Apr 12 2017

Some Brief, Random Thoughts on Crafting a Better Book Blog

Some Brief, Random Thoughts on Crafting a Better Book Blog

For the past several months my writing on this blog has been stuck in a rut, lodged between two dikes:

(1) writing posts about current events, outrages, and crises and trying to relate those things to various literary references and book-jewels picked up over the years;

(2) writing posts on things that attempt to ignore the historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which I live, things that think not of posterity, things which take very seriously Oscar Wilde’s definition of the art of doing nothing:

Gilbert. Nothing that one can imagine is worth doing…. Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual. To Plato, with his passion for wisdom, this was the noblest form of energy. To Aristotle, with his passion for knowledge, this was the noblest form of energy also. It was to this that the passion for holiness led the saint and the mystic of mediaeval days.

Ernest. We exist, then, to do nothing?

Gilbert. It is to do nothing that the elect exist. Action is limited and relative…. Yes, Ernest: the contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming—that is what the critical spirit can give us…. The necessity for a career forces every one to take sides. We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. And, harsh though it may sound, I cannot help saying that such people deserve their doom. The sure way of knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful…. It can do for us what can be done neither by physics nor metaphysics. It can give us the exact science of mind in the process of becoming. It can do for us what History cannot do. It can tell us what man thought before he learned how to write…. [1]

There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it true…. [which is why] The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art….[2]

Or perhaps this whole post is merely one more exercise in my “luxury in self-reproach”:

He covered page after page with wild words of sorrow and wilder words of pain. There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution. When Dorian had finished the letter, he felt that he had been forgiven…. [For] to become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life. [3]

Nonetheless, lately all attempts at blog criticism––no matter how unorthodox, whether analogical or literal––seem but Biblically lukewarm.[4]

Right now instead of blogging about books, I feel like listening to Heino sing country songs while I work in my father’s vineyard.

Pruning the vines, #vine #wine #vineyard

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

 

Some random thoughts that run through my head while under the sun, among the vines, amid the Sänger musik:

  • What do we mean when we say something like: “I answered the question without even thinking?” Surely something was thought before, during, and after the answer was made.
  • To be an immigrant is to be a quotation in someone else’s book, to be stuck between someone else’s words.
  • I bet residents of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s really resented Scott McKenzie’s single “If You’re Going to San Francisco.”

     

Surely that song spoiled the city’s prior exclusivity. Afterward it allowed everyone who wanted to migrate Out There. This ruined it for the locals, forcing them to become totally lamestream, or as Wilde puts it: “to be popular one must be a mediocrity.”[5]

NOTES

[1] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891)

[2] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions (Volume 7 of The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde). New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909. pp. 3–57 at 10–11.

[3] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. 1890. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. 2003. VIII, 100; IX, 114.

[4] See Revelation of Saint John 3:16:

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

And from Richard McKeon (1900-1985):

Literally or analogically conceived, therefore, the philosophic principles which lie behind the discussions of the critic select for him, by defining his terms, a subject matter and principles from the vast diversity which those terms might encompass. [First] If the poet is the source of distinctions or analogies, the discussion may be of character, knowledge, or technique; or of imagination, taste, or genius; or of beauty, truth, or moral goodness. [Second] If the poem is fundamental, all problems may be translated into those of form and content; or of imitation and object; or of thought, imagination, and emotions; or of activity and effects. [Third] The effects finally, if they are fundamental, may be treated in terms of expression and communication; or of context and moral, social, economic, or semantic determination; or of influence and emotion.   (“The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism,” Modern Philology, XLI: 2. (Nov. 1943.) pp. 65–87 at 75.)

[5] Picture of Dorian Gray XVII, 201.


