The Right is using a Wikileaks email to claim that democrats had direct control over a popular comedy show. It is fake news.

6 Dec

One of the Podesta emails released by Wikileaks has people in a frenzy over a conspiracy that The Colbert Report was being controlled by “the Left”. Here is the relevant email:

CGI U – The Colbert Report Special Episodes To:, Date: 2013-04-10 14:29 Subject: CGI U – The Colbert Report Special Episodes

John, I hope you got a chance to see the The Colbert Report’s two special episodes I had them do about CGI U that we taped in St. Louis this weekend. This is the link to last nights with a sketch about commitments and the monologue and WJC interview aired Monday. Hope you enjoy and looking forward to your feedback. Next will be your Colbert appearance! -Craig

Seems alarming right? What does he mean he “had them do” those episodes?!

Well, the episode in question – #9082, April 8th 2013 – was a visit by Colbert to the institute. So when “Craig” from CGI says they “did” an episode for Colbert, he means that Colbert had literally visited the institute, and had interviewed Bill Clinton.

The Right is spinning this leak as evidence of Democratic tampering with popular media. This is a piece of fake news/conspiracy that I find particularly troubling, because it attempts to delegitimize someone who has been a keen political observer and who has been very vocal about Trump. We need those people. Satire is a strong tool for truth and progress. It is vital that sane critical-thinkers make the effort to expose these toxic misinformation attempts.

Donald Trump and the Cooptation of Rebellion

18 Oct

Trump upsets many people.

Not because he’s supposedly some kind of rebellious folk-hero billionaire, speaking truth to power.  And not because he is supposedly a “refreshing” messenger of difficult truths.  And not because everyone else – the media, the government, the “system”, every minority population and educated outlet – is supposedly conspiring against him.  These are manufactured myths.  No, Donald Trump upsets people simply because of the person he is; the things he says and does, on record, of his own will.  He upsets women, when he attempts to normalize and dismiss sexual assault and harassment.  He upsets Latinos, when he (hypocritically) characterizes them as criminals and rapists, and talks about “the wall”.  He upsets Muslims, when he speaks about persecuting them for their religious choice – degrading one of America’s core foundational values.  He upsets the LGBT community with his proposed Supreme Court nominees – many of whom have pledged to overturn gay marriage.

And he upsets me, a white, middle-aged, minimally-educated, generally anti-establishment male (usually the demographic that Trump appeals to).  Not just because I have people in my life who are women, and Muslim, and Latino, and gay.  But also because I have to live in this country that he is tearing down with his fear, and hate, and misinformation.  Because while all of this may just be publicity to him, or some bizarre rich-guy game of conquest, for the rest of the world, for us, it all matters.  Whether or not he becomes the president, his campaign has brought out the worst in our electorate, it has troubled our economy and our foreign allies, and it has drawn our discourse away from vital policy discussion – issues like global warming, healthcare, education, civil justice.  His total disregard for the truth (fact-checks matter!) has made it almost impossible for any two politically-opposed people to have a conversation based in a shared reality.  Bad-boy, rockstar Trump has effectively turned our politics into a degrading daytime TV show, a spectacle that detracts from the efforts of real rebels and doers, the people in the world actually trying to make things better.

How did it get so far?  How did someone with so much to hide, someone unqualified by every measure, and with such a poor temperament and character, come to dominate our national stage?  The Trump candidacy is rooted not only in the appeal of sensational entertainment, but also in the psychology of revolt. It exists as a result of widespread disenchantment.  Many Trump supporters are misinformed reactionaries who believe that the only way to “fix” the country is to, in a sense, burn it down first.  Or they believe that an “unqualified” outsider is somehow just what a complex system needs, since “it can’t be any worse” (believe me folks, it can).  Either way, they feel that the nation has failed them – and they aren’t wrong, in many respects.  That’s the genius of the Trump candidacy – it exploits some very real and valid dissatisfaction.  Yes, manufacturing jobs have fled America.  Yes, homegrown terrorism is a growing problem.  Yes, our foreign adventures often do more harm than good.  Yes we don’t do enough for our veterans, for our children, for our elderly, for our poor…

The irony, of course, is that Trump’s party is largely the one making this mess.  Republicans consistently legislate on the wrong side of all of these issues – even common-sense stuff like helping veterans.  And more and more, they generate a climate of obstruction and division, playing to our basest impulses – fear, ignorance, rage.  Trump, for all his outsider “street cred”, is still a republican, and he is on the wrong side of most of these issues as well – in fact on many things, he is farther right than most reasonable people would be.

