With a Consolation Sigh

I think the album was about a year old when I wrote this. 

Listening to The ’59 Sound, I’ve just decided that The Gaslight Anthem is too fucking sincere for it to be cool to like them.  But I like them anyway.  My God, who doesn’t know people who think the way their protagonists do?  It’s like Bruce Springsteen minus any pretext of subtlety.  I don’t care if that’s good or bad or sloppy or whatever.  They remind me of songs I used to sing with an old friend.  He had a song called “Guy Named Me” and it was brilliant.  “Why’d you have to go/and marry and guy named Joe/Should’ve married a guy named me…”

If you don’t know people who think, every now and then, the way people in Gaslight Anthem songs do, you’re way more sophisticated than I’ll ever be.  You tell that to Janey if she writes.

Penmanship, the Engine of Democracy!

In 2009, I was very considered that we’d soon seen the end of physical books.  10 years later, I’m not.  I think we’ll have books for a very long time.  Concern about privacy, censorship, and surveillance has not similarly abated.

Every other day I read something about how books will stop being physical objects and exist only digitally.  Publishing houses are producers of information, not artifact, etc.

I love to read, but you’ll never hear me say that I like to do anything like snuggle up to or get cozy with a book.  But the continued existence of books as objects is extremely important.

From the beginning, at least in the West, books in book form have been subversive. The Gutenberg Bible was subversive.  Common Sense was subversive.  More to the point, the printed word as printed word on paper is an historic engine of unrest, access, and change.  All those pamphlets and papers. These things being swapped and smuggled and shared.  Tyrants burning them.  Schools banning them. People reading them anyway.

We talk so much about going “off the grid” in terms of energy consumption.  We long for it.  Can you imagine not being able to do one of the most basic human functions (read) off the grid?  The concept of a bookless society makes even less sense than that of a cashless one.  Subversion (and I don’t mean violence or lunacy), education, self-improvement without censor, these requires objects that can’t be deleted when political winds change, even as the economy depends on the 1 or 2/3’s of it operating off the books.

I’m not a publishing professional so I won’t pretend to understand all of the economics of the industry, but I know these aren’t exactly fattened times.  I’m not saying the general trend won’t be toward electronic publishing and distribution.  It probably will.  But if we need books, we also need books to be books, physical objects we can hand, physically, to others.  Things we can physically protect and need to.

Of course, much of this discussion is moot.  Let’s imagine a bookless society.  It should be easy to imagine that in this society, some branch of some government somewhere manages to track, or, even worse, decide what we read.  Not very far-fetched.  Maybe every computer even gets a patch that scans everything you send to your printer and uploads it to some database.  When the things people want to read are banned, deleted, or otherwise made unavailable, people will pick up papers and pens and start writing.  They’ll make their own presses and they’ll post their bills and broadsides and leave their chapbooks and pamphlets in donut shops and laundrymats and in hotels like the Gideons.

Unless, of course, we stop teaching kids how to make  letters and numbers by hand.

Penmanship, the engine of democracy.

Storytelling and History

Written in the second or third week of the Fall 2009 fiction seminar taught by Benjamin Taylor in the New School MFA program.

I want to share some thoughts from my prose fiction seminar last week.  These are via our teacher (paraphrased, some phrases quoted) with some extended, rambling reflections following the asterisks below.

Art as a human pursuit is 35,000 years old.  Agriculture is 10,000.  That means that 25,ooo years before we got the idea to put seeds in the ground and grow things, we were making art.  Specifically, cave painting and pottery started 35,000 years ago, but storytelling is much, much older.

Storytelling did not emerge from a need for passtime, but to explain things.  That is, to “perform the most urgent function.”   Stories were told to cope with unanswerable questions “on the frontier between culture and nature.”

“Literature is about trouble.”  There is no end to storytelling because there is no end to trouble.


The hypothetical end of literature has made me think this week of the old hoped-for “end of history” that was supposed to occur after the West won the defining ideological battle of the last century.  Or, you know, the workers’ paradise that was to be realized when class struggle ceased and there was nothing else to drive the dialectic.  Instead, of course, new ideological struggles emerged, full-grown, and old ones smolder but aren’t out.  There is no end to history or literature until there is an end to trouble, however you define it.  Very literally, Yogi Berra was right.  It ain’t over till it’s over.

Those of you with eschatological concerns can, of course, consider whether there will be storytelling in the eschaton.  Can you imagine life without it? Where there is no weeping or gnashing of teeth, will all of our stories be boring? Or self-congratulatory?  On some level, storytelling seems essential to any sustained worthwhile activity I can imagine.  Christian theology says, after all, that God is Logos, and I understand Logos as dialectic and story.  I hope for the eschaton (not the bloody, violent scary one; the just one where everything that’s been lost is restored) but I don’t always believe in it.   What are we to do without our troubles?  Our ambitions? Our insecurities or petty prides?

I’m in Kempton, PA today with the Kittatinny Ridge blue in front of me and the Hawk Mountain Preserve and between us alfalfa, I think, and maybe switchgrass.  It is sunny but cool enough for sweaters and jeans, not cold.  I am with people who are interested in sustainability and justice and environmental responsibility and I think that if the eschaton could be like a just day in Berks County in September then perhaps I would still have good stories and worthwhile ambitions even without trouble.

I’m tempted to say that we mark time by trouble, and that where there is no trouble, there is no time and so it makes sense that we speak of eternity as timeless.  But we also mark time by good things.  First dates, first kisses.  Births of children.  I can’t really believe in a detached timelessness where nothing new happens as something worth looking to.   A just day in the fields, in the mountains, is nice, but so is the evening, the moon, the few degrees cooler and the idea that we do it again. I like being human. I don’t know that I’d want to be more than that, but being that forever might be okay.