Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog
42. Choosing a Cat
“Choosing a Cat” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
43. Fear and Loathing in e-Land
Why is it that if you say you don’t enjoy using an e-reader, or that you aren’t going to get one till the technology is mature, you get reported as “loathing” it?
The little Time article itself is fairly accurate about what I’ve said about e-reading, but the title of the series, “Famous Writers Who Loathe E-Books,” reflects or caters to a silly idea: that not being interested in using a particular technology is the same as hating and despising it.
With us or against us! Cyberfreak or Luddite!
Five-year-olds who don’t enjoy green peas and aren’t interested in eating them are likely to announce (unless they’ve acquired some manners) that they HATE peas — Ugh! Yecchh! Bleaghh! The way people talk, you’d think that faced with e-technology we’re all five-year-olds. Either I just loooove my Kindle to death, or Ugh! Yecchh! Bleaghh!
Why is it that, when I accused Google of unethical behavior in digitalizing copyrighted books without permission, I was (and still am) repeatedly described as hating Google and an enemy of the Internet?
When I accuse our government of unethical behavior in keeping men against whom no charge has been preferred and who are given no chance to prove their innocence in a terrible prison in Guantánamo, there are indeed some Americans who would describe me as hating our government and being an enemy of the United States. But there are more who are capable of making the enormously important distinction between enmity towards an institution, and disapproval of some of its policies or acts.
These are the ones who actually believe in freedom of speech.
Evidently some people believe they’re defending the freedom of the Internet by opposing any criticism of anything done on the Internet (or anything Google does). They’re thinking the way the extreme right thinks: There are two sides. We are on the Good side. Our people are Good. Everything they do is Good. To criticize them is Evil! There must be no free speech about free speech! It’s dangerous!
In its defensiveness and immaturity, this is five-year-old thinking: If Daddy doesn’t like something I like to do, it means he doesn’t love me. If Mommy says I’m doing something wrong or stupid, it means she thinks I’m bad and stupid and she loathes and hates me and so I loathe and hate her too and I will now fall down screaming in the supermarket aisle and let the world know how mean she is.
Why are people so defensive about electronic technology? Do they really think the Luddite hordes are coming after them with burning torches? Why is mere discrimination taken as negative criticism? Love me, love my iPad? Oh, come on. Grow up!
6 February 2012
44. People I don’t want to hear any more about
20 February 2012
45. Google Goggles
One weird thing about being very old is never being sure whether it’s you or the other people who are weird. It’s pretty safe to assume that it’s you.
After all, people who walked along shouting at people who weren’t there used to be considered weird. But a few decades ago we dumped them all on the streets and thus made them average, though for a while you could consider them somewhat weird. By now, when somebody goes charging past on the sidewalk in Santa Cruz bellowing continuously at the top of his voice at a broker in Wichita, and you find that weird, you’re the weird one.
Where’s “here?” Where’s “there?” We and the people we talk to or “relate with” are increasingly neither here nor there.
Thus the great weird forward march of progress is soon to bring us “Heads Up Display Glasses” — Google Goggles. These devices will look like shades, but inside the lens on a tiny screen an inch from the goggle-wearer’s eye they will display indispensable information: where you the goggle-wearer are, maps of how to get there from here or here from there, where your friends are, how to contact them, your latitude, your altitude, your attitude — everything in the world, except the world.
Obviously, this technology can offer people whose sight is impaired an immense boon. Why don’t I trust us to limit it to that, maybe not even to use it for that?
The human desire to occasionally, temporarily, replace the actual world with some kind of improvement on it was nourished in its long infancy by the arts, and in its brief teens by movies and TV. Then ever-improving electronic technologies moved in and began to feed, maintain, and incite its appetite, which by now is insatiable. If we can shout on a phone or fill our ears with music instead of listening to the sounds or silence around us, we will. If we can text our Facebook Friends instead of seeing the faces around us, we will. If instead of looking around to find out where we are we can listen to a machine tell us where it thinks we are, we will; and if we can walk into a brick wall while the machine tells us it’s recalculating, we probably will.
The Google Goggles promise only GPS-type information, but what sort of pitiful Luddite is going to be content with that? Like us, our devices must multitask. They must do everything everything else does, only faster. If, instead of seeing where we’re going, we can read the latest Dow Jones figures an inch away with one eye and watch a ball game an inch away with the other eye, we will. The GPS can be programmed to warn us about the brick wall, or the kid on the tricycle, after all. They’re very reliable. Look how well they worked at CERN, proving that things can too go faster than light, nyah nyah for that old Luddite Einstein.
The crude, primitive glasses of the olden days improved vision. Google Goggles will replace vision. Who’ll want to see anything but the endless information, entertainment, and communication all there right before their eyes? Maybe some kind of nature nuts.
After all, if for some reason we want to see what the world looks like while we’re looking at something more interesting, we can be taking pictures with the hidden camera inside our goggles. We can photograph the people who stagger past us, tilting their heads strangely as they scroll and click, until they get hit by a taxi driver whose cloud was not managing the guidance system in full synchrony with realtime. Then we can put the pictures on our smart phone, or even on one of the little screens an inch away inside our goggles so we can look at them while the other screen tells us our longitude and the latest 5/4 Supreme Court decision (declaring that Super-PACs and fetuses are human and women are not).
It’s reassuring to think that wearing Google Goggles won’t interfere with walking or running or biking or driving, or anyhow hardly any more than cell phones and texting do. After the streets and highways have been more or less rendered impassable by carnage for a year or two, a few state legislatures will pass a bill to make it an offense to wear the goggles when driving in a nursery school zone or piloting a jet plane. Anything beyond that would infringe on our self-evident Constitutional right to access information, interface with our loved ones, and play games about killing people at all times in all places simultaneously.
To be sure, the article about the goggles in Slatest says that “the technology isn’t meant to be used all the time.” Ha, ha! Not used all the time? That’s pretty weird!
46. The Death of the Book
People love to talk about the death of whatever — the book, or history, or Nature, or God, or authentic Cajun cuisine. Eschatologically-minded people do, anyhow.
After I wrote that, I felt pleased with myself, but uneasy. I went and looked up eschatological. I knew it didn’t mean what scatological means, even though they sound exactly alike except eschatological has one more syllable, but I thought it had to do only with death. I didn’t realise it concerns not one thing but The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. If it included scatology too, it would be practically the whole ball of wax.
Anyhow, the eschatologists’ judgment is that the book is going to die and go to heaven or hell, leaving us to the mercy of Hollywood and our computer screens.
There certainly is something sick about the book industry, but it seems closely related to the sickness affecting every industry that, under pressure from a corporate owner, dumps product standards and long-range planning in favor of ‘predictable’ sales and short-term profits.
As for books themselves, the changes in book technology are cataclysmic. Yet it seems to me that rather than dying, “the book” is growing — taking on a second form and shape, the ebook.
