Book club, today. We will be discussing Fair Warning. Having read Fair Warning and Samurai William essentially at the same time has, I think, given me a different take on it. Fair Warning is all about objects and ownership, including objectification and ownership of people, even of oneself. And Samurai William, a nonfiction work on the history of European contact with Japan at a particular time, as much as the story of William Adams himself, turns out to be largely about objects. Yes, there are plenty of adventures and lots of geography, but it all comes down to the stuff: Japanese silks, English broadcloth, Indochinese perfumed woods, silver, gold. People lost their lives, their extremities, their ships, their fortunes, their families, their peace of mind for the sake of pepper or tin.
Nowadays globalization has lost its romance. We are no longer seeking things that can’t be made or grown where we live, and exchanging our own local products for someone else’s local products. I still think that that is the right reason to trade, but most of the time “Made in China” is not about the silks and spices of Cathay, but about the cheapest possible VCR. We in the U.S. can have a plethora of consumer goods — more than we need or perhaps can use — because people in China work for $2.95 a day.
In A Distinction of Blood, one of the minor themes is the fact that the English felt good about not having slavery as the Americans did — and yet every bit of sugar or cotton they had depended on slavery. We in the U.S. today can overlook the living and working conditions of the people who make it possible for us to have more stuff than we need or can use. Certainly more than we can value or appreciate. The objects in Fair Warning get their value from their rarity, their authenticity, their connections with people. I think this is true in a sense for the objects in our own lives. The things that we make are rare, valuable,and connected with us and with the people we make them for — since we thought about them as we made the items. When we try to separate the objects from the people who made them, or the traditions behind them, or the place where the raw materials are grown, we lose their value.