Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Two Links

Lists have played a rather embarrassingly large part in my cultural education—rock music, films, books. While far from spontaneous and often lacking the personal connection that comes from a recommendation or an accidental discovery, lists—like the Modern Library 100 novels or some British mag's 100 greatest albums—are useful in their own way.

At any rate, here are two unsorted lists about books that I find interesting, both from New York magazine:

The Future Canon
Overlooked/Underrated Novels

Looks like I should be adding a few new books to my reading queue. Right now I'm in the middle of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. I hope to have a post up about it tomorrow.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

New Fiction: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

I forget where exactly I read a capsule review of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but after pausing a moment over its description, I thought quickly of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The plots share a certain arc which defies the traditional bildungsroman, and they are both narrated in a directly confrontational mode which immediately implicates the the reader in the racial systems and assumptions which the novels explore and probe. I think a general comparison would be informing, although ultimately disappointing—Hamid's novel has nowhere near the range or heft of Ellison's, but that is not as much of a criticism as it might sound—no American novel of the 20th century has the range and heft of Invisible Man.

A brief plot summary: Hamid's Pakistani narrator Changez is a product of Princeton and in love with a rich, white New York girl, also a Princeton grad, whose boyfriend died her junior year. Despite Changez's efforts, the effects of that death still control her life. Changez has followed her to New York, where he works as a financial warrior for a firm called Underwood Samson (which, I believe, is meant to be an echo of Uncle Sam), something like a cross between D.E. Shaw and McKinsey. While Ellison's narrator never experiences this kind of success or that kind of love, there are resemblances between the narratives, but those are not particularly interesting or useful.

What I think is useful to compare is the way each novel uses direct address of an understood white audience to illustrate the very cultural critique the narrator is laying out. Both novels focus on the appropriation of a man of color for the purposes of a white ruling order; Hamid's narrator Changez uses the term "janissary" to describe his role in white, and more specifically American, society. Janissaries, elite fighting units in the Ottoman empire, were often composed of Christians taken prisoner at a very young age, raised in the empire and fiercely loyal to the sultan. This is an apt, if ironic in its cultural reversal, usage—Changez finds himself a servant of the American financial empire at the maximal point of American nationalism—the days and months immediately following 9/11. It is on September 11th that Changez first feels a fundamental separation from and incipient hostility toward America's hegemony; he smiles as he watches the towers fall. He does so involuntarily, however, and immediately chastises himself for such callousness. But as American rhetoric reveals its jingoism and foreign policy falls into line, bombing Pakistan's neighbor Afghanistan and playing a deadly game of brinksmanship by encouraging India to threaten Pakistan itself with nuclear war to ensure Musharraf's cooperation, Changez feels an increasing draw from his home and from his origins. He feels alien—not just alienated, but genuinely alien where once he felt at worst exotic.

Changez is narrating all this to an unidentified man in the city of Lahore, Changez's home city in Pakistan. But he addresses the man as "you"—speaking directly to the reader, often aggressively, even derisively, but slowly making scattered observations about "you" which animate the reader as a specific person, a specific type of person—American, white, male. There is more to "you," and finding that out is truly thrilling. But by buttonholing the reader as a specific persona—a trick Hamid probably picked up from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner—the reader's involvement in the racial dynamic of the story is inescapable, and questions about readership itself emerge forcefully. The presence of Hamid's novel in our hands—American hands—is, inevitably, reinstating Hamid in the janissary-like position which Changez resents so strongly. I felt when I read Invisible Man that the genius of the book was not in some straightforward rebellion, but in the implication of its audience in the very processes and structures which have constrained and persecuted the narrator throughout. As politics, Hamid's novel is thrillingly immediate, meaningful, and unavoidably provocative. As art, this process of implication is an incredible effect—a novel is intended to engage the reader, to create a world around her, and works like this do so incomparably well.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I've posted a few times already on this blog—nothing particularly good yet—but I feel it's necessary to reboot and offer the obligatory "this is what my blog's for, hopefully I'll actually post lol" post.

This blog's already gone through a few names as I've tried to figure out what to call it without coming off as too pretentious or obscure. I don't think I've succeeded (the new title, Reveries of a Solitary Reader is a hat-tip to Rousseau's unfinished journal Reveries of a Solitary Walker—as I'll be doing more reading than walking, I've made the necessary titular change), but I'm doing better than the first two ideas: "Deificari in Otio," a phrase taken from a letter St. Augustine wrote to some other 5th century dude (it means "becoming godlike in one's leisure"—and that's a very free translation) and "Frénésie Journalière," a phrase taken from one of Baudelaire's letters or journal or something. It means Journalistic (or Daily?) Frenzy. For the past few days, I've been thinking of calling the blog "Books Don't Need Batteries," which would have been a reference to this cute little Family Circus comic my mom sent me this year:

But that would have eventually embarrassed me, so I decided I needed a new one. After a few moments, I landed on Rousseau, the king of the Navel-Gazers. I'll be staying far away from any Rousseauian reflections, though, as that's not really what I want to do with this blog.

I'm hoping to spend most of the next two years reading, in preparation for grad school. I plan on concentrating in 20th Century American Literature, so that's probably most of what I'll be tearing through, although I'll try to mix things up with a Hrabal or a Bolano or an Abe every once in awhile. A sort of analytical/critical log of this reading program will make up most of the content on the blog, and if that description didn't just entirely put you off, you're more than welcome to read along, comment, and (please) suggest other things to read.

These maiden-voyage posts are usually rather perfunctory, but I've already spent way too much of your time on it. The post prior to this gives some more of my rationale about keeping this blog, and some thoughts on reviewing in general. Hopefully I'll have a real review up soon.

Critical Elitism

There is a much larger context to this article, but it's the same type of turf-war dispute between print journalists and bloggers that has occurred everywhere, and it's really tedious. (If you want to catch up, read this.)

The article's titled "Not Everybody's a Critic," and it's written by Richard Schickel, Time's film critic. His point is that reviewing is not a matter of opinion, but rather of "disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities." He resents the sort of blogger who can brag about reviewing 95 books in a year, working on the side from his job. (By the way, it's interesting how Schickel genders the amateur blogger as excessively virile—"hairy-chested populism"—rather than the typical characterization of being frivolous and feminine, but anyway.)

I agree with Schickel to a very large extent. I do think a reviewer needs to be something more than a quality-control officer (which is why I hate Roger Ebert so much; even when he does write a decent column that says more, that never gets quoted, just his thumbs). It's not just even about writing well or convincingly. I think a reviewer does need to have a deep working knowledge of an author's previous output, his or her sources, the larger literary conversation, and a fair amount of theoretical knowledge, and should aspire to transmitting all of that within most reviews.

Of course, I'm writing this on a blog and have every intention of using this blog to talk about books, so I'm probably either being awfully hypocritical or self-hating or something along those lines. But I don't feel that I am.

Schickel assumes a few things that I feel aren't necessary assumptions, and he says a few things at the end of the column that I think are quite worthwhile and which I think speak to some of the possibilities of blogging that I'm intending to explore on this blog.

First, he assumes that bloggers spend almost no time on their posts and blog only to express a hasty and ostentatious opinion. While empirically this may be quite true, it's not necessarily so. Blogging is merely a technology, just as print is a technology. It can be used in many different ways, and although its natural capacities may direct the uses one makes of it, it does not prevent other ways of employing it. Let me be more direct. There is nothing about Blogger that requires I finish my post in a certain (short) amount of time nor any function that forbids scholarly diligence showing up in my posts.

Secondly, he assumes that anyone who is interested in spending this kind of time educating themselves in all those things necessary to write proper book reviews will want the fruits of their labor to go into the NYRB or The New Yorker or whatever else. Again, this is probably empirically true, but not necessarily so. Sure, it does seem as if many litbloggers are using their blog to get paid gigs at print-based publications or, perhaps, quasi-highbrow online mags—Slate, Salon, etc. But this probably will not always be true. Because in almost all cases those who write reviews seriously do so for money, and not just side-money but as their primary source of income, it is financially necessary to get your content published where it will get you the most money. That may not always be the case—either blogging and self-promotion will start paying more than writing for The New Yorker (fat chance) or people who have steady sources of income apart from reviewing and yet, for some reason or other, have had the kind of education and have developed the kind of reading habits that will allow them to review books in the way Schickel describes, will start putting fingers to keys and posting their thoughts.

But that opens up another question—at least for me. Can blogging be a way of acquiring this education and of developing these reading habits? I hope to make this blog into an easily accessible (public) record of my attempt to become just the kind of person Schickel describes. Having that record will, I think, allow me to refer back to ideas I've previously had and connections I've previously made in ways that mere memory will not. At least, that's my hope.

But Schickel articulates something else that I've been struggling to identify and that encapsulates another ideal use for this blog: Schickel quotes DJ Waldie in saying that "blogging is a form of speech, not of writing."

I participated recently in a panel here at Dartmouth that focused (soft-focused) on the question of how much blogging really has become an alternative to journalism. One guy said that it has, but not in the way everyone believes. It hasn't mounted a challenge to the kind of journalism that the NYTimes specializes in, or that CNN specializes in. Some efforts by Pajamas Media (represented on the panel by its founder, Roger L. Simon) to the contrary, the big-time bloggers (PowerLine, Atrios, or even larger, multi-user outfits like DailyKos or Huffington Post) are not taking over from the Times or CNN in providing on-the-spot, foreign correspondent type reporting. They're opinion-based and comment largely on the MSM's coverage of world or national events. For some reason, bloggers think that criticizing MSM or critiquing their coverage of an issue is the same thing as doing their job for them, but I'll leave that debate alone for the moment. What blogs do threaten is the other opinion-based, news-commentary-focused outlets—things like Time or Newsweek or US News & World Report.

A point that I made pushes that insight farther (I think). Blogs are mostly in the business of personality-formation—either the blogger's (/bloggers') personality or the personalities of a set of targets, either political or cultural. Many blogs are written somewhat anonymously, but are focused on creating a gallery of targets for either obsession or for censure/mockery, but I think this is effectively no different from a Livejournal.

But what this boils down to, then, is that all blogs are gossip blogs. You may be gossiping about yourself or the latest news about some film adaptation of a graphic novel or the NY social scene or celebrity culture or the health of your dog, but it's all gossip. What is the sustaining and defining feature of a blog? The hotlink. And linkage is what gossip is all about. Discrete networks that become more interesting the more internal links there are. That's the same principle that drives blogging and reinforces the idea of blogging as a form of speech rather than writing.

What this means is that I hope people comment on here, not necessarily on-topic, and not necessarily in response to something I've posted. I think gossiping about books and about authors—living or dead—is actually a considerable part of learning how to talk and think about books. Authors, and the books they write, very much exist within these discrete networks, and the more links you can draw among them, the more interesting they—and you—become.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Theses = Feces

Saul Bellow is laughing at me and my terrible attempt at understanding him.

By the way, this man had a child at the age of 84.