The Dedicated Reader

Dedicated readers are precisely those who understand the Socratic inkling that they aren’t smart enough, will never be smart enough—the wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books.

via A Bibliophile’s Defense of Physical Books | The New Republic.

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Howard Stark: More than Just Howard Hughes’ Doppelganger

Howard Stark’s importance to the effort of building the Universe goes beyond his own accomplishments — which, the movies will never let you forget, are really-super-sensational; your man’s basically Rat Pack Einstein.

via Masters of the Universe: Marvel’s Unprecedented Storytelling Gamble «.

“Rat Pack Einstein.” Beautiful.

The Range of Light

Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.
– John Muir, The Yosemite (1912) chapter 1.

Over the past year I have had the great good fortune to drive the length of this state – or at least the bits between Ventura and San Francisco – no less than seven times. That each trip was made for business hardly mattered. Having been back home a year after two decades abroad, I have yet to tire of the vistas – even those afforded by Interstate 5, which is admittedly less picturesque than State Highway 1, US 101, or even State Highway 99.

Friday Extra: Fifty Books that Inspired Me

Riffing off of lists produced by a couple of friends – political thinker Matthew Stinson and Baidu executive Kaiser Kuo – these are the books that I have read in full that inspired my life, my work, my interests, my learning, and my writing.  They are not necessarily the best fifty books that I have read, and, with apologies to my regular readers, only a few are about California. But they are books set me on my path, even if they don’t represent the best of the authors’s ouevres or are even the best on the subject.

I’ll start with the spiritual stuff, so that I can hive it off separately and my atheist/anti-theist/Wicca/Humanist/doubter readers can simply skip past it.

1. The Holy Scriptures
2. The Tanach (Stone Edition)
3. O Jerusalem by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
4. Think Jewish by Zalman Posner
5. Essential Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz
6. Jews, God, and History by Max I. Dimont
7. Toward a Meaningful Life by Simon Jacobson
8. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
9. The Perkei Avoth (Lehman Prins translation)

Now for the more mainstream portion of the list. I have placed an asterisk by those with a California connection:

10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
11. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
12. Dune by Frank Herbert
13. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
14. The Prince by Machiavelli
15. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
16. 1984 by George Orwell
*17. Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 by Kevin Starr
18. Birth of the Modern World Society by Paul Johnson
19. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore
20. Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville
21. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
22. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
23. War as I Knew It by George Smith Patton, Jr.
*24. Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis
25. Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan
26. Propaganda by Edward R. Bernays
27. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat
*28. The Sea Wolf by Jack London
29. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 by Hunter S. Thompson
30. Tai-Pan by James Clavell
31. Twilight in the Forbidden City by Reginald P. Johnston
32. Family by Pa Chin
33. Count Zero by William Gibson
34. On Writing by Stephen King
35. Fanshen by William Hinton
36. The Watchmen by Alan Moore
37. Mila 18 by Leon Uris
*38. The Moon’s A Baloon by David Niven
39. The Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas P.M. Barnett
40. Quality is Free by Philip Crosby
41. Dispatches by Michael Herr
42. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
43. Strategy by B.H. Lidell Hart
44. The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister et al.
45. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
46. The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
*47. By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman
*48. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
49. Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
50. A Republican Looks at his Party by Arthur Larson

I know I’m missing something here. What books inspired you?

Are bookshelves becoming obsolete?

Are bookshelves becoming obsolete?. A great debate on io9, definitely worth reading the comments.

Our growing shelf of Golden West books, some of them very old and highly collectible, are sufficient proof to us of the idea that bookshelves will not go away until books do.

Our take: even with the rise of the e-book, from Kindle to PDF, we don’t see the bookshelf going away anytime soon. We are having to rethink the nature of the shelf, learning to integrate books into our rooms and spaces so they are not taking up space, but enhancing it.

 

Norman and the Rats

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well
I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away
The myth from the man
You will see
Where we all soon will be.

“Heaven on their Minds,” from Jesus Christ, Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

English: Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair Intern...
Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “The Naked Novelist and the Dead Reputation,” Algis Valiunas offers an essay that has to be one of the better-written post-mortems of Norman Mailer that is not a panegyric. Rather than lionize the man because of his work, Valiunas considers the man and the art together. If you are not a fan of Mailer and his work, the article is unsettling. If you are a fan, it should be.

After slogging through The Naked and the Dead, I never picked up any of Mailer’s later writings, and Valiunas has all but ensured that I won’t. Leave aside the critic’s obvious distaste for his subject and Commentary’s implicit agreement. Valiunas describes not a misunderstood genius wrestling with his shortcomings, but an unapologetic hedonist with an unmeasured streak of sociopathy. He shows us Mailer the confirmed narcissist, a habitual philanderer who knifed his second wife, lionized the hoods who killed a 50-year old candy-store owner, and advocated jousting tournaments to punish juvenile delinquents.

What is troubling about all of this is not that it makes Mailer’s writing worse than it might be otherwise. Valiunas tries to make a case that Mailer’s character flawed his writing, but he tries too hard: the worst he can muster about Harlot’s Ghost is:

Mailer has a real fascination with the world’s great secret machinery, and he is willing to give the intelligence agents he portrays, who are naturally great villains to his friends on the Left, the chance to present their anti-Communist case without undue irony directed at their insensate evil.

