Tag Archives: Books

Suddenly Some Links Drifted By

Here are some of the links I’ve made note of during the weeks this blog has lain fallow:

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ‘p’ or a ‘g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.


  1. Via ↩

  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

  3. Via ↩

  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩

Brains in Vats

Sometimes a book seems to have dropped into your lap from an alternate universe. In the spectacular cases, the authors’ worldviews are located on the other side of the moon from consensus reality. Some write nonfiction from wildly eccentric bibliographies, or just don’t do much research at all. Some write fiction based in astonishingly off-base assumptions about human psychology or the workings of the world. My favorite alternate-universe moments are the subtle ones that seem to hail from ever-so-slightly divergent branches of the multiverse. Unexpectedly, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly sensible book, your attention trips over some little side reference to a subject the author didn’t understand well enough to realize it needed fact-checking… or the author’s single weird hobby-horse delusion… or just an image suggesting unintended implications. (This last one is the raison d’etre of Thog’s Masterclass, from David Langford’s newsletter Ansible.) Your concentration takes a pratfall. For a moment, all you can do is stare at the textual banana peel and think “Wait, what?

I’ve been reading Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. It looks like one of those how-to-write books, but it’s really something more interesting. The blurb promises the book will teach you how to write in a particular way, what the authors call “classic style.” Actually, it’s is an extended essay on style in general. The book uses “classic style” as an illustration, but makes it clear that classic style isn’t the style and isn’t useful in every situation. (Practically none of the authors’ examples of classic style are taken from fiction. Classic style, they’re telling us, is good for essays, histories, or field guides. For novels, not so much.)

Thomas and Turner argume that style isn’t a set of usage rules—it’s not about where you put your commas. Style is determined by assumptions about the purpose of your writing and who you’re writing to, assumptions which, consciously or not, you’ve made before you even sit down to the keyboard. Interestingly, they appear to argue—just implicitly, but it’s there—that some of these assumptions can be untrue and still result in a useful style. (One of the working assumptions behind “classic style” is that the author has a pure and undistorted grasp on the Truth, something Thomas and Turner aren’t even pretending is ever actually the case.)

So, yeah, pretty good book… but what I wanted to mention was the alternate-universe moment. Around page 65, Thomas and Turner are talking about “image schemas,” how sentences are often structured around metaphors, often involving movement. And they drop in, ever so casually and with no apparent sarcasm, this sentence (emphasis mine): “For centuries, visual representations of scholars have included a case of books in the background, and this form abides tenaciously even now, when scholarly work is as likely to involve brains in vats or electronic texts.”

I’m not certain where in the multiverse Thomas and Turner work, or how their book found its way to me. I know one thing: in whichever universe they reside, the English departments are very interesting.

Cover of Donovan's Brain

My Best of 2010, Part One

As I too often note on this blog, I haven’t written much lately. I could claim I haven’t been writing because haven’t had much to say, but the truth is that I haven’t had much to say because I haven’t been writing. Sometimes I don’t consciously realize what it is I have to say until I try putting it into words.

The sticking point is that to write something I have to put in some serious thought–serious for me, anyway–and I cut down on sustained pondering over the last couple of months. I’ve spent the year anxious about a number of things, the biggest of which are the economy and the direction in which the country is headed. It feels like everything we’ve built in the last century is being torn down and hollowed out. Lately, if I’m not careful, contemplation can metamorphose into perpetual low-grade panic.

So I haven’t engaged enough with the books I’ve read. I’ve let the texts wash over me, let the authors’ thoughts drown out my worries, escaped from a world where, for the moment, I don’t want to spend very much time. I managed this without focusing on any particular kind of book. Some people disdain “escapist” literature, but, truth be told, you can escape into Dostoevsky as easily as Doctor Who.

This is, of course, not good for me. So I’m going to try to post more often. I’m starting slowly with a review of 2010–just a paragraph or three on the books that made the biggest impression on me, for good or ill. I’ll split it into multiple posts, because in a few cases I’m coming up with encouragingly long paragraphs. I may eventually try to come up with longer essays on a few. (If nothing else I’m a little chagrined that, of the books I did manage to write about, the only ones by female authors were the among the books I didn’t like.)

The books will be listed in alphabetical order by author, because I hate trying to rank things. (Anyway, it’s not fair pitting contemporary writers against the aforementioned Dostoevsky.)

The Best (Part One)

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River

This is, sadly, Kage Baker’s last novel. It’s one of her better ones, another book in the fantasy series that began with The Anvil of the World, set in a secondary world which draws as much from America as most Extruded Fantasy Product does from Europe. Like Anvil, it’s very much a working class fantasy: it focuses on the kind of people who stay in the background of most secondary world fantasy, and it spends a lot of pages just watching them do their jobs while the plot casually emerges from the background. The Bird of the River is about a riverboat and some of its day-to-day operations would have looked familiar to Mark Twain. I came away thinking I should really read Life on the Mississippi again. Maybe in 2011…

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

This is one of the books I reviewed. In the absence of new insights, I’ll simply direct you to that post.

