Cashing Out

So, it appears that the physical paper dollar, that crumpled, bacteria-ridden, piece of filth that resides in your pocket—along with all its grubby cousins, coins—will one day, perhaps one day soon (!), go the way of the wampum, the animal pelt, the tobacco leaf as a form of tradable currency. That’s what David Wolman ’96 would like you to believe, and after reading his fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society (Da Capo Press, 2012), I’m right there with him. Good riddance to the greenback, I say.

All I needed to know to come to this conclusion can be found in one sentence on page 28: “Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills.” Never mind that, on the very next page, a friend of Wolman’s at the Centers for Disease Control essentially says that for people to become sick from dollar bills, they would need to be “sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses” to even put them at risk of becoming sick, to which I say, close enough. And indeed, Wolman joins me in being disgusted by food handlers who take a sweat-stained dollar from someone and then use the same contaminated fingers to drop a lemon into someone else’s drink. Gross, right?

Wolman’s case for the end of money goes far beyond the ick factor, though. As he points out, there are all kinds of reasons to get rid of cash. It’s the currency of crime, for one (think: robbery, counterfeiting, and drug dealing); it’s insanely expensive—and we’re not just talking about what it costs to actually make the currency but the cost of inefficiency associated with cash and cash transactions (or non-transactions); and it’s dangerous for reasons we don’t often think about (eco-costs, for example).

Throughout the book, Wolman finds fascinating characters to shed light on the inadequacies and toxicity of cash, and he spends just as much time talking about what will (and should) replace cash in the coming years.

Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find him spending a fair amount of time addressing the number of digital alternatives—and their inventors, champions, and pioneers—to cash transactions. (Some seem a little screwy to me, but others induce that familiar feeling of “of course,” followed by “why didn’t I think of that?”)

The most fun, though, might be the vicarious thrill of tagging along on Wolman’s Plimpton-esque journey of going cashless, himself, for a year. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some humorous moments where the rule of the given realm is still cash money.

I should acknowledge that David Wolman is a friend of mine. We’ve published his writing in this magazine, and I’ve been an avid reader and champion of not only his magazine journalism but also his previous books (A Left-Hand Turn around the World and Righting the Mother Tongue). Yet all these connections aside, The End of Money is just the type of book that curious readers, like me, would naturally gravitate toward. And I wasn’t disappointed.

You won’t be, either.

***

Fans of Eudora Welty, who died in 2001, will joyfully immerse themselves in yet another aspect of the much-loved and complex author, and lovers of gardens will discover a kindred spirit (or three) within One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown ’75.

Playing off the title of another Welty favorite—One Writer’s Beginnings, her 1984 memoir in which she chronicled her life along with some instruction on how to write—Haltom and Brown have delivered an equally evocative narrative of a family garden, a fading Southern culture, and a span of time and history from the 1920s to postwar America.

For those who know Welty’s work, 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, is as familiar an address as one’s childhood home. It was from here, after all, that she wrote so many of the stories that have earned a lasting place among modern short stories. But this beautiful book unearths a different and deeply rich glance into the Welty home that many have not seen before.

Haltom first became engaged in the project as a local gardener in Jackson, when she approached the aging Welty with an interest in revitalizing the family garden. The Welty home and surrounding gardens had been a celebrated centerpiece at the hands of a younger Eudora and her mother, Chestina, who had designed the original garden in 1925. Tended with care by Eudora for decades after that, it had fallen into disarray in her later years. With Haltom’s help, she began to re-imagine the once vibrant sanctuary, recalling the flowers and plants that had flourished under her mother’s hands.

Private papers released a few years after Welty died in 2001 affirmed that the garden had indeed offered both solace and inspiration for her. Haltom and Brown have included several writings that were previously unpublished, including literary passages and excerpts from her private correspondence. They highlight not only the connections to Welty and her writing, but also to the time period in which she lived. Divided into four parts, the book covers the gardening seasons and also illuminates four decades of radically evolving Southern culture—from the 1920s to the postwar 1950s. Through Haltom and Brown’s writing, we see the role of garden clubs and yardmen as social norms, and the way gardens were upheld as the ideal antidote to all that could possibly fail one—the healing quality of combining work and introspection. The writing is colorfully interspersed with handwritten notes, garden maps, local advertisements, and plenty of photos—both historical and contemporary. Appendices tucked into the back include wonderfully cataloged information, such as planting lists over the decades, a breakdown of roses and annuals, a partial list of plant names that occur in Welty’s works, and even a discussion guide for book club goers.

Those familiar with Welty’s writing will remember how she often included images of Southern flora in her writing—“The Worn Path,” and “Flower for Marjorie”  are but a few—and the authors of this book help draw those connections, giving one a better understanding of the role that flowers and gardens play in her works. One passage reads as follows:

References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence. Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.

Complementing the authors’ well-tended prose is a rich collection of full-page images by noted landscape photographer Langdon Clay, who captured the revitalized garden at all its current seasonal highpoints.

This is truly a book to be relished over time and enjoyed for many years to come. The pages are silky smooth; even the type is carefully laid out. The heft of the book itself encourages long leisurely reading by a sunlit window.
—Blair Kloman, MA English ’94

 

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