Posts from February 2015
February 19th, 2015
Nothing warms up the icy snowbound ventricles quite like a burst of outrage, and I got one of those recently when I encountered a block of pure editorial cowardice in the Penny Press. Specifically, it was in the 5 February 2015 issue of the London Review of Books (although the cover is misprinted as 2014), and perhaps predictably, the subject was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the letters column, a reader named Simon Hammond writes:
As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.
To which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, replies:
I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue …
The craven nature of such stuff is matched by its worminess; the dodge in the reprehensible first line is only deepened by the insinuating obliqueness of the last line – “there are many other things to be said about the attacks” … many things other than ‘freedom of expression,’ that is, and what might those things be? Are they in fact really plural? Can those ‘other things’ really be anything except some damn variation of “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”? Isn’t that the only construction that can be put on the weaselly line “I don’t believe I have the right to insult whomever I please”?
I read Wilmers’ disgusting response to Hammond over and over, trying and failing to see it as anything other than a preemptive plea for mercy from the same people who sent the killers to Charlie Hebdo. Why, except from cowardice, would Wilmer voluntarily, eagerly surrender a right she in fact does possess, the right to insult whomever she pleases? Not slander or libel whomever she pleases – nobody was slandered in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and you famously can’t libel the dead – but insult, which indeed is the kind of freedom-of-expression thing (without the noxious scare-quotes, as if the term is some baroque oddity she found in a dusty old book) the editor of the London Review of Books should defend.
But she directed me to Tariq Ali’s piece in the same issue, so I went and read it, which did nothing at all to calm my outrage. Ali’s piece is of course much longer than Wilmer’s cringing, posturing little paragraph, and if anything it’s more opaque, more careful in its appeasements. Ali is always a careful writer, but I’ve hardly ever seen his prodigious gifts exercised in making less worthy points:
In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory … Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march [in the wake of the shootings] revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities.
More critical … incredible. As if the thousands of people – including hundreds of writers and intellectuals just like Ali – put no critical thought into their ‘Je suis Charlie’ responses but were just wildly – hysterically – flailing. The baiting-and-switching going on here is even more revolting than the kind Wilmers uses; the opposition being set up between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and hurting the feelings of minorities is revoltingly deceitful in its use of euphemisms. “Je suis Charlie” is not an empty slogan; it’s an expression of solidarity with the idea that satire should be possible without the threat of lethal retaliation. And “hurting the feelings of minorities” is a prelude rather than a point; of course everybody’s opposed to hurting the feelings not just of minorities but of majorities. Of course hurt feelings are bad. But how were the hurt feelings of minorities expressed in this case? With a barrage of very pointed letters from Muslims and Muslim sympathizers cancelling Charlie Hebdo subscriptions? No: with a highly coordinated paramilitary attack designed to murder the Charlie Hebdo staff.
That cowards like Wilmers and Ali are so complacently willing to equate ‘insulting Muslims’ with ‘incurring Muslim violence’ – that they’re apparently willing to live in a world in which you refrain from hurting the feelings of minorities not because hurting feelings is rude but because you’re personally afraid of what will happen if you don’t – would be deplorable enough if they were just private citizens. But in a public intellectual and the editor of the London Review of Books? With the earth still turned on the graves of their slaughtered Charlie Hebdo peers? Freedom of expression had better watch out for its life, if two of its presumed defenders are half-way to Munich the instant clear battle-lines are drawn.
Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of that LRB … provided nobody’s feelings are hurt …
January 31st, 2015
I’ve often been asked – indeed, I often ask myself – why on Earth I’d continue to read a magazine as politically zealous, not to say crackpot, as the National Review, and my answer – given a few times even here on Stevereads – is that I try my best to ignore the frong half of every issue and focus instead on the book reviews in the back half, where I can often find good stuff. The 9 February issue was a good case-in-point: the front half was full of the usual hateful, mean-spirited, vile, adolescent ad hominem garbage that has, alas, come to characterize the 21st-century Republican Party: idiotic sneers at the very idea that women might face systematic discrimination, or that a gigantic federal government might have even the slightest moral obligation to help out its poorest citizens, or that the reckless actions of the industrial West are turning Earth’s climate into that of equatorial Venus (this issue also featured a cartoon of President Obama dressed as an ISIL terrorist, in case you were wondering), etc., every article interspersed with full-page ads for all-Tea Party cruises where your Captain’s Table pundits will regale you with spellbinding stories about money.
But in the back of the issue, there was some good stuff. Michael Knox Beran, for instance, became the latest reviewer to call Andrew Roberts’ new Napoleon Bonaparte biography a masterpiece even while politely disagreeing with all of its central claims; the book put me in the exact same bind a couple of months ago.
And since the National Review caters to the wingnut presses, they’ll often have reviews of books not even I, with my indefatigable catalogue-trawling, would ever hear of. There’s a review of one such book in this issue. It’s put out by the Brookings Institution’s press, and it’s called The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House by Stephen Hess. I’ve always been fascinated by Moynihan (and I very much enjoyed Greg Weiner’s new book about him, American Burke), so I was naturally interested to read the review, titled “An Odd Couple for the Ages” and written by James Rosen.
Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you). To put it mildly, Rosen takes this concept to new territories:
(Full disclosure: Steve hess has been a friend since college days, when I took a course he taught; and like every other reporter in Washington, where Hess has spent 40 years at the Brookings Institution, I’ve quoted him many times. As he notes in his acknowledgements section, I aided his research for this book by supplying documents I had reviewed for my book on Watergate. He appeared on my online program, The Foxhole, to promote the book, in December; my criticism here will dispel any intimation of favoritism)
I confess, by the second line I was chuckling out loud over my Makchang gui. But it was a melancholy chuckling all the same: here, writ small (and absurd – what Rosen describes is not “full disclosure” but “screaming conflict of interest”), was the exact same kind of unethical effontery that the front half of the magazine so viciously and openly champions, where a thing can be patently, visibly wrong – whether it be oil-drilling in beautiful wildlife preserves or writing an extended piece of ad work for your best friend’s book – and still be done, openly done, proudly done. That’s not just crappy book-reviewing – that’s the entire political party that currently runs this country.
So maybe it’s time to wean myself off the National Review and its ilk? Full disclosure: I’ve already started doing just that.
January 25th, 2015
Some days in the Penny Press are more frustrating than others, of course, and sometimes those weeks offer clear signals of their intent to get my knickers in a twist. This happened just yesterday, in fact, when I took my first clear look at Barry Blitt’s imbecilic cover to the 26 January New Yorker, which is titled “The Dream of Reconciliation” and shows Martin Luther King marching arm-in-arm with a quartet of people who have only one thing in common: their complete indifference to any cause King ever marched for or cared about (at least two of the four people pictured marching with King, if they’d seen this cover, wouldn’t have been able to identify him). The false equivalence on display there – the fat, contented, Upper West Side substitute for thinking, the idea that if you die by police-related violence, you must have died in some noble struggle – well, it grated, at least to the extent that New Yorker covers ever can.
Frustration got worse inside the issue, although for different reasons. Jill Lepore, the magazine’s best writer, certainly doesn’t ever frustrate for pulling any substitutes for thinking; she’s as smart a writer as they come. No, it’s her subject this time around that caused the frustration – the subject of the impermanence of the Internet. The piece is called “The Cobweb,” and although it’s meant to offer a gleam of hope, it could scarcely be more frutrating for somebody who’s helped to build a thing like Open Letters Monthly online.
“The average life of a Web page is about a hundred days,” Lepore reports in the process of describing a project designed to archive Internet contents, “It’s like trying to stand on quicksand.” And the picture doesn’t get any rosier when she shifts he emphasis to more scholarly works:
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?
The piece made me want to have a stock-taking talk with Robert Minto, OLM‘s newest editor and the only one of us who’s as comfortable with code as codicils … to see if there’s anything to be done about the quicksand.
January 13th, 2015
Naturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.
“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback publishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.
In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:
“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.”
She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.
Another of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even a random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:
We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.
And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of Norwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”
Much as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.
They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.
January 6th, 2015
Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.
Take the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).
Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.
And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in both the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.
The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:
With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.
True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.
November 6th, 2014
There’s a certain kind of purity-of-the-turf book-article that I expect to encounter on a regular basis in the Penny Press, and yet even though I expect it, the encounters are always a bit depressing. The theme never changes: I’m an old-fashioned reader; I’ll never cozy up to these new-fangled electronic books or electronic reading gizmos, always couched in the attitude of a lonely rearguard defender of the pure and the true. It’s tiresome, I know, but there seems to be an unending hunger for such squibs on the part of my fellow assigning editors.
The culprit this time around crops up in the latest TLS, in the “Freelance” feature, where Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda goes on the old familiar wheeze about digital e-readers. His very inviting specific topic – Dirda is excellent at this kind of inviting topic – is that well-known delicious agony known to book-people of all ages: how to pick which books to pack for a journey. Dirda rightly points out what a reliable little pleasure this ritual can be – I’ve shared that experience many, many times (although during my really intense travel-years, I freed myself from it by always traveling with the same handful of books), so I was nodding as I read Dirda’s article even while I was grimacing at his glancing mention of the undeniable fact that e-readers solve the problem completely.
They do, of course. Prior to a journey, you can load your e-reader with dozens of books – free classics from Project Gutenberg, vast amounts of mainstream backlist in hundreds of genres, and the whole swath of brand new titles. And you can load all those titles in less time than it takes to prowl your bookshelves and pull down one or two – or ten – physical books.
This is simple: there is no argument in favor of the prowling and the pulling-down. To repeat: e-readers simply win this comparison. A writing-program is simply better than a manual typewriter. Satellite weather-tracking is simply better than not knowing a hurricane is coming. And when it comes to ease, speed, portability, and convenience, e-readers are simply better than printed books. The aesthetic experience of curling up with a printed book (and the smell – ye gods, if I hear one more proud Luddite rhapsodize about the lovely smell of printed books), yes – I love it as much as anybody, and nothing can replace it. But the practicalities of books? The getting, the lugging around, even the annotating? There’s no contest.
Dirda’s a smart guy. He knows this as well as anybody, whether he enjoys knowing it or not. He knows that a palm-sized metal slate that’s magically able to be hundreds of books is simply better than hundreds of two-pound bound things, each one of which can necessarily be only one book. But still, he starts in right away about the tangled logistics of choosing which printed books go in the bag:
One should always pack a back-up. That Agatha Christie might turn out to be one you’ve already read or you might find yourself stuck in Iowa an extra day, with only cornfields as fars as the eye can see.
(Dirda being a world-famous book critic and just a tad citified, it’s likely that if he ever finds himself “stuck in Iowa an extra day,” he’ll be stuck in Iowa City, which might be surrounded by cornfields as far as the eye can see but is also home to the splendid Prairie Lights bookstore, where Dirda could easily find some extra titles to save him)
Dirda quite delightfully goes through some of the various adventures he’s had with books on the road, and like everybody who reads this author, I was immediately under the spell of his narrative. And then I came to the end of the little piece and had the spell rudely broken – as of course was inevitable, since the thing I bumped up against was the whole point of the piece in the first place:
Nevertheless, I’m not going to buy one of those cutesy e-readers. No pain, no gain – that’s my motto. A man needs to suffer for his art, even if that art is merely writing book reviews.
*Sigh* No pain, no gain – but Dirda’s been in the book-reviewing game long enough to know the pain is the crappy books, not the lugging of the crappy books. If he wants to say he just doesn’t like reading books on those palm-sized metal plates, that’s fine – Luddite, but fine. But this misty suggestion that there’s something more valid, even more grown up about lugging around heavy printed books (they aren’t “cutesy”) – well, that’s just simple low-boil masochism, the intentional preferring of something inconvenient or even painful over a more convenient and less painful alternative. Luddites are almost always masochistic, and masochists are almost always proud of their fear.
It’s just a shame! How much better would it be for readers all over the world, I imagine, if a reader as readable and famous as Dirda (who hardly has a script for being a curmudgeon – he’s younger than I am, and I absolutely love my “cutesy” e-reader) were to write a TLS “Freelance” piece singing the praises of this technology that’s come along and totally evaporated a long-standing irritation of printed books. Instead of saying “BAH – I’ll accept the irritation, because I’m a real reader.”
Still, the holidays are coming – maybe somebody will not only give him a first-rate e-reader (my own suggestion would be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4) but sit there by the fireside under the frosted windows and walk him through its wonders. I’ll cross my fingers for a very different “Freelance” piece in four or five months’ time.
November 4th, 2014
One of the little joys of book-reviewing is finding “echoes” of your own reviews in somebody else’s Table of Contents. My beloved Open Letters Monthly, though well-respected in the industry, is virtually unknown outside it (except perhaps for those curious browsers who find one of our blurbs on some new paperback), so it’s extra-pleasing for me to open a journal like the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books and discover that their editors have run a review of something I myself have already reviewed. I like the no-doubt-fraudulent way it creates the illusion that we’re all in this together, encountering the same onrushing tide of new books and making roughly some of the same decisions as to what warrents coverage and what doesn’t.
The latest TLS to hit my mailbox was a perfect case-in-point. Not only was there an Adam Kirsch review of A Voice Still Heard, a collection of Irving Howe essays recently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Robert Minto, and not only was there a very good Kate Webb review of The Paying Guests, the new Sarah Waters novel recently reviewed by my esteemed colleague Rohan Maitzen, but there was a veritable cacophony of further reviews! Seamus Perry writes at very satisfying length about The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke, which I reviewed here; Norma Clarke turns in a superb review of Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (which I reviewed here), even going so far as to point out some of the book’s shortcomings:
[The author’s] admiration for Reynolds can sometimes sound like endorsement of the values espoused by his elite subjects. The knowledgeable reader can fill in some gaps and guess how far Reynolds was painting to order or shared those values, but in this respect [the author] doesn’t help. There is almost no information here about how Reynolds reached his decisions – did Frances Crewe ask to be painted with sheep, for example? When he painted Lady Worsley en militaire was that his sensitivity to fashion or was it her choice? How far was he countering satirical cartoonists, such as Gillray, when he presented Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire playing at home with her baby? And did she suggest it? How much did he charge? What did he do if the clients didn’t pay?
There’s also a review by Theodore Rabb of R. J. B. Bosworth’s Italian Venice (which I reviewed here) in which the reviewer praises Bosworth for an excellent job all the while hinting that it might also be a bit of a boring job – although it isn’t, as I can attest.
But then, two critics disagreeing about a book is the kind of disagreements that only strengthen the Republic of Letters, yes? I almost prefer it, whenever I encounter one of these echoes in the Penny Press.
September 19th, 2014
As I foresaw, Sarah Boxer’s ridiculous article in the July/August issue of Atlantic drew ample responses. In her article, Boxer does the full-Millions take on why so many mothers are missing from Disney movies. Naturally, her explanation in “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” involved a vast evil male conspiracy, and in the new Atlantic some readers dare to take issue with her. Jim Jordan, for instance, from Charlotte, North Carolina, writes:
Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.
The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.
Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.
Likewise Wayne Grant (he’s from Raleigh, North Carolina) points out some fairly obvious non-conspiracy theories:
In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-defying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril – the hallmark of cartoons – if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.
And Sarah Boxer’s response?
The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining … both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is.
Things like this just make me sigh – and not in a good way. It neatly displays so many of the things I hate about modern-day pseudo-feminism, mainly that it has a congenital inability to pick worthwhile fights (as is immediately demonstrated by the fact that every pseudo-feminist who read that line saw – physically saw – only the word “genital”). While she’s complaining about the dripping condescension of the two letter-writers, she’s busy dripping plenty of her own, in this case in the form of a ready-made term to mock anything of any kind said by somebody with testicles: that stupid word “mansplaining.” She mocks her correspondents for using declarative sentences – as if, what? They’re supposed to write their letters in strings of anagrams? I seem to recall her own article was chock-full of declarative sentences – was she “mansplaining” to her readers? And her reaction if either of those men had called her article “lovely”? Yeesh.
September 11th, 2014
When I opened the latest issue of my trusty Outside magazine, I thought the worst in bad-parenting outrage I’d have to face would be found in the letters column. Readers wrote in protesting the recklessness that writer Ted Conover had written about in an earlier issue, a monstrous and self-serving article called “This is How We Roll” about how he tried to recapture his youth train-jumping out west … and as an added twist, brought along his teenage son. Outside ran an admonishing letter from a train safety expert an then ran a response from Conover that brought back to my mind all the worst elements of his piece:
Readers of my piece will know that its recurring theme is misgivings over my son’s desire to follow my footsteps in an activity that I acknowledge repeatedly is dangerous and illegal. I write about keeping him safe while not being a hypocrite; I express relief when it’s over. I am grateful we could do this together and agree about the danger: this was not just another travel adventure.
But it turns out that wasn’t the worst the magazine had in store for me – not by a long shot. A few pages later, there’s an article by Ben Hewitt called “We Don’t Need No Education” that at first glance I took to be a parody of some kind. It was only when I settled down to read it that I realized the author was completely serious.
Completely serious about a new yuppie-prepper fad called unschooling. Not homeschooling, where parents opt to keep their kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools and instead instruct them at home, following some kind of board-approved curriculum. I’ve had my reservations about home-schooling, but it turns out unschooling is something quite a bit worse: it’s where you take your kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools, keep them home, and then proceed to teach them … nothing at all. The movement is based on the idea of letting kids – the author’s two boys are 9 and 12 – decide entirely for themselves how they want to spend their days.
