The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

Notes on Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow”

In spite of embedded Shakespeare and sundry 19th Century potential footnotes, Caleb Crain’s new novel, “Overthrow” (Viking, August, 2019), may remind readers more of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films that made noir comedies out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” than to Henry James (who, it might be argued, made drama out of living room comedy). The plot of “Overthrow” might also be said to parody the best of legal action writer John Grisham. Nick Hornby comes to mind, too, his “A Long Way Down.”

“Overthrow” is a protean novel. Ingredients of farce, satire and irony inform contemporary ideas of group-think, economics, media, conspiracy theory, identity and relationships, existential earworms. “The media” performs the role of Keystone Cops, as do the real cops, chasing the story controlled by puppeteers, whose rods and strings get crossed.

As essay, “Overthrow” might be subtitled: “Where we live and what we live for.” And when. The slow, slow art of the novel. Who remembers the Occupy Movement, which may now be recalled as more of a campout than a revolution? If (to) Occupy is the protagonist, who or what is the antagonist? But first, what does Occupy want? To seize? To have sex with?

Is overthrow of governance periodically necessary to maintain a balance of human nature? Has human nature improved over time, or are we no better than any of our ancestors? Or, indeed, were our ancestors better off than us: non-specialized, at one with nature, unpolluted, non-alphabetic. Did our ancestors, as we do, have a picture of themselves? If not, when were these pictures invented? Were the pictures they had of themselves the same pictures others had of them? Overthrow and revolution of the I, the me, subject and object.

Not what does revolution mean, but what does it mean to make revolution? Certainly not to write a novel. But, yes, that, too, as it turns out, particularly a novel about building relationships. Is human nature capable of democracy? Can we “rule ourselves”? The question is important to Michael Hardt in Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers,” which predates Zuccotti Park Occupy by a few years. And while many thought and still do that the Occupy Movement was a failure, its aims unclear, its results a discredit to the possibility of change, using Hardt’s thinking, it achieved a great step on the road to democracy: Occupy created relationships, corresponded directly to participant lives, illustrated (arguably) collective self-rule, or, at least, to go back and use Hardt’s words, it might have created “the terrain on which the training in democracy can happen – the training and the collective ability to produce social relationships” (149, The New Press, 2009).

And producing social relationships is what “Overthrow” is about, in its most serious reading, the goofy stuff aside. Why write a book no one will read? A poem no one will ever see? A song no one will ever hear? Similarly, why a pick-up? Why a one night stand, as if a relationship requires no more investment than a moment in a head, an hour or two on a couch, or a night in bed but easily forgotten? We aren’t in “City of Night.”

Crain’s sentences come alive, twisted and contorted as we find tree and bush limbs in nature, beautiful. Cultivated, maybe, by some unseen hands, and, at times, readers might think, they are overthrown. You can’t take a comb to them. But we don’t get quite as much of that as we did in “Necessary Errors” (Penguin, 2013). Maybe because “Overthrow” has more dialog. Still, consider this artwork, and note the consistent style that isn’t so much rococo decorative but the way the world actually passes by, in and out of the senses, projection and reflection. The description and detail of observation suggest total control, and objective correlative emotions appear and disappear, as nostalgic fits can sometimes be brought on by certain odors or sounds, but which can only appear at random and not be called up by will, only by suggestion, asides of a sort:

From “Necessary Errors”:

            They passed into the black water of the shade of the bridge. Out of the corner of either eye, Jacob watched the gray, triangular battlements slide up from behind and widen, approaching them on either side, in embrace. Then the bridge itself crossed overhead with its water-blackened stones. While it covered them, hands seemed cupped over their ears; all they could hear was the water’s eager lapping against the heavy walls beside them.

            “Are you fair to him?” Annie asked.

            The black stones lifted off, and the air was free and empty again around them. “It’s not like that.” He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed (391).

From “Overthrow”:

             After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up, into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable-stayed and a suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimension seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.

            They crossed the water; they descended into downtown (55).