This is a vast, unplanned change that’s as confusing, uncomfortable, and destructive as most unplanned changes. Certainly it’s putting huge strain on all the familiar channels of book publication and acquisition, from the publishers, distributors, book stores, and libraries, to the reader who’s afraid that the latest best seller, or perhaps all literature, will suddenly pass him by if he doesn’t rush out and buy an electronic device to read it on.
But that’s it, isn’t it? — that’s what books are about — reading?
Is reading obsolete, is the reader dead?
Dear reader: How are you doing? I am fairly obsolete, but by no means, at the moment, dead.
Dear reader: Are you reading at this moment? I am, because I’m writing this, and it’s very hard to write without reading, as you know if you ever tried it in the dark.
Dear reader: What are you reading on? I’m writing and reading on my computer, as I imagine you are. (At least, I hope you’re reading what I’m writing, and aren’t writing “What Tosh!” in the margin. Though I’ve always wanted to write “What Tosh!” in a margin ever since I read it years ago in the margin of a library book. It was such a good description of the book.)
Reading is undeniably one of the things people do on the computer. And also, on the various electronic devices that are capable of and may be looked upon as “for” telephoning, taking photographs, playing music and games, etc, people may spend a good while texting sweetiepie, or looking up recipes for authentic Cajun gumbo, or checking out the stock report — all of which involve reading. People use computers to play games or wander through picture galleries or watch movies, and to do computations and make spreadsheets and pie charts, and a few lucky ones get to draw pictures or compose music, and so on, but mostly, am I wrong? isn’t an awful lot of what people do with computers either word-processing (writing) or processing words (reading)?
How much of anything can you do in the e-world without reading? The use of any computer above the toddler-entertainment level is dependent on at least some literacy in the user. Operations can be learned mechanically, but still, the main element of a keyboard is letters, and icons take you only so far. Texting may have replaced all other forms of verbality for some people, but texting is just a primitive form of writing: you can’t do it unless you no u frm i, lol.
It looks to me as if people are in fact reading and writing more than they ever did. People who used to work and talk together now work each alone in a cubicle, writing and reading all day long on screen. Communication that used to be oral, face to face or on the telephone, is now written, emailed, and read.
None of that has much to do with book-reading, true; yet it’s hard for me to see how the death of the book is to result from the overwhelming prevalence of a technology that makes reading a more invaluable skill than it ever was.
Ah, say the eschatologists, but it’s competition from the wondrous, endless everything-else-you-can-do-on-your-iPad — competition is murdering the book!
Could be. Or it might just make readers more discriminating. A recent article in the NY Times (“Finding Your Book Interrupted... By the Tablet You Read It On” by Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel, March 4, 2012) quoted a woman in Los Angeles: “With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up.... Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.” Her sentence ends oddly, but I think it means that she prefers reading an entertaining book to activating the world of entertainment with her fingertips. Why does she not consider books part of this world of entertainment? Maybe because the book, even when activated by her fingertips, entertains her without the moving, flickering, twitching, jumping, glittering, shouting, thumping, bellowing, screaming, blood-spattering, ear-splitting, etc, that we’ve been led to identify as entertainment. In any case, her point is clear: if a book’s not as entertaining — on some level, not necessarily the same level — as the jumping, thumping, bleeding, etc, then why read it? Either activate the etc, or find a better book. As she puts it, level up.
When we hear about the death of the book, it might be a good idea to ask what “the book” is. Are we talking about people ceasing to read books, or about what they read the books on — paper or a screen?
Reading on a screen is certainly different from reading a page. I don’t think we yet understand what the differences are. They may be considerable, but I doubt that they’re so great as to justify giving the two kinds of reading different names, or saying that an ebook isn’t a book at all.
If “the book” means only the book as physical object, its death, to some devotees of the Internet, may be a matter for rejoicing — hurray! we’re rid of another nasty heavy bodily Thing with a copyright on it! — But mostly it’s the occasion of lament and mourning. People to whom the pysicality of the book printed on paper is important, sometimes more important than the contents — those who value them for their binding, paper, and typography, buy fine editions, make collections — and the many who simply take pleasure in holding and handling the book they’re reading, are naturally distressed by the idea that the book on paper will be totally replaced by the immaterial text in a machine.
I can only suggest, don’t agonize — organize! No matter how the corporations bluster and bully and bury us in advertising, the consumer always has the option of resistance. We don’t get steamrollered by a new technology unless we lie down in front of the the steamroller.
The steamroller is certainly on the move. Some kinds of printed book are already being replaced by e-books. The mass market paperback edition is threatened by the low-cost e-book edition. Good news for those who like to read on a screen, bad news for those who don’t, or like to buy from Abebooks and A-libris or to pounce on 75-cent beat-up secondhand mysteries. But if the lovers of the material book are serious about valuing good binding and paper and design as essential to their reading pleasure, they will provide a visible, steady market for well-made hard-cover and paperback editions: which the book industry, if it has the sense of a sowbug, will meet. The question is whether the book industry does have the sense of a sowbug. Some of its behavior lately leads one to doubt. But let us hope. And there’s always the “small publisher,” the corporation-free independent, many of which are as canny as can be.
Other outcries about the death of the book have more to do with the direct competition with reading offered on the Internet. The book is being murdered by the etc at our fingertips.
Here “the book” usually refers to literature. At the moment, I thik the DIY manual, or the cookbook, the guide to this or that, are the kinds of book most often replaced by information on a screen. The Encyclopedia Britannica just died, a victim, as it were, of Google. I don’t think I’ll bury our Eleventh Edition just yet, though; the information in it, being a product of its time (a hundred years ago), can be valuably different from that furnished by the search engine, which is also a product of its time. The annual encyclopedias of films/directors/actors were killed a few years ago by information sites on the Net — very good sites, though not as much fun to get lost in as the book was. We keep our 2003 edition because being outselves ancient, we use it more efficiently than we do any site, and it’s still useful and entertaining even if dead — more than you can say of the corpse of almost anything but a book.
I’m not sure why anyone, no matter how much they like to think about the End Times, believes that the Iliad or Jane Eyre or the Bhagavad Gita is dead or about to die. They have far more competition than they used to, yes; people may see the movie and think they know what the book is; they can be displaced by the etc; but nothing can replace them. So long as people are taught to read (which may or may not happen in our underfunded schools), and particularly if they’re taught what there is to read, and how to read it intelligently (extensions of the basic skill now often omitted in our underfunded schools), some of them will prefer reading to activating the etc. They will read books (on paper or on a screen) as literature.
And they will try to ensure that the books continue to exist, because continuity is an essential aspect of literature and knowledge. Books occupy time in a different way than most art and entertainment. In longevity perhaps only sculpture in stone outdoes them.
And here the issue of electronic and print on paper has to re-enter the discussion. On the permanence of what is in books, much of the lasting transmission of human culture still relies. It’s possible that highest and most urgent value of the printed book may be its mere, solid, stolid permanence.
