February 2009 Links: Book Reviews, Literary Blogs, Amazon, and more

* The Washington Post’s Book World supplement won’t be available in print any longer. Terry Teachout expresses my sentiments in Omega/alpha:

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: it is the destiny of serious arts journalism to migrate to the Web. This includes newspaper arts journalism. Most younger readers–as well as a considerable number of older ones, myself among them–have already made that leap. Why tear your hair because the Washington Post has decided to bow to the inevitable? The point is that the Post is still covering books, and the paper’s decision to continue to publish an online version of Book World strikes me as enlightened, so long as the online “magazine” is edited and designed in such a way as to retain a visual and stylistic identity of its own.

* Cynthia Crossen answers a reader’s question about books that change lives in much the way I would: by saying that no book can be the universal answer, since the right book has to find the right person at the right time.

(But, for the record, I’ll give my personal answers: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

EDIT: * Cynthia Crossen part duex:”How People Reveal Their True Colors” asks for literary expression of how masters treat slaves in a Hegelian sense. My answer to the headline, however, would tend to be that no one behavior or situation tends to reveal “true” colors, whatever those are.

* Patrick Kurp on blogs:

Maintaining a literary blog is like keeping a big band on the road during the waning days of swing music. The audience is aging and no longer guaranteed. They look elsewhere for diversion – television, bop or R&B. As the boss, you make sure the arrangements are in order, payroll is met, dates booked, players rehearsed and reasonably sober. You’re not Basie or Goodman but you’re a professional and people count on you. You’re never certain who’s listening, if anyone, but you still love the music and probably aren’t suited for doing anything else. Tomorrow’s another gig and you’ll be there.

* Strained metaphors and questionable analogies probably capsize the argument of “Technology is Heroin,” but I’d also never considered the entertainment evolution ideas contained within.

* Nigel Beale lists ten wicked quotes on writing.

* Sad:

Why is the newspaper business losing readers at an accelerated rate while television viewership is stronger than ever? Here’s a speculative idea: A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginnings of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.

Consumers are increasingly avoiding newspapers — and books, too — because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden. People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.

* Tim Berners-Lee, who in effect invented the Internet as we know it, on Net Neutrality, which might turn out to be one of the essential rights of our age.

* I wrote about Amazon.com and prices earlier, and a New Yorker review piqued my interest in Robert Crawford’s The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography. The book’s retail price is $35; Amazon.com is selling it for $23 as of Feb. 7. I called the Barnes and Nobel and Borders in Tucson, both of which are selling it for… $35.

This is why Amazon.com is doing so well. On a side not, Farhad Manjoo argues that “Amazon’s amazing e-book reader is bad news for the publishing industry” on Slate. He’s probably right, but, like Microsoft’s operating system hegemony with Windows, it’s unlikely that much will change the larger trends he’s examining.

* CNet’s “Tech coalition launches sweatshop probe” offers yet another reason to like the excellent Unicomp Keyboards (as discussed previously in Product Review: Unicomp Customizer keyboard, or, the IBM Model M reborn):

A tech industry watchdog plans to investigate conditions at a Chinese hardware factory that supplies IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, following a damning report on conditions there by a human-rights organization.

The National Labor Committee report, “High Tech Misery in China,” said these tech giants use Meitai Plastic and Electronics, a keyboard supplier that operates a factory that “dehumanizes young workers.”

In response, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a self-regulating body set up by tech companies, will carry out a third-party audit into the working conditions at the factory, IBM told ZDNet UK on Friday.

* Although it has almost nothing to do with books, Mark Bowden’s “The Last Ace” is a compelling piece of contrarian reporting that demonstrates the trade-off issues frequently left out of other articles, like Fred Kaplan’s “The Air Force doesn’t need any more F-22s.” The F-22 is among the most maligned expenses in the federal budget, and yet Bowden implies that buying more of them might paradoxically mean they’re less likely to be used.

American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding—Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan all now fly fighter jets with capabilities equal or superior to those of the F-15, the backbone of American air power since the Carter era. Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez.

See this post for more about the issue, including Bowden’s clarifying point that he’s not arguing for the F-22, but rather trying to understand the consequences from not building more of them. In other words, he’s evaluating trade-offs. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to read between the lines of his article and come away with the impression that building more F-22s would be a smart idea, even if it might not actually be the optimal use of resources.

(Why “almost nothing” to do with books? Because although this isn’t between hard covers—yet—Bowden wrote a number of fascinating foreign policy and nonfiction books, including Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam and, perhaps most famously, Black Hawk Down.)

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

John Updike's "Lifeguard"

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

John Updike’s “Lifeguard”

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

New Kindle, same problems

As seemingly every media outlet has mentioned, Amazon released the Kindle 2.0, and the press fawning is more notable than the gadget itself. To be sure, its stats are impressive, and maybe this one will be better made than 1.0. Its big problem, however, still looms: DRM and software. You don’t own a “book” bought with the Kindle—you have a temporary license for it. If Amazon discontinues the Kindle, or declares bankruptcy, or has any of the myriad of other problems companies are susceptible to, your investment is as solid as the wireless transmission of the book itself.

To quote an earlier post:

Gizmodo tells us that we might or might not be able to resell “books” that have been “purchased” with the Kindle or Sony eBook reader. The scare quotes are intentional because whether the physical embodiment of words or the words themselves constitute a “book” hasn’t been decided, and whether one has actual control over a Kindle or eBook hasn’t been decided either. From my initial comments:

Furthermore, I know that I’ll be able to read my copy of A Farewell to Alms in ten years. Will Amazon still produce the Kindle or Kindle store in ten years? Maybe, maybe not. I have books printed a hundred years ago that have journeyed places I doubt their original owners could’ve fathomed. Most Kindles will end up in consumer electronic junk heaps in five years, just like most iPods.

To be sure, in a few circumstances the Kindle is superior, and Megan McArdle enumerates some here: “I don’t think it’s for everyone, but for a subset of people like me–people who buy a lot of new books every year, so that the half-price books make it cost effective, people who spend a lot of time in transit, and people who travel a lot for work–it’s a godsend.” If you’re moving every six months, or likely to be deployed on a Navy ship or sub, or tend to read any given book only once but read many books per year, the Kindle might be worthwhile. For the rest of us, its End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) makes it terribly unappealing.

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

In John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a small, abstract decision to remain “innocent”—whatever that means—propels would-be poet Ebenezer Cooke to flee London for colonial Maryland, largely because he refuses to “swive” a prostitute thanks to his sudden love for her and then refuses to pay for her time, causing her pimp and maybe boyfriend (except for his lack of, um, ability, as we later learn), to threaten him. In turn, Burlingame—who formerly tutored Ebenezer and his twin, Anna—miraculously reappears in a variety of guises. Identities are constantly mistaken, and the shifting desires of characters revolve around Ebenezer like planets around the sun, and yet Ebenezer’s attempts not to be part of what he first sees as degraded life that causes him much pain and us much mirth.

There is something about vast, extraordinary novels like The Sot-Weed Factor that makes it hard to begin writing about them, for, if done poorly, a warning is sufficient, but if done well, they contain such multitudes that to dwell on only one seems foolish, like describing only the Northeastern cities of the United States as representing the whole country. To write about The Sot-Weed Factor as a whole would take a book half as long again as the 750-page book already in hand. The Sot-Weed Factor almost defies summarization by casting a mocking eye on the ability to simplify a hopelessly entangled world. Ebenezer’s hopeless attempts at stability certainly to fall apart:

“The world can alter a man entirely, Eben, or he can alter himself, down to his very essence.  Did you now by your own testimony resolve, not that you were, but you’d be a virgin and poet from that moment hence?  Nay, a man must alter willy-nilly in’s flight to the grave; he is a river running seawards, that is ne’er the same from hour to hour. What is there in the Maryland Laureate of the boy I fetched from Magdalene 
College?”

“The less the better!” Ebenzer replied. “Yet I am still Eben Cooke, though haply not the same Eben Cooke […]”

Is he? He seems quite a different Eben Cooke at the end, doubting not only the beliefs of the earlier Eben Cooke but doubting beliefs altogether, indicating that the world has quite altered the man or vice-versa. It’s probably not a coincidence that one chapter title says Ebenezer “reflects a reflection,” and one character tells him to “Speak literally, an’t please you, if only for a sentence, and lay open plainly what is signified by all this talk of death and midwives and the rest of the allegory.” Eben can’t, naturally, and calls of “contrivance!” and “S’heart!” He chastises his servant, Bertrand, for Bertrand’s unusual take on morality that’s worth quoting in full to give some flavor of the novel:

“The fact is, sir, my Betsy, who is a hot-blooded, affectionate lass, hath the bad luck to be married, and that to a lackluster chilly fellow whose only passions are ambition and miserliness, and who, though he’d like a sturdy son to bring home extra wages, is as sparing with caresses as with coins. Such a money-grubber is he that, after a day’s work as a clerk’s apprentice in the Customs-House, he labors half the night as a fiddler in Locket’s to put by an extra crown, with the excuse ’tis a nest egg against the day she finds herself with child. But ‘sblood, ’tis such a tax on his time that he scarce sees her from one day to the next and on his strength that he hath not the wherewithal to roger what time he’s with her! It seemed a sinful waste to me to see, on the one hand, poor Betsy alone and all a-fidget for want of husbanding, and on the other her husband Ralph a-hoarding money to no purpose, and so like a proper Samaritan I did what I could for the both of ’em: Ralph fiddled and I diddled.”

“How’s that, you rascal? The both of ’em! Small favor to the husband, to bless him with horns! What a villainy!”

“Ah, on the contrary, sir, if I may say so, ’twas a double boon I did him, for not only did I plow his field, which else had lain fallow, but seeded it as well, and from every sign ’twill be a bumper crop come fall.”

Bertrand, the novel implies, might be more right than Ebenezer in the topsy-turvy morality that life tends to inspire. Notice within that passage the clever echoes and doublings within: the alliteration of “tax” and time,” the repeated “l” sound in “lackluster chilly fellow,” and the “sturdy son.” Rhymes play a role too: “Ralph fiddled and I diddled!” Doubling (and tripling) plays a role throughout the novel: Anna’s dedication both inspires and causes great trouble, while Burlingame switches sides so many times that one ceases to know which “side” is which.

“Miraculous” should appear in any attempt at describing The Sot-Weed Factor, as coincidences abound enough to make crossing the suspension bridge of disbelief as perilous as that the ocean in a colonial ship. For Ebenezer, the ship crossings certainly are perilous. Oh, and all this happens in the late 1600s, a time more given to delicate evasions of savagery, lust, lasciviousness, and violence in Barth’s reading than any other I know. Seldom have more attributes more normally found in tragedy employed in comedy comedy. The “French Pox,” also known more recently as the clap and many other nicknames besides, is extraordinarily amusing, even in a time when it more commonly led to death and disfigurement. And the heroic explorers of the “New World,” turn out about as heroic in many circumstances as Ebenezer is a poet. At the same time, the taboo attraction between Ebenezer and Anna might not be as dark as one expects it to be, and the only so caught up in sibling relationships I’ve found is John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire.

A vast and improbable web forms between characters, like the web so well described in All the King’s Men:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.

For Ebenezer, that web is infested with voracious and lascivious spiders, and in his attempts to stay off the web Ebenezer only becomes more trapped in it. He touches those strands, sending vibrations ricocheting outwards even when he doesn’t mean to. There can be no onlookers in life and stories, only players, and trying to sit out is itself a play, as Ebenezer discovers to his displeasure and our glee.

The chronic fear of reading’s demise

As if you needed more on reading and its benefits (as I discuss here, here, here, and here), see People of the Screen from the New Atlantis. It’s a long article worth reading in full, but these paragraphs stand out:

Whether one agrees with the NEA or with Bloom, no one can deny that our new communications technologies have irrevocably altered the reading culture. In 2005, Northwestern University sociologists Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright identified the emergence of a new “reading class,” one “restricted in size but disproportionate in influence.” Their research , conducted largely in the 1990s, found that the heaviest readers were also the heaviest users of the Internet, a result that many enthusiasts of digital literacy took as evidence that print literacy and screen literacy might be complementary capacities instead of just competitors for precious time.

[…]

Just as Griswold and her colleagues suggested the impending rise of a “reading class,” British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that the time we spend in front of the computer and television is creating a two-class society: people of the screen and people of the book. The former, according to new neurological research, are exposing themselves to excessive amounts of dopamine, the natural chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain. This in turn can lead to the suppression of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls functions such as measuring risk and considering the consequences of one’s actions.

Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”

[…]

But the Northwestern sociologists also predicted, “as Internet use moves into less-advantaged segments of the population, the picture may change. For these groups, it may be that leisure time is more limited, the reading habit is less firmly established, and the competition between going online and reading is more intense.” This prediction is now coming to pass: A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.”

I realize the irony of sharing this on the Internet, where it’s probably being read on the same screens criticized by the study, and perhaps demonstrating the allegedly rising divide between screen readers and book readers.

Compare the section above to my post on Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, which discusses the innumerable articles on reading’s decline (or maybe not). Alan Jacobs has an excellent post on Frum and Literature in which he observes that reading, especially real books, has probably always been a minority taste and probably always will be. Orwell opens his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel” by saying “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” The whole piece is available in the collection Essays.

Finally, consider From Books, New President Found Voice in the New York Times, which I’m sure every book/lit blogger has already linked to by now:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.

Without his experience in books, Obama probably wouldn’t be where he is, and millions of others must silently share the same condition of achieving what they have thanks largely due to their learning. But they seldom get a voice in the pronouncements about reading’s decline, and those articles seldom acknowledge that, while society might lose a great deal from the allegedly decreasing literacy of its members, those members will lose vastly more on an individual level, and few will even realize what they’ve lost.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

The chronic fear of reading’s demise set against its benefits

As if you needed more on reading and its benefits (as I discuss here, here, here, and here), see People of the Screen from the New Atlantis. It’s a long article worth reading in full, but these paragraphs stand out:

Whether one agrees with the NEA or with Bloom, no one can deny that our new communications technologies have irrevocably altered the reading culture. In 2005, Northwestern University sociologists Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright identified the emergence of a new “reading class,” one “restricted in size but disproportionate in influence.” Their research , conducted largely in the 1990s, found that the heaviest readers were also the heaviest users of the Internet, a result that many enthusiasts of digital literacy took as evidence that print literacy and screen literacy might be complementary capacities instead of just competitors for precious time.

[…]

Just as Griswold and her colleagues suggested the impending rise of a “reading class,” British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that the time we spend in front of the computer and television is creating a two-class society: people of the screen and people of the book. The former, according to new neurological research, are exposing themselves to excessive amounts of dopamine, the natural chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain. This in turn can lead to the suppression of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls functions such as measuring risk and considering the consequences of one’s actions.

Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”

[…]

But the Northwestern sociologists also predicted, “as Internet use moves into less-advantaged segments of the population, the picture may change. For these groups, it may be that leisure time is more limited, the reading habit is less firmly established, and the competition between going online and reading is more intense.” This prediction is now coming to pass: A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.”

I realize the irony of sharing this on the Internet, where it’s probably being read on the same screens criticized by the study, and perhaps demonstrating the allegedly rising divide between screen readers and book readers.

Compare the section above to my post on Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, which discusses the innumerable articles on reading’s decline (or maybe not). Alan Jacobs has an excellent post on Frum and Literature in which he observes that reading, especially real books, has probably always been a minority taste and probably always will be. Orwell opens his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel” by saying “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” The whole piece is available in the collection Essays.

Finally, consider From Books, New President Found Voice in the New York Times, which I’m sure every book/lit blogger has already linked to by now:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.

Without his experience in books, Obama probably wouldn’t be where he is, and millions of others must silently share the same condition of achieving what they have thanks largely due to their learning. But they seldom get a voice in the pronouncements about reading’s decline, and those articles seldom acknowledge that, while society might lose a great deal from the allegedly decreasing literacy of its members, those members will lose vastly more on an individual level, and few will even realize what they’ve lost.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

Summary Judgment: The Island of the Day Before, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Brief History of the Dead

“Summary Judgment” is a new and occasional feature not unlike the “Books Briefly Noted” section in the New Yorker.

* The more I read of Eco, the more I think of him as an author of extremes in terms of accomplishment: his great books have the shock, astonishment, inevitably, and beauty that make them great, while his weaker ones can descend into bland self-parody or simple boredom. The Island of the Day Before rests firmly in the latter camp. Like Robert Penn Warren or Melville, Eco’s best novels, like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, more than excuse The Island of the Day Before. In this case, Amazon’s 448 used copies of the hardcover edition are available starting at $0.01 for a very good reason.

The unnamed “I” narrating the Island of the Day Before says that Roberto, a man cast on a dream-like abandoned ship in the mid-seventeenth century; Roberto is about to explore the dream ship, and on the verge of his exploration we are interrupted:

Or, rather, he does not set out at once. I must crave indulgence, but it is Roberto who, in telling this to the Lady, contradicts himself—an indication that he does not tell in complete detail what has happened to him, but instead tries to construct his letter like a story or, more, like a sketch for what could become both letter and story, and he writes without deciding what things he will select later; he drafts, so to speak, the pieces of his chessboard without immediately establishing which to move and how to deploy them.

Eco is describing the author’s troubles here, but its self-consciousness is more irritating than enlightening: save such disquisitions for literary essays rather than literature, where action should propel the reader to care before metaphysical blathering lulls him to sleep. It’s an intensely annoying affectation that continues throughout at least the first hundred pages. Who is the Lady ostentatiously mentioned? By midway through the novel, when I gave up, we hadn’t learned, and she remained a cloying illusive presence. Some novels use the layered story structure well—including The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and some of John Barth’s novels—but The Island of the Day Before among them.

You can find good explanations of what Eco is attempting in Barth’s The Friday Book and Further Fridays, and when the explanation is better than the specific work of art manifesting a phenomenon, you know that work of art—in this case a novel—has failed its greatest test: to make you feel. If the ghost ship interruptions had been removed and the sections about Roberto streamlined into something more conventional but, for this material, probably more appropriate, I think The Island of the Day Before would’ve worked much better.

* I re-read Robert Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, which tended to reinforce my initial impression of it being the least of his works, though still quite good. He doesn’t really find his legs until the second half of A Mixture of Frailties, the novel in which provincial Canadian Monica Gall ends up in England, discovering what art she had and how to free herself through music. She’s the most developed character in the trilogy, and if she is at times more passive than she should be, it’s at least forgivable.

The other two novels are mixed: the first, Tempest-Tost, is clever but has a tendency to interrupt the main story too often for elaborate backstory on characters, and this kind of thing is much more organic in The Deptford Trilogy. With Tempest-Tost, a community theater—er, excuse me, theatre—is performing The Tempest, which unleashes mini teapot tempests among many members of its conniving cast, most notably the floppy, self-satisfied math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, a man who is about forty but, as one character, says: “Spiritually—if one may use the word of Hector—he’s been seventy for years.” For that reason he’s one of the more interesting characters, a study in premature maturity. That he doesn’t realize it makes him officious, hilarious and pathetic at the same time. There’s a great speech about Mackilwraith that’s somewhat misplaced and also indicative of the novel’s problems:

I think it’s [I leave the “it” blank intentionally] the logical outcome of his education and the sort of life he has led. He’s vulgar. I don’t mean just that he wears awful suits and probably eats awful food: I mean that he has a crass soul. He thinks that when his belly is full and his safe, he’s got the world by the tail. He has never found out anything about himself, so how can he know anything about other people. The condition of the vulgarian is that he never expects anything good or bad that happens to him to be the result of his own personality; he always thinks it’s Fate, especially if it’s bad. The only people who make any sense in the world are those who know that whatever happens to them has its roots in what they are.

All of that is true, but it’s also somewhat awkward to have long, play-like soliloquies spout from characters in novels like . If this were an isolated example, one could let it pass, but the whole The Salterton Trilogy is filled with them. Davies’ later work has similar long commentaries, but they’re better integrated with the characters’ personalities and with the plot. This one is particularly noticeable because the sentiment expressed is interesting, but it’s easy to pass it as the scene it’s embedded in goes from person to person, each of whom diagnoses Mackilwraith’s psychological problems. Still, The Salterton Trilogy is fun, but read The Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy first, both of which show Davies’ powers at their zenith.

* Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead isn’t so much a narrative as a series of vignettes about two worlds: that of the living, which has been swept by a plague that’s a convenient but not overly ostentatious metaphor for corporate greed (“The ice cap was already melting, after all, pouring into the ocean by the tankerload, and the corporation might as well take advantage of it while they still could”) and zombification, while the other follows an almost pastoral city world or holding chamber for those heading from one zone—life—to another, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a clever set up, but one narrative thread should have predominated over the other; the switchbacks make it feel too dead, too abstract, like the world of the dead who are stuck in their strange city. Although there’s space for anti-corporate screeds in novels, this one is particularly blatant. Coca Cola is, if not the bad guy, then at least a vector for the bad guy, implying that Coca Cola executives are, if not evil in and of themselves, are at least the somewhat witting agents of evil. Save it for your alt-weekly column and give us more story and less ideology.

* Mordechai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman remains mostly confusion around page 100, but it doesn’t have quite the amusement needed to propel me to read on. The novel lacks a discernible backbone running through, while the tedium of continuing to track what, if anything, is happening outweighs the pleasure of occasional jokes. It’ll remain shelved next to Barney’s Version because it feels like it might have buried promise that I’ve yet to unearth.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: