How I remember what I read and connect it to what else I’ve read

Robert Heaton has a post, “How to read,” that describes how he annotates books he reads, then produces a “writeup” of them afterwards. He then makes flashcards of them, using Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard program.

This Twitter thread has more suggestions. I do something similar to Heaton, except that I don’t use Anki but do copy annotated quotes to Devonthink Pro. It’s an amazing program you’ve seen appear before, but only if you’ve been reading a very long time. I use it, basically, as Steven Berlin Johnson describes here and here. But when I finish a new book, I’ll check the “see also” pane of Devonthink Pro to see what else the program dredges up.

For example, right now I’m re-reading William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. Because it’s a re-read, I’m trying to decide if I should keep the book (I have too many) or donate it or give it away. I’m reading the section about L.A., and I found that, in my previous read, I’d connected it to something Paul Graham had written. Here’s the passage in its entirety:

“But my particular crazies are not why I find writing so difficult. It’s more like this: Everything’s so goddamn nice out there. Sure, they bitch about their smog, but unless you’re a Hawaiian born and bred, the weather is terrific. And so many of the basic necessities of life are made so easy for you: The markets are often open twenty-four hours a day, nobody snarls at you in the stores when you’re trying to buy something. It’s all just . . . swell.” (77)

This makes working in California harder, but also more pleasant. And some of those advantages have changed: I perceive Southern Californians as nice, but in a superficial way. The East Coast probably has 24-hour markets now.

Paul Graham even lists the California attitude as an advantage for startups:

“What makes the Bay Area superior is the attitude of the people. I notice that when I come home to Boston. The first thing I see when I walk out of the airline terminal is the fat, grumpy guy in charge of the taxi line. I brace myself for rudeness: remember, you’re back on the East Coast now.

The atmosphere varies from city to city, and fragile organisms like startups are exceedingly sensitive to such variation. If it hadn’t already been hijacked as a new euphemism for liberal, the word to describe the atmosphere in the Bay Area would be “progressive.” People there are trying to build the future. Boston has MIT and Harvard, but it also has a lot of truculent, unionized employees like the police who recently held the Democratic National Convention for ransom, and a lot of people trying to be Thurston Howell. Two sides of an obsolete coin.” :

So I was too lazy to include a proper citation of Graham’s essay, but the basic ideas are there. Now I look at the “see-also” panel:

Often this yields nothing. But there is a link to this CNN piece, from 2011:

Part of the issue is that the nice things about California are becoming less nice as the state gets more crowded. It used to be the suburban dream to move to Orange County, amid the orchards and farms. With almost all the farmland gone, parts of this one-magical county, home to Disneyland, start to seem usual and urban.

I’d completely forgotten about reading it, of course. But it fits nicely with the overall theme.

The next link concerns hallucinogens (I don’t see obvious relevance), and the next is about experimental evolution (could be relevant, depending on what I’m writing or thinking about). Another concerns the “euphemism treadmill:”

But as millions of time-share owners can attest, there is no substitute for a clear “no.” My generation has spent decades trying to make things sound less unpleasant by coining new words to replace the older, harsh-sounding ones. The result of this “euphemism treadmill,” as Steven Pinker has dubbed it, is not that everyone moves to a new, higher plane, free of the old unpleasantness; it’s that the new word takes on all the disagreeable connotations of the old one, and then people start looking for a new euphemism.

“Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom”, which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.” “Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.”

Again, I’m not sure it’s relevant to anything I might write in the next couple days—but it could be. It could also fit some grant proposals I’m working on.

For me, there’s a pure memory component to reading, just as there is for Heaton. But having Devonthink Pro connect the pieces is the real secret sauce.

(Not very secret sauce, since Devonthink Pro has existed for a decade and a half, if not longer, but no one else seems to know about or use it.)

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.

Briefly noted: The Magicians, re-read, and the TV show

The Magicians holds up well (and the link goes to my original review). What stands out still is the relentless focus of Quentin on happiness: I’d guess that the word appears at last a dozen times, and maybe more, in the novel—too often for anyone who is actually happy to think about it. Quentin’s melancholia is a sort that, if it can be cured, cannot be cured in the ways in which he is attempting to cure it. Don’t be fooled by the magical trappings: the novel is still primarily psychological.

Between now and then The Magicians has been made into a disappointing TV show; that show has high points and funny moments but it cannot overcome a fundamental problem that is illustrative for other writers: it advances all of the characters’ ages by five to ten years, which defeats much of the point and pleasure of the book. The book is about coming of age. It is stuffed with references like this one, from late in it, when (I don’t think this gives anything away) most of the main characters make it to Fillory: “For all the glory of their high and noble purpose, it felt like they were going on a summer-camp nature hike, or a junior high field trip, with the kids goofing on and the two counselors looking dour and superior and grown-up and glaring them back into life when they strayed too far” (one decent definition of being grown-up is that you are no longer concerned with appearing grown up (or not)). It is hard to feel glorious and “noble” when you are being supervised by adults who’ve really seen the world, as Dint and Fen (their guides) have, or apparently have.

