The Possibility of an Island — Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is not a “good” writer in the way someone like Nabokov, Ann Patchett, Elmore Leonard, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, or countless others whose sentences sing, metaphors work, and who make one stop to save the rightness of their description. But Houellebecq is a different, unusual, or unique writer: he sounds like no one else I’ve read. He’s prone to writing like a nonfiction writer (“Undoubtedly there used to be a form of demotic happiness, connected to the functioning whole, which we are no longer able to understand”), a nonfiction writer who shifts suddenly into overly pornographic registers (“Women give an impression of eternity, as though their pussy were connected to mysteries—as though it were a tunnel opening onto the essence of the world, when in fact it is just a hole for dwarves, fallen into disrepair”), or a more conventional writer (“Fortunately Harry intervened, and the conversation was raised to more transcendent subjects (the stars, infinity, etc.), which allowed me to tuck into my plate of sausages without trembling”). To “tuck into my plate of sausages” is so normal in a book—The Possibility of an Island—so weird.

If you’ve read one or two thrillers you’ve probably read most thrillers; if you’ve read one competently but boringly written commercial novel you’ve read most of them; if you’ve read 50 Shades of Grey you should be ashamed because there’s much better verbal pornography available. But Houellebecq sounds like himself, and his concerns are almost random-seeming (sexuality, contemporary consumerism, philosophy, history) yet they drive me, and I suspect others, to try to figure out what braids them. Story is one possible answer, though it is a bad one and there are others.

Being unique without exactly being good still counts. Too many “good” writers do MFA-approved stuff taken from the Francine Prose and James Wood handbooks. I don’t want to knock that style—arguably I’m doing it at times—but it is a distinctive style (almost like the New Yorker’s) and school and if you read enough lit fic or better commercial fic you’ll recognize it and start to categorize it and start to use annoying abbreviations like “fic.”

I suspect that readers who don’t reject Houellebecq outright for reasons or psychological or moral outrage may worry: what if he does describe the world? That’s why he’s morally outrageous. What if his low-affect, high-description, no-content view of the universe is right? It’s unsettling, and for that reason he may be a bad signal: say you like Houellebecq and you’re saying there may be something amiss in you. I don’t fully buy the Houellebecq worldview—too much sunny American in me, I guess, and too tight an affinity with a Zero to One worldview—but I could probably ape or paraphrase it if need be: everything comes down to material conditions; the spiritual is dead; we’re either monsters of desire or we’re standing novelistically outside it, smoking a cigarette, and commenting on it.

I wish more MFA types would read Houellebecq, and read him with care. But he’s not a writer likely to be politically palatable to university types or to contemporary mores (which is also why I suspect he has a higher chance of enduring when today’s New York Times-approved hot author is forgotten).

In an odd way parts of Houellebecq feel like Elena Ferrante, another European export who in terms of content is the opposite of Houellebecq, and yet one senses that they’re both writing about the same currents and social conditions through fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction. He fascinates instead of bores.

I don’t claim to understand Houellebecq and very few writers do. The best and most convincing reading of his work I’ve encountered is Adam Gopnik’s “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire,” which views Houellebecq as nostalgic for the late ’50s and early ’60s. This seems odd to me—I view the present as better than the past and the future likely to be better than the present—but I wonder if my view is the minority one. Houellebecq’s future island is not a good one. He uses the pessimistic strands of SF in Island and The Elementary Particles. I like optimists.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch — Jonathan Gottschall

How many people are willing to admit: “I concluded that I’d been wrong about MMA people, fighters and fans alike?” Admitting to being wrong is a paradoxical show of power: the power to say that you’re weak, rather than pretending to be strong, which only the strong can do. The Professor in the Cage is full of paradox, beginning maybe with the author himself: a cerebral professor who pursues fighting. I get why he does and why he gets the reactions he does. I don’t do MMA but people are surprised that I run and lift. Are those activities in natural opposition to cerebral writers? To anyone in cerebral professions? Not to me, but, evidently, to many.

prof_in_cageA lot guys start MMA because they fear for their own masculinity and want to prove it: “Football captains and bullies don’t need martial arts. They already know they are strong and tough. Guys turn to martial arts when they fear they are weak.” Or, at least, they do in situations—like most of the contemporary Western world—when their physical safety is mostly assured. Much later, in the final chapters, Gottschall says, “half my reason for taking the fight was to try to do a brave thing—to redeem myself, at least in my own eyes, for all the times I’d flinched when I was young.” There may be other possibilities for redemption. Like, say, letting go.

