Sunday, January 29, 2006

What will my grandchildren read?

It is a strange thought to imagine that in 75 years or so, there will be a collection of books, sorted out from the thousands published in the last decade or two, that will be considered the "canon" of my era. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will read them in high school and college, and argue about what they meant and what was intended. I haven't, however, the faintest idea which books they will be - whether McEwan or Roth, Delillo or Rowling.

My best guess is that most of them won't be high culture books, post modern, or winners of the Nobel prize for literature. If you look back at the history of fiction, comparatively little of it was written as "art" or as "high culture" (poetry being to some degree an exception, but not quite as much as one might think). The books that we read over and over again tend to be their day's low culture, books read by most of the literate populace, for their own pleasure. While it may be hard for modern tv addicts to imagine reading George Eliot or going to see "Tamburlaine" for pleasure, it is a simple fact.

They also probably won't arise from the lowest of low cultures, either. While some bad books have made it into the canon, and some bad books have been reclaimed in the name of the gender or history of their authors, mostly people don't like to read bad ooks. And who can blame them. The occasional over-the-top potboiler, that is fun to read but with virtually no meaningful content (given where I live, I probably shouldn't say this, but Cooper leaps to mind), and the occasional bad bit of high culture, that no one really likes to read but everyone says is interesting ("Finnegan's Wake" will do as an obvious example, but there are plenty of others.), but mostly, the books in the canon are well beloved by most readers, precisely because they are fun and readable.

So I'd be inclined to toss out things like Delillo, who is a very entertaining novelist, but an awful lot of work to read for very little return. I don't claim to know whether it is identification or vicarious enjoyment that allows one to fall thoroughly into a book's world and have trouble escaping its gravity, but I'm fairly sure that's never happened in a Delillo novel. My experience of most self-consciously post-modern authors is that I admire the way they right, the fun they are having, the ideas they are playing with, but don't much care what happens.

Wanting to care what happens next is a very old fashioned, dull way to think about what makes a good book, but I'm not sure it has been exceeded. Certainly, I don't think it has been exceeded by the contemporary psychological novel, an example of which would be the novels of Toni Morrison, or Dorothy Allison, which goes on and on explaining how someone came to be the way they are. The characters become who they are through the survival of an unending history of suffering, which logically concludes in the result at hand. Enduring that much suffering with a character is possible, if you very much like the character. But characters who are always and only formed by their experience of pain and suffering are usually hard to like, and after reading a few such novels, the process of being wrenched, over and over again, gets extremely tedious. I suspect some will survive, as exemplars in literary classes, of a recreation of the sentimental novel (the 18th century genre we seemed compelled to relive). But by and large, I don't forsee them making it either.

I suspect a few big, important novels, that lay open the politics and history of the times will also survive, but again, mostly to be read by scholars, not book lovers. There's something fundamentally archaic, and often dull, about reading a radical tract from the past. Try it sometime - pick one that has held up fairly, perhaps "The Jungle" and try to care about its political agenda. It works fine in the abstract, but I'd be shocked to learn there is someone out there who re-reads "The Jungle" the way people re-read Jane Austen. I fear McEwan, who I rather like, will be toast. I kind of hope that Roth and his indescribably dull _Plot Against America_ will be.

If I were placing bets (which I am, in fact), I'd lay odds that many of the books best remembered from my time will be children's literature, which has bloomed in the last decade in ways that are both exciting and novel. Freed by the constraints of being timely and meaningful, people have gone about writing really good, deeply enjoyable books, many of them quite literary.

Rowling and Pullman, so often discussed in the same sentence, seem to me like logical survivors both. Pullman is more "literary" but he is also less fun - his style is heavy handed and tedious at times, and his characters aren't very interesting. On the other hand, the story is compelling - despite the flaws in his telling, despite the fact that it is never made clear why the characters, who supposedly love so deeply, can even stand to be together, there is something both original and engaging about him. One can imagine this book as a high culture novel, rather than a children's novel, and recognize that the adult version would be nigh on unreadable, but in writing for a younger audience, Pullman is freed of his worst writing, and pulled towards something greater in scope than most adult novels would dare imagine. Pullman is a Romantic, in the old sense, and I rather think that a little romanticism might do us good.