Characters who are in the 22 – 30 age range are less likely to analogize their lives to summer camps or junior high field trips. This may seem like a minor point at first. In the show, the characters are still angsty, but at their age their style of angst no longer makes any sense, as they ought to have decently developed, decently resilient personalities by then. That they do not is the flaw the show never manages to overcome.

To be sure, The Magicians tv show does have excellent individual moments, but they don’t add up to much. The actor who plays Penny in particular is a standout (unfortunately, there is something off about the one who plays Quentin). Mostly, the show is an exercise in showing why HBO is so good at its shows and the SyFy channel is so not good at its shows. The Magicians as a TV show is a weak show with a strong one lurking obviously within it, which may be the most frustrating kind. The ones that are transparently bad are just passing phenomena. The ones that are transparently good offer their pleasures. The ones that could be good pain.

Briefly noted: Kindle Voyage

For a while I’ve had a Kindle Voyage. It’s functional and the screen is nice. Not much has changed since this 2010 post. Amazon still has no good system for organizing and sorting books, and Amazon doesn’t want you to use desktop computers and that shows in their whole ecosystem design.

The Voyage hardware is, at best, slightly better than the last Kindle iteration I used. Really, though, the improvements are so marginal that I can’t imagine anyone buying the new version unless their old one dies or is lost, as happened to me: Amazon will often knock some money off the new version if you ask them to “repair” the old version. To get the discount, Amazon requires that you send the broken Kindle to them. I don’t know what happens after that. Probably Amazon trashes it, but I’d like to imagine that it’s refurbished.

A lot about the Kindle Voyage is okay. There’s little to love. If you’re going to bother buy a Kindle the Voyage is a better choice than the regular Kindle Paperwhites because it has buttons, albeit buttons that aren’t as prominent or tactile as I’d like.

I don’t use the Kindle for books much, because I still prefer paper and Instapaper is my killer app. At the margins, I now read more nonfiction and fewer books in general, including novels. You’ve probably read or noticed that too many popular nonfiction books are just unsatisfactorily elongated articles. Preferring to read those rather than just clicking the “buy book” button is easier with Instapaper.

This review is thorough and says most of what I’d say. I don’t know how people produce many thousands of words in Kindle reviews. It’s a device without a personality. Which isn’t bad: It just is. There are good use cases for it, but not for me using it.

I still find button presses annoyingly too easy.


The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfe is unafraid, too, to be enthusiastic:

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

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

One more moment from The Right Stuff. Wolfe writes:

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

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

Why can’t we solve poverty, or solve it through schools?

I’m not that old, and I’ve already seen a lot of proposals for solving “poverty” come and go. Many—think Head Start—are tied up in education. The current debate around education tends to run in two directions: one group wants to improve parenting, or ameliorate poverty, or something along those lines, having seen innumerable correlative studies demonstrating that rich kids on average do better than poor kids at school. The other group—the one I belong to—tends to think that we could do a lot for schools, and especially big urban schools, through some combination of charters, vouchers, and/or weakening the power of teachers’s unions. For more on why the latter group thinks as we do, see the many links in this post.

The first group—the one that wants to attack poverty and what not—tends to say things like cjensen’s: “Statistical studies have long shown that (1) education outcomes strongly correlate with parenting,” to which I replied:

Citations are needed on this: “Statistical studies have long shown that…”

“We”—schools, society, etc.—can’t really control parenting. But we can control schools, and it is probably possible to get substantially better outcomes than the ones we’re getting now, chiefly through better teachers. At the moment, most public school teachers are paid in lockstep based on seniority—CS teachers and PE teachers get the same pay—and can’t be fired after their second or third year of teaching, and that creates a lot of perverse incentives.

Ceras replied with another fairly common sentiment: “Programs exist for this with some positive results. Here’s one from a quick Google search,” and he linked to “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier.”

But innumerable small-scale programs that show limited positive results, but almost none of them scale up, for the reasons Megan McArdle describes at the link:

That pilot program has a huge administrative staff whose sole incentive is to ensure that it is meticulously carried out. In the real world, that curriculum will be put into place by an administrator whose priority list is crowded with everything from mollifying the latest lunatic on the school board[. . . ]

That pilot program is staffed with a narrow band of extremely highly qualified teachers, sifted from the best the environment has to offer. In the real world, whoever happens to be standing in front of the classroom come September 5th has to do it, even if they flunked Remedial Math four times and only got this job because the school board needed a body.

McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down is also good on this subject. Lots of small-scale Head Start programs show promise too, but the program’s effects fade out after a couple years, and on a large scale it hasn’t done anything except provide daycare and jobs. Despite the 40-year failure of Head Start to do what it was intended to do—improve life outcomes for poor, minority kids—there’s a press for it in liberal cities, only now it goes by the phrase “Universal Pre-Kindergarten” (UPK). New York City has a UPK program. Seattle mayor Ed Murray wants one, and he wants to spend a lot of money creating it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet me return to Ceras’s example. Programs like “Nurse-Family Partnership – Top Tier” (NFP) already operate. I know because I’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Healthy Start Initiative (HSI) proposals that attempt to do just what NFP proposes. For my real, work-for-money job, I do grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies, so I see citations like the one to NFP all the time. Next time I write an HSI or similar program, I might cite NFP. Doing so isn’t going to make the specific program any better—HSI has been operating for a couple decades, under different names, and hasn’t accomplished much on a large scale, in part because of the scale-up problems described a few paragraphs ago.

Ideas like NFP sound good in the abstract, but the gap between the real world and the proposal world is quite wide. Virtually every idea for improving health, welfare, and education has been funded through some grant program or another, but most people proposing new programs aren’t aware of the old ones—and they aren’t aware of the gap between the real and proposal world. After his $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools, Zuckerberg has evidently learned this.

So what can “we” do? The people who want to keep the existing structure of education in place usually say they want to fight poverty first. On some level who doesn’t? There are some challenges, however. Poverty is a moving target. It’s usually calculated as a percentage of income, which means that it will always be with us (barring some unforeseen technology, or extinction). In addition, from the perspective of someone in 1800 or 1700 or really anytime before about 1950, we have solved poverty, at least in a material sense. Virtually no one in the United States lacks running water, plumbing, or refrigeration. Almost no one starves to death, and the real problem among the poor is obesity. TV penetration is hovering around 98% of households, and the households without TVs are more likely to be like mine—that is, relatively well-off people who choose not to have a TV.

I’m not saying it’s great to be poor in the U.S., but it’s still better to be poor in the U.S. than to be poor in, say, Nigeria, or Brazil. Globally, there have been innumerable people trying to improve life in the developing world, and many books about why those efforts haven’t been totally effective: Why Nations Fail is good. Dead Aid is good. There are others; you’ll see them at the Amazon links. Developmental economics is an entire field devoted to this question. There aren’t easy answers, because if there were, they already would’ve been found and implemented. To quote Megan McArdle again, “The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.”

Beyond measurement and definitional issues around what one means by “poverty,” consider the history of fighting it. Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” 50 years ago, and even the New York Times (at the link) calls it “a mixed bag,” which sounds charitable to me. There is a large poverty-fighting infrastructure that does some really good things (like Food Stamps, now called TANF), and some less good things. Nonetheless, if poverty could be “fought” successfully, I think it would have already been defeated. That it hasn’t should make us question our approach.

There has also been some regression in terms of culture and behaviors: that’s one important message of Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Most women, for example, are better off having children with a dedicated and ideally married partner, but around 40% of all births are currently to unmarried women. There’s a political argument about why that is and what if anything should be done about it, but the behavioral and sociological changes of the last 50 years are still real.

This has a lot to do with education because, as I noted in the first paragraph, people who are relatively okay with the educational status quo tend to want to address things outside of school first. Diane Ravitch is a great leader for this group. I’ve read two of Ravitch’s books on education—Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform and The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education—and to read her work is to respect her knowledge and erudition. She moved from a strong educational reformer who favored charter schools to someone who… I don’t know how to characterize her current position other than to say she doesn’t favor charters or vouchers. She does observe the many ways particular charter schools haven’t done very well, but in my view they haven’t been worse than the urban schools they competed with, and some have done much better.

Overall, Ravitch wants to reduce poverty, but as noted above I’m skeptical of social or government forces to do so. In Reign of Error, her most recent book—I’m not all the way through it—she says that public schools are better than they’re commonly depicted. She’s somewhat right: relatively wealthy suburban schools are okay. But that pretty much leaves urban schools (L.A., Chicago, New York, Newark) to languish, and those are the areas and schools that are most promising for vouchers.

The final thing I’ll note is that a lot of people favor “more” money for schools. Overall, inflation-adjusted funding has roughly doubled on a per-pupil basis, per the New Yorker article, and overall funding is quite high—including in screwed up districts like Washington D.C.’s. The Great Stagnation also discusses this dynamic. So while “more” money for school districts may or may not be a good thing, it’s apparent that more money does not automatically lead to better results.

This has turned into a much longer post than I meant it to be, but, to reiterate a point made above, there are no simple answers. Though this post is long it is shorter than many of the books it cites, and it is much shorter and more fun to read than many of the proposals I’ve written. The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows.

If this is what his admirers think, what do his detractors think?

“Like Austen’s plots, [Henry] James’s lack adventure and suspense. His novels progress at a very slow pace: his characters waver and postpone action interminably, and their conversations revolve awkwardly around unclear goals without ever seeming to reach them.”