Or channeling your energy in different directions.

The stories of entrepreneurial competition are legion. Gottscahll puts his energy in physical direction, in part because he’s an English professor by day—and a failing one at that. We have certain things in common, Gottschall and me, except I got out earlier, and I haven’t published the books he has. In some ways, though, Gottschall is a warning: How can someone who has done so much interesting work still get no traction in English departments? He could be a cautionary tale in my own warning essay about grad school.

Towards the end of the book Gottschall writes,

I’ve said I took up fighting partly in hopes of getting fired. But that’s only half-true. Becoming a real college professor has been the great ambition of my adult life, and a big part of me is still reluctant to give up on it. In truth, I probably feared being fired as much as I hoped for it.

He also observes that, contrary to what he thought he should do, he finds that “if you train in MMA, it’s hard to stay in the closet about it.” Which may true of any passion or activity that makes you feel most alive. However much you’re supposed to hide it, it’s hard to suppress that instinct. It’s who you are. It makes you slightly evangelical. For Gottschall, too, he finds himself “on crutches, or limping in a walking boot,” which makes MMA fighting particularly hard to ignore. I sometimes reach for metaphors related to lifting and running because they’re handy and relatively easy to understand. They’re also what I know. All of us have stocks of experience and knowledge and that’s part of what colors, filters, or constructs our world.

At base Gottschall is looking for life. In this respect he is like a novelist. He finds it fighting more, maybe, than fucking (or perhaps another book on that subject is yet to emerge). It may not be a mistake that one of James Wood’s books is The Nearest Thing to Life and it in turn discusses novels. Life and life-feeling are tricky to define yet continually sought. Cooperation and competition are perpetually cooperating and competing with each other. In The Professor and the Cage they are physically embodied. That physical embodiment propels the book forward. I don’t think I’ll spoil the book by saying that its denouement is a 47-second fight. In ritualized fighting the journey is the destination.

We find life in many places. Gottschall finds it in the cage.

Other have written about him. “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career” is interesting throughout. Is it a surprise that three of the most interesting academics in and around English—Gottschall, Camille Paglia, and William Deresiewicz—have such a strained relationship with the rest of the discipline? I don’t have their fortitude or seeming indifference to material possessions. Give me a new iMac and a $14 hipster cocktail stat. More importantly, Paglia’s two-decades-long protest has led to near-zero change. The structure of the system impedes change and will at least until tenure goes away. In the meantime, though, there is life in the cage.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory — John Seabrook

You know The Song Machine is going to be good from the fourth page, in this close reading of the song “Right Round:”

The nation was near the bottom of its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but you wouldn’t know it from “Right Round.” Like a lot of CHR [Commercial Hit Radio] songs, it takes place in “da club,” where Pitbull oils his way around the floor, calling women “Dahling” and remarking on their shapely behinds. The club is both an earthly paradise where all sensual pleasures and the arena in which achievement is measured: the place where you prove your manhood.

The_Song_MachineThe understatment from the “Social realism” sentence is enough to express skepticism but not so much as to be overbearing. Seabrook is good at, over and over again, hitting the right description and the right tone. He notices much and picks the right things to make readers notice along with him; his restatement of the place of da club makes da club seem ridiculous, but in a way that’s easy to forget in the context of the fantasy of a song. Seabrook pierces that fantasy like a finger through a bubble, yet the image of the club as paradise remains, and it remains enough to enchant millions of people into clubs every weekend. I’m not a routine clubgoer and to my eyes da club seems to not be a place of great happiness to most people, most of the time, unless they’re made artificially happy—as Seabrook says of the songs his son likes, which seems both a short and a long way from the “soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter” he listened to:

The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my preteen years, but it was vodka-flavored and laced with MDMA; it doesn’t taste like “Sugar, Sugar.” It is teen pop for adults.

