I guess if I’m going to do these, I need to do them more frequently, because this is going to be super long. Here’s all the stuff I’ve read over the past couple of months, if anyone is interested!
When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann: This is the book I’ve been looking for. Luhrmann sets out to explain the American evangelical movement to those it most mystifies — atheists and more secular Protestants. She aims to answer the question (this is a quote), “How can sensible, educated people believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?”
She doesn’t fully answer this question to my satisfaction, but she really sheds a lot of light on things, and I do feel like I understand the entire movement and its popularity a bit better. For one thing, this type of religion is far more like self-help than I thought; for the people who are into it, it’s a utilitarian practice and the veracity of the actual concepts behind it is more or less beside the point. I still don’t truly grok any of this, but I’m a bit closer than I was.
On a total tangent, one thing that I find irritating in works of social anthropology is the need on the part of the writer to treat all people as equally plausible representatives of whatever culture is being explored. Like, take any group of 100 people in the world — the vast majority of them are going to be harmlessly boring and probably not very bright, about 10 of them are going to be utter toxic assholes, and maybe 5 are going to be wonderful. That’s always true. But whenever someone writes a book or shoots a documentary about any cultural group, they can’t just say “Well, Phil said this about it, but he’s dumber than a box of rocks, and everyone knows it,” or “Emma says blah blah about this, but everybody hates Emma and will tell you she just says whatever makes her look best.” Add to that that in any group of people, the person who elects themselves to speak the most to the anthropologist is of course going to be the least busy, most preeningly self-important member of that group (and everyone else will be happy for this person to do it, because who wants to answer personal questions about themselves all day to some writer, who even has the time?). So anyway, in this book one of the women that Luhrmann quotes constantly (Jane) is obviously a hopeless moron that everyone in the church indulges because she doesn’t have a lot going on for herself and she wants to be a prayer expert so badly and she’s probably a nice person who’s helpful and sweet to everybody. But Luhrmann can’t dismiss her in this way, so she presents everything Jane says as representative of all these people, when I’m sure they all think Jane is a total ding dong (albeit one who means well). I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but I pretty much always notice it.
Should you read it? Yes! I think everyone should read this, no matter what their belief system, and probably before the next election. The Evangelical movement is big and getting bigger; evangelicals are actively shaping our country in every possible way. We should all want to understand where they are coming from. (Just ignore Jane.) Also if anyone knows of any other books like this — ones that are aimed at explaining religious people (as opposed to religion itself) to outsiders — I would be happy for the recommendations. (I have already read James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was also helpful and really interesting to read.)
A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young: This is more of a pamphlet than a book, and is a very useful summary of creative thinking (to the extent that you can actually break it down into a predictable pattern, which I don’t actually think that you can reliably, but you sort of can, sometimes, to some extent).
Young points out that when we talk about ideas, what we are really talking about is recognizing relationships between different things. This makes sense, because there are no new things. The things have been the same since the beginning of time. Creativity and coming up with new ideas involves combining the things in new ways. So that’s what an idea is.
When you’re trying to think of ideas, you basically have to do five things:
1. Gather your raw material: that is, research, read, live, experience, interview, take shit in.
2. Think about it all for a while.
3. Forget about it all for a while.
4. Receive a bolt of inspiration, seemingly out of nowhere, but in fact because your subconscious has been mulling for steps 2 and 3.
(4.5 – Young doesn’t mention this step, but it’s actually do the work.)
5. Take what you just made and risk showing it to other people, and then receive and apply their feedback.
That’s it! That’s the book. And it’s all true, and it’s very helpful having such a simple concept outline so clearly.
Should you read it? You just did!
