Responsible Escapism in Literature

One of the frustrating parts of being a reader is (as with a lot of parts of life) dealing with snobbery. This is a danger that takes a special and easily recognizable form when you read a lot of old books. There is the temptation to segregate the world into two spheres: those things which are worthy of notice, and those things which are not.

Of course, this leads to a number of answerless arguments: what is the purpose of literature? How do you recognize good literature? What makes literature a classic, as opposed to just a fun read? These questions are unanswerable, in part, because they're irrelevant. Literature, for most people, is like any form of art - it is worth experiencing if it makes us a better person. This can be in a little way (cheering up a bad day, for instance) or in a monumental way (changing one's outlook on life), but nonetheless, that's what literature is for. If Twilight improves you as a person, it's a good book, for you. If the Bible does nothing for you, it's a bad book for you (or, you're just not ready for it. On both ends of the spectrum, books change over time).

This isn't to preclude all arguments over whether literature is 'good'. If a book is good for two people, and out and out damaging for two billion people, then it's important for us to talk about that. If a book cheers up some people, but also subtly teaches misogny or racism, then there's a reason we have conversations and argue about it. But in the end, these conversations can't be inspired by exclusivity and a search for a canon. They have to, simply, be a kindness we do each other, helping each other avoid books that hurt us, and find books that make us better people. Anything that distracts us from that goal is damaging, in the end, to our search for happiness.

One of these damaging fallacies is the subtle snobbery against books that are 'escapist'. I hesitate even to write the book. My friends who are fans of 'genre' (another subtle slur word) literature probably growl and get their hackles up just hearing the word. Fantasy, mysteries, historical romances, these sorts of books, says the conventional wisdom, are books that have some mild value as simple entertainment, but they're 'just escapism' - they don't have any intrinsic worth, except as a way to wind down and escape. They are the sitcoms of books, says this wisdom.

Examine this for a moment, though: it rests on the assumption that 'escape' is 'just for fun'. That the only value in becoming someone, something, or somewhere else is that it lets one ignore one's problems for a bit. And, in my personal opinion, no assumption could be more wrong.

'Escape' (already a loaded, and probably inappropriate word) is one of the most ancient and beautiful traditions of creative endeavor. Think of it - escape is the ability to put one's mind somewhere else. 'Escape' is, the root of all our ideas of divinity. It is the schoolmaster of empathy and selflessness. It's one of the most natural forms of play and self-education. It's a powerful form of introspection, and used by psychologists and sociologists every day.  Putting one's self in someone else's place (real or imaginary) is at once playful, solemn, sacred, and benevolent, if done with the right spirit. (If you would like me to further justify any of these points, let me know - the essay was already getting a bit long).

But, nonetheless, we think of escape as the realm of children's literature. Something that we need when we are young, but that we cease to need when we age. But then, at the same time, we wonder why children are so much more openminded, so much quicker to learn and grow, so much more self-assured and powerfully vulnerable than grownups are. 'Mere' escapism is a vital part of our growth throughout our lives, not something that simply helps us figure out how to get to adulthood.

This week, at the GENIUS suggestion of my friend Nymeth, I read 'Emma', a Manga by Kaoru Mori about a Victorian maid and a rich young gentleman who fall in love. It was the most wonderful escape I've had in a very long time, and one that has, unmistakably, made me a better person for having read it. The story was amazingly, powerfully immersive, rich with detail, and with the ineffable sense of it being a truly different world, instead of simply a modern story set in dresses and gaslights.

And, from a 'literary' perspective, I can make my arguments. The artist/author is a careful student of symbolism and human nature, tiny subconscious clues suggesting depths to the individual characters that would have taken a book of Dickensian prose to suggest otherwise. The art in this (and this is from someone who doesn't always like the Manga art style) was beautiful, sweeping and echoing across the pages. This is the sort of book that a Bronte would write in different circumstances, and as someone who thinks of the Bronte as more akin to sisters and friends than favorite authors, that's the most sincere praise I can offer.

But to an extent, this misses the point - or more (because these elements are not ones I want to say aren't beautiful), it presumes that there is the important elements of the story, and then there's the ones that are just there to make it easy to read. Emma is very much an escapist book, and part of the appeal of the book for me was that I really, really wanted to be someone else for a little while. OF course, this could be a bad thing. This could mean I simply 'veg out' and read something useless and just pretend my problems don't exist for a while. Escapist reading (like any reading) can be a drug, and a very dangerous one.

But like many of the most beautiful of escapist books, Emma is both an honest and an ennobling experience, one that, instead of tricking you with a sense of false betterness, simply lets you stretch into a place you cannot normally be, to feel it's freedoms, and it's constraints, to let you play quietly with the pieces of you that resonate in the work, the pieces that otherwise atrophy, so that when they're needed they're too tired to stand. To, like the Greeks with their myths, stretch and figure the shards of the divine, by reflecting them off of the selves we choose to be, instead of simply the one life we live simply because of circumstance. That's what 'escapism' should be - the refreshing rites we play at naively as children, and that we practice with a whimsical solemn knowledge when we're grown.