I don’t care much about pop music and yet this book made the subject fascinating. Comparisons between Seabrook and John McPhee, another master of making many topics mesmerizing, are apt. Though I may not care especially about pop, I hear it and sometimes like it and know how universal it is. A few times in discussions with students, alcohol’s effects on characters in novels and stories have arisen, and I sometimes write on the board, “Blame it on the a- a- a- a- alcohol:” Most students know, immediately, the reference, and laugh.

Seabrook is also aware that hit makers exist yet mostly aren’t known:

Who are the hit makers? They are enormously influential culture shapers—the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones—and yet they are mostly anonymous. Directors of films are public figures, but the people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of the song.

The Song Machine seeks to change that, but Seabrook also fingers an important reason why hitmakers stay away: the “illusion” that must be preserved, insofar as possible, or at least not have attention drawn to it. We seem to want the illusion, or, more likely to not care how the song is made: only that the sound is good, regardless of whose hands and ears it passes through before it gets to us.

I’m probably just too old to be the target audience for most pop music, and even when I was in pop’s demographic sweet spot I found much of it annoying—not out of allegiance to weirder and more interesting music, but because I’m not that musically driven a person. To me, most music boils down to, “I’m romantically desirable” or “You done me wrong” or “I’m better than my romantic rival,” or some combination thereof. They’re sentiments I of course agree with—we all do, which is why it’s pop—but at some point I’d prefer a wider array of ideas, sentiments, or emotions. Yet that wider array isn’t easily expressed in three-minute intervals. These views are pretty weakly held, but they are mine, for now at least, and apparently almost no one listens to the lyrics and wonders what they might mean. The market for people who want lyrics that might make sense is small, though maybe larger than the market for contemporary poetry.

There are many fascinating details in The Song Machine. The three-woman group TLC rejected the famous Britney Spears song “Hit Me Baby (. . . One More Time).” Oops. Spears captured the zeitgeist for years and in some ways still has it. Her image was in many ways a lie but in a few ways real: she knew that a video that portrays her as a sexy schoolgirl checking out “hot guys” was wiser than what an industry veteran proposed. Still, that’s a rare example of the amateurs winning over the professionals; one subtext of the book is that, most of the time, professionals win: that’s why they’re pros.

Spears, by the way, later rejected the song “Umbrella,” which launched Rihanna’s career. Why? “In trying to fathom how Britney could have rejected ‘Umbrella,’ Tricky notes drily that ‘her personal life was . . . a little out of control’ at the time.” She may never have heard the song.

Another detail, this time about Asia, from the chapter on K-pop:

In a classic example of ‘soft power,’ Korean cultural exports erased South Korea’s regional reputation as an unsophisticated emerging industrial nation and replaced it with images of prosperous, cosmopolitan life. Thanks to Winter Sonata middle-aged Japanese women now swoon over Korean men, while complaining about the ‘grass-eating—that is, lacking in virility—males of Japan. Korean ancestry used to be a stigma in Japan; now it’s trendy.

I’ll leave this without comment, beyond this post.

Many, many parts of The Song Machine reminded me of Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over; the latter book is about topics far removed from pop music, but in many respects The Song Machine can be seen as a specific application of the general principles Cowen describes. For example, Seabrook writes, “Whole subcultures of musical professionals—engineers, arrangers, session musicians—are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work.” Yet those who can work effectively with software, like Denniz PoP, Max Martin, and Dr. Luke, can still make enormous amounts of money and have influence that is in some ways vaster and longer term than virtually any musician who came before them. At the same time, though, it is hard to say what many modern artists stand for, apart from the party:

On sheer vocal ability, the new artists fell short of the pop divas of the early ’90s—Whitney, Mariah, Celine. And who are these artists? Britney? Kelly? Rihanna? Katy? Kesha? What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth. And who really writes their songs?

The Song Machine answers that last question. As for “sheer vocal ability,” that doesn’t matter as much in a Pro Tools and social media age (though it still matters somewhat: Rihanna is initially feared to be too “pitchy” to make it as a singer). The social media age may not seem to affect the need to have a great voice, but social media means that lifestyles, persona, and image are relatively more important than they once were and, in many respects, harder to control. Being “harder to control” and of great importance means that stardom selects for the ability to control persona and image. The selection filters change.

