Still, the fact remains, more and more people are making reading goals that most of them will not meet. Why set yourself an unattainable goal? Why quantify your leisure reading at all?
Perhaps the most intuitive reason is the most common: Adding some structure to your reading life can be a way of making sure that you actually read.
This is the curious thing about reading goals—they are essentially homework that people make for themselves. Like homework, reading challenges can feel like pointless busywork for those who aren’t feeling intrinsically motivated to read. Or they can bring a sense of learning and accomplishment.
Julie Beck: “The Adults Who Treat Reading Like Homework” available online at The Atlantic
I keep seeing Reading Challenges. Sometimes these are just numerical: read a book a week over the summer, read twenty books this year. I would imagine this goes over well with competitive people. Me, I announce at the beginning of games I don’t really want to play, “I lose, you win, that means you’re better than me” and go do something more interesting, so these reading challenges aren’t really of any interest to me.
I can better see the point of guided reading challenges, such as that from my own public library: read a book by an Eastern European author / about or featuring music / about siblings, with suggestions from the library’s stacks and contributed by other readers. In fact, I just now found a book I might want to read sometime by looking through the list of “read a book where a house is important.” And that’s why I don’t rely on reading challenges: I will probably read many of those categories at some point, by curating my own list.
As for making sure I read, I’ve never needed any help with that. I’m convinced there’s some crossover in some people’s brains that makes reading innately pleasurable, which is why we’ll read cereal boxes if nothing else is available.
What I do need help with is not getting distracted by bright, shiny things in my feeds. Oh, a new book someone’s raving about: click. Another one – I have to read that. This is where I went wrong in last year’s In-Between Reading.
This year’s Read went so much better than last year’s, both in terms of quantity and enjoyment. I think that boiled down to how I chose which books to read.
Anyone who’s read these posts for the last couple of years (a very small group) will know I get a lot of my suggestions these days from the Five Books weekly “What are you reading this weekend?” thread. There are many other such threads, but they tend to be huge, with hundreds of replies. Five Books is far more manageable, usually under 100, and vary in genre, topic, and style. Then there’s the site itself, which features interviews with experts who recommend five books on a given topic or style. It’s a gold mine.
I also pay attention to various literary sites when they tweet about a book, prize lists, what shows up on my Goodreads home page (I need to restructure that, it’s cluttered with a lot of crap right now), and random comments from other readers. And once in a while, a book will mention another book.
But just hearing about a book is the first step. I’ll check it out: both the official description, maybe a review or two, whatever I can google. If it sounds like something I might enjoy – an interesting style, a topic I want to know more about – I’ll add it to a “maybe” list. I used to use the Amazon Shopping List for this purpose, but recently switched to Goodreads Want-to-Read, since I can note where I heard about the book and why I want to read it.
Some books, I jump at. These form a sort of skeleton for my annual Read. This evolves each year: one year I deliberately chose non-fiction about jobs and fiction about boarding school. More recently, I find myself picking a few philosophy/religion books, some medical/science stuff, and a variety of fiction. And yes, I read diversely. It’s not hard: I pay attention and put lesser-publicized books by non-white-American-male authors on my maybe list, and end up with a bunch to choose from, all books that interested me in the first place, when it’s time.
My “Plan” post at the beginning of the year’s In Between Reading isn’t an ironclad contract; it’s more aspirational, including a wide variety of things I want to read. This year, I planned twenty-seven books; I read thirty-five (approximately; some of those posts included more than one book). But I didn’t read all twenty-seven that I’d planned. I found I wasn’t in the mood for Dante; I read one Mlodinov book and didn’t want to read a second book by him in the same year; and I decided Fuzzy vs Techie, or Dream a World Anew was not something I wanted to read after all; it didn’t feel like it would teach me much.
This year’s favorites:
Helen DeWitt, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories. I keep saying I don’t particularly want to read Lightning Rods, but I just may. And there’s a new one, The English Understand Wool.
Steve Stern: The Frozen Rabbi: a novel that traces the nineteenth century Jewish diaspora out of Poland while recapping Stern’s belated discovery of his own Jewish roots via a teenager who discovers a rabbi in the freezer.
Jerald Walker: How to Make a Slave: a collection of short essays on middle class and academic Black life in the 21st century US.
Edward St. Aubyn: Lost for Words: a hilarious romp skewering the Booker Prize.
G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday: a philosophical mystery that’s just plain fun.
Michael Lewis: The Undoing Project: the story of an academic partnership that birthed a new academic field and revealed just how irrational we are.
Zena Hitz: Lost in Thought: the book that kept on giving, leading me to Jack London’s book, and the Catherine Project, where I’m currently in a short story reading group.
My regrets: only two. A Passion for Books was not really what I’d expected, and I think there are better books on the development of the alphabet than Alpha Beta. These weren’t wastes of time, but weren’t satisfying.
At this point, I have seventy-one books on my GoodReads “want-to-read” list. The Amazon shopping list is still outrageously long; some books have been there for ten or twelve years. But who knows, I may get around to them some day. By next April I might have double that amount.
But now it’s time to open Best American Short Stories 2022, and then Pushcart 2023. Every year I debate whether I should skip them, take on some of those seventy-one books instead. But I get a lot out of reading short stories and essays; to skip them would be to abandon some part of my reading consciousness, leave it to wither. So ends IBR2022.
Trebekistan is a location unfixed in physical space and time. It’s a place of pure learning, where hard playful work can bring sudden shock of unexpected perception. In Trebekistan, art and math and geography and science stop pretending to be separate subjects, and instead converge in a glorious riot. Every new detail creates two fresh curiosities, so you know less as you learn, and yet nothing seems unknowable. Trebekistan, oddly, is a place of expanding dimension yet increasing connection, both growing and shrinking with every new step.
Of course, even the best places can be screwed up. Toured foolishly, I would learn, Trebekistan can become a place of self-absorption, where knowledge has no purpose but the accretion of other knowledge. One can sin with intellectual greed as self-destructively as one who hoards wealth, love, or pride itself.
I am, and have been most of my life, an unabashed Jeopardy! fan. It started in the late 60s when I was in junior high and the only time I could watch the show, then on in the afternoon, was during school vacations. Things got a little jumbled for a few decades, and it wasn’t until the 90s that I realized it was still there, in a more watchable early evening time slot. Since about 2000, I’ve watched it pretty regularly. For the past ten years or so, it’s been unmissable with a few exceptions; those usually involved hospital stays.
I’ve bought a couple of books like this before, but never really worried about using them to study for the show. I have no interest in appearing on TV to make a fool of myself. But I was looking for something quick and fun to read, and this fit the bill.
It’s something of a peculiar book: part autobiography, part history of the show, part excruciatingly detailed accounts of each individual game played, part study guide and prep techniques (complete with an Eightfold-Path to Enlightened Jeopardy! which, of course, has nine steps) with a sideline of cognitive science tidbits backing up the methodology, part travel guide, part love story, part not-love story. And part medical narrative for several different people, varying from the severe to the merely disgusting (I can handle discussions of pretty much any organ systems and their failures, but this was TMI about nasal secretions, particularly in the age of COVID. That isn’t the author’s fault; he was writing in 2006). There is a method to this madness, as one of the Eightfold Steps is: Everything Connects to Everything Else.
At first I found it annoying, all these Forrest Bounces (aha! If you know, you know) from topic to topic within the same page, paragraph, sometimes sentence. But in time, the narrative got me. Here you have this small-venue stand-up comedian from the Midwest who stumbles onto Jeopardy, alienates his girlfriend by turning his house into a Study Chamber, gets himself through five consecutive games, and heads for the Tournament of Champions, then to a couple more Tournaments. Along the way, he starts to value learning, rather than mnemonic devices:
More important, though: I wanted to know this stuff.
I couldn’t imagine not wanting to know everything about everything. Every day was a rush of excitement, new knowledge and worlds and perceptions unfolding. I was an eager captive, unable and unwilling to leave.
I was imprisoning myself in Trebekistan.
I know the feeling. It’s how I feel every time I start a mooc or open a book.
When I say detailed accounts of each game, that includes several of the mental conversations he had with himself while pondering his responses. Consider, for example, his reasoning as he tackled the Final Jeopardy question:
This historic city was named for the Bishop of Hippo on whose feast day the area was first sighted.
“This historic city”… OK, and the category is U.S. cities… Well, the oldest city in the U.S. is Saint Augustine; That’s in my notebooks somewhere… “was named for the Bishop of Hippo.” Hippo, singular. A place, not the animal. Good, I didn’t think hippos had bishops. Where the hell is Hippo? Still, any city named for a Catholic might start with “St.” or “Santa.” good enough. St. Augustine, fine…
Electronic pen on glass. Clackety-click-whap-clickety. But I am second-guessing my response before it is even finished. “On whose feast today the area was first sighted.” So it’s either on the coast or near a mountain pass. Shit. Santa Fe is really old, too. And it’s in the mountains. Crap. I wonder if somebody named Fe was from Hippo. Shit…
The lights come up. It’s over.
… But Who is Saint Augustine? is correct.
This kind of thing allows those of us who have done some superficial study of Church history, as well as any good Catholic, to feel smug and superior since we had it at Hippo and smirked at the animal reference. But other clues are there to humble us. Like: The Secretary of State who survived an assassination attempt on the night his boss was shot. Harris knew it was “the guy who bought Alaska.” I had no idea. I mean, I knew Seward bought Alaska, but I had no idea the assassination plot that killed Lincoln included Seward as well – and, by the way, injured several other people, including his family and bodyguards. Now isn’t that more fun than memorizing secretaries of state?
If that level of detail doesn’t discourage you, I have one more caution. The book uses foreshadowing like a blunt instrument. Several times, the film Amistad shows up, and doesn’t pay off until the first game of the Tournament of Champions. Hints about romantic partners likewise stretch delayed gratification to the utmost. But I have to hand it to him: he knows when and how to drop the beat.
There is, if you persist, a genuine soul to the story, and that might make it good reading for those who are less enchanted by reading about learning techniques like chunking and state-dependent retrieval, or Jeopardy!-specific training like buzzer technique, clue choice, and wager strategies. You have to want it – but it just might be worth it, even if you have no intention of ever following in his footsteps.
I have been fascinated by this man, the philosopher Giordano Bruno – ex-monk, poet, playwright, fugitive, heretic, proto-scientist, magician, spy – for years, since I first stumbled across him in a book on Renaissance philosophy…. I’ve always admired Bruno for his willingness to defy the limitations placed on the imagination and intellectual curiosity by organised religion – he achieved the impressive feat of being tried for heresy by both the Catholic Church and the Calvinists.
… Bruno always struck me as a man at odds with his time, a man whose unusually progressive ideas set him apart from those around him. Excommunicated, exiled, permanently looking over his shoulder, Bruno is the perfect outsider, the perfect flawed hero for a detective or spy novel. The challenge was to make my fictional Bruno modern enough to be sympathetic to readers, and Renaissance enough to be plausible.
Stephanie Merrit (aka S. J. Parris), “Diary: Giordano Bruno, my hero” available online at The New Humanist
My fascination with historical novels is a recent development. I’ve discovered only in the past couple of years that I like reading fictional accounts of historical people, books I call “read in front of the computer books’ – I read a chapter, then look everything up to see what is historical and what is fiction. It takes time to read a book that way, but I find it very satisfying. I find it far more enlightening than reading academic history books, which tend to go into more detail than I care about and require some familiarity with the period and the players to read in the first place. I’m guessing the engagement level involved in looking things up to verify them helps as well.
Last May, one of my writer/readers mentioned in a blog post that he’d read a series of novels featuring Giordano Bruno. That got my attention. He was something of a shadowy figure to me, first coming across my radar screen via some mooc or other, I’m not sure which, then appearing as a ridiculous cartoon character in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I wasn’t really able to get a bead on him, however. So when my blogger buddy recommended this series so highly – “high values of character and plot” – I thought I’d take a look.
Heresy, the first of the five-book series, covers a very brief period in Bruno’s life: a few weeks of his visit to Oxford University in 1583, where he participated in a disputation – a debate of sorts – with the Rector of Lincoln College. This is historically documented, as are his travelling companions, a Polish palatine and a rakish nobleman, Philip Sidney, whose connection to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham created an opportunity for Bruno: check out any illicit Catholic activities at the college, as these were considered potentially traitorous and dangerous to Her Majesty.
Parris’ inspiration to write this series came from an academic work of history exploring the possibility that Bruno was, in fact, a spy: John Bossy’s Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair.
This book tells a story, and because it tells a story I cannot, dear reader, reveal to you here and now what happens in it. If you wish to find out what the story is you will have to read the book from beginning to end; which you may easily do, for it is not very long…. It deals with high matters of state, of public and private salvation. I should be inclined to classify it as tragi-comedy, and it could be said to have a moral.
Although many of these features would have qualified it, a few years later, to be put on the stage at Blackfriars or Bankside, the story differs from that of Hamlet or Measure For Measure in being true.
John Bossy: “To the Reader” from Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair
Given the direct connection, I read that book as well – or rather, skimmed it, since, as expected, it went into far more detail providing supporting evidence than I was interested in, and seemed far less a story than Bossy seemed to think. But it was enlightening for the difference in perspective it provided.
Parris’ fictional summary of Bruno’s mission:
So it was that I became part of what I later learned was a vast and complex network of informers that stretched from the colonies of the New World in the west to the land of the Turks in the east, all of us coming home to Walsingham holding our little offerings of secret knowledge as the dove returned to Noah bearing her olive branch…. Tomorrow I would see the great university city of Oxford, where I must ferret out two nuggets of gold: the secrets Walsingham wanted from the Oxford Catholics, and the book I now believed to be buried in one of its libraries.
The novel presents the disputation as the disaster for Bruno that history records: possibly his overblown rhetorical style developed in France, possibly his accent, possibly his support of Copernican astronomy replacing Aristotelian and Church-approved views, led to ridicule and rejection. He plans to spend the night sulking in his tent, and then will regroup in the morrow.
And it’s here, in Chapter 8 of 22, that the murder mystery takes over. It’s not that history is irrelevant from here on; it’s merely less prominent. The historical characters have already been laid out; the characters involved in the murder are fictional, since the murders are fictional. And the potential romance between Bruno and the Rector’s daughter, kindled over her interest in an ancient book he’s particularly interested in, is (presumably) entirely fictional: the Rector, James Underhill, was a historical person, and did have a daughter, but her name is not recorded anywhere I can find, much less her romantic leanings.
The murders take their cue from the historical tension between the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and her Catholic half-sister Mary, at this point imprisoned in the Tower of London. English Catholics viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate, both personally and as Queen, and elements in England, France, and Spain sought to assassinate or dethrone her and put the real Queen back on the throne, re-establishing the real religion. Any similarities to the present moment in the United States are, well, a bit of a stretch, but not as much as Parris might have imagined when she wrote this book in 2010.
I found the discussion about the ancient book to be the most interesting part of the book. A hundred years earlier, Marsilio Ficino (who I met in Jo Walton’s wonderful historical novel, Lent) had translated fourteen of fifteen books of the Corpus Hermeticum, a book blending magic and religion supposedly written by one Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, indicating the origins of Christianity as a corruption of the original true religion. This is not the first time Egypt has been proposed as the source of the Abrahamic religions, nor the last: in the 17th century, Athanasius Kircher would propose the language of Adam was recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics. This Egyptophilia isn’t completely off-the-wall, since there’s significant evidence that the alphabet – all alphabets, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin – originated from the idea, though not the form, of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
It is this book, and the mysterious almost-presence of Hermes Trismegistus (who is not believed to be a real person but an amalgam of sources) that fascinated me most. It’s not entirely clear to me how this is related to the Picatrix, but I’m glad to have more exploring to do.
A bookseller and his bookshop form one of the more memorable scenes in the book:
In fact, the narrow shop smelled more like home than any place I had been since my arrival in Oxford, for it smelled of books; a warm scent of new leather and paper, with the mustier traces of old vellum and ink, a heady mixture that brought on a sudden pang of nostalgia for the scriptorium at San Domenico Maggiore where I had spent so many hours of my youth.
Carved wooden book stacks lined each side of the shop showing the bookbinder’s art: each was filled from floor to ceiling with volumes bound in colored leather and organized according to size, placed with their fore-edge outwards so that the brass clasps glinted under the darting flames of the candles. Along the bench where Jenkes now stood, rubbing his hands and looking from me to Florio with an expression of greedy anticipation, examples of different types of binding and format were ranged, from the old-fashioned wooden boards encased in calfskin that would keep a parchment manuscript from cockling, to the newer Paris bindings of double pasteboard for lighter books of paper, that needed no brass clasps but were tied together with leather thongs or ribbons. All were secured, like the books in Lincoln library, by a brass chain attached to a rod running beneath the bench.
To say exactly how would be a spoiler, but I’ll just mention that the bookseller becomes a rather crucial character later in the book.
As the mystery resolves and Bruno puts this adventure behind him, he reflects on his role as spy to the Secretary of State. Some people deserved their fate; others, nowhere near as guilty of actual crimes, became collateral damage as the result of his information. This leads to the grand epiphany of the book’s 460 pages:
Walsingham had warned me that this kind of choice was part of his service, and I needed to repay his faith in me if I were to have any hope of gaining the Queen’s patronage. Playing politics with the lives of others was part of the path to advancement, but that, as I was just beginning to understand, was the real heresy.
For the record, Pariss’ inspiration, historian John Bossy, has a different point of view:
Against Bruno’s virtues and talents, now revealed or confirmed, we have to set the discovery that he was not an honorable man. Spying is a dishonorable profession: contrary to an impression which has been put around, it always entails betraying your friends, or people you have caused to believe are your friends. Bruno appears to have no qualms about entering it. I am sure he went into it mainly for reasons of conviction, though he also went into it for the money, and probably for the thrills as well….
The single motive of everything we have discovered Bruno doing was the destruction of the papacy and all its works.
John Bossy: Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair
While historical fiction, obviously, should not be taken at face value, I find it a worthwhile way to engage with material that might be otherwise too complicated without some background. While I lost some interest as the murder mysteries took center stage, there was enough cultural commentary to keep me reading. Those who prefer mysteries to historical background will probably have the opposite experience.
Will I read the rest of the series? Not sure. The next book, also a murder mystery, concerns Queen Elizabeth herself, as well as her astrologer John Dee (a real historical person), and the Great Conjunction, an astronomical event such as we just witnessed a few months ago when Jupiter and Saturn snuggled up next to each other. In 1583, they took these things a lot more seriously. The third book also sounds interesting, involving a look back at Thomas Beckett, another piece of English history I’ve never been able to get straight. I’m somewhat tempted, but I have so much on my reading list!
At a certain point, dark social satire bleeds into horror. That can be powerful, but it can also very easily miss its target. Percival Everett’s new novel The Trees hits just the right mark. It’s a racial allegory grounded in history, shrouded in mystery, and dripping with blood. An incendiary device you don’t want to put down.
That’s a very good description: a detective novel layered onto a sort-of historical fiction book blended with horror and fantasy. It even works in a couple of minor references to Jaws and In The Heat of the Night, and probably a few other cultural items I didn’t recognize. But more than anything else, it’s about the continuing, and accelerating, reluctance of USAians to admit, much less apologize and atone for, our racist roots, and shows one way that particular raisin in the sun might explode.
The story opens in Money, Mississippi, with a gruesome double murder: one white man named Junior Junior Milam, and one unknown Black man. While the local police are asking questions, the Black man’s body goes missing from the morgue. Some ideas are tossed around – he wasn’t really dead seems to predominate – a second murder shows exactly the same pattern: a local white man, and… the same Black man who was dead and then disappeared. This time he’s clearly confirmed to be very, very dead, but again goes missing, under seemingly impossible circumstances. “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead,” says a deputy, in one of the most loaded statements of the book.
Bring in the state Bureau of Investigation. Alas, the two Special Agents are Black, which doesn’t sit particularly well with the local white sheriff, already feeling superseded.
That’s the basic setup. If you’ve ever read detective fiction, you know things get a lot more complicated. And if you’re familiar with the name Emmett Till, they get a lot darker.
Everett does some subtle things here, starting with that line “I don’t know why he can’t stay dead.” We see the town sheriff, upset about how things are going, at breakfast:
Red Jetty took a bite of toast and put it back on his plate. He sat at the table with his wife, Agnes. His dog, an American foxhound, stood behind him, his long snout resting on Jetty’s leg.
“You okay, Red?” Agnes asked.
“The only time Wallace puts his face in your lap like that is when you’re upset,” she said.
Now, there are a lot of Wallaces that could refer to: Mike, David Foster, Alfred Russell, Stevens. But in this context, my money’s on George “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Everett doesn’t hammer it home, just leaves it there. He does that a lot. Like when he takes us inside a Klan meeting – or what’s left of the Klan in Money, Mississippi – where someone complains that the same guy has been Grand Kleagle for a long time.
“We ain’t had no election because we ain’t had no gaddamn meetins,” from still another.
“That’s true, Jared,” Donald said.
“Used to be back when my daddy was alive, we had meetins all the time, every week,” Jared said.
“Elections too,” another man said. “They was always votin’ back in them days. Right?”
“And they used to have cross burnins a lot more and family picnics and softball games and all such,” said Donald. “I remember eatin’ cake next to that glowing cross. I loved my mama’s cake.”
