Monday, November 22, 2010

Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, 2010.

The lights lower in the house, and the screen brightens. Two or three commercials play across the screen as you lean over to your fellow cinema-goer to bet on how many trailers you’ll see, and before the first trailer seeks to tempt you into watching a movie that you have no interest in seeing, one final commercial plays: a young person in a convenience store shoves a couple of candy bars and a pop into his knapsack as the storekeeper sells a lottery ticket to an elderly woman, and then the boy takes off, high-tailing it from the store as the narrator’s deep voice says “We know that’s theft—so is stealing movies” as we cut to a young couple staring at a computer whilst slyly grinning at one another. My stomach tightens at the commercial, though I’ve never illegally downloaded a movie. While I could argue against the false equivalence being established in the efforts of this commercial and its brethren, nothing I could essay would be as erudite, as engaging, or as convincing as Lewis Hyde’s recent Common as Air.

Just as in Trickster Makes This World*, Hyde uses analogies and discursive examples to outline an argument that is very difficult to argue against convincingly. In Common as Air, he argues that copyright is broken: that what once existed to help the development of art and discovery now limits and prevents meaningful building on the “shoulders of giants” that have gone before. He proposes reform, asking us to move away from the notion of property to a commons with stints. Hyde develops this proposal with heavy reference both to the ancient structures and strictures of the commons and to the founding fathers or the United States. At times heavily historical, the reader would be forgiven for thinking in the early pages that she was reading more of an history of ideas than a book dealing with what may be the defining issue of our time. The fifth chapter makes heavy use of Benjamin Franklin to show how his work on a number of scientific fronts could not have occurred without heavy debts both to earlier investigations whose results had been freely shared and to his oft-forgotten co-experimenters. Its argument is that the “founders believed that created works belong largely in the commons so as to support and enliven creative communities” (112); the preceding chapters develop our understanding of the commons, and the successive chapters expand this idea and show how it has continuing relevance to our society and culture, with reference to Bob Dylan, the human genome, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Hyde captivates the reader both in the argument itself and in his myriad and surprising examples. Dealing carefully with both issues of law and culture, the arguments he makes are persuasive and intriguing. The sceptic—who is willing to agree that theft is theft, and copyright works just fine, thank you—will find himself challenged, and the already converted will need to nuance her arguments in the light of Hyde’s work.

What I find most compelling in Hyde’s new book is an essential underpinning of his argument. A serious problem that our contemporary culture faces is that we tend to conceive of freedom as negative: too often we are concerned about being free from infringements by others. Hyde shows that this way of thinking is backwards when compared with the bulk of thinking about freedom through time.
Social well-being in this view cannot arise simply by aggregating individual choices; private interest and public good are too often at odds. Citizens acquire virtue in the civic republic, therefore, not by productivity but by willingly allowing self-interest to bow to the public good (or by recognizing that the two are one). (93)

True liberty is not freedom from, but rather freedom for, a liberty that is entirely congruent with what is extolled in the Magnificat, for example. I need to spend more time thinking about how Hyde’s arguments are working on my own understanding of what it is to live in the communities in which I make my home.

My sole serious quibble with the book is composed of two lines on the frontispiece: “Copyright © 2010 by Lewis Hyde / All rights reserved.” After he so extolled the virtues of Creative Commons licenses, was there an effort to persuade Farrar, Strauss and Giroux to publish Common as Air under such a license?

* I first fell in love with Hyde’s writing when reading his magnificent Trickster Makes This World. If you haven’t read it, I remind you that old time is still a-flying.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Giles Blunt, Crime Machine, 2010.

The newest entry in Blunt’s Detective Cardinal mystery series does not disappoint: it’s a taught, well-plotted murder mystery. Despite some predictable plot twists (who’d have thought that the ignored cold case, the butt of so many jokes, would shed light on the main case—other than every intelligent reader?), the milieu of Algonquin Bay and the always enjoyable and, this time, following his wife’s murder, the especially vulnerable Detective Cardinal. The mysterious crime scene with the beheaded Russian furriers, possibly with a Mafia connection, combined with the clear signs of presence of another mysterious person at the crime scene ties in with local politics and marital discord, all lead to the reader’s enjoyment at Blunt’s deft handling of the multiple strands he weaves together. The challenging aspect of the book is the same issue as I had with Blackfly Season (two books back in the series): because Blunt gives us much of the criminal’s perspective, we see deep and peculiar brutalities and odd character studies that detract from the mystery but fail to add a significant thriller component. Despite this weakness in writing, I continue to enjoy Blunt’s books, and look forward to the next Cardinal outing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), 1943. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 1969.