Mar 7 2016

SONG OF THE SOUTH: manhood, hunters, and hucksters

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In his book How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015), Rod Dreher talks about a childhood family hunting outing in rural Louisiana gone wrong:

I froze in horror. I had killed many squirrels before, and some were not fully dead when they fell from the tree. I would pick them up by their tails and bash their skulls against a tree to put them out of their misery. It was unpleasant but no big thing…. I looked up from the ground at my father and my sister. Ruthie burst into laughter. Daddy screwed his face up in disgust and growled, “You sissy.” [1]

Upon rereading this passage, it reminded me of an episode in Robert Dalleck’s 2001 biography A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963 that describes one of LBJ and RFK’s first encounters in rural Central Texas:

The logical choice [for a running mate] seemed to be Lyndon Johnson. At a personal level, the Kennedys were not well-disposed toward him. He had said harsh things about Jack and Joe and antagonized Bobby by rejecting his father’s suggestion of an LBJ-JFK ticket in 1956. In November 1959, when Jack had sent Bobby to see Johnson at his Texas ranch to ask if he was running, Johnson, in some peculiar test of manhood or as a way of one-upping the Kennedys, insisted that he and Bobby hunt deer. When Bobby was knocked to the ground and cut above the eye by the recoil of a shotgun Johnson had lent him, Johnson exclaimed, “Son, you’ve got to learn to handle a gun like a man.” It was an indication of his low regard for the whole Kennedy clan…[2]

Who goes deer hunting with a shotgun?! Nonetheless, compare all of the above to several separate moments in Elmer Gantry (1927) and its rural Midwestern, rather than Southern, take on violence and Christianity:

Though Elmer detested Eddie’s sappiness, though he might have liked to share drinks with the lively young baker-heckler, there was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up….[3]

[And Rev. Judson Roberts said to Elmer Gantry:] “You bet, Hell-cat! I’m willing to fight you for the glory of God! God needs you! Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun? Am I a sneaking Christian? Can you lick me? Want to fight it out?” …. [4]

“That’s right,” agreed Elmer Gantry. “Say, I had–I was holding a meeting at Grauten, Kansas, last summer, and there was a big boob that kept interrupting, so I just jumped down from the platform and went up to him, and he says, ‘Say, Parson,’ he says, ‘Can you tell us what the Almighty wants us to do about prohibition, considering he told Paul to take some wine for his stomach’s sake?’ ‘I don’t know as I can,’ I says, ‘but you want to remember he also commanded us to cast out devils!’ and I yanked that yahoo out of his seat and threw him out on his ear, and say, the whole crowd–well, there weren’t so awfully many there, but they certainly did give him the ha-ha! You bet. And to be husky makes a hit with the whole congregation, men’s well as women. But there’s more’n one high-toned preacher that got his pulpit because the deacons felt he could lick ’em. Of course praying and all that is all O.K., but you got to be practical! We’re here to do good, but first you have to cinch a job that you can do good in!” [5]

 

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 11.

[2] Dalleck, Robert. A Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963. NY: Little and Brown. 2001. p. 269.

[3] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter I,” 17.

[4] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter III,” 39–40.

[5] Lewis, Elmer Gantry, “Chapter VI,” 83.

 


Jan 26 2016

Dallek’s JFK

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My brother got this book for me about ten years ago:

JFK-Dallek

And in the past two months I finally managed to read this 700-page tome.

 

After reading Robert Dallek’s An Life Unfinished: John F. Kennedy, 19171963 (2001):

 

  • I didn’t know Jackie had a miscarriage in August of 1963.
  • The intense animosity between De Gaulle and Kennedy is something I now want to read more about.

Jan 15 2016

A SECOND LOOK AT FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Reviewing 5 Books by 4 Authors

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Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [1]

The anthropologist Bateson, an avowed atheist, was fond for chiding that supernatural things and miracles are but “a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.” [2] I’m not sophisticated enough to argue for or against that last statement, but the above quotation gives the book reviewer an apt starting point because one can apply Bateson’s words to the act of reading. Let us ask, for each of the five books under review: as a reader what did I get wrong––what did I wrongly assume to be true going into the initial reading?