“Yeah.” Several voiced their agreement.
“We don’t do nothin’ now,” a man complained. “I don’t even know where my hood is. I don’t even own a rope.”
Ah, heritage, so important to the (Confederate) flag-waving South. They hold an impromptu election – and elect the same guy. Who just happens to be the coroner, the Reverend Doctor Cad Fondle. Who is neither a doctor (very few non-urban coroners are) nor a Reverend of any official religion. And who ends up… well, guess.
Everett has a good time with names. Junior Junior, Digby, Red, Wheat, all local white boys in Money, Mississippi. But when the Black agents from the Missisippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they’re named Ed and Jim. The FBI agent who eventually shows up, however, is a Black woman named Herberta “Herbie” Hind, so whites don’t have a monopoly on fun names.
If this all sounds a little like reverse racism dumping on dumb Southern whites, well, yeah, it is. I found it uncomfortable reading. None of the locals can put two sentences together without tripping over a racial epithet, and they get tied up in knots trying to talk to outsiders without giving away their DNA-deep racism, a racism that becomes more and more important as it becomes evident that the murdered white men are sons of the original group that lynched Emmett Till.
Still feel bad about those silly names? Because beneath the detective fiction and the horror story and the kind of goofy revenge fantasy it turns into, it’s a book about the thousands of people of color who were – and who continue to be, when you consider the kinds of murders going on today –lynched, and the lack of justice for such crimes.
And then we have other forms of injustice, summed up in the character of Damon Nathan Thruff, another oddly named Black character:
Damon Nathan Thruff was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He held a PhD in molecular biology from Harvard, a PhD in psychobiology from Yale, and a PhD in Eastern philosophy from Columbia. He was twenty-seven years old. He had published three books on cellular regeneration, all issued by Cambridge University Press, and a two-volume work on the biological and philosophical origins of racial violence in the United States published by Harvard University Press. On this particular day, he was sitting at the desk in his tiny university office in the Department of Ethnic Studies (because they didn’t know where to put him), trying to compile a list of names of people who might write letters in support of his tenure bid. He had been denied tenure the year before but was being given a second chance, what the university administration was calling an affirmative reconsideration. The reason given for this denial of tenure was his productivity. The Dean told him, flatly, that no one really believed that he was capable of so much work of such quality so quickly. And so he was stuck with a one year appointment called the Phillis Wheatley Chair in Remedial Studies. Part of his second (gift) bid for tenure required that he not publish anything for a year. Such restraint from active scholarship might show the proper commitment to his proper place, was what the Dean told him.
Mama Z is one of the locals, an impossibly old Black woman who’s been keeping records of lynchings going back to the day she was born in, as she claims it, 1913, the same year her daddy was lynched. Her file room is a powerful image: twenty-three gray metal file cabinets. “The drawers were like those in a morgue,” thinks Jim when he sees them. And the Professor who wrote a book about racial violence, a book Mama Z knows well – “you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage” – is so overcome by these twenty-three file cabinets, all full of racial violence, sits down and starts writing:
“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here. Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real. Don’t they?”
Mama Z put her hand against the side of Damon’s face. “Why pencil?”
“When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.”
“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.
Say Their Names. And he intends to, every one of them, all twenty-three cabinets full.
This image is so powerful, it made its way to the book’s cover. It’s hard to see, but the deep-blue background is imprinted with what looks like a striped design – maybe mimicking the rows of file cabinets? – but is actually a list of names in just slightly lighter print. Pick a name (it takes some looking to read, but it can be done) and google it – Say Their Names – and you’ll find their stories. James Scott, accused of sexual assault on a 14-year-old white girl in 1923, was kidnapped from his jail cell in Columbia, MO and hanged by a white mob. William Miller, an Alabama coal miner and labor activist, was likewise dragged from his jail cell and hanged in 1903. Chee “Gene” Loong Tong, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, was one of seventeen Chinese men shot and hanged by a Los Angeles mob in 1871. Leo Lung Siang, one of twenty-eight Chinese murdered by white coal miners who burned down the houses of Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885. Then there are the names more familiar to us: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all: the numerous “unknown male” entries.
Mama Z didn’t just collect names, however. Where possible, police and coroner’s reports are outlined as well. Such as:
The individual was found bound at the ankles and wrists with some kind of coated wire. The individual was found suspended from the large branch of an oak tree by a light brown rope tied in a loop around his neck. The individual was pronounced dead at the scene by the coroner. The cause of death was determined to be a self-inflicted knife wound to the neck.
Everett leaves it for us to compare that to the contemporary version:
An Arkansas medical examiner has ruled that Chavis Carter, the 21-year-old man killed by a gunshot wound to the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car, committed suicide….
CBS News, 2012
As the book goes on, things get more and more farcical, with similar murders happening in multiple cities. Finally we end up at the White House, where an unnamed President cowers under his desk and demands “my bunker.” As amusing as this might seem, I felt it derailed things. But I give Everett a lot of credit for capturing the voice perfectly: “Did you hear that screaming? That was the loudest screaming that anyone has ever heard. You wouldn’t believe how loud that screaming was.”
The novel returns at the end to the file room with all the central – that is, Black – characters, and Damon typing names. The last line is a question, a question maybe we should all be asking ourselves in this moment when school boards are prohibiting teaching history and literature that might upset white people, with no regard to how Black people might feel about it. “Should we stop him?”
The title puzzled me for a while. I’m pretty sure it refers to the song “Strange Fruit,” which is quoted in the text (as is “Mississippi Goddamn”):
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
“Strange Fruit,” Lyrics & Music by Abel Meerpool,1937
But are the trees, stained by the blood of lynching victims, crying out for justice – or were they complicit in the lynchings and thus are tainted by that same blood that marks guilt? It could go either way. I think the strongest argument by far uses the subject of the book – the lynching victims of the past centuries – as well as the biblical “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” as support for the first option. But it’s possible, given the present-day murders at least start out with descendants – the family trees – of the people who set up and lynched Emmett Till, to make a case for the second option.
I became aware of this book via the Five Books article on the short list for this year’s Booker prize. I don’t pay a lot of attention to prizes – I’m much happier when I look for content or style that interests me – but I took a look, as I do most of the Five Books lists. The description interested me: a detective novel about racism that included humor and fantasy. I’ve enjoyed several “Black satire” novels in the past few years, most recently Black Buck, so I investigated further and ended up ordering it. I liked Everett’s comment about his use of humor in his interview with the Booker Prize people:
There is, of course, a distinction to be made between irony and humor and absurdity; a distinction that does not make them mutually exclusive. If one can get someone laughing, then one can use that relaxed state to present other things.
I didn’t laugh much while reading the book, but that didn’t surprise me; historically I have a hard time with humor. But I didn’t need to be lulled into a state of acceptance to face the grim realities presented. I admired the subtlety with which Everett dropped certain references, and it makes me wonder how many I missed. The scariest part is not the future the book suggests, but the present, and how much like the past it continues to be – and how much more like the past it might become in the next few years.
The matter of how to read a cookbook is a very personal one. After all, who is to say which way is best when it comes to digesting the ingredients, recipe notes, and photography from one cook to another?
…There are voracious cookbook readers, who tear open the box as soon as it arrives and don’t get up from the couch until they’ve finished reading cover to cover. This kind of reading is often a luxury, but a wonderful one.
There are thoughtful cookbook readers, who set aside time to pick it up and set it down again, always saving where they left off, and reading from beginning to end in the order it was written.
If someone is very hungry, they might read in accordance to their physical needs. If it’s dinner time, they start with main courses. If they’re hosting a party this weekend, they consider appetizers, flipping around from chapter to chapter in no particular order.
Also, the note takers, who keep a running list of things to make and keep it folded in the cookbook so when they pull it off the shelf again, they’ll know exactly what they had wanted to try from the first time they read it. They may or may not cross off the recipes they made with a triumphant smile.
There are even non-readers who purchase cookbooks solely on the basis of beauty, to be stacked and assembled as art pieces in their living rooms.
From “How To Read A Cookbook” by Nicole Gulotta available online at Eat This Poem
I recently binge-watched Top Chef: all 19 seasons, which was tricky since it bounced from one streaming service to another while I was in the middle. Back in the day, I blogged recaps for a few seasons, but I lost track around season 11, so I had some catching up to do. I noticed a few things: the earlier seasons were mean. Season 2 included theft, cheating, bullying, threatened assault, and an actual assault. Most of the early seasons featured a villain of some sort, sometimes just an out-of-place chef who stayed beyond their skill level (which isn’t in the chef’s control after all; my theory is they want someone they can plausibly cut should one of the obvious leaders have a really bad week) but Last Chance Kitchen seems to have obviated that. Language seemed to evolve as well: in later seasons, I kept hearing “the dish eats salty” or “it eats dry,” and dishes were declared “vegetable-forward” or “flavor-forward,” while those phrases didn’t show up in the early years. I’m tempted to ask Language Log of this is linguistic evolution or if they just decided to get sophisticated all of a sudden.
Linguistic and psychosocial observations aside, two cookbook purchases resulted from this binge. The first was motivated by a renewed appreciation for Richard Blais; the second, by several reminders that I really want to move towards a more vegetarian diet.
Richard Blais, twice a contestant and several times a guest judge, has an interesting approach to cooking, summed up perfectly by his choice of the character Willy Wonka on a challenge about movies. He thrives on puns and spectacle, and isn’t afraid of modernist techniques (agars, liquid nitrogen) to create dishes that are conceptually and visually interesting as well as, most of the time, tasty. I got curious about what he’s up to now (apparently, starting restaurants and selling them once they’re up and running is a thing) and discovered he’d written a couple of cookbooks. One was available at a bargain price via one of my favorite used booksellers, so Try This At Home now graces my shelves.
What I love about cooking is recreating traditional dishes to make them delicious and an experience. I prod my diners for an emotional reaction – a chance to revisit childhood, or a special time and place, or to find whimsy in overwrought dishes that we sometimes eat.
Richard Blais, Try This At Home
As is usually the case with cookbooks, it’s not that I’m going to cook Blais’ recipes. I’m certainly not going to rush out and get an immersion circulator or liquid nitrogen (both of which he advocates, to my surprise, with plenty of warnings about the coolant), and I already make rigatoni alla Bolognese but I call it American chop suey; I’m perfectly happy with boxed pasta and sauce from a jar mixed with browned ground beef so I feel no need to make it all from scratch. His sweet potato gnocchi is a lot more tempting; I’ve never made or even eaten gnocchi but this version sounds great and looks beautiful. Mostly I just like looking at the pictures: cookbook photography is incredibly tempting. There’s a charred half-artichoke that makes me drool so hard, I might even consider trying it, but the recipe includes only boiling so I wonder how the char gets there. See, this is why I don’t try to cook from cookbooks.
The other impetus, moving towards a more vegetarian lifestyle, was generated by watching the Top Chefs catch fish and glory at their success as these living creatures flopped and gasped and died. Not to mention seeing suckling pigs on a spit, and lobsters and crabs thrown live into boiling water. I felt guilty every time I saw one of Crouton’s tweets. Those of us who eat out of supermarket packaging forget there were once live animals on the other end of those fillets and chops.
So that’s how Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone ended up on my shelves. The teaser called it the equivalent of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but for vegetarian cuisine. I should have realized that meant it was more than I really wanted, but it, too, was at a low price and brought the total to the threshold for free shipping. It turns out it’s a doorstop of a book, and assumes the “everyone” to whom it’s addressed cares about non-GMO and organic and natural crap, which, well, i don’t. Still, it’s probably good to have as a reference.
There is also the fundamental joy in cooking, born of the pleasure of using our senses – rustling our fingers through a bunch of herbs, listening to the sizzle of onions, watching the colors brighten while vegetables cook, inhaling the fragrance of olive oil the moment it hits the pasta. This sensual involvement draws us into the process of cooking and teaches us about it. That sizzling sound tells us our heat is high enough; the scent of the herbs tells us whether we need to use a lot or a few; the fragrance of the oil assures us of its quality. Because these small but often stellar moments occur even when cooking the simplest things, both the beginning cook and the expert can experience them.
Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
In retrospect I should have found something simpler. What I really wanted was some ideas about combining grains and legumes for protein that goes beyond rice and beans. There’s a frozen dinner I’m very fond of which includes something they call whole wheat orzo and wheat berries; I’m in love with it, and long to combine it with, I don’t know, pea pods? I can’t find either grain at my local supermarket, and that means, I guess, a trip to Whole Foods. I’m always afraid an alarm will go off if I step into Whole Foods: “Caution, shoppers, a person contaminated with artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners has just entered the store!” I wish I had the nerve to ask them, batting my eyes innocently, where the Diet Coke is.
While in this mindset, I took a look at my sparse collection of cookbooks. Very sparse, two, three if you stretch the definition of cookbook a little.
My original Joy of Cooking fell apart decades ago, so I replaced it with the 1975 edition, the last, as I understand it, to include pictures with descriptions of skinning rabbits and squirrels (and basic instructions for muskrats, possums, and other critters). Remember, I only look at the pictures. These pictures amuse me. At some point the book became water-soaked, but I don’t want to replace it again so I put up with the warped pages. I only remember making pinwheel cookies and osso bucco from the book, but it was a handy reference for cooking times.
Asking a cook why he heats food at all is, of course, like asking an architect why men do not live in caves. The obvious answer is that it usually tastes better that way.
Rombauer/Becker, The Joy of Cooking
It’s kind of a loaded item: I still remember Julia Child’s dismay over it in the film Julie and Julia (love the movie, never had any urge to buy her cookbooks). But I have a vague recollection of a line from Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul in which Claude, the pianist at the beginning of his career, raves about reading a copy of Joy of Cooking as if it were a novel. That scene may or may not be in the actual book (regrettably, it’s long been purged from my shelves) but it gives me a fondness for the book that overrules Ms. Child’s disdain.
Sheila Lukins’ All Around the World cookbook makes a nice complement to the solidly middle-America Joy. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I bought it. And again, it’s something I read rather than cook from. She admits sacrificing authenticity for accessibility, which is fine by me. It’s a resource for flavor combinations. I should look through this again, who knows what might jump out at me.
My book presents some of everything I learned after going all around the world. I brought home the customs, flavors, and essences of each cuisine and reinterpreted them in my kitchen. My recipes are not traditional, rather a blend of my views on the best the world has to offer.
Sheila Lukins, All Around the World Coobook
Lastly is the not-cookbook: The Restaurant Lover’s Companion by Steve Ettlinger et al. It provides a preview of what going to your local French, Italian, Indian, Japanese, or a dozen other ethnically defined restaurants will entail: signature dishes, most common flavors and ingredients, booze, dining customs, a bit of vocabulary to help with the menu.
This is not a definitive reference book or a complete glossary, but rather an introductory guide to make ordering easier and exploring new cuisines more fulfilling. [It’s] meant to play the role of an erudite and well-traveled friend who dines with you and explains the meal as it progresses.
Steve Ettinger et al, The Restaurant Lover’s Companion
I can count the number of times I’ve been to an actual restaurant in the past couple of decades on one hand – first there was financial stress, then there was COVID, and there’s always been the intimidation factor and my hopelessly bland and unadventurous palate – but as is my typical pattern, I prefer reading about things to doing them. Besides, thanks to the wonder of the frozen foods section of my supermarket, I can experiment with flavors, inauthentic and unrepresentative as they may be.
Now, let’s be honest: if you want a recipe, you can find dozens, hundreds, on Youtube or any of the recipe sites online. But a cookbook, that’s more than recipes. As I went googling for a lead quote for this post, I found numerous articles discussing cookbooks as books:
Jaya Saxena presents cookbooks as history and personal narratives in “Eight Cookbooks You Can Read Like Books” at Electric Literature: “From histories to family secrets, some of the most delicious tales around can be found between the recipes.”
Amanda Shapiro explains how cookbooks helped her cope with panic attacks in “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book” at Bon Appetit:
A common strategy for dealing with panic attacks, I’ve learned recently, is something called the 5-4-3-2-1 method. You find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste. The idea is to get your brain away from Anxietyland and back to the immediate present by focusing on what’s around you. I think reading [How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman] works in a similar way. My eyes are focused on a page, my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.
Neha Patel tells us how looking for recipes to cook during lockdown turned into something else: “My intentions were pure: I wanted to learn new cooking techniques. But the reader in me couldn’t read through the recipes. Instead, I found myself attracted to the introductions, the blurbs that always come before a recipe, and even the acknowledgements.” I know the feeling! She relates her experience in “Why I Don’t Just Read Cookbooks For The Recipes” at Bookriot.
Bee Wilson has a surprisingly bookish take on recipes in her New Yorker article, “The Pleasures of Reading Recipes”:
Recipes have a story arc. You need to get through the tricky early prepping stages via the complications of heat and measuring before you arrive at the point of happy closure where the dish goes in the oven or is sliced or served. When a recipe has many ingredients and stages and finicky instructions, it can be hard to concentrate, like reading a Victorian novel with so many characters that you need a dramatis personae to keep things straight.
…There are many mysteries here: What is a timbale? And how do you make a vanilla-flavoured syrup? If Escoffier tried to clear them up, the recipe would be easier to use but less intriguing. And part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.
I also found numerous sites recreating dishes from various books: Boeuf en daube from To The Lighthouse was a favorite, but the crab salad on avocado from The Bell Jar showed up surprisingly often; surprisingly, since in the book it gave everyone food poisoning. However, I crave chicken broth – with or without the pat of butter floating on top – whenever I’m recovering from any ailment, from the close of that segment.
I used to do a fair amount of cooking. I specialize in “Swedish” dishes: not Swedish, as in originating from Sweden, but “Swedish” as in altered to suit my peculiar preferences. It started out by recognizing that when you ask for Swedish pancakes, or Swedish meatballs, you won’t get typical pancakes or meatballs. Add to that my father’s Swedish heritage, and the whacko Swedish chef, and you’ve got my cooking style: my “Swedish” lasagna is more sweet than savory, and my “Swedish” tagine uses dried apricots instead of preserved lemons and my favorite spice blend – cinnamon plus ginger with half as much cumin, inspired by, I kid you not, Rachael Ray – instead of Ras el hanout and grains of paradise. You don’t want to know about my “Swedish” rice and beans or burritos, trust me. Oddly, I learned to make reasonably authentic sauerbraten at the urging of my husband; it may be the best thing that came out of that marriage.
I do make one authentically Swedish item: Vetebröd, a fairly standard yeast bread made with cardamom. I have the recipe from my genuinely Swedish Aunt Elsie tucked in my water-warped Joy of Cooking. It’s the closest I come to the warm family memoir stuff cookbooks are now famous for. My family wasn’t about warm memories.
I have one culinary dream: to make Jacques Torres’ Bûche de Noël. The first problem is that I will need help, if only to keep me calm. The second problem is that it requires a small amount of Grand Marnier, which doesn’t come in small amounts, only large, very expensive amounts. The recipe does offer the helpful “or other liqueur” so there is some wiggle room. We’ll see.
These days, my hands aren’t reliable for fine chopping (I recently bought a new bread knife and cut myself taking it out of the packaging) or strong enough for kneading, so I haven’t been doing much cooking. Maybe if I can find some of that whole wheat orzo and those wheat berries, that’ll change. And from there, who knows, Richard Blais’ sweet potato gnocchi might make it to my plate yet.
My history is all books, and rarely anything else, which is why I am up front here, as preface….
The Egyptians often, in death, had their favorite cats embalmed, to cozen their feet. If things go well, my special pets will pace me into eternity, Shakespeare as pillow, Pope at one elbow, Yeats at the other, and Shaw to warm my toes. Good company for far-traveling.
Meanwhile, I stand here with my hopeless prejudices, to preface these loves.
Please, to begin.
Ray Bradbury, Foreword
About twelve years ago, during my read of BASS 2011, I came across a story by pre-Overstory Richard Powers titled “To the Measures Fall.” It’s the story of a woman’s relationship with a book, and how that relationship continued and changed throughout her life. I can remember, unprompted, only a handful of the stories I’ve read over the years; this is one of them.
I was hoping to capture that same feeling – relationships with books – in this anthology of writings about books. I was disappointed.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of it, it’s just that it’s one of those Great Men Write About the Greatness of Books (oh, sure, there are a few women sprinkled in, but it’s a sausage-fest, partly because many of the essays are drawn from prior to the 20th century when women belatedly appeared on Earth).
Not reading: books. I hadn’t realized what a difference that would make. Many of the articles are about book collecting, a process I don’t quite understand. Now, I have for the past ten years or so become fascinated with manuscripts, and I realize books don’t become historical cultural treasures unless they are collected and protected from their start. Will we some day stare in awe at a hardcover copy of, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the product of a bygone technology? Still, I don’t understand collecting books for their value. I have only recently come to appreciate books as physical objects, but that’s only inasmuch as the substance makes the reading easier or better in some way. I still consider books as tools to be used, not sculptures to be admired from afar. Yes, I dog-ear, I underline and notate, I crack spines and roll paperback covers. I’ve recently replaced several volumes that were falling apart, because I’m attached to the content, not the package. But there are those who put considerable effort – not to mention funds – into amassing book collections, not of books to read, but of books to have. To each his own.
I did find a number of articles fun to read. “Pillow Books” by Clifton Fadiman wonders what type of book is best for bedtime reading? Few want something dull enough to let them nod off in boredom, but how do you find a book that’s engaging but sedating rather than stimulating?