That’s from Thomas Pavel’s The Lives of the Novel: A History, which is unlikely to be of interest to non-specialists but is much more interesting than most of its peers in the genre. There are a surprisingly small number of direct quotes and a surprisingly number of plot summaries but I’m going to read to the end. One paragraph also gave me an idea for a novel, which relatively few books do.

I would probably be less even less charitable than Pavel to Henry James, but a lot of old and well-read people say my view of him is likely to change in the future. Nonetheless I am struck by how few non-academics read him.

Rereading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity

I still laughed aloud many times at High Fidelity, although the jokes are almost all context-dependent and so can’t be quoted without causing a quizzical look that says, “You really think that’s funny?” Flipping through it doesn’t yield anything obvious, but I kept smiling at many moments. This is the closest I can get:

There were some nights with Laura when I’d kind of nestle into her back in bed when she was asleep, and I’d be filled with this enormous, nameless terror, except now I have a name for it: Brian. Ha, ha. OK, not really a name, but I can see where it came from, and why I wanted to sleep with Rosie the pain-in-the-arse simultaneous orgasm woman, and if that sounds feeble and self-serving at the same time—oh, right! He sleeps with other women because he has a fear of death!—well, I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are.

Rob’s voice and attitude carry the book, as does the writing, which is largely about nothing yet still moves rapidly from incident to incident, creating plot, which is easily overlooked in novels like this, such as Wilson’s Flatscreen. The continuous happening in the plot contrasts with the non-happening in many of the characters’ lives.

There are moments of astute observation too, as when Laura says “sometimes you need someone to lob into the middle of a bad relationship like a hand grenade and blow it all apart.” Which is true, even if the hand grenade is often made out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the relationship. Often the grenade is the bad guy. But sometimes he (or she) is the catalyst for doing what should have been done long before. When big, life-changing transitions stop happening on a regular basis, (from high school to college, college to grad school and/or work), it becomes distressingly easy to slip into a single path and lose the willingness necessary to make radical changes, whether in work, the mind, or love.

Rob basically knows as much:

None of us is young anymore, but what has just taken place could have happened when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. We got to adolescence and just stopped dead; we drew up the map then and left the boundaries exactly as they were.

Life changes even if you don’t. This should be obvious. It takes Laura to tell him what he should already know; when Rob asks “So what should I be doing?”, she replies:

I don’t know. Something. Working. Seeing people. Running a scout troop, or running a club even. Something more than waiting for life to change and keeping your options open. You’d keep your options open for the rest of your life, if you could. You’d be lying on your deathbed, dying of some smoking-related disease, and you’ll be thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve kept my options open.’

She’s right. Whatever else you’re doing, you should be doing something. But Rob doesn’t, mostly, and as a result his problems are largely self-imposed. He says:

It’s only beginning to occur to me that it’s important to have something going on somewhere, at work or at home, otherwise you’re just clinging on. [. . .] You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do and nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?

Rob lacks that intellectual ballast. He only listens to music and doesn’t play; at his level of obsession, connoisseurship and taste should pale compared to making (Rob hooks up with an American singer named Marie and says of her place, “thrillingly, there are two guitars leaning against the wall.” He could have two guitars leaning against his wall, although I think one would suffice). Still, I am struck by the extent to which many YouTube videos can be reduced to “one block on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do,” except talk to an audience that isn’t present. Jenna Marbles is a useful approximation of this idea.

There are moments of poignance and useful articulations of the obvious, as when Rob says:

You run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.

Being overly fearful of loss increases the likelihood of loss, and Rob is disproportionately anxious. As a college student dating Charlie Rob is “fretful about my abilities as a lover,” and fifteen or so years later he is still fretful about his abilities as a lover. Eventually shouldn’t he just let the anxiety go and figure out what he’s doing? Though he apparently hasn’t in his economic life so perhaps his love and economic lives reflect each other. Rob is a sort of what-not-to-do when it comes to women. He even says, “There are still enough of the old-style, big-mouthed, self-opinionated egomaniacs around to make someone like me appear refreshingly different.” That might work for him, but the big-mouthed egomaniacs are the way they are because what they do tends to work (link is text but potentially NSFW).

For a guy who thinks a lot about his love life, and pop songs that are almost entirely about love, sex, and romance, Rob appears to know very little about actual women. Most pop culture, however, appears to be highly misleading on this score, which may explain why a pop-culture junkie like Rob is or has been highly misled. People who don’t make a concerted effort to learn about actual women. But this is true of much narrative art, especially American narrative art.

In my reading over the last few days, I’m struck by how much more pathetic Rob seems: as I said before, his problems are largely self-imposed, or imposed by his personality, and the solutions also must come from within. Rob fears the women he’s attracted to, like a fifteen-year-old; he goes to a small gig where Marie plays and afterwords she sells CDs: “We all buy one from her, and to our horror she speaks to us.” Most guys are happy to be talking to the people they’re attracted to, and the same obviously applies to women.

In addition, High Fidelity feels like a period piece: Rob owns a record store in an era when CDs and records are mainstream, and people who want to hear a particular song must track down a physical copy of it. Though I was born into that era it feels very long ago and foreign. So does the difficulty of getting ahold of people through the phone. The default state of more people as “alone” then. Computers are almost totally absent. It also feels highly PC, as when Rob recounts “a terribly unsound joke” that is only mildly funny and not really offensive. Why qualify it by saying that it’s “terribly unsound” when it’s not and when interesting humor by its nature is “unsound,” using Rob’s definition?

Reading Quiz

Jason Fisher tagged me in Facebook post for a reading quiz. I almost never use Facebook, so I decided to answer selected questions here.

1. Favorite childhood books? I’m not sure I have any—The Lord of the Rings, maybe, although that was more early adolescence. Where the Red Fern Grows stands out as a novel that can still be read by adults.

2. What are you reading right now? Tucker Max; Elaine Dundy; Ulysses; Elmore Leonard. My tastes are scattered.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? Not sure.

4. Bad book habit? They make it so easy.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? About 54 books, according to the University of Arizona. My eyes are bigger than my stomach…

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? Several at once. Sometimes a dozen.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone? I have no idea what my comfort zone is. If my comfort zone is “good books,” the answer is “more often than I’d like.”

12. What is your reading comfort zone? Ha! I didn’t read ahead. My answer: good writing. Compelling subjects.

15. What is your policy on book lending? More promiscuous than I probably should be, which results in the loss of books (often coinciding with relationships), but knowledge is meant to be spread, like certain other substances.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? Constantly. I developed this habit around the time I started this blog.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? Probably Stumbling on Happiness, although I think I’ve read it before too, mostly because it offers a lot of material presented well in a small space that caused me to substantially revise a large number of my positions and opinions. Very few books accomplish this.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose? Spanish, probably, which is boring but practical.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? Couple dozen. Grad students, man…

38. Favorite fictional character? Gandalf, probably, or at least he’s the most cited by me.

39. Favorite fictional villain? Jorge of Burgos from The Name of the Rose, mostly because he was also the most unexpected, the most brilliant, the most intelligently villainous. He has a reason for being the way he is, however twisted his reasoning may be.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading? A couple days, maybe?

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. I stop books constantly. Lately: Mistwood by Leah Cypress. I never got through an entire Jane Austen novel until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which taught me how to read Austen.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?. About a hundred pounds, when I was studying abroad in England. I was depressed at the time. Some take it out in the pub, I take it out elsewhere…

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through? Bad writing; repetitive; blather; filling space; not being compelling; failing to be genuinely novel or interesting. Note that most of these reasons apply both to fiction and nonfiction.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? Keep, mostly, although this is becoming a problem over time.

David Shields’ Reality Hunger and James Wood’s philosophy of fiction

In describing novels from the first half of the 19th Century, David Shields writes in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto that “All the technical elements of narrative—the systematic use of the past tense and the third person, the unconditional adoption of chronological development, linear plots, the regular trajectory of the passions, the impulse of each episode toward a conclusion, etc.—tended to impose the image of a stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal, entirely decipherable universe.”

I’m not so sure; the more interesting novels didn’t necessarily have “the unconditional adoption of chronological development” or the other features Shields ascribes to them. Caleb Williams is the most obvious example I can immediately cite: the murderers aren’t really punished in it and madness is perpetual. Gothic fiction of the 19th Century had a highly subversive quality that didn’t feature “the regular trajectory of the passions.” To my mind, the novel has always had unsettling features and an unsettling effect on society, producing change even when that change isn’t immediately measurable or apparent, or when we can’t get away from the fundamental constraints of first- or third-person narration. Maybe I should develop this thought more: but Shields doesn’t in Reality Hunger, so maybe innuendo ought to be enough for me too.

Shields is very good at making provocative arguments and less good at making those arguments hold up under scrutiny. He says, “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” Really? I believe if the author is good enough. And I construct coherence where it sometimes appears to be lacking. Although I’m aware that I can’t shake hands with David Kepesh of The Professor of Desire, he and the characters around him feel like “more than puppets” in which Roth has ceased to believe.

Shields wants something made new. Don’t we all? Don’t we all want to throw off dead convention? Alas: few of us know how to successfully, and that word “successfully” is especially important. You could write a novel that systematically eschews whatever system you think the novel imposes (this is the basic idea behind the anti-novel), but most people probably won’t like it—a point that I’ll come back to. We won’t like it because it won’t seem real. Most of us have ideas about reality that are informed by some combination of lived experience and cultural conditioning. That culture shifts over time. Shields starts Reality Hunger with a premise that is probably less contentious than much of the rest of the manifesto: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” I can believe this, though I suspect that artists begin getting antsy when you try to pin them down on what reality is: I would call it this thing we all appear to live in but that no one can quite represent adequately.