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

I avoided The Last Unicorn for years because of the word “unicorn,” which for me conjures up black velvet paintings sold out of a trailer. Peter S. Beagle is a genius, though, so inevitably I was going to get around to reading this, and when I finally did it blew away any thought of kitsch.

The Last Unicorn is set in a world balanced halfway between fairy tale and history, tipping towards mundanity. It’s a world aware of itself passing into legend, a place where wannabe Robin Hoods hope a folklorist will come along and transcribe ballads about them. This may sound very twee and self-referential, but it’s not. It never feels like the characters are playing parts, or that the things that happen to them don’t matter.

Beagle remembers that, in legend, wonders cost something. As one character says, “Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.” The novel is tinged as much with loss and disappointment as hope. It’s not about heroes, but failures: people who’ve reached the middle of their lives and found they haven’t wound up in anything resembling a fairy-tale ending, or even a fairy-tale mid-plot. There’s a unicorn in The Last Unicorn, but the book is mostly about the human characters coming to terms with lives that aren’t the stories they’d wished for.

Links to Things

I’m still not writing much because my mind is still acting like this a lot. Here are some people who are more interesting than I’ve been during the past month:

I spend much more time staring at the drawing than drawing, to spot possibilities hiding in the unfinished image.

To create is to love, but apparently not always. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins do not love Hattie Durham. They despise their creation. Their contempt for her and disgust with her is tangible in every scene she appears in.

I think the authors expect their readers to share in this contempt, but that’s not how this works. When an artist creates a character that the artist does not love, readers or audience members don’t come to dislike that character, they come to dislike the artist. It is the writer — or actor, or painter — who reveals himself as unlovely. The character just becomes an expression of that unloveliness.

When one encounters a character like Hattie, a creation unloved by her creators, one has to wonder why she came to be at all. Creation takes work, so why put in all that effort for something you do not love?

Protagonismos, the quality of being the kind of person to whom things happen.

  • Kip Manley, at Long Story, Short Pier, with one of those “oh, yeah, that’s what that genre is for” moments you get sometimes from good criticism–in this case, in a post about what’s driving Urban Fantasy. (Or what we called Urban Fantasy, before the term was grafted onto the Angsty Vampire subgenre.)

No, the point is the moment just before, the moment when the thing there on the side of the building shivered, or could have shivered, maybe, if the light had been right; when a wonder-generating mechanism of fantasy reattached itself however briefly to something any one of us could see out in the world: cables; snakes; pythia: not a portal opening onto some secondary world beyond the fields we know, but something indisputably here and now: contemporary; indigenous; syncretic.

The only reason it’s urban is because so very many of us who make it and read it these days live in cities. (Or suburbs, yes. Or exurbs. Urban. Look at the words.)

  • Lance Mannion has written a three-part essay on a point of similarity between P. J. O’Rourke, as he presents himself in a recent essay, and Ebenezer Scrooge. Part one, part two, and part three.

Quiz the O’Rourkes of the world and they’ll tell you, usually in no uncertain terms, that they have a Scrooge-like opinion of their fellow men and women.

Everybody—everybody else, that is—is a fool, an incompetent, or a would-be thief, which turns out to be a very useful thing to believe because it provides an instant defense against arguments that they are somehow responsible for and obligated to other people. Nobody deserves your help if everybody is by definition and natural design undeserving.

At the heart of O’Rourke’s grumpy old man post about elections not changing anything until we stop electing professional politicians to office is the Scrooge-like belief that it’s not just professional politicians who are fools, incompetents, and thieves. Everyone who collects a government paycheck—especially teachers—and all the other kids in his kids’ school and their parents are also fools, incompetents, and a form of thief, which pretty much amounts to an argument that the public school system is dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving but also, by extension, that all public services are dedicated to employing and serving the undeserving.

A Couple of Links

I’ve been doing very little writing lately (and obviously I won’t manage ten posts this month) but I wanted to check in with a couple of interesting links:

I read these essays within a day of each other and realized that both were doing the same thing: looking at the worldviews and assumptions of the first books in two familiar SF/fantasy series, and then examining how those assumptions changed as the authors wrote later books in the series.

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

The Uninvited Face

Cover Art

Casting around for ideas to get myself blogging again, I thought I might bow to October’s zeitgeist and devote the month to the horror genre–or at least to the part of the genre I like: the part that’s uncanny, not gruesome, and sometimes a little old-timey. I plan to cover ten underappreciated stories or movies. (Or more, if I can swing it. I briefly thought of going for 31, but in my current state of distraction that’s just a little overambitious.) Most will probably not be as long as this essay.

I’ll start with “The Uninvited Face,” a short story by Michael Asquith, because, damn, this one really is obscure. I had no idea how obscure until I tried researching it: as far as I can tell (from, admittedly, just Google and Google Books) Michael Asquith never wrote anything but “The Uninvited Face,” and “The Uninvited Face” never appeared anywhere after it first saw print in The Third Ghost Book edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1955). And what with the double Asquith, I’m guessing that was nepotism.

