A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!

Six Easy Pieces (Modern Library Nonfiction #88)

(This is the thirteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)

mlnf88Richard Feynman, exuberant Nobel laureate and formidable quantum mechanics man, may have been energetic in his lectures and innovatively performative in the classroom, but I’m not sure he was quite the great teacher that many have pegged him to be. James Gleick’s biography Genius informs us that students dropped out of his high-octane, info-rich undergraduate physics classes at a remarkable rate, replaced by Caltech faculty members and grad students who took to the Queens-born superstar much like baryons make up the visible matter of the universe. The extent to which Feynman was aware of this cosmic shift has been disputed by his chroniclers, but it is important to be aware of this shortcoming, especially if you’re bold enough to dive into the famed three volume Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are all thankfully available online. Six Easy Pieces represents an abridged version of Feynman’s full pedagogical oeuvre. And even though the many YouTube videos of Feynman reveal an undeniably magnetic and indefatigably passionate man of science who must have been an incredible dynamo to experience in person, one wonders whether barraging a hot room of young nervous twentysomethings with hastily delivered information is the right way to popularize science, much less inspire a formidable army of physicists.

Watch even a few minutes of Feynman firing on all his robust cylinders and it becomes glaringly apparent how difficult it is to contend with Feynman’s teaching legacy in book form. One wonders why the Modern Library nonfiction judges, who were keen to unknowingly bombard this devoted reader with such massive multivolume works as The Golden Bough, Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, and Principia Mathematica, didn’t give this spot to the full three volume Lectures. Did they view Feynman’s complete lesson plan as failed?

Judging from the sextet that I sampled in this deceptively slim volume, I would say that, while Feynman was undeniably brilliant, he was, like many geniuses, someone who often got lost within his own metaphors. While his analogy of two corks floating in a pool of water, with one cork jiggling in place to create motion in the pool that causes indirect motion for the other cork, is a tremendously useful method of conveying the “unseen” waves of the electromagnetic field (one that galvanized me to do the same in a saucepan after I had finished two bottles of wine over a week and a half), he is not nearly on-the-nose with his other analogies. The weakest lesson in the book, “Conservation on Energy,” trots out what seems to be a reliably populist metaphor with a child named “Dennis the Menace” playing with 28 blocks, somehow always ending up with 28 of these at the end of the day. Because Feynman wants to illustrate conservational constants, he shoehorns another element to the narrative whereby Dennis’s mother is, for no apparent reason, not allowed to open up the toy box revealing the number of blocks and thus must calculate how many blocks reside within. The mother has conveniently weighed the box at some unspecified time in advance back when it contained all 28 blocks.

This is bad teaching, in large part because it is bad storytelling that makes no sense. I became less interested in conservation of energy, with Feynman’s convoluted parallel clearly becoming more trouble than it was worth, and more interested in knowing why the mother was so fixated on remembering the number of blocks. Was she truly so starved for activity in her life that she spent all day at work avoiding all the juicy water cooler gossip about co-workers, much less kvetching about the boss, so that she might scheme a plan to at long last show her son that she would always know the weight of a single block? When Dennis showed resistance to opening the toy box, why didn’t the mother stand her ground and tell him to buzz off and stream an episode of Project Mc²?

Yet for all these defects in method, there is an indisputable poetic beauty in the way in which Feynman reminds us that we live in a vast world composed of limitless particles, a world in which we still aren’t aware of all the rules and in which even the particles contained within solids remain “fixed” in motion. Our universe is always moving, even when we can’t see it or completely comprehend it. Feynman is quick to observe throughout his lessons that “The test of all knowledge is experiment,” which again points to my theory that Feynman’s teachings, often accentuated by experiment, were probably better experienced than read. Nevertheless, even in book form, it is truly awe-inspiring to understand that we can still not accurately predict the precise mass, form, and force of all the cascading droplets from a mighty river once it hits the precipice of a waterfall. Such mysteries capture our imagination and, when Feynman is committed to encouraging our inventiveness through open and clear-eyed examples from our world, he is very much on point. Thanks in part to Feynman reminding me just how little we silly humans now know, I began to feel my heart open more for Tycho Brahe, that poor Dane who spent many years of his life refining Copernicus’s details and determining the elliptical patterns of planetary orbits. Brahe worked out his calculations entirely without a telescope, which allowed Johannes Kepler to sift through his invaluable measurements and forge laws that all contemporary astronomers now rely on to determine where a planet might be in the sky on any given night of the year. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle hasn’t even been around a century and it’s nothing less than astounding to consider how our great grandparents had a completely different understanding of atoms and motion in their early lifetime than we do today.

Feynman did have me wanting to know more about the origins of many scientific discoveries, causing me to contemplate how each and every dawning realization altered human existence (an inevitable buildup for Thomas Kuhn and paradigms, which I will take up in ML Nonfiction #69). But unlike such contemporary scientists as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Guth, or Brian Greene, Feynman did not especially inspire me to plunge broadly into my own experiments or make any further attempts to grapple with physics-based complexities. This may very well be more my failing than Feynman’s, but there shall be many more stabs at science as we carry on with this massive reading endeavor!

Next Up: G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology!

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

Battling the Digital Babysitter: The Case for Reading and Curiosity

BORN READING
by Jason Boog
Touchstone, 336 pages

On November 27, 1960, only a few months after Green Eggs and Ham was published, Dr. Seuss called for a movement more modest than the Ham and Eggs pension drive. Seuss argued that “children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise.” He was deeply concerned about the increasing junk being published under the guise of juvenile fiction and he rightly pointed out how children were “eagerly welcoming the good writers who talk, not down to them as kiddies, but talk to them clearly and honestly as equals.” (In the same manifesto, the good Theodore Geisel also promulgated the fanciful claim that he was “mayor of La Jolla,” but this hardly detracts from his salient points.)

Eight years before this, Seuss had written another essay on how people laughed less as they grew older, with the fun “getting hemmed in by a world of regulations.” Yet even Seuss’s imagination could not have foreseen our world of digital devices, with the horrifying 2011 video of a one-year-old baby flipping through a physical magazine, her hand squeezing on fixed text and hoping to push it across a malleable vortex, and with her little fingers, yearning for any toy, trying to flip a photo because she believes that the page is a tablet. The parent, with the toxic cruise control bravado of a privileged Google Bus commuter who refuses to see the world beyond his soy vanilla latte and gluten-free muffin, offers the smug, self-congratulatory, and ire-inducing caption, “For my 1 year old daughter, a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so for her whole life. Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.”

With tablets and smartphones increasingly replacing television as the screen-based babysitter of choice for the overtaxed parent, we have very little knowledge on what this will mean for the next generation of readers and thinkers. With Common Core literary standards introducing preposterously dogmatic regulations (“Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson” reads one such farcical instruction) into classrooms with the same blindly faithful haste as the digital devices, any reliable advocate for imagination and salutary tomfoolery is left to wonder if we are preparing a generation that will surrender its wonder and humor earlier, without the pull of palpable paper to trigger some potential to raise this broken nation.

As a childless man often on call for friends with kids who demand yet another vivacious in-home performance of my free-form vaudeville show, I didn’t realize how much I cared about any of this until I read Jason Boog’s thoughtful Born Reading. (I also recommend Boog’s recent appearance on Colin Marshall’s excellent podcast, Notebooks on Cities and Culture, which discusses many of the issues in the book.) Boog harbors no illusion that we can go back to the analog ways, but he has gone out of his way to document his reading experiments with his daughter, Olive. He recognizes the overcrowded field of parenting handbooks, pointing out in the book’s early pages that he won’t be offended if the time-challenged parent doesn’t read beyond the introduction. But even with the book’s self-help thrust with sections devoted to a “Born Reading Playbook,” Boog’s volume is worth considering as a whole. Boog is candid enough to cop to enjoying Don Ho’s kitschy ditty “Tiny Bubbles,” but he also recognizes the nefarious ways that diabolical software developers sneak hypnotic advertisements into apps that are ostensibly intended to “educate.” We often forget this Faustian bargain, if we even bother to remember it at all.

The smartphone is only seven years old and the iPad, at the age of four, is only a year away from entering kindergarten. How are these new and ubiquitous technological tools shaping our real and decidedly more irreplaceable children? Boog rightfully points out, through the statements of Lisa Guernsey, that the conversations that adults have with their children before the age of two are more valuable than any interactive bauble. If a parent is too beleaguered, perhaps she can find a bedtime solution with the physical book, with its promise of enticing worlds beyond the real, its firm hold requiring neither wi-fi nor batteries, and its manifold possibilities for acting out stories. Last year, in a well-publicized report, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents discourage media exposure for children under the age of two. The AAP also suggested that children over that age should never spend more than two hours in front of a screen. Yet there remains the ineluctable lure of the digital babysitter. Put your kid in front of a screen playing mindless entertainment and, voila, even you too can get a few household chores done! But because the new screens are portable and more regularly used, even bright children such as Olive are tempted to imitate their parents, often resulting in workaround mimicry to postpone the inevitable moment when real digital devices will be as close to them as Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars:

Even before she turned two years old, Olive would mimic my cell phone cradle with various phone-shaped objects. I designed a pretend computer out of a cardboard box and an abandoned computer mouse, and Olive would dutifully plug in the mouse and press imaginary buttons on the box just like daddy.