Consider, for example, Rihanna being beaten by her ex-boyfriend is in The Pop Machine a crisis of investment: Rihanna had already had millions of dollars and much valuable, irreplaceable time and attention put into her. Being hit by her boyfriend threatened to undo that (the reaction of her fans may also say something important about the influence of contemporary “feminism,” although what that may be I’ll leave to the reader).

But back to Average is Over: Seabrook recounts briefly how much technology influences the music industry when he writes that in the 80s and 90s “Other song-making machines arrived—Roland and Prophet polyphonic synths, the Linn drum machine, Fairlight and Synclavier samplers. The ‘MIDI’ interface between a keyboard and the computer . . .” We are our technologies, in all domains, even music, fantasies of purity and authenticity aside. And while we have the technologies they are not easy to use:

In 1997, Denniz [PoP] told a reporter, “It’s easy to say producing this music is equal to pushing a button in the studio. But that’s like saying writing a novel is a simple push of a button on your typewriter.” Denniz liked to say that no matter how technically adept you were at programming, sometimes you just had to “let art win.”

Letting art win is hard and sometimes unknowable. Much later in the book, Seabrook hears an early cut of a song and thinks it garbage, though he is too polite to say. It turns out to be Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” which goes on to be a number one. I’m oddly glad Seabrook doesn’t like it—I’ve heard it too many times and still find it insanely annoying—but its sheer popularity remains.

The Song Machine is best read with Spotify open.

I finished it, turned it around, and re-read it.

The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe

How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe” inspired me to re-read The Right Stuff, which is still excellent today and still worth dropping everything to read, today. In the foreward to my edition Wolfe writes that “This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity.” That “ordinary curiosity,” however, didn’t have ordinary results. He notices things that others don’t; few people noticed the possibility for the “Serious treatment of the drama and psychology of this new pursuit, flying high-performance aircraft in battle…” How many people don’t notice fields that today call for serious treatment yet don’t get them?

the_right_StuffIn the book Wolfe recounts, numerous times, the square footage of houses, and, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, what that square footage means. For one test-pilot couple—the wife essentially assumes her husband’s position in this world—an 1,100 square-foot-house is made bigger by the way the couple “designed it themselves.” The story is often about men who feel they are doing it themselves, though they aren’t: they’re part of a vast human network, and they’re made the figureheads of the network. The Right Stuff can be read well with Kelly: More than My Share of It All, since Kelly is about the engineer and engineering behind the flying machine and The Right Stuff is about the pilots and the lives of those strapped into the nose. Wolfe is a much better writer—there’s no way to ignore that—but while the perspectives differ the romance remains. Wolfe is fond of denigrating technocrats, or having his characters denigrate them—he does, repeatedly, in A Man in Full, for example—but that denigration may spring from the steady elevation of technocrats. Lewis notes as much:

The world needed them to be heroic pilots, and so they played the part, but no one (except for one American writer) thought to look more deeply into the matter. No one noticed the best story. Process had replaced courage. Engineers had replaced warriors. A great romantic way of life, a chivalric code, had been trampled by modernity. Not for the first time! (As Wolfe might write.) It’s the story of the American South in the 20th century—or at least the story a lot of white southern men told themselves.

Was there ever a real chivalric code? I’d guess not: a chivalric code is most useful as a way of waving one’s hand in one direction while the other hand picks a pocket or preps itself for a punch. But hierarchy! That exists and probably always will. Wolfe is towards the top of the hierarchy of writers: he notes, in an almost throwaway moment, how flying does things to “the gyroscope of the soul.” He writes, from the fighter pilots’s perspective, how in flying test craft the very top steadily leave others behind. And, moreover, the test works because it works on belief in masculinity itself:

Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself. Naturally, this was never mentioned, either. Yet there it was. Manliness, manhood, manly courage . . . there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.

