagine that an e-reader could fill that void if the books were all to vanish. And certainly all the TV shows in the world for an entire year would never, ever compensate for the loss of a single book. It would be like trading a world for a piece of simple gravel. It would be turning off my mind and joining the sheep in mindless adoration of the flickering screen.
I will sort, I will change my bedside books, but I will never get rid of that pile. Besides, where would I put my Ovaltine when I’m reading at night before sleep?
No, I’m not going to write about the morality of gambling.* I’ll save that for another post. This is about money. And numbers.
I attended the OLG four-community presentation in Wasaga Beach, Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what gambling means to the economy, what it means to the government, what effect it might have on things like growth and recession. It also made me wonder how governments became addicted to gambling revenue, but that, too, is for another post.
I also found some of the statistics presented interesting enough to do some extrapolation, which I’ll get to at the end.
What does gambling contribute to our economy? Well, the OLG and the province always like to tout the benefits: the OLG paid more than $2 billion profits into provincial coffers, in 2011. They’ve given more than $34 billion since 1975. That’s an average contribution of $149 per person in the province per year. OLG’s plans are to build that payment to the province up to $3.3 billion by introducing more and newer forms of gambling.
On a very basic level, that looks good. After all, at least some of that money would have had to come from taxes instead, so it can be seen as a user-pay system, or a self-tax system. Of that $2 billion last year, $120 million went to the Trillium Foundation, $10 million for Ontario Amateur Sport, and $41 towards problem gambling programs.
That’s an interesting ratio: four times the amount given to develop sports is given to treating the problems created by gambling. A point not missed by the audience.
The OLG made that profit from revenue of $6.685 billion. That’s a far more intriguing number. It’s just over one percent of Ontario’s GDP in 2011. As a former business owner, seeing a 33% profit margin is impressive. Extrapolating, it suggests OLG plans to increase net gambling revenues to almost $10 billion if the ratio remains the same. It will do this by expanding gaming sites, adding internet gambling, allowing bingo halls to run more games – making more gambling available to more people more often.
That doesn’t sit too well with me. The same people who won’t let grocery and convenience stores sell wine and beer because it might corrupt someone, will make gambling so ubiquitous it will be hard to avoid tripping over a slot machine (real or virtual). Online gambling will offer easy access, 24/7 from your home. Play in your jammies until the early hours. All you need is a credit card. Makes me wonder if the goal is to make gambling mandatory some day in the future, like taxes…
What happened to the rest of the money the OLG took in?
According to the OLG’s annual report, operating expenses were $4.975 billion. Of that, $1.835 billion went to payouts to lottery and bingo winners. Commissions ($648 million – this, I assume, was paid to operators ), marketing ($300 million – the amount paid for advertising is 7.5 times the amount paid to help problem gamblers), interest ($32 million), payments to the federal government ($228 million) and amortization ($226 million) gobbled up another 1.43 billion. Paying for the OLG and its 18,000 employees is one of those expenses. Six thousand of those employees got bonuses, too – $11.6 million worth. Not a large slice of $4.7 billion. Horse racing got $345 million; host municipalities got $92 million and First Nations got $117 million.
It almost looks like the OLG is on a drunken giveaway spree, handing out the bucks to everyone except, of course, the gamblers. Nice of them to give us back some of our money, though.
Who doesn’t want to get free money? That’s the attractiveness of hosting a casino: all you need to do is nod your head, zone some land, then sit back and watch the money roll in. Suddenly flush with cash, the town’s taxes plummet, everything gets rebuilt, new sports facilities sprout, downtown gets renewed, sidewalks rebuilt, streets paved with gold and the local politicians get halos.
Well, maybe not.
[pullquote]As an aside, based on media stories, all three seem worried that their slot machines will be removed from the tracks when the agreement ends, sometime in the next year.[/pullquote]The OLG presented the audience with examples from Hanover, Central Huron and Chatham-Kent: all three communities have an OLG money machine in a racetrack. Hanover has 130 slots; Clinton (Central Huron) has 123, and Hanover (Chatham-Kent) 130. All three are currently questioning whether the slots will remain in their raceways with the OLG’s new strategic plan. In 2011, Hanover received about $800,000; Central Huron $641,000 and Chatham-Kent about $700,000. Exuberant endorsements from their mayors, we were told.
Assume we could get, say, $1 million per year as a host community. That translates to just over 2% of our annual municipal budget. Minus, of course, what we would pay to our neighbours as per the memorandum of agreement we signed. We might end up with 1% of our budget as “free” cash. Does this mean your taxes won’t go up? Nope. The extra money would likely end up going to infrastructure improvements and maintenance required by the extra traffic, maybe to extra policing costs too.
Even if we kept it all for ourselves (as one councillor has suggested), and damn the rest of the region, is that money enough to make us want a casino? If I’m going to sell our municipal soul, I think I want a bigger slice of that pie for the town. As Faustian agreements go, we’re not getting much from our side of the bargain.
Besides, we might think we’re agreeing for “just” 300 slots, but the OLG said it could expand the site’s licence to other games anytime in the future. The demographics change when you have other types of gambling, but I didn’t hear anything to suggest the town will have a say in that expansion.
If the cash doesn’t move me, the opportunity to create 80 to 90 jobs in the area is more attractive. Any job creation is welcome, but I get an uneasy feeling these aren’t the “quality” jobs some folks are expecting.
From what I understand, many of these jobs would be similar to what the hospitality industry already offers – janitorial, serving, cooking,security, valet parking, landscaping, counting cash. Whether these (non-union?) jobs would pay better than the hospitality sector or offer any benefits would be up to the private operator. They aren’t government jobs: the OLG won’t be running these new casinos.