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming? I assumed there would be some everyday-life sentimentality––I did not expect to encounter mysticism—and when I did I found it difficult to hold my attention. I struggled to empathize with experiences of the numinous recounted in this book, such as dreaming of conversing with ghosts. For I’ve never had a mystical moment—as occurs sometimes in this and in Dreher’s other work How Dante as well as (in passing) in the angelology and demonology of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. Even when I was a regular churchgoer, neither in the loud churches nor quiet churches, neither in the black churches, white churches, or Latin American churches I visited—some of which were full of people with spasms, the shakes, speaking in tongues, shouting out loud like Paul Stanley, some bellowing with Bach from an organ, some full of smoke from incense and candles, I never experienced the coincidence-that-wasn’t-really-a-coincidence like Dreher relates:

Despite these very different approaches to faith, we had independently developed interest in the patterns that God uses when He communicates to us. We both believed strongly in meaningful coincidences, which the psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” Ruthie called them “seven-oh-nines,” after a remarkable set of coincidences that happened to her after [her husband] Mike went off to war an event that tested Ruthie faith. [3]

Yes, I am usually interested in what Jung, the godfather of Neognosticism, has to say, and I’ve listened to the Sting and the Police and still dig that tune, but on the other hand, I cannot ignore Emerson’s words:

Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false…. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one … And the mystic must be steadily told, — All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. [4]

I can confess to experiencing moments where I felt like was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time, but there was nothing transcendental about it—and I certainly feel I’d be lying if I labeled those experiences as mystical.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about How Dante Can Save Your Life? While not quite anticipating Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1922) or C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941), I mistakenly expected to encounter the same kind of rigorous writing style I’ve found on Dreher’s blog these past few years. There were no berserking blitzkrieg of quotations accompanied by Rod’s infamous “read the whole thing” blurb. Instead, I found in How Dante a restrained and simplified style––one not dumbed down, but distilled.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about La Divina Comedia? If you start to read commentary on Dante you’ll soon get engulfed by diagrams and charts and maps of the Afterlife. So what surprised me on first read was the dreamy ease of it. Much like Proust, the places and transitions from one place to another did not feel to this reader like the rigid levels, the strict layers, the definite hierarchies and inked schemata from centuries of scholars. Nor did reading the Comedia and imagining the visuals the poet supplies feel like playing a video game with stringent leveling of worlds and platforms, nor the way the audience encounters the station stopping “blocks” in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953) (a fellow Louisianian author of Dreher’s) even if Dante has rendered a systematized thought behind it all.

La Divina Comedia is, however, the first epic I’m aware of to be told entirely as a dream, which was a common medium for storytelling and poetry in the Middle Ages. In Dante there are seemless fade ins and fade outs from one place to another, but these moments are not quite as lacking in transitions as, say, Yellow Submarine (1968), or even the radical, random juxtaposition found in the work of David Lynch––Dante was certainly not a Dadaist.

Structurally, I see Dicken’s Christmas Carol (1843) as an inverted Divine Comedy: the Ghost of Christmas Past represents Paradiso, the Ghost of the Christmas Present represents Purgatorio, The Ghost of Christmas Future, Inferno—a Christian theme, a Christian dream, all told in one night.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Why Place Matters? I expected more references to contemporary politics as well as the application of specific and emerging technologies. Overall this anthology is very studied and astute—but it contains no author imagining or proposing radical change, no deeply inspiring vision like a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley might expect to be pitched. In that sense, the book is very conservative. Most of Why Place Matters involves case histories and diagnoses for the increasing lack of relevance of place in American culture, but few (if any) prescriptions are proposed. This remains a banal charge against many modern nonfiction books. Probably the most blatant example in Why Place Matters of this pattern of theory overriding practice can be found in Mark T. Mitchell’s essay “Marking Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation.”

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Elmer Gantry? I got two things wrong: (1) I was mistaken that Gantry has no adversaries when his co-minister Sharon Falconer does in fact function somewhat as his antagonist. He doesn’t know what motivates her. He seems to shake off or ignore her proclamations about being Joan of Arc reincarnated because he stays prostrate, in ardent awe of her. So Sharon is Elmer’s Beatrice: “Always, in every high-colored mood, she was his religion and his reason for being.”[5]

(2) I thought Elmer Gantry, as the character of the evangelical minister, wanted––as he does in the 1960 movie based on the book––a rock-n-roll lifestyle of women and whisky, but Elmer only wants the attention and influence that comes from making people feel good.

Finally, I really identified how he can’t wrap his mind around the necessity in Christian ministry for a minimal amount of mysticism. After Elmer had successfully lay-preached, and is soon to graduate from seminary, he is informed that he still needs a Call:

He saw himself as a white-browed and star-eyed young evangel, wearing a new frock coat, standing up in a pulpit and causing hundreds of beautiful women to weep with conviction and rush down to clasp his hand.

But there was one barrier, extremely serious. They all informed him that select though he was as sacred material, before he decided he must have a mystic experience known as a Call. God himself must appear and call him to service, and conscious though Elmer was now of his own powers and the excellence of the church, he saw no more of God about the place than in his worst days of unregeneracy.

He asked the president and the dean if they had had a Call. Oh, yes, certainly; but they were vague about practical tips as to how to invite a Call and recognize it when it came. He was reluctant to ask Eddie––Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.

The Call did not come, not for weeks, with Easter past and no decision as to what he was going to do next year. [6]

Later in the chapter, Elmer has deacons and elders circle around and pray for him to have the Call. But nothing happens. So Elmer sneaks off and gets “only a very little bit drunk” before deciding himself that he’s been called to the ministry.

 

 To be continued….

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NOTES

[1] Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. 105–06

[2] Nachmanovitch Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 72.

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Essays Second Series. 1844.

[5] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter XIII,” 190.

[6] Ibid, “Chapter IV,” 62-66.

 


Oct 13 2015

Intricacies of Bureaucracy & Images of the Body: Rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

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Two passages particularly struck me when rereading Ilyich. The first has to do with the way healthcare workers tend to cross examine the bodies of patients, like lawyers cross-examining the mind of a witness or police interrogating a suspect. Amid an illness, particularly chronic illness, the patient is always on trial:

Ivan Ilyich knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilyich submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

It is almost as if Ivan Ilyich––a bureaucrat and son of a bureaucrat, see “Chapters 02 & 03”––suspects he may die by the bureaucratic ways and means of his doctor. Recently, I had my own health scare, and while everything turned out to be alright, there were nevertheless forms to fill out and receipts to file away. It is not just 21st century Obamacare or British healthcare or Canadian healthcare that piles on the paperwork—Tolstoy had the intuition, imagination, and foresight to see that healthcare and bureaucracy are intimately intertwined, and have been so since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

And after all the paperwork has been completed, the tests run, and the doctors have finished updating the diagnoses for their patients—after all these barriers of bureaucracy are crossed, the ill individual looks in the nearest mirror and does not recognize the stranger reflecting back:

And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

Intricacies of bureaucracy and images of the body—these are what moderns like us, like Tolstoy, and like those around us must deal with when confronted with a crisis of healthcare. But do we Westerners tend to focus more on the image of the body because of two millennia of Christian culture? The American philosopher James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) seemed to think so when he observed in an essay written thirty years after Tolstoy’s story:

I think, however, there are several additional factors which give Hinduism a certain advantage over Christianity in nourishing a strong belief in immortality. One of them is connected with the question of the imagination already discussed. The Hindu finds no difficulty whatever in imagining the next life, for his belief in reincarnation teaches him that it will be just this life over again, though possibly at a slightly different social level. I am inclined to think, moreover, that the Christian and the Hindu customs of disposing of the dead body may have something to do with this contrast in the strength of their beliefs. Is it not possible that the perpetual presence of the graves of our dead tends to make Christians implicitly identify the lost friend with his body, and hence fall into the objective, external form of imagination about death that so weakens belief in the continued life of the soul? [Bookbread’s emphasis] We do not teach this view to our children in words, but we often do indirectly and unintentionally by our acts. The body––which was the visible man – is put visibly into the grave and the child knows it is there; and at stated intervals we put flowers on the grave – an act which the child can hardly interpret otherwise than under the category of giving a present to the dead one. And so it comes about that while he is not at all sure just where Grandpa is, he is inclined to think that he is up in the cemetery. Much of our feeling and of our really practical and vital beliefs on this subject, as on most others, is of course derived from our childhood impressions.

(“Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 308.)


Aug 17 2015

Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

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Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher writes:

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for Just Muddling Through as the only realistic solution to anything. It’s not a “solution” at all, but in the absence of a solution, it’s usually the best we can do. Every solution comes with a new set of problems.

