Making Sense

Michael Perry's Montaigne in Barn Boots.

Michael Perry is just one of those authors I enjoy pretty much no matter what he writes.

My favorite book of his, I think, will always be his first memoir, Population: 485, just because it was such a perfect little jewel of a memoir, it was set in my native Wisconsin, and my Dad really liked it too, so I will always feel fondly of it. Since then Perry has produced multiple memoirs, essay collections, newspaper columns, even YA and adult novels. I always like him because he is trying to support his family as a full-time writer, and in this day of rampant medical and insurance costs, that is not so easy. I enjoy that he doesn't make it LOOK easy. Every time I read his stories about traveling around for literally hundreds of days in a year, giving talks and selling books in person and just generally doing the really hard slog of writing and selling books, I cringe a bit at how hard it can be to make an artistic living. Luckily he grew up on a farm, so he's no stranger to hard work.

MontaigneWhich brings us to his latest offering, titled Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy. Although it still has the flavor of a memoir, this is more a series of essays about his reading of the philosopher/essayist Michel Montaigne, and how Montaigne's writings have added meaning and knowledge to his life. I love essays, and generally I am positive about Montaigne, although I don't really know much about him, so this was a pleasant and fast read. It doesn't really get into the philosophy aspect very deeply, but that's okay with me. I often find that the more philosophy is explained to me the less I understand it.

What I particularly appreciate about Perry is that, while he is not overly detailed or gritty, he is also not afraid to share the personal (and potentially embarrassing) details, which is what I demand in my favorite memoir reads. Here he offers an entire chapter on how Montaigne's health challenges (most notably numerous and horrible kidney stone attacks) informed his writing, or, as another essayist that Perry quotes has it, "Montaigne's kidney stones are his path to humble brilliance through the vulnerability of describing illness" (Perry is quoting a writer named Sonya Huber). I am in overall good health, but I am drawn to writing about the vulnerability of the body, because I've had enough health blips that I totally understand the vulnerability of the body. Here's what Perry writes, about his own vulnerabilities:

"I believe I can match Montaigne mood swing for mood swing, but when it comes to kidney stones, I have a shameful admission.

Montaigne dropped a dump-truck full.

I passed one. Years ago.

And still I pee in fear.

But I'll tell you want Montaigne didn't have: Proctalgia fugax.

And if he did, he wasn't brave enough to write about it, despite all his protestations about utter self-revelation.

Remember a few chapters back I plucked up my courage and perhaps ran off half my readership by invoking masturbation? Well, that was spring geraniums compared to Proctalgia fugax.

Which I have got.

It first struck one night in my early twenties. I'd been asleep for just a short time when I awoke to an indescribable pain that I will describe anyway as amateur proctology performed with a red-hot and poorly grounded curling iron. I mean, we are talking a bullet-sweat, bubble-eyed, liver-quivering, bust-out-the-smelling-salts situation...

It's like you can wait to faint." (pp. 171-172.)

It is Perry's particular genius that he can write about his butt pain and make me simultaneously weep in empathy for him and laugh until I cry. I enjoyed the book, and it gave me the desire to read more about Montaigne (or maybe even read some actual Montaigne). Good stuff all around.

Edward McClelland's How to Speak Midwestern.

So here's what I got read in Edward McClelland's book How to Speak Midwestern:

The intro;

the chapter on North Central (arguably my region, although I might also qualify as Inland North accents;

and the "Wisconsin" portion of the glossary.

I should just have read the whole thing (I still might)--it's only 147 pages long.

Speak midwesternI particularly liked the bits where McClelland explained why Midwesterners often think they "don't have an accent,"* although of course they do. And I really, really enjoyed this bit, about how Midwesterners mostly like to do their criticizing passive-aggressively:

"In the Midwest, you're never certain whether you're being complimented or insulted. Midwesterners don't like to sound critical or hurt anyone's feelings, so we've developed code words that allow us to avoid stating an opinion altogether. The most important words to know are 'interesting' and 'different.' If something has merit, but you don't personally care for it, it's 'interesting.'

'What do you think of the Vikings' new stadium?'

'It's interesting.'

(The story is told of a consultant who presented an idea to a group of Minnesotans, and thought it was going over well because they all said it was interesting.)

'What do you think of the mural under the Wilson Avenue viaduct of three dolphins copulating with the Queen of the Nile?'

'It's pretty different.'" (p. 15.)

I've never thought of myself as a particularly passive-aggressive person, but I think I've used both "interesting" and "different" several times in conversation this past week alone.

I didn't read the whole thing, and I don't know that all of it rang true to me, but it's a good solid effort on an interesting topic. Do check it out sometime.

*I know I have an accent because a few years back my college roommate and I got together after not seeing each other for a few years. She had moved to Virginia and was back for a visit, and when we each got out of our cars and I shouted an exuberant greeting, she tipped her head to the side and smiled at me and said, "Oh, the accent..." I do try to sit on the accent sometimes but when I yell exuberantly it tends to come out.



God, how I do love Jessa Crispin.

I get the distinct feeling that, on many points, I am Jessa Crispin's polar opposite. She is a successful, intellectual author who ran an internationally renowned literary blog, she travels widely, she worked for Planned Parenthood and is vocally pro-choice. I am not successful, not intellectual, I largely stay put, I am living in what most people would term the most traditional and regressive of personal situations (married with children in the suburbs), and I am anti-abortion.

Why i am not a feministBut, I gotta tell you this, and I mean it: I love Jessa Crispin from the bottom of my soul. I just read her new book Why I Am Not a Feminist. It's a great read. Crispin is so smart and such a tidy nonfiction writer that she can showcase her well-read understanding of her subject matter without making you feel like an idiot. That's not easy to do. Rather than name-dropping to scare you with what she knows, or to spin ever more detailed theses, she presents just enough of others' thoughts and works to make YOU want to go read them. (And then she gives you a handy one-page bibliography at the end, no titles, no pub data, just names of authors you should read.) This is also not easy. Her crisp prose, on the other hand, is so easy to read that her chapters are over before you know it. And yet it is filled with such heat that it makes you not want to stop reading chapters until you're all done with the book.

Here's the opening salvo:

"Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women.

They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. Hence the pose. People don't like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo--with minor modifications--in order to recruit large numbers.

In other words, it has to become entirely pointless." (p. x-xi.)

Reviews of this book have been mixed. I'm going to tell you to read it. If nothing else, because I know that Crispin is out there living the life she advocates in her nonfiction. I love her the way I love Stacy Horn: both of these women take their work seriously. It is not making them rich.* It is not making their books Oprah books. They are both just extremely talented and hard-working writers. Horn puts a lot of effort into her fact-checking (and sometimes seems to be the last nonfiction author out there who does) and Crispin doesn't say anything that you want to hear just to make you like her.

So, no: we do not always share the same opinions. But I love her because she seems willing to say some things that no one wants to hear: she particularly makes the point that it does not make a woman a feminist just to become rich and successful in our current system. She makes the further point that a lot of times people who are successful at getting ahead in someone else's system are then very good at turning around and oppressing other people. Which is not really the point. Or shouldn't be. Or, as she says, much more eloquently:

"And trust me: people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity. Because you will remind them of their own deficiencies in these areas.

It's lonely outside the system. But we need you out here." (p. 64.)

I'm always a fan of someone saying something that will not make them rich. Read this book.** Or, if you don't have time, check out this interview. Also? Go buy and read some Stacy Horn books, please. Let's start by making some authors arguably not inside the James-Pattersonesque juggernaut system of publishing a little bit more well-off.

*I am particularly touched that Crispin once noted that one of the few ways to make blogging pay was to be an Amazon associate, and she didn't care much for that.

**Back when I wasn't blogging for a while I also read Crispin's travelogue The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. I'm sorry I never wrote about it here. There was a lot to think about in that book too, and at least one line/thought that will stay with me for a long time.

Jonathan Kozol's The Theft of Memory: Read it.

I am a big Jonathan Kozol fan.

So when I saw he had a new memoir out, titled The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, even if I wasn't particularly up to the subject matters of Alzheimer's, aging, and death, I thought I would read it.

And I was not disappointed. What makes this memoir of a dying parent particularly interesting is that Kozol's father was himself a well-known doctor, known for his "special gift for diagnosing interwoven elements of neurological and psychiatric illnesses in highly complicated and creative people." So, in a unique way, Harry Kozol (Jonathan's father) was able to make notes about and track his own decline. This gives the book an additional heartbreaking dimension.

Kozol also examines the many aspects of caring for aging parents, discussing his parents' changing relationships with him, with each other, their nursing home care, dealing with conflicting doctors' reports and inconsistencies, and his methods for finding in-home workers to help his parents stay in their own home until their deaths.

What I like best about Kozol's writing is that he seems to bring a crispness and attention to detail to memoir and "soft" science subjects like education and sociology that reads more like good scientific writing. (Joan Didion does this well too, I always think.) So yes. I think this was a valuable book to read. I will say that sometimes Kozol goes a bit too far off subject, discussing his father Harry's treatment of his famous patients, who included Eugene O'Neill. But those parts of the book are relatively brief (and actually, I skipped a few pages of the section on O'Neill's struggles), and the rest of the story makes it a worthwhile read. Cheerful, it's not. But a loving and detailed look at the challenges of caring for one's parents, combined with an appreciation for those parents' roles in shaping Kozol's own life? That it is.

Spinster, by Kate Bolick: Interesting, but depressing in the end?

Now, I don't at all mean that Kate Bolick's new book Spinster* is depressing in the end because Bolick currently remains a "spinster." I'll explain in a minute.

Bolick's a writer and journalist (and contributing editor at The Atlantic) who mixes memoir and literary criticism in this book about the experience of forging a life as a single woman. In addition to exploring her own romantic past (which is anything but dull; Bolick is not a "spinster" who dislikes being with anyone), she also explores her relationships (for lack of a better word) with several women writers who she calls her "awakeners": Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Of course not all those women were unmarried. But Bolick does a sound job of looking at how their independence informed their writing, and how their relationships (with everyone; not just their spouses) informed their independence. In fact, although I am a somewhat lazy reader (often preferring the personal, or memoir, accounts, to literary criticism of any kind) I found that her narrative didn't really hit its swing until she focused less on her youth and love affairs and more on her "awakeners" and their writing.

I'm doing a terrible job writing this review. I know it, and as I told Mr. CR the other day, I find it so much harder to write reviews than I used to. Of course this is due partially to the fact that when I started this blog I was married but did not have children. Before we had kids I worked outside of the home, and I have always freelanced, so I am no stranger to having my attention pulled in many directions. But something about trying to keep up with the house, the marriage, the kids, the freelancing, and the reading and having semi-coherent thoughts is really wearing me down lately. And although I love and am so thankful for my life, I can't say there won't always be a part of me that wonders how life would have been if I'd concentrated on enjoying being single, found a nice tiny apartment with hardwood floors, and always stuck with a kitty as my live-in companion.

So I was a bit of a sucker for this book, I'll admit it. I didn't love it, but I found it thoughtful and well-written, and I appreciated reading anyone's take on the subject. I think it would make a good book group title, to be honest with you. Here's how it starts:

"Whom to marry, and when will it happen--these two questions define every woman's existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn't practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn't believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they're answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.

Men have their own problems; this isn't one of them." (pp. 1-2.)

So why did I finish the book depressed? Well, it was a good read. But near the end of the book Bolick posits:

"The question now is something else entirely: Are women people yet? By which I mean: Are we finally ready for a young woman to set out on the long road of her life as a human being who inhabits but isn't limited by her gender?...Until the answer is an undeniable yes, a girl actually can't grow up like a boy, free to consider the long scope of her life as her own distinct self." (p. 293.)

And that's the part that bothers me. Why must being independent always look or sound more like being...a man? I find that depressing.

Also: this is a small complaint, but I don't care for the cover. You? I think it is a photo of the author, and it's actually kind of an arresting cover, but I don't like her looking down and away.

*This has nothing to do with the review, but I really need to start a better book journal or make a note on my reading spreadsheet about how I find books. The problem is that books come out, they get a lot of press, I put them on hold at the library, they come in for me about two months later, and by then I've forgotten where I first heard about them or what I heard. Anyway. That is not really that important. But that definitely happened with this book. I know I read an article about it somewhere that made me want to read it, but I can't remember which article it was.

Brian Grazer's A Curious Mind: Disappointing.

I so badly wanted to like Brian Grazer's book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.

I don't actually know anything about Brian Grazer (beyond the facts that he is a Hollywood movie producer with big hair who runs Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard), but this book got a lot of good press and it's based on a rather engaging idea. Grazer has spent much of his adult life engaged in what he calls "curiosity conversations," whereby he just tries to get some time with interesting and/or famous people, and have a chat. About nothing really in particular.

And I loved the first chapter, when Grazer is explaining his idea, and how he got started in work and with this curiosity habit. Very engaging stuff:

"One Thursday afternoon, the summer after I graduated from the University of Southern California (USC), I was sitting in my apartment in Santa Monica with the windows open, thinking about how to get some work until I started law school at USC in the fall.

Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, 'Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour.'

This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.

The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. 'I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht.'

I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.

I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.--I still remember it, 954-6000.

I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, 'I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open." (p. 2.)

Now that's hilarious. That story is proof that the meek will not inherit the earth, at least not while we're on the earth. I enjoyed the story even more as Grazer talks about how he parlayed it into meeting famous people; the largest part of the job was basically ferrying legal paperwork around, so when he had to deliver papers to people he wanted to meet, like Warren Beatty, he just told their assistants that he had to hand the legal papers to them personally. I just laughed and laughed at the sheer clever ballsiness of this guy. So I was more than ready to continue on the curiosity journey with him.

How disappointing, then, that the rest of the book, ostensibly focusing on the conversations Grazer has had with people over the years*, read more like a business book treatise (and not a particularly compellingly written treatise at that) on the merits of having curiosity. I skimmed through most of the book, but mainly I ended up feeling like the victim of a massive bait-and-switch: Grazer would tease with the name/s of people he spoke with, but he never really shared any concrete details of their conversations. Instead he veers off into a lot of this sort of thing:

"Unlike creativity and innovation, though, curiosity is by its nature more accessible, more democratic, easier to see, and also easier to do." (p. 61.)

Blah blah blah, whatever. Yeah, curiosity is great. I get it. It's not a complicated concept. Now would you just tell me what you and Rufus Wainwright TALKED ABOUT??**

*And he's talked to a LOT of interesting people; he lists his conversational partners at the end of the book, and they include (but are not limited to): Muhammad Ali, Isaac Asimov, Tyra Banks, Jeff Bezos, Vincent Bugliosi, Jim Cramer, Mario Cuomo, David Hockney, Chris Isaak, Wolfgang Puck...

**When I saw Rufus Wainwright on his list of people, I got super excited (because I read the list before reading the book), thinking I would get to hear about his conversation with Wainwright. (Oh, Rufus.) Alas, I found that the book contains only the briefest of anecdotes about his discussions with just a very select few of his interviewees.

I do not understand the appeal of David Shields at all.

Over the last few years a nonfiction author's name I have seen a lot is "David Shields." When I come across his name or his titles, which often appear on many end-of-year "Best" lists, they always sound vaguely interesting. Like his book The Thing about Life Is that One Day You'll Be Dead. Intriguing, right? Also: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Even more intriguing, sometimes, is the jacket copy on these books. Here's how Reality Hunger is described:

"With this landmark book, David Shields fast-forwards the discussion of the central artistic issues of our time. Who owns ideas? How clear is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes obsolete? Exploring these and related questions, Shields orchestrates a chorus of voices, past and present, to reframe debates about the veracity of memoir and the relevance of the novel. He argues that our culture is obsessed with “reality,” precisely because we experience hardly any, and urgently calls for new forms that embody and convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience."

If you overlook that "landmark book" stuff, what you have there is a book that it seems like I would be interested in reading. So I checked it out, and then I tried for weeks to get past the first few pages. I couldn't do it. Same problem with another of his titles, How Literature Saved My Life. (Yet another title you'd think I would eat up with a spoon.) But I persist in trying to understand this author's appeal, or even, just being able to finish one of his books.

Well, the good news is that I did make it all the way through his new book, I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The bad news is, I still don't understand why this guy is a bestselling nonfiction author. Perhaps the quickest way to show you how I felt about this book would be to suggest some alternate titles for it that occurred to me while I was reading it:

"Two D-Bags Have the World's Most Boring Conversation"*

"Two Guys Find Yet Another Way to Avoid Housework and Family Obligations While They Take a Four-Day Vacation Together"

"We'll Bill This As an Art Vs. Life Conversation, But Really What We Have Here Is Four Days' Worth of Not Very Interesting Male Digressions"

"People Will Obviously Buy Anything with David Shields's Name On It, So Here You Go"

So what is it about? Literally, author David Shields and his former writing student Caleb Powell, one a bestselling author in his fifties, and the other a house-husband and father of three in his forties, take four days to hang out in a friend's cabin together and discuss "everything they can think of in the name of exploring and debating their central question (life and/or art?)." I really did read the whole thing, because at some point I expected them to actually get at something remotely resembling a debate about "life and/or art," but honestly, they never did. They discussed:

Their teacher/student dynamic; their wives and whether or not said wives read and like their work; the "x-factor" each of them need to enjoy stories or TV programs; sports; Powell's interest in violence and true crime and the nature of suffering; at one point they actually include a several-page transcript of the movie "My Dinner with Andre"; Caleb's experience with a transvestite in Samoa and his desire to explore that experience in fiction; a wide variety of authors (although they manage to take all the fun out of that, even, with David saying things like "It's crucial to me that these books rotate outward toward a metaphor"); how many kids they each have; capitalism; their mothers; Caleb's drinking; and then back to their teacher/student dynamic. So, okay, the conversation is wide-ranging. But nowhere does it actually take on the flesh-and-blood feel to me of a real conversation. It certainly didn't answer (or really even raise, in my opinion) the question of "art vs. life."**

A long time ago I went to a church service with my mother-in-law when their regular pastor was on vacation, and they had this little eighteen-year-old boy who was a counselor at the religious summer camp down the road in to give the homily. I don't remember what he talked about, but I do remember it was borderline annoying and I mainly wanted to pat the clueless little dear on the head, and tell him to get down from the podium so my mother-in-law, a woman then in her late fifties, could get up there and tell us a few things about how life actually is. This book gave me that exact same feeling. I think all of us should get four-day vacations wherein we just chew the fat with someone and then publish the results. I'm pretty sure 90% of those efforts would be accidentally more interesting than this one.***

And please note: this book has been adapted into a film by James Franco. God help us.

*I am aware that this is not very nice. I apologize. I can be nice, or I can be honest about how this book made me feel, but I can't be both.

**Other reviewers would disagree with me.

***Except not this book. Evidently two guys talking and annoying the crap out of me is a new mini-genre of nonfiction.

A little trick for "book discoverability."

All the news in bookselling and librarianship the last few years has been about "book discoverability." Not a real complicated concept; basically, how do readers discover books?

Publishers are interested in this topic because, even though they are business people, the business of books is such that you can never be sure which book is going to be the next one to explode. So they want to know how to help people discover books that they want to buy. And of course librarians want to understand the topic for a related, but less mercenary, reason: they want to help people discover books they enjoy, often based on conversations with them about books they enjoyed in the past (and why they enjoyed them). That's what we call "readers' advisory." And of course readers have a vested interest in book discoverability, because all they want to do is constantly discover books that they will love, with no stinkers in the bunch to slow them down.

I love thinking about book discoverability because I can't for the life of me figure out how to stop discovering great books. Right now there are--wait, I'll go check--97 items checked out on my library card. A lot of those are books for the CRjrs, but the vast majority are books for me. They're not all the best books, or books that I'll love, but they're all books that I really want to read, and if I would ever get time to actually read them, would probably enjoy.

But today I'd like to talk about my favorite "trick" for discovering great books, and it is simply this: get to know interesting, smart, kind people...and then ask them what they're reading.

A few weeks ago I went to a birthday gathering for a former colleague. I don't get to see him often, but when I do it's always, always, an enjoyable and educational good time. When I asked him, right before we left (I should have asked earlier; I'm always a bit dithery these days, trying to make sure two young boys are properly dressed for the outside, we have all our toys and supplies, and, oh yes, trying to keep said young boys, who are both very antsy and very fast, in my immediate vicinity until we can make our exit), what he was reading, he told me about a book titled Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.*

So I got it from the library, and it's WONDERFUL. Exactly what the title promises. And it's a thoroughly satisfying book as BOOK--somewhat oversized, but not uncomfortable to hold; heavy, but not too heavy; and it comes with its own ribbon bookmark. It's not actually that text heavy; it's a big book because the letters are often shown in their original form, along with transcripts for easier reading. And they do indeed vary widely: from Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower, including her recipe for drop scones; from a Campbell Soup company executive to Andy Warhol; from a former slave to his previous owner (which is, you've got to read it to believe it, hilarious in the best possible way); Ray Bradbury to a fan; an otherwise un-famous older woman who describes her mastectomy surgery (done in 1855, mind you, without anaesthetic) to her daughter.

A wonderful read; completely engrossing. So a hearty thank you to my friend, for recommending it. Now: get out there this weekend and talk to some good people, and for the love of all that's holy, remember to ask them what they're reading.

*And yes, I think he actually quoted the entire subtitle from memory, so you can see why I love him.

Depressing nonfiction: Robert Putnam's Our Kids

Mr. CR was right, I've been reading a lot of depressing nonfiction books.

One of them was Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I checked this book out because of its author: Putnam is best known for his 2000 title Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That book, although I read it so long ago that I can barely remember it, spawned a particularly nerdy reading habit of mine, when reading any kind of investigative, historical, economic, or sociological work of nonfiction. I almost always play "Find Putnam"--or, more specifically, look through a book's text, notes, references, and index for references to Bowling Alone. And you'd be surprised how often you find it; it surely has to be one of the most quoted books of the late twentieth century (which is why I started noticing it and playing the game).

So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd try it, although with a title like that you know it certainly isn't going to be a happy read. Putnam explores what he calls the growing "opportunity gap," by which kids from different economic classes face a lifetime of different opportunities in their families, education, community, and personal economic lives. To do this, he relies not only on a ton of research (the notes section in this book is 83 pages long), but primarily on qualitative research and the personal stories (garnered through many personal interviews) that he uses to tell his story. Such as:

"David was a scrawny 18-year-old in jeans and a baseball cap when we first encountered him in a Port Clinton park in 2012. His father had dropped out of high school and tried in vain to make a living as a truck driver, like his own father, but as an adult has been employed only episodically, in odd jobs like landscaping. David apologizes for not being able to tell us more about his father. 'He's in prison,' he explains, 'and I can't ask him.' David's parents separated when David was very little, and his mother moved out, so he can't tell us much about her, either, except to say that she lives in the Port Clinton area. 'All her boyfriends have been nuts,' he says. 'I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there.'" (p. 27.)

I can't really say that anything I read in this book was a surprise. There's an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that there is increasingly a class-based (perhaps even more than race-based) divergence in not only current living conditions between poor kids and rich kids, but a divergence in future social, educational, and economic mobility. This is particularly disheartening in a country largely built on the principle that if you simply work hard, you can succeed.

The two most disturbing parts of the book (to me) were the paragraph that said "high[test]-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely (29 percent) to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids (30 percent)." (p. 190.) That's gross. And this paragraph, in the last section explaining the authors' research methods: "Just the simple act of scheduling an interview with working-class respondents--who lacked reliable transportation, money for gas, stable work hours, and child care--showed us how hard it is to plan for the future amid constant insecurity and uncertainty." (p. 270.)

It was a thought-provoking book (although I don't think it will have the reach that Bowling Alone did), and I was glad that the author concluded with a "What Is to Be Done?" chapter in which he tried to make a few suggestions. But it was sad, and I worry that of course it will only be read by people who already agree with its premise. But there you have it.

The undeniable charms of Anne Lamott.

I think Anne Lamott is an interesting writer.

I say this in part because even when I don't think I'm going to read a book of hers, I often end up reading it anyway. I forget why I brought her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair home, but I know it wasn't for this jacket copy: "We begin, Lamott says, by collectig the ripped shreds of our emotional and spiritual fabric and sewing them back together, one stitch at a time." (I hate sewing, and I hate sewing metaphors.)

I only looked at the book when it was time to take it back to the library, and then I got started reading it. In it, Lamott attempts to answer these questions: "Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering?"

And I must say, although I think there are no answers (no satisfactory answers, anyway) to those questions, I can't help but be charmed by Lamott's writing. This is how she describes the process by which people start wondering, a little more deeply, about the meaning of their lives:

"You're thinking about this for the first time when maybe it's a little late. Your life is two-thirds over, or you're still relatively young, but your girl went from being two years old to being eleven in what felt like eighteen months, and then in what felt like eight weeks to fifteen, where she has been now, sharply dressed as a bitter young stripper, for as long as you can fricking remember.

Oh, honey, buckle up. It gets worse." (p. 5.)

I was also charmed by her chapter on "the overly sensitive child," and how she was considered one, and how people were always telling her to get a thicker skin:

""As far as I can recall, none of the adults in my life ever once remembered to say, 'Some people have a thick skin and you don't. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you're not going to feel that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on." (p. 28.)

I'll say this for Lamott: she does not give me the heebie jeebies, the way most spirituality/religious writers do. I think it's because she has a sense of humor. At any rate, this book's only about 100 pages long. I'm doing a horrible job of describing it but it wouldn't take you a lot of time to investigate this title for yourself.

What we look like to the other side.

I had such high hopes for Terry Eagleton's Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America.

In the past I have of course enjoyed books discussing British characteristics, like Sarah Lyall's The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British and A. A. Gill's The Angry Island: Hunting the English. So when I heard about this title, I thought, hey, this'll be fun. And since I don't really think of my identity being much tied to being "American," I also didn't think Eagleton's cultural critique would affect me very deeply.

Well, I was right in that it didn't really affect me very deeply. But I also didn't find it much fun. Eagleton, a "public intellectual" (and author of literary criticism books: this should have been a clue), was born in England, but lives in Ireland with his wife and family. In this title, he takes a "quirky journey through the language, geography, and national character of the United States" (thank you, jacket copy). His chapter headings include the following: "America the Beautiful," "The Affirmative Spirit," "The One and the Many," and "The Fine and the Good." Sound vague? Well, they are, rather. One of the problems I'm having writing about this book is that I can barely remember, a week after I read it, its organizing principle or really what each chapter was about. I think that was one of the failings of this title: in its sameness and its dry-ish, rather academic style, it never offered any sort of narrative build-up to a larger or more cohesive point. When a book that is less than 200 pages long feels like a slog, you know you have a problem.

I did not really enjoy the book as a whole, but that does not mean I didn't enjoy some of its constituent parts. I stuck a great many bookmarks in it, for passages like the following:

"Because of the all-powerful will, Americans are great believes in the fraudulent doctrine that you can do anything you want if you try hard enough. In no other country on earth does one hear this consoling lie chanted so often...One wonders why the nation does not put its mind to abolishing poverty, if all of its mental strivings are guaranteed to succeed. The United States has a larger proportion of its population in prison, higher levels of mental illness, greater rates of teen pregnancy, a lower level of child well-beig, and higher levels of poverty and social exclusion than most other developed nations. Perhaps this is because its people have not been exercising their wills in concert." (p. 96.)

Kinda bitchy? Sure. Pretty funny? Yes. Fairy accurate? I'd say so. And, often, even when Eagleton offers a small compliment, he makes sure it still arrives with a small barb:

"Generally speaking, American students are a delight to teach. Yet they are not always able to voice a coherent English sentence, even at graduate level." (p. 33.)

About the most damning thing I can say about a book is that blogging about it is just totally boring. It hurts me to say that about this book, because it wasn't really that bad, but I have been struggling with boredom writing this post. And I have a sneaking suspicion you've probably been a little bored reading it. As they would say in Great Britain: sorry* about that.

*Eagleton explains: "One knows one is back in the United Kingdom when everyone is constantly saying "sorry" for no reason whatsoever." (p. 17.)

Still not sure how I feel about Christopher Hitchens.

by Christopher Hitchens

I forget exactly what prompted me, recently, to request Christopher Hitchens's last book, Mortality, from the library, and it rather surprised me when it showed up for me on hold. I must have read about it again somewhere but can't remember where; and since I am clearly in the mood for downer books this summer, it seemed just as good a time to read it as any.

Hitchens is perhaps best known as a journalist and author who became quite vocal on the subject of his own atheism (one of his more recent bestsellers was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). He was also an essayist, memoirist (his memoir Hitch-22; was also a big bestseller) and frequent public speaker and debater. I forget exactly why I used to like him; I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that he's British and he was quite outspoken (I actually own his book The Missionary Position, in which he famously lambasted Mother Teresa for not being the saint everyone thought she was, because I know I think Mother Teresa was a saint, and I was just interested to see what he had to say on the subject). At some point, though, he became a big backer of George W. Bush's Iraq War, which I never quite understood (and couldn't really forgive) in light of his history of declared left/liberal viewpoints.

But all of that is beside the point here. In 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and a little under eighteen months later, he succumbed to the disease. This slim book is the collection of magazine essays he wrote as he, in his own words, spent his remaining time "living dyingly."

The essays are quite beautifully written--Hitchens was never a slouch when it came to arranging words--but I didn't find that this book packed quite the profound punch I expected it to. I certainly wasn't looking for end-of-life or afterlife revelations, due to Hitchens's atheist beliefs (which don't bother me at all, compared to his pro-war sentiments). But I was just looking for something...more. I'm explaining it badly but I've been working on this paragraph for a while, and am starting to think I just won't be able to describe the feeling.*

One chapter/essay I did think packed the old Hitchens punch was the one on the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I have always believed that's bullshit, personally (when life knocks me down, as I once told my Dad, wouldn't it just be smarter for me to stay down and not get knocked around anymore?) and I think Hitchens was inclined to agree with me (in his descriptions of how hard it eventually became just to have routine injections or have blood taken):

"When the technician would offer to stop, I would urge her to go on and assure her that I sympathized. I would relate the number of attempts made on previous occasions, in order to spur greater efforts. My self-image was that of the plucky English immigrant, rising above the agony of a little needle-stick. Whatever didn't kill me, I averred, would make me stronger...I think this began to pall on the day that I had asked to 'keep going' through eleven sessions, and was secretly hoping for the chance to give up and go to sleep. Then suddenly the worried face of the expert cleared all at once as he exclaimed, 'Well, twelve times is the charm,' and the life-giving thread began to unspool in the syringe. From this time on, it seemed absurd to affect the idea that this bluffing on my part was making me stronger, or making other people perform more strongly or cheerfully either." (p. 75.)

That's the old Hitch.** I am sorry he had to feel that way; perhaps some people actually do make it all the way to the ends of their lives believing whatever adversity they've faced has made them stronger. Afterlife or no afterlife, I hope he's resting in peace (or peaceful nothingness, whatever he would have preferred).

*I can say this: I do think Miles Kington's "end of life memoir," How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings, was a better read.

**And oh, I almost forgot: he takes a pretty big swing at Randy Pausch's horrible bestselling book, The Last Lecture ("It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it."). Good on you, Hitchens.

Downer Book Week: Astonished

I thought I'd end this very special Downer Book Week with a book that, in a surprise twist, really wasn't all that much of a downer. It certainly seemed like it was going to be, though, in the beginning:

"Even though I do know the important question is not why this happened to me but what I'm going to do now; and even though I was fifty-five and the attacker was a serial rapist in a small town, raping gringo women between fifty and sixty; and even though I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round-faced pervert with a big-billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I'd survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death--and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ's sake."

I have always been weirdly fond of Beverly Donofrio. It has been so long since I read Riding in Cars with Boys that it's probably just time for me to read it again, but I do remember enjoying Looking for Mary: Or, the Blessed Mother and Me. The thing about Ms. Donofrio is, I would bet that she and I are just opposite personalities. This woman doesn't seem afraid of anything, and I'm afraid of a ton. Likewise, she has made some other personal choices (as described in her memoirs, of course, I don't really know her) that I most likely wouldn't have made. And yet I really enjoy her, and her writing voice.

In this book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, she makes pilgrimages of sorts to various monasteries and religious/spiritual communities, looking for a plan for spending the rest of her life, and of course, trying to come to terms with, or simply move on from, the rape, thoughts and mention of which are never far from the story. So it can certainly be a downer book in that sense. And it's a bit meandering--there is not so much a narrative here as a stream-of-consciousness report; reading it is like hearing someone talking to themselves and trying to work something out (and in between that Donofrio intersperses quotes from other spiritual writers and books).

I'm describing it poorly*, but I would like to say that by the end of it I was really quite touched. That sounds twee, which I did not feel at all. Rather I felt even more affection for Donofrio (who seems spiritual, and thoughtful, but not really sentimental), and wonder at the human race in general. It was not a downer feeling at all.

*Read this review for a better synopsis.

Back to the Library: April 2013

Well, here's two more books I had to take back to the library yesterday, unread:

Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin Bergen

Here's a bit from its PR blurb: "In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning...Meaning is more than just knowing definitions of words, as others have previously argued. In understanding language, our brains engage in a creative process of constructing rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, feel, and act."*

And here's a review: Kirkus Reviews


Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson

Johnson is the author of several of those types of nonfiction books I call "Making Sense" or "Big Think" books--like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I don't know why I keep checking Johnson's books out; he completely annoys me in that "the future is gonna be GREAT!" way that all Wired magazine authors do. (I mean, I hope the future will be great too, but I don't know that it's going to be great, and let's face it, "great" means different things to different people. Walking around attached to a smartphone at all moments of your life, for instance, doesn't really sound "great" to me. But that's just me.)

But, here's a bit from its promotional copy: "At a time when the conventional wisdom holds that the political system is hopelessly gridlocked with old ideas, Future Perfect makes the timely and inspiring case that progress is still possible, and that innovative strategies are on the rise. This is a hopeful, affirmative outlook for the future, from one of the most brilliant and inspiring visionaries of contemporary culture."

And here's a review: Wall Street Journal**

Now, on to other stuff I can maybe actually get read before it comes due at the library.

*It was way optimistic of me to think I was going to make it through a denser book like this just now. I just don't have the concentration, sadly.

**Frankly? I read the first ten pages of the Johnson and was bored to tears. Even when the book was the only thing in my bathroom I still didn't feel like reading it. And the same thing happened to me reading this review, which probably means I should find a different review to post. But linking to a review I couldn't finish of a book I couldn't finish seemed too right not to do.

Duel of the douchebags.

I am aware that is not a really classy way to title this post. I thought long and hard about not using it, but it's really the way this book made me feel, so there you have it.*

The Lifespan of a Fact
by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal

The book in question is one of 2012's nonfiction titles that I was most looking forward to checking out. (The fact that the book was published in February 2012 and I'm just getting around to it now, in January 2013, should indicate that I'm a bit behind in my nonfiction reading productivity.) It's titled The Lifespan of a Fact, and it's co-written by author John D'Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal.

Let's see if I can nutshell it for you. The book purports to be the seven-year conversation between D'Agata and Fingal about an essay D'Agata wrote and that Fingal was assigned to fact-check. The article in question was about a Las Vegas teen's suicide, and had originally been commissioned by Harper's magazine, but that publication rejected it based on its factual "inaccuracies." It was then picked up by The Believer, which is where it was assigned to Fingal. In practice, the book looks like this: there is a small paragraph in the middle of each page, that is the actual essay, and then there is smaller type around it, which is the conversation back and forth between D'Agata and Fingal about each "fact" Fingal checked and D'Agata's response to his checking.

When I first heard about it, I thought it could be an interesting case study about the use of facts in nonfiction, and I've always been really curious about the way fact-checkers work.** But I was annoyed by this book and its authors from very nearly the first page. There we have the first sentence of the article: "On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas..." and the discussion between the authors about how D'Agata arrived at the number of "thirty-four." Fingal queried it because another article that D'Agata provided as a source for that number stated there were thirty-one strip clubs, to which D'Agata replied that he got thirty-four by counting the number of strip clubs in the Vegas phone book during the time when he was researching the article. So of course Fingal asked why he didn't just use thirty-one, if thirty-four could no longer be verified, and D'Agata answered: "Well, I guess that's because the rhythm of 'thirty-four' works better in that sentence than the rhythm of 'thirty-one,' so I changed it." (p. 16.)

Okay, I don't know about you, but when I hear bullshit reasoning like that about the use of facts in nonfiction, I stop reading. Make no mistake: I'm really not that concerned about whether there were 34 or 31 strip clubs in Vegas on that particular day. If you can state a source and stick with it, like the phone book counting, actually, I'm no absolute stickler. That's close enough for me. But to say you went with 34 because it "worked better in the sentence"? Lame.

This happens later in the essay too, when there is some discussion about whether it took Levi Presley eight seconds or nine seconds to fall to his death. In the Coroner's Report, as Fingal points out, it took eight seconds, to which D'Agata replies, about his use of "nine seconds"--"Yeah, I fudged that. It doesn't seem like it should be that big a deal, though. It's only a second. And I needed him to fall for nine seconds rather than eight in order to help make some of the later themes in the essay work." (p. 19.)

Really, D'Agata? You needed the kid's fall to be nine seconds, rather than eight? That seems like such an interesting thing to need, in light of the subject of the story.

So yeah. Four pages in and I was pretty much done reading. And it should be noted that the douchebaggery is not all on D'Agata's side; at one point Fingal starts questioning his description of the "base of the tower," and it's pretty nitpicky.

I'm not going to finish it. I did read a very good article about it, over at The Millions, that I would highly recommend you read if you're still curious about this one at all. At one point in that article, the author Mark O'Connell points out that the conversation in the book are themselves "heavily fictionalized version of the emails that were actually sent during the fact-checking process." What?

I guess I'm left wondering, does it have to be this hard? Do conversations about facts and truth and what makes nonfiction "art" have to be this boring and pedantic? Let's be clear on one thing: (as I tell my mother whenever she wants to talk politics with me) I don't have any answers. But I do have some suggestions: Nonfiction authors, do what you can to have some allegiance to the facts. Be ready to cite your sources, but trust that your readers are smart enough to know that not even the official sources are always completely truthful or accurate. Write better sentences, so they don't depend on you randomly picking facts to make them "flow better." And, for the love of all that's holy, if you don't want to be held to a journalistic standard, don't write pieces that read like reportage. Write a novel inspired by tragic true events instead--just ask Jodi Picoult, that's more lucrative anyway.

Okay, I'm done.

Well, not quite. It should be noted that royalties from the book "will be donated to a scholarship established in Levi's name at Pino and Bantam ATA Black Belt Academy in Las Vegas." (At least that's what it says in the back of the book. Has anyone fact-checked that?)

*Also whenever I think of the word "douchebag" I think of the classic SNL skit about it, and laugh.

**I know. Could I be any nerdier? Probably not.

Ascent of the A-Word.

Who isn't intrigued by that title?*

I only read about half of Geoffrey Nunberg's Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, but that was mainly because it wasn't quite what I was expecting. It's interesting; it's basically a look at the linguistic and cultural history of the word "asshole" and its related concept, assholism.** I was amused for a while, but then couldn't stick with it. At least it's better than Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, but still, only good if you're looking for an (at times dry) cultural history. Some particular assholes are mentioned, but not enough to keep me interested. I can give you a flavor of the text:

"Obtuseness is the true measure of the asshole. We calibrate how much of a prick or bastard or fucker someone is by the amount of harm he's willing to inflict. But we reckon the degree of someone's assholeness not by the actual hurtfulness of his behavior but by the breadth of his self-delusion, the discrepancy between his perceptions and the reality before his eyes, the energy of his denials and rationalizations. The greater the gulf, the more of an asshole he is." (p. 152.)

Does that intrigue you? Then you might like this book. (Or you could try Aaron James's Assholes: A Theory--looks like we have a new mini-genre starting!***)

*At least I was. But I am a big believer in swearing. I think it's one of the few perks of adulthood. Unfortunately, since CRjr repeated his first swear word the other day (the big one, after me, of course), I'm going to have to start to watch it. Or, CRjr could just learn what he should and shouldn't repeat!

**Mr. CR pointed out that our go-to pejorative terms around here tend to be "tool" or "dick," so perhaps that's another reason I wasn't drawn into this one.

***Or even Robert Sutton's older The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, which I read and enjoyed when it first came out.

Why does the world exist?

It's depressing, but today all I have to offer is yet another post about a nonfiction book I couldn't finish (and barely got started). Sometimes it seems like I'm not finishing a lot more nonfiction books than I'm finishing, but that does happen quite a bit. The book I couldn't get into last week was Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

It's supposed to be a really good book, and it's gotten a lot of great reviews*, but frankly, like most big philosophical questions, Why Does the World Exist? is not something I care all that much about. And to me, that makes this book somewhat of a tough slog. This is the prologue, in its entirety:

"Prologue: A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives.

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED." p. 1.

Christ, who actually has the time for stuff like that? If there's nothing, would there be words to be all cutesy with, like in that paragraph? I think not. So, although I'm sure it will show up on many "Best of..." book lists for 2012, I'm probably not ever going to read it. QED that.

*Even this review in the Christian Science Monitor is mostly over my head, but I still enjoyed it, particularly where its author discusses how one of the ideas that seems to bother Holt (the universe existing simply as a "brute fact") doesn't really bother the reviewer all that much.

I'm done trying Marilynne Robinson.

WhenI just don't care for Marilynne Robinson.

And it hurts me to say that, because many readers whose judgment I trust have told me that her novels (among them, Housekeeping and Gilead) are some of their favorite books of all time.* I've tried both those novels, and they were so boring to me that I simply could not finish them. Were they religious too? I seem to remember that they struck me as smarmily religious. But perhaps I just did not give them a fair trial.

So when a collection of her essays, titled When I Was a Child I Read Books, came out this spring, I thought, hey, I'll give her a try in nonfiction form. And that's a title you just have to love, right?

I took this book along on a car ride to visit my in-laws, and it couldn't even hold my interest halfway there. And trust me, the drive from my house to the in-laws is nothing but southern Wisconsin boringness in large highway form. Particularly in March.

The first thing readers should note is that this is a book of essays, and although many of them are about learning and imagination and reading, none of them are what I would call really ABOUT reading. (Making this a misleadingly titled book, in my opinion, designed to sell to people who love reading, and therefore still buy books.) The other essays include paragraphs like this, on why we need fiction:

"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself--forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true." (p. 7.)

I'm not calling that bad writing. I suspect it is actually very good writing. But I'd have to read it a few more times to try and work out what she's really saying (I just typed it and I still got lost somewhere in the middle, like when I read tax form instruction booklets), and at the end of the day, I just don't care enough to put that kind of work into her essays. I need my essays a little more dumbed down, evidently.

Other reviews: New York Times, Shelf Love

*She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Ideas

The next category to consider on the old Time 100 Best Nonfiction list is something they call "Ideas." The books are as follows:

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom
The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama
Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson
The Nature and Destiny of Man, by Reinhold Niebuhr
Orientalism, by Edward Said
Syntactic Structures, by Noam Chomsky
A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls
Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Now here's a list that really put me to shame: I've read a total of two of them, and I didn't really understand those. And again I'm a bit stymied by the category: it seems almost like philosophy, but the Bloom title seems more like cultural criticism or current affairs, while Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems like kind of a lightweight compared to the rest. Maybe I'm wrong on that, but I don't really know what the Time editors were shooting for here. And I out-and-out laughed at the idea of making it through the Chomsky and the Niebuhr: not likely in this lifetime (for me, anyway). Although I should read the Joseph Campbell and McLuhan titles; I've always wanted to.

So again I'm forced to cobble a few choices into a category I don't understand. I'm not a huge philosophy reader, and if I'm looking for Ideas books I tend to go to a category that I think of as "Making Sense..." (As in, Making Sense...of ourselves; Making Sense...of each other; Making Sense...of our culture, etc.) Others have sometimes labeled these books Big Think, or Bright Ideas, or many other names. I suppose we could all be honest and call them "NF Books That Don't Really Fit Anywhere Else," but that wouldn't be as catchy. Another thing I find interesting about this category is that many of these types of books are emphatically NOT narrative...but people read them recreationally (or not really based on subject) anyway. But that's a different fight for a different day: "Why I hate the term narrative nonfiction" (and the tangential argument "Why I hate the term sure bet"). For now? My Ideas list:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. Of course it's become totally cliche now, to read a Malcolm Gladwell title, but you really should read this one anyway. It's an interesting read, about how sometimes an attention to detail can have a larger effect on the big picture than you might think, and it's an important title to know, because like Roger Putnam's Bowling Alone, it's been cited ad nauseum in other books and reviews.

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. An interesting look at how Americans are sorting themselves into communities where everyone looks like each other. Kind of the anti-melting pot scenario, if you will. An interesting topic and a well-written book. Perhaps this one should be Investigative instead, but it felt more like an academic book you could actually understand than it did a work of journalism.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. I'd never heard of him before, but evidently Jaron Lanier is a big name in the study of artificial intelligence. That made it much more interesting to read this book (although I'd like to read it again and see if I could understand more of it), cautioning about where we're headed with the technology we choose and use.

The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, by Lori E. Amy. I reviewed this one a while ago; it knocked me over. Full of interesting questions about violence, gender roles, family dynamics, and how we treat one another not only in our families but in the larger world.

Anything by John Kenneth Galbraith; I find him fascinating. (And no, as long as we're on the subject of economics, I will not be suggesting Freakonomics, I think Steven Levitt plays fast and loose with his research.)

Two other authors who come to mind are Jacques Barzun and Christopher Lasch, but I've honestly never made it all the way through any of their works.

And that's all I've got? Ideas? Ideas on Ideas books? Anyone?

You'll notice my list is decidedly less intellectual than Time's. That'll happen. I suppose some Michel Foucault should be on it somewhere, for one thing. But I never did manage to cultivate an appreciation for Michel Foucault, even in college. (Fun true story to prove how dumb I am: the one class for which I was supposed to read Foucault was an introductory library school class, and my professor kept referring to monographs. And I always thought, what the fuck are you talking about? Even after I'd looked it up and knew it meant book I still got sidetracked EVERY SINGLE TIME the prof said "mongraph," with this on a loop in my brain: "Why are you saying monograph? Couldn't you just say book? Or scholarly book, just to change it up sometimes?" It struck me as so stupid, you go for 18-22 years with everyone calling them books, and all of a sudden you're supposed to call them monographs. And by the time I was done thinking about it, he'd be done explaining Foucault and I would have missed it. Sigh.)

I'll take a distraction, please.

We'll take a short break today from our list of 100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles, while I digress on a book I read last week, and which I emphatically will not be adding to our best list.

PleasuresIn fact, if I was given the choice of either reading Alan Jacobs's book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction or indulging in a distraction like, say, poking at my eye with a sharp stick,* I think I'd have to choose the stick.

The title of this one was so alluring. And so was the length: 150 pages. I went into it primed to like it.

But I just didn't.

For one thing, there's this:

"Several times a year I get requests from people--usually students, but also friends and acquaintances, and even total strangers who have managed to find my email address--who want reading lists. 'Dear Professor Jacobs, could you please give me your recommendations for what I should read this summer?' Or, 'Dear Professor, in your opinion what are the ten most important books that every educated person should read?" I dislike that second question for reasons that are probably already clear, but the first I can't bring myself to dislike at all, since it's really a compliment in the form of a question.

Nonetheless, I never comply with these requests." (p. 13.)

And this in a part of the chapter labeled as "Whim." Good lord, Professor, how about engaging in a little Whim and just throwing these people a bone in the form of a reading list? Are you or are you not a professor of English? Now, in all fairness, a little bit further down the page he says he doesn't mind suggesting books if people first tell him what they like and then ask for recommendations--but I would point out he can turn reading list questions into that type of request simply by asking those who ask him for lists to describe their reading habits. It's not hard, Professor--librarians do it every day, for a lot less money and fewer sabbaticals.

And then let's talk about how he later digresses about how reading for Whim (with a capital W) differs from reading for whim. And how he was naughty when he was twenty and failed to finish a novel for the first time: William Gaddis's The Recognitions, which he put down after only reading to page...666. Good lord. This man and I are clearly not in the same reading room. I'm ditching this one at page 51, and I'm not going to feel that it's naughty, either. Or if I do, it's deliciously naughty.

I'm sorry I'm not really describing the book all that well, but this is another one of those "pleasures/importance of reading" books that never really seem to get to the point. I think his general idea was that you should read because it's pleasurable, not because it's good for you, although it can be. There. I just saved you 150 pages' worth of reading (pleasurable or otherwise) time.

*Blame my dad for this image. One of his favorite sayings, when something doesn't meet my expectations, is to say "Well, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye."