One of the interesting things about being the author of an obscure blog is seeing how much I influence world culture. A day doesn’t go by without my opinions being parroted on music video channels and being reprinted on the backs of cereal boxes. Why just the other day I happened to be watching opening round action of this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and I couldn’t help but hear CBS Sportscaster Dick Enberg describe as worthy of Don Quixote, a speech that Mike Gillespie, coach of the 16th seeded Florida A&M Rattlers, was giving to his team before sending them out on the floor to face basketball powerhouse Kentucky. I, of course, immediately assumed that Enberg made this comment because, as an avid reader of The Millions, he knew that I was reading the Edith Grossman translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and reading along at home, he felt comfortable throwing the literary reference into his broadcast. Or there is another explanation that, I will concede, is equally plausible. Don Quixote, like other literary first ballot hall of famers, Hamlet, Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that such a reference will be understood by nearly all who hear it. Not bad for a 17th century Spanish epic. Enberg was using the name Don Quixote the way most folks do, to describe a foolhardy quest. And yet it would seem that Enberg was implying that there was something noble in all this, to use another often cited reference, something akin to David and Goliath. Before I ever cracked open the book, I had this impression as well, that there was something noble about this knight who wears a bowl on his head and tilts at windmills. I see it a bit differently now, even though, admittedly, I am only a quarter of the way through the book. Certainly in telling the story, Cervantes is turning the idea of chivalry on its head, and in doing so is nobly attempting to undo some of the harmful social mores of his time, but the character of Quixote isn’t particularly noble. In fact he is a rather sad specimen who is either totally mentally ill or utterly incapable of recognizing the consequences of his actions; probably he is a little of both. So far, he has inadvertently caused a servant boy to be beaten by his master, he has bludgeoned a number of innocent passersby, and he has allowed his faithful squire, the very likeable Sancho Panza, to be repeatedly thrown to the wolves. In fact, I am starting to see that it is perhaps a disservice to compare the coaches of underdog basketball teams and others who embark on impossible quests to Don Quixote, who, I should also mention, is turning out to be rather unhygenic. Better that these noble folks be compared to Cervantes, who, even 300 years later is still managing to take on the big shots. Like I said, though, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Once, I have finished, and once I have read the Harold Bloom essay that precedes the text, I may have different take on the whole thing, so stay tuned, America.
I'm going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I've been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it's all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby - where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I've been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog's administrator concludes with this warning, "Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being," but a previous post puts it this way, "Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can't report on political issues."He also says this about the ban: "For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself... A great forum to share ideas."Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I'm trying to make is that - thanks to blogs - we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.
I started flipping through Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book The Tipping Point the other day. In the book, Gladwell explores the idea that all popular trends essentially behave like epidemics, and a slight change in external factors can cause a trend, like an epidemic, to "tip" and then become ubiquitous. He describes how word of mouth is an important part of why this occurs, and also how some initial shift of circumstances begins the process. I quickly realized that I see this phenomenon occurring constantly at the bookstore. The recommend shelf phenomenon that I described a few days ago is an example of this. An intitial shift occurs when I read a book and enjoy it and then pull it from its spot tucked away on the shelf. Once I have displayed it prominently on the recommended shelf, the second part of the phenomenon takes over, word of mouth. Soon, a book that was sitting, forlorn, in a tucked away corner of the store, is selling briskly and you overhear people in the aisles talking about it. Earlier, I spoke about this recommended book phenomenon somwhat disdainfully, but when viewed this way, as a shifting of initial circumstances playing out over time, like Stephen Wolfram's cellular automata in A New Kind of Science, it is more a fascinating piece of science than indictive of society's lemming-like tendencies.Addenda Pt. 2My good and old friend Hot Face emailed me with some addenda and additions to yeasterdays post about upcoming books. The new David Foster Wallace collection is tentatively called Oblivion and will come out in March of 2004. Prior to that, in October, he has a new non-fiction book coming out, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. He also mentioned that Stuart Dybek has a new book coming out in November called I Sailed with Magellan. Dybek has long been highly regarded as a short story writer (here's one called Ant), but this new book is a novel.
The New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his... a terriffic story called "Cryptology." The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God's Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.
Trevor and Jeff at Syntax of Things polled a number of litbloggers to put together a fantastic list of underrated writers. From their introduction:As you'll see, the results are interesting. We were able to compile a list of 55 writers from 15 different litbloggers who hailed from four continents (North and South America, Europe, and Australia). Of these 55 writers, we had only two who received more than one vote. In addition, the writers ranged from obscure Brazilian poets to a surrealist painter to young adult science fiction writers. Some names are familiar; others we're sure you won't recognize.They were kind enough to ask me to participate and I contributed some names that will be familiar to long-time Millions readers: Pete Dexter, Michelle Huneven, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Alvaro Mutis. Trevor and Jeff dug up lots of great links to go along with the blurbs provided for each author, and they included one for Mutis that I hadn't seen before. It's a translation of a poem called "Tequila."
In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving. Recently I've been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don't really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I'm only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: "Hope it's a good one!" he wrote on my wall. On a gut level, I couldn't figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back "thanks" as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character's in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead. This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I'd hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we'd sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common. When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren't going to be important parts of each other's lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn't diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn't be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit. But then there I was, some years after we'd last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people "Liked" the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I'd just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—"Congratulations" or "So excited to hear the news!!"—but that seemed off, too. I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn't, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it's comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.