Boog is extremely diligent in limiting his daughter’s digital usage, yet smartphones and tablets also offer undeniable value in summoning an immediate response to a child’s question. Boog describes calling up several images of Brahams after Olive asks what the famous composer looks like. In the analog days, parents offered approximate and often quite wrong answers to a child’s endless string of whys. But now that the highly specific answer has become commonplace thanks to Google, there remains the more troubling problem of how to encourage imagination and curiosity when nobody can be leisurely wrong anymore. Maybe the key for healthy digital implementation among toddlers resides in only using digital devices to promote curiosity. It is certainly an ethos that Boog subscribes to:

Reading for discovery can change the course of your child’s life. You can help him or her maintain a natural curiosity throughout school. This precious flame of scientific wonder can be snuffed so easily. Don’t let your child lose that sense of wonder. Follow up science books and apps with zoo visits or natural science museum trips. Make sure that part of your home library is dedicated to science, gross or scary as it may be.

Providing a toddler with limitless words and endless options for discovery can mean the difference between a child armed the tools to succeed and one who gives up in a tougher world of standardized education. Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a famous study revealing a thirty million word gap between low and high income kids. This disparity revealed lasting effects later in life. But with enough active parental participation, it is possible to make a book stick. Boog describes repeatedly reading Dick and Jane and Vampires to Olive, often acting out the story with gusto. The book became such a fixture that Olive demanded the book at all hours.

For cash-strapped parents who don’t have the resources to fill their child’s bedroom with books, there is also the public library. Judy Blume’s oft-quoted suggestion that children should be allowed to read whatever they want holds true even in this hallowed space, which is not merely a secular temple for books, but a place for many kids and parents to come together. If Boog’s book ends on an appropriately grim note when considering the draconian Common Core standards, very much at odds with unhindered reading and free-flowing curiosity, it is nevertheless a welcome reminder that merely asking children to regurgitate knowledge is a recipe for chaos as the gap between the rich and the poor grows to its highest level since 1928. If we want to lift our nation beyond this crippling inequality, then it is vital for us to reject any measure that prevents parents and educators from talking with children as equals. The Seussian ideal will allow the next generation to embrace and challenge knowledge rather than have facts drilled into their heads with all the delicacy of a bureaucrat fumbling around with a jackhammer.

(Image: mbeo)

The Taming of Chance (Modern Library Nonfiction #98)

(This is the third entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Operating Instructions.)

mlnf98In the bustling beginnings of the twentieth century, the ferociously independent mind who forever altered the way in which we look at the universe was living in poverty.* His name was Charles Sanders Peirce and he’d anticipated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by a few decades. In 1892, Peirce examined what he called the doctrine of necessity, which held that every single fact of the universe was determined by law. Because before Peirce came along, there were several social scientists who were determined to find laws in everything — whether it be an explanation for why you parted your hair at a certain angle with a comb, felt disgust towards specific members of the boy band One Direction, or ran into an old friend at a restaurant one hundred miles away from where you both live. Peirce declared that absolute chance — that is, spontaneity or anything we cannot predict before an event, such as the many fish that pelted upon the heads of puzzled citizens in Shasta County, California on a January night in 1903 — is a fundamental part of the universe. He concluded that even the careful rules discovered by scientists only come about because, to paraphrase Autolycus from A Winter’s Tale, although humans are not always naturally honest, chance sometimes makes them so.

The story of how Peirce’s brave stance was summoned from the roiling industry of men with abaci and rulers is adeptly set forth in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, a pleasantly head-tingling volume that I was compelled to read twice to ken the fine particulars. It’s difficult to articulate how revolutionary this idea was at the time, especially since we now live in an epoch in which much of existence feels preordained by statistics. We have witnessed Nate Silver’s demographic models anticipate election results and, as chronicled in Moneyball, player performance analysis has shifted the way in which professional baseball teams select their roster and steer their lineup into the playoffs, adding a strange computational taint that feels as squirmy as performance enhancing drugs.

But there was a time in human history in which chance was considered a superstition of the vulgar, even as Leibniz, seeing that a number of very smart people were beginning to chatter quite a bit about probability, argued that the true measure of a Prussian state resided in how you tallied the population. Leibniz figured that if Prussia had a central statistic office, it would not only be possible to gauge the nation’s power but perhaps lead to certain laws and theories about the way these resources worked.

This was obviously an idea that appealed to chin-stroking men in power. One does not rule an empire without keeping the possibility of expansion whirling in the mind. It didn’t take long for statistics offices to open and enthusiasts to start counting heads in faraway places. (Indeed, much like the early days of computers, the opening innovations originated from amateurs and enthusiasts.) These early statisticians logged births, deaths, social status, the number of able-bodied men who might be able to take up weapons in a violent conflict, and many other categories suggested by Leibniz (and others that weren’t). And they didn’t just count in Prussia. In 1799, Sir John Sinclair published a 21 volume Statistical Account of Scotland that undoubtedly broke the backs of many of the poor working stiffs who were forced to carry these heavy tomes to the guys determined to count it all. Some of the counters became quite obsessive in their efforts. Hacking reports that Sinclair, in particular, became so sinister in his efforts to get each minister of the Church of Scotland to provide a detailed congregation schedule that he began making threats shrouded in a jocose tone. Perhaps the early counters needed wild-eyed dogged advocates like Sinclair to establish an extremely thorough baseline.

The practice of heavy-duty counting resulted, as Hacking puts it, in a bona-fide “avalanche of numbers.” Yet the intersection of politics and statistics created considerable fracas. Hacking describes the bickering and backbiting that went down in Prussia. What was a statistical office? Should we let the obsessive amateurs run it? Despite all the raging egos, bountiful volumes of data were published. And because there was a great deal of paper being shuffled around, cities were compelled by an altogether different doctrine of necessity to establish central statistical hubs. During the 1860s, statistical administrations were set up in Berlin, New York, Stockholm, Vienna, Rome, Leipzig, Frankfurt-am-Main, and many others. But from these central offices emerged a East/West statistics turf war, with France and England playing the role of Biggie on the West and Prussia as Tupac on the East. The West believed that a combination of individual competition and natural welfare best served society, while the East created the welfare state to solve these problems. And these attitudes, which Hacking is good enough to confess as caricaturish even as he illustrates a large and quite important point, affected the way in which statistics were perceived. If you believe in a welfare state, you’re probably not going to see laws forged from the printed numbers. Because numbers are all about individual action. And if you believe in the Hobbesian notion of free will, you’re going to look for statistical laws in the criminal numbers, because laws are formed by individuals. This created new notions of statistical fatalism. It’s worth observing that science at the time was also expected to account for morality.

Unusual experiments ensued. What, for example, could the chest circumference of a Scotsman tell us about the stability of the universe? (Yes, the measurement of Scottish chests was seriously considered by a Belgian guy named Adolphe Quetelet, who was trying to work out theories about the average man. When we get to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man several years from now, #21 in the Modern Library Nonfiction canon, I shall explore more pernicious measurement ideas promulgated as “science.” Stay tuned!) More nefariously, if you could chart the frequency of how often the working classes called in sick, perhaps you could establish laws to determine who was shirking duty, track the unruly elements, and punish the agitators interfering with the natural law. (As we saw with William Lamb Melbourne’s story, the British government was quite keen to crack down on trade unions during the 1830s. So just imagine what a rabid ideologue armed with a set of corrupted and unproven “laws” could do. In fact, we don’t even have to jump that far back in time. Aside from the obvious Hollerith punch card example, one need only observe the flawed radicalization model presently used by the FBI and the DHS to crack down on Muslim “extremists.” Arun Kundnani’s recent book, The Muslims Are Coming, examines this issue further. And a future Bat Segundo episode featuring Kundnani will discuss this dangerous approach at length.)

Throughout all these efforts to establish laws from numbers (Newton’s law of gravity had inspired a league of scientists to seek a value for this new G constant, a process that took more than a century), Charles Babbage, Johann Christian Poggendorf, and many others began publishing tables of constants. It is one thing to publish atomic weights. It is quite another to measure the height, weight, pulse, and breath of humans by gender and ethnicity (along with animals). The latter constant sets are clearly not as objective as Babbage would like to believe. And yet the universe does adhere to certain undeniable principles, especially when you have a large data set.