He has also taken the fear-mongering and “liberal conspiracy” game to a whole new level, and woe be to any who oppose him!  See, in the life of a billionaire like Trump, every problem, impulse, maneuver, and cover-up can be managed by moving around enough money and influence, and staying within the bubble of enablers and yes-men.  And when it can’t be managed, can’t be glossed over or disappeared, well, then it can only be a conspiracy! Trump, like most of the far-right in recent years, seems to carry around a logic-proof reverse-victim complex.  He thinks that the whole world is against him, even as he perpetuates his own ruin.  This victim-complex is the first defense any time such a person is held to account for his own words and actions.  “The media is out to get me!”, as they play a clip of his own, exact, unedited comments.  After defense comes offense, maybe in the form of some irrelevant deflection, juvenile insult, or litigious threat. Bring out the lawyers, the rabble, the tin-foil hats.

It’s childish, and almost funny.  But it’s also dangerous.  Not to be alarmist, but it’s how dictators happen.  Jailing your political opponents.  Suing the free press for saying things you don’t like.  Replacing critical high-brass military with people who will side with you.  Taking what you feel you’re entitled to, whether it’s the labor of unpaid contractors, the unpaid taxes of a flawed system, or the feel of a non-consenting woman.  Trump, it seems, has said or done all of it.  I believe that he embodies and fosters the worst of our nature, and it’s terrible how successful he has been.  As we approach the final weeks of this election and witness the decline (and increased volatility) of his campaign and supporters, I find myself upset and confused at my fellow Americans, and grateful that we at least live in a democratic republic of law and order.

Yes, it seems like America is now (finally) rejecting Trump and everything he brings with him.  And because we live in a stable first-world country, the worst he can do about it is pitch a fit and throw around more conspiracies – “It’s all rigged!”, he proclaims, setting up excuses while continuing to sow division and exploit the public’s general distrust. In a less stable country, a person like this might stage a military coup, or foment a civil war (indeed, plenty of Trump supporters have thrown these threats around).  Trump seems to believe that the country, indeed the entire world, is in ruin, and only he can save it – demonstrating not only a textbook narcissism, but also a kind of megalomania; along with an ignorance of how things actually work in a free country.  Even as I type this, it’s not difficult to imagine getting a letter from the Trump legal team, as so many have already, for daring to criticize his majesty.

The fact that we allowed such a character to dominate our national stage is not only an embarrassment, it’s also a grave concern.  Trump has clearly tapped into a visceral anger and fear that rages through much of this country – misguided, misinformed, but nonetheless powerful, and in some ways justified.  We do need changes in America, always, in almost every sense.  Fighting to make things better is a good thing.  But that rebellious impulse, as we see in this election, is also an easy thing to exploit, and it can become a very negative force when it’s manipulated by misinformation and pointed the wrong way.

So this is my message to America’s rebels:  Trump isn’t your flag-bearer.  He’s a conman without solutions, worse than any politician, and he is playing you for his own ends.  His rhetoric might hit your buttons, but his character and his actions embody everything we need to fight: dishonesty, greed, hate, oppression, censorship, ignorance, lack of accountability.  He is not the champion of the everyman, or of the dispossessed – he is only the champion of himself, and by proxy the wealthy elite, the privileged and entitled who do whatever they want, regardless of consequences, always passing the buck.  The things that are broken in America can’t be fixed with Trump’s blame-games, hypocritical doublespeak, and misdirected bluster.  It takes dedicated everyday people, getting informed and getting involved.  It takes an abandonment of the echo-chambers that have replaced knowledge, understanding, empathy, and pragmatism.  True rebellion is to see through the facade, to question everything, to make the best choices we can, and to fight the forces that seek to keep us down.  In normal days, those forces are plentiful enough, and that’s precisely the feeling that the master showman tries to exploit – offering nothing substantial of his own.  But at this particular moment in history, as we face social struggles, global threats, and environmental crises, I think the biggest hindrance to our progress and wellbeing as a free and diverse nation is easily Trump himself.

Bob Dylan wins the Nobel for Literature – But what it “Literature”?

13 Oct

The Nobel prize in literature is a much-anticipated event for book nuts everywhere – it is a highly prestigious award, meant (we assume) to celebrate the noteworthy achievements of literary artists.  It is an opportunity to advocate and recognize tremendous works of the written word.

This year’s winner has caused no small amount of controversy.  Bob Dylan, beloved and monumental American folk musician, has been awarded the prize, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  Poetic expressions?  Has there ever been a more wishy-washy phrase?

Don’t get me wrong, Dylan is great – I don’t think anyone would disagree, especially in America.  But is he a writer?  Is he participating in literature?  This seems to be the root question – how does the Nobel committee define literature?  When did songwriting become a category alongside poetry, drama, and prose?

Today, it seems.

Here’s where the Dylan selection rubs me wrong.  Awards of artistic achievement that specifically recognize a particular field should go to participants of that field.  The field in question for this award is literature.  Songwriting, however, is part of the field of “music.” A songwriter is pursuing a distinct art-form; a sum of parts that includes – even relies on – the music. The craft, context, execution, it’s unique to that art. Lyrics are a component of the music, written in compliment.  They are not, in the sense of literary pursuit, poetry.  Because poetry is also a distinct art-form, with its own craft, context, and execution.

Sure, song lyrics can be “poetic”, and in a cultural sense, there is often the argument that song lyrics are the “new” poetry (as though poetry itself is not alive and well). In the sense of the role that they play in society, it’s a reasonable argument. But in the sense of how each is conceptualized, created, perpetuated, and experienced, they are quite different.  Music is not simply poetry with musical accompaniment – it’s a pursuit whole unto itself, with its own approaches and sensibilities and expectations.  We can philosophize about overlap, but if artistic categories are to have any meaning, it must be assumed that music is music, and literature is literature.  And different arts require different skills, sensibilities, intentions, tools.

Dylan himself proves this.  In 1971, he published Tarantula, a book of experimental prose-poetry, his first work of original and explicitly literary written art.  And it was panned.  Wholly unsuccessful.  People were not into it.  It seems being an amazing, groundbreaking musician and songwriter does not, in fact, translate into being a good poet.  And this is the point.  Poetry is a unique art, and poets panticipate in a unique, culturally-defined field.  To give the Literature prize to a songwriter feels like a slight to all of the incredible working writers of the world. To my mind it undermines the prize’s purpose – which is to recognize, celebrate, and advocate for the best literary work. And this is an important function.  Literature needs its champions.

I’m rambling.  But the reason I question the Dylan decision is simple – music is not literature. It is a different art.  Just as a movie is not a play, even though they both have actors, and an opera is not a pop concert, even though they both have music. The fact that lyrics can be poetic ignores the cultural context, the artistic intention and process, the entire experience.  We can categorize after the fact, “repackage” lyrics as poems – but artistic intention should matter in a prestigious international prize. I mean, I could arrange the incoherent babble of a current U.S. presidential candidate into something like poetry, but it wouldn’t make Trump a poet. Separating the lyrics from a song doesn’t turn them into literature, at least not in the sense that writers actively seek to create and participate in those arts.

Literature is a vital sphere of our cultural life, and these awards are meant to celebrate it, infuse it with life, and raise it to the public’s attention. There are major literary talents in the world right now, artists who have broken ground and excelled in the arts of literature. Dylan is an artist of tremendous talent and importance, and deserves plenty of recognition – in his own field.  He revitalized and transformed music. Not literature, not poetry. And the fact remains that this is supposed to be a literature prize.  If it is to become a “prize for any sort of significant cultural contribution”, then they should rename it.