Still, Mailer cannot control his sheer boyish vulgarity. … Mailer sees himself as writing for the ages, like Hugo describing the Battle of Waterloo or Tolstoy the burning of Moscow; but at the climactic moments, his efforts prove to be potboiler swill served on a bed of journalism.

Even for a detractor, that’s grasping at straws. Suffice to say that if Mailer is worth reading, he is worth reading with his character flaws fully in mind. Indeed failure to do so – or failure to condemn his flaws as such – risks conflating the man and his art. This is Valiunas’ biggest bone with Mailer, and mine as well. It was less the puerile prurience of his prose than the fact that when we lionize a man, we make of his character an idol for ourselves and, worse, our youth. Valiunas writes:

He fancied himself one of the big thinkers, and most of his ideas were not only bad but appalling; for he lived largely for the body’s pleasures, actual and vicarious, and adopted ideas that serviced those pleasures. T.S. Eliot remarked that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated; Mailer helped create the moral confusion amid which he was glorified—not quite what Eliot had in mind.

And herein lies the problem with the aesthetic objectivists who protest that the art and the artist must be considered separately. When we do that, we fool ourselves into thinking that the artist separates himself from his art. This is nonsense; art, especially good art, is more than technique. It is the transmutation of an idea, a picture, or a feeling through the mind and soul and passion of the artist into symbolic expression. Even if we ascribe to the artist the purest of motives, the work itself is a vector of its creator’s essence.

If Mailer was a great writer or even a good one, it is because he poured himself into his work, and so when we consume his work, we consume his essence. We have two choices in that case: either take the work unknowingly and allow yourself to be subtly but importantly changed by it, or take it in the full knowledge that it is the work of a moral ogre, and that it must be read as such.

To do less is to surrender ourselves to the song of the Pied Piper, to agree to be led as a society to our undoing because we cared more about the sweetness of the music than what was in the mind of the musician as he played.

Los Angeles and The Noir Fiction

“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Steve Erickson

Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012

In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.

There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.

Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.

That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.

This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.

Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.

James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.

I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.

The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.

Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…

The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.

Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.

And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.

T.S. Eliot and the Art of Prejudice


English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...
English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism”.
Gregory S. Jay
Journal of English and Germanic Philology
1997

The more you flip through the history of belles-lettres, the more the anti-Semitic cockroaches scuttle out from behind the pretty facades of literary celebrity. Gregory Jay’s superb review of Anthony Julius’ 1995 work T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and the Literary Form manages to stomp on a fair handful of fine English writers. While Eliot, as the most open Jew-baiter among the Victorian scribes, is the focus of the book and the review, he was by no means alone. Jay points out that Charles Dickens, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul de Man each had to use “a different strategy to mitigate or evade his own anti-Semetic writing.”

Outing anti-Semites is all good sport, to a point, but if all we do is wave a flag around and say “hey, these guys hated Jews (or women, or African Americans, or Chinese),” we’ve accomplished nothing more than to soak another hate-filled artist in his own bile. In order for these outings to have some kind of meaning, we have to contend with two related questions.

The Hate-Filled Artist As A Young Man

First, we have to ask whether the art can be judged in isolation from the artist. There is a school of literary theory that supports this point of view, and that in turn has led to the canonization of writers like Dickens and Pound (not to mention Henry James and H.L. Mencken.) What is important, we are told, is not that these men were prejudiced and full of hatred-deftly-concealed. What is important is to judge these works independently of the failures of the artist, and indeed without reference to social and political issues.

To their credit, Julius (the author) and Jay (the reviewer) both question this thesis (what Jay calls “aesthetic objectivity,”) suggesting that instead the artifact must be examined in its context. They do not call for the de-canonization of the authors or their works. Rather, what I believe they seek is an examination of the works and their authors in toto, an act which I suspect will cause us to lose the taste for some yet gain interest in others.

There are obviously two schools here: judge the art by itself, or judge it in light of the author and his or her context. You could make an argument that the former school offers a chance for more unadulterated judgment, and you may be right. For me, though (and I’m probably showing my plebeian roots, here,) purity comes at a cost of completeness. My wife and I bought a painting from an artist in his Santa Barbara gallery about a year ago. We loved the painting for itself, a simple California landscape rendered in the style of 19th century English plein-air landscapes: Santa Barbara county with a Cornish feel. What made it more appealing, though, was learning of the artist’s English provenance and training. Here was California rendered through the eye and the hand of a Briton. For us, as Californians returning to our home state after decades abroad, the joy of the painting was thus deepened.

Vincent Van Gogh is not a lesser artist because of his madness, nor is Pablo Picasso for his womanizing. Yet the knowledge of those facts about these painters adds something essential to our appreciation of the art. Artists and theorists may not like that truth, but they cannot change it.