Not for Hewitt’s two boys the ho-hum time-wasting of memorization or test-taking; they don’t read, they don’t study, they’re as ignorant of literature or higher mathematics as a hare in a field. As Hewitt emphasizes over and over, they’re too busy communing with the natural world for any of that cut-and-dried standardized stuff other, less enlightened parents inflict on their kids. Hewitt’s sons can tell how severe the coming winter will be by the thickness of the tree bark in the woods; they can differentiate moose-crap from deer-crap at fifty yards; and they strike the author as so much happier than most kids.
He has a dream for them, you see:
This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural for them.
All of which sounds very high-minded, and none of which changes that fact that Hewitt is taking entirely egotistical advantage of the fact that no state in the Union has yet thought it necessary to draft laws specifically preventing this kind of child abuse. The two poor boys on which Hewitt is inflicting his delusional nostalgia about what an idea childhood should be – well, those two boys are almost automatically consigned to a very, very small adult world, one lived entirely on back-country trap-lines and at local feed stores swapping local stories with the locals over local matters. Despite the fact that Hewitt makes a point of giving them regular ‘social time’ with schooled children, he’s systematically unfitting them for Western society – in order for himself to feel good about the eight years of their childhood, he’s robbing them all but one or two dimensions of the sixty years of their adulthood. So they’ll know how to fish in forest streams, and they’ll be able to tell from the behavior of moss whether or not a storm system is coming – but they’ll not only have no idea how to study, how to concentrate on things that don’t immediately interest them, how to compete, intellectually, with their peers, they’ll have absolutely no interest in doing any of those things.
Aside from outrage, my main reaction to the article was a somewhat urgent hope that this fad dies a quick death. American schoolchildren are already among the dumbest in the civilized world – a movement that aims to make them even dumber, to return them to some kind of quasi-primitive Neverland existence right out of James Fenimore Cooper (do Hewitt’s kids know what an iPad is? Do they think it’s alive? For God’s sake), is just about the last thing the country needs.
“What if they want to be doctors? They will be doctors,” Hewitt writes. “What if they want to be lawyers? They will be lawyers.” He doesn’t say how on Earth this might happen, with his boys drying beans and discussing pine moss all day every day. They might need help to become those things; they might need instruction, and they certainly can’t look to their cravenly irresponsible father for anything like that.
August 19th, 2014
It’s been two blessed years since the New York Review of Books reprinted John Williams’s flatulently boring 1965 novel Stoner and the presumably bored grandees of the book-chat world surprised all rational people by taking it up as some sort of lost classic and singing its praises from every literary pulpit in the English-speaking world. Two blessed years since this furtive and thankfully short-lived attempt at a Williams revival.
It was long enough for me to hope that the lunacy had departed from the book-chat ranks, who’d then drift back to over-praising stridently pixie-ish Workshop women. But no – the NYRB struck again by reprinting Williams’s stupefyingly dull 1972 novel Augustus, and it, too, has reaped heaps of grotesquely inaccurate praise. The attractive paperback features a specially-commissioned new Introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, one of our most intelligent and pleasingly mandarin book critics. At first his excellent essay raised my hopes, since for the first few hundred words it seems very pointedly to avoid actually praising the book (I smiled when he calls it Williams’s “most rigorous” book, which is certainly true as far as it goes). But no, the ether eventually affects even his first-rate brain and the superlatives start rolling out – culminating rather unforgivably in his equating of Augustus with a handful of truly great historical novels like The Memoirs of Hadrian and the novels of Mary Renault.
And one of my most reliable reactions to such a frustration – turning to National Geographic – was thwarted this time around, and for, amazingly enough, the exact same reason! The latest National Geographic features a cover story that doesn’t just flirt within the prospect of renovating the reputation of the Roman emperor Nero but actively engages with it. I wasn’t prohibited from inquiry by the issue’s absolutely awful cover (quite possibly the worst the magazine has ever sported – an illustration of a statue of Nero holding up a lighted match while a background of Rome burns), and I settled in with Robert Draper’s article hoping against hope that the tag-lines about revisiting “Rome’s Bad Boy” was an exaggeration merely meant to sell magazines.
But no, alas. Draper goes to Rome and manages to find half a dozen bumptious Italian historians willing to say that Nero got a bad rap – that despite all those murdered relatives and despite the fact that he flattened half of Rome for his egomaniacal building projects (helpfully illustrated in the text), he was actually a progressive and misunderstood ruler. Two of the people Draper interviews say the same thing: that Nero was “no better and no worse” than the emperors who came before him or after him – a statement so preposterous it must require, I guess, the restraint of a National Geographic writer not to laugh right in the faces of the people who say it.
So: Roman revivals on all sides! Where to turn for relief? Well, fortunately the world of high fashion always makes such perfect sense …