(Image: Princess Hyacinth, by Alphonse Mucha. Incidentally, Mucha, one of my favorite artists, was a 'low artist' himself - painting everything from cigarette ads to theatre posters to advert calendars)

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Ada Byron Lovelace Day: Susan Kare, Graphics Pioneer

Happy Ada Byron Lovelace Day! I've been mentioning this around to a number of folks, but a group of very nice people have been organizing today as a day for people to talk about some of their female heroes in science and technology, to raise awareness about women in these industries (where they're sadly underrepresented :/ ). There are SO many women I could feature here, so many great heroes, I just wanted to mention one of my personal favorites, and why. I work in computers, as many of you may know, specifically with Macintosh computers, and (now, please, no political arguments), one of the reasons I like working on the Macintosh is because, since it's inception in the early 1980's, the Macintosh has worked hard to make itself beautiful. Pretty. Call it what you will. Some people call it cute, or fluffy, or showy, or whatever. I call it beautiful. I am NOT someone who is good at making beautiful things, but I love beauty - it is beauty that, in the end, helped me to be okay with my career path. In the modern world, we spend enormous amounts of time in a world entirely of our own construction, one made of devices, files, graphics, data streams. This is no longer just somewhere geeks and techies spend their time, it's a home to people of all stripes now. Yet, in spite of the amount of time we spend on these devices, we do not think of any of this as 'real' - and therefore we tend to just think past the computer, to attempt to ignore it and marginalize it in our lives. Working for a large corporation, I see this all the time. Computers are tools. We treat them something like enormous staplers - only staplers burdened with a great weight of machinery meant to make sure that the user doesn't accidentally waste staples, or staple their hand. A computer - or more accurately, a virtual world, since a computer is mroe than simply a box - is more complex than this, it is, temporarily the home of one's consciousness, often for hours and hours at a time. It is an office, a lounge, a night club, it's many places rolled into one place - a place designed not for users but for managers, for profiteers, for technicians. I find this very, very sad - to me, my duty as a computer worker, is to give the people I work with somewhere they can be happy - at least a little bit. A computer should be a place that listens to you and acts the way you'd like it to, rather than one that retrains you into being something you're not. Of course, huge strides have been made in this area over the last 30 years - and Susan Kare is one of my heroes in this work. Kare is a designer, her portfolio is available, in part on her website. Flipping through that portfolio, for an old geek like me, is something like looking at your childhood picture album. On the Mac, she designed most of the original icon set, things you take for granted now - things like the happy mac and the bomb icons one used to see on startup, or the command key logo that's on an Apple keyboard. She designed the Monaco typeface - the one that, for instance, was the text on all of the original couple of generations of iPod. She design Moof the Dogcow - which, if you don't know Moof the Dogcow, you should look it up, because it's a happy, happy little bit of joy. And that was just it - in a world where computers were beige and bland and meant to feel like accountant's tools, the little splashes of life that Ms Kare designed were whimsical, playful, and very, very human. On Windows, she designed the cards in Solitaire. Most of her most famous work is not used anymore - or it's used in a highly refined form. Part of the beauty of her work was her ability to render ideas with clear meanings and a distinct soul in the kudgy, bitmapped screens that computers had when she was building - 8 bit color, drawn one bit at a time. While her icons themselves are slowly dissapearing or being reformed, the spirit behind her work is still a guiding principle across the computing world, and one that is growing more important today: that a computer should speak to humans, should help them to relate to the unfamiliar, should be beautiful, and fun, and simple. The visual look of the iPhone - simple uncluttered design with subconsciously recognizable, bright iconography - owes an immeasurable debt to Susan Kare. Every graphical operating system - Windows, Mac OS X, the various Linux desktops - looks and feels the way it does, at it's best moments, because it's imitating the successes that Kare was such a part of in the beginning. Susan Kare is one of my heroes in technology. She didn't invent the microchip, she didn't program the Linux kernel, and the work she did is largely defunct now. But what she DID do was, in a culture of insular, excited technospeak, whisper out in her little way about people, humans, and about the noble reality of a geeky, copper-wire dream - that computers are more than table saws, they are ways to live more fully, more completely, and more beautifully.

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Two Poems about Growing Up

Two Poems on Growing Up


The recipe for 'grownup' is'nt complex -
Three things: the first a set of faces: one
For sneering, chuckling, shouting. Thing the next:
A roll of bandages for putting on
If you, by chance should graze your grownup blades
Across the tender skin beneath your wrist.
The last? You need a book, blank or pre-writ,
To exercise the parts you might have missed
When scalpelling out the withered child bits.
They're like the burn-marks on a frying pan -
You grind them down, but always leave that look
Of bloody-brown, like paint from ancient hands
Cluthched into walls of caverns. But a book
Will let the crackling remnants run their course,
Then shut them in their covers by sheer force.