What is overthrown remains out of reach. One of the themes circling through “Overthrow” concerns a kind of deontological question of the value of certain activity or action, of writing for example, of writing a poem or a book. The answer seems to rest in giving way to what it is a person might be fit for:

            This was something he could do, he told himself, as he kept dabbing. This was the sort of task he could safely spend his anger on. Even if he didn’t save the plant and even if the plant didn’t in fact need saving (298).

Substitute planet for plant in that paragraph. Matthew is looking for a way out of his cynicism:

He had written a note about Samuel Daniel, he remembered. But what if he was interested in Daniel and touched by Daniel’s devotion to his vocation only because he himself, in choosing to write literary criticism, was making a mistake like Daniel’s – giving his life to a kind of writing that was about to pass out of the world? To a modern equivalent of Daniel’s poeticized, aestheticized history?

            He picked up the forked paper, to read over the note, but the handwriting wasn’t his.

            “You can read it,” Lief said, appearing at the door.

            “I thought it was mine.”

            “It’s the devil,” Leif said. “It’s one of his voices.”

            “I don’t need to read it” (219).

What can be worse for a writer than to presume his writing won’t be read? The “Overthrow” working group, which Matthew joins but only peripherally, his object being Leif, and not revolution, is apparently under surveillance, yet the authorities miss that the group has maintained a blog. So much for blogging. Crain’s theme of what has meaning, purpose, and value against what is given exposure, watched, and chosen touches on every aspect of the characters’ lives:

            “She wondered if he would give permission. She wondered if he was still willing to fight, regardless of whether he still believed. The new order had revealed to them that poems didn’t have to be published in order to have meaning as poems, but apparently the same order was also going to require the publication of all the prose of one’s life” (377).

In Stalin’s Russia, one had only to think a certain thing to be accused and convicted of a crime. But how did they know what one was thinking?

Hardback copies with dust covers occupy the bookshelves of the conservative library. Conservative in lots of ways, but here in the sense that writers and readers want their books to retain their value, even increase in value over time. We want that piece of capitalistic system to succeed, and to ensure our own success. The economics of the body, the body of the book, its spine, sewn, its jacket, shield against the elements, nomenclature (either or fallacy of identity – “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’”). Is the hardback economically efficient? Books as collectibles. What does a book become without its dust cover? Its value diminishes significantly as a collectible. Aren’t paperbacks “cooler”? Is the hardback a middle class writer’s heyday? “Occupy” is a novel: this is not a book review. If we are going to spend $27.00 for a hardback book with a cool dust cover, shouldn’t we at least expect not to trip over any typos?

But if we think books expensive, consider the cost of obtaining legal help:

            “I know your parents are already being so generous.”

            “How much was it?”

            “About twenty-eight hundred dollars.”

            For a couple of days’ work. The side of town where Matthew’s parents lived was built on a hill, up which he and Fosco were gradually proceeding, a long, slow hill that, as was always explained to new arrivals in town, served as an objective correlative of the relative financial net worth of the households along it. Blocks ahead, at the top, were mansions with a view of the distant city. Matthew’s parents lived more than halfway down, where the houses were still faced with brick and perfectly respectable but not grand (209).

In other words, middle class, but “more than halfway down,” so maybe lower middle class. In any case, we are talking about a generation of a country’s youth who will not live even that high up the hill, except maybe as they are now, living in the garage or the basement, trying to pay off their student loans on the income of a barista, a fact checker, a literary critic:

            “Let me talk to my parents,” Mathew said. “Thank you for telling me.”

            Was he going to ruin them?

Mathew has already explained “reversion”:

            “There’s an old legal term, ‘reversion,’” Mathew began. “You possess something in reversion if another person has the use of it now but you’ll get it after they die. Someone from another branch of your family may be living in a manor, say, and it will be yours if you manage to outlive them. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the word metaphorically, to mean anything in your future, anything you’re looking forward to, but legally, technically, it’s something you might not live long enough to put your hands on. My thesis is that in the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the individual is no longer thinking of himself as the subject of a king but as someone who himself has a kingship in reversion” (43).

In other words, as Harold Bloom put it, the “invention of the human,” the creation of the I. Who will pay for that me? The King, in reversion, overthrown:

            Mathew demurred. “Representative democracy works a little differently….”

            “People don’t really want to be king anymore,” said Raleigh. “There aren’t even any lunatics in the asylums who want to be Napoleon anymore.”

            “Maybe they want to be reversionary one-percenters,” suggested Elspeth.

            “One percenters are too boring,” Raleigh objected.

            “They have no charismatic virtues,” said Mathew.

            “They have no charismatic vices,” Raleigh corrected him. “They would be charming if they would only let us see them being greedy and trivial.”

            “I wouldn’t find them charming,” Elspeth said.

            “Yes you would,” Raleigh insisted. “They’d be like the millionaires in screwball comedies” (44).

One thing Raleigh might have wrong in the conversation from “Overthrow” quoted above is the “lunatics in the asylums,” since asylums, like newspapers, have mostly disappeared, beginning with Reagan in California.

“I think another reason the notion of revolution has been discredited is its association with misery, as if revolution would involve giving up all of the pleasures that everyone enjoys” (Hardt, 153).

But the asylum is now the streets. And Hardt and Taylor, in “Examined Life,” are rowing in a boat on Central Park Lake:

“It’s such an idyllic and seemingly anti- or even counterrevolutionary location, one associated with old wealth and the stability of power, the leisure activities of the rich. Maybe, in a strange way, it will help us work through some of these issues like who can think revolution, who wants revolution, where we can think revolution, and who would benefit. Maybe this seemingly strange location can help us cast away what seem to me destructive limitations on how we think about this” (Hardt, 153).

If we think about it at all. And if we do, if we choose to read or maybe even to write about it, kings of our spirals, our unpublished napkins, our unread blogs. And then, frosting on the cake we’ve been let eat and chocolate in the latte we’ve been let drink, to talk to someone about it.

Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.

Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” And Caleb Crain would seem to agree. His recent novel, “Necessary Errors,” is full of conversations, and he’s now providing the pictures in an electronic “extra illustrated binding” on his blog. But any resemblance to the Alice books probably stops there. One of the many surprises in “Necessary Errors” is its realistic style, the writing clear and purposeful, full of diligent detail. The sentences are often shaped to fit the action described: “He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed” (391). Jacob, the main character, is rowing a boat under the Charles Bridge in Prague. The writing is realistic too in that the metaphors are not surreal; they also do the work of illustration. It’s as if in the land of Kafka, Kafka had never written a word – but no, precision is a characteristic of Kafka’s style. His writing is so descriptive and precise we don’t realize we’re dreaming. But metaphor to Jacob is not magic; it’s a way of realizing something unfamiliar, of carrying it home in an idea: “They had both loved the book, but Jacob must have loved it because he had recognized in it a story about his own nature (because Jacob had no brother, the idea of a brother was just a metaphor to him)” (309). Or metaphor is for Jacob a tool to sharpen the precision of a description: “She drew from her purse with one hand her cigarettes, lighter, and wallet, her fingers splayed separately open, at all angles like the blades of a Swiss army knife” (298). The hand does not become a Swiss army knife, as it might in a surrealistic description; the image of the knife provides an explanation of the work of the hand. But Jacob is not the narrator.

One settles into “Necessary Errors,” into the writing, as if on a long train ride. It’s a long book, 472 pages, and disciplined throughout, the closest to a first person narrative a third person ever came. The point of view rarely, if ever, is allowed to slip away from the main character Jacob’s indirect voice. The narrator as an independent character might have something to add here or there, but these are rare exceptions. What does Jacob want, and what is in his way of getting it? He wants to be a writer. But first he must come to understand himself, and to do that he must let go of the very moment he values as the sweetest. Only then can he reflect on its significance, and if he’s articulate and has an artistic temperament, he can put the lost experience into pictures and conversations. Is wanting to be a writer the same thing as writing? Wanting to be a writer is a value, something we desire that is not necessarily good for us; writing is a virtue, something that is both good for us and for others, assuming wanting to read is realized in reading. Are these fairly conservative values, these days, reading and writing? Why does Jacob want to be a writer? Where do his values come from? When he realizes some of the guys in Prague are selling themselves, he objects. “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion,” Blake wrote. Jacob wants to be a writer to assert his freedom, to establish an independence from institutions that would buy and sell bodies and souls, minds and lives. That we are free to sell ourselves is the great irony of capitalism, of free enterprise. We enter the prize, and are consumed by it.

The conversations take place in Prague among a group of friends unified by their age and circumstance. Communism is thawing, and the idea of being free and enterprising, of entertaining choices that won’t come again, is still a fresh breeze. The torrents of greed have not yet rushed ashore. It seems a good time to live in the moment, which won’t return. Early in the book, Jacob uses a poem by Emily Dickinson as a pronoun antecedent exercise in his English as a second language class. Dawkins quotes from this same poem in “The God Delusion,” but only the first two lines, an incomplete experiment, and gives it the same mawkish sentiment that at first it seems Jacob is suggesting, that we are lucky to be here, alive, given the odds, and as part of his argument, Dawkins gloats over the google of lives who didn’t make the trip; but how does a non-existent being fit into the equation? Dawdling Dawkins misappropriates Emily and misses the pitch. In any case, back in Prague, if it was the sweetest of times, it was the sourest of times: as it was, is now, and ever shall be. For most people, life is not sweet: not for the coal miner with lung disease, not for the mother of twelve, ten surviving, not for the children of brothels, not for the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited, the shamed. All lives are not sweet, and the argument that they won’t come again, to those drenched in sourness, might seem something of a blessing. But “Necessary Errors” uses the Dickinson idea in a way Dawkins misses. We move away from any moment, and it is this moving, being in this movement, that carries the writing. Afterlife is irrelevant; the present takes the prize, but not because it won’t come again. One must pay attention now, listen, and observe time passing, and then, recalling the moment in a search for time past, things lost, the artist recreates the moment. “There are unhappy childhoods,” Melinda adds (196).

One of the characteristics of the conversations among the friends in Jacob’s Prague is the distinct way each character talks. They don’t all sound alike; they each have identifying mannerisms, personality, speech. When Carl shows up, we know where he’s from; we don’t need to be told. And when Annie says something, we know it’s her; we don’t need, “Annie said.” If there’s a “gah,” it’s Annie, glasses pushed up onto her head, into her hair. There are times when Carl plays a kind of Buck Mulligan to Jacob’s Stephen Dedalus. The omphalos section might make this explicit (229). And Carl’s presence alleviates the possibility of readers burning out on the pondering Jacob. When Milena gives Jacob the gift of the little plastic Christ statue, he wishes Carl was on hand. Jacob thinks, “An American child would be tempted to zoom the figurine around the room” (458). Or stick it on the dashboard of his ’56 Chevy, next to its earth mother, Carl might comment. Annie seems to be Jacob’s favorite among the women. But Beta helps Jacob out of his element and in need, his independence challenged, like a sister. Milena has children, and we see Jacob interacting with them in several very funny scenes. Kaspar is interesting among the men. The rich boy Vincent fills a need (“The very rich are different from you and me”: Hemingway – see the Toads About page). Melinda grows a bit melodramatic in her beauty and her indecision, but one can imagine her being played by Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. Milo becomes an excellent contrast to Lubos. By the end of the book, the reader has come to know and to recognize Jacob, his group of friends, and the other characters he comes into contact with, infused in the Prague setting.

Jacob’s understanding of what’s happening is often complicated by having to translate what he hears and says. He knows some Czech, but he can’t think in Czech yet. The dialog meant to convey other language speech is not surrounded by quote marks but introduced by a dash, creating an effective style not unlike subtitles in a foreign film. Jacob gives Lubos a clumsy hug, which is believable, but then cries, which is not. Or maybe it is. The reader can believe the young Jacob crying, but not the narrator, whose awareness seems third person omniscient but impassable. But are these crocodile tears (36)? We’ve only just met Lubos, and there’s no reason to trust him, and we’ve not known Jacob that long either. Jokes are often difficult enough to understand in one’s native language. Over time, societal values change, what people want changes, but shame has always been used as a tool to control. Sometimes, shame is so severe, a young person, in particular, or a spouse or a lover, will rebel, and walk away. The price that must be paid to enter so-called respectable society is too great, and anyway, beneath the veneer of respectability one finds crisscrossed plies of bias. Scapegoats are often created to transfer one’s shame onto another. In just this way, the anti-gay sentiment in contemporary Russia is a political ploy, a distraction meant to create a scapegoat. In Prague, Jacob has friends, but where can he place his trust? He must proceed cautiously. But he’s not playing games. He’s serious, and he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be accepted. He is prone to recognizing differentiations. He insists on his own distinction, an ambition that fuels his quest: “He felt so lucid that he seemed to perceive not only the world but also the biases of his own mind in perceiving it” (463). Do we want a literature of want and take, or a literature of give and forgiveness?

“Necessary Errors” is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense of the word, even if it’s not (maybe because it’s not) the masterpiece we might have been looking for. The novel is divided into three main sections and around 100 smaller sections separated by white space (not numbered). Each of the three main sections begins with a Czech name and a literary reference. To what audience is the work aimed? A common reader probably can’t speak to the whole work without taking up some additional reading, Stendhal, for example, which I probably won’t get around to. The story takes place in 1990 and ’91: there are no cell phones, no laptops, no computers, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs. One possible audience for the book might include anyone weary of all that stuff and wanting a break to reflect – it’s been a busy couple of decades. One of my favorite sections in the novel is the one in which Jacob finds the clumsy Czech-made clothes washing machine in his apartment. This and a few other sections contain Roddy Doyle-like laugh out loud moments. But the washing machine segment recalls another, in which Jacob sits in a bar with some blue collar workers – alienated, and I’m not sure his [or the narrator’s?] economic analysis makes any sense, today, anyway, but at the time maybe it did. Still, the distance between Jacob and the laborers is so huge. There are any number of writers living in Brooklyn, but I’m guessing few of them earn as much as the Brooklyn plumbers. In any case, that scene, in which Jacob reflects on distinctions, the working class, what one might do to earn a living, and beyond, feels incomplete. One wishes for a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell there, where writers might find work and workers might find time to read. But I’ve left the text at this point, so to come back to it: almost no reference is left hanging, and the laborers are recalled, later, but one omission, possibly, is the loose end of Meredeth’s suicide. Maybe it was impractical to draw together all the threads at the end, but Meredith’s omission at the very end is notable. But there are no ghosts in a Garden. At the time the book takes place, the floor of the last two decades is still clean, and one can’t see the litter of the morning after. If one is to live in the moment, one doesn’t worry about epilogues.

“Necessary Errors” is not a roller coaster ride; I imagined myself reading it on a Coast Starlight running from Vancouver to San Diego, stopping frequently to let a few riders disembark, and to let a few new riders board, conversations along the way, taking a break to join a group playing cards in the dining car, every moment sliding gradually behind, page after page. I took that ride a few times, moments long gone. One should read a book as one takes a long train ride toward a distant destination. You can take breaks, and even get off and walk around the station landing for a spell, but once the train starts moving again, you can’t get off. Something like that. Anyway, “Necessary Errors” was published early August 2013 by Penguin in a solid paperback with thick, rough cut pages and extra shoulder, fold in covers (not sure what the technical term is for that type of cover, but it gives the paperback a more substantial feel), and it’s a substantial novel.