Rowling's style is less self-consciously artistic, but more readable, and her characters better drawn and more complex. She's very uneven - the second book in the series is quite awful; and at times terribly predictable - in her fifth book, for example, the death of Dumbledore is both inevitable and endlessly foreshadowed. Having grown too big for an editor, with a desperate readership that demands length above all, the faults in her writing have been somewhat magnified.

But Rawling's books are smart, and funny (sadly, Pullman's aren't), and many of her characters are astonishingly complex. And she and Pullman make excellent companions, because if there is one thing that Rawling is not, despite her reliance on magic, it is romantic. Her novels are, oddly, novels about being grown-up (despite the fact that her main characters are children), and they are about recognizing that the flawed and fallen adult world is a place of magic and power. In a world where real adulthood is increasingly rare, and where fantasies of youth are everywhere, there is something astonishing about Rawlings, flaws and all.

If I had to place a bet on the books that will survive, I would look to children's literature - not exclusively, but to a large degree. Because those are the books that people of all ages and genders in my culture turn to, for the sheer pleasure of reading. I hope one of these days I can say that about the majority of adult fiction I read.

Sharon in upstate NY

Saturday, January 28, 2006

My new career - full time mitten knitting

I'm pretty sure if I gave up gardening, writing, teaching, sleeping, sex and eating, and just knitted mittens full time, I could make them faster than my husband and children can lose them. Now the good thing about this is that I really enjoy knitting mittens and socks - the bad thing is that even sock and mitten knitting isn't nearly as good as sex, sleep, food, or gardening.

It amazes me how fast they lose them - Eric too! And it doesn't matter whether they are the quickie, all stockinette mittens knitted in bulky weight yarn, or the fancy ones with elaborate fair-isle patterns knitted in yarn the approximate weight of thread on needles that look like toothpicks. Nor does it matter if I tell my husband, presumably an adult, don't lose these - they took me many, many hours. Much less the children. (Why, you ask sagely, do I bother knitting the fancy kind, when they are simply going to get lost? This is a perfectly legitimate question, to which I can only answer...I haven't the faintest idea. Nor do I have the faintest idea why I have just cast on yet another such pair for Eric in a Danish star pattern.)

I've tried the cords that run through the sleeves of their coats, but that just means they lose both mittens at once, instead of one at a time (and Eric won't let me make one for him, on the not unreasonable assumption that having his wife tie his mittens to his clothes might infantilize him in front of his students.) So I've decided the only solution is to knit mittens to the exclusion of all other activities, or, horrors, to actually purchase some cheap mittens for them to lose. I think it says something about me that I haven't done the latter yet, and am still debating whether I can simply knit full time. I'm sure what it says is nothing good.

In other news around the homestead, the robins are back, which is not surprising since today, at the end of January, we had our 8th day of the month above 50 degrees. This has been a very, very strange winter so far.

Eli has lost his first tooth, and the second of his bottom front teeth is on the verge of falling out, giving him a look that can only be described as "hillbilly child." He's doing very, very well in kindergarten, and really starting to initiate and respond to conversation with us, a very great joy.

Simon has learned to play "The Minister's Cat" with us - I was surprised by how fast he picked up what an adjective was, and by some of the adjectives he was able to come up with. I was particularly impressed by "The Minister's Cat is a Rufous Cat" which he was able to intuit, means reddish, from a comparison of the birds in his audobon book.

Isaiah is starting to seriously potty train (hurray!!), and despite a severe case of control freakism (also known as two-ness), is a lot of fun to have around. And Asher is starting to wave and grab at things, and last night, slept 6 1/2 consecutive hours.

So things are going pretty well around here.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Making Changes

This is counter-intuitive, but ultimately, I think radical change is easier than incremental change. The more radically and dramatically you transform your life, the harder it is to slip backwards into old habits, and the more compelling the arguments for adaptation, rather than rejection.

To use our own experience as an example, we picked up and moved out of our urban home, and out to the country, and took up growing our own food. DH and I gave up our fantasies of a two career academic coupling in exchange for more time, less money, and less need for money. Those are all transformations we might have made in another context, but I suspect we would never have fully succeeded in making them had we stayed where we were - the temptation to revert to our prior ways would have been too compelling, and everything about the demands of our life would have drawn us in a different direction.

I understand the desire to stay in an urban environmentand make money. Our own experience (YMMV, of course) was that it wasvery difficult to save money when we lived in Boston. In one of themost expensive housing markets in the country, more than 50% of ourincome went for housing costs. Here in upstate NY, my 4000 sqft farmhouse on 27 acres with outbuildings cost about the same as a condo in an exurb 45 minutes from downtown Boston (that was five years ago - now there's not a chance we could get a condo for that!). The taxes areconsiderably lower. Cost of living is substantially lower as well -gas and oil prices, cordwood, cars, clothing, childcare, food - allare lower here, and mostly of higher quality - ie, the used car onecan get for 2K here is considerably better than the same used car for2K in Boston. The food I can buy most cheaply here is local in-season produce, bought direct from local farmers, and of much higher quality than even the trucked in local produce in an urban environment. On the other hand, farmer's market produce in Boston was extremely expensive. Moreoever, it is easy to eliminate certain costs. We can cut firewood. We can grow much of our own food, including eggs and meat. We can barter for honey, milk and beef with neighbors. Salaries in rural areas are lower - but my observation isthat they are not proportionally lower - that is, the lower salary ismore than offset by the increased resources and the lower cost of living.

Moreover, the lifestyle is different. In the Boston area, most people live in fairly class-segregated communities - rich people do not live next door to poor people. And because of that, the standards of the community are extremely rigid - just try to leave your lawn uncut in most middle-class suburban neighborhoods. Here, however, we literally have mansions next to trailers (just up the street), and there is no single economic or aesthetic standard. Thus, when we couldn't afford a lawn mower for an extended period, we were not the only people with grass up to our waists.

Fighting the class system is hard work - it is hard to get over the embarassment of doing things that people associate with poverty, it is hard to change your standards of beauty to see the homemade wooden bench as more beautiful than the embroidered couch, and it is hard to live cheap. It is also wise. But for those without a strong sense of self discipline in that regard (like me!), I think a radical change is in many ways better and easier than small transformations.


Drinks for Everyone!

Well, maybe not. But I can't claim that I'm not enjoying the current sequence of Washington scandals. Now *these* are the Republicans I recall from my youth in the 1980s - corrupt, venal, foolish. The great frustration of the Karl Rove 21st century has been how good the Republicans have been at getting what they want. It is delightful to finally see a few of them paying the price for their sins. Schaudenfreude, to be sure, is an emotion not to be proud of. But I'm enjoying myself a bit too much to conceal it.

None of which says much about the future - watch John McCain distance himself from the realities of the Republican administration he's been whoring himself to for the last 8 years. Watch him be elected. Just watch. But in the meantime, I'll take my pleasures where I can.


What of the great middle class?

In America, "the middle class" encompasses everyone. Ask around. Most of the rich and almost all of the poor call themselves, at best, upper and lower-middle class. No one here ever really admits to being rich or poor. Neither do we admit, even to ourselves, that wealth is a fairly fixed thing in our society, that the vast majority of those who are born poor or wealthy will never leave that state.

And yet, I suspect a new wave of social mobility is in the works, one that rivals the Veblens development of the middle class - the move of the middle class into the realm of the poor (comparatively - if we're being honest with ourselves, all Americans, poor or rich, are so astonishingly wealthy compared to most of the rest of the world that we can't even imagine, but then again, context is everything), all without anyone in the middle class noticing.

The first step has been the refusal of the government to contain the costs of health care in any sane way - meaning that the poor, and even middle class in our society have something in common with the poor of the third world - they can't afford the medical treatment they need. As more companies decline to provide insurance, or demand huge payments from their employees, and health care costs rise, parents, the elderly and anyone with a medical problem gets poorer.

Next, note that while we all were so pleased to see that the GDP was rising, that rise provided absolutely no benefit to the middle or lower classes - nada. The country got richer, but only really rich people actually experienced a net benefit. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the rest of us were worse off.

Now watch the way that rising energy prices (yep, they are still rising!) are affecting consumers - as more of their income goes to keep warm and get to work, they can afford less. The poorest percentages are already making choices - food or heat? Medicine or gas? Our local fuel assistance programs are totally overwhelmed.

How long before the pattern drags the "middle class" down with them. Don't get me wrong, no one will ever stop calling themselves middle class, but we'll start to notice that the things that have been the hallmark of that class are gone - home ownership, health insurance, travel, leisure, entertainment - and the fact that people can no longer indulge in the above is likely to hurt the economy further.

It may be that someday, everyone is still calling themselves middle class here, despite the fact that we've moved to a perfect, two class society - the poor and the rich - eliminating 500 years of economic progress.