18 August 2004

On Fear

From Life of Pi, by Jann Martel:

    I must say a word about fear.  It is life’s only true opponent. 
Only fear can defeat life.  It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I
know.  It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy.  It
goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease.  It begins in
your mind, always.  One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. 
Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind
like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out.  But
disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier.  Doubt does away with it with little
trouble.  You become anxious.  Reason comes to do battle for you.  You are
reassured.  Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology.  But,
to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable
victories, reason is laid low.  You feel yourself weakening, wavering.  Your
anxiety becomes dread.
    Fear next turns fully to your
body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on.  Already
your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a
snake.  Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to
gallop on the spot.  Your ears go deaf.  Your muscles begin to shiver as if they
had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing.  Your heart
strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much.  And so with the rest
of your body.  Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. 
Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

    Quickly you make rash decisions.  You dismiss your last
allies:  hope and trust.  There, you’ve defeated yourself.  Fear, which is but
an impression, has triumphed over you.
    The matter is
difficult to put into words.  For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your
foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal
end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene:  it seeks to rot everything, even
the words with which to speak of it.  So you must fight hard to express it.  You
must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it.  Because if you don’t, if
your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to
forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly
fought the opponent who defeated you.

And I’ve long admired Ryan‘s review of the book:

…this is not a work of fiction which exists simply for our pleasure- it aims a bit higher. This novelist has a point,
a morality of stories which is the moral of the story. It’s simple and
challenging: If we can function with either of two stories, why not
choose a better story? The moral is stated with brutal precision in
Chapter 22, which I quote in full:

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white!
L-L-Love! My God!”–and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the
agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden
to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light
bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the
b-b-brain” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better

This is a provocation both of serious believers and of skeptics,
both of whom feel that much more is at stake than a simple aesthetic or
literary choice. It’s also a point that could only be made in our
modern West, this singular space where we indeed have the choice of our
faiths. The mockery of the narrow minds of the priest, the pandit, and
the imam in Chapter 23, the cheerful ecumenical universalism of Pi,
this whole notion of the capability of choice, the very concept of
mapping faith onto story– all these allow us to locate Martel
squarely in the present, in the consumer-consumed marketplace of
believers and faiths. All this could have made the book a tiresome
rehashing of the “All you need is faith: any faith will do” genre of
literary and cinematic works. (Signs, anyone? Dogma?)

But Martel does something amazing in Life of Pi. He exposes
his readers to a world of doubles, and he leaves us with terrible
choices. All of the choices in the work, all of the stories offered to
the reader are full of savagery and horror, the naked power of death,
the remorseless brutality which underlies every will to live. If this
book fulfills its brash promise, if it does convince anyone
to believe in God, to choose the better story, the reader will also be
confronted with the inescapable terror of that choice, the fundamental
darkness. No matter which story we choose, we are hopelessly trapped on
Pi’s floating island of algae, that occult land on which we were always
already standing, that paradise of food and comfort and danger and
all-consuming death. It is this layer of persistent danger, amorality,
and darkness that saves Life of Pi from being yet another vacuous exhortation to faith, and transforms it into a nuanced, provocative, and delightful work.

Posted in Books on 18 August 2004 at 11:28 pm by Nate
12 August 2004

And now they want your books…

The security people in the NY-NJ ferries want your books because they are inappropriate.

I’m going to carry around the ACLU’s number, too.  I’m reading the
Iliad, and that’s all about war and rage at the authorities. 
Might make me do “something.”

Books are like the Gospels: they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Posted in Books on 12 August 2004 at 11:52 am by Nate
5 August 2004

Do we read enough? In book form, that is?

Michael Dirda, of the Washington Post, has a fabulous screed about the
recent NEA report on the state of reading in America
.  It’s a bit
over the top, but still quite apropos.

[Study author and poet Dana] Gioia thinks it unlikely that any “careful observer of
contemporary American society will be greatly surprised” at this news.
Setting aside the question of whether I’m a careful observer or not, I
was in fact a little surprised: To me, the numbers seemed better than
expected. But then, to my mind, the real literacy crisis has less to do
with the number of people reading than with the narrowing range of
books that Americans actually read.