Will a private operator pay more than $10-$12 an hour for someone to sweep the floor and polish the slot buttons? I wouldn’t expect so. Any new jobs are better than no jobs, but my passion to create more McJobs is somewhat less. Would you like fries with those casino tokens?
Back to the money.According to the OLG, the net revenue from adults to the gaming industry in Ontario is $459 per year. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s money that doesn’t go directly into the economy – it doesn’t create jobs outside the gambling sector. It doesn’t buy anything from local merchants or restaurants. It goes directly to the government. Well, okay, two thirds goes to the OLG and its minions, and the remaining third gets into public coffers.
Most economists measure consumer spending as a yardstick to whether we are in or out of a recession – it’s called the consumer confidence index. See here for the Canadian index. It’s a simple measure of consumption – consumers who are confident in the state of the economy buy more stuff. Recessions happen when that confidence falls to a point where we stop buying and start hoarding (okay, it’s one reason; there are others, but it’s a big part of it).
A strong consumer confidence report, especially at a time when the economy is lagging behind prevailing estimates, can move the currency markets quickly. The idea behind consumer confidence is that a happy consumer – one who feels that his or her standard of living is increasing – is more likely to spend more and make bigger purchases, like a new car or home, leading to a stronger domestic economy and consequently a stronger currency.
Is gambling measured as consumption? Does the money pushed into slots contribute to the level of confidence? Is gambling measured in the index? I can’t find anything online to suggest that it is. So rather than spending that $459 on, say, a new TV, a shelf of books, a library of DVDs, new skates, skis or a bicycle, a purebred puppy, teeth whitening or any other goods and services – this money is spent on gambling. It bypasses the usual consumer channels. Gambling doesn’t add to the consumer confidence, even though the money is still flowing out of consumers’ pockets.
Yes, there is trickle down and spin-off – some of the money goes to suppliers, some to wages – and thus some gets back into the general economy. But how much? How much just ends up fattening the bank accounts of the operators? I don’t know, but clearly it’s not as beneficial as if it were all spent in a retail store.
Would $6.7 billion have a positive effect if it was spent in retail instead of gambling? Of course, but overall not as much as you might imagine. It’s about 4% of Ontario’s total retail sales (2011 figures). So it would help, but wouldn’t change the world. A few hundred people spending an extra $459 each every year in a local business could make a real difference to the local economy.
As a personal choice, I’d rather buy that shelf of books from local bookstores than pump quarters into a noisy metal machine and walk away with nothing. At the end of the day, I will have something to show for my money, not to mention many more months, even years, of enjoyment from the books.
It strikes me that putting the money directly into the economy helps buoy consumer confidence (thus the economy) better than spending it on gambling, and it might help keep us on the farther side of a recession. The OLG’s own statistics show that Ontario’s gambling revenue didn’t seem significantly affected by the last recession, so gamblers apparently don’t seem to feel the need to hoard as much as consumers when the economy tanks.**
Let me wind up with some thought on statistics. According to the OLG’s own estimates. 3.4% of Ontario residents have a “severe or moderate” gambling problem. In Problem Gambling in Canada (see footnote), the authors quote a 2005 study of Ontario residents by Wibe, Mun and Kauffman, that has a higher number: 5.8% are “at risk of gambling problems,” 2.6% have “moderate problems” and 0.8% have “severe problems” (the latter two combine to make the 3.4% OLG mentions).
We have around 21,000 people in Collingwood. At 3.4%, we expect to have more than 700 people here with “severe or moderate” gambling problems. Another 1,218 (5.8%) are “at risk”. That’s about 2,000 local adults for whom gambling is or may be a problem. These are your friends, relatives, neighbours. That concerns me. These are the people most likely to be found in a casino that’s in our back yard – especially during the week when there are fewer visitors.
We have about 16,000 adults 18 and older here. That means about one in every eight adults who may have or who have a problem with gambling. If the government was to allocate funds to problem gambler programs by that percentage, they would have to spend more than $250,000,000!
Add in about the same number of people from Wasaga Beach, and more from Clearview, Springwater and Town of the Blue Mountains, and we have more than 5,000 people in our immediate vicinity who either have or are at risk from gambling problems. That’s a lot of people in our region who may find a casino an irresistible place to spend their money.
I just don’t see 5,000 people lining up at the problem gambling office to voluntarily disbar themselves from the irresistible urge to push quarters into that hungry metal mouth, while others shove past them to get at the seats they vacated. I guess they’ll still be able to enjoy the province’s online gambling sites, when they are launched. The government may not want you in the casino with your bad habits, but it still wants your money, and won’t even mind if you play in your jammies.
As you might gather from the above, I am less than enthusiastic about having a casino here. I’m still open to debate and to having my mind changed, but it has to be a lot more compelling an argument than what I’ve heard to date.
* In the book, Problem Gambling in Canada (Tepperman and Wanner, Oxford University Press, 2012), gambling is identified as a learned behaviour; like smoking, like watching TV, playing sports or reading. Adults often become gamblers because of how it is portrayed in family or social situations. Because gambling is legal, it gets advertised in mass media, making it appear on the same level as consumer goods and entertainment, banks, and music concerts. From buying lottery tickets to trips to Las Vegas, how gambling is perceived in the home affects how children will develop as adult gamblers; just as children brought up by smoking parents are very likely to become smokers themselves. ** While this was also noted in the UK, in the USA, the pattern seems different. Overall the US gaming industry lost about 5.5% revenue during the recession, with New Jersey reporting a 13% drop from casino revenue. How much of that was caused by an increase in online gaming or in the general increase in gambling opportunities as more and more states legalize it, is unknown. Also, the US was hurt more by the recession than was Canada.