“We know how difficult it is to execute excellence in art (although I am convinced that for the true genius the things that look difficult to us are easy and effortless for him). But while we recognize quality by its rareness, on the other hand we consistently moan about the absence of quality from the hearts and minds of the masses. We talk about a crisis in literacy; we are upset and disquieted about pop art; we talk about airport sculpture; we are unnerved, and legitimately so, about the sensational play as opposed to the sensitive one. Each of us has a group of phrases that identify for us the mediocre in an art form. I sometimes wonder if we really and truly mean it. Do we really mean that the world is the poorer because too few appreciate the finer things? Suppose we did live in a world in which people chatted about Descartes and Kant and Lichtenstein in McDonald’s. Suppose Twelfth Night was on the best-seller list. Would we be happy? Or would we decide that since everybody appreciated it, maybe it wasn’t any good? Or maybe if the artist himself had not begged for his life—begged and struggled through poverty, perhaps on into death—perhaps his art wasn’t any good. There seems to have been an enormous amount of comfort taken in some quarters (in print and in conversation) that when thousands and thousands of people stood in line to see the Picasso show, only 4 or 5 percent of the people who saw it really knew what they were seeing.” – The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations – Toni Morrison
It may be March, and we have less snow and ice and a little bit more light each day… but it’s still March, so there is still some snow and ice and darkness. As I had hoped, I have managed a bit more reading in March, but that’s mostly because I had to travel more than usual. I set aside travel time (dead time on planes, trains, buses) for reading, even if I have wifi access (thanks, Norwegian!). It still feels very fragmented, though, and it’s disappointing that there aren’t more poetry books available as e-books and even more challenging that I don’t have as much time as usual to seek out poetry in non-English languages, which would probably be the thing I would love most in the world to read now. It did, after all, used to be a major pastime to wander through bookstores in foreign lands seeking original-language poetry books. But bookstores seem fewer and far between, and my time to seek them out seems more limited.
In February and March, I did a whole lot of research to inform and narrow down my next thesis project, but it turns out it was probably all for nothing. Coursework in my current degree program is about to end, but despite my poor attendance, I still feel quite burned out, i.e. “please just end now“. I have kept up with my studies, assignments and readings except for one key class, which required group work that I could not participate in… so I am pretty sure I am going to fail. (Will it surprise you that I don’t include the text “Learning Statistics with R” in this list of good stuff?) And I wish I could say I cared. Truthfully, I do care, but I have been slightly overextended this term, and I have to keep telling myself, “This really does not matter.” After all, I am a middle-aged woman who already has a career and pretty much all the things I want and need; taking on more formal education has been a luxury from the beginning. It has not been something required for career progression and has no bearing on my future. So the strange guilt-trip scolding kind of stuff I get from the administration regarding attendance is misplaced, taking me back to much-hated childhood… but for god’s sake, I am not a child.
Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for March:
What strikes me most about my reading in March is that I read a few things I felt excited about, thinking they would be engrossing. But then they just were not quite what I hoped for. Not that they posed no topics for reflection or interesting insights… just that they were not the gripping accounts of … whatever they were about… that I expected. But that is the danger of ever expecting anything, right?
“Is it any small wonder, then, that the tactics critics have devised to shake the legacy of close, critical, or useless reading as the sine qua non of literary culture betray a whiff of desperation?” –Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America – Merve Emre
*Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – Caroline Criado Perez
I was beyond excited to read this book. I think and write a lot about women fighting to find the space and oxygen in a male-dominated world just to make their thoughts known, let alone contribute in a significant way (without being ignored, gaslit, demeaned, diminished, interrupted or having credit stolen away). What Criado Perez has done in her much-anticipated book, Invisible Women, is take data – of the absence of it – to illustrate how neglected women really are in pretty much every public sphere. Whether it is in infrastructure and transportation planning, healthcare and medical research, the law and its application, public safety, women are insidiously invisible – and even women have been blind to how little their existence matters in considering, for example, everything from drug development and dosage recommendations to the design of backpacks or seatbelts. In every possible way, society is built around the “norm”, which is the man. The male is the default position, and despite making up more than half of the population, the woman is the outlier, leading to a massive gender-based data gap in almost literally every subject. And even in female-only areas, such as menstruation and pregnancy, research is skewed, non-existent or dismissed as less important.
I read this book and found myself getting angrier and angrier, wanting to scream before wanting to act. But where to start acting? I am running up against some of the challenges of data collection myself at the moment – not so much having to do with gender as it has to do with the limitations of being within a university system. As is pointed out throughout academia and the “replicability crisis” within academia, we are never getting representative results in our work because we use and have access to very limited groups of subjects, particularly as students ourselves, i.e. we have access to other students, who are all relatively affluent, educated to a certain level, generally within a certain age range. This limits not only what results we get but what kinds of questions we can ask. I can’t, for example, ask a group of young master’s degree students how they feel about or experience “geriatric pregnancy”, can I? So very few studies are done on this subject.
