The Ginger Man (Modern Library #99)

(This is the second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Magnificent Ambersons)

I feel morally obliged to point out that I am hardly the only person attempting to read all of the Modern Library titles. When I first considered this project, I was completely unaware of Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue — despite being a fairly regular reader of The Millions (and trivial contributor). I was also pleasantly surprised to discover a blog called The Modern Library List of Books run by a mysterious Canadian woman named Devon S., who now lives in New York City (after a stint in Paris). Devon is also reading the Modern Library from #100 to #1, and is now at #87 after a little more than a year. I’d also be remiss to dismiss Rachael Reads. Rachael, like Lydia, is reading the Modern Library titles out of order. I smiled a long while over the Connecticut Museum Quest’s slower but very noble efforts to read three Modern Library books a year — which, by my math, works out to about 40 years for the 121 books. This seems to me a very sensible long-term commitment. Still, if you can’t read them all, you can always just take on the authors more reflective of 21st century enlightenment.

The Modern Library list has only been around for thirteen years. Yet already people are happy to share their reading adventures and their unanticipated epiphanies. Evelyn Waugh becomes a “bi-curious hipster boyfriend.” (I hope to respond to that intriguing proposition when I eventually hit #80, assuming hipsters — and Michael Cera’s career — still exist by the time I get to Brideshead.) Midnight’s Children reminds another of “the many Englishes in the world.”

For my own part, Sebastian Dangerfield, the wonderfully monstrous protagonist of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, recalled Johnny (Donleavy’s first name) in Mike Leigh’s Naked. In fact, in Leigh’s film, the sadistic landlord Jeremy G. Smart identifies himself as “Sebastian Hawk.” Apparently, I wasn’t alone in making this association. An interviewer named Gineen Cooper, writing for a literary magazine called The Pannus Index, even asked Donleavy if he had seen Leigh’s movie. (Donleavy hadn’t.) I don’t know if I buy Ms. Cooper’s theory of the “anarchic Dionysian rhetoric which underlines both characters’ personalities” — in part because ideology is the wrong method with which to consider both Johnny and Dangerfield. Also, in Dangerfield’s case, we are dealing with a character bifurcated on the page. (More on this in a bit.) For both characters, surely the behavior here is fascinating enough. But when Donleavy’s Sebastian said to his mate, “I’m twenty-seven years old and I feel like I’m sixty,” I couldn’t help thinking of Mike Leigh’s Johnny being misidentified as forty while stating his age as twenty-seven.

Irrespective of these parallels, The Ginger Man turned out to be a grand hoot — very aggressive and funny, certainly more interesting and stylistically daring than The Magnificent Ambersons in its exploration of youthful hubris. (And what is it with the Modern Library books and prickish protagonists so far? I certainly hope that the behavioral spectrum expands in the next several books!) The Ginger Man is the kind of novel you give to a finger-shaking dogmatist who insists that some modest behavioral infraction on your part, talked out through apologia and attentive listening, instantly transforms you into an asshole. Sebastian Dangerfield, like Humbert Humbert, is one of the great assholes of 20th century literature: he is charismatic, he somehow talks women into bed (but not all of them), he is tolerated by many despite his boorishness, and he is more than a bit sociopathic. Dangerfield carries the redolent stench of entitlement. Here is a young man purportedly studying law at Trinity College, one who has great responsibilities to his wife Marion and his kid. Yet he thinks nothing of plundering the last stash of cash and blowing it all on stout, much less taking up an affair with the very woman who sublets the room. And if that isn’t degenerate enough for you, Dangerfield leeches off his friends, even after his friends have become paupers:

I have discovered one of the great ailments of Ireland, 67% of the population have never been completely naked in their lives. Now don’t you, as a man of broad classical experience, find this a little strange and perhaps even a bit unhygienic. I think it is certainly both of those things. I am bound to say that this must cause a good deal of the passive agony one sees in the streets. There are other things wrong with this country but I must leave them wait for they are just developing in my mind.

That’s a portion from Dangerfield’s letter in response to his friend Kenneth O’Keefe, who has written to Dangerfield a few chapters earlier of his dire straits in France. O’Keefe is hungry “enough to eat dog,” rationing himself twelve peas for every meal, claiming impotence, and, most importantly, counting upon the money that Dangerfield promised he would pay him back. But Dangerfield would rather offer a foolish philosophy than own up to his responsibilities as both friend and debtor.

His truly unpardonable behavior even gets him into the newspapers (“His eyes were given as very wild,” reports the broadsheet, suggesting a descriptive shortsightedness from the witnesses, the reporter, the police, all of Ireland herself!), and yet this Ginger Man is strangely capable of getting away with much — defying the Irish Guard, flouting the drinking curfews, terrifying bartenders and train passengers, and even stringing naive young girls along and persuading them to spend their hard-earned cash on him.

Donleavy is quite clever in the way he invites the reader to figure out why Dangerfield is so loutish. Dangerfield never quite tells us what he wants. (In the letter I quoted above, we see the way that Dangerfield tries comparing his troubles to those of Ireland. First-class narcissism. But even this still doesn’t entirely answer the question of why he behaves this way.) When Dangerfield talks with a sketchy man named Percy Clocklan, Dangerfield asks him, “What would you like out of life, Percy?” Is the aimless Dangerfield merely passing the time? Is he tolerated because of this apparent flattery?

On the other hand, the book is working from a highly stylized interior monologue. Donleavy swaps between first-person and third-person — often in the same paragraph and very frequently in clipped sentences (the latter is almost a neutral mediator, a voice somewhere between Dangerfield and narrator):

Sebastian crawled naked through the morning room into the kitchen. Turned the key and scrabbling back to the morning room, waiting under the table. Through the mirror on the opposite wall he saw he saw the cap of the mailman pass by. I’ve got to see the postman. Get a blanket off Mrs. Frost’s bed.

That passage comes later in the book, when Dangerfield’s house (rented from a landlord named Egbert Skully) has fallen into slovenly disrepair and funds aren’t coming anytime soon. Which means, of course, that Dangerfield is on the run. His strategy is to carry on being a shit. The mirror imagery, omitting the reflection of our narcissistic hero, may suggest that one of Dangerfield’s main problems is a profound inability to see what he does. This self-delusion is further suggested by the way in which Dangerfield’s first-person interventions begins to take up a greater portion of the story as both the book (and Dangerfield’s life) carries on.

Yet for long stretches of the book, this ignoble beast evades nearly every punitive fate. How does a guy like Dangerfield get away with this crassitude? Another clue be found in Donleavy’s excellent dialogue (it’s hardly an accident that Donleavy had the chops to adapt this novel into a play), suggesting that our hero’s primary skill is the right combination of witty quips and backhanded compliments:

“My dear Chris, you do have a lovely pair of legs. Strong. You hide them.”

“My dear Sebastian, I do thank you. I’m not hiding them. Does that make men follow one?”

“It’s the hair that does that.”

“Not the legs?”

“The hair and the eyes.”

Dangerfield does get some form of comeuppance near the end (he lives for his inheritance, but he learns that his inheritance has been planned around the way he lives), yet within the safety of the novel, this titular Ginger Man, running from Dublin to London, can’t be caught. “You’re a terrible man, Sebastian,” says one character late in the novel. “Merry fraud,” replies Dangerfield, in a bit of wordplay directed to two serious victims (Marion, his wife; Mary, a girl he runs off with).

It’s worth pointing out that this was pretty hot stuff back in 1955, skirting the line between literary comedy and perceived obscenity. After The Ginger Man was rejected by nearly every major publisher, Maurice Girodias of The Olympia Press agreed to publish it. Unfortunately for Donleavy, Girodias published The Ginger Man as part of its Traveller’s Companion Series, listing it as a “special volume” with such titles as Richardson’s The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, Lengel’s White Thighs, Van Heller’s Rape, and Jones’s The Enormous Bed. The Ginger Man was published as pornography. This may seem tame in 2011, but in the mid-20th century, writers, often going by pen names, could be blacklisted or even arrested for such associations. It didn’t help that Girodias had expressly violated the terms that he and Donleavy had agreed to. As The Ginger Man garnered global renown, there were years of litigation and disputes over the rights. Eventually Girodias went bankrupt, giving Donleavy a chance to buy up the Olympia Press rights He found himself in a courtroom suing himself.

Donleavy, it turns out, is still alive. Last August, the Independent tracked him down — under the proviso that the newspaper would host a picnic and provide all the food and drink. He didn’t say much. In The History of The Ginger Man, Donleavy wrote about what his friend, the bestselling (and now largely forgotten) novelist Ernest Gebler, told him about what authors do when they get rich:

“Mike, they buy binoculars, shotguns, sports cars and fishing rods, and a big estate to use them on. And then outfitted in their new life, along with new bathrooms, wallpaper and brands of soap, they make a fatal mistake and change their women. To schemingly get toasted and roasted on glowing hot emotional coals, and subjected to a whole new set of tricks and treacheries. Which leaves that author spiritually disillusioned and minus his favorite household implements.”

Donleavy, who has seen 45 million copies of The Ginger Man sold (the book has never gone out of print), still lives cheaply despite his success. He seems to have followed Gebler’s advice.

Next up: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice!

The Bat Segundo Show: Gregg Araki

Gregg Araki appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #377. Mr. Araki is most recently the writer and director of Kaboom, which opens today in theaters.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Staring at the canvas from a low angle.

Guest: Gregg Araki

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Gregg, how are you doing?

Araki: (with some irony) I am doing fantastic.

Correspondent: End of the day. Uh, no visuals. But anyway…

Araki: In other words, “you don’t look fantastic.”

Correspondent: You do look fantastic! You look like…

Araki: Can we say “shit” on this?

Correspondent: You can. You can say “shit.” We can talk Totally Fucked Up. Whatever you want.

Araki: Okay. Good. Yeah, I look like shit.

Correspondent: You have exacting standards. I wanted to talk about your aesthetic. I noticed that over the course of twenty years, the camera’s position has actually grown. It started off as being very much on the floor.

Araki: (laughs)

Correspondent: Very on the ground. You would see giant billboards. Chevron gas stations. And as we’ve seen you evolve as a filmmaker, we’ve seen the camera actually rise up from the ground.

Araki: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about how this aesthetic built.

Araki: In this film [Kaboom], there’s that crazy crane shot.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Araki: Interesting. That’s an interesting metaphor for my filmmaking style. It’s gone from underground to above ground.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Well, actually, roughly, the camera’s waist-high.

Araki: Yeah, I used to use a lot of what’s called a hi-hat. It’s just a plank of wood with a tripod head. And I was concentrating on the hi-hat a lot.

Correspondent: Was this more your way to look distinct? Because you had pretty much nothing but a hi-hat?

Araki: I think it was also just aesthetically appealing to me. And I think it’s partly — you know, my movies are about these characters who are in this vast, hostile universe. And I think that you get that — particularly with a wide angle, a wide low shot, you get a sense of this universe being this vast and dangerous place. I think that sense of space comes a lot from that angle. You get a sense of that openness.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about space. I was mentioning the Chevron gas station. And we see, for example, the Vermeer in Mysterious Skin. In this movie, at the cafe, there’s the big space in the back where we see WELCOME TO THE ONTOLOGICAL VOID. I’m curious as to how this also developed. This large widescreen environment for characters to often walk into and go ahead and bitch and moan.

Araki: You brought up many interesting things that will be in dissertations done on my movies after I’m dead, I’m guess.

Correspondent: Ah.

Araki: Because a lot of my movies — particularly the early, early ones, the black-and-white, the two ones that were before The Doom Generation — is frequently characters walking at night against these phantasmagorical backdrops of Los Angeles landscape. Usually talking about the meaningless of existence. And it’s something that’s been in a lot of my movies. There is still that sense, even in Kaboom. There’s a shot in particular that’s very, very similar to one of those shots. Because I remember we were on the hi-hat. The shot where Smith is being chased by the animal men, and he runs into that crazy weird stairwell that’s almost something out of a nightmare. That shot is very reminiscent of those shots. Because it’s also so much about the location and its natural light. It’s this weird lit-up stairwell, but the DP did light it. Most of the stuff is actually from the structure itself.

The Bat Segundo Show #377: Gregg Araki (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Misha Angrist

Misha Angrist appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #376. He is the tenth person to participate in the Personal Genome Project and is most recently the author of Here is a Human Being.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering how sequencing relates to funking people up.

Author: Misha Angrist

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: What’s most curious about this book is that it seems to be very much about mapping your own neuroses as much as your own genome. It’s almost as if your quest to understand the implications of the PGP has led you to understand the implications of the implications of your own particular attitude. For instance, you write that you and your wife had a rough patch. There’s the point where you declare that Loudon Wainwright’s “Therapy” as your theme song, which was astonishing to me. You attempt to interview James Watson and you have this $83 paperback that you purchase, but you don’t actually get the interview. Which made me feel for you, I must say. And the sly suggestion here, I think, is that self-reflection may very well be just as important as understanding the genome. So what of this? Why did this strategy go into writing this book?

Angrist: Well, I think to call it a strategy is very generous of you. You know, I wanted it to be a first-person personal narrative that was going to be about personal genomics. I started graduate school in 1988. And I finished my postdoc in 1998, and went on to cover the biotech industry and market research in a fairly miserable job. And I should say that Ed’s Rants and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind were great friends to me during those years in the desert.

Correspondent: Wow! You make us seem like we’re palm trees or something.

Angrist: (laughs) You’re a lot more interesting.

Correspondent: Than a palm tree?

Angrist: Yes.

Correspondent: But we’re talking about you.

Angrist: But you gave me succor.

Correspondent: We’re talking about you and your self-reflection. I only just met you now. I just want to be clear on this.

Angrist: Yes. But it doesn’t feel that way. To me, anyway. You may want to pretend that we never met. So then I got a job as a science editor and I continued to watch the field grow and change. And so I had many years of stuff that built up inside me that I felt I needed to say. So I think that’s one thing. Another thing is when I read George Church’s article in Scientific American in 2006, it was a real lightbulb moment. And I felt like here was a guy who was articulating things that I felt for a long time, but didn’t know I felt them. And so that sort of brought me clarity. And then finally — and I alluded to this a moment ago — so many science books that are intended for popular audiences are just awful. So many trees have given their lives so that people with the best intentions wind up writing cheerleading, didactic, anti-cheerleading…

Correspondent: Polemical. Let’s not forget that.

Angrist: I’m sorry?

Correspondent: Polemical books as well.

Angrist: Yes. Right. Screeds.

Correspondent: Rants.

Angrist: Yes, rants. I mean, those are just shameful.

Correspondent: Yeah, absolutely. Expatiations.

Angrist: (laughs) So I wanted a book that had real people in it.

Correspondent: And looking in the mirror, you saw a real person.

Angrist: Well, I saw something.

Correspondent: You saw someone who was worth sacrificing trees?

Angrist: I saw something that I knew something about. I was on a panel with Annie Murphy Paul. And someone asked her, “How did you make the decision to put yourself in your book?” And she said, “Well, I happen to have access to my own thoughts and feelings.”

Correspondent: Not always mapped on a genome.

Angrist: That’s right.

Correspondent: So you’re getting the stuff that isn’t mapped. And mapping that. That was the suggestion with my question.

Angrist: Well, I think people who glance at the book probably look at it or assume that it’s this deterministic thing. And I wanted to be very clear that that’s not where I was coming from. On the other hand, I’m not interested in making the case that it’s useless. I simply wanted to take a picture of where we are now and where we might be headed and what some of the contingencies are.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. To what degree does having access to your genomic data altered your notions of privacy? I mean, this is a very confessional book.

Angrist: Yes.

Correspondent: As I said, that’s kind of why I felt the need to give you a hug right before you sat down. Because I very much worried about you during the course of reading this book. I worried that you would slip further, the more you discovered about yourself through the genome. I’m curious if your neuroses deepened as you accessed more information. Similar to this dilemma of: Well, here we have all this genomic data and we can’t map it all. Because there’s just a shitload of it.

Angrist: Right. I would say that my neuroses had relatively little to do — I’m sorry. Let me rephrase that.

Correspondent: Little to do? I was going to call you on that. (laughs)

Angrist: I would say that my genome had relatively little to do with my psychic ups and downs. And my therapist at one point tried to gently make the case that the whole book was sort of an exercise in acting out and I don’t know.

Correspondent: You required a therapist to complete the book?

Angrist: Expiation. Uh, I required a therapist. Period. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Did your genome require a therapist?

Angrist: Well, probably everyone’s does. But of course, everyone’s doesn’t. I mean, this is one of the things that, being among the first, is. You know, you sit down at a computer and you look at an Excel file full of broken genes. And you think, “You know, I should be dead fifty times over.” But of course that’s a reflection of how little we know and what a redundant system we are.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to try and make things a little bit more pithy and important with my next question.

The Bat Segundo Show #376: Misha Angrist (Download MP3)

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Jane McGonigal’s Mind is Broken

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, landing with a Gladwellian thud of wily reductionism and indolent thinking, is the most irresponsible nonfiction book I am likely to read this year. This remarkably callow book, professing to be new in approach but merely retreading exhausted notions, offers the shaky premise that, because reality is difficult, video games exist to pick up the slack. Perhaps a foolish belief in games as magic beans for a hypothetical beanstalk (McGonigal is curiously obsessed with enormity throughout her book) is similar to a foolish belief in alien abduction, Scientology, fundamentalist religion, vaccines triggering autism, or the Loch Ness Monster. That’s really the only conclusion I can draw. Because McGonigal cannot make the case that a weekend of Halo 3 is any more purposeful than a weekend in Cabo San Lucas drinking margaritas and banging the brainless.

In the McGonigalian view, failure has to be “fun” and embarrassment needs to be “happy.” Fiero, an Italian adjective for being proud that was used as an epithet by Petrarch, is “the most primal rush we can experience” and, paragraphs later, “one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.” And if we can get our loved ones playing a virtual game called Chore Wars (instead of simply being adult and doing our housework), “our friends and family will define fiero moments for us every day.” Hang on a minute. Is it altogether healthy to forge relationships around inherent smugness? Isn’t this a bit Ayn Randian? Or, dare I say it, Riefenstahlian? “Through my optimism,” once said Leni Riefenstahl, “I naturally prefer and capture the beauty of life.”

In McGonigal’s world, one cannot simply go for a run. One needs to have an obnoxious Nike+ mini avatar (Nike’s answer to Clippy?) accompanying the exercise — a cuddly animated little bastard who smiles and trash talks for “vicarious reinforcement.” Except that vicarious reinforcement, popularized by a Canadian shrink named Albert Bandura, involves learning about behavioral consequences by observing other people (that would be those flesh-and-blood, carbon-based life forms called humans: your friends, family, enticing strangers, and so forth, all decidedly not computer-animated and all decidedly not a narcissistic reproduction of you). McGonigal’s elastic application fails to explain why a virtual creature sponsored by a multibillion dollar corporation interested in getting people running (and thus buying more shoes) is better at conveying behavioral consequences than flesh-and-blood friends (who like to run, generally out of an interest that has little to do with money). And I can guarantee McGonigal that a childish avatar isn’t going to make me run anytime soon. I do walk (ideally) five miles a day, three times a week. And it’s because I enjoy being attuned with the very reality that McGonigal claims is broken. The people you stop and talk with, the sights you observe, the friends you walk with. And so forth.

Different people have different approaches. One would think that McGonigal, having a PhD, would understand this basic truism. But then McGonigal, a New Geek type who wishes to cram her unlived perspective down our throats, really doesn’t grasp psychology very well. She quotes Maslow without comprehension and then writes, “Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.” But what McGonigal missed in Motivation was Maslow’s assurance that those who are self-actualized have “an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and, in general, to judge people correctly and efficiency” and that this efficiency in relation to reality “extended to many other areas in life.” Presumably, that would include video games. In other words, Maslow urged us not to put the cart before the horse, whereas McGonigal sees the video game as a crass cure-all.

These are only just a few indications that Reality is Broken is nothing less than the product of a consummate quack. Consider the book’s numerous “Fix” insets, offering “helpful” summaries of how we can fix the “broken” reality around us. These seem more designed for a self-help audience than anything even half-approaching scholarship:

FIX #6: EPIC SCALE — Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.

I’m not sure what kind of drug experience McGonigal has had, but swap “games” for “mescaline” and you start to see the problem.

McGonigal uses the word “addictive” as a positive modifier. “What makes Tetris so addictive,” McGonigal writes, “is the intensity of the feedback it provides.” Wait a minute. Isn’t intensity a problem if we’re trying to contend with a mad influx of feedback? Later in the book: “By providing a goal-oriented, feedback-rich, obstacle-intensive environment for dancing, [Top Secret Dance Off, McGonigal’s project] makes dancing more motivating, fun, and addictive.” There’s a variation of “intense” and “feedback” again. Still, no clear answers on the “addictive” question. And isn’t it a bit self-serving and highly disingenuous to write in general marketing terms about your own game project? “Of course, we’ve also developed many external shortcuts to triggering our hardwired happiness systems: addictive drugs and alcohol….But none of these methods are sustainable or effective in the long term.” Wait a minute! If you’re applying “addictive” to something that isn’t sustainable, then is it safe to say that video games might prove just as unsustainable or ineffectual in the long term?

McGonigal can complain about the “moral debates over the addictive quality of games” all she wants (and, as a gamer who severely limits his gaming time precisely because of these addictive qualities, I’m likely to be on her side on this point), but if she doesn’t possess the smarts or the courage to be transparent about the medium’s more harmful aspects, then her mind is clearly broken and her book contributes nothing to a meaningful debate on whether or not video games are art, whether or not video games have real-world applications, and so forth.

Just how roseate is McGonigal? Rather tellingly, you won’t find “addiction,” “psychological disorder,” “failure,” “violence,” “aggression,” or “binge gaming” listed in the index. (You won’t find “emotion” either, but you will find “emotional activation.” Such is the programmer’s disease.) McGonigal is too much of a terrified doe to confront the very reality she wishes to condemn. That reality, for those who haven’t been paying attention (presumably McGonigal included) involves a Korean couple who proved so irresponsible that they let their child die while they played World of Warcraft. Or how about the South Korean teen who died from exhaustion after a twelve hour gaming binge? What about the mother who shook her three-month-old son to death because he had the temerity to interrupt a game of Farmville? Video games didn’t kill these children, but they certainly contributed. Given such stories, it is intellectually irresponsible for McGonigal to stick with the California sunshine that video games are a foolproof cure for the mind. I like raisins, but I wouldn’t be arrogant or foolish enough to suggest that everybody can find peace and harmony and “fiero” (“Boo yah, motherfucker, how you like me now! I ate me some raisins!”) by eating raisins. McGonigal’s myopic view is particularly troubling, since her book comes not long after Tom Bissell showed us the other side of the token in Game Over, writing bravely about his deadly cocaine-fueled descent into Grand Theft Auto IV.

“What the world needs now are more epic wins,” writes McGonigal in typical Pollyanna mode, “opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary things — like change or save someone’s life — every day.” By nearly every philosophical standard, this statement is laughable. A Grand Theft Auto IV player may very well find pride in biking up the highest virtual mountain from the city (as McGonigal cites). While this alleviates boredom and occupies time, is this really comparable with saving a person’s life? McGonigal brings up Joe Edelman’s Groundcrew, which McGonigal describes as “a wish panel for real people.” But in an interview with McGonigal, Edelman reveals that this represents little more than entitlement and narcissistic wish fulfillment:

A woman was at a dance rehearsal in a basement somewhere in Boston. She was completely exhausted, she couldn’t leave rehearsal, and she was dying for a latte so she could keep dancing. That’s the wish she posted on Groundcrew: “Help, I need a latte.”

Note the laughably hyperbolic language Edelman uses here. “Completely exhausted” instead of “tired.” “Dying” instead of “wanting.” “A latte so she could keep dancing.” Ever hear of water? Any real thinker would cut through this redolent nonsense, or at least question it. Then there’s the preposterous petit-bourgeoisie “help” — a word that I usually associate with someone in the process of being mugged or in need of spare change — that springs from these desires. And, Edelman continues, when some guy in Boston orders the latte, he walks into the basement and declares, “I have a latte!” “as if it were the most important thing in the world.”

McGonigal concedes, “Okay, so getting someone a latte isn’t exactly the most world-changing effort you could make,” before offering the one-sentence paragraph: “Or is it?” One rapidly understands that McGonigal, like a common newspaper hack about to be cut loose by the last editor willing to understand her, is trying to cram quotes into her thesis, rather than letting a thesis emerge naturally from her results.

“The normal way of getting a latte is a cold, economic exchange,” continues Edelman. “But this latte was different. This latte was love. This is about inventing a different way, a better way, of getting what we need, every day.”

The beer I had last night was lust. And the morning coffee is redemption. Please. Instead of challenging this statement (which reads more like marketing copy), or getting Edelman to expand upon what he means, McGonigal closes this section of the chapter. The latte, in McGonigal’s words, “perfectly represents the new kind of epic win.”

“Epic” is another modifier that McGonigal likes a great deal. She’s fond of bringing up meaningless achievements, such as the fact that, on April 2009, Halo 3 players scored 10 billion kills against the Covenant. “Ten billion kills wasn’t an incidental achievement, stumbled onto blindly by the gaming masses,” writes McGonigal. “Halo players made a concerted effort to get there.” You may as well jump up and down over the 30,000 Americans who killed themselves last year. Weren’t their suicides also “a concerted effort to get there?” Should we celebrate the fact that several trillion cigarette butts litter the streets worldwide every year? Simply the pollution is worthwhile because of its “epic” results. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. And on the subject of Halo, McGonigal also praises the Halo Museum of Humanity — a startlingly convincing shrine that provides “epic context for heroic action.” What McGonigal calls “epic context,” I call “slick marketing.” And I’ll even go further. Soviet propaganda posters certainly carry an allure, but we also know that the distinctive style was calculated to get citizens to believe in bad things.

McGonigal’s stunning lack of vision stretches into a soul-sucking need for constant self-affirmation:

Giving talks is exhausting, even when I enjoy it, I explained. It would be energizing to see some +1s pop up right on top of my Powerpoint slides as I worked my way through the deck.

There it is again: the word “exhausting” used in relation to a privileged life. You know what’s exhausting? Digging ditches for eight hours. Delivering UPS packages in a blizzard without a break. But let’s cut Calamity Jane a little slack. Positive reinforcement is certainly a good thing. But what McGonigal seems to be asking for here is nothing but positive reinforcement. After telling a SXSW crowd about desiring a “plus-one intellect for every smart thing I said during this talk,” she is flooded with emails. Some guy named Clay Johnson creates But of course, there’s no way to cap the praise or even offer a self-correcting -1. And what we end up having is a delusional McGonigal: “So far, I’m up to +25 innovation, because I asked my colleagues to plusoneme when I do something innovative at work.” Which leads one to ask why McGonigal requires all this cheerleading, or whether the +1s might actually be interfering with innovation. After all, doesn’t innovation sometimes come from presenting unpopular ideas? Doesn’t innovation sometimes come from challenging the status quo? Indeed, might not some personal discovery emerge by confronting reality and using it to enrich one’s life? The timorous McGonigal resorts to her precious little toys to find a “better” life.

“In the end, what makes a Foursquare social life better than your regular social life is the simple fact that to do well in Foursquare, you have to enjoy yourself more.” Note the assumption that living through Foursquare is better before the fact! The user just has to enjoy herself! McGonigal hasn’t considered privacy, much less how one’s appreciation and approach might change if one is angling to become the mayor of some dive bar. And her overbearing suppositions — which are the apotheosis of geek douchery — stand in sharp contrast to the dérive‘s possibilities:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there….the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.

That “calculation of their possibilities” doesn’t involve technology at all. It’s the noggin taking in details and finding a magical way to take in the seemingly commonplace. But now Guy Debord’s “abundant data” is tabulated through Foursquare. The metrics Foursquare tabulates is “just data, a way to quantify what you’re already doing. What really makes Foursquare engaging is the challenge and reward system built around the data.” In other words, McGonigal leaves nothing to non-objective, non-metric possibility. The machine takes care of everything and it computes data around a highly limited social construct.

In order to turn a group of strangers into a community, you have to follow two basic steps: first, cultivate a shared interest among strangers and, second, give them the opportunity and means to interact with each other around that interest.

Aside from the fact that one doesn’t need a video game to create this type of needlessly limited community (why should people “interact”around a singular interest?), this is a troubling Kinsey-like approach to socialization. As anyone who has ever attended a science fiction convention knows, a common interest doesn’t necessarily ensure a lasting social bond. But don’t tell that to McGonigal, who confuses this grouping with communitas, “a powerful sense of togetherness, solidarity, and social connection. And it protects against loneliness and alienation.” Let’s see how well communitas worked out during the Blessed Sacrament procession, courtesy of Michael J. Sallnow’s Contesting the Sacred:

During the Blessing Sacrament procession, therefore, space becomes highly contested, as Hospitallers and pilgrims jockey for position. Since the brancardiers are heavily outnumbered, they rely on persuasion and their official status to defend the space which has been marked out by their senior officials. As the ceremony approaches its climax, the boundary between sick and healthy pilgrims becomes ever more difficult to maintain, as the faithful press forward to catch sight of the Host and of the clergy following the priest conferring the blessing. Such moments of intense religious fervour dramatically illustrate the uneasy co-existence of communitas and status, of solidarity and self-interest, which is so characteristic of the cult as a whole.

There’s a tremendous difference between buying a homeless man a meal (a tangible and immediate reward) and playing Free Rice — a game whereby the user answers questions (a virtual and unseen reward), with the promise of rice being delivered to a starving nation. I bring this up because, with Free Rice, McGonigal is willing to concede that “the grains are rice aren’t coming from the players — they’re coming from a small number of advertisers who agree to pay the cost of ten grains of bulk rice for every correct-answer page view.” Had McGonigal applied this rightfully skeptical eye towards games that are created with similar free market goals, then her book might have become an invaluable investigation on how games can extend beyond their present capitalistic concerns.

Jane McGonigal’s mind is broken. She is no more concerned with an honest approach to social change than a sleazy salesman who hopes you will buy his Ford Lariat. The Lariat will only get you ten miles to the gallon, but the salesman assures you that the experience is epic and will leave you with a feeling of fiero — unlike the Pontiac model.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted a link to this essay to Twitter, Jane McGonigal responded (in a now deleted tweet) as follows.

I reiterate my tweet. I will happily challenge Ms. McGonigal to a public debate about her book. And because I’m so sad, I also welcome Ms. McGonigal’s lengthy refutation of my points — that is, if she has the guts or the chops.

UPDATE 2: To provide yet another example on how McGonigal’s idealism gets in the way of comprehending the available data, one can look no further than a recent “debate” in the Wall Street Journal. On January 25, 2011, McGonigal cited a recent Pediatrics study, claiming:

The study, conducted by the National Institute of Education in Singapore, found that gamers who played on average 30 hours a week or more were more likely to experience negative real-life impacts from their gaming, such as increased social anxiety or decreased school performance. But for gamers playing 20 or fewer hours a week, no such problems occurred. Once again, these results suggest that there is a fairly clear distinction between gaming enough to fuel our real lives and gaming so much that it interferes with real life.

But if one reads the PDF, one finds something altogether different:

Most researchers have assumed that would be similar to pathological gambling. The parallel seems justifiable, because both are assumed to be behavioral addictions that begin as entertainment that can stimulate emotional responses and dopamine release. People gamble or play video games for many reasons, including relaxation, competence, autonomy, and escape from daily concerns. Playing can produce “flow” states, in which the player is focused, has a sense of control, may lose a sense of time and place, and finds playing intrinsically rewarding. Playing is not pathologically initially but becomes pathological for some individuals when the activity becomes dysfunctional, harming the individual’s social, occupational, family, school, occupational, family, school, and psychological functioning.(Emphasis added.)

The study rightfully points out that its purpose is not to answer this debate, but “to provide new data that may be useful.” And the purpose of this essay is to point out that, if McGonigal were a responsible or a flexible thinker, she would take greater care with a word like “addiction” and address the scientific fact that pathological behavior emerges from video games (about 9% of gamers are pathological, according to the Pediatrics study), while simultaneously pointing to the benefits. A nuanced and adult approach offers a fairly clear distinction between a self-help huckster and a genuine thinker.

The Bat Segundo Show: Paula Bomer

Paula Bomer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375. She is most recently the author of Baby.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering whether producers will declare him a “bad radio show host” for thinking terrible things.

Author: Paula Bomer

Subjects Discussed: Prethinking a story involving an uncomfortable situation, whether smashing a baby against a brick wall constitutes shock value, Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, the stigma on maternal neglect, Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, whether or not “mother” means good, differing childhoods in South Bend, Indiana, the Catholic idea of whether or not we are our thoughts, guilt and bad thoughts, the paragraph structure of “The Mother of His Children”, plot vs. consciousness, going places you’re not supposed to go, trying to keep terrible thoughts within a character’s head, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, implicating husbands, the relationship to thought and action, Mary Gaitskill’s “The Girl on the Plane,” potshots toward the rich, Jean Rhys as a main inspiration, characters as writers, Nathan Zuckerman, Bomer’s secret novels, writers who write about painters instead of writers but who really wish to write about writers, editors who have accused Ms. Bomer of being a “bad mother” to her face, agents who have declared Ms. Bomer of being offensive, brutal rejections, whether or not offending people matters, attempts to not go to the uncomfortable, Scott Smith, horror writers being nice people, the autobiographical qualities of “The Second Son,” trust and crushing emotion, Iris Owens’s After Claude, Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, brutal birth scenes, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, sexual frustration, and perverse imagery.


Correspondent: You have this extraordinary moment where a mother wishes to smash her baby against a brick wall. I’m wondering to what extent you prethink a situation where you’re writing about an uncomfortable situation. Is there an inherent risk to some degree in exploring what might be argued as “shock value” behavior? How do these things come into your head? (laugh)

Bomer: Well, I had a lot of fun writing that story [“Baby”]. I think it’s one of the funnier ones. And that one was basically pure satire. But there’s also, like any good satire, there’s elements of truth and real emotion as well. And actually a lot of women have written about that exact same feeling in nonfiction books. So that was a bit of the inspiration. Anne Lamott wrote a book called Operating Instructions and Louise Erdrich wrote a book called The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. And both of them discuss in nonfiction wanting to smack the baby or hit the baby, and having this real incredible moment of frustration. So it had been done before. But I think in the context of “Baby,” the title story, it’s not this lovely nonfiction book with nuances of other emotion. She’s not a very likable person. And so I think that giving her those thoughts make it even harder to take. Because she’s not very sympathetic.

Correspondent: Well, there’s certainly a stigma upon any kind of thought of neglect. Ayelet Waldman got into a lot of trouble with Bad Mother.

Bomer: Oh right!

Correspondent: “I would rather be with my husband than my children.” That kind of thing.

Bomer: Well, you know, when I — this was fifteen years ago; I have teenagers now. But still I remember. The pressure to be — there’s this strange idea that “mother” means “good.” And actually mother just means that you had a kid. And lots of people have kids. And it doesn’t automatically make you a good person.

Correspondent: The Manson Family!

