Late September links: Little to do with books, much to do with life

* The best I’ve read concerning “overrated” novels, courtesy of the Little Professor.

* The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research.

Except that I’m not sure his analogy works, since “intellectual debt” doesn’t have to be “repaid,” doesn’t hurt anyone, and might point the way forward regarding ideas in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious at the time such “debt” is being produced/acquired.

* What kinds of inequalities bother people, and what kind do not?

* In Conniptions from me on urban economics, Tyler Cowen lists his opinions on urban issues, which I essentially agree with save for number 3, which I know nothing about:

1. I would not have brought the U.S. down the path of water subsidies, many of which are pro-suburban. (Admitted they are not always easy to repeal.)

2. I think pollution externalities should be priced in Pigouvian fashion; this would penalize many suburban developments.

3. I oppose the widening of Route 7 at Tysons Corner and I expect a disaster from the current plans.

4. I favor school choice and charter schools, which would make many U.S. cities livable again for couples with children.

5. I would price many roads for congestion, although as Bryan points out this could either help or hurt cars as a mode of transport.

6. I would allow U.S. cities to become much taller, thereby accommodating more residents. I would weaken many urban building codes in the interests of a greener America.

7. I much preferred the time when I lived near a gas station and a 7-11.

* Laws have become too vague and the concept of intent has disappeared. Notice in particular this problematic line: “Prosecutors identify defendants to go after instead of finding a law that was broken and figuring out who did it.” If the theory is that everyone is a criminal if you look hard enough, something very serious has gone amiss in our notions of justice.

* A chat with blogger Penelope Trunk:

Ben: You blog about sex a lot. Why?

Penelope: I think about it all the time. So it comes into my head a lot when I’m writing blog posts. I sort of wonder why it doesn’t come into more peoples’ heads when they are writing blog posts.

Ben: People censor themselves.

Penelope: Yeah. Well. I censor myself too. I guess it’s just we each have different types of self-censoring….

Ben: Alain de Botton has an interesting point on this. He says the professionalization of writing — novelists who write fiction full time — has made it so much fiction is disconnected from life as it’s experienced by most people.

Penelope: Totally agree. And the French have this problem more than any other culture.

* I wasn’t going to write about Dan Brown till I found this hilarious discussion of his expert style. One day I hope to be as great a writer.

* Dvorak keyboard devotees and their battle with smartphones.

* Population growth drives innovation?

* Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic makes the pitch for print. I subscribe to The Atlantic and recommend that others do as well.

* America can’t be the world’s tech leader without immigration reforms.

* The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives has died.

* Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias on education, in a post I almost completely agree with.

* Wow: from I was an Ambassador and Taken Hostage by Militants:

I learned a lot from my time as ambassador and Marine. Paperwork means stuff to people: really important stuff. Thinking you have to solve every problem on your own is an additional problem to your other problems: one that makes all the others worse. No matter how much you love something, it’s not going to make a square peg fit into a round hole. What people experience in the service has to do with the type of work they do and the unit they are in. Hidden assumptions hurt. A lot….

This “bad experience” changed a passive, wait-for-life-to-happen person into and active, go-make-it-happen person.

(Emphasis added.)

I wish I’d realized the power of paperwork earlier, or how important documentation is in a modern, complex, and bureaucratic society.

* Two kinds of libertarians.

What I like in this essay is also an acknowledgement of its limitations (the “cartoon” version of libertarian), but also the acknowledgment that those limitations are useful in describing broader phenomenon.

* The value of a college education.

A friendly reminder to those who think they know the answer to everything

“Humans are suckers for finding patterns where none really exist, like seeing the shapes of lions and giraffes in the clouds.”

William Easterly’s review of Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism is very much worth reading for its own sake, as well as being a timely reminder for the limits of our ability to understand cause/effect, whether in developmental economics or other fields.

Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters — Scott Rosenberg

In Why and How to Write a Blog, I said that “blogging is the genre that can subsume any other genre if you want it to.” It is to fact what the novel is to fiction or stories. But the development of the blog is an underreported phenomenon, at least on a broader scale, and Say Everything attempts to rectify that situation by tracing some of the early blogs and positing that while “blogging looked inconsequential and sounded ridiculous, [...] it turned out to matter.” That blogging matters seems hard to argue against, given how many people do it and how blogging has democratized information by making the process of learning about a field easier. But how blogging comes to matter and where it might go is a much harder task and one that Say Everything probably hasn’t accomplished.

Of the three parts in Say Everything’s subtitle, the book only does one really well: how blogging began and where it’s been, on a factual level, since then. “What it’s becoming” is really too broad for anyone to guess: answers tend to range from “the media” to “everything” to “nothing” to the one that seems most probable to me: “who knows?” People barely had any idea of where computers would go in the 1970s, or where networking would go in the 1980s, or where the Internet would go in the 1990s. To presume that we know where something as amorphous as blogging will go in the 2000s seems unlikely. The final subtitle, “Why it matters,” ought to be obvious to anyone with any sense of history: communications revolutions tend to beget other kinds of social and cultural revolutions (see, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change for an earlier example). When you can’t (easily) control what people are saying or how they’re saying it or who they’re distributing it too, interesting and unusual things start to happen. We’re barely at the infancy of that process in terms of blogging: that it matters shouldn’t even be arguable anymore. The question should be “how will it matter?”, but that merely leads us back to the problems associated with subtitle number two.

In Coders at Work, JavaScript and badass programmer Douglas Crockford says that “I think we’re tragically unaware of our history, and I’m often really disappointed to see that people who are now practicing this craft having no intellectual curiosity about where this stuff came from…” He’s referring to programming languages, but he could just as well refer to bloggers, who often suffer from the same kind of implicit and incorrect ahistoricism. Although it might be short on analysis, maybe blogging isn’t ready for the kind of deep interpretation that good professional historians bring to their subjects. Hell, maybe blogging itself isn’t mature enough to bring those tools to bear, or those bloggers who might (like professional historians) are too busy in other mediums that reward depth to bother with the intense research and thought such an effort would require.

Still, Rosenberg might be setting the stage for those deep analyses by giving us some facts before those facts disappear into the online morass: he’s giving us memories that might be hard to find today, let alone ten or twenty years from now. Say Everything threw surprises even at me, someone who has been using the Internet and reading one of the early blogs (Slashdot) since the mid 1990s. Before I could drive, I could post to Usenet. Yet I didn’t know how important Dave Winer was and is for the blogging tools that exist now, like RSS, which I use daily. If blogging is going to grow as a discipline, we need someone to bring together its broad early contours in a single place. Bloggers seem unlikely to do it on our own, or, if we do, the pieces of the conversation will be too scattered. One thing books are really good at doing by virtue of their length is bringing those pieces together in one place. Even posts like this much-cited one, on how the blogosphere has changed in the last six years, doesn’t really give much background.

One of the most fascinating passages in Say Everything is actually a quote from Justin Hall:

What if a deeply connective personal activity you do, that’s like religion, that you practice with yourself, that’s a dialogue with the divine, turns out to drive people away from you? … I published my life on the fucking internet. And it doesn’t make people wanna be with me. It makes people not trust me. And I don’t know what the fuck to do about it . . .

Hall is overly grandiose (“that’s like religion”), but it nonetheless rings true and reminds me of a New York Times story I can’t find right now about someone who decided to throw a party and only invite Facebook “friends,” and then discovered that no one showed up. This raises the question: are they really your friends? Maybe one needs to find the medium place where one can write usefully* online, but where one doesn’t necessarily write everything. In other words, just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should.

Later in the same section, Rosenberg says that “Hall had always dedicated a big chunk of his time and pages to teaching and proselytizing for his faith in self-expression on the web,” and that his “calling to public autobiography was driven in part by the trauma of a parental suicide.” Maybe: but I’m not sure how parental suicide would lead one to public autobiography, and I find it fascinating that Hall’s public autobiography ultimately prevented him from forging closer relationships with others, which in turn broke at least some of the faith described in the first sentence. If the public autobiography isn’t good for close relationships, maybe people strongly inclined toward barring all in the blogs will realize the hard way what journalists and writers have long known: that to do one’s best work, or to do it over the long term, one needs to keep some private reserve in reserve, or at least in reserve for someone else who might value that reserve for its scarcity.