Knowing an artist’s bent and learning of its origins, I have an opportunity to appreciate the art through a filter. This fellow didn’t like Jews, this is why, this is how it shaped his writings, and now I can evaluate the work in that context. With Eliot, knowing his background, we recognize the anti-Semitism spewing out of poems not as an artistic depiction of someone who hates Jews, as the creation of a passion unshared by the artist to offer a portrayal (which would be high art, indeed); but as mere vitriol in verse. Spewing hate in iambic pentameter doesn’t raise the hate to art: it lowers the art into the gutter.

Dickens and other writers who attempt to contain their prejudices, by contrast, offer us a different opportunity. Is there hatred built into these works, however subtly? Is it of a piece with the thinking of the day? Or has the artist managed to expunge prejudice from his work, and to what end?

What Then Must We Do?

The second question follows from the first. Knowing that these authors are flawed in their hatred and prejudices, do we then read them? Or do we shun their works is inherently flawed or diseased? When is it acceptable to read the works of someone deeply, irredeemably prejudiced against you, and when is it appropriate to scorn them? And when is it appropriate to toss the book aside and spend time reading something else, canons be damned?

I have struggled with this question for years, and the best answer I have come up with is this: read it all, let your brain sort it out. I’d read Eliot in a heartbeat, just as I read Voltaire, Jack London, Charles Dickens, H.L. Mencken, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), Mao Zedong, and the works of dozens of other less-well known writers with prejudices against me. We are intelligent beings, capable of holding a thought in our head and following its logic, even if we disagree with it, and in the end not be unduly influenced. This is what it means to read critically, and it is just as important to know why you disagree with someone as it is to know that you disagree.

At the same time,  following on from the first question above, we owe it to ourselves to be informed about the authors whose work we read. To be erudite, after all, somehow implies we are not duped through ignorance.  It is our very need to read widely that makes knowing the author and his/her context essential.

Read Eliot. Know he is a man of virulent hatreds. And then ask yourself – “how does what I know about the man change the way I see his art, and why?” If it makes no difference, then it doesn’t matter. If it makes a difference, then it is essential to the appreciation of the form.

American Letters and New York City

New York City
New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

One of the great blessings of American literature is that, unlike that of many less diverse nations and cultures, ours benefits from the inspiration offered in the geographic diversity of the land. It is sad, therefore, that so many intelligent champions of American letters would prefer that we have but a single literary Mecca. A nation can only have one intellectual capital. As France has Paris, so must America have New York. To defend such a proposition, and perhaps to justify living in a city that is as likely to brutalize an author as it is to celebrate him or her, some of New York’s most ardent boosters go to great pains to make the case that for the writer or the book-minded, there is no place to be but New York City.

In an article entitled “City Lights,” writer and biographer Stefan Kanfer offers us a notable example of such Metropolitan hyperbole. To support his point, he gives endless examples of writers from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen who have made New York their home.

Kanfer is most loquacious when answering the infidel literati who rejected the Big Apple:

Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Indeed.

This is exactly the kind of defensive self-justification cum effusive self-congratulation for which New York must own the patent given its frequent use by the city’s fanboyim. A steady flow of this tiresome spew has poured from the pens, typewriters, and laptops of Gotham for over a century, and the sole effect outside of New Amsterdam’s legion of besotted admirers has been a roll of the eyes and a turn of the page.

I submit that there are far simpler and less mystical reasons for New York’s role as a literary gravity-well than Mr. Kanfer’s pean would seem to suggest. Those include:

  • New York is where the publishers are, and most writers find it convenient to be near the largest critical mass of markets for their work, whether they want to be there or not. One of Kanfer’s Nobel Laureates, Toni Morrison, came to New York to be an editor in a publishing house, not because of some mystic magnet.
  • Writing is a lonely profession, and the proximity of a sympathetic support group of peers, both more and less talented, is a comfort to all, especially the struggling and the poseurs, (the latter whom find it much easier to justify their unpublished status to their loved ones and themselves because at least they are in the center of the action.)
  • New York is home to an overlarge community of grossly wealthy idle and nouveau riche, especially from among the financial community, who patronize the belles letters as a means of embellishing their unearned or under earned lucre with a patina of culture.
  • Writers are celebrated, tolerated, and venerated in New York like nowhere else on the planet. Such ego infusions are heady, addictive stuff.

Hardly the stuff of impassioned tributes, I know, but without doubt more reflective of some basic truths that reflect the uglier side of the vocation of letters.

As for me, I side with Mencken, Hemingway, Drieser, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and all of the others who had the fortitude and dignity to ply their craft far from the shores of the Hudson. How much greater the triumph of a writer laboring without the support of editors, agents, patrons, and fellows in close proximity.

And, for the record, New York has no especial claim on Nobel Laureates in Literature: Steinbeck did his best work in California, Lewis in Washington, DC, Bellow in the Midwest and Boston; Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Joseph Brodsky avoided the place.

The truth is, America is blessed to have a geographically diverse literary tradition, so much so that one could almost make a lifetime study of the literature of New England (less New York City), of the South, of the West, and California.

Dismount your horses, Tribunes of Gotham. You are all wonderful and do great work. To pretend that literature begins and ends in your precincts does an injustice to literature and an injustice to New York.

Originally published October 17, 2011 in The Peking Review