I know I probably sound like a stick in the mud.  I am usually all for expanding definitions and defying tradition.  I think music is a close sibling to poetry, and can achieve similar things, and there is certainly poetry to be found within songwriting.  But I’m foremost an advocate for the written word in all of its vital, under-appreciated arts – and that is also the supposed function of these awards.  Dylan has been a heavy influence on culture, but he was making music, not literature. I don’t fault the judges for giving weight to Dylan’s general influence, or even in seeing the beauty of his words. But these prizes are an opportunity to raise up important achievements specifically in literature. This feels like an opportunity that has been missed.

It’s Art Blakey’s Birthday!

11 Oct

Been some time…

11 Oct

It’s funny how the more I have to write about, the less writing I do.

I don’t even want to think about how long it has been since I used this blog.  A year?  Two?  Looks like my last post was a book review, exactly two years ago.  Life and it’s funny coincidences.

Yes, I’ve been absent in more ways than one.  Life went upside-down for a while, a succession of major setbacks and tragedies – some self-imposed, some the inevitable hand of fate.  I’ve lost some people, and some purpose, and a sense of self.  I’m starting back at zero in my life, which would have been a liberating sensation in my twenties, but now, honestly, leaves me feeling confused and displaced.  Without any particular direction or responsibility, without the comfort of a family or the expectations of a career, having unlimited options really becomes a sort of paralysis – especially when you are well into adulthood, and are expected to have your shit together by now.  I feel much too old to be a blank slate.

At the same time, I have such a greed for my time on earth, and for my potential, and for all of the possibilities in the world.  I want to do everything, and I’m running out of time, which makes it feel impossible to pick a direction and stick to it.  So, I end up doing almost nothing, which only compounds my restlessness and sense of failure.  It has been hard to unravel this internal tangle, or to even find the motivation to explore it on the page.  As a writer, I’ve never really been the “confessional” type (outside of sporadic journaling).  For a while now, writing of any kind has seemed impossible, as I try to “figure out” the bigger issues looming in my mind.  My productivity for this past year and a half has been almost nil.

But as they say, every day above ground is a good day.  I’m getting my groove back, and since writing has always been my happy place, the revival of this blog is a useful step.  These days I’m grasping almost blindly at new opportunities, and working on “self-improvement” – which for me mainly means getting enough calories, even if I have to force down two baked potatoes and a tuna sandwich before bed, and it means getting exercise, even if it means a bike ride at midnight through poorly-lit streets.  And I’ve noticed how these minor things can boost me up, at least for a little while – and how that energy can be redirected.  The sensation of doing something, however small, can be very good for a stagnant spirit.

I think the next item on my life’s immediate agenda, besides writing, is to travel again, domestically and abroad.  The years that I spent traveling when I was a younger man were happy for me, and since I now have very little tying me down, perhaps it is the time to recapture that, to rediscover my place in the world.  Heading into autumn, south seems the way to go.  I think some camping down in the Smokies would be revitalizing.  Maybe Central America – I hear Belize is nice.  I’m looking at Spain in the spring.  Anywhere.  When things are getting too settled and muddy, you have to shake em up.

60 Second Review – Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

11 Oct

Black MoonBlack Moon by Kenneth Calhoun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off – titling your debut novel to rhyme with your last name is genius. “what have you been reading?” “Black Moon by Calhoun” – so easy to remember!

This book has some impressive elements. I thought the author captured the crushing, inescapable, often nonsensical nature of insomnia, and brought it to an exciting and extreme degree. I was drawn in to the suspense of the story, how the mundane becomes dangerous, and how we are just animals underneath our rationality and cognizance. There were a few off-notes, scenes that felt a bit long, the occasional rambling dream-sequence that I had trouble paying attention to. I’m not sure yet how I feel about the ending. I think there’s a little Cormac McCarthy in this, that bleak, apocalyptic, good-guys-don’t-always win atmosphere. Calhoun handles multiple perspectives and jumping timelines deftly, which is no small writerly feat. Overall, it was a great read that I zipped through in two (somewhat sleepless) nights, and I will surely have my eye out for whatever he produces next.

View all my reviews

Arts and Letters – A Day in New York City

20 Jul

I recently took a sojourn to the greatest city in the country (New York City, if that needs clarification, which it should not). A living cliche, I admit that “I love NY” – the city moves, a shifting sea of sight and sound. Around every corner there’s a different energy and possibility, someone or thing new, infinite microcosms swirling within the whole. But hell, people have been waxing poetical about Gotham since practically forever. Jacob Steendam is the earliest example I know of, a Dutch poet who in the mid 17th century arrived in New Amsterdam (as NYC was called before it was NYC) to seek his fortune as a landowner. There he wrote plaintive poems with titles like “Complaint of New Amsterdam, in New Netherlands, to her Mother, of her Beginning, Growth, and Present Condition” – proving that even since its inception, the City has always inspired a love/hate sentiment.

At least that’s how I feel about it. I’ve lived in Brooklyn off and on throughout my life, and it gets to you. Or at least it gets to me. The constant bombardment of energy creates this sort of permanent mental/emotional/spiritual defense. But that’s the trade-off for sharing such a small geographic area with such a humongous and endlessly diverse population, and all the commerce and culture and chaos and cacophony it brings. The upshot, I love NY, always will, but I don’t mind relegating myself these days to visitor status rather than inhabitant. Blasphemy to many, I know.

So anyway. Whenever I fly solo on a trip into the city, I try to strike this balance between new and old, action and contentment. You want to feel that comforting familiarity of your favorite spots, but you also want to soak in some of the new. You want to pack as much into the day as you can, but you don’t want to be so stressed out that the experiences are flying by you without adequate appreciation. To this end, as I came up from the train at Penn Station, I headed first to the West Village, with my mind set on A: breakfast, and B: getting out of midtown as quickly as possible.

On my way to breakfast, I passed BookBook on Bleecker Street – a bookstore I had previously and indifferently brushed off, mostly for its hiply redundant name (sorry guys), but have now discovered to be a sweet spot manned by friendly book lovers and stocked with an interesting and well-priced selection. It’s a mixed of new and used, including a “Bargain Poetry” shelf – two words you don’t see together nearly often enough. I scored a hardcover of Chabon’s essay collection Maps and Legends, a PKD novel (been getting into him recently), and a book of collected writings of Isabelle Eberhardt, which I was quite surprised to find, since I already have two books of her writings in translation, and had thought that was all there was to be had. Happiness!

Following Bleeker swept me down near Mamoun’s, my favorite falafel joint in New York, mostly for being cheap (although the prices inevitably seem higher every time) as well as fast, and good. It’s the perfect eat-and-run option, nibbling your sandwich as you continue to walk the pulsing veins of lower Manhattan. Licking tahini off my fingers, I headed to Generation Records, another inevitable spot for me, and one of the last bastions of the glorious days of the punk record shop. There I picked up a shirt from Ukranian black metal band Drudkh. It’s true, I enjoy the occasional black metal, for me though the lyrics are half the battle. I generally need interesting/creative/intelligent lyrics in my music, or I just can’t dig it. Drudkh are interesting because their lyrical themes include Slavic mythology and regional poetry – notably, they crib the work of the poet Taras Shevchenko. Also… it’s pretty metal.

Next came a visit to Mercer Street Books, a landmark for media whores like myself, always great selection. I can’t visit this place without finding an item to squeal about. On this trip, I grabbed Charles Simic’s collection Charon’s Cosmology, along with The Blue Fox by a beautiful and surreal Icelandic writer known only as Sjón, known for, among other things, his collaborations with Björk. Also scored some D.F. Wallace nonfiction and a hardcover of the essay collection Convergences from Octavio Paz. Paz does not get enough love for his excellent nonfiction, I think.

