David McCullough on Reading Up

I am a great fan of escapist literature, but I also routinely get myself booed for being a snotty elitist when I tell people they really shouldn’t just read for escape. They should read to be challenged in addition.

Think of this way: you don’t run a marathon every day to train for a marathon. You do bits, big bits and small bits, and sometimes you just run around waving your hands in the airs chasing a little one in a game. The latter, taken alone, doesn’t train you for the marathon, but life would be terribly, terribly sad without it.

Or, you can’t eat chocolate all day every day. Gotta have some salad in there, too. But a life of salads, though many are delicious, is a lot less fun if there is never any chocolate.

So for those of us who write, we should be reading to understand our craft better, and we should be reading to understand how thinking occurs on the page and with the page.

This conversation with David McCullough is, like just about all conversations with him, delightful, and here he talks about “reading up, reading something that is just a little past your grasp.” You should. You’ll be surprised at how much you will grow doing that. Those stretch goals help a lot.

I was recently reminded of this with my foray in Thucydides in Greek. GOD THAT WAS HARD and it took me FOREVER. I’m translating Julius Caesar now and GOD THAT IS HARD. But I’ve learned a lot. I shall have to go back again and again. But those stretches have been so good.

Kurt Vonnegut tears it up

I’ve been very sick, and I am doing too much, which is when I get terribly tired and discouraged. Today I read this fiery piece and it made me smile.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

And still on the subject of books: Our daily sources of news, papers and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books can we find out what is really going on. I will cite an example: House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger, published near the start of this humiliating, shameful blood-soaked year.


What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without a sense of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it all their own?

Italo Calvino on why we should read the classics

As regular readers know, I am dubious that we book snobs influence much of anybody, let alone oppressing the legions of people who read bestsellers, both exceptional and mediocre, with our book snobbery and elitism. There simply aren’t enough of us to make a dent in all that. That said, I’m rather fed to the teeth with the backlash directed at Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate: Against YA. Her point: yeah, sure it’s fine to read young adult books as an adult, but you should want more from reading, and expect more from yourself, than simple escapism every time you open a book. This thesis prompted entirely predictable outrage and stomping of the feet and meany-meany-meanpants elitist accusations, a lot of which I strongly suspect comes from people simply affronted at a woman daring to suggest that she was better at something than they are. I’m smart! They yell and scream. I’m totally smart and what I choose to read is none of your beeswax! Stop judging, you judgey person! I’m a zillionaire I-banker and that proves I’m smarter than you! I’m a brain surgeon who can play flight of the bumblebees one-footed on the zither! Totally proves my smartness. It does it does does does DOES!!!

Among the better criticisms of the idea that edification through the classics comes from Tim Parks here. There are many fine points to his argument including this:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, yes, yes, fine, but 1) progressing through different difficulty levels of any type of education may not be linear; it may be a looping; you might go back and forth between books of varying quality, or sprints, or scales, or lots of other to-and-fro-ing even if your general trend is towards mastery; 2) announcing that class is the basis for advantage in any activity is a bit of no-brainer when you really think about it, and 3) there are elite practitioners of just about any activity, both pro-social and not, and status hierarchies within, both earned and unearned. I belong to vegan groups on Facebook because, for reasons of compassion and health, I am trying to eat less meat. The people who dominate in one group are among the most strident, boring, elitist people you’ll find anywhere. I am not equal to them. My foodling efforts and fatness are hardly praiseworthy compared to their dedicated and elite practice. They post in outrage about things, like Trader Joe’s vanilla-flavored coconut milk, with Puritanical zeal about how wrong and horrible and bad and calorie-laden and planet-killing the product is, and I all I can think is: I wants it, my preciousness. Sounds yum.

People who really put effort into something do have some entitlement to take pride in accomplishment–at least some, don’t you think? Education and reading are no different. If you choose to read to escape, sure, that’s your choice, but…am I really obligated to do backflips over your minimal efforts? Nobody running marathons is patting me on my head for going out for an amble. Some days, that amble is all I can bloody do. But let’s not fool ourselves. It ain’t much compared to running 190 miles to cave dive for kale smoothies.

Italo Calvino wrote a lovely essay on why we ought to read the classics. The takeaway? Reading the classics allows us to a break from the immediate pressures of the modern world without, simply staying in the shallows, the way pure escapism does. It’s a break from the quotidian, instrumental demands of everyday life, and a chance to explore big questions we may not encounter in our own experience. What is so very wrong with evangelism around that?

Socrates at the end of the Phaedrus

I’m an idiot. Wanna know what makes me an idiot?

I check my email first thing in the morning. That’s why I’m an idiot. Email is annoying. Nobody ever emails with “you’re awesome and we want to give you an award.” At least not to me. To me, it’s always “here’s some work” and “here’s some more work” and “here’s why my ideas are better that yours” and “this is why you can’t get what you want.” It’s never different.

