I’m not sure it qualifies as a distraction, since the series of interviews done by The Believer are writers talking to writers, usually about writing.  Reading this stuff is necessary to be a writer.  Meh.  In any case, this morning I read “Vendala Vida talks with Shirley Hazzard.”  Hazzard is a voracious – and vicious, if you believe Graham Greene – writer, and she had some of the better stuff to say in this series of interviews.  The one that left me stunned was, “one wouldn’t dare put into a novel the amount of coincidence that occurs in life itself.” (100)  What stuns me about this is how true it is.  My life has been ful of coincidence and my biggest complaint with stories is how full of coincidence they are.  I should probably temper my ‘bullshit’ threshold.  As long as the line between coincidence and deus ex machina remains solid.

I have also been catching up on The Office.  Netflix streams it, so the cost is sunk if I watch it or not.  Some episodes bore me, but some are great.  The best portion of the show is Michael’s hatred of Toby because Toby is the one person that constantly calls Michael on his silly inappropriateness.  Which brings me to a thought about politeness.  Slavoj Zizek:

Are not all good manners based on the fact that “what is said is not what is meant”?  When, at a table, I ask my colleague “Can you please pass the salt?”  I do not say what I mean.  I ask him if he can do it, but what I really mean is that he simply should do it.”  (13-14)

It’s not the most persuasive of examples, but it does get at what he is trying to claim.

Hazzard, Shirley.  (2003).  Vendela Vida talks with Shirley Hazzard.  In V. Vida, ed.  (2007).  The Believer book of writers talking to writers (97-109). San Francisco: Believer Books.

Zizek, Slavoj.  (2010).  Living in the end times. London: Verso Books.

Beghtol, LD.  (2006).  69 Love Songs. NY: Continuum.

Bowden, Mark, ed.  (2007).  The best American crime writing, 2006.  NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Bunyan, John.  (1678).  The Pilgrim’s Progress. NY: Penguin Classics.

Eagleton, Terry.  (1983).  Literary theory.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kois, Dan.  (2010).  Facing Future.  NY: continuum.

Sisario, Ben.  (2006).  Doolittle.  NY: continuum.

Stegner, Wallace.  (1950).  Joe Hill: A biographical novel. NY: Penguin Books.

Terry, Randall A.  (2008).  A humble plea: To bishops, clergy and laymen: Ending the abortion holocaust. Washginton, D.C.: Insurrecta Nex.

The Rumpus book club.

Vida, Vendela, ed.  (2007).  The Believer book of writers talking to writers. San Fransisco: Believer Books.

I am a sucker for the 33 1/3 series.  Each book is about a famous album and as far as I have been exposed each book is great.  Sisario writes about the famous album full of body counts by The Pixies, one of my favorite bands ever.  Kois writes about that song, a staple to weddings and Rom-Coms: Israel Kamakawiwo’s medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”.  I bought them new becuase the books are so hard to find.  Even more difficult to find at a used book store.  In fact, it is this very series that has me contemplating the switch to an ereader.  I can have nearly any book, nearly instantaneously and for less than the cost of an actual book.  I also resent the amount of stuff I own, and an ereader can help cut it.  But, of anything to have as clutter, I do think books are acceptable.  Note the large libraries of smart people whom I respect.  Admittedly they are from a different time.  The library is an anachronism I cannot shake.  Reminds me of the scene in Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant: Finding Forrester) , when Will (Matt Damon: Ocean’s Eleven)is scrutinizing the library of Sean Maguire (Robin Williams: Jumanji).

At the end of April I was in a wedding in Charlotte, and it was easily the best wedding I have ever been to.  I was in one the next weekend and that wedding was ruined by the Charlotte one.  Of course, the Indian (dot, not feather) colors and traditins helped to spoil it, but the dancing and the music is what put it over the top.  Notably, the Kamakawiwo song was not played.  The occasional Indian pop music helped, but it was the absence of the traditional that was really telling.

Am I spendng enough to justify a B&N membership?  I don’t think so.  But, I am unsure enough that I should begin tracking.  Of course, then I will become aware of the horror that is the amount I spend at B&N.  Ugh, to save or to live in blissful ignorance?

