Monday, February 05, 2007

Penny Press! Fire & Brimstone in the TLS!

Both the sacred and the secular come in for a bit of a toe-stubbing in last week's TLS (we here at Stevereads are always a week behind on the TLS, because instead of simply buying it on the few newsstands that carry it, we wait for our good and true friend the canon of Colchester to send along his own copy - mainly so we can enjoy all his spidery marginalia).

The sacred part comes in the form of another review of its most dogged watchkeep, Richard Dawkins. Steven Weinberg reviews "The God Delusion" to generally favorable effect, although it's a far more timid-sounding piece than Weinberg usually submits.

For instance, Dawkins' silly, indefensible concept of 'memes' is given a complete pass:

"In the unkindest cut of all, Dawkins even argues that the persistence of belief in God is itself an outcome of natural selection - acting perhaps on our genes, as argued by Dean Hamer in 'The God Gene,' but more certainly on our 'memes,' the bundles of cultural beliefs and attitudes that in a Darwinian though non-biological way tend to be passed on from generation to generation."

That's rich, that 'Darwinian though non-biological.' It's very uncharacteristic of Weinberg, to float such a fat one over the plate.

Allow us to clear something up before our young friend Elmo jumps in and does it first: there is absolutely NO 'non-biological' way for ANYTHING to get 'passed on' from one generation to the next (other than via culture, which in most societies changes fairly rapidly - see examples below). Dawkins says there is, being an intensely religious man: he says small, discrete cultural items somehow exist separate from the particular humans who create them and can float from one generation to the next.

Gawd only knows what a 'meme' really is - Dawkins himself has wandered all over the map in defining it - but the single truth remains: as my old friend Lydia says, only a mortal could ever imagine a daffy idea like memes.

When two young male friends are out in public in America, they link arms and walk shoulder-to-shoulder as they go down the street. When a single young woman in America goes out in public, she paints two bright nickel-sized spots high up on her cheeks. When anything tragic happens in public - an ambulance howling by, a fire, a gargantuan traffic snarl - every witness ostentatiously raises their left thumb to their mouth in unison and bites down HARD, usually until blood comes.

We here at Stevereads would be willing to bet real money that not one of our readers, of whatever age, RECOGNIZES any of those behaviors. And yet, only two generations ago (a mere eyeblink, in Darwinian terms), they were the unquestioned norm in this country. We won't even talk about: never questioning the authority of the police (most certainly including individual policemen), the inefficacy of 'lady drivers,' and fish on Fridays.

And now, two, even ONE generation later, it's all gone. And lots and lots of other things have taken their place - texting, speed-dating, myspace - and THEY'LL all be gone, in the blink of an eye, replaced by other, unguessable things.

In other words, there's no such thing as memes. Even if you narrow your scope to the northeastern United States (as you bloody well shouldn't, if you're really talking about any truly biological axiom), the idea is lunacy. Truly generational transmission ONLY happens biologically .... Dawkins knows this, but he can't stand the reality of the world his own ideas call into being.

That world - a world in which there are no invisible,sanctified things, a world in which all life is happenstance, a world in which all LEARNED things are capable of vanishing utterly, indeed most often do so - that world is too frightening for more mortals, most certainly including Dawkins, to contemplate. The great ruck and run turn to conventional religion to gain sucrease from such realities ... Dawkins chooses another path, but one no less theological. And Weinberg gives him a pass, in order to discuss other aspects of "The God Delusion."

One of those aspects is the sweeping, even-handed way Dawkins disposes of all religions equally. Weinberg's objections are well put:

"I don't know on what ground one can say a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name. Dawkins treates Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins's even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share his lack of respect for all religions, but in our time it is folly to disrespect them all equally."

We here at Stevereads certainly DON'T share Dawkins' disrespect for all religions ... but even so, this is surely on the money, a weakness in Dawkins' book we'd failed to spot ourselves: the thing's naive.

Naivete is at the heart of the secular matter on our agenda as well. Marybeth Hamilton turns in a review of Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail."

Being somewhat familiar with the world of retail, we here at Stevereads have read Anderson's book with great interest - and eventually great disgust. Anderson argues that the marketplace is undergoing a radical change in its very nature, from the traditional model - in which large retailers sell a few copies of a wide variety of items and very many copies of a small number of items (blockbusters, be they albums or films or books) - to a wild new frontier in which anything and everything can be a blockbuster to its own niche. Needless to say, this is a phenomenon of the young, as Hamilton points out:

"Already teenagers - 'the leading edge of all our futures' - make no distinction between 'mainstream' and 'underground' tracks on iTunes, produce their own music digitally as often as they consume it, and are guided in their purchases not by the print media but by peer comment and blogs. In those developments, Anderson sees a democritization of creativity, a diminishing of the rarefied aura surrounding the artist, and an erosion of the authority of intellectuals. Above all, he forecasts an end to an all-encompassing, homogeneous mass culture. So say goodbye to Britney Spears and American Idol: we have entered the world of the Long Tail, where the mass audience is dissolving into masses of niches, and unfettered choice in creating endless demand."

Endless demand ... enough to give any old retail warhorse pause ....

There's something missing from this shining picture of utopian egalitarianism, and it's a something so idiosyncratic and non-reproducible that one despairs of even mentioning it to the hurly-burly track-burning yoots of today.

It's a little thing in the scheme of things, hardly worthy of a pause in Anderson's great theorizing, but it's nevertheless something real, something human, and something each and every one of us has BENEFITTED from, in our travels.

That little thing is this: the advice of a shop clerk.

Anderson's brave new world of commerce leaves out such anachronistic things - as you've all heard, our yoots are leading themselves, blogging and commenting, sharing 'this is kewl's or 'this sux's. Everything becomes instantaneous self-diagnosis, and the very idea of expertise is not only disregarded but mocked as old-fashioned. If you've stuck with any subject long enough to KNOW about it, you must, after all, CARE about that subject - and caring about anything is sin #1 to the X-Box crowd.

Since individual enthusiasms can be genuine and contagious, we'll resist the urge to use the phrase 'the blind leading the blind.' But the fact remains: the apparently endangered phenomenon of the knowledgeable shop clerk. Such a clerk does far more than convey his momentary likes and dislikes; he works like a careful diagnostic specialist, disinterestedly surveying the customer's aesthetic history in order to determine not only what they'll like but what they'll benefit from.

I'm sure that each of you has a story about some such encounter, the wonderful feeling of having such well-stocked experience at your ready access ... even the feeling of being in good hands.

We'll just have to hope Anderson's prognostications fail to come about; there are certainly indications that he might be letting his geek's mania get the best of him. Hamilton points out one such:

"But - a point so obvious as to be almost banal, were it not that Anderson himself never makes it - travel on those pathways is limited to those with access to the technology. For all his expertise on matters digital, Anderson is remarkably indifferent to what even the techno-enthusiasts who compile Wikipedia call 'the global digital divide'. Globalization is mentioned in the book only once, praised for 'the hyper-effecient supply chains it brings.'"

Of course, it wouldn't be an issue of the TLS without the many delights of J.C.'s 'NB' column. But this time around, it's a disturbing thing JC has to report:

"It is sometimes said of Herman Melville's novel 'Moby-Dick' that if you edit out the 600 or so pages in the middle, you would be left with an exciting adventure story. Weidenfeld and Nicolson are doing something of the sort, with the launch of Compact Editions, which cut the classics down to size. 'Anna Karenina,' 'Vanity Fair,' 'David Copperfield,' and 'Moby-Dick' - all defenceless under the laws of copyright - will be issued in abridged versions. 'The reductions in length have been done with sensitivity and in no way detract from the spirit of the original,' the publisher told the Bookseller. 'They retain all the elements that made them a classic in the first place.' According to our grasp of classic logic, cutting 'Moby-Dick' in half means it is no longer 'Moby-Dick.'
Weidenfeld says that 'market research' has shown that a significant number of readers are deterred by the 'elitist image' of literary classics. But our elementary logic tells us that classics ARE the elite. That's why they're classics."

Well, of course we here at Stevereads second JC - to a point. Hacking up the classics and then heavily implying that you're somehow IMPROVING them is perfidy at its worst, fully deserving JC's scorn.

But ... there is something to be said for carefully abbreviated versions of the classics. We here at Stevereads are in the business of getting people (mostly young people, but we're not picky) to read the classics. And we have sometimes been aided in our mission by, among other things, carefully abridging the works we're trying to sell. Take out the 'informational' chapters of 'Moby-Dick,' for instance, or the protocol-heavy chapters of 'Tale of Genji,' or the weird socio-historical disquistions in 'Les Miserables.' Once the reader is hooked on these works, they'll return of their own accord to snap up all the stuff they missed the first time. If they're scared off by the size or complexity of the book before them, they'll never get hooked at all.

We'll just have to wait and see how well-done the edits are in these new slimmed-down classics. We've requested a full spread of them from our representatives in the field, and we'll of course keep you bloodthirsty little ewoks apprised.


Kevin Caron said...

Seems to me that the internet does have its share of 'shop clerks', so to speak - and you're one of 'em, Steve-O! Even on sites like Amazon, you can look up whatever obsure item you want, and access the 'editorial' commentary, as well as cutomer feedback (and enough of it that you can sift through to find one that seems likely to jibe with your own opinions, or at least be well informed)...

Not exactly a complete replacement of the 'shop clerk' (and I should know - I was one of the best comic book store shop clerks you could ever hope to find, if I do say so myself) due to lack of live human contact, for one thing, but still, it has its uses - and the scope of knowledge is broad, since your 'virtual' shop clerk is made up of many, many people.

That said, I also find the utopian view of young people diving into obsucre music, creating their own, escewing American Idol to be largly bull - American Idol's ratings are as high as ever, most kids are as likely not to bother with learning an instrument as ever, and the majority of music popular with todays yoots is all surface and quite unrewarding.

I find this young generation to be more a study of the most effectively marketed-to generation yet; told what to like by an uber-savy marketing juggernaut since day one, rather than a reactive one trying to play catch-up.

steve said...

Geez, Kevin! As one of the yoots in question might put it: old much, dude?

steve said...

I wasn't necessarily referring to YOUNG people diving into these hypothetical bounties Google is offering ... I was more thinking of everybody, and especially of lifelong book-people who've butted their heads against the limitations of physical libraries...

steve said...

And I disagree about the customer feedback online! Sure, if you sift through it you might find something useful, but it doesn't INTERACT with you, doesn't ask you follow-up questions in order to best triangulate on what will please you most. That's something mathematical equations can't yet do, and it's sad that it's an endangered species ....

Gianni said...

"Uh, did you say 'yoots'?"

Ok, someone had to say it.

Interesting idea with abridging the classics. Let's face it, the attention span of the youth of America has dipped precariously over the past several years. An abridgment of some of something like Moby Dick or other classics would perhaps convince people to read it. More people reading it means that the publisher still has reason to publish it. I don't think it would make a good permanent replacement for the real McCoy, but if it's a better alternative to phasing classics out completely, so be it!

Kevin Caron said...

Okay, admittedly, it is a bit weird for someone my age to comment on the 'yoots' of today, but I feel that there has been a perceptible shift already, between Gen Xers and whatever we end up calling the next group (unless they remain some kind of generational 'fringe') on a number of levels...

As far as the customer feedback online goes - yeah, I specifically said that its not a complete replacement of the 'shop clerk' due to the lack of human contact, so we're not really in disagreement, are we?

There are pluses and minused - the internet can give you commentary on just about anything, which the shop clerk really can't, but the shop clerk can, as you said, follow up with questions, etc.

Though, with a site such as this one, one can, in fact, ask follow-up questions of you now, can't we?

Kevin Caron said...

As far as abridged classics go - I can't complain much, having read and loved so many 'Classics Illustrated' books as a kid (the books, not the comics).

Beepy said...

Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I can not believe that I am the only one here to protest the "slimming down" of classics. Cutting out entire portions of a book may make it easier to read and therefore more popular, but it is no longer what was written and what was meant to be read. "Moby Dick" is only "Moby Dick" if it is the way Melville wrote it. Otherwise get the Cliff Notes!

If Reader X finds the size and complexity of a novel too much for them, there are always Harlequin Romances or Mack Bolan. Readers get back what they put into a book and if they are not willing to undergo the "pain" then they don't get to call themselves readers. It's just another way for people to be intellectually lazy and get away with it.

The only exception I would make to this is the abridgement of the classics which are aimed at children. The story itself is enough at their level of development.

