Friday, July 30, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

As though in answer to my post yesterday on The Wellfleet Oyster Diet, the Times today is previewing a book review of Paul Greenberg's Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Reviewer Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic, on his blog, also poses the question of what fish should we eat, given the concerns both that overharvesting in the wild and farming fish both pose.

Four Fish sounds like a terrific read that I plan to load onto my kindle. Featured at the tales of tuna, cod, sea bass and salmon. In book publishing parlance, it sounds like a Michael Pollan treatment, but Pollan himself, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, acknowledged the significant contribution of anthropology to thinking about what and how and why we eat as we do.

Sifton's review itself resonates with me:

In a bite of that absolutely fresh tuna from New Jersey, I experienced a taste of truly wild food, a majestic flavor, something incredibly rare.

And as it melted on my tongue and receded into memory, I felt guilt and doubt and fear. Will my children, who demurred in eating the fish that day, ever have a chance to eat bluefin tuna? Will their children? Will anyone? Should they? What are we really to do with these fish?

I still have the taste of Wellfleet oysters fresh in my mouth. It is indeed an experience that I hope Beanie and Bubbie can come to savor also.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On holiday: Fruits of the sea

Hmm, I wonder whether or not it is possible for humans to subsist completely on shellfish? If so, then I am interested in a Wellfleet oyster diet. Surely there must be some paleofantasy about our human ancestors to which we could attribute its evolutionary advantages?!

On this trip, we have discovered also a taste for clams - in particular, steamers cooked in Cape Cod Beer, then served with a bit of the cooking broth with butter melted in it... and littlenecks on the half shell.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Reason #641 for skipping the PhD

This is StraightMan "relaxing" on the beach at Cape Cod this afternoon.

The book is one he was assigned to review, about a year and half ago.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On holiday: Postcard for Saturday

Stopped at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Our objective - and the objective, apparently, of every well-heeled, middle-aged person in western Massachusetts - was to see the exhibit, "Picasso Looks at Degas."

Beanie and Bubbie were likely the youngest viewers in the museum, but I suspect that StraightMan and I might have been the youngest adults there.

However, Beanie has been interested in Degas since her spring ballet recital, which was titled "Degas." She was enthralled. Delightful company for strolling the show! I learned a lot as we walked around and looked at the paintings and sculptures.

Bubbie also took interest. His voice bouncing around the atrium: "I WANT TO SEE ART!" He took the stairs without waiting for us. Then he changed his mind: "THE BEACH IS WAITING FOR ME!" StraightMan finally coaxed him into seeing art. I tried a few mommy-tricks, like asking him to talk about the colors - lots of blue...

Then, standing in front of "Nude Wringing Her Hair," I asked Bubbie to count the number of triangles. "NO. I SEE CIRCLES HERE AND HERE! I LIKE THE CIRCLES! CIRCLES ARE MY FAVORITE!"

Art and the three-year-old boy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Language matters

StraightMan was devasted by the following post on The Chicago Manual of Style's Facebook wall:

CMOS 16 Sneak Peek: In author-date citations in reference lists, put article titles in quotation marks and use headline capitalization. With this change, the two systems of Chicago documentation (author-date and notes-bibliography) become easier to learn and use, since the stylings of elements will be the same in both systems. Only the order of the elements varies, as before.

In fact, he just had spent part of his morning "fixing" the citations in an article that he has been writing. We have a CMOS 15 on our shelf. The purchase of which we invested $55 during the writing of my dissertation. It is a little disconcerting to think that it might be obsolete: I thought good style never went out of fashion?


Is it just me or does there seem to be a growing interest in linguistic concerns? Arguably, language and all its uses and effects matter all the more with the use of technologies and social media, like the Internet and Facebook. The fact that the folks at CMOS are hip on Facebook seems to prove this point. Also, the point that a lot of people who engage in writing for at least some part of their day are spending too much time on Facebook - 9,508 people "like" CMOS.

In addition to the revival of the On Language column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, a blog on language has been introduced on The Economist's Web site. It is called "Johnson," which no doubt causes much snickering in certain quarters, but which the blogger helpfully reminds us is named for dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson. Were The Economist based in the U.S., it might have been called "Webster." (See above.) I esp. like Johnson's reaction to Sarah Palin's "refudiation" of critics of her inventing the term "refudiate."

Much as I enjoy them, however, these erudite essays cannot be all there is to press coverage of language matters.

