Tax day links: Gender stereotypes, sexual mores, universities, and more

* Why men don’t listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences shows.

* “Generation Scold: Why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity.” Of course, what people say and what they do are still separate, as we know from descriptions of the Puritan practice called “bundling.”

* Why are novels the length they are? And, implicitly, how will technology change that length over time?

* Where professors get their politics.

* Why humanity loves and needs cities.

* A Defense of Abortion is a fascinating thought experiment in moral philosophy.

* On healthcare nationally and in Massachusetts:

When Massachusetts rolled out its coverage program in 2007, many more people signed up for the new heavily subsidized insurance than was originally predicted by budget officials. Almost immediately, costs far exceeded what had been budgeted, forcing state officials to scramble to find cuts elsewhere in government and other sources of revenue.

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

* Along the same lines as above: For every doctor, there are five people performing health care administrative support. This may be part of our national problem, like the growth of administrators relative to professors in academia. (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)

* Universities set their prices based on what people will pay. Consequently, they raise their sticker price and then offer discounts to woo top students.

* D.G. Myers’ suggestions for the Library of America, (apropos of the kerfuffle discussed here):

Novelists with large untapped bodies of work, and who are likely candidates, are fewer and farther between, although I would make a case for Stanley Elkin and (less passionately) for Wright Morris. But a two-volume set of New York Jewish novels, including The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), Call It Sleep, and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), would be a terrific addition.

The Library of America and literary canons

Newsweek asks: has the Library of America jumped the shark? If so, you won’t find a good argument for it in this article: there’s a lot of innuendo and little of substance about who deserves to be in the “canon” and why. But the last paragraph gets a (very) little bit deeper:

Kidding aside, one sympathizes with the directors of a publishing venture increasingly dependent on the idea that great American writers just can’t die fast enough. In such a situation, conventional publishing goes head to head with curating, and financial concerns go to war with esthetics, which, depending on how conservative one cares to be, can argue for little or no growth at all. And of course all this plays out against a literary landscape where the idea of a literary canon has been pretty much shot to hell anyway, so maybe no one should care who gets into what anymore. Or maybe they should just turn the whole thing into a—you knew this was coming—lottery.

Shelfari (mostly) agrees with my comments and says:

For me, when the LOA started adding people like Lovecraft, Dick, and Powell (or personal favorite Nathanael West) was when it started getting lively and interesting. I’m glad they do beautiful editions of titans like Lincoln, Whitman, and James, but I’m far more glad that they haven’t just been passive about transmitting the canon, as it was spoken to them from above.

Agreed. I can’t think of anyone I’d love to see included, except perhaps Robertson Davies, who is Canadian (but Canada is part of North America, right?), and Elmore Leonard, who is still alive. Regardless, I’ve been impressed with a lot of the recent picks, like Philip K. Dick, who deserves his spot; tomorrow I’m going to hear a scholarly lecture on his work at the Arizona Quarterly Symposium, and I’ve heard talks on him elsewhere in academic venues. Maybe Jack Vance will be next, although he’s not been as cinematically popular as Dick.

Oh, and one other small note about the LoA: I tend to write in my copies.

The pleasures of Bellow and the unexpected moment in Herzog

One of the pleasures of reading and rereading Bellow comes from the unexpected moments that ceaseless arise. I’ve read most of Bellow’s novels two or three times, but this bit regarding Herzog’s mind stands out: “It was too full of his grant projects to think anything clearly.” The contradiction of a full mind, which we usually consider orderly, brilliant, professorial, and the failure to think “clearly,” which is normally a problem of the undereducated or the thoughtless, seems perfectly right for someone who is being put back together by falling apart (or vice-versa; with Bellow, you never know). Here’s the larger context for that passage:

But it would never happen to her daughter, not if she could help it. And Madeleine was just as determined that it should not. And this was where Moses came in, on the bench of Verdi Square. His face was shaven, his shirt was clean, his nails clean, his legs, somewhat heavy in the thighs, were crossed, and he listened to Tennie very thoughtfully—for a man whose mind had stopped working. It was too full of his grant projects to think anything clearly.

So who is Moses, the man whose mind isn’t working clearly but who is also presented as a good and thoughtful bourgeois provider, at least here, with his cleanliness and full/empty mind? That I don’t have a good answer, two or three or however many times through, reminds me of Bellow’s subtlety, his habit of slipping in that idea that’s endlessly forgotten and rediscovered, and which makes him unexpected even when I superficially know what’s going to happen.

Moses Herzog and Bellow also know what’s going to happen, of course, which is why images of death are so pervasive in Herzog and many of Bellow’s other novels. The question is how we deal with that fact and how it animates our social and intellectual lives. The (partial) answer to that question is the complete works of Saul Bellow; I say “partial” because I suspect the larger point is that there is no answer, only more questions. No wonder so many people exist in such a neurotic world.

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance

Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance contributes to the problem it describes: how we’re to comprehend millions upon millions of books, many of which strive for attention in a world limited by time more than anything else. Despite this, and books’ relatively low profile in the mass media, they retain individual power and power over individuals—as Zaid says, “[…] the conversation continues, unheeded by television, which will never report: ‘Yesterday, a student read Socrates’ Apology and felt free’ ” (11). On the same page, he calls a personal library one’s “intellectual genome,” a brilliant phrase that I’m sure I’ll be using. Delightful turns of phrase and ideas continue throughout what could easily devolve into a polemic but doesn’t.

So Many Books is surprising for being so witty, meditative, and fast; I half-expected a ponderous beast and instead found a lithe and economical essay. It tells us we can own books we haven’t read; that the library as trophy room is a somewhat silly metaphor (16), and that “Socrates criticized the fetishization of the book” (18) before I did. Zaid presents figures that demonstrate what the Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, says: “If proliferation is a sign of incipient death then the demise of the novel must be imminent.” As reading by the great studied mass declines or holds steady, writing proliferates, perhaps contributing to what I have long suspected: “To say ‘I only know that I’ve read nothing,’ after reading thousands of books, is not false modesty” (23). Indeed: after at least a 1,000, I’ve only begun to perceive the vastness of what’s out there, like the early astronomers who began to realize how cosmic the cosmos really are. We’re not left bereft of hope in this situation; statistics are inadequate representations of a journey, “and maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us” (24). So many wonderful quotes in six short pages implies a great deal of thought per page.

Later chapters, like the cost of reading and the supply and demand of poetry, are closer to obvious. Still, Zaid’s observations about the time and storage cost of books are accurate, and he says: “Today it is easier to acquire treasures than it is to give them the time they deserve” (36) or “Just finding and keeping interesting books is very expensive, for readers and librarians” (87). The latter is particularly relevant as I ponder the five boxes of books sitting a few from me, representing just under half my owned intellectual genome, the entirety of which will shortly be transported with much labor and expense to Arizona. Zaid goes on spinning thread after thread of interrelated book thought, tying together ideas that seem disparate. He precedes John Lanchester, whose comments regarding the Library of America are encapsulated by Zaid’s description of complete works and critical editions as “monuments are designed for ceremonies, not conversations” (45). They can be a sign of an author’s worthiness and of the publishing diversity Zaid celebrates despite or because of his ruminations on how books affect us and our world.

Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King is not my favorite Bellow novel: Henderson’s sojourn in Africa is unconvincing and borders on Orientalism, the novel’s symbolism is heavy, and some disjointed sections feel superfluous, as when Henderson writes letters to his wife, Lily, in Chapter 19, or when he discusses the lion hunts with King Dahfu. Still, even Bellow batting below average scores more hits than most writers at their best, and in rereading Henderson I remember why I like Bellow so much—he’s so alive, and his characters ceaselessly try to expand their own lives and learn to encompass this big thing we call life. Granted, they’re always unsuccessful at the latter, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s an impossible quest just to understand life—especially humanity in all its varieties—let alone encompassing it, is probably impossible.

This might feed into what Bellow, like some other great novelists, so disliked about academic research and writing, as academics by definition try to define and elucidate, while so much of Bellow’s writing shows why some major factors of life simply can’t be elucidated. Therefore, academics and critics like me are ourselves going on a futile quest in our attempts to comprehend Bellow, who wrote novels like Henderson that show why the explaining isn’t possible; as Sam Tanenhaus wrote regarding the Library of America edition of Bellow, “It may be heretical, or just foolish, for a book review editor to admit it, but there are times when criticism is beside the point.” Indeed, and it makes me wary in writing this. No wonder Bellow liked Blake’s poetry, as I see some of the same defiance of full explanation in Blake, especially his later work. Henderson is a particularly strong example of this tendency, with the protagonist’s constant drive toward something he can’t seem to articulate beyond “I want, I want,” forming a base for the unnameable: what does Henderson want? Life? Experience? Knowledge? Something else?

