Books postsTuesday February 02, 2016
Why I Stopped Reading Fiction
I’m 53, but I still think of myself as the person I was from about 18 to 35, the one who found an author he liked and kept reading them: Salinger to Irving to Vonnegut to Roth to Doctorow. Baldwin to Updike to Vidal to Mailer to Kundera. The best of Hemingway and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I liked being that person but I think I stopped being that person around 1998. Maybe reviewing crap books for The Seattle Times killed some spark in me. Or maybe working at Microsoft in its games division did.
But I think the biggest factor is that I went online.
Reading, I think, made me feel less lonely. It gave me a connection to somebody—the author—and now online does that. Social media does that. Or tries to do it. But really it does it poorly. It’s salt water for a thirsty man. Even when it works, it’s a simulacrum of a connection. It’s connection in everything but the connecting.
So I should go back to fiction, I should go back to literature, to assuage this feeling; to drink real water after the salt variety. But I don’t. And I think I don’t because reading literature, in some way, actually makes me feel more lonely now. Because I know so few people do it.
But that doesn't explain why I read non-fiction, since, apparently, even fewer people do that. Maybe because non-fiction, on almost any topic, at least connects you to an ongoing conversation on that topic. Read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer and you can talk about the Koch brothers, or the funding of think tanks, or the rightward drift of our country since the mid-1970s. A fictional book simply connects you back to that book. It should, of course, connect you to a larger discussion about aesthetics, but that conversation seems reserved for academics. And it helps if you have a book group, but ... sometimes those make me feel a little lonely too.
Where the Koch Family Fortune Began
From Jane Mayer's book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” Chapter 1:
In late 1938, as World War II approached and Hitler's aims were unmistakable, [Fred Koch] wrote admiringly about fascism in Germany, and elsewhere, drawing an invidious comparison with America under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
“Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. Koch added, “The laboring people in those countries are proportionately much better off than they are any place else in the world. When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925 you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.” ...
Fred Koch's willingness to work with the Soviets and the Nazis was a major factor in creating the Koch family's early fortune.
Staliln and Hitler. If you'd invented it, you couldn't have come up with two worse sources of wealth. I'm shocked, shocked that this isn't a regular piece of conversation in the “liberal media.”
Fred Koch is, of course, the father of Charles and David Koch, who have been the big money and philosophical attitude behind right-wing intransigence and attacks against the Obama administration from Day One. Expect more excerpts.
The Debate Over 'The Arab of the Future'
Here are a few quotes about the graphic memoir, “The Arab of the Future,” which details the upbringing of cartoonist Riad Sattouf in Syria and Libya in the 1980s, and which is causing a sensation in France. They're all from Adam Shantz's excellent profile on Sattouf, “Drawing Blood,” in The New Yorker:
- “Sattouf is faithful to what he sees, and he doesn't beautify reality.” -- Subhi Hadidi, a leftist member of the Syrian opposition.
- “Sattouf describes things as they are.” -- Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis.
- “[The book's appeal in France] rests on an unconscious, or partly conscious, racism. ... Because he's part Arab, everything he says becomes acceptable, including the most atrociously racist things.” -- Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, a French scholar of the Arab world.
- “The problem isn't Sattouf, who has written a funny and sympathetic book. It's the readers who think they've understood a society as complex as Syria because they've read a single comic book.” -- Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian writer and diplomat, who is now Palestine's ambassador to UNESCO.
The above quotes get at what I don't like about certain forms of political correctness in this country. I like the search for truth. If you find the negative in that search, well, welcome to the party, pal. To pretend otherwise isn't just PC; it's PR.
What is the difference between PC and PR? Is it that PC is for the marginalized, PR for the dominant? Either way, they're both anathema to the artist.
I've already ordered the first volume of Sattouf's book, which just went on sale in the U.S.. and will try to refrain from thinking I've understood a society as complex as Syria. But I imagine I'll at least understand it a little better. Won't be hard.
Being faithful to what you see: harder than it sounds.
“Vidal lacks the wound.”
-- Norman Mailer
Based on Leo Robson's book review/essay of Jay Parini's authorized biography, “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal,” in the latest New Yorker, it's probably more accurate to say Vidal hides the wound. That's not Parini's diagnosis, by the way; that's Robson channeling Anaïs Nin, whom Vidal met in 1945, and who always felt Vidal hid his true emotions in favor of a public pose of world weariness. Indeed, Robson comes to the conclusion—delivered in the first graf—that Vidal's famous bon mots were mostly a form of projection. He was cataloging himself.
Maybe. Robson, at least, makes me feel better for never having gotten into Vidal's novels—whether self-referential (“The City and the Pillar”), historical (“Burr”) or satire (“Myran Breckenridge”). But I still want to go back to the essays. Pre-9/11, of course.
The three saddest words in the English language? “Joyce Carol Oates,” Vidal said.
Michael Medved is His Own Best Critic
Finally reading “Hollywood vs. America” (1992), in which right-wing film critic Michael Medved argues that Hollywood makes the wrong movies for all the wrong reasons, and it's all Hollywood's fault. (As opposed to America's fault.)
What kinds of movies should Hollywood make? Medved brings up a few fondly remembered ones from his youth:
- The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), starring Fess Parker as a fearless Union officer who leads a daring raid behind enemy lines to steal a key Confederate train.
- The Buccaneer (1958), with Andrew Jackson and pirate Jean Lafitte winning the Battle of New Orleans
- The Horse Soldiers (1959), starring John Wayne and William Holden as Union cavalry officers in the Civil War
- John Paul Jones (1959), with Robert Stack as the great naval hero of the American Revolution
- And, of course, John Wayne's two-hour-and-forty-minute epic, The Alamo
Then he adds this:
I still recall every one of these long-ago entertainments with enormous affection, though I would never go so far as to offer them my blanket critical endorsement. Its easy to spot the artistic and historical shortcomings in such projects, to decry their jingoistic simplicity and to lament the way that America's enemies are callously reduced to two-dimensional bad guys. From a contemporary and politically correct perspective, one might well argue that my endless exposure to such blood-and-guts sagas between the impressionable ages of seven and twelve permanently warped my tender young mind by implanting the dubious proposition that our country's problems could all be solved on the battlefield. Nevertheless, I miss the energetic, flag-waving films of my boyhood and regret that comparable projects have found no place in todays movie mix.
Turns out Medved is a good critic after all.
Michael Medved movie night? Warning: prolonged expsure may cause jingoism and two-dimensional worldviews. But it's all in good, clean fun.