Writing and its Discontents: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal

I read with interest Caleb Crain’s recent post, about Freud, which begins with a doubt about blogging. Doubts about blogging can quickly reduce to an absurdity: why write at all? I’m beginning to suspect there are more readers than are being counted in the polls. The question is, what are we reading. Attendance at baseball games is down this year, but I still hear the hollow pop of the Whiffle ball in the street.

When Eric’s new Rolling Stone arrived in the mail earlier this week I again shied away from the hardball cover. I glanced at the contents, made note of the McChrystal article, thumbed through the Lady Gaga interview. I missed the scoop, for suddenly Rolling Stone and McChrystal were big news. A post headline occurred to me: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal. According to the cover, she appears to have the qualifying equipment.

I sometimes get the feeling professional writers would rather not have to blog. Hendrik Hertzberg’s post on the McChrystal story, at the New Yorker site, for example, argues that the McChrystal story is really about the fragmentation of journalism, the co-opting of stories by anyone with a laptop, and presentations carefully staged for a VIP audience, all of which creates a morale hazard for troops, a hazard which didn’t exist in previous wars. Hertzberg suggests that Rolling Stone and McChrystal conspired to pose the general and his cohort “…as really cool macho dudes.” Hertzberg says that “frontline troops nowadays are also online troops.” He thinks this is good, but how can it be good if at the same time, as Hertzberg suggests, we should still censor their mail? And why does Hertzberg conclude that McChrystal and his gang of on-line blogging-warriors “understood none of this”?

Why should we keep from the troops the true character of their leaders, even if part of that character is a desire to fictionalize and present itself as something it’s not? But I didn’t read the Rolling Stone McChrystal article as fiction. (The Lady Gaga interview – now that’s fiction.) Do we think we can protect the troops from knowing what war is really like?

Freud concludes his Civilization and Its Discontents with a discussion of ethics as a product of the super-ego to control “the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another; and for that reason we are especially interested in what is probably the most recent of the cultural commands of the super-ego, the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.”

It may have been a fictional account carefully orchestrated, but I liked the profile of McChrystal in the Rolling Stone. I liked that he’s always been a discontent, that he wrote fiction, that, in fact, he may not be a very likable guy.

Freud concludes: “One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgements of value follow directly his wishes for happiness – that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.” Freud thought our capacity for destruction, and particularly for self-destruction, a bad thing, and worth thinking about. No doubt, but deconstruction is not the same thing as destruction. We may have lost a general (through his own tendency toward self-destruction) willing and able to deconstruct the war in Afghanistan. Now we’re left with more Lady Gaga.

Update, June 26: New Yorker editor Amy Davidson weighs in on her blog, Close Read, discussing the General of all bad comments, Patton. The comparison was inevitable. But Amy might have compared McChrystal to another WWII general, Omar Bradley (Patton’s nemesis and in many ways the archetypal opposite of McCrystal and Patton types) . The Google timeline (follow link) omits my famous meeting with General Bradley in front of the LA International Hotel, where I held a job parking cars at the front door, circa late 1960’s. The General came out in his dress uniform, having just addressed some dinner group. I’m sorry now that I don’t remember the exact date or the purpose of his appearance. But he stood at the curb in a waning Los Angeles beach evening (the hotel only a couple of miles from the water, at the east end of the airport), tall and stately in his dress uniform, alone, and so I walked up to him and introduced myself, and shook his hand. “General Bradley,” I said, “just wondering if I might say hello and shake your hand.” He shook my hand, and said, “of course.” “How are you, sir?” I asked. “I’m fine, thank you. It’s a lovely evening.” “Yes, sir.” His car (a small, chauffeured limo) by then had arrived at the curb and I opened the door for him and the car drove off. Not quite enough for a Rolling Stone article. Still, I was about to be drafted, but neither the prospect of my being drafted nor potential visceral evenings in Vietnam seemed to preclude a lovely evening in Los Angeles, then or since. Generals will always know more, and less, than their troops; reporters will always be most interested in what the generals knew they did not know.