Consider (and then read the whole book for yourself, please):
“These white men have in common the following opinions: that identity politics is only identity politics when it’s about race or sex; that race and sex have nothing to do with ‘wider’ issues like ‘the economy’; that it is ‘narrow’ to specifically address the concerns of female voters and voters of colour; and that working class means white working-class men. Incidentally, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the coal mining industry, which during the 2016 election became the shibboleth for (implicitly male) working-class jobs, provides 53,420 jobs in total, at a median annual wage of $59,380.89 Compare this to the majority female 924,640-strong cleaning and housekeeper workforce, whose median annual income is $21,820. So who’s the real working class? These white men also have in common that they are white men. And I labour this point because it is exactly their whiteness and maleness that caused them to seriously vocalise the logical absurdity that identities exist only for those who happen not to be white or male. When you have been so used, as a white man, to white and male going without saying, it’s understandable that you might forget that white and male is an identity too. Pierre Bourdieu wrote in 1977 that ‘what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition’. Whiteness and maleness are silent precisely because they do not need to be vocalised. Whiteness and maleness are implicit. They are unquestioned. They are the default. And this reality is inescapable for anyone whose identity does not go without saying, for anyone whose needs and perspective are routinely forgotten.“
*Anything by Vicki Feaver
A poet I had not previously heard of, but stumbled upon in February. It is not consistently revelatory; I don’t love everything, but Feaver has a few poems that speak to me and has a unique style overall.
Good – really good
*The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations – Toni Morrison
I had hoped that I would enjoy this Toni Morrison collection more than I did, but that’s not to say that I didn’t get a great deal from reading it. It’s possible that it was just slightly more challenging than what I needed at the time I chose to read it.
Morrison makes some cutting and powerful points (no surprise) that are timely and evergreen simultaneously:
“The loudest voices are urging those already living in day-to-day dread to think of the future in military terms—as a cause for and expression of war. We are being bullied into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.”
In reading Morrison’s response to the construction of “otherness” and “internal enemies”, which has never been more timely, I think back to last month when I wrote about Erich Fromm’s insistence that “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Morrison describes exactly how Fromm’s “resistance against” erodes, slowly, which we are witnessing day after day right now:
“LET US BE REMINDED that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another. Something, perhaps, like this: Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power, and because it works. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit, or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.“
It is painful because it is searingly true:
“Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for, and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy—especially its males and absolutely its children. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions: a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press; a little pseudo-success; the illusion of power and influence; a little fun, a little style, a little consequence. Maintain, at all costs, silence.“
*Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn
A surprising novella about a young married couple in Ceaușescu’s Romania. Once the husband’s brother defects, the couple is scrutinized and harassed by the secret police. This fuels their determination to get out of the country. Part brutal reality and part fantasy, it’s a good reminder of how things used to be. I meet a lot of young people today who have no idea (and certainly no recollection, as they were not alive or conscious of world events) about what Romania once was, what eastern and southern Europe once were and the oppression people lived under.
*The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell
“I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell.“
Who doesn’t love Sarah Vowell? For years I have seen her bringing history to life with humor and insight on various talk shows, but had never managed to read one of her books. Finally I grabbed The Wordy Shipmates from the library and am glad I did. As alive in writing as when Vowell shares historical anecdotes on tv, I can’t recommend this enough. I love how Vowell personifies historical figures and contextualizes with some modern-day framing. What do I mean by this? Take a read:
“But really, as a child I learned almost everything I knew about American history in general and British colonials in particular from watching television situation comedies. The first time I realized this, I was attending a wedding in London. A friend of the groom’s, an English novelist, cornered my American friend and me and asked us to name the British general from the Revolutionary War whom Americans hate the most. He needed one of the American characters in the novel he was working on to mention in passing our most loathed Redcoat foe. “Um, maybe Cornwallis?” I said, adding that we don’t really know the names of any of the British except for the American traitor Benedict Arnold. When the novelist asked why that was, my friend answered, “Because The Brady Bunch did an episode about him. Peter Brady had to play Benedict Arnold in a school play.” True, I thought. The Bradys also taught us that the Robin Hood-like Jesse James was actually a serial killer; that the ancient indigenous religious culture of the Hawaiian Islands is not to be messed with; and that the Plymouth Pilgrims had a bleak first winter that was almost as treacherous to live through as that time Marcia got bonked in the face with her brothers’ football and her nose swelled up right before a big date.“
Yes, somehow everything Americans need to know about history and culture – and this explains a lot – comes in the form of bite-sized sitcom nonsense à la The Brady Bunch. The Bradys taught us so much.
And further, with a slice of characteristic Vowell interpretation (italicized emphasis mine):
“Mostly, sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the Boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Bewitched produced not one but two time-travel witch trial episodes—one for each Darrin. They’re both diatribes about tolerance straight out of The Crucible, but with cornier dialogue and magical nose crinkles. The housewife/witch Samantha brings a ballpoint pen with her to seventeenth-century Salem and the townspeople think it’s an instrument of black magic. So they try her for witchcraft and want to hang her. Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago. My point being, the amateur historian’s next stop after Boy, people used to be so stupid is People: still stupid. I could look at that realization as a woeful lack of human progress. But I choose to find it reassuring.“
“Protestantism’s evolution away from hierarchy and authority has enormous consequences for America and the world. On the one hand, the democratization of religion runs parallel to political democratization. The king of England, questioning the pope, inspires English subjects to question the king and his Anglican bishops. Such dissent is backed up by a Bible full of handy Scripture arguing for arguing with one’s king. This is the root of self-government in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, Protestantism’s shedding away of authority, as evidenced by my mother’s proclamation that I needn’t go to church or listen to a preacher to achieve salvation, inspires self-reliance—along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy—namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about. It’s why in U.S. presidential elections the American people will elect a wisecracking good ol’ boy who’s fun in a malt shop instead of a serious thinker who actually knows some of the pompous, brainy stuff that might actually get fewer people laid off or killed.“
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
*The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them – Elif Batuman
Another book I discovered rather by accident (so many are), whether in the “to-read list” of a friend or in an article I read, The Possessed was a little bit like time-traveling back to my own university years. Nowhere near as ambitious as the writer/narrator, I was digging into literature that most of my contemporaries had no interest in, and I spent a lot of time thinking about rather esoteric angles through which to examine various pieces of Russian literature and its characters’ psyches and motivations. It didn’t lead me anywhere in the end, but during my undergraduate years I felt (briefly) certain that that path would be the one I followed. But I was not cut out to be an academic, and reading Batuman’s memoir (as well as spending time of late with academics from across disciplines who report symptoms from burnout to complete breakdowns), I realize I was not only not cut out for such a life, but I didn’t really have the passion to carry me through some of the more difficult times one would encounter nor the networking and social skills to propel me to where I would need to be to have any success at all.
Batuman’s voice is one I enjoyed immensely; you get a lot of sarcasm, and a tiny dash of impostor syndrome (some reflections feel like she knows she is more than smart enough to be wherever she is, chosen for whatever she’s undertaking, but she is still unsure on some level, which is common for high-achieving, smart, creative people). She brings a dry humor to her retelling of her ‘adventures’, so that each of her interactions feels simultaneously real and absurd.
“On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s “specifically Jewish alienation.” “Right,” I finally said. “As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” He nodded: “So you see the problem.”“
Of course woven between her personal tales is some deft analysis and gripping storytelling about different works of Russian lit, which brings them to life in ways that the lit itself does not.
*Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves – Frans de Waal
“For me, the question has never been whether animals have emotions, but how science could have overlooked them for so long. It didn’t do so originally—remember Darwin’s pioneering book—but it certainly has done so recently. Why did we go out of our way to deny or deride something so obvious? The reason, of course, is that we associate emotions with feelings, a notoriously tricky topic even in our species.“
Animals have emotions. Period. Frans de Waal explains how.
“Animal consciousness is hard to investigate, but we are getting close by exploring examples of reasoning, such as those given above, that we humans cannot perform unconsciously. We cannot plan a party without consciously thinking about all the things we need; the same must apply when animals plan for the future. The latest neuroscience suggests that consciousness is an adaptive capacity that allows us both to imagine the future and to connect the dots between past events.“
Anyone who has spent time with animals of any species would probably argue that they have emotions and a kind of consciousness. These attributes need not be human in their manifestation, and indeed probably won’t be (the tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior and response through non-scientific observation and human projection doesn’t go very far in explaining animals). There are observable animal emotions at work in nature, as de Waal shares in often very entertaining ways, particularly where he draws parallels between human situational behavior and that of animals:
“Even though in our political system women vote and are able to occupy the highest office, thus allowing for a social order quite different from that of many other species, the fighting rules have hardly changed. They evolved over millions of years and are far too ingrained to be thrown out. A male generally curbs his physical power while confronting a female. This is as true for horses and lions as it is for apes and humans. These inhibitions reside so deeply in our psychology that we react strongly to violations. In the movies, for example, it’s not terribly upsetting to see a woman slap a man’s face, but we cringe at the reverse. This was Trump’s dilemma: he was up against an opponent whom he could not defeat the way he could defeat another male. Having watched every presidential debate since Ronald Reagan, I have never seen as odd a spectacle as the second televised debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2016. Its blatant physicality and hostility made it the debate from hell. Trump’s body language was that of a tormented soul ready to punch out his opponent yet aware that if he laid one finger on her, his candidacy would be over. Like a large balloon, he drifted right behind Clinton, impatiently pacing back and forth or firmly gripping his chair. Concerned television viewers live-tweeted warnings to Clinton like “Look behind you!” Clinton herself later commented that her “skin crawled” when Trump was literally breathing down her neck.”
“Immediately after the debate, which Trump lost according to most commentators, the British politician Nigel Farage mimicked a feeble version of a chest beat while gushing that Trump had acted like “a silverback gorilla.”“
“When John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008, he selected a relatively young woman, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Men in the media regarded it as a brilliant move, calling Palin “hot” and a “MILF,” but no one seemed to realize how much male enthusiasm might harm Palin’s standing among women. Obama barely won the male vote (49 to 48 percent), but he ran away with the female vote (56 to 43 percent). Women begin to appeal as leaders only after they have become invisible to the male gaze by leaving their reproductive years behind. Modern female heads of state have all been postmenopausal, such as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, and Margaret Thatcher. The most powerful woman of our era, Angela Merkel of Germany, doesn’t even like to draw attention to her gender, dressing as neutrally as possible. Merkel is a skilled and shrewd politician who is unimpressed by men. When Vladimir Putin received her at his Russian dacha in 2007, he introduced his large pet Labrador to her, knowing full well that Merkel was scared of dogs. In the end, his tactic failed, because she drew a distinction between Putin and his dog, noting to journalists, “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.”22 Putin’s tactic showed how men always seek the upper hand through intimidation.“
And most interestingly, but not having parallels with modern human politics, bonobos versus chimpanzees:
“At the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was recently decided to merge two groups of bonobos that had lived separately, just to stimulate some social activity. No one would dare doing such a thing with chimpanzees as the only possible outcome would be a bloodbath. The bonobos produced an orgy instead. Because bonobos freely help strangers to reach a goal, researchers call them xenophilic (attracted to strangers), whereas they consider chimpanzees xenophobic (fearing or disliking strangers). The bonobo brain reflects these differences. Areas involved in the perception of another’s distress, such as the amygdala and anterior insula, are enlarged in the bonobo compared to the chimpanzee. Bonobo brains also contain more developed pathways to control aggressive impulses. The bonobo may well have the most empathic brain of all hominids, including us.
Interesting, you’d think—but science refuses to take bonobos seriously. They are simply too peaceful, too matriarchal, and too gentle to fit the popular storyline of human evolution, which turns on conquest, male dominance, hunting, and warfare. We have a “man the hunter” theory and a “killer ape” theory; we have the idea that intergroup competition made us cooperative, and the proposal that our brains grew so large because women liked smart men. There is no escape: our theories about human evolution always turn around males and what makes them successful. While chimpanzees fit most of these scenarios, no one knows what to do with bonobos. Our hippie cousins are invariably hailed as delightful, then quickly marginalized. Charming species, but let’s stick with the chimpanzee, is the general tone.“
Note my italics – this assertion points us back to Criado Perez’s book and its claim that the norm is established by the male existence/experience.
*The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age – Sven Birkerts
Obviously I like reading about reading.
The interesting part of reading The Gutenberg Elegies is that the bulk of the book was written at the dawn of the internet/digital communications age, so e-readers were unforeseen. In fact Birkerts wrote in the original forward to the now-20-year-old (or thereabouts) book: “The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total (as evidenced by the book you are holding)—it may never be total—but the large-scale tendency in that direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks.” I read the book on my Kindle, so I was proving the very opposite point to the one he tried to make, and in so doing, I gave a lot of thought while reading to the way we consume information now as opposed to when Birkerts put this book together. He says it best himself in the opening part of the book:
“We are, it seems, most willing to accept a life hurried and fragmented on every front by technology; we are getting past the prior way of things, which could be slow and frustrating, but was also vivid in its material totality.”
