Tag: BBD

Lucy Ellmann and old books

We’re at the copy-editing stage of my next book, so it’s too late to add anything, but goodness, I wish I could squeeze in this from Lucy Ellmann:

Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.

I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.

Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.

I love this statement because of its provocations — provocations that should be assessed with some care. For one thing, I don’t see that the variety of books has especially diminished since Hiroshima — I mean, Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Shack and a whole bunch of adult coloring books have appeared since the end of that war — and if we’re missing the distinctive (and very funny) kind of “sexiness” in Tristram Shandy I think that has a lot more to do with the sexual revolution and its unanticipated consequences than with the atom bomb. 

But the idea that before the industrial revolution, with its accompanying “war and capitalism” and reduction of persons to “mere monetary units,” the natural world was perceived in a radically different way — that’s promising. Though I think the main thing that should be said about pre-modern nature is not that it was untainted but that it was scary as shit. Which is just as much worthy of our interest and reflection. 

We could debate such matters all day — and should! Because there’s no question that the past really is another country, though they don’t everything different there. Trying to understand the continuities as well as the discontinuities is what reading books from the past is all about. 

Anyway, my book is going to be great on all that stuff. Make sure it’s the only book published in 2020 that you buy in 2020, okay? Otherwise, stick with the old stuff. You’ll be glad you did. 

terror and history

This excellent post by my colleague Philip Jenkins reminds us of an earlier era — just 25 years ago! — when America was worried about right-wing terrorists. As I have often pointed out — see here and here — it’s not just the distant past we’ve forgotten, it’s the very recent past. And that forgetfulness makes it very difficult for us to come up with appropriate and proportionate responses to our current problems.

presentism revisited

A follow-up to my recent post on a certain variety of chronological snobbery: I see that Louise Doughty has nominated her top 10 ghost stories. Their dates:

  • 1987
  • 1898
  • 2015
  • 2017
  • 2017
  • 2010
  • 2002
  • 2009
  • 1983
  • 2001

So: seven of the ten best ghost stories ever written have appeared in the past 18 years. Amazing! How do we account for the fact that just in this century writers have gotten so good at ghost stories — so much better that people who came before, like Arthur Machen and M. R. James and Charles Dickens? It’s a mystery.

chronological snobbery

The novelist Hannah Beckerman was asked, “I’m an English lit postgraduate who’s slipped into a reading rut since my final exams – what are some good books to get me back into loving literature?” Here are the first publication dates of the books she recommended:

  • 2006
  • 2016
  • 2013
  • 2010
  • 2014
  • 2015
  • 2015
  • 1995
  • 1997
  • 2000
  • 2002
  • 2017
  • 1959–1994 (Paley’s stories)
  • 1937
  • 2017
  • 2019
  • 1988
  • 1926
  • 1989
  • 1999
  • 2015

Also, all of them are written in English and by people from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the USA. The two major temporal outliers (1937 and 1926) are both children’s books, and there are no adults-only (or -primarily) novels from before 2002.

Is it really likely that all the books that might be recommended to someone who wants to “get … back into loving literature” are from our culture, our language, our time? And that none of them are poems or plays?

this is your mind on presentism

As a person writing a book about the need to cultivate temporal bandwidth, I am so pleased when various prominent cultural outlets do advance publicity on my behalf. Consider for instance this piece in the New Yorker on the decline in the study of history:

“Yes, we have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life,” Blight told me. As our political discourse is increasingly dominated by sources who care nothing for truth or credibility, we come closer and closer to the situation that Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” “Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo … can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” he wrote. A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos. As he has proved ever since he rode to political prominence on the lie of Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump is all three. And, without more history majors, we are doomed to repeat him.

I would give a big Amen to this but with one caveat: it’s not more history majors we need, it’s a more general, more widespread, acquaintance with history. Without that we are fully at the mercy of our now-habitual and increasingly tyrannical presentism.

Consider, as an exemplum, this Farhad Manjoo column, in which he deplores the “prison” of being referred to by gendered pronouns. Damon Linker’s response zeroes in on a key point:

But what is this freedom that Manjoo and so many others suddenly crave for themselves and their children? That’s more than a little mysterious. Slaves everywhere presumably know that they are unfree, even if they accept the legitimacy of the system and the master that keeps them enslaved. But what is this bondage we couldn’t even begin to perceive in 2009 that in under a decade has become a burden so onerous that it produces a demand for the overturning of well-settled rules and assumptions, some of which (“the gender binary”) go all the way back to the earliest origins of human civilization?

I think Linker could have, with equal appositeness, referred to 2014: If you got in a time machine and showed the Farhad Manjoo of 2014 a copy of his 2019 column, he almost certainly would not believe that he had written it. A stance that in 2014 was been so uncontroversial that it didn’t rise to the level of consciousness — that it’s okay for us to refer to ourselves by gendered pronouns — is now the unmistakable sign of “a ubiquitous prison for the mind.” And yet so thoroughly is Manjoo immersed in the imperatives of the moment that he’s not even aware of the discontinuity. That is the real prison for the mind.


totalitarian presentism

Senator Ben Sasse doesn’t read modern fiction, only old books, and people on social media are getting seriously freaked out.

Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.

It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.

Yeah, I really do need to write this book.