There is a lot of discussion about vaccines these days, particularly because fo the “corona” phenomenon. Personally, while I am not an “anti-vaxxer”, I tend to dislike taking vaccines, taking medicines, going to the doctor, etc. I suppose that, instead of being hypochondriac, I am actually a little bit iatrophobic. So I tend to avoid all kind of medical procedures if I can. But of course even I can accept that medicine and in particular modern medicine can be very useful sometimes…

Now there is a big discussion about possible side effects of vaccines, especially in light of the “corona” phenomenon. Of course, since a vaccine is basically an attenuated virus, it can cause side effects, at least in a minority of the population. Also, many vaccines contain thimerosal as a preservative, which is an organic compound that includes mercury, which, as we all know, can not be discharged by the body and is usually not very healthy. And the link between vaccination and a recent increase in autism has not been, as far as I know, completely debunked.

But the more worrying recent phenomenon is the push, famously by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also by others, of the “RNA vaccines“. While they do not “alter your DNA” as some argue (although DNA vaccines might), they work in a different way from normal vaccines, making your own organism produce a pathogen. Now, this may not be as scary as it sounds, but its experimental and radical concept seems a bit dangerous, and given that they have not even been tested in large scale in humans, the idea of using one to treat millions of people for “COVID” causes certain concern.

Of course, I should say that I am in general a bit skeptical of the whole “corona” phenomenon, and particularly of the sometimes excessively authoritarian lockdown measures that have destroyed many economies and livelihoods, as well as completely atomized even more social life, not always with an apparent need (I mean, I understand that certain measures needed to be taken by the authorities, but I am not sure if this global lockdown for so long and with such huge effects was worth its worse consequences; also there were so many conflicting regulations, from using to not using masks, and some silly ones, such as telling people to use masks outdoors, or inside your car, as many still do, which seems a bit pointless.) But that’s another story, for another day…

But since this is basically a blog about literature, I would like to conclude by mentioning a few (fiction) books that deal with this issue. The classic “War of the Worlds”, by H. G. Wells, can perhaps be seen as a propaganda for vaccination or immunization (as the powerful and technologically superior Martians are eventually killed by Earth pathogens to which they have no defence).

“The Decameron” also famously takes place during the plague in Italy, and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, which is nor a real journal but a novel, is also interesting. More recently, “Blindness” by José Saramago and “Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti, are modern takes on very specific pandemics. The movie “La Jetée“, by Chris Marker, is a classic science fiction short about pandemics worth watching (it inspired the more well-known, but less interesting, “Twelve Monkeys”).

But specifically about vaccines, I don’t remember anything right now except H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator“, which doesn’t seem to have a particularly benevolent view of doctors, medicine and such…

Evil Doctor trying out new RNA vaccine on his female victim.

This is Altenburg, which I visited some time ago. It means “old fort” in German. A strange city. In demographic decline since the 1980s, it lost 40% of its population since then, and people still seem to be leaving. Currently it has 33,000 people, down from 56,000 in 1988 (data from Wiki). And it shows.

There are lots of empty, abandoned buildings, some almost falling apart. Even the castle, which is actually quite nice, is in bad disrepair, which is strange for Germany, as they usually take good care of their touristic sites. Then again, I didn’t see many people visiting it when I was there — though that could be because of “corona”.

The main square downtown, with the curch at the end of the street, is quite pretty, very “German”, and while not crowded it had quite a few people in its bars and cafes, despite “corona” still going on. But turn a corner and you will already see a lot of abandoned and decaying buildings.

This seems to be a problem in many regions of the former Eastern Germany, which emptied out after the end of Communism (although, to be honest, some towns started to decay even before the fall of the Wall).

On the other hand, bigger towns in the region, such as Leipzig and Dresden, seem to be in renewal mode and have currently a growing young population, some of whom are escaping from “dead” towns such as Altenburg, or from the growingly more expensive rents in Berlin.

Still, its a pity, as Altenburg seems a quiet nice little place. Aesthetically, it looks much more pleasant than several other more bustling cities around, such as Chemnitz, Zwickau, etc., which look more industrial and are in general less visually interesting.