“Literature and old-style contemplative reading seem enfeebled—almost as if they need to be argued for, helped along by the elbow. Not that people don’t write and read in a thousand different ways; they do. Arguably, they “write” and “read” more than they ever have. But the belief in the gathered weight of literary expression, what we used to consider our cultural ballast, is fading and is likely to fade further.“
What is ‘coincidental’ about my reading of this book at this time is that I had returned to Walter Ong‘s Orality and Literacy recently for a paper I was writing on memory. We exalt the written, literary language and tradition, but often forget that it, too, was preceded by something that has faded – oral tradition and storytelling, which relied on memory. A further coincidence was my stumbling onto an article about the “books that wouldn’t die/Undead Books” that form the canon of literary thinking and scholarship, but which live on, despite the argument that such works are no longer created (the article cites Ong’s work among these). These books are not written for the general public but seem to be written for other scholars; they do not hew to the constraints of one single academic discipline, relishing in drawing on scholarship, research and literature from across multiple disciplines (as the article posits, they are “radically antidisciplinary”, which is pretty much how my university was, for which I will always love it):
“Yet despite making their authors’ reputations, Undead Texts rarely received their disciplines’ most coveted book prizes. It is easy to see why: Although undeniably scholarly, Undead Texts were also, in their day and ours, radically antidisciplinary. They challenge the diction, scope, and preoccupations that keep branches of knowledge distinct. Their claims encompass continents and centuries, ignore the controversies raging in specialist journals, and are formulated with woodcut-like starkness, minus the hedges and qualifications addressed to other specialists. In contrast to narrowly focused monographs, Undead Texts tackle topics outside the disciplinary mainstream, blithely ignore periodization, and disregard the boundaries separating bodies of knowledge.“
Birkerts’ arguments about the “transformations of book culture” can be felt in considering the Undead Texts written about above – but I suspect such books were always written for a limited audience – but can also be refuted to some extent by the work I’ve cited this month by Elif Batuman. Although she writes in a tongue-in-cheek manner about her experiences examining Russian literature, it’s clear that her reading (granted, she is in the academic sphere) and that of others among her contemporaries is still quite careful, close and analytical in ways it seems Birkerts believes are dead.
Birkerts predicted that the nature of reading would shift dramatically, and here I believe he was correct, even if I wonder how much the general public read to begin with (this was undoubtedly always on the decline; Merve Emre’s book – cited below as well – chronicles this decay in how one reads in the postwar era and the commoditization of reading). Birkerts stated:
“I see a deep transformation in the nature of reading, a shift from focused, sequential, text-centered engagement to a far more lateral kind of encounter. Chip and screen have at one and the same time inundated us with information—pages to view, links to follow, media supplements to incorporate—and modified our habits. They have put single-track concentration, the discipline of reading, under great pressure. In its place we find the restless, grazing behavior of clicking and scrolling. Attention spans have shrunk and fragmented—the dawning of the age of ADD—and the culture of literary publishing struggles with the implications. Who has the time or will to read books the way people used to? Book sales, when not puffed up by marketed “infotainment,” by “nonbooks,” are stagnant at best. Literature—fiction—is languishing. Indeed, at present, fiction is under assault by nonfiction, by documentary and memoir. I don’t see that a return to the status quo ante is likely.“
I believe he is largely right, although his idea that “restless, grazing behavior” with regard to reading is all we will be left with is too limiting. We may consume the written word in new ways (as I did read his book on an e-reader), but we won’t necessarily only consume “infotainment” or fragmented chunks of information. He certainly is right that attention spans seem to have shrunk; there will always, though, be people who want to consume (and, like me, possibly overconsume).
Then again, it is not only about the consumption of the written word. It is about the overall experience of doing so, and there is no doubt that this is changing rapidly and significantly:
“The big question, though less grand and encompassing, is the question implicit in the book’s subtitle: What will be the fate of reading? I don’t mean the left-to-right movement of the eyes as we take in information, but the age-old practice of addressing the world by way of this inward faculty of imagination. I mean reading as a filtering of the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery. Our reconfigured world makes these interactions—this kind of reading—ever harder to accomplish. The electronic impulse works against the durational reverie of reading. And however much other media take up the stack—of storytelling, say—what is lost is the contemplative register. And this, in the chain of consequences, alters subjectivity, dissipates its intensity.“
I recall going on holiday for the entire summer of 1999. Packing for this lengthy trip, I had to weigh (literally and figuratively) what books to bring with me because I really could only bring a few. This was a limitation but also required consideration and some investment in, as Birkerts writes, “the durational reverie of reading”. By having less to read and more time to digest, the truly immersive reading experience occurs. Now, of course, I can load my Kindle with 1,000 books and read with abandon. But do I reflect and filter through “the complexities of the real through artistic narrative, reflection, and orchestration of verbal imagery” in the same way? It’s hard to say; I have so completely adapted to and adopted this new form of consuming written text that I cannot accurately compare the experience. I have firmly been swayed by the “more is more” idea when it comes to carrying my books around in digital form.