The Cancer of Maturity
Metastizes slow
It splays across your bangs, at first
And creeps into your clothes.

It slips onto your lips at night,
Your throat, and then your breast
Then Lodges in your diaphraghm
And echoes with your breath.

The lungs rebel and bloom their youth
Into an angry mass,
A cancer as the cancer's foe -
The two begin to clash.

But youth imbues it's vital strength
Into a killing blow.
Adulthood reels, but lives, then waits,
Metastasizing slow.

(Image by Valerie Everett. Herein describing the inside of my wrist (which, no, I've never 'grazed' with 'grownup blades', and never intend to, no worries :D), this concludes my somewhat irregular tour of the pictures on the top of my blog. )

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The Nature of Taste

Last year, I started using Pandora when I am listening to random-music (iTunes is mostly for songs I want to listen to on repeat for hours at a time *cough Radiohead*, or if I want to listen to an album *cough Miss Saigon*). I have to admit that there is little part of my brain, that agonized every time I pushed a button on Pandora. If you've never used it, the interface is pretty simple: you choose a seed song or artist, and Pandora plays a song, and you mark it with a thumbs up or thumbs down, so Pandora can slowly learn your taste. Everytime I put a thumbs down, I felt this little twinge. What if Pandora thinks I don't like this whole genre? What if this artist has, like, lots of songs I'd totally love? What if the Pandora software thinks I'm a snob, or I'm being mean? Yes, my friends, I am aware that it would require a feat of programming currently beyond modern science to produce a computer that could resent you for your choice in music, but sense and reasoning aren't always part of my thought process.

So, I've had the same station for a long time, and I felt quite proud of myself. The music I was listening was about 80% people I'd never listened to before. This is it, I thought, I have become one of those cool people like Amanda and Nymeth and Chris and Debi who have distinct, individual taste, taste that they have cultivated so that they can feel excited about concerts and music and new albums and stuff! I have arrived!

So, this is great, right? Jason is diverse! Jason is creative! And then the other day I had a revelation. In tarot terms, I don't mean one of those shining, glorious, Sun revelations. I mean more like a falling tower revelation. The one where your imagination of how things are is dispelled. Where listening to Pandora, I realized that I actually could reduce my newfound taste into three simple rules:

1) I like sad or angry people, especially girls, playing the piano or guitar
2) I like Jack White, but hate everyone who sounds like Jack White
3) There is no rule 3

If you add to these rules that I like musicals, scat singing, and things that make me look cool, this actually explains at least 85% of my music collection. The remaining 15% is stuff Amanda likes that I've inherited out of sheer respect for her good taste.

No, this is not going to be a complaining post. Promise.

This is a Jason-philosophizes blindly post (hurrah! the crowd shouts sarcastically. That's much better!).

Now, the question here, as to how my taste could be distilled quite so simply into such easy, oddly specific rules is an interesting one to me academically. There's really two possibilities in my mind, either of which is intriguing. The first would be that I like these things because they are what Pandora plays for me. From a a human history standpoint, this is a remarkably complex consideration - because the world of marketing, and therefore the world of disseminated taste, is built on a Pandora model. Sometimes, of course, this is obvious. Look at, for instance, the recommendations that Amazon, or Goodreads, or any other search service hands over to you. With varying degrees of accuracy and complexity (but with a slowly increasing level of both, most of your internet browsing gently, invisibly makes assumptions about you, and uses those assumptions to guide your behaviours - targeted ads, suggested content, recommendations, even blogs like Daring Fireball that take one of your interests (Macintosh Computers) and connect them to other interests (design, Stanley Kubrick, writing). Nor is this ONLY a big brother-ish conspiracy. In the last example, Josh Gruber writes about those other topics because they are the things that interest him. The interesting thing is, however, that these create strange, trended cultures-within-a-culture, where our affetion for something slowly, slowly narrows and is reinforced into the particulars that an algorithm can derive about us. It is easy to at this point have a luddite reaction, but really, while the breadth may change, the depth of experience is intense and powerful this way - It is a tradeoff, but not necessarily a negative one.

But it DOES have ramifications, ones that are already slowly showing. There is, once business and government learn how, the ability to manipulate opinion (though it's notably more difficult to do this on a mass scale than it was with, say, 1950's television, or 40's radio). Additionally, it tends to segmentize society. Book blogging is a perfect example of this - it is very easy to find bloggers with very precisely similar interests - and in knowing those persons, your opinions become even MORE similar over time, as a group, on the trend. This makes these pockets of culture that at times can clash. Use cable news as an example: each year passes, and broadens the gulf between what it is that the news says on CNN versus Fox News, to where someone who watches one channel begins to find it difficult to have a conversation with the other - because the channels are built to encourage argument and righteous indignation instead of mutuality.