Why I can’t live without seeing that until later in the day is beyond rationality.

Contrast this with the delightful ending of the Phaedrus, which is what I could be reading, instead of crappy snarky emails:

Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry.-Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.

50 books to add to Brent Toderian & Planetizen’s standard, white city-making books

The risk of critiquing book lists is that a) it’s easy to kvetch about others’ lists, and b) you risk insulting the many wonderful writers who do appear on the original list, including the person who took the time to put together the list in the first place. But at the risk of doing both a and b, I have to say I am disappointed in Brent Toderian’s list of 100 best books on city-making for Planetizen. We can go around and around about this: I guess it depends on what he means by city-making. And a lot depends on what a person reads. But if you are going to go around labeling something “the best”, you’d better be well-read, and this list just doesn’t strike me as being that broad or that open to different perspectives on cities. Then, in his addendum, he adds some fiction, including the rapey The Fountainhead, which he does include as a ‘negative’ example, I guess. But does that tiresome book really need more press? At least he included Calvino and China Meiville in the addenda. But this list and his addenda are standard white urbanist fare, with a lot of echoing of the same ideas from one white urbanist to another. It make me sad that our “best of” lists are still doing this. That said, Jan Gehl’s book is very fine, and you could spend a long time reading the wonderful books on this list.

And he does have some women on the list, but the ones chosen are not exactly writing from non-dominant perspectives, and there are some terrific books by Asian authors on the list, including work from my wonderful colleague, Tridib Banerjee. It’s not that I want to erase the people from the list. It’s that I really wish urban planners would read more widely and take seriously their job to understand and promote more than one perspective on cities, not just focussing on a perspective that simply creates an echo chamber of the wonderfulness of white urbanism and planning with its bike lanes and its downtown retail. The latter is like an endless diet of FoxNews or MSNBC.

You are not educated until you get off your butt and start learning to see the world from a perspective other than your own.

City-making is not the exclusive purview of planners or self-declared urbanists.

So here are some to add to the list, in no order because I’m bad at order. I don’t claim these are ‘the best’–just books I have read that reflect cities and how they are made, that were worth reading, and that represent an effort to read what people from different perspectives have to say:

1. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Much of what you need to know about how ineffectual city government is in governing black neighborhoods appears here in the first few pages as Morrison riffs on “Not Doctor Street.”

2. There Goes the ‘Hood by Lance Freeman. Contemporary gentrification debates.

3. The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson. This book should be required reading.

4. The First Suburban Chinatown by Timothy Fong

5. Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America by Ella Howard. The first book from a very promising scholar.

6. Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh I don’t like his other, much higher profile books as much: this one tells the stories about how people make a living despite city regulation.

7. Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin. Read anything by Kathryn Edin. Just do it. This book focuses mostly on impoverished women in Philadelphia.

8. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila There are some great books on Baltimore, but this one is a good recent one.

9. Gay New York by George Chauncey I wish I could assign this book more often; it’s long, and it’s not easy to chop up. But it is worth your time.

10. Barrio Urbanism by David R. Diaz I like David Diaz’s work a great deal anyway, but this is my favorite.

11. Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak by Bettina L. Love Young black women talking about the role of art and expression in their coming of age in Atlanta.

12. Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism by Rebecca Solnit

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

13. Jesuit Garden in Beijing and Early Modern Chinese Culture by Hui Zou So interesting.

14. Snow Drops by A.D. Miller A novel set in post-Socialist real estate in Moscow. Harrowing.

15. Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces by SanSan Kwan

16. Harlem Nocturne by Farah Jasmine Griffin

17. Sento at Sixth and Main by Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves This book made me cry.

18. 18. The Hiawatha by David Treuer Urban Indians in Minneapolis. A haunting, haunting novel.

19. Cities of God and Nationalism: Rome, Mecca, and Jerusalem as Contested Sacred World Cities by Khaldoun Samman

20. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora by Martin F. Manalansan IV

21. Tunnel People by Tuen Voeten

22. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who did dystopian Los Angeles like nobody else.

23. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel Delany. Oh, and read some of his novels, too.

24. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor M. Rios

25. Graceland by Chris Abani a wonderful novel about post-colonial Lagos

26. Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 By Heda Kovaly

27. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang Follows the story of young women who move from village to metropolitan China.

28. Black, Brown, Yellow, & Left by Laura Pulido

29. Young and Defiant in Tehran by Shahram Khosravi (Author)

30. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde by Doryun Chong, editor. (Yes, I’m including edited volumes)

31. Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans By Emily Landau

32. Daily Life in Victorian London (an anthology) London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes was a terrible place if you weren’t rich.

33. The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick Good fiction, with a strong sense of place.

34 In The Land of Isreal by Amos Oz A wonderful book about people, politics, and territory.

35. Aztec of the City–these Comic books are cool, about an urban superhero in San Jose

36. Season of Migration to the North By Tayleb Salih a terrific novel about the influences of east and west and city and village in a globalizing context.

37. The Havanna Quartet by Leonardo Padura. A police procedural set in Havanna.

38. Smeltertown by Monica Perales–the story of the Mexican residents who live in El Paso’s company town.

39. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman

40. Anything written by Walter Mosley . Anything.

41. L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi

42. Paul R. Williams, Classic Hollywood Style by Karen Hudson

43. City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor (wonderful prose style and an intimate look at individuals and the contestation over urban space.

44. All Souls: A Family Story from A Southie
by Michael Patrick MacDonald

45. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic City by Rudolf Gaudio

46. Black Manhattan by James Weldon Johnson

47. The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky If you have an interest in migrants and the global reach of NYC media, here you go.

48. Chavez Ravine: 1949 by Don Nomark

49. Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows edited by June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf
Another terrific edited volume.

50. The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 by John Robb

A snob’s response to anti-book snobs

Attention conservation notice: If there is anything that has become more irritating than actual book snobs, it’s anti-book snobs who want to police snobbery using online shadowboxing and demanding that the rest of us–I dunno–worship? respect? what?–their desire to read books about spanky millionaires, boy wizards, and teenage girls in love with vampires old enough to be their grandfathers. How about you read what you want, and I’ll read what I want? Ok?

(I will get around to reading the Hunger Games at some point. I haven’t yet. I have stuff to do, you know!)

This one, from Buzzfeed, crossed my desk yesterday, and for shadowboxing, it’s actually pretty good. It probably helps that I agree with his #1 pick—the gross Brett Easton Ellis types who want to tell me about what great artistes they are, and how I’m a frigid, politically correct feminazi for not appreciating their grand art because they have fully captured, in detail, the horrors of skull rape. This other piece from Book Riot set my teeth on edge because it screamed insecurity, like we all need to walk on eggshells lest its straining-to-be-populist author get her feelers hurt that I’m not reading/watching/doing what she’s doing and my failure to do those things or talk about those things somehow judges her. Do the rest of us really need to affirm what you are reading/watching/doing? It’s so exhausting.

So here’s my list of responses to both:

1. Yes, DFW worshippers are irritating, but I’m sorry, the DFW biopic will likely be horrible. Horrible.

David Foster Wallace strikes me as a wonderful writer who gave us some terrific books and an awfully nice commencement speech, and his post-mortem cult-of-personality feels to me like it’s gotten far out of control. Infinite Jest is a fine book; it wasn’t life-changing for me, but I do see the greatness in it, just like I see the greatness in Ulysses even though I’m glad I shan’t have to read it ever again. On the whole, I wouldn’t complain if a movie brought Infinite Jest to a broader audience.

And yet, I think the biopic is likely to be terrible. Not because of Jason Segel. If anything, somebody like Segel might save it because the one adventurous thing DFW likely did turns out to be pretty comedic: his time on a cruise. That won’t be easy to do well.

Writer (and academic) biopics tend to be horrible simply because what makes us interesting (our writing) is the product of a process that looks like this:

and there isn’t much in movie history that is going to top this, which is pretty much the writing life:

That’s it. After doing that for a long time, you have…a book.

Writers’ biopics that do work tend to be about relationships with some writing thrown in. Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia has many charms, including a wonderful cast and lovely locations, but it works to the degree it works, because Ephron realized that the books weren’t the story. You leave A Beautiful Mind knowing that John Nash was a really smart guy who discovered something smart–they rather screw up the explanation of the Nash Equilibrium. Think about this: Hemingway and Gellhorn from HBO. It was horrible. Horrible. Blood, gore, sex and typing. Eyugh. DFW was kid from the midwest who was a fairly good, but not good enough, tennis player, a mean, belittling brother to his sister, and a writer who experimented with form and depressed in his personal life. This does not promise much. A bit like a Foucault biopic. (If it exists, please don’t tell me about it.)

