May Book Log

May 31, 2009

It is the end of May, and that also means the end of school and a whole wonderful summer ahead during which time I will become a father and tackle some reading that I just wasn’t quite ready for during the school year. Also, as I am about to read Kavalier and Clay and have no interest in Oscar Wao, it is time for a new book queue which will follow the main entry. So, without further ado…

1. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (5.0/50): A very excellent book and a wonderfully easy read. I knew a fair bit of what was in here already, but the the things I hadn’t learned were very easy to understand. It’s a nice bonus that Hawking has a good sense of humor (he sees fit, at one point, to throw in a limerick). Especially worth reading were the bits on black holes (Hawking is among the foremost experts and is responsible for much of what we know about them). Highly recommended.

2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (5.0/5): My students read this in class. It says something about a play when sophomores reading it doesn’t ruin it for you. Caesar is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Some of the speeches Antony is given are particular beautiful.

3. The Communist Manifest by Karl Marx (3.0/5): Interesting, if a bit didactic. Like most political writing it fails to acknowledge the validity of opposing viewpoints. Still, it makes criticisms of capitalism that still ring very true many years later.

4. The House on Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne (5.0/5): I liked this even more than Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne says a great deal more in this (it is clearly aimed at slightly older children than the first book) without losing any of the light humor or lazy-stream story telling that makes everything about Pooh so wonderful. I will be reading this my daughter. Hopefully many times.

5. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (5.0/5): I made it a point to reread this book after negative reactions to it from several people I respect. I don’t know what made them unhappy. It is a wonderful book and still sits up near the very top of the list for me. It is very dense, but Warren’s prose is so carefully constructed and beautiful that I never found myself wanting to hurry through anyway. You get to know so many characters and their actions are described with such beautiful, heart-stopping accuracy that you find yourself feeling almost as they feel. This is the kind of book that made me want to be a writer. Just perfect.

6. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (4.0/5): I think I’ve read all the available Sedaris now. This book was very good, though not as good as Me Talk Pretty or Corduroy and Denim. The firs half is a bit weak, but along about page 150, it really picks up and is more or less fantastic all the way through to the end. It was nice to see Sedaris get a bit more personal in this one as many of these stories are more about his personal than has generally been the case. It’s certainly among his most honest work.

7. The Te of Piglet (3.0/5): This was okay. I didn’t enjoy it nearly so much as The Tao of Pooh. Hoff gets very preachy in places and does a poor job explaining some of his points. Most harmful is his semi-frequent failure to see and acknowledge the flaws in some of his own arguments. In places it reads more as a screed against Western society than a truly Taoist text.

Summer Book Queue:

Tomcat in Love by Tim O’Brien
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (finally found a copy)
The Hangmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Summerland by Michael Chabon
The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
The Chracter of Physicla Law by Richard Feynman
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

This is a post I’ve been putting off for a while. It’s something I feel strongly about, and it’s something that will seem totally obvious to most of the people that read this. To a handful of others, however, I suspect it will conflict with something they believe very strongly. Today, I want to discuss relativism and how it is ruining the world. (Okay, that was a bit melodramatic, but stick with me here.)

First we need to define our term relativism comes in many flavors. Let’s look at each one briefly:

Physical Relativism: This is Einstein. It’s the idea that the observations of each observer are equally valid. For example, if I am standing on a train, you will likely perceive that I am moving. However, from my perspective, I am stationary and it is you that are whizzing by. That is what we know as Relativity. Or, at least, it is a very basic definition of it.

Moral Relativism: This is the idea that there is no universal moral standard but that what is morally correct varies depending on time, culture, person, etc.

Cultural Relativism: This is similar to moral relativism. It is the belief that the actions of an individual can only be understood in the proper cultural context.

Cognitive/Factual Relativism: This is a line of thinking that more or less says that whether or not something is true depends entirely on the perspective of your culture. This can go so far as to equivocate science and myth or religion.

Aesthetic Relativism: This is the idea that any standard of beauty is relative to time and culture.

Now, I am going to start by removing Physical Relativism (Relativity) from the discussion. It is a nicely established scientific fact and not a debatable idea the way the others are. Henceforth, when I mention relativism, I am referring to the horrible amalgamation of the other four types of relativism I have listed.