According to the report, all of “one in six people
reads 12 or more books in a year.” Half the population doesn’t look at
any fiction, poetry or plays, ever. This is, obviously, just pathetic.
Yet how many times have I been in elegant homes where I found lavish
entertainment centers, walls of DVDs, state-of-the-art computer systems
— and not a single book, with the debatable exception of Leonard
Maltin’s guide to movies on video?

I wish I could feel more hopeful about book culture,
believe more strongly that something might be done. But we’ve become a
shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere
spectacle in all the aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious
for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that
just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have
listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art,
read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because
it was time to tune into “Law and Order” reruns, or jack in to
Warhammer on our home computer, or get back to the latest clone of “The
Da Vinci Code.” Sooner or later, though, probably late at night or when
faced with one of life’s crises, we will surprise in ourselves what
poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.

But come the dawn and our good intentions usually
evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or
William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or gaze at digitized
lovelies or go to still another movie? Instead of reading Toqueville or
Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn
toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of
eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as
for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life
is worth living.

When our non-grad student friends come over, they always express some
sort of awe at the number of books we have.  There’s 10 almost
entirely full bookshelves in the house, and we’ve probably got nearly
2000 books on the premises.

And yet, I kick myself at night that I haven’t read more during the day
and in the evening, distracted as I have been by the Internet and CSI or the Simpsons.

Posted in Books on 5 August 2004 at 11:00 am by Nate
6 October 2003


Two quotes from Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of the new edition (15th) of the Chicago Manual of Style, which I have been coveting….

“Some people will complain that the new ‘Chicago Manual’ is too
long.  These people do not understand the nature of style. 
There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down
to the proverbial dotting of the ‘i.’  Relativism is fine for the
big moral questions, where we can never know for sure; but in arbitrary
realms like form and usage even small doses of relativism are
lethal.  The ‘Manual’ is not too long.  It is not long
enough.  It will never be long enough.  The perfect manual
of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly
coterminous with its subject, containing a rule of every word of every
sentence.  We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. 
It would be worth it.”

“First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program
Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows
generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons and
incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means
entering a treacherous wilderness of  pop-ups posing alternatives
of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut
Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. 
You often feel that you’re not ready to make a decision so unalterable;
but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angey
beep.  You double-click.  You triple-click.  Beep beep beep beep beep.  You are being held for a fool by a chip.”

He then goes on to discuss Word’s propensity to get in the way. 
Especially funny are the bit about the paper clip (“Never, btw [which,
unlike “poststructuralism,” is a word in Word spellcheck] ask that
androgenous paperclip anything.  S/he is just a stooge for
management, leading you down more rabbit holes of options….”) and the
blue underlining of URLs, which he notes, “There is undoubtedly a way
to reset this, but it is deep within the bowels of the machine, guarded
by dozens of angry pop-ups.  Microsoft wants you to go on the Internet.”

It’s amazing what a good piece of writing can do.  This is a
review of the Chicago Manual, for heaven’s sake.  It’s a generally
dull book, but Menand writes some of the freshest prose I have ever
read about the dull mechanics of writing.

My dad likes the paper clip.  In an e-mail to me, he once wrote,
“I am really quite amused by the little paperclip icon with the googly
eyes. It looks all around the screen, blinks, dozes off, twists itself
into different shapes, and seems a great deal like a small pet. Very

Posted in Books on 6 October 2003 at 1:58 pm by Nate
11 September 2003

Life of Pi

I talked about Life of Pi earlier this summer, and Ryan wrote a post a couple of days ago on it. It’s quite definitely worth a read….

Posted in Books on 11 September 2003 at 4:33 pm by Nate
7 August 2003

Recent Reads

Here’s what I have been reading of late.

First, an allegorical tale, Life of Pi. I’m uncomfortable with allegories, because I’m not used to picking out literary devices. I loved this, but I don’t quite understand it. Has anyone else read it? Care to discuss it?

I reference Moneyball in my sideblog. But this is definitely worth the read.

What have other people been reading? Can anyone give me some suggestions for after I catch up with my New Yorkers? I’m thinking of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. But I’m open to other suggestions too!

Posted in Books on 7 August 2003 at 1:24 pm by Nate