I think this is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson was getting at when he said that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology”–and this is probably also what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.”[1]

But while explorations may be self-validating, our biases, whether in life or art, protect us. As Susan Sontag reminds us:

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus.[2]

 

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[1] Bateson, Mind and NatureA Necessary Unity. NY: Bantam. 1980. p. 139; Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” Theories of Schizophrenia. Edited by Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss. NY: Atherton Press. 1969. p. 82; Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden: Or Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Chapter I: On Economy.”

[2] Sontag, “On Style” (1965) in Against Interpretation. NY: Dell. 1969. p. 36; see also Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to Be More Fully Human.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 102–19 at 111.


May 16 2010

Recent Trends in the Treatment of Books by American Readers

Lately when reading, it is not uncommon to come across someone dismissing all books under the category of “dead things.” Three trends that treat books as such occur when folks either: analyze and attend to books, neglect and negate them, or embalm and preserve them. None of these trends relate much to the act of reading.

In the twenty-first century, if fiction happens to be found in a book, it is attended to like a cadaver in anatomy class, analyzed by gangs of pathologists who conduct autopsies in front of students of literature [01]. Yet nobody should expect these pathological non-readers (or their students) to administer any sort of attentive care when their patients, their books in hand, are already assumed dead and subjected to such techniques of dissection as “snippet” and “balanced reading” [02]. True, the dissection of texts was always practiced upon the holy books of a society, but never has a legion of non-reading pathologists institutionalized the reading standards for an entire nation. After their investigations are finished, one wonders whether a mass grave will be provided for these books? Or perhaps cremation is the best option when books bear the burden of neglect [03].

Accompanying the neglect of books is their negation, for readers, grieved by unsatisfactory texts, now demand the negating or “unpublishing” of certain words, phrases, and facts [04]. No longer will unpublishing be limited to kings, judges, and journalists. Moreover, the amount of current, active writers has multiplied as well as diversified [05], and in like manner, books are undergoing their own mutations in their standards, procedures, design, and formats [06]. Book publishers too have resorted to marketing a variety of textual containers (particularly Kindles and iPads). There is a touch of irony in the observation that for well over a millennia books never had any trouble finding their way into the hands of substantially poor readers, writers, and owners—but only in the twenty-first century do we find publishers being shoved into equality with their book-bearing brethren. Today’s writers, publishers, customers, and their books stand united in a democracy of poverty.

Books nowadays are also being embalmed on a new scale—their physical traits are now preserved and standardized by the cramming of books into the backgrounds of consumer catalogues, hotel lobbies, and studios that house television morning shows [07]. Here, in the backgrounds, books are kept preserved (or rather embalmed), but preserved only if one believes the medium of the book to include everything that is a book except its own text.  Today it seems only the container of the text is worth preserving.

In such circumstances is it so strange for a book blogger to ask, “How do I display or otherwise admire all these books I keep buying for the Kindle?” [08] Surely limiting the function of books strictly to decorate a space is a habit of society agreed to by all, but to amputate a text from its medium seems somewhat novel, at least as far as book behavior is concerned. As a result we are no longer driven to idealize the memorization of a text—a thing George Steiner once concluded as an ultimate goal for readers [09].

Only a few readers in the republic remain anyway—we who read not for pleasure but to escape, to forget the currency of now, to distract our attention’s natural focus on the void of joy [10]. True, sometimes this escapism comes accompanied by a belief in acclaimed benefits of “learning,” “being well informed,” or “the discovery of something new,” yet such benefits are beneficial only in the sense that they allow us to read more material with slightly more speed, intuition, and understanding which thereby increases our rate of escape from reality. The ultimate benefit of knowledge gained through reading resides in the access that knowledge provides for further reading, but if bad books are still printed, remain unread, left for dead, and continue to be complained about, has anything really changed in human–book relations [11]?

