Month: October 2017

Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.

 

 

 

A Picture Instead

The last several weeks have been alternately nerve-wracking, inspirational, depressing, too-cool-for-school, enervating, elating, and disappointing. The drain on resources has left me unable to judge overall.  Consequently, I’m being very chary what I write here.  So I’m going to put what energy I have into some fiction.

In the meantime, here’s a new picture.  Enjoy.

 

Cops

The protests in St. Louis over the vindication of yet another cop in a seriously questionable shooting have been dealt with by outrageous police tactics. Protests are met, broken up, people are arrested and abused, and the justification is some broken windows, most of which the vendors suffering the damage have come out to say has been worth it to support the point being made.

So the question is—since the people the police claim to be protecting are repudiating that protection when it entails martial-law-style crackdowns—just what is it the police are serving?

I think this is thoroughly misunderstood. You see emblazoned on police cars, held up as motto, proudly owned by the men and women in blue:  To Serve and Protect.

But when the majority of a community is in profound disagreement over what its police do, just what does that mean?

It means what it has always meant. The police exist to protect and preserve one thing:  Order.

Often, even usually, protecting the public and serving the people is congruent with preserving order. You can’t, usually, have any kind of peace of mind when order breaks down.  You can’t defend something in the midst of riot.

But when the issue involves political and judicial incompetence, corruption, or malfeasance, the police are put in a quandary. What are they defending and protecting against what? They can’t take sides.  So the default is—order.

Now, whose definition of order I will let you figure out.  Obviously there are distinctions.  A bunch of sports fans trashing cars after a Big Game doesn’t get the same kind of crackdown as a phalanx of peaceful protestors clogging a street. (Hint: the fans aren’t challenging authority.)

Get people off the streets, reestablish the appearance of normality, make it easier for the police to seem to do what everyone thinks they’re supposed to do (which they often, even usually, do).  But when it comes to a break-point over principle, as in this case, as in the case of Ferguson, as in so many cases of late, they will default to establishing and preserving Order.

I point this out so there can be less failure to interpret actions that defy expectations.

Holding the police department up to ridicule, recording them doing clearly unjustified if not illegal things in pursuit of this function, further erodes their mission—to preserve ORDER. Respect or at least fear is essential for that, because if no one believes the police are working for them, why should anyone do what they say?

On the other side is the gross mishandling of cases like this one where prosecutors aimed for an impossible target.  I’m not saying the charges brought against Stockley were wrong, only that, on a practical level, they were not achievable.  (The Justice Department—Obama’s Justice Department—knew this and decided not to prosecute.  Frustrating, but there it is.)  First degree murder is difficult to prove and get convictions on at the best of times.  With an officer-involved-shooting, you might as well send  Bilbo into the case without a ring and nothing but a slingshot.  The lesser charge brought, Armed Criminal Action, was more likely, but since they were bundled together the judge was able to vacate both at once.

But even before this, there seems to be a dearth of more ground-level legal actions that ought to take place before something  like this blows up into a media circus.  Something simpler, seemingly innocuous, something that might get a lot of folks to say “Well, what the hell does that do?”

Like passing an ordnance requiring police to apologize when they get something wrong.

Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like much.  But it would begin to lay the foundation of a kind of community-responsive accountability that would eventually lead to a healthier relationship between the community and its police.  Because when they bash in the wrong door, arrest the wrong person, abuse someone illegally, without an apology we tell them that they’re doing what we want them to do.  When some cop shoots someone’s dog “just because” and no apology is forthcoming, we tell the police they are above civility. Outside community.

The second thing I think should be done is reinstate the requirement that cops must live in the community they serve.  Allowing them to live elsewhere severs connection and ultimately accountability. You might as well call them what they are, then: hired guns.

These smaller things may not seem as significant as convicting a cop who steps so far over the mark that it makes national news, but without them, going for the gold ring with a murder conviction is made to fail and bring out the divisions on the street and promote the ugliness of realizing, if we did not already know, that the police, at the end of the day, are not there to serve Joe Smith.  They serve The People. But what does that mean?  Its means a vast aggregate that is faceless, unindividuated, impersonal, something that once you are separated from it and become an individual, you no longer are the subject of their service.  The People is a useless concept on the street, because The People aren’t there when the shit goes down—just some poor human being and an armed representative whose basic mission is and always has been to preserve ORDER.

Which kind of makes a community into a giant classroom and the citizens students who are required to sit quietly at their desks and maintain the illusion of conformity so the teacher can appear to be doing a Good Job.