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt is both incredibly old-fashioned, and entirely relevant. Lewis’s novel is a satire of American complacency and the shallowness of our capitalist “American dream.” Reading it in 2016, however, I am mostly just struck by how harmless and excusable Babbitt’s existence seems to be. I mean, the main thing is, he’s pretty happy with what he has and the society he lives in, and in his measure of success within the parameters he’s been led to expect as reasonable. These days, we’re all pushing to be famous and eternal without doing anything to warrant it, we’re all screaming for international attention we haven’t even slightly earned. So while we’re meant to look down on Babbitt for his shallow complacency, he actually seems pretty self-actualized by modern standards. He accepts, he enjoys, he doesn’t overthink.
Nowadays, if you can simply be nice to the people around you, and do a good job at whatever job you have, if you don’t drink your face off every night, or descend into hate-filled rants about how everyone different from you should be scourged from the earth, or scream your head off at your family and coworkers whenever you feel cornered, you’re actually doing pretty well. You’re not really expected to be deep on top of all that. Plus, Babbitt has a true friendship in Paul. He admires Paul, is affectionate towards him, and enjoys his company. When Paul goes off, it turns Babbitt’s world on its head, but what stood out to me more was the previous depiction of male friendship that you’d almost never see in a book today, without all sorts of implications and baggage around it.
A lot of the silly things that Babbitt says and worries about are echoed verbatim today by some of the more ‘salt of the Earth’ American public. His simple hypocrisy, casual bigotry, xenophobia, and self-satisfaction all read as entirely relevant, even as the vernacular and slang are so incredibly antiquated that it’s hard to believe that anyone ever talked this way. For example, here’s Babbitt on the dangers of the increasingly liberal professors in the 20s:
Before I close I must call your attention to a problem we have to face, this coming year. The worst menace to sound government is not the avowed socialists but a lot of cowards who work under cover – the long-haired gentry who call themselves “liberal” and “radicals” and “non-partisan” and “intelligentsia” and God only knows how many other trick names! Irresponsible teachers and professors constitute the worst of this whole gang, and I am ashamed to say that several of them are on the faculty of our great State University! The U is my own Alma Mater, and I am proud to be known as an alumni, but there are certain instructors there who seem to think we ought to turn the conduct of the nation over to hoboes and roustabouts.
Those profs are the snakes to be scotched – they and all their milk-and-water ilk! The American business man is generous to a fault, but one thing he does demand of all teachers and lecturers and journalists: if we’re going to pay them our good money, they’ve got to help us by selling efficiency and whooping it up for rational prosperity! And when it comes to those these blab-mouth, fault-finding, pessimistic, cynical University teachers, let me tell you that during this golden coming year it’s just as much our duty to bring influence to have those cusses fired as it is to sell all the real estate and gather in all the good shekels we can.
Not till that is done will our sons and daughters see that the ideal of American manhood and culture isn’t a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety to it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus or any one of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard, and whose answer to his critics is a square-toed boot that’ll teach the grouches and smart alecks to respect the He-man and get out and root for Uncle Samuel, U.S.A.!
This was first published in 1922, but update the vernacular and you could drop the entire speech into Rush Limbaugh’s mouth today without anybody blinking.
Should you read it? I don’t know, probably not? I enjoyed reading it, but it’s very old and long and I can’t really picture anyone I know reading the whole thing and not finding it a chore.
Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem: This collection of essays by one of America’s most accessible feminists would be a great feminism 101 gift to an older relative, or a more conservative younger one. The first essay, “What if Freud Were Phyllis?,” seems like overkill today. Feminists have to talk about Freud because he really has informed pretty much everything that we think about the human psyche, and he was a complete charlatan who was wrong about all of it. But today, while so many of the assumptions that we casually make in day-to-day life do initially stem from Freud and his ideas, we don’t attribute them to him in any sort of conscious way. So, while it’s still relevant to spend a lot of time combating him and explaining why he was so full of shit, for a modern audience, anything directly addressing Freud himself reads like a bizarre vendetta against someone that we almost never think about anymore. So the very long essay that kicks off this collection doesn’t seem relevant. It is relevant, but it just doesn’t seem like it.
