23 April 2006

The Great American Novel

I belong to a small community of literary minded folks. There is nothing really that binds us together except love of reading, love of stories, and the myth of the Great American Novel. For the older members, the myth of the Great American Novel is one of discovery. There's a chance the epic tome will be written in their lifetime and they will get to find it and read it. There's even a chance that someone they know may write the book, and they will get to have great first hand discussions on characters, plot and all those other "literary things" that English majors deeply love. For the younger members of the group, the myth of the Great American Novel is still very much alive - There is a chance, however small, however remote, that we will write the Great American Novel bringing forth a brilliant story on the human condition. It's a slim chance to be sure. Vast economic and cultural armies are amassed against us and even statistics, that great arbiter of truth in the globalized world, tell us we won't succeed.

As a younger member, I have one worry that gnaws at me more than all the rest. How can anyone write the Great American Novel or even any great novel in an age of apathy? I have friends, good people, content to live out their lives in the pursuit of comfort over action, leisure over challenge, TV over justice. Comfort, leisure, and TV do not contribute to literary achievement. Great writing comes from great committment. But in the age of apathy, there is no such thing as great committment. For anyone. We are all walking with our heads down, in the rain, to get home as soon as possible. To barricade ourselves in our mini-american castles, comfortable yet lonely. To pass justice blindly on the street. Or even worse, to let justice pass us by without even a nod of acknowledgement.

15 April 2006

preface par excellence

If, or maybe I should say when, I publish a work of non-fiction, I plan to break the rules a bit. The preface of nearly every "academic" work I've read in college and grad school contains some form of disclaimer. The author goes about thanking everyone who helped in the writing and research of the book and concludes by saying that any faults or errors in the book are attributable exclusively to the author. The disclaimer is a gesture of humility on the one hand, a way of saying that the brilliance of the text was the product of many but the faults the product of one. But on the other it's an empty formality. Empty because it appears in every book without fail & because books of that sort have been read and proofread so often that there should be no errors at all. It's not very encouraging, after all, if someone begins a persuasive argument by saying, "Here's what I think. . . . if I'm wrong it's my own fault." Just think of the legal nightmares if litigators began their cases that way.

Nietzsche makes no such disclaimers. In the preface to On the Genealogy of Morals, he says, "If this book is incomprehensible to anyone and jars on his ears, the fault, it seems to me, is not necessarily mine." How brazen! What an incredibly rebellious act against stagnant conventions. But I guess that epitomizes Nietzsche (rebellion against stagnant conventions being the theme of the book). He goes on to say that readers will have no trouble understanding the book if they've read his previous texts. He elaborates by saying that reading is a lost art and that rumination is necessary. Interestingly, one definition of rumination is "chewing cud." Cows have multiple stomachs and digest their food multiple times. Readers are rarely so thorough. I guess if readers get in the habit of chewing the cud, they will have no problem understanding philosophical treatises. (Of course, contemporary academia makes no such allowances for rumination - there's too many books to read and too little time - once through ought to be enough. Ha.)

Without further ado, the conclusion to the preface of my as-yet-unwritten academic treatise:

Finally, I would like to say that any faults in the following book are quite clearly not mine and only feasible under the following circumstances. First: the unlikely event that the publisher, editor, and multiple proofreaders failed to find the fault, failed to make the necessary correction, and/or failed to alert me. This includes typographical errors in the manuscript and errors of logic and argumentation as well. Ultimately, the fault rests not with me but with the myriad folks who were all paid quite well to see that any problems were discovered and corrected prior to publication. Second: the more likely event that you, dear reader, did not give yourself adequate time to read the book, understand the argument, and make the logical connections necessary for a thorough understanding of the text. I worked hard on this book, and I stand by my work. Perhaps you should find a tutor or reading group that can help you become a better reader. Better yet, reread the book not once, not twice but thrice before you push it away claiming incomprehensibility. (If you're a post-secondary reader then much of the fault lies with your professors who assigned a difficult text without adequate time for explanation. However, the fault is not entirely theirs. You are, after all, the only one truly responsible for your education.) Really reader, all that is required is rumination.

12 April 2006

You know when people talk about what they'd be if they weren't human? Most folks choose some kind of animal. "I want to be a shark 'cause I already know what it's like to live on land, and it'd be cool to see what it's like in the ocean." Or "It would be sweet to be a bird and get to fly all around and float on currents and stuff." I know what I want to be. A tree.

Trees are amazing. Some live for more than 1000 years. Others are connected to each other and create one vast organism through a complex underground network of roots. Some go dormant in the winter, and some stay green all year. In the Redwood Forest, trees are the center of an awesome ecosystem that supports all kinds of life from mold and smaller plants to birds and mammals. The possibilities are endless...and slightly daunting. I guess now I'll have to figure out what kind of tree I'd like to be.

10 April 2006

The problem with zoos

I went to the zoo this weekend with my young niece and nephew. We had a great time. The tiger was particularly exciting for everyone since you could get right up to the glass to see him. Like most people, though, I really felt bad for the tiger. He was restricted, gawked at, and basically had little freedom. Our society only puts humans in a similar spot if they've committed a crime. No human would volunteer to live like the tiger. It would be deplorable. But how does the tiger see it?

I read a wonderful book once called 'The Life of Pi.' Among other things, the author makes the point that animals in the zoo are probably content with their lot. He makes his point by asking the following question about people: What if someday people you encountered everyday came and "liberated" you from your home? took you away from your house and your routine and put you in a completely new environment with no resources and no friends? would you be happy to be "free" or would you freak out completely? His point was that comfort, stability, and some level of happiness come from routine and ties to a place. The same is true, the argument goes, for zoo animals.

Of course we can never know for sure if this is true. Maybe the tiger really does desire freedom, or maybe he's happy living out his life in the zoo environment. My discomfort spoke far more about my own mind than it did about the tiger. Am I really happy going about the same routine in the same place? An uncomfortable question to be sure.

05 April 2006

I finished the introduction to my master's thesis today. Seven pages, 13 footnotes, excessive use of words like "hermeneutic," "discourse," and "neo-liberal economic hegemony." Well, okay, I finished the first draft. It will probably have to be rewritten at least once, but it's a step in the right direction.

Here's my dilemma. I teach a bunch of high school kids, and I doubt any of them could understand what I am saying in my paper. Hell, my mom and dad both have masters degrees, and I doubt they could understand my thesis either. The only ones who will make any sense of it will be the three professors who read and grade it. I'm writing a 50 page paper for an audience of three. Not very productive in the overall scheme of things.

Secret societies are on the wane these days, but I think that world of academia has stepped in nicely. My MA thesis is like the journeyman's test. If I pass then I can study for master status a.k.a. the mysterious and highly coveted PhD. Once I'm a master I can take on apprentices and journeymen of my own. Unfortunately the pay sucks, positions are uber-competitive and consequently hard to find, and I have to write special treatises every year for a minimal audience. And I thought the perks got better the higher you went. Adjunct position, here I come.

04 April 2006

I work in a library. It's pretty amazing. Books are pretty amazing. When the internet was becoming mainstream there was talk about computers replacing books. I even have an ebooks file on my old computer, because someone at Microsoft thought electronic books were the wave of the future. But I don't know anyone who ever read an ebook. In fact we don't even talk about them at the library anymore. I think the ebook concept is dead. Plus it turns out that books became the most heavily traded commodity on the web. That, in case you were wondering, is irony.

Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, believed wholeheartedly in humanism and humankind's innate ability to transcend its own deprivations and moral ineptitude. That was the foundation behind his storytelling. For me, hanging out in a library confirms the Roddenberry-thesis. We really do have the capacity for transcendence.

My favorite time at the library is early in the morning on a rainy day. There's hardly anyone around. The smell of rain mixes with the smell of books. It's peaceful. It's great.

03 April 2006

This is one of my favorite photographs. I remember learning about it in high school. Cartier-Bresson was after the "decisive moment." We, all of us, live in this moment. Even when we don't know it. It is an image of the tragi-comic that Cornel West writes about so eloquently. It is beautiful.

"Behind the Gare St.-Lazare, Paris." 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson