Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Atlas Hugged

I tried. To read Atlas Shrugged. But I failed.
I feel bad when things like this happen. It was the same kind of thing with Gone with the Wind ... except I was able to finish it. Around about p. 178 of Atlas Shrugged I started feeling bad, the way I'd felt at the end of GWTW, so I decided that Atlas wasn’t the only one needing a shrug. (And he didn't seem like anyone who cared much for hugs.)
The bad feeling comes from the fact that my reaction to these books was deep and visceral. Simply stated, I despised them. But millions of other people have not only read them with enjoyment, but have been inspired by them! Why did I have such a bad reaction to them? For some unexplored reason I feel compelled to try to convince myself that my reaction to these books is not completely without reason. This is probably an exercise in all manner of folly. But, as this happens to be my area of expertise, off we sail.

Okay, I tell myself, the thing about GWTW is that at the center of the love triangle--after you’ve busted the corsets and ripped off the green velvet ball gown that used to be a curtain--is a heart that beats with faith in the intractable inferiority of negroes and in their inherent, inherited, and eternal place as servile retainers maintaining the whims of whitey. If nothing else endures, says GWTW, that will. The wind can blow down Tara and Atlanta and the Twin Towers of Babylon, but ain't nothing gonna alter neither the place nor the destiny of the negro. Thus saith Margaret Mitchell.

So, okay, it's a relief to be able to provide myself with the reasonable understanding that GWTW is in fact the expression of a racist world-view wrapped up in a costume romance. Got that, y'all?  

I will grant that it is readable. It has characters that are drawn from life. The clashing personalities of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler spark enough pages to keep you chasing the conflagration until it smokes out.

But by the time I got to p. 178 of Atlas Shrugged, I decided that "Ayn Rand," the woman pictured on the jacket, was a stand-in for the true author, who was actually a gifted child (such as myself) with, on the one hand, an exalted sense of self-importance and, on the other hand, a pronounced persecution complex. And both of the hands were tightly wrapped around my very own neck in an effort to throttle out of me the suspicion that this story would've been better rendered as a battle between two dolls, one named Me and the other named All You Pitiful Peon-Wuss-Lamer-Idiots Who Don't Think I'm A Genius. Bam! Bam! Bam! Me wins!

It was difficult, by I managed to prise myself loose from the novel's grip to explore my suspicions as to the true nature of "Ayn Rand," and I determined that she was an architect and railroad builder of such accomplishment that she only existed in her own imagination in a world of her own devising in which she did everything all by herself and everyone thought she was wonderful because she was the only person there was.

I also found out that John Galt (spoiler alert! spoiler alert!) turns out to be a character in the book, rather than a pop culture artifact. Up until p. 178, people of all walks of life have been asking "Who is John Galt?" when they wanted to be saying "How are you?" This is, of course, a question the answer to which no one ever really cares to hear, so people are less than pleasantly surprised (as I was able to learn from reading a French book called La Grève--which means "the strike," is purportedly written by "Ayn Rand," and contains a plot and cast of characters suspiciously similar to Atlas Shrugged, except the words are in French) when a real John Galt turns up later saying not "Fine, thank you," but "Listen here, all you Pitiful Peon-Wuss-Lamer-Idiots ...", with an ellipsis that goes on for something like 84 pages of screed to the effect that the purpose-driven life is the only life worth living, and my purpose is better than your purpose, so Bam! Bam! Bam!

It turns out that John Galt convinces all the truly great people (Me! Me! Me!) to leave their purpose-driven lives and go on strike so as to convince everyone else--that is, the government--that the purpose-driven lives of the truly great people (Me! Me! Me!) are so valuable that they can do everything all by themselves.

But it all unravels on Galt and his crew of Atlas aliases when it turns out that by abandoning their purpose-driven lives, even for a short time, the truly great people (Me! etc.) have caused a contradiction, which the philosophy of Galt doesn't recognize, so the novel implodes on p. 178 (ironically, the last page I read!). The rest of the novel's 1,000+ pages are sucked into a black hole, where it exists in the same way a shadowboxing opponent exists. Bam! Bam! Bam! Me wins!

I was also able to learn that "Ayn Rand" was the visionary individual who wrote this book about the heroic venture of building an intercontinental railroad single-handedly in the face of opposition by everyone else--that is, the government--in 1957, thereby inaugurating the field of retro-retro-futurism. (The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system began in 1956. It was not heroic or single-handed and turns out to have been built by everyone else--that is, the government.)

We stand on the shoulders of lots of giants. Not just one.

I'm so glad to have convinced myself that it's okay to walk away from Atlas Shrugged. I know a lot of you really love the book. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying "Fine, thank you. And who is Lady Gaga?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hymnopedie no. 1

A child asked me what he would see
If he could go beyond the sky.
A hummingbird, I told the child,
Galactic scatting with its wings.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Like carrying goals to Newcastle

Where to eat in Richmond? Looking out my window at the Holiday Inn Express, I can see the 3rd St. Diner, which is also on the short list of restaurants in the notebook in my room, so that's where I wind up.

It's not much in the way of interior decor--it's sort of shambling, with a bar, a line of two-seater tables, and a line of booths--but I like that the clientele is both families and working stiffs. In that way, it reminds me of Chattanooga's Rathskeller from my childhood.

I look behind the bar to see what bottles are on display and see that they have Newcastle Brown Ale, which is what I order. Then I look up at the screen over the bar and see that it's showing a soccer game between Aston Villa and--as luck would have it--Newcastle United. Score tied, 1-1.

Why am I in Richmond? I think the general idea is that my fellow library directors and I be treated to an opportunity for enlightenment. Along that line today's offering was a clarion call to re-invent the public library because e-books have exploded and Netflix--at the age of only 10--will probably soon only be streaming, and 75% of children have cellphones.

This is on my mind as Newcastle press Aston Villa with a pork chop special on order and only 30 minutes to play.

So, public libraries have to re-invent themselves.

Newcastle called for offsides.

I don't think they ever really knew what they were to start with. Not really. Ever heard of the Public Library Inquiry? It was a study carried out by the Ford Foundation (though the link says Carnegie) in the early 1950's to cut through public library PR rhetoric to see who really used public libraries. The conclusion was that maybe one adult in ten used libraries regularly.

Newcastle are spending a lot of time on Aston Villa's turf without much to show for it. Maybe another ale will help. Go Magpies!

Needless to say, the response in the library world to the inquiry was never favorable. The dress made us look fat. Or thin. Whatever. But we would by god have more than one in ten adults using our libraries because we would give them ... recreation!

Goal! No! Offsides again!

The presenter today asked how much of our circulation is made up of DVD checkouts. The percentage at my library is 40%, which is close to the national average. This isn't going to hold up, said the presenter, if the world is going to streaming video. It'll hold up, I think, if the borrowers are like the ones at my library: looking for ways to stretch a dollar. "Poor man's Blockbuster" is our nickname.

All these shots on goal. For nothing.

And, speaking of goals, where are they for the libraries? To re-invent ourselves, the presenter's examples indicate that libraries need to become Nintendo arcades and have band concerts once a week. Why? Did we never learn to dribble? Does no one think that self-directed education and lifelong learning are the sine qua non of public libraries?

Two minutes to play. A. Villa with a break, Newcastle goalie comes out for a stop, a shot is lobbed over his head, the goal is open ... but a defender slides it away at the last second. Whew!

Sine qua non. Really. I probably need to be put out to pasture. On a soccer pitch in the north of England. All this talk about changing things, and what do librarians do when they get together? They talk about per capita circulation. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." And library boards are addicted to those numbers. Just keep 'em pumped up. (That's why those DVD's are so great.) Re-allocating budgets is an excellent idea ... for library directors who want to go looking for another job because their circ numbers plummeted.

The game is in its last throes. A peach cobbler appears. Coffee would be a good idea. There is an inverted bottle of Old Bushmill's behind the bar, so make it an Irish coffee. Apparently this is something that isn't frequently ordered at the 3rd St. Diner; the ingredients are in doubt; the call goes out: "Is there a librarian in the house?" As luck would have it ...

Time, gentlemen. An equality of goals. A tie.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phyllosophy: 9/11 and Harriet Beecher Stowe

I'm a fortunate library director: I have a book club. Called the Nevermore Book Club, it meets once a week, on Tuesday. Its name comes from its raison d'etre, which, besides discussing books and reading, is to eat doughnuts doughnated by the nearby Blackbird Bakery. The name was the brainchild of crackerjack librarian Jeanne Powers, whose lightning chain-of-thought went something like "Blackbird-raven-Poe-Nevermore." It just had that incredible rightness of being about it.

The format is a departure from the usual everybody-read-the same-thing book club. Anybody can come. We sit around the table and talk about what we've been reading that week. I use the occasion to bring new books to the table and make a modest effort to connect a book and a reader. (So many worthy books! Why can't they be advertised during the 6:30 news instead of pharmaceuticals?)

But if Nevermore (as we call it for short) has a food metaphor, it's not the doughnut. It's baklava, because of the layers and layers of serendipity that occur every week. Call it phyllosophy.

E.g.: I've been pushing Grapes of Wrath for months, saying it's really a timely book given the state of our economy. One member has tried and tried to read it, but can't get past the dialect in the dialogue. She was raised in Memphis and just knows they didn't talk that way; it makes them sound stupid, and nothing I could say would change her mind. The point was unassailable. (It helped me understand the damning reaction of African-Americans to Kathryn Stockett's rendering of Mississippi diction in The Help--another book I've been pushing pretty hard.) But I was unwilling to surrender. I insisted that she owed it to herself at least to read the ending of the book. The following week she read the ending and came back to share a connection that she--an art history major in college--was able to make that no one else in the group knew about: Roman Charity, a classical legend of a man saved from a sentence of death by starvation when his daughter nurses him, an act that wins her admiration and his release, and which became a set-piece for such artists as Rubens and Caravaggio. Then another member said that he'd followed Grapes of Wrath with Room, which has its own set of lactation issues. We could've segued into a meeting of La Leche League without missing a beat.

Phyllosophy. I've always thought this was why libraries are so great. But it's even moreso when people share it.

I decided to take the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to Nevermore. I needed help with it. Garry Trudeau's B.D. had convinced me to lay low, and then there was a column at by Laura Miller, about why there can't be a good novel about 9/11, that shared B.D.'s sentiment. Which is, in Miller's formulation: it was senseless to start with, and it's been compromised by our tragically irrelevant reaction, so best just shut up about it: "Silence, too, can be eloquent."

But. But. But. Every "but" a layer of phyllo.

Since we were a book club that discussed novels quite often, we could start with Miller's nice working definition of the novel: The novel is "about what matters to an individual and the way ... he or she chooses to live." The novelist's job is "to explore life as it is lived instead of how it's talked about or photographed or editorialized or TV-movied." When novelists do this well, they "shape and influence human consciousness."

Miller indicates the novelist Don DeLillo has pretty much consigned his novelist's job to terrorists, whom he believes to be more influential these days. (Funny thing: I'd have said pharmaceutical companies.) But Miller seems to hold out some hope. After all, she says, McVeigh and Kaczynski were terrorists, but their influence will be nil: "Harriet Beecher Stowe they are not."

Nevermore laughed at this. They laughed because I've been bringing Harriet Beecher Stowe (henceforth HBS) to every Nevermore meeting for months now.

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time this summer. I expected a superficial, preachy melodrama with a tedious plot carried out by paper cutout characters. It turns out I had to wait to read Gone with the Wind (which I did next) before I got that--and GWTW came complete with a white supremacist world-view as a bonus! Then I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which helped neutralize GWTW and restore my faith that there had been maybe one white person with a shred of dignity in the 1960's. "In your white person dreams," say many blacks: The Help repeats the same stereotypes as GWTW, and these stereotypes are the fault of HBS. According to this view, HBS was the Dr. Frankenstein of all the monstrous literary lawn jockeys that have been used to simulate black characters in novels ever since Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Accordingly, for months now at least part of every Nevermore meeting has been an attempt by me to get HBS across a color line of sorts, to free her from the slavery of stereotypes that her characters may have engendered.

So when Laura Miller writes of HBS's influence, it gets a laugh in Nevermore because, sadly, the irony of HBS's influence is that it no longer exists. At least, not in the way she intended.

It is no longer the humanizing influence that once challenged people to understand slavery through the daily lives of enslaved people. It has become its widely spun-off legacy of blackface "Tom shows" that reduced a strong, thoughtful, intelligent, moral, Christian martyr into the pitiful butt of a bad racist joke. It's not what HBS intended; it's not what that first generation of readers understood. But it's what we today are left with.

In effect, HBS's legacy got sucked into the wake of influential novelists whose agenda was very different from hers: novelists like Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell. Dixon believed the African strain in America was a taint that should be extinguished; it was he who wrote the story behind the hugely popular KKK epic film Birth of a Nation. That's right: hugely popular. As for Mitchell, need anything be said? The meta-narrative of GWTW is that servitude enables blacks to realize their exalted destiny as the conscience of white families.

Which brings us to Stockett and what I feel is her damning portrayal of white attitudes in apartheid Mississippi. She uses characters where Mitchell used stereotypes. But there remains the problem that Stockett's black characters still seem to have the same exalted destiny as Mitchell's.

How much of a problem is that? This is where we come back to 9/11. I remember one of the oft-repeated questions in the aftermath: "why do they hate us?" That would seem to be a good question for a novelist to try to answer, but I have a feeling that we wouldn't want to confront it. A good novelist would go ahead anyway. Did the U.S. want to confront slavery in the 1850's? No, but HBS made it happen. (And here I must say on Stockett's behalf: do white Americans want to confront the excruciating injustices and injuries of Jim Crow apartheid? No, they want to say it's water under the bridge. But Stockett makes us swim in it.)

There is still a color line in America. We are a divided country. Randall Kennedy has a new book about it that will no doubt shed light on it, but judging from reviews one of the thing it attests to is that you can't enforce the reality of racial apartheid for centuries, nor can you believe in the inferiority of another race and actively pursue a society based on that belief, and then just walk away from it like it never happened. Isn't it reasonable for a black person in a theatre showing Birth of a Nation to respond by wanting to kill whites? If it isn't, why not? There are questions that need to be answered. There are novels that need to be written. Silence is not an option. Silence is what the terrorists want.

As for HBS, I last encountered her purely by accident in a book about Paris by David McCullough that the library just received. She exults in the beauty of the city and rues (there are lots of rues in Paris) her severe New England upbringing devoid of any sense of the value of beauty. I wish she could meet a concierge of aesthetic proclivities in the Tuileries gardens. But at least she sits for a portrait with Hilaire Belloc. Regardless of the success of his portraiture, he captures the beauty of her work when he says that its success was due to the fact that it had in it more genuine faith than any other book.

If only that could be her legacy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Maybe it was a Killiteracy monster

Another utopian folly: "Learning depends on reading as a practice of immersion in thought and feeling." In other words, where reading is to contribute to learning, it has to involve the intellect and the emotions.

That's a quote from Helen Vendler. Her utopian folly is laid out here.

How are we doing? "Since what is in place has failed notoriously to make our younger students eager to read, proficient in reading, and drawn to the conceptual world of learning, it is time, it seems to me, to try to generate a reading practice that will lead to a future for the humanities and all other advanced reading."

Not that we can't use video games for instruction. I dreamed last night that I was in a game that wouldn't let me kill a monster and advance until I'd read Moby Dick. In the dream, I really wanted to read Moby Dick. No monster was going to stop me.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Yesterday was International Literacy Day. I asked friends what they remembered about learning to read.

My memories were of 1" x 2" flash card drills, using word recognition, in first grade. There's an olfactory aspect to the memory as well, since the cards were printed with mimeo offset; when fresh they exuded a sharp acidic pungency that I liked. I very badly wanted to learn to read. My parents had always read to me at bedtime, and I yearned to unlock the secrets of transforming those shapes into sounds.

One of my friends' replies mentioned the SRA reading program and how it had been a negative experience. When I saw the letters "SRA" my reaction was one of visceral hatred. I hadn't thought about the SRA since I'd fled from it in elementary school. To me, SRA amounted to somebody taking the free joy of reading and put it in a cage. Fortunately my parents still took me to the public library, where the joy of reading still roamed wild.

(SRA = Scientific Research Associates. They were some bunch of literary pain calibrators. Also, they were a division of McGraw Hill, textbook racketeers par excellence. A real winning combo.)

Another reply came from a parent who complained about Accelerated Reader. I said I hoped it wasn't as bad as SRA.

I work in a public library but see duty in the Children's Dept. only rarely. As luck would have it, today the Children's Dept. staff all left at lunch to celebrate a birthday, and I happened to be at the Reference desk when a parent walked up and needed help with ... that's right: Accelerated Reader!

Oh, the chagrin. Talk about a clinical activity: "here, let me dial up your kid's reading level and inject this book into his arm so later he can piss it out and his school can check his urine sample to see if he's absorbed the data." That's what it felt like.

When learning happens, it is the ineluctable turning of a desirous mind to the light of knowledge. So why do we insist on taking the desire out of it and substituting boredom, drudgery, and the lash? Teach the mechanics and then let kids work with librarians in a well-stocked library where they can develop their learning personality. Let freedom read.

Yeah, I know: pure folly.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The folly of empathy: Kathryn Stockett's "The Help"

What if you try to walk a mile in somebody's shoes, but then the somebody says you stole his/her shoes?

I'm mired in the folly of trying to reconcile Kathryn Stockett's The Help (the book; I've not seen the movie) and the negative reaction to it. By "mired in the folly of trying to reconcile" I mean that I
  • was deeply moved and impressed by the book, which used the power of fiction, I felt, to cut off a slice of the rotten moral core of the Jim Crow South and shove it in my face;
  • was recently confronted by a scathing critique of the book/movie--written mostly by African-Americans and forwarded by progressive friends of mine--that accused Stockett of cultural appropriation and of foisting yet another "white savior" narrative upon an unsuspecting public;
  • discovered that the Association of Black Women Historians had issued an open statement protesting the book/movie, saying that it "distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers" and calls it a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy," the stereotypical black woman servant;
  • went back and read Stockett's afterword in which she discusses her self-doubts about trying to tell a story from the perspective of her grandmother's maid Demetrie about a time before she (Stockett) was born.
  • came upon an anonymous blog devoted to calling out all of the errors, inconsistencies, and problems with the book and the movie;
  • looked at the transcript of the NPR Talk of the Nation interview with Ida Jones, the director of the Association of Black Women Historians, in which Jones says that her principal objection to the book/movie is that African-American women "were not allowed to speak for themselves. There was no real voice of the women speaking for themselves. They were being marionetted and spoken for. So therein lie a level of distortion with regards to the actual lived experience of African-American domestic women." When asked why Stockett "gets it wrong," Jones replies "I don't think she gets it wrong. I would just simply say that she needs to package it--maybe she didn't have the right to do so--package it as a nostalgic reminiscence." NPR took four calls during the interview. All were positive about the book/movie. Two were from women who self-identified as black. One said she'd never had such a polarizing experience at a movie: all the white women came out crying out of guilt, and all the black women came out "smiling, uplifted."
  • recalled that The Help was an Oprah Book Club Selection.
Early on in the im-miring, a friend of one of my progressive friends (neither of whom had any use for Stockett's work) mentioned that she was the daughter of a former maid who worked for white people who lived on Lookout Mtn. This is near Chattanooga, where I grew up. In fact, I grew up on Chattanooga's other mountain, Signal Mtn. In fact, my family had African-American housekeepers.

In fact, long before The Help, I wrote a short story supposedly told by a white boy from Lookout Mtn. about the experience of getting to know the older brother of his black maid. At the time, I'd just learned about James Reese Europe, an influential but little-known African-American bandleader of the ragtime era. Also, as an oboist, I'd grown up playing a wonderful piece by the African-American composer (and oboist) William Grant Still. At the time, I wrote (very occasionally) short stories that were (very occasionally) published by the International Double Reed Society journal. They didn't print much fiction, and it was my thought that oboe fiction was something that the world needed more of. Be that as it may, I didn't submit this particular short story, the title of which was The Leopard.

But anyway, when Lookout Mtn. came up in the context of fiction written by a white American about a black American, I could say that maybe I'd been closer to that particular geographical aspect of this particular, painful American issue than anyone, and I wondered if any of the purported crimes of Stockett's fiction could be ascribed to mine. Had I marionetted anyone?

Even though my intention at the time (1996? 1997?) had been to honor the memories of two mostly unremembered stars in the American cultural firmament, and to point to the awful irony of living in a country that proclaimed equality while practicing a vicious form of racial prejudice that haunts us still, I now have the example of Stockett's undoubtedly well-meaning efforts before me, mired in misplaced empathy.

Which has me mistrusting my own.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Follysophy 101: blackboard, day one

Thomas Gray, On a Distant Prospect of Eton College, st. 10:

To each his suff'rings: all are men,
Condemn'd alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain,
Th'unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Matthew Arnold, The Last Word, st. 4:

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body against the wall.