I checked my mailbox the other day to find a handwritten letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was fairly lengthy and accompanied by some of their propaganda. Honestly, I live in a remote place and feel quite violated by this kind of intrusion. Sure, maybe they didn’t come to my door, but given my choice to live so far off the beaten path… WTF are you people even doing out here?
Even if I took actions to ward them off – a Star of David on my mailbox, a mezuzah on my door frame… these are either things they don’t understand or an invitation to more aggressively attempt to convert and “save” me – but these symbols, in addition to my rural retreat, scream out LEAVE ME ALONE. What is it about these cult “religions” that makes them refuse to accept that no one wants their brainwash-induced bullshit?
I shouldn’t let this make me as angry and offended as it does. But if you have to go door to door and badger people into listening to or buying whatever snake oil nonsense you’re selling, it can’t be all that compelling in the first place.
“I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.”–Warlight – Michael Ondaatje
December ends, and my reading has not been rapid or fruitful. I had some time off, and halfway tried to catch up on things… but it was halfhearted. I found myself sleeping for 16-hour stretches. There were scholastic readings and a stronger pull to do other things.
I’ve read a grand total of 210 books in 2019 (not sure the final tally is accurate; I’m relying on notoriously buggy Goodreads to keep count). Maybe by the time the day ends this will be 211 – one of my goals this year was to translate a book, and I am nearly done translating a book from Norwegian to English, which would be book 211. But, for one thing, I don’t think I will finish today, and secondly, I don’t think “reading” and “translating” are the same thing. This is only about half of what I’ve read in the last two or three years, which feels a bit like a letdown. But I try to remind myself that it’s not about volume, and life was otherwise so full of activity that reading was an enjoyable, if necessary, third or fourth priority.
I did not have high expectations for this book but found it immediately engrossing. Ondaatje is kind of hit or miss for me, but I don’t know why. I find it hard to describe my thoughts on fiction – I just know what I like. Providing plot points and describing characters defeats the purpose, so I will simply say that I enjoyed this.
A few months ago, thanks to the minor, but altogether modern, not-quite-imbroglio of opening the wrong book within an e-reader, I read quite a bit of The Winds of War. I grew increasingly confused as I ‘tapped’ the pages, thinking I was reading a book about faith and its role in social good for university. I’d read some commentary about the university book claiming that the writer was “not great with women”, which is probably why I kept reading longer than I should have, wondering why the writer would be commenting in the impersonal third person on how attractive someone’s wife was. I persevered, thinking there might appear some ‘moral lesson’. Finally when the prose steered itself into discussing military life, I realized that maybe – just maybe – I had (re)opened the wrong book. Lo and behold….
At first The Winds of War left me cold – not least because I really didn’t like the way its female characters were depicted and didn’t relish having spent 15 minutes during a deadline-heavy day reading its nonsense when I should have been reading something else. Nevertheless, I finally returned to Winds and found it better than I expected. Did I love it – would I recommend it? No. But I don’t feel like I wasted my time.
Oddly the book felt in places newly timely, particularly on its discussion of the history of anti-Semitism. Anti-semitism is not new, and ‘tolerance’ — especially observing what is happening in the world right now — shallow.
“He stroked his beard and spoke deliberately, the classroom note strong. “Well! Your surprise doesn’t surprise me. Young people—young Americans especially—aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only fifty to a hundred years old and that it’s never gone deep. It didn’t touch Poland, where I was born. Even in the West—what about the Dreyfus case? No, no. In that respect Hitler represents only a return to normalcy for Europe, after the brief glow of liberalism. The hostility simply moved from the Church to the anti-Semitic parties, because the French Revolution changed Europe from a religious to a political continent. If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived seventeen centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.” –The Winds of War – Herman Wouk
Oddly I didn’t remember how or why I started reading this, but in writing this stumbled on Wouk’s obit from earlier this year. I guess I didn’t consciously realize he only died this year at 103 years old. Surely that prompted me to add this to my reading list (as well as its sequel, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar).