That includes Shields. Reality Hunger doesn’t feel as new as it should; it feels more like a list of N things. It’s frustrating even when it makes one think. Shields says, “Culture and commercial languages invade us 24/7.” But “commercial languages” only invade us because we let them: TV seems like the main purveyor, and if we turn it off, we’ll probably cut most of the advertising from our lives. If “commercial languages” are invading my life to the extent I’d choose the word “invade,” I’m not aware of it, partially because I conspicuously avoid those languages. Shields says, “I try not to watch reality TV, but it happens anyway.” This is remarkable: I’ve never met anyone who’s tried not to watch reality TV and then been forced to, or had reality TV happen to them, like a car accident or freak weather.

Still, we need to think about how we experience the world and depict it, since that helps us make sense of the world. For me, the novel is the genre that does this best, especially when it bursts its perceived bounds in particularly productive ways. I can’t define those ways with any rigor, but the novel has far more going on than its worst and best critics imagine.

Both the worst and best critics tend to float around the concept of reality. To use Luc Sante’s description in “The Fiction of Memory,” a review of Reality Hunger:

The novel, for all the exertions of modernism, is by now as formalized and ritualized as a crop ceremony. It no longer reflects actual reality. The essay, on the other hand, is fluid. It is a container made of prose into which you can pour anything. The essay assumes the first person; the novel shies from it, insisting that personal experience be modestly draped.

I’m not sure what a “crop ceremony” is or how the novel is supposed to reflect “actual reality.” Did it ever? What is this thing called reality that the novel is attempting to mirror? Its authenticity or lack thereof has, as far as I know, always been in question. The search for realism is always a search and never a destination, even when we feel that some works are more realistic than others.

Yet Sante and Sheilds are right about the dangers of rigidity; as Andrew Potter writes in The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, “One effect of disenchantment is that pre-existing social relations come to be recognized not as being ordained by the structure of the cosmos, but as human constructs – the product of historical contingencies, evolved power relations, and raw injustices and discriminations.”

Despite this, however, we feel realism—if none of us did, we’d probably stop using the term. Our definitions might blur when we approach a precise definition, but that doesn’t mean something isn’t there.

Sante writes, quoting Shields, that “‘Anything processed by memory is fiction,’ as is any memory shaped into literature.” Maybe: but consider these three statements, if I were to make them to you (keep in mind the context of Reality Hunger, with comments like “Try to make it real—compared to what?”):

Aliens destroyed Seattle in 2004.

I attended Clark University.

Alice said she was sad.

One of them is, to most of us, undoubtedly fiction. One of them is true. The other I made up: no doubt there is an Alice somewhere who has said she is sad, but I don’t know her and made her up for the purposes of example. The second example might be “process by memory,” but I don’t think that makes it fiction, even if I can’t give you a firm, rigorous, absolute definition of where the gap between fact and interpretation begins. Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal give it a shot in Fashionable Nonsense: “For us, as for most people, a ‘fact’ is a situation in the external world that exists irrespective of the knowledge that we have (or don’t have) of it—in particular, irrespective of any consensus or interpretation.”

They go to observe that scientists actually face some problems of definition that I see as similar to those of literature and realism:

Our answer [as to what makes science] is nuanced. First of all, there are some general (but basically negative) epistemological principles, which go back at least to the seventeenth century: to be skeptical of a priori arguments, revelation, sacred texts, and arguments from authority. Moreover, the experience accumulated during three centuries of scientific practice has given us a series of more-or-less general methodological principles—for example, to replicate experiments, to use controls, to test medicines in double-blind protocols—that can be justified by rational arguments. However, we do not claim that these principles can be codified in a definite way, nor that the list is exhaustive. In other words, there does not exist (at least present) a complete codification rationality, is always an adaptation to a new situation.

They lay out some criteria (beware of “revelation, sacred texts, and arguments from authority”) and “methodological principles” (“replicate experiments”) and then say “we do not claim that these principles can be codified in a definite way.” Neither can the principles of realism. James Wood does as good a job of exploring them as anyone. But I would posit that, despite our inability to pin down realism, either as convention or not, most of us recognize it: when I tell people that I attended Clark University, none have told me that my experience is an artifact of memory, or made up, or that there is no such thing as reality and therefore I didn’t. Such realism might merely be convention or training—or it might be real.

In the first paragraph of his review of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, James Wood lays out the parameters of the essential question of literary development or evolution:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? Nabokov seems to have thought so, and pointed out that Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail. Yet you could argue the opposite view; after all, no novelist strikes the modern reader as more Homeric than Tolstoy. And Homer does mention Hector’s wife getting a hot bath ready for her husband after a long day of war, and even Achilles, as a baby, spitting up on Phoenix’s shirt. Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

I don’t think literature progresses “like medicine or engineering.” Using medical or engineering knowledge as it stood in 1900 would be extremely unwise if you’re trying to understand the genetic basis of disease or build a computer chip. Papers tend to decay within five to ten years of publication in the sciences.

But I do think literature progresses in some other, less obvious way, as we develop wider ranges of techniques and social constraints allow for wider ranges of subject matter or direct depiction: hence why Nabakov can point out that “Tolstoy, unlike Homer, was able to describe childbirth in convincing detail,” and I can point out that mainstream literature effectively couldn’t depict explicit sexuality until the 20th Century.

While that last statement can be qualified some, it is hard to miss the difference between a group of 19th Century writers like Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy (who J. Hillis Miller discusses in The Form of Victorian Fiction) and a group of 20th Century writers like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Norman Rush, and A.S. Byatt, who are free to explicitly describe sexual relationships to the extent they see fit and famously use words like “cunt” that simply couldn’t be effectively used in the 19th Century.

In some ways I see literature as closer to math: the quadratic equation doesn’t change with time, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world with only the quadratic equation. Wood gets close to this when he says that “Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation.” The word “perhaps” is essential in this sentence: it gives a sense of possibility and realization that we can’t effectively answer the question, however much we might like to. But both question and answer give a sense of some useful parameters for the discussion. Most likely, literature isn’t exactly like anything else, and its development (or not) is a matter as much of the person doing the perceiving and ordering as anything intrinsic to the medium.

I have one more possible quibble with Wood’s description when he says that “the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.” I wonder if it really hasn’t undergone “essential alteration,” and what would qualify as essential. Novelists like Elmore Leonard, George Higgins, or that Wood favorite Henry Green all feel quite different from Flaubert or Balzac because of how they use dialog to convey ideas. The characters in Tom Perrotta’s Election speak in a much more slangy, informal style than do any in Flaubert or Balzac, so far as I know. Bellow feels more erratic than the 19th Century writers and closer to the psyche, although that might be an artifact of how I’ve been trained by Bellow and writers after Bellow to perceive the novel and the idea of psychological realism. Taken together, however, the writers mentioned make me think that maybe “the basic narrative grammar” has changed for writers who want to adopt new styles. Yes, we’re still stuck with first- and third-person perspectives, but we get books that are heavier on dialog and lighter on formality than their predecessors.

Wood is a great chronicler of what it means to be real: his interrogation of this seemingly simple term runs through the essays collected in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, and, most comprehensively, in the book How Fiction Works. Taken together, they ask how the “basic narrative grammar” of fiction works or has worked up to this point. In setting out some of the guidelines that allow literary fiction to work, Wood is asking novelists to find ways to break those guides in useful and interesting ways. In discussing Reality Hunger, Wood says, “[Shields’] complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well-taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas.” I agree and doubt many would disagree, but the question is not merely one of “shred[ing] formulas,” but how and why those formulas should be shred. One doesn’t shred the quadratic formula: it works. But one might build on it.

By the same token, we may have this “basic narrative grammar” not because novelists are conformist slackers who don’t care about finding a new way forward: we may have it because it’s the most satisfying or useful way of conveying a story. Although I don’t think this is true, I think it might be true. Maybe most people won’t find major changes to the way we tell stories palatable. Despite modernism and postmodernism, fewer people appear to enjoy the narrative confusion and choppiness of Joyce than do enjoy the streamlined feel of the latest thriller. That doesn’t mean the latter is better than the former—by my values, it’s not—but it does mean that the overall thrust of fiction might remain where it is.

Robert McKee, in his not-very-good-but-useful book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, gives three major kinds of plots, which blend into one another: “arch plots” that are causal in nature and finish their story lines; “mini plots,” which he says are open and “strive for simplicity and economy while retaining enough of the classical […] to satisfy the audience,” and antiplot, which are where absurdism and the like fall.

He says that as one moves “toward the far reaches of Miniplot, Antiplot, and Non-plot, the audience shrinks” (emphasis in original). From there:

The atrophy has nothing to do with quality or lack of it. All three corners of the story triangle gleam with masterworks that the world treasures, pieces of perfection for our imperfect world. Rather, the audience shrinks for this reason: Most human beings believe that life brings closed experiences of absolute, irreversible change; that their greatest sources of conflict are external to themselves; that they are the single and active protagonists of their own existence; that their existence operates through continuous time within a consistent, causally interconnected reality; and that inside this reality events happen for explainable and meaningful reasons.

The connection between this and Wood’s “basic narrative grammar” might appear tenuous, but McKee and Wood are both pointing towards the ways stories are constructed. Wood is more concerned with language; although plot and its expression (whether in language or in video) can’t be separated from one another, they can still be analyzed independently enough of one another to make a distinction.

