The Ends of the World — Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World is titled well and is also fascinating—one of the best books I’ve read recently. It tells five (or arguably six) linked stories about mass extinctions; like most people I’m aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I hadn’t realized that in many respects that extinction is actually less interesting than the other four. The dinosaurs steal the show, yet the other extinctions are at least as important—which is part of what makes The Ends of the World valuable. The 500-million-year history of complex life on earth is something most of us, including me, don’t know much about.

We should. For reasons that become apparent as the book moves forward, we may be repeating many histories of mass extinctions. Brannen traces how. Each chapter is set up like a detective story: People figure out that a mass extinction occurred, and paleontologists and geologists have to work backward from crime to culprit, examining various hypotheses along the way. The structure is effective but also difficult to excerpt.

But the preceding sentences also don’t give a flavor for the writing, which is excellent, and it matches the information. For example, the worst extinction of all time isn’t the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the dinosaurs died—it’s the End-Permian mass extinction, when nearly all plant and animal life on earth died. Spoiler alert: in the End-Permian event, massive volcanic activity in what we now call Siberia ejected huge amounts of carbon, methane, and other gasses into the atmosphere. But, in addition to that, lava ran into something else:

The Siberian Traps intruded through, and cooked, huge stores of coal, oil, and gas that had built up over hundreds of millions of years during the Paleozoic. The magma had no economic motive, but the effect was broadly familiar: it burned through huge reserves of fossil fuel in a few thousand years as surely as fossil fuels ignited in pistons and in power plants.

Uh oh:

Today humans emit a staggering 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, perhaps the fastest rate of any period in the last 300 million years of earth history—a period that, you’ll note, includes the End-Permian mass extinction. Burning through every last oily drop and anthracite chunk of fossil fuel on earth would release roughly 5,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. If we do, the planet will become unrecognizable.

If there is slight good news, it’s that the End-Permian mass extinction event range from 10,000 gigatons of carbon to 48,000 gigatons. We’re unlikely to hit figures that catastrophic, but it’s dispiriting enough to think that, for the last several decades, we’ve had the technologies we need to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and we’ve simply chosen not to use them. I’m young enough that I may be trying to explain the psychology and politics behind that decision to grand children in fifty years,

Still, we’re living through an extinction right now, but one that goes back ten of thousands of years. Brannen writes:

even Africa lost 21 percent of its megafauna, with larger animals getting hit the hardest.

British geologist Anthony Hallam (with a somewhat unseemly triumphalism) cites this record of precolonial ecological ruin to ‘dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and pre-colonial societies. The notion of the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology were it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature.’

Oddly, for a book about deep time and long time, the paper quality of the physical object is shitty. One would think that publisher (and author, although I don’t think most writers get much of a say on this) would want to produce a physical book that will last longer than the decade or two that most modern books are made to endure. The lousy paper stock implies, “We don’t really give a damn about the final product we produce.” Which is one of the points of the book: Most of us humans don’t.

And we don’t connect our own actions to global consequences. Towards the end of the book Brannen writes, “avoiding [seven to twelve degrees of average, planet-wide warming] will require the goodwill of energy companies to leave 80 percent of their profitable reserves in the ground, and the creation of staggeringly large new sources of carbon-free energy.” But he’s mixing up supply (from the energy companies) and demand (from consumers) here. Energy companies only dig up all those fossil fuels because people want to burn them. If people stop wanting to burn them through some combination of conservation and alternative technologies, energy companies will have no reason to dig.

I’m part of the problem. Back when I had a car, I could’ve bought a Prius, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking closely about energy efficiency at the time and got a Civic. The better car probably only would’ve saved a couple thousand gallons of gas, but multiplied across many people that matters. A friend just moved to L.A., did a similar calculation (or no calculation) and bought some kind of Subaru that probably cost more than, say, a Chevy Volt. Both of us are probably better informed about many planetary challenges than the average person and both of us are sending a signal to those dastardly energy companies to dig up more fossil fuels (and thus contribute to global warming).

Sort of like how people buying books printed on shitty paper are also encouraging publishers to keep printing books on shitty paper.

Who cares when it was released?

A reader asked how I find books like Rapture and why I write, seemingly at random, about older books. The “finding” answer is hard: books get found from all kinds of sources, including other writers, blogs, newspapers, friends, browsing (rarely, but sometimes), essays, and tweets (rarely). A great essay will get me to read a book more effectively than anything else apart from a friend or reader who knows me well; a great essay led me to Lonesome Dove, for example, and in my mind I imagine other people finding this blog and using it to find the right book at the right time.