Birkerts, again accurately, foretold that we were/are living through a period of fundamental change; a paradigm shift. This I mostly agree with:
“As I wrote before: the world we have known, the world of our myths and references and shared assumptions, is being changed by a powerful, if often intangible, set of forces. We are living in the midst of a momentous paradigm shift. My classroom experience, which in fact represents hundreds of classroom experiences, can be approached diagnostically. This is not a simple case of students versus Henry James. We are not concerned with an isolated clash of sensibilities, his and theirs. Rather, we are standing in one spot along a ledge—or, better, a fault line—dividing one order from another. In place of James we could as easily put Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison. It would be the same. The point is that the collective experience of these students, most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien. That is the breaking point: it describes where their understandings and aptitudes give out. What is at issue is not diction, not syntax, but everything that diction and syntax serve. Which is to say, an entire system of beliefs, values, and cultural aspirations.“
It is more complex and nuanced than I have the stamina or expertise to explore here, but I’d say, yes, the collective cultural understanding that underpins our ability to understand works from a distant past and find basic common humanity in them has eroded. But the question inevitably arises as to how universal these “basic cultural” things ever were. I don’t know where or when the break happened, and I cannot say that it is complete. I suspect there are major commercial and educational policy issues at play beyond just Birkerts’s assertions that technology is constitutive of this paradigm shift (even if it plays a big role in the result and how the shift plays out). When an education system is underfunded, unequal, geared toward the lowest common denominator, fragmented, there is no way to guarantee that everyone within a culture receives the same grounding. On the other side of the coin, I suspect that this “common cultural heritage” to which Birkerts refers is not agreed upon by all racial and cultural groups, who have largely been excluded and whose voices have long been silenced. It is possible that this shift can make the landscape more inclusive, even if it makes the shared pool of knowledge less shared, less accessible (if one could say that these works were ever “accessible” to the level that Birkerts’s arguably elitist approach assumes).
But again, the broader point is well-taken; Birkerts isn’t saying we all need to read and want to read Henry James, for example. It is just that we should be able to find our way into works that have very little to do with us or our time, and this connection to history and even to our own imaginative powers, is waning:
“I am not about to suggest that all of this comes of not reading Henry James. But I will say that of all this comes not being able to read James or any other emissary from that recent but rapidly vanishing world. Our historically sudden transition into an electronic culture has thrust us into a place of unknowing.
To enter the work at all we need to put our present-day sense of things in suspension; we have to, in effect, reposition the horizon and reconceive all of our assumptions about the relations between things. Hardy’s twenty miles are not ours. The pedagogue does not pile his belongings into the back of a Jeep Cherokee.“
On the whole, Birkerts argues, we are moving – like it or not – away from depth. This is true in the realm of audiobooks, designed to help us “read” more conveniently or to “multitask” while losing the essence of deep thought and consideration and even losing actual parts of books, as audiobooks are often quite condensed. The process of being transported by a book to a different place, to a set of characters, a different time, is short-circuited by not having the experience of having to engage page-by-page in an interaction with the work. It has become, like so much of the world we live in, piecemeal and surface-level. This is what I, and probably Birkerts, lament(s).
That is, from start:
“We are experiencing in our times a loss of depth—a loss, that is, of the very paradigm of depth. A sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things is a function of vertical consciousness. Its apotheosis is what was once called wisdom. Wisdom: the knowing not of facts but of truths about human nature and the processes of life. But swamped by data, and in thrall to the technologies that manipulate it, we no longer think in these larger and necessarily more imprecise terms. In our lateral age, living in the bureaucracies of information, we don’t venture a claim to that kind of understanding. Indeed, we tend to act embarrassed around those once-freighted terms—truth, meaning, soul, destiny … We suspect the people who use such words of being soft and nostalgic. We prefer the deflating one-liner that reassures us that nothing need be taken that seriously; we inhale the atmospheres of irony.“
“The shadow life of reading generally continues on for some time after we have finished the last page. If we have been deeply engaged by the book, we carry its resonance as a kind of echo, thinking again and again of a character, an episode, or, less concretely, about some thematic preoccupation of the author’s. After I recently finished V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River*, I found myself brooding for days on the ways in which cultures and value systems come into collision. I brooded abstractly, but I also saw my reading affect my daily perceptions. Riding the subway or walking downtown, I would catch myself monitoring gestures and interchanges between members of different racial and cultural groups. I also read the morning paper differently, looking more closely at reports detailing racial and ethnic frictions. I had absorbed a context which suddenly heightened the “relevance” of this theme.“
*As an aside, Birkerts cites Naipaul as an avenue into deep thought into how cultures clash. Interestingly, Criado Perez, too, cites Naipaul in Invisible Women, and makes not only her point – that women’s experiences are downplayed and criticized as not being universal, as being too narrow for broader interest (Naipaul makes this claim about Jane Austen: “V. S. Naipaul criticises Jane Austen’s writing as ‘narrow’, while at the same time no one is expecting The Wolf of Wall Street to address the Gulf War, or Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard to write about anyone but himself (or quote more than a single female writer) to receive praise from the New Yorker for voicing ‘universal anxieties’ in his six-volume autobiography.“), but also makes the case for my point on Birkerts’s failure to demonstrate sensitivity to the wholeness of humanity, in this case the culture clash between men and women and how we perceive the female experience in the world and in the arts.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
*Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Current and Flourishing as We Age – Mary Pipher
“We don’t become our wisest selves without effort. Our growth requires us to become skilled in perspective taking, in managing our emotions, in crafting positive narratives, and in forming intimate relationships. We develop the skills of building joy, gratitude, and meaning into every day. By learning these lessons, we cultivate emotional resilience. We have the capacity to build happiness into our lives with humor, concern for others, and gratitude. Of course, we can’t do it all of the time. That self-expectation would drive us crazy. However, we can develop habits that make it more likely that we will respond in an upbeat manner. It’s critical to distinguish between choosing to live lovingly and cheerfully and living a life of denial. One leads to joy, the other to emotional death. I have learned from my work as a therapist that secrets, denial, and avoidance invariably cause trouble. To move forward requires seeing clearly.“
I wanted Women Rowing North to be amazing and inspiring, and sadly, it just wasn’t Having read an article about this book, it sounded like a timely and fascinating view on women contending with the often unwelcome challenges that come with age (perceived invisibility, not being taken seriously, misogyny coupled with ageism and the inevitability of loss – whether that is personal loss or the experience of losing who one once was). Articles have a way of doing that – extracting the richest parts and keenest points of a book, luring you into buying and reading something that the article has already dissected for you.
In theory it’s a deeply worthwhile topic, and the article I read, at least, made it seem like the book would delve more deeply into these questions. And, in fairness, it does. But it just did not hold my interest. Perhaps it was too much a mix of anecdotal stories about random people that the author relied on to illustrate certain themes that turned me off, but I found it hard to get through the book overall.
Nevertheless, there were some key points I took away; not surprising or new, but good reminders:
Health has a lot to do with our perception of age and how we live: “Developmental psychologist Bernice Neugarten made this distinction between young-old age and old-old age. As long as we can do most of what we want to do, we are young-old age. When our health fundamentally changes the way we live, we have entered old-old age. However, my own experience is that many of us are between those…”
Death, or where we see ourselves in relation to it, has a lot to do with how we live and the choices we make: “Psychologist Laura Carstensen discovered that our perspectives and decisions change greatly depending on our perceptions of how much time we have left. The shorter we think our lives will be, the more likely we are to do things that are meaningful and give us pleasure. Awareness of death catapults us toward joy and reflection.”
*Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America – Merve Emre
It’s hard to characterize Merve Emre’s Paraliterary as a disappointment, or even something that I hated or disliked… neither is true. But it equally doesn’t belong in the other categories I’ve set up for myself (maybe an indication that there shouldn’t be categories?). Nothing is quite an adequate way to describe my response.
I suppose I found this book vaguely disappointing because, once more, I didn’t know what to expect, and when I started reading I realized that whatever it was… was not what I was expecting to see. How we create expectations about things we know very little about is something I could delve further into, but for now, I should say instead that this book was challenging and made a lot of fascinating points.
The premise of Emre’s work – that there is such a thing as a “bad reader”, according to strictures of academia, who reads for enjoyment or distraction (or any number of other reasons that have little to do with critical analysis or placing literature within historical or social contexts in which they are written – and interpreted). Yet in reading the book, it almost felt as though Emre were addressing a different thesis. Not that there are no traces of this premise, but perhaps because Emre comes from academia, I failed to see the clear link between the “bad reader” theme and the way she illustrates the construction of the bad reader. I see a link (or links) – but it felt obscured, particularly at first. That is, the stories she tells to highlight what I’d call a “depreciation of value” assigned to critical literary study seem to describe the systematic departure of American literature from the idea of literature for literature’s sake. (Moreover, assigning value to the arts and framing it in terms of depreciation may well be another dark mark of the pervasive influence of capitalism.) As well, capitalist and commercial concerns are woven into literature, in many cases not at all subtly, across genres and types of writer, as though postwar writing were an extension of America’s “the world is our workshop” foreign policy. (And, truly, wasn’t it? Even if the writers themselves were unaware of how their existence as American writers in the world unwittingly unleashed these ideas and values on an unsuspecting and ever-less-literary world.) Emre seems to argue as well that American ‘culture’ cannot be decoupled from these (sinister?) roots, and maybe this is the point.
