on the dangers of reading too often

February 3, 2014

Grad school is a period of extended adolescence. One’s future is up in the air, and one is largely dependent on others, especially creditors. Unlike adolescents, however, grad students often lead very sedentary lives. farmerThey burrow into libraries amongst musty aisles of books. And they stoop over their reading and stuff their faces with flaky croissants and stain pages of books with inkblots of coffee. Sure, the cloistered life of learning has its advantages, but physical activity isn’t one of them. In One of Ours, many contrasts are in play: urban/rural, individual/group, and reason/faith, among others. But my favorite contrast hands down, and the one that makes me chuckle at all hours of the day, whenever I think of it, is the contrast between the life of the body, say, farming, and the life of the mind. Of a young man who intends to be a professor, Claude’s muscular and sun-burned neighbor drily asks, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

Postscript. In related Bay Area news, here’s a tribute to a “crusty old farmer who had a dream.” I have something approaching love for him.


Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.


Literary Cage Fight

January 27, 2014

I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and sunmoonmoon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.

Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:

“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”

And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:

“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?

Can there be a winner?


wherein a disagree with rohan — 2 of 2

January 12, 2014

tIn last Friday’s post, I got tuckered out. My bad.

Picking up the thread, let’s agree that Gone with the Wind is a morally appalling book.

Here’s the passage in the Rohan’s superb article I’ve been mulling over:

“While I read [Gone with the Wind], in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world.”

Like most novels, good or bad, well written or not, Gone with the Wind has a definite point of view. In this case, it adopts a stance on labor, land, family, leisure, race, history, and duty, among other things. A complex moral framework with many moving parts, some of which are appealing, others not.

Entering a point of view, with its alien and foreign values, doesn’t require us to compromise our commitment to a just and equal world.

Why would it?

We can read an adulterous novel without abandoning our belief in the virtue of fidelity. And we can read misogynistic, hebephilic, and even homicidal necrophilic novels without losing or staining our moral beliefs in these areas, too. A moral stance isn’t compromised by entering a strange odious world.

Rohan suggests that reading Gone with the Wind sympathetically suppresses one’s best self. I disagree.

There’s an alternative way to frame the issue. Bring one’s best possible self to bear on a novel, period. Do one’s level best to enter its world, good or bad, familiar or alien. Allow one’s emotional center to be moved by it. Then one might learn something new and unexpected about language, about desires and values, about in-group and out-group dynamics, about the primacy of gut feelings over reason, about different moral foundations and viewpoints, and about the mysterious transit between belief and action in a pluralist world.

We’re so easily divided into hostile groups, each convinced of its own righteousness.

Instead of worrying about the possibility of moral contagion, bring your best possible self to bear on reading alternative points of view, especially when they strike you as morally appalling. Especially then.

Struggling to find common ground through the difficult practice of sympathy is a lot better than the alternative.


why mr. interpolations blogs at all

January 3, 2014

The highly gifted mirabile dictu posed a series of questions to me and others to source material for a feature on blogging. Because my blog has languished lately, I thought I’d share my answers here. Happy New Years, everyone!

When and why did you decide to start a blog?

I started blogging in July, 2009 at Between the Lines, where I interviewed readers and documented some of their readerly tics and quirks. Bookish people love reading about other bookish people. It’s good fun, you see. But bookish people like me often tire of depending on others for content. So I shuttered Between the Lines about a year later and started blogging at Interpolations, mainly for selfish reasons. When I read a novel, especially a good one, I suffer it like an illness and have to retch up a few observations before returning to health. That, and I hope one or two readers find something useful in my writing.

How often do you blog?

Not nearly as much as I’d like. I’m busy with work, two kids, and other interests like hiking, vegetable gardening, and photography. In the long ago, I blogged twice a week, and if it were at all possible, I’d happily return to that cadence. But that’s not likely for some time. Fingers crossed for the future.

Do you consider your blog at all “political”?

No, my blog isn’t political despite the fact that I’ve called the Second Amendment tosh. In my opinion, the main political issue of our time is the rampant dysfunction in Washington and the massive disconnect between U.S. policies and public opinion. I spend zero time diagnosing this problem or advancing solutions to fix it. Nor do I present a point of view on other issues related to equality, justice and sustainability, even though I have very strong opinions in these areas. No, my blog isn’t political.

Are you also on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media sites?

In addition to WordPress, I haunt Twitter (here and here), Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, and Instagram. I also blog at HopeLab in a professional capacity as a Curator of Creative Communications and help manage the foundation’s social channels, among other things.

What are the pros and cons of blogging?

Blogging helps me retch so I feel better. Relief is good that way. It’s also helped me meet other people who are passionate about books, from the U.S., Canada and the Philippines, to England, Australia and Iran. It’s helped refine my appreciation for works I didn’t like at first blush, as was the case with Foe and Vanity Fair. It’s uncovered some gems I wouldn’t have otherwise read like Embers and The Leopard. It provides a record of my thoughts and observations, and even a petty crime (1 and 2). And it’s encouraged me to experiment with different forms of writing. As for the cons, I can only think of one right now, and hopefully it’s particular to me. Good blog writing and reading/engagement has wrecked my appetite for long-form articles. I’m reluctant to touch them even though they’re very important for public discourse.

Do your family and friends support your blogging, or are you writing for a different audience?

Only a few of my friends and some of my family know I blog. I don’t write for them, and I don’t readily speak about my blogging unless prompted, and even then I might dissemble a bit. Again, I write mainly for myself and in the hope that someone finds it useful or entertaining, or challenges my observations or point of view.

Does the courtship of marketers affect you or not? Do you accept products (books for most of you) from PR people? Does it influence your reviews?

I receive lots of requests but always politely decline free books and ebooks. I’m just not interested in them. David Mitchell once kindly sent me an ARC of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, for which I was enormously grateful. It didn’t influence my review at all. I panned it.

Are you concerned when critics belittle blogs?

No, not at all. Their criticisms are either valid or not. If valid, they help improve the form. If not, they help improve our thinking as we defend and evolve the form. So it’s really a win-win and hence a non issue.

Are you more influenced by blogs or book review publications in your choice of reading? 

In general, my reading appetite is dictated by some mysterious source in my head. I submit to it when it tells me what to read next. But I suppose I’m slightly more influenced by blogs than by book reviews in newspaper or magazine pubs, when I’m influenced at all.

What blogs do you recommend?

Whenever I have a chance, I visit the sites on my blogroll. Each blogger does something different, unique, and interesting, so it’s easy to recommend them.

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