Then there are lists. The ten, fifty, one hundred best books of all time, of the 20th century, of course. “Books that changed America.” Favorite novels of Somerset Maugham and Norman Mailer. And a wonderful list of “Ten Books that Never Existed,” books mentioned within books. To the Measures Fall was not included. Neither was An Imperial Affliction, which I felt I might have liked more than The Fault in our Stars in which it appeared. More seriously, nothing by Borges made the list.
The most heartbreaking article was “Comfort Found in Good Old Books” by George Hamlin Fitch. In a moving essay, Fitch describes how favorite books were a comfort after the unexpected death of his son.
Other essays covered the perils of loaning books, several articles titled “Bibliomania” or derivatives thereof, and the business end of books, both publishing and selling. Some of these were interesting, but I suspect I would have to be more of a book sophisticate to fully appreciate them.
Choosing to read this book was a worthy effort with mediocre success. I should have found a book titled A Passion For Reading instead. Or maybe just reread “To the Measures Fall.”
Martin Eden (1909) is London’s most autobiographical novel. It describes his struggle for education and literary fame in his youth and his disillusion with success in his middle age. It mythologizes his rise from obscurity and prophecies his early death at forty. The author’s passionate identification with his hero, Martin Eden, creates the power and compulsion of the book, which remains today equaled only by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger as an archetypal study of the urge to write subordinating even the will to live.
Andrew Sinclair, Introduction
This post is dedicated to my two favorite angst-ridden writers (you know who you are), not because they share Martin Eden’s urgency and torment or his rise and fall, but because they will find some of the descriptions of his thoughts about writing to be hilarious, in ways Jack London couldn’t have intended.
But before I get into that, let’s look at the book as a whole, because it’s crammed with all kinds of social, political, and psychological drama.
Martin Eden was a perfectly content young man of twenty, taking turns on various sailing ships when he needed money, hanging around early 20th century San Francisco and living with his sister and her husband when he didn’t. One fateful day, however, he rescued a stranger from a violent encounter with hooligans, and was invited home to dine with Arthur and his family. He admires the art on the walls and the leather-bound books placed importantly around the parlor, becoming uncomfortable when he realizes just how elegant a family they are. His interaction with a painting sums up the entire novel:
An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm-clouds covered the sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled, heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick.
He promptly falls in love with Arthur’s sister, Ruth, as much for her sophistication and education – she’s a college student, studying English – as for her beauty.
Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for – ay, and die for.
He realizes, of course, that he can never win over such a magnificent creature, seeing as he doesn’t speak well (he doesn’t even realize the half of how badly he speaks) and isn’t worthy to touch the hem of her garment. And about that biblical allusion: the text doesn’t fuss much with religion at all, but as editor and London biographer Andrew Sinclair mentions in his Introduction, the names are loaded with inference. Eden is, of course, the Paradise of innocence, from which Woman caused the expulsion of humanity. Martin Luther was the Disrupter Supreme of the medieval order. And Ruth is the picture of loyalty and steadfastness, whither thou goest I will go.
The fictional Ruth doesn’t quite live up to that billing, but as she gets to know Martin, she does wander into what for her is a strange land:
Her gaze rested for a moment on the muscular neck, heavy corded, almost bull-like, bronzed by the sun, spilling over with rugged health and strength. And though he sat there, blushing and humble, again she felt drawn to him. She was surprised by a wanton thought that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay her two hands upon that neck that all its strength and vigor would flow out to her. She was shocked by this thought. It seemed to reveal to her an undreamed depravity in her nature. Besides, strength to her was a gross and brutish thing. Her ideal of masculine beauty had always been slender gracefulness. Yet the thought still persisted. It bewildered her that she should desire to place her hands on that sunburned neck. In truth, she was far from robust, and the need of her body and mind was for strength. But she did not know it. She knew only that no man had ever affected her before as this one had, who shocked her from moment to moment with his awful grammar.
From there, the overall path is predictable: Martin struggles to raise himself to Ruth’s level, and educates himself right over her head, while she tries to get him to stop fooling around with his awful writing and follow the only path she knows: formal education, and a position in Daddy’s firm. Unable to change him into what she wants, and embarrassed by something of a smear campaign against him, Ruth ditches him – and of course then he finds the literary and financial success he was striving for, all on the writing Ruth so disparaged.
Political and social philosophy makes up a significant part of the book, but it’s all pretty bleak. Martin calls himself an Individualist in the vein of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. He discovers most educated people are dolts who can only parrot what they’ve been taught, but eventually finds a comparable, if opposing, mind in the ardent socialist Brissenden, and enjoys the rowdy discussions of a group of streetcorner philosophers. London, himself an ardent socialist and labor activist, seems to be making a point here: both Brissenden and Martin kill themselves, and the streetcorner philosophers are impotent in a society that still values breeding and conformity. Seems like a pretty bleak worldview to me. I know the feeling.
The last page of the book goes with Martin as he throws himself off the side of the ship, the ship that was ostensibly taking him to his own personal Shangri-La now that he has the money to set it up. Except he’s lost the girl, he’s lost the will to write, so he jumps into the ocean. It’s a beautiful passage:
The bubbles rubbed and bounded like tiny balloons against his cheeks and eyes as they took their upward flight. Then came pain and strangulation. This hurt was not death, was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. Death did not hurt. It was life, the pangs of life, this awful, suffocating feeling; it was the last blow life could deal him…
Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and pervaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain—a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.
Now, about that unintentionally hilarious plot thread about writing.
Martin is aware of the gulf between him and Ruth, and he starts a self-education project to make himself worthy of her. He even enlists her help in improving his grammar and manner of speaking, and his knowledge of what kinds of books there are to learn from. He makes some progress, then must go to sea again to earn money so he can afford to live on land; apparently sailoring pays pretty well. But he realizes speaking well won’t do it; he needs to become one of what he calls the bourgeoisie, and he can’t do that if he’s running off to the South Seas every few months to earn the rent.
The answer comes to him during one of his sea voyages:
Along with his humbleness because he knew so little, there arose a conviction of power. He felt a sharp gradation between himself and his shipmates, and was wise enough to realize that the difference lay in potentiality rather than achievement. What he could do,—they could do; but within him he felt a confused ferment working that told him there was more in him than he had done. He was tortured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. He decided that he would describe to her many of the bits of South Sea beauty. The creative spirit in him flamed up at the thought and urged that he recreate this beauty for a wider audience than Ruth. And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write—everything—poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth.
No, no, no! screams everyone who’s ever logged in to Submittable. This is still early in his self-education project, so his naïveté, while heartbreakingly funny, isn’t as crazy as it seems. He had, after all, learned grammar and a bit of literature, and all along he’s been portrayed as an intelligent, if uneducated, person.
He begins his writing career with an article about his sea voyage, and sends it to the local newspaper, waiting eagerly for the next day when it will be published. Except… well, you know. He reads some literary magazines and sends stories to them, counting how much each will earn based on pay-per-word rates. Except… yeah.
Eventually we find out he didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to be writing on both sides of the paper, and still later, that he should have typed his submissions, which requires renting a typewriter. It really makes me want to cry. The poor guy is writing all day, and reading all night, sleeping five hours a night (he tried to cut it back to four and a half, but it didn’t quite work), churning out material and painstakingly recording in his book where he submitted it and how much they’ll pay, then recording the rejection notices as they come in… does any of this sound familiar? It’s almost cruel to laugh at it, knowing the pain it represents, but it’s so predictable.
And then there’s Ruth in the background, telling him to go to school. High school. He would, but he failed the entrance exam. And he’s got a pretty coherent theory about self-education:
“Knowledge seems to me like a chart-room. Whenever I go into the library, I am impressed that way. The part played by teachers is to teach the student the contents of the chart-room in a systematic way. The teachers are guides to the chart-room, that’s all. It’s not something that they have in their own heads. They don’t make it up, don’t create it. It’s all in the chart-room and they know their way about in it, and it’s their business to show the place to strangers who might else get lost.
….Some persons need guides, most persons do; but I think I can get along without them. I’ve spent a lot of time in the chart-room now, and I’m on the edge of knowing my way about, what charts I want to refer to, what coasts I want to explore. And from the way I line it up, I’ll explore a whole lot more quickly by myself. The speed of a fleet, you know, is the speed of the slowest ship, and the speed of the teachers is affected the same way. They can’t go any faster than the ruck of their scholars, and I can set a faster pace for myself than they set for a whole schoolroom.”
“‘He travels the fastest who travels alone,’” she quoted at him.
But I’d travel faster with you just the same, was what he wanted to blurt out, as he caught a vision of a world without end of sunlit spaces and starry voids through which he drifted with her, his arm around her, her pale gold hair blowing about his face. In the same instant he was aware of the pitiful inadequacy of speech. God! If he could so frame words that she could see what he then saw! And he felt the stir in him, like a throe of yearning pain, of the desire to paint these visions that flashed unsummoned on the mirror of his mind. Ah, that was it! He caught at the hem of the secret. It was the very thing that the great writers and master-poets did. That was why they were giants. They knew how to express what they thought, and felt, and saw.
This leads to something of a breakthrough, and he sees his work as amateurish. He starts anew:
Twoscore of manuscripts were travelling the endless round of the magazines. How did the others do it? He spent long hours in the free reading-room, going over what others had written, studying their work eagerly and critically, comparing it with his own, and wondering, wondering, about the secret trick they had discovered which enabled them to sell their work.
Ask any contemporary writer. They’ve all been there.
We see him reading other published writings, copying “strong phrases” and noticing how the stories are structured. He studies “the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles.” It’s a do-it-yourself MFA. I’m guessing it’s very much like how London taught himself to write, which is probably why all of this sounds so authentic, a century later.
One of the themes in the book is the mechanization of labor, not in the sense of machines replacing people, but in people treated as machines. You put work in, they produce. If you put more work in, they produce more. He goes through a period working in a laundry where, surrounded by machinery, he sees himself as just one more machine; a day’s work leaves him drained and unable to read or write, echoing Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness.”
This mechanization of men matches London’s labor activism, of course, but in this book, Martin sees it as part of writing as well:
He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed. There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. It was like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum or a tablet of chocolate. It depended upon which slot one dropped the penny in, whether he got chocolate or gum. And so with the editorial machine. One slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.
It was the rejection slips that completed the horrible machinelikeness of the process. These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he had received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor had given that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.
Just yesterday, one of my favorite angst-ridden writers tweeted something remarkably close to this:
Do any of you writers have a journal that just has it in for you? Quick, form rejections every time? I’ve definitely noticed two that I think must have written scripts to auto-form-reject me. Sorry to anyone who submits to them and has my same name.
I’ve said over and over that this is unintentionally funny, but as I read it now, it’s monstrously painful. It’s even more painful for Martin because he’s desperately poor, barely eating, pawning everything he owns so he can keep his typewriter and buy stamps and envelopes. Labor hasn’t changed much, and neither has writing.
He finally does get an acceptance, but the terms in the publication are illusory: not only do they pay less than a tenth of what they advertised, but they pay on publication, not acceptance, and, as Martin finds out, they really don’t pay at all. This eventually leads to a scene where he literally shakes some of the money out of a couple of editors – and a replay at another magazine, where a younger staff throws him down the stairs, then goes out drinking with him.
But take heart, Angst-Ridden Writers everywhere, Martin does eventually find success, and suddenly everything he’s written is worth a king’s ransom and he’s in demand at every turn. He never writes another word; it’s all his old stuff, stuff that’s been rejected, even his truly bad first writings which are now collected as “early work.” The irony, the hypocrisy, the shallowness starts to reverberate in his head under the phrase “work performed”:
Invitations to dinner poured in on Martin; and the more they poured, the more he puzzled. He sat, the guest of honor, at an Arden Club banquet, with men of note whom he had heard about and read about all his life; and they told him how, when they had read “The Ring of Bells” in the Transcontinental, and “The Peri and the Pearl” in The Hornet, they had immediately picked him for a winner. My God! and I was hungry and in rags, he thought to himself. Why didn’t you give me a dinner then? Then was the time. It was work performed. If you are feeding me now for work performed, why did you not feed me then when I needed it? Not one word in “The Ring of Bells,” nor in “The Peri and the Pearl” has been changed. No; you’re not feeding me now for work performed. You are feeding me because everybody else is feeding me and because it is an honor to feed me. You are feeding me now because you are herd animals; because you are part of the mob; because the one blind, automatic thought in the mob-mind just now is to feed me.
The reader could’ve stopped with the paragraph about the painting on the third page: the closer you get to your heart’s desire, the uglier it gets.
I confess, I had no idea Jack London wrote fifty books, many of them on sociopolitical themes and several with autobiographical elements. I didn’t know he wrote anything besides his adventure books. I’m not sure if that’s an indictment of our education system (I have a BA in English, after all; shouldn’t I have encountered him before this?) or a failure of effort on my part. I discovered this book via Zena Hitz’s book on autodidacticism, Lost in Thought, which piqued my interest by acknowledging the dark side of self-education (I’m always drawn to the dark sides of everything):
Eden’s development exposes a rift between the carefully policed gentility of the educated middle classes and the wild and open possibilities of intellectual development. His progress into a suicidal disillusionment also points to a danger of a life of learning: an alienation that breeds arrogance and contempt for others.
Jack London achieved his breakthrough success in 1903 with Call of the Wild; this book was published in 1909. He died in 1916 at the age of forty. I might need to look into some of his other work sometime.
…[T]he book is set in Arabia as a mixture of One Thousand and One Nights and a maths book – it’s coming out of the most populous Catholic country in the world and yet it’s as much a love story to Arab culture as to maths itself….
It is composed of lovely little stories and, with each chapter of a few pages, it introduces a mathematical idea along with a story about travelling through the Arab world.
….[I]n Brazil when I told friends, ‘I’m now working on maths,’ they all said, ‘Oh, you must read Malba Tahan.’ And friends who were kids during that era said, ‘Oh, I remember my parents reading it to me’ – it’s almost like Alice in Wonderland in that it is one of the things that makes people feel nostalgic about their childhood. My Brazilian copy is the 74th edition.
I love goofy math books; I even have my own list of Best Math Books for People Who Don’t Do Math in the user archives of FiveBooks. I think I may have to rotate one of them out, because this one has completely charmed me. It was originally published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1972; the English edition I have, dated 1993, is translated from the Portuguese by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reid. The beautiful color image on the cover, as well as the black-and-white drawings that begin each chapter, are by Patricia Reid Baquero.
Within the book we encounter, in short vignettes set in 13th century Baghdad, several numerical tricks and puzzles, a little history of mathematics, and some introduction to various concepts in understandable, practical terms. How can three brothers divide the 35 camels inherited from their father so that, according to the testament, the oldest receives half, the middle brother receives one-third, and the youngest gets one-ninth? How can a merchant discover which of eight pearls is lighter than the others, given a balancing scale that can be used only twice? Perfect numbers are defined by releasing three birds from a cage of 499; amicable numbers are demonstrated by poems written on a wall in red and black letters.
But it isn’t all about such concepts. Myths about the origin of chess, about the death of Archimedes and Eratosthenes, and passages on ethical issues and the wonder of math, apart from its usefulness, appear as well.
There is an overall plot:
My name is Hanak Tade Maia. Once I was returning, at my camels slow pace, along the road to Baghdad after an excursion to the famous city of Samarra, on the banks of the Tigris, when I saw a modestly dressed traveler who was seated on a rock, apparently resting from the fatigue of the journey.
I was about to offer the perfunctory salaam of travelers when, to my great surprise, he rose and said ceremoniously, “One million, four hundred and twenty-thee thousand, seven hundred and forty-five.” He quickly sat down and lapsed into silence, his head resting in his hands, as if he were absorbed in profound meditation. I stopped at some distance and stood watching him, as if he were a historic monument to the legendary past.
…. Several times more the strange traveler rose and uttered a number in the millions, before sinking down again on the rough stone by the roadside. Unable to restrain my curiosity, I approached the stranger and, after greeting him in the name of Allah, asked him the meaning of those fantastic sums.
“Stranger,” replied The Man Who Counted, “I do not disapprove of this curiosity that disturbs the peace of my thoughts and calculations. And now that you have spoken to me with such courtesy and graciousness, I am going to accede to your wishes. But first I must tell you the story of my life.”
And he told me the following, which, for your entertainment, I transcribe exactly as I heard it.
From there, Hanak and Berezim, The Man Who Counted, run into various people with mathematical or logical problems. Berezim solves the problems and, at each encounter, comes away with more than he entered with: a second camel, a turban, a ring, a job as secretary to a Vizier in Baghdad (with Hanak appointed as scribe). He continues to offer advice to various people they encounter in Baghdad, where a Vizier, skeptical at first but finally convinced of the man’s abilities, asks Berezim to teach his seventeen-year-old daughter mathematics to assure her happy future:
When Telassim was born, I consulted a famous astrologer who knew how to read the future by observing clouds and stars. He told me my daughter would be happy for her first eighteen years. From that age on, she would be threatened by a series of tragic misfortunes. He, however, had a way of keeping her bad luck from deeply affecting her destiny. Telassim, he said, ought to learn the properties of numbers and their many working possibilities. But to master numbers and calculation, it is essential to know the science of al Khwarizmi, that is, mathematics. So I decided to provide a happy future for Telassim by making her study the mysteries of calculus and geometry.”
This becomes a fateful request that impacts the rest of the overall story. Some philosophers have ridiculed the idea of teaching a woman mathematics, but Berezim passionately approves of the idea and takes on the assignment. It’s in these meetings, the girl modestly hidden behind screens and fabrics, that Berezim delivers his most eloquent defenses of mathematics:
“Geometry is everywhere. Consider the ordinary and perfect forms of many bodies. Flowers, leaves, and innumerable animals reveal admirable symmetries that lighten the spirit. Geometry, I repeat, exists everywhere: in the sun’s disk, in leaves, in the rainbow, in butterflies, in diamonds, in starfish, in the tiniest grain of sand. There is an infinite variety of geometric forms throughout nature. A crow flying slowly through the air traces wondrous figures with its sooty body. The blood circulating in the veins of a camel also obeys strict geometric principles; its humps, unique among mammals, show a singular elliptical form; the stone thrown at an intruding jackal describes a perfect curve in the air, known as a parabola: the bee makes its cells in the form of hexagonal prisms and uses that geometrical form to build its house with the greatest possible economy of material.
“Geometry exists everywhere. It is necessary, to have the eyes to see it, intelligence to understand it, and spirit to wonder at it….”
By the end of the book, Berezim is brought before a council of seven wise men who put questions to him to determine if he is truly as brilliant as he seems. He passes the tests, of course, but we suddenly find ourselves with a love story that rises above the historical Mongol conquest of Baghdad that occurred in 1258.
The dedication that opens the book at first had me a bit puzzled:
To the memory of seven great geometrists, Christian or agnostic:
Descartes, Pascal, Newton
Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange, Comte
Allah take pity on these infidels!
and to the memory of the unforgettable mathematician, astronomer, and Muslim philosopher
Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi
Allah preserve him in his glory!
and also to all who study, teach, or admire the prodigious science of scale, form, numbers, measures, functions, movement, and the laws of nature.
I, pilgrim, descend from the Prophet
Ali Iezid Izz-Edim ibn-Salim Hanak
believer in Allah and in Muhammad, his sacred Prophet
dedicate these pages of legend and fantasy.
– Baghdad, nineteenth day of the moon of Ramadan, 1321
I recognized the names of the mathematicians (and am so honored to be included as one who studies and admires, however poorly, the arts to which he refers) but was puzzled because of the date: many of them lived long after 1321. Then I remembered: the Muslim calendar begins with the Hejira of 622, so 1321 is the Gregorian year 1903.
However, there’s more to it than that.
The publication history of the book is almost as delightful as the text itself. Malban Tahan is a pen name of Brazilian mathematician Júlio César (who is, unfortunately, deceased) which gives this story an extra level: a fictional character (Beremiz) chronicled by a fictional companion (Maia) finally discovered and published by a fictional author (Tahan). The Guardian tells me that César had tried to interest newspapers in publishing some of his earlier stories to no avail, so made up the pseudonym R. S. Slade, a New York translator. That worked, so he eventually took on the persona of Malban Tahan for a series of newspaper columns which became books, including this one.
I wish someone would do a math class – for adults, for children (because the book is, as all those Brazilians will tell you, very suitable for kids), for everyone – using this book as a text. It keeps the surprise of math up front (you mean you really can create any integer using four fours? Is there a proof for this?) while introducing real concepts. And generosity, morality, and kindness are always in the picture. Spread all that over the plot that rewards our good guy heroes, and you’ve got better than Scheherazade if she were a mathematician: you’ve got the perfect goofy little math book.
I really wrote from the heart, from my soul, for me, but also for Black women. I wanted other Black women, not just ones who have worked in these environments, to see themselves in the hair references, the obscure music references, the TV references. It’s been really fun seeing Black women respond to this book, seeing the different things we take away from it. What I want non-Black readers to know is we’re not a monolith. We have very different views on things, we deserve to be heard, and we deserve to be there. There needs to be more of us. We should be in more places, we should be valued for all kinds of things, writing about all kinds of things.
I really hope that this book will show that to the publishing world that thinks, “Readers won’t be into this,” what could be possible. I want there to be more Black books. I want there to be other books that get the attention that they deserve. I want there to be comps in the future. When I was querying my agent, I was trying to think of books that were in a similar space, and it was hard. I just want there to be more.
Zakiya Dalila Harris, Interview with Arriel Vinson at Electric Literature: “The Horror of Being the Other Black Girl in the Workplace”
Comps. You probably know the concept, even if, like me, you aren’t familiar with the term. Comparable titles, meant to lure readers who liked a particular book with the promise of more of the same. A hilarious example from the book is “Pride and Prejudice meets I, Robot.” I’ve been trying to figure that one out for days now, since “I, Robot” was originally the title of a short story by Otto Binder, then the title of a short story collection by Isaac Asimov, and finally a movie having little in common with either.
Cosmo called this book “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out,” not a bad description but lacking some major themes. I wanted to read the book because I thought it might be something like Black Buck transposed from the only Black man in the sales department to the only Black woman in a publishing house, with a darker, more mysterious thriller subplot. That isn’t a bad description, either, come to think of it. But the mystery is front and center from the epigraph and the prologue, so if you’re looking for a cute rom-com where everything turns out all right in the end, look elsewhere. This book raises big questions. I’m not sure it raises them as effectively as it could – I found the thriller subplot distracting, wished it had been less up front, and by the time the reveal happened, I’d somewhat lost interest – but at least it raises them.
She overheard a couple of Wagner employees in the kitchen chatting about the idea of being forced to hire non-white people. “Let’s just go and do exactly that,” Kevin in digital marketing had said indignantly. “Exactly that. And then let’s watch what Richard does when we start hiring unqualified people here, and things start getting screwed up. I’m sure he’ll change his song then.”
… [E]ven if they have seen her, Nella sensed that neither would have said anything differently. Her colleagues, strangely, had made it clear very early on that they didn’t see her as a young Black woman, but as a young woman who just happened to be Black – as though her college degree had washed all of the melanin away. In their eyes, she was the exception. She was “qualified.” An Obama of publishing, so to speak.
Nella is an editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing, and the only Black professional, until Hazel shows up. She’d tried to lead a series of diversity meetings, but they petered out, so she’s surprised and thrilled to smell Brown Buttah, a hair product popular with Black women, waft into her cubicle. It turns out Hazel isn’t going to be her BFF as she’d hoped. Then the notes warning her to leave the company start appearing on her desk.
There are several threads running through the book: professional rivalry, the whiteness of the publishing industry and weak diversity efforts, the hypersensitivity of white authors to criticism about depictions of Black characters, and, amusingly, coworkers who keep mixing up the two Black women, though they are clearly distinguishable even from a distance by hairstyle and height alone. And hair. It may seem surprising that hair is one of them. Black hair has been a social and political flash point for years, regulated to varying degrees by some schools, law enforcement, and the US military. It’s use as a central image here is very clever.
While the workplace is the tinder, the fire comes from the thriller plot. It resolves in a most unsettling way (we’re getting a bit spoilery here, so skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid that):
There were so many things she never had enough energy for – so many social interactions she’d gotten so incredibly wrong – because Wagner had sucked her dry of her confidence and her sense of self.
“Is that what you want? To feel overextended? To feel worn down by every microaggression you experience in the office, and every injustice you see on the news? Are those the kinds of things that make you feel like you?…. Once you stop fighting – once you let this wave wash over you – you’ll see. It’ll wash over you so quickly, you won’t even feel it. You won’t feel the pain, the white supremacy. You read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died. That heavy anvil of genetic trauma that’s been strapped to your ankle for all these years… gone. You’ll swim to the top and be free. You’ll be you. This is Black Girl Magic in its purest form.”
This paints a pretty bleak picture of the choice Black workers face: success, or social consciousness. I thought of Toni Morrison’s quote from 1975 – yes, from nearly fifty years ago:
The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
Toni Morrison, 1975 speech at Portland State University
While the workplace drama is fun, this is the heart of the book: how do you counter this drag in the workplace, how do you free your energy so you can achieve success and inspire others? I’m disturbed by the implication of the solution presented, but I think it’s meant to be disturbing. This isn’t a case of ‘Hey, here’s the solution,’ but ‘Hey, look how big this problem is, can we figure out some way to deal with it that isn’t insane?’
Harris worked in publishing for several years and incorporates both her knowledge of the field, and her experience as the only Black woman in the room. What I like most about the book is that it’s written for Black readers. If you don’t know what 4C hair is, or who Ntozake Shange is, well, that’s what Google is for, Harris doesn’t waste space and drag down the story explaining every detail for readers less likely to be familiar with aspects of Black culture beyond MLK and Harriet Tubman. Likewise with the publishing industry details: the context give a lot of help, but she’s not going to give a mini-course on an editorial assistant’s function. I like it when writers assume readers can figure things out for themselves. This is Harris’ debut novel; I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.
I see that Hulu is making this into a comedy series. I’m dubious – we’re way beyond The Devil Wears Prada here – but we’ll have to see how that works out.
What he ultimately is, I think, is a writer who’s trying to record what post-modernism does to people in everyday life, what it’s like to live in a post-modern society. So that’s the way his fiction I think is both post-modern and realist. It treats everyday life in the same way that realism does, but its topic is how does living in a postmodern, consumer society of simulacra, of people who can’t have faith in grand narratives, how does this affect people’s everyday lives.
John Pistelli, University of Minnesota, Lecture #30, Contemporary American Literature, Spring 2021
…[T]he novel’s most immediately appealing quality is its humor: it’s simply a very funny book.
…DeLillo dramatizes the omnipresence of TV and consumerism by punctuating the scenes with disembodied electronic voices and lists of brand names. Simultaneously attesting to the novel’s highly textured realism and violating it by reminding us of the author’s controlling presence, these mysterious, often acerbic insertions are one reason the novel has been called “postmodern”.
Introduction to this edition, Mark Osteen
Welcome to another edition of Karen Reads A Book Too Big For Her. Not in size – it’s a perfectly manageable 326 pages, with, in this particular form, another hundred-plus pages of reviews, essays, and criticisms, a handy feature since I knew I’d need some help. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time since it, or at least Delillo, keeps coming up in other areas I’ve investigated, but kept deferring it. A few months ago I heard Netflix was making it into a movie (true: I saw the trailer today). Even more recently, a writer/teacher I follow on Twitter mentioned he was reading it, and I thought, hey, if not now, when. How much harder can it be than Iris Murdoch? Turns out it was a lot more enjoyable than Murdoch, and, with a bit of research, more understandable as well.
I decided to do a semi-naïve reading, meaning I read the introduction but no other material before reading the book. I came across a lot of scary words like post-modernism, simulacrum, and hyperreality, and was warned about possible plotlessness, but I also got a preview of coming events: “the deleterious effects of capitalism, the power of electronic images, the tyrannical authority and dangerous byproducts of science, the unholy alliance of consumerism and violence, and the quest for sacredness in a secularized world.” And, oh, the breakdown of academia as a source of wisdom. And this book was written in 1985. Pre-Internet, pre-Tik-Tok, pre-Smartphone. Turns out it doesn’t matter much; so much of the TV material transfers neatly, if more expansively, to contemporary electronic media.
When I finished it all, my sense was that it wasn’t plotless at all; it had a simple plot about the fear of death stretched out and draped on philosophizing about the horrors of contemporary life as listed above. It was the kind of book where every other page had something amazing on it, and there were numerous scenes I found fascinating.
Take, for instance, the airport scene. Our protagonist, professor of Hitler Studies (yes, that’s right) Jack Gladney completes a child-swap so familiar to the hybrid families of today by picking up his daughter in the airport. An earlier plane arrives with passengers showing signs of distress. One of the passengers recounts the near-crash they had just been through:
Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? … By the time the narrator reached this point in his account, many people were crowded around, not only people who just emerged from the tunnel but also those who have been among the first to disembark. They’d come back to listen. They were not yet ready to disperse, through reading habit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer. More people drifted toward us, milled about, close to the entire planeload. They were content to let the capped unvested man speak on their behalf. No one disputed his account or tried to add individual testimony. It was as though they were being told of an event they hadn’t personally been involved in. They were interested in what he said, even curious, but also clearly detached. They trusted him to tell them what they had said and felt.
.… “Where’s the media?” [Jack’s daughter] said.
“There is no media in Iron City.”
“They went through that all that for nothing?”
The ultimate Pictures or it didn’t happen? A lost opportunity for fame?
Death is never far from Jack’s thoughts, He occasionally finds himself lectured to by his fellow academic, Murray (naturally enough, a professor of American culture who longs to set up an Elvis Studies program using Jack’s Hitler Studies as a model). Murray’s explanation of violence:
“I believe, Jack, that there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it’s it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain a life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions.”
“Are you saying that men have tried throughout history to cure themselves of death by killing others?”
This provides an interesting fulcrum towards the end of the book as Jack contemplates switching sides.
Another of my favorite scenes also comes towards the end of the book – in fact, the end of the book is one loaded scene after another – as Jack gets schooled by a nun on the subject of faith:
“It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously period to abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die. This is why we are here. A tiny minority. To embody bold things, old beliefs. The devil, the angels, heaven, hell. If we did not pretend to believe these things, the world would collapse.”
“Of course pretend. Do you think we are stupid? Get out from here.”
“You don’t believe in heaven? A nun?”
“If you don’t, why should I?”
“If you did, maybe I would.”
“If I did, you would not have to.”
“All the old models and quirks,” I said. “Faith, religion, life everlasting. The great old human gullibilities. Are you saying you don’t take them seriously? Your dedication is a pretense?”
“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believed…. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible….”
As someone who’s read a great deal about religious belief over the past several years, I found this confusing but amazing. I can’t even grasp it, but it’s brilliant.
I wasn’t sure what “white noise” referred to. Was it the constant buzz of media, of consumerism, surrounding people, blurring out the experiences of our lives to the point where, as we’ll see in few paragraphs, children mutter brand names in their sleep? Or was it the fear of death that underlies life, blurring out the experience of that life – or creating tension that constantly underlies it? I was glad to read in Cornel Bonca’s “Don Delillo’s White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species,” one of the critical essays included in this edition of the book, that it wasn’t a stupid question:
… I want to flush out what “white noise” means in this novel, since I think a limited idea of the term has kept many readers from appreciating the full range of Delillo’s exploration of postmodern culture. We can begin with the obvious. White noise is media noise, the techno static of a consumer culture that penetrates our homes and our minds…
….[But] White noise manifests itself in much subtler ways, in ways that have little to do with consumerism, mass media, or high technology. It isn’t merely imposed from without by socioeconomic or communication systems, but emerges from sources originating within the characters, from the same organismic death fear that we find operating in The Names. White noise, therefore, encompasses a wide variety of human utterance, both denotative and not. Examples are everywhere: the melancholy “homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, sometimes written in the handwriting of children”;… the “love babble and buzzing flesh” that Jack imagines went on when Babette slept with Willie Mink. What all these phenomena share is a passion for utterance to “bridge the lonely distances,” to “establish a structure against the terror of our souls.” It is language as the denial of death, as the evasion of what cannot be evaded. “Pain, death, reality,” Murray Jay Siskind will say: “We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise, and disguise. This is how we survive in the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”
Cornel Bonca: “Don Delillo’s White Noise: The Natural Language of the Species” (1996) available online
So he sees it as both, a kind of sandwiching of the human between two forces. No wonder we’re all a little crazy in one way or another. Still, after my naïve read, I wasn’t sure how the recurring theme of the fear of death related to the cultural and socioeconomic pressure – but that’s what online essays and YouTube lectures are for.
I started with some brief lessons on post-modernism and Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, simulacra, and hyperreality. No, I didn’t read the source material, which makes me part of the irony, and I could have used more academic sources like Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia, but I was looking for a starter set, not a graduate course. A media teacher from England (who better to teach this stuff) and Carneades.org, an open philosophy website for the masses, were quite helpful in the crash course, pointing out, among other things, how cultural representation went from simulating reality to simulating itself so that we can’t tell what’s real and what’s simulation: “Audiences can’t decide on truth.” Gee, where have I heard that lately. If you’ll forgive a mishmash of paraphrases and snippets of quotations from both sources:
Premodern culture consisted of high arts, based on the Church and associated Grand Narratives, which indicated What is Good and How People Should Live; people had direct contact with reality, knew how to build their tools for farming and hunting, how to find and prepare their own food.
Modern culture introduced media that became simulations of reality, and emphasized science, ideas beyond those of the Grand Narratives, and, eventually, consumerism as the means of prosperity
Postmodernism, in the late 20th century, saw reality made up of cultural representation rather than reality itself; culture is no longer based on reality, but on cultural products. Since we are surrounded by media and believe it is reality, new cultural creations reference existing cultural representations until the difference between reality and simulations of simulations (simulacra) make it impossible to understand reality outside of cultural representations.
Baudrillard’s simulacra are imitations that fail to make reference to the original. A hyperreal simulacra “instead of representing something real in the world, only represents a web of other simulacra.”
The Media Insider: , Postmodernism explained for beginners! Jean Baudrillard Simulacra and Hyperreality explained.
John Pistelli’s brief lecture, which I’ve already referenced above (and he is an academic source, whew) was extremely helpful in connecting the book to these ideas. For example, he points out how the SIMUVAC team is designed to simulate emergency evacuations and is using a real emergency to practice its simulation function, perfectly illustrating the confusion between reality and simulacra. I think of the passenger in the airport, explaining to people who have just been through the event exactly what happened. They experienced the reality, but they need the media experience, the simulation, to understand it.
Pistelli also describes the anxiety at being so separated from our reality: we don’t know how to feed ourselves without supermarkets and stoves (or food delivery services). I realized that when I was a kid, maintaining your own car was a source of pride: changing oil, replacing spark plugs, and a lot of teenage boys loved to tinker, fix, listen, tune. As I understand it, today’s cars require computer equipment to do anything. Some people still do some backyard gardening, but it’s a rare family that can feed itself. This feeds into Jack’s anxiety about death, since life feels precarious.
I’m not sure I fully understand what Pistelli is getting at here, but this seems like it comes up over and over again in the book:
However, Delillo does see a way out that is not simply exiting the postmodern condition. He says that the postmodern condition provides resources in itself for its own transcendence and it comes in this form of learning to experience things like language as routes to the transcendent, to the mystical, to the divine… Delillo finds the spirituality in consumer culture…
John Pistelli, University of Minnesota, Lecture #30, Contemporary American Literature, Spring 2021
He connects this with the scene in Part II, the Airborne Toxic Event, when Jack hears his daughter muttering in her sleep:
I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica.
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence?…. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.
I depend on my children for that.
I hope it’s supposed to make me sad that this is how Jack finds a way to experience the transcendent. Then again, for me it’s biology; I find transcendence in the Krebs cycle. But that’s because, as complicated as it is, it keeps us alive, somehow, just by physical properties of atoms and molecules. To find such wonder in the name of a car seems a lesser form of awe, to say the least.
A more sinister example of the use of words comes towards the end of the book, as Jack confronts the man who provided his wife with experimental medication intended to eradicate her fear of death, on the condition that she sleep with him. One of the side effects is heightened suggestibility. Imagine the fun you can have with something like that. And here is the scene where killer-dier reverses for Jack, his initial murderous intent evolving into this more spiritual form of torment:
I recalled Babette’s remarks about the side effects of the medication. I said, as a test, “Falling plane.”
He looked at me, gripping the arms of the chair, the first signs of panic building in his eyes.
“Plunging aircraft,” I said, pronouncing the words crisply, authoritatively.
He kicked off his sandals, folded himself over into the recommended crash position, head well forward, hands clasped behind his knees….
I was ready to kill him now. But I didn’t want to compromise the plan…. I said to him gently, “Hail of bullets.” Keeping my hand in my pocket.
He hit the floor, began crawling toward the bathroom, looking back over his shoulder, childlike, miming, using principles of heightened design but showing real terror, brilliant cringing fear.
Words as weapons. We often use them that way, though not usually so literally, and not with so much glee.
The glaringly depleted concept of spirituality comes through in other ways (and I say this as someone who is pretty skeptical of, sometimes hostile to, most traditional forms of spirituality). The parents watch TV with their children once a week. The idea is that the kids will decide TV is something boring old people do, but it doesn’t seem to be working that way. What it reminds me of is church.
And of course there’s that amazing conversation with the nun, whose sacrifice is spending her life faking belief so others can go on not believing. Again, I don’t quite get it, but it’s chill-inducing.
I keep seeing aspects, or what I imagine in my beginners-level grasp of this as aspects, of this book everywhere now that I’m aware of it. I’ve been bingeing on old Top Chef episodes recently; in one, Tom Colicchio advises a contestant to travel, if only to nearby restaurants serving authentic cuisines, to learn more about the flavors and dishes associated with an ethnicity or location. “But I have books for that!” she said, and it was like lightning struck. “You don’t learn to cook from books, you learn from experience!” scolded Tom. Actually, most of us learn from Food Network and YouTube these days. Experience? What a concept!
Then just the other day, I tweeted out after ordering another group of books from Thriftbooks: “I think I get almost as much enjoyment from ordering used books – finding suitable copies at the lowest price, tracking the shipments, anticipating their arrival – as I do from reading them. This is disturbing.” I wasn’t consciously thinking of this book at all, but there it is: my love of reading tied in with my love of consumerism.
This is only a shallow, first-pass look at what’s going on here, a way to be able to follow conversations that will surely arise when the film is released. I recognize something from the trailer already: as the family drives out of their contaminated town per the evacuation order, the daughter keeps trying to see what people in other cars look like: are they happy, scared? Why? “So I know how scared to be.” I don’t remember if that line is in the book or not, but it’s perfect.
Typography, from the ancient Greek typos (impress) and graphia (writing), is described, in the broadest terms, by the eminent poet-typographer Robert Bringhurst as “the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form.” More precisely it is the craft of using discrete, reusable and rearrangeable pieces of type – tangible or digital glyphs or characters – to produce, ideally, readable texts. The typographical firsts discussed in the chapters that follow originate in incunabula, a term coined to describe the first decades of European printing from its introduction in about 1450 to the arbitrary but bibliographically convenient 1500.
There is an innate danger in employing superlatives. The oldest, the youngest, the best, the worst, the first, the last – these are invariably open to interpretation and revision…. To qualify every single statement about firsts, as though we were engaged in the preliminaries to a philosophical debate, is laborious and makes for tedious reading, so I have done my best to tread carefully, and where appropriate I have added caveats to my ‘firsts’ with modifying or comparative qualifiers…. I hope I have managed to find a compromise between flagrant laissez-faire and persnickety pedantry.
What a gorgeous book – and true to its subtitle, it does describe “Adventures in Early Printing.” For all of us who complain about digital media, let’s remember that, as the Middle Ages turned into the Renaissance, manuscripts turned into printed books. Not suddenly, not in a year or a decade, but over time. I imagine a curmudgeon in the year 1520 or so griping, “These new books made by machine, they’re not real books! Get me a scribe and some vellum!”
I have to admit, this was not precisely the book I expected it to be. I became aware of it because it was frequently mentioned on the blog for the website ILoveTypography.com, which showcases new fonts. So I was expecting something more along the lines of Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, a book I loved so much I wrote five posts about it because I just couldn’t wait to finish it before enthusing about the early chapters. Instead, it’s much more like an expansion of the first week of Trinity College’s mooc on The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: the technological and human influences on books as handwritten texts became printed and thus more widely available. A happy accident, to be sure; it’s a wonderful story told with various slants, accompanied by plentiful and beautiful full-color illustrations from those early books, many of them full-page spreads.
In spite of his cautions about the term “first” in the Introduction, Boardley structures the book around the very idea of firsts in mechanical book production: the first fonts, the first use of title pages, the first illustrations, the first printed music and maps, etc. This thematic structure allows the reader to zero in on a topic rather than a time period; I found it very effective and enjoyable, since it allows for amusing historical and legendary anecdotes as well as history. For example, we’ve all heard of Guttenberg and his Bible, but how many of us were aware that there was another origin story, along the lines of Newton and Leibniz discovering calculus, or Marconi and Tesla inventing the radio:
Out walking among the dunes with his children, a father picked up a piece of bark and for no other reason than to entertain them proceeded to carve from it a letter. Upon completion it fell from his hands, face down, leaving its impression in the soft sand. In this happy accident Laurens Coster of Haarlem in the Netherlands saw the entire typographic process clearly before him. Despite the apocryphal nature of this origins tale, it elucidates the fundamental component of typography – an alphabet of discrete cast or molded letters, inked and then printed.
Ok, sure, Coster as the West’s first typographer is a lot more fanciful than Liebniz or Tesla, but it’s a great story. From there we find how fonts were adapted from handwritten manuscripts, and how they changed over time and geography. It’s a complicated story; I was surprised to find that several fonts existed before the famous Guttenberg 42-line Bible (called such because the pages have 42 lines) employed its familiar Gothic font.
I was also surprised that women were a definite, if small, presence in the early book industry. Generally it seemed they took over operations after the deaths of their husbands (though some declined to do so, possibly because the debt was too great). Boardley gives us a glimpse into the business savvy of Charlotte Guillard in Paris, who outlasted two husbands and created something of a book empire.
The descriptions of how illustrations came to be incorporated into books – from hand-added rubrics to stencils to woodcuts to intaglio to lithography and beyond – were accompanied by so many full-color plates, I often just stared at the pictures and forgot to read!
I always enjoy recognizing a name or concept that I’ve come across before, and this was no exception: my buddy Poggio Bracciolini, whom I encountered in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve as the manuscript-hunting monk, is credited for his humanist minuscules; and the chapter on printer’s marks mentions the rather famous Festina Lente, familiar to me first from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millenium and then from some other book-related moocs.
And in connection with printer’s marks, a touch of humor:
Visual puns and play on words were common themes in printers’ devices. For example, the rebus of the late sixteenth-century English printer William Norton was a pun on his given and family names; His device was a Sweet William growing through a tun or cask inscribed with the letters nor. Another, arguably subtler jeux de mots was to be found in the device of Simon de Colines, wherein a family of rabbits are frolicking at the base of a tree. Why rabbits? ‘Conil’, the old French word for rabbit, is an acoustic anagram for Colines. Moreover bouquin, a French farmer’s word for a male hare or rabbit, is also colloquial French for book. Thus the book-hawkers or chapmen of Paris were bouquinistes – literally, jack-rabbit dealers.
There were not only puns, but parody too. For example, in Venice, Giovanni Angelo Ruffinelli’s device employed three artichokes, a parody of the fleur-de-lys mark of the Florentine Giunti dynasty.
As it was in manuscripts, where marginal illustrations often made humorous comments about either the content or people who would be recognized in the current time, it seems pictures allow humor where words might make offense.
I’ve referred to this book several times as a coffee-table book, but it occurred to me I have no idea if there is some set criteria for such nomenclature. Various descriptions seem to agree on several points: a coffee table book is oversized, expensive, lavishly illustrated in full color, and meant to be read in short sittings, such as while waiting for something or as a conversation starter, rather than read straight through. This book is a bit oversized though not dramatically; at $40, it’s a bit more than a current best-seller but nowhere near most academic tomes; it abounds in the requisite illustrations; and I’ve been reading it for over a year a little at a time, sometimes just flipping through and looking at the pictures. I’ve read that ‘coffee table book’ is often considered pejorative, less than a real book, but this is a real book, and while the images sometimes steal the show, the information is interesting and delightful as well.
And by the way – I’m no snob when it comes to digital books (though I admit I’m far more comfortable with paper) but there’s nothing like these full-page plates on paper. Sure, online you can zoom in or out, but there’s still something breathtaking when I turn a page and find a title page from Aesop or Renaissance polyphony greeting me.
What does learning look like, stripped of its trappings of fame, prestige, fortune, and social use? In other words, how is it good for its own sake, because of its effect on the learner rather than because of its outward results?
Earlier this year, I was excited to see an online presentation of research into mooc engagement during the pandemic specific to a particular course, their entry-level Intro to Biology class. It’s an outstanding course; I’ve gone through it two or three times (though I skipped a lot of the genetics material on the later runs) because it covered a lot of basic material in an interesting and engaging way.
In the middle of the presentation, the two researchers considered how difficult it was to really know exactly who dropped out, who started over, and who went on to the Competency Exam, because of the nature of moocs. One of the women, who to me is something of a god because she directs the MITxBio online effort and their moocs are so great, explained the difficulty of tracking dropouts and re-takes: “These courses, in some ways, can be like Netflix, that they’re free to just enter, try out some, watch it. There’s people who are retired but do this for entertainment even. And so people have a lot of different purposes for what they’re using the course for.”
My heart broke.
It’s not her fault. Her job is to make sure the online offerings teach what is needed to succeed as a Bio student, primarily at MIT but also at other institutions. It’s not to assure entertainment value for those of us who will never again enter a classroom or lab, and certainly don’t have bio degrees in our futures. Still, it felt like dismissal. If you’re not in it for credit, you’re doing the equivalent of watching a romcom. Hey, I like romcoms, but I don’t spend hours working on them, putting the entire course into a document I can refer to (which takes an astonishing amount of time what with formatting and adding relevant images) or entering the information into Cerego so I can study it for years to come (Molecular Biology, part 1, has been coming up a lot lately, must have hit the two-year mark).
Granted, I’m a bit hypersensitive to being classified as a “hobbyist” but look at it this way: I’m not expecting any secondary gain, no degree, no high-paying job, from my moocing (and OCW-ing and Duolingo-ing etc); don’t I get some kind of respect for trying to learn the ins and outs of the Krebs cycle (not to mention Spanish, ancient Greek history, Chinese philosophy, and all the other things I study) just because I want to know them? Spoiler alert: nope.
This book helped me feel a lot better.
It’s partly an updated and expanded version of Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” which I read a few months ago. Hitz, a philosophy professor, combines her own disillusionment and re-enchantment with academia via spiritual and religious exploration with numerous sources showing different way learning affects individuals. Malcolm X, Primo Levi, St. Augustin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Einstein provide evidence that learning, not in the service of a goal such as professional advancement, makes us better able to understand others, better able to reach out to others, and better able to handle the less terrific aspects of our lives.
Reading the book turned out to demonstrate its own argument in several ways.
First: Had I read this twenty years ago – even ten years ago – it would have been a very different experience. Now, it was like shaking hands with an old friend when I read the first line of the prologue:
Midway through the journey of my life, I found myself in the woods of eastern Ontario, living in a remote Catholic religious community called Madonna House.
This was during her recovery from overstressed academia, and the work she did gave her a way to figure out how to return to a more rewarding academic setting. She never mentions the reference to the first line of Dante’s Commedia, just leaves it there for others to perhaps recognize. Had I not read Dante several years ago – an adventure that itself was predicated on considerable other adventures that prepared me – I would have missed it. It wouldn’t have prevented my reading her book, but this moment added a richness that was encouraging.
Second: A few pages later she discusses learning as a refuge from the world with the aid of “a fictional bookworm” who turns out to be a character in the film version of the protagonist of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, another book I just happened to have read some years ago. One of the memorable scenes from that book involves the concierge and a tenant in her building, two people far apart on the socioeconomic spectrum, connecting with a brief shared wince at another tenant’s slightly non-standard use of a word; it is their knowledge that provides a bridge that allows them to enjoy each other’s company. It’s the same little frisson I felt on recognizing the book: “Hey, I know that, too!”
Third: It wasn’t just the joy of discovering works we’d both read; I also found reading that I might like to take on, specifically, Martin Eden, by Jack London. I’ve already ordered a used copy for next year’s In-Between read. I didn’t know London wrote anything but adventure and nature novels, and I’m excited to find out otherwise. It sounds fascinating.
As Hitz points out, it’s learning for the joy it brings us, or the change it creates in us that helps us interact with others and the world at large. And here I thought of two more examples: “Babette’s Feast,” a wonderful story by Isak Dinesen (and later a wonderful film), in which a woman spends all she has creating a magnificent feast for the group of austere Scandinavians who have taken her in, simply for the joy of creating; and Daisy, the scullery maid turned assistant cook on Downton Abbey (I haven’t seen anything beyond the first series), who discovers learning and keeps going back and forth on whether it’s ok to keep doing it since there’s no purpose to it other than her delight in seeing things she’s never seen before.
A section on the asceticism required to turn inward hit home:
Yet, the solitary excellence of the individual, finally grasping the cause of causes, does feel somehow incomplete. Understanding, like the sight of something beautiful or fascinating, calls out to be shared. The most solitary of solitary learners seeks to communicate, even if only in writing and only for the sake of human beings she will never meet.
Tell me about it. I so long to have conversations that go beyond 280 characters – but those 280 characters are in themselves rare, since my posts are generally met with a Like, a brief comment like “I think I might read this,” or, most commonly, silence. The closest thing to communication is the back-and-forth my blogging buddy Jake Weber and I do with BASS story posts; we (me more than he) often discover something we hadn’t thought of in each other’s posts.
Then again, sometimes I get rewards beyond my dreams. A reader – an English professor who has several times mentioned how he uses my BASS posts in his course – recommended this book in a comment because he felt it would fit in with my pursuit of learning. Thank you, Prof. Bliss; you were right.
I’d say there are three or four meanings to Buck. There’s the fact that right, he’s a dude who gets the name Buck and he’s Black. That he worked at Starbucks is number two. Number three, it’s a representation of Black wealth, Black bucks, you know, obviously talking about cash and bread and the idea that what Darren does and how he changes the game, even if only for a moment in time, will help more Black and Brown people make money and hopefully uplift their families and their communities. And this is obviously bold, but maybe beyond the way to be attaining some real wealth. And then the fourth way is the historical meaning of Black buck, right? What it means to be a Black buck. As you know, they were the unruly, big, wild, enslaved people who these white masters, these enslavers, believed were going to burn down the plantation, steal their wives, kill the animals, kill them.
And when I thought about that and I meditated on it deeply, I said, you know what, that’s the energy that I’m bringing to this book as the writer and the energy that Buck is bringing to the world of Black Buck himself…. And sorry, the last thing I’ll say is we see that Buck pays for it, for bucking against the system. And we see how that plays out.
Mateo Askaripour, interview at Electric Literature
Rising Action. It’s the part of the novel where, once you have the basics of setting, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict laid out, things get complicated. Actions have unexpected consequences; random events throw obstacles in the protagonist’s path; people make mistakes and, maybe, try to fix them; deep dark secrets come to light and change our view of what’s happening. It’s what pushes a novel beyond the publisher’s summaries and the blurbs. It’s what can land a reader in a very different place than what was anticipated. It’s what can scare you, confuse you, anger you, break your reading heart, then show you how to heal.
A lot of previews cite this as a satirical look at racism in corporate America. Ok, that’s definitely part of it, and a fun part it is. But Askaripour had more in mind. Add in a mom who works for Clorox and owns her Bed-Stuy brownstone. Add a downstairs tenant who’s almost part of the family now. Add a couple of lifelong buddies from the neighborhood, guys who aren’t doing quite as well as Buck. Add a girlfriend he’s known half his life and her family. Add one of the Starbucks workers who’s an odd duck, who Buck’s taken under his wing and protected for a few years. Give them all their own trajectories. Set it all in the White World of Business, in the sales department for absurd online platform, where a lot of I’m-not-racist people really don’t hate black people, they’ve just never really known any, other than the famous ones on TV and in the news. Add a company crisis, and a solution only a Black man can provide, for tinder. Then add a genuine white supremacist to light a fuse, and see what happens to the I’m-not-racist crowd. But more than that, see what happens to the kid from Starbucks who was born to be a salesman. Now that’s rising action.
It all starts at that Starbucks, when Darren Vender decides, for no particular reason other than fate, to convince a regular customer to get something other than his regular coffee.
Just give him his regular. Stop fucking around. But I didn’t listen. What I said next had to be divine intervention because I didn’t know where it came from.
“That’s what the last five customers also said to me, until I gave them another option that solved a problem they didn’t know they had.”
He clenched his jaw and leaned toward me like he was going to Tyson my ear off.
“Because,” I continued, too committed to stop, “believe it or not, when you come here and order something, you are not ordering a drink, you’re ordering a solution. A solution to fatigue, irritability, and anything else that a lack of coffee means to you. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’m confident that the Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream is what you actually want. It has ten grams less sugar than your regular, forty fewer calories, and one hundred forty milligrams more caffeine. But at the end of the day, those are just numbers. So if you buy the Nitro Cold Brew and don’t like it, you can come back, and I’ll give you your regular free of charge. What do you think?”
Silence. Ten full seconds of silence. If you don’t think ten seconds of silence is long, just count it out while picturing a grown man staring directly into your eyes as if he’s going to snatch the black off you. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. I was tempted to tell him to forget it, that it was my bad, but something told me not to. I just stared back into his eyes until he said, “Did you just try to reverse close me?” he relaxed his jaw and his eyes softened with curiosity.
And so Darren, nicknamed Buck, becomes a fledgling sales rep for Sumwun (I’m embarrassed to admit it took me half the book to realize it’s pronounced “someone”). “We help people,” says Rhett, Buck’s recruiter, avoiding exactly what the company does for a very long time. I used to work for a long-term-care insurance salesman. He’d never call himself that; he’d announce he helped people protect their assets. In fact, a lot of what I learned on that job (I was the office manager – sales is nowhere near my strength – but I paid attention) was represented in the book. Turns out, Askaripour spent a few years as a high-end sales rep, so he knows the drill. And he makes some very interesting writer’s choices throughout.
Take the whole “we help people” claim. Buck turns that into real help, not for unseen random people, but for his friends and then, as things expand, for Black people, by teaching them how to sell. And by teaching them how useful sales skills are in selling oneself. But go out still another layer: the whole book is written as a self-help book, a sales training manual.
It caught me by surprise, coming in right off the bat. “Author’s Note”, I read, right after the title page and epigram. I was expecting some kind of ‘this is a work of fiction’ disclaimer, or acknowledgment page, by Askaripour. “There’s nothing like a Black man on a mission,” it starts, then amends that to “Black salesman.” It goes on, and eventually I realized it’s not Askaripour writing, it’s Buck. Or, an amalgam of both. It’s a unique entry into a book, ending,
And if I am successful in teaching you how to sell and fix the game, I ask that you buy another copy of my book and give it to the friend who needs it most. Who is stuck like I was and in need of a way out. Who is blind to the game but has potential, just like you. Does that sound fair? If so, and if you can do the three things I outlined above, then we have a deal. And if we have a deal, it’s time for you to do one last thing.
Turn the page.
Happy selling, Buck
It’s kind of amazing how many levels that goes for. In the context of the book, it’s character exposition, and gives you a hint of where the story goes. It’s also a recognition that this is, in fact, Askaripour’s idea of a self-help book, that it should be read that way. And it’s also an author selling his book. Sales. Ain’t it amazing.
Pithy sales tips appear throughout, integrated into key moments in the text:
That session with Eddie was the day’s silver lining. I learned that “no one’s going to stay on the line with someone as interesting as C-SPAN,” that “what and how you pitch depends on who you’re pitching to,” and that the point of speaking with someone is to have a conversation, not to conduct an interrogation. But best of all, I learned how to have fun on the phone. Reader: all of that is critical advice. No one is going to listen to someone who sounds like they’d rather be doing something else. And when you’re trying to convince someone of anything, you need to tailor your message to the person you’re speaking with so it resonates as powerfully as possible.
Reader: Ending up pitch with “Sound fair?” is a common sales tactic. Most people don’t want to be viewed as unfair or unreasonable, so they’re more likely to give in, especially when what someone is pitching does sound fair enough. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
And how about:
Reader: Salespeople are often separated into two camps: those who love to win and to those who hate to lose. Before joining Sumwun, I was one of the latter. But once you taste what it feels like to win, to really win something meaningful – like your spot on the dream team – you will do everything to protect that feeling. Be careful of winning, it’s one of the most dangerous things you can ever do.
As you may suspect, a lot of these aphorisms have meanings beyond Sales 101; they reach into the story, and beyond. Particularly some of the later advice, like:
Reader: Life, like sales, comes with an endless amount of opportunities to do the wrong thing to win. But understand that whether you take those opportunities or not, consequences still follow. And they won’t always be in your favor.
That’s one of the strengths of the book: Buck doesn’t come through unscathed. Victory has it’s costs, and freedom isn’t free, all that.
I found a lot to appreciate in Buck’s experience as the only Black man in a White company. He recognizes a lot of his coworkers, since he’s been serving their coffee for four years; but no one recognizes him. They all say, “Hey, anyone ever tell you how much you look like [insert name of the only famous Black man they can think of]?” MLK, Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X. Who, obviously, look nothing alike. The marketing teams are named after Black rap groups, giving Buck a “this is what happens when you have no Black employees.” On the final day of his “Hell Week” training, Buck wears a Starbucks apron under his clothes, to remind him of how successful and confident he was in that setting – and to give us the Superman vibe all over again. I only regret that he never ripped off his shirt and showed it, but that probably would’ve been too much. Then there’s the moment when a teenaged Sumwun user is murdered: “Platforms don’t kill people,” says Rhett, Buck’s recruiter and boss. How to refuse responsibility, transplanted.
A couple of moments seem very interesting to me in how they might be read differently by readers of different races.
I took a step into the crosswalk, then felt a firm hand on my wrist. When I turned around, Rhett was shaking like he was going to cry. “I meant what I said, Buck. Whether you like it or not, when you walk into the office, you will be Sumwun’s director of sales, and you will give more time and attention to the company. It’s the least you can do for everything I’ve done for you. For picking you over Clyde. Understand?”
I stared at his white knuckles tightening their grip on my wrist, burning in the late winter’s chill. “Yeah, my bad. Thanks for always looking out for me, Rhett.”
“White knuckles” might signify anxiety to a White reader, but to a Black reader, white knuckles gripping the wrist of a Black man might seem like a lot more of a threat, of ownership, especially in the context of Rhett’s comment. And by the way, naming a New York sales exec “Rhett” is kind of brilliant as a way of speaking without speaking.
Askaripour’s introduction of a character led me to examine my own reading assumptions:
A commercial flashed across the screen and then I saw it: a news clip featuring the photo of a smiling young girl with braces. I froze. The screen cut to another of an older Chinese man with a straight face and oversized glasses. The types you see pedophiles wearing in their mug shots.
In books by White authors, written primarily for White readers, characters are assumed to be White unless otherwise specified. We get this girl’s name a few sentences later – Donesha – which is a pretty strong hint that she’s Black, but that isn’t confirmed until pages later. A White author would have specified it, or given some other clue in her description. It makes perfect sense for Askaripour, who’s writing primarily for a Black readership, to let the assumption swing the other way. And it raises some interesting questions for White readers. I wonder if his editor brought it up.
I admit that some of the quintessential sales moments don’t ring as true to me, as genuinely convincingly, as that initial scene in Starbucks. And some of the training games he uses in his own version of Hell Week seem downright dangerous and don’t make a lot of sense to me. But those are not terribly significant in an otherwise engrossing, entertaining, and thought-provoking book, one where I couldn’t help but root for the sales guy, despite my predisposition to view sales people with suspicion. See, it’s possible to overcome prejudices. You just have to be willing to try.
Despite its widespread conceptual allergy to vegetable life – indeed, it’s phytophobia – the philosophical tradition in the West could not skirt the issue of plants altogether. Philosophers allotted to them a generally inferior place in their systems; used their germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned them in passing as the natural backdrops for their dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegory’s out of them; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to particular specimens.
Most of these engagements with the flora were fleeting and marginal, as though plants did not deserve the same careful reflection and theoretical attention due to other beings. But our rehashing of the philosophical record, sketchy at best in the case of plants, is not doomed to repeat the failures of the past…. Briefly put, this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought.
I recently became a plant person.
It’s not that I’ve never had an interest in plants before. In the mid-70s, I worked in an office that viewed desktop horticulture as a competitive sport; everything I tried at home developed little white fuzzy spots, possibly because my basement apartment was plagued by dampness (and a few other things). I moved to an airier but much darker place, and to a more work-conscious job, and plants disappeared from my life.
In the early 90s, however, they reappeared, courtesy of balconies and large sunny windows, then disappeared again when I again moved into the dark later that decade. There was one exception to this twenty years of shadow: when I was reading Dante’s Commedia, I noticed a vine growing on the outside of the building, unattached but reaching towards something; this made Dante’s defense of his faith to Peter in “Paradiso” more concrete to this heathen than any commentary:
And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.
That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.
“A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness” 8/14/2015 post
Three years ago, I found myself in this current place with abundant windows and great views of sunrises and moonrises and abundant light, but plants didn’t occur to me until a few months later when COVID changed everything. I will now talk anyone’s ear off about my rather mundane array of philodendrons, curly Bonnie spider plants (late-breaking news: one of them is blooming! A rare event, I hear), ponytail palms (named Tina Turner), oxalis (named Mrs. O’Malley), English ivy, and several cobbled-together trios of the phil-ivy-bonnie, and spend far more time than necessary rearranging and propagating my green family.
All of which is a long-winded, self-aggrandizing way to explain why I might have been interested in a book about the role of plants in philosophy when I saw it on that gold mine of interesting books, Five Books’ “What’s everyone reading this weekend” thread. Especially when they included pics of the TOC.
So I walked through the Intellectual Herbarium watching how the philosophical meaning of plants changed over time as schools of thought came and went. A paragraph from the Heidegger chapter – fairly late in the book – sums it up quite nicely:
After Plato called being eidos (Idea), he located truth in the idea of the tree, rather than in the trees themselves, and prioritized other Ideas, such as that of beauty, over the tree. Aristotle conceived of being as the “unmoved mover” and, focusing on the problems of animation and entelechy, reduced plants to the poor bearers of vegetable souls. Plotinus converted the plant into the vegetable dimension of the One, his Parmenidian misnomer for being.
Augustine was still less interested in actual vegetation, preferring to treat it as the symbol of spiritual reality. For him, as for all medieval philosophers, perfect and self-sufficient being is none other than God, while plants are the least autonomous of all creatures. Avicenna slotted plants into an intricate hierarchy of souls and reduced them to their instrumental value (e.g., for a human diet or medicine) even as Maimonides turned them into hapless quasi-things bearing the full brunt of the law.
Leibnitz’ word for being was “substance,” the same as in the thought of Spinoza and Descartes; for him, plants were the most unabashedly material expressions of the one substance. Kant thought of beings as the “thing-in-itself,” beyond the limits of our practical and conceptual grasp. Within these limits, plants were reduced to scientifically knowable matter prepared for reproduction, to useful resources, and, at best, to the placeholders of universal beauty. Hegel called being “Spirit” and implied that actual plants had to lose their immediate biological life – to be preserved as dried mementos or fermented into bread or wine, for instance – to be reborn into the glorious world of Spirit.
On each page of this intellectual herbarium the plants themselves are forlorn: they are supposed to point to a reality beyond themselves, a reality ranging from Ideas to Spirit. The forgetting of the growing trees, herbs, or flowers corresponds to and stems from the forgetting of being in the midst of attempts to name it. Our ethical failures – be they in relation to other human beings, animals, or plants – are the direct consequences of this forgetting that consistently drives us out of this world and away from the material ground of our lives, that commits us to a “higher” reality, and that devalues whatever or whoever surrounds us. Heidegger’s ontology, locating being in the beings themselves, is therefore fundamental also in this important sense: it is the ground for the ethics of respecting beings in their own being.
Marder’s book is unique not only in its focus on plants – similar to many history-of-philosophy books that focus on a certain common element – but in its structure. Four historically-matched sections each contain three philosophers:
What’s unique about any of this, you say? It’s the structure of each chapter: they are subdivided into four thematic parts, related to each of the other chapters, which creates, as Marder puts it, a different path for reading:
Readers interested in stories that mingle the episodes from the lives (and, in some cases, the deaths) of philosophers with the life of plants may browse the first section of each chapter. If you would like to glean theories of vegetable existence and how they bear up on the main ideas of each philosopher in question, you are advised to consult the second sections (and, at times, the third). The third section of each chapter explores the implications of human interactions with plants. The concluding sections offer critical vistas for reassessing the place of plants as well as the legacies of the thinkers discussed in the book.
So if you’re in an ambling mood, you can read about how Plato snuck himself into Phaedrus as a plano tree, overshadowing Socrates and Phaedrus discussing love, friendship, and sex; then you can move on to some discussion of just why Augustine featured his youthful theft of pears so prominently in his Confessions, to an examination of Kant’s marginal use of a tulip, cadged from Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in his Critique of Judgment (and why it’s unlikely to actually be a tulip), to three encounters Derrida had with plants, one from his teenage years in Algiers, one from writing a love note, and one considering sunflowers and their heliotropism, all of which featured in his later writings.
But if you’re looking more for how these philosophers viewed plants in their overall view of being (for ontology is the primary focus of the works, with a few nods to aesthetics and epistemology), you can start with, say, Plato, who sees humans as upside-down plants: not rooted in the soil, but in the plane of Ideas, with our roots reaching upward from our heads. Then you can read about Maimonides disagreeing with the idea of plants, animals, and humans all having a vegetative soul and seeing instead individual souls for each creature, similar in some aspects but unique to the species. Hegel works in a botanical dialectic, which puzzles me a bit so I’ll just mention it and come back to it later when I’ve got more background. From the post-modern section, Irigaray (who, I confess, is brand-new to me) as a feminist thinker kicks back against the notion of a plant’s perceived passivity and sharing as deficiencies.
While I’ve done some reading and coursework in some areas covered by this book, others were new horizons. I’m familiar with Leibniz from calculus, where there’s usually a comment that in addition to having invented calculus parallel to Newton and contributed notation which is more useful in some circumstances, he was a philosopher, but that’s about it. Now I’ve had a chance to get a small glimpse of his philosophy, particularly the identity of indiscernables, which I think of as something like an ontological Pauli Exclusion Principle. I was also quite fond of Maimonides weaving Jewish law around “pots with holes” and who owns the part above the ground versus who owns the roots. And I was tickled to learn that Avicenna, whose book on medicine was a standard for centuries, didn’t consider fruits and vegetables to be of much nutritional benefit.
Although this is an academic rather than a general-readership book, it’s quite accessible to those of us who have some background but limited depth. For one thing, information on the philosophers involved is easily available online to fill in any gaps. I haven’t thought about Derrida since college (let’s just say that was a long time ago) when I was obsessed with the idea of binary opposition; I was able to find a video from Pomona College that gave a very quick review of differance and enabled me to appreciate all the word play mentioned in the chapter. Everything I know about Heidegger comes from a wonderful short story by Tim Horvath, “The Understory,” which features Heidegger as a character but foregrounds trees. Funny how, if you read enough, it all eventually connects. Yet the chapter was quite readable; I wouldn’t say I understand everything, but learning is a layered process and I’ve made progress.
Another lovely touch are the illustrations by Mathilde Roussel that begin each chapter. It was fun to look at them after reading and see how they illustrated some point that was raised.
One outside reference made me very happy: when Plato proposes that plants have an appetitive soul, Marder editorializes:
Upon hearing about the appetitive soul of plants, today’s readers of Plato might run out of patience with his theory. They will raise a litany of ironical questions: what is it that my cactus desires? What are the pleasures of a rosebush – not the ones it gives to those contemplating its blossoms, but of the bush itself? And that is not even to speak of the pains of a liana, the sensations of a bamboo, or the desires of a palm tree.
Before brushing aside the Platonic insight with a dismissive smirk, why not give the philosopher the benefit of the doubt and let him explain himself. His train of reasoning is actually very simple. Plants cannot live without receiving nourishment by imbibing water through their roots. (although the term is of a Greek pedigree, photosynthesis was as yet unknown at the time of Plato.) When water is in short supply, plants detect the lack of moisture and respond by wilting. If they can be thirsty, and if desire is associated with the experienced a lack of the desired thing in the desiring being, then the fern you have not watered for weeks is, in fact, desirous of water.
First of all, people who take their plants seriously – even if it’s one tiny coleus on an office windowsill – are always saying things like “it doesn’t look happy so I’d better get it out of direct sun” or “it needs something but I’m not sure.” That speaks more to our tendency to anthropomorphize than to the plant’s feelings, but a plant has ways of showing distress: wilting, browning, legginess. And what is legginess but the search for needed light? Not only does the plant know what it needs, it takes steps to find it.
But the really fun part is that next to the sentence, “Does a water-deprived plant really feel the absence of its desire?” I wrote in the margin: “What A Plant Knows!!”, a book by Daniel Chamovitz (and accompanying mooc) I read a couple of years ago. I was going to tell Dr. Marder a thing or two about plants. But then, a couple of paragraphs later, practically danced when he mentioned Chamovitz’ book as providing “data that support the Platonic hypothesis” with the example of leaves that fold up when touched. I still remember the research phytologist who recommended the book to me after she tweeted, “The smell of cut grass is the grass releasing a wounding compound into the air to warn other plants that they were injured. You are smelling their screams.” So keep your Plato snark to yourself: to paraphrase Whitman, “Do not scorn the plants because they don’t communicate the way you do.”
I have to admit, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, both in its form and content. Beyond enjoyment, it was also a success in how much I learned and in the roadmap I now see for how much I still have to learn. It’s probably not the first philosophy book one should read, but it makes a very nice secondary effort.
I hadn’t actually thought much about the psychological aspects of the Moneyball story…
I’d set out to tell a story about the way markets worked, or failed to work, especially when they were valuing people. But buried somewhere inside it was another story, one that I’d left unexplored and untold, about the way the human mind worked, or failed to work, when it was forming judgments and making decisions. When faced with uncertainty – about investments or people or anything else – how did it arrive at its conclusions? How did it process evidence – from a baseball game, and earnings report, a trial, a medical examination, or a speed date? What were people’s minds doing – even the minds of supposed experts – that led them to the misjudgments that could be exploited for profit by others, who ignored the experts and relied on data?
And how did a pair of Israeli psychologists come to have so much to say about these matters that they more or less anticipated a book about American baseball written decades in the future? What possessed two guys in the Middle East just sit down and figure out what the mind was doing when it tried to judge a baseball player, or an investment, or a presidential candidate? And how on earth does a psychologist win a Nobel Prize in economics? In the answers to those questions, it emerged, there was another story to tell. Here it is.
Once again, the @FiveBooks “What are you reading this weekend?” thread got me to add an unplanned read for this year’s in-between session. I was interested in this book for two reasons. First, I hadn’t read any of Lewis’s other work, but greatly enjoyed both movies based on Moneyball and The Big Short – surprising, since I’m not particularly interested in baseball, and finance is the only thing I hate more than auto racing. And secondly, I am interested in Daniel Kahneman’s work; it had featured prominently in a behavioral economics mooc I took some years ago (which is, sadly, no longer available; it was incredibly interesting) as well as in some philosophy and neuroscience courses.
While the book does cover a great many topics researched over fourteen years by Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky, the focus is on the relationship between the two psychologists. Much is made of how they shut themselves in a room and tossed ideas around, figured out how to test hypotheses, and wrote up their results. Lewis writes: “What they were like, in every way but sexually, was lovers. They connected with each other more deeply than either had connected with anyone else.”
They wanted to be the people they became when they were with each other. Work, for Amos, had always been play: if it wasn’t fun, he simply didn’t see the point in doing it. Work now became play for Danny, too. This was new. Danny was like a kid with the world’s best toy closet who is so paralyzed by indecision that he never gets around to enjoying his possessions but instead just stands there worrying himself to death over whether to grab his Super Soaker or take his electric scooter out for a spin. Amos rooted around in Danny’s mind and said, “Screw it, we’re going to play with all of this stuff.”
…. The way Danny put it was, “we were sharing a mind.”
The book starts with basketball and the familiar “how do you select the best players” problem explored in Moneyball. And again, it took a brave manager to figure out they weren’t doing it right. This gets turned into what Kahneman and Tversky called the representativeness heuristic:
When people make judgments, they argued, they compare whatever they are judging to some model in their minds. How much do these clouds resemble my mental model of an approaching storm? How closely does this ulcer resemble my mental model of a malignant cancer? Does Jeremy Lin match my mental picture of a future NBA player? Does that belligerent German political leader resemble my idea of a man capable of orchestrating genocide? The world not just the stage. It’s a casino, and our lives are games of chance…. You have some notion of apparent population: “storm clouds” or “gastric ulcers” or “genocidal dictators” or “NBA players.” you compare the specific case to the parent population
From the examples given, you can see this isn’t just an academic issue, or something about building a basketball team. It’s how we judge what’s going on in the world, what we take seriously, what we ignore. Who we ignore. It’s why so many women, especially women of color, sometimes tweet “This is what a scientist/mathematician/professor/judge looks like,” along with stories of school advisors who told them to study nursing or typing. It’s not just virtue signaling or political correctness: there’s a real need to disrupt the white-male image so many of us, especially those of us who grew up in an earlier time, have of those professions.
From there, Lewis tells the individual stories of Danny and Amos up until they met each other at Hebrew University when Danny invited Amos to give a lecture to his class. It wasn’t love at first sight, but they did start trading ideas and viewpoints and eventually found themselves a working relationship.
While there is some discussion of the technical and statistical approaches to the problems they worked on, the explanations are down-to-earth and easily grasped by a general readership. Initially they combined three heuristics: representativeness already mentioned, anchoring, and availability. Anchoring: if you give a completely irrelevant number – say, the last two digits of your cell phone number – any estimate in a more relevant context will be affected by that number. This is demonstrated by having subjects spin a wheel with numbers from 0 to 100 and record where the wheel stops. Then they’re asked the percentage of the UN composed of nations from Africa. The higher the wheel spin number, the higher they guess the percentage to be, although of course there’s no relation whatsoever. Availability refers to whatever is easiest to remember: if asked if there are more English words that begin with K, or words with K in the third position, most people will guess the initial is more common when it’s only half as common. It just happens to be easier to remember words that begin with K.
Lewis doesn’t ignore the stresses of academia. They were working in a hybrid of psychology and economics, and neither discipline was pleased.
In the academic culture war triggered by Danny and Amos’s work, Amos served as a strategic advisor. At least some of his sympathies were with the economists. Amos’s mind had always clashed with most of psychology. He didn’t like emotion, as a subject. His interest in the unconscious mind was limited to a desire to prove it didn’t exist…. Like the economists, he preferred neat formal models to mixed-chocolate boxes of psychological phenomena. Like them, he found it completely normal to be rude. And, like them, he had worldly ambitions for his ideas. Economists sought influence in the arenas of finance and business and public policy. Psychologists hardly ever entered those arenas. That was about to change.
Danny and Amos both saw that there was no point trying to infiltrate economics from psychology. The economists would just ignore intruders. What they needed were young economists with an interest in psychology. Almost magically, after Amos and Danny arrived in North America, they began to appear.
As I read the book, I was waiting for some reference to System1/System2 thinking, the topic I ran into in moocs from many fields. That, however, was research Danny did later. It’s a fascinating topic: we tend to make decisions based on gut feelings (System1) then justify them rationally (System2) but we think we’ve done it the other way around. Sometimes this works out fine; sometimes we take a pass on Jeremy Lin because he doesn’t look like a basketball player. Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a general-readership explanation. But it was in the post-Tversky era of Danny’s career, so it was just mentioned here in the afterword.
The book’s title refers to a fourth heuristic Danny and Amos never were able to integrate into their schema.
They’d been interested chiefly in people’s anticipation of the unpleasant emotion, and how this anticipation might alter the choices they made period now Danny wanted to explore regret, and other emotions, from the opposite direction. He wanted to study how people undid events that had already happened.
…Danny now had an idea that there might be a fourth heuristic – to add to availability, representativeness, and anchoring. “The simulation heuristic,” he’d eventually call it, and it was all about the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s mind. As they moved through the world, people ran simulations of the future.
Although the connection isn’t stated outright, it’s clear this relates to the disintegration of their working relationship. A lot happened at around the same time: divorce, remarriage, a move across the world, a change in academic status. There wasn’t any big fight; they continued to work together but it was less productive. It’s painful to read. And it gets harder. These guys who researched regret, who researched undoing the past when things went wrong, who drew lines from the irrational to rationality, were just as helpless as anyone else when it started to fall apart.
I have to admire how Lewis lands the plane; I wouldn’t have believed a book about behavioral economics could draw tears. His superpower is not just the ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, but to combine what could be dry information with an emotionally rich story. While I’m intrigued by the research, I’m also enchanted by these two psychologists who dared to scientifically examine what everyone either ignored or thought but wouldn’t talk about and thus started a new field. Youtube has videos of both Lewis talking about his experience of writing the book – he was afraid Kahneman would see he was a B-student writing about an A-student – and Kahneman talking about his concerns – he only went ahead with the project because he realized someone was going to do it and it might as well be Lewis.
It’s very much worth a read to see what you might be missing in your own decision making, and to experience a different kind of love story.
Writing was invented perhaps four times: in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Central America (‘perhaps’ because there are those who argue that the Egyptians took over the idea, though not the form, from Mesopotamia). The base-ten numbering system also emerged four times independently: in Babylon, China, India and Central America. Monotheism arose independently in the Old and New World (a generalization I can defend, in a small way, by citing a tribe with which I spent some time in 1979-80, the Waorani of the eastern Ecuadorian jungle; they believed in a single god, Waengongi, from long before the arrival of Europeans). And evolution had an evolution of its own from long before it was formalized by Darwin.
But the alphabet, despite its multifarious forms, was a unique idea, arising only once, spreading across cultures and down centuries. There are many other writing systems, but they are all ideographic or syllabic. Other than the unknown scribes who originated the first tentative form of the alphabet around 2000 BC in Egypt, no culture or person ever independently dreamed up the idea.
This was the wrong book.
I was looking for a different book on the alphabet – one with a somewhat mystical theory – and couldn’t remember the name. This was suggested, and I figured, hey, why not, maybe a straightforward history is the place to start.
Alas, this particular book was the victim of poor timing: I was deep in my Chesterton obsession so didn’t focus as much as I could have, and got lost halfway through. Once I put Chesterton to bed, I started over (it’s a fairly short book) but got lost in the same place. Either I’m losing brain cells at an alarming rate, or there’s something about the second half of this book that’s a lot less readable.
…[T]he roots of the alphabet are still emerging. It seems increasingly certain that this revolutionary, one-off concept arose in Egypt, about 2000 BC. These discoveries will remain controversial until more evidence is found, interpreted and accepted, but one thing you can bet on: as archaeology becomes ever more effective, astonishing advances are still to be made. One day, perhaps, some cache of scrolls or inscriptions will reveal the genii – perhaps even the individual genius – who mined the first treasure-trove of letters from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Man’s primary point is that the alphabet – originally, proto-Sinitic or proto-Canaanite – was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics some time around 2000 BC. He tells this by way of two discoveries, one slightly west of the Nile in the 1990s, and one in the Sinai in the early 20th century. I’m unable to relate these two separate discoveries, or figure out any kind of timeline, but this serves as a basic theory of alphabetic origin. From there, the alphabet was adapted into Hebrew, by the Phonecians who spread it around, and eventually the Greeks and Romans.
The rest of the book delves into explanations of the limitations of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, general linguistic theories of sound production, and glimpses into various writing systems. Although less than a linear history, these are the sections that were the most interesting to me.
Included is a section on the Korean alphabet, which I briefly encountered in a mooc on Korean philosophy. Originally Korea adopted Chinese script as the written basis for their language; it didn’t fit well, but they made it work. In the 15th century, Sejong, a king and a scholar, spent decades consulting with scholars and finally produced The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People, a handbook for Hangul, an alphabet designed for the Korean language.
Its letters are based on an accurate analysis of Korean phonemes. It makes a clear distinction between consonants and vowels. Perhaps the most outstanding feature is that the shapes of the basic letters have significance (whereas the purpose of Roman shapes is lost in history). Sejong’s letters are based on the position of the tongue when the sound is made…
Rooted in practicality, Hangul also reflects Sejong’s Neo-Confucianism. The whole alphabet divides into two complementary opposites of yin – the female, passive, dark, wet and cold principles – and yang – the male, active, bright, dry and hot ones. The interplay of these two forces produce the five elements of wood, earth, fire, metal and water. In Hangul, the vowels are all elaborations on three basic Confucian symbols: a vertical for man, a horizontal for earth and a circle for heaven. Moreover vowels are either bright or dark, and consonants either hard or soft, with further symbolic connections to the five elements depending on whether they are consonants of the back teeth, front teeth, tongue, lips or throat.
Yet, despite Sejong’s authority and the beauty of his system, Hangul did not sweep away tradition. It found modest use in several of his pet projects, and in Buddhist literature, poetry and novels. The establishment refused to be convinced. Bureaucrats and scholars kept their precious Chinese for over four centuries…. In the 1990s, his great invention finally won.
This is used to demonstrate what Man calls his Working Theories of Script Innovation:
1. In a writing system, complexity knows no bounds and imposes none.
2. A writing system will last as long as its culture, unless changed by force.
3. New writing systems emerge only in new, young, ambitious cultures.
Another interesting, if already well-known, aside is an examination of the Pioneer plaque designed by Carl Sagan in 1971. If the Pioneer probe ever reaches intelligent life, what would serve as a “Hi there, we’re your neighbors” calling card?
A similar problem from the 1980s was faced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They wanted to post some kind of warning on nuclear waste sites, warnings that would be intelligible in 10,000 years, even if current society collapsed and a completely new culture evolved. They assumed language would not survive, so what about pictures, or stylized pictographs like Do Not Walk signs? The problem is even those can be misinterpreted now; who knows how they would strike whoever was here so many millennia from now. They enlisted Thomas Sebeok, a professor of linguistics, to recommend such a warning. He came back with a detailed analysis of why the task was impossible, and recommended an Atomic Priesthood (I swear, I am not making this up) that would be passed down over the years making the area culturally taboo if science should shrivel and die. “Naturally, no such ‘priesthood’ has ever been established,” says Man. I asked one of my online science fiction experts if this had generated a story or novel or series, but it seems not. It makes me wonder about the origins of various existing cultural taboos.
I’m well aware I didn’t give this book its due, and at some point I just stopped trying. I may revisit it, or try a different book on the same subject (or find the original book I was looking for) but for now I’ve gotten tired of the whole mess. In spite of that I came out of it with some interesting tidbits.
I happened to dedicate to Mr. Bentley, in those distant days, a book called “The Man Who Was Thursday”; it was a very melodramatic sort of moonshine, but it had a kind of notion in it; and the point is that it described, first a band of the last champions of order fighting against what appeared to be a world of anarchy; and then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf; who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity; and my work even enjoyed a temporary respect among those who like the Deity to be so described. But this error was entirely due to the same cause; that they had read the book but had not read the title-page. In my case, it is true, it was a question of a sub-title rather than a title. The book was called “The Man Who Was Thursday: a Nightmare.” It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.
G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London Times, June 13, 1936
I’m reading above my pay grade again, as I sometimes do; but how else to increase one’s pay grade by stretching beyond its limits? I’ve found numerous sources to help me with this book, and hope that somewhere I’ve stumbled into something that is close to accurate. But this post is mostly a marker, or a seed, which further reading may modify or expand. As such, it’s more of a collection of information about the book, part draft for a high school term paper, part reader’s diary; it’s unlikely to interest casual readers. For those wondering if they would enjoy reading the book, there are numerous reviews (by actual professionals who know how to review) available online; for those looking for answers to homework questions, I don’t guarantee the academic acceptability of anything here, so I suggest you look elsewhere. I’m assuming familiarity with the book, and not worrying about spoilers. You’ve been warned!