“Hughes’s attempt to move between the intimate particularities of his relationship with Plath and Plath’s status as a nationalized subject recalls the previous chapter’s argument about the irresolvable tension between individual acts of communication (i.e., contextually specific and embodied) and national representation (i.e., abstract and metonymic) in American readers and writers from Henry James to Mary McCarthy.“
“Why have studies of international communication failed to appreciate the relationship between the material foundations of reading and feeling? By proudly touting their status as demystified readers of institutional discourse, many literary critics, historians, and in particular, scholars of American studies have eclipsed the ways in which their own critical discourses sanction certain readerly feelings while skewering others. In this sense, the last decade of scholarly production in American studies strikes me as an invaluable resource, for the feeling rules such work archives. Once the Cold War burned out and critiques of state power became de rigueur in American studies, love presented itself as one of the most powerful justifications for the discipline’s abiding investment in the nation-state as its object of analysis and its organizing episteme. When considered from a more polemical angle, one could say that love is the only compelling reason for the discipline’s continued existence at all.”
This is best illustrated in the examples Emre has selected in the book, including the ubiquity of references to American Express as a brand, as a lifestyle, as an activity, for American writers abroad: their identities tied up not only with an idea of Americanness, but also with the money they could access easily. American Express, like many other American brands and institutions could see the reach of their influence and exploit it.
“Reed even grew fond of telling stories at board meetings about how the company had helped to construct families. His favorite romantic tale, which he also had reprinted in “American Express, its origin and growth,” involved a North Carolinian GI and a French piano player. The two had met when the pianist had played the US national anthem for the GI after the Liberation of Paris on August 19, 1944, and when they had fallen out of touch, the American Express had played “matchmaker” by reuniting them.28 In Reed’s whimsical fiction, international communication appeared as a romantic communion that triangulated national, consumer, and sexual identities, which in turn aligned the company’s production of the “serious” traveler with the representative mission of the “ambassador.” This American Express ambassador, like the Fulbright scholar, came bearing the affective gift of “goodwill” in the institution of marriage and the family.“
Writers from the Beats, James Baldwin and Erica Jong – all considered subversive at the time of their publication – nevertheless subscribed to this uniquely American convenience of accessing fast cash, mentioning American Express, cash wires and credit cards extensively in their work. How counterculture can you really be when you’re just a few steps away from cash from back home? In the case of Jong in particular, at the intersection of feminism, independence and sexual liberation, the juxtaposition of these issues with her references to money makes one wonder how economic independence (did she have any, or was the money her husband’s?) fits into the story, and thus, how real the independence projected could have been… and thus how authentic or complete the whole feminist theme could be. Yet given the times and the zeitgeist, and the crafty inclusion of Jong’s character’s branded economic advantages, this point isn’t really considered.
“Although there is a puritanical undertone to Theroux’s insistence on no taxation without upstanding sexual representation, he was hardly the only reader to suspect that the “American money” responsible for the novel’s production was partially responsible for how the novel had popularized—and, by many accounts, cheapened—feminism in the Western world. Even the novel’s loudest champion, John Updike, who wrote a glowing review of Fear of Flying in the New Yorker, began by noting how American branded capital had made Isadora’s touristic consumption of sexual experience possible in the first place: “Childless, with an American Express card as escort on her pilgrimage, and with a professional forgiver as a husband, Isadora Wing, for all her terrors, is the heroine of a comedy.””
“What, if anything, to make of literary branding in Fear of Flying, a novel premised on a woman’s simultaneous refusal of sexual propriety and property, yet whose production seems so intimately bound up with the capitalist communication technologies of international tourism? Can brands overrun literary fiction? Can they institute their own conditions of literary reception and their own practices of reading?”
Nevertheless, as well-documented and beautifully described as these themes are, I am not sure that I left the book feeling I’d been convinced of the existence of a “bad reader”. It may, in fact, be a compelling argument for rethinking literature and the role of the reader (of whatever type) in its existence and evolution.
It does indeed stray off Emre’s topic but some assertions her book made brought me back to Toni Morrison. Mostly because Morrison seems uncompromisingly and deliberate in her writing, not concerned about whether or not she places understandable (or mysterious) literary references in places that critics or casual readers can access them. She wants instead to “subvert this traditional comfort”… leading me to wonder about how much literature falls outside of Emre’s analyses. Certainly much of 20th century literature exemplifies the points Emre makes, but for every reference that fits the bill, how many Toni Morrison’s are there, who defy a label?
“This deliberate avoidance of literary references has become a firm if boring habit with me, not only because it leads to poses, not only because I refuse the credentials it bestows, but also because it is inappropriate to the kind of literature I wish to write, the aims of that literature, and the discipline of the specific culture that interests me. (Emphasis on me.) Literary references in the hands of writers I love can be extremely revealing, but they can also supply a comfort I don’t want the reader to have because I want him to respond on the same plane an illiterate or preliterature reader would have to. I want to subvert his traditional comfort so that he may experience an unorthodox one: that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination. My beginnings as a novelist were very much focused on creating this discomfort and unease in order to insist that the reader rely on another body of knowledge.” –The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations – Toni Morrison