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.“
Nothing in this book comes as a surprise, but put together in one place, how can anyone deny that the criminal justice system is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of centuries of oppression? I can’t read books like this without getting angry, sad and feeling helpless. But such reading – and then trying to act on what is read – is absolutely essential.
I forgot to mention this one when I originally wrote this post. I finished it at the last minute and refer to it now only because it’s written in profane, stream-of-consciousness Glaswegian. A strange story but quite alive in the sense that you can, if you’re familiar with Glaswegians, hear someone actually rambling along in this way. It was a controversial choice as a Booker Prize winner some years ago, and I understand why. But I think it’s deserving for the way it captures a character using this unique language. Not that I am an authority on what or who is deserving or not.
Okay, so I went into this expecting not to like it, and I was not wrong.
When Pete Buttigieg appeared on the world stage a few months back, with a slow but relentless trickle of stories drip-drip-dripping like a leaky faucet about how he’d taught himself Norwegian just to read more books by Erlend Loe and appeared suddenly and quietly at a hospital to act as an interpreter, had volunteered to join the military when he didn’t have to… and so on, it was sort of refreshing at first and an antidote to the unpatriotic and linguistically and cognitively challenged rhetoric of the current US president. Sure, this Buttigieg guy has a lot going for him and appears intelligent and humble, ticking a lot of the boxes required for fresh political talent in semi-liberal America. (Of course Americans don’t care if someone learns multiple languages; in fact, I’d argue that many Americans consider this disqualifying.)
But that’s the thing: I am not the world’s biggest cynic, but my cynicism radar won’t shut off. Every drip from the leaky faucet seems like it was cynically planted just to tick these boxes, and it was done craftily. Not all at once, quieter than the self-aggrandizing bluster of a Trump or even the standard self-promotion of most Democratic Party challengers. The strategy behind the offensive is the slow drip infiltration – starting long before Buttigieg declared an interest in running for president. It comes from all fronts, in many different forms. Perhaps it is no different from how Barack Obama ran a campaign, but we are witnessing this in a different, social-media-saturated, post-Trump world. Everything looks cynical. Furthermore, this was, frankly, a dull book.
“Think of the way that stories change each time they’re told, the way our brains are literally rewriting our experiences in the moment of recounting them, not calling them up from some established place in our cerebral cortex. It turns out that memory is not a digital file at all, not fixed in form but progressively mutable, evolving in time.”–Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory – Elizabeth Rosner
I picked up the pace a wee bit for November, mostly because I had a bit of time off. That said, I had a succession of big deadlines for the latest degree program and was helping someone else with his uni deadlines, so there was a lot of prescribed reading. As a respite from the required stuff (for example, the entire APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, which incidentally was one of the best things I read all month), I escaped into quite a bit of poetry. But this is nothing new.
I’ve felt the pull of escapism a lot this month, which sends me in two different directions – one is back to my old television and film addictions and the other is to dive into more projects (online courses, new degree programs, learning more languages – did you know Duolingo finally offers basic Scottish Gaelic?).
Come on – just look at this wee guy!
I also have a terrible habit of getting sucked into these actor/actress/director/writer roundtable sessions that end up on YouTube around this time of year (awards consideration and nomination season). Oh, also, some bizarre pairings of actors interviewing other actors. I am always surprised – the ones I think will be interesting turn out to be self-centered idiots who start every single statement they make with the words, “For me…”, and those in whom I have no interest at all (e.g., Eddie Murphy) end up being surprising. I end up watching even those in which I have no interest because… well, once I start I can’t stop. And this seems to be the way I operate. All or nothing.
Even gripped by an escapism that makes me want to avoid human contact for days on end, I still want to engage in these stories — or create stories about people, which has driven me to start drafting non-work-related stories and to take part in some online screenwriting and creative writing courses just to refresh my memory. I’ve been too long pent up in the B2B SaaS technical marketing writing world, I guess.
