"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


Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Metaphysics Edition

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Propulsive and difficult to put down. Not, perhaps, the most finely written of novels, but enjoyable. As the distance from reading it grows further, I am more dissatisfied with the way in which the novel resolves itself by side-stepping its central question about the relationship between the old gods and the new.

A metaphysical quibble: as I understand it, the book is agnostic on the god-iness of the gods. It is sufficient to say that gods gain their power from worship, especially in the performance of certain sacred rites; this is how Easter can be strong even though no one knows who she is or the relationship of their celebrations to her worship. The underlying idea is that America is a hard place for gods to exist, because they are too easily forgotten and left behind, the new technological gods as easily as the old cultic gods.

All of which is fine, except that Gaiman ignores the elephant in the room: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. If all that matters in performance of the rites, then the gods associated with each of these should be quite strong, even dominant, certainly much more than Wednesday or Loki or anyone else. But to admit this would undermine the central tenet of the book, that America is hostile to the gods. Nor can one argue that the Norse gods, et al, are real and the Christian God, et al, are not, since it seems to be the case that worship is constitutive of the reality of the thing worshipped. So it seems like the book has to fail on its own terms.

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Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Marías for Nobel edition

Javier Marías, A Heart So White

If ours is an age dedicated to realism, and realism as verisimilitude, the verisimilitude we seek is in the collection of a million tiny data points. It was there in embryonic form in David Foster Wallace, who conceived of daily life as an unending stream of information constantly bombarding the individual person, too much to handle. It has blossomed into everyone's favorite complaint about the internet containing too much new content to possibly read. It is there in the fetishism of violence and destruction in comic book movies--one must be real even in the unreal--and in the lavish praise for TV shows that can manage impossible fidelity to nearly-past historical recreations. Its apotheosis as of the moment is Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, the 6000-page listicle of things its author has thought, thinly disguised as a novel-memoir.

Marías, thank goodness, swings as far as possible in the opposite direction. The essence of reality cannot possibly be the welter of information, most of which is instantly discarded by our brains and the rest of which gets minimally processed. (A favorite example from philosophy of mind: what's going on with the bottom of your feet right now? Your brain is constantly receiving nerve signals from them and almost always ignoring them unless conscious attention is placed (or forced). So also everything else in life.) Reality is not information-rich but narrative poor. In the average day, nothing of much consequence happens, even in those parts of life when exciting things are supposed to be happening all the time. As a friend of mine one remarked: "I was prepared for how challenging college would be. I wasn't prepared for how boring it is." Those things that happen are few, and the challenge we face on a daily basis is making some narrative out of those events, from which we can anticipate the future or make decisions about how we will act. Marías is the novelist of that reality.

All Souls is the archetype here: a novel chronicling an affair over the course of an academic year, which intersperses its brief moments of action with long reflections about what, if anything, that action is supposed to mean. In A Heart So White, the narrator is recently married, and is reflecting, in a variety of circumstances, on what that change is supposed to mean, and how to best integrate it into his life. There are, as typical in Marías, unexpected things and narrative twists, but he mostly takes up his idea and examines it from all sides.

On the twists: he is the master of never wasting material. All references are intentional. Any threads that appear to have been left unresolved will be brought up again at the proper time. This is most remarkable in the 1000+ page Your Face Tomorrow, but never not impressive.

He may be the only novelist I've read who has not written a bad book--a judgment I feel safe making with two novels left to go.

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The Problem with "Everything's Amazing, Nobody's Happy"

I was thinking about the internet-famous bit of Louis C.K.'s, usually known as "Everything's Amazing, Nobody's Happy," while I was in the airport the other day. The clinching example of the bit is a story he tells about being on a flight that announced they had wireless internet access, and the internet subsequently crashing beyond immediate repair. His seat-mate, who is unhappy with this turn of events, is the avatar for people who just can't be happy about the amazing world we live in:

Except that C.K. has missed the relevance of the story, and he's wrong. Unless the airline had somehow not realized they could make money from selling internet access, his seat-mate probably paid for the ability to use the internet. His complaint was not born out of an unjustified sense of entitlement to a technology he'd not been aware of, but out of the common enough experience (especially when plane travel is involved) of having paid for something that turns out to be not exactly what was promised.


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."