Saturday, March 23, 2002

What is money? What is art? The answer to the first question seems a lot more obvious than the second, until you read Lawrence Wescher's Boggs: A Comedy of Values. This book tells the story of J.S.G. Boggs, an artist who is best known for drawing very-nearly-exact reproductions of paper money bills and spending them in exchange for items one would normally buy with those "actual" paper bills. He even gets change back in "official" money. The book chronicles nearly fifteen years of Boggs' work, including his being put on trial in England for reproducing Bank of England notes, and harrassment by other governments for counterfeiting. But the fascinating part is the exchanges -- the people who won't take Boggs' drawings as a medium of exchange, and the people who will, and the reasons both give. (Such as the Orthodox Jewish-run establishment which says it won't take the drawing because graven images are forbidden by the Ten Commandments, though it does accept normal money.) Is it counterfeiting if you make it clear that the drawings aren't "real" bills, and you never intend to pass them as such? Does it matter that the drawings have sold to collectors (after Boggs "spends" them) for several times their "face value"?

If I sent the artist a letter asking if he'd like to exchange a drawing of his for, say, a knitted blanket or a handmade Christmas ornament, what makes that technically "barter," but the exchange of a U.S. government-issued bill a "sale"? Would that be different if I exchanged my handiwork for bills in Euros or yen or Australian dollars or some currency legitimized by the government of a country I have never visited and have no immediate plans to? All these freaky questions are evoked by reading this book, which contains discussion of not only Boggs' work but that of other artists who have involved money in some way in their creation, and the history of money as well. It is a rare work that explains art in a way that makes sense to the rational part of my brain, and such supposedly rational pursuits as economics and law start to seem nonsensical in comparison to art after reading this book. And I do mean that as a compliment.

Friday, March 15, 2002

Economics. History. Art. No matter which of these subjects piques your interest, The Art of Money by David Standish as something for you. Pictures of paper money from around the world and covering quite a few decades (centuries, for American money), all nicely captioned to tell you why there's an ancient Greek sculpture on Ireland's ten-pound bill; what's up with the apparently abstract design on one side of the Swiss ten-franc bill; what countries put lizards on their money; and when the United States had bare-breasted women on money. Stories about inflation, the genesis of using paper instead of coins, and the political results of England keeping English money out of its North American colonies -- and amusing remarks by the author sprinkled throughout. This is the closest thing to an economics book that I've ever found interesting -- probably because it's not dry theory but colorful reality -- dig the near-photographic image of the sea turtle on the money from the Comoros Islands!

Thursday, March 14, 2002

I'm a suburban girl who generally thinks of plants as being nice landscaping or the source of my spring allergy problems. There are a few flowers I can identify, but that's about it. So David Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants really gave me a new view on plants; they're not just things to be stepped on or provide a visual break from buildings, but living beings that are just as interesting as animals. TV networks such as PBS, the Discovery Channel, and obviously from its name, Animal Planet, supply tons of nature documentaries on the animal kingdom, but the documentary film that this book accompanies (also called The Private Life of Plants) uses time-lapse photography to show that plants live in motion, even if it's too slow for the normal human eye to see. But even the book is terribly well illustrated, with just the right still (or series of stills) to show the pebble plant of Africa which avoids being eaten because it looks exactly like a rock, the various types of pitcher plants which evolved ways to catch bugs in little reservoirs of liquid, and the fungi which grow on your local trees. (Yes, I know a fungus isn't a plant, and Attenborough points this out too, but due to such things as lichens, which turn out to be fungi and algae working together as one organism, the book does wander into fungi in some places.) In a very readable manner, avoiding biologist jargon, the book really explains the incredible variety of plants on the planet; the ways, from commonplace to peculiar, that they manage to survive; and the way that plants, other plants, animals, fungi, and even humans work together for mutual benefit.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

I just finished Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited. Despite being 29 and in good health, I'm certainly thinking about what should be done with my body when I'm dead now, and I can't imagine that anyone could read this book without the same thoughts. The ridiculous coffins, "services," and other things that funeral homes routinely charge inflated prices for are detailed in the book, along with the self-serving doublespeak that the funeral and cemetery industries put out to protect their profits. You will go "That's outrageous!" at some point, guaranteed. But you will probably produce many wry snickers, as the depressing subject matter is well relieved by Ms. Mitford's sense of humor.

The book isn't perfect. Since the original version was published more than 30 years ago, some parts of the book have been updated, but others have not, so one is constantly jumping from 1960s prices to 1990s, or left unsure which time period "now" refers to. However, it is useful to read about the effects of the first book, such as the story of President Kennedy's death and funeral arrangements by people who had read the first version and were trying to avoid unnecessary items and inflated prices, not always successfully.

Even if you don't choose to read the book, take a look at The Funeral Consumers Alliance web site or look for a local Memorial Society in your area, for comparison shopping if nothing else. Even if you actually want everything the funeral industry will try to sell you, a little advance planning will keep your family or friends from having to make some quick decisions at a time when they're not thinking straight.