“The Wheel of Time” as an adult

In middle school I read the first six or eight Robert Jordan Wheel of Time books; I’ve mentioned that before, but the other day I saw someone reading one of the books in a coffee shop and that inspired me to download some. From the opening pages they are badly written; we find of one character, “with his thick chest and broad face, he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting dream.” What is a “pillar of reality?” As opposed to a “pillar of fantasy?” Does reality typically have pillars? In dreams, stones can drift as much as they want. In isolation this kind of thing happens (not every sentence in a given book is to every person’s taste), but things like it recur again and again. Perhaps they were written too fast, or maybe the writer’s attention was elsewhere. But for very inexperienced readers, as I was, that doesn’t matter: everything is novel.

The novels are very Tolkien-esque, except worse. The novel concerns a quest to defeat “The Dark One,” but The Dark One seems like a bad deal. I mean, his nickname is the Lord of Lies. Yet various people in the Wheel of Time world are eager to sign up to serve him. Why would anyone make a deal with him? People try not to do business with people they don’t trust, and that just concerns money—not the soul itself. Truly evil people don’t announce they’re evil; they call themselves good. In Tolkien, Sauron is at least depicted as once having been fair, and being able to use his powers to daunt and seduce the men who haven’t been exposed to Elvish influence. Tolkien thought through a lot of subtle details that are easily missed in a first pass but picked up later on.

Perhaps the Dark One’s dealmaking skill is a metaphor for life under communist regimes, which are highly duplicitous and not very pleasant, but, if one’s government was part of the Soviet Union, that was part of the deal. Many people who ought to have known better were convinced socialism was a good idea. They may have sold their souls, in essence.

The Jordan view of sexuality is… curious. And very adolescent; as a work that might appeal to 12- or 13-year olds, it makes sense. As a work that appeals to adults, it does not. Many of the characters are very attractive and very attracted to one another, and yet none act on it, or only act on it after months or years of courtship that leads to marriage. This seems improbable. Most adults attempt to fulfill months- or years-long mutual attractions somewhat faster than that. The Wheel of Time‘s sexual world sounds a lot like middle school behavior but not much like adult behavior. A fantasy novel like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is much more reality-grounded in this domain, despite featuring far younger protagonists. As an adult I look at Jordan’s Wikipedia page and am unsurprised to find this: “He described himself as a ‘High Church’ Episcopalian and received communion more than once a week.”

Like a lot of thrillers, something happens in almost every chapter of every book (the early ones, anyway). A sudden attack. A reversal of fortune. The introduction of a new character. But, as with a lot of thrillers, the “something” often doesn’t make much sense. Why are the bad guys so ineffective? Why do they try the same sort of attacks, over and over again, which keep failing? Why do Dark friends not get a better name? Could they hire a branding consultant? Thrillers work if you don’t think too much about them—something I realized after reading Persuader, a novel that’s wildly plausible despite its absurdities. Sometimes I wonder if I could become a thriller writer through a deck of cards with plot points like “sudden betrayal,” “bad guy goes good,” “unexpected fight,” etc. on them.

And the attacks are mostly the same: the same Orc-like creatures suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, and execute the same attacks that fail in the same ways. They’re like video-game monsters. If the Dark One is so brilliant, perhaps he ought to learn new tactics? Or perhaps that’s the curse of a 14-novel series: there are only so many variations on a theme.

It feels like Jordan had a bunch of dice when he was writing. Roll a 2? New attack from Trollocs. Four? New magical items. Double sixes? Dark friends. Someone like Philip Pullman or Carlos Ruiz Zafon has a very different, more organic feel, as well as more bounded worlds that may ultimately be more satisfying worlds. The endless size of The Wheel of Time means flatter characters, more repetition, and the exploration of fewer ideas.

Even as a kid, I gave up on the series. But I wonder about what adults see in it. Many people are of course comforted by and susceptible to simple good-vs-evil stories. When one becomes popular, like The Wheel of Time, pointing to it as being popular because it’s a good-vs-evil story isn’t enough. Maybe it’s popular because it’s simple along so many dimensions. The sentences are simple. The motivations are simple. The plot is less simple on its surface but fairly simple beneath. The good guys win at the end (or appear to: so say Internet summarizers). The Wheel of Time world of motivation is fairly simple. In a complex world, simple has appeal.

The chief protagonist is named Rand al’Thor, and the description of him working magic is notable and concerns what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow” or what might otherwise be called total concentration, which the channelers must use: “Tam had taught him the Void as an aid to archery, to be one with the bow, the arrow, the target. He made himself one with those imagined black wires.” One reading of Wheel might be about the value of total concentration, although that’s a funny lesson in books that don’t demand total concentration and if anything don’t reward it. But for the reader, especially today in an environment of digital distraction, admiring total concentration may be useful.