The romance and death are linked. Wolfe notes that “More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes.” But death in airplanes is news; death in cars is distressingly prosaic. Today, countless billions are spent fighting statistically unlikely terrorism—the snapping hand—while the other hand—the punch hand—is increasing the likely number of people who’ll die on the road. Romance seizes attention and attention is today the scarcest resource in existence. Wolfe gets that, I think, and got it long before most of the rest of us.

Wolfe is unafraid, too, to be enthusiastic:

My God!—to be part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch . . . in the X-1, the X-1A, the X-2, the D-558–1, the horrible XF-92A, the beautiful D-558–2 . . .

The sentence rambles on, itself feeling rocketlike. Edwards then is like Silicon Valley today. The center of the world may shift at times, but the keen listeners and seers attend not to where it’s been, but where it’s going. A pity that short-sighted noisy NIMBYs have made it nearly impossible for normal people to visit the center of the universe. Instead, that center has to spawn extra branches in Seattle, Austin, and even New York—New York!—New York is now cheaper than San Francisco. It’s a madness Wolfe would get, with his attention to housing and the status implied by housing.

One more moment from The Right Stuff. Wolfe writes:

To fighter jocks it was bad enough to have doctors of any sort as your final judges. To find psychologists and psychiatrists positioned above you in this manner was irritating in the extreme. Military pilots, almost to a man, perceived psychiatry as a pseudo-science. They regarded the military psychiatrist as the modern and unusually bat-brained version of the chaplain.

The fighter jocks were and are right. Maybe romance isn’t dead.

Life: Belief edition

“It is difficult to believe in a thing when one is alone and there is no one to speak to.”

—Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe. Truth has collective properties, and that’s one reason 1984 and similar political-informational dystopias are so scary: they prevent individuals from exploring or testing their beliefs. This same issue is part of the reason the best scholars worry about political correctness on campus, which attempts to stifle heretical ideas, rather than merely arguing that they are wrong.

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst — Adam Philips

Becoming Freud could be called “Reading Freud” or “Defending Freud,” because it has little to do with how Freud became Freud—there are decent, let alone good, answers to this question—and much to do with other matters, worthy in their own regard. The story—it is only tenuously a biography—is consistently elegant, though not in a flashy way; Philips reminds me of Louis Menand and the better New Yorker writers in general in this regard. Consider this: “Freud developed psychoanalysis, in his later years, by describing how it didn’t work; clinically, his failures were often more revealing to him than his successes.” Twelve words before the semicolon are balanced by eleven after, and the paradox of failure being more “revealing” than success is unexpected and yet feels right. As the same passage shows, Becoming Freud is also pleasantly undogmatic, unlike many modern-day Freudians, or people who claim Freud’s mantle or cite his work. I ran into some of those people in academia, and the experience was rarely positive on an intellectual level. Some were lovely people, though.

becoming_FreudIt is hard to get around how much Freud was wrong about, yet Philips manages this deftly by interpreting him interpreting others, rather than on his conceivably disprovable claims. Freud in this reading is literary. In Becoming Freud we get sentences like:

Freud’s work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves; but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view.

But this sounds like a description of language or of literary interpretation, rather than the final statement on the relation of facts to the mind.Plus, I’m not sure facts are all that different—but I sense that Philips would argue that’s because of Freud’s influence. Philips further tells us that “We spend our lives, Freud will tell us in his always lucid prose, not facing the facts, the facts of our history, in all their complication; above all the facts of our childhood.”

In short, Becoming Freud is closer to literary interpretation than to biography, much as Freud was closer to a literary critic than a psychologist. I’m not the first to notice that he writes of patients more like characters than like people. Philips reminds us that Freud’s “writing is studded with references to great men—Plato, Moses, Hannibal, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Shakespeare, among others—most of them artists; and all of them, in Freud’s account, men who defined their moment, not men struggling to assimilate to their societies. . .” These passages also, I think, show the book’s interpretative strengths and its sometimes exhausting qualities.

There is no real summing of Freud’s influence, when remains even when few will take his supposed science seriously. Yet despite the unseriousness of the science, talking therapy is still with us. The word “despite” seems appropriate in discussions of Freud: Despite the dubious effectiveness of talking therapy it remains in widespread use because we don’t have good alternatives. Many of us are socially isolated and lack friends; Bowling Alonew is prescient and TV and Facebook are not good substitutes for coffee or 3 a.m. phone calls. For centuries the West has valorized individual freedom and attempted to vaporize community bonds. We may be victims of our own success in this respect, and we’re now tasked with building communities based primarily on common interests. In therapeutic terms, we use the tools we have not because they are good but because they are better than nothing. Freud is in contemporary respects not good but he did articulate some of the ideas that would define the 20th Century. Getting a couple of major peaks is often more important than consistently being minorly right. I may be more inclined temperamentally towards the latter.

Sentences like this abound: “In this period of Freud’s life—as in any period in anyone’s life—the discrepancy between the documented and the undocumented life is striking, and can only be imagined.” Yet such issues sort of defeat the purpose of biography, no? It may also be why novelists like writing the lives of famous people: one gets to imagine their inner and outer selves without the pesky need for proof.

Philips’s Freud is an idealized person and for that reason I like this Freud better than most writers’s Freud. As Philips points out repeatedly the book is inadequate as a biography; he says all biographies are, which may be true to some extent, but the fewer the facts the less adequate the interpretations that might be drawn from them. Becoming Freud is similar to Alain de Botton’s Kiss & Tell, though Botton’s book is a novel. Here is The New Yorker’s take. There is a novel in there somewhere. We don’t know and likely can never know Freud. Few modern writers have such privilege, unless maybe they delete their entire email histories before they die.

There is not enough known about Freud to even make his biography feel novelistic. Whether this is good or bad depends on the reader.

Briefly noted: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep is great though polemical—snide remarks about tech companies are neither true nor useful—and one gets a sense of its contents from “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” which went viral for the best of reasons (as opposed to the worst, which is more common). “Eros in the Classroom” is also good, though curiously erotically attenuated, and could be read profitably in tandem with Laura Kipnis’s “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The two point to the need for satirization of contemporary academic mores, but that satirization is already so thorough that its failure to make much of a dent inside academia is obvious.

excellent_SheepBut Excellent Sheep is comprehensive, despite its overreach. But major orators know that if they have the audience the audience will forgive much, as such is the case here. The book is situated as one that fills a need and one that speaks to the author’s earlier self:

This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then.) I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ [. . .] Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, ‘success.’

I was perhaps slightly less blank but barely so. That being said, I often try to talk to current college students about what college is about and usually get resistance. So it may be that Deresiewicz’s twenty-year-old self wouldn’t listen to older Deresiewicz anyway. And, like almost any book of this sort, Excellent Sheep probably won’t be read by many of the students who could most benefit from reading it. Many who might be handed it might resist it. Slightly analogously, I’m struck by Emily Nussbaum’s description of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: “In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period.” I’ve assigned it before and it’s not been treated as a Bible; some students cottoned to it but some strongly resisted, though I also don’t think of it as dealing with “the feminist battlefields” of anything: I think of the stories as being about individuals, not dreary ideologies or ideological think-pieces.

Deresiewicz has a keen grasp of what’s happening in contemporary academia and, often, life itself. He writes of a “system,” or “a set of tightly interlocking parts,” including “private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself; [. . .] the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA [. . .]” and of course much more. But this paragraph is the most interesting:

What that system does to kds and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you just saying that we’re all just, like really excellent sheep?”

He goes on: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” I’ve noticed those things. They are of course not pervasive. But I also find them impossible to miss.

Excellent Sheep is a truer work of philosophy than 99% of the stuff published under the banner of “philosophy.”

Already I’ve chewed through a thousand words and two long blockquotes and have gotten to page three of Excellent Sheep. That should speak to the book’s quality. To attend to its every argument would be to almost write another book. As I said before, don’t trust everything. But do read it. It is also interesting to me that this article about Peter Thiel describes his mistrust of the education system, which partially evolved from his unhappiness with a track-based life and system. Yet this system persists for reasons, some of which Megan McArdle articulates in “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents.” The system has been in construction for decades. Startups are one route around them. Self-publishing is another. One can no doubt imagine more.

Many people are bad at being and bad at purpose. Including, possibly, me. Excellent Sheep challenges them, which is to say, us.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,598 other followers

%d bloggers like this: