My online reading since last May in a nutshell. Note: Apologies and thanks to the fantastic Prufrock daily newsletter, which I’ve enjoyed for years now, and from which much of this content is taken. I can’t recommend subscribing to it highly enough!
*Arts & Entertainment*
“We made this guy listen to all 104 Haydn symphonies and put them in order of greatness”
The problem with contemporary art is that unlike modernism it “‘isn’t even contemptuous of old standards—it is wholly indifferent to them . . . . Sincerity, formal rigor and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendental—none of these is on the radar among the artists and critics who rule the contemporary scene.’ Instead, Identitarians are obsessed with ‘a set of all-purpose formulas about race, gender, class, and sexuality on the one hand and power and privilege on the other.’”
J. M. W. Turner was ambitious and talented. He was also difficult: “A barber’s son, he rose through the class-bound ranks of late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain to become the nation’s most celebrated and controversial painter. And yet he ended life in scandal, living with a secret mistress under the assumed identity of a sea captain.”
Rocking Bach: Cameron Carpenter’s All You Need Is Bach opens with an “arrangement of Contrapunctus 9, from The Art of the Fugue. It is aggressive, loud, and exciting.”
As a matter of plain fact, the sociology professor who complains about my lack of diversity is himself the most culturally monochromatic of scholars. He teaches about cities that he can visit by riding on a train. He teaches about people whom he can call up on the telephone. He assigns books and articles written in English, about people who speak English, who watch the same television we watch, listen to the same bad music, play the same sports, and so on. I cannot take a train to ancient Athens. I cannot call Thomas Aquinas on the telephone. There are no YouTube videos of Shakespeare directing his actors.
The material I teach in the first year of DWC spans four millennia, from ancient Babylon to the end of the Renaissance. This year’s entries were originally written in Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, old French, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. We are in Jerusalem with David, on the coast of half-Christian England with the poet of Beowulf, in Rome with Cicero, in Madrid with Calderón, in exile with the Florentine Dante, and in London with Shakespeare. We have studied the Parthenon and Saint Peter’s, Giotto and the stained glass windows of Chartres, Arthurian romance and the poetic philosophizing of Lucretius. It is utterly preposterous to say that we are anything but multicultural. We study cultures, and there are a lot of them, and they diverge far from ours and from one another. A Viking chieftain is not a Roman senator or a Christian friar. Xerxes is not Francis Xavier.
But I know that none of that really counts. One of the student protesters, abashed, has written in our newspaper that even though a Viking is admittedly “diverse” from anybody we may meet on the street now, studying the Vikings does not serve “the larger purpose” of diversity. And thus has he unwittingly given up the ballgame.
He and the students are not really interested in studying cultures other than ours. What counts for them as “diversity” is governed entirely by a monotonous and predictable list of current political concerns. If you read a short story written in English by a Latina author living up the road in Worcester, that counts as “diverse,” but if you read a romance written in Spanish by a Spanish author living in Spain four hundred years ago, that does not count as “diverse.” It probably does not even count as Hispanic. If you pore over the verb system of Old Icelandic so that you can stumble around in the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, that does not count, despite the fact that the sagas are utterly different from any form of literature now written. But if you collect a few editorials written by Toni Morrison, that does count, despite the fact that they are written in English and that you have read hundreds of such.
Joseph Bottum on higher education today: “If you can’t read Chaucer without a translation, or puzzle your way through a page of Cicero’s Latin, you aren’t educated. If you don’t have a few dozen tags of Homer within easy reach in your mind, or a few hundred lines of Shakespeare, you lack part of what high schools and colleges were created to teach. If you can’t name the books of the Bible, or the circles of Dante’s Hell, there are pieces missing from what we once assumed learned people should know. For that matter, if you can’t say how the Romans lost at Cannae, or how the Ten Thousand marched from Persia, or how Troy was defeated, then what was all your schooling for?”
Nicholson Baker spent a month working as a substitute teacher and wrote a book about it: “Many of his substitute assignments entailed working as an ‘ed tech,’ essentially an assistant in another teacher’s classroom, tasked with helping struggling students. He thus had the chance to witness full-time teachers doing their jobs. They relied heavily on worksheets, flashcards, and playing movies and TV shows. The students had iPads issued (and paid for) by their schools, but seemed to use them more for procrastination and distraction than for learning. In one elementary-school music class, children were told to color in pictures of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, instead of singing or learning an instrument. Few of the teachers demonstrated impressive intellectual capacity. One could not pronounce the word ‘coterie. Another asked ninth-graders to reflect on how ‘Plutonic’ love is depicted in Romeo and Juliet.”
How to think like Shakespeare: “Class of 2020, welcome to college… Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. It would be hard to design a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education. Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these ‘4Cs,’ I would add ‘curiosity.’) Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.”
Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award
Nonsense paper accepted by International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics: “Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper…I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions.”
*Language & Literature*
Ron Rash’s narrative verse: “The Appalachian settings and characters, the sharp language and crisp images that are the hallmarks of his fiction are all here, in poems about historical figures like the naturalists William Bartram and Horace Kephart (who is also a character in Serena); Civil War conflicts and clan feuds; the origins of place and plant names; and exile—from ancestral countries, from family farms, from the mountains. Some of the overlap with his fiction is more direct: One of the new poems, ‘First Memory,’ makes a cameo appearance in the diary of a main character from Above the Waterfall. (That character, like Rash, is an admirer of Gerard Manley Hopkins.) ‘Carolina Parakeet’ covers subject matter integral to his novel The Cove. ‘Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out’ is a poetic version of a short story with the same title.”
Poem: Les Murray, “Boarding in Town for School”
Poem: William Reichard, “Equinox”
The value of reading old books: “Modern books can be beautiful. Some will become classics, and we should read many of them, regardless of what we imagine future generations will think. They are our books, after all. But sometimes the most exhilarating departure from normal is to travel to another world. Old books are the ticket.”
The Dictionary of American Regional English tries to save 50 American words from becoming archaic.
New evidence disproves Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar
Poem: David Mason, “Given Rain”
Poem: Gilbert Allen, “Two Become One Flesh”
A.E. Housman: the laureate of repression
Poem: Elise Hempel, “No Stone”
The crisis of English prose: “English prose is now in direr straits: not only are examples of clear and attractive writing few and far between, they are also depressingly hard to unearth. To what institutions or individuals should one turn nowadays for lucid and cogent discussion? Political discourse is more obfuscatory and bet-hedging than ever; newspapers are adopting an increasingly pared-down, smart-phone-friendly register; TV newscasters are finding more banal ways to convey complex information to the viewer; documentaries shrink from documenting and discussing the difficult for fear of taxing their dwindling audiences; much of the public sector and business world has moved beyond meaningful verbal communication: clients and customers are less trouble when bemused than when engaged.”
Shakespeare among cowboys: “Shakespeare’s influence on the American mind and heart runs deeper than mere affection spawned by a common language. The American soul has been distinctly shaped by Shakespeare. In his cheerful vulgarity, his upstart vitality, his hatred of tyranny, and his love of freedom, we can see that he is ours and we are his.”
Poem: Joseph S. Salemi, “Your Grandmother’s Verse”
Image of the Day: Afternoon storm over Colorado Springs
Astronomy Picture of the Day: Milky Way over the Namib Desert
In praise of playing and watching sports
21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own
*Politics & Society*
Political Essay of the Year: The Flight 93 Election
Psychiatry Professor: ‘Transgenderism’ Is Mass Hysteria Similar To 1980s-Era Junk Science
The Truth About Black Lives Matter
Economics: In the Long Run
The (rarely addressed) difficulty of transgender detransitioning: “The indisputable evidence that transgenderism is not innate is the existence of people who wholeheartedly believe that they need a sex change and then later—often many years later—change their mind and go back. People who have detransitioned, as I have, write to me and tell me their stories and their struggles. They don’t want too many people to know who they are and what they have lived through. They want to live quietly and keep a low profile because they are filled with shame and regret. They are unable to bring themselves to disclose publicly that the transgender life didn’t work out as they had hoped.”
In a talk at an Australian writers festival, Lionel Shriver “defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation, if it served her artistic purposes.” Upset, officials later “censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks.”
Carlos Lozada reviews Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book on Southern tea partiers: “When she lands in Louisiana, Hochschild realizes, ‘I was definitely not in Berkeley, California. . . . No New York Times at the newsstand, almost no organic produce in grocery stores or farmers’ markets, no foreign films in movie houses, few small cars, fewer petite sizes in clothing stores, fewer pedestrians speaking foreign languages into cell phones — indeed, fewer pedestrians. There were fewer yellow Labradors and more pit bulls and bulldogs. Forget bicycle lanes, color-coded recycling bins, or solar panels on roofs. In some cafes, virtually everything on the menu was fried.’ Dear God, no yellow Labs or solar panels? How do you live?”
The virtues of reality: “Since the 1990s, we’ve seen two broad social changes that few observers would have expected to happen together. First, youth culture has become less violent, less promiscuous and more responsible. American childhood is safer than ever before. Teenagers drink and smoke less than previous generations. The millennial generation has fewer sexual partners than its parents, and the teen birthrate has traced a two-decade decline. Violent crime — a young person’s temptation — fell for 25 years before the recent post-Ferguson homicide spike. Young people are half as likely to have been in a fight than a generation ago. Teen suicides, binge drinking, hard drug use — all are down. But over the same period, adulthood has become less responsible, less obviously adult. For the first time in over a century, more 20-somethings live with their parents than in any other arrangement. The marriage rate is way down, and despite a high out-of-wedlock birthrate American fertility just hit an all-time low. More and more prime-age workers are dropping out of the work force — men especially, and younger men more so than older men, though female work force participation has dipped as well. You can tell different stories that synthesize these trends: strictly economic ones about the impact of the Great Recession, critical ones about the infantilizing effects of helicopter parenting, upbeat ones about how young people are forging new life paths. But I want to advance a technology-driven hypothesis: This mix of youthful safety and adult immaturity may be a feature of life in a society increasingly shaped by the internet’s virtual realities.”
In Spiked, Patrick West looks at the two Ray Bradburys – the “ethereal prophet of the future” and “the Bradbury who depicted calamity and doom”
In Prospect, Lionel Shriver argues that transgendersim is entirely dependent on stereotypes
Poems, religious, historical and political by Eliza R. Snow
The Best of Thich Nhat Hanh: Life, Teachings, Quotes, and Books
Examining the Book of Mormon Text: Scholars Present Findings