The Glass Bead Game was a revelation to me in high school: it was a tome that made sense of life, that drew me toward academia and study in what I now know was a dramatically over-idealised way. Given its importance to the earlier me, I’m surprised that, until this fall, my copy has been sitting on shelves, un-reread, the story only half-remembered.

Hesse’s novel follows Joseph Knecht, a young man who is so dedicated to his music that he is plucked from his virtually un-described normal life and sent to the elite schools in Castalia—the region where the real scholars are made. Hesse follows Knecht’s career through two sets of schools, and then into the “order” of scholars and his leadership position in the order. You now know almost everything that “happens”: this story is about ideas, and the reader experiences debates between characters and musings on knowledge, politics, social responsibility, the proper role of study to the state, and more.

There are some peculiar features to this book. I read it as a sort of gedankenexperiment, an attempt to dream as near-to-possible a utopia as might exist, complete with the challenges it would face in relating to the “real” world. The form of the book is also unusual: it’s almost an anthology. It begins with an introduction to the glass bead game (the central conceit of the book and Castalia, the game is an elaborate formal way of representing the inter-relationship of various aspects—well, of all aspects—of knowledge*), and continues with a dry, academic biography of Knecht with a tone that Hesse deliberately writes in a way that skirts close to hagiography. Then we have the poems Knecht wrote as a student, followed by three of his gedankenexperiments: imagined lives he might have lived in other times and places in the world. We learn much about Castalia, and it seems awfully close to the monastic scholarship ideal (so the scholars can have affairs in their youths, sure, but otherwise they’re celibate, and there’s a disturbing absence of women that is hard not to read as misogynistic in this era—strange that teenage me wasn’t disturbed or upset by that absence/misogyny). In fact, it veers so close that it’s really only possible to distinguish it because of an extended section of Knecht’s career when he’s sent to be a game tutor to a leading Benedictine monastery, to advance Castalia’s hopes of permanent relations with the Vatican.

It’s not a book one would pick up to be riveted by story, but in the extended character study, Hesse reveals in Knecht both an idealist and an ideal. We’re asked both to empathize with the kenosis of true scholarship and civic identity (reinforced by an opposing pair of friend and mentors: Tegularius, whom Hesse based on Nietzsche, who sees little of such responsibilities; and Father Jacobus, based on Jakob Burckhardt, who is the ideal monk and scholar. The universality of the individual’s struggle between these poles is revealed not just in Knecht, but also through Knecht’s ‘secular’ non-Castalian friend, Plinio Designori). We’re forced to engage with just how much an individual has an obligation to be true to himself, and at what cost, when part of society. It’s a theme we see in much of Hesse’s work, but in The Glass Bead Game it plays at a nearly constant fortissimo, unmuted by a need for story.

Just what did teenage me see in this book? I think it likely that I saw in it, in a way that I could articulate nor fully comprehend at the time, a paradox I couldn’t then resolve between creativity and scholarship, and found myself drawn to a place and milieu where I imagined I would be free to live in a way that could explore that paradox. Now, that’s a misreading of the book—Castalia and Knecht show little freedom from the world I remember in high school—but it’s what I half-remembered, before I reread The Glass Bead Game. It also explains why I was so fascinated by the I Ching after reading the book for the first time, given its allusive and elusive way of making sense of what is to come that functions in a book as a symbol of that paradox.

