The death of literary culture

At The Complete Review, Michael Orthofer writes of John Updike that

Dead authors do tend to fade fast these days — sometimes to be resurrected after a decent interval has passed, sometimes not –, which would seem to me to explain a lot. As to ‘the American literary mainstream’, I have far too little familiarity with it; indeed, I’d be hard pressed to guess what/who qualifies as that.

Orthofer is responding to a critical essay that says: “Much of American literature is now written in the spurious confessional style of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Readers value authenticity over coherence; they don’t value conventional beauty at all.” I’m never really sure what “authenticity” and its cousin “relatability” mean, and I have an unfortunate suspicion that both reference some lack of imagination in the speaker; still, regarding the former, I find The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves persuasive.

But I think Orthofer and the article are subtly pointing towards another idea: literary culture itself is mostly dead. I lived through its final throes—perhaps like someone who, living through the 1950s, saw the end of religious Christianity as a dominant culture, since it was essentially gone by the 1970s—though many claimed its legacy for years after the real thing had passed. What killed literary culture? The Internet is the most obvious, salient answer, and in particular the dominance of social media, which is in effect its own genre—and, frequently, its own genre of fiction. Almost everyone will admit that their own social media profiles attempt to showcase a version of their best or ideal selves, and, thinking of just about everyone I know well, or even slightly well, the gap between who they really are and what they are really doing, and what appears on their social media, is so wide as to qualify as fiction. Determining the “real” self is probably impossible, but determining the fake selves is easier, and the fake is everywhere. Read much social media as fiction and performance and it will make more sense.

Everyone knows this, but admitting it is rarer. Think of all the social media photos of a person ostensibly alone—admiring the beach, reading, sunbathing, whatever—but the photographer is somewhere. A simple example, maybe, but also one without the political baggage of many other possible examples.

Much of what passes for social media discourse makes little or no sense, until one considers that most assertions are assertions of identity, not of factual or true statements, and many social media users are constructing a quasi-fictional universe not unlike the ones novels used to create. “QAnon” might be one easy modern example, albeit one that will probably go stale soon, if it’s not already stale; others will take its place. Many of these fictions are the work of group authors. Numerous assertions around gender and identity might be a left-wing-valenced version of the phenomenon, for readers who want balance, however spurious balance might be. Today, we’ve in some ways moved back to a world like that of the early novel and the early novelists, when “fact” and “fiction” were much more disputed, interwoven territories, and many novels claimed to be “true stories” on their cover pages. The average person has poor epistemic hygiene for most topics not directly tied to income and employment, but the average person has a very keen sense of tribe, belonging, and identity—so views that may be epistemically dubious nonetheless succeed if they promote belonging (consider also The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler for a more thorough elaboration on these ideas). Before social media, did most people really belong, or did they silently suffer through the feeling of not belonging? Or was something else at play? I don’t know.

In literary culture terms, the academic and journalistic establishment that once formed the skeletal structure upholding literary culture has collapsed, while journalists and academics have become modern clerics, devoted more to spreading ideology than exploring the human condition, or to art, or to aesthetics. Academia has become more devoted to telling people what to think, than helping people learn how to think, and students are responding to that shift. Experiments like the Sokal Affair and its successors show as much. The cult of “peer review” and “research” fits poorly in the humanities, but they’ve been grafted on, and the graft is poor.

Strangely, many of the essays lamenting the fall of the humanities ignore the changes in the content of the humanities, in both schools and universities. The number of English majors in the U.S. has dropped by about 50% from 2000 to 2021:

Decline of English majors

History and most of other humanities majors obviously show similar declines. Meanwhile, the number of jobs in journalism has approximately halved since the year 2000; academic jobs in the humanities cratered in 2009, from an already low starting point, and have never recovered; even jobs teaching in high school humanities subjects have a much more ideological, rather than humanistic, cast than they did ten years ago. What’s taken the place of reading, if anything? Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and, above all, Twitter.

Twitter, in particular, seems to promote negative feedback and fear loops, in ways that media and other institutions haven’t yet figured out how to resist. The jobs that supported the thinkers, critics, starting-out novelists, and others, aren’t there. Whatever might have replaced them, like Twitter, isn’t equivalent. The Internet doesn’t just push most “content” (songs, books, and so forth) towards zero—it also changes what people do, including the people who used to make up what I’m calling literary culture or book culture. The costs of housing also makes teaching a non-viable job for a primary earner in many big cities and suburbs.

What power and vibrancy remains in book culture has shifted towards nonfiction—either narrative nonfiction, like Michael Lewis, or data-driven nonfiction, with too many examples to cite. It still sells (sales aren’t a perfect representation of artistic merit or cultural vibrancy, but they’re not nothing, either). Dead authors go fast today not solely or primarily because of their work, but because the literary culture is going away fast, if it’s not already gone. When John Updike was in his prime, millions of people read him (or they at last bought Couples and could spit out some light book chat about it on command). The number of writers working today who the educated public, broadly conceived of, might know about is small: maybe Elena Ferrante, Michel Houllebecq, Sally Rooney, and perhaps a few others (none of those three are American, I note). I can’t even think of a figure like Elmore Leonard: someone writing linguistically interesting, highly plotted material. Bulk genre writers are still out there, but none who I’m aware of who have any literary ambition.

