All posts filed under: Literature

Listening to Literature—What We Gain and Lose with Audiobooks

I couldn’t finish Ulysses. This was 1994, the year after I’d graduated from Arizona State University with an English degree, and the year that my rock band started providing a living from playing gigs in Tempe. Both of these events left me divorced from a reading community I’d come to rely on since my junior college days in Moline, Illinois, when I took a class that required the reading of eight novels. I read those novels—which included A Clockwork Orange, The Awakening, 1984—found them more daring and provocative than anything in rock music, and started entertaining the idea that I too might write one someday. It would be 10 years after that class before I would quit my band and jump headfirst into novel writing. Until then, I was left with a music life that paid the bills but ultimately didn’t ask much from me, and a literary life that felt stalled—no more instructors leading me down the path of great literature; no more parsing the differences between romanticism, realism, and naturalism; no more Shakespeare …

Huxley, Burroughs, and the Church of Scientology

In the 21st century, Scientology has become a synonym for “cult.” Thanks to an array of investigative exposés and testimony from former members, few people in the Western world are unaware of at least some of the Church’s fantastical beliefs and more alarming behaviours. Sixty years ago, however, it was viewed quite differently. Scientology—or dianetics, as it was originally known—was an appealing idea to many intellectuals and creatives at a time when the world was rapidly changing and notions that had once been taken for granted were suddenly being tossed out of the window. In science, art, and philosophy, accepted norms were being turned on their heads, and in the 1950s and ’60s, L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas—peddled as an alternative to psychiatry—fit quite nicely among the emerging doctrines dreamed up by his contemporary thinkers. Indeed, the original concepts that launched Hubbard’s movement were not as outrageous as those that define it today. Among these, the idea of “engrams” and the “reactive mind” were perhaps the most appealing. Hubbard theorised that humans are marked by unconscious …

Blessed Are the Sense-Makers

Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative. The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by …

The Prophet of Dystopia at Rest: Margaret Atwood in Cuba

Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale As a Cuba scholar, a student of literature and politics, and an enthusiastic reader of Margaret Atwood’s work, I have collected articles and media clips over the years related to the Grande Dame of CanLit’s many private and official visits to Cuba. Frankly, the file is thin. Generally, scholars engage with her important body of work (more than 60 books, fiction and non-fiction), without mentioning this topic. It is an interesting footnote, no more. Why interesting? Because it illustrates, in her case and as a pattern, how an inquiring mind sincerely committed to human rights and democratic values can turn off its critical antennae. Atwood allowed herself to become a compliant guest in a country that checks almost all the boxes of totalitarianism, minus extensive terror: a single-party state, no rule of law, arbitrary arrests (2,000 of them during the first eight months of last year), stultifying media (even Raúl Castro says so), and a regime of censorship …

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’

“Who’s there?” These are the two words that begin Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is primarily this question, and not “To be or not to be?” with which Hamlet wrestles throughout the play. The two words are spoken from one soldier to another; Elsinore’s castle guards are on the midnight shift, and on the face of it, the words simply set the stage for the time and place. (Shakespeare’s theatre had limited technology for special effects and set pieces, so atmosphere had to be invoked entirely with words.) But on another level, one that Shakespeare clearly intended, the question is an existential one, as is the more confounding response of the other watchman: “Nay, answer me. Stand, and unfold yourself.” This call-and-response poses a number of questions. Who are other people? How can we know that what others reveal to us is the real them? How do I “unfold” myself to others? Who am I, under my “folds”? Am I what I show others? Something deep within? Is my identity a series of socially constructed layers? Or …

James Baldwin and the Trouble with Protest Literature

“The hardest thing in the world to do,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a 1934 article for Esquire, “is to write straight honest prose on human beings. First you have to know the subject; then you have to know how to write. Both take a lifetime to learn and anybody is cheating who takes politics as a way out.” Of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, he quipped, “see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are.” Hemingway was not discounting the political, merely clarifying its relationship to literature. “Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.” Be it a piece …

Interrogating Jane

Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.” Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise …

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing

On March 21st, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta arrived in Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert rally for Sports Illustrated. Asked to write a 500-word summary of the race to accompany a photograph, Thompson annoyed his editors when he turned in thousands of words about his escapades in the city of sin, with barely a mention of the race itself. This bizarre piece of writing ultimately became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one of the most important but misunderstood novels of the 20th century. In 1971, Hunter S. Thompson was at the peak of his literary powers but not yet a household name. His first book, Hell’s Angels, had been published to widespread acclaim just five years earlier, and in 1970, he had stumbled upon a great literary breakthrough with an essay entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a piece of writing so unique that it created a new literary genre that came to be known as “Gonzo journalism.” As the star writer for Rolling Stone, Thompson …

We Can Revisit (And Even Replace) the Classic Books We Teach Children—Without Cancelling Them

Earlier this month, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles because they included several drawings with racial stereotypes. As the press release put it, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalog represents and supports all communities and families.” The New York Times published opposing responses. Columnist Charles M. Blow celebrated the news, linking the books to the racist stereotypes in Tarzan and Our Gang that had damaged his self-esteem growing up. He argued that these images should be weeded out because they lead children to internalize a sense of inferiority. His conservative counterpart Ross Douthat, on the other hand, described the decision as evidence that companies are abandoning free-speech principles in order to protect their image from progressive attacks. This self-censorship has frightening implications as they have unfettered control over major cultural franchises and landmarks. As one might imagine, Fox News was less restrained. Tucker …

Before ‘Groundhog Day’: The Time-Loop Novel that Started It All

On March 4th, the Ringer, a website that covers pop culture, featured an article entitled “We’re in a Time Loop of Time-Loop Movies.” Similar articles have appeared in many other pop-culture venues of late. Suddenly, time-loop stories seem to be everywhere. This month Hulu began streaming director Joe Carnahan’s new sci-fi action film Boss Level, the tale of a soldier in the near future who wakes up every morning only to relive the day of his death. Carnahan has described the film as “Groundhog Day as an action movie.” A few weeks before the release of Boss Level, Amazon Prime released director Ian Samuels’s film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which could be described as Groundhog Day as a teenage romance. Last July, Hulu released director Max Barbakow’s film Palm Springs, a time-loop story starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons. The film is both a romance and an action film. It’s no surprise that time-loop stories seem suddenly relevant to many pop-culture consumers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the various quarantines …