January 1st, 2011

ahistoric past

p 20 of Freeman's _The Tyranny of E-Mail_:

"The printing press allowed a person to address a multitude without being there to say it to them (or copy it by hand). It took hundreds of years, however, for books to become widely accessible. And it took yet more time for those books and newspapers and letters to be shipped from one city or continent to the next."

So. It's really hard to know precisely what he is saying here. What is "printing press"? Is he talking about the thing in the late 15th century with the movable type? If so, it _did not_ take hundreds of years + yet more time for books and newspapers and letters to be shipped from one city to the next (heck, even from one continent to the next). "Widely accessible" is so subject to argument I'm not even going to tackle it, other than to say that as long as he's not a complete jackass and expecting illiterate people to have access to newspapers, he's wrong there, too.

It's okay to use the flowery language, and to whinge on about some current expectations about email response time and even spamming. That's fine. But I don't like it when the traditionalists can't even wrap their brain around the comparatively recent past. Also, that thing from Henry Adams? Just because no one had their hands on the controls at that moment didn't mean they weren't shoveling like crazy to keep that beast fed. Geez.

I knew I'd hate the writing style, but I bought it hoping he'd actually have an interesting argument. I'm not sure I'll survive long enough to dig it out from under this manure.

ETA: In Freeman's world, Sweden's literacy rate went to 100% within a hundred years of launching a must-be-able-to-read-the-Bible campaign. Never mind that at the moment. "The decline of illiteracy in England was equally sharp but took much longer." It may have been as great, but _by definition_ it was not as sharp. One of your axes is (il)literacy and the other is time. And "sharp" describes the slope of the line. "Great" would have worked. I might have tolerated "dramatic". But not "sharp".

In Freeman's world, Pony Express riders carried a "bow knife". What, because they needed something to cut their baguettes? Really? Bowie knife, maybe. Sheath knife, more properly.

I feel like if I'm living in a world in which the editor of Granta writes a book published by Scribner's with rookie errors like this surviving to meet me in the hardcover, I am not required to feel any sympathy for the complete death of dead wood books. Why should I? There's no win here.

_The Fiddler in the Subway_, Gene Weingarten

Weingarten is a feature writer for the Washington Post. I can't tell if he is supposed to be humorous or not. I actually have a sense of humor, but I don't usually claim that I do because it's way too complicated to explain to most people and you know what happens when you explain a joke.

I did not read the essay/chapter about the guy whose baby died because he left it in his car and forgot. I've read a few of those stories. I have no judgmental words or thoughts for anyone involving in such a thing, but I just can't read those stories any more.

The title essay is the last entry. The entries are not chronological, and if there is a thematic ordering in the book, it escaped me; you should be able to read these in any order.

Weingarten seems to do good research. I had no complaints about factual inaccuracies, not did I object particularly to his choices of topics. He has a theory of good writing, bad writing, writers and mortality that I disagree with both in general and in particular, but it didn't prevent me from enjoying much of the collection.

It's hard to know how to review this book other than to sort of shrug and go, they're feature stories from the WaPo on a wide variety of topics. Some are more interesting than others. It's hard to tell sometimes whether Weingarten is being obtuse in his assumptions while depicting how an investigation developed, or whether he presents himself as obtuse in order to better tell the story.

It'll be interesting to see what happens when we discuss it at book group (this was a book group selection); I'll probably update this at that point. I would not go out of my way to read Gene Weingarten, but if someone recommended something by him, I would not decline to read it merely because he was the author.

I wish I could work up some excitement about this guy, one way or the other. But the honest truth is that Weingarten's issues, the things that really get him going, have utterly no relevance to me. His theory involves the idea that we expend an enormous amount of everything pretending that we might not at any moment die. This is an incredibly stupid idea, and it amazes me that someone older than me could expend this amount of time and energy arguing for this idea. I know I might die at any moment. I have for almost as long as I can remember. I spent most of my childhood and young adulthood alternating between planning (for) it and slogging through the day hoping against hope for it. It was really a shock to realize I might, in fact, live, and I had to make some drastic changes in the way I did things once that finally got through to me. It's not like that's something I'm ever likely to forget.

But hey. YMMV. He seems like a nice enough man.

_How to Become a Scandal_, Laura Kipnis

I checked this out from the library in Mayberry (<-- not its real name). I've known for several years, very slightly, the woman who was working the front desk (not the director) when I checked it out. She's a competent woman, has great library credentials and is the mother of a boy who committed a horrifying murder and attempted murder a couple towns over. He was recently convicted, the first to be so of several young men involved in the crime.

I almost didn't check it out, because that is awkward. But hey: if I don't say anything, we'll just pretend that backstory has nothing to do with this interaction, in much the same way that I look at, but don't mention, my name on the external bookdrop next to the entry of the library, or that I had anything to do with the previous librarian not being the librarian there anymore. Awkward. Not relevant. Nothing to see here. Moving right along.

She did notice the title, commented more than once that no one had to tell her how to become a scandal, etc. Goddess. I played dumb. My friend's know I am really good at this.

The four scandals that Kipnis chose for her slim volume on the subject do not involve dead bodies; these scandals are much fluffier. There's the astronaut driving a long distance to attack the new lover of her co-worker and former lover. There's the New York judge who stalked the woman he dumped (and who he was a trustee for her trust fund). Linda Tripp, which is a nice choice; Kipnis figured the rest of that scandal was thoroughly mined, but lessons could still be learned from Tripp. If only she'd gone after that demon Goldberg. As long as her son Jonah is out there writing, I think it's worth remembering Goldberg. She concludes with Frey.

Kipnis presents a theory of scandal that involves a much larger number of people than the Bad Actors and a very different explanation about what is going on in a juicy scandal than is typically offered. Kipnis suggests: "Each one represents a trouble spot in the social compact that no form of enlightenment or social progress seems likely to eradicate anytime soon: the revenge imperative, the flimsiness of rationality, the enduring stigma of ugliness, the hollowness of redemption". In any event, it was an entertaining, quick read that probably won't do any particular harm, and might do some good.

Kipnis is a little grating at times, and I certainly wouldn't confide in her. But I do respect her.

ETA: Again, dunno why, but this has attracted spammage. Comments turned off.