Thanks to a minor injury (oh, merciless early winter ice), I have mostly been able to just stay home, just as I longed for in October. Naturally this lends itself to more reading, at last.
As I pull my thoughts together on November reading, it’s actually Thanksgiving… and another year when I could not pull myself together enough to host a dinner. I say this in such a self-flogging manner, as though I have simply been an unmitigated mess. But the truth is, I have (merely) been selfish. I could have hosted a dinner — I wanted to prioritize my own stuff in addition to being an antisocial hermit. I’m only a cat or two away from being a true cat-lady hermit spinster.
I’d write more about this book except it makes more sense to encourage you to read it. Writing about intergenerational trauma (trauma being passed down through several generations) and epigenetics, Rosner asks thought-provoking questions through the lens of her own experience with Holocaust-survivor parents, expanding the field of inquiry to include genocide more broadly as well as the role of memory – individual, institutional and historical.
It’s so much more than what I’m writing here, but as usual, the book presents it all with such clarity and is a moving work on its own – and by far the best thing I read this month.
“Can you effectively make someone remember what he or she prefers to forget? If memory is a kind of spectrum, how do we delineate the threshold between voluntary and involuntary recollection? How to discern between deliberate denial and inadvertent amnesia? How to proceed with multigenerational café-style conversations in the near future, and beyond? Who will sit at these tables?“
I greatly enjoyed reading the aforementioned APA Handbook of Psychology and Religion. Does that mean I would recommend it to others? No, not necessarily. Not unless you’re interested in religion and spirituality from multifarious psychological perspectives. Sure, I know plenty of people who would love this – but I would not say it’s a page-turner that everyone should go find. Oh, and of course, none of my university-related reading seems to exist or make sense without reference to the Milgram experiment and Zimbardo’s prison experiment… which I wrote about last month because these references pop up constantly across disciplines and in various forms entertainment.
As with all books that are mostly academic – and theoretical – in origin, this wasn’t exactly scintillating reading for the average leisure reader. But Davie presents fascinating viewpoints on secularization theory and counterarguments to what was once perhaps an accepted, inevitable postulation that modernization would lead to a decline in the prevalence of religion.
Most interesting as an angle on this question is Davie’s discussion on “vicarious religion” and the separation of belief from belonging:
“Both constituencies, however, might gain from the concept of vicarious religion and the innovative sources of data that can be used to deploy this concept in sociological enquiry. By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. That is the crucial point. In terms of my own thinking, the notion of vicarious religion marks a step forward from my earlier distinction between belief and belonging (Davie, 1994).“
Most striking is Davie’s assertions about Nordic participation in the church – it’s more belonging than belief that keeps them affiliated. Actual, active participation varies; I’ve reflected on this quite often, particularly when “confirmation” season rolls around each spring. Everyone with appropriately aged children invests significant time and money into giving their child a lavish confirmation – and this important rite of passage is done largely because it’s what’s done and it is crucial to a sense of belonging. But has very little to do with religious faith or active participation in the church.