Should you read it? The most worthwhile essays in this collection are: “Sex, Lies, and Advertising” and “Revaluing Economics.” Everyone should read these two essays, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the rest of this collection for general reading.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown: Brené Brown writes self-help books for smart people with strongly fortified emotional walls. This one is on learning how to be vulnerable, and it makes the compelling argument that you can’t really get anything good out of life if you aren’t willing to look like an asshole, which is a conclusion I have come to myself, but am not good at living up to. This book is a little too goopy for my taste, but it is in general full of good advice. Because I’m not a perfectionist in the traditional WASPy white woman sense (beautifully turned out anorexic), I tend to think I am pretty real, but in fact, it’s not true: I do the emotionally unavailable thing in a more Gen-X sense. I’m sarcastic and generally unenthused. I fear coming across as truly invested in the same way a different sort of woman would fear coming across as sloppy and flatulent. Which is really the same thing.
Brown talks about “vulnerability hangovers,” which is the perfect description of that creepy feeling you get the day after you have a long, unguarded conversation with a friend and wake up thinking “oh, God, what did I say, why do I ever talk.” She also distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate confessions: oversharing to people who aren’t your intimates is just another form of vulnerability failure. There are no shortcuts to building close relationships, and that includes figuring out who it’s appropriate to share which parts of yourself with and when.
Should you read it? If you’re someone who does not take risks or let people in because you don’t like feeling like a goddamned fool all the time, this might be a good book to read to remind yourself to get over yourself. I’m supposed to be dating this year (fucking kill me now), so I might re-read parts of it from time to time.
The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken: I loved this novel about a spinster librarian’s love for a teenage boy with gigantism. It’s original, well-written, creative, funny, bizarre, disturbing, and heart-breaking. It made me cry.
It also creeped me out, and I think you could read this novel in two different ways, and both would be equally valid: you can read it as a weird love story and you can sympathize uncritically with Peggy, the protagonist. Or, you can read it as a story told by an unreliable narrator who perversely and unfairly made a dying child the center of her world and of all of her frustrated desires, who never became self-aware enough to realize that what she was doing was selfish and predatory, and who made a sick child take emotional care of her when he ought to have been focused on his own overly complicated short life.
I think McCracken intended the former reading. That might bother you.
I experienced the novel in both ways simultaneously, because I did love the story, but at the same time, it is, after all, the story of a woman in her 30s who became obsessed with a preteen, and if the sexes were reversed, the book could be unforgivable. I do realize that. Peggy is a real problem, and I might not like her much, and I love the book either way, all ways. I am large, I contain multitudes.
McCracken also wrote one of my favorite memoirs, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, which is about her miscarriage, and which taught me how to reach out to people who are grieving. I also adore every short story that I’ve read that she’s written. She’s one of my favorite people writing today.
Should you read it? Yes!
Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson: This was a fine collection of stories about the black American experience in the 60s and 70s. The stories are well-written and intellectually interesting. They focus on people from a variety of backgrounds and social classes. White readers tend to read and celebrate black writers who focus heavily on things like slavery and lynching: unambiguous crimes that we all know are bad, and that are very conveniently in the past. Writers like McPherson get forgotten; he wrote about stuff that doesn’t necessarily make white people feel good. Some of these stories are kind of wooden; others are excellent. I would have to read this book a second time, and more closely, before I could fully understand all of it. I should do that, and I probably will not ever do it.
Should you read it? No. If you are not a fiction writer, it is very unlikely that you read short story collections. There’s really no reason why you should. You either want to get lost in a novel, or you want to read for information, or you just want to watch some TV. I can’t really imagine why any non-writer would ever read short story collections, but if you were to do so, there are a few collections I would recommend to the general reader. Read On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction by Karl Iagnemma and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. Both of these collections will get your mind spinning off in all sorts of different directions where it didn’t go before — they will make you think, in new and fun and wild ways. They’ll get your mental juices flowing. They’ll make you smarter and more creative. If you adore beautiful writing, read The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty, which is one of the most beautifully written story collections I’ve ever read.
There are others, of course, but they should be read a story at at a time, not as an entire collection. I would recommend you primarily stick to novels: you likely have a job, it isn’t learning about the craft of fiction, and if you have time in your leisure hours to read, you will want to get something a bit lasting out of your initial investment of focus.
Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean: I don’t know how this old, unfinished book written by the author of A River Runs Through It about a 1949 fire that killed a team of smokejumpers got into my to-read pile. It’s not the sort of thing I’d ever pick up on my own, but it was pretty interesting. For various reasons, Maclean was singularly obsessed with this particular incident and he researched the book over a period of years and died before he finished it. He spends a good deal of time trying to contextualize his fascination by explaining that this incident was a catalyst for much of what we know about fighting forest fires today, but that reason doesn’t really ring as true as when he talks about how tragic it was that these men died so young and unremembered. His interest in the subject is actually the most interesting thing about this book — my own interests are wide, but shallow and I envy people who have the focus necessary for obsession. I think that is one reason I am such a great reader — I do not have the attention span or decisiveness to dedicate my life, or even a chunk of my life, to any single subject, but I can sit down and read 300 pages on damn near anything.
The actual story of what happened to the smoke jumpers in the fire itself is fascinating — it reads like a sort of eerie ghost story combined with a harrowing survival tale. But the book bogs down in the last quarter as Maclean writes in great detail about what he’s learned about fire patterns and so forth; while this obviously interests him, his interest is not infectious. In some places, I thought, “wow, Maclean is a really phenomenal writer!” And then in others, “oh, no, Maclean really needed an editor.”
Also, I learned from this that a pedometer used to be called a “tally whacker.”
Should you read it? No, but listen to this: if you are ever running from a forest fire and you realize you won’t be able to outrun it, light another fire in front of you, stamp it out, and then lie down in the coals. This is called an “escape fire.” The forest fire will burn around your pre-burned patch, because that ground offers it nothing to consume, and you will live. One of the men in this book did that, and he survived, and everyone thought he was nuts and they all died. Granted, he then died five years later anyway, of cancer, because life is an absolute bitch, but still.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: I’m trying to give Hemingway another shot. I sort of reflexively hate him, but mostly due to the overall writerly myth of him and the sorts of men who hold him up as a figure worthy of admiration and emulation; the whole “when men were Men, and writers were Men, and everybody was just Men and it was all about whiskey and not talking a lot, and that was profound and that was good” thing. But I haven’t really read much that he actually wrote. I mean, I read The Sun Also Rises back in college, and I had to read “Hills Like White Elephants” probably around 500 different times in every literature class I ever took (SEE IT’S ABOUT ABORTION BUT NO ONE EVER SAYS IT, THIS IS BIG WRITING), but that was it. So, I read this to be fair to all white men everywhere.
It was good! It was well-written, it was. There were some really beautiful parts. The woman character was a fucking embarrassment, of course, but she could have been worse, I guess. Do I agree that he’s the BEST GREAT WHITE WRITER ever? No. But I’ll grudgingly concede that this should be a classic, probably, and now I’ve read it and so no one can say that I didn’t.
Should you read it? Haven’t we collectively all read enough Hemingway to last us? It’s just sort of seeped into the collective unconscious at this point. I do recommend reading it if you want to be able to argue with your stupid boyfriend about how it’s not really the greatest thing ever from a position of authority.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler: Another translated novel in the genre of imprisoned Marxists jawin’ ‘bout theory. I’ve read so many of these novels. So many Russians! So much prison! So much disillusionment in the red dream! This one was pretty good. It focuses on a fellow who did pretty well for himself as communism slid into fascism, until it caught up with him. He spends most of the book taking a sort of inventory of all the moral tap-dancing he had to do over the years to try to be okay with his role in things.
