The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The inky swamp

Jonathan Harris, in one of his thoughtful photos-of-the-day:

I would like it if somebody worth emulating would give me a list of the 100 books that I need to read, in order to push and poke at my stiff sense of self until I am larger and more dynamic, expanded like a rubber balloon in 100 directions by 100 well-expressed world views.

With such a list, I would have no problem with a computerless cabin-bound existence, and I would never venture back to the swampland of the Smith Family bookstore, nor any other wetland like it, trudging through printed sprawl to look for pearls.

Two things. One: the photo-of-the-day, with a good caption, is really ideally internet-sized, isn’t it? Two: I admire the elegance of his articulation, but I disagree with Jonathan Harris’s destination. We’ve been stuck in cabins with too-short lists for too long! The printed sprawl is where the action is. Dive in, I say.


Kind of sounds like he wants to out-source his intellectual growth, doesn’t it?

Guides and role models are essential of course; no way to navigate all thie terra nova alone. But I honestly can’t imagine there being *anyone* whose guidance you’d want for a list of even 20 or 30 books, much less 100.

Let’s put it this way: none of the people who WROTE any of the best hundred books read only the best hundred books. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, Kafka, Joyce, Pynchon are all products of the printed sprawl.

That’s not just reading “lesser” fiction, either. Proust has a great bit about how no romance could ever be as exciting as a printed train schedule, ESPECIALLY if you’ve never been to the places listed. “In eight hours, I could be in Venice!” Jack Kerouac stole this idea and called it “On the Road.”

Another note. This reminds me of a debate I continually have with myself about languages. Is it better to have a rudimentary knowledge of a dozen languages, or translator-level fluency in one or two? I lean towards the first –that’s basically where I am — but envy the second.

It’s easy to envy the people who seem to have mastered the Things That Matter. But take it from someone who’s probably read most if not all of any “best 100” books list: it’s fun, and useful, but not nearly so much as either having your own weird base of knowledge that you’re totally passionate about OR being generally fluent in the ambient musical noise of the broader culture. That’s real equipment for living.

I agree with Tim’s second comment, except for the parts I disagree with.

I am wholly in agreement with the notion of a personal, weird base of knowledge. But that seems likely to be diluted or skipped altogether by a person taking the easier route Tim also suggests: “being generally fluent in the ambient musiĀ­cal noise of the broader culture.”

That sounds like a dodge to me, a cop-out.
Best: have your own accumulated and assimilated knowledge;
Not bad: have a disciplined range of knowledge as a foundation.
Lazy: being generally fluent in the ambient musiĀ­cal noise of the broader culture.


P.S. Does anybody else suffer from extraneously inserted spaces when copy-pasting from Snarkmarket?

A-ha. You know what that is? It’s our fancy typography plugin. Those are space characters that are invisible in a browser, but allow it to break words elegantly. Hmm, didn’t realize they showed up in copy-and-paste… now weighing cost/benefit. Hmm hmm hmm.

Lazy? LAZY?

Howard, to go back to White Men Can’t Jump, it is hard, god-damn work to pay attention to dozens of cultural fields, finding the valuable luminous particulars and unexpected resonances in them. This is the best side of Malcolm Gladwell, Virginia Heffernan, Jason Kottke — actually, most of the great bloggers and commonplacers and cultural critics you can think of.

Maybe you’re thinking of fluency as mindlessly parroting whatever people are chatting about right this minute. That’s what bad bloggers do. That’s not what I mean at all.

Carl Caputo says…

Regarding your postscript, Howard, yeah, I had that spacing thing happen yesterday when I copy and pasted the text of Robin’s Dubai retro-photography post. First time I’d noticed it.

People read for all kinds of reasons and reading for personal growth is terrific. But who are you, where have you been, who do you want to be, what do you want to learn about? A standard list from someone who doesn’t know you and, frankly, couldn’t care less about you, won’t help. You need to create your own list, not written down ahead of time but crafted over time, because as you read more and learn more you will find out where you want to grow and where you don’t. So you see, your list would be dynamic. A Top 100 will turn you into a nutcase if you use the great novels to shape yourself.

I’m a little confused about the Smith Family Bookstore, but if you were talking to a real bookseller, she would walk the aisles with you and you would talk; she would think about you and where you are trying to go; she would suggest a few books and send you away. You would return a day, week, month later and talk with her some more. She would think and walk with you again, and so it would go, for years maybe, until you have let go of your stiff sense of self and are dynamic and self-confident and can guide your own expanding rubber balloon. And it’s likely that your relationship with the bookseller changed her too, just as every eager and passionate customer does. And this will make her a better bookseller, and her next customer will be even better rewarded than you were, and so on.

And just so you know, this is not theory, this is what happens in a good bookstore. And I am here as a bookfuturist — I want to figure out how to keep these kinds of relationships alive as we move forward.

No fair, Tim. White Men Can’t Jump is one of my favorite movies.

I remember pronouncing (with what I recall as a great outpouring of cultural fluency) as soon as I saw the movie that it represented a sea change about our societal view of race relations: the black guy was the multi-tasking family man, the white guy was the perpetual fuck-up and trash-talker, basketball was what knitted them together, Rosie Perez was … well, hot, I thought.

I saw the movie shortly after it opened, in early April 1992. Within a couple of weeks, the Rodney King riots started. My fluency deflated.

But I do have to grant you that genuine cultural fluency is an achievement, though your examples do little to persuade me. I love Kottke, whose range is impressive; Hefferman seems hopelessly erratic, and as for Gladwell … well, I’m with Pinker on that one.

Tim Carmody says…

I liked White Men Can’t Jump for more juvenile reasons, probably because I was 12. I loved basketball; I thought the movie was hilarious; and, um, Rosie Perez was hot. Smart, too! (She’s even smart enough to leave Billy when he wants to gamble away their money again. And he doesn’t get her back.)

Okay, forget Heffernan and Gladwell for a second and think about the IDEA of Heffernan and Gladwell. (I’d contend it’s the idea of Gladwell that motivates most Gladwellian bloggers to do what they do, not Gladwell’s writing itself.) A columnist who writes about the aesthetics and experiences of popular trends and new technologies; a polymath who finds big counterintuitive connections in vastly disparate fields that actually appear to have real lessons to teach.

Both of these people are knowledgable, and knowledge-producing. Neither of them are specialists. Neither would gain a whole lot by reading a hundred books in a cabin from a list. (They could probably put together some pretty esoteric lists, though.)

Tim Carmody says…

I’ve taught Do the Right Thing about four times for my students, and they all think Rosie Perez’s dance at the beginning of the movie is impossibly cheesy. Each time I talk a little bit about my experience watching it as a ten-year-old kid in Detroit, and I always mention that scene — not fully knowing what was happening (in the movie, to me) but knowing that its strange cocktail of sexual aggression was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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