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Morris Berman's New Book, Spinning Straw Into Gold

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Look at any list of popular books and you'll see it obsessively packed with self-help manuals, Chicken Soup for Pimpled Teens, How to Be a Better Whatever, books about having better sex, better relationships, better jobs. At the same time, we live in a world under attack from advertising that cleaves to a single theme: whatever you have now, it is not enough. You need to buy something new! to smell better, look better, have a bigger TV, more hair, a faster car. Buy a Model II today! and see it overwhelmed by the new must-have features in the Model III, three months later. With all that need for personal and material improvement, it can be darn hard to just be... happy. So you get back on the circle and read some more self-help books.


Morris Berman Writes to Us

Morris Berman, whose prescient work detailing the decline and literal deflation of the American economy forms much of the philosophical underpinning of my own upcoming book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has written a new volume, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times.

Unlike his previous books, which focus on a society and economy in decline, Spinning Straw is different.

Or maybe not. The themes here are indeed about society, and economy, but zoomed out into a very personal view. Berman reflects on his own life, with mention of a failed marriage, his decision to move to Mexico, all part of tracing his personal journey away from a world based on I Want into one where one's happiness and contentment is divorced from more material things. But this is no hippie trip, and Berman's book is no feel-good experience. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:

I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values--values that were killing me--was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don't realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with "our" narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it's a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it's some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)... To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It's real.

Old Kyoto

In reading Spinning Straw, I was reminded of my chance encounter in old Kyoto with an elderly man who was one of the last makers of hand-crafted wooden buckets for use in a Japanese bath. He worked slowly, and seemed to make very little money, selling his product to mostly other elderly people. I asked him why he did what he did and he said "Because wooden buckets are good," turning away from me. It was up to me to discard the simple truth -- he did what he did because it was right -- or learn from it. The old guy could care less what I thought, he had buckets to make. So it is with Spinning Gold; the author is not selling seats at a seminar or a CD collection of his happy talk; there are no "steps" or Five Most Important Things to Do Now. Indeed, you walk away with the feeling that while the author has much to say, if you're too stupid to listen he could probably care less. There are buckets to make.

If the author was however forced into making some sort of list, it would likely be short. Slow down. Think more, purchase less. Look for meaning more than Wikipedia-ized facts. Enjoy the dance. The journey's all we have until we get there, then that's that. Heck, the whole book's only 90 pages.

Those 90 pages are however packed with stuff to think about. The need to break a cycle of what the author calls "stuckness," the focus on elevating little things into big things where you end up screaming at a minimum wage worker in Target because your coffee isn't right or the Bubblicious is out of stock. There is the danger of buying (!) too deeply and quickly into a "narrative," a way of life dictated to you where you falsely think you're picking up safety and security but instead fall into a trap. Choosing competition over community isn't like deciding caff or decaff, it is a philosophical vector that shoots you down a very different life path.

Blended into the pages are inklings of the "old" straight-talk political Berman. Obama's seemingly overnight transformation from Hope and Change into a nightmare of drones and perpetual war is offered as an example of what happens when one doesn't care about one's soul. Power and influence require you to "inject poison into culture's veins on a daily basis." But if instead you follow the fairy tale of making straw into gold, you have a chance at a life that is full, meaningful and pleasantly finite -- you can be happy and content once and for all. As Berman says, life is over faster than a blink, and then all you are is dead for a really long time.

You get it. The book is brief, the lessons long. In the time it took to read this review you could be well-stuck into Berman's thoughts. Better to put this down and pick those up before another blink goes by.