"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis


On adding and removing books from one's own collection thereof

One of the more basic family traits I inherited is to be an inveterate pile-maker of books. When working on a project, I take the books I will need to directly reference and make them into a pile, then a second pile of books that might be useful. I make a pile when attempting to pick out a new novel to read, and keep the pile around in case I change my mind. They multiply, get rearranged and re-sorted. I refer to this as an "organic" organizational style. I'm not Jean Piaget-level, but it gives the general idea:

Consequently, it can be difficult to judge when the books I own have exceeded the shelf space that I have. Thus approximately every year, things get re-sorted.

The good news from this year was that, after removing one banker's box of books I was unlikely to read, I seem to have fewer books now than I did last year. That I managed this seems impossible as I did not remove very many books and seem to have new ones coming in all the time, but so it seems to be.

Leaving aside non-fiction, which is curated under different rules, I finally disgorged a large portion of fiction. Historically I have been reluctant to do this under the general principle that I can hardly predict what I will want to read at some point in the future, and following my rule of taking a flier on any under $1 used book on Amazon that I have some other reason to be potentially interested in. Thus went a few novels I have been unsuccessfully attempting to get myself to read since college--Saul Bellow probably never going to happen--some false starts in grad school--other people might like Coetzee a lot, but not me--and people for whom my affection waned--Ian McEwan, whose Saturday I liked when I first read, but which I came to view as less humanistic and more cynically formulaic (full of belief in one's own fearless truth-telling and hopelessly sentimental: the worst of all possible combinations).

None of this was surprising, exactly. I last attempted Herzog in college, and regularly passed it over in favor of anything else, and so on down the line. What interested me was why I insisted on carrying around books through many moves even after I knew I was never going to read them. The obvious explanations can be discounted: I am not a hoarder by nature (see adding approximately one shelf's worth of books in a year), I try to only speculate on books I might read in the near future, the percentage of books I've completed on any given shelf is never less than 50% and sometimes as high as 80%. I am also quite comfortable with the fact that there are given genres, authors, etc to whom I do not respond, and for which it is not worth making the effort involved in attempting to read.

To buy a book, for a book person, is to speculate about the sort of person you would like to be, are going to be. Sometimes this process is lazy and unfocused, but there are also times when the project of being a reader takes on quite definitive purposes and zeal. Sometimes one tries on different personalities, attempts recommendations given by others, or (a common failing of the young and conservative) attempts to cultivate tastes one believes one should have. Time passes and many of these goals are unfulfilled, as with the making of reading lists. There is yet nothing definitively tragic here.

To give up those books is to admit of a kind of failure, perhaps the worst: failing at a task you decided you didn't want to finish in the first place. It's a renunciation of one set of possibilities. It is an admission of a certain kind of mortality: vita brevis longa ars. Robert Nozick, somewhere I cannot locate at the moment, talks about aging as the closing off of life's possibilities, and that each closed possibility comes to have a cumulative effect greater than its original importance. Maybe it'll be different in ten years and I'll make a go of Bellow, or McEwan, or Coetzee, but I am also forced to concede that it may never happen.



Adventures in Cultural Consumption

The Last Wave: A movie that picks one theme, one type of imagery, a few motifs, and employs them systematically through to the end. In other words, a masterpiece.

If there's a single problem with film today, it's the inability to follow through on only one idea throughout a movie. Better to gesture towards a half-dozen things, all undeveloped, in order to better reach the audience. (Also NB: one idea can be sustained well for no more than two hours.)

When I started reading seriously at the age of 16 (give or take), I had read few books that qualified as serious literature and had an unfocused desire to have read them all. Thus I made a lot of plans: read all of my library's list of classic literature (a pretty good list, it must be said), read all of Shakespeare, read all of Charles Dickens, read the Great Books, read the Harvard Classics, read all of Balzac, read all of Dostoevsky. There were many lists and many goals because I was composing them abstractly, attempting to bind the actions of a person who did not yet exist, and on the erroneous assumption than my as-yet-undeveloped taste would remain the same. As it turns out, I do not respond well to Shakespeare or drama in general; my problems with Dickens are well-covered here; lists and collections tend to be put together by a group of people, and so represent the collected reading experience of many rather than any realistic program of reading for one person.