01. This terminology for autopsy was inspired by Mark Bauerlein’s Literary Criticism, an Autopsy (1997). Recently, however, Joy Hakim has claimed in “Let Them Read Whole Books” at the Oxford University Press Blog (03-29-10):
Our schools aren’t letting children read whole books. In this information age, when young people are very aware of the real world, we’re keeping any book-driven consideration of it out of classrooms, especially in those crucial middle school years. Studies show [though not shown by Hakim] that the average American schoolchild never reads a single whole nonfiction books [sic] during middle and high school (except maybe a textbook).
Today, it is only homeschoolers, and children at a few elite or unusual schools who even read as much as one whole book. Teachers are much too busy teaching reading to actually let their students read a nonfiction book.
There is also E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s “How to Save the Schoolsa review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10). Hirsch writes:
Two decades ago I was appalled by an international comparison showing that between 1978 and 1988 the science knowledge of American students had dropped from seventh to fourteenth place. In the postwar period we have declined internationally in reading from third place to fifteenth place among the nations participating in the survey.
02. These techniques of dissection are warned of by Hakim as well as in Hirsch on Ravitch:
What schools are doing—endlessly—is teaching reading “strategies.” Our young students are analyzing paragraphs. I call it “snippet” reading…. They tackle reading “strategies….” [A teacher] may take a chapter, or maybe a few paragraphs from a book, combine it with an original document and an activity—and there you have it. No one has to actually read a book. [Let Them Read Whole Books” at the Oxford University Press Blog (03-29-10)]
And:
Many of the weekly hours that are assigned to language arts in the early grades are now being devoted to practicing reading strategies such as “questioning the author” and “finding the main idea.” Ravitch describes in detail a highly touted reform in New York City and San Diego called “balanced literacy,” which requires students to spend a lot of time practicing such reading strategies but does not prescribe any particular books, poems, and essays to practice them on. [Hirsch “How to Save the Schools” a review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10)]
03. Not only does the intensive inspection of selections of excerpts of texts, in a way, neglect the text as a whole, but Hirsch, via Ravitch, reports on an American tradition of institutionalized book neglect:
By the early twentieth century worries about the stability of the Republic had subsided, and by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth—a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience. [Hirsch “How to Save the Schools” a review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10)]
04. As Melinda Burns thoroughly reports in “As the Internet Replaces Print Publishing, Urge to ‘Unpublish’ Means Censoring History” at AlterNet (03-01-10):
In a recent survey of 110 news organizations, the Toronto Star found that increasingly, publishers are fielding regular requests from anxious and embarrassed readers to “unpublish” information, sometimes months or years after it first appeared online…. Some readers don’t want their marital status or the price of their home known, or they were quoted saying something they now regret.
As Kathy Steiner of the Jamestown Sun wrote, “‘Unpublishing’ is a word that doesn’t accurately reflect what people are asking. They’re asking to censor or rewrite history….” Yet, as Paulette Haddix of the PostTribune of Northwest Indiana said: “If something happened, it happened. If it was said, it was said. We don’t want to set any ‘unpublishing’ precedent where we are rewriting history.”
05. “Journalism’s next generation: A new wave of writers are going online to get their message across” by Ian Burrell of the Independent (04-22-10) notes:
It is a widely held view that the internet has made writers of everyone. Whether we prodigiously blog or just contribute to message boards, we all like to think that we can make a pithy observation. That shouldn’t mean the specialist correspondent cannot have a greater resonance.
06. Burrell reports that the changes in British publishing now include “creating a network of expertly written websites that cater for the specialist audiences that are arguably no longer being served as they once were by more traditional media organisations.” [ Journalism’s next generation: A new wave of writers are going online to get their message across” in the Independent (04-22-10)]
Jeremy Caplan, a blogger for the Wall Street Journal, expands the conversation concerning the mutations of published texts in “The iPad and the Future of Text” (04-28-10):
Digital text is at a crossroads, and the iPad’s momentum could nudge it in one of two directions.
Down one path lies a world in which words are increasingly digitized in iPad-like e-readers that function like locked glass boxes. That renders books, magazines and newspapers easy to carry around but difficult to share or remix.
Down the other path, openness wins out, and text can be shared in myriad ways. This brings digital books closer to a historical precursor: commonplace books. These were personal scrapbooks created centuries ago expressly for spontaneous text sharing, long before Web links made that concept, well, commonplace.
Concerning the Kindle and other electronic reading devices, Virgina Hefferman, in “The Medium” on the Shelf Lifeblog of the New York Times (03-04-10) notes: “The [Kindle], which consigns all poetry and prose to the same homely fog-toned screen, leaves nothing to the experience of books but reading.”
07. See Rob Walker’s comments in “Books, the idea: Suggesting wealths of learnedness” from his marketing/design blog murketing (04-22-10):
Unlike other collectibles, books “represent a different order of plenitude,” [Nicholson Baker’s piece, “Books as Furniture,” from the June 12, 1995 New Yorker] writes, one that encompasses “the camel caravans of thought-bearing time to read them through.” And he quotes William Gladstone arguing against a fashion for ornamental bookcases; those objects should remain plain, Gladstone says, because books “are themselves the ornament.”
Also note Herrman (ibid.):
If [Walter Benjamin] says not reading books can be as sophisticated and European as reading them, I believe him, and I will try to think of my books as Sèvres china. But Sèvres china, if I had any, would be for display on its days off, wouldn’t it? [Virgina Hefferman’s post “The Medium” on Shelf Lifeblog of the New York Times (03-04-10)]
08. Ibid.
09. Steiner, George “Critic”/“Reader”. New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 3, Anniversary Issue: I. (Spring, 1979), pp. 423–452. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/468921>:
But a text can only enter into the full life of the canon when it is woken by, housed within, the negated distance of precise memory. It follows that “total reading” has an inherent logic of dispensation, that it tends towards a condition in which the materiality of the text is no longer required. The icon has been wholly internalized. (p. 444)
10. As Twain put it in his last known story, Captain Stormfields Visit to Heaven (1909): “Happiness ain’t a thing in itself—it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant.”
11. A recent, semi-humorous example can be found in Sean Fennessey’s post (“Cancel Publish: A Call For the End of Tumblr Book Deals.”) On GQ’s pop culture blog, The Verge. (04-27-10). Fennessy calls for an end to such “spawn of social media,” noting that:
Agent Jason Allen Ashlock explained to Galleycat why he connected at the idea: “The blog to book projects seem tired because so many of them have been one-trick ponies. They’re based around a gimmick: They tell a joke and then they tell it again and again. Image, caption, laugh. Image, caption, laugh. Their concepts are thin. The ones that have been really successful, and have a chance of making the backlist, have had a clear editorial voice: there’s an honest critique or cultural observation built into the ostensibly humorous project.”