I said there were two possible reasons. The second is even more intriguing to me: perhaps, there is a reason I'm attracted to this very narrow band of musicians, independent of the medium that I find them through. Maybe there simply is something about sad female voices, or about an uncluttered piano, or (for whatever reason) Jack White, that speaks something to me. The INTERESTING thing then is, on the one hand, we normally discuss music in the same way as literature: we spend a great deal of time talking about the lyrics, or in trying to relate the music to a hard, verbal idea (or at least, I guess, I do). But, when I strip away to the shallowest level of the subconscious selection, I select on something that has nothing to do with the verbal world, I am attracted to certain aspects of the music itself, certain frequencies, certain qualities of sound and interplay of vibration. The question then becomes why don't we have a better vocabulary to talk about this? One can discuss it scientifically or clinically, discussing this or that scale or harmonic break, or whatever. But this is something like discussing the musicality of a poem by discussing linguistic theory - it's obtuse and useful for analysis but not expression.

The other interesting thing is that it's even POSSIBLE for me, someone who is very much a casual amateur, to even discover something this specific. 100 years ago, the music I heard would be the music that was available, the same music everyone around me heard. If I lived in a small town in the midwest, in middle class comfort, for instance, I'd hear whatever the latest popular sheet music, a small selection maybe fo gramaphone records, and the one or two concerts that travel through the town per year. Perhaps a calliope at the circus. I would hear the popular music of my particular culture, basically. Well, if there is, let's say, 3 girls in my town who play piano and sing, and the only sheet music they have has perhaps 15 out of 100 songs that are sad (and none of them are Jack White) I'm not very likely to discover something so specific - I may be attracted to particular songs, but in my MIND I will process this as an attraction to these specific songs, and will not be ABLE to analyze further and understand what it is about the songs that attracts me, as easily. Even 20 years ago, I was likely to choose some particular genre of music organically, that most closely fit my interests, and then I would simply hear whatever the radio station played. From there I would be able to pick out the bands I liked, and buy their albums, and I would become deeply attached to certain particular bands, through their good and bad (or suited to me and unsuited to me moments). To an extent, this is now changing. Where I 100 years ago would have liked particular songs, and 20 years ago particular bands, I now like particular sounds or modes. So there are certainly particular songs I like - but I like these because they express the sound I like. A band is the same way, or more so for me, an album. If I, for instance, heard one particular song off of Miss Saigon on the radio, I would probably not have been particularly fond of it. But, having partiuclar sounds and modes, I could pick out the echoes of that mode in the overall album, and then use that to understand the foreign things, that interact with it.

Music industry executives bemoan this - because generally what this means is that if a band doesn't change my life, I'll buy one of their songs, and be done with it. They speak darkly abuot the death of the album and a day of empty singles-driven music. I disagree - again, having an intimate relationships with the particular connects us deeply enough to a particular sensual self, that it DOES allow us, in the context of a 'true' album - one that tells a story, and explores the interplay between different themes - to understand things we WOULDN'T normally understand, and to form a relationship with music, rather than using an album, a band, a musician as a benchmark for our taste. And, again, this grows more and more so with every passing year, and musicians are beginning (I think) to pick up on this) - a Dresden Dolls album, for instance, is cautiously planned (at least it feels that way to me) and has pieces that wildly disparate from each other, and Palmer uses this as a tool to draw the listener's mind into directions that they wouldn't normally expect - so, where I would normally only like particular songs of hers, I can begin to understand a song like 'Girl Anachronism' which, the first time that I heard it as a single, I thought was... well, kind of awful, to be honest.

Isn't the future wonderful?

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The Problem With Being a Raina

I have had a number of friends read Blankets by Craig Thompson lately, and LOVE it. I read it this morning - it was a beautiful book, technically precise, carefully balanced, perfectly tuned. But I didn't enjoy it. This isn't to say I didn't APPRECIATE it, because I did. It was a wonderful book - if they book was less well done, I would have enjoyed it more, probably. As it was, with all things to tell the truth, it is only fun to read if the truth is something you'd like to know.

If you haven't read Blankets, and you don't like spoilers, stop reading. Seriously. It is a wonderful book, and you should read it. THEN come back and talk to me about it. This isn't a review, so it will do a poor job of protecting your ability to enjoy reading the book the first time.

The real beauty of Blankets, to me, was that, more than any of the comics I've read so far, this book did a pitch perfect job of combining art and text in a meaningful, surprising way. This book is, in my mind, the reason that graphic novels shoudl be written - because art and words both have their own unique power, and the synergy of those two powers creates something neither could create on its own. The most striking example in the book for me is the way Craig visualizes Raina.