It took juries for mathematicians to understand how to reconcile large numbers with probability theory. In 1808, Pierre-Simon Laplace became extremely concerned with the French jury system. At the time, twelve-member juries convicted an accused citizen by a simple majority. He calculated that a seven-to-five majority had a chance of error of one in three. The French code had adopted the unusual method of creating a higher court of five judges to step in if there was a disagreement with a majority verdict in the lower court. In other words, if the majority of the judges in the higher court agreed with the minority of jurors in the lower court that an accused person should be acquitted, then the accused person would be acquitted. Well, this complicated system bothered Laplace. Accused men often faced execution in the French courts. So if there was a substantial chance of error, then the system needed to be reformed. Laplace began to consider juries composed of different sizes and verdicts ranging from total majority (12:0) to partial majority (9:3, 8:4), and he computed the following odds (which I have reproduced from a very helpful table in Hacking’s book):

hacking-juryerror

The problems here become self-evident. You can’t have 1,001 people on a jury arguing over the fate of one man. On the other hand, you can’t have a 2/7 chance of error with a jury of twelve. (One of Laplace’s ideas was a 144 member jury delivering a 90:54 verdict. This involved a 1/773 chance of error. But that’s nowhere nearly as extreme as a Russian mathematician named M.V. Ostrogradsky, who wasted much ink arguing that a 212:200 majority was more reliable than a 12:0 verdict. Remember all this the next time you receive a jury duty notice. Had some of Laplace’s understandable concerns been more seriously considered, there’s a small chance that societies could have adopted larger juries in the interest of a fair trial.)

French law eventually changed the minimum conviction from 7:5 to 8:4. But it turned out that there was a better method to allow for a majority jury verdict. It was a principle that extended beyond mere frequency and juror reliability, taking into account Bernoulli’s ideas on drawing black and white balls from an urn to determine a probability value. It was called the law of large numbers. And the great thing is that you can observe this principle in action through a very simple experiment.

Here’s a way of seeing the law of large numbers in action. Take a quarter and flip it. Write down whether the results are heads or tails. Do it again. Keep doing this and keep a running tally of how many times the outcome is heads and how many times the coin comes up tails. For readers who are too lazy to try this at home, I’ve prepared a video and a table of my coin toss results:

edcointoss

The probability of a coin toss is 1:1. On average, the coin will turn up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time. As you can see, while my early tosses leaned heavily towards heads, by the time I had reached the eighteenth toss, the law of large numbers ensured that my results skewed closer to 1:1 (in this case, 5:4) as I continued to toss the coin. Had I continued to toss the coin, I would have come closer to 1:1 with every toss.

galtonbox

The law of large numbers offered the solution to Laplace’s predicament. It also accounts for the mysterious picture at the head of this essay. That image is a working replica of a Galton box (also known as a quincunx). (If you’re ever in Boston, go to the Museum of Science and you can see a very large working replica of a Galton box in action.) Sir Francis Galton needed a very visual method of showing off the central limit theorem. So he designed a box, not unlike a pachinko machine, in which beans are dropped from the top and work their way down through a series of wooden pins, which cause them to fall along a random path. Most of the beans land in the center. Drop more beans and you will see a natural bell curve form, illustrating the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem.

Despite all this, there was still the matter of statistical fatalism to iron out, along with an understandable distrust of statistics among artists and the general population, which went well beyond Disraeli’s infamous “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote. Hacking is a rigorous enough scholar to reveal how Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Balzac were skeptical of utilitarian statistics. Balzac, in particular, delved into “conjugal statistics” in his Physiology of Marriage to deduce the number of virtuous women. They had every reason to be, given how heavily philosophers leaned on determinism. (See also William James’s “The Dilemma of Determinism.”) A German philosopher named Ernst Cassirer was a big determinism booster, pinpointing its beginnings in 1872. Hacking challenges Cassierer by pointing out that determinism incorporated the doctrine of necessity earlier in the 1850s, an important distinction in returning back to Peirce’s idea of absolute chance.

I’ve been forced to elide a number of vital contributors to probability and some French investigations into suicide in an attempt to convey Hacking’s intricate narrative. But the one word that made Perice’s contributions so necessary was “normality.” This was the true danger of statistical ideas being applied to the moral sciences. When “normality” became the ideal, it was greatly desirable to extirpate anything “abnormal” or “aberrant” from the grand human garden, even though certain crime rates were indeed quite normal. We see similar zero tolerance measures practiced today by certain regressive members of law enforcement or, more recently, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s impossible pledge to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. As the law of large numbers and Galton’s box observed, some statistics are inevitable. Yet it was also important for Peirce to deny the doctrine of necessity. Again, without chance, Peirce pointed out that we could not have had all these laws in the first place.

It was strangely comforting to learn that, despite all the nineteenth century innovations in mathematics and probability, chance remains very much a part of life. Yet when one begins to consider stock market algorithms (and the concomitant flash crashes), as well as our collective willingness to impart voluminous personal data to social media companies who are sharing these numbers with other data brokers, I cannot help but ponder whether we are willfully submitting to another “law of large numbers.” Chance may favor the prepared mind, as Pasteur once said. So why court predictability?

* Peirce’s attempts to secure academic employment and financial succor were thwarted by a Canadian scientist named Simon Newcomb. (A good overview of the correspondence between the two men can be found at the immensely helpful “Perice Gateway” website.)

Next Up: Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer!

Melbourne (Modern Library Nonfiction #100)

(This is the first entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list.)

mlnf100History has produced such a rich pile of devious political figures who spend every spare minute scheming and plotting their rise that today’s aspiring aristocrats, who can be found working every connection to get their kids into bright educational citadels and reliable sinecures, cannot come close to such cutthroat monomania. Yet there are also those who blunder into top office like bumpkins crashing high-class weddings through the simple repetitive act of placing one foot in front the other. William Lamb, aka Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eight years (1834, 1835-1841) and the subject of Lord David Cecil’s generous biography, was one such man.

Melbourne was a ponderous speaker, a bookish man who reportedly dozed off in the middle of a conversation, a leader largely blind to the way people beneath his station lived, and a cautionary tale for any soul who avoids conflict. “He pondered, he compared, he memorized,” writes Cecil of Melbourne in middle age, just before his improbable political career begins, “the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing, illegible hand.” Melbourne was so mind-bogglingly passive in his actions that he not only refused to intervene in his wife’s adulterous affairs, but he believed that each infidelity would pass with the fleeting speed of a common cold.

It’s easy to ridicule Melbourne and the people of that time (as the bitterly judgmental Carrie A.A. Frye and Philip Ziegler, another Melbourne biographer, have). Melbourne was cuckolded by Lord Byron. When Byron would no longer plant his flagpole in Lady Caroline Lamb, Melbourne’s wife gradually traded down in her boys on the side until she tapped Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known today for inspiring a writing contest for wretched writing). Caroline would go on to write Glenarvon, an awful roman à clef which exposed the Byron episode and left the Lambs open to disgrace and derision. When his wife died, the lonely Melbourne sought solace with another Caroline (the remarkable Caroline Norton, a tireless crusader who would go on to campaign successfully for legislative acts rectifying the second-class status of women), there was an attempt at blackmail. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Melbourne became her unlikely tutor and constant companion, wasting a good chunk of his late years because the young Queen required constant attention (much of it documented in Victoria’s journals, which are now digitized and accessible through arrangement with your library; Cecil is good enough to quote from many of these entries).

When I learned from Paul Douglass’s Lady Caroline Lamb just how abhorrently Melbourne had treated the largely forgotten badass Isaac Nathan, I began to grow less tolerant of Melbourne’s nonplussed nature. Nathan — a Jewish composer who wrote the groundbreaking Hebrew Melodies and suffered from the Jewish exclusion laws which denied him the ability to vote, run for office, or pursue justice in the courts against the scabrous opportunists who stole his lyrics, often without credit or compensation — befriended Caroline and set many of her words to music. Despite Nathan defending Caroline when she was disgraced (to the lively extent of fighting duels and even publishing a defense of her character in Fugitive Pieces after her death), Melbourne refused to pay Nathan for services rendered to the Whigs when Nathan really needed the cash, leaving Nathan humiliated and bankrupt and forced to flee to Australia, where he was to write Don John of Austria (the first opera composed and performed in Australia), became the first to research indigenous music and the first settler in this new and exciting country to be killed by a tram. (Don’t worry. Nathan died at 74. It was an accident.)

Melbourne’s clueless cruelty also emerged as organized labor became a more vocal part of British life. In March 1834, a group of laborers in Dorset started a trade-union and it was discovered that these men had administered secret oaths as part of the membership. Several of these men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of penal transportation. At the time, Melbourne was Home Secretary. Instead of overturning this remarkably harsh punishment, Melbourne asked the local magistrates about the temperament of these men. He was informed by these tendentious adjudicators that they were scoundrels. Melbourne, strictly on this point of secret oaths, confirmed this inhumane sentence. And during the next month, a group of thirty thousand marched to Whitehall to demand redress. He refused to see these leaders. And this austere decision set back the trade-union movement for years. As Cecil writes:

“So far from being criminals and revolutionaries, they were sober, respectable men enough, driven into lawless courses largely by ignorance and hunger and by the struggle to hang up their families on wages lately reduced to seven shillings a week. Melbourne was not to blame for not realizing their true characters. He was not there, and he had to trust to the reports of his subordinates.”

