my year of edifying reads: part the second

wherein I discuss The Satanic Verses at some length. let the reader beware.

Hello kittens,

Part the second of my year of edifying reads finds me having just finished The Satanic Verses – which will probably be the most substantial thing I read this year.

It’s just a guess, but, for one thing – I’m exhausted.

Even though I read Rushdie’s magnum opus at a leisurely clip of 10-20 pages when I felt like it (taking about 2.5 months), it still took a lot out of me. In fact, I read ~17 books while I was also reading Verses just to distract myself. It’s a lot to handle.

And now that it’s over, I find myself thinking about the social side of reading.

Had I not been two when the book was released, I could have joined in on the original conversation about the book. And had I read it in a high school or college classroom setting, I at least could have gotten a grade for all my thoughts and feelings about the book.

But, just as when I read The Great Gastby (also while I was reading Verses), I have nothing to do with my reactions to the book but stew on them. (Oh the feelings I had about Gatsby! But everyone I know read it at least 10 years ago, and it turns out you don’t really remember it that well after all that time.)

I suppose my frustration is rooted in my (Russian) lit degree – I had grown quite accustomed to having people have expectations on my reactions to literature. And even though I’ve been a civilian now for some time (eek, I graduated four years ago!), it’s only just now hit me that when I read a Great book (or just a great book), it’s pretty much just for me.

I want to cry out – this isn’t really magical realism! Magical realism requires the characters to have a shared sense that what is strange to the reader is in fact quite normal. I want to talk about the squandered opportunities – at the theriomorphic hospital, for instance. I want to talk about the bad pacing, the lazy trick of making one of the characters develop schizophrenia, the obsessive beauty of the first half and the noxious, pat moralizing of the end. About the uneasy handling of the two main characters’ fates, and the legion of characters disposed of by carelessness or puppeteering.

(I’m reminded of a paper I wrote about Evgeniy Onegin in college. It turns out you better bring your A game if you’re going to tell a grad student that the main character in the foundational work of Russian literature has an unrealistic, improperly motivated evolutionary arc.)

But, no, I’m just going to dump a vague sense of these feelings onto my readers and hope they’ll indulge me until I have something more fun to say.

If I were the kind of person to suggest action plans, I’d say something like, “see, this is why we need book clubs.”

But invariably I’d have to hedge that statement with something like, “but are you really going to learn anything if you start a book club because you want to talk about books?”

And: “do you really want to be forced to read what other people want to read?”

And: “doesn’t this just mean I have to give hispters crumpets every week?”

And: “does not a book group worth having imply the wealth to have both free time and a steady supply of new books?”

Does exposure to literary criticism make narcissistic exhibitionists of us all?

The truth is that no one likes being under the literary gun. The worst part of reading great books when you’re being graded – either literally or socially – is that you will almost invariably like them less than you would if you had read them independently. Having to talk about even your favorite books with a room full of 100 other 19-year-olds under pressure to say banal things can really crush your spirit.

The version of literary criticism most people are exposed to in the classroom is to literature as smooth jazz is to music.

And yet still somehow you miss the opportunity to talk about books that weren’t published within the last year.

Well, kittens, in the tradition of Rushdie, I’ll leave you with this unsatisfying ending. But at least no schizophrenic suffering from the delusion that he was an angel of God had to die for it.

And no, you don’t get a spoiler alert, ‘cos that damn book came out 25 years ago.

– Big Mama Schlomo

my year of edifying reads: part the first

Hello kittens:

In a more or less coincidental new year’s resolution (which so far is going better than learning Icelandic), I’ve embarked on a year of edifying reads.

The rules are kind of nebulous, but basically I’ve decided to read books that I 1) really should have read by now that 2) have some decent chance of being good and that 3) I actually want to read.

So, I’m not just going to fill in cultural gaps (such as by reading The Da Vinci Code – fork that noise).

I’m also not holding myself to finish something if it turns out I don’t like it. Hence this post.

By Valentine’s Day, I had abandoned three books (although I had also already completed 17). These were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sex and the City, and an indie queer book I won’t mention ‘cos I really don’t need to rag on it.

I was a weird mix of surprised and not at how off-putting I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Mostly I should have known better about the power of millions of people to be wrong.