The “why” answer is also pretty simple: I don’t really care when a book (or movie, or album, or whatever) was released; I care about whether it’s good and whether it should be read. If it’s good I want to read it, regardless of when it was published. Publishing companies may work on marketers’ schedules, but readers don’t have to and shouldn’t. If you know something I should read, send that email.

iGen — Jean M. Twenge: The kids aren’t all right?

It’s somewhat hard for me to love iGen because it fits the overall genre of “the kids are going to hell,” even if the author is savvy to that very problem and disavows it in the intro. I’m also now just old enough to no longer be part of the kids but not so old that I’ve forgotten all those “Oh my god the teens!” stories that described me as a teenager and college student.

In grad school, one of my professors had a book that assembled early reactions to the novel, which from the late 18th Century until close to the 20th Century was seen as depraved, a waste of time, a waste of talent, and morally corrupting. In other words, an activity that we now perceive as pretty high status was then seen as very low status, which often caused young men to be lazy and dissolute and young women to be morally impure. Corruption was clear and it came from words.

Oddly, in some ways those early criticisms were right, just too early: as a society we have largely secularized, and, although I wouldn’t lay all or even most of the reason why on the novel as a genre, it likely played a role by more freely disseminating information and letting people think for themselves, rather than having the clergy do all the thinking and information dissemination from the pulpit. When you let people think and read for themselves, many of them become less enamored of tedious religious works and the fellows who interpret those religious works to mean that giving to the church is good and sex is bad—very, very bad.

Today the smartphone is the great bugaboo of the age and we’ve not figured out how it ought to be integrated into society. Among my own peer group it’s now somewhat common to have phone-free parties, the better to be in the moment and avoid incriminating next-morning evidence, but it’s still common to lay a phone face-up on a table over coffee or drinks. But smartphone cultural practices haven’t really firmed up and smartphones have apparently taken over the lives of the Youth. The skeptical word “apparently” probably isn’t needed in the preceding sentence, because Twenge has lots of data demonstrating it.

One of the many admirable things about the book is how data-driven it is. Data, plus mostly avoiding the “The kids are going to hell” stuff, makes the book wildly readable and interesting. Still, not everyone is convinced; here’s one writer’s context and here’s another’s, arguing that smartphones aren’t actually destroying a generation.

The strange thing to me about constant smartphone life is that it seems so boring. Maybe from the inside it’s better. It’s all communication and little if any content underneath that communication. So much chatter and so little to say. Boredom as a theme runs through the book:

More and more teens are leaving high school never having had a paying job, driven a car by themselves, gone out on a date, had sex, or tried alcohol.

Sounds like a boring life. But it may also be a cheap one. Smartphone use may have deleterious effects but it’s also pretty cheap; once you have the phone and the data, marginal use is nearly free. So cost-effectiveness may drive smartphone obsession too, although Twenge doesn’t say it explicitly. Still, at some point I think even teenagers should get exhausted with relentless texting about nothing and want to go do things in the real world. Everyone feels left out but no one does anything about it.

Still, leading a boring life is not unique to this generation, although it’s wasting time online instead of wasting it on TV. For many decades, the average American watched four to five hours of TV a night—a terrible waste, it seems to me, especially given how much space was dedicated to commercials, but that’s what people did and what many people continue to do. If you have a choice of wasting time via TV or smartphone, smartphone seems like a marginal win.

Most likely, I think, teenagers are wasting most of their time, like most teenagers of most developed countries of most of the last hundred or so years, and will probably quit it when they have to pay their own rent.

Yet knowledge of smartphone problems seems also to widespread:

iGen’ers are addicted to their phones, and they know it. Many also know it’s not entirely a good thing. It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with screens. “Social media is destroying our lives,” one teen told Nancy Jo Sales in her book American Girls. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asked. “Because then we would have no life,” the girl said.

That seems unlikely, but logic is tough and most people’s revealed preferences show phone love. Apparently the data show that iGen is “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.” I wonder if something has really changed, or if something has changed regarding the self-reporting that people do. Perhaps it’s now more socially acceptable to report depression, in surveys or to doctors and others.