Despite that, it’s very good. (And not the only obscure but stunning one-off story in this volume. Marghanita Laski had a long writing career, but “The Tower”–briefly reviewed in The Third Ghost Book’s entry in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books–is apparently her only ghost story.)

To save time, I’ll use a set format for these reviews–first the premise, then where to find the story, then some analysis.

The Premise

Dr. Graham, an elderly physician, recounts the story of Julian Ferris, a government scientist plagued by the knowledge that, in the Cold War 1950s, his work will be turned to no good end… and by the apparition of a friendly, but not quite human, face, which seems to be offering something Julian begins to think he should accept.

Where to Find It

As stated above, you’ll pretty much have to find a copy of Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

This might be the only story ever published by Michael Asquith, but this can’t be the only thing he ever wrote; the writing is too assured. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Asquith sometimes summarizes things that might have been played out in dialogue–Julian’s first description of the Face, for instance. Asquith’s style reads smoothly and he knows when and how to change it: he shifts to a fast-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness present tense for the chaotic climax.

One of the few slips in tone comes when Dr. Graham tells us Julian’s father, a painter, was “a portrayer, that is, if I may speak bluntly, of the diseased, the blasphemous and the obscene.” That’s right: Mr. Ferris was (gasp) a surrealist. I bet he also listened to jazz music and hung out with beatniks! It’s not clear just how reliable a narrator Dr. Graham was intended to be. On an Occam’s-razor basis, I’d assume “perfectly.” But Dr. Graham’s inadvertently hilarious get-off-my-lawn moments affect how much I want to trust him, which affects how I read the story. More on this later. Continue reading The Uninvited Face

Links to Things

I thought it might be time to do another links post. So:

  • Lance Mannion argues that one thing all great novels have in common—even such mournful volumes as Madame Bovary and Lord Jim—is a sense of humor:

    If a part of you doesn’t laugh when Emma Bovary takes her poison, or Jim stands there and lets himself get shot, or Anna kneels down to wait for the train, or Ahab goes down with the damn-ed whale then you haven’t been paying attention.

    I don’t mean this the way Oscar Wilde meant it when he said that a reader must have a heart of stone not to read of the death of Little Nell and laugh.

    I mean that Flaubert and Conrad and Tolstoy and Melville all intend us to see that there is something ridiculous as well as something beautiful in human beings taking themselves and their troubles so seriously.

  • Shaenon Garrity, with several things people who know Popeye through the cartoons tend not to know about Popeye:

    1. Popeye is old. I don’t mean the strip is old. Everybody knows the strip is old. I mean Popeye himself is supposed to be a senior citizen. He’s a grizzled old sailor, with emphasis on the old, with extra old added on. Although his official bio now describes him as 34, according to the Segar-era strips he’s in his sixties, and his father (more on him later) is pushing 100. That’s why Popeye is bald and missing an eye. Because of the oldness.

  • Chris White, at McSweeney’s, solicits a little empathy for history’s failures:

    It’s easy to care about a Lincoln or a Washington—they give us so many mattress sales. But greatness is a relative condition. There is no Lincoln without Pierce, and when you ignore those who failed, you miss out on the humanity of the past. You miss out on the reassuringly universal stories that will play out again in our future.

  • Colin Marshall at The War on Mediocrity has written “The Plight of the Social Maladroit,” a five-part series about how much of life—including the stuff that we seem to be doing by ourselves—is about connection and collaboration. Part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five:

    As examples of the unsociable novelists the likes of which we stand to lose, Miller cites David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Naipaul and Thomas Pynchon. Fair enough. But could any set of names scream “outlier” louder?

    And even they, in presumably that least collaborative of all art forms, collaborated. They collaborated with their publishers, their editors, their research sources, their friends and associates who read drafts. Most importantly, they collaborated with their audiences. That sounds like nonsense, and maybe it is, but if it’s not nonsense, I’ll bet it’s beyond relevant. What’s a work, after all, without an audience? I hate to go all zen on you again, but if an audience isn’t an important partner in a work, how different is that work from one hand clapping, a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it, etc.?

In which I attempt to read what everybody else is reading, and wind up depressed and horrified.

I don’t watch much TV. I don’t listen to top 40 radio. I’m not enticed by most of what ends up on the New York Times bestseller list. Almost invariably, my first hints that a new pop culture phenomenon is in town are articles, blog posts, or casual conversations full of mysterious references to things I’m clearly supposed to know all about. (“‘Lady Gaga?’ Are people just stringing random words together, now?”) I don’t want to drift off into an entirely different universe from the rest of America, so I sometimes try to watch or read the Hot New Thing that Everyone’s Talking About. This, plus the fact that the waiting list at the library was something like 50 hold requests long, is how I ended up buying a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I did not enjoy The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If it wasn’t a runaway bestseller—if I hadn’t been curious about why it was a runaway bestseller—I would have quit reading after fifty pages. (When I was a kid I felt honor-bound to finish everything I read. Growing up, and understanding in my gut that my life and reading time were finite, cured that.) Continue reading In which I attempt to read what everybody else is reading, and wind up depressed and horrified.