Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been available in the Spanish-speaking world for about nine months, but it won’t available here until Oct. 25. The Book Standard already has a review up (which I believe is the Kirkus review), and it’s quite negative: “There is no indication – unless it is the word ‘melancholy’ in the title – that Garcia Marquez means his tale to be the parody of macho idiocy it appears to be. His hero ends revitalized and radiantly optimistic, while readers are left wondering, ‘Can he be serious?'”
Arts & Letters Daily links to a Washington Post article by a former Amazon.com employee, James Marcus, picking up on February’s story about a programming glitch at Amazon.ca. He gives us a little insider perspective on the customer review phenomenon, but perhaps more interesting for Amazon-watchers is the prospect of his upcoming book: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut chronicling the early days of the online superstore through the internet bust. This will likely be an interesting portrait of the dot-com era.Also at aldaily.com, a link to a review of Kingsley Amis’ comic masterpiece Lucky Jim in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. Believe the hype, this book is fantastic.Folks in Los Angeles, and probably most big cities, have probably noticed the proliferation of stencil and paste-up graffiti appearing on sidewalks and walls. The images range from blatant advertisements (usually for bands) to beguiling and intriguing symbols. The British artist Tristan Manco has collected these odd hybrid art forms into a couple of good-looking volumes, Stencil Graffiti and the soon to be released Street Logos. Here are some images from the first book: Stencil GraffitiI’ve added The Clerk’s Tale by Spencer Reece to the Reading Queue, and I’m almost done with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It is fantastic.
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.
Another weekend, another festival in Toronto.Millions readers in Toronto take note: Undaunted after a summer of festivals piled on top of festivals (Film, Fringe, Pride, Caribana, Jazz, NXNE, Luminato, and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting), Toronto grabs a few winks, splashes on some water, and bounces back with a few more festivals for the literary and art crowd.First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t throw out a shameless plug for one of my favourite events in Toronto: Nuit Blanche. Beginning at 7pm Saturday September 29th, downtown Toronto turns into an art lover’s paradise with an all-night, all-free, art extravaganza. Meet friends at the nearest outdoor art installation as the clock strikes midnight, stroll through tiny galleries at three in the morning, or just marvel until the sun comes up at the latest crazy thing to burst from an artist’s imagination.Then grab a nap and head over to Queen’s Park for the Word on the Street festival. Sunday, September 30: Word on the Street is back, nestled in leafy Queen’s Park, with readings and workshops spotlighting the best and most anticipated in Canadian literature.Finally, beginning Wednesday, October 17, and continuing until Saturday, October 27th, Toronto’s Harbourfront hosts the International Festival of Authors with ten days of readings and round tables by a few dozen of the best and biggest authors in the world. This year, you can hear the likes of Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin, M.G. Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje, Tracy Chevalier, Jasper Fforde, Will Self, and J. K. Rowling. I went to a few readings and round-tables last year, and was lucky enough to hear Deborah Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, Alberto Manguel and Ralph Steadman. I even met Wallace Shawn!
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson stopped by yesterday to sign copies of An Army at Dawn. This book is intended to be the first installment of a trilogy that will describe the liberation of Europe in World War II. This first book is about the liberation of North Africa, and the next two will cover Italy and France. Naturally, I asked him how the books were coming along, and he told me that he had put them on hold while he was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and now he is writing a book about that experience. It will be exciting to see the many quality books that are being written by journalists and writers who spent time over there. We also discussed John Keegan, who seems to be the authority when it comes to popular histories of war. Atkinson professed to loving both The Mask of Command, which studies generals and commanders in wars from Ancient Greece to the present, and The Face of Battle, which gives similar treatment to the common soldier. Later on, while I was reading about those two Keegan books, I was pleased to discover that he has a new book that is a mere two weeks from hitting the shelves. It is enticingly titled, Intelligence in Warfare: From Nelson to Hitler.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can’t stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here’s your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai’s second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it’s available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” (actually four books), which begins with Murakami’s first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There’s a well and a cat. While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here’s a link to a PDF of Birnbaum’s translation of Murakami’s Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!
Today at the bookstore I met a young writer named Julie Orringer. She talked about Dave Eggers and Heidi Julavits and 826 Valencia, an exciting bunch. She mentioned that her first book, a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater, will come out this Fall. A quick look at the website of one of the big book distributors confirmed that Knopf is expecting a strong debut. After I got home I did a little Google and discovered that a few of her stories are on the web. She has won several awards and fellowships and looks to be a real rising star. My favorite of the three stories that I read today originally appeared in Ploughshares. It’s called Pilgrims. I most enjoyed the ease with which she tells a story full of the troubles of adults from the point of view of children. I also read Care from the Barcelona Review and Note to Sixth-Grade Self from the Paris Review. I enjoyed these stories as well, though I felt that Note to Sixth-Grade Self was unecessarily clever. Keep an eye out for her. She seems likely to do impressive things.
Now that Thanksgiving weekend has finally come to a close, I have a bit of time to let you know about one or two odd and interesting books I’ve noticed lately. I happen to think that Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the more enjoyable books I’ve ever read, and I also loved reading about Kesey in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which, by the way is fantastic if read back to back with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels since the books tell essentially the same story but with different points of view and writing styles). So, I was rather intrigued when I came across Kesey’s Jail Journal. It’s a colorful amalgamation of collages, drawings, and text that he created during various stints behind bars over the course of thirty years.Another interesting looking book is Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death which is a companion book to the HBO series. I’m not a big fan of TV show companion books. They are nearly always hastily produced assemblages of screen captures and mind-numbingly idiotic text, but this one appears to break the mold a bit. The book isn’t an episode guide; instead it meanders through various backstories in an appropriately eerie sort of way, with lots of odd photos and ephmera related to the show. In that sense it’s interesting for what it is, but it’s also a triumph in book design. The book slides into this odd, plastic, vertical slip cover that is faintly reminiscent of a coffin, and the book itself lacks a traditional spine, and instead appears to be a series of booklets artfully woven together.Finally, I’m sure all the Mcsweeney’s watchers have seen this item, which for me falls into the annoying “weird for the sake of being weird” category. Projects like William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down keep me interested, but it bugs me to see McSweeney’s squandering the advantages they have over other independent publishers with so much forced silliness and ironic posturing.