Politics repeats itself while science and art make it new

In “Coolidge biography shows how little American politics has changed” Philip Greenspun points out that “Coolidge is primarily about events that occurred roughly 100 years ago, but the political debates often seem as though they could be in tomorrow morning’s news.” Greenspun points out a large number of similarities, though I do think there are more notable differences than he lists; one of the more prominent is the calls, whenever something bad happens, for the federal government to Do Something. Many of those calls in Coolidge’s time were directed at the local or at most state level.

Still, most of what he says is correct and to me the many similarities between 1910 – 1930 and the present imply that a lot of political posturing is wasted signaling. Energy towards politics would probably be better directed towards art, science, and technology—the latter fields at least move unambiguously forward, and in my view the first field does too.* A really good book lasts for decades or centuries while political opinions are almost always of the moment The effort expended in fields that make progress move not just the individual but the whole of humanity forward; most energy spent on politics is just a circle and maybe even a circle jerk.

Science and technology in particular increase the size of the pie that politicians (and the voters who elect them) can fight over.

* When I hear people—usually professors or wannabe professors—argue that art doesn’t move forward like technology (sample, from Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: “There is no progress in the world of letters, as there is, say, in science or manufacturing. As the centuries pass, we do not get better or smarter at reading, and the authors among us do not get better at writing”), I usually ask them why people keep creating so much new art and why so many people want the new stuff, not the old stuff. By now, there are an infinite number of books to read and an infinite number of songs to hear. If art really didn’t move forward and become better over time, at least as defined by popularity, we wouldn’t see people constantly move towards the new. I haven’t heard a really good response to this point.

Thought on the HBO show “True Detective”

* It’s actually a comedy that just hasn’t been appreciated as such. It’s also about friendship more than it’s about whodunit; in this respect it is like many buddy detective shows. Finally, and related to the first two sentences, how many male friendships have involved Eskimo brotherhood?

Thoughts on A Man of Parts — David Lodge

* A Man of Parts is surprisingly dull despite H. G. Wells’s salacious, important life; there are too many passages like this:

Amber seemed to him a golden girl that summer and autumn, an almost mythical creature, such as the gods of classical Greece coveted and descended from the heights of Olympus to ravish in human disguise or in the form of some animal or bird.

The novel is dutiful yet has a limited feeling for what it’s like to be a writer; the novel deserves comedy but it isn’t particularly funny. There are good moments:

“You hear so much talk about sex, and read about it in books, and you don’t know what or who to believe, and anyway, words can never tell you what it’s actually like. Is it wonderful, or just ordinary?”
“It’s both wonderful and ordinary,” he said.

which capture the feeling of much of life; so often it’s two or more contradictory things at once, and the question of ordinariness or extraordinariness say much about the temperament of the consciousness doing the observing.

* The travails and politics of the Fabian Society arise in so many novels set in the 1890 – 1929 period, but in this novel their machinations are dull. Something like A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book covers similar territory but much more effectively, and more strangely.

* Science itself is mostly absent, as it is not from, say, Ian McEwan’s Solar or Peter Watt’s Blindsight.

* Novels about people who really know things are surprisingly rare.

Life: Active Irresponsibility edition

“Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.”

—Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Reading it today, I can’t help but get a bloggy feeling.

Humanities, writers, money, and sex, which could all be seen as the same subject

* Stop defending the humanities.

* What is Dark Matter?

* “How much my novel cost me: Writing my first book got me into debt. To finish the next one, I had to become solvent,” in which the author learns many things that seem like they ought to be obvious and also mis-prioritizes things in a way that most people grow out of by 30.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Q&A: The Duke Freshman Porn Star,” which is interesting and yet I 1) can’t help by marvel that anyone today thinks they can appear in porn and, given the contemporary appetite for it, not eventually be recognized and 2) think that anyone going to a school costing more than $50,000 a year ought to expect it to be filled with rich kids. In addition, I don’t see the appeal of schools like Duke or USC; yes, they have big sports teams, but the basic experience and structure is similar to that of most public schools costing half to a quarter as much.

* “Goodbye Academia,” which is part of a growing genre and I agree with this comment: “I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.”

* “What good are children?

* “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics,” probably overwrought but interesting nonetheless.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life? The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” Except I’m not sure I’d call it “harder;” I’d call it “different.” Weirdly, neither “self-publishing” nor “Amazon” are explicitly mentioned.

The number and percentage of writers who have ever been able to make a full-time, middle-class living at writing novels is small and has always been small. That’s one reason so many get gigs at MFA programs: for all but the most popular writers, there’s more money in teaching writing than writing.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

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