A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
For some reason I’ve always been wary of audio books. For one thing, they are expensive and for another the whole idea of listening to a book seems antithetical to the author’s original task of putting words to paper. Recent events, however, have alleviated this wariness. A friend of mine has suddenly gained access to free audio books, and when she offered me some titles to choose from, I couldn’t help myself. I am in a constant struggle to read as many books as possible, and, working at the book store, my list of must-read books increases at a far greater rate than I am able to manage. With my newfound acceptance of audiobooks, though, I have mbeen able to greatly increase my reading productivity. In fact, I finished listening to a terrific book on the way to work today, Positively Fifth Street by James McManus, and I must say I was sad to have it end. McManus’ book did wonders for my terrible Los Angeles commute (I know, it’s such a cliche, but LA traffic is no joke). This book has been very popular since it came out a few weeks ago, and many had been eagerly anticipating it ever since the Harper’s magazine article that was the book’s progenitor. McManus was sent to Vegas to cover the both the trial of the murderers of Ted Binion and the World Series of Poker that Binion’s father had created and that the family he left behind continued to run every year. Upon his arrival, McManus makes the fateful decision to use his advance money for the Harper’s article to enter the tournament, and, though he has never played professionaly, he makes it all the way to the final table. He paints both the trial and his no limit poker travails with vivid prose, and he really makes you root for him. The Vegas setting combined with the participatory journalist angle reminded me a lot of Fear and Loathing, and though the books are very different, Fifth Street is easily as invigorating as the original tale of a lost weekend in the desert.Books I’d love to read (but will I ever get around to it?)As I mentioned above my list of books to read is monsterous and ever-increasing. In fact, my list is so long that there are quite a few books on my shelf that I fully intend to read — that I would love to read — but are constantly being bumped farther down my list by books that I deem to be of a higher priority. Long gone are the days when I would casually finish up a book and then blithely wander around the local bookstore hoping to come across something that piqued my interest. My backed up piles now stare up at me plaintively, wondering if I will ever get around to reading them. Since, I’m not sure when I will ever get around to reading some of these, I will do what I have determined arbitrarily to be the next best thing: mention them here. A casual glance at the book shelf behind me reveals several books that are waiting out their purgatory: The Hole in the Flag is Andrei Codrescu’s account of the fall of the oppressive regime in his native country. I want to read this because I love Codrescu’s commentary on NPR and because I visited Romania almost ten years ago and have been fascinated by the country ever since. I hope to read Mr. Jefferson’s University by Garry Wills for similar reasons. Wills is a masterful historian and biographer, and I attended the college that is the subject of the book. Plus, the National Geographic Directions series of travel writing, of which this book is a part, has proven, in my experience, to be very much worth reading. Down to Earth by Ted Steinberg is about nature’s role in American history. I read about this book when it came out last fall and it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winner by Jared Diamond. I loved that book so figured I’d be into this one as well. I snagged an advance copy of An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson when it appeared in the book store last summer. I had just finished John Keegan’s masterful history of The Second World War, and so I couldn’t pass on a free book about the Allies liberation of North Africa. The book has since won the Pulitzer and I haven’t even cracked the spine. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Well, there are many more to name, so I think I’ll stop there before this gets too depressing. So many books to read.Leonard Michaels RIPIn my rant about that 70’s O. Henry book yesterday, I neglected to mention the collection’s first story “Robinson Crusoe Liebowitz” by Leonard Michaels. The story centers around a man hiding in his lover’s bedroom. He is persecuted by twin tormentors: his fear of being discovered by his lover’s fiance and his burning need to urinate. It is a dark and clever story. It stuck in my mind, and when a customer mentioned today at the store that Michaels had recently passed away, I remembered poor Liebowitz and his straining bladder. I don’t know much about Michaels, though I would like to read his novel The Men’s Club if I can manage to track it down, so I’ll let his obit tell the rest of the story.
Babbittry’s an old word but hardly a dead concept. It first emerged — by that name, anyway — 90 years ago with the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, a slim, strange novel that drifts through its chapters with little thought to plot. At the heart of the novel is George F. Babbitt, a real estate salesman in his mid-40s whose life revolves around his family, dinner parties, boosters’ club, his business ambitions, and all the middlebrow fashion concerns of his age in the fictional neighborhood of Floral Heights in the equally make-believe town of Zenith.
Lewis showcases Babbitt’s morning routine: “Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters’ Club button. With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: ‘Boosters — Pep!’ It made Babbitt feel loyal and important. It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Betta Kappa key.”
See how society weighs on this poor soul? Babbittry refers to the disease of conventionality and banality. The novel traces its way through the title character’s colloquial phrases, his fretting over social etiquette, and his laundry list of goals and frustrations. It’s the American dream at its most mundane, the inertia of the lifestyle a constant palpable anvil. Ultimately the sin of Babbittry relies on the social mores and manners of others — Babbitt doesn’t have a strong enough sense of his own self to defy that broader socially constructed set of values and meaning. The diagnosis of Babbittry entered our lexicon and stayed for a half century or so before fading away.
But what of the disease itself? The world George Babbitt inhabited changed radically in the nine decades since Lewis released his book. The United States engaged in wars, built highways and the Internet, embraced mass media and organic tomatoes, found drugs and the sexual revolution. Through our 21st-century lens, Babbitt looks all the more like a stuffy philistine dad. Lewis’s insights into human nature weren’t, however, limited by time, and we’re all guilty of Babbitt’s crime perhaps more now than ever before.
In 2012, social media thrives more than any 1920s booster club did. Millions engage in a bustling, active world in which not only can’t a person be alone, but dozens see and watch and, crucially, expect every day. One overriding criticism of the social soup of the Internet is the tendency toward groupthink. Once a few loud voices establish a joke or a premise, the herd follows. Binders of women! Bayonets! Chuck Norris as Superhuman! KONY 2012! A viral sentiment must be true, yes? This candidate completely botched the foreign policy debate questions. This politician is shady because of this allegation. Here’s the premise through which we should view X news story, and yes, expressing Y opinion makes you Z. Politicians understand this well. They send surrogates to the media right after to spin the common consensus. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in October, social media causes “conventional wisdom to be set, simplified and amplified, faster and more pervasively,” pointing to debate coverage as a prime example. There’s a “Twitter-forged consensus” gelling within 30 minutes, Milbank laments. Beware, Internet surfer. A disease is out there, and it’s infecting our iPhones, our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Disease, thy name is Babbittry.
The display of symptoms is all that’s changed. Modern technology fuels a far more insidious type, one not defined by 1920s fashion so much as the deeper sin Babbitt was guilty of throughout. Babbittry eats at Babbitt’s life not because he’s boring, but because there’s no control or independent intellectual force at work. His materialistic life is guided by what others dictate. Whether the information comes via a Twitter newsfeed or from 20th-century church fellows, ads, and business pals, the effect is the same. Leave it to the crowds! Let the masses decide! This is still straight Babbittry.
Babbitt makes the commodification of opinion clear in many different passages and specifically tries to kill the idea of Babbitt’s agency: “Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priest of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington, what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what to believed to be his individuality.” Thus, toothpaste and socks are his “symbols and proofs of excellence,” Lewis declares.
Material details evolved, but has the critique ever disappeared? The charge has become its own cliché in the years since, shades flickering into Don DeLillo novels and American Beauty. Adbusters infamously ripped hipsterism as a lifestyle completely subject to marketing four years ago (an opinion then shared 48,000 times on Facebook). And the Babbitt archetype of course popped into our culture before Babbitt (the stuffy Karenin of Anna Karenina comes to mind) but never quite as crisply. Twitter and Facebook are just the latest avenues for Babbittry to thrive. Targeted advertising and niche media channels make the conformism and herding all the easier today. Social media editors practice just the right, predictable voice and casual humor that pulls in readers. The Internet elevates the right linguistic affectations and rewards them, just as Babbitt was rewarded for his own professional and fashionable ones. Modern groupthink often unfolds in trivial, unstructured ways — the social judging and banter of Facebook, say, comparing photos, adding your digital “like” to the mix. This anxiety surrounding social media is apparent, as any Google search will show. Real headlines: “Kony 2012 Movie and the Perils of Social Media ‘Group Think,’” “Social Media and the Groupthink Problem,” “Does Social Media Produce Groupthink?” Lewis artfully portrayed the phenomenon exactly 50 years before the first formal psychological study, Victims of Groupthink, was published (since republished as Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes).
Celebrate the 90th anniversary of Babbitt, then, by tracing its connections with our lives now. Lewis, saint that he is, never quite demonized George F. Babbitt despite the satire. The character struggled his way into rebellion, questioning and quibbling away from the mainstream in small ways. Lewis recognized the fundamental humanity of even the iconic Babbitt — we’re social animals for a reason. But don’t cut Babbittry from our vocabulary quite yet. It creeps back, as Babbitt well knew. A rebellious streak would “endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows.” We’re all guilty on bad days, one retweet at a time.
If my college had offered a class on the New Yorker, I definitely would have taken it, but it didn’t, and, until today, I wasn’t aware that any colleges did. What a great idea for a class. Last fall, Prof. Bryant Mangum of Virginia Commonwealth University taught a class called Literature in Society: The New Yorker. Each class is constructed like an issue of the magazine with the assignments divided into these parts: Goings on About Town, The Talk of the Town, Features: Fact/Fiction, The Critics, Poems. Aside from the magazine itself, required reading includes classic New Yorker fiction. Perhaps coolest of all is Mangum’s Miscellany page which includes scans of a New Yorker rejection slip, note and check.
Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the “virtuoso perfomances” of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is “big” and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!