Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Romanticism

Quick update: I am not done with The Overstory, and even though I’m now significantly further in, I have nothing new to say from last time. (It’s still just “BUT THE TREEEEEES” on repeat.)

So I want to take a break from that and talk about one of my favorite poems, which is “Mont Blanc” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley isn’t my favorite Romantic poet (that’d be Keats), but I admire him—and I admire “Mont Blanc” most of all. This is probably pretentious of me, but I appreciate that it’s so inscrutable. I can really dig my teeth into it on a number of fronts, but there’s still a lot of things I find unclear about the poem, and I kind of enjoy that. It’s like there’s plenty more waiting for me upon further inspection, as I get older and see things in new lights.

The area of teeth-sinking for this post is going to be a pretty basic one, and you can probably find countless Sparknote-like analyses online about this connection, but whatever. I do what I want.

And today, I want to talk about the ways “Mont Blanc” is a classic example of the Romantic era of arts and letters.

First Off, Some Elements of Romantic Era Works

I had an excellent teacher for my 400-level English course, and he said just about everything about Romanticism could be summed up in “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, pictured here:

It’s a nature painting, sure. But it’s not a landscape. The focal point is man—a solo traveler made contemplative by the power he looks out upon.

Let’s not forget, though, that he’s on top of that mountain. Even as the Romantics respect, love, and are in awe of nature, they’re primarily in it for what it does to deepen their own experiences.

Romantics are anti-urban and anti-industrial. (You can primarily see this in Wordsworth’s works. He considered London to be a positive horror show.) They want to be in nature. But they’re not into descriptive pastoral pieces just for the sake of describing what they see. Everything is about the sublime: the power that comes from nature and its effect on the receptive spirit.

My aforementioned excellent literature teacher said we can blame the Romantics, primarily Wordsworth, for the trite “I went into my backyard, saw a tree, and had a thought” poetry that’s the hallmark of contemporary amateur poets everywhere. But the real Romantics, though at times a little self-absorbed, did it right. There’s a reason every aspiring poet unintentionally follows this formula. It really worked for the Romantics.

Oh, by the way—timewise, the Romantic era lasted most of the 1800s. The painting above was created in 1818. Shelley’s composed “Mont Blanc” in 1816.

What’s Mont Blanc?

It’s a nice pen to give your groomsmen! Just kidding. It’s the biggest mountain in the Alps—and in fact, the second biggest one in all of Europe. It’s on the border of Italy and France. While Shelley was writing this poem, he was on the French side, in the Arve Valley, looking up at the mountain.

Here it is, if it helps to picture it.

The Sublime in “Mont Blanc”

First off, for reference, you can find the poem in full here.

If you come to “Mont Blanc” expecting a beautiful description of an elegant landscape with a majestic mountain as its focal point, you’re going to be disappointed. “Mont Blanc,” frankly, is a terrifying poem.

But now that you know a bit about Romanticism, this makes sense. The sublime isn’t a nice scene that’s pleasing to the eye. It’s an awesome, overwhelming, chaotic, strike-the-fear-of-god-into-you experience caused by nature, which leaves you no choice but to think very large thoughts about your own existence and your place in this world that’s so much bigger than you.

As Shelley describes the ravines and rivers and mountain itself, you can see him showcasing the sublime in “Mont Blanc.” It’s not a serene place, but it’s somehow holy. It’s big and terrifying and will strike fear and awe into your heart. And in the end, it holds the secret to life and death. (Emphasis mine in quotes here.)

  • “a vast river
    Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”
  • awful scene,
    Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
    From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
    Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
    Of lightning through the tempest;”
  • “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
    Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
    Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
    Dizzy Ravine!”
  • “Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
    Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
    Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
    Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
    Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
    Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
    And wind among the accumulated steeps;”
  • “how hideously
    Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
    Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven.—Is this the scene
    Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
    Ruin?”
  • “there, many a precipice
    Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
    Have pil’d: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
    A city of death, distinct with many a tower
    And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
    Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
  • “Below, vast caves
    Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam,
    Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
    Meet in the vale, and one majestic River”
  • “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
    The still and solemn power of many sights,
    And many sounds, and much of life and death.”

These are all instances of how Shelley is experiencing the sublime through his experience standing in the valley of Mont Blanc.

But Let’s Not Forget Shelley’s Presence…

Don’t forget that a key part of nature, for Romantics, is their place in it. They want to discuss what it makes them think and feel. We first see Shelley himself show up in the poem in stanza II:

  • “and when I gaze on thee
    I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
    To muse on my own separate fantasy,
    My own, my human mind, which passively
    Now renders and receives fast influencings,”

If you ask me, the transition to talking about himself seems a tad awkward—sort of a “but enough about you; let’s talk about me.” But without these deeper thoughts he begins to have about sleep and life and death…well, without them, we have “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (the painting I shared above) but with no focal point. It’s just a landscape.

Landscapes are nice. But what makes a Romantic poem is the thoughts the poet has because of what he (and let’s face it, Romantic poets are almost always “he”s) sees. The interpretation Romantics give to their poetry adds depth.

Here are more reactions and insights Shelley has as the result of what he sees:

  • “I look on high;
    Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
    The veil of life and death? or do I lie
    In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
    Spread far around and inaccessibly
    Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
    Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
    That vanishes among the viewless gales!”

With this, you get the sense that Shelley is so overwhelmed by the vision before him, that it’s so powerful, that he must somehow be witnessing the connection between life and death in this place he’s found himself. He feels it’s so surreal he must be dreaming, but if he’s dreaming, could he possibly actually be dead?

Then we have this:

  • “Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
    Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
    By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
    Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”

Lol. On one hand, this is just Shelley saying, “not everyone can appreciate this the way some people, like me, can” But if we take what he’s saying at face value, he feels that because of his capacity and the capacity of likeminded people, there are great gifts here for those who would receive it. That certain people could take pilgrimages here and find the secret to “repealing fraud and woe.” That’s the effect of the sublime on the individual, to Shelley.

Finally, let’s take a look at how the poem ends.

“And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?”

This is so quintessential Romantic. He’s zoomed all the way out of his experience at Mont Blanc and generalized to this question:

“What good is nature if we don’t learn to observe it in silence and solitude and take in the lessons that we can from it?”

(And what a man-centric, classic Romantic way of looking at these things that feel so powerful and so much bigger than yourself—you’re no good if we can’t take value from you.)

I’d love to hear what Shelley would have to say about the personality types that can’t sit still and observe nature for long swaths of time.

Final Thoughts on “Mont Blanc”

I’ve picked on the poem a bit at the end here, but let me reiterate—I love this poem, and I love Shelley. This work is so dense and impossible to truly untangle. And I adore that about it. I still read all of stanza IV and think, “Wut 🤔.

However, even if you don’t really understand what’s going on, it’s a delicious poem to just take in. Crunch on those word choices. Let the descriptions wash over you. See what sinks into your subconscious. “Mont Blanc,” like it’s namesake, is waiting there, big and overpowering, for you to take away revelations and new experiences.