(That should get rid of just about everyone; now I can get to work)
It’s a book by an author whose basic beliefs – conservativism, the superiority of Christianity over any secular interpretation of morality, and as an objective and absolute source of order and authority – are contrary to my own general leanings. So why would I read such a book? I read a great many things to get a sense of the roadmap, not to adopt as my personal creed. But mostly, I kept running into this book and author.
First (that I clearly recall, at any rate) was this past March, when I was reading Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The edition of Wonderland and Looking Glass was annotated by Martin Gardner, who included this note in his introduction:
The vision of monstrous mindlessness of the cosmos (“Off with its head!”) can be grim and disturbing, as it is in Kafka and the Book of Job, or light-hearted comedy, as in Alice or Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…. it is a vision that can lead to despair and suicide, to the laughter that closes Jean Paul Sarte’s story “The Wall,” to the humanist’s resolve to carry on bravely in the face of ultimate darkness. Curiously, it can also suggest the wild hypothesis that there may be a light behind the darkness.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Annotated Alice
Chesterton’s name and the book’s title seemed vaguely familiar to me. I gave them a casual google, didn’t see anything I recognized, but it stuck with me: something connecting Kafka, Job, and Alice might be worth reading. The “light behind the darkness” comment sounded a lot like something I might have heard in a mooc on existentialism. But I was busy, I had a pile of books to read already, so I plugged on.
A few days later, a professor from a philosophy mooc I took (I follow as many of my mooc professors as I can find) tweeted a reference to the same book, comparing Jordan Peterson to the Philosophical Policeman. I had no idea what this meant – I know very little about Peterson and knew nothing at the time about the character being referenced – but it occurred to me, frequency illusion be damned, that the universe might be telling me I should read this book. I ordered a used copy, a random edition, and put it on my TBR shelf, not sure if I’d get to it this year or not.
Then yet another former mooc professor mentioned the book in passing, as one of the many books he’d used as a kind of “warm up” in his 8 am classes. His description: “philosophical spy novel about bomb-throwing anarchists. seriously hilarious.” Apparently his students really took to this particular warm-up. His description tickled me so I moved it to “next up.”
For such a short book – 143 pages in the Wordsworth Classics edition (it’s in the public domain, so editions abound, including online text and audio) – it took a lot of reading. I’ve been obsessed with it, reading it over and over – four, five, six times at least – as well as reading about it, for three weeks now. There’s a lot in the small details. For example, I’d initially considered the first chapter to be rather unimportant, a scene-setter, but over time I started to see phrases and moments that made it far more important than I’d originally thought.
I found a reference to a poem that preceded the text, a poem that was annoyingly omitted from the edition I’d bought. While hunting down that poem, I discovered another edition of the book is annotated by – guess who, Martin Gardner. I ordered that edition, and found a wealth of material that helped me better understand what was going on. The footnotes are mostly information on the London and language of Chesterton’s day, but there are a few gems, and the Introduction and Appendix are excellent resources.
(Is she ever going to get to the book, you wonder? I warned you – this is more of a personal diary entry than a post aimed at the public, but yes, she is).
This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world. All the heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid and palpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers, and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part of the dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauve and an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hot plumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen. The whole was so close about the earth, as to express nothing but a violent secrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret. It expressed that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism. The very sky seemed small.
I say that there are some inhabitants who may remember the evening if only by that oppressive sky. There are others who may remember it because it marked the first appearance in the place of the second poet of Saffron Park. For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signalised his entrance by differing with the established poet, Gregory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky.
In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.
One of the (many) disadvantages I faced going into this book was a lack of knowledge of the period Chesterton was reacting to: the very late 19th and very early 20th centuries in Great Britain. Some of the materials in Gardner’s annotations helped, but not much. It’s tempting to map this onto the period of my own lifetime, which began in an era of conformity before exploding into controversy and what many saw as degeneracy and a see-saw between the two that has been playing out for the past half-century, but I’m not competent to do that.
That leaves me, for the moment, with the discussion of poetry in the opening chapter: is poetry a force of order, or chaos? This is what I saw, in my first read, as the primary conflict of the book: the established order vs modernity. Modernity is a tricky term. In different contexts it can refer to anything from the 17th to the 20th century. Since poetry is the specific vehicle, and since modern poetry, which moved beyond common forms, themes, and viewpoints in favor of a more subjective art under the banner “Make it New”, was in its nascent form at the time Chesterton wrote the book (it wouldn’t fully emerge for a couple of decades) I used that as an anchor. It’s also interesting that at one point in the book the point-of-view character, Syme, also brings in art: “He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.” I would think post-impressionism would be more germane both thematically and temporally, but again, I’m tap dancing way above my head here.
The point is, I focused on a reaction to a period of frightening transition from order – social, political, religious – to chaos, as seen by a devotee of order.
It gets much more serious than that, however, when Syme asks his new anarchist poet friend just what he wants:
“First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”
“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”
By the end of the book (and after a couple of readings), it becomes apparent that the names are important here: Gabriel Syme, and Lucien Gregory. Gabriel is the name of one of the archangels, considered a messenger of God; Lucien is interestingly close to Lucifer, the fallen angel, Satan. This is about more than poetry or post-impressionism, or even the more general order and chaos.
An overall idea that struck me after first read is the change that comes over the Council during the course of the book. At the first meeting, it’s a group of (supposed) anarchists: the goal is destruction. The final time they come together at the very end of the book, they are dressed as the days of Creation. That they were never truly about destruction, but each at first believed he might be the only one trying to prevent it, might be one of the points that Chesterton makes in an article he wrote years after writing the book:
Mind you, I think it is well that we should not know all about those around us, that we should fight in the dark, while having the faith that most men are on the right side, for to possess courage the soul of man must be lonely until at last it knows all.
G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated Sunday Herald, January 24th, 1926
One thing (hah, of many) that puzzles me about this initial chapter is the question of where the dream starts. Is it intended that from word one we are in Syme’s dream? The sunset I quoted earlier certainly seems like it might be part of a dream. But a few pages later there’s another spot that seems quite likely as a starting place for a dream: Syme has just met Gregory’s sister, Rosamond, and spends time chatting with her:
Syme strolled with her to a seat in the corner of the garden, and continued to pour out his opinions…
He stared and talked at the girl’s red hair and amused face for what seemed to be a few minutes; and then, feeling that the groups in such a place should mix, rose to his feet. To his astonishment, he discovered the whole garden empty. Everyone had gone long ago, and he went himself with a rather hurried apology. He left with a sense of champagne in his head, which he could not afterwards explain. In the wild events which were to follow this girl had no part at all; he never saw her again until all his tale was over. And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures afterwards, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night. For what followed was so improbable, that it might well have been a dream.
I missed this the first several times I read it, probably because I wasn’t paying proper attention, but it does seem like an appropriate break to start the dream. I also missed how the color red is indeed woven through the book, mostly in skies. In his note, Gardner puts forth the idea that Rosamond is a stand-in for Chesterton’s wife Frances, as Syme is for Chesterton himself. It seems Chesterton met his wife in Bedford Park, which in the book becomes Saffron Park.
It’s evident that Syme is interested in Rosamond. She is the final vision of the book: “There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.” I confess I have no idea what the “great unconscious gravity” is, but it’s a nice phrase. It’s amusing that a book about order and chaos and God and Nature ends as a love story. I do find it odd that Rosamond would be the sister of Lucien, whom Chesterton described bluntly as the only villain of the piece. But he is merely a poet with pretentions of anarchy before the dream, and only becomes a villain in the dream itself; perhaps that is the way to reconcile it.
The next twelve chapters are the main action of the book, and surprisingly, for all the talk of art and God and anarchy, suddenly it’s a hilarious page-turner. Lucien takes Syme to a meeting of the local Anarchists Council (and yes, there’s some irony to anarchists being so organized) on the promise that he won’t reveal anything to anyone. Just as they’re about to go in, Syme casually mentions, “I am a police detective.” But he reassures Lucien:
“Don’t you see we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely, intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organisation which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policemen; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself.
These folks take their promises seriously, it seems. Suspend some disbelief.
What follows is a jolly good time as the six members of the Council, headed by the President, Sunday, find out one by one that they are all police detectives, recruited by a Philosophical Policeman and approved by a Man in a Dark Room, infiltrating an organization of anarchists where there are no actual anarchists. The wonderful motif of each member bringing out his blue card – received when accepted into the detective’s division and sent undercover – repeats over and over, until with the last reveal, one member exposed earlier shows how routine it’s become: “’Oh, don’t show it us,’ he said wearily; ‘we’ve got enough of them to equip a paper-chase.’”
One of the difficulties I had with the first couple of reads was keeping the six characters straight. They all have code names of the days of the week; then they have their common names, which may be fictitious, so some have real names as well. I ended up making a chart, albeit in text form, so I could remember that the Marquis is Wednesday but he’s actually Inspector Ratcliffe, and Professor de Worms is Friday though he’s really an actor named Wilkes who has been impersonating the actual German nihilist Prof. De Worms for so long, he’s regarded as the authentic one so his given name is never used.
I also included in this chart the physical oddities each member exhibited, a features Syme notes at the first meeting of the Council:
He had thought at first that they were all of common stature and costume, with the evident exception of the hairy Gogol. But as he looked at the others, he began to see in each of them exactly what he had seen in the man by the river, a demoniac detail somewhere. That lop-sided laugh, which would suddenly disfigure the fine face of his original guide, was typical of all these types. Each man had something about him, perceived perhaps at the tenth or twentieth glance, which was not normal, and which seemed hardly human. The only metaphor he could think of was this, that they all looked as men of fashion and presence would look, with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror.
The Secretary has an uneven smile; Gogol is wildly hairy; Bull wears black glasses that give him a sinister cast; the Professor is extremely old and debilitated; the Marquis has exceptionally dark black hair. With the exception of the Secretary, all of these are disguises, but they are distinguishing characteristics that play into the revelation that each is a detective.
I also included in this chart the characters’ impressions of Sunday, the messages he tosses them as he leads them in a merry chase, and their last comments to him. I haven’t been able to construct any information from this data, but putting it together was helpful in distinguishing each person.
And oh, the chases! Three hilarious episodes, each one showing an escalation within, while the three scenes separately show an escalation of absurdity and urgency. When Lit101 professors talk about narrative drive, this is what they mean: you have to keep reading to see how each one turns out, then to see what happens next.
The first chase occurs after the first meeting at which Gogol was exposed as a detective by Sunday himself, leaving Syme (and, unknown to him, the others as well) relieved that he is still, for the moment, undetected. Syme goes to a pub and notices the ancient Professor is there, drinking a glass of milk. Syme is worried that Sunday may be having him followed, so he leaves and goes to a café, where… the Professor shows up again. Syme is surprised, since the man is so old (how can he get from place to place so fast?) but he did dawdle a bit, so he runs to yet another establishment – only to find the Professor joins him again! Now he dashes out in the snow, takes a roundabout route to an autobus, and guess who turns up. By the time Syme corners the old man in an alley, he’s convinced his life is in danger, but the Professor takes out his blue card…
The second chase is far more elaborate. I won’t even try to describe it except to say both the chasee and the chaser expand in numbers and transportation in a kind of arms race. It both begins and ends with the showing of a blue card, and the line between anarchists and detectives keeps switching back and forth, depending on who you’re asking and when you’re asking them. It’s delightful. And yet there’s thematic import as well, in the form of an antique lantern.
The third chase begins with the six confronting Sunday, who is still a mystery. Is he an anarchist? Does he know they are detectives? Just what is going on with this Anarchist Council that contains no anarchists? Sunday gives his first oration:
…“As far as I can make out, you want me to tell you what I am, and what you are, and what this table is, and what this Council is, and what this world is for all I know. Well, I will go so far as to rend the veil of one mystery. If you want to know what you are, you are a set of highly well-intentioned young jackasses.”
“And you,” said Syme, leaning forward, “what are you?”
“I? What am I?” roared the President, and he rose slowly to an incredible height, like some enormous wave about to arch above them and break. “You want to know what I am, do you? Bull, you are a man of science. Grub in the roots of those trees and find out the truth about them. Syme, you are a poet. Stare at those morning clouds. But I tell you this, that you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the top-most cloud before the truth about me. You will understand the sea, and I shall be still a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am. Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf—kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophies. But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay. I have given them a good run for their money, and I will now.”
…“There’s one thing I’ll tell you though about who I am. I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen.”
With this, Sunday hops over the balcony – no small feat for such a big man – and we have a chase that includes a cart, a fire truck, an elephant, and a hot-air balloon, all from which Sunday throws senseless messages for each detective. The chase ends in a field where an agent is waiting with six elegant carriages to take the anarchists-turned-detectives to a party at a large estate: “They had all become inured to things going roughly; but things suddenly going smoothly swamped them.”
This begins what I think of as the third part of the book. I wouldn’t say questions are answered, but the questions themselves clarify the purpose of it all. The detectives are given costumes representing the days of creation, and as the party winds down, the text turns reminiscent of the Book of Job. They confront Sunday with their complaints and he answers without answering. I’d just read a bit about Job a few weeks ago when I read Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, and the similarity struck me immediately; I was gratified to find out I wasn’t wrong. But it’s confusing; Chesterton has insisted that Sunday is not God, so who is this bombast talking to the philosophers, Job, and, eventually, Satan?
“We will eat and drink later,” he said. “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long. I seem to remember only centuries of heroic war, in which you were always heroes—epic on epic, iliad on iliad, and you always brothers in arms. Whether it was but recently (for time is nothing), or at the beginning of the world, I sent you out to war. I sat in the darkness, where there is not any created thing, and to you I was only a voice commanding valour and an unnatural virtue. You heard the voice in the dark, and you never heard it again. The sun in heaven denied it, the earth and sky denied it, all human wisdom denied it. And when I met you in the daylight I denied it myself.”
Syme stirred sharply in his seat, but otherwise there was silence, and the incomprehensible went on.
“But you were men. You did not forget your secret honour, though the whole cosmos turned an engine of torture to tear it out of you. I knew how near you were to hell. I know how you, Thursday, crossed swords with King Satan, and how you, Wednesday, named me in the hour without hope.”
There was complete silence in the starlit garden, and then the black-browed Secretary, implacable, turned in his chair towards Sunday, and said in a harsh voice—
“Who and what are you?”
“I am the Sabbath,” said the other without moving. “I am the peace of God.”
The detectives have one last shot to speak. The Secretary is still angry; Gogol wants to know why he was hurt so badly, which strikes me as incredibly sweet and sad; and Syme just wants to know:
I do not feel fierce like that. I am grateful to you, not only for wine and hospitality here, but for many a fine scamper and free fight. But I should like to know. My soul and heart are as happy and quiet here as this old garden, but my reason is still crying out. I should like to know.”
I’m not sure how to read that. This is the poet, and the voice of reason? The human quest to understand that which is inexplicable? A pre-leap Kierkegaardian view, the attempt to justify faith through rationality? Or is he answered when he wakes and finds himself watching Rosamond gather lilacs? In any case, it’s an urge I sympathize with, as someone whose capacity for understanding is often not equal to the desire to understand.
Importantly, Lucien Gregory shows up. The title of this final chapter is “The Accuser” which I have discovered is a literal translation of “Satan.” He argues with God and with Syme, accusing all seven of never having suffered. Syme answers that – “We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness” – then asks Sunday, “Have you ever suffered?” Sunday has an answer for that: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” This was Jesus’ question to his disciples when they promised to be loyal, not realizing what a serious commitment that would be. This brings me back to the scene where Syme meets the Man in the Dark Room – who, it turns out, is Sunday – to apply for his position as detective of anarchy:
“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”
Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.
“I really have no experience,” he began.
“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”
“But I am really unfit—”
“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.
“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,” said the other—“martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”
It’s an interesting answer to the question of suffering, one I’m not equipped to analyze beyond the obvious connections.
And then Syme wakes up, or rather comes to in Saffron Park in the morning: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” Those of us who misspent our youth in Sunday schools recognize that ‘good news’ is the literal translation of ‘gospel.’ The phrase is used one other time in the text, when Bull gives his impression, as they all do in turn during the balloon chase, of his first meeting with Sunday:
“And somehow,” concluded Bull, “that’s why I can’t help liking old Sunday. No, it’s not an admiration of force, or any silly thing like that. There is a kind of gaiety in the thing, as if he were bursting with some good news. Haven’t you sometimes felt it on a spring day? You know Nature plays tricks, but somehow that day proves they are good-natured tricks. I never read the Bible myself, but that part they laugh at is literal truth, ‘Why leap ye, ye high hills?’ The hills do leap—at least, they try to…. Why do I like Sunday?… how can I tell you?… because he’s such a Bounder.”
One insignificant detail I found interesting is that reference to leaping hills. It turns out the KJV is the verse quoted here, but other translations use different verbs that convey the hills not leaping, but looking with envy on Jerusalem as the site of God’s temple, and the psalmist telling them to knock it off because that is what God wants. Maybe that’s a sign that Bull indeed doesn’t read the Bible (interesting though that he has that obscure verse ready) or maybe it’s just the traditional reading and I’m being a fussbudget.
Here, in this third and far more philosophical part of the book, I found I needed more help. It turns out there are many opinions. A lot of people teaching this as part of religious education stick to Sunday as God, though, let’s remind ourselves again, Chesterton said several times over a couple of decades that was not his intent (oh, yes, let’s keep in mind Death of the Author, shall we). I’ll admit, it makes the most sense to me, first, because of the entire Job scene: who else would argue with man and Satan about suffering? But I’m also interested in the idea of Sunday being seen as evil and foreboding from the back, but benevolent from the front. I keep thinking of that as having God’s back to one, that is, rejecting God, and finding evil in his absence.
But Martin Gardner has a different idea, one that I like as well, and obviously one from a far more educated place than I can claim. First he deals with the overall conflict, which I kept seeing as a world shifting from Order to Chaos (or what would seem like Chaos to those fond of the existing Order; it might seem like liberation to those who are oppressed by Order, hmmm?):
In Chesterton’s comic fantasy, which he calls on the title page “A Nightmare,” free will is symbolized by anarchism. Man’s freedom to do wicked things, as Augustine and so many other theologians of all faiths have said, is the price we pay for freedom. If our behavior were entirely determined by how our brain is wired by heredity and environment, then we would anymore mere autonomous automatons with no more genuine free will or self-awareness – two names for the same thing – than a vacuum cleaner. But we are not automatons. We have a knowledge of good and evil and of freedom to choose, within limits, of course, between the two.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Man Who Was Thursday
This is the argument for an external morality imposed by a Deity, or in other interpretations, Tradition, or Law. The view is that people are simply not capable of being moral on their own, and morality must come from somewhere else. We can play with the idea that deities, traditions, and laws are generated by people and become external over time (yes, as a Deist-leaning agnostic with persistent echoes of Christianity from a misspent youth as a fundamentalist and a more recently-developed fondness for certain aspects of Daoism and Buddhism, I’m more of the man-created-God school than the God-created-man one) or we can discard law and tradition and that leaves the Deity as the only source of morality.
Then Gardner goes in another interesting direction, the indifference of Nature, tempered by a loving Deity:
…And this takes us to the other deep mystery of Chesterton’s nightmare, the mystery of natural evil. Of course, this is no mystery for an atheist. It’s just the way the world is. But for a theist of any faith it is the most terrifying of all riddles. How can an all-powerful, benevolent God permit so much needless pain? As Gogol asks Sunday, like a small child questioning his mother, “I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.”
…The only possible way a theist can escape from the atheist’s charge – either God is malevolent or there is no God – is to view Nature as the back of reality. Beyond what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know” there is a larger, wholly other unseen realm. Logic cannot prove its existence, and science is helpless in efforts to penetrate it, but by a leap of faith we can escape despair by looking forward to a life beyond the grave where God will in some manner, utterly beyond our understanding, rectify the mad injustices of the fields we know. This is the great hope that glows at the heart of theism and at the core of Chesterton’s melodrama.
…Sunday, like Nature, has a front and a back side. From the back he resembles what Chesterton calls in The Uses Of Diversity (Chap. 9) a “semi-supernatural monster.” From the front he looks like an angel. Nature lavishes on us a thousand gifts that make us happy and grateful to be alive, yet the same nature can destroy entire cities with seemingly random earthquakes. It can drown us with floods, kill us with tornadoes and diseases. Ultimately it will execute us.
Martin Gardner, Introduction, The Man Who Was Thursday
I’m not 100% sure I understand what’s being claimed here, but the general drift intrigues me. What has always intrigued me is how hard theists work to make excuses for God. Or, more accurately, to justify their particular vision of God.
Gardner has some other interesting insights. One that puzzles me: he seems to think the party is a ‘dream within a dream.’ I don’t know how he gets that; it’s probably in the text somewhere, and maybe the seventh or eighth time I read it, I’ll find it.
One of his most delightful, if slightly off-topic, footnotes involves a sketch by Chesterton showing eight characters from Thursday.
He went to great pains to identify them, admitting “their appearances are not wholly consistent with their descriptions in the novel.” Apparently, if you have a first edition of Gardner’s book, this is all you get. Those of us who came late to the game get the following addition:
After writing the above note for this book first printing, I was informed by John Peterson that Tony Evans had concocted a playful hoax. Maisie Ward, in her book Return to Chesterton, opposite page 180, reproduced a sketch by GK that he had made of ten imaginary suitors seeking the hand of a young woman he knew. Evans removed two of the men, then rearranged the remaining eight to resemble characters from Thursday!