At the beginning of this post, I made the rather over-the-top statement that relativism is ruining the world. I am not going to start on that scale, however. I am going to start with a very small and seemingly insignificant example: Many students do not wish to revise writing because they have come to believe that all critiques of creative works are invalid.

On the surface, this appears to be a case of Aesthetic Relativism, and in many ways, it is, but as I will show, it provides a splendid illustration that can extend all the way to the current debate in the religious community about the validity of science. The idea is the result of several unfortunate notions that have been taught to these children by a misguided educational system mixed with an overly-indulgent society. They are as follows:

  1. Expression = Art
  2. All opinions are equally valid. If someone else is very informed and you are not at all informed, your opinion is still as valid as that of the expert.
  3. Creativity is something that occurs spontaneously and in the moment. Any attempt to revise or critique can only corrupt the created thing which was, by it’s very nature, perfect from inception.

Let’s start at the end and tackle number three first. I do not know a single successful creative person who believes this to be true. Creativity is all about hard work and repetition. Books are not written from glorious sparks of inspiration. They are written by sitting down everyday and writing, whether you feel like it or not. Paintings do not leap from your unpracticed brush. They come from years and years of careful practice. They result from careful consideration. Of course, inspiration does come along from time to time, and when it does it is very nice. I will say, though, that some of my worst sentences have come from evenings when I was feeling particularly inspired.

Now, I’m going to deal with one and two simultaneously as they are, at heart the same issue. The thought as it exists in the mind of the student is this, “My opinion is as important as anyone else’s. I wish to express myself in an artistic way. Therefore, all of my expressions are artistic.” Where to start? How about here: No, no they are not you are wrong. The belief that someone who has spent years reading and writing cannot tell you how to improve your writing is ludicrous. Additionally, the idea that someone who has written a grand total of 12 pages over their entire life can produce, through sheer act of will, a great piece of writing is similarly ridiculous. If you do not know what you are talking about, then your opinion is invalid.

Sadly, this is not a notion that gets much traction in modern society. Too frequently, people are lauded for what ever unfortunate sewage happens to spill from their mouth or pen or brush or instrument. Tell a fan that the Jonas Brothers are terrible, and they will argue that they are not. Why? Because I like them and my opinion is as valid as anyone’s. Is it? Really? Or is it just that you haven’t listened to very much music and, heretofore, have always been happy with what the radio or TV brought your way. Is your opinion really as valid as mine? How much time have you spent researching new music to listen to? You may like something, but that does not make it good, and that certainly does not make it art. Here is the problem with Aesthetic Relativism: it does not, in contemporary society, distinguish between the uninformed opinion and the informed opinion. Because, remember, ALL opinions are equal.

Here, we take it a little farther, because if all opinions are equal, then learning and knowledge become unnecessary, and we are very quickly able to move from the student who thinks his paper is perfect to the teen who thinks the Jonas Brothers are great (or, as one student said to me today: Boyz II Men is the greatest R&B group ever) to the evangelical who claims that science is no different from religion. This happens because ALL opinions are valid. Thus, MY opinions are right. It’s a simple leap to make, and it leads to a kind of intellectual laziness that pervades the culture.

I do feel compelled to take a moment to say that, in the proper context, relativism has its place. Certainly, one can argue that the standards for what constitutes great art or music or literature change over time. (Though, personally, I would like to believe that in much the same way that it is possible for the best writers today to appreciate Shakespeare and Dickens, were it possible, the reverse would be true.) However, the real problem comes with utter equivocation. The field cannot be entirely level. All opinions cannot be considered equally valid. The most thoughtful and informed opinions MUST be held in higher regard than those that are less so. When this is not done you end up with the kind of ugly, boring world that my students try everyday to enforce upon me.

Cate and I finally went to see Star Trek on Memorial Day. I had been lokking forward to it for a while, and I was hopeful — it has gotten pretty good reviews. But I wasn’t going in blind I wanted to see it live up to the billing.

The Star Trek franchise has had some issues lately. The last movie (Nemesis) came out in 2002 and, while I thought it was underrated, I’ll be the first to admit it’s been a while since I found myself really impressed. First Contact was, I think, the last really excellent film, and that came out in 1996. So, it’s safe to say that if Star Trek was going to keep going, it needed something big.

I don’t think it pulled it off.

