Bookman's Corner and the Dying Chaos

 This should not be. Thank god it be.

This should not be. Thank god it be.

An article, that looks like this, came my way recently claiming that the independent bookstore has risen from the status of near extinction and is now “booming.” While this is wonderful news for those of us who love bookstores as much as we love books, it made me question what kinds of bookstores are thriving in the era of Amazon. 

 

Considering the bookstores in my city, I might make the argument that shops that do well in the era of online shopping are bringing something to the proverbial table besides books. Many of us predicted that the saving grace of the indie bookstore would be events and actions that seek to build communities. 57thStreet Books, Unabridged Bookstore, and Volumes Book Cafe— three of my favorite local shops—regularly hold author readings and fun activities in an effort to bring people together as well as sell books. And while I’m not sure if all three are booming, I do know that the first two on the list survived the rise of Borders and Barnes and Noble seemingly unscathed. Perhaps one can surmise that the bookstores that lasted had a dedicated group of regulars willing to support their favorite shops and ignore the siren song of the Very Big Business. Now that Borders is kaput and Barnes and Noble is limping, these stalwart shops can have the last laugh. 

 

So great— a few venerable indies have survived and a slew of new shops have sprung up, but what exactly have they sprung from? I might suggest that the independent bookstores of today’s Chicago have replaced a kind of shop that is currently on its way to extinction: the dusty, messy, quirky-at-best and cranky-at-worst used bookstore.        

 

And now a bit about me (of course). 

 

I arrived in the north side of Chicago in 1993, having spent my childhood in a series of southwest suburbs without a good bookstore in sight. I would’ve killed for Borders. Ready for a life of literature, art, and aimlessness, I moved north and started haunting the used bookshops. And there were a lot of them to haunt. Almost all of them were helmed by strange men who appeared unable to function anywhere other than behind the counter, usually in a chair, often reading, sometimes drinking. The stores were often “loosely organized,” and browsing required a sense of adventure. One did not stroll in looking for a specific book. Rather, it was best to wander the aisles and let a book find you. These shops would not hold events, as they—too crowded with clothbounds and paperbacks—had no room. They sold no coffee, no scones, no tchotchkes. In the early to mid-1990s, when bookstores were beginning to double as record stores and cafés, these shops were not long for the world.

 

I worked at one of these shops, the Aspidistra. It remains my favorite bookstore. It is the model for what I look for in an indie: a variety of books, many I might not find elsewhere, many out of print, all reasonably priced. The Aspidistra sold only used books and some remainders, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare City Lit or the Book Cellar to my beloved used shop, but I nevertheless tend to romanticize the cramped near-chaos of a used store.

 

Thankfully, the quirkiest, dustiest, most disorganized and downright impossible of used bookshops still remains. Bookman’s Corner (AKA Chandler’s) has been in its location at 2959 N. Clark Street since… actually, I have no idea how long. I do know that it was there in 1993 when I first walked in, and that little has changed. 

 Puns are your friends

Puns are your friends

 

If anything, it’s gotten less organized in the last 25 years. The window display may have once been carefully arranged with eye-catching titles and art books, but any plan has long been abandoned. The shelves are homemade, uneven, towering, sagging in places, double and sometimes triple-stacked with books in the loosest order imaginable. There’s no register—John, the owner and (usually) sole employee—does the math in his head or longhand on a scrap of paper. The prices are unbeatable. Most of the time, there’s an ongoing sale on anything older than a year; what we used to call “deep discounts” are ample. There are packed history sections separated by region, a recent infusion of philosophy texts, art books aplenty, and fiction that spans most of an aisle. 

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Somehow, among the clutter, there’s a system. Navigating it is part of the fun. Earlier I stated that these sorts of shops require a sense of adventure. At Bookman’s Corner, browsing is more of an extreme sport. Piles of books litter the floors to the extent that knocking them over, while not appreciated, is de rigueur. Large stepladders double as shelves. Getting lost in the space seems easy—claustrophobics will certainly be triggered before placing both feet through the door. There’s a spot in the store where shelves narrow and nearly converge, making movement to the next aisle difficult for many a Midwestern body.

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I love this shop. It’s everything that commerce shouldn’t be in the year 2018. Few favors are done for the patron used to uniformity. There’s no cell phone usage allowed, photos are discouraged (whoops), and the owner will likely not know if a specific book is on site. To enter Bookman’s Corner is to travel back to a time when consumers were not aided by user-friendly interface, where exact needs were not catered to, where one might devote a chunk of time to the experience of meandering among physical content and fall down a rabbit hole of the printed page. Dare I argue that vanishing opportunities of disorientation and discovery are important in a tech-saturated culture predicated on the immediate satisfaction of every desire?

 

It’s fair to say that the old model of bookstore management—indifferent-to-grumpy customer service, a casual relationship with order, lack of adherence to posted operating hours—is ineffective. Your average patron would surely welcome the sleeker indie bookshop. Can’t fault anyone for preferring organization and regularly dusted shelves. Nevertheless, I don’t know what to think of a world where places like Bookman’s Corner won’t exist. The absurdist in me believes that these soon-to-be-extinct shops represent something profound and essential to our culture, and that their absence will cost us more than we know. I’m at a loss to articulate what exactly is so important about cranky little shops that alienate as many customers as they enchant, but important they are. To me, at least. 

 

So while I’ll gladly drop my cash at Volumes, 57thStreet, The Seminary Co-op, Unabridged, and The Dial, I’ll also make time to savor Bookman’s Corner before the inevitable occurs and the old beast goes belly up. Hoping that’s not too soon.

 

Defending the Weird

I’m coming at this lil’ piece of writing after having spent an inordinate amount of my morning reading book reviews on Amazon.com, surely the worst way to kick off a day.  Why would I—a reasonably sane adult—spend my morning this way?  I lack a sufficient answer.  I can detail the process that brought me from a quick glimpse at the behemoth’s user reviews to a deep immersion: I wanted to get some specific details on Caitriona Lally’s novel Eggshells

 A fine book you should read

A fine book you should read

 

After obtaining that info, I spied a one star review and clicked to read the insightful criticism of Lili W., a reviewer who seemed especially angry at the book.  Lili’s review in full:

 

This book goes nowhere.  Maybd author should take a riding course,  How did this even get published?

 

While obviously not the stuff of R.P. Blackmur, Lili may have a point.  Perhaps Eggshells would have benefited from its author having some experience riding, be it sidesaddle or bareback.  Maybd.

 

Here are a few excerpts from other reviews:

 

I skipped to the end to find that nothing really had happened.

 

There is no story and the pages are littered with lists of words. Truly a waste of time.

 

I tried to persevere with this book and actually read half of it but could not go on wasting my precious time on something so disjointed, nonsensicle and depressing which appeared to have no real story to it.

 

Congratulations to  the last reviewer for having read half a book! 

 

A theme emerges: time is precious and time spent on a book without a significant event is time wasted. 

 

While I understand this perspective, I don’t share these reviewers’ sentiments.  I loved Eggshells.  Lally’s narrator, Vivian, possesses a very singular vision of the world and her quest, while seemingly mundane, is soon revealed to be as important as any of the great sagas.  The book is quite funny, though ultimately very sad.  But it's not my intention to criticize, analyze, or even defend Lally’s novel.  (Read it yourself and make up your own mind.)  Rather, I want to address the manner in which books (and art in general)  are discussed, or dismissed, and what that may signify, suggest, imply, state, mean, connote, denote, demonstrate, and here I am listing words like an asshole.

 

The above review snippet that bemoans Eggshells for containing “pages. . . littered with lists of words” is a good place to start.  Having read the book, I catch the reader’s complaint—there are spaces in Eggshells where Vivian writes down words she finds interesting.  This can grate a bit on the reader who may be inclined to vent their annoyance on public spaces such as Amazon (itself a spot for people to place words in annoying order).  I’m sure venting made the above reviewer feel better.  After all, how dare Lally subject innocent readers with scant precious time to her unorthodox approach?  Doesn’t she understand that readers should only be exposed to easily digestible prose?  Effort?  Effort?  Who has time?  Netflix beckons, after all.

 

All joking aside, what happens when readers get to the point where they can only accept traditional linear stories, when anything slightly different than they’re (okay, we’re) used to merits dismissal or condemnation, not curiosity.  What is lost when we reach this point? 

 

Might I postulate—based solely on speculations and anecdotal observation and with no empirical evidence—that the costs are great.  Major leaps in the ways we tell and absorb stories are tied to major leaps in culture.  Trends, attitudes, technology, and current events mark our eras and our literature.  Is it possible that culture and art are always intertwined?  Could Modernist works like The Waste Land or To the Lighthouse have been possible before World War I?  Was the isolation and horror of mechanized warfare what fed these writers’ works, not to mention drove them to simultaneously break and engage with form and tradition?  While I’m willing to answer that, indeed, social and political realities informed the art of that era, I could suggest a chicken-egg thing.  Maybe the era was as informed by the art?  If that’s the case, then my question above about the ramifications of rejecting weird or seemingly “pointless” books could be dire.  We’re setting ourselves up for a culture that only knows what to do with shopworn techniques and conventional narratives.  This then influences our thinking, even at a subconscious level.  We reject the abstract.  And when we do that, we find it perfectly valid to deny that which should be (at the very least) acknowledged—like, you know, climate change. 

 

Let’s talk about that for a bit. 

 

Assume I’m right.  Assume we’ve been reared on traditional black/white narratives with rising action and ideas lacking ambiguity or nuance.  Confronted by a more elliptical, obscure, or just plain different narrative, the average reader will react with either indifference or—as in the case of the above Amazon reviewers—hostility.  Why?  Because something seems off.  Too abstract.  In a world where the concrete is privileged, where do difficult ideas that require a level of faith, trust, or acceptance fit?  Climate change exists along those lines.  The average person without a degree in climatology has to take it largely on faith that climate change is real and deadly serious.  So how is it that so many have for so long denied the existence of climate change, not to mention its threat?  Sure, the numbers of deniers are shrinking, but their mere existence is troubling.  While I can’t cleanly argue that the fault lies with the rejection of abstract art in favor of cookie-cutter narratives, I don’t know that this rejection is not partially to blame.  Recycled tropes and low-bar aiming stories don’t ask much of the reader.  Neither do the drones on cable news stations who sell easy answers to complex questions. 

 

My point is not to place so much importance on literature alone, but to argue that literature—and all art—has a vital role in contributing to the culture, and that the contribution is greater when the literature is allowed to be strange, different, and challenging. 

 

Of course, literature is allowed to be weird.  There are groundbreaking books and poems and plays in every era, though I might be forgiven for suggesting that the audience and impact of what is often reductively called “experimental” literature is currently small. 

 

I’m tempted to get all grumpy-old-man-like and blame the advance of streaming services and ubiquity of screens.  Screens are meant for television and film, art forms that—god bless them—are more passive than active.  Yes, navigating the plot of Breaking Bad or The Wire requires attention, but the story is still happening at the viewer.  The reader of a story with as many characters and narrative arcs as The Wire needs to be considerably more active than the viewer of the acclaimed series (which may be the best TV show ever made). 

 

With the dominance of screen-based stories, we have embraced complex narratives in easier to absorb packages.  Reading a book as labyrinthine and polyphonic as those penned by Dostoevsky may require balancing a lot of ideas, stories, and characters, just like watching The Wire, but the reader is also tasked with imagining the scene, picturing the faces of the characters—in short, co-creating the story.  The reader is an active participant.  This is reason enough to advocate for spending as much time reading as watching things on a screen, but I want to take this point further and suggest that the decline in literacy—not to mention reading difficult or weird books—has a doubling effect on culture.  We see reading as burdensome rather than essential.  And we champion screen-based stories over print.  In doing so, we make the erroneous claim that the best television out there—and there is some amazing TV being made—is on par with the best literature being published.  Balderdash.  And dangerous balderdash at that.  The feeling that we have properly flexed cognitive and intellectual muscles with a diet of only TV, however great it is, allows us to believe we no longer need print.  And when we do condescend to read a book, it better have a conventional plot with likable characters.  After all, my time is precious.

 

To be sure, not every “experimental” or what I’m calling weird book is worth reading.  Ultimately, this is dependent on one’s taste.  I’ve tried and failed to read and comprehend a lot of books.  Some are considered to be great by the literati, though I failed to engage with them.  The significance of the works of Thomas Pynchon, for example, continues to elude me.  It took me many years to realize that James Joyce’s books are as amazing as I’d always heard.  My response to these books was dismissive, but the older I get the more I’m humbled.  If the 20 year old Vince wasn’t ready for Ulysses, why should that stop the 40 year old?  That it took 20 years for me to appreciate Ulysses and Finnegans Wake suggests that sometimes we have to be in the right place to be ready for a challenging work of art, and that it’s silly to dismiss what we don’t understand.  To be curious about, and humbled by, intellectual or cultural challenges is a sign of maturity.  The angry, useless pan on Amazon is callow.

 Another book you should read

Another book you should read

 

Eggshells is not a challenging book.  Though it might qualify as weird, nothing in it is difficult or cumbersome.  While this half-thought-out-think-piece is quickly becoming a long defense of Lally’s novel, I risk that in order to further make a point: in an era where a slightly off, not very challenging novel raises the ire of the average reader, what chance does a truly original, unconventional book have?