One of the few magazines I read dutifully, even though I subscribe dutifully to many more, is The Believer.  I think Tin House might better suit my interests, but The Believer carries a monthly column by Greil Marcus.  In any case, the reason Tin House might be a better match than The Believer is because of its focus on writing.  This book by Believer Books seems to cater specifically to me.  Even though I read these interviews in their initial publications.  But they are great to revisit, not only because I forget things but because they are the epitome of how a rereading is a different reading altogether.  And… The Believer is where I first discovered the Nick Hornby series I have modelled this post after.

Wallace Stegner is a stud.  Good writer too.  Joe Hill was an important labor organizer.  Stud too.  All of this despite my IWW affiliations.

The Beghtol books is another in the 33 1/3 series.  This time the album is 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields.  Ursa raved about this album.  The critics at Slate’s Cultural Gabfest rave about it.  I hear people on the street talk about in intimate terms unfamiliar to an album.  It’s a great album.  Here’s hoping this book serves it well.

John Bunyan.  I thought I was going to read about Minnesota and how its lakes were made.  Was Mille Lacs made by Babe’s hoof or by Paul Bunyan scooping it out with a spoon.  But… John Bunyan is not Paul Bunyan.  Sadly.  It’s an old, important, and oft-cited book.  I’ve never read it.  It was only $2.  It’ll look good on my shelf.  Which is the reason, I am ashamed to admit, that I have not yet bought an ereader.

My addictions are not just for Verso books and 33 1/3 books.  I also love The Best American [Crime, Science, Mystery, etc…] Writing series.  Bowden’s Black Hawk Down was so magnificent that this entry into the series has to be good.

Terry.  I found it on an airplane.  Sometimes I need a good laugh.  Sometimes I need to inflict some pain.  Most of all, I am curious about theology.  I am also curious about hearing the other side’s argument.

Terry Eagleton’s book has constantly been on my list of books I need.  I need to read it because of its importance.  I also need it to hunt down footnotes.  This was one of the books that was leading the charge for an ereader, so I could constantly have it on my person.  I folded.   The anniversary edition is just too damned pretty.  And I have so much time on my hands right now that I am delusional, thinking I can actually make it through this.  Through all of these books actually, this has probably been my most active month of book acquisition.  And I am moving.  I don’t have the space for all the books.  Sigh.

For something a little more light-hearted:

“Making a Beatles record…requires more than the presence of individual Beatles voices; it requires the potential for at least three-part harmony; it requires Paul’s bass and piano style; it requires George’s lead-guitar style, it requires unusual guitar harmony between George, John and Paul and the peculiar drumming style of Ringo; it requires John tempered by Paul, and Paul darkened by John; all of them spiritualized by George; all of them lightened up by Ringo; all of the excited by Paul; all of them made wary by John.”  Michael Boyce, letter to the editor.  The Believer Magazine, October 09.

But not too light-hearted.  Here we have a new (new?  new to me) method to study music.  In any case, it is well written and beyond my abilities to either confirm or deny.

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Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

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Thirlwell, Adam. (2008). Amerikas. The Believer, 6(8), 3-17.

“The reason why style in a novel is translatable is because it is inextricable from composition. And it is through the composition itself, through a style, that a novel becomes true to life.” (8)

I am not a fan of this solution to the problem (can and how does style in the novel translate?). Thirlwell flattens the term style to be nearly meaningless. He also has escaped the actual problem prompting this piece: Nabakov’s dilemma of translating the rhyme and ‘blossom’ of Pushkin in Eugene Onegin.

Of course the translation has a style. Nabakov did not lament the loss of style in the translation. Nabakov lamented the loss of Pushkin’s style in the translation. Here we come to what I find is the real problem at work: how does the translator reproduce her reading in the reader? Nabakov wanted to share the joys of the novel with others, not necessarily the novel itself. The difference may seem slight but it gets to the heart of the problem.

The reason Thirlwell concludes, correctly, that there is not a definitive text is because we are not really concerned with the text. The text is a mediation. What we, writers, readers and humans, are concerned with is communication and crossing the gap of mediation.