I’m sure there will be sequels. This is clearly a setup movie, and it’s already made a ton of money, but, and here comes the nerd part, I don’t think it was much of a Star Trek.

Four things have contributed to my being an embarrassingly large Star Trek fan:

1. It’s character based, not story based. More than any other sci-fi movie or franchise, Star Trek has always been about the people. Yes, they are in outer-space, but they are still human (or half-human) and they still have human stories. I like that. I like that it isn’t usually your standard “defeat the bad aliens” kind of thing. Or, at least, that when it is, there is more going on under the surface.

2. It’s like Shakespeare, but in outer space. Really, it is. I don’t know what else to say about it, but go watch The Wrath of Khan or The Undiscovered Country and tell me it isn’t Shakespearean.

3. It isn’t afraid to tackle issues. And, generally, it does it pretty tastefully. Star Trek has always been very, very good at pointing out something relevant in society and then sort of letting you look at it. It’s been a head of the curve on race, sexuality, and host of other issues.

4. There is always a sense of discovery. Or almost always. Sure, there are bad guys and whatnot, but almost always there is also something new that hasn’t been seen before in this fictional universe. This one in particular was important in hooking me as a child.

So, how does the new one do?

1. Character based? No, not really. Mostly because it tried to introduce us to too many characters, even Spock and Kirk who, theoretically have pretty compelling story lines don’t come off as characters so much as cliches. In the old films, the characters were often archetypes, but there is a difference between and archetype and a cliche.

2. Shakespeare? Maybe. I mean, there is sure as hell a lot of death, but where as in the old films, the emotions were wonderfully complex and the characters conflicted, here it’s just sort of basic revenge/quest for power stuff without any of the mess that makes Shakespeare and the old Trek so good.

3. Issues? Nope. Nowhere. No discussion. Not even close.

4. Discovery? Maybe a little, but nothing that fills you with wonder, and discovery never seems to be the object, which is disappointing.

Finally, I have to point out that there are big problems with the story. Sure, the old Trek would take some scientific leaps, but this one goes so far that there a times when everyone in the audience knows enough about black holes. for example, to understand that much of what happens isn’t even remotely theoretically possible. Additionally, elements of the human story are totally unbelievable. I won’t get to deeply into it except to say that absolutely nothing explains the ending beyond a need to make everything set up nice and neat for future films.

Did I enjoy it? Yeah, I did, but there is nothing to distinguish it from any other science-fiction blockbuster. There is no aspiration, and that, more than anything, is a disappointment.

Lonely Human Atoms

May 13, 2009

Something is about to happen that has happened only once before in my life. I have finally reached the point at which I will send my new book forth into the world. I have six readers whom I trust and who have agreed to read the book and provide criticism before I do the final edit.

Of course, I “finished” the book a while ago, and that was very nice, but all it really meant was that it was time to go through it and find all the parts that sucked and change them so that they sucked less. I hate that part of writing and laziness plus my job plus getting sick about 8,000 times since Christmas really conspired to make this process take much longer than I wanted it to. Still, preparing to pass a book out to people is one of my favorite parts. Books aren’t like short stories. You don’t just slap a title at the top of the first page and email it to whoever. There’s a title page and then a page with a couple of quotes from other books (Winesburg, Ohio and All the King’s Men) that I feel capture the essence of what the book is really about. (Yes, I know how pretentious that sounds.) In this book there are even three parts that are themselves divided into chapters. I don’t know why, but it’s really enjoyable to go through and put all of that stuff in. Even though the book isn’t finished. In an important way, this is the most finished it will ever feel. Undoubtedly, there will be changes. Some of them may be pretty significant. This book is almost twice as long as my last one, and I’m fairly certain there are things I didn’t pull off and things that I repeated too often and things that just don’t need to be there. That’s why I’m handing it out. But, in a few days when I print it off, I will be able to hand it to someone and it will feel like handing them a book and not just a stack of chapters which is sort of what it feels like to finish the first time. So, if I haven’t done this before, I’d like to give a little history of the book:

The central character is Charles Burden. He first appeared in a story my junior year of college (that’s 2000-2001 is you’re scoring at home). I wrote the story (“Windows”) for a class. The assignment was to mimic a story from an author we liked. I chose to mimic “Hands” from Winesburg, Ohio. I took Charles’ surname from Jack Burden, the narrator in All the King’s Men. The events of this story became the basis for part one of the book. A few years later, I got it published by a local independent paper.

I have not, it should be noted, been working on this book for that long. In fact, not much happened with Charles for years. I wrote another book, played a lot of guitar, and spent four years at a dead end job. The other book is important because when it was finished, I took a few months off and started looking for something else to write about. I hit upon “Windows” while looking through an old writing folder. I read through it and realized that though I had not named him, I had written a character very like Charles in several other stories. I looked at these other stories and a narrative came together. It was kind of magical, actually. This was the first time I ever wrote something knowing what would happen at the end. In fact, the last chapter was one of the first things I wrote.

When I did start writing sometime early in 2007, Charles became a physicist (he had been a PhD in history, but this wouldn’t work in the story. Also, I wanted to learn about physics). Interestingly, Cate was in a creative writing class I taught that semester, and had it not been for this book (I showed the class one chapter and she asked to read more. She was a talented writer, so I agreed), we likely would not have gotten together.

I wrote the largest chunk of the book (probably about 50,000 words or so) during that summer as, for the first time in years, I had time to sit down and just write. I also broke up with a girlfriend and periodically emailed a chapter to Cate who was in DC for the summer. I thought I was going to make quick work of the first draft, but I started teaching full time and that took a lot of time, and Cate and I started dating not long after she came back from DC (and then got engaged and then got married), and that took a lot of time (I’m not complaining), and then there were some terrible things that happened that I’m not going to go into, but it’s safe to say that I haven’t written as much as I would have liked over the last few years. It’s been a battle at times, but over the last year and a half I worked on it in snatches of time and finally got to this point.

The title came very late in the game. For a long time is was just “The Charles Burden Book”, then it was “The Approximate Life of Charles Burden.” Finally, a few weeks ago, I was lying in bed and thought of Lonely Human Atoms, which fits just right and is actually the result of my misremembering the following Sherwood Anderson quote from Winesburg, Ohio.

In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing that was felt.

Now here I am, sitting at my computer, and I do not have a book to work on. I can write about whatever I want. I could have done this before, of course, but that’s not really how I work. I have some ideas. I am going to write a short story that stems from the little flash fiction nugget I had published recently. There are a couple of books. One that I know I’ll start soon and one I’ll likely put off for a bit as it will be a very ambitious project and I’m not ready for another one of those just yet. There are other short stories hopping around in my head, also, and I want to write those.

It’s an exciting time. I have a lot of creative freedom right now. I also have a child coming, and aside from all the normal excitement, I’m interested to see if the change in perspective I expect to take place will affect my writing style. This summer is going to be an adventure, but I think it will be fun. In any case, I’m ready for a little adventure.

Cate and I have often talked about how uncomfortable we are with the term “agnostic” because it implies belief with a hearty dose of skepticism. In a Christian society this is especially troubling because I DO NOT believe in the Christian god who is logically impossible for more reasons than I can begin to discuss here (though see an earlier post for some of that), who is often unbelievably cruel, and who has been immeasurably corrupted by thousands of years of willful ignorance and inflexible dogma. However, I have always felt equally uncomfortable with the term “athiest” for reasons I often had difficulty articulating.

Recently, however, I was puttering around YouTube, and stumbled on this wonderful interview Margaret Atwood gave on the subject of religion where she rather convincingly asserts that atheism is a religion because it asserts something as fact that cannot be proved. And that is exactly the point I have been unable to articulate. I have said to people before that part of my problem with atheism is that you can’t prove there is no god (though, as noted, I do believe that the gods of some religions can be disproven). But what really gets me is that atheism is a religion just as much as Christianity. It has dogma (there is no god) that cannot be proven just as religions do. I find religion pretty pointless. I prefer science. Thus, I am not an atheist. Neither am I an agnostic. If you were to ask me which way I lean, I would tell you that I have a very hard time believing that any of the gods in any of the religions I have encountered being real with the Buddhist concept of Nirvana seeming the least ridiculous to me, but frankly, I do not know, as I have seen far to little evidence to cause me to really lean toward either side.

So, what am I? I do not belong to any religion, including atheism. I am not an agnostic. I don’t think there is a word that describes my viewpoint. I do not worship. I do not believe without evidence. I suppose, if you wanted, you could call me a scientist, though that might stretch the meaning of that word just a bit.