The goals that have persisted in spite of this tend to be more limited in scope. No one's juvenilia is any good: the dream of reading all of an author's work died hard at Auden's and Dostoevsky's: the latter's early novels and stories are fine but no better than other novels of the period. One might as well go read a minor, but mature, George Eliot, since the young man whose novels I would be plodding through was not yet Dostoevsky in the relevant sense. The lesson would have applied to Bolaño, but the juvenile and the unfinished is sometimes better than his early prose work--The Third Reich is superior to The Skating Rink by any measure, and the desire to snap things up when published made it harder to also listen to critical judgments of each work. Left to me is moving through the mature work of authors I like in a systematic way: Cesar Aira, Javier Marias, Emile Zola, George Eliot, Mario Vargas Llosa, Dostoevsky, others certainly forgotten at the moment. A novel or two by each every year, a handful of new books that seem interesting, a handful of older novels that have come to me by recommendation. Round out with a re-reading or two of an old favorite, a re-visitation of an author previously dismissed, and that's a year.

In that planning, and eventually setting up a working equilibrium, I never quite anticipated that I might reach any of those goals. I have one major Dostoevsky novel left (The Adolescent), only two more by Marias, though with the hope that he keeps writing, one last Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon) and so it goes further down the list. I'd like to keep up with Flaubert, but I suspect there are only two or three novels of his left that are worth the effort, and the same applies to many others. This was brought home for me after finishing Zola's Belly of Paris, which is now the eighth of the Rougon-Macquart that I've read. If I maintain my non-stressful pace of two or three a year, I will be done in four years. He has other novels and there are other writers, but there will simply be nothing else there. It will have been read. The pattern repeats down the line, and my graduate education crossed off a significant portion of my list. I wanted to have read the major developments in western thought on these topics, and I have: I can pursue this down to increasingly minor figures, or find something else to do with my time.

I'm beginning to grasp something of the second lives that I've seen in many of the serious adult readers I've known, a shift that seems to happen in middle age, a plausible response to the "what now?" that comes from matching as many youthful reading goals as might have been established. I suspect my own long and fruitful excursion into Latin American literature is a first sign of this, as a way of varying and responding to the limitations of the 19th-century realist novel that I first found so captivating.



The Absence of Criteria

I wanted to like the essay "Art, Freedom, and the Bechdel Test" much more than I did. It requires a certain incisiveness to note:

These days, in the discourse of popular culture, nothing is JUST entertainment, but EVERYTHING must be fun. And popular, although the fragmentation of platforms has redefined popularity itself. Still. The difficult stuff, the stuff that doesn’t make the "fun" requirement, gets relegated to a ghetto now called snobbism. (This is one of many reasons why ostensibly feminist culture commentators are more interested in Taylor Swift than Annette Peacock, say.) This leaves us free to debate just how adolescent we’d like our culture to be, e.g., ought we read "adult" books as a teenager would (what did I learn from Updike, what was he trying to tell me?), or should we just give up and read YA as adults because that has its value too, and what ought we be embarrassed by?

...but the remainder of the essay meanders. The point about reading like a teenager is well-taken: many years ago, I was acquainted with someone who wrote (popular, praised) book reviews that consisted of describing two-thirds of the plot, identifying some of the themes involved, and saying whether they liked the book or not. That barely qualifies as a book report, much less a review, but it also seems to be the way criticism is trending.

The picture I had of being an adult reader, when I first set my mind to it, was something like this: you read some books, at first indiscriminately, because the goal is to find authors, genres, or periods you find interesting. One reads more in these preferred areas until the central elements are evident, whether in plotting, rhetorical style, theme, or something else. These, supplemented by the occasional critical perspective focused on technical elements of writing as a craft, then allow all that consumed writing to be placed in comparative perspective, where the variable pleasure derived from the act of reading combines with theoretical knowledge of how the writing produces its effect to allow one to make judgments about quality. Areas of particular interest to you can then become places where further exploration of influence and influences can expand future reading options. The same applies to other fields: a little knowledge of film composition will have a dramatic effect on how certain genres are consumed and appreciated (horror films draw from a very small bag of tricks, westerns tend to be highly sophisticated and painterly in their visual grammar).

The problem now seems to be a ceaseless intake of aesthetic products divorced from any time spent contemplating them: stream hour-long episodes of a show all day without any pause to process what's happening in front of you. Everyone doing this to some extent leads to a large number of people having a broad familiarity with a wide number of things and nothing interesting to say about any of it, aside from the fact of having had the experience of consuming it.

I find myself slowing down a lot these days, the better to consume less.



