January 9th, 2011

train wreck?

I've been catching up on some filing, which seems to mean that I actually read the magazines that wind up in piles and ignored for embarrassingly long periods of time.

So I'm working my way through issue #49 of bitch magazine, and I'm almost done: I'm in the book reviews. I am tremendously excited to discover that Stephanie Coontz has a new book out! Loeb's review meanders a while before getting to the book, and then describes Coontz interviewing a bunch of people who collectively realized that while they _thought_ they'd read the book, ""When they tried to explain the gap between what they 'remembered' and what I told them the book actually said, they usually decided that the title had conjured up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe they had read it."

That's kind of suspicious. Actually, forget "kind of". That's ridiculously suspicious. For virtually all of these people, reading the book would have occurred decades earlier; you forget the details, if indeed you properly understood them at all. If they collectively concluded they hadn't actually read it, that's either Coontz making up a story and getting them to agree, or just Coontz making up a story. That is not a good sign. I say this based on being in a monthly book group in which people regularly misremember (or just forget) important plot points, character names and so forth in a book they read within the previous few _weeks_.

And here's another example. I used to date a guy who spent a lot of time on a cypherpunks list and similar digital environs (ok, so did I). In these fora, Heinlein's _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ regularly came up as an example of a really excellent depiction of a libertarian society. The guy I dated complained every time that he didn't understand what that was all about. He'd read the book. It was a great adventure, but he didn't get all this political stuff. After hearing this a few times, I got hold of a copy and read it (yes, Virginia -- no, not that Virginia -- there was a time when I had not yet read every single thing Heinlein got published). I then said to the guy I was dating, uh, they're right; it is very political and clearly depicting a libertarian society. When did you read this thing, anyway. "When I was four." (You can sort of see, based on this story, why I think hyperlexia is actually somewhat normal, and also why I don't see any point at all in encouraging very young people to read anything "advanced".) Smart guy. Great memory. Less than two decades later, however, and it might have been a completely different book. At no point, however, did I question whether he had _actually_ read the book. The fact that Coontz did that to a bunch of people who remembered reading Friedan creeps me the fuck out. It's one thing to teach a class at Evergreen and emotionally and intellectually pulp a bunch of teenagers/twenty somethings who all signed up for it. It's wholly another thing to do it to a generation of women trained from birth to agree with anyone who disagrees with them.

Some of what happens next does not involve quotes from the book, but rather Loeb's summary, so it's entirely possible that Loeb misread Coontz (altho I'm not inclined to believe that, actually). I worry a little about people who think that the book sparked the women's lib movement (nope, but Friedan did, along with other people, in part through the book but mostly through NOW). There's certainly no "seeming obliviousness to women who never had a choice not to work" in Friedan: that group of women is mentioned within the first chapter. According to Loeb, Coontz "points out that she didn't always acknowledge her sources and influences (chief among them Simone de Beauvoir and Mirra Komarovsky)" <-- quote is of Loeb, not of Coontz; Loeb is summarizing Coontz. Yet de Beauvoir and Komarovsky are both mentioned and credited BY NAME in the _preface_ to the original edition!

It's hard to imagine that Coontz drastically misread the book. OTOH, it's hard to imagine Loeb screwing up details like this. I don't know what to say. The non-customer reviews over on Amazon are not inspiring (Elizabeth Gilbert?! Christie Hefner?! John Bradshaw!!!). In the past, I've had a lot of respect for Coontz -- she was sort of my model for how a sociologist can produce decent history. Unfortunately, this has a lot of the signs of a book that makes me rethink whether I ever _should_ have liked an author.

It is available for the kindle. I'm currently reading Friedan. This is next up, but I'm not going to commit to finishing it. I'm going to count errors and stop after 50. Hopefully, I'll get through the book.