Next week, I expect to finish The Overstory and have some final thoughts, so look forward to that roast. (Just kidding. Maybe I won’t roast it. Maybe.)

Overkill in the Overstory: Plus Other Preliminary Thoughts

Back on that Pulitzer train.

Thomas the Tank Engine smiling, Henry looking sad

Me starting Pulitzer journey vs. me now

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been mostly enjoying reading The Overstory, winner of the 2019 prize. The writing is top notch, as I’ll share here. But I’m finding the labored symbolism so tiresome that I feel …well, literally tired reading it.

The Good: What Writing!

Richard Powers is an incredibly talented wordsmith. His prose is elegant without being distant, and his turns of phrase are so novel that they catch you unawares and delight you when you realize how delicious they are.

Here’s some of what I mean.

 

On a frigid winter:

“Nights in the gap-ridden cabin zero their blood.”

Zero their blood—wow.

 

On recovering from the frigid winter:

“The blackest despair at the heart of them gets pressed to diamond.”

What a fun, non-overdone metaphor. Note that he isn’t saying “The coal of their despair” or anything. Just mentioning the black is enough to make the metaphor work while still surprising you (and charming you) at the end of the sentence.

 

On things going badly wrong in life:

“Like humans everywhere in the face of catastrophe, Frank Hoel Jr. goes blinking into his fate.”

“Goes blinking into his fate” is such a simple way of saying how dumbstruck we all can be by what life throws at us and how little choice we have but to just stare into into it as it happens.

 

And this is from the first chapter alone. I’ve been finding the language choices in this book to be incredible. Taking them in and thinking about how they work has been a pleasure. But it just can’t make up for…

The Bad: Beating You Over the Head With the Tree Symbolism

Oh my god, we get it.

Trees are symbols in your book. People who like trees = good. People who don’t = bad. Trees symbolize life. Trees symbolize us but are separate from us. TREES ARE ALL.

Seriously, the trees are such an overwhelming part of every single chapter that it’s not even like you have to look for it. Powers will hit you over the head with them over and over. You’re going to hear about some trees before the first three paragraphs of every chapter, promise. And it won’t end there.

I honestly think this symbolism could have been done well if one of the following things weren’t true.

  1. If the use of the symbolism wasn’t so heavy-handed.
  2. If the use of the symbolism wasn’t so exhaustingly moralizing.

Honestly, the first chapter was an example of how Powers could have done the tree symbolism right. While the tree in that chapter was a central part of the story, the meaning was subtle, and it was only a part of what was being shared. You had to dig back to think about how the lone tree was connected to the past (moments of joy, the beginnings of a long family history). And it would take some thinking to realize it’s pointing to what things change and what things stay the same as one generation passes into the next in a family.

I want to work for my symbolism.

I love subtle threads that tie a book together—you remember, this is what I felt was missing from Middlemarch. This could have been everything Middlemarch lacked.

But at 30% read on my Kindle, I’m feeling that, oh my, did we overcompensate with this one. The tree symbolism gets way preachier, and it gets way more impossible to ignore. It’s distracting. You read the chapter, and on sentence four, you’re like, “Oh, yep, there’s the poplar.” “Of course, why wouldn’t there be a sitka spruce mentioned right off the bat like this.”

I am exhausted and am not sure how much more of it I can take.

Disclaimer: I May Change My Mind and Think This is a Masterfully Done Book

I’m not even halfway through the book, and I recently finished the chapter that I believe the whole story will hinge upon (“Patricia Westford,” for those reading—and sighing—along). So I’m willing to keep plugging away to see if this talented writer can turn this over-the-top symbolism into something as beautiful as his prose.

I’m Done With Middlemarch. In More Ways Than One

Well, last week, I managed to write like 2,000 words on Middlemarch. I don’t think I have it in me today. Because I am done.

I finished the book. And now here is the thesis of my Middlemarch Ted talk: it’s not a good book. I mean, I don’t find it to be well written, with my criteria being that events and symbols are carefully woven together, done purposefully…or at least that it’s written with some style.

So. Middlemarch = bad. Here are my supporting points.

This Is a Jane-Austen-Style Soap Opera. (Yes, I Also Don’t Think Any of Jane Austen’s Books Are Good, Come at Me)

God, I’m so tired of hearing about who is interested or not interested in who and who might marry or not marry who.

The Parts That Aren’t Soap Opera Are Terribly Boring

But then we move away from the drama and we go, in great detail, into the realm of who’s voting for who in the consortium of doctors and what people are running for political office. These parts of the book are not only ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, but they aren’t tied in at all with the main plot—or just barely. I’m thinking back on quite a few scenes outside of the soap opera, and I’m realizing the book would have been no different if they were just completely left out.

There Are Very Few Fun Points of Analyzation for a Lit Lover

Believe me, I was trying to find things to talk about: themes, motifs, symbolism, flipping anything.

  • I worked hard to see if I could tie curly hair to rebellion. (Conclusion: you sorta maybe can, with exceptions that make this tie-in unfulfilling.)
  • I tried to come up with the use of double negatives to indicate pompousness. (Conclusion: not enough data.)
  • I tried to use Lydgate and Rosamond as a sort of mirror image of Casaubon and Dorothea.(Conclusion: just enough support to be interesting; falls apart upon closer examination.)

It was after I tried endlessly to do what I do—to lit major some lit—I have concluded I am either bad at this or the book is bad at being a book.

I like the second one better.

So, unfortunately, this one has been tough. The subplot with Bulstrode toward the end was at least mildly interesting, and it would probably be worth talking about his intentions in disobeying the doctor’s orders when taking care of his enemy. Murder or no murder! Still a little soap opera-y, but refreshing in light of the will-they/won’t-they romance stuff that plagues the majority of the book. And those components make me simply too tired of the work to bother looking far into the maybe-murder here, so I regret to say you’ll need to find a more disciplined blogger than me to get that peek into motivations.

What’s Next?

Next week, you can look forward to a few possibilities. I read Circe awhile back, and I just relistened in the car with my husband. What an incredible book. I may chat about that a bit.

Another possibility is to discuss Darkeness Visible, an autobiographical book written by the author of Sophie’s Choice. It was a quick read—I downed it in about three hours—but beautifully written, and it did a great job of explaining how, well, unexplainable clinical depression truly is.

And finally, as I’m back on my Pulitzer journey, I’m reading The Overstory, and I will certainly want to discuss elements of this book. The author has a gorgeous, poetic style, and while there’s a theme that really beats you over the head, that’s appreciated after Middlemarch, where it’s difficult to excavate anything to really pick apart from a literary perspective. Give me themes and motifs or give me death.

If anyone would like to hear about any of these books in particular, let me know. I’ll keep it in mind for next week.

The Quote That Defines the Men of Middlemarch—and What It Means

heart cardLet’s do a good ol’ introductory (seemingly unrelated) story!

When I write in a birthday/anniversary/random-love-ya card to someone I care very much about, I try to keep a 70/30 split on two things: (1) that person’s inherent qualities and (2) how they make my life better or what they mean to me.

I focus more on the former because I don’t want them to feel like their worth is entirely tied up in my experience of them.

How does this relate to Middlemarch?

Well, I’d been taking notes on some common themes I’d been seeing in the thoughts of the male characters. And then I stumbled on this quote, which was the thread that tied it all together:

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

In other words,

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. They don’t think about love or making the women happy. 

There are interesting exceptions (Farebrother, Rosamond) which I’ll get into if I don’t have carpal tunnel by the end of the post.

But for the most part, if you listen to the men in this book, you’ll hear them thinking and talking themselves and how others can make them feel.

Now, I’m not looking to man-bash here. My interest is academic. I do, however, think the author might be searching to make a point through this book. We’ll talk about all of this.

Let’s talk first about examples of how men think this way.

Subject One: Edward Casaubon

I already ragged on this guy pretty hard, so I’ll avoid all the things from that post and just talk about more recent developments as I’ve read on.

Remember, our new thread that ties it all together is this:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture. 

Now, here’s just some of the evidence that’s true of Casaubon, outside of the previously discussed proposal letter.

First, let’s take a look at this (highly truncated) quote from Chapter 29:

And when [Casaubon] had seen Dorothea he believed…she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary…Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed…A modest young lady…is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful.

In other words, Casaubon is thinking of Dorothea in her capacity as a free secretary.

The passage goes on to explain how Casaubon had expected much joy from his marriage but hadn’t found it; he, in fact, wound up missing the days when he could work in solitude. And consider this thought from Chapter 10:

Though he had won a lovely and noble-hearted girl he had not won delight—which he had also regarded as an object to be found by search.

…Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment.

What is he’s not considering is Dorothea’s delight or Dorothea’s enjoyment.

These quotes make it hard to find better examples of how Casaubon

  • Expected his wife to supply his needs
  • Was disappointed when he found no pleasure in her help, despite her competence
  • Wasn’t interested in what she felt or thought in the midst of all of it

Subject Two: Fred Vincy

Fred showers proposals on Mary Garth in Middlemarch, and we get some ideas of what he’s thinking about the object of his affection in Chapter 14. Remember that

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

And consider some of these quotes as he talks to Mary in Chapter 14:

I don’t see how a man is to be good for much unless he has some one woman to love him dearly.

Note that it’s not that he has a woman to love dearly; it’s that one loves him dearly.

Then, after Mary mentions something about women never thinking men they love as “bad,” Fred says, “It is hardly fair to say I am bad.” She responds: “I said nothing at all about you.” (Love that, by the way.) This time, it’s Mary showing us that Fred is thinking of himself.

Let’s next talk about how Fred has borrowed what I assume is a lot of money (being unfamiliar with the economies and currency of Romantic-era England, I can only guess from the characters’ reactions) from Mary’s dad. He can’t pay it back, and Mary’s family is in trouble because of it.

When he goes to Mary in Chapter 25, he explains the situation and self-flagellates for a while before getting to the core of it, saying

I am so miserable, Mary—if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.

So, to summarize: when Mary doesn’t respond to him beating himself up with the pity he believes he deserves from her, he doesn’t think of how she and her family are affected but rather how sad he feels about it.

Mary responds by saying

Selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world.

Well said.

Subject Three: Will Ladislaw

Escandalo! Will is interested in newlywed Dorothea. I know, this is turning into a real soap opera.

He also mostly fits into the “men of Middlemarch focus on themselves at the expense of others” rule. So, in spite of how nice it would be to see Casaubon lose Dorothea to someone else, as a reader, it’s hard to be on the side of another self-centered person.

Chapter 21 is full of Will talking to Dorothea about himself, his future, and his interests. Dorothea encourages him and asks him polite questions. When she doesn’t answer quickly, he begins to obsess about her perception of him, “imagining from Dorothea’s silence that he had offended her.”

And in Chapter 22, he’s possessive of time alone with her so that she could “take more emphatic notice of him; he only wanted to be something more special in her remembrance that he could yet believe himself likely to be.”

Let’s talk about this since it’s a little more complicated than Casaubon’s and Fred’s version of the prevalent self-centeredness.

Remember what I said in the intro about wanting to write cards that focus less on what people mean in my life and more on their inherent worth, which exists outside of me?

While Will is thinking of Dorothea, it’s usually centered around what she thinks of him. In fact, he’s rather obsessed with it.

And now, think fast, cause here’s a rapid-fire toss of supporting quotes:

  • I have made you think ill of me.
  • Still, you don’t like me. I have made myself an unpleasant thought to you.
  • I wish I could ever do anything that would be what you call kind. 

It’s admittedly a step above what we see in other characters. And Will has occasional thoughts that are completely Dorothea-centered. For example, he thinks her voice is like a harp.

But for the most part, even things on the surface that seem Dorothea-centered are actually Will-centered. In Chapter 22, he daydreams of embracing her feet and confessing he would die for her. And it’s Will’s feelings for her that are giving her that worth in his mind—nothing inherent about her as a person.

Am I being nit-picky? Maybe when compared to some of these other cases. But he still fits into the main assessment:

The men of Middlemarch think primarily about themselves and how women fit into their big picture.

Subject Four: Tertius Lydgate

Lydgate is not interested in marriage, but it doesn’t stop him from (1) thinking about what’s proper in a wife (juicy stuff in light of what I’m arguing here; we’ll get there in a sec) and (2) flirting endlessly with Rosamond Vincy.

Let’s tackle what he thinks is proper in a wife first. Quote time:

Lydgate felt sure that if ever he married, his wife would have that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music, that sort of beauty which by its very nature was virtuous, being molded only for pure and delicate joys.

Firstly, ugh. Secondly, Note that there’s no concern over what a potential wife would feel toward him or the expectations she might, in turn, have of a husband.

I guess that’s asking a lot though. Which of us, in times of being single, stare off into space and think, “and one day I’ll have a significant other who will be fulfilled and happy with me!” instead of “one day I’ll be with someone who [fill in with all the traits I like]!”?

But there’s more with Lydgate.

As he spends more and more time over at the Vincys’ house, he fails to realize or care about the thing that Mrs. Bulstrode discusses with him in Chapter 31, which is this: other perfectly eligible suitors are backing off. After all, they think Rosamond is committed to Lydgate. He does nothing to dissuade them.

That he might be ruining her chances for love with someone who is imminently considering marriage, which the book has made clear several times that he is not. And he only proposes when he’s overcome with feeling—inspired by Rosamond’s flattering despair at his absence.

Conclusion: George Is a Woman, and She Has a Bone to Pick

The author of Middlemarch is one George Eliot, pennamed so presumably to escape the discrimination that would come with being a female author.

But it’s pretty obvious that this author is woman trying to make a point about the inequalities associated with marriage, especially after reading that quote I shared in the intro.

Again, that quote is

Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.

If those aren’t the words of a woman writing to express, through story, her displeasure with how unequal men and women of the 1800s were, I don’t know what are.

