This is an old story already, more than three weeks old and no longer newsworthy; but as you’ll see, I’m fastening on an old story to make a point. On February 28th, Jan Berenstain, co-author of the Berenstain Bears books, died, and the news of her death was greeted a few hours later by this from Slate’s Hanna Rosin: “As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance.”
What followed was a Slateishly contrarian take on the books’ humorlessness and gender politics, but the outburst of anger that met Rosin’s piece was, unsurprisingly, focused on those two words: “good riddance.” Commenters lined up by the hundreds — 494 at last count — to denounce the author’s callousness toward Jan Berenstain’s still-warm body. Rosin herself followed up with an apology the next day: “I admit I was not really thinking of her as a person with actual feelings and a family, just an abstraction who happened to write these books.”
So if Jan Berenstain was an abstraction, what were she and her death doing there in the first place? The takedown of her books was funny, pointed, and resonant for any parent force-marched through the same paperbacks for an eternity of bedtimes. The mystery here is what function that “good riddance” — so mean-spirited and out of keeping with the rest of Rosin’s tone — was playing in the article. Was it the product of a writer’s compulsion to display her cleverness at the expense of someone who can’t answer back? I put the blame on something more mundane: the news hook.
For most of those in the opinion-writing business, the news hook is an ugly necessity. In my five years as a political speechwriter, I wrote and placed dozens of op-ed pieces for my bosses — and each time, the hardest task was arranging a marriage between the piece’s policy agenda and a news hook, the paragraph or two of timeliness that made the policy medicine easier to swallow and was a requirement for publication anywhere. Each time, a little bow of deference to the news cycle, no matter how halfhearted — it could be a good monthly jobs report or a bad one, an embarrassing slip of the tongue from the other party, or something as predictable as Tax Day — helped answer the mandatory question: not “why this?” but “why this, now?”
Timeliness can be a virtue in political writing — but taken too far, and invoked too automatically, it can be poisonous. Rosin’s gaffe is an extreme example. Given the vehemence of her opinions about the Berenstain Bears books, it’s likely that she’d been incubating them for some time. A week before Jan Berenstain’s death, or a week after, few outlets would have published those thoughts, because few of us would have read them; only in a short window of newsy opportunity were those thoughts considered worth our attention. “Good riddance” has all the callous clumsiness of a writer straining to get relevance out of the way, not because she wants to, but because she has to.
It’s easy, and fair, to be angry at Rosin; it’s harder, and more important, to think about the ways our demands as readers make us complicit. Not every artificial news hook thuds as badly as “good riddance.” Many more go unnoticed. But when we insist on timeliness and newsiness, we constrict the range of our reading universe and cut ourselves off from the best, most discursive traditions in nonfiction.
Why do we read opinion, or essays, or nonfiction of any kind? Sometimes, we’re in search of a discrete, practical piece of information. But the range of useful nonfiction is much smaller than the range of nonfiction that competes for our attention by pretending to be useful — by creating a veneer of urgency. We’re encouraged to read a piece on Leonardo on the occasion of a new museum exhibit, even if tickets are sold out; a retrospective on U2’s Achtung Baby on the album’s 25th anniversary, but not its 24th or 26th; a piece taking apart the Berenstain Bears simply because the author is in the news for being dead. The timeliness of those pieces does nothing for us, except provide an illusion of usefulness.
Yet an interesting person can be interested in Leonardo or U2 or the politics of children’s books at any time — and can read about things that are inherently interesting, not accidentally interesting for 15 minutes. When we reward timeliness with the limited currency of our attention, we put ourselves in a tightly circumscribed place in which our intake of information is left up to the whims of the news cycle. And abdicating decisions about what we know to an abstraction like “the news cycle” is a lot like abdicating political decisions to an abstraction like “the market.”
We say we value freedom of information, but freedom means, in part, a life that isn’t totally subject to the demands of usefulness. That’s why earlier generations made an important distinction between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts” — liberal as in liberty. The useful arts are what we need to make a living. The liberal arts are those we can learn for their own sake, to the extent that we are free from the pressures of making a living — or, in a more democratic sense, the arts that free us, if only temporarily, from the demands of everyday life.
To me, the most valuable writers are the ones who give us a sense of what it’s like to be free from that pressure — especially the workaday pressure of getting to the point. Term papers, memos, and news wire reports have to get to the point — but why should we allow that expectation to dominate the rest of the written universe?
Last week, I was looking for some information on Giambattista Piranesi, an Italian artist famous for his etchings of Roman ruins. I found that Aldous Huxley had written a 1949 essay on him, so I pulled it up — but found that it took Huxley 2,093 words to come around to his announced subject. Some writing is a PowerPointed business meeting; following the twists and turns of Huxley’s argument is like being treated to a long, unhurried talk over drinks. First we are at the top of a college staircase in London, where Huxley and Albert Schweitzer are visiting the remains of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, stuffed and placed in a wooden box on permanent public display. Then there is Schweitzer’s observation that Bentham “was responsible for so much less harm” than his more ambitious contemporaries in philosophy. Then Huxley discusses with the reader the one harmful exception in that legacy, Bentham’s unnatural passion for logical and physical tidiness. We are a thousand words in, with no sign of the essay’s topic.
Next is a conversation about tidiness as an inspiration for tyranny, and about how Bentham’s love of efficiency found its sinister apogee in his design for the Panopticon, a circular prison in which every inmate is locked in solitary confinement under constant surveillance from the circle’s center. Where prisons were once chaotic madhouses (described for several hundred more words), Bentham’s model helped turn them into efficiently dehumanizing machines, which have slowly metastasized through every other level of our world, until “every efficient office, every up-to-date factory is a panoptical prison, in which the worker suffers…from the consciousness of being inside a machine.”
Then some thoughts on this terror as it was expressed and symbolized by the great prisons of literature, especially Kafka’s, and finally a comparison to the great prisons of art, of which Piranesi’s are the most striking example. This etcher of popular tourist scenes spent his free time designing massive, imaginary torture chambers and subterranean vaults of dripping stone. Perhaps, Huxley suggests, he suffered from a lifelong depression; perhaps his brightly-lit, classically-styled work for the tourists was his best attempt at therapy.
And Huxley is just getting started on his topic; after more than three op-ed columns’ worth of material, he has at last gotten to the point. By the end, Jeremy Bentham in his wooden box seems far, far away. We might be able to retrace the steps that took us from point A to point Z, but we could hardly have predicted those steps at the outset. This is the fluidity and spontaneity of wide-ranging conversation, lightly controlled by a gifted conversationalist. And when we arrive at the point at last, it’s with relief, and something of the pleasure of a long passage of musical dissonance that finally resolves and comes to rest.
Writing that refuses to state its intentions at the outset — that gives the impression of not even knowing its own intentions at the outset — might strike us as undisciplined. Sometimes it is. But artfully procrastinating on the point, carefully projecting carelessness, is one of the most rewarding and difficult challenges in writing. It takes enormous craft. We can still see that craft in the inventor and greatest master of the form, Michel de Montaigne. When we credit Montaigne as the originator of the essay, it’s not because he was the first to write in prose on factual topics — it’s because he turned declamation into conversation.
Montaigne spent years training himself not to get to the point, a progression we can follow by reading his early essays side-by-side with his later ones. At the beginning, he simply jumps into his topic with two feet. In one of his first essays, “On Custom,” he states his thesis immediately: “In truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress.” The rest of the essay only elaborates and adduces evidence for that thesis.
A half-decade of practice later, a new, unhurried calmness has come over Montaigne’s work. His essay “On Cannibals” begins with a quote from an ancient Greek king on the dignity of certain barbarians; the relevance of this quote won’t become apparent for pages. Next, Montaigne offhandedly mentions that he has just spoken with a sailor who has spent 10 years in the New World.
The New World — this thought sets Montaigne off on a long and learned tangent, asking himself whether any of the classical writers, Solon or Plato or Aristotle, had knowledge of continents across the ocean, and mentioning what he himself has learned about geology from watching his native river change course over twenty years.
This reminds him of the sailor again — can such a man’s story (about what, we don’t know yet) be trusted? Montaigne seems to think so, because simple men are less observant but speak plainly, whereas some who are too smart for their own good puff up their tales to exaggerate their own importance, with any number of bad consequences for an accurate understanding of the world.
What exactly was the sailor’s story? It seems to have something to do with the inhabitants of the Americas, because Montaigne reflects for a time on their supposed savagery, concluding that “everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.” The rest of the essay is an early attempt at anthropology-by-hearsay. It finally comes out that the natives sometimes indulge in cannibalism, as the essay’s title suggested, but otherwise seem to live in a golden age of tranquility, contentment, and communal property.
“On Cannibals” is a founding document of the noble savage myth; but it’s so persuasive because it doesn’t seem to have an agenda at all. Again and again, as Montaigne’s writing reached maturity, he would wander through his internal library in just this way. The cumulative impression is that no one essay really has a beginning or an end — every end is simply an opportunity for another digression. As these digressions through literature, science, history, anecdote, and memory pile up, we sense that we are dealing not with a narrative, but with a network: no fact is an island; every point is linked to every other point in Montaigne’s mind by an endless array of invisible threads.
Of course, that’s how we all think. But it is not how we all write. Montaigne was unique in finding a written expression for the way conversations evolve organically, the way thought has a shadowy logic of its own; it’s why his essays are such a different animal from the essays we’re assigned in school, so different that they shouldn’t even bear the same name, and why we often feel more at home in them. He did it by being studiedly haphazard. And his achievement matches that of his contemporary, Shakespeare, who took years of experimentation to make his soliloquies sound less like declaimed speeches and more like overheard thought.
A Montaigne essay, like a Shakespeare soliloquy, gives us the impression that we are in the presence not of a disembodied, opinion-spouting voice, but of a real person. Long after those essays lost their relevance, long after the second-hand reports from the Americas and meditations on 16th-century French politics ceased to be news, they have maintained their appeal because they are a personality embodied. And the foremost trait of that personality is freedom: freedom to take up and turn over absolutely any subject in human experience, on any prompting or none; to follow any tangent simply because it catches his eye; to begin and end a continent apart, or simply to trail off; to know for the simple sake of knowing.
In Montaigne’s day, that freedom was the privilege of an aristocrat. Today, unless we trade it away for a mess of relevance, it’s the birthright of anyone with a high school education and an Internet connection.
Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.