Much of Henderson is, I think, intended as comic, given its outlandish events. Still, those events, like the lion hunt or the moving of the statue, are too symbolically endowed for my taste. They seem more like a statement of Henderson’s character than necessary events to the novel. Such scenes also parallel to too great a degree Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. That book came out in 1949 and Henderson in 1959, and during the period between them Bellow might have read or at least heard about Hero. Many of its elements show in farcical ways: the call to adventure is through narcissistic desire that leads to departure from the United States for Africa; failure in the blown-up water cistern; initiation in the form of moving a statute; and eventual success, after a fashion. Henderson is more concerned with himself than anyone or thing else, however, and rather than reconciling himself with his society he thinks that, “this is the payoff of a lifetime of action without thought” when he’s forced to imitate a jungle beast. As he says elsewhere, noting the ridiculousness of his own situation, “If I had to shoot at that cat, if I had to blow up frogs, if I had to pick up Mummah without realizing what I was getting myself into, it was not out of line to crouch on all fours and roar and act the lion.”

Yet in Henderson those comic aspects are also a critique of the quest narrative, as Henderson can’t find wholeness or completion. He searches for an abstraction layer not available through travel, even when elements of home—the United States—follow him: “It was just my luck to think I had found the conditions of life simplified so I could deal with them—finally!—and then to end up in a ramshackle palace reading these advanced medical texts.” The issues keep coming: “And though I’m no expert I guess he’s [King Dahfu] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a short in the arm from animal nature.” If that weren’t enough, he continues: “Anyway, I begin to ask (or perhaps it was more a plea than a question), why is it always near me—why! Why can’t I get away from it awhile? Why, why!” Why indeed: it’s a question religion doesn’t answer, or at least not satisfactorily anymore, and that philosophy seems to have failed at answering despite its numerous and increasingly verbose attempts, and that novels pose and don’t seem to answer. In the mythology Campbell discusses, you come back from your quest whole and ready to take your place in the adult community or you die and uphold the standards of that community or you transcend life; in Henderson and later, ironic texts, your quest is forever incomplete, because like Henderson, you can’t answer that pivotal question that becomes an exclamation: “Why, why!”

Why, why! indeed, and Bellow keeps setting up the questions through exploration without giving answers. The closest he comes, I think, is in Ravelstein, where Chick marvels at the “creature” that is Ravelstein while also being resigned to accept his fate. Whether this is an improvement on the manic energy of earlier Bellow novels or a depressing acceptance of the end is a matter of perspective on which I have no opinion. But, like the master, I will try to frame the issue, even if the issue has a habit of being larger than that frame. And so the critic struggles with Bellow like Itelo wrestling with Henderson, and even champion critics don’t seem able to win. But this preoccupation with trying to explain Bellow stays with me, and this is not, I suspect, my last word on the subject, even if my attempts are as futile as Henderson’s.

These are the best?

I’ve looked at the New York Times100 Notable Books of 2007 with special attention to the fiction and can’t help but wonder if this is the best we’ve got. I discussed The Abstinence Teacher here and here, but Perrotta was better live than in print. The Bad Girl never lived at all; Harry Potter might have improved with age but I’m not about to find out. House of Meetings was better as history and essay than novel and The Savage Detectives overrated. I read five pages of Tree of Smoke in a bookstore and suspect B.R. Myersslam is probably deserved. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was likable but not lovable.

Of the books listed, On Chesil Beach deserved its place, as did The Indian Clerk (more on that in the next few days). Of the ones I discussed in the paragraph above, a few were outright bad, but most were as The Indian Clerk says of the novels of Henry James: “[…] I admire them yet I cannot love them” (italics in original). So I feel about most picks from The New York Times, which, even if I admire them, I can’t really see how they would inspire love.

That brings us to the New York Times10 best books, with two fiction books of limited interest to me, two already discussed, and one that I actually plan to read: Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End. The nonfiction was better, with Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine and Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, a book en route after I read a chapter online.

These year end lists—there are too many to bother linking to most—remind me how important the Everyman’s Library and Library of America are, as both feature excellent quality in thought and production; I suspect that I, like many others, will return to the books in their catalogs long after most copies of Harry Potter have been pulped and resurrected as grocery bags.


EDIT: Added a link to The Indian Clerk.

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