We get similar data later in the book: “Nevertheless, the case highlights a nationwide problem: the often inadequate resources for mental health assistance on campus.” If mental health assistance is inadequate today, when was it adequate? Why? What’s changed? And are we looking historically and cross culturally? In 1942 – 45, American men of college age were mostly fighting the Nazis and Japanese and probably also had inadequate mental health resources. Today, Kurdish teenagers fight ISIS. Because someone has a worse problem than you do doesn’t invalidate the problem, but there’s a startling lack of context to assertions like these; if the problem is the phone, turn off the phone.

This generation is supposed to be more inclusive by some measures, which I can believe, but I doubt it’s more inclusive overall; instead I suspect it’s going to be as exclusive as any generation, just based on different criteria. What those criteria are I can’t say, but I’m sure they’ll be there.

I’ve chatted a lot with a friend who grew up in the center of Gen X, and he remembers a generation that, according to the media, was filled with druggie dropouts who totally lack ambition. Those same people are now in the middle of their lives and seem to be fine, with reasonably normal distributions, and most of them seem to do what most people end up doing: getting a job and having kids. The dropouts of the late 80s and early 90s are the dads and moms of today.

One interesting thing for readers of this blog: it seems that iGen teens are “less likely to read than teens of previous eras:”

In the late 1970s, the clear majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day.

You can quibble with that particular metric but Twenge presents others. Moreover:

Perhaps this move away from print is innocuous, especially if teens are still keeping up their academic skills. But they are not: SAT scores have slid since the mid-2000s, especially in writing (a 13-point decline since 2006) and critical reading (a 13-point decline since 2005).

This is echoed by 2007 article “Twilight of the Books.” One fast trick I use in assessing student writing skills is simple: I ask students to write their favorite book on an index card and why that book is a favorite. Answers tend to correlate to reading and writing skills.

Still, when I was in high school I liked to read and was mostly looked at as a weirdo for enjoying reading. In college I read Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man during a summer when I was a lifeguard, and the other lifeguards thought it weird that I’d laugh because of a book. So while the data may point to a decline in reading, I’m not sure that the overall social situation has changed too much.

Mostly, I wonder what will happen to iGen’ers as they age. The empty-headed seem to have a harder and harder time the older they get and the more the structures that define high school and college fall away. But that too may have been true for a long time: people who try new things and continually learn and grow tend to have better lives than those who don’t.

Recommendations like this: “I believe textbooks also need to stop covering so many topics in so much detail” seem unlikely to help people develop personalities or reading skills. That is a real quote, by the way: it’s on page 308. Twenge qualifies it in the rest of the paragraph, but the real world remains complex and trying to simplify it for the militantly ignorant will not help them or human understanding of the world. Ignorance is a condition we ought to aspire to cure, not perpetuate.

Still, I have seen arguments like this one since forever:

When I’ve polled my students about how they’d prefer to spend class time, most have said they are fine with lectures as long as they convey information that is helpful to doing well on exams. They like discussion but don’t want it to take too much time away from learning the material they’ll be tested on.

Lectures have always been terrible ways of conveying information; they were just technologically expedient for much of human history, and jettisoning them will lose little. Still, when students are very much focused on exam or paper grades, I often like to ask: What’s the point of doing well on the paper? Usually the answer is “to do well in class,” and so on, but if one extends far enough outward the more interesting answers start to pop up.

Bottom line is that the book is interesting but ought to be read skeptically. Overall I’m happy to have read it and read the whole thing carefully, which isn’t so common. It’s fun to imagine how this book will appear 50 years from now, when someone being born today might write about it. I imagine a historian or social critic who analyzes it as a document of its times, when those times and the processes immediately roiling the present have passed. Most of the books about the horrors of the generations that came of age in the 60s or 70s now look at least a little hysterical. From the vantage of 50 years later, I suspect this generation will look like it turned out okay too.

David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect,” seven years later

It’s weird reading The Facebook Effect today, because already it feels like ancient history. It celebrates Facebook having 400 million users, when today it has two billion. It was written before the iPhone became the world’s dominant computing platform, so the many references to PCs feels odd. There are bromides like, “Facebook is bringing the world together,” which may not even be meaningful enough to evaluate as true or false. Yet many sections still seem relevant and fortuitous. The suspenseful sections about early fundraising are about humans, incentives, and game theory. The tension between short and long term remain in terms of both companies and individual lives. Others could be listed.

