(I perplex my students repeatedly because they have all been indoctrinated into believing that sentences cannot begin with such words as "and" or "but", that paragraphs cannot have more than five sentences in them, that sentences with more than a certain number of words in them are run-ons, etc. I tell them this is not true. I tell them what matters is purpose and audience. I tell them there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" style and usage, just style and usage that work and are appropriate to particular audiences and purposes. They ask me why their other teachers told them differently. I want to say, "Because they were lying. All of us lie to children. You will, too, someday." Instead, I say, "They were trying to teach you some basic principles. They were good at heart. Don't be bitter. There are plenty of other things to be bitter about.") (What is my purpose here? Whittling away the time. What is my audience? [No comment.])
And now for what you hunger for: links!
- At the LitBlog Co-op, we have announced the one book out of three that got the most positive votes from members: The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck. (It's notable that this is the second novel in a row we have chosen by a person named Matthew. I am entirely in favor of this tendency.) I mostly liked The Farther Shore, and so will be participating next week in some way or another in discussing it. (Yes, some of the procedures at the LBC are changing. We're not discussing all three nominees anymore, just the book that gets the most votes. And we're going to spread the posting around across various blogs, using the LBC site as a hub collecting them all rather than the One True Place of Posting. We'll see how it goes.)
- I just read Cormac McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, which I liked very much at the beginning, but less so as it went on, because there was nothing in the voice, events, or characters that, once I spent some time with them, I found continually engaging. I didn't expect a lot from his first novel, though, and found my eventual disengagement with it interesting on an intellectual level, because it's something that happens to me a lot: I read a third or half of a book, feel like I've gotten what there is to get, and stop. Or, I finish a book and think I should have stopped reading much earlier, because in some way or another the book felt to me like a lot of reiteration rather than development or surprise. Such a response is as much about the reader as the book. For instance, I finished reading a contemporary novel recently that many people have raved about -- indeed, I've seen nothing but good reviews of it, praising it for its style and its ideas -- and yet after being quite excited at the first hundred pages, I grew ever more uninterested as the second hundred fifty passed across my eyes, because the book was, as far as I could tell, little more than an elaboration of what had been set up in the beginning. The style was admirable simply for its consistency, and so it provided little pleasure, because even a great piece of food eaten again and again and again grows tedious. Basically, though, I just felt like I could have imagined it all just fine on my own, and so the writer's attention to detail and narrative felt, in some ways, like an imposition. I wanted more gaps, ambiguity, and surprise. I don't read to have what I could imagine for myself confirmed; I read to discover what I couldn't imagine, what I couldn't know, what I couldn't dream or extrapolate or come up with on my own.
Which is not to say I could have imagined all of The Orchard Keeper after the beginning -- not at all, no way, nuh uh. It's just that it stopped pricking my imaginating in interesting ways, and by the end I felt unfulfilled.
- Via Mark Sarvas, I discovered an essay by Cristina Nehring about "What's Wrong with the American Essay". I agree that many of the essays collected over the years in various books of American essays and personal essays and essayistic essays are ... well ... boring. But that's just because most of us aren't as good as Virginia Woolf, whose "Death of the Moth" is, I think, among the greatest things ever written in English, and could be seen as suffering from some of what Nehring criticizes, except it isn't, because it's written by a genius. What really bothered me about Nehring's essay, though, had nothing to do with her, but rather with whoever at the website decided to illustrate the piece with a picture of the new Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I kept waiting for Nehring to discuss the Wallace collection, because in his introduction Wallace says some of the same things she does, and I found this particular entry of the series to be more entertaining and immediately engaging than any of the others I have read (and I've read a few. I like the Alan Lightman one quite a bit, too.) Nehring notes the dates 1996-2006 multiple times, so it becomes clear enough that she isn't discussing the Wallace volume, but then to put the Wallace book prominently on the page with the article is misleading.
- Speaking of great essays and essayists, Elizabeth Hardwick has died at the very fine age of 91. I owe much of my understanding of Melville, if I can claim to have any, to her. In honor of her, check out "Grub Street: New York" from the first issue of the magazine she helped found, The NY Review of Books.
- And from the most recent issue of the NYRB: Michael Dirda on Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is an amazing, overwhelming, frustrating writer, one who it's difficult to really get a picture of without devoting your life to reading her work (Randy Souther's Celestial Timepiece website is a great help. In fact, the JCO discussion group there was the first online community of readers I ever joined, when I was a wee lad finishing up college.) Dirda mis-states the title of A Bloodsmoor Romance and leaves out the third of Oates's experimental Gothic novels in his mention of them: Mysteries of Winterthurn, which I remember being among the books of Oates's that most impressed me. I just received a galley of a new edition of that book that will be out in May of next year, so I am hoping to get the chance to reread it, and hoping it will find a new audience now. In some ways, in fact, I think we are now better ready to receive the sorts of genre play that Oates was up to with Winterthurn and the other books, and it might now have a better chance of finding an audience. Perhaps, too, we will finally see The Crosswicks Horror published.
- Ms. Gringa found A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead, which made me think of a 45 my father had (RPM record, not gun, though there were plenty of those, too) of Peter Sellers singing "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!". I wondered if they were available on the internets, and lo and behold, there's a TV clip of Sellers being introduced by the Beatles as he does Laurence Olivier as Richard III reciting "Hard Day's Night" -- and there's also a site called The Songs and Sounds of Peter Sellers, which offers mp3s of not only the two songs I knew, but also other Beatles covers, including one of Dr. Strangelove putting a rather ... Hitlerian ... spin on "She Loves You". (Sellers later returned to his German accent, and also returned to Richard III.)
- Happy Chanukah to all my Jewish friends!