Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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Blog Post, Fun, writing

A Novel Journal

Every so often, I stumble across something that gets me so excited I simply must share it with the world. Or at least you all, who comprise my little world! One example of this is probably The Folio Society editions that I share every so often here on the blog.

But something new caught my eye recently while I was wandering around my local Barnes & Noble book store, as I do a few times every week. It’s a series of writing journals called “A Novel Journal,” released by Canterbury Classics.

Here’s how the publisher describes them: “Whether fueling the next great literary masterpiece, or simply adding a sense of tribute to daily journaling, these literary keepsakes bring an element of fun and culture to any writing project. Fashioned with colorful endpapers, color edges, and matching elastic bands to keep covers closed and pages intact, Novel Journals are ideal for gifting and collecting.”

So, here’s the thing. If you are a writer and a reader who, like me, often feels torn between his “loyalty” to one or the other (AM I WRITER? AM I A READER!?), these journals are literally the best of both worlds. Why? Well, not only are they beautiful, and not only do they have an excellent “finger feel,” and not only do they represent the greatest books of all time, with a well-selected quote from said books right there on the cover, but the lines of the journal are actually made up of the entire text of its representative novel, in tiny print! 

Obviously, I couldn’t resist. I was going to get one or two, but ended up leaving the store with five of them. I definitely added a whole bunch more to my wish list, and I plan to pick up at least two more very soon. (It was also fortunate for my wallet that Barnes & Noble had these on clearance!)

The other fabulous element to these journals is the artwork/design on the inside covers, as well as the front-page that explains the selected book and leaves a place for the journal owner to put their name and information. Here’s a look at the insides of the ones I purchased, and in case the image is too small to read, the text inside the font page says, for example, “This journal belongs to ____ and is shared with Edgar Allan Poe.” How delightful is that!?

Ultimately, as I said, I ended up with five (pictured below). But I hope to go back for PETER PAN and WALT WHITMAN this weekend because they were beautiful and I’ve been thinking about them all week!

Thoreau’s WALDEN and Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

 

 

 

 

Wilde’s PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and Doyle’s ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES

 

 

 

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S COLLECTED STORIES

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Blog Post, Essay, Personal, Politics

On Civility

On Civility

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

― Henry David Thoreau (“On Civil Disobedience”)

Recently, a restaurant owner politely asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the restaurant because her support of this administration’s homophobic and racist policies made some of her staff feel genuinely uncomfortable. Imagine, after all, hearing your own President call your people “rapists” or seeing his justice department argue in court that you don’t deserve the right to be treated equally in the marketplace, and then having to wait on and clean up after the woman who reports that information to the world.

The backlash from media pundits and republican leaders was swift, and even the President of the United States thought this civil request, following his own Supreme Court majority’s decision to deem it Constitutional for a bakery to refuse service to gay patrons on religious grounds—so despicable as to tweet lies about the restaurant’s supposed dirty/unsanitary conditions in retaliation. In response, Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it clear that any member of an administration that makes telling lies commonplace and that holds equal justice in contempt, should be prepared to face public consequences, such as protests.

Conservative politicians and main stream media, and even many prominent democrats, responded by sharply criticizing Representative Waters’ position and by calling, in some cases genuinely but in most cases opportunistically and hypocritically, for a “return to civility.” Such civility was demonstrated by President Trump and conservative actor James Woods, for example, who responded to Maxine Waters by calling her “low IQ” and threatening that she had better “watch out” (Trump) and by telling their followers to go out and “buy guns” because the war is coming (Woods). Oh, to find such practitioners of civility in our body politic, guiding the way for all of us.

The reality is, this group has no real desire for civility except from and only from the other side. What I mean is, these are the perpetual “victims” who tell themselves, and each other, that they are constantly under attack and therefore it is their right, their responsibility to fight by any means necessary; and yet, when anyone rebuffs them even in the slightest, most harmless sense, they cry foul. These are the bullies. These are the manipulators. These are the people, from Fox News and the Trumps, from the Huckabees to the father of it all, Newt Gingrich, who must have everything their way at all costs, who refuse to acknowledge the valid opinions—even the humanity—of anyone unlike them, and who created and perpetuated our culture of fear and divisiveness and now wish to sit comfortably in their power while claiming continued victimhood. They are, after all, in control of the Presidency, the Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and more than half of U.S. Governorships and State Legislatures, and yet they think they are being oppressed.

We have seen this kind of behavior in society and politics throughout history. We know that authoritarian governments rise by preying on peoples’ fears and doubts, by othering easy targets, like the Jews, the blacks, the Mexicans, or the gays. They lie about their opponents, usually projecting onto the other political party exactly the kinds of things they are guilty of doing, such as being “uncivil.” Take the anti-choice crowd, for example. They stand outside of clinics terrorizing women and men who are consulting medical professionals, a situation which should be wholly private and safe. They get people like Bill O’Reilly, a man with a massive audience, to denounce abortion-performing doctors by name, calling them “baby-murdering Nazis,” night after night on television, until someone shows up at that doctor’s home—Dr. George Tiller–and murders him. Other right-wing conspiracy theorists on Fox News, Breitbart, and InfoWars, such as Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Alex Jones, spout ridiculous stories like the one about a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, and claim that a former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate is a part of it. They say it over and over and over again until someone shows up at that pizza parlor with a gun, demanding to be taken to the “baby sex basement,” only to discover the building does not even have a basement. Not only does republican leadership refuse to denounce these things, but instead, people like Steve Bannon become a part of the President’s staff, working in the Oval Office. And people like Sean Hannity speak to the President on the phone every night. Is this civility?

After republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who calls NFL players exercising their first amendment rights to peacefully protest, “sons of bitches”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who calls Mexicans “rapists and murderers”; when republican leaders stand by, and base republicans vote for, a man who brags about sexually assaulting women and using his power to keep them quiet; when republican leaders and base republicans stand by a President who refers to cross-burning, Nazi- and confederate-flag waving, crowd-attacking white supremacists as “very fine people”; when republican leaders and base republicans continue to support a man who insists all Haitians have AIDS, all “black countries” are “shitholes” and all Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from our country; after republican leaders stood by, and base republicans railed about, “birthirism,” called Michelle Obama a “monkey in heels,” performed public hangings-in-effigy of President Obama; and when republican leaders and base republicans say they “don’t care” about immigrant kids in cages, that we should “stop trying to get [them] to cry about” children who have been torn away from their parents by our government, and that the immigrants are “lucky we didn’t assassinate them,” now. . . now they call for civility. Why? Because the President’s mouthpiece, the one who presents all of this to the world, was asked politely to leave a restaurant. That was civil.

I have to admit, I have always been reluctant to be uncivil. I try to be a kind person, above all else, which makes the idea of civil unrest and confrontation extremely difficult for me. But I realize now, even though I did not vote for this administration and even though I tried to explain to everyone in my circle of influence why I felt this administration would be a disaster for us all, I may have, indeed, been “too civil” about it. I may have been quiet when I should have spoken. I may have wanted to keep the peace with friends and family, rather than stoke a potentially permanent and irrevocable animus. In retrospect, I think I was wrong. That time is over.

  • I was civil after they called him “Kenyan Muslim.”
  • I was civil after they hung him in effigy.
  • I was civil after they called her an “ape in heels.”
  • I was civil after they murdered a doctor for doing his job.
  • I was civil after they mocked the disabled.
  • I was civil after they cheered a “pussy-grabber.”
  • I was civil after they called peaceful protesters “sons of bitches.”
  • I was civil after they allowed a foreign government to influence our elections.
  • I was civil after they called white supremacists “fine people.”
  • I was civil when they chanted, “lock her up.”
  • I was civil when they inserted religion into the state and elevated just one above all.
  • I was civil when they mocked a dying Senator by calling him, “irrelevant.”
  • I was civil when they cozied up to dictators.
  • I was civil when they called our neighbors rapists, murderers, back-stabbers.
  • I was civil when they walked away from human rights.
  • I was civil when they lied about the disaster in Puerto Rico and continued to refuse aid.
  • I was civil and they gutted healthcare.
  • I was civil and they made corporations “people.”
  • I was civil and they came for social security and Medicare.
  • I was civil and they attacked our free press as “enemy of the people.”
  • I was civil and they threatened to end due process and violate international law.
  • I was civil and the First Lady wore an Italian pro-fascist slogan (“I really don’t care”) on her jacket.
  • I was civil and they stole children from their parents, then lost track of them.

Here’s the thing about “being civil,” my friends. There are two types of people who, in environments like these, respond to basically civil protests with calls for civility and decorum: The first is made up of the type of people outlined above, those who call for civility but who have no intention of ever practicing it. They use it as a tool against the very people who do crave a fair and peaceful society for all. The second group is composed of the type who generally agree that something is wrong, but who do not want to “rock the boat” too hard. These folks, like David Axelrod, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer (all of whom criticized Waters, a black woman, for her call to action), tend to be white, wealthy, and politically privileged. So, while they believe they are on the right side of the fight, there is only so much skin they are willing to put in the game. To do more would be to threaten their own basically comfortable place in the world. I think, also, they have not realized or accepted just how much our body politic has changed and just how irrelevant they make themselves with these attitudes about the resistance, which has been incredibly civil (they lied, we marched. They murdered, we marched. They called us godless, immoral, criminals, anti-American, and we marched).

In many ways, with people like Pelosi and Schumer, I am reminded of the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone replaces Tom Hagen as consigliere. Michael loved his brother Tom. He respected Hagen, and he knew the man to be brilliant. But Hagen could no longer be effective in the new environment. We need a war-time consigliere. We need to go to the mattresses. Here’s what I believe, now: I can remind kind. I can remain good. But I can no longer continue to be civil in their fashion. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

I began with a short quote from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” and I would like to end with one, too. But let us also remember that over the course of history, justice has been won not only by statesmen in board rooms and at tea parties, but by the hard work and persistence of the people. People in the streets. People disrupting injustice. People sabotaging authoritarian plans. People marching, yes, but also people raging, storming, shouting, and standing up, at all costs, until their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers, and the rest of the world could not ignore the cry anymore. Until they, too, recognized the danger and revolted against it. These were people who were told, “if only you could be a bit more civil,” and realized this was a lie.

Bullies will cry foul at the first encroachment into their dominance. If given a concession, they will take more and more and more, until they are stopped. They will not listen to reason because they do not respect reason. They will not be swayed by justice because they believe in only the justice they create and that favors them above others. They will cry for civility because they know the people they are dealing with want civility, desire justice, believe in a moral imperative. But remember: the bully, the dictator, the authoritarian, they do not believe in these things and they will not accept them willingly.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  ― Henry David Thoreau

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Blog Post, Personal, Politics

Net Neutrality Is Dead and So Are We

Net Neutrality is officially dead in the United States, as of today. This is a terrible thing. Now, ISPs can charge additional fees for different websites or platforms, and slow down or speed up downloads/streaming in order to charge for higher plans or actively harm competitor services. This is an attack on knowledge and information, and another way to harm the poor, especially. This country is under distress in so many ways. 

Example: I did not want to purchase a cable television package through our local ISP, AT&T (one of only two options in my region — another major problem, considering the argument on the other side was that the “competitive marketplace” would actually make prices better; we saw how well that worked for health insurance!); so, we got Hulu Live television. Until now, our ISP was required to give us the speed they promised and access to anything/everything on the internet. Now, because Hulu is a competitor service owned by Fox, Time Warner, and Disney, AT&T can say: Hey. If you don’t buy OUR cable television, we are going to charge you an extra $10 (or whatever) per month to access Hulu, or we’re going to slow down streaming speeds on it.

So, what do I do? Try to watch television with old dial-up speeds? Pay more for this one service on top of what I already pay for internet? They could then go ahead and do the same with anything else – another $10/month for Netflix. Another $10/month for Amazon Prime videos. On and on. And don’t get me started with phone services — want Twitter? Add $3/month. Want Snapchat? Add $5/month! And on and on and on….

This is the world we’re allowing? Year after year after year, since the 1980s, we’ve been standing by and letting these major corporations (which, with “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court has mystifyingly classified as “people”??) rob us blind and take advantage of us. I mean, seriously, what the hell are we doing? Americans have been so duped into thinking that everything must be a competition and that there is only “so much” to go around, that we’re starving ourselves and each other. We no longer believe in a living wage, let alone a thriving one (which should be our right!), and instead gleefully watch as all our money is sucked up by the same few families and companies. The American narrative that “anything is possible,” while originally an inspiration to immigrants and the poor, has been masterfully usurped and poisoned by the powerful few. Our body politic is diseased. 

We’ve been duped. We’ve been psychologically and emotionally manipulated. We’ve bought into a powerful but ridiculous “self-made,” “independent,” “bootstrap” mythology that these plutocrats have spoon-fed us for decades. This is a lie. It always has been. For decades, we have been told that demanding a better life for ourselves and out neighbors is “selfish” and “entitled.” Instead, these elites have convinced us that, if we really want it, we should work harder for it. So, we do. As each year passes, we work longer hours. We take on a second and a third job. We de-unionize because we believe the companies that tell us unionizing caused the problem. We keep medicine privatized because we believe them when they say universal healthcare is too expensive. We educate ourselves, taking on crippling debt in the process, because we believed them when they said a higher education would lead to that elusive, better paying job with “benefits” like a week’s paid time off and, if we’re really lucky, health insurance and maybe a couple of weeks off for maternity leave. We’re told, oxymoronically, that our societal problems are the result of a “destabilized family structure,” all the while we’ve been convinced that we have to spend more and more time at work, which leaves less and less time for family. Wages go down. “Right-to-Work” turns us into a labor class fighting against itself for the least opportunity, not the best one. Housing prices skyrocket.

We were told it would all trickle-down, eventually. But “eventually” never came. We’ve convinced ourselves to believe all these lies, to work “hard” and guard our “benefits” selfishly because there might just be enough for me. Because it feels right–feels American–to work ourselves to death. We listened to their lies. We keep listening. And we’re killing ourselves because of it. Literally. “Someday” will never come.

The corruption running rampant through our government, and our willingness to allow it, could very well be the end of the United States as we, and the world, has known it. How will history look back on all of us? On these days? 

“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” — John Adams

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Blog Post, Just for Fun, Top Ten Tuesdays

Top Ten Books on My Summer TBR Pile

With just two weeks left in the spring academic semester, I’ve been thinking ahead to the reading I would like to do this summer. I thought I would harken back to the good ol’ days of blogging, when the Top Ten Tuesday feature was a regular staple, and share my list of “Top Ten Books on my Summer TBR Pile.” (Note: Top Ten Tuesday is still around. It is now hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl.)

These are books I already own and literally have sitting in a pile (or a few piles). I’ve chosen some for my TBR Pile Challenge and some for my Classics Club Challenge, as well as a few that I just want to read while I have a little more free time (so that I can immerse myself better). Here we go!

  1. The White Album by Joan Didion for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge
  2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge
  3. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine for 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.
  4. Paradise Lost by John Milton for The Classics Club Challenge
  5. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft for The Classics Club Challenge
  6. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill for The Classics Club Challenge
  7. Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs
  8. The Grammar of God A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner
  9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  10. Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

If I’m being realistic, I will probably end up reading about half of these, and veering off in a bunch of other directions randomly (there’s a new Stephen King coming out soon, for example, that I’ll probably get my hands on and read right away).

What are your summer reading plans? Anything I should add to my list?

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Blog Post, Personal, writing

Martin Luther King’s Last Vision

Today is my birthday, and I spent the early part of the morning reflecting briefly on my life: friendships, accomplishments, goals, marriage, and family. But I’ve also been thinking a lot this morning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was fifty years ago today–April 3rd, 1968–that he delivered his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.

The opportunity must have seemed both ideal and disconcerting to King, who had spent so many years tirelessly marching forward in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, only to see so little progress. At this point in his life and career, the attention of major news outlets had turned away from his leadership, which must have seemed stalled, in favor of reporting on the more dramatic activities of the black power movement, which was also doing good work and heavy lifting, but in a more obvious way (and as we know, the media loves spectacle).

So, King had turned his attentions to issues of poverty and to supporting the poor and working classes in America. For this reason, I think being invited down to Memphis to speak to the Sanitation Workers in support of their strike for fairer wages and work conditions, must have been promising. But King had another relationship with the city of Memphis, and he surely knew it would not—or could not—be another Selma. Still, he went and, apparently without notes, delivered one of his most powerful, memorable, and moving sermons. The one that would be his last.

A storm raging outside, thunder and lightning crashing in the background, and rain pummeling the tin roof, set a kind of wild and natural rhythm. King stepped up to the podium and addressed a sea of people who had been calling his name: “The nation is sick,” he said. “Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.” I can only imagine the feeling in the room right then. Here came a group of workers looking for support and leadership and encouragement from one of the world’s greatest inspirational orators, and this is how he begins?

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

But King seemed to know that all of these American problems were related. The struggle for racial equality and worker’s rights. The struggle against poverty and the struggle for peace. Vietnam continued on, and more and more young people died for reasons that were muddy at best. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful on the backs of laborers and with the help of investments in the military industrial complex. And segregation and its legacy were still pressing issues. Still, King looked at all of this and remarked that he was happy to live in this time, because “we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it.” He believed that the time was now, that it was “no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He was throwing down the gauntlet.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.

I look at the world around us today, at the rise in racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic, and transphobic hate crimes, and I wonder, did Dr. King think we would have come together by now? Solved this by now? And why haven’t we? And where is our Dr. King these days? I think about how Dr. King, in that last sermon, chastised the press for only dealing with surface issues and consider what that means today, in this new age of for-profit news driven by monopolies like the Sinclair group which orders its 200 affiliates around the country to read a script about “false news” on the very news stations so many people watch, and trust, because it is their local station.

I look at the world around us today, at our declining status in the international community; at our collective disdain for facts and education; at the anti-intellectualism that folks like Stephen Hawking have been warning us about; and at the bridges, real and figurative, we have been building around our own little bubbles to insulate us, with the help of social media algorithms that keep us locked into our tunnel vision, and I wonder when, or if, we will ever be able to come together and see and think and feel as a people again.

Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be.

It seems to take more and more effort to be positive today. But even in his last and perhaps most painful speech, Dr. King looked up and forward:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

The very next day, Dr. King was assassinated outside his hotel room in Memphis. There couldn’t be a more startling juxtaposition of hope and despair. Who could continue to march forward when the very voice of faith had been extinguished?

Except, it hasn’t been. We still remember that voice and look to that voice today. And when I ask myself, where is our Dr. King, I have to admit that I’ve been blind. I’ve been taken in by Twitter-storms and negative media reinforcement and “fake news”, and I have overlooked the people.

I look now and see the men and women marching for women’s rights.

I look now and see the teachers marching for their students’ rights.

I look now and see the students marching for their lives.

I look now and see that “in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).

So, on my birthday this year, I have just one wish. Perhaps we can all be a little bit more like Dr. King. Despite our fears and doubts and despairs, perhaps we can look to that Promised Land. Perhaps we can open our eyes and our hearts and our minds and our ears; we can listen to each other and look to each other again, not through these arbitrary lenses shaped by ideological forces outside ourselves, but with our own vision. And perhaps we can accept and applaud and champion the voice of Dr. King that still resonates through our youth, the new leaders of our day.

I see and I hear 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who stood in front of a crowd of 800,000 people to say, “I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

I see and I hear 18-year-old David Hogg when he says, “The cold grasp of corruption shackles the District of Columbia. The winter is over. Change is here. The sun shines on a new day, and the day is ours.” And I believe him.

I see and I hear Edna Chavez when she cries, “It was a day like any other day. Sunset going down on South Central. You hear pops, thinking they’re fireworks. They weren’t pops. You see the melanin on your brother’s skin go gray. Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” And I say it: Ricardo.

I see and I hear Emma Gonzalez’s silence, and I respect it.

We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point . . . [w]e’ve got to see it through.

There is a future. That future is always to be determined. My wish this year is that our future will be shaped by the rejection of fear, the embracing of love, and a new determination to succeed together in this great human experiment.

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Blog Post, Personal

My Word for 2018

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise)
Road in Etten, 1881. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.774)

I noticed a trend this year, one that apparently has been around for some time but which I have either missed or ignored, wherein people choose one word to make their “word of the year.” The idea is to start the new year with a single focus, a word that can inspire a philosophical perspective, an emotional change, some kind of personal growth or achievement, etc. I decided, considering I’m continuing my stoic journey this year, and with much more focus and intention than I have given it in the past, this “word of the year” might be a beneficial opportunity.

My word for 2018 is: SEE. To see. To notice. To be attentive.

In 2018, I’m continuing a path that I began a few years ago, around my second year of doctoral studies, toward outward living; toward charity, kindness, and compassion, and away from non-essential distractions. This has been a very slow process for me, not helped at all by the tumultuous last couple of years. I have been wholly consumed by politics and global affairs, much of which I have very little control over but which has “demanded” my attention, my energy, my words, my time. I haven’t been able to see clearly enough how deeply all of this has influenced my mental, physical, and emotional health, and how little it has helped my relationships with other people (in some cases, it has actively hurt them).

So, in pursuing a much more intentional stoic course of study and commitment this year, I want to embrace this word, see, in a variety of ways, and allow it to help me achieve a stoic way of living, which is to say, a life free from unnecessary distractions and a perspective that allows my attention to be drawn only to those things over which I have control.

This year, I want to see my surroundings. I moved with my husband to a new state, a new region of the United States, four months ago. We have found time to explore some new-to-us things, and to take an adventure or two, but I want to do much more of this in the coming year. I want to put away my “smart” phone, to step away from social media, and engage with my new city, with a new community, and all the new goals and opportunities they might bring. There is, for example, a group in the area that meets weekly to discuss science and philosophy and art, and all sorts of interesting things. I located it before we even moved here, and yet every week goes by without my even attempting to drive over and sit in on a meeting. These are the sorts of opportunities I see as valuable, and so I want to begin engaging with them.

I want to see my husband more clearly, and help him see me more clearly as well. Again, stepping away from these digital devices and spending quality time together will go a long way in helping us do this. I want to manage this, too, in a budget-conscious way and find ways for us to be together without the stress and strain of financial burdens. Part of stoicism is breaking free from financial debts, as well as embracing what is good for me.

To that last point, I want to see ways of politely but effectively saying “No” to what I do not want to do, and see ways of saying “Yes” to those things that I do. I am often mistaking these two things and, instead of embracing the things I am genuinely interested in, the things that will help me live a better and richer life, and become a better person, I say “Yes” to the things I think I should do, whether because I’m worried about what people will think of me if I say no, or of disappointing someone, or of looking bad at work. I hope to see more clearly the paths that will lead to “Yes” and to accept those that are truly right for me. This also means saying “No” when I already have enough to do.

“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.3b

I want to see the people in my life for who they are, not for the ideals I hold them to, and then respond accordingly. This means seeing my family, friends, and colleagues more clearly and completely, and either deciding to accept them without judgment or to move on from relationships that are not positive ones. This is a path I began to take years ago as well, and most of the negative influences have, I think, been removed; but I also want to be an authentic friend, brother, son, cousin, uncle to those I am keeping in my life, which means seeing who these people are, truly, and how they affect me, and allowing myself to be seen by them.

Finally, I want to see my priorities clearly and objectively. I want to learn how to acknowledge the difficulties in front of me so that I can better plan how to accomplish what I want to accomplish and achieve what I want to achieve. To this end, I have cut my reading goal for this year nearly in half, so that I can instead spend more time writing. I will be working on major projects, such as ongoing preparations (a years’ long project) for academic tenure; writing, preparing, and submitting work for publication; and attending academic conferences for professional development, personal fulfilment, and networking. I need to see how important these activities are to me and begin a true pursuit of them, rather than limiting myself to a perpetual state of “eventually.”

We are just a few days into the new year, but already I have noticed a distinct change in my perspectives. I hope seeing my plans and goals, strengths and weaknesses, successes and struggles, more clearly will help me to grow as a person, a writer, a teacher, a spouse, a friend. This might sometimes mean accepting that I am not who I thought I was to someone else, that I cannot always be what and whom everyone wants me to be, and that I will sometimes be a disappointment. Again, over others’ perceptions, I have little control, and so I need to let that go in order to focus on the things that I actually can do, and the things that will make my daily life richer and more meaningful, and perhaps even more peaceful.

Most importantly, as I work my way slowly through stoic readings, I plan to incorporate daily reflective writing; and as I work my way slowly through a literary reading of the bible, I plan to incorporate weekly and monthly reflective writing as well. In addition, I am keeping a personal journal and will be writing on the blog, as well as working on my fiction and non-fiction. My final hope in all of these writing exercises is that I will begin to see myself more clearly. I ask my students to see their progress through reflective journaling about their own work over the course of a semester; it is time that I see my own forward—and backward—motion in the same way.

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