Saturday, August 11, 2012

That bwessed event

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a while, but more pressing personal and work events have intervened. So here it goes; it's a bit long, but believe me, there are lots of other interesting details I'm leaving out in the interest of coherence.

Marriage has been even more of a political issue lately than usual; marriage equality has become the focus of the gay rights movement. In particular, it has been argued by conservatives that marriage between one man and one woman who love each other and produce children is an age-old tradition essential to a stable society. While I’ve always suspected this to be a specious argument, I realized I didn’t really know anything about the history of marriage, so I decided to read Stephanie Coontz’s 2005 book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Reading it reinforced an aspect of history that a fantastic college professor of mine was the first to make me realize: history is not an upward or downward line of progress. It goes in cycles, and what is valued by society depends on that society and how it's organized. The same goes for marriage.

Coontz details how marriage, for much of history, had a lot more to do with economics than legal standing, religion, or morality. People married in medieval Europe to bring together families and resources. "Women's work" like growing food, tending animals, cooking, and making clothes, were valued as economic contributions as long as the barter system was around; when cash became more prevalent, the idea of the separate domestic sphere came about. The idea of each household being its own economic unit, instead of being connected to larger families and communities, is inseparable from capitalism.

Coontz traces marriage through many different societies and iterations, and the last paragraph of her book sums up:

Over the past century, marriage has steadily become more fair, more fulfilling, and more effective at fostering the well-being of both adults and children than ever before in history. It has also become more optional and more fragile. The historical record suggests that these two seemingly contradictory changes are inextricably intertwined.” (p. 301)
To me, this suggests that you can’t have it both ways; you can't insist both that the nuclear, child-producing family is the only acceptable arrangement, and that marriage should be based only on love. Coontz paraphrases a psychiatrist whose voice was a dissenting one in the 1950s, who said that "people were loading too many ‘psychological and symbolic functions’ on the nuclear family, an institution too fragile to bear such weight.” (p. 234) It's my opinion that people should be allowed to come up with whatever households or arrangements work for them. I think you should be able to designate whomever you want to visit you in the hospital, or inherit your property. Right now in the U.S., you literally get a tax credit for being heterosexually married or having a child. Our government exclusively rewards the nuclear family structure, even when a large part of its population is living outside it - and this reward doesn't seem to be motivating anyone to buy in.

Meanwhile, "manufactured nostalgia" (Coontz's phrase) is nothing new - she cites the Roman emperor Augustus, who, to boost the birth rate, ushered in a raft of pro-family government policies, nostalgic for the days when women were more obedient, industrious, and weren't allowed to drink wine. All this contributes to my mixed feelings about marriage equality as a goal for the gay rights movement. As things stand right now, legal marriage is the only door to many rights that I think same-sex couples should have, so I think it is a worthy goal. In the long run, however, I think it shortchanges everyone with more complex situations.

The government and the church weren't always so up in marriage's business. Coontz points out, as did Dan Savage in his book The Commitment, that in twelfth-century Europe, even the Catholic Church operated by a doctrine that "if a couple said, using the present tense, ‘I take thee as my husband’ and ‘I take thee as my wife,' they were married." (p. 107) No witnesses were required, no clergy, no legal documentation. Their personal commitment was what mattered to them and the world. That's the kind of marriage I could believe in.

All quotes from Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking, 2005.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Everybody's reading it

I just read over my last post, and realized this one will be somewhat related. But not as long!

Okay, so I have a friend - let's call him Ben. Ben forwarded me a web page the other day with a writer's snarky comments about adults reading YA books, specifically The Hunger Games and Twilight. This despite the fact that he knew I had just read The Hunger Games trilogy, and despite the fact that he read and liked the Harry Potter books. When we talked about it later, two clarifications of sorts emerged. One: he felt that the first Harry Potter book was written without cynical forethought about franchising or movie deals, and that Twilight and The Hunger Games were. The second, which I could much more get on board with, is that part of what he was reacting to was a societal attitude that everyone, of all ages, should read YA books, and specifically these three series.