Melbourne also did not intervene when the revolting laborers of 1830 (during the Swing Riots) were sent to the gallows. Even Cecil is forced to accept the “painful and disturbing” prospect of an ostensibly kind-hearted man who wished to uphold the death sentence even when prisoners were not intended to be executed. Yet as callous as these consequences were, contributing to great unrest in the immediate years that followed, one has to remember that these terrible measures emerged in response to fears over recent turmoil in France and while parliamentary reform was being hashed out at a frustratingly glacial pace. There was a palpable anxiety that events across the English Channel would be reenacted at home.

How did such a man ascend to Prime Minister? Largely because there was nobody else. In 1834, King William IV needed someone who could keep variegated political factions together and, although the King didn’t care much for Melbourne, he liked him better than the other candidates. After all, this wasn’t exactly a position that you could leave open because you didn’t care for the present spate of résumés. Melbourne almost didn’t take the job. (Indeed, near the end of his stint as Prime Minister, he drifted forward with listlessness and exhaustion. Obligation seemed to be the only quality that kept him going.) An opportunistic little creep named Tom Young, who ensconced himself into Melbourne’s administrative circle through skillful cunning, was the one who played to Melbourne’s vanity and love for the classics, securing Melbourne’s commitment with the following words: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only last three months, it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.”

Melbourne was a weird Prime Minister. His strategy involved ridding himself of loud and querulous colleagues and keeping the new Government as calm as possible, even as he remained obdurate in his decision making. This approach did not sit well with some of the more boisterous statesmen. In a moment that could almost be pulled out of a David Lynch movie, Cecil describes Lord Henry Brougham visiting Melbourne’s house just after learning that he would not have a place in the new government. “Do you think I am mad?” shouts Brougham over and over again, his tone and gestures rising with violence as he repeats this question, almost anticipating the charismatic psychosis of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. Yet the highly avoidant Melbourne could not fend off the King, assorted radicals, and any number of people who beseeched him for attention. “Damn it!” he cried to himself. “Why can’t they be quiet?” (In 1836, the aforementioned Norton blackmail episode went down, with Melbourne emerging largely unscathed even while living at Downing Street.)

I can’t entirely pardon Melbourne for some of his asshattery, but Cecil’s careful touch allowed me to understand and even empathize with some of Melbourne’s flaws, for he was also quite idiosyncratic. He stuffed his coats with endless notes. He would emit several strange sounds before beginning to talk. He would shout at random servants and ask them what time it was rather than consult a watch. These quirks allowed him to be liked by the right people, or, perhaps more accurately, tolerated because his actions were so endearingly inexplicable. Perhaps they felt sorry for him because of the Glenarvon episode, although Cecil doesn’t really address how that scandal besmirched his later life, long after Caroline was gone.

What I can say is that Cecil does such a classy job conveying the shenanigans of these often loutish patricians — the rampant adultery, the tolerated insane behavior, the strange manner that all this infiltrated British poetry and politics — that I was placed in the unusual position of fighting strong desires to throw my mind into the mire of the French Revolution, parliamentary protocol, and numerous other subjects. In the last two years, we have seen wild ideological sentiment (exacerbated by Twitter) and staunch stylistic preference (e.g., any polemical book on the lyrical essay) erode the possibilities of understanding human nuance. Melbourne reminds us that the more receptive we are to factual details that trouble or intrigue us, the more willing we are to commiserate with a person’s embarrassing qualities. Perhaps this was one reason why Melbourne was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books.

Cecil found both a subject and a tone that recalls John P. Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 novel, The Late George Apley, published just two years before Cecil’s first half of Melbourne. He tells us baldly at the end that Melbourne’s death caused no great stir during the nineteenth century’s rampantly changing atmosphere. It is a crushing realization. Like Apley, Melbourne outlived his time and took in his personal and professional regrets with a resigned agreeableness. Melbourne’s life is often a sad portrait, yet we are somehow won over by him. Cecil’s book is a welcome reminder that if we’re going to judge someone, maybe we should buffet the impulse to castigate them with a smidgen of kindness, reserving our wrath for the real monsters. Without that vital flexibility that allows us to evolve, there may come a point when we outlive our time too. Sooner than Melbourne.

Next Up: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions!

Kim (Modern Library #78)

(This is the twenty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Room with a View)

Three years ago, my jocular compadre Lydia Kiesling pointed out that Kim‘s festering reputation as an imperialist watermark had hindered her from a serious plunge. She rightly identified a “Post-Colonial Burn Index” for this type of literature, whereby enduring high and mighty white males braying in turgid and self-congratulatory sentences about their entitled position was an experience about as pleasant as being repeatedly kicked in the teeth by a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses that had been paddocked too long without option of rotary gallop.

While Lydia found Kim to be a pleasant surprise, I felt Kipling’s “masterpiece” to be largely repugnant: the kind of pernicious slog that turns good people into Aryan crusaders if they don’t move on quickly to something else. The book’s enticing aesthetic of geography, esoteric terminology, Arabic names, Jainist neologisms, and now commonplace food wasn’t enough to shake the deeply unsettling feeling that Kipling, despite his welcome overtures, really wanted all of India to remain subservient to the Anglo way, perhaps because this was the only way he could reckon with his nostalgia for a time long passed. This novel was his swan song to India. And while the book is sometimes an engaging adventure, it is too fraught with covert condescension.

Among many disgraceful stereotypes, Kim is a novel which describes how “Kim could lie like an Oriental,” how “[a]ll hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Oriental” and describes both “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise,” how “Orientals understand speed,” and how a project “[falls] back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance.” There is a Russian agent who announces late in the book, “It is we who can deal with Orientals.” (This sentiment of “dealing with Orientals” is later echoed by Hurree.) But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s an odious drummer-boy from Liverpool who badgers Kim when he “[talks] the same as a nigger.”

This is far more insidious than Kingsley Amis writing of Kim‘s problematic meticulousness, “if he says coriander when he means cardamum I will let it go.” As my homeboy Edward Said wisely observed in Culture and Imperialism:

…yes, Kipling can get into the skin of others with some sympathy. But no, Kipling never forgets that Kim is an irrefragable part of British India: the Great Game does go on, with Kim a part of it, no matter how many parables the lama fashions. We are naturally entitled to read Kim as a novel belonging to the world’s greatest literature, free to some degree from its encumbering historical and political circumstances. Yet by the same token, we must not unilaterally abrogate the corrections in it, and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality.

The depictions of residents from the Far and Near East as lesser beings have been held up as criticisms of racism by some Kipling scholars. But given that the novel goes out of its way to grant thirteen-year-old Kimball O’Hara, “burned black as any native,” the luxury of swinging both ways as sahib and a boy capable of disguising himself in “native-fashion,” there’s a decidedly privileged feel to Kim’s picaresque adventures which gives any 21st century reading experience a sour and regressive taint.

So what is Kim‘s appeal? For me, the lama is the novel’s high point. He finds Kim in Lahore. He sets out with the boy to seek the physical manifestation of their respective visions (for Kim, a Red Bull in a green field; for the lama, “The River of the Arrow”). He serves as a remarkably patient patriarchal figure throughout. The novel felt more honest when Kim used the lama’s otherness to skimp out on train fare or when Kim was free to get into wild adventures without obligation or mimesis.

The sympathetic socialist critic Irving Howe is perhaps the closest in describing why the novel is still worth a soupçon of consideration. Howe observes that Kipling was “a jingo and a bully, or defender of bullies,” but identifies Kim as a work that involves seeing the world “as an apprehension of things as they are” and “accepting, even venerating sainthood, without at all proposing to surrender the world, or even worldliness, to saints.” But one of the chief frustrations about Kim is that, for all of Kipling’s erudition about India, he is blind to his own inherent prejudices.

No matter how liberated Kim may be, he is still identified by how he is seen or how he is “suited”:

The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.

Is not Kipling complicit in how his characters are seen by the reader, who may be an “English observer” of another sort? In the gnarly opening chapters, we see Kim “flat on his belly” while a tall man stands “erect as an arrow.” And this is hardly the first time the novel resorts to a descriptive style where “erect” positioning is so closely identified to social station or caste.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, who complained about how the novel doesn’t live up to “what the reader tends to expect,” I don’t have any particular problems with the book’s inconclusive finale. Fiction has no obligation to answer everything. Kipling’s efforts to reconcile the book’s spiritual side (the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Things, as introduced by the lama) with its espionage side (the Great Game of geopolitical conflict “that never ceases day and night”) smack of a desperate effort to sandwich disparate ingredients into a luncheon that cannot possibly satisfy everybody, let alone account for the complexities of a massive nation. It is fundamentally impossible for either Kipling or Kim to make a dichotomous choice when there is, quite literally, so much territory covered on the Great Trunk Road, on board the “te-rain,” and along the “long, peaceful line of the Himalayas.” (In deference to the lama’s portent, there are quite a number of “rivers” in this book, often through rail and road.) The Middle Way may be the “path to freedom,” but the river that the lama does eventually find cannot be found on any map.

But I am with Wilson in calling out Kipling’s failings to confront a very real crisis. I am hardly alone. Even the enthusiastic biographer Martin Seymour-Smith was to confess, “Kim is not, for me, quite the masterpiece that it is for many critics,” believing the problem to stem from the novel being simultaneously a children’s book and an adult’s book. Seymour-Smith also posits the interesting theory that Kipling’s failure to return to India and confront its considerable change is one of the reasons it is not quite right.

Kim lacks the imagination and the deft command of Kipling’s shorter fiction. But this novel was such a despondent read that I don’t think I’ll be reading this blustery Nobel laureate again for at least another decade. If I want a Great Game, I’ll drag out Cranium or Twister from the closet.

Next Up: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake! (This will take a very long time!)

A Bend in the River (Modern Library #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Death of the Heart)

There are so many unpardonable cruelties collected in Patrick French’s gripping (and authorized!) biography, The World Is What It Is, that it’s difficult to know where to start in condemning V.S. Naipaul’s boorish behavior, while also praising his prowess on the page. And yet I can’t quite do that either. I’ve read A Bend in the River twice, and I have to conclude that the book’s pat pronouncements about colonialism, even with the adept take on self-deception and willful naïveté, aren’t especially staggering. By the time the shopkeeper Salim shows his colleague Indar around the African town where he lives and reveals how little he knows (“All the key points of the town I knew could be shown in a couple of hours, as I discovered when I drove him around later that morning”), it was abundantly clear to me that he would never know.

Perhaps the mid-career rise of Naipaul’s rep was all in the timing. French suggests that “[a] rising disillusion with the post-colonial project in many countries lead to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise.” But Naipaul does deserve props for depicting how a revolutionary leader (referred to as “the Big Man”), even after the aloof establishment of a McDonald’s-like Bigburger restaurant and a dubious university, steers an unnamed African nation to the same scorched earth which existed before. And this, along with a sad and desperate historian named Raymond and the many ruined monuments seen from previous regimes, makes Bend a rock-hard reading experience for the strident geopolitical junkie. (When I first read Bend, I had this image of Wolf Blitzer shouting aloud passages on CNN, demanding reader responses from Romney and Santorum. I did my best to shake off this terrifying vision of the dreaded bearded bloviator. But my imagination revolted. Because not long after this, I had a weird dream where Blitzer kidnapped me and ordered me to burn all books aside from Naipaul. Blitzer then set himself on fire and began laughing like a psychotic, refusing to let me extinguish the conflagration. And I woke up. This may explain, in part, why it’s taken me many weeks to get to this essay.)

The Andrew Seal types will tell you that the novel’s appeal involves how Naipaul has demonstrated how order is not necessarily in opposition to complexity. And the academic Fawzia Mustafa has rightly suggested that Bend is very much about how one’s relationship to Africa is determined through a misread. (Miscerique probat populus et feodera jungi, a commemorative plague at the dock, is deliberately misread throughout the book.)

But this still doesn’t make up for Naipaul short-changing the African people, who are little more than crude caricatures serving this allegorical exercise. There are marchandes like Zabeth, who pick up supplies from Salim’s store and have “a special smell” that is “strong and unpleasant.” There is the houseboy Ildephonse, who becomes an ad hoc restaurant manager who turns “vacant” when his bosses leave. This leads Salim to conclude:

I noticed this alteration in the African staff in other places as well. It made you feel that while they did their jobs in their various glossy settings, they were only acting for the people who employed them; that the job itself was meaningless to them; and that they had the gift — when they were left alone, and had no one to act for — of separating themselves in spirit from their setting, their job, their uniform.

Granted, the matryoshka-like idea here is that Salim, the Indian émigré who has set up shop and plays squash at the Hellenic Club and is often clueless about how much he is reviled by apparent pals and locals, is the imperialist mirror image to what he sees. The Africans — especially the family servant Metty (nicknamed this because of his interracial background) — develop sentiments that Salim refuses to see. Even outright revolution is beyond his scope. There’s one stirring moment in which Salim visits a school with Indar and is challenged by a student: “Would the honourable visitor state whether he feels that Africans have been depersonalized by Christianity?” Yet Salim refuses to ken these kernels of discontent, later remarking, “I thought how far we had both come, to talk about Africa like this.”

So Naipaul’s novel made for a frustrating experience. On one hand, he wants to expose Salim’s inherent hypocrisy and nastiness. But I have good reason to believe that Naipaul himself embraces it, which is probably why this ugliness smoulders off the page. So while I can admire Naipual’s hard-hitting imagery (“smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat”) and his knack for myopic maxims (“We make ourselves according to the ideas of our possibilities” and “The airplane is faster than the heart”), I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating a reading life without Naipaul. (Not quite. Like a Romero zombie, A House for Mr. Biswas is on the Modern Library list at #72.)

A Bend in the River isn’t a bad book. It isn’t as overrated or as desperate to please as Midnight’s Children.* But I don’t think I would call it a classic. While one should take care to separate the author from his work, I have learned that Naipaul has largely drawn from his life. (Indeed, if you read French’s book, it can be handily argued that “V.S. Naipaul” is Naipaul’s favorite subject.) I’ve really wanted to understand why so many people would refuse to question such a flagrant sociopath. Naipaul is a good writer, but he’s certainly not great if we stack the smug scamp against Conrad, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. All could easily clean Naipaul’s clock.

How has Naipaul mined from his life? One monstrous moment bubbles to the brim. Here’s Naipaul writing his mother in 1956, remarking upon a fellow boat passenger:

Poor thing, she was so frightened at the thought of travelling alone for the first time out of Trinidad at the age of thirty-five. She palled up with me and begged me in case of any alarm or trouble to come and look after her. The red nigger woman is really delightfully simple. You know, in ships, the chairs and tables are all chained to the floor to prevent them from rolling about the place when the sea gets rough. I told the woman that the tables and chairs were chained to prevent people stealing them. And, she believed it. ‘Eh, eh,’ she said, “But look at that, eh.” And again: passengers in different parts of the ship are assigned to different lifeboats (there are 6 on the Golfito). I told her that she had to find out which lifeboat was hers because, in case of any trouble, they were not going to let her get into any old lifeboat. In fact, if they found her in the wrong boat they were going to throw her into the sea. It was, I told her, the origins of the phrase ‘to be in the wrong boat.’

It is already mind-boggling enough to consider anyone who would practice such unmitigated spite towards a woman who was harming nobody. It is another thing altogether to boast about such baleful behavior to your own mother. Naipaul is clearly a man whose central pleasure involves terrorizing any figures “who are nothing” or “who allow themselves to become nothing,” to invoke, as French has with his biography title, A Bend in the River‘s famous opening.

As we read Bend, we learn that the writer and his antihero aren’t terribly different. Here’s Salim responding to poor Ferdinand, when the latter expresses a desire to find a better life studying in America:

I said, “Why should I send you to America? Why should I spend money on you?”

He had nothing to say. After the desperation and the trip through the rain, the whole thing might just have been another attempt at conversation.

Was it only his simplicity? I felt my temper rising — the rain and the lightning and the unnatural darkness of the afternoon had something to do with that.

I said, “Why do you think I have obligations to you? What have you done for me?”

The same question might likewise be addressed to the vile Vidia.

* * *

“I love you because you are so mean,” wrote Eve Babitz to Naipaul shortly after Bend‘s publication. But why should we celebrate an author who offers little more than meanness in life and in art? I ponder the type of blindsided reader who would only pine for the negative. Because it sure as hell isn’t me. Sure, I may have been seduced by Elizabeth Bowen’s brand of cruelty in the last installment, but there was enough carefully orchestrated character flinging to keep me intrigued. With Naipaul, the prose was often so slick that I felt my soul being clogged up by a BP-sized oil spill. I haven’t even brought up the unintentionally hilarious affair with Yvette, which is so rooted in preposterous male fantasy that one wonders if Vidia has ever understood women. (This is the same man who has the audacity to claim that women cannot write.)

“Carrying on” may help you negotiate the frontier, but that passive place doesn’t help you connect with other people or overcome your assumptions. That’s certainly Naipaul’s point. Yet I came away from this novel thinking that Naipaul was just as much monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum as his characters.

* — And since I’m being a little hard on Rushdie, in the interest of balance, I should probably relate this remarkably insensitive Naipaul anecdote. Naipaul has remained so committed to steely misanthropy that he refused to sign a petition supporting Salman Rushdie after Khomeini issued his fatwa, adding (according to the French bio), “I don’t know his books, but I’ve been aware of his statements. I found them usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.” And he didn’t stop there. Naipaul would call the fatwa “an extreme form of literary criticism.” It’s one thing to dislike Rushdie’s books. It’s another thing to employ one’s literary sensibilities as justification for murder.

Next Up: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose!

The Bat Segundo Show: Insulted by Authors

Bill Ryan recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #384. He is the proprietor of the website Insulted by Authors.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Insulted by humorless people.

