Life: The readers edition, and Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day. Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.

—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, a book that I had erroneously believed I had already “read” through the many references to it made by other books and articles. I turned out to be completely wrong, as the book is still original and almost every page has some unexpected insight; like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I consistently cannot predict the brilliant observations and extensions that come from the unfurling of a basic idea that is simple to understand.

Regarding the quote itself, I would add that it is not only the quantity of reading but the quality that makes erudition; reading a great number of, say, romance novels is unlikely to yield the erudition of reading broadly yet deeply. Reading a few romance novels might be essential to deep thinkers, however, for reasons that I will leave to you, or to commenters, to explain.

I also have defended reading, especially to those who say they somehow do not “have the time,” by pointing out that books often encompass years or decades of a writer’s life and thinking in a volume that can be read in just a few hours; who would not want the wisdom of 20 years distilled into an easily digestible chunk? Yet apparently many people don’t want such a gift, which is widely available for $10 – $15 at bookstores or for less from Amazon or free from many libraries. Satisfaction with your own knowledge is a sign that a mind has become barren without even realizing its own barrenness.

Clublife: Thugs, Drugs, and Chaos at New York City’s Premier Nightclubs — Rob the Bouncer

Clublife is a rare example of a book weaker than the originating, (and eponymous) blog. The blog used to be filled with posts containing subtle and sometimes surprising points about bouncers and standard bump-n-grind clubs. The book has some of that, though perhaps less subtle (“I’ve never met anyone who goes to clubs who’s worth a shit” or “They come to these places and toss aside the conventions of a civilized society, doing shit you wouldn’t see them do anywhere but there”) than the source material. Many of the later blog are about blogging instead of bouncing.

The major fringe benefit of being a bouncer appears to be hitting on the women in the clubs, or being hit on by them. If you’re not interested in that—and Rob isn’t—one of the prime reasons to work in that environment goes away. It’s like staffing a restaurant where you don’t like the food. Many people don’t want and aren’t interested in casual sex with strangers. Which is okay, but disliking that activity is naturally going to make clubs seem bizarre and stupid; English departments must seem bizarre and stupid to people who don’t like to read. Regardless of the quality of the experience to someone who enjoys the experience, it’s going to be crap for the wrong sort of person.

Rob is the wrong sort of person. Everyone else at the club seems to be working an angle, either sexually (in Rob’s words: “looking for a place to park their genitals for a night”) or by selling drugs. Not working one of those two angles defeats the point of the club experience. I want to encourage Rob to read Camille Paglia, who is so fond of socially sanctioned Dionysian excess.

Rob depicts the business this way at the end of the book:

Taking, after all, is what the nightclub business is all about. It takes and takes and takes, and gives nothing back. The entire thing is a setup. It’s a scam. It’s a great big mound of shit, all painted up in pastels and fluorescents and hosed down with enough cologne and perfume to disguise the stink.

The scatological metaphor is effective—Rob is good and often very good on a sentence-by-sentence level—but he’s only partially right about nightclubs: they do take. But they also give people a place to sleep with or attempt to sleep with strangers. How many men in particular achieve their purpose there is less clear: presumably some do but many don’t. The minute you don’t want that, then a club is “a scam.”

The book eschews the random, disconnected format of a blog and instead uses a memoir narrative that shows Rob getting into the business and going through the lifecycle of a single club. But the narrative seems forced and false, and a Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl-style reprint might’ve been an improvement.

The Rob we see in the book has a long “history of screwing things up for myself,” which is okay, but he seems to hate everything about what he’s doing and to have built a decent shell of bitterness and resentments that may or may not reflect the real person. He especially hates the many “guidos” who populate New York nightlife for whom he “stands on a box and plays zookeeper [with] for eight hours.” His disdain for guidos occurs primarily because disdain for most racial and ethnic groups is now politically incorrect, and for good reason; imagine that every time he uses the word “guido,” he uses the term “black.”