The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

Giving and receiving books

Tyler Cowen writes, “Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out,” which is a fine post, but I’d note that many people are cost-constrained when it comes to books, and many used books now end up on Amazon, where they must be specifically sought out. And I love to give friends books (and receive books), but the following rules for giving books must be obeyed:

1. Zero expectation. The sender must not expect the receiver to read or even consider the book. Books should only be given, never returned, particularly in the age of Amazon. Amazon has made book scarcity a thing of the past. It is even possible to rapidly scan books, using the right equipment, which may be relatively inexpensive. The majority of books I give or send are probably never read, and that’s fine with me.

2. Despite “zero expectation,” the sender must think the book will interest the receiver or be at least as good as the median book the receiver might otherwise read.

3. This is my own idiosyncrasy, but I very rarely throw out books, though I will donate unwanted ones in batches. Someone with different inclinations and hourly rates might automate the process of selling older books on Amazon. The net take from selling a book for even $10 or $12 on Amazon is like $4 – $6—not worth it for me.

4. I like writing in books and like it when my friends do. Receiving a book my friend has annotated is like getting the pleasure of the book and the pleasure of conversation.

5. “Zero expectation” also means “zero expectation” in terms of time. I mail books in batches whenever there are enough and it’s convenient for me. It may be months after I finish a book, and that’s okay. I have a stack sitting around right now, waiting to go out.

6. I like it when publishers send me books! But they often send emails first asking if I’ll promise a review, etc. My stock reply is always the same: Send the book, but I promise nothing.

7. When I was younger I thought I’d be rich when I have the money to buy all the books I can read. Now I have to limit the number of physical books I have due to space and practicality constraints. Large numbers of physical books are not compatible with high levels of mobility. This is very annoying but also true. Bad city zoning makes this problem worse by artificially increasing the price per square foot most people pay for housing in a given locale. Would we have a better media if writers had more space for books and consequently read more?

“How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up? So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.” I say my problem today is finding the best book, which I no longer do so well on my own; if the five best readers I know would send me more books, I would be very happy, even if only one works for me.

It’s striking for me how many people with nothing to say get on social media to say it, relative to simply reading more or learning more. We have all these communication media and too little to fill them with, in my view. It could be that I’m guilty of that right now.

A good rule is, “Would you buy this friend a beer or coffee?” If yes, why not a book? I’d like to see book-giving become more of a social norm, like getting a round of drinks.

Slutever — Karley Sciortino

This passage is representative of Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World:

My first attempt at nonmonogamy was while I was living in London, soon after my relationship with Sam ended. I was twenty-three, and fell really hard for this beardy Scottish musician. He lived in Glasgow but came to London a couple times a month with his band. I met him while high on ecstasy at a squat rave, obviously.

“Obviously;” where else does one meet a beardy Scottish musician? I say it’s representative because of the odd, jangly alliteration, “was while I was,” which sounds not quite right, especially due to the repeat of the word “was;” the unneeded comma in the second sentence; and obviously that “obviously” at the end. But I still laughed, and laughter is probably the best test for a book like this. It’s easy to condemn the frequent use of “honestly,” “whatever,” and “obviously,” but try not to do that. Yes, you will read “shout out to Hester Prynne, OG high priestess of slut-shaming.” The jokes redeem the book and the language is part of the joke. People in coffee shops looked at me not just because of the book’s eye-catching cover but because I was laughing.

You will find paragraphs with incongruous markers stacked up against each other:

When I arrived at Colette and Dan’s beautiful hilltop home on a Saturday morning in the spring of 2016, Dan answered the door wearing silk pajama pants. “Colette’s in the orgy room, meditating,” he said with a smile. They’d hired a rent-a-shaman to come up from Mexico that afternoon, to dose a handful of their friends with a psychoactive toad venom containing the powerful hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT, known to induce divine revelation or, in Colette’s words, “ego death.” (Think Ayahuasca but without the puking.)

Who hasn’t rented a shaman from Mexico for the afternoon? But this kind of repeated incongruity is what makes the memoir-manifesto novel—more novel than many superficially high-status novels. And despite the admiration for hallucinogens and their uses, Sciortino also makes fun of Burning Man, which is, I hear, ground zero for doing such things, or doing such things in large groups of collaborators.

Sciortino writes, “Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).” Yet I wonder what freedom is; I used to think I knew and now I’m not so sure.

Slutever is not for all of you who may be reading this, but it is for some of you, and probably for more of you than you’d admit in a public setting.

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.

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