The climax of Craig's relationship with Raina comes, for me, on page 337. In a playful/serious allegory, we see Craig as an Eastern Monk, kneeling before a shrine where the idol of his Muse, Raina, sits cross legged like a Buddha, surrounded by vestal fires, and by the curling shapes of Indian patterns. Look closely for a minute at those patterns - because they recur, over and over. Look, first, at the symbol of their relationship, the blanket that appears on page 182-183:

But, again, this theme isn't just something that shows up here and there. The paisley in particular (for me at least) raises it's head over and over as he thinks of her. Shadows of it, of the curve versus the angular, appear in their first meetings, intensifying as they get to their intimate quiet moment underneath the basketball hoop.  The psalm on 310-311 is another beautifully realized, and very brazen appearance. The sex scene on 420-423 devolves to the point where the very frames of the comic have a paisley-esque fluidity, and her body itself seems to struggle to curve - the movement towards orgasm is, for me at least a continuous effort of him to wrap himself around that pattern, to work his own slouched angularity into the Eastern curvaceousness that he imagines of her.

But there's the problem. And don't get me wrong, this is totally realistic. But there are two Rainas in this book: Raina the goddess-muse-angel, and Raina the woman. The book is from Craig's point of view, and Craig sees what he needs to see - in his noble naivete, he sees what Raina could be, perhaps. But she isn't. She's a human. She fails to be a goddess, over, and over, and over. Amanda, when she read it, said she just didn't get Raina, like it seemed like she was always changing her mind. I understand Raina, I connected with her in a way that I was incapable of connecting with Craig: because I've been that person. And what she does makes perfect sense - only what she does and what Craig SEES her doing are very, very different things.

In the end, for me, that's what the book ended up being about - the moment where you learn that someone isn't what you thought. And that's why I didn't enjoy it. It was uncomfortable, because I have no idea what it is like to fall in love with someone and find out they don't exist - I had the good fortune to marry a Craig - someone who is unfailingly,  completely, exactly who they are. Not that Amanda is perfect, but she is honest, and Craig is the same way - even when he lies, he's telling the truth. I HAVE been the opposite - someone who desperately needed the world to make more sense, someone who made up a story because it seemed to explain things - and then painted over it when it turns out that telling a story doesn't make it so. There's a moment, as I saw all the prints of his blanket seeping into his vision of Raina, that I wanted to shake Craig, physically, and shout at him "Don't you see? She didn't give you a blanket of her, she gave you a blanket of you!" But of course, you can't do that - in a sense, perhaps Craig had to look in someone else to find himself. But for me, this story was foreign, distant - the story that felt present is the story of Raina - who is she in the end? She can't learn what's right, just one more thing that's wrong - and the wrong isn't in Craig, or even in their relationship. Those things were healthy, it's Raina that wasn't healthy - if she were healthy, she could have, perhaps, been what she needed to be. You can only paint the wall so many times, her story whispers, you can only paint the wall so many times. One more coat of paint, now, but still I know. You can only paint the wall so many times.

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In Defense of Happiness

Having been generally grouchy lately (special apologies to Ms Nymeth, Ms Debi, and Amanda on that one...) I have noticed myself falling at times into an old trap - glamorising misery. It's a classic trick, as old as Greek Tragedy (and older), the tendency to believe that sorrow is greater than joy, that misery is a more real and powerful feeling than ecstasy.

Heck with that!

Happiness can be meaningful - I feel silly even having to SAY that. Happiness has it's gradations and variations, it's intensities and mysteries, it's secrets and ceremonies, just like sorrow. And sometimes, I think it's hard (especially for snotty nosed snob jerks like me) to remember that. So, here's a quick list of five books that are filled with happy, and pregnant with beauty and meaning, all at the same time:

1) Silas Marner - There are those who call this book saccharine, and it has been imitated so many times it's easy to read past. But Silas Marner has a gentle joy that suffuses it, even through a drug addled mother dying, a burglary, and an angsty secret. The book is beautiful because it accepts the sorrows of the world, accepts that there's no God waving his happy stick and making them all better, and nonetheless, in the end, shows how beautiful and joyous life really is. No book tells the healing and sanctifying power of love quite like Silas Marner.

2) Better Angel - I just read this book recently. It was written in 1931, and tells a very frank tale of what it was like to be a homosexual in the 20's. I honestly read this book fully expecting it to be a downer, and character after character was introduced that I fully expected to end up lettign me down. But Better Angel is filled with a passion and honest affection for romantic love that lets the author redeem men with sincerity and feeling. The scene in the book where the protagonist tells his best female friend (who's in love with him) that he's gay was one of the most bittersweet, but frankly love-infused moments of reading I've experienced in a long time.

3) The Arrival - Ms Nymeth just reviewed this recently, but in case you missed it, The Arrival is a graphic novel with no words, that tells a fantastical tale about emigration and immigration. The world Tan builds is a pitch perfect mixture of terrifying and exciting exoticism, where everything you meet has an equal chance of being filled with danger or filled with compassion and hope. And in the middle of the world is human beings who, through their mistakes, love each other, care for each other, take care of each other, in spite of the instinct for self-preservation. And by the end, you see some of the terrifying newness of the beginning transform almost magically into symbols of hope and joy. This is the most joyful book I read last year, I think.

4) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Another coming of age story, and ironically another story of immigrant life, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book that loves everyone. CArrying all the stock characters and situations of the worst of tragedies: drunken father, crushing poverty, gender discrimination, racial discrimination, childhood in the shadow of hopelessness - this book manages, by sheer force of will, to refuse to pity itself for even the shortest of seconds. And in the process, you learn what it is to love characters, even the ones you would normally hate, unconditionally and completely.

5) Emily Dickinson - When I told Amanda the books I was thinking of putting on the list, I mentioned Emily Dickinson and she looked at me funny. Yes, Dickinson wrote about Death. But she also wrote some of the happiest, most soothing and gently courageous poems in the history of mankind. She also had a wicked, winking sense of humor, and a cheerful unvarnished affection for beautiful things. If you've only read the ones they give you in school, try Emily again - it's where I turn when I need to cheer up.

So! I feel better! Do you have any favorite books that show how powerful joy can be? Feel free to leave them in the comments - or make your own list if you like. It's so easy to create this false dichotomy between Happy Books and Important Books. But, to be blind to joy in the world is just as crippling as to be blind to sorrow - and just as unfair and productive of injustice to those around you, really.

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Luna, Manchester, and Why Political Correctness IS Important

(Warning: This review makes occasional use of 'the f-word'. I don't use it OFTEN in life, but once in a while it finds it's way in. Sorry if I offend :/)

I recently read Luna, a book about about a transsexual girl - originally I had intended to write a more extensive conversation about it, but I don't think I could do so while maintaining my composure entirely (it was that good). And nobody needs that. I will only say that it was a beautiful book - it has it's faults, but fuck that, because it was beautiful and made me feel more awake than many a far more 'perfect' book. I don't know if it will affect everyone the same, but it did for me.

That being said, and my little store of comabtiveness being worn out...

I've actually had a number of places lately where I've been in contact with liminal things - those things which are neither this nor that, one thing or the other in our mind, and it has made me thoughtful on the idea.

Let me start with something that isn't as emotionally charged for us now: Victorian Manchester.


Having just started a history of Manchester (Manchester in the Victorian Age: The Half-Known City, by Gary S. Messinger), but having long been fascinated by the city, I found one of the early statements he makes very intriguing. Manchester (if you're not familiar with it's history) was the world's first truly industrial city, the first city that was built entirely around factories and industrial production (during the Industrial Revolution of early 19th century England). The city was a sort of shorthand for the horrors of modern living, as a result, for most of the Victorian period. And with good reason - people there lived in dire poverty, the rivers stank of chemicals and shone strange colors, the air was mired in endless smoke, the people were a mishmash of displaced immigrants, and the city government was forever trying to deal with problems it simply could not understand. This was early 19th century England - 'city' meant London, a mercantile city resting largely on the arms of merchants and tradesman, containing a (literally) medieval governmental structure. Manchester was something different, and it took a long time for people to find a paradigm to understand it:

Growth [in Industrial Manchester] posed fundamental problems of perception.... Educated Englishmen could have cited ancient Athens and Rome as more impressive than Manchester on all counts. Even easier were comparisons with the cities of the Low Countries... [or] London. Nevertheless contemporaries could find no complete precedent for Manchester.
To the present-day historian the reasons for this perplexity are clear. A modern observer can see that Manchester was the first predominantly industrial city in the history of the world... Contemporaries, of course, could not view matters in this perspective. But they did sense that Manchester's growth posed a challenge.

This challenge was, in many ways, a challenge of naming. People did not know what industry WAS, because they did not have the vocabulary we have now: simple words like 'blue collar workers' and 'urban growth'. Even words like 'industry', and 'wealth' had meanings that simply were not equipped to deal with these huge changes (consider that 'the spinning industry' pre-industrial revolution was something women did in the evenings in their homes, to earn extra money for their families, and a wooden spinning wheel was a complex, expensive piece of machinery).

The results of this phase shift are too complex to list hear, but they were deeply coloured by fear. Consider this is the period of the Luddites, who tried to destroy the machinery because it made it too easy to produce goods, reducing labor costs, for example. When the thing was an unnamed, belching smoke and displacing cultures, the thing was a monster, eating the green fields of England even as it bankrolled the empire. William Blake epitomized his horror in one of his poems, written as he calls for a struggle to return England to a state of New Jerusalem:

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

That which is unknown and new is evil. The Faustian connection with science, progress and discovery is as old as the hills, and continues to hold resonance today (name me a movie about cloning that approaches the subject differently than a movie might approach a demon...). It was only, later, when we as a world had lived with the thing long enough to know it and to name it, and to learn what we meant with the name, that we could accept the new thing, and make it into something at least LESS disorderly. And in the end, industrialization has certainly had it's faults, but people live longer, more comfortably, and with a greater degree of equality than they did before the 'dark Satanic Mills' sprang up.

Before this could happen, though, people had to make a human, intuitive relationship with their new world. All the science, all the reason, all the evidence of the world couldn't win out UNTIL people had words and thoughts and history to understand themselves with.

Which is not to demean the science, reason and evidence - after all that's wher ethe words, thoughts and history CAME from. The industrialisation of England was accompanied by education - often feared and opposed by those in power, but in the end inevitable, and powerful. Common workers, put together in a small space, could take classes, discuss the world, come up with ideas, and make decisions about things larger than their own house. And for all that factory owners frequently feared that an educated populace was a cauldron of discontent, it was education that eventually saved the factories from public hatred. Education, after all, taught people to write and spell the names they had created, and taught them what the names meant.

Calpernia Addams

So, I know, that's oversimplifying a very complex issue, but turn now with to an (equally) complex issue that is more contemporary. In 1999, Barry Winchell, a PFC in the US Army stationed in Tennessee started dating a performer from Nashville. The two loved each other, they were happily dating, good sex life, the whole bit. The difference, the woman Winchell was dating, Calpernia Addams, happened to have a penis.

At this point, I find myself, paradoxically, in the same position that 19th century thinkers were in over Manchester: namely, what do I CALL Ms Addams? Is she a woman? Is she gay? Is she a she? I don't struggle with these names because I dislike transsexuals, but simply because there ARE no names that aren't terrifically loaded with meaning that I don't necessarily want to carry in what I'm saying. If I say gay, that implies something that doesn't exist in this case, for instance. Winchell was attracted to someone who he, and the other party, considered a woman. Winchell was asked, point blank, if he was gay, and responded 'no.' The same issue occured in Luna: the father asks if his son is Gay. Well, from the son's point of view? No, not at all. She's attracted to men, and in her mind, she's a woman.

With other words, there is just too much baggage. 'Transsexual' as a word, to me, feels either clinical (like a diagnosis) or derogatory (ie, the root of the word 'tranny'). Of course there are many transsexuals who don't feel this way, and in fact many words in a lot marginalized communities are derogatory terms that are being reclaimed as badges of pride (queer is a good example). But that's the thing: until the world has time to settle in, the world HAS baggage - negative or positive depending on the readers point of view, but baggage nonetheless.

This can make it uncomfortable, even dangerous to have the conversation. If I don't LIKE the word transsexual, then when you say it to me, the meaning of what you're saying changes, unavoidably. If the word Drag Queen has associations of ridiculousness to you, it's difficult to discuss someone who likes to wear women's clothing without marginalizing them, EVEN IF YOU DON'T WANT TO, simply because our vocaublary is designed to marginalize people.

And the marginalization is sadly very effective. After being harassed by some of his fellow soldiers for his relationship, one of the harassers pounded his skull in with a baseball bat as he slept.

The immediate reaction in this situation is, for me at least, horror, abject and terrible. Followed by a deep desire to believe the murderer is, simply, a monster. But the problem is, believing men to be monsters is what created the situation in the first place. This isn't to remove any personal responsibility from the situation. The murderer is, DEFINITELY a murderer, and the act he committed is horrific. But, to make actions like this stop, just like making Luddite riots stop, we have to be able to name things, we have to be able to give people a vocabulary, because without a vocabulary, there is no world of ideas and thought, there is no change. You cannot get rid of monsters by killing monsters, you can only get rid of monsters by teaching them to be human.

Creating Names

Names are very powerful things. Consider the history of the last 10 years of the United States without the word terrorist, or the history of the holocaust without the words holocaust and genocide. Words DO matter - that's why I love to read, after all. The problem is that, naturally, the past has an advantage in loaded words over the future. When homosexuality became more public, it was the old word, first, that people knew: sodomy.

The trick is the future must find a way to make a new word. Sometimes, this is done, again, by subverting the old words, taking them back to make new meanings like I mentioned earlier. Sometimes it isn't - perhaps the old word is unreclaimable, perhaps the people affected want a fresh start. One way or the other, new language is created: 'Negro' becomes 'African American', 'sodomite' becomes 'homosexual'.

Of course, this new-word attitude is easy to lampoon, and can be overdone. This is where a lot of the animosity towards political correctness begins. If *I* say Negro without bias, why shouldn't I say it? Frederick Douglass said Negro. WEB Dubois said Negro. MLK said Negro. Why make a new word? Why be upset when people don't use your new word? It's a tricky balance, of course, but you have to remember that while you can control how you say an old word, you CAN'T control how someone else HEARS it. And even if using an unloaded word, using careful language feels awkward now, and even if it changes noone's mind, it educates a new generation with a new, more compassionate vocabulary - just as the old Mancunians had to learn a new way to describe a city, a factory, a world.

