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 nudge 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.