Guest: Bill Ryan

Subjects Discussed: Taking unexpected tumbles in life, why insults are the best way to pop the cherry of the author-reader relationship, being the son of a scientist, dodging dodgy publicists, being identified as “The Bill Plus Insult Guy,” picking away at the celebrity industrial complex that has been built up around the author, being frightened by Salman Rushdie, whether there is something inherently wrong in asking an author to insult the reader, difficulties with humorless authors, Nicole Krauss’s post-profanity titter, how the prelude to an author interaction sets up strange expectations, Rick Moody’s refusal to sign older books, book autograph prospectors, being afraid of preconceptions, taking the denial of an insult personally, when joie de vivre is mistaken as a threat, hero worship and naivete, the protective personality traits of authors, looking at the dilemma from the “why not an insult?” position, ideal readers vs. material readers, Banksy, being inclusive of quirky ideas within a marginalized medium, non-monetary value and books, and the dangers of being drawn too close to the apotheosis of fame.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ryan: Salman Rushdie was in my top four of insults I’d love to get. The Mount Rushmore of insults or whatever. I was so frightened ahead of time for some reason, despite the fact that this is a guy who’s reading a children’s book in front of a crowd of people who showed up at an art gallery. To hear someone read a children’s book. I was nervous! Because it’s Salman Rushdie. And I approached him. And I have tweaked my approach, depending upon the author. Like with Salman Rushdie, I was very deferent. “Mr. Rushdie, I’m sorry to be the kind of person to ask you this. But if you have a moment, if that’s okay, could you add an insult to my personalization?” And I’m worried almost that the fact that I’m scared, intimidated by the very thing that I kinda want to break down, is maybe a problem with my scientific approach. (laughs) Do you know what I mean?

Correspondent: Well, maybe it’s an emotional approach. Because here you have Rushdie. You hope that he will defy your expectation, that he will insult you. And what does he do? He decides, “Why do you want to do that?” And it’s sort of a big letdown. It’s almost like maybe you were nervous about setting yourself up for this letdown. Is that safe to say?

Ryan: It’s like: What did I do wrong? Okay. Exactly, yes! The scientific approach where I was waiting in line and I had everything lined up like a series of actions that I had just lined up in my mind. And I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to approach Mr. Rushdie. I’m going to set down my book. Very gently.” I’m going to say, “Mr. Rushdie, thank you very much. Blah blah blah. By the way, my name’s Bill. Insulted by Authors.” So I went back over after the fact. And for whatever reason, I got really really nervous and really excited. Just the fact that I’m disrupting whatever silly little convention that there is behind the whole signing of a book. I may be blowing it up way, way too big in my mind. But afterwards, my heart was pumping. And I was like, “Okay, what did I do wrong? What was it that Mr. Rushdie didn’t understand about….”

Correspondent: Just call him Salman. (laughs) Mr. Rushdie? He won’t appear on this program. So we can go ahead and be informal about him. If it’s any consolation.

Ryan: (laughs) So Salman. Yeah, I had to go over for the next twenty minutes. And I actually, literally, sat right outside the signing — or stood right outside the signing — and was breathing deep. And all these people.

Correspondent: Breathing deep?

Ryan: Yeah. I was breathing deep. I was actually…

Correspondent: Hope you weren’t hyperventilating.

Ryan: A little bit! A little bit, man. This is how much I put into this for whatever stupid reason. And all these people who had heard me talking to myself in line slowly filtered out around the corner. What did I do wrong? How can I perfect this asking for an insult? How can I make this more accessible to the Rushdies of the world? But also equally accessible to the AL Kennedys of the world.

Correspondent: Or the Amy Sedarises.

Ryan: Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, what do you to deal with the reality that some authors — particularly the Old World, anti-online, anti-Tumblr, anti-Twitter types — they’re going to go ahead and say, “I’ll never stoop to that. Because I am an author.” Rushdie may be one of the last ones. Along with say, maybe, Richard Ford. I don’t think he would insult you.

Ryan: Probably not.

Correspondent: Philip Roth might, I think.

Ryan: I’d like to think that.

Correspondent: (laughs) I’d like to think that he would. Cynthia Ozick might, if you could get her.

Ryan: Yes!

Correspondent: But, on the other hand, you’re dealing with a lot of self-important authors who, let’s face the facts, are humorless. So where does the challenge kick in? Is it less about trying to bump your head against the wall? And more about seeing how they will react? I mean, it was actually rather astonishing to me to learn that Allegra Goodman would refuse to insult you and that post has not gone up, I noticed.

Ryan: Not yet. Not yet. I went through a transition between — I still don’t quite know what I’m trying to do with all this. Like I’m just trying to have fun. And I’m a book collector, in general. And I treat books as objects in addition to being books. Which is somewhat tragic, I’m sure. But also — whatever. I mean, everybody has something they’re trying to change about them. But I feel like everyone would be able to give me an insult if I somehow approached them in the right way or it was the right situation. Or something. There’s all these other outline — like little things that can mess with my amazing idea, incredible idea for insults.

Correspondent: You think you can develop the perfect pretext for any situation.

Ryan: (laughs) Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #384: Insulted by Authors (Download MP3)

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What Characters Read Books on Television?

The above screenshot is from a Three’s Company episode called “The Lifesaver,” in which even the dimwitted Chrissy Snow could be seen reading a book. The novel is Concerto of Love (fictional, of course) and Chrissy had only reached Page 4. But it does have me wondering. In 1979, even sitcom characters who were more than a few cards short of a full deck were still committed to reading in some form. Can we say the same thing in 2010? What television reading moments have you seen lately?

UPDATE: Here are some observations from Twitter.

Ron Charles: “Isn’t that odd. There are rarely any books in their homes…”
eBookNewser: “There is an episode of the Rockford Files where Jim is reading some kind of detective novel. Tom Select is in the episode.”
Mark Athitakis: “Best-read character on a show currently on the air: Brian Griffin” and “‘Mad About You’ may be the exception that proves the rule.”
James Othmer: “Draper: Meditations in an Emergency; other Mad Men selecs: Lady Chatterly, The Best of Everything, The Sound & the Fury.”
John Williams: “I imagine Lisa Simpson is pretty well read for her age.”
Mike Cane: “Well, duh, CASTLE. But he also writes them.”
Colleen Mondor: “Has anyone mentioned Rory on THE GILMORE GIRLS yet? It was a hallmark of her character.”
Levi Asher: “hmmm … the youngest kid in “Good Times” was often seen carrying or quoting from a book … Dale Cooper … Lucy Ricardo.”

Needless Counting Exercises

Words, being silly little units of language reflecting emotional and synaptic activities, are subject to frequent bursts of growth which are known to frustrate the unadventurous reader, possibly causing a regrettable series of eructations. The ambitious novel containing many words is greeted with suspicion, as if all minds are expected to conform to some craven concision. The slim novel may likewise be received by those eagerly wishing to plant plaints, but these impatient toe-tappers are often considering the words-per-ounce (and unspoken words-per-dollar) text stat introduced by the seemingly unstoppable commercial forces of Amazon. But if the novel is any good, it will invite a return visit, irrespective of length. So why perform a counting exercise? It’s not as if you’re likely to count the number of times you make love to your sweetheart — a taboo recently investigated by Kevin Sampsell in his memoir, A Common Pornography. But you will count the number of books you’ve read in the last year or the number of pages you have left. If passion (or bodily fluids) are exchanged through such bookkeeping exercises, then is this not equally crass? A novelist has likely made love or masturbated during the creative process, likely relieving the remarkable tensions that accumulate. Some readers may very well be lucky to engage in carnal relations with the author as he eats poorly and catches a few winks in sketchy hotels during the course of a book tour. But think about this. If you cannot sleep with the novelist, you have a book in your hands that, if it is good, will elicit a similar sensation. And while you may expire after fifteen minutes in the boudoir, with a book, you may very well keep the blood pumping and the balls bouncing for several weeks. And nobody has to know. Given the established covenant between novelist and reader, one does not have to fret about adultery. For all this is perfectly legal. One may be vexed by stains, either of a literal or metaphorical nature. But then I’m the one emitting the gushing comparative point. More chaste-minded readers may consider the novel a fantasy, an escape, or an edification — and such pursuits may not necessarily drift towards the explosive rumination that I am imputing. Does one parallel lead to more dutiful marking of notches on the belt? Perhaps. But it all seems a needless counting exercise that defeats the purpose of reading.

Good Books Don’t Have to Be Read

A good book is one that we don’t actually read. And a good book is one that a writer doesn’t actually write. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so guilty. It’s what makes pleasurable guilt so pleasurable. A box of juice reeks of crass commercialism when we insert our straws and revert back to those childhood years when the school bullies beat us up and told us that only sissies read. We crave books the way that we crave boxes of juice. There is a big man holding a gun to our temple. The big man is Anton Chekhov, and he is introducing a gun that must be used later in a story and later in this article. We are not allowed to fire the gun, but maybe we might fire it one of the Grossman brothers. They are, after all, twins. This may involve partial suicide, but I am speaking metaphorically and I am perched on a giant dais. This is too complicated for anybody to understand. This is more complicated than stabbing a box of juice with a straw. This is so complicated that I, Lev Grossman, have been spending the entire morning sobbing in bed. Books make perverts of us all. I am ashamed, but I am not sorry.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to books or the idea that people are supposed to read them. Sure, the importance has something to do with the fact that there are these squiggly lines that are printed onto bits of paper that are glued to a base. But what exactly? Excuse me while I take a toke. Ah, that’s much better, even if I don’t understand my argument and even if I will never ever experience pleasure in reading again. Part of the problem is that to figure out how to read a book you actually have to open one. You actually have to write idiotic essays for the Wall Street Journal because then people will take your folderol seriously. You have to keep your head shaven and demand that all books capitulate to your own sleek reading perspective, which does not exist and which must be simpler than tying your shoe. You have to write silly books about magicians and ignore the interesting shit about genre. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel — a book that frankly I don’t understand — and my tendency to masturbate to it when I can’t find the stack of Hustlers. Also, plot. Simple plot. Plot you can explain to a marsupial, with the marsupial clapping his hands in seeming comprehension.

countryfirstLet’s look back for a second and ponder where the Modernists came from. They came out of my ass. They flew out of my anus like winged monkeys. I assure you that this was a rather unsettling feeling that caused me to apply a good deal of lube when the flesh grew ruddy. They flew out of my ass because I knew they were writing good books and I knew that I couldn’t understand them and I knew that the Modernists were complicated but that they didn’t always think Plot First. Which is a little like Country First. Reading, as we all know, must subscribe to the Sarah Palin doctrine. So forget Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and all those literary heavyweights that people marvel over. They all came out of my ass and still carry that shiny and confused look. This is why they are dead. It has nothing to do with life expectancy. It has everything to do with my ass.

The Modernists went into the antique store and, ignoring the vital Plot First credo, they broke the vase. And now they must pay for their insolence. We are all the vicious and humorless shopkeepers ready to chase the Modernists out with a shotgun. How dare the Modernists make us think! How dare the Modernists improve upon literature!

There was a time when books were exciting. But then I got a job at Time and they became less exciting. And because they are not exciting to me, they cannot be exciting to you. They should not be difficult and they should not be read. I, Lev Grossman, am a drag at parties. Therefore, books must be a drag at parties. Nam Le is a scoundrel because he does not sell well enough. The next time I see Nam Le, I will punch him in the face. I don’t care how nice he is. I don’t care how much of a decent writer he is. Nam Le simply doesn’t sell as well as Stephenie Meyer. Therefore, he flew out of my ass like the Modernists. I am telling all the people who plan the parties not to have Nam Le and Lev Grossman in the same room. Surely, there will be a brawl.

The revolution is under way. And I, Comrades, insist that you do not have to read books. If you love books in any way or fail to consider the Plot First doctrine, then we will send you to the reeducation camps. We must be constantly entertained. We must not think. We must accept unquestionably that I, Lev Grossman, am correct about literature. Just look at Thomas Pynchon. Despite changing his cumbersome calisthenics, he appears on YouTube! Surely, this is a sign that the world is changing and that you don’t even have to read books anymore! If you look hard enough for clues, you too will sound like a conspiracy theorist.

This is the future of fiction. This is also the past and the present of fiction. There will be no more Modernist or Postmodernist writers flying out of my bunghole. We were trained to read good books. Now we must divest ourselves of this propaganda and become Communists!

A good book is one we don’t read. And the only articles you should be reading are written by Lev Grossman.

This article is a little too ad hominem for my tastes.

(For other responses, see Andrew Seal and Matt Cheney.)

Tools of Change: Bob Stein & Peter Brantley

tocsteinThe morning started off with Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book. It’s worth pointing out that for thirteen years, Stein worked for The Criterion Company, which he founded. Stein observed that he had always viewed the Criterion discs as items that he published and that this notion of “publishing” arose from a then groundbreaking video in 1980 that depicted the moving image with text on a screen. In Stein’s view, there was a McLuhan-like distinction to be made between user-driven media (books) and producer-driven media (movies, radio, and television). But because issuing a laserdisc meant giving an item to one individual at a time, it involved “publishing” it. (In fact, the early Criterion logo featured a book turning into a disc.)

The Internet, however, stretched Stein’s meaning about what a book was. While CD-ROMs offered staggering data that permitted a user to study the life of Stravinsky, the Internet, of course, imploded this notion. There began to emerge a separate sense of what a book was or could be independent of its categorization of an object. The book itself became much more important than data or content, and became very much about connecting other people. To illustrate this, Stein cited three examples: (1) Without Gods, a blog that chronicled Mitchell Stephens writing a book for a year, in which every day had a post and coteries of readers emerged who went on the journey with Stephens; (2) McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which a draft of Wark’s book was posted online, with each paragraph represented by a card (and in turn generating numerous comments next to the text, putting the reader on the same level as the author); and (3) an annotated version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which twenty students annotated the book (similarly to Wark) using a WordPress plugin called CommentPress.

Stein viewed the recent experiment involving Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as a failure to create a culture of public reading, but a success in connecting seven women together through the annotation. And Stein believed that the connection that the book had engendered was now part of the book as well. In Stein’s view, if you look at a book as an object, you effectively hide and obscure the social engagement that comes with the tome. And that social experience is perhaps more corporeal than we realize. So Stein’s new definition of a book is “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” The authors may become leaders of communities of inquiry (nonfiction) or they may become creators of words that readers populate (fiction). To this end, Stein viewed World of Warcraft as “the best book as a place.” It is therefore up to publishers to create a future that involves building and nurturing communities for authors and their readers.

Stein’s examples certainly represent fascinating enhancements which permit a book to take on a supplemental life. And it really had me thinking about some possibilities I may employ to augment the roundtable discussions that crop up here from time to time. But is the supplemental reaction to a book really part of a book? The buzz term “social community” kept cropping up at these keynotes and panels with troubling frequency. While I’m all for the notion of the information wanting to be free, I’m wondering if these supplemental aspects truly encourage other people to think independently about these subjects, and whether open source philosophy and “social community” (soon to be trademarked, I presume) is truly open to opposing viewpoints.

My skepticism was warranted when the Digital Library Foundation’s Peter Brantley gave a presentation that came perilously close to the treacherous Speedlearn experiment from The Prisoner. In Brantley’s view, a book is a social construction simply because we create our own reading environment in our home, shared with other books, or we happen to create that space in public. Therefore, getting involved with a “social community” becomes vital to the form. Such enlightenment! I wondered if Brantley, like many readers I know, had ever read a magazine or a mass market paperback while sitting on the can, or whether his income bracket had made such a common consideration declasse. I suppose if I sat with my ass hanging out long enough, I could probably justify the amount of toilet paper on the roll as a vital “personal space” component. If someone were to pay me money to stand in front of a bunch of unquestioning techies, I could also claim to have seen a deity while reading some Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker and attempt to persuade you that this was a religious experience that called for a “social community.” But you’d probably throw tomatoes at me and demand that the cane extract me from the stage. And rightly so.

Here was a man who presented a programmed keynote without spontaneity, even producing slides like “ah, let me explain that…” to mimic his seeming asides. It was as if the audience was there to be programmed rather than consider a viewpoint. And it was the primary reason why I decided to skip Cory Doctorow’s predictable anti-DRM rant. One of these was quite enough for me.

Among some of Brantley’s generalizations:

“A book is a social construction.”

“A book is a machine to think with.”

He even used the phrase “We’re reaching into books,” as if to suggest that the reading experience was more of a phony New Age experience in which some fifth circle might be obtained. But then in Brantley’s deense, I’m naturally suspicious of ponderous speakers who walk up and down a stage wearing a silly beret and holding a coffee cup. If Brantley had delivered his keynote in French, smoked an unfiltered cigarette, and perhaps thrown in a few passing references to the oppression of the working class, then I suppose I might have forgiven him. But he was dead serious about this.

A book may be generated by a machine and ebooks may be available through machines, but that does not mean the book itself is a machine. Nor should the reader transform into a machine. This kind of perspective may work in programming circles, where jargon and other linguistic bullshit is tossed around as casually as spitballs. But for those readers — most of us, I would gather — who see books as organic, guys like Brantley really fail to see the bigger picture. And I’ll have more to say about how the reader’s perspective — with the exception of one notable panel organized by Kassia Kroszer — has been utterly ignored by these slick and affluent concept slingers in subsequent posts.

(Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Similiveritude

The scholar and the world! The endless strife,
The discord in the harmonies of life!
The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,
And all the sweet serenity of books;
The market-place, the eager love of gain,
Whose aim is vanity, and whose end is pain!