Others have trouble with relearning as well; Rosenberg echoes Paul Graham’s How to Disagree when he says “Any public career online is going to attract a certain volume of drive-by flak; potentially useful criticism is likely to be hopelessly tangled personal invective.” Dave Winer of Scripting News apparently didn’t know that, and Rosenberg slips into cliche when he says that Winer “took nearly every putdown to heart.” But that’s not just the nature of “any public career online,” but any public career: politicians, for example, deal with drive-by idiocy all the time. One could even take those attacks as a sign of success; as David Segal observes in Call It Ludacris: The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap:

You’re nobody in hip-hop until you claim to have hordes of detractors. The paradox, of course, is that the artists who regularly denounce their haters have a huge and adoring audience. How does Lil Wayne complain in song about the legions who seek his ruin even as he dominates the charts? Ask Michael Savage, who is forever describing himself as an underdog, marginalized by the media — on the more than 300 stations that carry his show.

You have to let it roll, or use it to boost your ego. Furthermore, if you respond too seriously to it, or begin to believe in your own messianic power, you’ll face a different problem. As Rosenberg says of Winer, “[T]elling-it-like-it-is can easily tempt you over the edge into meanness.” In other words, if you lack tact, you can come across as a jerk even if you’re right, and if you lack sufficient intellectual playfulness,

These main points are the stronger parts of Say Everything, the sections that make you want to keep reading past the sometimes tedious recitations of everyday blogging (does anyone really care about the specifics of Winer vs. the haters fights?). Me neither. Consequently, I suspect the audience for Say Everything is relatively limited to bloggers themselves, scholars with an interest in the media, and journalists looking for a way forward. A fourth category might be useful too: the clueless but powerful whose work brings them into contact with bloggers but who have no idea what’s happening in the medium. Now, instead of spending 20 hours trying to find blog posts about the history of blogging, one can point at a book and say, “at least for the time being, this will tell you about the history of blogging.” And that reminds us at least in part about some of blogging’s present limitations, especially relative to books.


* Whatever this means. Defining a term like “usefully” could take an entire essay in an of itself. But this post is a very small part of a very broad effort at defining the generic boundaries and conventions of blogging, so maybe someone else will take me up on the point of what “useful” blogging could entail.

Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters — Scott Rosenberg

In Why and How to Write a Blog, I said that “blogging is the genre that can subsume any other genre if you want it to.” It is to fact what the novel is to fiction or stories. But the development of the blog is an underreported phenomenon, at least on a broader scale, and Say Everything attempts to rectify that situation by tracing some of the early blogs and positing that while “blogging looked inconsequential and sounded ridiculous, [...] it turned out to matter.” That blogging matters seems hard to argue against, given how many people do it and how blogging has democratized information by making the process of learning about a field easier. But how blogging comes to matter and where it might go is a much harder task and one that Say Everything probably hasn’t accomplished.

Of the three parts in Say Everything’s subtitle, the book only does one really well: how blogging began and where it’s been, on a factual level, since then. “What it’s becoming” is really too broad for anyone to guess: answers tend to range from “the media” to “everything” to “nothing” to the one that seems most probable to me: “who knows?” People barely had any idea of where computers would go in the 1970s, or where networking would go in the 1980s, or where the Internet would go in the 1990s. To presume that we know where something as amorphous as blogging will go in the 2000s seems unlikely. The final subtitle, “Why it matters,” ought to be obvious to anyone with any sense of history: communications revolutions tend to beget other kinds of social and cultural revolutions (see, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change for an earlier example). When you can’t (easily) control what people are saying or how they’re saying it or who they’re distributing it too, interesting and unusual things start to happen. We’re barely at the infancy of that process in terms of blogging: that it matters shouldn’t even be arguable anymore. The question should be “how will it matter?”, but that merely leads us back to the problems associated with subtitle number two.