Books on Tee-Shirts: More on the Reading Crisis

In Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” about the sale of books in print copy versus electronic format (New Yorker, April 26), Steve Jobs is shown unwrapping the iPad as a reversal of Apple’s stated position two years earlier, when Jobs said, according to Auletta, that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore” (p. 24). It’s an interesting claim, one that might be supported by comparing movie products to audience viewing habits, for it doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad a movie is, people will still go to see it. Case in point, I travelled through “Hot Tub Time Machine” the other night, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a martial arts film I was invited to view years ago in Hollywood. The film was in the editing stage and a number of prospective investors had been invited to view it. After the viewing there was a discussion, and asked what he thought of the film, one viewer said, “Maybe we could cut it up and sell guitar picks.” The comment suggests an advantage of print books over electronic books; paper can be recycled for a variety of uses, but what to you do with a disaster in electronic format? You can hit the delete key, but your $9.99 evaporates like cotton candy without the stickiness.

Jobs had gone on to say, in support of his claim that people don’t read anymore, again, according to Auletta, that “Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year” (p. 24). It’s interesting evidence. What does it mean to read less than a book? And even if we knew, since what Jobs is really talking about isn’t reading books but the sales of books, what difference does it make if the reader finished the book purchased? Too, if sixty percent of people in the U.S. read two or more books in a year, does the evidence support that “people don’t read anymore”? Reading statistics supporting evidence of a decline in reading can be found in the CQ Researcher report of Feb. 22, 2008, “Reading Crisis,” and in Caleb Crain’s December 24, 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. Discussion regarding the decline in reading, drops in book sales, newspapers eliminating book reviews, and, indeed, the disappearance of newspapers (which we had some fun with in our post “What we will miss when newspapers disappear”), has since grown and continues to grow, but much of the discussion is about revenue as much as it is about reading. Increasingly the discussion focuses on price point and price elasticity of demand. At the same time, it may be that newspapers had simply grown too fat, ignored their audience, and that the decline in book sales may be the evidence of another bubble, for the price of new, hardback books may have reached a tipping point of price absurdity. And Auletta’s article suggests that electronic format is about price at least as much as it is about reading. For the general interest reader, and particularly for the beginning or returning reader, the decision to read or not may also be about anti-trust, for deciding what to read is as important as deciding what it’s worth.

The other night, in a discussion about literature, we talked about movies. Why, someone asked, do we so readily go to see a movie, that, after all, begins, presumably, with a written script, while we avoid going to read a book? It’s a great question, for we don’t ask our spouse or date, “Hey, you want to read a book with me tonight?” A movie is an experience most viewers share, and the experience of viewing a movie in a packed house is different from watching the same film with a few folks spread out in an otherwise empty theatre. Movies are viewed in the dark, books in the light. Movie going is a social event; reading is a solitary affair – reading on-line seems to blur the distinction. Imagine a world where a television commercial is a trailer for an upcoming book: “In book stores this summer!” Then imagine long lines of book purchasers waiting to get their hardback copy signed by the travelling star; but did they all read the book? Or did they walk out half way thru. What 40% made the purchase? They may have already been non-readers, purchasing not a book to read, but a tee-shirt to prove they’d been to the concert and touched the star. And Jobs may have been interested in electronic book publishing all along, but why play his hand too soon? Why not catch Amazon and Google by surprise? It’s about the scoop, the hype, the cover. Hold still; I’m trying to read your shirt.

Solving the Texas Textbook Massacre, Scandal, and Mystery

Textbooks are like disposable diapers, fodder for landfills, their obsolescence planned and forced new editions programmed with regularity. When I was a kid we couldn’t write in our textbooks. The nuns used them year after year – textbooks must not have been programmed to self-destruct quite so quickly in those days. We had to cover our textbooks with brown paper grocery bags, cut cleanly according to obsessive instructions, so the covers fit smartly around the edges, taped carefully so no tape touched the textbook. In spite of this care, or perhaps because of it, I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name of a single textbook I used in my twelve years of regular school.