Surprise Secondary Conclusion: Probably Not, Though?

But I want to leave on a note of challenge to myself here. I’ve got a quote from Chapter 16 that says

Rosamond, in fact, was entirely occupied not exactly with Tertius Lydgate as he was in himself, but with his relation to her.

So, that quote, saying that Rosamond cared not so much about Lydgate-the-man but rather Lydgate-the-potential-husband. We have a woman exhibiting the characteristics I’ve assigned to the men of the book.

Then there’s this from the vicar, Farebrother, much later in the book:

You talk as if young women were tied up to be chosen, like poultry at market; as if I had only to ask and everybody would have me.

And now we have a man pointing out how no one ever treats women as if they have agency.

These quotes pretty much undo all I’ve proven with this post and my conclusion. I’m nothing if not a masochist.

Maybe this whole book was meant to be a contrast between the selfish and the unselfish, and it has less to do with gender than I’ve posited here.

Or maybe there’s not much rhyme or reason to it. Honestly, I’m struggling to find coherent threads throughout this book. I’m trying, though.

Anyway. Stay tuned for more half-baked posts on Middlemarch.

Middlemarch: Casaubon’s Proposal Letter Analysed

Listen all ya’ll, this is sabotage

Beastie Boys

because I believe I’m about to throw down some spoilers.

But honestly, if you dislike spoilers, you shouldn’t read Middlemarch because the author is throwing them down hard herself.

I’ve just begun reading George Eliot’s (AKA Mary Ann Evans’) Middlemarch again. It was about a decade ago that I consumed it on the recommendation of a delightful English teacher. My memory of the plot is pretty fuzzy, as I’m old AND I have goldfish-level info retention anyway.

So, What Are We Spoiling Today? What’s This Post About?

Quick catch up. Early in the book, teenage Dorothea has met two suitors. One is young and charming and one is self-important father time. She hates the lack of a humbuging, harumphing, anti-enjoyment grandfather figure in her life, so this is the suitor she chooses to marry. What could go wrong. <–Rhetorical.

But while it’s obvious from both the circumstance and the author that this is a disaster waiting to happen, what I find interesting is the very specific ways Casaubon has made it clear in his proposal letter that he’s an awful person. This match is going to be ugly, and he previews the ways how.

That’s what I’m going to talk about today, with quotes from the letter that illustrate exactly what’s wrong with this pompous Methusela:

  • that he has no feelings of actual love,
  • that his thoughts about Dorothea are simply about her potential as a helpmate,
  • and that he’s willing to stoop to manipulation in his attempt to convince her this marriage will save her in various ways.

Quick note on accessibility: I post screenshots of the book that visually impaired won’t be able to read, but I write out all the quotes I find important, and I created an MP3 of the whole letter you can listen to here

First, a Quick Recap of Dorthea’s Return Letter for Context

Quote from Middlemarch—picture of Dorothea's entire letter

That’s right. I’m so lazy I’m taking pictures of my Kindle.

Before we get to Casaubon’s letter, let’s jump ahead to Dorothea’s response.

While we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, what Dorothea says in her letter will put into perspective the rest of what I’ll say in this post.

Dorothea says in the first sentence, “I am very grateful to you for loving me” (emphasis mine).

She believes Casaubon’s letter to be a profession of love—and that that love will be the cornerstone of their marriage.

We were all teenagers once…

She’s going to find something out the hard way, and it’s something we can already see in Casaubon’s proposal letter. We’ll see he never mentions love. What’s more, we should, in fact, question his capacity to love.

With that, here are some points I want to bring up with Casaubon’s letter.

1. What’s Up With the Dense, Inscrutable Line at the Beginning?

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph of proposal letter

Please pardon the shadow of my wine glass.

Let’s begin with this doozy from Casaubon’s proposal letter.

This quote is the second sentence of this letter.

I mean, he’s opening with this.

Here’s the line I’m talking about:

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.

Okay.

I’m an English major whose main focus over the course of a lifetime of reading is 19th-century literature. Here is my reaction to reading this line.

Amanda's WTF face

Wat.

Now, I’m going to break the quote down for you as best as I can, but please know, this isn’t just the way people talked in the “olden days.” This is different: purposefully obtuse. His goal is to impress by being utterly opaque.

Check out the quote with interpretation in bold so you can see what he’s saying here.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition

I’m quite sure you and I both recognize”

of some deeper correspondence than that of date

“that there’s been more serious talk lately”**

in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you.

“about the fact that I’ve discovered I have needs while, coincidentally, meeting you!”

** it’s unclear to me quite what he means here. I think he’s talking about asking her uncle for permission to marry and he’s assuming uncle and Dorothea have discussed it. But he might be talking about feeling like he (Casaubon) and Dorothea have been having deeper communication lately.

So, that long-winded sentence, nearly impossible to dissect, can be summed up as “MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”

Twitter quote from Kanye West"I'm not even going to lie to you. I love me so much right now"

But even if you don’t dissect it, what’s the point of having a sentence that stiff and dense in a proposal letter, right off the bat? To establish intellectual dominance? To intimidate? To get this relationship off on the proper platonic foot? To hide the fact that the sentence just says “MEEEEEEEEE”?

Up to your judgment, friends.

2. Note That He Sees Her as an Object Fit for Purpose

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon's first paragraph continued (D's fitness)

“You’re my holy grail mascara”

Okay. The quote under inspection this time is this:

I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need***…each succeeding opportunity for observation has…convinc[ed] me more emphatically of that fitness.

*** The need he’s talking about is the unspecified one found in the last section’s quote.

To be fair, the ellipses in my quote skip through some parts that mention his affection. DON’T YOU WORRY. I’ll get to that because it makes me angry and I like to write when I’m angry.

But first, the quote I shared—he’s talking about her fitness, not her loveable qualities. He seems almost to be obsessed with this unique fitness he hasn’t found anywhere else.

This is dehumanizing.

Quick aside: I’m not ashamed to say I watch a lot of beauty YouTube content. There’s a concept among this community of a “holy grail” product—the product, after a long hunt, that’s absolutely perfect for you and causes you to never need to buy anything again.

Say you’ve been looking for years for a mascara that doesn’t smudge, makes your lashes look floofy, lengthens them, and generally makes everyone you see gasp and say, “Wow, what false lashes are those?”

Then, finally, you stumble upon it! You couldn’t be happier. But are you in love with it? If you couldn’t put that mascara on your eyelashes, would you love it for what it is?

No. It’s an inanimate product. And it’s an inanimate product that you want to buy because it’s fit for your purpose.

Dorothea is an inanimate product to Casaubon. She’s his holy grail mascara.

3. His Mention of Affection Is Twisted

Now, let’s talk about some parts I ellipsed out of the quote in the previous section. After all, he does mention affection!

Her “fitness” is

…connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate.

First of all:

Penn Jillette saying shut the _____ up

Can I share this and still keep my PG blog rating?

Casaubon’s self-importance about his “work” (a giant undertaking that no one asked for—namely writing a sprawling scholarly religious text uniting mythologies) is showing up in a proposal letter. This is no surprise, as he finds a way to center this work in every conversation he has.

But do you hear what he’s actually saying? “Even my work, which by the way is way too special for me to pause even for a moment, couldn’t distract me from my affection for you.”

That’s what affection means to him. It’s how affection shows up in a marriage proposal. This backhanded “Not even my work can prevent me from being interested in you.” Very flattering.

He also says that the source of the affection is her fitness for his work:

That fitness which I had preconceived…evok[ed] more decisively those affections

Remember, Dorothea thanked him for the “love” he expressed in this letter. Does this sound like love?

4. More of the Same: She’s Attractive Because of Her Capacity to Support Him in His First Love—His Work

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon talks about his work and Dorothea's suitable mind

Marry me and I promise you a lifetime of righteous suffering.

Here, Casaubon restates what we’ve already heard:

Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds.

Translation: “What I do is super smart. Most people don’t have the IQ required to spend much time with me.”

But then, behold! A concession!

I have discerned in you…a rare combination of elements****…adpated to supply aid in graver labors.

****If you read the whole quote, you’ll learn those elements are, according to him, are (1) it’s rare that a woman is smart and (2) it’s rare to find someone he’s so convinced will be devoted to him and his work.

So, let me paraphrase Casaubon here:

“I have decided you have the traits necessary for graver labors, so please marry me.”

This is, in fact, much more a job offer than a marriage proposal.

He is trying to flatter her. This is what he considers the kinds of compliments that will win her over. Sadly, he’s not wrong.

5. Providence, Not Two Equals Uniting in Love. Providence.

Quote from Middlemarch—Casaubon views Dorothea as a gift of providenceWe’ve a number of quotes here indicating that Casaubon considers Dorothea his personal gift from God.

I trust you’re excited to hear these quotes so you can revel with me in hatred.

Here we go.

My introduction to you (which, let me say again, I trust not to be superficially coincident with foreshadowing needs but providentially related [emphasis mine] thereto as stages toward the completion of a life’s plan)…

And we have the equally romantic

To be accepted by you…I should regard as the highest of providential gifts.

Now, lest you think he considers this a gift from Dorothea, let’s see what Merriam Webster has to say about providence:

Merriam Webster definition of providence--divine guidance or care

Yep. To Casaubon, her acceptance of a proposal is a gift from God, not from Dorothea.

6. And the Worst of It: The Manipulation

Quote from Middlemarch—refuse me, and you might live a life of shameLook at this veiled threat near the end of Casaubon’s letter. Wow.

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted, and the faithful consecration of a life which, however short in the sequel, has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame.

Let’s break that down with some more dictionary definitions (and my analysis in bold, for spice):

In return I can at least offer you an affection hitherto unwasted

Collins Dictionary says “hitherto” means you’re indicating “that something was true up until the time you are talking”

So, my interpretation: “If you accept my proposal, do so in the knowledge that I like you. So far, anyway.”

and the faithful consecration of a life

Merriam Webster has “consecrating” as “dedicated to a sacred purpose.”

Here’s what Casaubon’s saying: “I’ll offer you a life that’s dedicated not to you but instead to a sacred purpose.”

which, however short in the sequel,

“I’m old and probably going to die soon.” (I think that’s what he means, anyway. He’s a hard dude to understand.)

has no backward pages whereon, if you choose to turn them, you will find records such as might justly cause you either bitterness or shame

My interpretation: “If you chose not to marry me, I can’t promise your choices won’t lead to bitterness or shame.” Ew.

It’s that last one that gets me. The promise of a holy life to a pious, naive teenager—and the threat of potential debauchery upon refusal.

Let’s Close By Remembering Dorothea’s Letter

Recall what Dorothea said in her response to this letter. She is grateful to him for loving her.

But what has he actually said here?

  • “This proposal is all about me and the benefits I’ve been thinking you’ll bestow on my life.”
  • “You are a helpmate fit to assist me with my true love—my work—and that’s the only source my of attraction to you.”
  • “God has given you as a gift to me—it’s providence.”
  • “And if you say no, I can’t be responsible for your shameful spiral into crime and prostitution.”

After analyzing quotes from this letter, how can you come to any conclusion but that this marriage, despite what Dorothea responds with, will be a loveless one?

And that’s it for me today. I promise you an equally uplifting post on Middlemarch next week.

That Obnoxious But Intoxicating Authorial Je Ne Sais Quoi

I’m pushing my way through Middlemarch these days. I read it maybe 10 years ago, and I’m having trouble remembering why I loved it so much. I have lots of observations (to come!), but I find myself scanning through a lot of it, honestly.

So! Before we delve into Middlemarch, let’s talk about something completely unrelated and not even tied to any specific book: that nameless thing that makes you know an author is a professional.

Karaoke

I went on a cruise awhile back, and as is my habit in such circumstances, I immersed myself fully in the karaoke scene.

aggretsuko with karaoke mike

Here’s a phenomenon anyone who’s been to a karaoke event will recognize: most people suck, but some singers absolutely have it.* If they do, you’ll know in the first three seconds.

The room will grow quiet upon these initial notes; people will look around at each other; and then, inevitably, they will all start shrieking.

*BTW, I am not one of these people who have it. But most will agree that I can do a perfectly acceptable rendition of CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”

Now, abrupt transition that will make sense in a second!

I think there’s a lot of emperor’s new clothes with literature, frankly. Plenty of poems by the layman, for instance, would be celebrated as pure genius if everyone thought they were by William Carlos Williams.

But if you’re in creative writing 101 and you submit “The Red Wheelbarrow” for workshop, you’ll get feedback like, “Simplistic—try adding things that make us care more about the wheelbarrow,” or, “Too much spacing, looks pretentious,” or, “Adjectives are just colors. Use more creative adjectives.”

Divas Are to Karaoke as Good Authors Are to Writing

Sometimes you pop open a book and on sentence one, that author just has it. You know this was a born author.

The thing that made me think of this was reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day. I opened it and immediately felt the karaoke feeling of stunned silence…and then the moment where you look at everyone else and go “WOOOOOOOO!”

As someone who thrives on breaking things like this down, I’m flummoxed. What is about Richard Ford that makes me think, “he’s got it!” and makes me think about someone like Margaret Atwood “she doesn’t”? (Shots fired, Atwoodians, I know! Come at me. But read The Peneolopian first, ugh.)

I’d love to really dive into this one day, but I don’t know how to point out aspects of the literary-karaoke-diva in a way that’s objective.

But at the same time, I feel like it’s possible for us all to be all connected in this, the way we’d be if we were on a cruise and Fontella Bass waltzed up and started belting out “Rescue Me.” Whether you like the song or not, you’d be like, “Oh, dang!” within the first few seconds.

Talent is a subjective thing—yet when someone’s really got it, we mostly agree. We just can’t pinpoint exactly what the line between has it and not quite is.

One day, I’ll figure out this je ne sais quoi for authors. When I do, I’ll let you know.

Rabbit Is Garbage

Well howdy! If you read my last post, you know I’ve come out of blogging retirement. And what better inspo to start than to voice my to complaints, which will surprise absolutely no one who’s made my acquaintance in real life.

First, some housekeeping. Folks, I have been reading, and it’s been glorious. I’ll talk more about this when I close up. If you’re an insomniac—and I knew this already, I just didn’t do it—reading is way better for your wee-hours soul than googling weird diets on your phone or scrolling through Instagram for four hours or doing way too much research the best dentists in your area.

There’s something calm about reading that pushes away that bloodshot-eyed tired mania and unease that comes with being up for hours while the rest of the world sleeps. Reading is almost like sleep, in fact. Your brain rests and goes somewhere else.

Well, until the book ends. Then you’ve got a blog post bursting out of you, full of all the thoughts you had about what was wrong with the book.

I jest, a little. I just finished reading Rabbit, Run, and the question I earnestly want to explore here is “What was John Updike thinking with all this?”

Ugh, author-focused reading is so passe, I know. But humor me. I mean, humor me in a second. First, let me humor you with a summary of what I read so you’re not totally in the dark.

WARNING: THIS WHOLE POST IS GOING TO BE FULL OF SEX BECAUSE THIS WHOLE BOOK IS FULL OF SEX. IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO HEAR ME RAMPAGE IN DETAIL ABOUT THE SEX IN THIS BOOK, JUST LOOK AT THIS NON-OFFENSIVE RABBIT FOR AWHILE AND THEN CLICK AWAY. AN OFFENSIVE RABBIT COMES AFTER.

A very important non-garbage rabbit.

Totally Objective Summary of Rabbit, Run, Done in Bullets!

  • Harry Angstrom, AKA Rabbit, decides that he’s too stifled by having a wife—who is about to give birth to his second child.
  • He decides to drive south. He needs to be free. Women, they cramp your STYLE, know what I’m sayin’? (Honestly, his wife does seem a bit awful at first, but wait until author Updike tells her history.)
  • Defeated by getting lost a bunch of times in these barbaric non-GPS days, he heads back home. Home-ish. He can’t bear to see his gross wife anymore, so he goes and finds his old basketball coach.
  • Has a weird time.
  • Goes on a blind double date the next night, ’cause hey, time to start fresh, right? What with the second baby due any minute?
  • Has another weird time.
  • Goes home with blind-date lady and has oddly antagonistic sex during which he switches violently back and forth between worshipful and abusive, which—bonus fact!—is a theme throughout all his relationships. Note: Rabbit insists she not use her diaphragm because he can just tell when someone uses one, and sex that’s not potentially life-ruining for his partner is such a turnoff for him.
  • Nonetheless, blind-date lady loves the sex. BTW, his wife did, too. All the women in the book want him.
  • Another bonus fact! I’m on the second book now, when he’s nearing middle age and is fat and bloaty and gross, but no worries! Women still all pant with desire for him. We will talk about this later. I warned you.
  • He sneaks into his family house the next day, grabs clothes, and decides to move in with blind-date lady without any discussion of this with said blind-date lady. She is cool with it because of course she is.
  • Blah blah blah.
  • He has an earnest friendship with a man while scheming on sleeping with his wife and while sexually harassing her. (But she wants it, of course. Sluts.)
  • He gets back with his wife when she gives birth; what a great guy.
  • Then he does explicit, HORRIFIC thing one night because his wife owes him for being so nice and coming back when she gave birth. I cannot even describe this here. I will not.
  • Naturally, he leaves his wife again shortly after. This causes her to go on a bender and accidentally drown the infant. That’s right.
  • He calls her a baby murder in front of everyone at the funeral…but don’t worry, he also generously forgives her! Wow.
  • Blah blah blah the miserable end.

The Big Question: What Is Updike’s Deal?

Here’s the thing. I read Lolita, man. I know an author can write an utterly abhorrent character, and that he can stare into that abyss until it stares back at him. I know an author doesn’t have to like his characters to bring them to life, to really get into their psyche. But Rabbit, Run was already a pretty long book.

Updike wrote four more of these Rabbit-centric books. FOUR. Big books.

Yes, it’s so passe to read a book with a mind toward the author—we did away with this form of criticism with Barthes and haven’t looked back.

But this isn’t an attempt to study the man behind the work as if he’s a god and we can unlock his doctrine if we study his text with enough holy fervor. I’m just curious.

How can anyone spend four books’ worth of time writing this character?

I want to understand.

I know I’ve been snarky up until this point, but please trust, dear Afterlife Mr. Updike, that I ask this without a hint of sarcasm. I genuinely want to know. What was so entrancing about this man? Are his struggles relatable? Do you see Rabbit as an everyman and you’re writing an everyman’s story? If so, how do you write with any compassion at all for mankind?

You would have to hate us all.

But I Dunno, You Say. Maybe Some People Find Rabbit Likeable, You Say.

After reading my summary, I’m sure you think of me as pretty jaded against the character. And no doubt I am. In fact, according to this dude in The Guardian, Rabbit is likable—yea, loveable.

I earnestly would like to understand what redeeming qualities he has that doesn’t lower the bar for “non-terrible human being” down to the pits of Hell.

Here are the arguments for him being likable, as I see it.

  • He seems to be attached to his children…you know, like every living thing on earth.
  • And then there’s the thing where he didn’t actually rape anyone, probably, kind of, depending on how you define rape—just a lot of your run-of-the-mill sexual assault.
  • He didn’t actually sleep with his friend’s wife, though he maybe could have (but maybe not and just imagined he was making this noble choice?)
  • And he did go marching into that hospital when his wife was giving birth, the whole time acting as if he was marching to his doom, resigning himself to this woman he hates.

this is fine

FINE, HE’S AWFUL

Okay, so please tell me I’ve convinced you that Rabbit is objectively horrible. You can’t argue with it. He’s just an abhorrent character all around.

And let’s further say that Updike hates him too. But here’s the thing. Updike can’t stop writing the character. He’s just entranced by the sheer vastness of his depravity, and it’s caused him to hate-compose these books. Hate-writing is a thing, right?

After all, Updike shows some compassion for the humans that are saddled with Rabbit in their lives. It’s really the chapters from his wife’s and his blind-date lover’s perspective that show how he’s ruined them. Updike writes them with empathy. And it’s those chapters that truly make you hate him.

So again, I ask why. Why, Updike, did you put so much of your time into writing this character?

Maybe These Book Are a Result of Hate-Writing, Dystopia-Channeling, and…?

I honestly doubt Updike liked Rabbit. I think he’d argue the book isn’t about that.

It’s more about wanting something you can’t have. That thing is the freedom to do whatever you feel like without consequences because this is AMERICA. From there, we watch Rabbit suffer the consequences of trying to make that true and then souring when it can’t be true.

