Friday, June 24, 2022

Un-Churched

 


I could begin with an anecdote about some lovely old Methodist ladies I knew growing up. It's true, I knew 'em and they were nice -- mostly. Likewise the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Episcopalians, and a few of the Baptists. The Church of Christ were pretty quiet back in the day but about as close as we came to charismatics. That was pretty much the Sunday menu in my hometown. There were options though. There were at least three different Methodist scrums in the area and two Presbyterian, one rich and one poor, likewise the "nice" Baptists and the ones with roadside sign on a wheeled trailer. There was certainly nothing new in the way of church then; no big-box mega-dudes, no non-denominational services outside of a Kiwanis meeting. Evangelists were on the Sunday morning tv or in tents. Most people you were likely to know were affiliated, however lax in attendance. And if you were new to them, people asked. Not if but where you went. If they knew your grandma they didn't have to ask. If you got the denomination you could pretty much guess the congregation by either the person's shoes or a rough idea of their address. Hilariously, "mixed marriages" tended to be described as such for pairing unalike Protestants, i.e. of different denominations, or even congregations. Catholics married Catholics, so far as you could tell. There might have been a Christian Science reading room somewhere. Never went in. Amish sold us our eggs and cheese. Mormons were as exotic as Marduk -- or atheists. Of Jews I knew not a one until high school.

I might also describe Bible Summer Camp as I went to more than one, or I might write about the night I answered an altar-call during a revival. I was probably twelve at the time, eleven or twelve. I could talk a bit about helping the Gideons hand out New Testaments to unsuspecting Cub Scouts, or describe the house and yard in town completely covered in Biblical quotes on hand-lettered wooden signs, or try to reconstruct my treasured conversations with a Presbyterian minister who was a lovely man, a history buff, and the father of a friend. (We talked about Churchill mostly, not God.)

When I think about it, and I do still think about it, my time amidst the Christians was by and large not an unhappy experience and I suppose I must say now that I still count Christians, active Christians among my oldest friends. So far as I can say, religious faith is for me no bar to friendship and affection. One can be as I am and still love some of God's people. 

The problem here is how to get in without making a scene. Holidays are best, but Easter isn't good. Too high, too holy, too near the cross. It ain't just chocolate bunnies and egg hunts. I almost hate to say it, but Christmas is about the only way to do this without undue fuss, so with apologies to churched and the unfaithful equally for going to Bethlehem maybe one time too many, Christmas it is.

Nobody's made to feel funny at Christmas Eve Mass. As I understand it, this was often the one night, or one of two that Father saw one's actual father in church. Same in my grandmother's congregation at Blacktown Balm Methodist, membership more than one hundred, attendance more usually fewer than fifty. But come the Christmas Eve pageant and farmers nobody'd seen outside the feed-store or the auction-barn cleaned their boots and put on a starched white shirt. Oh, there were men who went every week, mind. Retired fellows, lonely, men of a specially pious nature, coupled mostly but a few single, some even of a marriageable age. We'll get back to the last directly, but for now it's worth mentioning just how a rare a single man was at church. Considering the to-do that was made about them, it's clear why the shy ones might have avoided being regularly on the Sunday rolls. Come Christmas week though and you'd have thought church was as popular as a dog-race or a dice-game. Christmas, everybody's welcome. Put it another way, come Christmas there's nearly no way to put anyone out.

Christmas pageants proper have had their day in American literature and deservedly so. Who doesn't feel for the kid who has to be a sheep? Shepherds in bathrobes, towels tied on their heads, three kings in paper beards, angels in wire-hanger-wings? A real baby in the manger sounds better than it ever proves to be and Sunday school classes aren't generally known for their production values, but there is certain magic to any dress-up involving little ones, just as there is real charm in children's voices raised imperfectly in familiar song. And then there is the text:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..."

 Great lead. Good stuff.

In my time I have been to Christmas services, not counting straight-up concerts, in probably two dozen different churches of various denominations and in at least four states. It's true that I haven't set foot in a church save for funerals for a decade or more, but there was a time when I made a point to wander into one church and another, famous and not, and I counted myself specially lucky if I hit a holiday service; fewer questions and reliably better music in my experience. Generally I'm a Gospel fan but not much for hymns and nothing is so likely to make me pray for death as the feeble wheeze of contemporary "praise songs." (If Gospel is greens, think unsalted kale chips.) Christmas music I love.

Yes to the secular -- the novelty numbers excepted -- but much as I love my chestnuts roasted on an open fire and my sleigh-bells ringing, I also love sacred music and the Christmas calendar. Sing-along Messiahs have rather ruined some of the fun, but generally everything is better in Christmas robes. Choral glories, boy soloists, women's choirs, pipe organs, here a Gay Men's Chorus and there a full orchestra & Handel or Vaughn Williams, and I am made happy. Not a snob. I also love kids at the railing trying to keep time with the piano and an unsuspected Irish tenor in the back pew belting gesu bambino over the congregants cowed heads. Sacred music of nearly every stripe is better somehow in a crowd. There is a freedom in numbers, a sense of occasion and anonymity that loosens inhibitions. A crowd can communicate and amplify joy as well as drown out the sharp sopranos. 

This would be why I've avoided Easter here, as the solemnity of The Passion quite rightly colors even the most innocent, most sincere exuberance in The Resurrection. Church Easter is adult. Christmas is simpler. 

So here's my thought. If you are unchurched, like me and or an atheist or LGBTQ+ or in any other way -- like me -- outside of Christianity, consider attending a Christmas or a Christmas Eve service. Depending on the size of the congregation, and the location, no one or nearly no one will question your presence there. And if they do, for the most part all you need to do is not explain yourself over-much. Say you're just glad to be there. Tell whoever is asking how much you appreciate the atmosphere, compliment the pastor or the priest, wish every one well and a Merry Christmas. Worse comes to worst, all they can do is ask you to leave, but I bet they won't -- not at Christmas. 

Now, why would you want to do any such thing as go to church at all let alone Christmas Week? Because we all of us need to understand something. We need to know, to be reminded what it is to be safe in church. That's it. Just that. One cannot know from just the one visit what it is that makes someone we either do not know or the people who may choose not to know us go to church. We may remember church fondly or not, may have once been a part of rather than apart from the religion around us. We may think we understand what other people see in it. May not have a clue. For some of us even crossing that threshold may be braver than we are prepared to be or it may be something we have vowed to never do again. We may have tried entirely too hard for too long to either conform or to understand and make others understand why we cannot. One may have been tested too much, lost too much, or we may simply not much care. I get any and all of that. Frankly I am weary of trying to understand the people who do not try to understand me. Too much of my life has been wasted on the extension of sympathy to those who are overtly hostile to my happiness and well-being or who would deny my very existence. My general rule nowadays is, sadly, fuck 'em. But to be and to feel safe in a place that does not really welcome you is powerful. It isn't about them.

Doesn't much matter where, to listen to music together is powerful. To listen to poetry together is powerful. To be in community is human. Sometimes it is good to be in someone else's. But specifically to be with other people who do not know us as we know ourselves, who would reject us, who may have hurt us, and to be in that moment with them anonymously but without dishonesty can be liberating. To find them as near to their best as you are likely to get and to see them happy and even happy to see you, and then to go back after into your own life unharmed re-establishes the possibility of safety elsewhere. I could tell you that this is a chance to appreciate your common humanity but that's as maybe. If you grew up in anything like the same America I did and you go to church at Christmas time, you may find you will have a good time, and you may also find as I did that you need never spare these people another anxious thought. You may disagree. 

Christians can still hurt you. Some of them, in some places the majority of them intend to. Just today they have undone fifty years of established precedent and reverted to an interpretation of the law and of the nation that refutes the autonomy of women's bodies. A sitting Supreme Court Justice in 2022, a black man, felt empowered to suggest that states have the right to go even further backwards and undo my marriage, deny access to contraception, and restore sodomy laws. Privacy is not recognized in the Constitution these people read. The enemies of progress, of science, of the separation of church and state, the enemies of federalism and of secularism won today and they did it if not in the name of Christianity then in defense of their personal religious beliefs and at the expense of reason, compassion, and the majority opinion in this country. The only rights that matter to these Justices are the right to make money and the right to impose their vicious, thoughtless, ugly religion upon the faithful and the heathen alike. The angrily, proudly churched, if not The Church, won, and we are reminded again that we are all of us at the mercy of their wrathful, rigid, and angry little god.

I can't say that I've lived through worse, though I am old enough to have lived through Bowers vs Hardwick in 1986, which said I was not safe in my own home from being prosecuted for having sex with another man, but I also lived through Lawrence vs Texas in 1996 which overturned that ruling. 

Personally I have survived the junior high school teacher who told me that "people like that" meaning people like me killed themselves to spare their families shame. I've survived the churches that told my friends I was satanic and told parents that their gay children are abominations. I survived the bullies who put me in a trash can and rolled me down a hall, who regularly shoved me into lockers and called me a faggot and once drove my bike off the street and into a metal fence. I survived the gang of kids who threatened to throw me off of the Tenth Street Bridge for being gay and "against god."

I saw friends get secret abortions and others struggle to escape their abusive homes, churches, parents, partners. I've seen the damage done by the churched at every level of our civil society and I've been told, time and again that the fault was mine for not trying harder to understand why they hate me and wish my friends dead so as to save imaginary innocents.

For every Christian I've seen do a good deed from faith, I've seen movements rise from those same churches intent to do me harm, to deny my rights as a citizen, to control and oppress women, to expel the exile and the refugee, to laud the rich and reward the greedy and to perpetuate racism, violence, and ignorance. For every kindness that came from faith, I've seen the same pieties warp, and cripple, and confine. I would today be done with the lot. I would be grateful to escape for good and all the frame in which this hateful, hypocritical mob will insist that I see my own country, my place.

 So why on earth should I be thinking about Christmas? Because I am trying to cede these people as little of my country, my history, and my own autonomy as possible. I don't need to be told again that not all Christians are this or that many Christians are that and that I mustn't judge these because of what those do. I know all this. I no more need my Christian friends to justify their faith to me than I still feel the need to talk any of them out of it. Believe just as you like. Talk about about it or don't. Apologize or defend or argue just as you feel the need. I am not your enemy. See to your own house. Maybe don't argue the prejudices in my atheism or try to dissuade me of my anger or calm my outrage and you'll have more time to fight your fellow Christians for the truth as you see it of Christ Jesus. Maybe you can wrestle the Cross from those who use it as a bludgeon. Maybe not. Not my fight.

Once when I was in college I went to a mass at a Russian Orthodox church. Their Christmas falls on a different day and I didn't go knowing this but instead just followed a crowd into a service. I was dressed okay. No intention of causing offense. Not there to mock but to watch. It was all very moving and beautiful. The music was simple and wonderful. Only time I remember priests singing well. It smelled wonderful, everything glittered and shone. Everyone was incredibly nice to the boy who only spoke English.

Years later, in San Francisco I went one Sunday to Mass at a famous Mission church. It wasn't Christmas time, but not long after and there was still something festive in the decorations and the atmosphere. I heard Mass in Spanish for the first and only time, which frankly made it sound lovely, and heard contemporary church music which was just as disappointing in Spanish as in English. Everybody was nice.

I went once with my Grandmother to a Christmas service at her church long after I knew I had no need of it nor any church of my own. The service was much as I remembered it. The minister was shockingly a woman and more shocking than that, clearly of my own tribe, though no one would say so. Kids still sang at the railing. It was very much as it had always been. I felt fine while I was there and grateful when it was over, just as I remembered. I saw at least one single man there still of a marriageable age, not coupled, with what appeared to be his parents. He made rather a point of not making eye contact with me and I felt for him.

Again, I mention these examples not to reassure any one of us that we are really welcome there. I do not believe that we are, not as we are, even if you might believe as I no longer do. You may feel differently. You may know better. I only want to share my own experience and to suggest what I learned which is this: not only did the roof not fall in, and I did not catch fire but I found to my surprise that I could enjoy being there as myself and be unchanged in both my convictions and my person. I was safe even there just as I am. I could be touched and untouched, in their company but not of it. I could appreciate the occasion, the music, and even the company and then walk away. That is what I learned -- finally -- in church.

Maybe it would have been different on any common Sunday. I might have heard a sermon again on my sinful nature. I might hear another homily defending unironically the suppression of birth control and abortion as a holy mission to save lives. I might be asked why I was there with the same suspicion of heresy that forbade me from entering a beautiful little wooden church in Orange County, California. All of those experiences I have also had, and today they feel far more representative of the churched than my more pleasant memories of Christmas Eves past. Both I know are true. 

I would like to say that the churched have no power over me but that is not true. The truth confirmed again today is that they maintain a power disproportionate to their numbers and their right. It is a power I am confident that they plan to exercise again. They must be resisted. They are wrong in fact and in law. They hate me, and probably you too if you are reading this. They will shake your hand and then cut it off. I am reminded today just how conditional is their much vaunted love.  

I want nothing more to do with them, just as they have repeatedly shown they want nothing from me save my obedience or failing that, my nonexistence. Today I wish not one of them well, these churched and churlish bigots. Not one. More than ever I wish them and all their works, their churches and little god gone. Allow me my anger. Unlike those six pious liars I can and will do no one harm for the sake of my personal feelings. Again unlike them I will not pretend to neutrality. I cannot forgive them. Remember? I am not a Christian. I am not obliged. 

Maybe by Christmas I will want to sing again rather than scream. Maybe by then I will again feel the urge to wander into a church. Maybe not. Maybe by then I will feel strong enough to walk among the churched and feel safe within myself and among them. Maybe not. They are again doing their level best to make me unwelcome. Should I not judge them by their deeds? Ought I to take them at their word?

Perhaps they have finally taught me how to hate. Wouldn't that be a pity? Come Christmas we'll see.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Remembering a Boss

Richard Labonte

We were asked to contribute 100 to 150 words to a memorial for Richard Labonte, the man who hired me to manage A Different Light Bookstore in West Hollywood years ago. I was suggested as a possible contributor by a mutual friend. The job and the bookstore are now long gone and Richard had long since retired back to Canada. Other than irregular communication on social media, I hadn't seen the man for twenty-five years. He had announced his diagnosis in February and then in what seemed a very short time thereafter I read of his death. 

Another death nearer to home intervened and I neglected to write anything about Richard until I was reminded of the deadline. Turns out I don't know what one hundred words looks like. I sent something off in an email as quickly as I could and heard back the following day from the editor, who had very kindly shaped what I'd written into something of a serviceable length. (Not the first time an editor proved helpful. That of itself is something of a tribute to Richard's memory as it was as an editor of countless LGBTQ+ books that he may well be best remembered.)  

Now that's done, I thought I might share what I'd written without the necessary constraints of the published memorial. I would add the caveat that my acquaintance with the great man was professional rather than personal and as noted, brief. Once I was hired to manage the West Hollywood store, Richard returned to his other responsibilities in San Francisco. We spoke regularly on the phone, though it was just as likely that I would speak with his business partner Norman, himself busy at the branch in New York. Truth is that I'd never had a manager's title in a bookstore where I was left so much alone. I saw either man only when business brought them to the door, though this happened more than one might think. They both still had deep roots in the Southern California gay community. In addition to their guidance, and Richard's advice in particular, I was very lucky to have joined a well established and very professional crew at that bookstore. 

I was less lucky in my timing. It was a difficult period for independent bookstores -- but then when is it not? I've been a bookseller for more than thirty-five years and it has always been so. In the nineties we were still most worried about the chain bookstores, but the internet was already starting to undermine the bricks and mortar business model. It was getting particularly hard for smaller, specialty shops. When I started there were enough women's bookstores to have their own review. LBGTQ+ shops were open then on either coast and there were more than a few in-between. The anonymity of ordering online would undo nearly all of this.

I was only in at the end. It wasn't easy. I am grateful though to have been there at all. For that opportunity I have to thank Richard LaBonte. Here then is more than I wrote or would say anywhere but here.

Gallantry isn't a very common adjective in the book trade, or anywhere nowadays come to that. It has the musty smell of a page from Walter Scott. The word is to do with gentle manners and good graces, but it has a martial tune; to be described so one must be not just polite but brave. I can't think of a better for my old boss.

He hired me largely on the recommendation of mutual friends. I think I must have looked pretty good on paper. I had some management experience, knew books and bookstores, but I was still young and Richard had no reason to know me from Adam. I knew something of him of course: writer, bookseller, award-winning editor, already something of an éminence grise. (Now I think of it, he was younger then than I am now. Sobering thought.) My friend B. had made me aware of the job opening and it was his enthusiasm and his letter of recommendation that carried me there. The rest was up to me. As it turned out, I very much wanted the job on offer, very much wanted to work at A Different Light Bookstore. 

Almost every independent bookstore will talk a good community game at some point, even if the only community being served is, say, Historical Romance fans in the greater Loveland suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Those non-Historical Romance readers in Mariemont don't know what they are missing, and frankly they can go suck eggs!) Community is born of  affinity, but sometimes it is necessity that makes us. Richard was one of the people who made A Different Light. There was a growing need for access to our literature, our art, our voices, to each other, and for safe and sober places to find ourselves and one another. A Different Light didn't come from the community, it helped to make that community just as it was intended it would, and the bookstore helped to sustain our community for three decades. Richard and his partners, their employees, their customers did that. How could I not want to be part of that?

It seemed the decision would be Richard's to make. The interview turned out to be mostly lunch, the first of many. I did my best to be charming. I don't know that I was, but I tried. Richard ate his lunch. I wouldn't say he was immune to charm, but he must have been used to it by then. He'd seen much brighter lights than mine, met every LGBTQ+ writer alive and had doubtlessly dealt with many real dazzlers for many years. As I remember it, I was sweaty in the Southern California heat, breathless from nervously chain-smoking all morning, and more than a little intimidated. Richard was quiet, even when he did speak, which wasn't much. In fact he seemed quite shy. He smiled. He squinted. He listened. We ate. I talked too loud, and too much, about too many things. He paid for lunch. We walked back to the bookstore and he shook my damp hand. A day or two later he hired anyway.  

That job was rather a leap for me and right into deeper waters than I knew. The company, like so many other independent and specialty bookstores at the time was not in a great place, or rather it was in three great places: West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York, and that may have been at least one too many. The rents must have been increasingly prohibitive. Bookstores have seldom made anyone rich, even or particularly the owners. Still, it's been a living. Times were changing. By the late nineties LGBTQ+ books could be had from nearly any mainstream book retailer. The internet was already starting to let people buy books anonymously. Not even your postal carrier had to know you were reading books about, well... us. Of course A Different Light, in all it's incarnations was never just a bookstore. Community center, news vendor, host and town-crier for community events, the welcome calm between bars and dance clubs, the place served more purposes than common commerce.  I was reminded of this every day. (Why were we hosting an event for a ventriloquist? Did we not anticipate complaints from half our patrons when we agreed to the art show featuring paintings of big rainbow-colored penises? Do we want to stay open after hours so a porn company can film a scene involving Billy Dolls coming to life at night and, well, fucking?) I quickly learned that managing a bookstore that was so much more than a bookstore to so many, on and off the payroll was complicated. Richard was one of the people to remind me, more gently than most, of this fact -- and no, he didn't think we should let them film a porno in the store, even for an impressive fee, thanks. 

I don't think I've ever worked for anyone less likely to fire people, return an unsold book, or concern themselves about the dusting. Every manager has his or her or their darlings, staff and stock. Richard seemed to find very little unforgivable in either. Perhaps he was a different person in Silver Lake, where the first store had been, or in San Francisco where he spent more time when I worked for him. Don't know. It is important to say here that even in the atmosphere of mutual respect and support which he had done so much to cultivate, and even with the aging back-stock of self-published zines and more marginal titles from increasingly obscure sources, he was not a sentimentalist. His belief in the potential contributions of everyone to the greater good, his insistence on supporting and serving the community was completely sincere. He could also read numbers. When the time came, as it came more and more often during my tenure to let someone or something go, he never shirked. When there was anything particularly unpleasant that needed doing, he invariably offered to do it himself. I will admit that sometimes I let him.

First of many lessons from Richard? Trust that you can do what's asked of you. Having his trust and advice made a great difference, but he allowed people to do their work. Also? Everything worth doing is collaborative, one way or another. Maybe that's the same lesson. Our working relationship wasn't that long -- I've worked in the bookstore where I am now for nearly twenty years, and worked in my first for more than a dozen -- but it would take more space than I have to detail everything he taught me in that time. More than anything he was an example to anyone and everyone who came within his influence on how to be decent. He was a perfect example of why kindness wasn't a weakness, that one needn't be loud to be heard, that honesty should never preclude compassion. More than once it only occurred to me after we'd hung up the phone that I'd just had a sound thumping -- and deserved it. We never had anything between us that could be called an argument, let alone a fight.

He was a gallant man. I suspect the word would amuse more than please him. He had no pretentions, at least none that I ever saw. He said more with a glance and a shrug than anyone I ever met. He would look away, brush up his beard with his fingers, and listen always before he spoke. I learned that what he said mattered, but you had to get close to hear it. Always worth it. He was an entirely reliable wit, in his quiet way. About a famously difficult local author he once told me I should remember how hard it must be for this person to wake up every day "and not be an enfant terrible anymore -- at sixty five." 

My last year at A Different Light Bookstore was a bad one. Staff reductions, an actual flood, endless road construction in front of the bookstore, there was a lot with which to contend. With Richard's approval I gave an interview to a gay magazine describing the company's financial problems and the need for greater community support and the pull-quote of mine that they used? "Thank God for porn!"  To be fair, at that point videos and magazines were paying a lot of the bills we could still pay, but I was not terribly popular with some of my employers after that. Beyond what was happening in the company, my best friend died from what we used to call "AIDS complications," hours after I left his bedside in San Francisco and drove back to Southern California. I'd gone into debt, living in a motel during the week and learning to drive on the weekends, at thirty five, in order to commute the forty-four miles each way each day. Bought my first car. Had to do "debt consolidation," and attend what I couldn't help but call "failure school" wherein we learned that capitalism was good, we just weren't good at it, yet. I nearly died myself from a burst appendix. Took weeks to recover from the emergency surgery that put twenty two staples in my gut. And I came back to work just in time to find the store that I managed was being sold to someone I did not know, someone who lived "just around the corner," someone who would not require a manager, thank you very much, at least not me.

My time with Richard ended pretty much that same day. Not his fault. He was exceptionally supportive throughout and was always quick thereafter to offer support and a letter of recommendation and the like. For a long time I could not face any of the people I'd worked with at a Different Light. I let myself feel humiliated at what I could not help but see as my failure to make a go of it there. Stupid of me, all things considered, but it was what it was. I like to think I would know better now, but I don't know that that's true.

I do know that I remain genuinely grateful for the opportunity to work in that bookstore and for that man. 

One last lunch, well before I stumbled away. We were sitting in one of those open-air-dinning arrangements every other restaurant on smoggy Santa Monica Boulevard seemed to fancy lent their over-priced lunch menus an air of Parisian sophistication. We ordered immoderately for the first and only time. We had time. Richard and I had just had an unsurprisingly blunt conversation about the money and such. I was moaning about trying to staff a booth or restrict access to our tiny bathroom during Pride, etc. Richard asked me what I was reading. We talked about books. He told me stories I will not repeat, not because he was unkind in talking about anyone but because I like to remember that conversation as rather special. He talked about himself, about his favorite authors, about why he continued to read new work all the time and not just for the anthologies he edited. He talked more that day than any other I can remember in his company. I remember thinking even as it was happening that here was a man who knew more, who had read more than I ever might and yet it could all be so easy because his curiosity was genuine, his enthusiasm unchecked. He asked my opinion because he valued it. I wish I'd made notes. We laughed. I was dazzled, frankly.

I remember now what an impossible time that must have been for him professionally and personally. I cannot imagine how many demands must have been made on his time, how many people he had to worry about, what he must have been thinking about both before and after our lunch. That lunch was a gift. It was something I needed. What did the man have to set aside to give me that? And yet it was not forced or rehearsed or timed. Perhaps another lesson learned? Maybe the same one, again.

So, what have I learned? Well, I'm still at it, Richard. I am still trying to be the bookseller he was, something like as kind, nearly as honest. I like to think he would applaud the effort, even if he would probably demur at taking any credit. I think I've got this right when I tell you, he was a gallant gentleman. I will miss him being in the world. I will remember his example. Would that we all might.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Burned

 


Some people take photographs of their dogs. Well, we don't have a dog. Don't have a cat either. Don't have a child, a grandchild, or a parakeet. We don't dance on TikTok. Don't go to premieres, or do make-up tutorials, or troll online. We do cook, the beloved husband mostly, and I do like to eat. So like entirely too many people nowadays I will snap pictures of my dinner and post them to social media. (That pot roast looked good, child, it really did.) Flowers? Sure. I have photographed the flowers we planted in the side-yard, but only in close-up so no-one will see how I neglect them. People? That's more complicated. 

I have friends, mostly women, who don't like having their picture taken at all and I respect that. My mother still believes a "good" photograph should be taken no less than twenty feet from the subject. Anything nearer and she says, "Too close." Photos of me are easy. Would you prefer your ham hot or cold? Dishabille or turbaned in scarves? Despite my wide and noble brow and the gravitas lent by my white beard, point a camera at me and I will mince and roll my eyes and dance like Captain Spaulding. Give me an excuse, any excuse to put a flower pot on my head. I believe this is called a defense mechanism. Heaven forbid the photographer tell me I look handsome, or even that I am sporting a most becoming ensemble 'cause I will try a handstand. It can all look a bit desperate, largely because it is. Better they be made to laugh with me. Is that pathetic? I don't think so. Have you met the people who will never put on the paper party hat? Nobody says you have to wear it all night, sir. Besides, I come from a long line of people willing to mug for the camera. I treasure the photos of my parents wearing colanders. 

Mostly though I take pictures of my books.

Odd and not. I suppose if I built model trains or collected rare bottle caps I might take pictures of those but I don't. I read books. Better say that like every serious reader I know, I buy books with every intention of reading them and then I do -- so far as I am able. While collecting books is not an uncommon things to do -- yet -- the books I buy and read are not always books in which others will be specially interested. My friends are uniformly canny and polite, gallant even. Happy to "like" my pictures on social media, but  that doesn't mean they are necessarily looking for more information or suggestions of where they might find their own copies of The Letters of David Hume. It is a lesson learned. Friends share their enthusiasms too. Otherwise I would not now know even the little I now do of Ethiopian cuisine, anime, or Alban Berg. And I am grateful, though not equally for all three. Only fair. What friends do. And very good friends will even smile sweetly when I talk -- again -- about Walter Savage Landor. I admit it is not always an even exchange. I am lucky in my friends. So when I post yet more pictures of my books on social media I do not assume that because the pictures are "liked" that my books are, only that I am. That is mostly enough to make me happy. One does thrill a bit when somebody comments approvingly on a snapshot of one's library. What I find odd, even at my age, is that I still want the approval and admiration of others for being such a clever boy. Can one ever learn to not care? Evidently, no. Thus I suppose the sometimes sad spectacle of the aging autodidact on social media wondering if anyone noticed I was reading Montaigne in that picture of me in a kaftan.  Seems I am still the boy wandering the halls in Grove City Junior High School hoping to be noticed carrying a paperback  of Jean Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, hoping my teachers and peers might notice that I'm literate and think me special -- in a good way, for once. Same show, different venue. Still looking to find my tribe, though at least I now know who we are and that we are many. As for Sartre, I was not really up to it at fourteen -- nor I am now. I did read it though, after a fashion, something I will never do again. It was a long time before I learned one could simply stop reading a book one had started.

I still buy books I then find I cannot read. Some of course are simply bad. For we have the poorly written books always with us. Patience I have not much anymore. Many more books I now find are quite beyond me. As it turns out, reading the charming memoirs of a physicist does not mean I will ever have a grasp of physics. Six Easy Pieces indeed, Dr. Feynman? Well, speak for yourself. Even in subjects more congenial to my interests I will never be sufficiently conversant with the serious stuff of scholarship to discuss some things intelligently. There is no good way to tell someone that while I like Emily Dickinson just fine, I don't have a strong conviction when it comes to dashes -- but you go right ahead and tell me why they matter. I will listen. I'm sure you are right. No one is really waiting for my opinion of post-structuralism or my thoughts on enjambment, nor should they be. Regrettably, I mean it when I tell you -- I got nothing. One of the pitfalls of being so attracted to people smarter than myself has been learning to accept their disappointment in my limitations. I mean, I probably brought up Žižek in the first place. Sorry. Didn't mean to start a thing. You're disappointed? Imagine how I feel. But to not now and then at least try to read things beyond me would be like not being curious about the opinions of people I admire. Same thing, isn't it? Not their fault if I don't understand what they say. Sometimes it's just nice being taken so seriously. Sometimes not, but something, as they say, might rub off.

When I was very ill I found myself reading England Under Queen Anne, by George Macaulay Trevelyan. Three big volumes, with maps I never read because I can't read maps. I was still furloughed from my job at the time. Time I had. You should excuse the expression, I was under Queen Anne for awhile. Perfect example of more than one thing, reading Trevelyans. Not working I went a little Trevelyan crazy. George Otto Trevelyan was  G. M.'s dad and also the maternal nephew and biographer of Thomas Babington Macaulay. I've read quite a lot of Macaulay; history, essays, letters, and his nephew's biography. While I was home and in bed I read more than half of George Otto's rather wonderful history of the American Revolution in six volumes. I read G. M.'s biography of G. O. One thing leads to another, you see. Not all that long ago I had read a revelatory book called Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. Lord Macaulay & co. do not come out of it well. I'd recently found another newish book titled Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist, by Zareer Masani which was more sympathetic to the old boy, but a very modern reading nonetheless. I of course then had to reread some actual Macaulay. Just who I am. Now what does any of this matter or mean to anyone other than me?

Short answer? Nothing. I wasn't studying these books. I wasn't preparing any larger project, or researching to write this essay or anything else. I was just reading. And yeah, I posted pictures. Must everything be made to matter by being shared? For instance I don't care what anyone's Wordle* score was today, but I don't begrudge anyone posting their victories. Candy Crush to curing ham at home, if you want to share your hobbies with the wide world, you go right ahead. Remember, like Fred Rogers, "I like you just as you are." So if I post a picture of  six rather dull, faded volumes of an out-of-print history I obviously saw something there that seemed worthy of note. Others needn't. The purpose served can sometimes be as simple as recording my own temporary preoccupations just to show how I've been passing my time and that time is passing with me still in it. Mostly when I put up a picture of my books, I'm just catching folks up on subjects more wholesome than the state of my mind or my bowels. I don't knit, after all. Love some that do, and I am genuinely pleased to see the progress of a beautiful scarf. I've benefited personally from this. I can't do this. I am impressed by those that can and do. (Also? Anyone who cans tomatoes, makes pickles, gardens, dusts, photographs nudes.) It's nice and necessary to be made happy by the things we do well and that do no harm, and good to hear from tribes other than one's own. (And what's more fun than a Venn diagram?!)

It's no great surprise that people can occasionally be mean. I work in retail, remember? I personally do not understand the urge to either mock or dismiss the small pleasures about which I and others post online. If it's not politics or policy or a challenge to one's personal morality, why get so exercised about avocado toast? I only recently learned that avocados are indeed problematic, but maybe don't call your aunt "a bad actor" for enjoying her breakfast. Also, I don't post open questions, or repost memes much. I am rarely looking for confrontation. I don't remember that I've ever captioned a photo with anything like: "I love New York in June, how about you?" Never posed under a sign saying, "tell me why I'm wrong," or "convince me otherwise." I was ( briefly, weirdly) a rhetoric major in college. I understand questions that do and don't invite answers. And one needn't "like" everything anymore than one need like everything. If you post videos of "adorable" spiders or people walking across glass bridges hanging over certain death, I may say to myself, "nope," but I don't take offense at your enthusiasm. Likewise I may have occasionally told folks, "You really MUST read William Topaz McGonagall!" but the imperative mood comes not on me much. You're not the boss of me and that works both ways, honey. I realize that there are in fact people online looking to be problematic so as to bemoan the collapsing hegemony of men who look very much like me, but I am not one of them. Not my tribe.

As to what constitutes problematic content, that has changed and it hasn't, sadly. If anything, the online censors are now busier than they have ever been in my experience policing for the hint of even the most wholesome sexual deviance. Not so much as a male nipple, even in marble, escapes the unthinking, all seeing eye of the robot censors. It seems sex is dirty again, just not in a fun way. Billionaires, poor lambs, are not to be bullied without howling at the unfairness of it all, at least not on the platforms they own -- which is all of them. What constitutes free speech or a threat seems to depend now on at whom one cocks a snook more than what is said. Conservative white male politicians are, as they have always been,  particularly sensitive -- and every potential aggression is amplified by the complete absence of irony from any and all corporate algorithms. Same as it ever was. What has changed is who lets the dogs out. Of course there are still the same sorry souls who sit in their virtual front windows and keep an eye out for impiety, socialism, provocative hemlines and the like. Busybodies and bullies never rest and now the world is on their front lawn just waiting to be told to get off the grass. Best avoided, but not always possible. One of the great benefits of the new virtual society is the ease with which one may slam the door in the face of biblical exhortation and the wrathful goon. You've been blocked, booger. Doesn't always work though. Ask any prominent woman in politics or public service just how supported they feel by social media policies against harassment. Meanwhile, try saying, "men are pigs" on Facebook. Go on, just try. However firmly your tongue may have been planted in your cheek, you are on your way to a time out, trust me. I share your indignation. As at least a three time loser myself, I will not be sharing your post. Sorry, friend. See you on the other side.


"Aye me, how many perils do enfold

The righteous man, to make him daily fall?"

-- Edmund Spencer


Were it not for the righteous among my wider acquaintance, I would never have been exposed to the complicated history of the delicious avocadoes mentioned above. Had someone not gently scolded a mutual friend who had posted a picture of their breakfast, I might never have learned the little I now know about "monocultures." I can't say I have gone on to sin no more, but I will admit to a blush when I order guacamole. All manner of errors in usage and custom, pronouns and privilege have been brought directly and or indirectly to my attention via social media, and for much am I sincerely grateful. It isn't anybody's job to explain to the old man sittin' in his favorite readin' chair just how the world spins, but I have found there are lots of lovely people in the world who are kindly willing to point me the way. Yes, there are the online scourges and with them I have little patience, but  one cannot but admire the fortitude of those still willing to teach. Thankless business, mostly, specially online. And yet people I often know only on the computer have offered me genuinely thoughtful and even useful instruction down the years on everything from the fascinating variants of academic geography to using the Ukrainian spelling of Kyiv. It may seem stupidly sunny if not a little dirty to say it this way, but I've actually learned a lot from being corrected. Not always persuaded, I admit, but usually glad of the opportunity to avoid looking any more foolish than needs be.

The distinction between real and virtual friends is not one I can make anymore. I am of an age when even before the pandemic I was not getting out much and stopped going out long since. My oldest friends are not often in the same city as me, or the same state. Some are not even in the same country. It would be lovely to see people and share a drink or a meal, go to a movie, but that is unlikely now, even if I didn't rush home to beloved husband every night after work. The great innovation of social media for the not-young is that one is able not only to renew and maintain long treasured friendships but also to make a new and often unlikely acquaintance, genuine friends who may live in Hawaii, or Milan, who may be decades older than me, or younger, or even famous. The common criticism of this broadening of the definition of friendship is that such relationships are inherently shallow and somehow dishonest for never having been tested by a road-trip, or a missed dinner invitation, or tolerating the company of a less than sympathetic spouse, or the chance to hold a noisy baby. This seems to me to mistake complication for virtue. Why must life, and love be a trial to be real? Are our sympathies so dull, our curiosity so prurient that we must be made to suffer with someone to feel for their suffering? Evidently among the young there is a performative aspect of social media posting: an arbitrary and impossible standard of beauty, a competitive need for "likes," a strong disincentive to admit struggles with illness, etc. Same show, different venue again. Old people? I believe the term is "over-sharing." In my "feed" I'm likelier to find a gruesome knee surgery update or a discussion of the comparative benefits of various mental health meds than a beauty product endorsement or instructions for a dance craze. In my circle, instant messaging tends to links to the Dickens Museum and enquiries after declining pets. Can feel pretty real pretty fast, folks. Who has time for curating one's reality when increasingly eager to keep hold of our diminishing stores? At this point I'm as honest as I'm ever likely to be, and so are my friends.

So if every now and again I get an unsolicited if thought-provoking link to an exposé on the methane from windy cows, or a sharp reminder in the comments on July 4th reminding me just what hypocrites certain Founder Fathers would seem to have been, I am ready! I've heard worse. Meant well. I can take it. Once in a great while I will still be taken to task for something I've said unthinkingly, or a book I'm reading too casually, or even my selections for my Book Club.

"Do we have to read books written by slave-owners?"

This in response to my choice of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Tolstoy. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. 

"No, you don't," was my only answer to that question, I am now ashamed to say. Huff puff.

Took me the better part of the afternoon to come out from under my umbrage and back into the light of day. And a lovely Spring day it was: sun shining, last of the lilacs in the backyard, first buds on the rosebushes, birds back in the trees, tra-la. 

Now it's all very well to strive for magnanimity online and off, but it seems that I am still every bit as likely as the next old badger to put my back up when challenged. I was asked a question, with context, and I chose to growl and waddle right back into my stinking burrow, or in my case, my favorite, tatty reading chair to stew in my own indignation. I decided I was outraged, outraged I tell you, on behalf of Tolstoy -- who has been dead for more than one hundred years -- and angry because... Literature!

The awkward thing about having actively cultivated one's persona as a rather dear and genuinely harmless duffer is that one sometimes forgets just what hard work harmlessness can be.† Haven't quite mastered it. Sorry. I have however learned that emotions, however valid and even necessary they may be, etc., rarely answer actual questions. "What is Pi?" Consternation! "How high the moon?" Surprise and impatience! So I was unhappy with that question. Now I'm not. Too late, but I'm not, honestly. But why was I, and what happened in the meanwhile?  

Best to start with what was actually said rather than just what I heard. Here are the relevant bits:

"I've really been hoping to join your book club, but I've been waiting for a title that really got me excited... I'm sorry, but have you noticed that slavery seems to be a theme so far? The Count of Monte Cristo has slaves. Samuel Johnson owned a slave. Now Tolstoy -- who owned slaves. Do we have to read books by slave owners? I just can't."

First, it is important to note that the question came in a private message, not in a public space. Nice. Also? Note the enthusiasm for at least the idea of my virtual book club. Also nice. I fear my initial terse response seems to have got me "blocked," or "ghosted," or something of that sort because there's been no communication since from the Dixie cup on the other end of the string. My fault, so I'll say here what I hadn't the common curtesy to say before.

To begin then, an apology. I now realize that the question was sincere and deserved something more than my dismissal. For that I am genuinely sorry. I chose to read the above as a criticism of me, of my choices, my taste, rather than what it obviously is, a potential reader looking at the books I've chosen not as bad books but rather from a vantage I had not considered. Doesn't change my answer, but there is more to this than I acknowledged at the time, so let me try to unpick some of the particulars first before returning to the larger question.

(Spoiler alert.) The Count of Monte Cristo does indeed own slaves. He is made to say some pretty harsh things about their expendability, though the characters in question are revealed to be dearer to the protagonist than nearly anyone else in the story and are ultimately described as considerably better people than either the Count himself or the audience to whom these remarks were addressed. Both enslaved characters were purchased in order to save them. Both are admittedly used as players in Monte Cristo's revenge, but both are eventually set at liberty, as was always, we learn, part of the protagonist's plan. Worth noting also that the author, Alexandre Dumas was himself the grandson of Marie-Cessette Dumas, an African slave in Haiti, a fact that obviously shaped not only the author's life and reputation but clearly contributed much to the creation of Dumas greatest character, namely the great author himself. 

It's also true that Francis Barber when still just a boy was given to Samuel Johnson as a gift; a grotesque idea, if not an uncommon practice at the time. Note however that Samuel Johnson came to publicly call Francis his "son," loved and lived with and supported Barber, his wife and family financially, and made Barber his primary heir. It was Barber who cared for Johnson in his final illness and it was Barber's future with which Johnson on his much dreaded deathbed was most concerned. Please also note that Johnson was an early and vociferous critic of the institution of slavery and was himself a member of one of the first English abolition societies. To not read Johnson or Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson because of the way in which Francis Barber came into Johnson life is to miss one of the most admirable stories in the writer's much storied life, and a disservice to the truly noble character of both Sam and Francis Barber.

And then there is Tolstoy. This one really confounded me at first. He did indeed inherit hundreds of serfs when he came to his estate in 1847, aged 19. When the Russian serfs were freed in 1861, Tolstoy returned from his time in France -- where he met Hugo and Proudhon among others --  determined to relaunch the schools he'd already started for "his" serfs, among other projects for their improvement. I can't begin to summarize here the political and spiritual journey of one of the most important figures in western literature. Suffice it to say his philosophical writing on nonviolent resistance -- influenced in part by the work of the American abolitionist Adin Ballou -- would later be cited as a major influence in turn on both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. There are few figures in history, let alone literature less deserving of dismissal with a single epithet.

All of which I might have said, had I not -- in a phrase I must tell you I hate -- been so "in my feelings."

Eventually though I was prompted to do a little research and take the time to consider the question of slavery in the work of all three authors for the first time. I am now sincerely grateful  to the person who brought this issue to my attention. This is exactly the kind of question one would hope to see brought up and discussed in a book club, mine anyway. (And slavery was discussed in the club with both of the first two selections.) I would hope I may yet be forgiven for not being able to get out of my own way and missing the opportunity to have this conversation.

I regret this not just on my own behalf. I might have learned something. Having raised the issue, my questioner might have had more to say I never had the chance to consider. There is also the very real possibility that that person may not have known what I know about Dumas, Johnson, and Tolstoy. Might have been the better for it. Maybe not. We'll never know now. I'll never know.

"'Oh Tigger, where are your manners?'

'I don't know, but I bet they are having more fun than I am.'"

-- A. A. Milne

Oh, fuck it. I'll just say it. That message was rude, wasn't it? (Wasn't it?) I mean, I was too, which is really what got us here, but is there really any way to read that paragraph without it sounding something like, "I'd love to come to your party, but I heard it'll be crawling with cops," or "Thanks for the invitation, but did you really not make anything for dinner without cilantro, peanuts, wine, or butter?" By now every old head has already been shaken over the new generation's conviction that punctuation in messages is overly emphatic, if not  hostile. Well, it is kinda their thing more than it is ours, messaging, isn't it? Like the rock and roll music and the marijuana cigarettes and the sincere commitment to saving the planet. To be honest, messaging is generally something the beloved husband and I use mostly to talk about dinner menus, grocery lists, and septuagenarian celebrities who have shockingly died so young. And we punctuate. Be fair, so did the other person with whom I am not having this conversation. Nice. So if I'm not offended on behalf Leo Tolstoy et al., then why am I still at least a little irked? Tone? 

Don't think quoting As You Like It would have necessarily done me much good in this instance -- as opposed to all the times it's helped me score at closing hour -- but here goes: "Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness." Am I wrong? If we oldsters might concede that full stops jar on the eyes of tender youth, might tender youth not talk at us like Red Guards who just found an Elvis poster, at least when they have questions or concerns about, say, our book club selections? Grandma's been sending money to televangelists? Dad wore his MAGA hat to your graduation? Mom put food-waste in the recycle by mistake? Your date calls you "babe" in public? Let fly your righteous anger, avenging angels of the new millennium! Though, maybe vary your colors a little, at least with well-meaning strangers, no? Remember, you and I did not bond at your birth. 

Someone roughly my age reminded me that we were righteous once ourselves. True. I was not always a joy to my elders. I did not always defer to experience. Another friend back in my school days once described the way I made new acquaintances as, "dive and rip." Age has mellowed me, like it does, but it hasn't made me entirely forget what it is to be young; to be subject to condescension from even those we might admire, to go unheard and unseen, to have to shout because sometimes the shout was all that was left in you. We must all of us I think be willing to argue with the gifts we've been given and try not just to be right but also to listen. It is still harder than it looks.

In that spirit I would contend that just as there is more than one reading of history and literature, there are better ways to suggest one look again or anew, ways to read the room as well as all the books in it, and most important to me, reasons to read even the books about which you may have heard troubling things. May not be the time. Okay. You're probably busy with more pressing, more material texts, but I would hope you might yet see your way to reading Tolstoy, serfs and all.

I suppose the three words I find hardest are the last. The finality of that last statement in the original message, "I just can't," makes me shake. I confess I find that hardest of all that was said to take in. Can't or won't or don't think you should? (You should -- probably the least persuasive word in the language -- but you should.) These books cannot now be read but with the reality of slavery somewhere in mind. Got it. Hadn't thought of them that way, as representative of that, but neither was the idea entirely new to me or the book club, as I've suggested. Nonetheless, wasn't thinking about it until I got that message. Can't not see it now, thank you. 

If I've only recently come to some understanding of how trauma works and how it can be located even in the most seemingly innocent entertainment, say the unsuspected page of even a Dumas novel, then clearly I still have work to do, and not just on my electronic manners. Thanks for the not entirely welcome reminder. Again, sorry I baulked, and barked.

Now, as it seems we are saying what ought to be obvious I will repeat, no, it is not my place to tell anyone what they must read -- unless they want to join my book club. And truly, all or nearly all are welcome, but maybe don't kick the door in next time. And I will promise not to kick anybody down the stairs because they spilled the tea.

In the end my primary emotion, well after the fact, is mostly sad-face-emoji. Is it not genuinely regrettable that a reader astute enough to point out the commonality of this ugly fact in three such diverse narratives from three such different writers should also find this sufficient cause to never read any of them? Have I read that right? I know good people who won't read any book with a dog in it for fear the dog will die, as they so often do, in books and out. Another book I recently bought with the idea of possibly reading it in the book club turns out to have been written by someone who enthusiastically joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1933. Feels like a potential deal-breaker, doesn't it? (I hasten to add that the member who brought this to my attention recently, still professed a willingness to read the book if its merits exceeded the author's many sins, thus proving that she is a bigger person than me, bless her.) I will not however concede that any of the books we have read, or the book we are reading now, or the books I still hope to have us read hereafter, are anything less than the very opposite of what that message to me suggested. I refute the premise and deny the particulars, as no one who has actually read Dumas, Johnson, or Tolstoy could do so and not be moved by their greater goodness and humanity. That is as close to a reason as I have for the existence of book club. 

If nothing else, I have been reminded that I am at best more human than my profile. Turns out the jolly fellow pictured in the flowing scarves and silly hats can still be a pretty tetchy sonofabitch now and then. And he really wants you to like his books.

*Wouldn't be unhappy to see this reference age badly.

†See the latter diaries of Sofia Tolstoy for excellent examples of the harm done by an old gentleman's cultivated harmlessness.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

All That Glisters


“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano 


I knew a girl who couldn't back up. She would circle blocks to avoid parking anywhere she couldn't drive straight into and out again. It was a problem. I was only in her car because she occasionally gave me a ride so I wasn't in a position to complain. Seemed reasonable enough to me at the time. Looking back, I will admit it was strange, but what did I know? I didn't learn to drive until I was thirty-five. I've no idea if the issue was mechanical, psychological, or something entirely other. She didn't explain and I didn't ask. Around and around we would go until there was just the right spot to stop. Meanwhile we smoked and talked and had a lovely time. I also remember scraping ice off the inside of her windshield so she could see. Didn't question that either. People entirely dependent on others for transportation do well to pitch in when and where they may. Nobody made me get in the car. I was just glad of the lift.

Always glad of a lift.

Now the established wisdom is that there are just two types of readers: them what always finishes what they've started, and... the rest of us. The first hesitate to start any book they may not finish but once begun, good or bad, they read on to the end. "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." The other type stops whenever and wherever we please and may or may not ever see the end. I don't personally know anyone over the legal drinking age who still subscribes to the first rule. As for the latter sort, myself included, the reality tends to be more complicated. 

Lots of reasons to not read lots of books. Many things are simply not to my taste: woodworking, team sports, science fiction, the out of doors, heterosexuality, beets -- though I may or may not have had a go at one or more of the things on that list. I wouldn't say never to anything but the last two, though I am willing to concede that I may yet be moved to try beets again if the preparation looks specially good. I would certainly be willing to read a book about beets if the reviews were uniformly positive and or a friend told me I "simply must." There is still the possibility always, at least when it comes to books. Even excluding the authors and books I am sure I will never read again, I like to think "Barkis is willing" should the right proposal come my way. Not married to anything though -- other than the beloved husband of course.

Old Samuel Johnson shocked his young Boswell by not finishing every book he read. In his defense, Sam willingly read nearly anything to get the sense of it, or as much of it as he could stand, but having done so, more often than not he was done. This is not a young man's argument, nor should it be. Youth requires diligence. Young people may not know all of which they are capable, may be made to try hard things from algebra to auxiliary verbs, and may or may not benefit from the lessons they are made to make. Compulsion probably isn't be the best way to teach, but it can be the only way to make a boy wash or read Silas Marner. As neither a parent nor a teacher it's none of my business. The only thing I am now prepared to make a child do is leave the room. What constitutes a reasonable length of time to listen to a five year old-- say, fifteen minutes? Mommy's trying to play cards, honey. Go play in the dirt. Don't want to be traumatic, or thought inhospitable by anyone who may have to drive me to appointments someday. As to books, I'm with Sam. As I no longer serve on any committees or write reviews as such, I can't really be made to read anything anymore. I think that fine. With that freedom comes the ancillary good of reading any book only so long as I like it.

So it is that I too now start far more books than I will ever finish, just as I probably buy more books than I will ever have time to read. The willingness is all. (Also? Apparently scientific studies show that book hoarders live longer -- unless and until we are crushed beneath the unsorted weight of our "to be read" stacks. Worth the risk I say.) Where Sam read largely for sense, I have less elevated expectations and read mostly for style. Great novelists for example are seldom first rate philosophers. (And in my experience most first rate philosophers tend to be less than stellar stylists, at least by the standards of the other muses. Ever laughed at a joke in Aristotle? Found a bon mot in Wittgenstein? Hume's reasoning tends to be more elegant than his sentences, etc.) I prefer to read what I would never say so well. Someone may have already written something so elegant, so perfectly said about beets that I will not only wish I'd thought of it but may also be moved to try borscht again.

A better question than why don't I finish every book I read would be what makes me read a book to the end, and again there isn't just the one answer. Sometimes it's story, or again style, more often than either it is the author. This will seem a shallow response, but honestly, I need to like the author. Don't misunderstand me: I needn't like all the characters, or even the protagonist -- does anybody "like" Bellow's Herzog? I admit that the last time I tried Middlemarch I found Dorothea Brooke every bit as maddening as her first husband. But who can read Shuggie Bain and not be glad to have met Douglas Stuart? Anyone who can read Nicholas Nickleby and not come to love the man who made it is, in my opinion somehow deficient as a human being. But that's just me. You might love Louisa May Alcott or Isaac Asimov. To each his, her, or their own. All I can say is that to finish a book I must not dislike it's author. I am willing to be bored a little, disagree a great deal, I can even allow for an uncomfortable level of bewilderment on my part. I must respect the writer's work if not always their intent, but ultimately I must like the author's company or why keep it? 

Just here I feel it necessary to say a word in defense of difficult books. I do not avoid or abandon books because they are hard and neither should you (huff puff.) The fashion of the day is that all books are equal and just seeing someone read "an actual book" ought to bring hosannas from the congregation. It seems reading books is not just a good but good for us -- like leafy greens twice a day -- and it matters not a bit what grown people choose to read. Evidently there isn't anything creepy anymore about middle aged persons who exclusively read novels with heroic teenagers as the protagonists, likewise dragons, faeries, witches, magic, and Sailor Moon. We are instructed not to judge adults uninterested in reading about other adults. Likewise adults who use "adult" as a verb. As a bookseller I do not judge what people read, so long as they buy. As a reader? Not all books are meant to be easy, just as not all art is best seen on a t-shirt, or music judged by how catchy the tune. (Remember "easy listening" radio? Shiver. That's how most YA reads to me.) I did not recently read the latest book from Paul Muldoon because he is my favorite poet --  because he isn't. My best poet-friend likes him. Good enough for me. I don't know that I will ever entirely understand up to what Muldoon is, nor do I feel that I need to. I am not a poet. I read him because what he does is interesting at least in large part because I don't entirely understand it. Also? He made me feel things. Some of the images were gorgeous. That seems to me plenty. I read all sorts of nonfiction for the reading of which I am not fully qualified: philosophy, history, even a little simple physics. I want to know what I can even if I never know all that I might or ought. And I sometimes read dense and difficult prose not because I think it improving, but because there can be more to it than the effort required. Hard books can be as good or bad as the easy ones. To ignore the difficult ones seems to me weak-minded and to ignore the seemingly simple, pompous. I'm still trying to avoid being either, when and where I can.

 Avoiding difficult books isn't the same as avoiding difficult people. Some complex ideas require more words. Some art requires more effort. Some books invite argument, but unlike actual people, when and if they grow tedious books can be put right back in their place. Perfectly acceptable to tell a book to shut the fuck up. Can't hurt a book's feelings. There have been many mad and even dangerous books well worth reading, well worth the time taken. (Not so in my experience with mad and dangerous people, particularly on buses.) It's true that I most often now read familiar authors, and have grown comfortable with an older style of English, but I don't read only the books I already know and I don't read just to be reassured in my opinions, or to escape my reality, or to imagine what my life might have been but isn't. All perfectly legitimate reasons to read, but not to the exclusion of all else on offer, and not to the exclusion of reality, of life. I read for my livelihood, my life, and for more of life, not to avoid it. I do not understand wanting to feel as one felt at sixteen (who are these people who enjoyed being teenagers?!) and I don't understand not wanting to be a grown person. I don't understand not wanting to think and feel and be who I am. There's nothing very special to being me, but being me now is certainly better than being me was at sixteen. I might regret the state of me, but not the fact. I did at sixteen, poor child. I don't regret the effort, even if I am not always confident in the result. I am smarter now than I was then, and a good part of that has come to me because of reading better books as I went along, and not all of them easy.

I do not now understand reading not to know more, not to be made to think. Wait. Backup. that's not true. Of course I do, but that is primarily what television is for. (Are you watching Season Four of The Circle?! Can't wait for new episodes to drop.)

"What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure," said Johnson. I recognize the effort expended to write the text for Harold and the Purple Crayon -- a work of genius in my opinion -- but a case has, can and should be made just as easily for why one ought to read The Golden Bowl, and or the letters of Charles Lamb, or On the Origins of Species, or Jurgen Habermas. I would argue that all good authors are trying to communicate as directly as they can ideas that may require language other than familiar words of one syllable. I would hope that adult readers are up to conversations they couldn't have with their kids and would want to explore ideas and feelings they couldn't share in an Instagram post. (I suspect that this may be part of the "adulting" about which so many now complain, to which I can only say, "Oh please, a toddler can't even order a drink and most teenagers don't even know enough to eat oysters or watch black and white movies. Enjoy your privilege, people.")

That said, reading Jurgen Habermas was a muthafucka. For me anyway. I don't remember now why I felt obliged but I did so I tried. Unlike the mystical kerfuffle of the French post-structuralists so popular in my youth, at least the German wrote actual prose. Couldn't blame the translation either. What I got from Habermas was had only with hard work, but the fault for anything I missed was mine; my lack of education, my lack of disciple, etc. And no, I never read a whole book by the esteemed philosopher end to end. Nevertheless I still remember most of what I did read, particularly his essay, "Modernity versus Postmodernity" and the encouragement it gave me, and that it made me read on.

I don't feel bad about never finishing The Theory of Communicative Action. You can if you like. I don't feel bad in suggesting it was nonetheless a better use of my time than reading yet another serial killer book, another cozy, another story of a twelve year old come to save the world. Your time's your own, of course. Mine feels too short for too steady a diet of pap, or counting the books I've read in a year, or expecting to be admired to for arranging my books on the shelf by color. Again, who does that?!

                                                                            ***

Here's what happened. I had picked up a big new book, recently translated and publish for the first time in English. Looked good. I read the reviews and three short chapters. All good. Why not for the book club? It was certainly big enough. Worth considering. Unlike the earlier selections for my Big Fat Book Club, I thought we might try something different, a new book by a contemporary writer in translation  rather than a classic. Then unfortunately, as we came to the end of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, I had another bright idea. Why not read the book together for the first time? 

This was not a bright idea. As it turned out, this was very dim idea indeed.

The Book Club has my name on it. I host the virtual meetings. I select the books. We have three months to read or reread each book. I reread and collect supplemental materials for each meeting. I try to provide history, context, hopefully a good time had by all. Not everyone who signs up or signs on sticks around. True of all book clubs, as I understand it. I get it. Book clubs are like extramarital affairs, it's all very exciting at first, but interest may wane over time and a thousand+ page side-piece in addition to one's other reading can start to feel a lot like eating Christmas dinner twice. "Go! I know you have to spend time with your real family. So I roasted a turkey and made cranberry sauce from scratch, go, enjoy your store-bought pie." (I should also mention, strange as it still seems to me to say, that my Book Club is free! It was just a couple of months ago that I first learned that people can and do earn a living doing this sort of thing online. Seriously?!?! Who knew? Not to worry, loyal members. Keepin' my day-job.) 

So. I chose a book and nobody liked it. Backup. That's not entirely true. At least one of my regulars seems to have enjoyed what she'd read of the book so far. In fact, I think she may have enjoyed it more than me. By the time our first meeting rolled around, I'd read better than five hundred of the nearly nine hundred pages of the book. I did not hate it. Others did. Which is not to say that I liked it.

It was not for want of  novelist's gifts. "Life had slipped between her fingers like squandered flour." That's lovely -- and kudos to the translator as well. The structure of the novel was more piled than planned, but nothing daunting. Of plot there was none but again, for this at least I was prepared, and prepared to defend it. Not every great novel tells a compelling story. Some tell several stories, some more interesting than others, usually united by a theme, a family, a place. Ivo Andric's The Bridge on the Drina comes first to mind. This I thought would be one of those. There was much of a history with which I was too little familiar. Easily addressed with a computer. I was ready to defend nearly all of the author's choices -- at first. The thing for which I was not prepared was the meagerness of emotion. There wasn't much affection for the family from which the novel was made, seemingly the author's own. The women had the worst of it, despite being the nearest to the narrator's life. There was a very deliberate reserve, a cold objectivity even when describing the grandmother who had raised the protagonist, presumably the novelist himself. A point was being made (and made, and made again,) about the transience of memory, affection, history. Got it. The writing could be very good, even beautiful, but the book was ultimately off-putting. Perhaps that was the intent? If so, it succeeded too well, at least with me and the majority of the Book Club. 

For me the break came after a long chapter detailing the decline and death of the narrator's mother. Evidently a difficult woman. The son does what he can to care for her needs, but there was no sense that the author cared much for the woman at all. He flatly refuses the idea that she was capable of loving her son. Describing in vivid, sometimes crude, even cruel detail the mother's suffering, the author tells us that this inconvenienced rather moved him. He tells us her death changed him not at all. The mother's irrationality, her anger, her contradictions, her howling regrets, her pain comes to nothing. It seems that even her prolonged and hideous death was just something that happened. He wasn't there. No reason to be. As the novelist made the choice to be the central character in his novel, it became impossible to not think the author, however talented, and by his own admission, had been a bit of a shit. He is quick to point out that this is not something he regrets. Just the way things are. Not everybody loves their mother. Not every mother deserves the devotion of her children. Half way through the book it seemed to me that perhaps nobody's mother, and certainly not his, deserves such a kicking, particularly when followed by a shrug.

It is an odd choice to make so big a book, a book with so many characters and with so many stories, and then make everyone in it a cypher. That seems a grim reading of family history, and of history as well. It also felt false, his indifference, more an affectation than a fact. Really? Nine hundred pages that would seem to come to nothing? Was one meant to admire his doggedness in writing so much and so well about places and people and a country he can't quite bring himself to regret? All one ultimately knows of these otherwise forgotten men and women, long or recently dead, are just the few scraps the writer has recovered; his own incomplete memories, a bit of family lore, and the unsatisfactory answers he had from his mother. To distract her from her pain and complaints in their last conversations, he asked her to talk about the past. This chapter, like the character of the mother proved exhausting without being very interesting. That seems unnecessarily cruel. There might be more to all of this, if anyone could be bothered to look, but why would they? He hadn't much. Even at nine hundred pages it all seems strangely grudging. He ends most of his family stories by telling the reader that such stories, such people, don't really matter all that much to anyone but him and then only to extent that somehow a book must be made of this. He's made a book because it is his to make and he, if you hadn't noticed, is a famous novelist. That seems to matter even if the rest doesn't much. It is only this novel, his writing of it, that justifies even the events described in greater detail. He isn't what's become of the largely forgotten generations before him so much as he is the only reason they still exist at all and only because they are the sorry stuff with which he has to work. Even the history of his troubled homeland seems little more than another stone about his stiff neck. In the end I realized that I didn't dislike the book so much as I did the man for writing it. That's not good. Backup. Time to get out. Time to walk away.

Was it a bad book? Certainly not. Difficult? Yes, but not bad, just a bad choice. 

If I'd been reading the book for any reason other than for my Book Club I would have quit sooner and frankly would never have given the novel and the novelist another thought. Happens all the time. Nobody's fault, just not for me. But I'd already told other people to read it. I realized that I'd broken trust. Nothing for it but to apologize and pick another.

So that's what I did. 

All of this happened to be happening while I was away from the bookstore where I work, far away for a solid month, at least in part to mourn the death of my young nephew. Perhaps if I hadn't been with family of my own I might not have had such an unpleasantly visceral reaction to so big a book about a family for which the novelist seemed determined to make no one including himself care. Bad timing if nothing worse. 

If I've learned nothing else in my life, I have at least learned how to reverse.

And because I am not someone who can travel with just one book, I had the good sense to bring other books with me. The place where I'm from is not known for books or bookstores. I packed two books of poetry, acquired three mysteries along the way, and in a very last minute decision I included an inexpensive edition of what many still insist is the greatest novel of all time. 

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Trust me, I know how this one ends.


Monday, March 21, 2022

My Monsters



“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
-- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

I have always loved monsters. Maybe it's because my first friend was King Kong. Not the one you're thinking. My friend is fifty-six years old now, about ten inches tall, with a stout, corduroy body and a blue rubber face. His black beard is all but gone, as is his hair. He is very much the worse for wear. When we were both young, more than one adult took the liberty of saying that Kong was ugly. We didn't mind. I liked that he was. Still do. He was a promotional toy for a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I recently looked up the show online and... oh, my. But when I was three years old?  Kong was my guy. It was the nineteen-sixties. Kid's television was not a sophisticated enterprise. Even by the standard of the day though, this was a pretty poor effort. The animation's crude. King Kong was variously the size of  a skyscraper or a Mack truck, consistency and perspective not being obvious priorities in children's animation then. Evidently I loved him for all that. He was good hearted, but he could be scary. I think I kinda liked that. Looking at the cartoons now I realize that the show was designed to be as wholesome as cooked farina, despite having a a rollicking if stupid theme-song and a giant ape. Kong had top billing, but really he was just a sidekick for a stupid little blond boy who was always falling off things or being threatened by other big things and always needing a ride or to be rescued. I hated that kid. Of course I wanted to be him too. I had the same resentment of the actor who played Jai (boy) to Rony Ely's Tarzan. Little bastard got to ride an elephant while sitting in Tarzan's loinclothed lap. (It all may seem so very obvious now, but come on, I was three or four at the time.) My Kong used to have a little plastic version of this boy/friend -- blandly named Bobby Bond -- permanently attached to his arm. When he was new, Kong talked when you pulled the string in his back, or rather Bobby talked and Kong roared sympathetically. Even then I'm pretty sure this seemed lame. Let Kong be Kong! King Kong doesn't need an interpreter, or another friend. (Get lost, Bobby -- and he promptly did, as soon as I was able to pry him off Kong's arm.) No idea why they made the doll blue as he wasn't in the cartoon or the movies, but I liked that he didn't look like anything real. He was a monster. Made sense. We were then always together. Where I went, he came along. Arm came off, got stitched right back on. Lost his voice? I didn't mind. Kong is a survivor. He lives with me still. Now he just sits, benevolent and silent as a Buddha, on my dresser. He wears a little blue sock-vest -- a tiny toy-truss, really -- that my mother made for him when he lost his figure and his stuffing threatened to spill. He was my first monster.  

Just a few years later I was a subscriber to Famous Monsters of Filmland, had a full set of Universal Monster Model Kits that I'd assembled and painted myself, and a poster of the 1931 Frankenstein at the foot of my bed. I loved them all, my monsters, but Frankenstein's monster was my favorite. Still is. I thought Vincent Price the greatest actor of the age and counted Karloff, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee as among my dearest imaginary friends. I could tell you more about Bela Lugosi's filmography, and or the process employed in Jack Pierce's best make-ups, than I could about the history of the American Civil War or the illustrators of the OZ books -- with both of which I was nearly as obsessed by then as I was with horror films.

At eleven-thirty on Saturday night in those days there was Chiller Theater with "Chilly Billy" Cardille on Channel Eleven, Pittsburgh, PA. Before I was old enough to stay up late to watch horror movies, I would sometimes creep down the stairs and peer over the back of the sofa while my older brother watched House of Dracula, or The Man Monster, or Blood Sucking Monkeys from West Mifflin, etc. (In those days you watched what they ran.) Before I was really old enough to understand or appreciate the nuances of  cultural exchange, the film that scared me the worst was a fleeting glimpse of a Mexican lucha libre movie in which it was not the bloody werewolf who terrified me, but rather the leading man; a hulking wrestler who wore a skintight mask that covered his whole head. Only his eyes and mouth suggested a man under the mask. He was powerful, violent, and hyper-masculine. What made him scary though was that absent face. Otherwise he dressed like a huge but rather natty car salesman; polished shoes, golf shirts, and tailored sharkskin suits. Nobody in the movie seemed to find this sartorial combination the least bit odd, let alone disturbing. I found it unsettling in ways I could not understand or explain; so many muscles, great, hairy hands, a featureless face, such sharp creases in his slacks. And yet the leading lady clearly found him attractive, mask and all, and nobody ever told him to take it off. No one seemed to notice it. When he lit a cigarette the smoke would curl out the corners of his mask. Scared the bejesus out o' me. When I was a little older, adults regularly asked me if all these monsters didn't give me nightmares. Well, sure. The only one I actually remember giving me more than one sleepless night though was that faceless wrestler in a custom suit.

Television was all rather hit or miss in those days; three channels, four if the weather allowed, and other than Saturday nights, horror wasn't regularly featured in afternoon shows like The Million Dollar Movie. Many classic horror films I knew only by reputation. There were stars like Lon Chaney Sr.  encountered only in film-stills and descriptions in the monster magazines. I had his Phantom of the Opera as a plastic model of course, and I studied the photographs of his make-ups the way other, more pious little boys might study the face of the Virgin in a Renaissance annunciation or St. Sebastian's (ahem) wounds. I learned facial anatomy by way of drawing Chaney's Phantom and his Quasimodo, the actor's face distorted by wires and putty. I drew monsters constantly, the ones I could see and the ones I invented. One of the few drawings to have survived from those long ago days is a fairly accomplished portrait of Karloff in his famous entrance from Frankenstein. (When my father died a few years ago I found this drawing and a number of others I'd done as a child, carefully preserved in a box in Dad's closet. I kept the Karloff.)   

When I was a teenager in the later 1970s my interest in horror films waned as the genre devolved into mindless slashers with high body counts and featureless killers. I still went to those movies, everybody did, but I never loved them the way I'd loved my old black & white monsters. By then books -- including books about film -- had largely supplanted movie monsters as my primary obsession. Novels gave me monsters more complex than the staggering mummies and giant tarantulas of my childhood. Of course by then I'd read Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, all those Hitchcock anthologies, The Monkey's Paw, Interview With a Vampire (four times in a row,) and the early Stephen King. At some point I came across Dalton Trumbo's antiwar novel of oppressive body horror, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and Guy de Maupassant's The Diary of a Madman. I read William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, cover to cover. I began to appreciate that horror may actually have less to do with ancient curses and supernatural visitations and more to do with anxiety, violence, and ideology. Evil doesn't require a curse or chemicals in technicolor tubes and pipettes, or the substitution of good brains for bad. (And good can come from the defiance of God.) Not all monsters are made in interesting ways. Some monsters we make for ourselves, and or of.