Language is the news. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, the need for Arabic specialists was much discussed - the college where I teach is in the process now of developing a minor in Arabic, which students themselves are demanding. The proposition to make English the nation's "official" language has been afoot for some time, but there seems to be renewed attention to the English-only movement, esp. with anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona.

A critical point that I tried to make in my linguistic anthropology class is that no language is inherently better or worse than any other for human communication: French is not more beautiful than German. Arabic and Chinese are not in any objective sense the hardest to learn in the world. The dominance of English results not from some kind of linguistic superiority - for example, it is argued that it is more efficient and therefore a better language for science and technology - but from processes of standardization and planning, which continue today.

It is interesting to consider how the "policing" of language works. It is for this reason that I feel as half-hearted about so much talk about Palin or George W. Bush before her: You say plain talk, I say linguistic gaffe. Is plain talk really plain? Or is it the appearance of being plain? Who among us does not commit such gaffes? Can a person's proper or improper use of language really tell us all that about him or her? What is proper and improper use of language in the first place?

More important, what are the stakes involved here? Now we have ventured into assumptions about what language is all about - and they need to be examined.

I wonder whether or not leaving language matters in the hands of the pointy heads in fact might trivialize their significance and more importantly, deflect attention from the consequences for We the People in our everyday lives.

There seems to be a need today for linguistic journalism, along the lines of science journalism, to help interpret what everyone is talking about, from so-called political correctness to Palinisms and back again.


On a related note, Lexington's column in the July 15th issue of The Economist offers the immodest proposal of banning the use of "great" and "exceptional" (and their variants) in political speeches in the U.S.:

Just think what a relief it will be, once Lexington’s ban comes into force, to be able to debate the role of government on its merits, without bringing providence into it.

The ban will also liberate America’s politicians to speak like normal people. At present, failing to lard their speeches with God and greatness can get them into serious trouble.

For me, another reason to like Lexington - aside from the quaint and lovely practice of having an individual assume the column's identity (versus the column assuming an individual's identity - is his? / her? assessment of David Brooks, a columnist whom I love to dislike:

In 1997 David Brooks, writing then for the Weekly Standard and now at the New York Times, wrote an essay called “A Return to National Greatness”, complaining that America had abandoned high public aspiration and become preoccupied with “the narrower concerns of private life”. It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, Mr Brooks said, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness”.

If that was ever good advice, it is rotten advice now. Americans are not unhappy because they lack an energetic government; many think Mr Obama’s administration too energetic by half. The last thing the country needs is to be distracted from its practical problems by the quest for an elusive greatness. Put such language away, says Lexington. America is indeed a great and exceptional country. But it isn’t talking about it that makes it so.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bits of inspiration

I am writing this post on the spanking new iMac in my campus office. The screen is about as large as our TV at home! Which might say as much about the smallness of our TV as the largeness of my new iMac, but in fact, I am trying to make a point about the latter. I find myself sitting back in my desk chair b/c the sheer magnitude of the screen is causing me horizontal vertigo. See the above.

Otherwise, I am continuing work on my syllabi and on this Monday morning, not feeling esp. interesting or interested. Sigh. So, I am looking to others for bits of inspiration:

StraightMan claims that Katha Pollitt's column by itself is worth the price of our subscription to The Nation. Which is why I tell Beanie that when she grows up, she could do a lot worse than finding a partner who is a lot like her daddy - and why I want to raise Bubbie to be that kind of man. In her most recent column, Katha takes on the latent (and sometimes overt) hostility to women and girls in current media coverage on the so-called end of men.

Ooh, look! Goodies for feminist mothers or mothering feminists, whichever we choose to refer to ourselves. I kind of regard this like a box of chocolate truffles - I am thinking about each title and which one to sample...

free range kids published an interesting post on the prevalence of the sand table in pre-school America. As an anthropologist, I appreciate the material culture approach that is demonstrated here - take an object that we might take for granted in the pre school classroom, consider its history, and uncover the ideas and practices that we rarely make explicit.

Finally, here is proof again that the fake news is better at telling us what really is going on, from America's finest new source. Sitting here at my new iMac, all I can say is that I believe, I believe, I believe... Sucker.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Talking like a spook

It was a question nagging at me ever since I heard about the FBI's arrest of a network of alleged Russian spies earlier this month - but, like, how could you not know? Did they use speech coaches?

Apparently, this has been baffling also to linguists and phonologists, as an item in the July 12 & 19th issue of The New Yorker reports - b/c in fact, the alleged spies did not use speech coaches. Instead, they claimed to be from Belgium or from Quebec.

Which sociolinguist Joshua Fishman described as rather a smart move: "Being a spy, all you have to do is count on American ignorance," Fishman said. "They were trying to use something the Americans don't know how to pigeonhole."

Belgium plays well into this blindspot. Arguably, Flemish (a variation of Dutch) would sound like Greek to most Americans. Canadian French, too, in that it has the reputation among American speakers of French as being "different" and "harder" to understand than the kind of French, so-called Parisian, that is taught in U.S. schools as "correct."

Societal monolingualism and linguistic stereotypes: Threats to national security, ce n'est vrai?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

About a teacher

A friend on Facebook posted this obituary for Clara Claiborne Park, who wrote two memoirs about raising a child with autism - The Siege and Exiting Nirvana. Her daughter today is an acclaimed painter.

Professor Park, which is how I remember her, taught a class on Dante that I took as an undergraduate. I remember that she talked with feeling, but also articulately and precisely. I think I must have said hardly a word in the class. At the time, I had some vague knowledge that she had written a book about her daughter. Years later, I bought a copy of The Siege, which was published originally in 1967, long before there was "autism awareness." I started to read it several times, but never could continue, due to some distraction or another. After learning about Professor Park's passing, however, I retrieved it from the shelf and sat down with it.

Just like in her Dante class, I think I must have felt out my depth the first few times that I started the book. This time, it has caught me completely. The book describes with feeling, articulately and precisely, what it is like to be a mother, including the fears and misgivings, which in Professor Park's story become confirmed. "It is hard to remember the first stirrings of doubt about a baby, but I remember a day when I took Elly to the supermarket," she writes, describing how, as she watched a friend's child, also 19 months old, point to a box of candy, a realization comes to her: "I thought then that I had never seen Elly point."

To point is so simple, so spontaneous, so primary an action that it seems ridiculous to analyze it. All babies point, do they not? To stretch out the arm and the finger is, symbolically and literally, to stretch out the self into the world - in order to remark on an object, to call it to another's attention, perhaps to want it for oneself. From pointing comes the question "What's that?" that unlocks the varied world. To point, to reach, to stretch, to grab, is to make a relation between oneself and the outside. To need is to relate (6).

The book, then is, about more than autism or a mother and daughter. It is about the needs and encumberments that after all make us who and what we are. Professor Park describes Elly's autism as a perfect kind of "aloneness" that has been created, sought, and guarded, and that requires dismantling:

She dwelt in a solitary citadel, compelling and self-made, complete and valid. Yet we could not leave her there. We must intrude, attack, invade, not because she was unhappy inside it, for she was not, but because the equilibrium she had found, perfect as it was, denied the possibility of growth (12).

Disquieting as it seems, I think Professor Park quite deliberately chose the images of the citadel and of intrusion - the book is titled The Siege. She acknowledges that there is something aggressive, even hostile, afoot:

We had not demanded; now we must. We had accepted; now we must try to change. A terrible arrogance, for what had we to offer her? Which of us could call ourselves as content as Elly was? The world we would tempt her into was the world of risk, failure, and frustration, of unfulfilled desire, of pain as well as activity and love.... Confronted with a tiny child's refusal of life, all existential hesitations evaporate. We had no choice. We would use every stratagem we could invent to assail her fortress, to beguile, entice, seduce here into the human condition (12).

What this story calls to our attention, then, is that to be and become human is a struggle. It is not a condition to be taken for granted. This is a lesson that we can learn from the poetry of Dante, from anthropology, from our mothers and fathers and our children, and from the passing of a teacher.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The two-body problem

So, to put what I am about to say in context, let me give you a glimpse of the e-mail that StraightMan sent to me this morning:

And here’s an article that describes your life depressingly well:

Also, the AAA meetings in 2011 are in Montreal, November 16-20.

I love you! Thanks for cleaning out Bubbie’s potty this morning. All drop offs went well.

I think the above illustrates what the modern dual academic marriage is about - love, certainly. (The reference to Montreal even suggests romance?!) Obviously also communication, which indicates mutual appreciation ("Thanks for cleaning...") and shared responsibility ("All drop offs went well"). The juxtaposition of information about interests both professional (the AAA meetings) and personal (love, potty, drop offs) in an e-mail of approximately five lines suggests a need for efficiency.

Which leads me to my response to the article that indeed describes my life depressingly well: It might be just that I am coming off my Stieg Larsson bender, but I feel like Lisbeth Salander hacked into my life and fed its contents to a journalist.

For women intent on becoming both scholars and mothers, the timing of the tenure track could not be worse. The average female doctorate is awarded at 34, an age when many college-educated women are starting families. Tenure, a defining moment in a professor's career, is decided roughly seven years later, just as the parenting window is closing.

Researchers from Barnard College in New York interviewed 21 women, all striving to be supermoms at the most demanding time in their careers. Many of the women portrayed their work and family lives in irreconcilable conflict. One mother described working in "survival mode," just doing "the things that I can to not be kicked out." Another said she was no longer being invited to career-building speaking gigs. A third faced the hard truth that she was "never going to be one of those superstars."

Professors have few set hours and can largely come and go as they please. But the scholarly demands of the job -- writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research -- are unending. Working mothers who devote day and evening hours to parenting duties end up repaying the time at night and on weekends, feeling somewhat like perpetual graduate students.

"You tend to carve out your time for research between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the kids are asleep," said Tracy Fitzsimmons, 43, a political scientist who is president of Shenandoah University in Virginia -- and mother of three.

"You could choose to meet the bus when your child gets off," she said, "but it means you'll pay for it at midnight that night."

A few corrections: I was 36 (not 34). The parenting window does not close at age 41 (or ever) - in fact, for some women, that is exactly when it opens. Because my kids have an early bedtime, "my" time is between 8pm and 12midnight, but during the teaching year, it still tends to be swallowed by tasks related to teaching. So, my time for research is in the summer. Which might be a reason why I tend to be a little irritated when people ask me whether or not I am teaching summer courses: Never.

It is eerie to see words that have fallen from my mouth in this article. "Survival mode" is practically a running joke between StraightMan and me. I confess that I have just enough arrogance to speak such lamentations about finally facing the fact that I will never be the kind of superstar that I really think I might have been. In fact, I think I might have blogged about this not so long ago :)

StraightMan warned me ahead of time that I would find myself in high dudgeon when I reached this bit:

Working fathers, in theory, ought to suffer the same setbacks as mothers in their quest for tenure. But research shows that parenthood has an opposite, positive effect on men's abilities "to move ahead in academic careers," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy at AAUP. Fathers bear fewer parenting burdens than mothers, and faculty fathers who do sacrifice work for parenting tend to be admired and rewarded, while the mother who makes the same choice is "seen as neglecting her job," Curtis said.

This is when the notion of the working "parent" really annoys me. Because it erases the still significant differences rooted in gender. For example, I imagine that the partners of married faculty mothers are likely also to be working. In fact, a number of female academics are married to male academics. Married faculty fathers are likely also to benefit from their careers being a priority for their wives, esp. when they are not academics or not working outside the home (or both). Plus, the wives themselves are engaged in unacknowledged effort.

The least, then, that any faculty mother or father can do is to send your spouse an e-mail to say thanks again for helping with the poop.

P.S. StraightMan, I love you, too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I want to go to there

From "State of Play: How Tot Lots Became Places to Build Children's Brains" by Rebecca Mead, in the July 5th issue of The New Yorker:

Blocks are an essential element at the new Imagination Playground, which is [architect David] Rockwell's contribution to playground design. Five years in the making, it is schedule to open later this summer, at Burling Slip, at the South Street Seaport.... Rockwell's playground has no monkey bars, or swings, or jungle gyms. It has almost no fixed equipment at all, except for a dual-level, three-thousand-square-foot sandpit; a pool with running water; four masts, ranging from eleven to fourteen feet high, equipped with ropes and pulleys; and a sixteen-foot tower in the form of a crow's nest....

The imagination Playground will, however, have hundred of what play theorists call "loose parts": big lightweight blocks made from bright-blue molded foam.... In an influential essay entitled "How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts," [architect Simon] Nicholson wrote, "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."

Hmm. Could it be that I need more loose parts in my life?!

Monday, July 12, 2010

There is no "me" in "mommy"

This article on helicopter parenting, which was reprinted in our local paper from The Washington Post, has me pondering, yet again, this question:

How is it possible for there be a "me" in "mommy"?

The article, written by sociologist Margaret Nelson, reports on Nelson's research on the effects of hyper-involved parenting on the parents themselves. Nelson points out that a lot of the popular attention (like the Time magazine cover, above) has been focused on the effects on children: "Critics fret that the children of helicopter parents will lack maturity, self-reliance, self-esteem and good old-fashioned gumption."

As a college professor, I confess that I see this in too many students. Certainly not all - and those are the ones whose parents I want to meet at commencement - but still too many. As a parent, however, I feel that critics too often display little understanding about the pressures of parenting today. Esp. for women.

Nelson emphasizes that helicopter parenting is classed: "Compared with professional, middle-class parents, parents of lower educational and professional status are more likely to impose nonnegotiable limits on their children's behavior." In other words, strict rules and bans, including the use of blockers on their TV's and their computers, versus supervising and monitoring, which some parents might describe as exploring and discussing together.

A temptation might be to label middle-class parenting as misguided. However, I will counter that middle-class parents and children might likely see advantages and gains - for example, in school. Linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, in her 1982 article, "What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School," considered the classed differences in parent-child interactions around books and reading. Although in 1982, "helicopter parenting," at least as a term, had not been invented, Heath notes that middle-class parenting was oriented differently, with long-term consequences: "As school-oriented parents and their children interact in the preschool years, adults give their children, through modeling and specific instruction, ways of taking from books that seem natural in school and in numerous institutional settings such as banks, post offices, businesses, and government offices" (Brice 318). Working-class parents placed as much importance on books and reading and school as middle-class parents. However, middle-class parent-child interactions around books were not focused only on reading them, but also on talking about them. In fact, this might be the critical difference:

In doing the latter, they repeatedly practice routines that parallel those of classroom interaction. By the time they enter school, they have had continuous experience as information givers; they have learned how to perform in those interactions that surround literate sources throughout school....

They have learned how to listen, waiting for the appropriate cute that signals it is their turn to show off this knowledge (Brice 324).

The connection that I want to make here is that middle-class parenting appears, in fact, to "work": Brice found that middle-class children, overall, did better in school, which is seems a taken-for-granted truism today. On the children of working-class families, Brice found: "Their initial successes in reading, being good students, following orders, and adhering to school norms of participating in lessons begin to fall away rapidly about the time they enter the fourth grade" (Brice 331). Not being a specialist in education, I cannot say for certain, but if you believe what you read in the newspapers today, then this might be as true as ever in 2010.

So, we can decry helicopter parenting, but it seems hard to fix what apparently is not at all broken.

Is it not broken? Really?

The kind of involvement that exploring and discussing together is intense. Nelson observes: "Helicopter parenting is, to put it mildly, more time-consuming and more emotionally demanding than other parenting styles." She adds: "Mothers who try to live up to the new parenting standards of the professional middle class seem to have few options: They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce."

Sister, you are singing my song.

Not only that, but having been brought up with a certain degree of benign neglect, I want to be less hovering as a parent, but I find it challenging to put into practice - and it is not just my own "psychology," a concept about which I will save my harange for another day... To start examining the structural reasons why, like the kinds of literal policing that surrounds parenting today, you might visit my friend Lenore Skenazy's blog, free range kids.

For me and for too many other parents, Nelson notes, the overwork means not less time with / for the children or at work - in fact, time studies show that working parents today spend more time both with their children and at work than in the past. Instead, it means less time with spouses and partners (not so good for marriages), other family members and relatives, and friends:

The time married parents spend visiting with friends and relatives outside the nuclear family has declined dramatically: Married fathers spent almost 40 percent less time and married mother spent almost a third less time socializing in 2000 than they did in 1965.... Parents seem to have few opportunities to pursue friendships unless they are friendships that take little extra time (as with co-workers or other parents on the sideline of a child's sporting event).

I found myself nodding as I read this last bit. For me, being able to maintain friendships with little extra time is part of the appeal of Facebook, and why I finally gave up my resistance to joining. Now, I can read the "walls" of friends from college and graduate school and past work lives, and they can read mine, and we occasionally can offer a "like" or a "comment" on each other.

Even in a relatively small community, like where I live now, too many conversations start with apologies for not being in better touch. However, as I walk Beanie to school or pick up Bubbie from day care or escort them to their various and sundry activities or just browse around, along with StraightMan, at the local farmers market, there is also the smile, the nod, the wave, and the brief exchange that I can share with the broad category of people whom I kind of know: Some friends and some friends-like. (Which the likes and comments on Facebook simulate...) All of us seem to be digging in, at least for the foreseeable future. Paradoxically, I might not have extra time for the active pursuit of friendships, but it seems that over time, people can become friends, too. Or at least I am beginning to appreciate and imagine the possibility.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hello, Ephs

From That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo:

She thought Laura should go to Yale, of course, and turned up her nose at the small liberal arts colleges where she and Griffin's father had once hoped to secure jobs. "Safety schools" was how she now regarded them. "Dear God, not Williams," she told Laura. "Do you know the kind of people who sent their progeny to Williams? Rich. Privileged. White. Republican. Or, even worse, people who aspire to all that." Not so unlike your other grandparents, she meant. "Their kids aren't smart enough to get into an Ivy but have to go somewhere, so God created Williams."

Friday, July 9, 2010

What you can learn from books * and * reviews

David Brooks: How I love to dislike him. He will start with an observation that makes sense to me - then blow it. Like in today's column, "The Medium Is the Medium."

Brooks begins the column by reporting on a study that found that disadvantaged kids who received books at the end of the school year - in other words, the kids typically affected by "summer slide" as measured in tests and grades - maintained higher reading scores than the kids who received no books. The results held even when they did not read the books. How and why? Here is the bit of sense:

But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

After this point is when Brooks blew it, at least for me.

I do not disagree entirely with the observations underlying a statement like this: "The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students." I teach college students, and I lament the fact every single day that too many of them are not better readers. I believe that were they better readers of books, they also might be better citizens and - gasp - better users of the Internet.

However. Brooks' exposition on the "culture" of the book versus the "culture" of the Internet makes me cranky as an anthropologist. Here again, "culture" or rather "cultures" become talked about as bounded and singular and consistent. Books and the Internet emerge from and coexist (and might or might not compete) in what we might call the one and the same "culture." In a book that I currently am perusing, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, linguist Dennis Baron reminds us:

The World Wide Web wasn't the first innovation in communication to draw some initial skepticism. Writing itself was the target of one early critic. Plato warned that writing would weaken memory, but he was more concerned that written words - mere shadows of speech - couldn't adequately represent meaning. His objections paled as more and more people began to structure their lives around handwritten documents (Baron 2009:x).

"Culture," and history, aside, Brooks' description of books as representing "a hierarchical universe" with "classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom" is exactly not the buzz that reading deserves or requires, esp. for the disadvantaged kids who likely already understand themselves as the beach reading of society.

His primary objection to the Internet is this:

Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

I have to wonder whether or not Brooks has any self-awareness of his own position in the old media - on the "important" and "prestigious" editorial page of the Gray Lady - because this sounds like his own crankiness as a columnist in a snit about the respect that he believe he should be shown?

However. Now I have placed my own snittiness on display.

I do not think there is anything inherently anarchical about the Internet. (In its own ways, it is also hierarchical.) It is a technology, like books are a technology, and it is what we make it to be.


While there might be nothing like reading Brooks to raise your (my) ire in the am, but I esp. learned much from reading this recent essay on "The Death and Life of the Book Review" in the June 21 issue of The Nation.

In it, John Palattella considers the past and present state of newspaper journalism and of the book review in particular:

Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can't earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

.... In a news context, "anti-intellectual" does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can mean that too. I use the word "anti-intellectual" to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

So, in Palattella's perspective, there is more at stake in book reviews than a particular book or even books and reading at large. As, dare I even suggest, Brooks also contends, it is "culture" and history.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Learn from book reviews, Part Tres

Pain in childbirth had been considered inevitable until the 19th century, when chloroform came into more common use during labor. Donald Caton, an anesthesiologist, wrote a history on the use of anesthesia and analgesia titled, What a Blessing She Had Chloroform, itself a declaration attributed to Queen Victoria.

Interestingly, the idea that childbirth need not be painful also spurred others to consider alternatives to medication, which itself presented problems, not the least of which included serious side effects and consequences for women's own experiences of childbirth. An early proponent of "natural" childbirth in the mid 20th century was Grantly Dick-Read, an obstetrician who cited examples of painless "primitive" birth from late 19th century anthropology in his book, Childbirth without Fear.

This story has been told before, but a book review in the May 31 issue of The Nation suggests another dimension that seems well worth exploring. The review, by Paula Findlen, discusses Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. As Findlen explains:

The objective developments in science of the preceding century gave way to subjective reflection about the meaning of understanding nature. Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats marveled at the new vision of the world wrought by science. At the same time, the British astronomers, naturalists, chemists and experimenters of their generation developed a conception of the world that was, in its own way, profoundly poetic.

One of the developments of Romantic science was nitrous oxide:

In spring 1799, Humphrey Davy invited a circle of friends to experience the giddy effects of laughing gas. He was inspired enough to write a poem about it. Davy's celebrated self-experiment, in which he inhaled six quarts of N2O on May 5, 1799, led to a loss of consciousness, feeling and memory.... The psychosomatic effects (to borrow Coleridge's term) of Davy's discovery fascinated his contemporaries. He invented a new pleasure for which they had no name.

If Romanticism began as an exploration of the enhancement of the senses, at the height of its success it grappled with the novel sensation of feeling nothing at all.

It makes me wonder what we want today - to feel more or to feel less or both at the same time - and what that means.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Learn from book reviews, Part Deux

A book that I admire and that I have taught in Medical Anthropology is Emily Martin's Bipolar Expeditions. Encountering Martin at the annual meetings, I told - nay, gushed to - her that a number of my students had been quite moved, lending and even buying copies for friends. I think they appreciated both her questioning of what "makes" a mental illness and her understanding that bipolar really means something. Constructed, but not fiction.

So, I read with interest this review of Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease, by Adam Phillips in the May 24 issue of The Nation. Is it the author or the reviewer that takes the next step in grounding the making of mental illness in the politics of the times?

In this sense, whatever else it is - and it is an interesting book about many things - Manufacturing Depression is a book about liberal democracy, which allows people the freedom to tell competing stories, and the scientific rather than religious forces that threaten to undermine it. It is also a book that shows how deeply wedded all the talking cures - the nonmedical mental health treatments - are to the defense of liberal democracy rather than, as they once were, to a more radical politics. (Fantasies of liberation are not what they were.) "You can tell your own story about your discontents," Greenberg writes, "and my guess is that it will be better than the one that the depression doctors have manufactured." It's when therapies don't err on the side of guessing games, and don't acknowledge that this is what they are, that they become dangerous. The only therapies we should trust are the enemies of militant competence.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What you can learn from book reviews

During both the six-hour flight there and back, StraightMan sat across the aisle from me, with the two kiddos and a portable DVD player. (Mind you, he owed me, after three weeks away at his NEH seminar...) This allowed me the luxury of catching up on back issues of two of my weekly reads, plus reading half of a novel on my kindle. I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night, and this afternoon downloaded The Girl who Played with Fire, which by all accounts is even better. Both Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire are page-turners, with commentaries on financial journalism, Swedish society and politics, and gender, which become issued as blocks of discourse from the mouths of the characters. Rather awkward, but the commentaries themselves can be interesting. As a lapsed fictionista who has worked in journalism, I admit that I am hooked. The books are a bit of change, too, from my usual fare in non-fiction.

I admit that sometimes I never bother reading the books themselves, but I enjoy reading the reviews of them: Not just thumbs up or thumbs down, but essays that contextualize the book and its subject matter and the author's approach, or read them alongside other books. I sometimes feel that academic journals ought to look more to The New Yorker and The Nation for models on the kinds of book reviews that they themselves might publish.

In fact, The Nation published a cover story, "The Death and Life of the Book Review," in its June 21 issue (which I have not finished reading), which suggests that the state of the book review today is linked not only to the Internet and the book publishing industry, but also the future of newspaper journalism. It seems also to me that the significance of the book review today is that it is arguably one of the few remaining public outlets of ideas - not as punditry or man-on-the-street opining, but to paraphrase The Nation, with "scrutiny, the deliberate, measured analysis of literary and intellectual questions without obvious or easy answers."

Which brings me to something I learned from a book review in the May 10 issue of The Nation: A review of two books about the conservation movement, its origins and its present, one being Mark Barrow's Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, and the other being Caroline Fraser's Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

I confess that I am considerably less interested in the latter than the former, being skeptical, even cynical, about naive do-goodism, of which the title smacks. Indeed, the review confirms that I am not wrong: Do-gooders especially ought not to be naive, especially about their history.

The review begins with a vignette, borrowed from Barrow, about Thomas Jefferson's scientific and philosophical interest in the woolly mammoth, which he believed had not become extinct, but survived somewhere beyond, possibly in the American West: "For Jefferson the patriot, America's natural advantages counterbalanced Europe's prodigious cultural patrimony. So in picking a fight with the Old World, he no doubt found it prudent to recruit a massive beast like the mammoth to his side." So, the reviewer, Ari Kelman, introduces us to the political history of American conservation efforts, in particular endangered species protection, which Barrow traces in his book through the 1970's. "This high-water mark lingered until the mid 1990's, when Congress, under Newt Gingrich, began rolling back environmental regulations."

Part of the history is the embrace of animals (albeit endangered) simultaneous with the rejection of other people. Kelman notes Barrow's examination of naturalists at the turn of the 20th century, a number of whom were interested in "positive eugenics" and drew parallels between the fate of animals and of people:

For many concerned onlookers, steeped in Jeffersonian and Turnerian intellectual currents, the West served as a synecdoche for the United States, and the imperiled bison served as a synecdoche for the West. If the rugged bison died out, then so too, they worried, might America, a nation they felt was being feminized by an economy that alienated workers from the land; radicalized by labor activists preaching class warfare in exploding cities; and mongrelized by ostensibly unassimilable immigrants (Catholics, Asians and Jews).

In 1886, the response, as Kelman describes, was to "embark on a scientific expedition to shoot or capture some of the remaining beasts." The bison were treated not much differently than the human population of the Great Plains - hunted first, then "saved" and collected. It is worth remembering that salvage anthropology, as well as salvage zoology, was practiced at this time in history.

Others better versed than I might be familiar already with this history. As a novice, I think as often as not, such causes as endangered species protection become presented as self-evident: Ethical and moral values that are irrefutable in any time and place. So, I think it is significant to be reminded that the sentiments now rallied around extinction and conservation themselves have histories. Knowing these histories, and making them known, will not undermine the impulse - to create the kind of nature that we think we ought to have - but hopefully lead to asking the questions that ought to be asked and producing better-informed answers.

If, indeed, the continuance of species is at stake, then it seems to me that we need to take the long view, both into the future and the past.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Junie B. Jones, Structuralist

Took last week off. Visited StraightMan's parents and grandmother. Almost six-hour flight there (and a little less than that on the return). Plied Bubbie with screen time, including in-flight DirecTV but Beanie quickly tired of this and buried herself in a book. Good traveler and good reader, that Beanie.

While at her grandparents, she found her cousin's copy of Junie B. Jones Smells Something Fishy.

For those, like myself, not especially well read in "starter" chapter books, Junie B. Jones is the title character in a series that chronicles her adventures and misadventures, first in kindergarten, then in first grade.

A quirk of the book to which Beanie objected is the use of "mistakes" to lend authenticity to Junie B's voice, like saying "runned" instead" of "ran." Beanie felt, I believe, condescended to: "That's not how you say it. Even I know that."

Beanie is the kind of kid who, following the lead of her teachers, on whom she fixes her laser-like attentions, describes words as "rule breakers."

In Junie B. Jones Smells Something Fishy, the kindergarteners have a Pet Day. When Junie discovers that her goldfish has died, she decides to take a frozen fishstick to school as her pet.

Again, Beanie objected: "Why would she not know that a fishstick is not a pet?"

Because I am amused and because I am half-distracted with trying to form a pancake man in the griddle for her breakfast, I ask her: "What makes a fishstick not a pet?"

"Because it is a food."

Because I am an anthropologist as well as a parent, I cannot help it: A teaching moment in structuralism ensues:

Some animals can be pets and some animals can be food. On the point that pets cannot be food, Beanie wholeheartedly agreed with Junie B.

Not to mention the observations of Claude Levi-Strauss and Edmund Leach. Levi-Strauss, described often as the "father" of structuralist anthropology, famously said that "animals are good to think with," meaning that they force us to unpack our assumptions about people and what we take for granted as distinguishing "us" and "them." (This is a reason why StraightMan and I correct ourselves, a bit tongue in cheek, when we talk about animals and humans with Beanie - "I mean, non-human animals and humans." A family of hopeless geeks.) Leach, who acted as chief interpreter of French structuralism in British social anthropology, wrote about which names of animals were used as insults in English - for example, "dogs" and "rats," but not "lions" and "zebras" - and the kinds of relationships those particular (non-human) animals have with humans. It seems that familiarity, if not domestication, breeds contempt?

When I suggested to Beanie that people a long time ago or in other places around the world even right now could have different ideas about what animals can be "pets" and what animals can be "foods," she declared that this made sense.

She pointed out also that one of her best friends is vegetarian, which means that she does not think that any animal can (or ought to) be food.