Steve, as someone who writes, your acceptance of this really puzzles me. Say it ain't so.

steve said...

Beepy! I'm not advocating abridged versions IN PREFERENCE to the originals! I'm advocating them in preference to reading nothing at all ... certainly you'll agree with me that reading a Cliffs Notes account of 'Moby-Dick' ISN'T the same thing as reading 50 chapters of the book itself. At least in an abridgement, Melville's prose gets a chance to HOOK a potential reader.

Melville is a case I use advisedly, since I can't count the number of times I've bought a copy for somebody (not necessarily always a young somebody) and drawn a pencilled line through the chapters they can SKIP ... skip the FIRST time, when as untried readers they'll naturally be paying more attention to the straightforward mechanics of the plot (ala Mack Bolan) than to the higher artistry Melville brings to the table.

I'm not advocating these things as anything other than a way to get people STARTED ...

Kevin Caron said...

I think I'm with Beepy, in the long run. Abridgement for kids only (with an illustration every other page!). There's something condescending about doing so for adults (not to mention cheapening the work...). Perhaps the best way to get someone to read Moby Dick (all of it), who is not initially up to the task, is to turn them on to shorter or faster paced books first - turn them into a more avid reader.

Call me crazy, but I don't think the classics are going away any time soon.

Beepy said...

I agree with Kevin. And you should too.

How many times have I heard you go on and on about the "reading muscle" that must be exercised and brought up to full strength? Let readers start with more easily understood books and work their way up if they want. Once someone has read the abridged version of "Moby Dick", they are not going to go back and reread it later just to get all those fascinating details about various whaling hooks, etc. Not everybody has to be exposed to Melville. Let them wait until they are ready for the struggle.

If I can't get you to agree with me(and Kevin), I'm going to insist that this weekend, during our weekly pick-up game of basketball, any ball I bounce off the backboard count as a basket. After all, I might become frustrated by the fact that you are so much more athletic than I am and refuse to play anymore. Then we when get together for our mid-week baseball game, I'm only running to third base to score a run because that extra 90 feet really wears me out.

Okay, I'm done now.

Kevin Caron said...

"I agree with Kevin. And you should too."

What an excellent, multi-use phrase! I'm getting it printed on T-shirts.

steve said...

Sounds like the title of a Wodehouse novel in which a character says that line - and then things go horribly, horribly wrong.

steve said...

Beepy! Your baseball analogy suggests I'm EQUATING classics with abridged classics - which is hardly the case! Yes, I've mentioned (not gone 'on and on' about ... I'm not, after all, the strident, repetitive type) the reading 'muscle' and how it isn't in the same shape for everybody (oh, the grief I've taken from The Mama Chan on that question!) ... but I disagree with you about somebody not 'going back' to the rest of 'Moby-Dick' once they've read what you all but call the good bits. Once they're hooked, they WILL go back.

steve said...

Where is our fair Hippolyta in all of this? Too dismayed by all this Kevin-agreeing to put pen to paper?

Kevin Caron said...

She's too busy putting in a T-shirt order for herself, friends and family to respond.

"Once they're hooked, they WILL go back."

Nope, don't see it. Not as any kind of certainty, anyway. Maybe they'll tell you they did...

Sam Sacks said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Beepy's sports analogy doesn't help her argument--that sort of handicapping happens all the time in the sports world: smaller balls, larger gloves, shorter fields, higher mounds, aluminum bats, closer tees, steroids. After all, the only way a manatee could possibly make it home from third base is if the base path were sunk and filled with water, an obvious accommodation.

Maybe there's a place for that kind of farm league handicapping in reading too. (After all, with one irritating exception, none of us are reading Virgil in Latin or Dante in Italian, which is the true, unadultered form in which those writers intended us to read their work.)

That said, I want in on the next pick-up game! What say we throw together a Stevereads rec league team? We'd destroy those chumps from Daily Kos and Bookslut!

beepy said...

Oh crap. I was afraid someone would latch on to that big fault in my arguement, the one about reading authors in the actual language that they wrote in. I guess I'd better start brushing up on my Ancient Greek.

Kevin Caron said...

I have to say that, while its a good point, there's a decent-sized difference between abridgement and translation.

steve said...

'one irritating exception'?

Irritating? Moi?