I’m less sure, outside of what’s certainly a more nuanced reading, what I got out of my reengagement with the text. There remains something seductive about the utopia of Castalia, and a slim desire to emulate Knecht (and a wishing that I lived his self-discipline!); at the same time, I find myself more intrigued by the gulf Hesse depicts between scholarship and the world: Castalia can exist after a long, nightmare-like period of war and desolation, but it’s an ill-understood beacon to the rest of the world: a place to be vaguely proud of in a nebulous way, without having any sense of what it’s actually for or about. Despite being on the other side of the “Age of the Feuilleton”, a time when people were more interested in crosswords and diversions than real learning, Castalia is more what lets the rest of the world claim they’ve moved past that age than the epitome of a shift of culture. Hesse’s prophetic (not forecasting, but prophecy à la the Hebrew Scriptures, warning of a loss of purpose, understanding, and right-living) depiction of the world is no less true of our time than it was of a world in the throes of the Second World War—and will likely continue to go unheard.

* Perhaps it was my fascination with the game that led me to become as fond as I am of the work of Northrop Frye: the game imagines that all aspects of human knowledge may be studied as a system, and that the interrelations may be displayed: this is strikingly close to Frye's concept of a verbal universe with a structure that it is the critic's job to study, describe, and comment upon.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Richard Castle, Naked Heat, 2010.

The newest entry in the on-going saga of Richard Castle--sorry, of "Jameson Rook"--this novel is weaker than the last year's entry, Heat Wave. What worries me is why I think that's true. After all, this mystery is well-paced, and has some surprising twists and turns. It stands squarely in line with the TV series, with a similar sense of humour. Naked Heat and Heat Wave have clear similarities with episodes of Castle, with the same unfolding of the case, and characters who are in many ways much like Rick Castle and Detective Kate Beckett. So what's not to like? Well—that's the part that embarasses me. I don't think that the TV character Rick Castle would write like this. I think he'd be a better writer. I grant that's a pretty subjective judgement. Let me offer an example or two. On the first page, describing Nikki Heat, "Castle" writes: "She used the interlude to peel back the lid of her coffee to see if it was drinking temp yet." Castle's portrayed as a language geek on the show, someone who cares about how the English language is used: I simply can't imagine the character allowing "temp" to stay in a published copy of a book, rather than "temperature." Pedantic, on my part? Absolutely. More telling are the lines like this one:
The previous May, just days after he had returned to New York from Cannes, where he received a special jury prize for his role as the bastard son of France's first American ambassador, Reed Wakefield pulled a Heath Ledger and died of an accidental drug overdose. (129)

The overly long nature of the sentence is a stylistic issue; the tastelessness of the simile is egregious. If the simile was being used on the show — and it got past Standards and Practices to make it on the air, an idea I find hard to credit —I could imagine Nathan Fillion pulling it off with his insouciant charm. On the page, it doesn't work.

I've taken several days to wonder why I'm so disturbed by faults like these. (I've also taken several days to ponder instead of to blog, because my beloved has been reading it, and I haven't gotten my hands back on the copy to type out the examples I've used.) How much of my reaction is a fan-boy-esque disappointment in something that didn't live up to my expectations, and how much is something else? Does a television network publishing a book to help advertise a show have a responsibility to make the novel sound as though it was written by the character to whom it's ascribed? How much of my problem is that the mystery itself wasn't as good as Heat Wave? I'm finding these questions interesting, and I don't have clear answers. Despite the flaws in writing (and in not sounding enough like the Rick Castle I watch each Monday night), it's a decent little diversion. I can't imagine that anyone who picks it up is looking for anything remarkable--maybe its real purpose, other than advertising, is to let over-interested viewers leer voyeuristically at Castle's fantasies of a Beckett/Castle relationship, in the not-overly-disguised roman à clef fashion that these books offer.

I'm left disappointed, but more intrigued by my own reaction. The book itself reminds us of the importance of libraries; after all, it's certainly not worth the $24.99 US sticker price.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Maureen Johnson,
       Suite Scarlett, 2008
       Scarlett Fever, 2010.

Why do teenagers and tweens read Twilight crap and other such things when they could read well-written, clever, and entertaining YA novels like Johnson’s? Who needs to worry about vampires and werewolves when one can wonder who will capture Scarlett’s heart? (Note no actual Twilight comparisons should be considered: the books referred to in this blog entry are good, and worth reading. And lack vampires. Deo gratias on both counts!)