Agreement with Ruth Graham at Slate on reading Young Adult novels as a non-young adult, with one exception:

I don't begrudge anyone reading anything. I spend time on the internet and with light reading, as well. Literary fiction is certainly in thrall to a handful of techniques, styles, and topics that may be of limited interest, or can become of limited interest if you've read enough examples of them. Tastes change over time, people can/will run out of preferred works by preferred authors, and there's great virtue in changing up the types of authors or books one is reading.

When I think about the really pleasurable experiences of reading in my life, they are all in the tackling of something that seemed far outside by ability or interest but proved itself to be worth the work invested. "Pleasure" is the right word: related to but distinct from the pleasure that comes from reading in general. Part of the thrill of working through my current novel--The Mill on the Floss--is the fact that I began it without much success on several occasions before finding myself interested and able; the initial difficulty and the work are the pleasure of it, no less than the story and its telling; those are the parts of the experience of reading that are mine.

If the debate between the two camps seems stultifying, the primary cause lies in how the YA-ers and the lit fiction-ers treat the two as mutually exclusive options. That literary fiction has mostly surrendered writing about or considering the feelings of childhood and adolescence is a great loss, and better that YA pick it up than no one at all. But before there was a divide, the world had no shortage of literature that spoke to and was usefully adopted by the young.

I am old enough to remember, if slightly, the world of fiction young adults were supposed to inhabit before there were books specifically written for them: David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Jack London, Jane Austen or the Brontes, Kerouac or J.D. Salinger, and many others. That is to say: young adults read adult fiction written for adult audiences, but whose subjects were people of their own approximate age and experience in life. Thus you get, ideally, not only the accurate representation of how it feels to be at a certain age, but the knowledge that one will one day surpass all those feelings and come to see the world differently, with more perspective and with greater equanimity. The Mill on the Floss could hardly be matched as an account of a certain part of childhood, where intentions are incompletely transferred to action and emotions come and depart with startling intensity (Maggie pushing her cousin into the mud gets the jumble exactly right). It will not be consumed with immediacy, because its world is different and requires translation, but adult life is about encountering people who have had different experiences and learning how to translate and understand them.



A brief excursus on violence

I'd like to associate myself with these remarks on Game of Thrones, a television show I am now being semi-reluctantly dragged through after having read the books a few years ago and found them not particularly interesting. Primarily, I agree that the violence and sex are almost wholly gratuitous, and designed to stimulate the prurient interest with little or no redeeming artistic value. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the show's treatment of sexual violence, discussed at length in the article, which regularly crosses the line into horrifying depictions of rape while lacking any didactic framework. If you doubt the strength of that claim, the lengths to which the show's creators and writers went to justify the Cersei-Jaime rape scene as eventually consensual should settle the issue.

I've never had much interest in visual depictions of violence. When I was younger, this was primarily for aesthetic-emotional reasons--it provokes no reaction in me I wish to have.* Now, it's a consequence of having spent most of the last decade studying the various historical instances in which people commit violence against each other. From that, I have learned that the capacity of average people to ignore or overlook the reality and consequences of violence is nearly unlimited, at least in part because the average person, put into the right circumstances, is willing to commit acts of violence for ideology, or even unspecified reasons. Which is to say that it seems to me that all depictions of violence are, by definition, prurient, and must prove themselves to be the opposite, if their motives are indeed good. (I think of Shoah, able to depict the totalizing brutality of the Holocaust without showing or reenacting any of it, because of its justified certainty that we have the capacity to imagine the horror without the assistance of images.)

Satire or commentary on violence is incredibly difficult to pull off; the evident examples--RoboCop, for one--themselves walk the line. If you find the violence of Murphy's near death 'funny' or 'awesome,' then the movie explicitly associates you with the bad guys, for whom such violence is weightless. But even here the excessiveness of the violence has the edge of people including it in the movie because they think it looks cool. It's difficult to walk only and always on the correct side of the line.

* Nick Hornby's most insightful moment comes when writing about a review of the band Suicide that referred to one of their songs as "like a shot to the head." As a young person, he found that to be a selling point, but with some reflection, he wonders how that could possibly be read as an endorsement, and allows himself to imagine how someone who returned from the Battle of the Somme would interpret it.
But then, one of the ur-stories in the Troester family mythos is of my great uncle, who fought in WWII, and once found himself at a VFW listening to a man bragging about all the Nazis he had killed. My great uncle told him to shut up: "if you'd actually killed a man, you wouldn't talk about it like that."