2. Does commercial fiction really need to you to defend it?

Standing up for commercial fiction sounds a lot like arguing that we all need to like the Homecoming Queen and King to me. JK Rowling and Dan Brown will be fine with or without me. Must I buy them and read them to make you feel better about buying and reading them? The hive mind can’t stand my not being in it? What? Rowling’s books are fun and did a lot to get young people reading. I am grateful to her for that, and I think she sounds like a cool person.Read More »

F.M. Cornford on Plato’s vision of justice

F.M. Cornford passed away in 1943, but he is such a marvelous writer that he’s well worth reading yet. I just finished off his Before and After Socrates, which are a series of lectures he read at Oxford. There isn’t much there for a specialist in early philosophy, but it’s an awfully friendly introduction to the important innovations in thought that in occurred in Greece in the 6th and 5th century, and the quality of the prose should put many of us moderns to shame:

“When we speak of Justice as an ‘ideal’, we also mean that it may never yet have been completely embodied in many man or in any system of institutions. It is not a mere ‘idea’ in the sense of a thought or notion in our minds; for the notions in our minds are confused and conflicting. They are only dim and inadequate apprehensions of what Justice is in itself. Justice itself is not a thought, but an eternal object of thought.”

(p. 61).

Why read (Stephen Bryer on Proust and the humanities)

This lovely interview with Stephen Breyer appeared in in my Fboo timeline via the NY Review of Books, and it’s very worth reading. Here’s a choice bit:

SB: It’s true, I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad. We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.

Leaving the cul de sac of maleness, whiteness, Americanness in reading

John Purcell discusses his journey from ‘literary snob’ (I still don’t really know what that means) to a writer of erotic fiction:

”A lot of guys I know will stay in the men’s section. They’ll read their Cormac McCarthy and their Martin Amis and they will return again and again to this cul-de-sac of maledom. But once I crossed over to reading women authors, I never crossed back. The greatest propagandist for moral behaviour** is Jane Austen. I fell in love with Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontes, then I found George Eliot – the list goes on.

I think he’s right about becoming more interesting if you can manage your intellectual development in such a way that you learn to read without reading having to be a mirror, reassuring you of your identity and the importance of that identity.  My friends say to me that I will read anything by anybody; and yeah, I will at least give it a chance.   Books are adventures, and reading something written by a Greek 2000  years ago or a contemporary Laotian increases that adventure.  With reading, you can travel without making yourself a pest to indigenous persons.  What’s not to love?

Following his lead, Booktopia.com has 8 Australian writers who list their favorite books written by women. The result is a feast of book recommendations, though I liked Gone, Girl a little less well than others did.  You’re crazy if you aren’t reading Hilary Mantel’s books  ‘because she’s a girl’ or because you prefer to read the ‘real true history’ constructed by a historian.  Read both.

In the interests of expanding the book list, it’s also good to read internationally and across ethnicity, so in addition to northern European murder/revenge mysteries, here are some of my favorites. I apologize for the lack of novels from South and Central America and Mexico, but I am ignorant there and terribly behind in reading. The ones I love from those regions are the ones everybody already knows. I don’t read in Spanish particularly well, and I often find that I am not crazy about translations of Spanish.  Please tell us some good ones in the comments if you have a minute and a book to recommend:

1. Peter Hoeg: Borderliners. Children subjected to an experiment because of who they are fight the experimenters.

2. Banana Yoshimoto, NP.  Actually, I really like Banana Yoshimoto in general. Just read. This one is about a family dealing with suicide and the leavings of artistic production.

3.  The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpenter.  Haiti in early 1800s. A world built in the novel.

4. Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya A mother watching her son get mired into the deadly politics of the Soviet purges.

5. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.  Based on a real set of events: a devoted couple send postcards opposing the Nazis. The novel is a brilliant antidote to the hero’s journey of men-with-guns fighting stories; it’s instead horribly real in the way it demonstrates how and why ordinary people collaborate with evil in ways both large and small.

6. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  One of my favorites.

7.  Funny Boy by Shyam Shelvadurai A boy grappling with his body and his identity in a world where neither is acceptable to those around him.

8. Speaking of bildungsroman, Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangarembga.  A young women in 1960s Rhodesia gets a chance to get out, and does, and then comes to see the grace and dignity of the women of the women who did not.

9. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. Nice white people confront the world as politics around them change.  Read.

10. Nectar in the Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. One of the biggest mistakes people make about ‘women’s novels’ is that notion that domesticity is dull.  Privileged domesticity might be, but domesticity fought for tooth and nail–hardly.

11. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.  A meditation on gender, love, work and sex, and one of the best novels I’ve read in years.

12. The Oresteia by Aeschylus. A trilogy of plays on the fall of the house of Atreus. Don’t go sacrificing your own daughter.  It annoys people.

** Purcell is wrong about the moral propaganda part; Austen’s books are relentlessly pragmatic, not in the moral sense,  at the same time they are social criticism. But I don’t care. Just read.

Transportation-themed comics

I read comic books. You can call them graphic novels if you want to feel smarter about reading them. But whatever you call them, I read ’em (like just about everything else: I read.)

But it’s not often that a transportation-related comic book shows up. My Not Small Diary #16 is all transport-related stories.

A geegaw post, I know, but hey. It’s not everyday that two interests intersect!

I got my copies from the wonderful Atomic Books.