A few summers ago I started noticing very old textbooks, from the early 1900’s, showing up in local garage sales. I started collecting them. One day I took a bagful down to the local used book store to see what I might get for them, but the owner was chagrined. “I don’t buy books like that,” she said, and wouldn’t even look down into the bag. Yet Powell’s “City of Books,” in Portland, does a brisk business filling newer-used US textbook orders from overseas, and textbooks, new and used, constitute an enormous, bizarrely regulated industry.

But the mystery of the Texas textbook scandal is why anyone cares, for who supposes students actually read the textbooks? And even if they wanted to, where are the school districts whose funding is deep enough to afford them? Schools that could have afforded new textbooks no doubt spend their money in other, more productive ways: building multi-million dollar sport complexes, for example. And if they have the textbooks, were they distributed? Or are they sitting in a warehouse, as Michelle Rhee discovered when she took over in DC? In any case, given the unaffordable prices and now the tampering with the credibility and reliability of textbooks, Texas teachers should forgo any of the changes forced by their state board of education and ignore textbooks altogether, avoiding their exorbitant costs, forced new editions, inflated purpose, and questionable educational effectiveness; and the rest of the country should follow their example.

Will the Education debate go the way of the Health Care debate? In the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “But the reform package [Health Care] emerged with a clear recognition of what is driving costs up: a system that pays for the quantity of care rather than the value of it. This can’t continue.” Neither can Education’s reliance on the textbook system, which is also too expensive and values quantity over quality. No one doubts this, but, as Gawande says, “the threat comes from party politics.” So too with Education. There is, Gawande says, “…one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves.” The same might be said for Education: it will count on local communities and local teachers for success, not state boards of education who confuse textbooks, editing, and censoring with teaching, and who would use a textbook to narrow the entrance to knowledge rather than opening the door to full and open access – access that is alive and growing on the Web, and that should be given more support to be leveraged by schools to lower the costs of education while improving the quality of instruction.

Instead of the traditional use of textbooks, teachers can use primary sources via the Internet. For in depth analysis, including background and extensive researched reports of current events, school libraries should subscribe to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (the blog is free; access to the full reports requires a subscription – which most libraries provide). Extensive reports include credible pro-con discussion and annotated and linked bibliographies for further reading. Open Culture is another site that includes free resources, including language, culture, and math and science material – including links to podcasts from reputable universities. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another site that features free and open access to the work of professional scholars (a current fund raising campaign seeks to establish a more permanent and viable funding source – so no, these sites are not free, though they offer free access).

Students are already using the Internet, and teachers can do more to leverage its resources. Google Books, for all the controversy surrounding the copyright issue, is getting better and students access the site without charge (apart from Internet service) for direct access to both primary sources and critical analysis. Credible and reputable periodicals are on-line, some with full access, others with limited access without a subscription. Scholarly journals are following suit and taking down their wall that limits direct access and frustrates students attempting to learn scholarship and research. And individual blogs such as the Becker-Posner Blog (Becker a University of Chicago Nobel economist, and Posner a federal judge), Caleb Crain’s blog, which augments his professional publications, and the World Wide Woodard blog, the blog of author and journalist Colin Woodard, just to mention a few – there are obviously many more – all provide direct, free, and open access to professional criticism, informed opinion, and scholarly research. Still other sites, like FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute – a physics site), provide forums for professionals to share papers and research, while giving students the opportunity to participate by reading and following the studies and discussion. It was on FQXi that I first saw Garrett Lisi’s recent physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

What we need is an exceptionally simple theory of education. Hopefully it will include open access to primary source documents that might nudge textbooks away from the center of the student’s desk, where the drool is soaking into the garbage bag cover.

Update: 5-27-2010…It was announced this week that Portland Public High School District has posted just over a 50% graduation rate. I don’t think the problem is textbooks. Meantime, here’s a blog post that touches on a similar crisis in higher ed. Some appear to be worried about the adulteration of their disciplines as ethos moves online. Yet their ships are sinking – see the post referenced below and then read the top post (we agree with Levi): Larval Subjects.