Still, there’s a lot to be said for first-person accounts of unusual, poorly understood market niches. To some extent my father and I are doing that for grant writing and nonprofits in Grant Writing Confidential, but the dearth of lascivious or potentially lascivious detail means that few people who aren’t involved in trying to get the money are going to be interested. There are things to like in Clublife.

T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle reconsidered

The Inner Circle is better than I remember it, and subtler: it uses Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex research to explore what happens to a man who isn’t his own man but instead belongs, always, to someone else. The narrator, John Milk, tells the story retrospectively, but, like the butler Stevens from The Remains of the Day, he has learned very little from his experience. In the first lines, Milk says that he doesn’t think he was “ever actually ‘sex shy,'” but he does admit that “I was pretty naive when I first came to him, not to mention hopelessly dull and conventional.”

He ends the novel the same way, only instead of being under the power a great man and guru like Kinsey, he is under the power of his wife—a perhaps more common masters for many colorless men who need direction from some external source. He says initially that “As for sex, I was eager but inexperienced, and shy in the usual way—unsure of myself and just about as uninformed as anyone you could imagine.” At the end he is experienced and informed yet still knows nothing. The ignorance regarding sexuality is enforced by law, custom, and culture at the start of the novel, but ignorance about character and individuality is not, at least for those who care to notice. Milk gets superficially important matters—like the way “all women are every man’s type, under the right circumstances,” but not how he molds himself to the needs of others.

Milk does note, accurately, that “this isn’t about me, this is about Prok”—but it’s about the Prok that Milk experiences. Prok is a stereotypical surrogate father, but he fulfills other roles: to Milk, Prok has a tremendous power:

It was uncanny. The longer we spoke, and it was almost speaking with your inner self or confiding in the family doctor behind closed doors, the more he seemed to know what I was thinking and feeling.

It was probably very canny—Milk just doesn’t realize that he’s in the presence of a charismatic man. And for a young man starved of sexual attention or knowledge, the probable range of basic needs and desires is probably not hard to conceive. Moreover, Milk is predictable as a person, by his own admission—”I always did what was expected”—though the word “was” is sneaky here: who is doing the expecting? What Kinsey, or Prok as the novel calls him, expects is very different from what others expect. Prok expects extensive sexual experience, homosexual and heterosexual, and a level of sexual transparency few people even today are comfortable with. How many porn stars, even, wish for every aspects of their sexual lives to be known? And glamor, as Viginia Postrel argues, partially emerges from intriguing silence.

Still, the novel’s main theme keeps circling back to Milk and his lack of autonomy. If you want to be your own dog you should be your own dog; if you want to be someone else’s dog, you should do so. And there’s nothing wrong with or dishonorable about being someone else’s dog: fitting into a hierarchical organization and making the unit stronger than the sum of its parts is rarely lionized in our highly individualistic society but is still a valuable skill. Milk’s problem, as a person and as a narrator, is that he belongs to and is an extension of Kinsey, but Iris doesn’t want him to be: she wants him to be an extension of herself, and devoted to her above all. Yet she knew or should have known, before she married, that Milk was Kinsey’s first, and given the group’s proclivities towards group sex, she would end up being Kinsey’s. She is, on some level, however little she wants to be by the end of the novel, and regardless of the way she ultimately rejects Kinsey.

Iris pulls Milk away from Kinsey, though it’s not complete: Milk reminds us, as fictional characters often do, that “in life, as distinct from fiction, things don’t always tie up so neatly.” Still, the battle of the novel is the battle, between Kinsey and Iris, for Milk. I see what Kinsey sees in Milk but don’t see what Iris sees. Milk never really has anything he wants, apart from appeasing Prok or Iris. The obvious question arises: how many of us are Milks, and how many are Proks? Milk narrates; most of us probably don’t stand up. Maybe we’re better off that way.

The Inner Circle is a little flatter, a little less tense than I remember: knowing the outcome is an inherent problem in historical fiction. Yet it is still compelling. Many of Milk’s misconceptions, about great men and other matters, are still common today—like when he mentions that he’d “been awkward with girls, terrified of them—I’d placed them on a pedestal and never saw them as sexual beings just like me, who had the same needs and desires as I.” Plenty of men need to overcome the same issues; the Internet is filled with their complaints. Maybe those complaints will exist as long as people are people; at the very least, I expect that the Milks of the world, blind to their places, will.

Life: Why read edition

“Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”

—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

EDIT: Another brilliant observation:

art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination. Which is why dictators—and large corporations—tend not to like art and artists, except those of a highly predictable and malleable sort.

Links: Adjunct unhappiness, the art of translation, marriage plots, men, and more.

* Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Another Job? There is a lot of blah-blah-blah in this article, because the real answer is something kind, like “They’re acculturated to academia,” or something less kind but equivalent, like “Despite advanced degrees, they’re stupid.”

* The Art of Translation: William Weaver, who translated The Name of the Rose.

* “Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old” (unlikely).

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* “Why Men are Withdrawing from Courtship.”

* I edited “An economic model of paid sex: Coase’s ‘The Nature of the Firm,’ gains from trade, and the gift economy.”

* Related to link one: “Death of a Professor: An 83-year-old French instructor’s undignified death became a cause célèbre for exploited academics. But what really happened to Margaret Mary Vojtko?” Side note: this is an extreme example showing why it’s not a great idea to start a humanities grad program.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

Hipsters haven’t ruined Paris; Parisian voters have

Last week’s New York Times has a somewhat dumb article by Thomas Chatterton Williams called “How Hipsters Ruined Paris,” which describes how Paris is changing:

Today, the neighborhood has been rechristened “South Pigalle” or, in a disheartening aping of New York, SoPi. Organic grocers, tasteful bistros and an influx of upscale American cocktail bars are quietly displacing the pharmacies, dry cleaners and scores of seedy bar à hôtesses that for decades have defined the neighborhood.

Elsewhere, the usual complaints appear: “Our neighborhood, though safe and well on its way to gentrification…” But demand to live in Paris is rising while the supply of housing remains constant, or close to constant—which means prices rise, and richer people move into once-poorer neighborhoods, and bring with them their predilections for high-end coffee and fancy bars and all the similar stuff I and my ilk like. If you want more diverse neighborhoods, you have to get lower rents, and the only effective way to accomplish that is through taller buildings—which, quelle horreur, destroy the character of the neighborhood!

Matt Yglesias wrote about this basic problem in The Rent is Too Damn High, which continues to go unread and uncited by people writing about neighborhoods, whose work would be improved by knowledge.

What the writer does: Sherlock Holmes edition

Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.

That’s Arthur Conan Doyle, from A Study in Scarlet, and it applies to what novelists do too: not just describe events, but put “events together in their minds” and see what happens as those events play out.

One reason I tend to argue against people who say they have no time or inclination for fiction is reality: in the form of nonfiction, even narrative nonfiction, it imposes limits on the imagination in a story (which may be one reason why so many people, especially those writing memoirs, are inclined to make shit up to make the story better). Fiction removes the reality constraint, and instead imagination imposes its own necessary and proper restraints on imagination.

At times fiction also pokes at the problems posed by reality, as in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man. A chair is the pretext for a major fight between a married couple, and the man is describing a scene to his father-in-law:

“When she wouldn’t get out of the way, I set the bag down and took her by the shoulders. . . . Then . . . I don’t know. She must have tripped over the bag. I heard a crash, and when I turned she was there on the floor. She’d fallen into . . .”
He stops, unable to continue.
“The chair,” I say.
He stares at me through moist, confused eyes. “No, the stereo cabinet.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say. I my writing workshop I’d have explained to my students why, for symmetry, in had to be the chair.

In fiction symbols can align neatly as they so often don’t outside of fiction. The “train of events” runs smoothly or unsmoothly on the writer’s tracks, or on “their own inner consciousness.” Not always to an interesting end, but to an end that shows things nonfiction, whatever its virtues, often doesn’t.

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