Press Releases

Picturing Berkeley in Photographs and Words By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Friday August 20, 2004

Unlike iconic destinations such as San Francisco, New York or London where the shelves of bookstores and gift shops sag under the weight of tourist fare, Berkeley has been the subject of relatively few pictorial books. 

Thus, any offering about the Berkeley scene deserves to be greeted with optimism and offered a place on the still relatively slim “Berkeley gift book” shelf.  

The latest product, scheduled to arrive this month, is Berkeley: The Life and Spirit of a Remarkable Town, a handsomely printed soft cover book from Berkeley’s own North Atlantic Books/Frog Ltd., with photographs by Kiran Singh, text by Ellen Weis, and an introductory essay by Michael Chabon.  

Life and Spirit is organized around a series of geographical and topical chapters, photo essays really, profiling Berkeley neighborhoods, plus “Gardens, Paths, and Parks,” “Architecture” and “Cultural Life and Festivals.”  

The book will make a first public appearance, with slide show and talk by the authors, at the Easy Going Travel Shop and Bookstore at 7:30 pm. on Wednesday, Aug. 25. 

Easy Going puts on fine book events and I’d encourage you to go, take a look at the book, and consider purchasing a copy there. 

In part because of the paucity of books of this type about my adopted hometown, I would have loved to give Life and Spirit an enthusiastically positive review. But it falls short in some respects. 

I generally enjoyed the photographs. They provide what strength the book has.  

Kiran Singh has an eye for people and setting. He depicts locals and local scenery, from skaters at Iceland to skateboarders in West Berkeley, shoppers at the Farmer’s Market, coffeeistas at the French Hotel, Earth Day festivities, a cyclist on the new bridge to the Marina, exotic fauna at the East Bay Vivarium, dancers in the Greek Theatre.  

The book is more visually rich than the typical fare one might find on the tourism shelf, next to the postcards of the Campanile and Telegraph Avenue. 

If there’s any mild disappointment that attaches to the photographs, it has to do with the fact that while the front and back cover images imply broad, sweeping, visual splendor, Golden Gate sunsets and golden hills, most of the photographs are close-ups of people and buildings. 

Singh has an interesting way of dealing with the sky in his outdoor shots. It’s often either prominently blue, sometimes with wispy white clouds, or almost absent from a picture.  

It’s not a bad approach, but one could also wish for a more varied depiction of the local weather, a foggy day or three, a rainy street, or a skyline backed by storm clouds. 

The writing is a disappointment. The book contains a number of errors that detract from a publication that aspires to be polished.  

There are a few lamentable typographical or editing mistakes such as “Acquatic Park” and the architects “Blackwell and Brown” (it’s Bakewell). “Greek Theatre” is spelled two different ways on facing pages and “Malcom X” appears in a caption above a photograph that shows proper spelling of the school name. I’m told errors will be corrected in the second edition. 

Other mistakes imply, to me, either poor fact checking or background research that may have relied too heavily on other books, websites perhaps (which, in my experience, can be replete with errors and omissions), and newspaper articles or press releases rather than painstakingly complete primary research. 

The university has a College of Letters and Science, not a “College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.” There’s no “Martin Luther King Avenue” in Berkeley, and the essential “Jr.” is missing from most references to the civil rights leader. And where’s “Dwight-Derby Park,” with or without a Tuesday farmer’s market? 

A mural of a bear in Edwards Track Stadium was painted in the 1990s, not in 1933. The Zellerbach Playhouse is not “just to the west” in relation to downtown. The Free Speech Movement was not “in the late ‘60s.”  

The name of George Berkeley was not suggested for the town by “one of the founders of the University of California.” Bishop Berkeley’s famous “westward the course of empire...” observation is not his poem’s “first line.” 

The small historical “essays”—just a few paragraphs here and there—are too short to give much detail about their topics such as “The Free Speech Movement,” “Cooperatives and Collectives,” “Julia Morgan.”  

Perhaps it is unfair to be too critical of them, since a book like this is not intended to be a full-fledged local history and should not be evaluated by that standard. However, it is fair to say that some of the essays fall short of presenting an accurate summary of their topic.  

For example, the two paragraphs on the Berkeley waterfront don’t name the pivotal “Save the Bay” movement, and read as if preserving Berkeley’s waterfront from fill and development was a tranquil, almost inevitable, change of civic perspective, not a tenacious, decades-long confrontational struggle at the municipal level and beyond. 

The longest piece of text in the book is an essay (originally published in Gourmet magazine in 2002 and often reprinted) by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Berkeley resident Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). 

Chabon has some nice turns of phrase and clever observations—this has come to be a much-quoted essay about Berkeley, and there’s much worth quoting—but the effect is somewhat soured by an attempt to confess Berkeley’s presumed faults on your, my, and his behalf. 

To paraphrase: Berkeley’s homeless can be brilliant but also crazy! Old factories sit empty in the flatlands because Berkeley insists they be preserved to await non-existent blue-collar jobs! People in the grocery store will “scold you for exposing your child to known allergens”! Berkeley is full of “neurotic geniuses and rapt madwomen!” And what about those wacky traffic barriers that don’t allow you to drive straight and fast across town!? 

These tend to be stereotypical commonplaces about Berkeley, some of them less than half true and not even half funny anymore because of their frequent repetition by less-talented commentators or, quite possibly, your own out-of-town friends or relatives.  

In my view, they undermine the rest of Chabon’s essay which is considerably, and often astutely, complimentary of the town, praising trees, houses, people, and places and saying, “I can’t imagine living happily anywhere else.”