Rapture — Susan Minot

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Ellipses in original.)

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

Sometimes the vision is blank:

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

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

Why read bestsellers

Someone wrote to ask why I bother writing about John Grisham’s weaknesses as a writer and implied in it is a second question: why read bestsellers at all? The first is a fair question and so is the implication in it: Grisham’s readers don’t read me and don’t care what I think; they don’t care that he’s a bad writer; and people who read me probably aren’t going to read him. Still, I read him because I was curious and I wrote about him to report what I found.

The answer to the second one is easy: Some are great! Not all, probably not even most, but enough to try. Lonesome Dove, the best novel I’ve read recently, was a bestseller. Its sequel, Streets of Laredo, is not quite as good but I’m glad to have read it. Elmore Leonard was often a bestseller and he is excellent. Others seemed like they’d be bad (Gillian Flynn, Tucker Max) but turned into favorites.

One could construct a 2×2 matrix of good famous books; bad famous books; good obscure books; and bad obscure books. That last one is a large group too; credibility amid a handful of literary critics (who may be scratching each other’s backs anyway) does not necessarily equate to quality, and I’ve been fooled by good reviews of mostly unknown books many times. Literary posturing does not equate to actual quality.

Different people also have different views around literary quality, and those views depend in part on experience and reading habits. Someone who reads zero or one books a year is likely to have very different impressions than someone who reads ten or someone who reads fifty or a hundred. Someone who is reading like a writer will probably have a different experience than someone who reads exclusively in a single, particular genre.

And Grisham? That article (which I wish I could find) made him and especially Camino Island sound appealing, and the book does occasionally work. But its addiction to cliché and the sort of overwriting common in student writing makes it unreadable in my view. But someone who reads one or two books a year and for whom Grisham is one of those books will probably like him just fine, because they don’t have the built-up stock of reading that lets them distinguish what’s really good from what isn’t.

Briefly noted: Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Edge.org’s annual question book, Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments, is out in paper—and it’s available in its entirety online. Many responses discuss global climate change, like this one:

There is no real difficulty in identifying the most important news of 2015. Global warming is the news that will remain news for the foreseeable future, because our world will continue to warm at a rate that has never been seen before, at least at the moment without a foreseeable end.

The choice is a good and important though depressing one, but one should note that some progress is being made in terms of decarbonization of energy, the spread of electric vehicles, and the like. It may also be that we need or want less stuff than we once did:

Chris Goodall and a number of other commentators have documented this decoupling extensively: UK government data also shows a reduction in material use from about 12 tons a year per person to around 9 tons from 2000 to 2013. Japan shows a similar pattern.

Maybe the most obvious avatar of this change is the smartphone.

The other big groupings are particle physics and genetic engineering. In the former group, for example, Sarah Demers writes:

The terrifying possibility floating through these “Higgs and nothing else” conversations is that we might reach the end of exploration at the energy frontier. Without better clues of our undiscovered physics, we might not have sufficient motivation to build a higher energy machine. Even if we convince ourselves, could we convince the world and marshal the necessary resources to break the energy frontier again and continue to probe nature under the extreme conditions that teach us about nature’s building blocks?

The particle physicists seem about split between optimism that we’ll get breakthroughs and the terror described here that we’ll reach the end of effective measurement and breakthroughs. Yet many of the writers enumerate the many unresolved problems in physics, which could be read as a rebuke to people who say or imply that there’s nothing left to do, no blank spaces left on the map, and nothing left to discover.

Good books I read in 2016

A reader pointed out that I didn’t write a “best of 2016” post, which is correct, but “best of” strikes me wrong, so I’m going to write about good books that I happened to read in 2016 and that you should read too.

* The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, probably the best book I read all year, except maybe for Blindsight, but that is so different that the two aren’t really comparable.

* Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen, another narrative nonfiction book, though this one emerged and escaped my notice in 2009.

* The Map and the Territory by Houellebecq, still weird and likely always weird; Houellebecq has his misses, especially The Possibility of an Island, but his hits are strong, weird, and different—with “different” too often meaning “bad,” but not in his case.

* Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, one of those amazing books worth re-reading whenever you can’t find a new book to read.

* The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, which is novelistic in detail and beautifully reported. I didn’t fully know where the music everyone listens to comes from and now I do.

I’ve been having trouble finding really good novels, though my tastes are idiosyncratic and I don’t have rules for what makes a good novel besides the tautological, “Be really good.” If you have suggestions drop me a line.

The most-visited post I wrote last year is “The race to the bottom of victimhood and ‘social justice’ culture.”

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age — Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly

The first chapter of All Things Shining is strong and so is the second, on David Foster Wallace, but the book gets duller as it goes on, sustaining as it does its readings based on other books. There is something curiously empty about it, like a modern art museum that is much duller than a celebrity’s Instagram account. It is too well mannered. Academia’s mores rules. All Things Shining encourages us to find shining meaning in things but it itself doesn’t feel shiningly meaningful, as even sections like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift do.

Deciding that something is boring is easier than fully understanding why something is boring. I haven’t quite figured out the “Why” question regarding All Things Shining. The book does remind one of why great novels endure; story is still powerful and narratives without story are hard to sustain, especially when many claims seem somewhat dubious:

Modern life can seem to be defined by [uncertainty]. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at last occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.

I said that this is “somewhat dubious” because it is, even if we do face many choices. At bottom we each have to choose for ourselves what is important, and then pursue that thing. It might be pleasure or technology or words or research or money. Universals are likely absent and “The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus on our understanding of what we are.” The “burden of choice” also comes from the fact that many of us can pay the rent and pay for food, which leaves us with more time for self-contemplation. Maybe too much time.

I’m fond of telling students that you know you’re an adult when you realize that, if you can’t pay the rent and pay for food, you won’t have anywhere to live or anything to eat. Sometimes a focus on base material conditions is helpful. And forgetting that a very large number of people are justifiably focused on this issues is sometimes too easy for tenured academics.

Some paragraphs are both useful and yet I wonder what polls would say:

The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age.

Did the average Greek of Homer’s era live intense and meaningful lives? What about their children? What happened when their children died? Or was the average Greek covered in shit (link likely safe for work), slaving away to support a tiny number of nobles who focused on political games, consuming the marginal product of labor of the peasants, and fighting pointless, zero-sum wars with other nobles?

Still, the book has some interesting sections, and it is a deeper discussion of its issues than you’ll find on most of the Internet The discussions of craftsmanship are glancing but perhaps most interesting. Maybe if Wallace had conceptualized himself first as a craftsman and then as an everything else things would have gone better. Maybe not, though, and it’s hard to criticize one of the most truthful writers of his generation for not doing even better than he did.

Man’s search for meaning goes on.

Onwards.

Links: Demography is destiny, how could you like that book?, open access, friendship, and more

* “As China’s Workforce Dwindles, the World Scrambles for Alternatives:” an underreported story.

* “How Could You Like That Book?” by Tim Parks:

No sooner have I articulated my amazement, my sense of betrayal almost, than I begin to feel insecure. Is it really possible that so many people I respect have got it wrong? Close friends as well. Am I an inveterate elitist? A puritan? Or resentful of other people’s success? Shouldn’t I perhaps relax and enjoy my reading a little more rather than approaching books with constant suspicion?

The world is full of people who admire books I don’t and vice-versa. When I tell students I found the first Hunger Games or Harry Potter books dull they’re astonished.

* “Open Access and the Power of Editorial Boards: Why Elsevier Plays Hardball with Deviant Linguists.” To me the most intersting thing is that equivalents of arXiv.org haven’t arise in the humanities. That may say more about the intellectual importance of the humanities than any other piece of data, information, or opinion.

* Why car dealers are reluctant to sell electric cars, a bit of ill news.

* Dream of New Kind of Credit Union Is Extinguished by Bureaucracy.

* “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult.”

* “The Yale Problem Begins in High School,” by Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind fame. Notice especially the links Haidt offers.

* “‘Self and Soul’: Mark Edmundson’s biting critique of modern complacency.”

* “Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose,” an over-discussed topic maybe, but also a true one. Some points, like this one, are ridiculous: “But literary authors aren’t self-publishing their books on Kindle. Quite the opposite. They have a swish sounding publisher.” See also last year’s “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz:”

I’m most amazed at the way the same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers are now the ones decrying Amazon and supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction.

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