Bomer: Yeah, right. (laughs) I was in the trenches of the playground and I was hoping that this was a time for people to be loving and supportive of each other. Because it’s an incredibly difficult time. You’re not sleeping. Your life has changed. So on and so forth. You have this incredible responsibility that gets sick a lot and cries. And yet in the playground, it was more like high school all over again. It was just really hard to find people who wanted to be understanding instead of pick at your weaknesses. And that might be a New York thing. I said in my Publishers Weekly interview. I’m from South Bend, Indiana and it’s a different childhood. And it’s a different way. New York. New Yorkers — sometimes, they just can’t turn it off. It’s always got to be like some competition. And even motherhood — like I said, I think it’s a corruption of a difficult but beautiful experience.

Correspondent: But not just motherhood. What constitutes abuse? Does a thought constitute abuse? Does a homicidal consideration of your born child constitute abuse?

Bomer: That’s funny. Because Giancarlo DiTrapano asked me something similar to that. And that’s a Catholic idea. That we are our thoughts. And I don’t think we are our thoughts. All sorts of things go through your head. And we are our behavior. So having a bad thought can make you feel terribly guilty. But I don’t think it makes you a bad person. Why I think that character is bad isn’t because she has a tough moment with her baby, but it’s because she’s so shallow. It’s a satirical Upper East Side mom. Even though I think she moved to Tribeca. Everything’s about one-upping someone else. Even having kids becomes a part of it.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned whether a thought translates into an action. Because there is something very interesting you do in these stories. I want to point to two of them. In “The Mother of His Children,” the second paragraph could almost be the first paragraph the way it’s written when it describes Ted Stanton. But then you have the first paragraph, which is very consciousness-heavy, and that really is the story. And that is the motivation for it. You do something similar with “A Galloping Infection” where the first paragraph reads as if it’s the beginning of a noir story. With the wife’s body dragged out of the two bedroom house. And then you have the second paragraph that begins with the sentence, “He no longer would have to disappoint her.” My question is how you arrived at this bifurcation between plot and consciousness. It’s almost as if you’re suggesting with these stories that narrative can’t always capture these more unpleasant and seamy sides of consciousness.

Bomer: You mean narrative can’t capture it. You mean, the plot?

Correspondent: The plot. Yes.

Bomer: I like getting inside the heads of my characters. It’s not the only way to write. Okay, “Galloping Infection,” in particular, the man’s in shock. Because his wife dies. And I think anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one — even though he also discusses his lack of love for her because relationships are complicated — but I kind of wanted to capture that shock. And so I think you really need to get inside someone’s head. Because the things that go through your head when someone dies — it’s funny. Some of the darker stories, I had a lot of fun writing. Like there’s another story about marital rape. “She Was Everything to Him,” which originally appeared in Fiction. And it’s not a funny story. Some of the stories are funny. But this one is not. And yet I was giggling the whole time I was writing it. Because I knew that I was doing something subversive. And it was fun. For me, it’s fun to go places where I’m not supposed to go. I’m too old and I don’t want to be a rebellious teenager anymore. So I get to be really wrong in my work. And it’s wonderful fun for me.

Correspondent: Wrong? I’m wondering…

Bomer: Bad. How’s that?

The Bat Segundo Show #375: Paula Bomer (Download MP3)

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The Magnificent Ambersons (Modern Library #100)

(This is the first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1.)

By all reports, Booth Tarkington was hot shit sometime in the early 20th century. It is quite possible that he was the kind of man who entered a room and announced with his very presence: “Do you know who I am?” How do we know this? Well, he won the Pulitzer Prize twice (for Ambersons and Alice Adams). He had family members who were politicians (his uncle, Newton Booth, was the eleventh Governor of California and a United States Senator) and Tarkington himself was elected to the Indiana State Legislature.

I have consulted a hagiography written by someone named Robert Cortes Holliday, a “biographer” who appears to be just as dead as Tarkington. Holliday informs us that Tarkington was very precocious as a child: “His oddities, one gathers, were even more odd than is usual with odd children.” Which begs the question of what “even more odd than is usual” meant in 1873. Did it mean that Tarkington was a pyromaniac? A toddler who tortured ants through a burning-glass? I shall leave these questions to the scholars. What’s particularly strange about this description is that Holliday, apparently grabbing direct quotes from the mack daddy himself, claims that Tarkington was “not precocious at all” after the age of four. Since most of us don’t really remember much before the age of three, there remains the vital question of whether Tarkington was the right man to remark upon his own precocity. A critic named Eleanor Booth Simmons (a Booth related to Booth Tarkington?) has this to say in the now forgotten periodical The Bookman: “Mr. Tarkington has that peculiar artistic sensitiveness which leads him, whether consciously or unconsciously, to meet each new subject with a new and subtle and fitting change of mood.”

All this talk of precocity and artistic sensitiveness led me quite naturally to Orson Welles. I must confess that before reading this book, I had not read Booth Tarkington before. I had obtained an ancient hardcover edition of Seventeen (with an impressive green cover!) at an estate sale, but hadn’t bothered to dig in. I had only been familiar with Orson Welles’s film version of The Magnificent Ambersons and, perhaps more prominently, the sad story behind it. RKO sent Orson Welles off to Brazil to work on another project. Since Welles relinquished his right to final cut, RKO took the opportunity to sandbag him, reshooting Welles’s ending to make it happier and removing about 40 minutes of material.

But I doubt very highly that the man who directed the Voodoo Macbeth (or RKO, for that matter) would have allowed any of those 40 minutes to mimic the remarkable racism contained within the novel:

“A cheerful darkey went by the house, loudly and tunelessly whistling some broken thoughts upon women, fried food and gin.”

Can Tarkington’s oddness and precocity before the age of four excuse such an ugly description? Probably not. There are some good reasons why Tarkington’s novels aren’t so easy to find. And in light of the present NewSouth scrubbing of “nigger” from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s important to remember that there were novelists like Tarkington who were much worse. The above description is hardly the least of Tarkington’s sins. Consider Ambersons‘s many “comedic” moments involving George Minafer’s servants.

George swore, and then swore again at the fat old darkey, Tom, for giggling at his swearing.

“Hoopee!” said old Tom. “Mus’ been some white lady use Mist’ Jawge mighty bad! White lady say, ‘No, suh, I ain’ go’n out ridin’ ‘ith Mist’ Jawge no mo’!’ Mist’ Jawge drive in. ‘Dam de dam worl’! Dam de dam hoss! Dam de dam nigga’! Dam de dam dam!’ Hoopee!”

Elsewhere in the novel, there’s “Old Sam,” who seems to share the same physical qualities and racist stereotyping as Tom. This leads me to wonder if Tarkington was so racist (precocious?) that he couldn’t even remember whether his servant was named Tom or Sam:

Old Sam, shuffling in with the breakfast tray, found the Major in his accustomed easy-chair by the fireplace—and yet even the old darkey could see instantly that the Major was not there.

It appeared that my initial foray into the Modern Library Reading Challenge was off to an inauspicious start. Particularly since none of this racism contributed much to the story.

Yet the novel gripped me. In much the same way that the equally racist D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation (released three years before the publication of Ambersons), had gripped me. George Amberson Minafer, the rich and spoiled young man foolish and inexperienced enough to believe that his family legacy will live on forever, is entertaining because his despicable nature is so widely tolerated. At the age of nine, Tarkington describes young Minafer as “a princely terror.” At the age of ten, Georgie tells a reverend to “go to hell.” Georgie is part Little Lord Fauntleroy, part Julian English. He’s hardly innocent of such boorish behavior. “Lawyers, bankers, politicians!” Georgie says early in the book, “What do they get out of life. I’d like to know! What do they ever know about real things? Where do they ever get?”

Georgie’s not entirely off-base with this hubris. As we see later in the novel, being on top of the emerging trends (namely the automobile) is the only way to make some serious money. The problem here is that Georgie wishes to assume a privileged life as a yachtsman rather than use his status to innovate or profit. So it’s quite hard for us to elicit much sympathy. Still, part of the novel’s fun comes from trying to understand why George’s douchery would be so wildly tolerated.

And, oh, dearest woman in the world, I know what your son is to you, and it frightens me! Let me explain a little: I don’t think he’ll change — at twenty-one or twenty-two so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which forty sees are nothing but disappearing miasma. Forty can’t tell twenty about this; that’s the pity of it! Twenty can find out only by getting to be forty. And so we come to this, dear: Will you live your own life your way, or George’s way? I’m going a little further, because it would be fatal not to be wholly frank now. George will act toward you only as your long worship of him, your sacrifices — all the unseen little ones every day since he was born — will make him act. Dear, it breaks my heart for you, but what you have to oppose now is the history of your own selfless and perfect motherhood.

These sentiments (written in a letter) come from Eugene Morgan, the man who is meant to be with George’s mother, Isabel. Isabel feels utterly compelled to mother the hell out of Georgie. And, of course, George is naturally distrustful of Eugene — in part because he’s confused about Eugene’s daughter, Lucy Morgan, whom he doesn’t quite have the stomach to accept. (There are several embarrassing points throughout the book where George is reduced to stuttering. Even George’s proposal is cringe-worthy: “Lucy, I want — I want to ask you. Will you — will you — will you be engaged to me?”) Tarkington is smart enough to give us a few clues about why Isabel is so protective of her son. Back in the day, Isabel had a choice between two husbands: one who accidentally busted up a bass viol (Eugene) and the other who proved too safe and sane (Wilbur). Guess who Isabel married?

Wilbur, the natural bore keen on a very conservative approach to business, ends up kicking the bucket. Small wonder, one presumes, that Isabel ends up hot to trot for Eugene after the mistake has expired.

Is playing it safe the ultimate vice that Tarkington is exploring? In the novel’s first chapter, Tarkington offers a panorama of the manner in which an unnamed town has changed. We learn of vanished customs like “the all-day picnic in the woods” and a remarkable uptick in embroidering. We learn that houses were more commodious yet unpretentious, offering plentiful space and additional purpose for rooms. Much of this is quite interesting. Unfortunately, racism is also an ineluctable part of Tarkington’s vision:

Darkies always prefer to gossip in shouts instead of whispers; and they feel that profanity, unless it be vociferous, is almost worthless….They have passed, those darky hired-men of the Midland town; and the introspective horses they curried and brushed and whacked and amiably cursed — those good old horses switch their tails at flies no more. For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes — or the buffalo laprobes that grew bald in patches and used to slide from the careless drivers’ knees and hang unconcerned, half way to the ground.

It’s safe to say that Tarkington, despite his astute eye for progress, wasn’t much of a progressive. This is especially strange, given Amberson‘s astute potshots against backwards thinking:

“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” [Eugene] said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us expect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; Just how, though, I could hardly guess.”

If Tarkington was so on the money with technological change, why then was he so out to lunch with his racism? A Booth Tarkington fan site, responding to Thomas Mallon’s criticisms in 2004, writes, “Any charge that the Penrod books were actually racist would have to take into account the entire body of Tarkington’s work.”

Fair enough. James Rosenzweig, another literary adventurer reading his way through all the Pulitzer Prize winners, reports that Alice Adams is also racist — using similar stereotypes when writing about a cook and a waitress. And he reports that none of these stereotypes help to elucidate the family’s character. Jonathan Yardley’s introduction to Penrod observes additional stereotypes that are worse than either Ambersons or Alice Adams (“beings in one of those lower stages of evolution” and an orchestra erupting “like the lunatic shriek of a gin-maddened nigger”), and he concludes that “the reader of the early twenty-first century will pull up short at the appearance of offensive material, and some readers — understandably and legitimately — will simply refuse to continue reading.”

I don’t think any of Tarkington’s descriptions were ironic or satirical. A simile connoting a “gin-maddened nigger” is hardly necessary to advance the story. But I cannot deny that, despite my deep disgust at Tarkington’s stereotypes, there were large sections of The Magnificent Ambersons that captured my interest.