A building needing renovation in Altenburg.
The town square.
Castle grounds. Some buildings here are also in disrepair.
Castle tower – it’s pretty high. Looks like Rapunzel’s tower.

Most people are happy to own a cat or a dog, or perhaps a goldfish, but some prefer other more unusual creatures. Here there’s an article I just published elsewhere that talks about a few writers and artists who had a taste for exotic or unusual pets, most of which I did not mention in the boo “Our Pets and Us“.

Frida Kahlo with Granizo.

Our first Contrarium book, “Our Pets and Us: The Evolution of a Relationship”, is now available for purchase at Amazon or in our own online shop (cheaper price, but only Paypal accepted).

It is a short illustrated book (170 pages) about the history of the relationship of humans with pets (mostly cats and dogs, but we also discuss other animals), from the beginning of domestication to current trends.

Each chapter focuses on a specific theme or historical period, discussing the most varied subjects such as the fate of pets during the French and Russian revolutions, the use of pets in the space race, how the use of dogs as guides for the blind started, the association of cats with witches in the Middle Ages, and many other fascinating curiosities.

It’s a good book for anyone interested in history — or in pets, which I guess would include most of us. It’s also a nice gift for friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, in-laws, etc.

Please buy it! It costs less than a package of dog or cat food.

I watched the other day the latest version of “Little Women”, by Greta Gerwig (2019). A fine directorial effort, very nice photography, but I just could not concentrate very much on the plot, had some difficulty getting which girl was which, and the wine I was drinking at the time didn’t help. I guess that, if there is a story that was created specifically for females, it has to be “Little Women”.

Nothing against it, of course. It’s just that it feels like when you’re a boy and you’re watching a pirate movie and then there is some kind of boring kiss scene and romantic drama and you just want it to end and get back to sword-fighting and shipwrecking. Well, here there’s only romantic drama.

Now I admit, I never really liked romantic comedies in cinema. And in literature, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, well, they are good writers, for sure, but their themes are so “for women”, that I just never had too much interest.

On the other hand, I love Emily Dickinson, Wisława Szymborska and many female poets. Novelists, I’ve read with pleasure Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, among others. And Flannery O’Connor is a genius short story writer, better than most men. So it’s not a question of women being or not being good at writing, but really about the themes of the stories they choose to tell, which in many cases tend to be about love/relationships/being a female and are thus more appreciated by women.

Is there a similar case of books “for boys”? Well, I suppose that science fiction and adventure books (Jack London, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, etc.) are in general more interesting for men/boys, but there are some women who like them too. Many non-fiction themes (history, politics, science, war) are also heavily preferred by men, but I suppose there are some women who are history or science buffs.

Yet the opposite almost never seems to happen: it is rare for men to be interested in explicitly romantic novels. How many men have read “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

But then again, it might be just a case of personal preference. There are some great books written by women that are wonderful for both boys and girls, and I might compile a list one day.

Pandemic, protests, economic crisis. Rougher times ahead, it all seems to indicate. What books to read?

Some choose to read classic books somewhat related to pandemics. Such as Camus’ “The Plague“, or even better, Bocaccio’s “Decameron“. Good choices, but, perhaps what you want is something more relaxing that actually makes you forget the virus, the protests and the crazy times we’re living in?

Well, I guess it’s all a question of choice. Here are some indications that we feel might be of interest.

Down and Out in Paris and London. George Orwell. If the economic situation turns for the worse, this might be a good book to prepare oneself.

Democracy: The God That Failed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe. An interesting discussion about democracy, in a moment when it appears to be in crisis.

Rhynoceros, Eugene Ionesco. An absurdist play about a very particular kind of epidemic. Funny and scary at the same time.

Brave New World. Aldous Huxley. Everybody talks about “1984” as the defining dystopia of the 20th century, and while it is perhaps the better book in many ways, this novel may have gotten closer to what current society is really like (or will be soon).

Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. Everyone thought that the Internet would herald a new age of free speech, but the current censoring going on at Youtube, Facebook and Google in the name of the “politically correct” has disproved that idea. Actually, in some ways, thanks to technology, it has never been easier to institute censorship and thought control.