To me Facebook is still kind of boring; I don’t think people’s real selves, to the extent there are such things, get posted often, and when they do, the result is often embarrassment. And I find that the more I see of people on the site, the less I like them, implying that maybe knowing “more,” or more without context, isn’t so good. Yet its sheer popularity is clear, and I expect questions about what that means to persist, maybe throughout my life. “Generation Why?” is one good take in the genre but likely not the last.

The Facebook Effect doesn’t much answer that question and it probably can’t. The “why?” is embodied in millions if not billions of individual choices. But The Facebook Effect has lots of insight, as long as one’s willing to tolerate sentences like, “Facebook is bringing the world together.” For example, if you’re somewhat into photography, like I am, you’ve probably seen people debating various issues around megapixel count, lens quality, and image quality. Except no one cares about photo or picture quality / resolution. People only care about their friends and people they know. These may seem like dumb assertions but Facebook reveals evidence for them.

In 2006 Facebook introduced photo tagging, and one decision “the photos team” was particularly important:

They took a gamble and decided to compress photos into much smaller digital files, so that when they appeared on Facebook they were significantly lower in resolution than the originals. That meant they would upload faster, so users could select a number of photos on their PC and see them online within minutes.

Would people accept low-resolution photos? Would they use the tags?

The short answer to both is “yes.” People don’t give a damn about resolution. They care about the photo’s semiotics: “Ordinary photos had become, in effect, more articulate. They conveyed a casual message. When it was tagged, a photo on Facebook expressed and elaborated on your friend relationships.” Outside of very small sites occupied by photo nerds, like 500px, the photo isn’t about the perceive image quality; it’s about what the photo depicts of the person (and it’s almost always a person) in it. We import our groupishness from real life to photos. Which seems totally obvious now to everyone except people on photography forums yet wasn’t so obvious during Facebook’s earlier forms.

People also relentlessly use Facebook to… criticize Facebook: “As with any Facebook controversy, the viral distribution tools of Facebook itself were used against it.” But in the crucial terms of exit, voice, and loyalty, almost no one exits. Which tells Facebook as much as it needs to know. The company is a case study in stated vesus revealed preferences. However much people may say they revile, distrust, or dislike the company, or however much they may acknowledge that most of Facebook is a time waste, they keep going back. We have clichés like “actions speak louder than words” for a reason.

Briefly noted: The Weight of Ink — Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink invites comparison to A. S. Byatt’s , and after I’d read about half of The Weight of Ink I was inspired to re-read Possession, which is amazing and one of the best books I’ve read, ever. In the beginning of Possession I noticed this; the protagonist, Roland, is studying a fictional Victorian poet named R. H. Ash, and his supervisor is Blackadder:

Blackadder was discouraged and liked to discourage others. (He was also a stringent scholar.) Roland was now employed, part-time, in what was known as Blackadder’s “Ash Factory” (why not Ashram? Val had said)…

That re-use of “Ash,” from “Ash Factory” to “Ashram” (which sounds a lot, intentionally, like ass-ram) gives a lot in a short space: about Blackadder’s drudgery; Roland’s feelings towards Blackadder and the work; and even about Val’s witty personality, which is weighted by material circumstances and her shriveling relationship with Roland. We get a lot of material in three sentences that later resonate throughout the novel as a whole. For a while I spent time trying to find something analogously clever in The Weight of Ink, and failed. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but most of the book feels a little dull by comparison.

In The Weight of Ink there are too many sentences like, “He knew that whatever her reputation—and her staunch defense of departmental requirements, her insistence on diversifying the list of acceptable qualifying languages, and a half dozen other hard-fought battles over the years had earned her a fierce reputation—Helen Watt did not make scenes.” As far as I can tell this is meant as straight comment, not as a joke, and the obvious question—who gives a damn?—isn’t asked. People who have actually fierce reputations don’t have them from university department teapot politics. In Possession academic politics are the joke, for good reason, and human needs are at the humane center of things. The Weight of Ink misses this basic philosophical point and feels silly for it.

Or:

Had Aaron Levy chosen to study Shakespeare’s Catholic roots, it would have been different; that field had been blessed relatively recently with the astonishing gift of fresh evidence—a religious pamphlet found in the attic of Shakespeare’s father. That single document had upended and revitalized that arena of Shakespeare studies, leaving young historians room to work productively for years to come.

Perhaps the real answer is, “Go study a field that is vital and important?” Unfortunately, the modern-era scholars don’t, or can’t. Aaron has the same problem in his personal life. He yearns for a woman he had a one-night stand with, right before she left for Israel. Solution: Go find someone geographically proximate and available, like everyone else. In Possession, scholarly and romantic problems beautifully mirror each other; here, they grind against each other and the reader’s patience.

I gave up about halfway through. The re-read of Possession was great, though. Don’t believe the comparisons. They’re superficially right but in terms of depth totally off.

Statistical analyses of literature: let’s see what happens

I got some pushback to the link on what heretical things statistics can tell us about fiction, and I’ve read pushback like it before: the objections tend to say that great literature can’t be reduced to statistics; big data will never replicate the reading experience; a novel is more than the sum of the words chosen. That sort of thing. All of which is likely true, but the more interesting question is, “What kinds of things is nobody doing in the study of fiction?” (Or words, or sentences, of writers’ oeuvres). Lots and lots of people, including me, closely study individual works and connect them to a smallish body of other works and ideas.

Over centuries, if not longer, thousands, if not millions, of people have engaged this practice. Not very many people have attempted to systematically examine thousands if not millions of works simultaneously. So that may tell us something the usual methods haven’t. It’s worth exploring that domain. And just because that domain is being explored, the more usual paths via close reading aren’t closed off.

In other words, don’t think that an argument along the lines of “x is interesting” means “we should always and only do x.”

At the moment, we also appear to be at the very start of the field. Maybe it’ll become extremely important and maybe it won’t. The potential is there. People have (arguably) been doing some form of close reading and analysis, even if the practice didn’t use those specific words, for millennia. Certainly for centuries. So I’d be pretty surprised to see statistical analyses produce whatever good material they’re likely to produce in just a decade or two.

Part of what art and analysis should do is be novel. Another part is “be interesting.” We’re looking for the intersection of those two zones.

Rapture — Susan Minot

I like Rapture but it’s not for everybody: it’s too focused on relationships, too explicit (though I would prefer the word “realistic,” many would disagree), too much about artistic educated urban people who want some things that are incommensurate with other things, too didn’t-Anna-Karenina-already-do-this?. It dissects the moment into a million little pieces, like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; we experience a succession of moments in a rush, and in writing we can slow them, reexamine them, reexperience them, or experience them from a new vantage.

Still, to my mind it’s about three people who aren’t ready or able to leap towards the obvious relationship-structure conclusion, even if the wrapping around that core idea is Kay’s afternoon with Benjamin. The narrative perspective shifting from Kay to Benjamin and back. Their thoughts are not so dissimilar but retain dissimilar enough to retain interest. They think in similar ways, as perhaps people in similar milieus and with similar “wrong” desires might. Neither Benjamin nor Kay knows each other, like we all don’t really know anyone, and we get that from the first page:

He had no idea what had gotten her there.
He certainly wasn’t going to ask her about it. There was no way he was going wade into those dangerous waters and try to find out why she’d changed her mind…

Probably wise on his part. We also get a similar idea later on, midway through: “What did other people know about what really went on inside a person?” Some things are unknowable, and fiction likes to remind us of this.

A few pages into the novel, we switch to Kay’s perspective for the first time:

It was overwhelming, the feeling that this was pretty much the only thing that mattered, this being with him, this sweetness, this . . . communing . . . this . . . there was no good word for it.

(Ellipses in original.)

It raises questions: how much does “pretty much” elide here? And if this is “pretty much the only thing that mattered,” why do we spend so much time and energy doing other things, like building civilization? This is an analytic novel, so Kay doesn’t answer, but we might consider it as we read. I also don’t know what to do with later, similar thoughts, like “This was real, this was the most real thing.” Getting down to what is really real is tricky, and answers tend to vary based on the moment a person happens to be in. Are things that matter real? Are real things things that matter? I don’t know either.

Sometimes the vision is blank:

He shut his eyes. He saw the empty landscape. He knew he had to get out of bed and get going and soon, but he was mesmerized by this vision of emptiness. It was telling him something.

Maybe I like the novel because I’m working on one that uses somewhat similar narrative perspective on material that isn’t so different. We all fantasize about knowing what someone else is thinking, but only in fiction do we actually get to switch perspective to see. That fantasy is as potent as flying, and while we can fly via planes or rockets or other external apparatus, we never get to fly the way we do in our dreams.

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