The list of shame

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There’s a funny thing that happens when you read fairly widely: you’re going to end up with a lot of things that you’ll be glad that you read. You finished all of Pride and Prejudice? Good for you! Made it through the entirety of Moby Dick? Great! But if there’s something that two English degrees has taught me at this point, it’s that there’s always going to be something you haven’t read. I call this the list of shame.

The list of shame is all the classic literature and great works I haven’t read, and (for me at least) the list is probably longer than it ought to be. The books that are on the list of shame are long and quite varied, and they represent just a small sample of things that I haven’t read yet, but really plan on reading at some point.

So, by way of a confession, here, in no particular order, is just a small sample of a list that is more extensive than it should be:

  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Why it’s on the top of the list: this book has been gathering dust on my shelf for a long time. I actually own the physical book, and I even brought it with me on my move from the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest. Anyone else who might own the book knows that it’s quite large, so moving it that far is no small feat. It’s been almost three years since I moved and probably about five since I bought it. I still haven’t touched it. Also, Dostoevsky has been my favorite author for years, and even that hasn’t made me actually finish this book. For shame.
  • All of Jane Austen. Why it’s on the list: I’ve never read a Jane Austen book. Seriously. Not a single one. I know what her writing is all about, and I would probably enjoy it, but I’ve never gotten around to actually reading her books.
  • The Road by Jack Kerouac. Why it’s on the list: I love Kerouac. I’ve read more of his poetry than I can even remember, and I even read his stream of consciousness insanity in Old Angel Midnight, but I’ve never read his single most well-known book. This is even a fairly short one compared to some of the other things on this list, so I am really left without an excuse for this one.
  • Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Why it’s on the list: there are two books that I’ve started and just could not finish reading. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is one of them. I decided a while back that I needed to know more about philosophy, so I picked this one up along with a few other philosophy books. I admit that this one was beyond me at the time. Half the time I didn’t know what Kant was saying, and the other half, I felt like I wasn’t familiar enough with the arguments to really grasp what was going on. I know a little bit more now than I did when I first started reading this, but I’m still hesitant about trying to pick this up again.
  • Almost all of Hemingway. Why it’s on the list: I’ve read some of Hemmingway’s work, and I honestly can’t get into it. The short, completely unadorned sentence structure is distracting and obnoxious, and I can’t read it without thinking that I’m reading work by students who are unnecessarily afraid of all punctuation except the period. Terrible stuff. I might read more Hemingway, but then I might not as well.
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Why it’s on the list: has anyone really read this book? Did they actually get anything meaningful out of it? I don’t really believe it. I’ve read some of Joyce’s more coherent works, and those seem fine, but this one? I don’t know. That being said, there’s an argument that really no one has actually made it through this book either, so I might be in good company.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Why it’s on the list: so many pages… so many… pages. I’ll get around to it one day, but in the meantime… so many pages…
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Why it’s on the list: way back in 2012 when the movie came out, I said I would read the book before I saw the movie because at that point I still hadn’t read the book. Fast forward to 2018, and I still haven’t read the book. I still haven’t watched the movie either.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why it’s on the list: Another time that I said I was going to read the book before watching the movie. I’ve done neither of those things.
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. Why it’s on the list: two of the oldest books in existence and basically the “start here” section of Western literature. You can even find them for free on the Amazon Kindle Store, and yet, I still haven’t read them. Terrible.

So why the list of shame? This was not put together in an attempt to flaunt my own ignorance. We get plenty of that from our politicians these days, and I don’t need to add to the mix. This was also not put together for some kind of self-flagellation, but it does have a point. A lot of us here in the blogosphere are literary types: writers, at least, or fairly voracious readers, and we have a tendency to obsess over the things that we have read and downplay the things which we have not. I think this does us a disservice as readers because it can give us a false impression of our accomplishments. Basically, it comes down to this: no matter how widely read you are, there are going to be things you haven’t read, and there is going to be someone out there who has read all the things you haven’t, and all the things you’ve read will be on their list of shame.

The list of shame has an alternative purpose as well: this is my list of things that I want to read, and probably will get around to reading at some point. I know there are some great books on this list, and I know I will probably enjoy some of them (even if others on the list are a slog). So in its own way, the list of shame is a bit of a motivating thing for me. It’s all the books I will get around to.

…Eventually.

-PWC.

National poetry month 2018

It’s the middle of National Poetry Month, and, if you’re like me, that means you’ve been reading a whole lot of poetry. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new thing for me. I’m usually reading a whole lot of poetry; however, I had a thought a while I was in the middle of this poetry cram: perhaps instead of trying to get as much poetry into my day as I possibly could, it might be a good idea to take a deeper dive into a single poem. To that end, starting this second half of National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to try to actually memorize an entire piece. While I’m doing this, I also thought I would make a bit of a case for memorization as opposed to cramming when it comes to poetry.

First, poetry is not the same genre as prose, and because of this, it requires a different reading tactic. If you sit down with a good book, you could easily keep reading forward for hours and get the gist of the story. Poetry doesn’t work that way. A lot of the time, reading a poem requires more than one read in order to really understand what the piece is going for, and even after two readings, there are still going to be things that get missed along the way. Basically, a poem invites the reader to take things a little slower and really appreciate what the words and the language are doing. The best way to see what a writer was going for with the language (especially if you can’t hear them actually reading the piece) is to memorize it. This doesn’t put the poem in your own words, but it does put it in your own voice and allows you to get at that deep appreciation of how the words are being used.

Another thing to consider is ownership. No, you won’t ever completely own a poem unless you’ve written one yourself and never show it to anyone else; however, with memorization, there’s a way that you let a piece become a part of you: a piece of the way that your mind works. If you have some poetry memorized, lines will come into your head, sometimes when they aren’t appropriate, but more often than not when they are completely applicable to whatever your situation happens to be. Further, a memorized poem can’t be taken away from you. Your book might get lost, stolen, left on a bus, etc., but if you have something committed to memory, the book doesn’t matter as much. The piece that you know will always be with you.

There are some other benefits as well: memorization is also good for your cognitive functioning, and the more you do it the easier it gets to do. While those are good to know, I think they’re mostly just gravy. All the good stuff is the experience of the poem that you can really only get through memorization.

Memorization is a long and difficult process, and it can be fairly hard to do. That being said, I’d still suggest giving it a try. It’s, arguably, the best way to enjoy a poem, and the best way to really understand a piece. If you’re thinking of committing something to memory for National Poetry Month, I have two pieces of advice: start with something small, and start with something that rhymes. Sonnets are great for this. Fourteen lines and a really regular rhyme scheme make memorization really easy, so if this is something you want to try, that’s where I would suggest starting.

Happy National Poetry Month!

-PWC

Black Panther or Why isolationism is a bad idea

This has been a long time coming, but I’ve finally had a chance to see and think over Marvel’s latest movie, Black Panther. The movie itself was so widely seen that I don’t really feel the need to discuss the plot all that much, but the gist is this: the setting is the fictional country of Wakanda, home to the Black Panther himself as well as a precious commodity known as vibranium, which seems to have all the power to do everything from creating powerful weapons and armor to uses in medicine and technology (the wonderstuff is not particularly well explained in the movie, but hey, it’s Marvel, there’s probably a rich history of it in the comics). In order to keep the vibranium for themselves, Wakanda managed to hide and isolate itself from the rest of the world to the point where even those who know that the country exists only think of it as a poor nation. How exactly this was done isn’t made completely clear in the movie, but we get the idea that for years and years Wakanda has essentially been a country with completely closed borders. This closing off and isolationism leads directly to the central conflict of the story.

In the introductory scenes of the movie, we get a shot of multiple things that Wakanda, as a country, did not involve themselves in. We see, briefly, everything from colonization and slavery to various wars, and due to the country’s isolationism, we are left to believe that they sat out for all of it and allowed themselves to thrive while everything else went crazy around them. And thrive they did. The views that we see of the city are fairly amazing, and what we see of their technology is impressive as well. Of course, since the movie needs some kind of a conflict, that kind of thing was not going to last for long. Wakanda keeps spies in multiple nations, and some of the ones that were sent to the U.S. (and, although it’s only mentioned in passing, the U.K.) see first-hand the continuing effects of slavery and racism. They understandably want their country to get involved and to help, but due to the strict, isolationist policies, Wakanda continues to stay hidden.

There won’t be any spoilers here in the event that anyone hasn’t seen the movie, but the question that Black Panther raises is essentially this: is isolationism a good policy if it helps the country that is isolating itself? The thing we need to keep in mind here is that, economically at least, Wakanda is helped by its isolationism. That being said, it creates other problems in the long run. The villain’s main motivation, for example, is that he wants to help people that he’s seen who are victims of unfair systems and policies, and although he tries to do this through violence (which is never really the answer, by the way, and particularly isn’t the answer in a Marvel movie), his central idea is both understandable and in some ways even noble. Because of this, some of the more common superhero movie tropes are turned upside down: although his methods are wrong, the villain is going in the right direction, and although he’s technically the good guy, the eponymous Black Panther continues to support the isolationism that created the problem in the first place. So as to the question that the movie raises, the answer is a decided no. Isolationism is not good for anyone.

There’s a quote that gets attributed to pretty much everyone from John F. Kennedy to Moses that goes something along the lines of “the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.” Black Panther takes the same view. There was quite a lot of evil in the world that Wakanda could have stopped, and quite a lot of help it could have given, but due to their isolationism, evil was allowed to prevail in that world. As we think of things like border walls and brexit and the like, keeping the potential humanitarian pitfalls of isolationism in mind is quite important. And while I don’t think we’re in any danger of having the president lose his position in one-on-one combat (as entertaining as that would be), the questions that Black Panther raises and the ways that it answers them are important to consider.

-PWC

Bright and verisimilitude: in which I write a review

This post contains major spoilers for Bright. If you haven’t already watched it, you should probably see it before you read this. You’ve been warned.

I know I’m in a little late to the game here, but I finally got around to watching Bright, one of the latest of Netflix’s movies to come out with some mixed reactions. The movie is essentially based around a question that sounds a little bit like something a literature grad student would ask after a few too many PBRs: what if you took a fantasy world and set it in modern times? And that’s essentially the Bright universe. Set in LA, the story takes place a couple thousand years after the defeat of The Dark Lord, an event that isn’t fully explained other than the fact that the orcs decided to side with him. After the defeat, and due to their poor decision, orcs are essentially treated as the lowest tier of a three-tiered social structure with Elves as the elite social class, and humans as (basically) the middle class. The story itself follows the characters Nick Jakoby, the first orc cop in the LA police force, and his partner Daryl Ward, a human police officer who is none to pleased to have Jakoby there. The plot is a somewhat by-the-numbers hero’s tale where a man (and, sorry for the sexism, it is typically a man in these stories) is pulled from humble beginnings because of circumstances that are outside of his control, is given or finds some kind of magical object, suffers some manner of temptation or dark time only to rise above and vanquish the evil. If that sounds like the plot of a lot of movies, it’s only because it is. It makes for fairly enjoyable, albeit somewhat repetitive, storytelling, and Bright is no exception. I liked the movie, but other than the fantasy world in the modern times, there’s not a lot that’s unique about it. This is generally why the movie came out to mixed and/or poor reviews, but there’s a more serious problem with the Bright universe that needs a little critique: the problem is magic.

I have to take a step back here to define a term first. Verisimilitude is the ability to appear true or real, and for fiction writers, this is the ability for a story to appear real. Basically, it’s the capacity for a story to be plausible, even/especially if it isn’t possible. This is, of course, something that all fiction has to deal with at some level, but it is a very particular issue for speculative fiction like fantasy and science fiction where, in the former, you have magic, mythical creatures, and magical objects, and, in the latter, you have potentially unbridled science and technology. Because in fantasy and sci-fi these things are so far removed from actual, lived experience, they require something that makes them believable and, most importantly to make them believable, something that makes them limited. Otherwise, what you end up with is a storytelling device that can potentially be anything and do anything. This renders any problems the characters have null and void because, hey, when in doubt, magic out, right?

There are two examples I can bring up here when it comes to verisimilitude in fantasy: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Both of these universes have magic in them, but there are particularly important limits that are built into the story to make them believable. First, the Potterverse. In that universe, magic is potentially unlimited except for one key aspect: it has to be learned. This puts an important limit on the characters in that their use of magic is only as good as their capability to learn it, and in fact, some of the trouble that the main characters get into is actually because they don’t necessarily know all the spells needed to be able to do anything. Further, the fact that we see them learning from books means that magic is also discovered and written down by scholars who are experimenting with various capabilities. This leads the reader or viewer to two conclusions: first, a particularly gifted student could potentially become very powerful, but there are still going to be limits in terms of what a person could reasonably come to understand. Second, there would need to be experiments done in order to create and teach new spells which makes the understanding of magic in the Harry Potter universe (dare I say it?) scientific or, at the very least, empirical, leading to the conclusion that magic is not really an unlimited power. Granted, this verisimilitude completely breaks down when it comes to the magical objects in the universe (time turners and horcruxes? Really?), but at least for the characters, the magical system in Harry Potter is generally believable and never really becomes so powerful that the problems the characters face are easily resolved with the flick of a wand.

Speaking of magical objects, this leads us to Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. In these stories, magic is a given as well, but it actually is not nearly as prevalent as it could be. Aragorn’s miraculous healing is, well, miraculous, but other than that, Tolkien’s universe doesn’t really have much magic. Instead, Tolkien put most of the magical stuff into objects. The rings of power, for example, don’t really get their powers spelled out clearly, but are generally seen to inspire, to persuade, and, in the case of the One Ring, to control. This is true for many of the objects in Middle Earth. The named weapons, for example, are more like symbols of inspiration than truly magical objects, and even though there are wizards in middle earth, they are basically given the not-very-magical power of wise counselling to the other characters. Even when Gandalf comes back to life, it isn’t so much a miracle as it is the fact that he hasn’t finished his job and so gets resurrected. Once again, this lack of the divine-intervention-kind-of-a-thing that magic can be in a story makes the reader more invested in the actions of the characters because it leaves the reader thinking that the characters are 1.) believable, and 2.) actually facing a problem they can’t magic their way out of.

Let’s circle back to Bright. Magic is a given, and like Tolkien, it is all in the objects: magic wands, one of which has been found by the police officers, Jakoby and Ward. Are there some limits on the use of magic? Yes, only brights can use the wands without being exploded. At this point, a good fantasy writer would want to leave the viewer with some sort of explanation. What does it take to be a bright? Is there something that distinguishes the bright from everyone else? Is there a way to know that you are a bright if, in fact, you are? The movie gives us nothing, which, of course leads to a predictable plot point: one of the two cops is going to be a bright. How will this person find that out? By using the wand in a moment of desperation, of course. The lack of explanation leads to an incredibly predictable plot, and, since Will Smith plays one of the cops, it’s an easy guess as to who the bright is going to be.

We already know who is going to wield the wand then, so what does the wand actually do? Well, it’s hard to say. It has a very unexplained set of powers that includes the following, according to the movie:

  • Giving you a million dollars
  • Giving you ten million dollars
  • Making you taller
  • Making you shorter
  • Making your dick bigger
  • Time travel, I guess?
  • Explosions!
  • Resurrecting characters (who really should have died)
  • And sealing up/releasing The Dark Lord.

Basically, the magic is too powerful here, and, without any limitations or constraints other than the fact that only a bright can use it, the wand can potentially do anything. In a story line, all this does is make the challenges the characters face seem like they shouldn’t really be problems at all. This much power renders enemies impotent and dilemmas easily solvable. In short, it makes for a pretty useless plot.

Where, then, does this leave us? Bright was a fun movie. The action was great, the shooting and fight scenes were amazing, and even the slo-mo, bullet-time had me cheering. As a mindless action movie, Bright was worth the watch. Right up there with Pacific Rim, as far as I’m concerned. As a serious take on fantasy, the complete lack of an attempt at verisimilitude left a lot to be desired, and that isn’t even to comment on the issue of race relations that, I suppose, it was trying to touch on. That is a review for a different armchair critic. Should you watch it? Yeah, go for it. There’s a part two in the works, so I’ll see that one as well. Hopefully the second part fixes some of the issues.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

-PWC

You don’t have a calling or why I should go fishing

Lake

There’s nothing quite like fishing. To go fishing is to get a nice breath of fresh air, to be outside in the sun, and to get time away from the city. It also allows you a time and a place to just sit for a while and think. Fishing is intentionally taking things slowly. Even fly fishing, although significantly more active than using bait, still involves a lot of patience and quite a lot of waiting. It’s a wonderful hobby, overall, and I tend to think that more people should get into it.

After having gone fishing quite a lot and caught quite a lot of fish, I know quite a lot about fishing. I’m even fairly good at it. I even have a few philosophical opinions about the differences between meat fishing and catch and release, and, on certain occasions, I have a fairly intense desire to go fishing. You could possibly say that I even feel called toward fishing. But of course, that’s absolute crap: I’m called to something else, right?

In all honesty, both ideas are incorrect. There’s a myth that many people believe in that goes something along the lines of “having a calling,” or “being called toward” some profession. Personally, I don’t buy it. The discussion quickly becomes overly deterministic when people are talking about callings: something like if you’ve added x, y, and z to your childhood the result will be that you’re meant to be a doctor. The other way having a calling is discussed is as a convenient shorthand for being passionate about something. Either way, there is one major flaw: people are always looking for a calling. One calling. Singular.

I would like to substitute the myth of the calling with two things: first, a range of possibilities that a person can engage in. Of course, there are some limits. I’m a little short to play professional rugby, for example, but within the range of things that I am capable of doing, there is quite a lot of possibility. For the vast majority of us, this is the case. Unless for some external reason we are being forced into one profession, most of us would be able to learn to do quite a lot of things and would be able to learn to do them well. Which is where my second substitution for the myth of the calling comes in: work. I would argue that, given the time, everyone could learn to do what they want, but the vast majority of people do not. The reason is simply that it’s work, and nobody likes work (there are people who claim to be workaholics, but they are liars and cannot be trusted). In the middle of all of this, of course, is passion. What a person is passionate about will lead them to be interested in working at it, and, of the range of possible things they could do, that passion will also lead to a particular path. That’s not a calling; that’s putting in the effort and being personally invested.

But perhaps that sounds an awful lot like a calling, so here’s where my real critique lies: the more people who are busy looking for their one purpose in life– their calling– the less interesting the world will be. What we lose there is people who are willing to bounce around a bit and try new things. Maybe there’s an accountant who has always wanted to be a singer, so what’s stopping that person from singing? If it’s that the accountant feels that accounting is a calling, then that is a poor choice, indeed. The idea of having one, singular calling is a strange limit that we put on human potential, and we would probably all be better off without it.

Let’s have one more anecdote to show my point: Franz Kafka. Whether you love or hate his writing, he is still remembered as a great author of the 20th century. His day job was writing insurance reports, and by all accounts, he was actually quite good at it. Think about that for just a second. Imagine what a loss it would be to the literary world if Kafka had decided that his calling was to write insurance reports instead of the surrealist novels he is known for. With that in mind, I would say that we’d be much better off forgetting the entire concept of having a calling along with all of its singular-profession determinism.

-PWC

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow”

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A few days ago, Ursula K. Le Guin died, as all great writers must eventually, and I was quite saddened by the news. Although I’m decidedly a non-fiction writer, her books and her writing have had quite an influence on me. I read a whole lot of fantasy as a younger man, and despite having read a lot of books, somehow what I’ve read of her work has stuck with me the most. In particular, the Earthsea Cycle is a series of books that, at least mentally, I return to frequently.

Earthseas itself is a place that is particularly interesting due to its balances. Everything in that universe has an opposite, and the overall theme is not so much conflict and fighting as it is bringing opposites into balance. It’s good life advice even if it isn’t particularly easy to accomplish, and in a nation that seems to have gone haywire lately, perhaps balance in opposites is something that more of us should be trying to do.

For my part, I’ve decided to re-read the series this year, and I think you should, too. I had actually decided to do this before Le Guin passed away, but now, it seems even more like the right thing to do. I hope re-reading the series lights a very bright candle, and I hope the shadow it creates isn’t too large: everything in balance.

-PWC

On getting stuck in a writing rut and what I do about it

I managed to get myself stuck in a writing rut over the last week, so of course I did what anyone would in this situation (or so I imagine) and did a Google search for writer’s block. I’m not really certain what I was expecting, but what I got was an incredible display of writing advice. Some of it was good, most of it was bad, and all of it was a little too self-helpy for me, so I thought I would add my own advice to the mix: keep the word count in mind. By this, I don’t mean that all you need is to add extraneous detail to get to a required word count– here’s looking at you, beginning composition students. Instead, I mean that writing sometimes needs a definable, clear goal, or it can become maddening.

My own goal is to write around 500 words per blog post. The number gives me enough space to actually say something interesting, but not so much space that I ramble on and on. That is, of course, in addition to the various other things that I write, but the 500 word minimum has given me a clearly defined goal when it comes to writing. That being said, here’s the advantage, and here’s what setting a word count goal can do for writing.

The main advantage of a word count is that it feels like an accomplishment. This is true even when it really isn’t and all you’ve written is a hot, steaming pile of garbage. We’ve all been there, but at least you made the word count, right? Typically, there’s something in the garbage pile that is worth saving, and it’s easy to write more than the goal. This means that my advice is to set the bar reasonably low when it comes to word counts. One hundred words is probably too low, but if that’s where things start, so be it: revel in the 100 words. The feeling of accomplishment will probably be enough to keep the writing going for at least another 50.

Setting a word count can also provide you with some much needed parameters. Writing is difficult, after all, and writing with no clear ideas can be even more difficult still. It isn’t much, but a short word count can give you a nice box to work in, and it can make a useful jumping off point if something needs to be longer. Again, no one is saying that you can’t write more. The problems only come about when the word count is consistently missed. That can quickly become demoralizing. Meeting the goal not only helps writing, but it can also make you want to write more. If 500 words is too easy, add another hundred and then keep going.

I tell my students every semester that I teach writing that it was a skill that can be practiced. I might argue that getting out of writing ruts and avoiding writer’s block are also fairly easy to practice as well. A quick, 500-word practice is enough to keep me writing, and as it becomes easier and easier to do, it might just be a quick warm-up instead.

-PWC