Martin Gardner, footnote, The Man Who Was Thursday
I love that he includes his original comments with this explanation/retraction rather than just eliminating it all from future editions. As to the original hoax, I’m still not sure of the extent of the foul, but it seems pretty foul to me.
It’s time for me to move on, at least for now. I’ve probably spent more time, page for page, on this book than any other that I’ve posted about here (and it was worth every minute). I spent months on Don Quixote, ditto with Dante, and quite a while on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, but those were much longer books to begin with. I might have come close with Jo Walton’s Lent, but again, that was longer.
I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of narrative, humor, and thought that was involved here. I still have some things to figure out, but when I run across references in the future, I’ll come back and, I hope, come closer to understanding the book.
I’m not a ghoulish person. I’m a guileless, sunny optimist, in fact. When I first started training in death investigation, T. J. worried my new job would change the way I looked at the world. He feared that after a few months of hearing about the myriad ways New Yorkers die, the two of us would start looking up nervously for window air conditioners to fall on our heads….
Instead, my experience has had the opposite effects. It freed me – and, eventually, my husband as well – from our six o’clock news phobias. Once I became an eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous.
…. Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense.
Yes, I’ve been doing the blood-and-guts thing again. What can I say: autopsies are cool, they combine anatomy, physiology, and puzzles. I have two other non-fiction medical examiner books, one by Milton Helpern, one by Michael Baden, and a shelf of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, ME fiction series. But it’s been a while, so I got another one.
After medical school, Melinek took a surgical residency. Most surgeons are proud of the absurdly difficult working conditions inherent (or believed to be inherent) their training, but Melinek found it absurd and quit fairly quickly. Forensic pathology suited her far better.
Some of the book is predictably grisly: decomposition, bloating, violence, horrible accidents.
From Michael Donoghue’s green body and purple face on my autopsy table, I learned what a man of average build looks like after lying dead for forty-eight hours wrapped in a blanket, dumped face-down into an open-air canvas bin in cool, dry autumn weather, without animal depredation, covered in banana peels and soda cans. I filed the image away.
That’s a scary mental file cabinet she’s got there. But it’s part of the job, to recognize how the passage of time affects a body.
There is some humor as well, as when an apartment resident called the police about a bucket of… something in a hallway. The police who responded freaked out and brought it to the medical examiner’s office; they thought it contained a fetus. But it was a lot stranger, and less tragic, than that:
The mystery bucket became Dr. Hayes’s case. He dipped into its cloudy red contents and fished out something cold and hard. It was a porcelain figure of kissing angels. That was weird enough, but next came a couple dozen maraschino cherries. Finally he extracted a pair of two foot long ropy gobs of organic matter. To him they looked either like skinned snakes or donkey penises – he wasn’t sure which. Dr. Hayes washed the objects off and carried them over to radiography. X-rays revealed they certainly weren’t fetuses: there were no bones. Probably penises, then. Just to make sure, Hayes cut the gobs in half. They had a spongiform cross-section. Yes, they were penises, from a nonhuman animal.
Hayes is a fabulously witty and irreverent man to begin with, so hearing him present the Mysterious Case of the Maraschino Donkey Dongs in his genteel English accent was the highlight of everyone’s week.
It’s the matter-of-fact voice that makes this anecdote fun. And imagining the presentation.
Two medical phenomena stood out to me. One is sequestration: when most of the body’s blood volume is sucked back into the bone marrow on collapse of the vascular system. In the case Melinek describes, a man jumped in front of a train. He had no external injuries, but suffered internal decapitation: that is, his skull was disconnected from his spinal column without disrupting the skin of the neck or head. Melenik had trouble drawing blood; the heart was empty. Her supervisor suggested, since there was no outlet for blood to leave the body, that it might have pooled in the bone marrow. I wanted to know more about this, but I can’t find any mention of this online; I may not be using the best search terms.
Another phenomenon is called TRALI, transfusion-related acute lung injury. It’s a very rare reaction to blood transfusion that causes pulmonary edema. In the case Melinek came across, there were numerous complicating factors (including a false positive screen for methadone) and the patient died; her job was to figure out why, and TRALI turned out to be the cause of death. I was able to find a lot of additional information on this process.
Various chapters cover poisonings, accidents, wound comparisons, and unexpected hospital deaths requiring autopsy. There’s the usual discussion of cause vs manner of death, and a long explanation of therapeutic complications (such as the TRALI case) and why that doesn’t necessarily mean a doctor made a mistake. In the chapter about suicides, Melinek is quite open about her father’s suicide when she was thirteen years old. Several chapters cover her involvement in 9/11, which occurred two months after she was appointed as an assistant medical examiner at New York’s OCME. This was followed by the anthrax attacks, and a couple of months later, the second deadliest plane crash on US soil, ultimately determined to be due to pilot error, in Queens.
Melinek’s husband was the co-author on this book. They have since co-written two novels featuring a medical examiner protagonist. Maybe I’ll give one of them a try at some point.
She kept trying to argue that the other novels lacked the qualities that characterized a work of literature: “depth, beauty, structural integrity, and an ability to revive our tired imaginations with the precision of its language”.
The poor woman didn’t seem to realize that what counted in the adult world was working out compromises between actual members of a committee that reflected the forces at work in the wider society, like Parliament in relation to the nation as a whole. Vanessa had taken on the role of a doomed backbencher, making speeches to an empty chamber about values that simply had no place in the modern world.
The Booker Prize seems to have thrived on controversy for quite a while. As I read the list of the dozen biggest oopsies provided by The Daily Beast, I recognized quite a few missteps that St. Aubyn has included in this comic novel about the fictional Elysian Prize: the origins of the prize in an industry of less-than-ethical origins, last minute decisions changed in the last quarter-minute, a long-list book criticized for vulgarity, judges who don’t bother to read the submitted books at all, a book that was viewed as not really a novel at all, a leaked result, a short list criticized as “too readable.” Not to mention the infighting and politicking that’s taken for granted in any high-end competition. Whether or not the bedhopping St. Aubyn sprinkles into the Elysian story happens IRL is … no, not gonna go there.
If you read the Goodreads reviews, you’ll find a lot of disappointed readers. Some dismiss it as a formulaic romp with standard characters, or as toothless satire. Most point out that St. Aubyn’s prior works were far more substantial; more literary, if you will. Life imitates art indeed; it reads very much like comments characters make about the books up for the Elysian Prize. Those Goodreads criticisms may be deserved: Is it Literature? On a par with St. Aubyn’s earlier works? How would I know – I doubt it, but it was fun to read, and I’m not in the business of awarding prizes for literary merit so let me have a good time.
I’ll agree that it’s formulaic. The ensemble book – let’s follow a group of graduates, work colleagues, kids who grew up together, club members, whatever – always features a variety of characters different enough to be instantly recognizable and associated with expected viewpoints. Each one gets a quirk or two in some other aspect of their lives – family, libido, career – to round them out a bit.
Here, we have two such ensembles: the Elysian Prize judges, and writers who have some connection to the prize, either as nominees or wannabes. These ensembles intermix in various ways and push the story of one year’s Elysian prize forward, from submission, to Long List, to Short List, to the Awards Dinner, via the narrative question, Who will win? It’s not just a question of which writer will win, but which judge, as well.
St. Aubyn has admitted in interviews that Sam Black is his doppelganger: a writer torn by the twin forks of doubt and urgency:
He marveled at the speed with which elation had turned into anxiety. Ever since he had found that The Frozen Torrent was on the Long List, he had been torn between a superstitious need to avoid anticipating any further success, and a neurotic need to plan, in case further success came his way….
One thing was clear: he was going to have to drop the topic of art. In England, art was much less likely to be mentioned in polite society then sexual perversions or methods of torture; the word ‘elitist’ could be spat out with the same confident contempt as ‘coward’ at a court martial.
He’s written the most literary book under consideration, and is championed by Vanessa, an Oxbridge academic who defends Literature and dismisses everything else. And she has a lot to dismiss: a cookbook that, unknown to the judges, was submitted by mistake; a thriller about Enigma (that seems to resemble The Imitation Game); a historical novel about Shakespeare (that reminds me of Shakespeare in Love); and a book in vulgar Scottish vernacular (modeled after, I’m guessing, Trainspotting, from what I read in the Daily Beast article), favored by the committee chairman, a politician who lost a post in Scotland some years before when he made an ill-timed remark.
Yes, all of that is great fun, but there is substance here in the form of discussions on literature, and the role of literary prizes. I’ll grant that the opinions of these characters aren’t new or particularly incisive, but they sum up, in a captivating way, different ways of considering what it is we read, and why we read it. And it’s quite possible that not everyone who might read this book has spent a lot of time studying literary criticism.
Malcolm, the chairman who favors the Scottish books, seems to consider the purpose of the prize as financial and sociopolitical:
“We have eighty thousand pounds at our disposal, as well as the promise of several hundred thousand pounds which the winner can expect to earn over the next few years, and to me it’s of paramount importance that the money goes to someone who really needs it.”
….“We want to take the marginalized, and the politically repressed voices from the periphery,” said Malcolm, ignoring the spat between the ladies, “from what we might call the Outer Hebrides of the literary scene, and bring them center stage. Now, as we know, there are a lot of vested interests that have got used to the idea that the literary scene belongs to them, and when we reclaim it for the ordinary readers of this country, let’s not pretend they’re going to thank us for it.”
How much discussion of literature today revolves around marginalized and suppressed voices? And how often does this lead to accusations of reverse racism by, shall we say, one of the most widely published (white) writers in the world? But look again: That Malcolm stands to benefit from his pick winning by perhaps getting another chance at his post in Edinburgh is the not-terribly-subtle subtext of his advocacy. Be forewarned: no matter how much you agree with a character’s opinion, there’s something about them you’ll find less agreeable.
Vanessa Shaw, the Oxbridge academic, seems to have a rather sterile view of what makes a novel literature, until we see her fretting because her anorexic daughter has asked her to edit an essay for a pro-anorexia website:
She felt a violent desire to tear the bird feeder off its branch, and then she realized she was thinking of King Lear after Cordelia’s death. Why should a bird have life when Poppy…
And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.
Isn’t this why classics become classics? From Odysseus’ long journey home, to Othello’s self-destructive jealousy, to Celie’s recapturing of hope, aren’t these moments what we remember, and keep for use when we need them ourselves? Would a police procedural with a feisty heroine comfort us in our despair or remind us to keep our eyes on the prize?
As for those genre novels: Penny, in the process of writing the second of a trilogy of spy thrillers, is more interested in realism and authentic details: “[A]part from anything else, one actually learned something from such a well-researched book, which was more than could be said of the neurotic musings of a lot of writers stuck at home, reading, writing, and thinking about literature. Why didn’t they get out and do something for a change?” How many times have I said how much I love a book that teaches me something? It was a bit alarming to see that sentiment here, in this character who uses an app called Ghost Writer to generate sentences for her genre novels. But it holds.
Tobias, a popular actor now touring in “a hip-hop version of Waiting for Godot” (wouldn’t you love to see about twenty minutes of that?), who rarely shows up for meetings and hasn’t read anything, makes a point as well when he praises the transgressive novel as “a welcome change from a novel about a failing marriage in Hampstead…” And again, how many times have I sneered at domestic realism and proposed the BASS Bingo Card including “a sensitive tale of a decaying marriage”? As with Penny, I’m a bit embarrassed to see myself reflected in Tobias, who clearly has little interest in literature beyond the roles it provides him.
And then there’s Auntie, whose privately published Indian cookbook was accidentally submitted instead of the literary novel that was supposed to win it all. Auntie, as elitist as she is around the heritage of her Indian family (descended from Krishna himself), keeps insisting it’s a cookbook – and she didn’t even write it, as she explains to the agent (John Elton – really? REALLY? I just learned the other day, via Jeopardy!, that when Elton John was knighted by the Queen, the Lord who announced him reversed his name) who’s considering buying the publishing rights for the UK if he can present it in the right way:
“I simply sent my secretary to ask our old cook in Badanpur, who naturally can’t write, to recite the recipes that have been passed down through the generations.”
John Elton let out a gust of confident laughter, as if he were starring in an advertisement for a new mouthwash. There was no doubt that Auntie’s supercilious manner would have to be carefully managed. Just as Magritte hid his surrealism under the uniform of the Belgian Bourgeoisie, India’s Laurence Sterne takes a mischievous pleasure in playing the grand dame. She appears to get her secretary to “write” a “cookbook” in order to challenge our expectations about the nature of authorship – something like that might work.
“I hope you can keep this up in the interviews,” he said. “It’s superb: the illiteracy that engenders literature; the rhetoric that denies rhetoric; ‘I will a round unvarnished tale deliver, as Othello says, before speaking some of the most beautiful English ever written. And the narrative frames: the secretary who interviews the cook – the man on the quayside who knows a story about the Congo; the man on the coach who could tell you a tale about the Caucasus. Superb!”
“I’m not following you,” said Auntie, irritably.
And for the third time I’m embarrassed: Elton’s bullshit interpretation is right up my alley. I’m always intrigued by the ongoing issue of authorial intent (and yes, “Death of the Author” is mentioned in the book): just because Auntie says it’s a cookbook, does that mean it is one? Do I, veteran of so many cooking competitions that refer to a meal as a story, to cuisine as culture, agree with Jo, the columnist who defends the choice against Oxbridge’s dismissal:
In any case, Jo turned out to have an impressive command of all the right jargon.
“I’m surprised that you don’t recognize its qualities,” she said to Vanessa. “You claim to be an expert on contemporary fiction and yet, faced with a ludic, postmodern, multi-media masterpiece, you naively deny that it’s a novel at all.”
“It’s not a novel,” said Vanessa, “it’s a cookbook. It’s called The Palace Cookbook because it’s a cookbook.” She let out a growl of childish fury.
“It tells the story of a family,” said Jo, admirably calm under fire, “through cooking. What could be more universal, after all, then the language of food?”
“Inuit, Catalan, Gaelic, any fucking language,” said Vanessa, “because food isn’t a language, it’s something you you eat.”
Or am I going to side with Vanessa, who, remember, knows something about anorexia, which is a pretty dramatic way of using food to communicate? Don’t tell me this novel is fluff. It may rely on commonplaces, but it has some hidden corners where treasures are tucked.
Towards the end, we meet Mr. Wo. He’s just purchased the Elysian company, inheriting the Prize sponsorship in the deal. When asked about his view of the purpose of the Prize, he speaks what just might be the truest truth about the absurdity of big literary prizes.
“It’s a prize for literature,” said Mr. Wo. “I hope it will go in the direction of literature. My wife takes a great interest in these things. Personally, I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize,” Mr. Wo couldn’t help laughing.
Jo didn’t know where to begin. She disagreed with everything that Mr. Wo had said, as well as with the assumptions behind everything he had said, but she was temporarily paralyzed by the abundance of potential targets.
Is a literary competition about art, and thus nonsensical? Or is it about something else: craft, maybe, or catching the public imagination, or making a point in a way that stands a chance of being heard? Is it about supporting writers on the way up, about rewarding those who’ve consistently done great work? If the judges aren’t trained in literary arts, just what is it they’re judging?
The cover of the book – at least the edition I got – includes a little jest as well. A gold disc encompassing the words “A Novel” is similar to those emblems declaring a book to have won a Pulitzer or some other prize.
So my apologies to those who were disappointed with this book because it wasn’t more like St. Aubry’s more literary books. I use a Whitman quote on my Twitter profile: “And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else.” It’s not a Booker-winning book (St. Aubry was on the short list for one of his more literary novels, but didn’t win). It’s familiar rather than innovative. It’s fun rather than profound. And every once in a while it works in something thought-provoking. I loved it for what it was.
Another question I’ve been regularly asked over the past year is what models I had in mind when writing Curious Incident. Was it To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it Catcher in the Rye?
In fact, the book most often in my mind was Pride and Prejudice.
Jane Austen was writing about boring people with desperately limited lives…. Her heroines were bound by iron rules about what they could do, where they could go and what they could say. Their futures depended on the single question of who they would marry. Was it going to be the baronet? Or were they going to fall for a cad in tight red trousers and be discarded in a boarding house in Bath?
Yet Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating. And her first act of empathy is to write about them in the kind of book these woman would themselves read – the romantic novel.
This was what I was trying to do in Curious Incident. To take a life that seemed horribly constrained, to write about it in the kind of book that the hero would read – a murder mystery – and hopefully show that if you viewed this life with sufficient imagination it would seem infinite.
I read this book back when it was first released, nearly twenty years ago, to a flurry of praise. I don’t really remember my impressions, other than I loved the opening, lost interest during the train ride, but loved it again at the end. This reading was very different, which is why I’ve included several re-reads in these In-Between periods. Not only have I become a better reader, but what interests me has also changed. Expanded, I believe. It’s a wonderful book, and I was delighted, and still am, that it became so popular.
One of the better-reader things that stood out to me this time around was the self-reflexive nature of the book; that is, the book is written by the character Christopher. Obviously there was an author who exists in our reality, but it’s a great way to emphasize, even beyond the first-person narration, that this is all through Christopher’s point of view. I always wonder when I read first-person: why is the narrator telling this story now? That’s not often answered; here, it’s part of the story. And not just a minor part: Christopher’s losing the book, and looking for it, kicks the primary conflict into high gear and generates the rest of the book.
Not just that, but he discusses how he’s writing while he’s writing. For instance, he wants to write about a proof he has to do for his math exam. His teacher (or social worker, her precise role isn’t clear) Siobhan mentions that some readers won’t be interested in that kind of thing so he should put it in an appendix, and sure enough, there’s an appendix with the proof. Again, it’s part of the story, and emphasizes that this is Christopher’s book.
I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.
…. A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen catch that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I started thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen.
For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco Pops and lemonade and porridge and Doctor Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so on and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all these things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang on to the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Christopher has a unique point of view and distinctive voice. Although no diagnosis is given in the book, it’s fair to say he’s somewhere on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. Haddon has remarked in interviews that he’d just as soon not get into specifics, but let the character have, as he mentions above, certain constraints. Through the course of the book, he finds ways around some of them. Like lying: he discovers the white lie, which he defines as not telling the whole truth, and doesn’t count it as a lie.
Another technique I might not have recognized the first time around was that many of Christopher’s digressions – or what seem like digressions – are thematically related to some part of the story. For example, he’s writing about his memory, which is extraordinarily detailed for most events from his life:
My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like, because my memory has a smell track which is like a soundtrack.
And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder, but more like a DVD player because I don’t have to rewind through everything in between to get to a memory of something along time ago. And there are no buttons, either, because it is happening in my head.
If someone says to me, “Christopher, tell me what your mother was like,” I can rewind to lots of different scenes and say what she was like in those scenes.
At this point he demonstrates his detailed recall and remembers a particular date and time. He was with his mother at the beach, and she dove under the water; he was afraid she’d been eaten by a shark but she came back up and comforted him. Christopher was told some time ago that his mother was dead; he might not be able to say, “I miss my mom” or cry, do, or say the things many fifteen-year-olds might do when their mother dies, but this conveys the same sense of loss and love.
And father said, ‘Christopher, do you know that I love you?”
And I said “Yes,” because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth, and Father looks after me when I get into trouble, like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth, which means that he loves me.
And then he held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan and I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other.
This hand-touching is a substitute for hugging, which bothers Christopher. Again, it’s how he and his family have worked around a constraint. But what stood out to me here is his definition of his father’s love; this becomes crucial later when he discovers his father has indeed lied to him, and about something monumental.
I happened to be on a bus while reading the beginning of Christopher’s train ride. It was an unusually rough ride: the 9am bus never showed, so the 9:30 had more riders than usual. One explained the prior bus had an accident, so there was a lot of nervous excitement; one woman in particular was quite anxious, and it was contagious. All this as I read about Christopher’s anxiety in the train station. I could identify strongly with his confusion regarding the signs all blending together, people and noises; it was uncomfortable, but fascinating in retrospect.
I was aware that the novel had been adapted into a highly successful play. Since so much of it takes place in Christopher’s head, I wondered how that would work. I found some clips on YouTube; it’s almost film-like, and maintains his point of view while blending thought and action. No wonder it won so many awards.
I had no recollection of the ending of the book from my prior read. That’s surprising, because it’s beautiful:
And I went to a bookshop with Mother and I bought a book called Further Maths for A Level and Father told Mrs. Gascoyne that I was going to take A-level Further Maths next year and she said “OK.”
And I am going to pass it and get an A grade. And in two years’ time I am going to take A-level Physics and get an A grade.
And then, when I’ve done that, I am going to go to university in another town. And it doesn’t have to be in London because I don’t like London and there are universities in lots of places and not all of them are in big cities. And I can live in a flat with a garden and a proper toilet. And I can take Sandy and my books and my computer.
And then I will get a First Class Honors degree and I will become a scientist.
And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.
This way of packing Christopher’s just-the-facts voice with emotional content is brilliant. At no point does he get sentimental; he just writes down what he’s going to do, and wraps it up with what he did. He shows us he can do anything. Maybe not in the way readers would do it, maybe not in conventional or easy ways, but he will get around his constraints to get where he wants to be, one way or another.
I knew I loved this book twenty years ago; now I better understand why.