After that I paid a visit to two old friends – one a person, which involved hopping over to Brooklyn for a while, and the other the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which involved going uptown, ugh. But how can you not? It’s the Met! I spent a few hours with old favorites – Picasso, Gérôme, Gauguin, and the ancient Near Eastern section, which houses some of my favorite things in the museum, like the palace of Ashurnasirpal II. Then explored an area I don’t get to often, the Asian Art wing, with its fantastic Buddhist sculptures. Sadly the museum began to close, so to top off the day, I grabbed some dinner at a nearby Belgium place (I guess this is a thing now?) called Brasserie Magritte. The specialty here is mussels and a wide selection of Belgium beer, both things that I have a deep appreciation for. And it was oh so very glorious. PEI mussels served one of four ways (I opted for “northern style”, which the waiter said was best) along with crispy Belgium fries and a delicious ketchup. In the interest of novelty, I went for a “house” beer, their Magritte Witte, which is brewed off-site exclusively for them. It was light but good, perfect for summer. Next time though I intend to delve deeper into their esoteric bottle list. And there will be a next time.


So, that was my day. Sorry for the lack of pictures – I am hopefully upgrading my phone soon, so I’ll have a decent camera on hand in the future. It never occurs to me to bring my actual camera when I go exploring for some reason. Oh well.

The Tyranny of Choice

15 Jun

We’ve all been there.  Scrolling indecisively through Netflix.  Hoarding free and cheap e-books.  Amassing games from Steam and GOG.  Streaming any movie or television show, anywhere any time.  The saturation of music online.  Piracy.  Etc.

Today we have more media access and options than ever in history.  It’s glorious, to be sure.  But there is a side-effect – we end up with so much stuff, it becomes an overwhelming proposition to choose one title to enjoy at any given moment.  When I listen to my mp3 player, half the time I don’t even know the band that’s playing.  Picking a movie to watch ends up taking as long as the movie itself, and it gets exponentially worse the more people that are involved.  And books… people brag about the ability to carry a thousands books on their e-reader, but then what?  Does anyone actually read those thousand books, or are they just prizes, collected in a frenzy of digital opportunism?

Allow me to date myself a bit.  It used to be, you go to the store and come back with a stack of new books, or a stack of new records and CDs, or a stack of new movies and games, etc. – and you’d enjoy that selection for weeks or months, really experiencing each one, appreciating it on a relatively more intimate and multi-sensory level. Now, the ease of content availability is making us digital hoarders. We burn through our media, thinking about the next thing before we’re even done with the one we’re on. Or we become paralyzed by the overwhelming number and variety of our options, like browsing Netflix for an hour before settling on something to watch with dinner (now cold).For me, there is an added dimension to the problem with physical books.  I can’t help it if every story and every subject seems so interesting!  Or that I live in a place with so many sources for cheap literary sustenance!  The result is a personal library that far outpaces and outsizes any reasonable person’s reading habits.  And when it comes time to pick a new book to read, I don’t know where to begin.  Perhaps there is a bigger issue at work – the eternal question of how best to use our time and experiences during our extremely limited mortal existence.  But let’s side-step the human condition for the moment.  It’s too nice a day.

I have some tools for dealing with media saturation and the endless glut of options.  Step one is culling.  Get rid of stuff that is only mildly interesting, keep stuff you are actually excited about.  I try to be giving/selling books at least as fast as I’m taking them in.  And when my harddrive is full of downloaded content, I know it’s time to watch everything on it before I can download anything else.  Step two is segmentation.  Select a few titles that you want to start with and ignore everything else in your library.  Box them up if you have to.  Step three is perfecting habits. For movies, try sticking to one theme, genre, filmmaker, etc.  Really dive in and explore, dim the lights, make it an event for the evening.  If it’s a book, find a good reading spot and use it regularly – the repetition of the environment helps trigger a reading mood.  Turn off phones and screens, get a beverage, slow your life down.

I mean, that’s something I think everyone needs more of anyway.  A slow-down.

How to Read: Thoughts for Fledgling Book Worms

10 Nov

Today, someone new to the act (art?) of reading books asked about how to become a reader, and whether he should start with the classics.  It’s an interesting question, I think.  And in my morning haze, I mentally smushed together this response, which I thought was worth sharing (as I’ve been woefully neglectful of this blog):

Reading is a spectrum of skill and intent that condenses and refines organically with time and experience.