 

Clearly there have always been people who’ve reacted negatively to the so-called avant-garde.  Waiting for Godot—a more or less canonized work—was initially met with condemnation.  Ditto the first screening of Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis.  People are still pissed at John Cage for writing a piece of music with no notes.  I’ve exhausted myself defending John Zorn’s saxophone blasts, Yamantaka Eye’s screaming, and Merzbow’s black noise recordings.  I showed a class a sonnet by Donald Justice that ends on the thirteenth line instead of a fourteenth and got the response, “This is not a sonnet!”  Any deviation from the norm is likely to raise a bit of ire.  I get that, and while I’m tempted to endorse the quote by Craig Raine (that fat hairy bastard), “the stupid are always with us,” I don’t want to dismiss anyone whose aesthetic sensibilities differ from mine.  That would be as foolish as a knee-jerk rejection against art that asks for deeper contemplation. 

 

Here may be the best way of thinking about all this: some works of art ask for more than surface readings or immediate assessment.  This requirement doesn’t make these works superior.  To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for a perfect three-minute pop song, a linear narrative, and a lovely oil painting that flawlessly reproduces the human form.  Those works require skill and discipline. That they seem easy is evidence of their creators’ mastery of craft.  But there are also works of art that try for something else, something more conceptual and displacing.  And while I could argue for the level of artistry and skill that goes into a seemingly chaotic work, I’m less interested in that than in a work’s overall effect. 

 

Let’s look at two examples from the world of music. 

 

Exhibit 1: “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

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Exhibit 2: “Osaka Bondage” by Naked City

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If you know both of these songs, you’re ready for me to make my case.  If you need a little time to find these tunes on Spotify, go right ahead. 

 

Okay, ready?  Good.

 

Ex. 1 is, in my estimation, a perfect pop song.  Sure, it’ll likely sound dated to young listeners, but examining the hook, the chorus, the production, the layers... it’s all cohering into something grand.  Nothing seems terribly ambitious to contemporary ears, and I’m guessing nothing about it seemed strange when it was released in 1963.  A good, engaging song.  Well done, Smokey.

 

Ex. 2 seems chaotic inasmuch as there are abrupt changes in style—we go from punishing screams and guitar/drum driven thrash to electric piano jazz with barely a second between movements.  But it is organized—Naked City was a band predicated on deliberate composition.  Still, the unusual nature of the song alienates as many listeners—if not more—as it engages.

 

It's not my intention to argue that Ex. 2 is as good as Ex. 1, though to me they are both equally great.  I compare them only to demonstrate that both are carefully composed songs driven by the composers' need to share something, to evoke, and to please.  I truly believe that Zorn did not write “Osaka Bondage” to piss off listeners; he wanted to give them something pleasurable.  Smokey Robinson also wanted to express something in his composition, a song about the frustration of being in a difficult relationship.  The mood of the music perfectly accompanies the lyrics.  It’s a work with intentionality behind it.  Ditto Zorn’s composition.  They’re doing different things with different sounds but are both pieces of music with specific goals.  Both of them are great.  Only one of them was a hit song you’ve likely heard before. 

 

What might the listener gain from exposure to Ex. 2? Or, in anticipation of the average listener’s reaction: why the hell should I listen to this mayhem?  What’s the point of a thrash/jazz collage with “vocals” by a screaming Japanese man?  Is this not just some avant-garde bullshit masquerading as art?  At least Ex. 1 has a clear story about the ambivalence of difficult romance. 

 

I can only answer these questions about Ex. 2 the way I might respond to those who dismiss Jackson Pollack’s work as rubbish any 5-year old could paint.  The point of Naked City, or Jackson Pollack or James Joyce, is to push the limits a bit, to find new ways of conveying old ideas.  And sometimes to express new ideas through old mediums.  And sometimes to do both at once.  Naked City rethinks genre.  Jackson Pollack breaks through the limitations of painting.  James Joyce throws everything possible into Finnegans Wake and remakes language.  All of these artists are reaching as high as they can.  We should applaud this ambition, even if it sometimes falls short of its mark or strains our need to “get” what's going on.  To borrow a quote from Big Trouble in Little China, I was not put on this earth to “get” things.  If I do, wonderful.  If I don’t, well, is the thing I don’t get interesting?  Am I intrigued?  Am I excited?  Am I confused?  Maybe, but is my confusion just curiosity stimulated?  Am I willing to give these difficult works a little consideration?  Have the artists done something worthy of deeper thought and reflection?  What does my response say about me as a consumer of art and ideas?  Do I only want easy experiences?  Am I not willing to do some work? 

 Why does this piss you off?

Why does this piss you off?

 

I want to give a work of art its due attention.  I hate outright dismissal.  Of course, I’m willing to abandon a book or stop a film before its conclusion, but I always want to have a reason for doing so beyond, I don’t get it.  Grappling with unconventional work is necessary for our intellectual development.  The weight of a barbell does us a favor when taxing our muscles.  It's strengthening us.  Difficult works of art do the same.  Here’s hoping we’re up to the challenge. 

Misdemeanor Outlaw: Jim McGarrah's Path and Some Boomer Criticism from a Gen Xer

In his funny, self-lacerating look at Baby Boomers, Balsamic Dreams, Joe Queenan accuses his generation of navel-gazing and premature nostalgia.  He cites Carol King’s “So Far Away” as being the beginning of the Boomers’ descent into soppy, untimely ennui.  To be sure, 1971 was too soon for this generation to be so goddamn depressed about the loss of time, considering the average Boomer was around 20-30.  Yeah, Queenan’s making a bit of hasty generalization, but for the sake of argument let’s accept his point.  If we do, we can easily see how, though not unlike other self-absorbed generations, Boomers tend to mythologize their heyday, perhaps driven to do so after the utopian dreams of the late 60s gave way to the disillusionment of the 70s and the crass materialism of the 1980s. 

 

Most of the Boomers I know— hi, family!—tend to agree that the music and culture of their generation represents the pinnacle of human achievement, which always makes me want to smother those aging pricks in the bubbling tar of punk rock.  This boomer insistence that their version of rock and roll is the greatest thing ever, that Woodstock was the event, man, and the agonizing claim that they ended a war (sure took them long enough) via smoking weed and sitting in the dirt playing bongos has always made me roll my eyes.  Which is why I approached Jim McGarrah’s book Misdemeanor Outlaw with a bit of trepidation.  Do I really want to read 180-pages of Boomer self-aggrandizement? I asked myself.  Turns out I was wrong about the book, though not 100% wrong about Boomers.

 

(Side note: All writers are self-aggrandizing.  I aspire to be part of the club; I wrote a memoir and asked people to read it; I write poems and get them published in corners of the internet and then ask people to peek into those corners.  I am as self-aggrandizing as the next damaged bastard.  Even those of my generation with the good sense to try their hand at pursuits other than writing are myopic and sentimental.  So yes, we Generation Xers, and certainly the much-maligned Millennials, are equally guilty of the above accusations leveled at Boomers.  And while we’re at it, so are the members of the so-called Greatest Generation.  We’re all human; we’re all flawed and beautiful.  We all suck.) 

 

But here’s the thing about Misdemeanor Outlaw: it’s a book by a Boomer, not a Boomer book.  Meaning it’s not overly sentimental; it’s not the equivalent of one of those goddamn Facebook memes with a photo of a 45 record adapter and the request to “Like and share if you ever used one of these!”  It’s a damn fine collection of loosely connected essays that jump through time in a mostly linear manner, forming a meditation on the author’s inability to find his place among rules and authority figures.  Along the way, he makes and loses friends, gets married and divorced, picks up a social disease, faces the horror of combat in Vietnam, swallows an apothecary worth of dope, and even tries his hand at the post office (which I, a former mail sorter, was delighted to read about).

 

The epilogue does, as expected, contain a sort of case for the 1980s—a decade I tend to romanticize—being the example of how corporate culture corrupts true art and beauty, evidenced by the rise of pop songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” a nauseating tune, indeed, though the boomers would have us believe that their generations’ musicians never recorded anything as soulless and vile.  One need only recall the Ohio Express’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy” to debunk that claim. 

 

Aside from that one paragraph, I was far more engaged, amused, and compelled by Misdemeanor Outlaw than I expected to be.  I was familiar with McGarrah’s work.  (We share the same publisher, which, were we musicians, would make us label-mates; not sure what we are. . . Blue Herons of a feather? A Flock of Herons? Being close to “A Flock of Seagulls,” a 1980s band I assume McGarrah dislikes, I’ll go with that one.)  He is a writer who seeks to recollect things with less tranquility than honesty.  When McGarrah writes of his childhood, he eases up on the idolization of the all-American small town and presents not so much a Norman Rockwell Eden as a confining place of mores and customs that, even as a wee lad, he’s inclined to challenge.  Soon he’s dropping out of college to enlist in the Marines, a decision that sends him to Vietnam, then to a crisis of identity.  Rejecting the scare tactics and justifications of politicians, McGarrah actively opposes the war, grows his hair and embraces the hippie idealism that engulfed his generation the way Techno-solutionism is currently seducing Millennials.  When the limits of commune life are reached, McGarrah seems at his most unmoored.  Plagued by survivor guilt from Vietnam, unable to comfortably fit back into his hometown, and beset by uniformed men seeking to get over on him regardless of the length of his hair and manner of dress, our hero is the true representation of a man without a country, an outlaw, albeit of the misdemeanor variety. 

 

It would be remiss not to remark on the quality of McGarrah’s humorous, unflinching prose.  I laughed often while reading these pages, though the most impacting moments are the honest appraisals of the injustice done to the young men of his generation and the “true cost of these foreign policy adventures urged on by corrupt politicians and controlled by corporate interest.”  Recalling his stint in Vietnam, McGarrah writes, “On quiet nights, when the dead visit, I greet them with respect and we talk.  They speak of the loneliness of their fate and I speak in awe of mine.”  Though I know the man is writing of a time and place I can never understand, he may as well be discussing what it means to write a book.  Or, for that matter, to read one—we are seeking to converse with the dead, to compare our fates to theirs, to measure our struggle against theirs, to see what insights we can glean.  The result, in Misdemeanor Outlaw, is a book for anyone interested in walking in the shoes of a man on an absurd road toward self-actualization, though not in the trendy way Boomers sought to do as they went from well-meaning young idiots to 1980s sell-outs looking to reclaim their idealistic past.  McGarrah is too raw for that sort of thing.  His self-examination is his own, but in offering it to us, we’re privy to insights and anecdotes that are surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s ever felt mystified at the conventions the rest of the world is all too happy to obey. 

Digging "Digging"

There I was at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry surrounded by writers from various spots on the globe, all of us finishing a week of craft discussions, close readings, and general merriment.  We were discussing Heaney’s poem, “Digging” and I had to open my big mouth and confess that I never liked that poem.  I felt instant regret.  What the fuck are you thinking?  This is the SEAMUS HEANEY Centre for Poetry.  This is Belfast, Northern Ireland, not terribly far from Heaney’s birthplace.  Not terribly far from the plot of land his father dug up that inspired the poem.  Are you trying to alienate everyone? 

 

Thankfully, the workshop leader, the talented Leontia Flynn, broke the silence by affirming that, indeed, it’s not a perfect poem. 

 

“Pens aren’t really squat, are they?” she said, referring to the opening lines: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” and closing ones: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” 

 

It would be an understatement to say I was relieved. 

 

In the year or so that’s followed, I’ve thought back to this moment, not with pride.  The week in Belfast reacquainted me with Heaney’s work, inasmuch as I have been rereading him throughout the last several months.  First the selected poems, then all of North (always my favorite) then some of the later collections.  All of this has reminded me that, yes, Heaney deserves all the praise he gets.  The man had an ear unlike anyone else’s, a gift for finding essential phrases and constructing them into damn-near perfect lines.  His work is daring yet restrained, and almost always invigorating.

 

But “Digging” just never sat well with me.  And why should it?  Not every poem can be gold.  No one poet has produced a flawless body of work.  It’s just ain’t gonna happen.  None of my heroes—Ciaran Carson, C. K. Williams, Medbh McGuckian, Anna Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Paul Muldoon, and a host of others I could name but I have to stop somewhere—have a perfect track record. 

 

That being stated, “Digging” seems at times to be Heaney’s most famous work.  When he died, three different people read me some of “Digging,” if not the whole thing.  Though the man wrote so much so well, “Digging”—one of Heaney’s earliest efforts—seems to be the sole poem stuck in the minds of casual readers, many of whom edit anthologies. 

 

That’s where I first read “Digging”: the second volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  Having kept the book with me after dropping out of college, I used to tote it from home to work and read some bits on the train and on my lunch break.  It was while eating a bowl of potato soup that I found “Digging” toward the back of the anthology.  How serendipitous to be eating potato soup and reading about Heaney’s dad digging potatoes!  I took note of the poem, loving the cleanness of it.  I think I’d skipped several pages and a few hundred years to get to “Digging” so I may have been refreshed by Heaney’s words after so much of the Victorians. 