The conventions that underlie the “arch plots,” however, can become tedious over time. This is what Wood is highlighting when he discusses Roland Barthes’ “reality effect,” which fiction can achieve: “All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word ‘novel’?” Yet we need some kind of form to contain story; what is that form? Is there an ideal method of conveying story? If so, what if we’ve found it and are now mostly tinkering, rather than creating radical new forms? If we take out “this silly machinery of plotting and pacing” and dialog, we’re left with something closer to philosophy than to a novel.

Alternately, maybe we need the filler and coordination that so many novels consist of if those novels are to be felt true to life, which appears to be one definition of what people mean by “realistic.” This is where Wood parts with Barthes, or at least makes a distinct case:

Convention may be boring, but it is not untrue simply because it is conventional. People do lie on their beds and think with shame about all that has happened during the day (at least, I do), or order a beer and a sandwich and open their computers; they walk in and out of rooms, they talk to other people (and sometimes, indeed, feel themselves to be talking inside quotation marks); and their lives do possess more or less traditional elements of plotting and pacing, of suspense and revelation and epiphany. Probably there are more coincidences in real life than in fiction. To say “I love you” is to say something at millionth hand, but it is not, then, necessarily to lie.

“Convention may be boring, but it is not untrue simply because it is conventional,” and the parts we think of as conventional might be necessary to realism. In Umberto Eco’s Reflections on The Name of the Rose, he says that “The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.” That is often the job of novelists dealing with the historical weight of the past and with conventions that are “not untrue simply because [they are] conventional.” Eco and Wood both use the example of love to demonstrate similar points. Wood’s is above; Eco says:

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’ At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated […]

I wonder if every age thinks of itself as “an age of lost innocence,” only to be later looked on as pure, naive, or unsophisticated. Regardless, for Eco postmodernism requires that we look to the past long enough to wink and then move on with the story we’re going to tell in the manner we’re going to tell it. Perhaps Chang-Rae Lee doesn’t do so in The Surrendered, which is the topic of Wood’s essay—but like so many essays and reviews, Wood’s starts with a long and very useful consideration before coming to the putative topic of its discussion. Wood speaks of reading […] “Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel, “The Surrendered” (Riverhead; $26.95)—a book that is commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and, alas, utterly conventional. Here the machinery of traditional, mainstream storytelling threshes efficiently.” I haven’t read The Surrendered and so can’t evaluate Wood’s assessment.

Has Wood merely overdosed on the kind of convention that Lee uses, as opposed to convention itself? If so, it’s not clear how that “machinery” could be fixed or improved on, and the image itself is telling because Wood begins his essay by asking whether literature is like technology. My taste in literature changes: as a teenager I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune and now find it almost unbearably tedious. Other revisited novels hold up poorly because I’ve overdosed on their conventions and start to crave something new—a lot of fantasy flattens over time like opened soda.

Still, I usually don’t know what “something new” entails until I read it. That’s the problem with saying that the old way is conventional or boring: that much is easier to observe than the fix. Wood knows it, and he’s unusually good at pointing to the problems of where we’ve been and pointing to places that we might go to fix it (see, for example, his recent essay on David Mitchell, who I now feel obliged to read). This, I suspect, is why he is so beloved by so many novelists, and why I spend so much time reading him, even when I don’t necessarily love what he loves. The Quickening Maze struck me as self-indulgent and lacking in urgency, despite the psychological insight Adam Foulds offers into a range of characters’ minds: a teenage girl, a madman, an unsuccessful inventor.

I wanted more plot. In How Fiction Works, Wood quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to maintain reader interest and then says that “[…] the novel [as an art form; one could also say the capital-N Novel] soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” Yet I want and crave this element that Wood dismisses—perhaps because of my (relatively) young age: Wood says that Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker was “published when the author was just twenty-nine,” older than I am. I like suspense and the sense of something major at stake, and that could imply that I have a weakness for weak fiction. If so, I can do little more than someone who wants chocolate over vanilla, or someone who wants chocolate despite having heard the virtues of cherries extolled.

When I hear about the versions of the real, reality, and realism that get extolled, I often begin to think about chocolate, vanilla, and cherries, and why some novelists write in such a way that I can almost taste the cocoa while others are merely cardboard colored brown. Wood is very good at explaining this, and his work taken together represents some of the best answers to the questions that we have.

Even the best answers lead us toward more questions that are likely to be answered best by artists in a work of art that makes us say, “I’ve never seen it that way before,” or, better still, “I’ve never seen it.” Suddenly we do see, and we run off to describe to our friends what we’ve seen, and they look at us and say, “I don’t get it,” and we say, “maybe you just had to see it for yourself.” Then we pass them the book or the photo or the movie and wait for them to say, “I’ve already seen this somewhere before,” while we argue that they haven’t, and neither have we. But we press on, reading, watching, thinking, hoping to come across the thing we haven’t seen before so we can share it again with our friends, who will say, like the critics do, “I’ve seen it before.”

So we have. And we’ll see it again. But I still like the sights—and the search.

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