— Longfellow, “Morituri Salutamus”

There exists a maximum amount of prearranged information, cultural reconfiguration, and other artistic offerings that one can ingest before it becomes necessary to splash bracing water upon one’s face (or, to take this idea further, to permit dollops of grease to crease one’s cheeks because of a self-administered oil change in one’s figurative vehicle). This is where the frequently overlooked human experience comes into play. By venturing outside one’s domicile or spending time with other humans commonly referred to as “friends” (as they are specified in the parlance of our time), or by participating in intimate activities that involve getting out of the house because the windows have fogged up and nobody wants to talk about the pleasant musky odor known to cause roommates to scurry, one can encounter a new sheath of information or perhaps a sequence of events that is not as neatly contrived or as conveniently cross-referenced as the hallowed narrative construct. The real world is refreshingly anarchic and, depending upon your degree of involvement, can prove to be more interesting than the cultural item that purports to represent it.

It is for these reasons, among many, that books which cannot live up to life must be thrown across the room. It is for these reasons, among many, that one should strive to emerge beyond the house, speak on the phone, meet up for coffee with deranged but amicable individuals, chat up strangers, and otherwise own up to one’s responsibility to live, lest one takes the hypothetical hurling of the book across the room too seriously. (It is a mere parabolic flourish, but a pugilistic passion not to be entirely discounted!)

We speak of verisimilitude, but we don’t speak so often of its dreaded cousin, similiveritude. And if you don’t know what similiveritude is, it is not because I have coined the word. (As it so happens, I am not the originator. At the risk of adopting Googleveritude, another nonsense noun unfound through Googling, one encounters only two search terms for “similiveritude.” Some gentleman named Felix appears to be the first to bandy this about. So I’ll give Felix the proper plaudits — congrats, Felix! you were the one! can I have your baby? — and carry on with this febrile exegesis.)

You could very well be a simiiveritudinist, but you may not know it. And if you still don’t know what this word is, well, then you haven’t been paying attention to all the phonies and the charlatans laboring at “art” who refuse to admit that they have no real understanding of the world they live in, much less an emotional relationship to it. It is quite possible that they may capable practitioners of verisimilitudinous art, but this intuitive connection may very well be dwarfed by academia’s rotten institutional walls.

For the similiveritudinist, life must not only reflect art. Art is the very life itself! The similiveritudinist gravitates to an artistic representation in lieu of a stunning natural moment. He may attend an artistic function, hoping that it will fill in certain ontological vacuities from not thinking about or otherwise ignoring the world. The similiveritudinists talk with others, but the conversational topics are limited mostly to art. My empirical state has revealed that similiveritudinists are found in greater frequency in New York than in San Francisco. Similiveritudinists may be socially maladjusted, apolitical, asexual, or otherwise fond of keeping their noggins lodged inconsolably in the sand. Understand that there is no set formula here aside from highly specialized chatter. They may create callow games like “Name That Author” and they may put up photos on their websites of otherwise pleasant individuals who appear more bored than a silo stacked with accountants on the eve of the apocalypse. They may spend all their time occupying movie theaters — and I have seen more than a few etiolated souls who live for the New York Film Festival’s darkness over the past few weeks — but they cannot confess that they have enjoyed something, nor can they be authentic, stand apart, or otherwise inhabit the variegated identity within. They may indeed be employed primarily as critics, lacking the heart, the soul, the tenacity, or the talent to make a strike for the creative mother lode. The pursuit of art is, in the similiveritudinist’s mind, always a serious business. The worst of the similiveritudinists will thumb their noses at genre, popular art, or anything sufficiently “lower.” (This works, incidentally, both ways.) They believe that art, serving here as a surrogate plasma, must always be high, and that anything that falls beneath these cherished standards should be disregarded. They have perhaps inured themselves to the pleasures of a commonplace flagrance or the joys of a small child laughing as a sun sets over the playground. Joie de vivre? Try joie de livre! The similiveritudinist’s vivre, scant as it may be, is likely to be the hell of other people.

If you’re thinking that my wild ruminations here emerge in response to Horace Engdahl’s remarks concerning the current state of American literature, well, your hunch is partially correct. Michael Orthofer, a gentleman and a scholar, has already exoriated Mr. Engdahl quite nicely (as well as Adam Kirsch’s equally myopic remarks, which are perhaps a tad more pardonable because Mr. Kirsch is now out of a job and must now consort with the rabble, surviving hand-to-mouth like any other cultural freelance writer; which can’t be easy, because I suspect that many of us live more frugally and enthusiastically, and certainly less similiveritudinously, than Mr. Kirsch). So my specific reaction to Mr. Engdahl’s words isn’t quite necessary. Mr. Orthofer has already gone to town here. But I suspect that Mr. Engdahl and I might share a few grave concerns over the similiveritudinists who have invaded American literature. The crux of his criticisms suggest very highly that he may be an asshole, but he is thankfully not a similiveritudinist.

To live for culture is not enough. Culture is no replacement for the real thing. It is a helpful prism with which to find and divine certain meanings, but it is only one great piece of the living puzzle. And Mr. Engdahl is quite right to suggest that certain literary clusters within the United States have become too isolated and too insular. Did Jonathan Franzen read any other emerging author aside from the tepid name he picked from his middlebrow hat when he was asked to name his 5 Under 35 choice? We’ll never know, but his choice, which discounts the dozens of emerging voices who currently write for life and passion, is clearly that of a similiveritudinist. Likewise, David Remnick has been foolish enough to suggest that none of our celebrated writers are “ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.” This is clearly the remark of a tony avocet too terrified to leave his golden perch. A casual saunter through any three city blocks reveals this ruddy symbol of the beast, the hellish mire of advertising that threatens to subsume all human moments. Has Remnick’s annual $1 million salary prevented him perhaps from, say, properly understanding what it is like to live under $30,000 a year? Or to work two jobs? Or to toil in the service sector?

If you do not know why you must tip a waiter in cash, but you can cite pitch-perfect passages from Milton, you are a similiveritudinist. If you do not know the price of a package of hamburger buns, but you’re not keeping track of how much you are blowing at Amazon, you are a similiveritudinist. If you have not skipped a meal so that another mouth can be fed, but you can describe the precise cordial to go along with a slice of pecan fig bourbon cake, you are a similiveritudinist.

Similiveritude represents everything that is wrong with American literature. Not all American literature falls under its terrible influence, and there are many literary advocates who understand its proper secondary place. To cure a similiveritudinist, you must ensure that this reader doesn’t just have a clue, but maintains an open and genuine curiosity about everything. To listen to a stranger because you are interested. To view the book as something that may be real in feeling but unreal in execution. To accept that something crazy, whether it be an elaborate series of footnotes or a moment of magical realism, is meant to happen in a book from time to time because the book is not real. More important than a critical scalpel hoping to be absolute in its appraisal is the idea of whether or not the book is applicable to the human heart, and whether or not this applicability feels intuitively true. From here, reasons and justifications can be loosened, with enough wiggle room to involve the reader.

Last month, Nigel Beale saw fit to tsk-tsk me because I had enjoyed a story involving an unhappy housewife having an affair with a 1,000-year-old woodpecker, and it had provoked an emotional reaction in me. It goes without saying that woodpeckers do not live this long and that most lonely housewives would settle for a Hitachi Magic Wand over a cuckolding canary. But the point here is that Mr. Beale, despite being a good egg, could not get beyond his own personal definitions of literature. And I fear that Mr. Beale might dip into the similiveritudinous deep end of the great literary pool because of his inability to (a) read the story to see what I’m talking about or (b) consider the story on its own terms, despite the unconventional sexuality presented. It is not a matter of Mr. Beale liking or disliking the story. That is his choice. But it is the instant dismissal of the story, and the dismissal of my reaction, that is the issue here. It would be no different if I were to dismiss a reader for, say, enjoying a James Patterson book. Now personally I loathe James Patterson’s work. But a reader has the right to have an informed reaction, even a positive one, and we have the obligation to listen to that reader’s reaction before chiming in with our own. Because there might be some intriguing personal reason for why someone prefers the story with the woodpecker or the James Patterson novel that represents a peculiar commitment to life.

Of course, abandoning similiveritude or listening to the other’s viewpoint doesn’t mean abandoning one’s artistic faculties. It merely means placing a particular way of living first: keeping an open mind and ensuring that the careful intake of culture remains a thorough but secondary occupation. What I am calling for here, quite optimistically, are more Renaissance men to inhabit a society in which there are no limits or barricades to one’s curiosity, a nation that counters charges of insularity with limitless interest, a country that can make Mr. Engdahl’s half-true claims utterly fallacious. It starts with the end of similiveritude. It continues with a series of upturned ears. It ends with an army of pro-active thinkers who value life first.

Newspaper Accountability

The Telegraph‘s Peter Robins has, to my great astonishment, followed up on my suggestion of asking book critics what they read for fun. Robins has queried his fellow staffers, even registering the response time and emotional reactions of his colleagues. This certainly sets a very important precedent, and I do hope that other newspapers follow Robins’s example. In the meantime, it seems a fine time to ask what you, dear readers, have read for fun these days. (For my own part, I have been wildly entertained by Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and have enjoyed revisiting a number of stories for a book I’m currently reviewing.)

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

Night at the Boxcar

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This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)

You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.

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Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.

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And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.

Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.

I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.