I could understand that. There are certain books I haven't read and movies I haven't seen that are generally assumed everyone has - the Stieg Larsson books come to mind, as do Dirty Dancing and Avatar. Some of these, I'll admit, are a contrarian point of pride with me. (Cf. Pretty Woman.) I do find it annoying when people make inside references without prefacing them with "Have you read..." or "Have you seen..." I don't think it should be assumed that everyone likes - or should like - the same things.

What I do bristle at is anyone being judged for what they read. The fact that Ben and I share a profession made me all the more chagrined at our exchanges (though I know he would never inappropriately judge a patron). It's my personal and professional opinion that the best reading diet - like the best information diet - is a varied one. Varied subjects, forms, styles, author backgrounds - no one broadens their horizons much in an echo chamber. But that's just my opinion. If someone's reading tastes are confined solely to superhero graphic novels, Regency romances, flarf poetry, new historicist tomes, or the Great Books series, I don't think they should be judged. Everyone has different tastes - and everyone reads for different reasons. Readers should be celebrating their commonality, not tearing each other down.

*gets down from soapbox*

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Every book its reader

The conventional wisdom about an exercise program goes: if you miss a day or two, don't dwell on it - just start again. Substitute "blog" for "exercise program" and "six months" for "a day or two," and here I am. I cleaned up the blog roll a little, and now I'm just going to jump back in. And let me tell you: this entry is about a lot of really big ideas that greater minds than mine have considered. So, caveat: I know that I'm just a person who likes to read, and read some articles and books, and has opinions. I'm not claiming to be an expert of any kind. Oh, and one more caveat: this is gonna be long.

Okay, caveats gone. Here's the sequence of events that led to what I wanted to write about:

1. I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and loved it.
2. I read about the comments made by writers Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the New York Times Book Review's bias toward white male readers. Some firsthand stuff, some secondhand. My initial reaction, to be honest, was defensive annoyance. (Keep reading; stay with me.)
3. Over a year passed, during which I heard a couple of friends say they hadn't enjoyed Freedom, one of the main reasons cited being the way Jonathan Franzen wrote the female characters in it, particularly Patty.
4. I read this article in the Phoenix about NPR's own lopsided ratio of male-to-female author coverage.
5. I decided that before I made any more judgments about this whole thing, I should read one of Jennifer Weiner's books, so I checked out Good in Bed from the library.
6. After I finished it and I was thinking about this entry, I caught up with an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, an NPR podcast you should be listening to, where they were talking about some of these very issues. Namely, they discussed fiction and the ways it can be enjoyable and difficult, and what constitutes "literary" fiction.

I've been thinking a lot about all this, and let's just get a few, perhaps contradictory statements out of the way first: I enjoyed parts of Good in Bed, but ultimately did not like it very much. I consider myself a feminist. While I love Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and believe in its pragmatic message of "just try harder," I also don't think that's the only piece of the moving-toward-equality puzzle. And (this may be the most revealing of all, but not a surprise to those who know me), yes: I was an English major.

Because I was an English major, and taught by faculty who focused heavily on language, I came out of college thinking that in literature, the style of a novel or story or poem should support the substance. Words should do the double duty of conveying literal meaning, but also characterizing a person, or creating a mood, or pulling a thematic thread throughout the work. I think the best books do that. But even writing that phrase "best books" feels reductive. Maybe great books is a better phrase. Even by saying "great books," I realize I'm making a personal judgment sound like an abstract one. It's still personal. The books I personally love best do this: Mrs. Dalloway. The Poisonwood Bible. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Possession. And yes, The Corrections. (All, with one glaring exception, by female authors.)

I think it was Glen Weldon on the episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour that described Isaac Asimov's prose as "workmanlike." That's how I felt about Good in Bed. When describing a character, Weiner sometimes (not always) gave a list of physical characteristics or clothing that (I felt) were meant to help me visualize the person rather than help to characterize the person. Early in the book, the main character literally looks in the mirror and describes herself. That's all fine; it's just not what I enjoy reading.

I also feel that great books should be, in some way, challenging. Take A Visit from the Goon Squad. Did the chapter told in PowerPoint slides put me off? Yeah. But the rest of the book was so creative and good, and gave me so much to think about, that I accepted it. I guess I can let slide a lot of other things if I feel like either a) the prose is beautiful enough to carry me through, b) I feel like I can trust the author when things get a little screwy, or c) both. Sometimes there are things I might not get; sometimes there are insights a reader might have that the author never thought about. No two people will ever really read the same book.

Also, one of the reasons I read is to learn about, or live for a little while with, ideas or people I didn't know anything about before - to have new experiences. I don't always want to read about people like me, though I have, and that's fine too. I guess I could contrast that with the fact that I don't necessarily want to read a kind of fantasy fulfillment plot, which is how I felt about Good in Bed. I was totally on board with a book about a woman I didn't have too much in common with, until unlikely coincidences and great fortune steered the book into romantic-comedy territory. I am not knocking romantic comedy - I guess I just prefer it in film.

Coming back to the gender question, I didn't feel one way or the other about how either Franzen or Weiner wrote their female characters. I didn't particularly recognize myself or any of the women I know in either Cannie Shapiro or Patty Berglund, but that wasn't central to my enjoyment of either book. (I will say, though, that I wish the daughter Jessica in Freedom had either gotten more attention or been left out entirely.) I don't think that either was a "truer" representation of women. I also know several intelligent people who would probably disagree with me there.

I have no doubt that there is male bias at both NPR and the New York Times Book Review, because there's male bias in every part of our society. Both men and women are guilty of it, and women should demand equal coverage in these outlets. Equal coverage, but honest reviewing. And this is where it gets tricky. Because what gets a good review? Are reviewers privileging male voices by reviewing male authors' books well? Maybe there is some of that going on, but I think the problem is that there's an idea of abstract goodness or badness.

I read book reviews in a professional capacity - I have to decide what to buy for the library. That's why I appreciate review publications like Library Journal, that identify books as "for fans of X author" or "readers of Y type of fiction" rather than ranking them in some kind of literary hierarchy. They're subscribing to two of S.R. Ranganathan's five laws of library science: Every book its reader; Every reader his [or her] book. There are readers who like Good in Bed; I don't happen to be one of them. There are readers who like Freedom; I happen to be one of them. I don't think anyone should be forced to read something they don't enjoy just because some outside person or publication says it's the best book ever.

I'll leave it there. I could go on even longer (!) about several ideas in this post, and I probably will in the future. If you're still reading, thanks for indulging my desire to write about things I think about. That's what I really love. A Room Full of Books: back with a vengeance!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer reading

Even though I'm no longer a student and have the summers off, I do work at an academic institution where the summers are quiet and there's a rush of activity in September. So I still like the concept of tackling a long book, or a book I've been meaning to read for a long time, in the summer. When I was in high school, the books were assigned - Bleak House, In Country, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Later, I took on books that seemed to need the boundaries of summer to push me to finish them: The Brothers Karamazov, Pale Fire, and last summer (as chronicled here) Infinite Jest.

This summer, I read James Gleick's book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. When I bought it, I unabashedly judged it by its cover. Usually, I'm not really interested in books whose titles follow this model - e.g., Cod: The Fish That Changed Everything, or The Tipping Point: Whatever its Subtitle Was. But this book didn't seem gimmicky or patronizing. And in this case, judging the cover was correct. While reading The Information, I was often challenged. I had to stop and read passages multiple times to understand them. And, despite having an advanced degree in a subject that includes the word information, I realized that I didn't expect a lot of what the book was going to cover, especially in the chapters covering the present day. There was a lot more about numbers than I expected, which just shows my bias toward verbal information - not the majority of information around today. Even the words I'm typing will be posted by some process involving a lot of zeroes and ones.

In any case, this is definitely a summer reading book: long, challenging, and probably best broken up with a shorter, lighter work here and there. There were (as usual) a couple of passages that stuck out to me. Two are related to information skills, or verging on information literacy (a documented professional and personal interest of mine). The first is a quotation from Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and computer scientist:

"The computer does not have that capacity [of a friend], and for our purposes that deficiency is an advantage. Instructions given the computer must be complete and explicit, and they must enable it to proceed step by step." (p. 349)

This is what I have a hard time communicating to college students. In their minds, Google understands what they're thinking, and in a lot of cases, it does. But it doesn't occur to them that there are imperfect processes, that don't involve intuition, going on behind that search. Which leads in to the second quotation, from Lewis Mumford:

"Unfortunately, 'information retrieving,' however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one's own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature." (p. 404)

In library stacks, of course, one would call this "browsing."

The last one - and I just now realized that all of these are Gleick quoting someone else - is from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (and points out to me what a huge hole I have in my reading, having never read any of his plays). It's about the burning of the library at Alexandria.

"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language." (p. 379)

I don't know exactly what I think about this idea, but I found it very interesting and moving.

Anyway. I recommend the book - it's full of things I didn't know before - but you may want to wait until you have a long stretch of time to devote to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The specificity and strength of my relation"

This week, I read a book I've been meaning to read for a while: Maggie Nelson's Bluets. I first came across Maggie Nelson's work when I was working at my college library, shelving on the level with the Ns and Ps. Since I was working on my own senior project writing poems, I often pulled volumes straight from "to be shelved" to read, and this was the case with Nelson's book The Latest Winter. I loved reading that book, her later Jane: A Murder, and now this one.

After reading a review of Bluets, I wasn't sure where to look for it at the bookstore - literary nonfiction, poetry, fiction? As it turns out, I had to have it specially ordered anyway, but I guess what I would call the short, numbered pieces in the book are meditations. In fact, that may have been what the reviewer called them, and I'm just plagiarizing. They're meditations on blue: the color, but also the concept, and other, related concepts: depression, heartbreak, drowning, holiness. It's a very moving book. The writing is literate and honest. There is a lot to think about, and I'm still thinking about a lot of it.

Aside from all that, though, the experience of looking for it in the bookstore, and of reading it, underscored a transition (?) I've been going through lately. I've talked to a couple of people recently who asked me, "Are you still writing poems?" And I am, but far fewer than I used to. Often I find myself with thoughts I want to write down, but at a loss for their proper vehicle: they just don't make a good poem, or even part of one. Reading writers like Maggie Nelson and John D'Agata make me wonder if I should just accept this, write, and then shape whatever it is, whether it turns out to be a poem, an essay, or something else. I'm reminded of the retrospective essay I had to write to complete my English major. I wrote about taking a fiction writing class as a freshman, how it made me realize that I wasn't cut out to write fiction - that I cared so much more about individual words and sentences than plot and dialogue, and should probably concentrate on poetry instead. I wonder if this a similar shift is going on now.

Within Bluets, Maggie Nelson comments on what she's writing and how she's writing it:

"...I imagined creating a blue tome, an encyclopedic compendium of blue observations, thoughts, and facts....I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone...." (91)

And (referring to Leonard Cohen's song "Famous Blue Raincoat"):
"...I have always loved its final line - 'Sincerely, L. Cohen' - as it makes me feel less alone in composing almost everything I write as a letter. I would even go so far as to say that I do not know how to compose otherwise, which makes writing in a prism of solitude, as I am here, a somewhat novel and painful experiment." (41)

And finally:
"It does not really bother me that half the adults in the Western world also love blue, or that every dozen years or so someone feels compelled to write a book about it. I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share." (61)

The thoughts I have, the ones I want to write down - about street names in New England and human behavior and adulthood and a bunch of other stuff - I don't know yet which ones I feel confident enough in their and my specificity to share. But I think I'm going to have to stop tying them to one form to find out.

All quotations from Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. New York: Wave Books, 2009.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

So, life has been busy, and it's about to get busier in the next few months. I have some topics in mind to write about later on. This entry is not about books.

Today is Father's Day, a day I don't normally give too much thought, other than wondering where the apostrophe goes (I think it's where I put it). This year, as usual, I bought a card and sent it to my dad. It's mostly a ceremonial gesture, and not doing it would be more trouble than it is to do it.

I don't hate my dad. He's a human being who's made mistakes (like me). Most of his big ones are in the distant past, and I've forgiven them. When I at long last came out to him two years ago, though, he didn't speak to me for six months. It seems to me like we've both decided to keep it cordial, and not to excavate emotions and history and all that. Sometimes people just aren't close to one or both of their parents. I get it.

So I wasn't thinking too much about today - just another silly holiday to sell barbecue aprons or whatever - and to make people who don't have fathers feel bad. But then I turned on the radio yesterday and "This American Life" was airing a Father's Day show (the show will be posted at 7:00 on Sunday evening, here: One of the stories was a remembrance by Michael Ian Black of his father, who died when he was a kid. Near the end of the story, he said something to the effect of: he didn't miss his father any less as time went by; he missed him more. And that got me thinking about the person who, for me, comes closest to what people talk about when they talk about what makes a good dad: my stepfather, Jeff. I know I've probably written a lot about him on this blog; I know I've written a lot of poems about him. He was only in my life for four years, but they were formative years, and I do miss him more now than when he died over ten years ago. He wasn't perfect, and we disagreed on a number of subjects, but we respected each other. He was interested in the things I liked because I liked them. He came to my orchestra concerts and left college brochures in my room with Post-its attached in his terrible handwriting; he thought I should apply to Wellesley and Middlebury.

One of my favorite memories of Jeff is a time we were watching TV and an infomercial for this fancy pen set came on. Fancy pen sets were the kind of thing that got me excited in high school. Fancy pen sets, Indigo Girls, and The Mists of Avalon: that's the kind of teenager I was. Wellesley and Middlebury, indeed. I commented that they looked cool, or something along those lines. He picked up the phone and ordered them right then. I'll be thinking about him today, grateful for his enthusiasm and love.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What librarians do

Lately, I've been reading columns about librarians that trade in bold statements like "reference is dead" or "if libraries don't catch up, they'll be dead" - lots of death language, actually, now that I think about it. I have to catch my own reactions to these, because I don't want to be reactionary in a self-preservation kind of way. But I have this instinct that the recommendation, personalization, and monetization aspects of much online information (which I guess is supposed to replace resource description and reference) doesn't apply to every information need. What librarians have always done is just being called by new words now - curation, for instance. And you can post all the books and images online you want, but without good metadata, search does you no good.

Anyway - if the first paragraph is all my own ranting, this one is about the validation I found in the introduction to All Facts Considered by Kee Malesky. For those of you who don't listen to NPR around the clock (even the credits), she is a reference librarian there. FIRST of all, Malesky refers to librarians as "generalists, people who know a little about a lot of things" (2). She took the words right out of my mouth/blogger profile! Then she gets at one of the fundamental functions of librarianship:

"Knowledge is inherently ambiguous and any system of classification is arbitrary; one could argue that it's absurd even to attempt to sort things into categories. But sort we must because it's in our nature, and because it's necessary to make information manageable. (Managing information is something that all librarians do every day.)" (4)

Leaving aside the huge amount of information that is neither online nor machine-searchable, and leaving aside the access (financial and physical) much of the country, and world, has to broadband or mobile Internet, there has not yet been a substitute invented for helping people adjust their searching keywords or techniques based on a good reference interview. That reference interview can be through e-mail, chat, text, or the brain-chip instant-communication I'm sure will be here soon. When the consequences of finding the right information matters to people (whether it's health information, articles for a research paper, or correct facts for a NPR piece), the way information is organized and having someone to help you is where librarians thrive.

This is a "rah-rah librarians" post. I admit it. I needed to create my own antidote to the gloomy "the Internet always knows exactly what you want" stuff I've been reading lately. (Which doesn't preclude adapting and learning new things...see below!!) And I'll close with it, too. Kee Malesky, take it away:

"I've always believed that being a librarian is a vocation, a calling, and not just a job. What we do matters in the world. Every moment of the day, I must be open to learning something that will help me to be a better librarian." (5)

All quotations from Malesky, Kee. All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.