I think Updike probably felt more like he was watching this unfold than creating the story. A kind of domestic, suburban dystopia, full of the despair of wanting to run but not being able to. He probably hated Rabbit, too.

BUT NO.

Okay, I tried to be reasonable just now. I tried to be quiet.

But I protest.

Even if my suspicion above is true, it doesn’t explain everything. Rabbit doesn’t face the consequences like he deserves to. Updike adds lines to his book that make us want to feel for Rabbit, talking about the emptiness and depression that haunt him, spouting line after line to elicit compassion for him despite his actions.

But his actions are too much. There’s no suffering that excuses this suffering inflicted on others.

…And Wish Fulfillment. Just a Touch of Wish Fulfillment.

Everyone in Rabbit’s life should desert him.

He is weak, mealy.

He is emotional without any grace.

He feels real human yearning for meaning, but then he turns ugly on all the people he encounters that could fill it with that meaning.

He says the worst things he can think of to people he has power over, and he cowers before those who intimidate him, harboring resentment to full-circle release it on those who he takes all his miserable life woes out on.

And that leads me to the last of the number of reasons why I think Updike continued to write Rabbit.

The undercurrent of all these books is this:

Women can’t resist this garbage person.

Why there’s so, SO much terrible sex and the ladies are all like “Yep, can’t live without it!” This whole book is pouring sex, to the point where I feel like I need a cigarette after reading it. And women want so bad to please him.

This feels to me like wish-fulfillment writing.

What is wish-fulfillment writing? I’m so glad you asked!

It’s when you’re an author and you write a character who either permanently or temporarily serves as a surrogate for you. Then, you make things happen to them that you wish would happen to you.

When do you see this? I’m so glad you asked!

You see it mostly when many male authors write sex scenes. (AHEM, PLEASE SEE: KEN FOLLETT). But there’s more to it here, in Updike’s book.

Specifically, It’s Unconditional-Love Wish Fulfillment

It’s not just sex Updike is writing about. Well, I mean, on the surface, the whole book is nothing but sex. But the reaction of the women makes me think that there’s a piece of Updike that wants to write a man that women love unconditionally.

He writes women that are all weak to Rabbit—cannot resist him, in fact—even though (1) it’s in their best interest, (2) the man is garbage and gross and pathetic and spiteful and all around hateable.

Does Updike wish he could be this man? Does he wish it enough to make these women all clones, all made of constant desire for him—er, I mean Rabbit?

Also, Violence

Apropos of nothing but worth mentioning, Rabbit vacillates wildly between wanting to smash the life out of and screw the life out of the women in his life. This is what bugs me most—this blending of murderous and sexual desire. It’s nightmarish.

This is how women die in real life by the hands of their partners—you can see it brewing in this book.

The Other Big Question: Why am I Reading This?

Uh. Well, ’cause two books in this quartet are in my Pulitzer journey and I wanted to read the whole series.

Also, honestly, I’m just hate-reading the books now, the way I suggested Updike was maybe hate-writing them. These books fuel me. After all, it brought me out of blogging retirement, didn’t it?

Stay tuned for Rabbit Redux, in which Updike discovers the C word! Good stuff!

Just kidding. I can’t write anymore about this. The taste in my mouth permeates my whole body.

“Hey Brah, Where You Been?”

Remember me?

I used to write academic-sounding turned review-sounding posts about books. I kept it clean, I kept it proper, and I kept it smart. And I probably kept it boring, honestly.

Then I founded a business, and it took all my time. I stopped reading, and I certainly stopped blogging.

I need a hiatus from that to rediscover what I want to do with my life.

So, for one thing, I’m back here, blogging about literature, with nothing professional left to prove. (But because of my business, what I do have is a whole bunch of knowledge about what makes blogs fun to read. Want to know more about that? Read everything I’ve done before on this blog and then do the opposite.)

New Amanda is raw Amanda. Raw Amanda still loves books. She thrives on analyzing books and talking about what makes them work and what doesn’t.

But now, it’ll be different. Raw Amanda isn’t diplomatic, professional, or clean-mouthed. I’m not looking for a job; I’m not looking to impress anyone. You’re going to hear me talking this stuff the way I really talk, in real life. I just want to share what I think in a way that’s entertaining and thought-provoking, and authentic.

And I have time to read now! OMG, time to read! Can you imagine?

Fainting lady

So that’s the update. Any y’all still around? Look for weekly updates, probably Thursdays or Fridays.

‘Sup.

I’m alive. But I sure as heck ain’t reading.

Well, that’s not true. The nature of what I do is that I’m always reading. But my life has been missing the kind of reading I’d blog about, and it’s sad.

I know lots of people fall off blogging and then start again, fall off, start again, ad infinitum. But seeing as my business revolves around how to do blogging right, I feel a bit like my personal blog is a dirty secret. Maybe I can play it up. “Hey clients, want to see how NOT to do the whole blogging thing? Check this out!”

But (1) I’m overbooked—which is not a complaint, but it does explain the lack of time for hobbies, and (2) like I said, I really haven’t had much material to discuss. Nonetheless, literature has my heart, and I thought I’d throw out some updates on that front here.

  1. I wouldn’t mind talking at some point of experience a story via video game. I don’t often play games other than phone goof-off stuff, like Jeopardy or Pokemon Go (yes, still). But I recently played the first Life is Strange game, and I’m working on the second as it comes out, chapter by chapter. And playing these is remarkably like reading a story. Now, speaking mainly of the first game, there were certainly issues. The dialogue was cringy lots of time, and the action plot of the story got a little ridiculous. But the core story was about a friendship, and it’s just beautiful. It reminds me of being a teenager so much–the despair, the recklessness, and the abandon with which you throw yourself into another person. Also, it passes the Bechdel test so hard that it practically negates it. The connection between the two main characters is so moving that some scenes brought me to tears. And it’s a lot less about playing the game than taking in the story. Interesting stuff. It makes me think about interactive novels and choose-your-own-adventures. The line between such things aren’t always cut and dried.
  2. We’re still listening to books on our car trips, though I don’t find that listening to books is conducive to thinking critically about them the way I often do while visually taking in words on a page. I wonder why that is. Anyway, we listened to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I found very entertaining, if perhaps overly ambitious. And we’re now listening to…wait for it…The Goldfinch. Yep. I convinced Erik to give it a try, and he’s liking it. Not the way I like it. Which is “inappropriately.” No, but seriously, I love The Goldfinch just as much as I did on both of my two (2) previous readings. Listening to it is almost like an excuse to sit back and let it wash over me instead of studiously slurping in every word and trying to process, even treasure, each choice.
  3. As far as actual reading goes, I’ve been reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day for an eternity and a half. I’m serious. I think I was reading this book the last time I posted, which was long enough ago that this blog would have cobwebs if it were a physical thing. Normally, I’d consider this a sign that it’s time to find a new book. But the problem really has just been that I’m busy. The book’s great. Really. I’ve been loving it. Ford is an undeniably talented writer, and besides that, he’s an enjoyable writer. I think most of us readers know one does not necessarily guarantee the other. Anyway, I’ve had a half-completed blog post on Independence Day sitting in my drafts folder since April. So that will probably be posted. Someday.

Welp, that’s it for updates. Just checking in, saying hi, and letting everyone know I haven’t forgotten about this poor, neglected corner of the internet. I’m not going to do the thing where I promise to start posting more often since I’ve found the publishing of such a post to be the death knell of a blog. Have you ever noticed that? Seems like the best predictor of whether or not you’ll ever see a post again is the presence of an “I’m going to start blogging again!” post after like six months of silence.

If you want to see what I’m up to, business-wise, go check me out at Hit Subscribe in a few weeks, where you can watch the gods laugh at me while I try to blog in two places when I can’t even keep up with one. (Though frankly, that blog will probably fair better since my husband is prolific and generally more disciplined than I am.)

 

Oh, Are We Still Doing the Thing Where We Complain About E-Books?

I have come out of unintentional blog-retirement to give you the gift of this rant.

The Guardian just published an article called “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip.’” It’s about the leveling off of e-book sales and the resurgence in sales of print books, and it comments on why that might be so, using a combination of author speculation and quotes from authorities. I don’t find anything in the article itself offensive (though I did find it interesting–we’ll check back on the contents a bit later on in the post). What I find offensive is this same old tired sentiment, as expressed by the Twitter user here.

Tweet by @Rose_Pereira: "Good news, book sales are up. Real books. The paper kind."

Can we stop with this?

The insinuation that print books are objectively superior to electronic books in any way is more than exasperating at this point. If you think print books are aesthetically superior to electronic books, I understand. But let’s be real. This isn’t about aesthetics.

Moral Horror or Classist Peacocking?

The attitude that print books are superior reminds me of Kant’s “Judgment of the Beautiful.” Kant in essence says that when we determine something to be beautiful, we’re talking about something bigger than, say, our favorite color. If your favorite color isn’t the same as mine, I don’t think you’re any more right or wrong than me, and I don’t think one color is objectively better. I accept that people have their own tastes. But if I say a sunset is beautiful and you say it isn’t, you’re not allowed to have your own tastes. I’m appealing to something bigger than taste, and I believe there’s something wrong with you if you’re not on my level. Almost morally wrong.

Let’s relate Kant’s theory to the idea that print books are better than e-books. If you prefer physical books to e-books, it’s the equivalent of having a different favorite color. But by claiming “real books” are superior, you’re acting as if you instead have a superior moral standing. You’re appealing to some higher law that we should all abide by, some concept of good and evil. People also thought that the Gutenberg press would be ruinous to society for moral reasons. And then TV. In fact, name a medium, and I’ll find you someone who said it’s going to be the ruin of us in some way.

But let’s complicate this a bit more, because the print-book-worshipers I’ve encountered aren’t actually as simple as that. They’re posturing.

Most people who hate e-books don’t really carry the same pitch of hysteria that other hell-in-a-handbasketers do. If you read Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you’ll catch a whiff of genuine horror and fear in his tone. It’s the same shake you hear in the voice of all luddites prophesying about how any technology that scares them actually heralds the end of civilization.

I don’t hear panic in the voices of those who feel print books are objectively superior to other formats. I hear superiority. I hear self-satisfaction. Sure, they’ll throw a lot of talk around reminiscent of Carr’s article (“people scan digital text instead of reading deeply,” “technology is taking away our humanity,” blah, blah, blah), but their real message isn’t one of morality.

Nope. To publicly worship the print book and shame every alternative is about posturing. It’s a way to convey classic education and delicate sensibilities. It’s a way to say, “I’m super smart—AMA!” You are playing dress-up as the person you want to be perceived as, just as much as if you’d put on your tweed jacket with the elbow pads and the round bookworm glasses.

And here’s where The Guardian article starts to make real sense. The resurgence of books isn’t about the books themselves. It’s about getting seen with books. What could people who hope to present as bookworms want more than that?

The Book as an Accessory

When it comes to the resurgence of the print book, The Guardian article gives a large amount of credit to an Instagram hashtag.

#Bookstagram [is] a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

There you have it. Print-lovers, if you’re sincerely concerned about the decay of reading in our society, shouldn’t the Instagram-brow-ing of literature be your first target? Shouldn’t the turning of it into a fashion accessory be where you focus your war cry?

But here’s the thing. Print books are something to be seen with. Your book is a signal, just like a lawyer’s Mercedes is signal. And people who proclaim the objective superiority of print are often the type that wear their books in public whenever possible. So #bookstagram is their jam, if ever there was a jam to be had. You won’t catch them criticising it.

The Real Bone to Pick

Here’s the thing, though. Social signaling is so important to how we connect with others, and that’s not my problem with print-celebrators. Sure, I’ve been talking negatively about posturing, but book-signaling is a great way to make friends, possibly on a deeper level than just about any other type of signaling. I instantly want to talk to everyone I see that has a tattoo sleeve or rainbow hair, and this historically has been a pretty bad predictor of who I might actually make a real human connection with. But if I see someone reading Crime and Punishment, we are going to have an awesome talk, no questions about it.

The problem I have is the insinuation that the signaling is more than just signaling or taste is more than just taste.

I don’t care if you love print or e-books. I don’t care about bookstagram. I don’t care if you wear your book like an accessory. I don’t care if your favorite color is green and mine isn’t. We all have things we aesthetically love. We all signal. Sometimes we use things we aesthetically love to signal. No big deal. But you don’t get to say something subjective is objective because you feel like taste gives you some imaginary high ground.

Especially when you have the opposite of the high ground.

If we’re going to start making high-ground-based arguments, print book lovers are in serious trouble. Look at what Laura Brady noted about the tweet shown earlier in this post.

@LauraB7 response to @Rose_Pereira: "Hot tip: ebooks are 'real' books. More real than real if you have a print disability, even."

During my first few years of college, I had several classes with a friend who was blind. I’ve had very few experiences that were more revelatory than watching her try to navigate the learning process without all the things we students took for granted—handouts, photocopied syllabi with handwritten changes, scantron tests, and, of course, textbooks.

Imagine if her textbooks were available on a Kindle, which can now read your book to you. In fact, making books electronic is the first step in making a whole new world accessible to people with disabilities. It won’t be long before someone with dyslexia can switch the font on an e-reader to Dyslexie or Comic Sans. And for those with reading comprehension issues, public notes and the ability to press-and-hold a word to see the definition can put right at your fingertips the material you’d have to go look up.

 To Sum Up…

I prefer e-readers as a medium now, personally, but I understand the appeal—even the romance—of print books. I remember going to our quarterly library sale and coming home with bags spilling over with paperbacks, and that was one of my favorite feelings in the world. I think about books like House of Leaves, and I’m grateful to print for giving us a gift like that.

This all being said, no matter what my personal preference is, I would never proclaim that the way I like to read is more “real” than someone else’s prefered way of reading. No one should confuse taste with objective fact.