When an automobile unsettles the streets, I liked the way that Tarkington used antediluvian language to demonstrate how incongruous and monstrous it appears to George:

It was vaguely like a topless surry, but cumbrous with unwholesome excrescences fore and aft, while underneath were spinning leather belts and something that whirred and howled and seemed to stagger. The ride-stealers made no attempt to fasten their sleds to a contrivance so nonsensical and yet so fearsome. Instead, they gave over their sport and concentrated all their energies in their lungs, so that up and down the street the one cry that shrilled increasingly: “Git a hoss! Git a hoss! Git a hoss! Mister, why don’t you get a hoss?”

What’s interesting here is that Tarkington uses verbs instead of nouns to show us why George can’t quite parse the beastly motorized vehicle before him. The internal rhyme with the adverbs (“vaguely” and “surry,” “street” and “increasingly”) feels as if Tarkington, a man who was involved in theater while at Princeton, is about to confront the modernist revolution of short declarative sentences waiting in the wings.

Yet since we are forced to contend with both Tarkington’s racism and his natural gifts as a novelist, perhaps we have a truer sense of 1918’s ideological incoherence than the weak-kneed politically correct type hoping to scrub out the ugliness. Books like The Magnificent Ambersons are uncomfortable and test the disposition. Would Jonathan Franzen have ended up like this, if he had been born ninety years earlier? Would Franzen (bigshot social novelist of his time) have hated black people as much as Tarkington (bigshot social novelist of his time) did? Perhaps. Perhaps Faulkner’s maxim applies: a writer is congenitally unable to tell the truth and that is why we call what he writes fiction.

Next up: Donleavy’s The Ginger Man!

Review: The Green Hornet (2011)

A few weeks ago, Patton Oswalt wrote an essay for Wired in which he suggested that the time had come for geek culture to meet its maker. Oswalt bemoaned “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells” and the sudden hip qualities of outsider geek culture, which had previously celebrated oddball nuggets hidden in plain sight, those precious tidbits misunderstood by all except a loyal few. The time had come, Oswalt wrote, to “make the present pop culture suck, at least for a little while.”

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Oswalt’s thesis. The idea that culture has to kill itself, rather than adopt qualities that are playfully defiant, is something of a capitulation to the free market system. But that essay made the rounds for a few very good reasons. Oswalt was really writing about the ubiquity of everything. In antediluvian pre-Internet times, that alternative ending to Army of Darkness was once only available on a Japanese laserdisc. Now you can find it on YouTube. That obscure early Yello mix? Before CD burners, you tape traded. But now it’s on YouTube too. In fact, why not just download Yello’s entire discography from a torrent?

This omnipresence allows culture to thrive. And this is the reality from which we now operate. These developments may concern you if you feel a need to remain an outsider or if you wish to identify yourself by the obscurity of your tastes. As we have seen from some of the unintentionally hilarious anti-piracy videos making the rounds, these are market concerns rather than cultural concerns. And if you’re thinking about whether you’re inside or outside, chances are that you’re already part of the problem. Such capitalistic exigencies are now actively interfering with the advancement of culture. To offer one absurd example, we now live in a world in which Peter Serafinowicz, a hilarious comedian who deserves a bigger break and who may or may not be the Peter Sellers of our time, is now forced to steal his own movies in order to appear and perform in new material.

The ideal cultural state is simply liking what you like, without hip, square, geek, or cool dictating your existence. Labels aren’t how culture evolves. It isn’t how humans live and innovate.

Vile mainstream forces will always find ways to pluck, profit, and destroy original voices. The great irony is that they’re doing all this as their big box stores collapse and mass culture as a whole is fragmenting. Gone are the days where you’d find a Bloom County strip sitting incongruously next to Family Circus or a comedy program as wonderful as Monty Python’s Flying Circus getting aired on the BBC as a fluke. The people sitting atop the coffers aren’t going to let that happen again. Because for them, it’s about the short-term, the bottom line. Play by the rules. And just maybe, maybe you might have your personal project once you ensure that the investors buy the minimum six McMansions. Of course, by then, you’ll be a soulless burnout.

So the problem with variegated subcultures, whether geek or otherwise, is actually much worse than what Oswalt suggests. Much as we don’t want to talk about how the richest 1% horde a vast majority of the wealth and are willing to profit off of your inevitable bankruptcies and foreclosures, we don’t want to talk about the way New Geek culture has been co-opted by money and power.

Geek culture before the Internet was about people who genuinely liked Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, Skinny Puppy, and other “fringe” items, but who weren’t recognized by the mainstream for their tastes. Acts that operated in such conditions were a bit like small businesses. They couldn’t always make payroll, but they operated in the spirit of truth and passion. We see this today in independent bookstores that serve the community.

Unfortunately, the men with the money discovered (much as Werner Erhard and self-help gurus exploited the emotionally sensitive back in the 1970s) that they could profit off of the geek demographic and exploit them with Bernaysian glee. And you’ll now find these profit-oriented types — who like money but don’t really like culture — attending ComicCon and E3 to poach talent and control geek spin (or hiring people to do so; the E3 Booth Babes are among the most vile and misogynist approaches). There is now a great effort to woo anyone who is perceived as a tastemaker. Someone who has a blog or a prominent Twitter following.

This is hardly a prototypical move. Back in 1993, OK Soda was a desperate effort by the Coca-Cola Company to court the Generation X demographic. Coca-Cola hired alternative cartoonists. As Charles Burns recently told Martyn Pedler in an interview: “I kind of know what they were after – but I don’t know what they were thinking. They were going for this kind of ironic humor, for the 20-something audience. Instead of having that iconic Coca-Cola logo, the can would be different every few months or so.”

But the results backfired dramatically. Nevertheless, the corporate forces become self-aware and more ambitious after that hilarious little episode.

As the Internet began its great leap forward in the mid-1990s, marketing people located “geeks” who were mostly illiterate with an online audience. Even during these We’re Not Really Living in a Recession times, movie people fly unethical hacks like Harry Knowles off to junkets. And they invade legitimate geek space on the Internet — much of it generated in an initial burst of genuine geekdom until the inevitable question of money spoils everything.

Most of these efforts to network are an extension of advertising and crass PR. B-list celebrities reply on Twitter and “friendship” becomes just another word for something left to cash in on. And, hey, while you’re at it, why not collect private data and track their tastes so that we can refine the profit machine? I mean, the fucking fools are giving it to you!

The New Geeks who are part of this despicable capitalistic food chain often never stop to think that they may just be getting used. Or if they do know that they are getting used, they welcome being in close proximity to people they revere. And that collective dynamic of geeks quietly getting together to find culture that others can’t understand becomes drastically altered. For like anybody suddenly handed the keys to the executive washroom with little explanation, they want to use this power. They don’t want to sell out; they want to buy in. And it’s often for so little.

What these New Geeks never stop to consider is that maybe their legitimate tastes might actually be used to fuck with the money men or to stand for some corresponding set of virtues that don’t involve this geek groupthink. Their previous cultural tastes, now derivative courtesy of the natural expiration dates that come with every cultural cycle, suddenly become part of a new mainstream homogeneity that exists perhaps most predominantly in endless comic book movies. Rehash after rehash after rehash.

Take Matthew Vaughn, a sleazy filmmaker who worked tremendously hard to bamboozle undiscerning movers and shakers within the online geek cluster for Kick-Ass, a self-financed movie that needed to dictate how the audience had to feel. Blast The Dickies’s “Banana Splits” when Hit-Girl begins killing people so that you can understand with the “La La Las” that it’s meant to be ironic. Have Nicolas Cage rehash his backstory in a sarcastic tone. Don’t give the audience anything close to an ambiguous or an organic moment. Because we’re trying to make a shitload of money here.

Lest I be accused by the fawning fanboys as someone who is out-of-touch with mass entertainment, compare Vaughn’s approach with Michael Davis’s marvelous action movie, Shoot ‘Em Up. Shoot ‘Em Up is tremendously enjoyable. It wallows in corny puns, a wonderfully over-the-top gunfight that takes place in coitus, and the gloriously flamboyant moment of Clive Owen spanking a mother in retaliation. These moments don’t dictate; wild associations are thrown out for the audience to interpret and enjoy. Because of this, Shoot ‘Em Up is, unlike Kick-Ass, legitimate low-class art, and I love every damn minute of it.

I won’t go as far as Roger Ebert and claim that Kick-Ass was “morally reprehensible.” That’s a reactionary stance. The fact of the matter is that Kick-Ass bored the fuck out of me. It was no different from some overwrought movie made by cokeheads. Vaughn’s film was so motivated by appearing to be clever that it lacked the courage to inhabit a nascent spirit or pursue the truly bugfuck. It was a film that preferred to pander to its audience rather than trust its subconscious. Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, featured ridiculous gunfights that were inspired by Rube Goldberg-like invention and simply trusted its gut. A protagonist who subsists off of carrots? Check. Paul Giamatti playing an Elmer Fudd-like antagonist who takes calls from his wife? Check. Shoot ‘Em Up‘s willingness to pursue such wild ideas is, I suspect, one of the reasons it will be remembered as fondly as John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is today. And the difference between Shoot ‘Em Up and Kick-Ass fleshes out Oswalt’s thesis. The former is a movie made from sheer passion that is hidden in plain sight; the latter is a movie that wishes to calculate its geek demographic.

* * *

The Green Hornet is your typical New Geek superhero movie. This is a vastly vile film written by joyless twentysomething cretins. It contains few pleasures. It is deeply misogynistic and ageist in the way that it ridicules a 36-year-old woman played by Cameron Diaz for entering the job market in her “twilight.” It is also astonishingly revisionist in the way that it has altered the 28-year-old Seth Rogen, a naturally fat man who has slimmed himself down for the role. In manipulating Rogen’s innate physicality, the filmmakers have made him look a good decade older than his years. It doesn’t help that Rogen has the thespic range of a thimble. Yet it’s hard to feel much sympathy for this starving baboon. For he was one of the two hacks who wrote this piece of shit.

The Green Hornet is a movie upholding the capitalist con. The 3-D was clearly decided upon at the last minute. Aside from a bottlecap flicked into the air by Kato — a cap looking as chintzy as some penny squished through a souvenir machine — there is very little in this movie that couldn’t be confined to 2-D. It doesn’t help that Britt Reid, the man who becomes the Green Hornet, is an incredibly obnoxious and tremendously stupid character. I’m all for assholes on film. Vince Vaughn (the good Vaughn to Matthew’s evil one) has eked out an interesting career playing assholes. But if the asshole doesn’t have dimension (such as Kevin Spacey’s Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with Sharks) or if you don’t make him a funny side character (such as J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies; just enough screen time to make an impact), then there’s no purpose in serving up the asshole on screen.

You know that you have a problematic movie on your hands when the most interesting scenes don’t involve the title character. Take a moment featuring an unbilled James Franco playing an emerging crystal-dealing nightclub owner trash-talking Christoph Waltz’s Chudnofsky, the movie’s main villain. Chudonfsky says to the nighclub owner, “I’ve wanted my entire life to achieve the goal to be in charge of all the crime in Los Angeles.” The nightclub owner replies that the crime world now operates upon charisma, not hard work. We see how one line announces Chudnofsky’s motivation. And Franco’s response establishes an interesting thematic question for the movie to pursue. Will Britt Reid be able to eke out a crimefighting existence through charisma or hard work? Will the movie invert or demolish this dichotomy?

The problem, of course, is that Reid has neither quality. He’s merely an obnoxious buffoon with money who has to reiterate what’s going on to the audience every time there’s an action scene (“Hey, they’re really organized,” “This is cool,” “Whoa,” and other Mathew Vaughn-like ADR dictating to the New Geek audience what is clearly happening on the screen before them; the filmmakers clearly view the audience with great contempt). So the movie immediately becomes pointless. Yes, Reid has his manservant Kato (Jay Chou) to help him out. Kato makes a coffee with a colorful swirl pattern on the top, designs cool vehicles equipped with puncturing tires and machine guns, and knows marital arts. And when Reid becomes The Green Hornet, it is Kato who does all the work. The movie is too incompetent to establish an interesting conflict between Reid and Kato. For example, if Kato is so smart and Reid is cockblocking Kato’s efforts to woo Lenore Case (the female doormat I mentioned above played by Cameron Diaz), wouldn’t the film be more interesting if Kato began exploiting Reid by getting him to do his bidding? If you’re a smart Asian man in the 21st century, there’s no real incentive to be a white boy’s bitch unless you’re getting paid or he’s getting played.