Sex and the City was a little different, though. Putting Sex and the City down was actually kind of comforting, in a way. You know, since generally I would say this kind of book is squarely within my wheelhouse (at least for my version of a guilty pleasure). But it wasn’t even a pleasure, guilty or not. One sentence didn’t make me want to read the next. It’s the same reason I’ve never finished Dracula. I just don’t end up giving a hoot what happens.

(Yeah, that’s right, I’ve never finished Dracula. I’ve never even gotten to the part when Dracula moves to England. Does he even end up moving to England? Who gives a rat’s ass?)

So…

I’m not saying anything dramatic like it took me to the age of 26 to realize that I could abandon books. Partially because I still felt guilty about it. But after paying some nice middle-aged ladies from the former USSR $60,000 to tell me I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion about books until I had finished giving them all my money, I realized that that’s simply not true.

You might not have the background to place such and such a text in its historical context, yadda yadda, and you might not get all of the subtle devices or allusions or whatever the hell is going on. But the literary criticism machine invokes/perpetuates(creates?) the false notion that no work of art need function in and of itself, which is moronic. It’s why 20-year-olds fall all over themselves to become Nabokov scholars: there is, in effect, a right answer with someone who tries that damn hard to be clever.

Look: your college lit profs might think the most important thing is that you get some reference to Gargantua and Pantaguel (you know, without ever actually assigning Gargantua and Pantagruel), but that’s not the way reading as an adult works. Study your notes, pass your test, and then grow up to see the difference between assimilating why someone wants you to read a book and whether or not that book is worth reading to you.

Ever love,
Big Mama Schlomo

Shakespeare (is dead) syndrome: on nostalgia and bullshit

Hello kittens,

I’d like to tell you a story about a school newspaper editor.

He cared about the English language. Really he did. And he made it his mission that all should speak – and, more importantly, write – English in exactly the manner prescribed by dead white people. Namely – Strunk and White.

This young man went around to the bookshops in his hometown and purchased up all the copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style he could get his hands on.

And why did he purchase up all the copies of The Elements of Style he could find? That he might distribute them to repeat offenders of the rules contained therein. Yes, this editor actually gave the writers on his staff copies of The Elements of Style for not speaking – or, writing – English the way dead white people intended.

That editor, I am shamed to admit, was me.

There’s this Vice article making the rounds: ‘I’m Sick of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art.’

I was prepared for the article to be brave and smart. I’m admittedly prone to liking people who write headlines like ‘I’m Sick of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art.’

But it wasn’t brave. It wasn’t insightful. It didn’t go anywhere near where a critique thusly titled could have gone. It didn’t cover in-joke obfuscation and how art is made for art people and art people are rich people who are told what to like by gallery proprietors who give advances to artists whose work they think can be fobbed off on rich people.

It was about one person going to one art show – a Tracey Emin retrospective – and not liking it.

And, more over, not understanding how anyone could like it, since Glen Coco didn’t.

I’m like, 99% sure that nobody’s ACTUALLY into art and it’s just some exclusive club you can only join if you’ve got more money than interesting things to communicate to the rest of the human species. Just as nobody wanted to be the first one to go up to the Emperor and say “dude, I can see your arsehole”, nobody wants to be the one to go up to the lady in the above photograph and say “you are at least 50 years old. What the fuck are you doing?”

Towards the end of the piece, we get this:

After saying “fuck everything about this place”, I started to head towards the exit, where I ran into noted Brummie horsewoman Janet Street Porter. After reading Janet’s fantastic and thought-provoking piece in the Daily Mail recently about what a travesty it is that the English language has gone from the beauty of Shakespeare to a series of senseless emoticons and hashtags, I was surprised to see her looking at such unskilled art.

I’m pretty sure “Shakespeare is dead!” is the new Godwin’s law. Don’t like the contemporary English-speaking world? Just point out Shakespeare used to live in it.

You realize people have been freaking out about change since there were enough people to worry things might change, right?

When independent people with access to printing presses started compiling dictionaries, there was a terrific outcry that the dictionary would destroy regional and creative spelling.

My parents’ parents lamented that their kids weren’t listening to Eydie Gormé and Eddie Fisher.

People were certain the invention of the telephone was going to decisively destroy human communication.

This shouldn’t come as a shock to the Shakespeare is dead! crowd, but I feel duty-bound to point out that there was one and only one Shakespeare. Well, okay, maybe several, but we basically treat him as one historical human being.

There was never a point at which every English-speaking person who picked up a feather could pen The Merchant of Venice – although there have always been plenty of people who can root around in history and collective memory for stories.

Shakespeare had an extraordinary command of the English language and is credited as one of the language’s greatest innovators. But, here again I feel compelled to point out that Shakespeare was a working artist who wrote within a context and for a public.

Which is to say, people who went to the Globe didn’t need footnotes, and there’s nothing ipso facto special about the fact that Shakespeare’s vernacular was different from our own.

I mean, can you imagine being the last guy in Northumbria crying that the death of the English instrumental case would literally be death of the language?

That guy was fun at parties.

Linguistic diversion in any time period mostly boils down to dick jokes and fart jokes. Oh, maybe sometimes they’re ankle jokes and burp jokes, but the point is that you can only drift so close to the sacred without needing a heavy dose of the profane.

Again, I’m not pretending to make some sort of earth-shattering original observation here, but cultural memory has an incredibly selectively permeable membrane.

Sure we remember Shakespeare. But how many 16th-Century dick jokes and fart jokes do you think we’ve forgotten?

Except, of course, the fart jokes Shakespeare himself made. Just Google hoist with his own petard.

A little while back, George Takei posted this meme:

First of all, that’s the best you got? Really. The opening lines of “Thank You”?

It’s no secret that what you got high to and made out to in high school is probably what you’re going to think is the best music in the world for the rest of your life.

You can’t blame people for that, if for no other reason than that it seems to be a predictable trait of all people with access to youth and music.

But do you want me to go there? Do you want me to quote the lyrics to, oh, I don’t know, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”?

My dad likes to say that 1974 was the best year ever for music, and I won’t go near tackling whether or not that’s true. But I would like to point out that “Feelings,” that great Morris Albert bucket of schmaltz – I mean hit – came out in 1974. And you only had to wait two more years for “Muskrat Love.”

The shitty thing about living in any time period is that, well, you have to live through the shit.

Remember that selectively permeable cultural memory membrane I was talking about?

The good shit from the past lives on, and you can conveniently gloss over the fact you danced to Donny and Marie at your prom.

But the present doesn’t have the benefit of the test of time. And really, the only benefit the test of time provides is shaking off the shit.

There’s a much more insidious element to this nostalgia.

I’m not the first person to point out that there is a component of unexamined privilege inherent in nostalgia.

The people who were most able to enjoy whatever is shiny about the past were those who were most privileged and enfranchised in the past.

The past sucked for a lot of people. I would venture to say it sucked for the majority of people.

You miss those days when Queen ruled the radio? Those days when Freddie Mercury (real name? Farrokh Bulsara) could rock the world as long as he didn’t point out that he was a bisexual Zoroastrian Gujarati man?

How about when Ray Charles did that skit on SNL about how he got paid bupkis in the 50s for his music to be stolen and popularized by “The Young Caucasians?”

Did you jam out with women rockers as long as they didn’t say anything about the ERA?

Until society is perfect, things were not just the way they should be when anybody was a teenager.

The ring around the collar on nostalgia is that today sucks.

Oh god, can you believe they let women make art and people are allowed to like it?

Can you believe I have to scroll past Univision to get to ESPN4?

Is society really not allowed to not be like what it was like when you were a teenager? Is the language to be stuck in 16th century because we’ve knighted Shakespeare the be-all and end-all* of English accomplishment?

[*Yes, I realize that Shakespeare said that.]

I would venture to say people spoke in sentences of 140 or fewer characters before the advent of Twitter.

See, it hasn’t all gone to Hell. I still know the difference between less and fewer.

And when that distinction finally dissolves and is no more? It will be just like when English started using the dative in place of the instrumental, and when it started using prepositions in place of the dative.

When you’re dealt the death card in tarot, it often signifies change. We have to learn the difference.

LOVE,
Big Mama Schlomo