The Great Depression. Dorothea Lange. Classic photographs of a period of crisis after the 1929 crash. Iconic images of a time that no one hopes will come back.

A statue of Miguel de Cervantes in San Francisco has been vandalized by Antifa and BLM militants. It is not clear what did they have against the greatest Spanish writer. Maybe they confused him with someone else? Maybe they are just destroying all white people statues at this point?

The fact that Cervantes was taken as a slave by the Turks after the Battle of Lepanto, where he lost use of his left hand, only adds to the irony. If they are protesting against slavery, they took the wrong guy.

In any case, it is a worrying phenomenon. In fact, the whole thing about vandalizing statues and monuments strikes me as extremely negative, independently of whose statue it is. Because it is an attempt at destroying or negating the past. Of course, in same cases, such as the toppling of the statues of tyrants at the end of Communism or other tyrannical regimes, this may be understandable, but in general it is not an advisable policy.

Apparently, during the recent protests, some statues were first decapitated before they were taken down. Heinrich Heine once said something to the effect that “those who start by burning books end up burning people”. We may also assume that “those who start decapitating statues end up decapitating people”.

At least they didn’t topple it.

What are “malacomorphs”? Well, “malakos” in Greek means literally “soft”, but it’s also by analogy how we scientifically call mollusks, including snails: malacology, for example, is the study of mollusks. So “malacomorphs” are snail-creatures.

For some reason that even most specialists don’t know, many manuscripts have in their corners little illustrations of snails and other animals. In some cases, the snails are crossbred with other animals or even humans. There is even a manuscript with an illustration of people living in snail houses.

Why snails? There are some hypotheses about their possible symbolism, but no one know for sure. Violent rabbits are also popular, which might have influenced Terry Jones in creating that famous scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

An angry malacomorph

We spend several hours each day looking at screens. Most of what we read, for work or for leisure – reports, student essays, blogs, newspapers – now we read on a screen.

But reading on a screen is less conducive to concentration than reading on paper. At least, that’s what a recent study from 2019 seems to indicate. Students memorize better what they read on paper.

I don’t think it has to do with the brightness of the screen affecting our eyes. It’s just that on a screen, and particularly if we are reading on the web, that so are many more elements that catch our attention that it is difficult to focus just on simply following the text. And most of it is really involuntary: our eyes meander around the screen captured by images or ads, and our brain has so many different stimuli that concentration becomes harder.

But there is another question related to reading on the Internet that has been less discussed: what would happen if, say, there was some kind of digital apocalypse and all servers worldwide went down? A lot of the information online has no actual existence beyond data in the cloud. Granted, it’s not likely that this could happen, and of course there is a lot of redundancy and multiple copies on multiple servers, but still, text written on paper has survived for millennia. And digital technology is very recent and yet it has gone to so many changes, from floppy disks to zip drives, that we really cannot be sure how it will be a thousand years for now.

So paper will probably remain with us, one way or another.

Some people love ice cream. Some people love video games. Some people love alcohol and drugs. We love books.

Well, I know I do.

I grew up surrounded by a large collection of books and by my dad’s full set of twenty volumes of the original Encyclopedia Britannica. It was my Google. There was no Internet then, or, at any rate, no Wikipedia yet. (And nothing against Wikipedia, but the old-style Britannica was something else).

I still love the physical aspect of paper books, and I prefer to read in the paper format whenever I can. Which means, most times except when I am travelling. I do love the practicality and malleability of e-books, but as physical objects, there’s nothing like a paper book.

Of course, paper books occupy space. And if you move or travel constantly, as I did in the last ten years of my life, then you cannot carry them with you at all times. Unfortunately, I had to get rid of an awful lot of books in my life, some of them books that I liked very much. Well, not really “get rid” – they were not thrown in the trash or burned, I couldn’t possibly do that. They were given away to friends or donated to libraries, so there’s the hope that the same old books will give joy to others the same way they gave me.

I hope you love books too. I hope you love the books that we publish, especially. I hope you buy them all. And if one day you need to move and can’t carry all of them with you, give them to a friend or donate them to a library.