Robert Silvers on a new kind of criticism

What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism …

… this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

In Conversation With Robert Silvers — New York Magazine.

That’s from a much longer review with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. It was published before the Boston bombings, but after a week in which we saw a lot of criticism of social media for its accuracy and ability to spread misinformation, it feel prescient. What kind of criticism could address social media, besides the kind of media/journalism fact-checking we have now? How would you define a body of work—is it based on one account, one publication, an series of events? Who decides what to include? As shorter forms of disconnected text become the dominant form of discourse, it’s an interesting problem.

Okay, maybe I’ll keep one book list

Slight addendum to my last post on making lists of books: I do keep one list, and it’s one that I started recently for more practical reasons. I have a list in Evernote of all the books I own that I haven’t read (or at least the ones I intend to read some day—I admit to making some poor purchases). I mainly did this because I used to go crazy buying way more books than I could read in a reasonable amount of time, and I have a pretty sizable backlog. It stands at 45 right now, including three ebooks. The rest of those are paper books I either bought for myself or got as gifts at some point.

I spent the last year clearing the backlog out of my Kindle and iBooks collections and mostly succeeded. I had 15-20 books between the Kindle app and iBooks because they were just too easy to buy when they became readily available. But I realized I was buying them way faster than I was finishing them, thus this little project. Those three remaining ebooks are ones I bought recently against my better judgment, but they’re books I really do want to read soon, so I figure that’s allowed.

In the spirit of my resolution not to focus too much on having read, I won’t necessarily try to plow through all 45 of those in a row, but I would like to pare it down quite a bit. If you’re read my stuff before, you know I have a problem with leaving things unfinished.

The Pleasures of Not Making Lists in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionI finished reading “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs last night. I’ve followed Alan on Twitter for a while and I chat with him about books and gadgets and sports from time to time, so I figured I owed him that much for tolerating me. But seriously, I did really want to read it because it’s about two of my favorite topics: reading, and thinking about reading.

The main gist of the book was how about to enjoy reading again when you feel you can barely manage to run your eyes across a 300-word blog post anymore, and how to really savor the experience when you do. And one way to do this goes against most of my instincts when it comes to reading books: Stop making lists. Don’t make a list of books you want to read, and don’t make a list of books you’ve finished. Otherwise you focus more on the experience of having read versus the act of reading itself.

I used to keep lists of books I read for years, until I had kids and started seeing the numbers get smaller and smaller. It bummed me out, so I deleted them and haven’t done it since. I still get stressed out when I feel like I’ve been stuck on a book, but I feel like it’s helped, and I’m much more likely now to take on a huge book I really want to read instead of worrying it will take too long to finish.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I liked the book, and it led to one of my favorite lines I’ve read in a while:

I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a fine one according to schedule and plan. After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

I don’t know about that “unbidden, unanticipated” part, at least with my kids, but that’s a nice way to make a case for reading on a whim.

Reading by Example

I.

My son Carter is reading Harry Potter at six years old. I’m not saying that to brag (okay, maybe a little), but it’s important to the story. He made his way through the first three books pretty well, but I know that each book in the series is progressively longer and more complex, especially for a six-year-old, and as I expected he started to slow down by The Goblet of Fire. He finished it with an assist from me, reading together each night before bed, and insisted on starting The Order of the Phoenix right away. After a few weeks though, he had stopped reading it on his own and started asking me to read other books with him at night. I asked him about it, and he admitted it was too hard. We still read it together at night but he spends most of his time now doing other six-year-old boy things like building Legos and driving his little sister crazy.

II.

My personal theory of parenting centers around the idea that if you want your kids to behave a certain way, you should lead by example. If you want them to be polite and gracious, let them hear you thanking the waitress and witness you holding the door open for little old ladies. If you want them to read, let them see you with a book in your hand, lost in its pages, and show them how important reading is in your life.

Educators and bookish folks are worried enough about getting boys to read that they have a special name for them: “reluctant readers.” In a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Lipsyte wrote that a big part of the problem in getting boys to read is finding books they can connect with, that speak to their emotions instead of just pandering to their base instincts. “Boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships,” he wrote. “The kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives.” I read this and thought about what happened with Carter and Harry Potter. My theory of leading by example has worked. He clearly enjoys reading, but I’m afraid that by letting him find his own way and pick out a book that was too hard, he’ll be discouraged from reading more. I managed to turn a willing reader into a reluctant one.

III.

Carter spends a week with my parents at the end of each summer, in the gap between the end of camp and the start of school. They live in the Indianapolis area now, so this year we met them halfway at a Chili’s in Lafayette, Indiana to make the exchange. I’ve learned to expect him to be ornery when he’s excited about something big like a holiday or a trip, but this time he was so bad that when we pulled into the parking lot I made my parents wait outside the car while I let him have it. The problem was that we were 100 miles from home and he was about to spend a week with his grandparents. I couldn’t deploy my best weapons like taking away toys or cutting off TV and the computer, so I spluttered like Yosemite Sam in impotent rage.

Disciplining my kids like that always sets off a cycle of guilt and self-doubt. Later in the restaurant, I sat there eating a Flintstone-sized slab of ribs wondering if it had done any good, feeling bad for sending him off for the week on such a bad note. For all its rewards, raising children does a number on your self-confidence. What possible lesson could Carter take away from that outburst in the parking lot of a chain restaurant on a freeway interchange? That he should shout and issue empty threats when he doesn’t get his way?

The problem with my method of parenting by example is that I don’t always set the best example myself. It’s getting harder the older he gets, now that we’re past “share with your friends” and “don’t throw sand.” Things like empathy and patience are difficult to teach when I struggle with them myself. That’s why I want him to read, to experience the inner lives of characters who celebrate and suffer, succeed and fail in their own ways so he can learn from their examples too. Books can teach him how to live when I can’t show the way.

IV.

I started a new job recently, a new career in fact. I took three weeks off between jobs and spent a lot of time with Carter. We had fun together hanging out, playing catch at the park and hitting up the 7-Eleven for daily Slurpees, but he understood that I was excited to get started. The night before my first day at the new job we were reading Harry Potter again. I finished a chapter, put the book down, and unprompted, he said, “Good luck on your first day at work tomorrow.” I don’t know if he learned to thoughtful like that from me, his mother or a book. I’m happy with any of the three.

Turning pages and losing count

I used to keep lists of all the books I’ve read, one for each year. I started in 2003 so it wasn’t really a complete bibliography, but I did try to put together a list of everything I’d read up to that point, including all the Dragonlance and Shannara books I read through high school. I don’t know what the point was other than the sheer compulsion of my borderline OCD, but I had these lists for posterity. Maybe I could show them to my kids someday, or put them on a job application (“Read 35 books in 2008. 20 in 2009, but one of those was Infinite Jest”). I took a lot of satisfaction out of updating my lists, and I even kept them in Evernote so I could add a new title on my phone as soon as I closed the cover.

I think I hit my peak (of my list keeping years, at least) in 2008, then it dropped off precipitously in 2009. The reason I can’t say exactly how many is because I deleted all of my lists this year. They were bothering me. My stats dropped off for obvious reasons: I had gone back to work full time and I had two kids. Of course I wasn’t reading as much, but I felt like a fading slugger who couldn’t catch up to the fastball anymore. I always thought of myself as this voracious reader, and here I was not even getting through a book every two weeks. I take a lot of pride in reading books, and when the raw data showed me it wasn’t as big a part of my life as I thought it was, I didn’t want to see it. Those lists were a reminder of how my life has changed over the past few years, good and bad. If I was reading fewer books because I was working full time, it was also a reminder that work was the IT job that wasn’t my first choice, the career I fell back on when my attempt at changing careers didn’t work out. Pegging my self-esteem to the number of books I read was a bad idea in the first place, but using it to fuel resentment against the demands of life, family, and mortgage payments was even worse.

If you follow me on Twitter you might have seen that I’m starting a new job soon, one that will involve writing and is much closer to what I had in mind when I tried to leave the IT world six years ago. It won’t give me any more time to read though. It’s still a full time job, and if I were still keeping count I doubt the number of books I read the rest of this year or next will increase. Today is my last day at my current job, and I have three weeks off before I start the new one. Of course, I’m going to spend a lot of time reading while I’m temporarily unemployed. I’ve already picked out which book I want to read too, one of the biggest ones on my shelf. I probably won’t even finish it before I start my new job, but it doesn’t matter. I’m going to enjoy myself and not worry what it’s doing to my stats. I think I’ve earned it this time.

Quiet Places

The great project of my life is trying to arrange my time for more reading. Sometimes I think when I decided I wanted to be a writer, it was mostly because that meant it would give me a professional excuse to read all the time. That part didn’t quite work out, but I do still read a lot, pretty much every spare moment I’m not at work or don’t have a kid hanging off a pants leg. I’m always reading something, just not always what I really want to read. That’s the thing about spending a lot of time on the internet. You end up scanning a lot of inconsequential stuff: blog posts, news articles that sucked you in with a catchy headline, four hundred different “takes” on the controversy du jour. I’m probably better off having read all that stuff; obviously it’s important to stay up with the news, and the rest of it builds up a certain cultural awareness you can only assemble over time in bits and bytes that way. But it doesn’t really stick with you either.

Last weekend I purposely stayed off the internet so I could finish the book I was reading, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I was enjoying it immensely, a dark, page-turning mystery about a woman reinvestigating the murder of her family when she was seven, a tragedy which may or may not have been committed by her older brother. I sawed off a good chunk on Saturday while Debbie’s parents had the kids, then on Sunday I actually convinced Carter to postpone our game of Uno until I finished. I didn’t want to finish it because I thought it was good for me or to score a moral victory, but because I really, really wanted to know how it was going to end.

I’m sure if you pressed me I’m sure I could recall a particular news article or blog post that really made an impression on me, but nothing stands out immediately, not like books. But every time I see the cover of that book or read a similar story, I’ll remember something from this weekend, how I wanted to read it to take my mind off my job, or how I propped it up on my lap and read by the nightlight in Sadie’s room while I was waiting for her to go to sleep. I’ll remember who I was when I read it, the same way I can remember reading Flynn’s first book, Sharp Objects on my lunch breaks two summers ago, trying to wrap my head around going back to work full-time. Books make an impression deeper than the story itself. They become part of the experience of being yourself at a certain point in time.

So does this mean I’ve resolved to read more books to close that open loop in my life? I should, but I’m not going to stop reading stuff online, and barring an unforeseen major life change I’m not going to have much more time to read books either. I did just read an article about how the closing chapters of many social science books disappoint because they equivocate and try to wrap things up in a tidy bow, so maybe I shouldn’t try here. I do know that good books make me remember good things. Like a lot of things in my life, I just need to get better at remembering what makes me happy, and accepting the rest of it for what it is.

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano

The Savage Detectives

I finished The Savage Detectives last week as the second of two Bolano books to gear up for the 2666 group read starting on January 25. It’s divided into three parts: the first told as the journal entries of Juan Garcia Madero, an aspiring poet in 1970s Mexico City who tags along with a group of poets who have revived a movement called “visceral realism,” led by two charismatic pot dealers, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. This section ends when Belano, Lima, Garcia Madero, and a prostitute named Lupe disappear north into the Sonora Desert to escape Lupe’s murderous pimp and find the last living visceral realist poet. The long middle section of the book is a series of interviews with people who encounter Belano and Lima after they return and become the Forrest Gumps of the Latin American literary world and beyond over the next 20 years, popping up in Mexico, Spain, France, Israel, and Africa. The third part returns to Garcia Madero’s journals for an account of what happened in Sonora while searching for the lost poet.

This book was a lot of work, not just for the sheer size but the long stretches in the middle section where I had a hard time keeping the various narrators straight or particularly caring about their stories. I was never quite sure what Belano and Lima stood for, other than steadfastly refusing to let anyone else define them. In a way I guess, this uncompromising stance is what led them to such great lengths on their journey to the desert. They stood for being consistent, which come to think of it would serve them well in today’s black/white, for/against culture. Bolano’s writing is sharp and funny, epsecially when describing Garcia Madero’s sexual escapades, and the ending satisfactorily tied up many of the mysteries introduced by the interviews. So I didn’t love The Savage Detectives and I didn’t hate it either, which is probably an accomplishment after 672 pages.