Should you read it? If you’re in a relevant graduate program, I guess.
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: Same, same, but I think this was the best yet. It’s interesting what HBO changed. They put in so much sexual degradation and violence that was not in the originals at all — the brothel in King’s Landing is such a huge part of the show and it’s hardly mentioned in the books. And the scene with Joffrey torturing the prostitutes never happened in the book. Jaime didn’t rape Cersei next to her dead son in the book; it was consensual. But at the same time, the show fleshed out so many of the minor, mostly female characters and made them so much more interesting — Robb’s wife is far more interesting and fully realized in the show, as is Shea. Margaery is more complex and fascinating in the show; in the book, she’s hardly there. And Cersei! In the books, Cersei is just a beautiful selfish survivor, but in the show, she’s one of my favorite characters. I feel so conflicted about it all!
Should you read it? You already know if you want to read these.
Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner: Weiner is a very outspoken critic of the “chick lit” label and the general derision of genre fiction written by and about women. I agree with her there (and also Jonathan Franzen hates her and any enemy of Franzen is a friend of mine) and so I wanted to like her writing, but this novel was terrible. I didn’t expect great literature or anything, but this was just an extremely boring novel about a female friendship with nothing fresh or original or clever about it. It wasn’t even a page turner because Weiner wrote it sort of in the style of a crime novel, but there was no crime and you knew from the beginning everything that had happened, so there was no suspense or tension, although the entire thing was written as if there was, which was very odd. I will say that I enjoyed the movie, In Her Shoes.
Should you read it? No, but watch In Her Shoes.
Porno by Irvine Welsh: So, I gave Irvine Welsh a shot because he’s so popular with a certain type of guy and I don’t want to be like “oh, he writes for bros so I’m sure he’s not any good” without ever actually reading him, because that’s dismissive and stereotyping and all that. But man, this was no good at all. The Scottish dialect is pretty neat to read, but once that wears off, the dialogue is painfully wooden, the characters are pancake flat, entirely one-dimensional, and the plot is sort of drummed up and uninteresting. I think Welsh was going for a sort of comedic romp of a gritty caper about losers you can’t help but love, like a novel version of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or something, but it just didn’t have any lift off. It wasn’t any fun.
My beef with Welsh started with Trainspotting the movie, which, my whole issue with the movie is that once that baby died of starvation, you’d expect that to be the pivotal event of the movie and of all these people’s stories, right? Like, that’d be the turning point. That’s fucking MAJOR if a baby starves to death in the middle of your party because you and your friends were too high to notice it screaming for days. That’s the sort of event that is entirely life defining. You probably wouldn’t necessarily turn your life around, but if there was anything to you at all, you’d never stop thinking about it. You’d definitely have to get hella therapy. Other writers would use that as the basis for an entire novel, like we wouldn’t know what the deal was with this 50-something loser and then at some point, the plot would reveal that back when he was in his 20s, his friend’s baby died because he was too high to hear it crying. That would have been the underlying character-shaping thing of an entire person’s life.
But in Trainspotting, it was sort of incidental! Like, it happened, and it clearly bothered Ewan McGregor and all, but we were still supposed to be invested in whether or not he got sober and what happened with him and his girlfriend and all that, and it’s just…you just can’t treat something that big like a minor plot point! No one is invested in the main guy’s high school girlfriend after he just ignored a baby until it starved to death! The movie just went up a level, and now the movie is about a dead baby, full stop. But Welsh doesn’t realize that. Porno is about these same people, and someone mentions the baby in passing exactly once. How is this possible? How are all these people not bringing up that baby every single time they get wasted?
But they don’t, because they aren’t anything even slightly resembling actual three-dimensional people, and so they aren’t remotely interesting to read about.
Should you read it? No, but listen, you’ve seen Trainspotting, right? Aren’t I right about this? Even if you didn’t think that before, I’ve surely just convinced you, right? I don’t see how there can possibly be two views about this.