 

Years later, when I started to read Heaney with greater interest, when poems like “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” and “Casualty” became known to me, I soured on “Digging.”  A fine poem in some regards, but the idea of Heaney grappling with his masculinity in the face of his father and grandfather’s ruggedness just annoyed me.  “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”  Oh, and why’s that, Seamus?  None around?  No digging to be done anymore?  Too busy are you?  Having worked a collection of mind-numbing, rotten jobs, I was a bit too reactive to any high-faultin’ bullshit about the struggles of the artist, which is what I stupidly took Heaney to be saying.  He compares his pen to a spade and says he’ll dig with it.  Yeah, great.  Write your poems, but we’re hungry here.  Can you maybe also put the pen down a dig a few potatoes while you’re at it?

 

Of course I was being ridiculous.  My reading of “Digging” was one-dimensional.  I saw it as his means of coming to terms with his ancestry of laborers, a line he could not (would not?) join.  I think “Casualty,” my favorite Heaney poem in some ways, confirmed this when the speaker represents the interrogation of his friend recently slaughtered by a night out at the pub despite warnings of an imminent bombing.

 

He had gone miles away   

For he drank like a fish   

Nightly, naturally   

Swimming towards the lure   

Of warm lit-up places,   

The blurred mesh and murmur   

Drifting among glasses   

In the gregarious smoke.   

How culpable was he   

That last night when he broke   

Our tribe’s complicity?   

‘Now, you’re supposed to be   

An educated man,’   

I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   

The right answer to that one.’

 

Ah ha!  Heaney (who I assumed was the speaker of the poem—never assume) was referred to, somewhat tauntingly, as “An educated man.”  Was this the reputation he held among working class associates?  Did he assume the role with pride or with a sort of mild embarrassment?  I ask because I know that feeling.  While not coming from a part of the world anything like Heaney’s, I did grow in a rather working class environment where reading, much less writing, poetry was not something one boasted about lest one get taken down a few pegs.  Look at Mr. Fancy Man!  So maybe I was projecting?  Maybe the mild shame of being “An educated man” who digs with a pen rather than a spade wasn’t Heaney dealing with his issues but me dealing with my own. 

 

I have long said that one will find what they like in poetry, often what they bring to it.  If you come at a poem with some baggage, you may find that baggage staring back at you.  It’s like that damn tree in The Empire Strikes Back—be careful what you bring into it.  Could all of my years spent disliking “Digging” be the product of my own bullshit? 

 

Objectively, there’s much to like in “Digging.”  It sounds gorgeous.  Even during my most anti-“Digging” period I was willing to celebrate “the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat.”  And what about the second stanza, possibly my favorite:

 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

 

Here are the cleanest rhymes of the poem, though they resist perfection.  Sure, “sound” and “ground” are pure, but “down” is off enough to pull us back to the preceding stanza, a slant-rhyming couplet:

 

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

 

“Thumb” and “gun” are great together.  They have that similarity of sound as well as the visual they create: cocking back the hammer before pulling the trigger.  This sort of playful loose rhyme gets me excited.  Those words... how to find the ones that don’t advertise themselves as rhyme?  That’s the goddamn beautiful struggle.  I’m sure that I missed the approximate rhyme while reading “Digging” for the first time.  I may have noticed the second stanza’s more obvious rhymes, but the first couplet flew past me. 

 

The subsequent stanzas stop rhyming all together, though I’m tempted to argue for a deliberateness of the line endings, especially in the fourth and fifth stanzas:

 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

 

Taking the last words of the fourth stanza together, we have “shaft firmly deep picked hands” which sounds like a line of poetry itself.  Regarding the next couplet, “spade man” is grand.  A new superhero, perhaps, one whose super power is the ability to “cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner's bog.”

 

A friend tried to convince me that the digging in “Digging” is metaphorical, and that Heaney is most concerned with the digging one must do when they toil in the life of the mind.  That certainly seems evident in the grandfather’s “Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging.”  I was reading it through one lens, my friend through another.  These multiple interpretations are both correct if you ask me, though I’m now happy to report that I’m on Team Digging after all these years.  It’s a fucking great poem.

 

Still, last week, when buying a used copy of Heaney’s Seeing Things, I had to give an eye roll to the inscription left by the person who gave the previous owner the book as a gift.  The gift giver, Jeffery, wrote in Melissa’s copy:

 

Christmas 1993 (belated but there nonetheless)

Here’s to happiness and peace on Earth and life-long friendship! Thank you for all of your efforts in helping obtain all 3.

 

Then Jeffery, that pretentious fop, ended with the last stanza of “Digging” the one that always bugged me.  Ugh.  Is this the only poem of Heaney’s people know?  Have any of them taken the time to memorize a few lines from “Punishment” or “Limbo” perhaps the most chilling poem the man ever wrote?  

 

Of course there are plenty of people who’ve memorized Heaney poems.  I know a few.  But that won’t stop “Digging” from being the poem that’ll come to the lips of many when they hear the name Seamus Heaney.  And why not?  If that is the case then good for Heaney.  It’s rare that anyone writes one poem worth remembering, much less hundreds. 

Rogers Park, My Kinda Something

It’s been a whopping ten years since I moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.  This is significant inasmuch as I moved a LOT as a younger man and resided in a number of parts of the city, albeit mostly on the north side.  My relatives used to make fun of my vagabond ways, chiding me for their frequent need to update their address books.  Of all the parts of Chicago I’ve inhabited, I’m not sure Rogers Park is my favorite.  It’s just where I ended up.

 

Seeing as I’m likely staying in Rogers Park for at least a little while longer, and that ten is a good round number, I thought I’d review the neighborhood. 

 

At one point, a local publication called Rogers Park the most diverse neighborhood in Chicago.  The consensus cited a near equal mix of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos.  This was celebrated.  Of course, I’m all for diversity, but—to echo a bit of Walter Benn Michaels’s ideas without making this an either/or—diversity is not enough.  A healthy mix of cultures is fantastic, but it’s not like they always get along.  When I moved to the area, I was told which parts were the ones to avoid, where this gang resides, which bars are hotspots for the other gang, where the college kids hang out, where the hippies congregate.  Anyone who knows Chicago knows that we’ve long been a segregated town, and Rogers Park is not different.  More diverse than Lincoln Park or Austin, sure, but here we’ve got a segregated neighborhood within a segregated city.

 

But we are diverse.  One can walk down Clark Street and find tacos, tortas, burritos, and tacos.  Sheridan boasts a used bookstore, a small café near a Starbucks, and a few bars, one of them a slashie!  A new microbrew pub just opened, along with a few trendy restaurants that seem nice.  I wouldn’t know.  These days, my favorite place to eat is my kitchen.  It’s the one place in America where bacon isn’t served on everything.  The walk from the train to my apartment brings me in contact with students from the university and the private school that, in the last decade, have both swallowed up a chunk of the neighborhood.  I look forward to 2027 when the area is renamed Loyola-Waldorf. 

 

Rogers Park is a patriotic neighborhood.  This 4th of July was as rowdy as ever with just as many idiots blowing things up.  I don’t know that I heard as many gunshots as last year, but maybe I’m less skilled at distinguishing between pistols and fireworks than I thought.  After July, one doesn’t hear so many bangs and blasts, but our commitment to our city and country remains strong.  At one point, we boasted more bloggers than any other part of the city.  Almost all of these blogs were political in nature and run by conspiracy minded weirdoes, angry cranks, or just those wonderful vigilantes armed with police scanners and fuckloads of weapons. 

 

I should note that sweeping generalizations about my ‘hood are likely bullshit.  I know this, as I live on a particular street that is perhaps unlike any other in the area, thus I ought to assume that life on, say, Farwell or Howard or Lunt might be unique.  But if I look at my street as a sort of microcosm of Rogers Park, I can make a few assumptions and declarative statements.  So let’s take the dog for a walk and see what my street has to offer.

 

Up the block is a house with a porch swing, as if this were fucking Georgia.  To make matters stranger, the man of the house likes to sit on his porch swing and play the banjo.  This might be charming, but the guy seems to know only a few notes and chords.  That or he’s practicing his scales at a snail’s pace.  Either way, it makes for dull listening.  He’s no Earl Scruggs, but we all have to start somewhere.  Until recently, the woman across from him would practice her violin.  If one were to walk past at the right time, they’d be privy to a war of the instruments, a sort of free form avant-garde piece for banjo and violin. 

 

While walking my dog, I often meet other dog owners.  Some of them are also parents of human children.  Plenty of families on my street.  And college kids.  Before 8:00 PM, the street can feel like a sort of small town with kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks and riding bikes recently liberated of training wheels.  After 9:00, the scene shifts to a college party with the requisite marijuana smoke and inane chatter.  Almost all of the apartments and homes are adorned with vegetation, some of it purposefully planted and cultivated.  Urbanites do love their postage stamp lawns.  Sometimes they get their lawns fertilized for free courtesy of dog owners with lax attitudes regarding cleaning up after their pets.  Over the years, I’ve gotten good at spotting dog shit, a skill acquired after more than one shoe got soiled and had to be hosed off. 

 

My street has its share of wildlife.  I’ve spotted raccoons, opossum, a bat, a falcon, and many oddballs shuffling home after a night out.  Rogers Park may be ground zero for oddballs, actually.  Slightly touched, I call them.  Like the guy who walks down Sheridan with his pants around his ankles, angrily cursing at... well, I’m not sure.  Life?   The barflies at Bruno’s and Cuuneen’s; the shuffling, crushed residents of assisted living homes; the bearded, aging hippie who partied a little too hard in the ‘60s and sits in The Coffee Shop singing and laughing at his acid flashbacks; the whack-job on Columbia who told me my dog was the devil; I love them all.  Except when they piss me off.

 

Rogers Park boasts a healthy immigrant population.  Specifically, I’m thinking of the Eastern European men who congregate at Starbucks to drink endless espressos, chain smoke and chat in their native tongue.  They may not be oddballs, per se, but they are a community, one that seems impenetrable, as do most of the insular societies within the neighborhood.  I once met a friend at the bar formerly known as Jarheads.  We were happy it had reopened, though the old owner, a marine who ran the bar for other veteran marines, was no longer in control of things.  In his place was an preternaturally patient woman who let some of the new regulars hurl peanuts and insults at her.  Shortly after that display, a rival gang strolled in.  The bouncer—a scrawny kid in way over his head—did his best to insist that one group sit at the east end of the bar and the other stay west, but that distance proved too short for comfort, especially considering my drinking buddy and I were in the middle.  We'd wandered in where we didn’t belong.  But we stayed for another round, then got out before the tensions boiled over.  A narrow escape from a scene that was not ours. 

 

But you know what—it could’ve been our scene if we’d gone back the next day.   We might’ve become regulars.  It seems possible.  It’s just a matter of showing up.  However gritty or dangerous, Rogers Park is open to you.  We’re not Canaryville; we don’t shun outsiders.  Rogers Park is welcoming.  Still, the gentrification isn’t necessarily embraced. 

 

On that: I didn’t grow up here, so it’s not for me to bemoan the changes the area has undergone.  I’m more an amused viewer of the banter between long-time residents and the condo owners who, after their first summer in the neighborhood, realize Rogers Park has problems.  Then they take to Facebook groups, blogs, and Twitter to complain about the crime.  I’m always curious to know if they bothered to do a minute’s research before buying.

 

Then there’s the New 400, a movie house for those on a budget.  Of course, you get what you pay for—no stadium seating here.  But the place does serve drinks, which is helpful in the summertime when the movies inevitably suck.  Watching leather-clad men and women pretending to be comic book heroes is certainly a lot easier with a few whiskies. 

 

Of course, no discussion of Rogers Park would be complete without mentioning the beaches.  Ah... the beaches.  A wonderful expanse of sand, water, and sky perfect for long walks and laying out during those short months when the weather permits such indulgence.  I tend to stick to beaches near my part of town, as the closer one gets to Howard, the weirder things get.  I believe a sheep’s head was found on the far north beach.  I’m leaving that area the hell alone.  I can deal with the noise and sex workers and dealers and other urban realities packed tightly within that bit of the city on the edge of Evanston, but a decapitated animal’s head is too much for this citizen. 

 

Oh right— the Heartland Café.  I used to have issues with that place.  The food has gotten a lot better, but my first trips were a disappointment, partially due to the wait-staff that were pained to do their job in the face of their greater artistic callings.  Yes, you’re a painter/actor/musician/poet/sculptor, but since you’re currently wearing an apron not spattered with paint, could you get my fucking sandwich?  I was also annoyed when the Café asked for donations after admitting that they don’t understand how banks work and have mismanaged the place for years. But, again, that’s not been the case as of late.  The new chef is a lot better than the last one, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the business seems to be doing better.  After moving here, I quickly came to understand that the Heartland Café is a landmark, a long loved treasure here in the center of the neighborhood.  It represents a certain element of the area, the politically charged, leftist, soy and incense element.  I dig all of that, save for the incense. 

 

But I would be remiss if I didn’t state again that my favorite place to eat food, drink tea, and swill booze is my apartment.  It's also my favorite movie theater and library.  So long as it stays in Rogers Park, so will I.  Sadly, it’s a private spot that only lets in a few privileged individuals.  We’re a bit exclusive.  Sorry.   

13 Thoughts on This is Not a Rescue

1. Emily Blewitt is a wonderful Welsh woman (that’s alliteration for those who care).  I had the pleasure of meeting her in Belfast when the two of us were workshopping poems.  Hers stood out.  I knew she had a book slated for publication, so I asked her to send me word when it was published. 

 

2. I don’t do this often.  I’m not exactly competitive, but, to borrow from Morrissey, I hate it when friends are successful.  I suppose jealous is the right word, though I’m really only jealous when people publish books ahead of me and their books are not good.  If a good writer gets something in print, well, I can only be jealous of their talent, not their success.

 

3.  Emily Blewitt is certainly a good writer.  A damn good one.  I’ll even call her a poet, which is a word I have a bit of trouble with.  It seems one has to earn that title.  She’s earned it.  I knew as much when I read her poems last year at the workshop, and this was further confirmed when I read This is Not a Rescue, her debut collection. 

 

4.  The title poem is striking.  I mean, kicking off a poem (and a book) with “I want to tell you that it will not be as you expect” is a smart move.  Aside from asking the reader to catch up, which is to say, asking them to engage, a line like this is a sort of meta announcement to abandon expectations.  Whether or not this was intentional, the effect on this reader was to subvert any assumptions I had about the book, the poem, poetry, and whatever else was going on with me when I sat down to read.  And while the poem goes on to be nothing as meta as what I have stated above, it’s images allure.  I was in, but “How to Marry a Welsh Girl” only further pulled at me. 

 

5. “How to Marry a Welsh Girl” does not too heavily lean on the accumulation of things, which is good.  I love making lists and using concrete things as a means of creating a scene.  Tom Waits once wrote of this over-attention to detail.  He likes songs that tell you exactly how many cigarette butts are in the ashtray.  In this sense, how could I not adore:

 

“...For dowry you take what you can,

get what you’re given: the chapel, prolific sheep, jackdaws, circling

hills and black mountains, the usual ropey singing

at the pub they don’t speak English in, cheese and pickle

cocktail sticks, pasties, corned beef.”

 

When she gets to the act of carving a lovespoon, I had to find out if this is indeed a thing.  (For those who are, as I was, unfamiliar with this custom, go look it up for yourself.  It’s more than worth a google.) 

 

6. An editor once told me that my poems rely too much on listing.  Blewitt does this with a deft hand.  Damn her.

 

7.  “The Walking Wed” is clever.  It created a sense of dread with its wedding as zombie apocalypse concept that also brought a giggle, though re-readings make it seem less clever than accomplished.  I hate clever poems that have little to offer aside from a simple idea, usually a joke.  And I love jokes.  I love humor in poetry.  It’s an undervalued thing to throw into a poem, but so many clever poems feel empty, a joke strained.  Thankfully, this is not one of those poems.

 

8.  Weddings are nice, right?  They pop up in this book, sure, but the sensuality of “Navigation Points” is a nicely balanced shift from the spectacle of weddings to a private intimacy:

 

“You lower your long dark lashes

just once: to trace your route

across my skin.

Those moles, you say,

fine points for navigation.

 

You’ll map my constellations, you explain,

know me anywhere.”

 

I’ve seen poems that go a bit overboard with the sort of thing.  I’m no prude, but there’s a line between sensual and dull.  It gets crossed easily by lesser poets. 

 

9. Furthering the love poetry is “Lines” which has a moment that makes me wonder if Blewitt (or the speaker of the poem, as there’s no guarantee that the speaker is Emily Blewitt, though readers tend to assume that a poem is always presented by the poet, forgetting that dramatic monologue is a thing) is being sincere when she speaks of loving her lover’s receding hairline “as it shows me more of you.”  It reminds me of poems men have written to their beloveds, the ones teeming with hyperbolic details about the perfections and imperfections of the female body.  Those of us who’ve tried honeydripping in the past might, with a poem like "Lines," get a sense of what it’s like to receive the woo rather than be the pitcher.  While I’m confident this role-reversal was not Blewitt’s intention, I nevertheless found this small detail interesting.  Note to self: go back to your old love poems and reconsider the Nerduaesque bits.

 

10. As the reader (well, this reader) gets deep into the collection, an idea of the book’s concerns begins to form.  And then a pair of poems—“Sometimes I Think of Chapel” and “Forgiveness”— thwart our certainty.  All those lovely poems, those weddings, those tender moments, those funny subversions of Jane Aust3n and The Walking Dead (and, later, Star Wars, but we’ll get to that) are gone now as we shift to the theme of past trauma.  The mother, who removes her daughter from the chapel where just one damn stanza ago everything seemed so innocent, prays: “let her never learn to kneel”; the speaker channels her parents:

 

“I am my mother’s daughter. I forgive

the man, my grandmother who let him in,

who called my mother a bloody liar

years later”

 

This forgiveness boils into vindictive punishment before we’re permitted the relief of looking away. 

 

11. These themes make a fine stew.  Allusions to literary (Jane Austen heroes in “Devouring Jane”) and popular culture (“The Walking Wed”) find their ultimate expression in “Boba Fett and the Sarlacc,” a Star Wars reference I was happy to see, for a change.  A fine poem, though rereading it this morning reacquainted me with the preceding work “The Couple Opposite” which, in its opening lines, called to mind Rear Window before the real magic of the poem did its thing.  Being an artist is akin to being an extrovert in the sense that artists have something strange within them that demands that they share (sometimes over-share).  But what does it mean to be a reader?  Perhaps we’re the ones looking at the couple through the window, watching their odd performance, making judgments and getting all giddy over the special effects.  This is likely a poor reading of Blewitt’s poem, but it gave me pause.  Any book that can—even accidentally—move me to consider such theoretical bullshit about the role of the reader and writer is worthy of praise.

 

12.  The book concludes with a very nice poem, “One in Three Billion,” that, while bringing us back to themes of motherhood, chimes on another theme in the collection: animals.  Anyone who’s ever visited my site or spoken with me at all knows that I’m a bit nuts for dogs, though this is a recent lunacy—it took having a dog of my own to unalterably make me a person who must have a pet.  I don’t talk as much about my cat (rest in peace, old man) but he was my first pet and damn if I didn’t feel for him, and for subsequent pets, the sort of love and responsibility that I assume rivals parenthood.  At the risk of pissing off all of my friends with kids, let me stop qualifying things: I am father to those creatures.  And, thus, “One in Three Billion” touched me.  A beautiful closer. 

 

13.  I feel compelled to state that my extolling of This is Not a Rescue is not coming from a bias for the author, my acquaintance.  She lives in Wales.  I reside in Chicago.  Were it not for Facebook, we’d likely never communicate, and if the book sucked, I could easily pan it and ignore whatever hate messages came my way.  And I would have little trouble writing a less than enthusiastic review if the book merited one.  But it doesn’t.  I almost wish it did, because, again, jealousy.  But I’m happy to write of the book’s quality, the dazzling poems, the clever ones, the eerie ones, because I’m happy to see a debut collection this strong.  I read a lot of poetry and I don’t love it all.  But I believe in poetry the way people believe in god.  It’s the finest of literary art forms.  That is, when it’s done well.  It is also one of the lowest, messiest, most irritating art forms imaginable.  Poetry can be elevating or dispiriting. Or dull.  Or extraordinary. Or just okay.  To even attempt to write a poem is humbling.  To read one as good as the best of This is Not a Rescue is humbling as well.  There is much to admire in this collection.  And that makes me goddamn happy.  If only Emily Blewitt had published a rotten book.  It’d be so much easier to write this review.  If only she’d published a fair book.  I’d have found a way to not write this review.  But she had to go and publish a strong, stunning book.  And so I had to write this review. 

 

Amusing Ourselves to Death, 32 and Looking Not a Day Older

Every semester that sees me teaching freshman how to avoid comma splices, among other pressing matters, I assign one reading that continues to excite me: “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” by Neil Postman.  It’s a speech Postman delivered before a room of theologians as the 20th century was coming to an end.  There is concern at the start of his talk about the rush of technology that has begun to seem beyond what many thought possible only a few years prior.  I mean, yeah, cellular phones and computers were around in the 1980s, but who among us cared about that junk?  (Okay, a lot of people were interested in these gadgets.  My stepdad, for one.  He always had a computer in the house, even those primitive keyboard-and-screen-in-one clunkers from Radio Shack, though all I remember doing with it was running a program that filled the screen with whatever dirty word I found funny at the moment.) 

 

But in 1998, when Postman made his speech, the internet was a thing we were only beginning to allow into our everyday lives.  I recall my distrust—it seemed to me that the so-called information highway was more a way to get cheap ego validation and play with toys.  And I was right, of course, though I was neither the first nor the last to state as much.  But I was converted once I got an email account and realized that it would improve my life inasmuch as I no longer had to speak to people on the phone.  God bless email. 

 

Whatever trepidation I may have had about the fast moving tech the rest of the world was so excited about, Postman was less fearful and more critical in the even-headed manner that seems lost on my students.  They tend to see his speech as an attack on tech from an old man who died before Snapchat, so what did he know?  One student defended tech in her response essay by writing on the wonders of Tinder, but I digress. 

 

Postman was not a technophobe.  He merely understood that technology is, in his words, “a Faustian bargain.  Technology giveth and taketh away.”  Meaning that for every advantage that we gain with new technologies (speed, access to information, connection to people), we lose something (focus, decorum, connection to people).  This is not exactly unique to technology, as all that is added to our world exacts some sort of price, but it is a salient point that seems lost on the tech zealots who see every app as a means of “making the world a better place.” 

 

Suffice it to say that my students—being young and not really able to remember a time before smart phones or laptops—see this speech as an assault on their way of life.  I try to defend Postman because I happen to agree with his speech, but I am biased.  I’ve long thought his voice was among the most rational ones that see television and computers as being less than the miracles they are often thought to be.  At the very least, he saw them as more complex.  And while people have been bad mouthing TV for generations, few saw the problem from Postman’s point of view.

 

Which brings me to Amusing Ourselves to Death, the 1985 book that will forever be associated with Postman’s name.  Similar to Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” idea, Postman’s critique of “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” will forever be his biggest claim to fame.  And Rightfully so!  Amusing Ourselves to Death is a now a whopping 32 years old and showing few gray hairs and next to no liver spots.  Sure, some of the focus seems dated only due to the tech saturation that has caused us to spend more time in front of the computer than the television, though, of course, the two have begun merging into one.  Netflix, you seductive bastard.  Aside from a few details that date the text (references to “Dallas” and “Cheers”) nothing seems older than a day, provided one sees Postman’s discussion of television as applicable to the streaming services and YouTube.  Which I do. 

 

The most relevant chapters in Amusing Ourselves to Death have to do with the format of TV news and our political process, the former being predicated on short bits of information followed by equally short bits of information interrupted by commercials and scored to emotionally manipulative music, none of it delivered with any sort of real analysis or time for reflection.  When we receive info via the nightly newscast, we get mere drips from an iceberg.  The format is not meant to engage us critically or to illuminate the stories, just deliver them in an entertaining way.  The reason why is that, according to Postman, TV, like all technologies, has a philosophy that favors certain things over others.  And TV favors entertainment, even when it’s pretending to inform.  Who wants to think when watching the tube?  Now, if you ask me, the other issue here is the problem with capitalism: everything is a commodity, including information, thus the imperative is to make profit.  And the news, divorced from the music and the attractive smiling idiots on camera, is boring.  At least when compared to the rest of TV.  The newscast was once expected to lose the networks money.  The news was seen as a public service, not entertainment.  Oh, those must’ve been the days!

 

As for the second relevant chapter I mentioned, the one having to do with the political process in the age of show business, Mr. Postman’s words have never before seemed so germane.  What he reserves for Reagan (in one interview he noted the irony—and the lack of public awareness of this irony—of Reagan, a man who seemed to both say nothing and contradict himself at will, being labeled “the great communicator”) is more than applicable to the tweeter-in-chief currently residing in the White House.  But lest I digress into a Trump bash-a-thon, let me remember that the Postman’s criticisms—that political discourse is a sideshow when it is done on TV and, thus, politicians are rendered inarticulate and/or ineffectual—apply to every presidential candidate of my lifetime.  I was born when Nixon was president.  We all know of the debacle that was his debate against Kennedy, to which he blamed the make up man.  And he was right to do so, for, to paraphrase Postman, to be a politician in the era of TV is to be akin to a celebrity—you must look reasonably normal if not attractive.  No fat presidents since Taft.  God knows FDR would never have been elected were the pubic to have seen the ravages of his polio.  My grandmother, god love her, had a difficult time voting for Kerry over Bush because she didn’t relish the idea of looking at Kerry’s droopy face for the next four years. 

 

Postman’s point about the manner in which television has degraded public speech, information, political and religious discourse, and even education (he saw “Sesame Street” to be of more of a threat to our culture than “Dallas”) was spot fucking on.  And it remains so in the era of social media and memes.  Is there any more obnoxious means of making a point than a meme?  When I mention this to people—particularly those younger than 30—they roll their eyes and counter that memes are funny.  That’s all they’re meant to be.  And I agree— they can be quite amusing, but a large segment of the public is currently sharing (not to mention creating) memes that seek to make sociopolitical statements.  While they probably would, if pressed, use the same justification (“C’mon, get a sense of humor”) they are essentially proving the points Postman made over 30 years ago: we are gleefully reducing everything to entertainment.  And some things shouldn’t be entertaining.  They should be considered important or vital or necessary or lovely or fulfilling without garish dressing.   There’s nothing wrong with the Oscars or sit-coms or even memes, but when our politicians and spokespersons have to take to these mediums because the public will not engage in essential civic processes otherwise, there’s a big problem.  But hey, we’re all amused.  The decline will be chock full of yuks.