Dumb quote of the day--you are what you read edition

>> Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The reports are in about the books President Obama is looking at on his annual trip to Martha’s Vineyard. According to reports from the Los Angeles Times and the AP, Obama purchased five books on his trip to the Vineyard bookseller Bunch of Grapes: Marianna Baer’s Frost, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante.

The second wave came when, according to Alexis Simendinger, White House aides listed for reporters the three books Obama brought with him to the Vineyard: two more novels — Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and David Grossman’s To the End of the Land--and one nonfiction work--Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Assuming that Brave New World and Frost are for his daughters, this leaves six books that are presumably for presidential consumption, and they may constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed, for a number of reasons. First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.
-Tevi Troy, "What’s Obama Reading?",
The National Review, August 23rd, 2011

Oh, for fuck's sake.

I mean, seriously, this is what's wrong with America's lack of culture these days. There's this broad swath of ignoramuses, some of them purportedly educated ignoramuses with pieces of paper on their walls and everything, who don't believe in science, don't have time for culture, don't see any value in the arts, who basically have altogether written off the finer points of Western Civilization since the Renaissance.

There was a time when a President was expected to read fiction and go to see music performed and plays enacted. (Okay, so maybe Abraham Lincoln put a modest damper on President's going to the theatre.) And it wasn't even necessarily expected to be all "high culture" or anything: John Kennedy's purported affection for James Bond novels wasn't something that was announced as part of a "presidential reading list" press release, it was something JFK personally told a room full of reporters. Our American Cousin (okay, yeah, maybe a bad example--still) is a broadly-drawn, lighthearted comedy that was a 19th-Century pop-culture sensation (perhaps Mr. Lincoln didn't take the Civil War all that seriously if he had time to attend a romantic comedy).

Troy actually manages to get stupider when he suggests Obama should be reading Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism instead. First, because as far as I can tell from reviews and listening to Goldberg himself during promotional interviews, the book's a work of fiction and I thought Troy's problem was that the President was consuming too much of that already. Second, because it's not like I'd expect any President to waste his time wading through the opposition's trollery. I would be as surprised to learn that Obama was reading Ann Coulter's latest as I would be to learn that George W. Bush was reading something by Michael Moore; not only that, but I'd hardly criticize either man for not wasting their time. Life is too short for you to waste precious time reading an entire book about how someone specifically hates you, personally, and generally hates everything and everybody you represent. Unless you're some kind of masochist. And then, whatever; hey, however you get your kicks.

I'm pleased that this President--and his predecessor, for that matter--reads for pleasure. And novels, too. Thank goodness there are a few people left in this country who read novels. I'm glad the President is reading something other than the massive pop histories and sleazy biographies and tossed-off memoirs that seem to dominate the front shelves of a lot of book chains these days, too. Gods know, it can't possibly be a bad thing if somebody is reading books that sing and hum and throb, the English language turned into symphonies and operas of the human heart and spirit. Hell, I don't think it's a bad thing if someone wants to read about cat-and-mouse games between detectives and serial killers or flesh-hungry monsters besieging a log cabin (in point of fact, if you'd like to give me an advance for the latter so I can quit the day job and get the fucking thing finished, I'd be greatly appreciative--I know, who wouldn't be, right?). And if someone wants to read something that agrees with their tastes when they're reading for pleasure, well, fucking hell, I don't expect somebody to sit around reading something they hate when they're trying to chill, who the hell does that?

But, y'know, there's something that bothers me about what I'm writing here, and something I should be clearer about: I'm afraid that this is sounding like a knee-jerk defense of the President, when it's only incidentally a defense of the President. What it is, really, or what I want it to be, is a defense of the written word. What kind of books does Mr. Tevi Troy think people should be reading, anyway? He mentions by name: Laura Ingraham’s Of Thee I Zing, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Mark Steyn’s After America and Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded; I'll confess I haven't read any of these, but I'm sufficiently familiar with Ingraham, Goldberg and Friedman to say that they're insipid, shallow thinkers and mediocre writers whose books--including all three of the ones mentioned--tend to be the kinds of books sold in airports to travelers who want to appear intelligent and think they'll have time to read during a layover when in fact the books will almost certainly end up being the ones visiting guests see with the bookmark always in the same place, bouncing from coffee table to bathroom to bedside nightstand and back round until they possibly end up on a bookshelf (if the purchaser is the sort to have a bookshelf--one sees distressingly few of those in American homes these days, and even fewer that hold books instead of knickknacks and gewgaws) or a box in the basement. These are the kinds of books, along with their counterparts on the left, that contribute to America's illiteracy epidemic: I don't mean "illiterate" in the sense of being unable to read, but "illiterate" in the sense of being profoundly uneducated in either the canon or contemporary literature; we're talking about the sorts of books whose hectoring tone, clumsy stabs at ad hominem "humor" and uninspired rhetoric convince people that reading is a boring waste of time. Books that mistake being insulting for being challenging and excess for depth. One can hardly blame a victim of this rubbish--even a victim who agrees with the rubbish--if he thinks that books are an obligation. I don't know Steyn, but Troy doesn't put him in promising company; anyway, the book is described thus at the website Troy links to:

"New York Times" [sic]-bestselling author Steyn argues that Barack Obama is moving the country toward a Scandinavian-style, big-government system that will stifle liberty and leave the world in a dangerous place.

Ah, well, that sounds like a kick in the teeth, don't it? Very brief looks at the preview of After America available at Amazon and at Google Books aren't promising: lifeless prose, predictably clumsy attempts at humor (a joke about Barbra Streisand doing lots of farewell tours--her last concert appearance was two years before the book's copyright date and her last tour five years before After America was published, but it's still funny because gay San Francisco liberals love her and they're stupid--and gay!--and that's funny, right? Right?), mind-numbing errors that assume the reader is a moron whose entire education consists of unwarranted assumptions (I had to stop reading after a passage about an 1890s time traveler visiting the 1950s and being astonished by the sight of a telephone and an automobile1.

Of course, Troy's reading list consists of National Review contributors (except for Friedman), so it's not merely that Troy prefers bad reading to reading that he seems to think is trivial or escapist: he's also shamelessly pimping. Which somehow makes it worse under the circumstances. Clio knows, I don't have a huge problem with doing some pimping, whether it's for my friends or myself.2 I hope, at least, that my pimping doesn't come along with the criticism that people who aren't reading my friends' work are stupid for it. (Frankly, I'd also like to think my friends are better writers, but, you know....)

I have exhausted myself on this for now.

(H/t Salon.)

1Okay, so I can't just let this ride. Here's what Steyn writes:

Picture a man of the late nineteenth century, perhaps your own great-grandfather, sitting in an ordinary American home of 1890. And now pitch him forward in an H.G. Wells machine, not to our time but about halfway--to that same ordinary American home, circa 1950.

Why, the poor gentleman of 1890 would be astonished. His old home is full of mechanical contraptions. There is a huge machine in the corner of the kitchen, full of food and keeping the milk fresh and cold! There is another shiny device whirring away and seemingly washing milady's bloomers with no human assistance whatsoever! Even more amazingly, there is a full orchestra playing somewhere within his very house. No, wait, it's coming from a tiny box on the countertop!

The music is briefly disturbed by a low rumble from the front yard, and our time-traveler glances through the window: a metal conveyance is coming up the street at an incredible speed--with not a horse in sight. It's enclosed with doors and windows, like a house on wheels, and it turns into the yard, and the doors open all at once, and two grown-ups and four children all get out--jist like that, as if it's the most natural thing in the world! He notices there is snow on the ground, and yet the house is toasty warm, even though no fire is lit and there appears to be no stove. A bell jingles from a small black instrument on the hall table. Good heavens! Is this a "telephone"? He'd heard about such things, and that important people in the big cities had them. But to think one would be here in his very own home! He picks up the speaking tube. A voice at the other end says there is a call from across the country--and immediately there she is, a lady from California talking as if she were standing next to him, without having to shout, or even raise her voice! And she says she'll see him tomorrow!

Oh, very funny. They've got horseless carriages in the sky now, have they?

Jesus. H. Christ. On. A. Stripper. Pole.

Setting aside the general lousiness of the prose.... While telephone service was concentrated in urban areas in the 1890s, they were definitely no longer novelties and long-distance service was available in various areas from the 1870s on. Automobiles are another 19th Century invention, and while our time-traveler may not have owned one, he was more likely to have seen one than he was to see a time machine. Household refrigerators based on mechanical compressors would have been twenty years in our time traveler's future--but the housings were (naturally) based on familiar 19th Century icebox designs and the technology itself was well known on an industrial scale by the time of the American Civil War. Similarly, fully automatic washing machines would have been in our chrononaut's future but the concept goes back to the 17th Century. As for the music he hears: while the transistor radio is obviously a 20th Century gadget, I think he'd most likely assume there was a phonograph around: perhaps one of the many recordings commercially available from Columbia Records, founded in 1888. As for "horseless carriages in the sky": the 1890s were, of course, a pioneering era in flight attempts, culminating in the Wright Brothers' successful flights in 1903; lighter-than-air flights were not uncommon and there was some hysteria over alleged mystery airships being sighted in the 1880s and 1890s; Samuel Langley was one of powered heavier-than-air flight's leading boosters/experimenters in the 1890s and the public excitement over flight experiments of all sorts probably explains why the "mystery airships" were part of the public gestalt in the United States and Europe during our time traveler's era--he most likely would be surprised, in other words, if there weren't commercial flights of some sort in his future, much as a time traveler from 1968 might be surprised at our current shortage of moonbases.

All of this possibly seems nitpicky, considering that Steyn's point is actually some kind of rubbish about the supposed stagnation between 1950 and now, except how seriously are we supposed to take his point when he seems to think that the ordinary American of 1890 is some kind of medieval rube who's never seen a Montgomery Ward Catalog and uses vaguely anachronistic terms like "mildady" (mostly used by European servants in the early 19th Century) and "bloomers" (mostly used in the 19th Century to refer to a fashion item from the 1850s, though the term persisted into the 20th)?

Indeed, and here's what makes Steyn's point more idiotic: a well-read gentleman of 1890 (the sort who might have a time machine around) would almost certainly predict the technological "surprises" Steyn alludes to: flight, telephony, portable musical entertainment utilizing broadcast electromagnetism, home refrigeration, automatic clothes washing and "horseless carriages" were all developments that could be extrapolated from 1890s research and many of these things indeed show up in some form or another in the speculative fiction of the era; what would be vastly more far-fetched to our time traveler would be the social developments made possible by the struggling progressive movements of his era: in the 1950s, he discovers that there are women working outside the home; scientists have conducted investigations into sexual relations and some biochemists are working on some kind of hormonal treatment that will allow women to indulge with a much lower risk of pregnancy; President Truman has recently issued an order to desegregate the military; blacks are trying to gain access to white schools and President Eisenhower supports their efforts (if our traveler arrives after 1954, he'll discover the Supreme Court has even held segregation to be unconstitutional); depending on where he arrives, he may discover that the father of the family with the horseless carriage has a union shop job and that this is no big deal and he doesn't even know any anarchists and is stridently opposed to communism--which, by the way, has somehow managed to take over much of the rural and underdeveloped world instead of the European industrial states our time traveler feared/expected (depending on his sympathies). I.e. the social changes between the 1890s and 1950s were far less predictable than the technological developments, which, if anything, may have proceeded more slowly than an Argosy subscriber would have hoped.

It makes my head hurt.

2A new edition of Rigor Amortis hits shelves next month under the Edge imprint. Look for it!


Steve Buchheit Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 8:44:00 PM EDT  

The President takes 6 books on a week long working vacation and these people have a problem with it? WTF?

Eric Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 10:44:00 PM EDT  

Some additional good thoughts on this from Alyssa Rosenberg can be found here. I especially like this:

...Tevi Troy’s insistence that the president’s reading list “constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed” because “the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality,” merits singling out for how uniquely grasping and bizarre it is, and how simultaneously snobbish and anti-intellectual.

More-or-less what I was trying to say, but far more succinctly. Special emphasis on the last part of that: Troy's combination of snobbery and anti-intellectualism would actually constitute a neat trick if it were actually anything to be proud of; of course, it isn't.

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