On one end of this spectrum you have reading purely for pleasure, on the other, purpose.  The more you read, the shorter the spectrum becomes, until the two points are comfortably side-by-side. A well-practiced reader effortlessly and naturally combines the two.  I think it’s tempting for newish readers to reach immediately for the “heavy” classics, because they want to “be” that well-read person as quickly as possible. So they go for the books people talk about, the ones that sound so impressive when mentioned in conversation:

“So, what have you been reading?”

“Ah, I’ve been working on Swann’s Way by Proust, such an important work of literature, you know.”

Cue impressed raising of eyebrows. And, of course, it is inarguably an important work of literature, and I believe such things are important to experience.  But for a new reader, that’s like trying to learn piano by poring over Rachmaninoff’s concertos.  Much better to start at the beginning.  Reading well is a product of practice, and a new reader should begin by reading for pleasure first.  Find what it is you love, and lose yourself in some books that fit that attraction.  Don’t worry if they are “great” books, or even good ones.  The first step is training your reading “muscles”, and associating the practice with pure enjoyment.  Then you’ll naturally want to graduate to “heavier” books that catch your interest.  And you’ll be better equipped to approach them successfully.

Reading “critically” is another big facet of this, and we usually learn it in school (perhaps just enough to pass our classes).  But as a life-skill, it can really enrich any reading experience.  Often I hear readers become worried about what they might be “missing” from important works, as though understanding the “greats” is a privilege reserved for some esoteric literary realm somewhere far above them.  However, all it really takes to explore what we call “higher” art (in any medium) is curiosity.  It’s a damn shame, really, that much of civilization’s greatest achievements have been given this air of inaccessibility, when really, the very definition of great art includes universality – a relevance beyond time or place.

I’ll leave off with this quote by Nietzche regarding philology, which is a critical-reading approach that readers and scholars apply to historically-important texts.  I think it applies well to the art of reading deeply and with purpose:

“Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all – to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow. It is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it slowly. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of work, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book. This art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.” *

* This quote shamelessly borrowed from a lecture by classicist Gregory Nagy

So, by way of a summary: step one is to dive into the art of reading with a glutton’s enthusiasm. Read widely and often. Then, when you get to a book that you feel has deeper layers worth exploring; slow down, savor, probe, research, wonder. You’ll be well-rewarded, and – as with most things – the more you do it, the more you’ll be able to do.

Neil Gaiman Is Doing It Right

18 Jul

Mr. Gaiman is having a very good year. In the UK, a new adaptation of his radio play Neverwhere kicked off in March to rave reviews on BBC Radio 4. He wrote his second episode of the long-running sci-fi institution Doctor Who, which aired in May, also to high acclaim. He is writing scripts for an HBO adaptation to his masterpiece novel American Gods, reportedly planned for six seasons with a respectable budget of $40 million per season. He has written his first video game, a gothic, cartoony mystery called Wayward Manor, due out in the fall. And 2013 saw three book releases for Neil: two children’s books, Chu’s Day and Fortunately, the Milk (forthcoming), as well as his first novel in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane – centerpiece of a massive summer tour.

The tour for Ocean is particularly significant because it’s the last major U.S. tour Neil Gaiman plans to do. Ever. There are reasons for this, as I would soon learn for myself. But with that in mind, I really had no choice – if I ever wanted to meet the guy, this was probably my chance. So, I pre-ordered two tickets for the event in Saratoga Springs, orchestrated by Northshire Books in anticipation of their new store opening, and I planned a long Adirondack weekend for my lady and I. A book event, some camping, some beer stops, and a visit to my cousin in nearby Albany – it all seemed to fit together easily. I tuned the car up and made sure our tent had no holes in it. I ordered a couple of books online to get signed (first edition of Smoke & Mirrors, and a copy of American Gods for a friend in South Korea). All systems go!

Saratoga Springs is a tiny town with some cool (but higher-end) stores. There’s a spice and hot sauce shop, a bookstore with a lovely collection of fine books (teasingly out of my price range), fashionable boutiques, a store that sells nothing but olive oils and balsamic vinegars (all of which you can taste for free) – you get the idea. We meandered a bit, had a decent Asian lunch at Phila Fusion, then went to the Gaiman event at the new City Center, which I liked right away for its large free and centrally located parking lot.


Much waiting and carousing with fans. Much shifting of butts in seats. And then Neil came on stage and he was funny and endearing and relaxed and a joy to listen to. He read from the new book and answered some questions. It was a good interview, conducted by Joe Donahue for WAMC Northeast Public Radio. You can hear the audio of the interview here.


Then Neil Gaiman left the stage, applause resounding throughout the monstrous room, spirits high, smiles all around. And next, unbeknownst and unexpected, and through no fault of Mr. Gaiman, a tedious crucible began.

It was time for the book signing portion of the evening. Now, there were 1500 people at this thing. And nearly all of them were eager to meet Neil and get a book signed. How do you organize 1500 fans? Well, the coordinators decided to use a random letter system – everyone was assigned a letter with their copy of the book, and the groups would take turns alphabetically. All the A group, then all the B, etc. We were group F, and I think it only went up to G. I knew these sorts of events could go well past midnight, so it seemed that we had some time on our hands before we’d get to meet Neil. After watching the process for a while to get a sense of how fast things were moving, we decided to go get some Chinese food and come back, figuring we’d get back well before they called the F’s. Well. That apparently was a huge mistake. While we were gone, the coordinators had decided to completely abandon the alphabet system and make it a free-for-all instead. Everyone in the place had made a mad dash to get in line, and by the time we returned, we found ourselves at the very end of that line. This line now stretched all the way around the auditorium, down the hall, and then snaked through another conference room. It became clear that the rest of our night was now spoken for.

I don’t want to seem bitter, and I know orchestrating this event must have been challenging. Overall, Northshire did a fantastic job. But boy were we steamed at the time. We could have been out of there in a couple of hours if they hadn’t changed the line system. Instead, it was a little after midnight by the time we actually made it to the signing table. The reading had been at 6:00, and I had been saving our seats since 4:30. So all told, I spent about eight hours in that event hall, four of it standing in line. Not awesome.

But after all of these annoyances and all of that waiting, I finally did get to meet Neil Gaiman. He signed my books and we had the briefest but nicest chat. I thanked him for sharing his wonderful brain with the world and for being committed enough to his fans to endure this absurd marathon of publicity. And he smiled a goofy, worn-out smile and thanked me for the same. There were so many questions I would have asked this prolific and multi-talented writer, but I wasn’t sure he’d be up for it, and I was a zombie myself by that point. I said take care and have a good tour, and he said “You too. Take care I mean. Not the tour part…” And we both sort of chuckled in exhaustion and that was that.


Was it worth it? Absolutely. I have nothing but admiration for this guy, as an artist and now as a human being. He is known to endure long nights on tour, refusing to leave if even one person is still in line, and I’ve now seen the cost of that dedication. And that’s why I understand the reason this is his last one. However exhausting it was for me, I know it was a thousand times more for him. Connecting with your readers is an important thing – Gaiman has over 1.8 million twitter followers, for good reason. He gets it, and we know he gets it, and we love him for it. But when it stops being fun and starts being a test of physical and mental endurance, I can understand backing off a bit. Besides, I’d really rather he stayed home to write more and more awesome things. I’m just selfish that way.

So how is the new book, anyway? It’s a beautiful little book, only 56k words – quite short for a novel. But he makes every word count, and there are moments of beauty that I would argue can match some of literature’s greatest approaches to the human condition. The narrative is unique in content and tone, blending a sort of child-like frankness with the sobering profundity of life’s dangers and uncertainty. It’s very Gaiman, the mythical woven into the real world, and the subtle humor. There’s nostalgia, but it has an interesting layer of philosophy beneath it. How our memories shape (and trick) us, how our desires can create danger, and what it means to be loyal to the people we care about. Such a short book, but enchanting, surreal, and deeper than it seems.