“The separating out of belief from belonging has undoubtedly offered fruitful ways in which to understand and to organize the material about religion in modern Europe. Ongoing reflection about the current situation, however, has encouraged me to reflect more deeply about the relationship between the two, utilizing, amongst other ideas, the notion of vicarious religion. My thinking in this respect has been prompted by the situation in the Nordic countries. A number of Nordic scholars have responded to the notion of believing without belonging by reversing the formula: in this part of Europe the characteristic stance in terms of religion is to belong without believing.5 Such scholars are entirely right in these observations. Nordic populations, for the most part, remain members of their Lutheran churches; they use them extensively for the occasional offices and regard membership as part of national just as much as religious identity (more so than in Britain). More pertinently for the churches themselves, Nordic people continue to pay appreciable amounts of tax to their churches – resulting amongst other things in large numbers of religious professionals (not least musicians) and beautifully maintained buildings in even the tiniest village. The cultural aspects of religion are well cared for. This does not mean, of course, that Nordic populations attend their churches with any frequency, nor do they necessarily believe in the tenets of Lutheranism. Indeed, they appear on every comparative scale to be among the least believing and least practising populations in the world.6 So how should we understand their continuing membership of and support for their churches? How, in other words, is it possible to get beneath the surface of a Nordic, or indeed any other, society in order to investigate the reflexes of a population that for the most part remain hidden? An answer can be found on pp. 128–30. By paying attention to the place of the institutional churches at the time of personal or collective crises, it is possible to see more clearly the role that religious organizations continue to play in the lives of both individuals and communities. Or, to develop the definition of ‘vicarious’ already offered, it is possible to see how an active religious minority can operate on behalf of a much larger number, who implicitly at least not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. Under pressure, what is implicit becomes explicit.“
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“We think of reading as a silent activity—consider a hushed library—but sound in fact lies at its core. Print is mostly a code for sound.“
As part of an ongoing project I’m attached to, I do a lot of research into literacy and what will activate, or excite, kids – or people in general – to read more. What are the barriers to reading? I enjoyed this book because it got into the psychology and some of the linguistic questions that surround how we think about reading, and possibly more importantly, how we learn to read. And from there, what fuels further reading?
Willingham writes about a kind of “tripod” on which a reading habit can stand: the three legs of which are the ability to decode easily, to comprehend what is read, and to be motivated to read. Each is a separate and quite different challenge – and without the decoding ability, which must come first, the other legs become useless. Decoding – being able to put together letters to make sounds, then words, then meanings – is fundamental to reading and a bridge to the level of comprehension required to read fluently and to enjoy it.
Comprehension requires acquiring a broad knowledge about a lot of different things, which of course only comes with experience – and in many cases – more reading. How does one gain this knowledge? This, coupled with the conundrum of needing to grow a vocabulary, can be barriers. The education system isn’t necessarily built around these educational needs. Instead, they are geared toward scoring on a ‘reading comprehension’ test – but this is tricky.
“Reading tests purport to measure a student’s ability to read, and “ability to read” sounds like a general skill. Once I know your ability to read, I ought to be able (roughly) to predict your comprehension of any text I hand you. But I’ve just said that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much you happen to know about the topic of the text, because that determines your ability to make up for the information the writer felt free to omit. Perhaps, then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise.“
Willingham brings up a great number of questions about developing a passion for reading and what is required to get there – well worth the time spent.
I can’t say that there are actual coincidences – once again – so maybe I should discard this ‘category’ (strange how we create categories when they make sense but have such trouble breaking free of them when they no longer serve a purpose).
Musicians’ memoirs don’t do much for me, and Debbie Harry’s is no exception. It’s almost like we’re better off seeing these musical icons from afar without knowing about the things they go through and think about. The ‘mystique’ or mask is ripped away, and they’re just people. Which we know, of course. But the magic of what their music gives us becomes… just that bit less magical once the curtain is pulled back. I adored Blondie from earliest childhood, and somehow reading about them, and specifically Debbie Harry, in this very personal way was interesting but felt like a scab I shouldn’t be picking at. Apart from the entire book going on a bit too long, it didn’t provide anything I felt I needed to know. Some curiosity could stand to be left alone. I’m also irked that Leibovitz was misspelled as Liebowitz.
In two of television’s best shows, The Good Wife and The Americans, the main characters’ children – teenagers – do not rebel against their parents or authority by partying, drinking, having sex, choosing inappropriate partners or dating at all, skipping school or typical teenage rebellion tropes. Instead, these teens rebel by seeking faith.
