Essay questions from the Primer

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995):

  • “[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as could be, and that some cultures were better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.” pp. 16-17
  • “[A]s many first-time fathers had realized in the delivery room, there was something about the sight of an actual baby that focused the mind. In a world of abstractions, nothing was more concrete than a baby.” p. 150
  • “[T]he difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” p. 256

Each of these is thought or voiced by one of the father figures in this novel. Discuss among yourselves.

Seven from Six

It is perilous to abstract quotations from a novel since context is the key and otherwise all you have is epigrams. Nevertheless, I don’t want to give spoilers, so here goes with some excerpts from Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six (2019):

  • “You have these lines you won’t cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won’t instantly come to an end. You’ve taken a big, black, bold line and you’ve made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.” (pp. 65-66)
  • “When you have everything, someone else getting a little something feels like they’re stealing from you.” (pp. 149-150)
  • “If I’ve given the impression that trust is easy—with your spouse, with your kids, with anybody you care about—if I’ve made it seem like it’s easy to do . . . then I’ve misspoken. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But you have nothing without it. Nothing meaningful at all. That’s why I chose to do it.” (p. 215).
  • “When [redacted] died, that was it. I’d decided there was no sense in getting sober. I rationalized it. You know, If the universe wanted me to get clean, it wouldn’t have killed [redacted]. You can justify anything. If you’re narcissistic enough to believe that the universe conspires for and against you—which we all are, deep down—then you can convince yourself you’re getting signs about anything and everything.” (pp. 295-296).
  • I was getting a lot of phone calls from [redacted] at all hours of the day. I’d say, “Let me come get you.” And [redacted]’d refuse. I thought about trying to force [redacted] into rehab. But you can’t do that. You can’t control another person. It doesn’t matter how much you love them. You can’t love someone back to health and you can’t hate someone back to health and no matter how right you are about something, it doesn’t mean they will change their mind.” (p. 299).
  • “She said, ‘Don’t count yourself out this early . . . . You’re all sorts of things you don’t even know yet.’ That really stuck with me. That who I was wasn’t entirely already determined.” (p. 320)
  • “But if you get to be my age and you can’t look back at your life and wonder about some of your choices . . . well, you have no imagination.” (p. 331).

Misha on Depression

Talcott Garland:

  • “I am depressed. And I almost like it. Depression is seductive: it offends and teases, frightens you and draws you in, tempting you with its promise of sweet oblivion, then overwhelming you with a nearly sexual power, squirming past your defenses, dissolving your will, invading the tired spirit so utterly that it becomes difficult to recall that you ever lived without it . . . or to imagine that you might live that way again. With all the guile of Satan himself, depression persuades you that its invasion was all your own idea, that you wanted it all along. It fogs the part of the brain that reasons, that knows right and wrong. It captures you with its warm, guilty, hateful pleasures, and, worst of all, it becomes familiar. All at once, you find yourself in thrall to the very thing that most terrifies you. Your work slides, your friendships slide, your marriage slides, but you scarcely notice: to be depressed is to be half in love with disaster.”

Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park 207 (2002).

AJ

You should visit Alan Jacob’s blog regularly or have Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org) on your newsfeed. You know this, because I write it all the time. Of course you will not find everything he writes (or reads) interesting, but many things are quite striking. Four recent examples:

  • In “hubris” (Aug. 26, 2021) [link], Jacobs revisits the question of whether it might just be better to opt out of social media.
  • On August 25 [link], Jacobs points us to his January 6, 2021 piece “School for Scale” in The Hedgehog Review [link] and reminds us why it is really, really important to understand decimals.
  • Jacobs refers us to something Oliver Burkeman wrote long ago in the Guardian: “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time” (May 21, 2014) [link]. Eerily reminiscent of observed reality!
  • “Tolkien and Auden” (Aug. 16, 2021) [link] concerns the two famous writers who were good, though unlikely, friends. Jacobs wrote a delightful short play (“Sandfield Road”) about the two men. You can read it in 15 minutes, here [link].

Jacobs has twenty eight posts since August 15, so you have some catching up to do.

18 for ’21

Old and new friends.

Dystopia 2021

“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”

—Julian


In December 1983, it was a common thing to speculate about how similar (and different) the world was from that anticipated (proposed?) by George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984.

A few days ago I picked up P.D. James’ 1992 novel for the first time in 15 or 20 years and was surprised to rediscover that the first entry in Theo’s diary was for this coming Friday:

Friday 1 January 2021  Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. . . .

I had forgotten that in The Children of Men (1992) the events all occur in 2021. The premise (no spoilers if you haven’t read it) is that human fertility declines so that no one is born after 1995. The implications are frightening, as the aging population comes to trade freedom for security (in the normal way) as it faces the coming disintegration of the social order.

Boris Johnson is not the Warden of England, and the disaster James speculated about is not upon us, but the cautions James weaves into this “hopeful dystopia” are ones we may benefit from in this, the age of the latest pandemic.

Recommended (again).*

*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.

Race Empathy

One of the great benefits of reading, particularly novels and memoirs, is its ability to promote the kind of empathy Atticus Finch describes to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Justice OnenessEmbraced

 

I am currently reading John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (2006) [amazon] [link to Rabbit Room Reading Group] and Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced (2015) [amazon], but here are several more books which may help you inhabit the skins of others:

 

 

Solitary

 

Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [amazon] is the memoir of a black man in prison who spent nearly all of his life in prison in Louisiana for a murder he could not have committeed. I wrote a review and also posted some quotations from the book. [review] [post].Invisible

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018) [amazon] is the biography of Eunice Hunton Carter, Stephen Carter’s grandmother, who Amazon describes as “a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s.”

Between the World and Me (2015) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ heartbreaking memoir for his son about what it means to grow up as a black man in white America. Not an easy read. I’ve read this book several times and wrote a couple of posts. [post] [post]Extraordinary

Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) [amazon] is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s fascinating (and touching) memoir of her parents, as she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham.Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) [amazon] is an excellent dystopian novel about race and control.

Incidents

Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861) [amazon] is an astounding autobiography of a woman raised in slavery, who escaped her bondage.

And of course, don’t forget Harper Lee’s incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) [amazon], which you were supposed to read in junior high! Sissy Spacek does a beautiful reading of the book. [audible]

Two for early 2020

Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).Index of Self-Destructive Acts

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).

No spoilersBaseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.

Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.

Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”

For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.

Highly recommended.


Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*

The Glass Hotel

No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).

Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.

Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.

No spoilersNo spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)

But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life,  . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.

Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:

A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)

It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).

“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)

Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.

This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:

He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)

Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.

Highly recommended.

*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].