But I’ve only been discussing the crude formulaic problems. Let us be clear. Seth Rogen is an avaricious man no different from a middle-aged investment banker. He only wants your money. The Green Hornet is Seth Rogen’s subprime loan. Read the goddam agreement. He has even persuaded the great Michel Gondry to sell out. Gondry may offer Kato-Vision, but it’s hardly worth the effort. Frankly, it’s astonishing that a man who was smart enough to collaborate with Charlie Kaufman (twice!) would settle for tenth-rate material.

What Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg have done is take an interesting character that wowed audiences on the radio (an audio collection of the original program is available here to make your comparisons) — something fun and magical that was “hidden in plain sight” — and turned it into a lifeless and derivative movie very much designed for the New Geeks. Already, the New Geeks have scarfed down The Green Hornet like starving dogs burrowing their vanquished muzzles into open cans of Alpo. “It was charming, very funny, and worthy of repeated viewings,” writes The Beat in an uncritical, sycophantic, and embargo-breaking review that reads like someone at PW was given a big bag of cash. The New Geek hacks at Cinema Blend offer “5 Reasons You Should Be Excited About The Green Hornet,” as if there couldn’t possibly be a single reason to reject the hype.

If mainstream audiences reject The Green Hornet this weekend (as they did last summer with the more distinctive and less compromising Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), then the New Geek influence may at long last walk the death march. About fucking time. No self-respecting geek of any stripe has any business aligning herself with a sexist, racist, and patriarchal set of values. Seth Rogen is not the geek’s friend. He is a fleeting figure and slobby sellout to be thoroughly rejected. He is a loathsome “talent” hiding in plain sight.

Review: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (2010)

“It was drek,” said the critic braying in the vestibule. She was a shrew of advanced years, the type who hasn’t laughed since the 20th century often encountered in Manhattan. She was the unwanted accessory that comes with the screening room installation kit. I didn’t know if I should try and return her to the manufacturer. Surely there was some lonely and unsmiling Tarkovsky lover who would require her. But this was not my screening room and this was not my call. I decided to stay silent.

I was baffled. Drek? Yes, Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish (part of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival) was a mess, a movie with too many competing instincts. It was a film that didn’t know whether it wanted to be a study in cultural fusion, a willowy melodrama, or a comedic investigation into the many notions of Jewish identity. But then I am not of the people. I do read a lot of Jewish writers, have many Jewish friends, and am interested in Jewishness. I do seem to attract a lot of Jewish men at social gatherings, perhaps because I listen or perhaps because I have the tendency to say things that are apparently profane. Not long ago, on one of my recent interborough walks, I was alarmed when some kids called me a kyke for having the temerity to read, walk, and maintain an unruly beard (all at the same time!) as I made my way into the Meatpacking District. I suspect all this explains why I laughed a good deal over Treslove’s predicament – not Jewish, but very “Jewish” – in Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.

Regardless of my Jewish state (or lack thereof), it is hard to say no to a movie titled Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish. The grand irony of Shakespeare being appropriated for the Jewish theater was too irresistible, particularly when one considers how Jewish culture has been appropriated. (Just consider how many Jewish songwriters have composed Christmas carols!)

I had brought along someone who was Jewish to atone for my lack of Jewishness and to prevent any mishaps. You see, the last time I had attended a New York Jewish Film Festival screening, I had been reprimanded by a publicist for violating some disclaimer in microscopic type. I had decided that I would read the press screening invite more carefully and not say a word, although I did end up cracking a few jokes to someone. (You see how easy it is for me to resist even my own imperative! I am my own apostate!)

None of this tells you much about the film. If you have a sense of humor and an open mind, I suspect that you won’t call it drek. But the film stands more of a chance (admittedly slim) with a Reform crowd than a Conservative one. For the movie contains numerous Orthodox characters who have been banned from the community. And I suspect that some of the audience will feel as if they have been banned if they laugh with the movie. Consider this belligerent blog post from The Circus Tent, which berates the characters for being “haunted by the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear metal-framed glasses nor have buckles on their belts. It shows you what their intellectual capacity consists of. The fact that they would be chosen to translate the works of Willy Shake shows us what kind of knowledge of Yiddish the directors of the project have.”

Well, that’s the point. There are some sections of the movie that appear to have been filmed in a desperate rush, with handheld cameras and muddled sound. Other parts of the movie contain a modest degree of polish, the film appearing to be comfortably financed and in an early stage of production. Then there are the portions of the film, involving some on-the-fly CGI, where the film tries too hard to be professional. For me, these wildly inconsistent visuals imbued the operation with a homespun charm. After all, if you are making a movie about the creation of dramaturgy, shouldn’t the results feel as disparate as the rehearsals? As if to pound the point home, Annenberg includes a dude who shows up at random intervals film to sprinkle literal magic into the operation. And haven’t we all seen this gentleman?

I have no command of Yiddish, so I can’t share The Circus Tent guy’s indignation. But I do hope that he’s settled down by now. In defense of the woman who damned the film as drek, I will say that some of the Shakespearean recreations aren’t inventive enough. Friar Lawrence becomes Rabbi Lawrence. The Capulets and Montagues are distinguished by peyot. Swapping the party at the end of the first act to a purim party is a mildly creative choice. But this schematic approach, while initially entertaining and probably funny on paper, becomes tedious. Still, I very much enjoyed the sacrilegious moments of Hasidic Jews engaged in a knife fight that nobody feels inclined to break up. I almost expected them to sing “from your first brit milah to your last dying day.” I should also point out that the film is quite friendly to non-Jewish viewers, providing Ken Loach-like subtitles for Jewish words. Some are obvious (“nitter” for example); others I did not know. I also enjoyed the moments where our Jewish heroes attempted to negotiate everyday situations (such as the collection of luggage) based solely upon their trust in the community. Alas, another man’s word is not enough for an unsmiling official.

Perhaps I liked the film more than I should have because its Jewish characters – apostates living in the back of a Budget Rent-A-Car truck – were outsiders with a healthy calmness while doing very bad things. Saying a prayer before shooting up almost defeats the purpose of a seedy escape. And if I learned that somebody had maxed out my credit cards for a luxury hotel room, I would likely be more apoplectic. There’s probably a heavy-handed moral here somewhere. But if partaking in art keeps the universe calm, then that’s hardly a sentiment to get angry about.

The Modern Library Reading Challenge

[NOTE: On October 25, 2013, our intrepid reader also began The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, a nonfiction counterpart to this fiction list.]

There comes a time when you need to raise the stakes.

I’ve stayed away from the many reading challenges offered by other book blogs. I don’t have anything in particular against these challenges. I’m delighted that they encourage people to read. The problem is me.

I like big books, but the Chunkster sounds like a sloppy peanut butter sandwich that I’ve tried to make after a night of heavy drinking. And even if I commit to the Chubby Chunkster entry level, I’m worried that I’ll be confused with a chubby chaser.

The Shakespeare Reading Challenge is more my speed, but the last time I fell down the Shakespeare rabbit hole in my early twenties, I nearly ended up in bed with someone from SCA.

The Bronte Sisters Reading Challenge has me worried that I’ll end up locking myself in an attic. I’m also concerned, that because Charlotte Bronte was the oldest living sister (dead at 38, an age not that far away from my present chronological state), the reading challenge could play out in a similar way.

The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge may very well turn me old and/or French. And if I must become old and/or French, I’d like to do so on my own terms.

A good reading challenge needs to cut across a wide swath. It also needs to be ridiculously ambitious. Like running a triathlon or climbing Everest.

The one thing I don’t like is having to read a set number of books in a set period of time. That’s a bit like filing your taxes. Shouldn’t the fact that you’ve read the books count more than the speed in which you’ve read them?

I also wanted a reading challenge that could bring different types of readers together. Those who read only some of the books can step in on individual titles and leave their comments. Those who have no intention of reading any of the titles and who simply wish to watch my slow descent into insanity can also leave comments.

I think I’ve stumbled onto a reading challenge that will take me several years.

Enter The Modern Library Reading Challenge.

In 1998, the Modern Library decided to enlist a revered group of writers (mostly white guys) to name the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the authors that the Modern Library selected were mostly white guys. (Only eight women are on the list.) Nevertheless, it’s exceedingly difficult to scoff at a list featuring the likes of James Joyce, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph Conrad.

Now the Modern Library list isn’t really a hundred books. When you tally up all the series, what we’re really talking about is 121 books. Nevertheless, 121 books — including Finnegans Wake and The Ambassadors (the latter made me dream that I was having a stroke the first time that I read it) — is a fairly hardcore list.

Now I love staying on top of contemporary literature. I also love being challenged by literature. And at the turn of the new year, it occurred to me that nobody has written at length about reading all the Modern Library books. Sure, you’ve got Christopher Beha’s The Whole Five Feet. But if we assume that 121 books have an average width of 1.5 inches, that’s 181.5 inches. Or about fifteen feet!

What I’m hoping to do here is something a bit more ambitious. I want to write about 1,000 words for each and every volume, and I want to see if I can track some quirky course of literature while I’m doing this. I’ve read some of these books; others are new on me.

But I can tell you this. I plan to read forever or die trying.

So the plan is this. Read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1 in order (with the exception of The Rainbow and Women in Love, since the latter is a sequel to the former). In fact, at the time that I’m writing this (January 10, 2011), I’ve already read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons and I’ve started to read J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. I’ll have an entry for #100 up eventually.

But in the meantime, this page will serve as an index. As I write about the books, I will add the links (along with the dates of the posts). Don’t be a stranger. Feel free to read, follow along, or leave a comment if you have additional thoughts.

100. Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (January 17, 2011)
99. J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (January 31, 2011)
98. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (February 2, 2011)
97. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (February 24, 2011)
96. William Styron, Sophie’s Choice (April 4, 2011)
95. Iris Murdoch, Under the Net (April 19, 2011)
94. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (April 22, 2011)
93. John Fowles, The Magus (April 23, 2011)
92. William Kennedy, Ironweed (May 8, 2011)
91. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road (May 17, 2011)
90. Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (July 4, 2011)
89. Henry Green, Loving (September 8, 2011)
88. Jack London, The Call of the Wild (September 26, 2011)
87. Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (October 10, 2011)
86. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (October 30, 2011)
85. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (November 30, 2011)
84. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (January 6, 2012)
83. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River (February 15, 2012)
82. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (April 10, 2012)
81. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (June 27, 2012)
80. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (August 1, 2012)
79. E.M. Forster, A Room with a View (August 2, 2012)
78. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (November 20, 2012)
77. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (October 11, 2017)
76. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (January 30, 2018)
75. Evelyn Waugh, Scoop (January 6, 2019)
74. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (January 29, 2019)
73. Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (January 18, 2022)
72. V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (January 18, 2022)
71. Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (February 6, 2022)
70. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (Four books: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) (March 16, 2022)
69. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (July 21, 2022)
68. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (July 27, 2022)
67. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (August 7, 2022)
66. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (September 8, 2023)
65. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (September 18, 2023)
64. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (October 2, 2023)
63. John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (February 5, 2024)
62. James Jones, From Here to Eternity (February 6, 2024)
61. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (February 11, 2024)
60. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
59. Max Beerbohm, Zulieka Dobson
58. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
57. Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End (Four books: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up…, and Last Post)
56. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
55. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
54. William Faulkner, Light in August
53. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
52. Phillip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
51. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
50. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
49. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
48. D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
47. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
46. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
45. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
44. Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point
43. Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (12 novels: A Question of Upbringing., A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World, At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, The Kindly Ones, The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art, The Military Philosophers, Books Do Furnish a Room, Temporary Kings, and Hearing Secret Harmonies)
42. James Dickey, Deliverance
41. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
40. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
39. James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain
38. E.M. Forster, Howards End
37. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
36. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
35. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
34. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
33. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
32. Henry James, The Golden Bowl
31. George Orwell, Animal Farm
30. Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier
29. James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan (Three books: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day)
28. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
27. Henry James, The Ambassadors
26. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
25. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
24. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
23. John Dos Passos, USA Trilogy (Three books: The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money)
22. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
21. Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
20. Richard Wright, Native Son
19. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
18. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
17. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
16. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
15. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
14. Robert Graves, I, Claudius
13. George Orwell, 1984
12. Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
11. Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
10. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
9. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
8. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
7. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
6. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
5. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
4. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
3. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
1. James Joyce, Ulysses

(Image: sassenach)

We Are Not Weaker Than the Tyrants

“All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do. And therefore those who are coerced will only do that which they do not wish to do while they are weaker than the tyrants and cannot avoid doing it from fear of the threats for not fulfilling what is demanded. As soon as they grow stronger, they naturally not only cease to do what they do not want to do, but, embittered by the struggle against their oppressors and everything they have had to suffer from them, they first free themselves from the tyrants, and then, in their turn, force their opponents to do what they regard as good and necessary. It would therefore seem evident that the struggle between oppressors and oppressed cannot unite people but, on the contrary, the further it progress the further it divides them.” — Leo Tolstoy, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”

It was a political act committed by a weak man. Don’t let any sugarcoating naif or maundering bumpkin scared to stare down the truth tell you that it wasn’t.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a pragmatic Blue Dog Democrat in Arizona, was shot in the head at point blank range while holding an informal town hall meeting at a supermarket. A federal judge is dead. Five others, including a nine-year-old, are also dead. They did not want to be dead.

These were assassinations. Assaults on people who, never mind their party, wished to engage in civil discourse. It was a secret attack designed with a political point in mind — one that told us that, no matter where our position on the political spectrum, our thoughts and feelings were lesser if they didn’t mesh with yours.

The assassinations were committed by a psychologically imbalanced and irrational man with a gun. But we still don’t know for sure if Jared Lee Loughner was inspired by Sarah Palin’s now removed, now infamous map, which targeted Rep. Giffords and 19 other people with a prescription to the solution. We may never know. And we may never know if he really wanted to do what he did. What we do know is that Loughner was coerced and he felt that what he was doing was good and necessary. His YouTube videos tell us this. Loughner thought that “the population of dreamers in the United States of America is less than 5%.” A recent study revealed that one in 20 adult Americans experienced psychological problems during their childhood years. Or about 5%. But maybe Loughner was referring to some other faction. It was all set down in his head. Why didn’t we feeble peons comprehend his genius?

The new question — offered not long after the NewSouth scrubbing of words from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — is whether or not an actual assassination, especially one committed by a man with psychological problems, is equal to the suggestion of an assassination.

This afternoon, Jack Shafer made a case for inflamed rhetoric, responding to knee-jerk suggestions that the debate must be turned down with a less classier riff on Voltaire: “I’ll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.” But Shafer’s swiftly typed sentiments may have arrived too late. Already, Rep. Robert Brady will be introducing legislation that will make it a federal crime for a person to use symbols or language that someone might perceive as a threat or an inciting to violence against a federal official.

This is overkill. There are already laws on the book (specifically 18 U.S.C. § 876 and 18 U.S.C. § 876) that deal with this. If you knowingly threaten a judge, a law enforcement officer, or a federal officer with death, you will face a fine and ten years of imprisonment if you are convicted.

What makes Brady’s proposed legislation insidious is the way he takes “knowingly” out of the equation altogether. Threats may be expanded to the manner in which someone perceives a threat. And this is an alarming attack against free expression: an altogether different assassination telling us that some forms of vitriol, swiftly reduced to calmness after one has expressed it, are lesser because they don’t mesh with Rep. Brady’s view of the universe.

Does Brady’s legislation mean that Shafer can be arrested because some looneytune reading his column perceived his “punch out the lights” sentence as an excuse to attack a member of Congress? If I suggest that Rep. Brady’s house should be TPed before the week is up (and I append a symbolic Photoshop image to the clearly satirical suggestion), and some nut job attempts to kill Rep. Brady by stuffing several rolls of toilet paper down his mouth, then should I be accused of inciting the nut job to violence?

The proposed Brady legislation, predicated upon the myth of zero tolerance, assumes that the person who lets off steam can keep track of every person who is listening. The legislation is a perfectly understandable reaction, but one motivated by fear rather than reason. Fear isn’t the best emotion with which to consider the full implications. Consider Rep. Brady’s alarmingly autocratic response at the end of the CNN article: “Why would you be against it?”

And why would you assume that every American will act like Loughner?

Loughner’s videos are an incoherent hodgepodge of senseless syllogisms: an insane nightmare founded upon notions of currency, grammar, the number 8, and a medley of perceived slights. Loughner announces in his welcome video that his favorite activity “is conscience dreaming; the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don’t dream — sadly.”

We’ve been here before, of course. On November 18, 1978, Congressman Leo J. Ryan was killed in the line of duty. The cause was the cult of Jonestown. The cult killed Ryan, a Temple defector, and three journalists. 918 people drank the Flavor Aid that evening.

But that was in Guyana, not our home turf. The terror went down in a place remote enough for psychological experts to offer “rational explanations of how humans can be conditioned to commit such irrational acts” (as Time put it on December 4, 1978). The news was horrifying, but we still understood then the irrational had infringed upon the rational. Ryan had been assassinated. In 1978, the Internet did not exist to present us with an image.

The above picture comes from Mamta Popat at the Arizona Daily Star. The caption reads:

Jackie Storer, right, tries her best to figure out the clues on a giant crossword as Jared Loughner, a volunteer, stands in the background during the Tuscon Festival of Books.

One is struck not just by the “clues” contained in the photo’s crossword, but by the clues contained in Loughner’s stance. His right foot juts forward against the sidewalk and he hangs his right arm languorously against the crossword display. Does he know the clues already? Even accounting for the photographer’s posing instructions, Jackie Storer clearly isn’t noticing him.

But do any of these observations permit us to better understand Loughner?

There are bullies who horde all the wealth and keep good people unemployed. There are bullies who grope us when we don’t want to be violated by a backscatter X-ray. There are bullies who berate us and scare us and feed us misinformation. There are bullies who foreclose on our homes because we failed to comprehend the language above the dotted line when we were young and hungry and wanted some stake in the American dream.

On Saturday, we learned that the bullies are within our fold. They’re waiting patiently around us, providing us with “clues” just before they pull out the gun. Should we stop believing in humanity?

A cynic will tell you that Saturday’s senseless violence confirmed America’s station as a savage nation. A soul seeking vengeance will point to the Palin map, its three targets hovering over Arizona and impugning the narcissist who saw fit to publicize the two-hour finale of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on her Twitter feed before offering empty condolences.

The cynic and the vigilante are both right, but we may soon be asked to test our core constitutional values.

The time has come to fight tooth and nail to maintain the last of our rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of mind. This can all be done without a single bullet or a knowing threat. The time has come to stand up to men like Robert Brady, who cannot see how their seemingly helpful acts turn them into bullies who ask the uncivilized question, “Why would you be against it?” Because, Representative Brady, we are not weaker than the tyrants. And we do not want to see another civilized soul fall down the rabbit hole.

The Bat Segundo Show: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #374. He is most recently the writer and director of The Time That Remains.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Constantly examining his watch.

Guest: Elia Suleiman

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to touch back on a point you were making about the democratization of the audience with a specific ultimate…

Suleiman: The popcorn-less?

Correspondent: Well, the popcorn-less and those with popcorn. In Divine Intervention, there’s a wonderful clip involving your answer to The Matrix. The ultimate democratic video scenario, YouTube, features this clip and a quarter of a million people have seen the clip. A user named Firestarter89 offers this comment: “It’s like some Muslim smoked a bunch of weed and watched Wonder Woman and The Matrix.”

Suleiman: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering, with a clip like that presented on YouTube, if you’re worried if that gets away from the point of the trilogy. That presented independently without any kind of context, people don’t actually know that it’s really your clip. There’s just a bunch of people who enjoy that clip for what it is. Is that troublesome for you as a filmmaker? On one hand, you’ve got an audience here. But they have taken it and turned it into something completely different, as this user Firestarter89 clearly has.

Suleiman: Well, I mean, it would be too long to now discuss the potence and impotence of the Internet and YouTube. And I don’t look at my own clips, by the way. I never watch what they say. I’m not really interested in this kind of image ghettoization and the very consumerist element of it on the Internet. So I actually protect myself from this pollution. However, yes, to take it out of context is really harmful. Because in the narrative of the film, what we see is his fantasy, his inner fantasy of his lover disappearing. So he wants her to come back as a victorious hero in an almost B-movie like or kitsch-like ambiance. When that episode is finished, he is cutting onions in order to cry. So we see that the result of it is this impotent character who is even unable to cry. So it is an extremity to that violent and that victorious heroism.

I have to tell you a story. A funny story actually. One time, a man stops me. A young man stops me. I was trying to film something on a small camera in Ramallah on the street. For nothing specific. I forgot. Maybe to take a note. I don’t even remember. And he doesn’t know who I am. He just stops me. He stops me and he says, “Are you a filmmaker?” I said, “Well, kind of.” And he said, “You know, you Palestinian filmmakers are all losers. You know, you don’t know how to make a real film. You don’t know how to do anything. You know, make us a film like this guy who made this ninja film.” And I told him, “What guy made the ninja film?” I asked him to describe the action and it turns out to be the segment of Divine Intervention. And I told him, “Well, I’m going to try.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Suleiman: And he said, “That’s filmmaking for me!” So of course there’s going to be always this level of misinterpreting or taking things out of context. You cannot control that. Look at my biography. I mean, I’m sure that I’ve been presented with at least ten biographies of my life. None of them is true to my biography.

Correspondent: And yet here you are making movies that are rooted in autobiography. As such, there’s the classic saying that we accept fiction for its truth — particularly in this country — more than autobiography or memoir, in which you constantly question the facts.

Suleiman: But, you know, I’m not at all pointing fingers at anyone. But the fact is there’s always a tendency to bring down to earth again what you’re trying to bring to a potential reality. Rather than bring it back to the actual reality. So you’re trying to fight the media distortions. And they bring it back. Eventually you have a TV interview. You’re put in the news. So I don’t know how much we can — on how many fronts you can actually start or stop, deter — I mean, I can barely make my movies. So to start also campaigning against YouTube or distortions of the media, it’s very difficult for me. But I think that one could also say, rather than look at it from a defeatist point of view, if it gave anyone out there some pleasure and some dreamlike potential for a better world, then I think we are — if I feel that I’m doing the best I can, if I feel that I’m trying to dig out the little monster inside of one’s self. Not necessarily the monster only that you project on. You’re trying to evaluate. Re-evaluate your own acts. And trying to become a better person and call it your own moral equation. I think this far I can do. But I can’t go beyond that.

The Bat Segundo Show #374: Elia Suleiman (Download MP3)

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Simon & Schuster Cancels Borders Events

Some commentators have considered recent financial setbacks within Borders to represent the beginning of the end for the forty year old bookstore chain. But another apocalyptic variable was presented on Thursday night when several Simon & Schuster author events were inexplicably listed as “canceled” on the Borders website without additional explanation. To add to the mystery, there was no indication on the Simon & Schuster website that the events had ever been scheduled at Borders in the first place.

On Thursday, The New York Times‘s Julie Bosman and Michael J. De La Merced reported that “several people said they were scrutinizing future print runs and examining the schedules of author events at Borders in February and March, with the expectation that they would be canceled.” Bosman and De La Merced did not name any specific sources, but an investigation has revealed that Simon & Schuster has taken steps to cancel events as early as next week.

The latest Simon & Schuster event that could be located on the Simon & Schuster website was a January 18th event in New York for author Chris Cleave. It’s possible that this event is still on because Mr. Cleave plans to arrive from England. The earliest canceled Borders event is January 12th (the Lo Bosworth event at Columbus Circle listed below), suggesting very strongly that a blanket scrubbing of
Simon & Schuster Borders events will kick in as of next week.

What follows is a comprehensive but by no means complete listing of store events that are presently listed as canceled (including two additional cancellations related to Penguin imprints). In the next few days, I’m hoping to get representatives of Borders and Simon & Schuster on the record to determine why this decision was made, and whether any alternative plans will be made to accommodate the authors.

Manhattan — Park Avenue

2/17 — Mark Alpert (The Omega Theory, Touchstone)

Manhattan – Columbus Circle

1/12 — Lo Bosworth (The Lo-Down, Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing) — It is worth noting that Ms. Bosworth is now appearing at a Barnes & Noble on the 12th.
1/17 — Tony and Lauren Dungy (You Can Be A Friend, Little Simon Inspirations)
2/8 — Taboo (Fallin’ Up, Touchstone)

Boston — Back Bay

1/15 — Marc Cendella & Matthew Rothenberg (You’re Better Than Your Job Search, Downtown Bookworks)

San Francisco — Union Square

1/27 — Patricia Briggs (Silver Borne and River Marked, Ace) — Ace is a Penguin imprint, not Simon & Schuster. But this Borders event is not listed on Ms. Briggs’s official website. But her website indicates that she’s still signed on to hit a few Borders stores during her River Marked tour.

Bryn Mawr, PA

2/5 — Kelly Simmons (The Bird House, Washington Square Press)

Phoenix, AZ — Camelback – Borders

1/21 — Marc Cendella & Matthew Rothenberg (You’re Better Than Your Job Search, Downtown Bookworks)

San Jose, CA — Santana Row

1/20 — Lo Bosworth (The Lo-Down, Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing)

Washington DC — Friendship Heights

1/22 — Jodi Picoult (Sing You Home, Atria)

Dallas — Preston & Royals

3/3 — Mike Huckabee (A Simple Government, Sentinel) — Sentinel is a Penguin imprint. It’s also possible that there was a scheduling conflict with Huckabee’s schedule. (In light of the fact that Patricia Briggs — also a Penguin imprint — has been canceled, it is very possible that Penguin may have offered a few peremptory cancellations. Some inside sources are suggesting very strongly to me that Penguin has stopped shipping books to Borders, although I’m hoping to corroborate this with an official statement.)

* * *

Investigations into these developments are ongoing. I hope to have more information in the next few days.

1/7/11 EARLY AM UPDATE: I’ve contacted numerous authors about these developments, hoping to shed some additional light on the story. Kelly Simmons, author of The Bird House, informed me this morning that her S&S publicist did fill her in on the Borders developments, but that she had been following the story shortly after the Borders announcement.

“Showing up for an event at a bookstore that doesn’t have plenty of stock of my two novels — Standing Still and The Bird House — for me to sign — that would be a freaking nightmare,” said Simmons, who pointed out that chain bookstore appearances are more important for a top-selling author than a literary one.

Simmons also noted Borders’s recent reputation for not working well with authors. But does a Borders appearance even make that much of an impact? Simmons’s promotional efforts have been more devoted to book clubs, but she says that Barnes & Noble stores and independent bookstores “are very good about being involved in reading groups.”

Still, Simmons regrets the canceled appearance. She reports that “the Bryn Mawr/Rosemont Borders is run by smart, book-loving people, and I know hundreds of readers in the area who would have attended the book launch event, so it was a bummer.” However, Simmons had scheduled two events the following week at independent bookstores.

“It’s always sad when a brand that started out so inventive and interesting can’t survive,” concluded Simmons. “And for many readers, their local Borders is the only bookstore for many miles around. That is the greatest loss.”

1/7/11 UPDATE II: Jodi Picoult, author of the forthcoming Sing You Home, also confirmed with me that her publicist had filled her in on the Borders financial mess. Picoult, who says that she has no input into any of her bookstore appearances, doesn’t believe that the book tour is the only driving force for sales. Nevertheless, the book tour allows Picoult “to personally thank the people who are reading my books — so it is a very important part of my publishing cycle.”

Picoult she says that Borders “has been a good friend to me as my career has progressed and I’m very sorry to hear that they are in dire straits.” While there is nothing yet listed on its events calendar, Politics & Prose will now be sponsoring the scheduled event in DC on January 22nd. The independent bookstore will be using the same offsite venue as Borders.

If Borders slides into oblivion, will this translate into more events with prominent authors at independent bookstores?

“Obviously if Borders collapses,” said Picoult, “I’ll have the opportunity to do events with some other bookstores I might not have been able to visit before because of timing and availability. That said, I certainly hope Borders comes through this latest struggle, and that I can continue to work with them in the future.”

1/7/11 UPDATE III: In an effort to get a complete story, I’ve tried to get comments from Borders and Simon & Schuster, contacting them by telephone and email. As of 10:30 AM EST, nobody has returned my calls. Another anonymous source suggests that nobody is interested in talking on the record.

1/7/11 UPDATE IV: The official word from Simon & Schuster: “No comment.”

1/7/11 UPDATE V: I have heard back from Borders spokesperson Mary Davis: “Borders stores host thousands of free enriching events each year, and that will continue. From time to time, events get canceled. Our schedule of events remains full.” I have asked Ms. Davis if it is Borders’s position that nine canceled events reflects an occasional or “time to time” cancellation. If I hear anything back, I will report it here.

1/7/11 UPDATE VI: Jodi Picoult just informed me that her DC event may still get sponsored by Borders after all. A final decision is expected in the next few weeks. Since Jodi Picoult’s books tend to sell very well (to be clear, “#1 New York Times bestseller” well), it’s quite possible that Picoult’s event is being used as a bargaining chip with Borders. Or maybe this is an effort to save face. We have only speculation to go on — since Simon & Schuster doesn’t wish to elaborate on “No comment” and Borders insists that its “schedule of events remains full.” I have emailed Barbara Meade at Politics and Prose to see if she might provide some additional input on what has become a cloudy matter.

1/7/11 UPDATE VII: I’ve heard back from Barbara Meade: “We were never contacted by Simon and Schuster. We are partnered with the 6th and I Historic Synagogue downtown, where we do some of our larger events and they contacted me to ask if we had any problem with their doing an event for Jodi Picoult that Boarders had contacted them about. I told them I didn’t have any problem with it because we didn’t
have any plans to do any event is Jodi Picoult. Our events schedule is completely filled two months into the future with ten events a week. We don’t have time for last-minute events.”

It would appear that this was more of an assumptive alternative.

1/14/11 UPDATE: On January 12, 2011, I appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth to discuss the Borders situation with Sarah Weinman.

Memory in the Raw

This essay is about a thousand words.

Just after the poppers shot sticky glitter onto the hardwood floor and the horns (available in two strident tones!) bleated sweet fleeting salutations into the post-midnight air and the noisemakers rattled in response to wrist-shaking whirls, and just after the shouts and the hosannas and the well-lubricated well-wishing to friendly strangers, I spent 2011’s first minutes fully immersed in the Pratt’s New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, grateful to a friend for the tipoff. I traversed Pratt’s open gates, passing the glum-looking guard in his square cage, hearing the sweet toots of botched tunes and vaguely diatonic offerings sounding as beautiful as an elephant giving birth (or I suggested; it was better to conjure comparisons without first-hand reference). I turned a corner and saw…


A contraption defying easy steampunk cliches only a few hundred feet away! I departed our flock and sprinted through the foot-high snow patches, like some dog loosened upon an expansive beach. This spastic run sprang from a concern that there were only a few minutes of steam whistles left. Nobody had informed me how long it went on for. So I had to grab a quick look.

Standing ten feet away from the machine, I marveled at the elbow-like gauges and the grand gusts and the keyboards connected in the distance! Most pleasant was the vaguely preternatural noise, sounding like some alien landscape and keeping me spellbound, lost, completely at one with the experience before me. For this was the sound of a dead time being restored! A kind man reminding humanity of an age that came before iPods and World of Warcraft and…

I realize there is a picture attached to this post. I did not take it. It was snapped by somebody else. I did not consult the photo as I wrote the above paragraphs. It has been provided for your benefit so that you can get some tangential sense of what I experienced, even though I’d like to think that my words will be enough. It has become increasingly clear that words are no longer enough. But my description came entirely from my memory. It may not be entirely accurate. It may be unreliable. But I can tell you that I experienced a great deal of joy writing that paragraph and recalling a series of moments that involved great pleasure. And I hope that some of that ebullience has translated to the reader. I can also report that my memory feels truer than any instrument. On January 1, 2011, at approximately 12:10 AM. I had no camera. I had no cell phone. I had no contraption to memorialize the experience. I had no need to…

“Excuse me,” said some shadowy figure, “do you have a card? I’ve got you on video.”

That’s not precisely what he said. But that is pretty close to what he said.

At first I thought he wanted a Flash card. But I realized that he was referring to a business card. And it hadn’t occurred to me to think of business.

I don’t know who he was. Perhaps he was a starving student. Perhaps he was some yearly regular who needed the cash. Similar to one of those photographers who snaps you at social functions (and not unlike the more aggressive, more impoverished, and more interesting variety you find in Mexico and areas of Southern California) and then hope that you will pay out the dough. You walk away with a “memory.” He walks away with some cash. Capitalism in action.

It wasn’t my bag at all.

I did not want “video” or a “snapshot.” Wasn’t my experience enough? Wasn’t there enough wonder contained before my very eyes?

But the man shook me out of my apparent reverie.

I looked around and discovered that I was in the minority. Of the roughly twenty people around me, I saw a good fifteen holding some form of camera, feeling the overwhelming need to document the steam whistle machine. They had to grab the moment. They needed proof that they’d seen something wonderful. I wondered if some of them would put their cameras down.

Joanne McNeil has written about this phenomenon in relation to numerous cell phone cameras capturing President Obama’s speech at the Inaugural Youth Ball. And while her concerns are rooted in the things we choose not to photograph (a slimmer field in this epoch of sexting and more intrusive paparazzi), I’m wondering more about what separates the person who prefers to remember versus the person who needs to reconcile some memory against the memorialized item. If I’m not operating as a journalist, I’d say that I’d place myself more in the first category in relation to the human experience. This may be a more egoistic position. Because I’m essentially stating, “Photographs? Video? No, I don’t need any of that. You see, I’d rather believe in my admittedly imperfect and abstract recall for the remainder of my natural life.” It feels more dishonest and less human to match up my memory to meet the absolute data contained within a photograph. It is as if I’m filling out a form, never driving above the posted speed limit, or always coloring inside the lines. (Tom Bissell did this to interesting effect in his memoir, The Father of All Things, inventing fabricated moments from a single photograph. Did this get him any closer to knowing the truth?)

Given the choice between risking my imagination or an actual photograph fudging up the truth of what transpired, I’ll take the prospects of forgetfulness and hyperbole. I’m certain that my memory isn’t absolutely correct. But I’m more comfortable and more interested in the idea of people sharing their individual accounts of an event rather than relying upon an absolute photograph intended to sort out the mistakes. Besides, isn’t there truth in what people decide to forget? Isn’t there unexpected insight in what certain souls opt to invent?

Today, when I do something fun (such as the Pratt New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who happens to be in that area of Brooklyn), I’m now in the minority. It has become essential to photograph everything. We’ve only had photographs for about 170 years and we’re more reliant upon the camera to confirm our existence than at any other time in human history. We must have our memory in the raw with an intermediary. Yet it often doesn’t occur to us that existence is sometimes best confirmed by existing.