Feb 21 2010

The Limits of Logic within the Limits of Fiction

At D.G. Myers’ A Commonplace Blog, a post entitled “Fiction’s Job,” endorses American Fiction Notes‘ Mark Athitakis’ definition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction.”  For Myers, this proposition by Athitakis is not a true tautology.  Myers goes on to explain that the modified statement, “fiction’s job is to be fiction,” would be tautological.

Assuming, with Wittgenstein [01], that all words are either tautologies or contradictions, the question beckons: Cannot attentive readers, whenever trying to define literature, rely on contradictions to the same extent they do towards tautologies?

The question is proposed because Bookbread abides by Paul Valéry’s proverb that “even in the best head, contradiction is the rule, correct sequence the exception.” [02]

 

After endorsing Athitakis’ proposition, Myers writes: “The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects.” So Bookbread must also ask: How limiting is Athitakis’ proposition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction?”

Can literature/good writing/good fiction be redefined as a sequence of words (that is, a text) that alleviates the reader’s apathy towards that sequence and the author of it? Yes, but only by further conceding to a contradiction which underlies this new definition: the contradiction that not-reading might also alleviate individuals from textual and/or authorial apathy. After all, there are plenty of fiction authors whom folks may claim to “like” and think “are good” even though they’ve yet to read them. People have no qualms against living fictitious lives, and novelists have never hesitated to write about them.