On Charles Dickens

I made offhand reference to this view in the comments to a post of Phoebe's on The Goldfinch, and occasionally make reference to the same on twitter, so it seemed worthwhile to flesh out the entire view that Charles Dickens Being the Primary Highbrow Literary Reference of Our Time Says Nothing Good About Our Time:

When I was making my first serious inroads into adult literature in high school--attempting to be systematic in my reading--I read a lot of literary theory. All the figures I read, regardless of where they sat on the major critical questions of the 1950s (I was reading at my school library, of course), agreed that Dickens was a novelist of the second rank. "Of second rank," for those unfamiliar with British-inflected critical discourse, means "basically unimportant, and producing nothing worth discussing at all." The argument for this position is simple: the 19th century was full of excellent authors and novelists, particularly in English, and was the century in which non-English novelists took the form to new heights. Dickens has to be judged against Flaubert's realism, Zola's political and economic interests, bravura scenes like the battle in The Charterhouse of Parma, Balzac's commitment to depicting every corner of his world (one of the few people who can out-volume Dickens, and with a more obvious masterwork--Lost Illusions--as well), Dostoevsky on religion and psychology, and Tolstoy's Tolstoy-ness. In English, he has to be set against Thomas Hardy's introduction of realism and Henry James' stylistic refinements. Even in the world of the plot-driven novel he has to compete against Jane Austen and George Eliot. And this is to say nothing of modernism, or any of the various changes of the 20th century.

On the level of detail, it's not hard to see why he comes up short. Dickens produced very few memorable lines, far fewer than any master stylist might, astonishingly few for the volume of his writing and its wide readership. Of course, authors like Dostoevsky were also terrible stylists, but could produce quite memorable scenes. Here again Dickens must be judged to be lacking: for the number of stories and their penetration into the collective unconscious, there are very few that are memorable in detail: people remember Miss Havisham, not any one particular scene she was in. So also Mr. Micawber, et al. The most common compliment paid to Dickens is to say he wrote 'memorable characters,' but this is another backhanded compliment: it's not very hard to write a memorable character or two even in the most hopeless of books; it can usually be managed even when the novel itself is mismanaged.

What Dickens has in abundance is dramatics, which in his case are melodramatics: the story must be written in such a way that the characters are thrown into peril or subjected to 'unexpected' twists, where one must neglect to notice the presence of the twist near the end of the relevant section of the text. Occasionally this works to great effect: David Copperfield has the lived-in quality of an autobiography precisely because its narrator can effectively pretend not to know where his own story is going, as he must have in experiencing it for the first time. At the worst, there's the Oscar Wilde line about The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

That is to say, the characteristic Dickensian effect is to lose the distinction between drama and melodrama, between those things that accurately reflect plausible dynamics in a story well-told, and those that are there because the novel needs another 100 pages and something has to happen between now and then, those artificial manipulations that slide easily into self-parody or camp. And to read or appreciate Dickens as a first-rank author, one has to neglect to notice this distinction oneself.

And so it is these days: one has to fill 13 episodes, or 22, or 90 (120, 150) minutes of a movie with something, and dramatic twists or fight scenes have to be spaced out.* But those twists have to land, so whatever happens in the meantime can't have too much effect on the story, and thus: backstory, expository dialogue, pointless 'philosophical' ramblings or playing with (obvious) symbolism or metaphors.

*Terminator is an excellent example of a movie with this problem--it's just three big fight scenes/chases--that resolves it by doing interesting and relatively cliché-free things with the downtime.

Labels: ,


Everybody's Favorite Shiba Inu, an update

As her glaucoma has gotten worse, Everybody's Favorite Shiba Inu has become more willing to ignore whatever my wife or I tell her to do. This is annoying when it comes to things like not attempting to jump on the couch when it isn't there, or not positioning herself in the worst of places to be underfoot. You'd think this dog hadn't lived here for the past ten years, that the basic configuration of furniture hadn't been the same for the last seven, and the specific arrangement hadn't been the same since she had actual eyesight.

Then again, sometimes there's a tornado warning at 5:00 in the morning, and your dog, who is not frightened of storms and never gets up when you do, comes quietly but immediately to your side and sits there, adamantly refusing to move until you go back to sleep. She will probably not listen to me at all for the rest of the day, but it's nice to know that if I need it, she'll be there before I even have to ask.