See some evidence for the decline of literary cultures in the decline of book advances; the Authors Guild, for example, claims that “writing-related earnings by American authors [… fell] to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.” The kinds of freelancing that used to exist has largely disappeared too, or become economically untenable. In If You Absolutely Must by Freddie deBoer, he warns would-be writers that “Book advances have collapsed.” Money isn’t everything but the collapse of already-shaking foundations of book writing is notable, and quantifiable. Publishers appear to survive and profit primarily off very long copyright terms; their “backlist” keeps the lights on. Publishers seem, like journalists and academics, to have become modern-day clerics, at least for the time being, as I noted above.

Consider a more vibrant universe for literary culture, as mentioned in passing here:

From 1960 to 1973, book sales climbed 70 percent, but between 1973 and 1979 they added less than another six percent, and declined in 1980. Meanwhile, global media conglomerates had consolidated the industry. What had been small publishers typically owned by the founders or their heirs were now subsidiaries of CBS, Gulf + Western (later Paramount), MCA, RCA, or Time, Inc. The new owners demanded growth, implementing novel management techniques. Editors had once been the uncontested suzerains of title acquisition. In the 1970s they watched their power wane.

A world in which book sales (and advances) are growing is very different from one of decline. It’s reasonable to respond that writing has rarely been a path to fame or fortune, but it’s also reasonable to note that, even against the literary world of 10 or 20 years ago, the current one is less remunerative and less culturally central. Writers find the path to making any substantial money from their writing harder, and more treacherous. Normal people lament that they can’t get around to finishing a book; they rarely lament that they can’t get around to scrolling Instagram (that’s a descriptive observation of change).

At Scholar’s Stage, Tanner Greer traces the decline of the big book and the big author:

the last poet whose opinion anybody cared about was probably Allen Ginsberg. The last novelist to make waves outside of literary circles was probably Tom Wolfe—and he made his name through nonfiction writing (something similar could be for several of other prominent essayists turned novelists of his generation, like James Baldwin and Joan Didion). Harold Bloom was the last literary critic known outside of his own field; Allan Bloom, the last with the power to cause national controversy. Lin-Manuel Miranda is the lone playwright to achieve celebrity in several decades.

I’d be a bit broader than Greer: someone like Gillian Flynn writing Gone Girl seemed to have some cultural impact, but even books like Gone Girl seem to have stopped appearing. The cultural discussion rarely if ever revolves around books any more. Publishing and the larger culture have stopped producing Stephen Kings. Publishers, oddly to my mind, no longer even seem to want to try producing popular books, preferring instead to pursue insular ideological projects. The most vital energy in writing has been routed to Substack.

I caught the tail end of a humane and human-focused literary culture that’s largely been succeeded by a political and moral-focused culture that I hesitate to call literary, even though it’s taken over what remains of those literary-type institutions. This change has also coincided with a lessening of interest in those institutions: very few people want to be clerics and scolds—many fewer than wonder about the human condition, though the ones who do want to be clerics and scolds form the intolerant minority in many institutions. Shifting from the one to the other seems like a net loss to me, but also a net loss that I’m personally unable to arrest or alter. If I had to pick a date range for this death, it’d probably be 2009 – 2015: the Great Recession eliminates many of the institutional jobs and professions that once existed, along with any plausible path into them for all but the luckiest, and by 2015 social media and scold culture had taken over. Culture is define but easy to feel as you exist within and around it. By 2010, Facebook had become truly mainstream, and everyone’s uncle and grandma weren’t just on the Internet for email and search engines, but for other people and their opinions.

Maybe mainstream literary culture has been replaced by some number of smaller micro-cultures, but those microcultures don’t add up to what used to be a macroculture.

In this essay, I write:

I’ve been annoying friends and acquaintances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of highbrow plans to Read More In the Future. A good and noble sentiment, like starting that diet. Then I ask, “How many of the people you know read more than a book or two a year?” Usually there’s some thinking, and rattling off of one or two names, followed by silence, as the person thinks through the people they know. “So, out of the few hundred people you might know well enough to know, Jack and Mary are the two people you know who read somewhat regularly?” They nod. “And that is why the publishing industry works poorly,” I say. In the before-times, anyone interested in a world greater than what’s available around them and on network TV had to read, most often books, which isn’t true any more and, barring some kind of catastrophe, probably won’t be true again.

Reading back over this I realize it has the tone and quality of a complaint, but it’s meant as a description, and complaining about cultural changes is about as effective as shaking one’s fist at the sky: I’m trying to look at what’s happening, not whine about it. Publishers go woke and see the sales of fiction fall and respond by doubling down, but I’m not in the publishing business and the intra-business signaling that goes on there. One could argue changes noted are for the better. Whining about aggregate behavior and choices has rarely, if ever, changed it. I don’t think literary culture will ever return, any more Latin, epic poetry, classical music, opera, or any number of other once-vital cultural products and systems will.

In some ways, we’re moving backwards, towards a cultural fictional universe with less clearly demarcated lines between “fact” and “fiction” (I remember being surprised, when I started teaching, by undergrads who didn’t know a novel or short stories are fiction, or who called nonfiction works “novels”). Every day, each of us is helping whatever comes next, become. The intertwined forces of technology and culture move primarily in a single direction. The desire for story will remain but the manifestation of that desire aren’t static. Articles like “Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low” appear routinely. It’s hard to have literary culture among a population that doesn’t read.

See also:

* What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?

* Postmodernisms: What does that mean?

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.

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