Continuing with “Fiction’s Job,” Myers supports his position on the limits of fiction via Chesterton, whose views on fairies and fiction, particularly the necessity of the believability of a story, can be supplemented by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939):

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. [03]

Like the limits of fiction, we arrive at the limits of logic: And whether or not we book bloggers limit our logic by agreeing on either a tautological or contradictory definition for fiction, we should learn to never completely rely on logic for support of our literary judgments—because as Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) reminds us:

It is quite true that logical speech is tautologous and cannot add to the sum of meaning or of knowledge. But the historical function of logical method has not been, to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity—self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved, as in the West it has very largely been achieved, today, there is no more that logic can do. Self-consciousness is indeed a sine qua non of undreaming knowledge, but it is not knowledge, it is more like its opposite; and once it has been achieved, logic, as far as the business of knowing is concerned, is functus officio. Or rather its surviving function is, to prevent a relapse. [04]

Notes:

[01] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. 1921. See § 6.1, 6.11, 6.111, 6.12. See also: Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 16.

[02] Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” Translated by Jackson Matthews, from the Southern Review, Winter 1940, Vol. 5, No. 03. Extracted from The Creative Process. Ed. by Brewster Ghiselin. UC Press. Mentor Books Edition, Ninth Printing. 1952. pp. 92–106. pp. 100, ¶ 48.

[03] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. The Monsters and the Critics. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins. 2006. pp. 132.

[04] Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 30.


Feb 9 2010

The Death of Fiction (and the Livelihood of Talking About It)

Back to Ted Genoways’s “Death of Fiction?” article in Mother Jones, which has, apparently, generated chatter among book bloggers. Bookbread noted earlier that Genoways concluded his piece with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with Rebecca West’s call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

Several book bloggers, however, don’t like what they’ve read recently from Ted Genoways, as he argues over the decrease of readership for literary magazines (or is it America’s decrease for things literary?).

George at Bookninja posts “The Death of Fiction” and notes:

[Even] as fiction has become a common pastime pursuit for the vocationally undecided idly rich (re MFA prgs), its viability as a commercial venture has fallen further than ever.

Tolmsted of Booksexy comments on George’s Bookninja post (and thereby Genoways’) and wonders:

Realistically, what were the actual circulation numbers [for literary magazines] to begin with? How much of an impact did they really have? With or without those magazines, catching a break in the literary world will always be a crap shoot.

On the other hand, over at The Reading Experience, in a post entitled “Rescuing Public Discourse,” Daniel Green confesses:

I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd….

The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored. Unless he’s suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction: “With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere.” This concern for “public discourse” seems more immediate to Genoways than his ostensible concern for fiction or for literary magazines and their loss of audience.

Lastly, “How Many Times Can We Kill Fiction?” by Brian Ray contains much blather and froth but still manages to recognize:

Genoways bewails how in “the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction.” But that’s only because the world has yet to see my retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which instead of sailing along the Congo will follow the mission of a lieutenant sent to whack a colonel gone mad on power who’s established himself as a demagogue among Taliban chieftains. Don’t worry, Ted. I’m going to show America that plenty remains to be said about foolish wars run by colonial powers. It’s not the same story told over and over again.


Jan 29 2010

The Book Blogger’s Scepter of Censure

“Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority; men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. And the pleasure of wantoning in common topics is so tempting to a writer, that he cannot easily resign it; a train of sentiments generally received enables him to shine without labour, and to conquer without a contest.”

—Samuel Johnson

“It is a truthful sublimity which elevates the mind, and flatters it into believing such sublimity to be its own offspring and production.”

—Longinus

Being new, this blog is still coming into its own with providing a suitable style and proper form. Bookbread strives to provide and participate in “elevated conversations”: elevated in Longinus’ sense of the sublime—and conversations that concern books, literature, and language. But when online in the twenty-first century, the temptation is exponentially greater to “willingly indulge” in criticism on the views of others, or “censure” whatever one happens to come across while reading/browsing.

It can certainly be confessed that Bookbread still experiences moments of pleasure when imagining that [Bookbread has] made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies, which escape vulgar observation. Such pleasures are reserved for those who bear the scepter of censure.  Those bearers are called book bloggers.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler 02. March 26, 1750. (¶ 2).

Longinus, Dionysius. An Essay on the Sublime. (~100 C.E.). trans. by Herbert A. Giles. (1870). J. Cornish & Sons, London. (§ VII, pp. 17–18).