In Coders at Work, JavaScript and badass programmer Douglas Crockford says that “I think we’re tragically unaware of our history, and I’m often really disappointed to see that people who are now practicing this craft having no intellectual curiosity about where this stuff came from…” He’s referring to programming languages, but he could just as well refer to bloggers, who often suffer from the same kind of implicit and incorrect ahistoricism. Although it might be short on analysis, maybe blogging isn’t ready for the kind of deep interpretation that good professional historians bring to their subjects. Hell, maybe blogging itself isn’t mature enough to bring those tools to bear, or those bloggers who might (like professional historians) are too busy in other mediums that reward depth to bother with the intense research and thought such an effort would require.

Still, Rosenberg might be setting the stage for those deep analyses by giving us some facts before those facts disappear into the online morass: he’s giving us memories that might be hard to find today, let alone ten or twenty years from now. Say Everything threw surprises even at me, someone who has been using the Internet and reading one of the early blogs (Slashdot) since the mid 1990s. Before I could drive, I could post to Usenet. Yet I didn’t know how important Dave Winer was and is for the blogging tools that exist now, like RSS, which I use daily. If blogging is going to grow as a discipline, we need someone to bring together its broad early contours in a single place. Bloggers seem unlikely to do it on our own, or, if we do, the pieces of the conversation will be too scattered. One thing books are really good at doing by virtue of their length is bringing those pieces together in one place. Even posts like this much-cited one, on how the blogosphere has changed in the last six years, doesn’t really give much background.

One of the most fascinating passages in Say Everything is actually a quote from Justin Hall:

What if a deeply connective personal activity you do, that’s like religion, that you practice with yourself, that’s a dialogue with the divine, turns out to drive people away from you? … I published my life on the fucking internet. And it doesn’t make people wanna be with me. It makes people not trust me. And I don’t know what the fuck to do about it . . .

Hall is overly grandiose (“that’s like religion”), but it nonetheless rings true and reminds me of a New York Times story I can’t find right now about someone who decided to throw a party and only invite Facebook “friends,” and then discovered that no one showed up. This raises the question: are they really your friends? Maybe one needs to find the medium place where one can write usefully* online, but where one doesn’t necessarily write everything. In other words, just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should.

Later in the same section, Rosenberg says that “Hall had always dedicated a big chunk of his time and pages to teaching and proselytizing for his faith in self-expression on the web,” and that his “calling to public autobiography was driven in part by the trauma of a parental suicide.” Maybe: but I’m not sure how parental suicide would lead one to public autobiography, and I find it fascinating that Hall’s public autobiography ultimately prevented him from forging closer relationships with others, which in turn broke at least some of the faith described in the first sentence. If the public autobiography isn’t good for close relationships, maybe people strongly inclined toward barring all in the blogs will realize the hard way what journalists and writers have long known: that to do one’s best work, or to do it over the long term, one needs to keep some private reserve in reserve, or at least in reserve for someone else who might value that reserve for its scarcity.

Others have trouble with relearning as well; Rosenberg echoes Paul Graham’s How to Disagree when he says “Any public career online is going to attract a certain volume of drive-by flak; potentially useful criticism is likely to be hopelessly tangled personal invective.” Dave Winer of Scripting News apparently didn’t know that, and Rosenberg slips into cliche when he says that Winer “took nearly every putdown to heart.” But that’s not just the nature of “any public career online,” but any public career: politicians, for example, deal with drive-by idiocy all the time. One could even take those attacks as a sign of success; as David Segal observes in Call It Ludacris: The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap:

You’re nobody in hip-hop until you claim to have hordes of detractors. The paradox, of course, is that the artists who regularly denounce their haters have a huge and adoring audience. How does Lil Wayne complain in song about the legions who seek his ruin even as he dominates the charts? Ask Michael Savage, who is forever describing himself as an underdog, marginalized by the media — on the more than 300 stations that carry his show.

You have to let it roll, or use it to boost your ego. Furthermore, if you respond too seriously to it, or begin to believe in your own messianic power, you’ll face a different problem. As Rosenberg says of Winer, “[T]elling-it-like-it-is can easily tempt you over the edge into meanness.” In other words, if you lack tact, you can come across as a jerk even if you’re right, and if you lack sufficient intellectual playfulness,

These main points are the stronger parts of Say Everything, the sections that make you want to keep reading past the sometimes tedious recitations of everyday blogging (does anyone really care about the specifics of Winer vs. the haters fights?). Me neither. Consequently, I suspect the audience for Say Everything is relatively limited to bloggers themselves, scholars with an interest in the media, and journalists looking for a way forward. A fourth category might be useful too: the clueless but powerful whose work brings them into contact with bloggers but who have no idea what’s happening in the medium. Now, instead of spending 20 hours trying to find blog posts about the history of blogging, one can point at a book and say, “at least for the time being, this will tell you about the history of blogging.” And that reminds us at least in part about some of blogging’s present limitations, especially relative to books.


* Whatever this means. Defining a term like “usefully” could take an entire essay in an of itself. But this post is a very small part of a very broad effort at defining the generic boundaries and conventions of blogging, so maybe someone else will take me up on the point of what “useful” blogging could entail.

The Library of America is on Facebook?

Call it a sign of publishing in the modern age: the (relatively) staid Library of America, best known for publishing books that writers are contractually required to describe as “handsome volumes,” is now on Facebook and offers us the opportunity to “become a fan,” as I discovered in their latest e-mail:

LOA Screenshot3

I did, in fact, become a fan, although not without feeling slightly dirty, but perhaps this will burnish my literary street cred among my Facebook “friends,” who might not have seen this post on the joys of writing in the margins of those handsome LOA volumes. I’m tempted to in “authoritative” in front of “volumes,” but one can only go so far with pretension.

Lev Grossman vs the haters

I’m on the record praising Lev Grossman’s essay “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.” Predictably, that piece generated a fair amount of blowback (and a concomitant amount of misinterpretation, like the fallacious argument that Grossman is arguing that good books can’t be hard); see a sample of it here, complete with a comment from yours truly.

Now, however, we can see how Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece, as spoken by the man himself. Read it when you get a chance. It’s not terrible, but I think he could do better, and I hope he does “write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.”

One thing I’d strongly disagree with comes when Grossman discusses Twilight’s sales: “All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that.” I don’t, and they do have bad taste. I’ve read a book and a half of the series, and they’re so cliche-ridden that they make Harry Potter look like Shakespeare, and the writing has originality and verve that make Dan Brown impressive by comparison.

To be fair, he goes on to say, “Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is.” She might be doing something well, yes, but writing isn’t it. That’s why a lot of people who are literary and/or like good writing don’t think much of her.

Last Night at the Lobster — Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster reminds one that small can be engrossing and that real stories often underlie the vast news that floods our lives. One of the two epigraphs for Last Night at the Lobster says “Darden Restaurants, Inc., raised its outlook and expects full year 2005 diluted net earnings per share growth in the range of 22% to 27%….” Normally we’d skip by that headline on page C7 of the Wall Street Journal.

But underneath the earnings reports, sometimes far underneath it, are the people doing the earning. In this case it’s Manny DeLeon, who’s managing (Manny? Manage? Get it?) a Lobster joint closely modeled on a Red Lobster as it closes permanently. He’s self-aware enough to know that his activities aren’t likely to shake the counsels of the great, but he’s also trying to do what he can to do well for its own sake—in this respect, he’s like a writer with a limited audience who nonetheless takes pride in the craft itself. Furthermore, Manny seems human, aware, as when he’s pondering a perhaps finished affair with Jacquie one of the waitresses. The specifics fall away, and “All he can recall are still images—her black hair wet and heavy from the shower, her stockings laid over a chair, the glass of water on the floor by her bed holding the light from the window—yet instead of weakening with time, they’ve grown more powerful, liable to paralyze him if he dotes on them too long.”

