Jonathan Spence (YGtCTO Words #74)

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Book written by Jonathan Spence

Years and years ago, we watched an episode of one of those PBS documentary series, probably Frontline, about marketing. They demonstrated how computers had revolutionized the marketing industry. While the marketers would not go so far as to say that they could predict what someone living in one particular house might want, they could divide the United States into small areas that likely shared the same tastes. Moreover, they had cute names for all these groups- nicknames that went well beyond yuppie and millennial.

Anyway, they picked on people like us and proceeded to describe our lifestyle and got pretty close. We spent a fair bit of time trying to differentiate ourselves from their expectations. I’d like to think that we realized that they picked on people like us because people like us were the target audience of Frontline.

One thing that particularly interested the marketers was the magazines to which a given household subscribed. I know they mentioned Scientific American because we proudly announced to thin air that we were a National Geographic family. Perhaps we aspired to Scientific American. We never quite got beyond the occasional issue, but we did get a subscription to The New York Review of Books, which probably fit with expectations.

Jonathan Spence

I approached NYRB with some trepidation, read it and discovered that it was not over my head. No surprise that the writing was excellent. Many of the names were familiar. Others, I promised myself to track down, but let’s face it, that’s always a trick. For whatever reason, I never find myself with the appropriate names when I’m in a bookstore. So, if you are an author, call yourself something memorable.

Jonathan Spence, I managed to recall. Honestly, it was not just the rhythm of his name that held it in memory. He was the resident expert on a topic I knew practically nothing about- Chinese history. Anyone happening to be alive on the planet would have to admit that this is a subject worth a little time- big place where many important things have happened and all. But where to begin?

The modus operandi for NYRB is to have some qualified talent gather a few books together and then write an essay that ties the books together with some of the reviewer’s own thoughts. If you want to dip your toe in a subject, the essays provide wonderful introductions.

I don’t really remember if Spence was part of the reviewed or doing the reviewing, but I suspect that he did a little of both during our brief subscription flirtation. Either way, his name stuck. For that matter, I don’t know if I first read his more detailed accounts of specific events or an overview of Chinese history, but I know a little now- never enough, but I can almost place Chinese movies in some context. That has to count for something.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 79 more to go.

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