One of the truly painful things in the story about Addams and Winchell to me was that the two men most implicated in it were not designed to be bigots. One of them had a transvestite fetish and may have been homosexual. The other had known homosexuals in high school and had no problem with them. The issue is that the words still carried the weight of bias, and the stiuation provided no vocabulary to talk the situation over like humans. The argument: "You're a faggot!" "No, I'm not!" is, if you tease it apart, an argument over labels, a war of definition. The argument never made it beyond definition into conversation - partly because there IS no general definition for the situation Addams and Winchell found themselves in. Would the murderers have magically been nice guys who could have overcome their fear if there was a way to define the situation? Perhaps not. Perhaps the conversation would have solved nothing, perhaps it would have revealed only an irreconcilable hatred. But I wish they could have had the conversation, that they could have tried. And I wish WE could have the conversation, as a society, without having to struggle to define what it is we're even talking about.

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Reviews, and the End Thereof

I imagine anyone who WAS following my descriptions of the images in the banner of this blog has since lost interest. I apologize - I have a long standing tendency to begin things, and then not to finish them. I am writing today's, simply, because I need to write on the topic anyways. But my thoughts (as is the average for me), are unfocused, so perhaps a picture will help maintain some cohesivity throughout this .

The image underneath reviews above is a Polyphemus Moth. Moths of all animals are the ones I've identified most closely with. As a child, I remember seeing the moths at night, the way they threw themselves over and over at the porch light bulb. The mothe would circle, wildly, blinded I imagine by the light it was so attracted to, then throw itself against the heat, startle away, circle, throw itself against again. I remember wondering when they left - if they'd eventually give up, or if they waited, entranced until the light dissapeared. I remember, and I don't know when, one morning seeing the dessicated corpse of a dust moth, clinging desperately to the bulb.

It's that relationship with light and warmth that attracts me first to the moth. My life is more or less a long series of things I've fluttered blindly around, beat myself against, fluttered blindly - this is sort of the internal battle around the pattern I mentioned before - the beginning without the end. I have a tendency to love great works - works that are, unfailingly greater than my own capacity to perform them. This is how I review books. I don't like writing the classic starred review. I'm not opposed to these types of reviews, but they don't meet my needs as a writer - I'm too selfish to review for the benefit of my readers. The problem is that the only other way to write a satisfying review is something that I can occasionally imitate, but never accomplish, and frequently not even approach. At the moment, to offer perspective, I have 9 books that I haven't reviewed - which since I'm am much slower reader than most of my compatriots in the book blogging world, is a whole lot. Some of these books I loved. And, when I sit to review them, I stare at the lighted screen, beat myself against it for a while, produce nothing, flutter about, try again. It's not simple blogger burnout - it's simply that I want to be a reviewer I'm not capable of being.

The other thing that attracts me about moths, uncreatively enough, is the transformation, the cocoon. As a child, the more classic image of the butterfly meant more to me. Life, to me, has always felt cocooned, wrapped too tight and warm, a little crucible that noone can see inside of, and there's something irresistible in believing that, though the dark of the crucible hides it, that if one struggle hard enough to crack the cover, one will find struggle had SOME purpose, that there is a brightness and perfection that people will see and know.

I'm past those days, now. I don't even want to be bright winged and visible anymore, I'd like to be something small and dusty and quiet, to break out simply so as not to be wrapped so tightly, and flutter off unnoticed. A nuisance to the gardener, perhaps, but more or less inert, a quiet little creature to live it's day and lay it's eggs and quietly dissolve someday.

One way or the other - cocoon or dust moth - the way I review now (or the way I do all my great grand projects. Ask about my writing sometime, I'll laugh long and hard) is unsustainable. I'm no butterfly. When I TRY to be a butterfly, I become arrogant, stuffed-shirted (witness a rather snotty generalization I recently made on Ms Emily's blog, regarding experimental literature), as well as very insecure at being discovered as an imposter. I'm a smaller, drabber creature (thank god, I'm not made for the responsibility of great works). So, and I hope I don't offend or irritate anyone, but if I bore and drive away, I'm willing to accept that: I don't think I'll write reviews anymore. This will probably actually INCREASE the amount of writing about my books that I do, because I will be able to write little quiet dispatches of my experience reading, instead of trying to build grand constructions of budding wisdom. But, I can understand these dispatches may be less interesting. I am not a good place to come if you are looking for recommendations to read, or deep and meaningful insights into thought (for either, I can recommend a number of excellent resource - Ms Emily, Ms Nymeth, and my own Amanda all come to mind immediately, and many others I could also list). I'm really not sure WHAT you might get from my bookish thoughts.. But if you'd like to watch the moths around the bulb, I won't hold it against you. :)

From a business perspective, I'm not sure what this means for challenges I've signed up for - honestly I've done a rotten job of remembering them anyways, so I'm not much of a loss. Most challenges are rather review-centric, so I'll figure out how to manage that - but in short, I apologize for the irresponsibility of a mid course bearings change, to all those who I've committed. Who knows - I honestly have a long history of thinking I've figured out something, only to realize I'm being stupid: to flutter about blindly, as it were. I am still a moth, and I'll probably never escape the fatal desire to overreach my bounds. But I suppose I'll wait and see.

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