In many American families, this would not be unusual or considered as rebellion at all. But for the families at the heart of these two particular shows, faith is not central to the main characters’ lives and never has been. Many critics condemn the shows when they focus too squarely on the main characters’ children, and usually I would agree. In these shows, however, the children’s search for meaning and faith informs and deepens the viewers’ understanding of the characters we care most about.
In The Good Wife, arguably one of the most sophisticated and nuanced shows in recent years, the focal point is Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). The show has always been a critical success but has always struggled in the ratings; at this point, given the way the latter half of its most recent, the sixth, season has gone, I think the show has seen better days. I highly recommend at least the first five seasons.
Alicia faces many challenges in her personal and professional life, but one story that has not been particularly well-developed but which does shine a light on Alicia’s relationship with faith (as well as challenges with mothering – you never know what to expect from your kids!) is when her daughter, Grace, becomes curious about and explores Christianity. Alicia is not religious, and Grace’s exploration creates tension. It is not always the most well-designed plotline, but we can see clearly that Grace’s curiosity, though genuine, is a form of rebellion. Not argument-filled, contentious rebellion – but given Alicia’s ambivalence toward religion (I can’t recall if she ever explicitly stated that she is an atheist, but it is clear that religion is not a part of her life and that she did not introduce religion as a part of her children’s lives), it is a form of rebellion. After all, rebellion is often a form of finding and forging one’s own identity apart from what is expected.
In the better of the two shows (both of which are exceptional), The Americans, which, if possible, is even more highly acclaimed than The Good Wife, but less watched (!), the two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), find themselves at odds when their teenage daughter, Paige, decides to pursue faith. Philip and Elizabeth, both undercover Soviet spies, are atheists – but each “welcomes” Paige’s exploration differently. Both main characters have a complex relationship with how to parent (and with America and their cause). Both love their child, but Elizabeth – less seduced by America and more deeply, ideologically committed to the Soviet cause than her husband – is first against letting Paige look into her religious curiosities but eventually joins her, as a kind of way to get closer and more easily manipulate Paige when the time comes to enlist her into the “family business”. Philip is perhaps the more emotional of the two, and feels that their children deserve independence and the right to determine their future for themselves. Regardless of whether he feels that religion is the right choice for his daughter, he does not easily conclude that he and Elizabeth should interfere – and is vehemently against recruiting her to the cause. (Interestingly, Paige is a bit of a manipulator herself – asking her parents for a simple birthday dinner rather than a party, and her only request is to ask that her pastor and his wife be invited. By having the pastor present at the dinner party, she ambushes her parents into letting her get baptized.)
Although these storylines are meant to guide and illustrate our thinking about the parents/main characters, they also underline the general tendency of people – particularly when young – not just to look toward ideas that are different from what they have always been exposed to but also to question and search for meaning, whether that comes in the form of religious faith or something else. We can see how wrapped up in and brainwashed people can become (see the recent HBO documentary Going Clear, about the cult that is Scientology for a testament about that) in their search for authenticity, identity and belonging. Some people find that in their church, some find it in a social setting or scene, some people find it in politics. We can see that Alicia Florrick, while strong herself, has a community in the legal profession, her law firm and now in politics (though she is struggling with that). We know that the Jennings couple in The Americans has a guiding belief in Communism. It is easy to forget as adults, particularly ones with that depth of community and level of ideological commitment, that young people, even one’s own children, do not necessarily share those things and values. (Obviously the case if you are secretly spies!)
Where both shows have an opportunity with the stories about their children is that they can show how their parenting and relationships with their children can encourage healthy questioning and exploration and be supportive without smothering or undermining reason (i.e., opposing the children’s curiosity to the degree that they become even more determined to pursue a path just to spite the parents). In both shows, eventually, regardless of whether the end aims had impure motives (as in Elizabeth’s case with her daughter – even if it is considerably more complicated than that), the “rebellion” is nurtured with discussion and showing increasing trust in the children, even if the belief/faith is not ultimately shared.