I’ll be talking now not about “the book” in America in 2012 so much as about how things are all over the world in the many places where electricity may be available only to the rich, or intermittent, or non-existent; and how things may be in fifty years or five centuries, if we continue to degrade and destroy our habitat at the present rate.
The ease of reproducing an ebook and sending it all over the place can certainly secure its permanence, so long as the machine to read it on can be made and turned on. I think it’s well to remember, though, that electric power is not to be counted on in quite the same way sunlight is.
Easy and infinite copiability also involves a certain risk. The text of the book on paper can’t be altered without separately and individually altering every copy in existence, and alteration leaves unmistakable traces. With e-texts that have been altered, deliberately or by corruption (pirated texts are often incredibly corrupt), if the author is dead, establishing an original, authentic, correct text may be impossible. And the more piracies, abridgments, mash-ups, etc are tolerated, the less people will understand that textual integrity matters.
People to whom texts matter, such as readers of poetry or scientific monographs, know that the integrity of the text is essential. Our non-literate ancestors knew it. The three-year-old being read to demands it. You must recite the words of the poem exactly as you learned them or it will lose its power. — Daddy! You read it wrong! It says “did not” not “didn’t!”
The physical book may last for centuries; even a cheap paperback on pulp paper takes decades to degrade into unreadability. Continuous changes of technology, upgrades, corporate takeovers, leave behind them a debris of texts unreadable on any available machine. And an e-text has to be periodically recopied to keep it from degrading. People who archive them are reluctant to say how often, because it varies a great deal; but as anyone with email files over a few years old knows, the progress into entropy can be rapid. A university librarian told me that, as things are now, they expect to recopy every electronic text the library owns, every eight to ten years, indefinitely.
If we decided to replace the content of our libraries entirely with electronic archives, at this stage of the technology, a worst-case scenario would have informational and literary texts being altered without our consent or knowledge, reproduced or destroyed without our permission, rendered unreadable by the technology that printed them, and, unless regularly recopied and redistributed, fated within a few years or decades to turn inexorably into garble or simply blink out of existence.
But that’s assuming the technology won’t improve and stabilize. In any case, why should we go into either/or mode? It’s seldom necessary and often destructive (look at Congress.)
Maybe the e-reader and the electricity to run it will become available to everyone forever. That would be grand. But as things are or are likely to be, having books available in two different forms can only be a good thing, now and in the long run.
I do believe that, despite the temptations at our fingertips, there’s an obstinate, durable minority of people who, having learned to read, will go on reading books, however and wherever they can find them, on pages or screens. And because people who read books mostly want to share them, and feel however obscurely that sharing them is important, they’ll see to it that, however and wherever, the books are there for the next generation(s).
Human generations, that is — not technological generations. At the moment, the computer generation has shortened to about the life span of the gerbil, and might yet rival the fruitfly.
The life span of a book is more like that of the horse, or the human being, sometimes the oak, even the redwood. Which is why it seems a good idea, rather than mourning their death, to rejoice that books now have two ways of staying alive, getting passed on, enduring, instead of only one.
47. Primitive Copy-rites of Ancient Peoples
Vonda recently said something about hectograph and asked if I remembered it. I wrote back to her:
Oh do I remember hectograph. We had one when I was 12 or so. My brother Karl used it most; I think he put out literature on it when he was campaigning for office at Berkeley High. Karl had political ambitions. When he was nine he campaigned for City Manager of Berkeley. All he had to print up his literature on then was one of those letterpress sets where the letters are pink rubber, and you put them into little wooden slots with tweezers, and press it all on an inkpad, and then onto the paper, and it comes out rather pale and crooked, but PRINTED. His campaign slogan was The Man Who Can Do It. Good slogan, huh? He got three write-in votes. I was proud and impressed.
Anyhow, a hectograph is essentially a tray of very stiff jello and a kind of special ink that the message is written or typed in. The process is messy and slow, the ink has the gift of ubiquity, the jello has to be cleaned and recleaned and rerecleaned. The copies come out rather pallid and blurry, in a distinctive shade of purple.
It came in a neat little kit that all fit in a box not much bigger than the jello tray, which was probably 9×12. Easy to move, and to hide. Samizdat was often hectographed. There were jokes in Russia about all the people in Siberia with purple fingers. (My friend Jean worked in Saigon before the war, and there were jokes there, too, about people with purple fingers; but theirs were due to gentian violet which was a topical cure for a local sexually transmitted fungal itch.)
Talking about the hectograph reminded me of later efforts at home reproduction (of text). Some time in the seventies or eighties our friend Helen, who was working as a Kelly Girl (temp secretary) told us about home copiers, which were new, and knowing that I had a lot of copying, said we ought to get one, and told us which kind: a heat copier, I don’t remember the brand. It required a special sensitive paper. If you didn’t let it cook long enough, the copy was too anemic to read, and if you cooked it too long the paper turned a dark toasty brown, thus entirely concealing the text. But with a little care it worked, and it didn’t cost too much or take up much room, and I used it a lot, copying letters mostly, and music for my recorder.
What we didn’t know then was that the life of the copy was pretty short, I suppose because the paper remains somewhat light-sensitive. By now, the letters I filed are semi-legible. My lovely Scots and Welsh folksongs and the paper they’re on are gradually becoming exactly the same delicate brown color.
They look as if they’d been written in lemon juice, or milk, and let dry, and then held over a flame: Secret Writing. Did you do Secret Writing? It worked, but it wasn’t exactly easy to read, and the paper did tend to either toast slowly or burst into flame, thus destroying the Secret Message, possibly before you’d read it. But at least that kept the Secret.
48. Having my Cake
“Having my Cake” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
49. Reading, Seeing (i)
I don’t promise to keep this up regularly, but wanted to give it a try — talking a bit about some books I read and shows I see. Few of the books and none of the shows will be very new, and some may be very old.
I’ve got a few more chapters of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal (2007) to read. I’m reading it slowly, and admiring it deeply.
Krugman persuasively shows that America from the Roosevelt administration through the Nixon years was a nation of remarkable economic equality, social enlightenment, and genuine two-party government, (which we all took for granted as the way America is), and that the Republican goal, from Reagan on, has been to reinstate extreme economic inequality, halt or undo social improvement, and refuse political compromise and co-operation, thus derailing the democratic process.
Krugman writes with grace and clarity, and is probably the only economist I’ve ever been able to understand.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, campaigning in 1936:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.... We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.... [These forces] are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.
So the “old enemies” are with us again, but what Democrat now faces them with Roosevelt’s defiance? Only the Occupy movement has that courage.
And Dwight David Eisenhower, writing to his brother in 1952:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L.Hunt..., a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
What’s terrifying about this is how Eisenhower’s party in just a few decades has proved him wrong, wrong in everything he says except, possibly, the last word.
I wanted a novel to read at night in bed (when too dim-brained to follow an argument I still can follow a story) — so I went to my To Read shelf.
It’s low on novels just now. I tried the one Tove Jansson I hadn’t yet read, Fair Play. I wanted to like it but found it predictable, and written with a kind of smugness or self-admiration that put me off, so I gave up. This doesn’t weaken my admiration for the madly original Moomintroll books, or her beautiful novel True Deceiver (my review of it is on this site among the Book Reviews.)
So I started the one Kent Haruf I haven’t yet read, Where You Once Belonged. Am about halfway through now. Haruf is terrific. Very quietly great. (The critical/prize-awarding people have, predictably, paid him little attention — an ABA runner-up for Plainsong, which should have walked off with the Pulitzer.) The two early books are so solid and beautiful, and Plainsong fully comparable to the best of Willa Cather (to whom I’m sure he’s tired of being compared, but if you write about the Western Middle West, you can’t get away from Willa.) Here are his four books:
It’s time for another, please, Mr Haruf?
We finally had to get onto Netflix when our lovely video store down the street got killed by Netflix. I hate this. I HATE it. I HATE being controlled by corporations. I HATE CORPORATIONS.
So, last night we had Syriana. We gave up halfway through.
Probably we were just too tired and stupid for a fast-paced complex thriller. I found the cutting self-conscious to the point of self-parody — scene after scene a few seconds long, then cut — cut — cut again — Makes for fast pace, sure, but it’s too much like two hours of Tourette syndrome. And it intellectualizes the story. Shock without affect. Time only to figure out what’s happening where — never why, hardly even who. Allatime you’re figuring out. Well, I don’t watch movies to figure out. I don’t enjoy it. So, Syriana goes back.
Finished Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal. It was written just before the housing market crash and the rise of Obama to the Presidency. Reactionary “movement Republicanism” has gone fast and far since then, belying much of Krugman’s hopes expressed in the last section. It is, however, a very good, very useful book, an aid to clear thinking.
A final quote from it (guess who said this, and when):
The strange alchemy of time has converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party in the country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best and building solidly and safely on these foundations. The Republicans, by contrast, are behaving like the radical party — the party of the reckless and embittered, bent on dismantling institutions which have been built solidly into our social fabric.
The first election I could vote in was 1952. I don’t forgive Eisenhower for defeating my candidate. Though Ike was a moderate with no ideological program, yet I think with his election our long trip to the wilderness of reactionary thinking began. Adlai Stevenson, who knew what true conservatism is, lost. And now we live with the regressive fantasies of “the party of the reckless and embittered.”
16 April 2012
50. Chosen by a Cat
“Chosen by a Cat” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
51. The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum
(Reading, Seeing ii)
“The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
52. Some Recent Fantasies
When somebody asks me, “Who are your favorite sf and fantasy authors?” I duck and mumble. Any answer I can make will be incomplete, invidious, and insignificant. If it’s guidance they want, I’m no expert. I never was a true fan, reading only one genre. To me that would be like living in an immense forest and refusing to see any kind of tree but one — oaks, say. Oaks are great. But then you come to a grove of 300-foot, 1200-year-old redwoods, and you see nothing?
And usually I’m years out of date. At the moment, though, I happen to have been reading a fair amount of recent or forthcoming fantasy; and I feel that I’ve come into a promising young part of the forest. Mixed new growth, quite vigorous. Good to see growing.
There’s a problem, though. People who insist that fantasy is for children still insist on trying to cram all the young trees — oaks, redwoods, mallorns — into bonsai pots.
Since publishers are feeling terribly unsafe these days, and since YA is a big, solid market, and fantasy is a big, solid part of it, publishers feel safe publishing fantasy as YA. And so writers of fantasy may find they’re expected to have kid protagonists and discouraged from writing about adults. Harry whatshisname and the teenie werewolves and the young gladiators have locked the fantasy/YA combo tight, at least for now. Retro macho “epics” of war-and-violence with nominally adult protagonists may escape the YA label, as they reach teen-agers through tie-ins, games, movies.
It’s all marketing, of course, where it isn’t spinach.
Children have no corner on imagination, nor can you limit fantasy to the experience of adolescents. Kids are perfectly capable of reading about adults, and will do so, if the adults do anything interesting — as they do in science fiction, for instance. (Most kids find novels about adults in dysfunctional families with dreary sex lives in the suburbs uninteresting, and by God, they’re right; but that’s another topic.) Also, adults will of course read about kids, if the kids are doing anything interesting — You there, Huck? — The whole idea of YA as a literature apart is shortsighted and arbitrary. But it’s marketing, so it’s a sacred cow. Milk it, and question not.
Jo Walton wriggles almost wholly free of the grip of the sacred cow. I’m sorry, but those words just came to me, and I could not resist them — sometimes one gets these wonderful gifts of metaphor. — So, anyhow, in Among Others, Jo Walton writes in the voice of a 14-year-old girl; but that girl as an adult, doubling the author, is also implicitly present. This unsimplification, this grounding in lived time, enriches the book and frees it from any ‘age-group,’ as well as keeping it clear of the only-kids-understand-anything sentimentality of a Salinger.
Mo is a diary-writing bookworm. Her daily criticism of the authors she’s reading is spot-on 14-year-old-girl-in-1979, funny, acute, and impassioned. (I’m glad she liked early Le Guin. I believe she knew about the movie of Lathe of Heaven a year or so before it existed, but hey, this is a fantasy, innit?) Mo has suffered a lot of major damage by age 14, so her reading could be seen as ‘compensatory,’ or ‘escapist,’ but that would be a mistake. She was a reader before she was damaged. Books continue to offer her not an escape, but a reality. A good many of us know, often quite early in our life and throughout it, that as far as we’re able to, we’re going to live a good part of that life in books, maybe the best part, certainly a vital part. And here’s one of us, a shameless reader, a shameless science-fiction reader, rejoicing with all her heart in the wealth of her existence. An almost too gorgeous boyfriend appears, but, rightly, he isn’t really as convincing or interesting either to Mo or to us as what she’s reading.
Magic in Walton’s novel functions magically, yet can always be seen and explained as nothing unusual. Fairy? what fairy? that was a rabbit. The spell didn’t change reality, reality’s always just been the way the spell made it be.... This is a large, interesting idea, well worked out. Walton’s trying hard to do what I call moving the boundary: to redraw the border of Elfland, to alter, or make more permeable, the wall beween the possible and the impossible. I think she almost succeeds. I don’t think anyone can, in fact, succeed. But it’s a gallant and fascinating enterprise.
If the sf readers who dismiss fictional magic as soft-brained wish-fulfilment will look at what Walton’s doing at that boundary line, they’ll see a harder, more honest intelligence at work than in the kind of “hard” sf that uses the terminology of scientific theory or speculation magically.
In a dry, quiet way, the book is very funny. Mo’s three aunts, who are witches, are witches because they are respectable in a way only the English could imagine and perfect. If I ever again meet a thoroughly nice, refined lady of that sort, I’ll know why she makes me so miserable. She can’t help it. She’s a Britwitch.
Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, which came out this spring is aimed at somewhat younger readers than Among Others, or at anybody who likes adventures following fast one upon another. Set in a conventionally self-contained imaginary place (a splendidly imagined city, not cyberpunk but an interesting variation) and with a fairly conventional orphan child-hero, it doesn’t push out toward any boundaries; but it is outstanding, in this increasingly crowded and imitative field, for the unlabored imaginative authority and completeness of its setting, and for the fine, vivid English it’s written in. It’s an endearing book. And there’s something else to it that I can’t put words to: a haunting quality, a sense of depth, of unspoken further implication, in the adventures and the characters, which is its real magic. I wish I could have read it when I was eleven.
Kij Johnson was a member of workshops I directed, or herded, whatever it is the ‘teacher’ does at a writing workshop — once at Clarion in Seattle and once at The Flight of the Mind on a bend of the McKenzie River. I called her Foxwoman, after the story she was then writing.
The story is in her new book, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. It’s just as good as I thought it was going to be, if not better. My memory in general is very poor, but it holds on firmly to certain intense physical experiences, real or imagined, so that I can always in my mind walk down a certain dusty driveway in California, or stand before the gates of Moria seeking how to open them. Ever since that workshop, I’ve always been able to revisit the fox’s earth under the house/the beautiful house under the house. It was amazing to be able to ‘really’ go back to it in “Fox Magic.”
One or two weak stories might have been left out, but the variety is tremendous, exhilarating. The book definitely won’t do that short-story-collection thing to you where all the stories run together into a sort of depressing porridge in your mind. “26 Monkeys” is as different from “Chenting” as “Names for Water” is from “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and each one is differently excellent. Along with “Fox Magic,” my favorite may be that last one. It’s about an engineer. I like engineer stories, ever since I read “The Bridge-Builders” and others in Kipling’s The Day’s Work when I was ten. I like stories that take you quietly into a place and let you do difficult and interesting work with some of the people there. By the end of the story you know those people, and love them, and wish you could go on and build the next bridge with them.
PS. And between when I wrote this and when we posted it, both Among Others and The Man Who Bridged the Mist won the Nebula Award. Hey, Foxwoman! Way To Go!
53. A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy
“ A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
54. Le Guin’s Hypothesis
I keep telling myself that I’m done writing about Literature vs Genre, that that vampire is buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and garlic in its coffin. And then it pops up again, undead. Its latest revival is a cheery one in an entertaining article, “Easy Writers,” in the May 28 New Yorker by Arthur Krystal, who discusses the literature/genre divide and while seeming to make light of it does a pretty thorough job of perpetuating it.
He uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure” — a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?
Mr Krystal gives a good brief discussion of 18th-century disapproval of all novel-reading as guilty pleasure, and is amusingly acute about the dire modernist invention of the “serious” or literary novel, which tossed out all other novels as genre — trivial.
But his only quoted example of the literary novel is Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Now, I love that interminable four-decker and think it one of the great novels about war. But it was never well known in America, and I wonder how many people have even heard of it by now. If it exemplifies the literary novel, the literary novel is: obscure, unpopular, syntactically complex, ninety years old, and British.
So, then. Is literature the serious stuff you have to read in college, and after that you read for pleasure, which is guilty?
Mr Krystal doesn’t say this directly. But he says nothing about the non-guilty pleasure that both literary and genre novels can afford. And what he says about genre fiction all fits into the familiar modernist mishmash of Puritanism and reverse snobbery.
I don’t want to join the group still huddled together in a corner of a twentieth-century lunchroom smirking over a copy of Amazing Wonder Tales because it’s “bad,” and flipping off the stuffy teacher who wants us to read A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “good.” I don’t want to be there any more.
“Skilled genre writers,” Mr Krystal says, “know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”
Who “we,” white man?
Plot is not the reason I turn to novels and is often the least interesting element to me in them. Story is what matters. Plot complicated and extends story; plot is indeed pure artifice. But Mr Krystal seems to say that only genre writers are aware that a certain level of artificiality must prevail in fiction. Does he mean that literary writers don’t use artifice? That they don’t know, just as as surely as genre writers, the absolute, imperative, marvelous artificiality of their art? That Virginia Woolf, so often demonstrably plotless, was artless?
And I question the idea that we “turn to” genre fiction as addicts turn to their needle or their bottle. Genre as Fixfic.
Anybody who reads a lot is, if you like, an addict. The people who put their initials on the fly-leaf of a library copy of a mystery so that they won’t keep checking the same book out over and over are story addicts. So is the ten-year-old with his nose in The Hobbit, oblivious to dinnertime or cataclysm. So is the old woman rereading War and Peace for the eighth time. So is the scholar who studies the Odyssey for forty years. The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate. Ask the Wedding Guest to stop listening once the Ancient Mariner gets going. He can’t. He’s hooked. Sometimes you get hooked on mere plot, sometimes on mere familiarity and predictability, sometimes you get hooked on great stuff.
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.
To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:
Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.
The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.
Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.
Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc.... and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.
Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.
Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.
If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.
If critics and teachers gave up insisting that one kind of literature is the only one worth reading, it would free up a lot of time for them to think about the different things novels do and how they do it, and above all, to consider why certain individual books in every genre are, have been for centuries, and will continue to be more worth reading than most of the others.
Because there is the real mystery. Why is one book entertaining, another disappointing, another a revelation and a lasting joy? What is quality? What makes a good book good and a bad book bad?
Not its subject. Not its genre. What, then? That’s what good book-talk has always been about.
We won’t be allowed to knock down the Litfic/Fixfic walls, though, as long as the publishers and booksellers think their business depends on them — capitalizing on the guilty pleasure principle.
But then, how long will the publishers and booksellers last against the massive aggression of the enormous corporations that are now taking over every form of publication in absolute indifference to its content and quality so long as they can sell it as a commodity?
55. The Opening Night
9.40, Friday night, July 27, 2012. Cheap, hokey, trivial, cynical, pompous, patronising, pretentious, button-pushing, celebrity-worshiping, predictable beyond belief, degrading of every poet, musician, or artist associated with it, what a great show the Olympics opening night in London is! It’s still going on. Hours yet to go. I gave up at 9.15. I don’t know why I lasted past the shot of the corgis looking up adorably from the palace steps at the helicopter that was fakely bearing the fake Queen away so that she could fakely parachute down into the stadium, ooooh, wowwwwww, wheeee, and then (really) sit there glowering straight ahead and looking as if she had just drunk a quart of vinegar.
“Look, she’s smiling,” my husband said hopefully, when they sang God Bless the Queen, but I couldn’t see it. She just looked as if maybe her Tums were giving her a bit of relief for a moment, but she was still sour, bored, ungracious, and not about to hide it. Oh England, my England.
I guess I kept hoping there might be one more really amazing moment like the moment of the five rings descending: that was true real stage-magic as well as huge Super Special FX. But no. Just more hokum and more schmalz. And I began to think I might totally lose it if the chirpy announcers mentioned Danny Boyle one more time. Every two or three minutes we had to be told that he was responsible for this wonderful, dazzling extravaganza of British schlock. Maybe he wrote it all those mentions into his contract? For quite a while I thought they were saying Danny Boy, as in the song Oh Danny Boy, and wondered why. Perhaps I was confused because I think they did sing a bit of Oh Danny Boy at the very beginning. Maybe Danny Boyle put it in as a cute little subtle compliment to himself. I’m not sure though whether I did hear Oh Danny Boy at all, because there were so many little bits of songs. But of course they ended, inevitably, with the song “Jerusalem,” the words of which were written by William Blake, who in his direst visions of what might happen to his country never envisioned anything so monstrously silly as this.
I suppose eventually the poor athlete will come panting into the stadium with the Flame, and we’ll have some more whooptido and hokum. Maybe the Queen will be shot up to a hovering helicopter on a rocket in a fountain of fireworks, glowering all the way, and then we’ll get to see the corgis looking up adorably from the palace steps to greet her.
I leave it to the corgis. I’ve had enough. I’m going to go to bed and think about Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” The English do that kind of thing really, really well.
P.S. Saturday morning. It seems there was a huge unplanned, unsponsored, spontaneous celebration going on in Trafalgar Square at the same time — Londoners and people from all over the world who’ve come for the Olympics all gathering to wait for the clock to tell them the opening moment of the Games, singing, shouting, waving flags, climbing up on the big bronze lions, and having a ball. Reading about that, I finally felt the authentic Olympic thrill.
56. Libraries and Ebooks
It can be just as fast and easy to order an ebook from the library as to buy it online, and it costs nothing. Why would anyone buy an ebook from the publisher if the library has it for free?
So why would a publisher sell ebooks to libraries?
This is a legitimate, big problem, which affects authors just as much and as directly as it does libraries and publishers. It has no quick fix. To solve it will take a complete and painful rethinking and re-organisation of the whole publishing industry.
But many corporate publishers, without seeking a long-term strategy, consulting no interest or value but their own, have reacted with mere panic greed.
Some, exhibiting all the foresight, generosity, and public spirit of a Florida alligator, outright refuse to sell their ebooks to libraries. Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan are among them.
This policy can be summed up as: Libraries can go to hell.
Other publishers, perhaps hoping to keep some appearance of a certain degree of goodwill towards men, limit themselves to making it hard for the library to stock ebooks and inconvenient for you to get them from the library. They call it “inserting friction.” A kind of anti-Vaseline.
Currently various publishers are employing various forms of “friction:”
And the absurdest piece of meanness yet:
But, but, but — libraries have always offered their books for free. So, how come print publishers didn’t refuse to sell books to libraries? Why didn’t they didn’t “insert friction”?
Well, partly because many publishers had a sense of responsibility, or at least a degree of shame. But also because they were aware that library circulation is more likely to increase book sales than to cut into them.
Every time a library buys a book, the publisher is more likely to sell that author’s books. Library Journal conducted a survey in 2011 about the buying habits of library users; more than half reported that they’d bought books by an author whose book they’d read in the library. As Library Journal says, “The public library is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.” And, talking to the Christian Science Monitor, Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association, reported “Some libraries have a ‘buy it now’ button for people who don’t want to wait [for an e-book from a library, or don’t want it to suddenly disappear from their reader]. We’re doing a lot, frankly, to drive people to buy.”
But damn the facts, full speed ahead! The part of the publishing industry controlled by corporations for immediate profit is determined to see public libraries as competitors — even if they lose profits by doing so.
For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.
In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.
Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.
If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.
At this point, the U.S. Government shows very little promise of exerting any kind of intelligent control over predatory publishing corporations, and the Department of Justice even seems to be colluding with them.
Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.
The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge.
If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed…. The importance of free, independent electronic libraries, such as Project Gutenberg, is inestimable.
We’d be wise to keep our information base as broad as possible, by supporting the existing public libraries in their heroic and amazingly successful effort to carry on their job in the electronic age.
The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.
The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.
Is that worth supporting, or what?
Many thanks to Vailey Oehlke, Director of the Multnomah County Library, for fact-checking, facts, and references.
A useful link:
57. Where Have All the Liars Gone?
What’s happened to the word “lying,” anyhow? Nobody tells a lie any more.
“Deciding to ignore the facts,” “not fact-checking,” “stretching the truth,” “not telling the entire truth,” — in covering speeches by Romney, Ryan, and all the leading Republican spokesmen, the media have a hundred ways of saying that they lied without saying so.
Even Politifact, when proving an outright, deliberate falsification, doesn’t use the word “lie.” They call it “Pants on Fire.” Isn’t that cute, now.
Today, the day after the Republican convention, was the first time I’ve seen an editorial or op-ed piece use the word “lie.” Kind of a landmark? In describing Paul Ryan’s speech, Paul Krugman in fact used the phrase “the big lie,” with umistakable reference to Adolf Hitler’s favorite stratagem.
Calling lies by name won’t affect the Republicans. Some of them are so far out of touch with reality that they wouldn’t know a fact if it bit them, and the rest have desperately adopted disinformation and falsification as their road to election. The Republican politician and voter must “believe in belief” and then turn his mind off. The big lie is their policy, and it has become compulsory. It won’t change now.
But I wonder if calling lies lies might get through to Obama and his advisors and spokespeople? Stupidly, instead of revealing falsehood by steadfastly speaking truth, they’ve been imitating the enemy. Increasingly often their statements “ignore the facts,” “stretch the truth,” and all the rest of the euphemisms. Every time the Democrats lie, they lose that much advantage over their shape-shifting, blame-dodging opponents.
By ceasing to weasel, waffle, shove things under the carpet, exaggerate successes, and evade problems, Obama could show his genuine personal strength. If, without lecturing and shaking his finger at us, he would tell us only the truth as he knows it, we-the-people might rise to that challenge as we rose to the challenge he offered in his first campaign — with enthusiasm, with hope.
“Speak truth to power” is a popular slogan these days. In a democracy, what about the responsibility of power to speak truth?
58. Lying it all away
“Lying it all away” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
59. Catching up with Pard
Annals of Pard III
Not that I ever will... But it’s getting on to a year since we went to the Humane Society and came home with seven pounds of cat. My two blogs about Pard made him some friends on the Net. For them, here is an early anniversary report.
His tuxedo is still impeccable, and his tail continues straight up in the air. But he is now The Ten-Pound Pard, though still on the half-cup a day total recommended by the vet. Friskies or Meow Mix in the morning, Trader Joe’s Chicken Kibbles in the evening. Pard’s idea of a varied, gourmet diet.
But alas, T–Joe changed brands. The new bag of chicken kibbles has lovely pictures of fruits and vegetables on the bag, and much talk about healthy diet, but the contents defy even the Greed of Pard. After gamely chewing at the hard little greeny-brown pellets, he gets discouraged and gives up, something I never thought I’d see him do. Cats are not vegans. They are predators, carnivores, needing about as much vegetable food as they’d get from what’s in a mouse’s stomach. Any effort to persuade a cat that kale and apples are food disrespects the nature of the animal in favor of human moral sensibilities, theories, or fads. Of course all commercial catfood is aimed at the buyer, not the consumer — Meow Mix is all cute little different colored fish, as if a cat gave a hoot in hell about the shapes and colors — but Pard and I both think Trader Joe has gone too far. Fruit catfood? Come on, T-Joe. Get real.
He still gets a little catfood soup daily to increase his water intake. And when his breakfast has vanished and he goes Please, sir, I want some more, he gets his Foody Ball. This is a cute trick: plastic, about 2" diameter, with a hole in which to insert a few kibbles or cat treats, and a kind of screw inside to impede their movement. You put the ball on the floor and the cat bats it around, and every now and then a Foody Fish falls out of the hole, just often enough to keep him interested. At least it keeps Pard interested. My daughter Elisabeth’s cats sit quietly gazing at her, waiting for her to shake the Foody Ball till a Foody Fish falls out of it. She is aware that this defeats the purpose of the Foody Ball, but she hasn’t been able to convince her cats of that. They just gaze at her, and wait. They know.
What matters to cats: 1. Food. 2. Sleep. — Pard sleeps on the bed at night, all night, usually forming a central nucleus or core around which I conform myself as required, it being a known fact that a cat sleeping on a bed causes a wrinkle in gravity that increases the weight of the cat by a factor of ten or more. Often he bounces and pounces for a while, but soon he curls up and sleeps. If disturbed, he purrs a little, recurls, and sleeps. He still sometimes gets up on my pillow, forming a sort of warm nightcap with paws, and sleeps. A paw may come to rest softly on my ear in a comfortable, companionable way. And he continues his custom of starting a good, loud purr just about the time I’m beginning to wake up. A very good way to begin a day.
In the daytime, he sleeps anywhere, so long as it’s near one of us. If I’m working at my computer, he’s often on top of the printer, about 18" to my right. This is very nice until he wakes up and is bored. There are certain areas on and above my desk where paws are strictly, permanently forbidden to go. The owner of the paws knows this perfectly well, but is never, ever going to leave authority unquestioned.
He is still the good cat with the bad paws.
The one time I ever left my computer open and unattended for five minutes, the paws deftly removed the Left-Bracket and Return keys. They can open almost every cabinet we have, and some heavy drawers. Pard feels strongly that what can opened should be opened and what can be gotten into should be gotten into. He practices at it every day. He’s quite reckless about it, and may yet get into real trouble, leaping and diving blindly into every opening in the world. The washing machine was not one of his successful ventures.
The paws are also terrific at bug-catching and cat-toy games, and carry him in mad lightspeed scurries up and down stairs and all over the house at all levels. When he is not asleep, he is utterly awake, and usually in motion. He is the most fully three-dimensional cat I have ever had. Well, no; Lorenzo Bean used to appear thirty feet up in the redwood, swaying sweetly on a tiny branch, while Pard had some difficulty in his single venture up the apple tree. But can he leap! His vertical dimension includes all surfaces of furniture and all tops of things, no matter how high the thing is or what else is on the top of it. We still have hardly a week without a shriek Get OFF THAT! PARD! — followed by a crash, and the scurry of departing paws.
He is an indoor cat by choice. When the weather got good last summer and we began living in the garden and on the second-story decks, we soon let Pard out of his little red halter, free to wander — because he didn’t wander. His garden exploration, even with Charles nearby, was rarely farther than ten feet from the bottom of the back stairs. He would go down, eat some particularly savage, saw-edged decorative grass from a clump of it near the stairs, sit a while looking warily at everything, then go back indoors and throw up the grass on the Afghan rug, where all our cats have always thrown up. He might come back out and birdwatch from the deck for a while, making that little k-k-k-k noise (which scientific observers tell us is not an expression of frustration, but a sound that interests birds). But he was always clearly relieved to go back inside when we did. Now it’s too cold to sit out, he seems perfectly content to be in. He watches a lot of Cat TV through various windows.
I can only think that since his first year of life was spent in a small house crowded with children, our big house with two ancients quietly doddering around in it appears quite enough world to him. And it’s good not to have to worry about the dangers cats face on a street like ours. Yet it’s kind of sad. With those paws, those alert, attentive eyes, that lightning response-time, he’d be a great hunter, if he hunted. But, though no vegan, he is a strict kibbler. And there are no wild kibbles in the garden.
He did bring in a bird once. He left it in the telephone hall, where all our cats always leave their birds. When I had almost stepped on it and shrieked and got over that, I studied the poor tiny body. It was not a new bird. It was distinctly a used bird. It had probably brained itself on a window, or one of the neighbor cats left it in our garden. Pard found it and did the right thing: bring it in and go away, leaving it for the Bandar-Log to dispose of. I did the right thing too.
He still doesn’t believe in laps or being held; only on the bed will he snuggle up close. He doesn’t head-butt our legs, and though he likes to be petted and jowl-scritched, his only affectionate advance is a curiously touching, questioning gaze at close quarters, maybe the slightest nose-kiss. Yet he’s close by us almost constantly. And he’s totally good about having his claws cut: he sits in the crook of Charles’s arm, endures the operation with one or two quiet moans, snarfs his cat-treat rewards, and trots off cheerfully, tail up, looking for something to get his paws into.
I said “believe in laps” facetiously. Actually, I think one of the great things about animals is that they don’t believe in anything. They don’t have to. They know. People like to say that their pet “thinks he’s people,” or “dogs believe their master is God,” and so on, but that’s just talk. An animal knows what it knows, and does not know what it does not know. Between their knowledge and their ignorance there is no vague area for the vast and trackless human jungle of theories, notions, imagination, and beliefs. Your dog knows who he is and who you are and what you are to him. He may well know it better than you do, because his knowledge is unclouded by ideas. And, if also unwarped by fear or bad training, animal knowledge is factual, solid. It doesn’t go as far as imagination goes, it only goes as far as the truth. You can be perfectly sure that your cat is never going to write a treatise on phlogiston, become a Nazi, or start a holy war.
Knowledge, of course, may be sent astray by incomplete or specious evidence. Last spring, Pard knew there were beetles in my Time Machine, because he could hear them. But he kept watching, patiently, with a mind not controlled by the wilfulness of theory or belief. And over time, as no beetles ever emerged from the Time Machine, and there was never a scent or sign of beetlitude except the occasional faint buzzing, he grew skeptical, as you might say; or better, he learned the truth – acquired the knowledge that there are no beetles in the Time Machine. And he stopped trying to get it open.
Then the other day he was suddenly back at it, poking and prying so earnestly that I got curious. I lifted the small, heavy, closely sealed machine up a little bit. A box-elder beetle ran out from underneath it. The paw flashed, the beetle was gone. (There are wild kibbles!)
Since then Pard has paid no more attention to the Time Machine.
Compared to the vast phantasmagoria of imagination and belief, the world of known facts, actuality, reality, may seem small and dull. But it is restful. It offers peace of mind. We can’t live there, but we can visit; and the animals, letting us visit it with them, let us see that it is, in fact, infinite, infinitely rich.
When one of us is about to go away, Pard knows it. He does not know for how long. He does know a suitcase means Longer, and seeing one, grows disturbed and agitated and flies about, causing disturbance and agitation. When Charles is gone, he knows it, accepts the fact, never goes up to Charles’s study. When we come back he knows the instant of it and is there at the front door: the small white-and-black face, the bright gold-and-green eyes. A cheerful scurrying about, a tail straight up in the air. A joyful welcome. Hello, little Pard!
60. Pard and the Poets
Six poets came to my house yesterday afternoon for the monthly meeting of our poetry group. There should have been eight of us in all, but alas Jeannette couldn’t come. She definitely should have been there, because her Ruby Roo is a very bad young cat, like Pard. All the poets own cats, or dogs, or horses, or kids, or grandkids, and they’re all experienced in youth and badness; but Ruby Roo takes the cake. So, anyhow, they all dumped their coats (it was rainy) on the windowseat, and we sat in a circle of chairs around the fireplace and had some tea, and then started to read and discuss our poems. (The assignment had been to write a somonka, which is two tankas, in two voices, a call and a response.) Pard had greeted everybody as they came in, a bit shyly but with some excitement and a strong desire to sniff their shoes thoroughly. By now, he was circling around the edges of the group, occasionally darting through it with his tail up in the air and recurved over his back. (Barbara observed “That cat has a handle.”) Once he climbed the back of my chair and patted my head a little, but mostly he did not demand attention. We were deep in a discussion of where the somonka under scrutiny didn’t quite work and how to fix it, when Molly said in a smothered voice “Excuse me but —” pointing to the heap of coats over on the windowseat. It was heaving strangely. It writhed. A coat sleeve began to twitch as if an unseen arm were entering it. Pard, who likes very much to get into things — boxes, cupboards, bags, garments — was trying coats on. As he got farther in, the sleeve humped up and wriggled wildly. Finally, deep inside the cuff, appeared a pink nose and one slightly desperate green-yellow eye. It was too tight for him to get on out of in that direction or to turn around and get back out of in the other. Caroline finally took pity on him and helped him extract himself — the rest of us were incapable of movement, collapsed in our chairs, paralysed with laughter. It was pretty loud. Pard departed at once from the scene of this uncouth simian behavior. He went upstairs to the attic and sat on Charles’s lap. Quiet, dignified male bonding. Then he helped Charles with his jigsaw puzzle, something he is fonder of doing than Charles is of his doing it. The poets, downstairs, recovered slowly, and went back to their somonkas.
3 December 2012
61. An Attempt to Think as a Free Thinker
With thousands of devout Muslims protesting the enforced Muslimization of their government in Egypt, and since thousands of sincere Christians refused Tea Party pressure to Christianize our government, I need to think about whether I am actually opposed to organised religion, as I’ve always thought I was, or only to the church meddling with the state — to religion claiming control over practical decisions and intellectual realms that, since the Enlightenment, have been taken out of its control.
Voltaire’s untranslatable and invaluable slogan, écrasez l’infâme! — stamp out the abomination! — didn’t refer to religion, as militant atheists would like it to. It referred to policies and activities of the Catholic Church. His passionate hatred of the Church’s interference with free thought didn’t keep him from being a deist, or from accepting the last rites of the church he was born in. L’infâme is not religion but the misuse of religion, religion made into control, degraded from power-to into power-over. L’infâme is the meddling priest and priesthood, the church that declares itself a holy supergovernment above political government, claiming mindless obedience from the individual consciences which are the essential element of a state evolving towards democracy and freedom.
The United States Constitution does not mention God. The only blessings it invokes are those of Liberty. This nation was not conceived “under God.” The men who wrote the Constitution generally acknowledged the value of religion in its own sphere as a powerful force in maintaining community and a guide to spiritual practice, sometimes to moral choice, but firmly maintained the distinction between the religious and the political domains and asserted its necessity in the First Amendment.
Efforts to blur that clarity by permitting or demanding intrusion of prayer and invocation of God into the doings of the government have grown a great deal in the last sixty years. The drive to make America a Christian state have been strengthened by right-wing identification with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, seeing religion not as a freely chosen community of thought and practice but as unquestioning compliance with priestly teaching and command, sets up religion as the opponent of any community or government except that of its priesthood and the politicians who serve them.
There is no way such an all-or-nothing hierocratic rule can work with democracy. This is the tragedy of Israel, and may yet be that of Egypt.
A church that controls the army and police is enormously powerful. But any fundamentalist priesthood can bully and frighten even the reasonable majority of church members into accepting fanatical extremism, traditionally by keeping half the congregation, women, ignorant and disempowered; by threatening and carrying out punishment for disobedience and heresy; and by activating and harping on sectarian prejudices and hatred.
Unfortunately — and this is what is troubling my conscience now — they can also rely on the prejudices of members of different sects or other religions, and of the non-religious, to supply the scorn and contempt that binds any group into a community full of hatred and self-righteousness, ready to turn self-defense into blind aggression.
An ingroup depends on outsiders to maintain it. There’s no Us without Them, whether we declare them, or they declare us, to be the outsiders.
Israelis who support Netanyahu, the extreme wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reactionary-religious American movement currently represented by the Tea Party, all act on the self-generated conviction that theirs is the only valid religion and that it must guide political action. But their fanaticism is also a product of liberal prejudice, which too often lumps all Jews together, or all Muslims together, or all Christians together. To identify the many peaceable believers with the few dangerous fanatics is to think as a militant — Us eternally against Them — and so deny any compromise, any hope of peaceful coexistence, let alone democratic collaboration.
It behooves free thinkers to refuse to let the aggressive misuse of religion prejudice our minds against any and all religion. The best answer to the people who want to force us into divisive sectarianism may still be the steadfast silence of the Constitution.
17 December 2012
For an editorial detailing the increasing religiosity of American political discourse, see “The God Glut,” by Frank Bruni, at the New York Times.
In this piece, Bruni doesn’t mention that practising Catholics form a majority of the Supreme Court, at least two of whom (Scalia and Thomas) are members of the highly secretive, extremely reactionary Catholic society Opus Dei (Sotomayor couldn’t be if she wanted to, since Opus Dei, “the work of God,” excludes women). To what extent are such justices influenced by the dogmatic policies of the Vatican? Should justices be expected to state the issues on which they consider their church a higher moral authority than the law and to recuse themselves from judging such issues? Is anyone asking that question? Religious bias in any judge in any court should be the subject of attention and protest. Voltaire, we need you. We need you in the media. Now.
17 December 2012
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