Links: Entitlement, Ferguson, blogs, reading, war

* “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” especially worth reading for teachers and students, though it is excellent throughout. This especially resonates:

The world of grad students two decades later is a lot different. Nearly all the students have smartphones, which they bring to class. Nearly all of them spend more time staring at screens than at books.

And the students I encounter seem to value reading less and less. I remember one especially galling workshop that I taught a few years ago, in which I asked the participants to read a single story, “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor. Hardly any of them bothered. They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show, or what they just posted on Facebook, than the last great book they read.

When I go into coffeeshops computers and phones outnumber books at least 10:1. That is worth contemplating for anyone who writes or aspires to write books. In many ways writing is more important than ever—in an email yesterday I said that books may be the (financial) wagging the cultural dog—but people are arguably getting paid either less or differently for it.

women with cell phone in coffee shop-1829* “How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened in another country.”

* Blogs will outlast the various “Social Media” companies.

* Housing policy is the biggest thing “blue states” are screwing up.

* “The Great Unread: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” What is the role of the reader, and how will a given society evolve? To most 19th C writers, coming secularization probably wasn’t totally obvious. What are 21st Century writers underestimating?

The other reality of reading is that an infinite number of books can be read at a given moment. Even dedicated readers rarely read more than 100 books a year.

* Fundamentalists are not traditionalists.

* We cannot really understand the horror of the Eastern front in World War II.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken — Daniel Mendelsohn

After reading enough fiction—although how much constitutes “enough” probably varies by person—it seems natural to search for deeper meanings and connections in what you’ve read. Although I can’t pinpoint where I crossed that threshold, somewhere I did—hence Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, most of James Wood’s books, including How Fiction Works, Milan Kundera’s criticism, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Add to that stack Daniel Mendelsohn’s How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Most pieces hail from “The New York Review of Books,” and they reflect the trade-offs inherent in that magazine’s style, including lengthy introductions so elliptical relative to the main point that one can sometimes start at the first paragraph break, which is often a couple pages in, and miss something, but perhaps not much. It’s a bit like a politician whose great ideas don’t get quite entirely heard because an overly long disquisition looses his audience. Willie Stark suffered from that malady, and Barack Obama was criticized for the same tendency. Readers of criticism should and probably do have considerably longer attention spans than a voter’s, but even that can be stretched only so far. It’s not that a particular essay of Mendelsohn’s suffers from excessively from it, but rather that the overall effect is one of such relentless prep that one becomes weary by the time dinner is actually to be served. This sense of weariness is what led me to allow my subscription to lapse. But keep going through those introductions: the digging brings intellectual gold, and that goal is worth the pursuit.

This is especially true because How Beautiful It Is is tied together better than the average “New York Review of Books,” and its consistent interest in classics and their continuing interpretation and impact give it a sense of building, of constructedness, that helps alleviate the occasional sense of tediousness. As Mendelsohn says of some of the first “9/11 movies,” “The problem with all this realness is that [United 93] itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning.” So too with criticism, and his larger structure rotates around Greek and Latin classics. When Mendelsohn is on, he’s fantastic, and his impressive knowledge of classics lets him bring seemingly disparate works together, like a metaphysical poet yoking two images that at first appear opposites. They obviously play into some of the sword and sandal epics he mentions, and less obviously into say, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I wish he’d written more about novels and less about theater, novels being my great interest, but what he does include is richer than many longer works of criticism and helps direct my own reading; Mendelsohn’s argument against The Lovely Bones, one briefly hot book, inspires me to avoid it with more diligence than I do Mitch Albom, another sentimental, schlocky, and vastly overrated bestseller who appeals to the Hallmark card reader in all of us. The Hours, however, is now on the list; one danger of reading How Beautiful It Is and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is the perpetual extension of one’s reading list, practically giving you the tools to better perceive recent and ancient culture. And, perhaps more importantly, yourself.

Mendelsohn never abandons the critic’s ultimate purpose of judicious judgment, and one impressive thing is the way he manages to be unsparing but not mean, rooted in culture but not pedantic, and conveys his sense of joy, history, and sagacity. The three together are not easy. Some of his pieces seem like overkill, and so many words on the movies Troy, Alexander, 300, and Kill Bill seem wasted, as they’re not worth the skill Mendelsohn lavishes on them. A great critic can only reach his highest level when pitted against great works, and none of those reveal much about much of anything because they lack the depth necessary for the highest level of engagement. Still, Mendelsohn improves imperfect material, demonstrating the possibility better material gives us when he discusses writers, especially Virginia Woolf. The primary thing holding him back is the aforementioned habit of endless introduction and circling needlessly around the main point before he hits it: with James Wood’s criticism, you get the idea that every idea is essential to the argument. With Mendelsohn, you get the idea virtually every one is, but not quite every one: “Nailed!”, about the “Hatchet Jobs” of the writer Dale Peck, doesn’t nail the reader till three pages in. The habit isn’t fatal, and Mendelsohn is still worth reading, but he gets just a tad stuffy as he goes. Still, this is the worse thing I can repeat about Mendelsohn, and his essays convey so much insight that they’re worth reading even if you occasionally skim, because the wonderfully strong justify the others.

Links for April 28

  • The Times Online has an essay about modern classics editions:
  • Today we have heaps of choice and plenty of publishers telling us what we should be reading. As the Oxford World’s Classics series is relaunched this month, its rivals include Penguin and Vintage, as well as enterprises from smaller presses such as Everyman, Wordsworth and Oneworld.

    The present “classics” industry dates back at least to 1906, when Joseph Dent hit on the idea of publishing 1,000 titles by the “best authors” at the (relatively) cheap price of one shilling. This was the Everyman Library. At the beginning of the 20th century there were many new “common readers” as a result of the Elementary Education Act passed in the 1870, and they wanted to own their books. Add to that the establishment of English Literature as a subject in the universities and you had the magic equation – readers wanting books, professors wanting to pontificate on what to read, and booksellers wanting to sell.

If that’s not enough classics for you, they have one more but less interesting piece.

I admit that I’m a fan of the classics genre, as I said in a post about the dubious winners of those tedious year-end prizes. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been reading To The Lighthouse (more on that shortly, as well as a post on James Wood’s How Fiction Works); Woolf’s novel is one of those that makes me sit up and go “Ah! This is the real thing.”

  • Not long ago the New York Times ran a great essay called It’s Not You, It’s Your Books, and that topic arose independently of the article at a party last night. This week, Rachel Donadio strikes again with You’re an Author? Me Too!:

    It’s well established that Americans are reading fewer books than they used to. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn’t read a book in the previous year — a state of affairs that has prompted much soul-searching by anyone with an affection for (or business interest in) turning pages. But even as more people choose the phantasmagoria of the screen over the contemplative pleasures of the page, there’s a parallel phenomenon sweeping the country: collective graphomania.

    In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work. The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”

  • Riots, Terrorism etc (no complaints about the punctuation—it’s from the London Review of Books) isn’t except for the lede: “‘Important’ is a cant word in book reviewing: it usually means something like ‘slightly above average’, or ‘I was at university with her,’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read it so I’m giving a quote instead.’ Very occasionally it might be stretched to mean ‘a book likely to be referred to in the future by other people who write about the same subject’.” Alas, the rest of it appears to be on the subject of how the British newspaper industry is doing as poorly as the American one. See here for more on the subject.
  • For pure amusement, check out What is the polite word for “pimp”? in Language Log. The title makes sense in the context of the article, and I won’t give away the joke here.
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