Set in a New York that’s neither tourist-y (for the most part) nor exploited for fear or kitsch, Johnson’s stories of Scarlett Martin and her family are rollicking, funny, and engaging. Scarlett’s family runs the no-longer top-notch Hopewell hotel in Manhattan. As the first novel starts, Scarlett is, in the family tradition, given one of the Hopewell’s suites to care for; while it should have been more a formality than real work, the arrival of the mysterious and peculiar Mrs. Amberson changes Scarlett’s plans for how she was to spend that summer. Meanwhile, her brother Spencer is trying to make it as an actor, and the production of Hamlet in which he lands the role of Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern—I can't actually remember if it's specified, and the two roles are treated fairly interchangeably when the play takes the fore) is lacking a production space. Add the challenge of the younger sister, Marlene, who only likes the older sister Lola (who is herself in a confusing romantic space with her rich boyfriend). Toss together with the complications of Eric, the Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz), who may or may not have a thing for Scarlett, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem, silliness, comedic timing, pratfalls, Shakespearean revenge subplots, and general fun that’s eminently enjoyable. The second novel follows in the series: new romantic interests, new familial complications, new wackiness-es with Mrs. Amberson (whose borrowed dog and put-upon doorman exist to provide set-pieces that Johnson handles deftly), plus school all combine to leave the reader wondering how Scarlett continues to stumble from one thing to the next.

Read. Enjoy. And for pity’s sake, if you see a young woman (or man) reading misogynistic Twilight crap, give her these instead: it’s more worth her time to have a plausible young woman who’s simultaneously strong and confused by life as a role model than simpering simpletons she’ll find in other books.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Patricia Briggs, Silver Borne, 2010.

I blame Felicia Day and her twitter feed for my first reading Briggs and her series about a mechanic, Mercedes Thompson, who shifts into being a coyote and whose personal life is a little too intertwined with werewolves. In many ways, it’s very traditional fantasy: a great deal of thought has been put into the nature of werewolves and their pack dynamics (and their revelation of their existence to the wider world), into the fae, into witches and magic and vampires. Underlying each novel to date in the series (and I don’t seem to have blogged about them, but have read each one—embarrassment?) is an acknowledged debt to existing mythology and a clever attempt to update it and bring it into our own world. Its weaknesses, as a series, stem from another convention of too much of contemporary fantasy: the novels verge too often on slipping into the harlequin-esque romance style, and the depth of reliance on mythology and the sheer creativity of the milieu Mercedes inhabits is the saving grace.

This novel is the fifth in the series (after Moon Crossed, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed, and Bone Crossed), and is not my favourite of the lot. Its plot revolves around an attempt on Mercy’s life, fae who want an object in her possession, werewolves trying to upset the pack dynamics, and a werewolf on the verge of ending his life. The elements of the plot fail to cohere sufficiently well: ideas are introduced but not sustained, and emerge later, half-forgotten. The entire suplot of the werewolf unhappy with his existence is weak and implausible given what we know of him from the other books in the series. Finally, the denouement is so scattered and diffuse that it feels like Ms. Briggs simply didn’t know how to bring the story to a successful conclusion. I do hope that the next volume returns to the quality of the earlier books in this series.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans, 2009.

A collection of short pieces, some of the tales and anecdotes in this book are familiar and others are obscure. Many will know “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra” and “Pontoon Boat”, but “Ministers’ Retreat” and “Lorraine Turnblad’s Tombstone” are far less well known. Each story has its particular Woebegon-ian charm, and it’s an enjoyable book. My sole complaint is that, aside from Woebegon and/or vague references to Lutherans, the book suffers from a lack of organization: it’s not structured, even moving through seasons, and so it really is a book to pick up at discrete intervals. The reader is left only with a sense of the milieu, both of Lake Woebegon and, to a lesser extent, of the midwestern Lutheran mores of which Keillor is the principal hagiographer (or idolater?). It’s an enjoyable read, marked principally by moments of quiet hopefulness about the capacity (too rarely reached) of humans to offer and receive love in meaningful ways.