Can't be a serious student of monsters for long and not know that the villain is not always the monster. Anyone may prove a villain. Anyone. Monsters are made. 

Considering my age and established affection for old books, no one should be shocked to learn that I am not much of a fan of new words. The wonders of science and technology require an expansive vocabulary, and nonsense thrives on the scroobious and the runcible, but literature for adults gets largely by on what's already to hand. The answer to this is usually Shakespeare and sometime Joyce, with neither of whom am I prepared to argue. My discomfort* comes mostly from verbing, and words like "verbing,"  aka denominalization, and verbification, all of these words for rendering a noun into a verb, and all, please note, almost equally ugly. English does this easily enough, as it does most things other than spell. Most commonly you just add "ing'' and you're in, friend. I would still argue for "befriend," but I grow old, I grow old, and wear my trousers rolled. (No, honestly I do, 'cause I'm short.) It is not just the newness that makes me wince. "Hashtag" was already ugly to my ear, vaguely German, long before it was verbed (?). There is however one such word I am more than ready to endorse, though I doubt I will ever use it much myself. "Othering" seems to me an idea I needed back when my monsters came mostly in shades of gray and often had fangs. Had I that sense then, I might have understood a bit better my fellow-feeling for protagonists pursued by torch-bearing villagers. I will leave the queer theorizing to them what do it more easily than I, but indeed there was a little fairy at the bottom of our garden, Maud, and it was me -- in case you were missing this.

Later still when I took up reading not only literature and biography but literary biography, I was introduced to yet another category of loveable monsters -- the authors themselves. Not that there aren't absolutely admirable and very decent people who've written great work.  No one really has a cross word to say about Washington Irving and so far as I could tell Charlotte Bronte never hurt a fly. Harmless isn't the same as happy of course. Think of poor John Clare. I still remember the deep and abiding shock of reading a prize winning biography of a prize winning novelist and realizing that the biographer had clearly come to loath his subject. I understand getting in too deep to pull out, but that book seemed cruel. Where was the sympathy for the monster so clearly misunderstood, for the scars and the pains that made him? I had a similar experience some years later when I read a good writer's devastating memoir of a great writer who had once been a friend. In the end neither seemed a very nice man. (It was an interesting book though.) More usual was finding that even favorites were flawed in ways not anticipated from reading their fiction. Dickens did not so much end his first marriage as -- metaphorically -- set his house afire with his poor wife in it. Dear Barbara Pym, the very definition of minor genius clothed in twin-set and pearls had a dalliance among the Nazis and organized a stalking party to trace her gay neighbors' comings and goings?! Heavens, Miss Pym! The diaries of Henry Louis Mencken, the letters of Philip Larkin, there would seem to be no end of ugly, posthumous revelation yet to be had among the surviving papers of the great. The only really monstrous aspect of most writers usually is ego and that's a small price to pay, at least retrospectively, to gain War and Peace or Les Miserables. Some writers seem to have been more than man-sized, their destruction clumsy and unintended, their monstrosity strangely glorious as their intentions were probably good, or at least in noble service of their art. Writers are made just like monsters by compulsions they may never and need not understand. Real writers, great monsters, are fascinating because they want nothing so much as to understand and to be like the rest of us though they aren't. What do most monsters want? To find love, be normal, or worse comes to worst, to be left alone to talk to their maker as they drift on an ice-flow. I certainly get that. Their struggles are ours writ large. Frankly, to me at least it seems easy enough to love Balzac and Jean Rhys and even Gore Vidal now they are all safely (un)dead and cannot die.

Of villains there is no end. The world right now is over-run. Literature? I'm glad to say that genuine and thorough shits like Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Philip Roth are reassuringly rare. Real villains cannot help but gloat and glower and justify themselves despite not having been asked. No more attractive on the page than in the last reel. Other than one's own, resentments are seldom interesting and bullies are always boring when they explain themselves. (That's it? That's how you justified that nasty shit you just did?! Pretty lame, son. Time to go.) Much as we may enjoy the villain, we wait to watch him go off the side of the building every Christmas and we cheer. But, oh my monsters! Monsters are different. Monsters don't die. Some of them can't even when they want to. Villains are selfish. Monsters are cornered. Monsters are compelled, confused, cursed, more than the sum of their badly stitched parts. One might envy a villain his lair or covet his toys, but ultimately we're glad of his failure. Monsters are sympathetic in a strange way even at their worst. Might be as simple as recognition -- there but for. We've all looked in the mirror and seen a monster -- and if you haven't, guess what? You're a villain. Unlike the villain's crimes, the havoc of monsters is made for us all.

Ours is not really a time for great monsters as who has the time for all that back-story? Times are complicated. The future is uncertain. We like our heroes simple again, alas, and our villains barely animated. It's boring. Most of our monsters now are just villains in rubber masks. The masks come off in the big reveal and we've all been Scooby Doo-ed again. Not a monster, just another bad guy, and if it hadn't been for those darned kids! One grows so very tired of those damned kids. But there are still monsters, ancient and modern, and more being made if you only know where to look. My monsters hide in dark corners, covered in dust, and smelling of the tomb. It seems they've been waiting. Some of my monsters are just where I left them, quiet now as Kong, if only for the time being.  The ones I love best haunt old libraries and hide in old bookshops, but their descendants and progeny are not unknown anywhere in the wide world. There are always monsters I haven't met yet. Like still calls to like and I've only to listen. Hear them? They hector and howl and laugh at odd moments and talk to themselves, often in foreign accents. The children of the night, oh, etc. Their variety can be surprising even to those like myself who love them. To admire a monster one must try to understand its nature and yet one must be willing to accept it as it is.  I do not support the idea that monsters make for bad art, or that bad art is always made by monsters. It's the villains you've got to keep an eye on. They always lie. It's rank villainy to deny our monsters, to make men with big muscles our heroes again, and then suggest they are somehow made unhappy in the exercise of their gross power. It's a villain who describes cruelty as common, sees the weak as risible and insists that unkindness is funnier than the fall of pomposity. Villains are selfish and see no sin in this. Monsters rage at the loss of love and long for humanity and death. Good taste and happy endings have their charms, I don't deny it. So do puppet shows and Saturday morning cartoons. But so does a rude Rabelaisian belch, a roaring story, loud women, old witches, so do blood, guts, anguish, and Beckett, and maybe a sustained maniacal laugh. It is personality makes the great monster, not the cleverness of a scheme or the elaboration of a plot or perfectly articulated reasons for past bad behavior. That's all villain shit. Large or small the best monsters are more than just badly behaved, they are us. Monsters belong to us as few characters can. No one loves Dickens for his heroes. Great monsters are never simple, anymore than we like to think ourselves. Monsters are better for being wrong and righteously indignant at their cruel fate, lost and twisted, and trapped, and tragic. Face it, monsters are inherently better than any dull binary of heroes and villains (-- and that, fan-boys, is why Guillermo del Toro deserves an Oscar and the Marvel Universe can suck it!)

Right now my monsters tend to behemoths. Weird in a way, as I've never really been a Kaiju guy. (As a youth I read a crushing essay by a science writer explaining patiently how gravity would defeat most giants and I never quite recovered.) Seems I like 'em big now. Whatever the dimensions and limitations of their authors, I am now in the business of reading big books at least in large part because they big. For the neglected little gems of world literature there will always be customers, and dealers. Happy to help you to a Nina Berberova. Have you read Jenny Diski? Has a working hour passed without my having mentioned Beerbohm and a whole day gone by without Brigid Brophy? How hard can it be to convince a reader of contemporary fiction to pick up a reissued novella or to try a funny essayist when I've been doing largely that for most of my working life? I've always like short books and slight things. I've always preferred the miniaturist to the muralist, the minor to the major, a jazz trio to a big brass band. I am myself a maker of little art. So why and from where this attraction to the monstrous again? 

I need Samuel Johnson now. I need the monstrous profusion of his conversation and the loudness of his voice. I need, Sir, the rolling, sonorous wisdom of a big man of large experience and big, even brutal honesty, to stand surety against the villains. Heroes are all well and good so far as they go, and nobody is kicking Chris Hemsworth out of bed for eating saltine crackers, but I want monsters. I want a face and a soul with scars. I look around me for grotesques. I require exaggeration. The times seem to me to call for roaring. "Life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed," he moaned. "The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger assembly of beings, combining to counterfeit happiness they do not feel, employing every art and contrivance to embellish life, and to hide their real condition from the eyes of one another," he howls and does us all rough justice. He is not always unhappy, despite his reputation, and he roars just as loud when he laughs And yet, "Human happiness has always its abatements; the brightest sunshine of success is not without a cloud." Monster.  He is right now my giant and I enjoy that he eats hugely, rudely and crushes the petty and the pusillanimous underfoot. He stands astride London, and he stoops to pet his cat. He sits loudly down to a quiet tea with the blind, the halt, the maimed, and the broken. He is grave and yet defies gravity. How not to love such a monster?

I need big books now to weight the scales against the villains. Life and more life, and death too, friends and monsters. After Johnson's wife died he wrote, "I have ever since seemed to myself broken off from mankind; a kind of solitary wanderer in the wild of life, without any direction, or fixed point of view: a gloomy gazer on the world to which I have little relation. Yet I would endeavor, by the help of you and your brother, to supply the want of a closer union, by friendship: and hope to have long the pleasure of being, dear Sir, most affectionately yours..."

Every monster wants a friend. I am glad of my monsters.


"It is true we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another."

-- Mary Shelly, Frankenstein


* Also? Dropped consonants. It's impor'ant, people, you know, like the in'ernet.