Those images aren’t susceptible to the moves of the stock market or socioeconomic positioning: once they’re Manny’s, they’re his forever. If that were somehow the “lesson” of Last Night at the Lobster, it wouldn’t be much of a book. It’s more of a slice of life, or a whisper about an event that one can’t entirely make sense of: one has to run the Lobster on the last day of its life, but how does one draw any larger ideas from that? And if one can’t, does it matter? The classical economics answer would be “no,” but the answer for Manny is yes.

If it weren’t, his non-relationship relationship with Jacquie would be equally empty: they have nothing to commit themselves to one another outside of wanting something to commit to. If I were more fond of grandiose pronouncements, I might say that Last Night at the Lobster is about finding a place to anchor in a transitory, bottomless society, where the tides now rearrange the world faster than people can keep up. Hence the failing Lobster in the failing mall in the failing town where people nonetheless do what they can, even if it’s not enough. For it to be enough, you have to be a master of abstraction, creativity, computer science, unusual skills, and more: yet most people aren’t up to that. They’re still people, even as they shake downwards to the Lobster, where they can still succeed on different definitions than what social cues shout success is.

For all this commentary, the narrative tension in Last Night at the Lobster is slack and the sense of anything major being at stake is absent; Manny’s soul is muted and confused more than tortured, and in this sense the book might be a defining work of realism, since it seems that few go through life with Nietzschian-esque metaphysical worries. Last Night at the Lobster also reminds me of some of the European novels that I called sheer and taunt; this book is equally short, and if it’s more explanatory than In our Strange Gardens or The Reader, there nonetheless isn’t a tremendous amount of emotional energy invested in its characters, who are nearer to short story sketches than to round, novelistic heroes or anti-heroes. But the moments and images tide the novel, as when “The guy with the bow tie nods as he passes, one boss to another, as if Manny’s done all this for him.” There’s so much in the line that I stopped and pondered it, asking too: how often have I been the guy in the bow tie? Manny? The crew that set up?

I don’t see too many novels like Last Night at the Lobster. As Mark Sarvas and Alain de Botton have pointed out, books about work are fairly uncommon. I hadn’t noticed till they observed it, but I find innumerable books on my shelves about love, affairs, geography, family, and destiny, but few about what people do to support those other endeavors. Perhaps that’s because writers are deracinated from the larger work world, as de Botton has suggested, or perhaps that’s because work can seem too mundane or not worthy of literary fiction’s point of view and linguistic pyrotechnics or genre fiction’s suspenseful plots. In The Grapes of Mild Outrage, Mark Athitakis writes that “… though O’Nan has admirable respect for his characters, the overall tone is one of defeat—the Red Lobster in which the novel is set is about to close forever, the snow outside is miserable, and nobody cares to thinks much about the restaurant itself.” I’m not sure if the tone is so much one of defeat as of recognition. And isn’t self-recognition part of what the novel is supposed to lead us to, and what life is supposed to be about?

On a final, structural note, I was ready to pass on Last Night at the Lobster till positive recommendations rescued it—most notably Terry Teachout. Book publicists occasionally ask me how they can get me to read their books or what kind of books I pick up, and the short answer to both is often that if they get Teachout, Sarvas, Nigel Beale, Tyler Cowen, Kate Sutherland, John Scalzi or a handful of others I’m no doubt forgetting to write favorably a book, the probability of me reading it skyrockets—as does the probability of me getting something from the book, even when I don’t necessarily like it without reservations; this happened with two books Sarvas liked, including The Gift and Nobility of Spirit, both of which were not self-critical enough and overly indulgent despite having powerful messages to avoid the cynicism that’s par for the contemporary course. In terms of books, I often look for social proof: the idea that, if others whose opinions I trust recommend a book, I’m more likely to read it. I still at least begin everything I’m sent, and I’m only too happy to find a book delightful—like the recent Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel, The Angel’s Game, which I need to post about shortly—but it doesn’t hurt to let in some air from elsewhere too.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,318 other followers

%d bloggers like this: